Saturday, August 19, 2017


(France/US/Belgium - 2017)

Directed by Tommy Wirkola. Written by Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson. Cast: Noomi Rapace, Willem Dafoe, Glenn Close, Marwan Kenzari, Clara Read, Christian Rubeck, Pal Sverre Hagen, Tomiwa Edun, Cassie Clare, Cameron Jack. (Unrated, 124 mins)

Noomi Rapace's intensely committed performance was the only good thing about the recent sci-fi film RUPTURE, and if you were impressed by her work there, then you need to see the Netflix Original movie WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY, the latest from Norwegian cult director Tommy Wirkola. Wirkola, best known for his two DEAD SNOW zombie movies, is making his first English-language film since his one-off attempt at helming a Hollywood blockbuster with 2013's long-delayed, problem-plagued HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS. But seven Noomi Rapaces are pretty much the whole show with WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY, a high-concept dystopian sci-fi thriller set in a future society where overpopulation, climate change, and worldwide drought have destroyed the agricultural system. Genetically modified crops create enough food to keep people fed, but they've also led to a spike in multiple births and genetic defects. This prompts political activist Dr. Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close) to create the Child Allocation Act, with the slogan "One Child, One Earth." In this new Orwellian world of constant surveillance and social control, multiple births are so common that one child becomes the law of the land. The parents can keep the firstborn, but the others are placed in Cryo Sleep, a process that puts them in a state of hibernation until the world's climate, population, and food concerns are properly addressed and the world is a better and more healthy place. As stated by one TV talking head, it's not a perfect solution, but "It may give us some time."

Shortly after the CAA is passed in 2043, an unmarried, single woman named Karen Settman dies giving birth to septuplets. Her doctor is a friend and notifies her estranged father Terrence (Willem Dafoe), an intellectual who's opposed to Cayman's CAA law. Terrence names each of the girls after a day of the week--Monday through Sunday--and secretly takes them home with him, reconstructing his residence as a fortress-like bunker with a secret room for his granddaughters to hide should anyone show up unannounced. As the girls grow (the septuplets at elementary school age are played by Clara Read), Terrence instructs them that in public, they are be known as "Karen Settman," and that "Karen" is to be portrayed by a different one of them on the specific day of the week for which she's named. This requires nightly meetings to keep up the ruse, but it's the only way for Terrence to get the girls acclimated to the outside world without exposing them, though their developing personalities make things difficult, especially when rebellious Thursday sneaks out of the house on a Saturday and disappears for several hours, returning home after losing the tip of her right index finger in a skateboarding accident. Of course, in the increasingly insane context of WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY, this requires Terrence to slice off the right index fingertip of the other six girls in order to maintain the illusion of "Karen Settman."  Yes, it's that kind of movie.

Flash forward to 2073, and Terrence's absence at this point indicates he's passed on during the narrative jump. Karen Settman has a good job at a financial institution and the seven siblings still live together and still have nightly meetings going over every aspect of their day. After 30 years of this, bickering is common and resentment is setting in as each wants their own life outside of being "Karen Settman." Being the oldest, Monday is the de facto "leader" of the septuplets, and each one has, not surprisingly, developed their own distinct personalities--Saturday is the blonde party girl, Friday is the mousy, wallflower computer nerd, Thursday is a short-haired, masculine tough girl. Monday doesn't return home from work one Monday, and when Tuesday goes about "Karen"'s day on Tuesday, she's hauled into the Child Allocation Act headquarters, where agents have obviously been tipped off by someone that she's one of seven, also hinting that they've got Monday in custody. Before long, Wednesday through Sunday are evading government assassins, dealing with a secret Monday paramour (Marwan Kenzari), and uncovering evidence that one of them may have sold the others out to Cayman, who's about to launch a Presidential campaign based on her successful handling of the world's overpopulation, which itself leads to a labyrinthine conspiracy to bury some horrible secrets.

WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY gets a little too muddled for its own good as it goes on, especially when it comes to the exact intent of one of the main characters, but its imaginatively goofy premise, the seamless visual trickery of seven Rapaces interacting with one another, the effectively cold, dystopian, CHILDREN OF MEN atmosphere (this was shot in Romania), the hyperviolent  DREDD-level splatter of the shootouts, the BOURNE-esque intensity of the action sequences, and the way Rapace vividly brings all seven sisters to life in distinct ways makes this far more entertaining than you might expect. Ten years ago, this would've been a huge summer movie that probably would've been directed by Ridley or Tony Scott, but as it stands today, it's one of the better Netflix Originals to come down the pike in a while, even if the story sort-of loses itself near the end and it might leave you wanting more in terms of the scenes with Terrence. I don't know about you, but when Wirkola skips from Terrence looking at his newborn granddaughters to all of them being seven years old, I kinda wanted to see Grandpa Willem handling seven screaming babies or watching him navigate the Terrible Twos. It's a totalitarian society with cameras and scanners everywhere--didn't anyone notice him buying a lot of diapers? Did his neighbors not hear anything? WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY runs 124 minutes and yet it still feels like it's been cut down, especially when it comes to Dafoe's character, and if you're aware that Robert Wagner had his entire role cut from the finished film (he's still listed in the credits on IMDb, and there's also a publicity still of him with Close). It's got some hiccups in the second half and can't stand up under any serious scrutiny, but if you don't ask questions and just roll with the craziness, WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY is an engagingly batshit blast that's certain to become a word-of-mouth hit for Netflix viewers very soon.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Retro Review: COUNSELOR AT CRIME (1973)

(Spain/Italy - 1973; US release 1975)

Directed by Alberto De Martino. Written by Adriano Bolzoni, Vincenzo Flamini (Vincenzo Mannino), Leonardo Martin and Alberto De Martino. Cast: Martin Balsam, Tomas Milian, Francisco Rabal, John Anderson, Dagmar Lassander, Carlo Tamberlani, Manuel Zarzo, Eduardo Fajardo, George Rigaud, Franco Angrisano, Giovanni Carbone, Fortunato Arena, Carla Mancini, Lorenzo Piani, Sacheen Littlefeather, Nello Pazzafini. (R, 102 mins)

While most films in the polziotteschi subgenre of politically-charged Italian crime movies of the 1970s took place in Rome, Naples, and Sicily, COUNSELOR AT CRIME is a bit of an outlier in that it's set almost entirely in America. Journeyman director and co-writer Alberto De Martino (whose later credits included the EXORCIST ripoff THE ANTICHRIST, the OMEN ripoff HOLOCAUST 2000, and the MST3K favorite THE PUMAMAN) fashions COUNSELOR as a pretty blatant, albeit contemporary GODFATHER knockoff. Shot largely in San Francisco and Albuquerque in January and February of 1973, COUNSELOR AT CRIME (or, as it was known in Italy, IL CONSIGLIORI) hits everything on the GODFATHER checklist: Sonny-at-the-causeway-like ambushes; a treacherous, Sollozzo-like troublemaker trying to make a name for himself by eliminating a powerful Don; an unexpected sojourn to Sicily when things get too hot at home in the States; and someone is even handed the severed head of a fish, a clever way to knock two things off the checklist by combining "sleeps with the fishes" with the horse's head in the movie mogul's bed. IL CONSIGLIORI was released in Europe in the summer of 1973 but didn't make its way to the US until 1975, when low-grade exploitation outfit Joseph Green Pictures picked it up and retitled it COUNSELOR AT CRIME. It's a largely by-the-numbers gangster picture that goes out of its way to look as American as possible, spotlighting the San Francisco locations where De Martino valiantly attempts to keep the Golden Gate Bridge visible as often as possible (there's even a sequence taking place at the same exit ramp where a pimp is killed in the same year's Dirty Harry movie MAGNUM FORCE), with Riz Ortolani's score having a definite "'70s cop show" sound to it when the composer isn't straight-up borrowing a key theme from his VALACHI PAPERS score from the previous year.

A low-level, syphilitic gangster loses his shit in a bowling alley, setting in motion a chain of events that sees underboss Garofalo (played by a backup Michael Ansara toupee planted on the head of Francisco Rabal) make a ballsy power play to take over the San Francisco organization ruled by Don Antonio Magadino (Martin Balsam). Magadino's mind is elsewhere since his godson and consigliere Thomas Accardo (Tomas Milian) is being paroled after serving a stretch for jury tampering in Santa Fe State Prison in New Mexico, the same joint that houses incarcerated Boss of Bosses Don Vito Albanese (American character actor John Anderson, dubbed by Robert Spafford). Accardo is welcomed back to the organization by Don Antonio, who raised him as his own son after he was orphaned as a child (a character trait in no way influenced by Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen in THE GODFATHER), but Accardo has other plans. He continued his legal studies while in prison, and fell in love with Laura Murchison (Dagmar Lassander), a professor at the University of New Mexico. He wants to leave the Family, marry Laura, and live a normal life away from the Mafia. Don Antonio grants him his wish, despite the ironclad rule that no one leaves, which enrages Garofalo, who then plots to whack Accardo so he doesn't talk, and Don Antonio over his flagrant disregard of their sacred Mafia oath.

COUNSELOR AT CRIME offers one bit of interesting trivia that tangentially connects it to THE GODFATHER: it's one of the very few movie appearances of Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather, best known for taking the stage at the 1973 Oscars to refuse Marlon Brando's GODFATHER Oscar for him, and seen here in a brief bit as a hooker. Beyond that, it also offers one of the most low-key performances of Milian's career, a real surprise considering his string of flamboyantly over-the-top psycho characters in Umberto Lenzi classics like ALMOST HUMAN (1974) and ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH (1976). Rabal is dubbed by the gruff Ed Mannix but definitely looks the part as the arrogant, untrustworthy Garofalo, and Balsam is a solid pro as the stern and paternal Don Antonio, and while he may not ooze the charismatic charm of Brando's Vito Corleone, it's superb casting, and De Martino even lets him take part in some action sequences and shootouts. Balsam was in the early years of a relentlessly busy decade that found the Oscar-winning actor (1965's A THOUSAND CLOWNS) alternating between supporting roles in A-list Hollywood projects (SUMMER WISHES WINTER DREAMS, THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN) and starring roles in Italian crime films (CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN, CHRONICLE OF A HOMICIDE, MEET HIM AND DIE, DEATH RAGE), and his presence here definitely helps sell the idea of making it look like an American gangster movie, and he fares much better than the miscast Anderson, whose two scenes were actually shot inside Santa Fe State Prison, complete with several inmates in the chow line turning to look straight into the camera.

It's a mostly routine post-GODFATHER mob movie until a surprisingly strong finale where both Balsam and Milian really get to show some chops without saying much at all. And it's in the finale where COUNSELOR AT CRIME makes its only real attempt to branch off from THE GODFATHER with the notion that it's not the aging mob bosses who hand off the power to the next generation, but rather, it's the older generation that's still around to pick up the pieces when their dealings and grudges end up sacrificing that next, doomed generation. It's an interesting perspective that should've been explored in a more in-depth fashion by the script, which was written by De Martino with three other writers (including frequent collaborator Vincenzo Mannino) before being translated into English and reworked by an uncredited Michael V. Gazzo, the raspy-voiced playwright and sometime actor who would get an Oscar nomination for his performance as bitter mob informant Frankie Pentangeli in 1974's THE GODFATHER PART II.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Retro Review: THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC! (1972)

(Italy - 1972; US release 1975)

Directed by Roberto Montero. Written by Luigi Angelo, Italo Fasan and Roberto Montero. Cast: Farley Granger, Sylva Koscina, Susan Scott (Nieves Navarro), Silvano Tranquilli, Annabella Incontrera, Chris Avram, Femi Benussi, Krista Nell, Philippe Hersent, Paul Oxon, Jessica Dublin, Angela Covello, Fabrizio Moresco, Andrea Scotti, Irene Pollmer, Luciano Rossi, Ivano Staccioli, Nino Foti, Sandro Pizzoro, Benito Stefanelli. (Unrated, 101 mins)

Known under a variety of titles and initially released in the US as THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC!, this obscure thriller is an enjoyably lurid second-tier giallo from Italian journeyman Roberto Bianchi Montero. Montero (1907-1986), a career second and third-stringer, dabbled in everything--post-HERCULES peplum, MONDO CANE knockoffs, spaghetti westerns, macaroni combat adventures, and even some porno in the late '70s-- but other than THE SLASHER, he's probably best known to genre fans for 1954's misleadingly-titled THE ISLAND MONSTER, a boring Italian drug smuggling drama sold as a horror movie and starring a dubbed Boris Karloff, presumably for no other reason than it provided the actor with a free Italian vacation. Shot under an Italian title that translated to the incredibly cumbersome REVELATIONS OF A SEX MANIAC TO THE HEAD OF THE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION DIVISION, THE SLASHER was known as SO SWEET, SO DEAD when released in Europe in 1972, but when it was picked up by veteran exploitation distributor William Mishkin, it was rebranded THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC! for its 1975 grindhouse and drive-in release. Just out on Blu-ray in a restored HD transfer from Code Red in its most complete version yet at 101 minutes (other versions range from 83 to 97 minutes), THE SLASHER isn't a long-buried masterpiece waiting to be discovered, but it's sufficiently nasty and sleazy enough to be of interest to giallo fans, though its rampant, unapologetic misogyny makes it a bit of a dated relic from a bygone era.

THE SLASHER stars STRANGERS ON A TRAIN's Farley Granger--right around the same time he headlined the similarly exclamatory Italian giallo trash classic AMUCK!--dubbed by someone else as Inspector Capuana, the chief of the homicide division in a wealthy enclave of Rome. He's baffled by a string of murders committed by a serial killer who preys on adulterous wives of rich and successful men. The trench-coated, black-gloved killer, who wears a fedora and a sheer nylon face mask like a BLOOD AND BLACK LACE cosplayer, considers himself "the moral avenger of the city's upper class," stalking cheating wives, slashing their throats and breasts, and leaving scattered photos of them in flagrante with their lovers, simultaneously slut-shaming his mutilated victims and exposing their husbands as hapless cuckolds. Red herrings abound--the creepy morgue attendant (Luciano Rossi), the smirking district attorney (Silvano Tranquilli), the medical examiner (Chris Avram), and various older lovers and younger boy toys. Even Capuana himself, a conservative type who's appalled by the moral rot and bourgeois decadence he encounters in his investigation, isn't free from suspicion, with many of the victims being in the same social circle as his wife Barbara (Sylva Koscina, who isn't given much to do), who spends a lot of time with her younger "friend" Roberto (Sandro Pizzoro) while the rumpled Capuana tirelessly pursues the murderer.

Montero does a mostly workmanlike job with THE SLASHER, but there's some noteworthy elements throughout: though derivative of Mario Bava, the killer's appearance is strikingly effective; there's no shortage of beautiful Euro starlets with zero hesitation about getting naked (Koscina, Susan Scott, Femi Benussi, and Krista Nell, whose life was cut tragically short when she succumbed to leukemia in 1975 at just 29); the nature of the murders hints at the increasingly violent and tawdry direction that gialli would soon be heading with likes of 1975's subtly-titled STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER; and Montero manages one legitimately classic giallo sequence with the beach murder of Benussi's character. There's other giallo tropes present as well, such as the Eurolounge score by Giorgio Gaslini, accompanied by the instantly recognizable wordless vocals of Edda Dell'Orso; a tarot card reader (Jessica Dublin) whose warnings to her soon-to-be-victim daughter (Nell) go unheeded and prefigure the psychic element of both Dario Argento's DEEP RED (1975) and Lucio Fulci's THE PSYCHIC (1977); and a variation on the idea of a second party using a killer for their own purposes, a concept key to AMUCK! as well as Argento's TENEBRE (1982). Mishkin kept THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC! in circulation for a while, even re-releasing it as BAD GIRLS with the tag line "...sensuous swingers all," as if THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC! wasn't already exploitative enough. That still didn't satisfy Mishkin, who released an alternate version of the film on the XXX circuit in 1976 under the title PENETRATION, featuring newly-shot hardcore footage with American porn stars Harry Reems, Tina Russell, Kim Pope, and Marc Stevens, with the poster proudly advertising that one-time Samuel Goldwyn prodigy and former Hitchcock leading man Farley Granger was starring in a porno flick with the charming tag line "Some women deserve it!" An outraged Granger, who was edited into the hardcore scenes as if his character was a voyeur peeping all the XXX action, threatened a lawsuit and Mishkin quickly withdrew PENETRATION from release in the US, where it hasn't been seen since, though Granger's litigious power play didn't prevent that variant from being seen in Europe.

Monday, August 14, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE HUNTER'S PRAYER (2017) and THE EXCEPTION (2017)

(US/Spain - 2017)

A somewhat low-key take on THE PROFESSIONAL and THE TRANSPORTER, THE HUNTER'S PRAYER only managed a stealth VOD burial in June 2017 after over two years on the shelf. There's nothing original or inventive about it, but it's a perfectly acceptable time-killing chase thriller that's executed reasonably well in the capable hands of the long-absent Jonathan Mostow (BREAKDOWN, U-571), directing his first film since the 2009 Bruce Willis sci-fi dud SURROGATES. Mostow stepped in after journeyman Philip Noyce (PATRIOT GAMES, THE BONE COLLECTOR) bailed during pre-production, and had his TERMINATOR 3 and SURROGATES writing team of John Brancato & Michael Ferris (THE GAME) rework the script after Paul Leydon (THE FACTORY) and Oren Moverman (THE MESSENGER) took cracks at adapting Kevin Wignall's 2004 novel For the Dogs. Sam Worthington (also one of 24 credited producers) is Lucas, a junkie hit man in the employ of shady UK financial titan Addison (DOWNTON ABBEY's Allen Leech). Another assassin, Metzger (RED ROAD's Martin Compston) has been sent to New York to whack the family of Martin Hatto (Eben Young), an associate who embezzled funds from Addison's company and is about to expose his illegal dealings to the FBI and Interpol. Lucas' assignment is to kill Hatto's teenage daughter Ella (THE GIVER's Odeya Rush), who's enrolled in posh boarding school in Switzerland. Haunted by PTSD from his military days in Fallujah, and now a hopeless drug addict with a young daughter he's never met, Lucas has a change of heart and decides to become Ella's protector as Addison sends Metzger and corrupt FBI flunky Banks (TRANSPARENT's Amy Landecker) to pursue the pair through Europe.

There's also a less technological BOURNE element (sorry, no "crisis suites" or Addison flunkies staring at a row of monitors and shouting "There he is! It's Lucas!") to the tireless pursuit of Lucas and Ella, and while it's not exactly a high-energy action thriller, Mostow keeps THE HUNTER'S PRAYER reasonably well-paced and entertaining. Almost everything is telegraphed in advance and easy to see coming unless you've never seen a movie before: the moment Lucas says he's never met his daughter, we know he's meeting her by the end. Likewise, the moment Lucas shows Ella how to load and fire a gun, we know she'll be the one to ultimately take out Addison during the inevitable showdown in the murky catacombs underneath his castle-like fortress. And of course, the moment Lucas and Ella begin to bond, we know he'll realize he has a reason to live and she'll care for him when he quits the needle cold turkey and goes through his FRENCH CONNECTION II-inspired withdrawal. Worthington, who's been taking on more character roles in films like EVEREST and HACKSAW RIDGE after years of Hollywood trying to make him a thing following AVATAR and CLASH OF THE TITANS (where Liam Neeson managed to upstage him and the entire cast with one perfect line), does a credible job in a role that feels like it was written with Jason Statham in mind. There's nothing here to get really excited about it--it is what it is, but if you're looking for a fairly diverting chase thriller with no thinking required, you can do a lot worse than THE HUNTER'S PRAYER. (R, 91 mins)

(Germany/US/Switzerland/Belgium - 2017)

The kind of prestige period drama that probably would've starred Keira Knightley and James McAvoy a decade ago and gotten at least seven Oscar nominations, THE EXCEPTION instead was given a limited release and a DirecTV dumping by A24 and will be a complete non-factor come awards season. Based on the 2003 novel The Kaiser's Last Kiss by Alan Judd, THE EXCEPTION is a fictionalized look at events in the last year of the life of Germany's abdicated Kaiser Wilhelm II, played here by the always magnificent Christopher Plummer. Set in 1940 at Wilhelm's palace in Utrecht, where he's been in exile since 1918, the film centers on Nazi Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), a disgraced officer given the duty of heading to the Netherlands to lead security for the Kaiser, who serves no current political purpose but is still viewed as a figure of great symbolic importance to Hitler's Germany. Brandt's real assignment--and his shot at redemption after standing up to a brutal senior officer who took way too much joy in mowing down some Jewish children--is to determine if the Dutch Resistance has planted a spy among the Kaiser's housekeeping staff. Of course, Brandt makes the job difficult by having a torrid, borderline NIGHT PORTER-ish fling with Mieke (BABY DRIVER's Lily James), one of the Kaiser's maids and a secret Jew. Brandt is a Nazi with a conscience, and Mieke being Jewish doesn't really bother him, but what he doesn't know and what any seasoned moviegoer will immediately figure out is that Mieke is the spy. She's working for Winston Churchill and the British government, there to observe any possible interaction between the Kaiser and high-ranking Nazi officials. Of course, it gets personal once she has a chance to avenge the murder of her Jewish parents when the Kaiser is visited by Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan). A conflicted Brandt is torn between his duty to Germany and his love for Mieke, and their forbidden affair is encouraged by the Kaiser who, in the context of this film, is shown demonstrating some mildly anti-Semitic sentiments but nothing of the level of the monstrous Himmler, which isn't really historically accurate--in real life, the Kaiser's papers written as late as 1940 reveal a still very virulent anti-Semite. In the fictionalized, romance novel world of THE EXCEPTION, the Kaiser is reduced to playing a wizened, wily matchmaker who inspires these two crazy kids to set aside the whole "Germans hate the Jews" thing and maybe they can make it after all. And we know they will, because Brandt ultimately chooses good over evil when he embraces Mieke, looks her in the eye, and proclaims "I've found something else to fight for." Maybe they should've fought for a better script.

THE EXCEPTION looks lavish enough but is hokey and insultingly simplistic throughout, with Brandt's cliched character (he's not the rule, he's "the exception," get it?) never registering thanks to the utterly blank Courtney (A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD, TERMINATOR: GENISYS, SUICIDE SQUAD), who's never going to be a star no matter how many times the movie industry tries to make him happen. He's completely miscast and entirely too present-day, Magic Mike buff to be a Nazi captain in 1940 (I'd suggest picturing Channing Tatum in this role, but Tatum is smart enough to know his limitations). Courtney sucks the energy out of scene after scene with his monotone delivery and blank stare, barely able to hold his own in scenes with James and Janet McTeer as the Kaiser's wife. Tony Award-winning stage director David Leveaux, making his big-screen directing debut, does Courtney a further disservice by giving Brandt a bunch of scenes with the Kaiser. And rest assured, nothing spotlights a mediocre leading man's shortcomings like having him spend significant chunks of screen time opposite Christopher Plummer, an 87-year-old living legend who's got more star power in his bowel movements than Courtney's been capable of mustering over his entire career. Some hyped actors that Hollywood insists on making a thing end up maturing into first-rate actors--Matthew McConaughey and Colin Farrell come to mind--so there's a chance Courtney might get better as he gets older. I don't mean to be a dick and dog Courtney so hard. He's probably a nice guy. But he's just...not good. And neither is THE EXCEPTION. (R, 107 mins)

Friday, August 11, 2017


(UK/US - 2017)

Currently sporting an impressive 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, THE DEVIL'S CANDY, written and directed by Sean Byrne (THE LOVED ONES) made the festival rounds in 2015, two years before it was released by IFC in a slightly tweaked version that cut the running time from 90 to 80 minutes. It was lauded by critics and horror bloggers as yet another Horror Insta-Classic (© William Wilson), with many of the reviews citing as "a heavy metal horror movie" and "a totally metal horror movie" and even "metal as fuck." The metal element is perfunctory at best and pandering at worst, serving little purpose other than to get Slayer and Metallica on the soundtrack and score some hipster horror scenester points by being set and shot in Austin and having the credits in the Iron Maiden font. Today's horror fans are notoriously easy lays when it comes to hyping new product, but is that really all it takes to seduce them into declaring it a modern classic? As a metal horror movie, it's no TRICK OR TREAT. Hell, it's barely even BLACK ROSES. As an occult movie, it pales compared to Oz Perkins' THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER. And as an instant cult classic, it's basically a Rob Zombie hicksploitation romp camouflaged in hipster garb. To be fair, it's not a bad movie--there's some unexpectedly deep character development in the early going and some undeniable atmosphere, with a droning, downtuned ambient score by Sunn O))), and a stained glass window bathing people in shades of Argento red--but in the end, it's yet another generic indie horror slow burner that gets its leg frantically humped by breathlessly panting fanboys but delivers nothing you haven't seen before. Some good performances give it some extra credibility, but come on, guys. What's so special about this?

Artist Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), his wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby), and their teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) move into a farmhouse in the rural outskirts of Austin after closing on it at a really low price. Of course, it's because two people died in the house, which is never good sign in the horror genre. Astrid works full-time and metalhead Jesse makes ends meet by painting murals of butterflies and pretty scenery for local businesses. They're a loving family--Jesse's passed his love of metal on to Zooey, and it's cute watching father and daughter bond by headbanging to some death metal ("Can you play something lighter?" Astrid asks, to which Zooey smirks "Like what? Metallica?"). Once in the farmhouse, strange things begin happening, starting with random appearances by Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the son of the elderly couple who died in the house. Smilie has spent a significant chunk of his life in mental hospitals and likely killed both of his parents. He hears voices and plays doomy riffs on a Flying V as if being directed by an outside force. He abducts and kills children, following the instructions of the voices, and the visions of those dead kids are revealed in Jesse's paintings. The paintings take on an increasingly Satanic bent, though when they're done, Jesse awakens from a trance and has no recollection of painting them, which disturbs him even more when Astrid sees that he's painted Zooey's screaming face into a mural of hellfire and murdered children ("They're inside me," he says, "begging to be let out"). Much of the muddled plot unfolds in total darkness, and though the Hellmans (real subtle) are a happy family, the film almost wants you to be surprised that pot-smoking metalheads can be loving, nurturing parents. The much-acclaimed metal angle has no real purpose, though it's awfully convenient that a serial child killer whose instructions from the devil come to him in the form of a riff on a Flying V would happen to have a family of Slayer fans to pursue. THE DEVIL'S CANDY is an OK horror flick to stream on a slow night, and the four stars give this a lot more than they get in return (Appleby and Glasco are great screamers), but it's all rather silly and dull, even with the closing credits rolling at 74 minutes. (Unrated, 80 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US/UK/China - 2017)

Inspired by the 1997 "Phoenix Lights" incident, the faux-doc/found footage horror film PHOENIX FORGOTTEN wants to be the UFO version of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT but it lacks the ingenuity and originality. It tries to pass itself off as something with a low-budget, DIY aesthetic but it's really a three-country co-production with 29 credited producers, including After Dark Films chief Courtney Solomon, MAZE RUNNER screenwriter T.S. Nowlin and director Wes Ball, 300 producer Mark Canton, and, for some reason, Ridley Scott, all of whom must've cleaned out the change in their car's cupholders to get this thing made. Nowlin co-wrote the script with first-time feature film director Justin Barber, and for a while, PHOENIX FORGOTTEN is actually pretty good. Haunted by the disappearance of older brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) 20 years earlier, Sophie Bishop (Florence Hartigan) begins work on a documentary to find the truth about what happened to her then-17-year-old brother and his friends Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark (Justin Matthews). They vanished in the weeks following the appearance of the Phoenix Lights, two different events on March 13, 1997 where massive light formations in the sky--most likely flares from jets on a training exercise at a nearby military base--were witnessed by many and presumed to be UFOs (even then-Arizona governor Fife Symington laughed it off at the time but would later admit he believed them to be UFOs). Sophie interviews all of the parents, school officials, retired cops, and local astronomers, but the investigation hits the same dead end it did 20 years ago. She's even given the brush off by a former Symington aid after showing up at his house. Josh documented their trip with his own video camera, but when another camera with a school "property of" label on it, battered and damaged after being discovered in the desert and sent back to the school, is discovered in a long-unused storage unit rented by the school, Sophie finds a tape left inside.

Obviously, the other tape holds the answers to the mystery, and Barber does a nice job cutting from Sophie's discovery of it immediately to her shaken reaction after watching it. Then we see it, and what was an interesting and well-constructed faux doc turns into yet another rote, tired BLAIR WITCH ripoff, right down to the final tilted shot from the POV of a Dutch-angled video camera that's been dropped. It's too bad the inspiration flamed out at the midway-point, because even though found footage is as played out as can be, PHOENIX FORGOTTEN was shaping up as a decent little sleeper. Sophie's documentary unfolds like a riveting episode of DATELINE, and the mix of fiction with actual footage from the period is handled quite effectively. Another plus is that the actors deliver believable, "real" performances--at least until the second half, when all they're doing is bitching at each other and screaming "Mark!" when he vanishes into pitch black darkness. The big revelation here is the charming Lopez, who's got such a natural screen presence about her that when she's onscreen, it's easy to forget you're watching a fictional horror movie (and her impression of Jodie Foster in CONTACT--a small example of how this film gets the 1997 period detail right--is a clip that deserves to go viral). It's easy to dismiss films of this sort, especially this late in the game when there's really nothing new to do with them. Once in a while, a good one will break through and surprise you (like Bobcat Goldthwait's WILLOW CREEK), but these days, they're mostly like last year's hyped and crushingly disappointing BLAIR WITCH. PHOENIX FORGOTTEN falls somewhere in between, buoyed considerably by its cast's efforts and an opening half that's better than it has any right to be (and with a creepily effective use of Paul Revere & the Raiders frontman Mark Lindsay's 1969 solo hit "Arizona") but ultimately fizzling out when the filmmakers appear to simply give up when it mattered most. Maybe a different approach would've been to follow Sophie's efforts to expose the truth, especially after she meets with an official on a military base who tells her "don't let the public see that tape." Why not go the conspiracy route instead of checking out and coasting the rest of the way with an alien abduction remake of the first BLAIR WITCH? (PG-13, 87 mins)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

In Theaters: THE DARK TOWER (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel. Written by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nikolaj Arcel. Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Jackie Earle Haley, Katheryn Winnick, Dennis Haysbert, Abbey Lee, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Nicholas Hamilton, Jose Zuniga, Nicholas Pauling, Eva Kaminsky, Robbie McLean. (PG-13, 94 mins)

After a decade in assorted stages of development and pre-production hell, with both J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard attached to direct at various times, the long-planned adaptation of The Dark Tower, a series of Stephen King novels that began with the publication of a short story in 1978, is finally a thing. And they mostly blew it. A labyrinthine series of books that get larger and more unwieldy and self-indulgent with each new volume, going so far as to include King himself as a character by the time it's all over, the entire saga is nearly 5000 pages long. Something that complex, with its own internal mythology and the large cast of characters, is impossible to streamline and still be effective and probably needs to be a TV series along the lines of GAME OF THRONES to realize its full potential in a visual medium. But in the hands of Danish director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel (best known for helming 2012's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner A ROYAL AFFAIR and scripting the original film version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO as well as the three DEPARTMENT Q movies), making his Hollywood debut, THE DARK TOWER is a jumbled, confused pastiche of the book series and other King tropes and references (a kid who "shines," someone walking a St. Bernard, a framed photo of the cinematic Overlook Hotel, a portal labelled "1408") that goes off on its own tangent, with the closing credits rolling at just under the 90-minute mark. At times feeling like a really long "Previously on..." recap of a DARK TOWER TV series that doesn't exist, Arcel and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen (MIFUNE, WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF, BROTHERS), who reworked an existing script from Abrams' and Howard's time with the project by, respectively, Jeff Pinkner (LOST, FRINGE) and human focus group response Akiva Goldsman, try to cram in as many recognizable "Dark Tower"-related things as possible to keep the die-hards happy. King adaptations don't need to be faithful to work on their own terms--THE SHINING is proof of that--but the makers of THE DARK TOWER blowtorch through the exposition so quickly, with no context or frame of reference, that the whole thing will come off as either completely incoherent to anyone who hasn't read the books (I stopped after the third) or as pointless Dark Tower fan fiction to those who have. Arcel keeps the pace fast to a fault--almost certainly so you don't have a chance to ask questions until it's over, by which point you'll have forgotten most of it--and he gets a lot of mileage out of a well-cast star, but this thing is a total mess, and what could've been the beginning of an ambitious, epic big-screen franchise (that was the plan under Howard) ends up being 2017's JONAH HEX.

Still dealing with the death of his firefighter father in the line of duty, 12-year-old Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is haunted by visions in his dreams of another dimension where a huge tower keeps order in the universe. The tower is what stands in the way of the master plan of the nefarious sorcerer The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), who rules Mid-World, a world of monstrous creatures in human masks who abduct psychic children, the only beings capable of destroying the tower, which is the Man in Black's plan to unleash the ultimate evil. No one believes Jake--not his sympathetic mother (Katheryn Winnick), his asshole stepfather (Nicholas Pauling), or his psychologist (Jose Zuniga)--and a vision of a dilapidated house leads him to a condemned building in Brooklyn, where he discovers a portal to Mid-World. After going through, he encounters Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last Gunslinger, sworn to avenge the death of his father (Dennis Haysbert) at the hands of the Man in Black. Armed with pistols forged from Excalibur (yes, that Excalibur), Roland takes Jake under his wing as they're pursued through Mid-World into Manhattan, on what Mid-Worlders call "Keystone Earth," just one of many dimensions that exist in the universe, of which the Dark Tower is the center of all planes of existence.

The script takes ideas from various points in the books and mashes them all into a barely coherent story. The Man in Black is also known as "Walter Padick," but it's not clear when he became the force of evil that he is (it seems like something pretty big has to happen to turn a guy named Walter into the ultimate manifestation of demonic evil), and the movie never even bothers to mention another of his identities in the book: Randall Flagg, the name of the antagonist in both The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon. The Man in Black (this is not one of McConaughey's better performances) has some kind of sci-fi command center where he makes pithy comments to his underlings, all of whom seem to be completely incompetent, since he's constantly being beamed into Keystone Earth to take care of everything himself (example of how sloppy the finished film is: at one point, he makes a special trip to interrogate someone for information he was already made aware of a couple scenes earlier). The film was rushed through production and after some bad test screenings, underwent some hasty reshoots in an attempt to make sense of everything (three editors are credited), and about half of McConaughey's scenes appear to be from this second round of production, the major tell being that he has spiky bedhead in some scenes and a slicked-back, helmet-like wig in others, the production in such a mad rush to get done that they didn't even carefully monitor J.K.Livin's hair continuity. Other characters drift in and out with little purpose--Abbey Lee (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD) was described as "the female lead" in initial reports when she signed on, but her character is a mostly silent sidekick whose primary function is to stand beside by the Man in Black (or, if you prefer, Walter), and Jake's bullying school nemesis Lucas Hanson (Nicholas Hamilton) is reduced to about 30 seconds of screen time where he swipes Jake's sketch book and we never even get his name. Arcel essentially turns King's saga into a post-HUNGER GAMES/DIVERGENT/MAZE RUNNER YA adaptation, wasting a strong performance by Elba, who's very good in the action sequences and in the fish-out-of-water section when Roland goes through the portal and ends up in Manhattan. He and Taylor are apparently committed to a DARK TOWER TV series planned for 2018, which will hopefully be a more faithful take on King's saga than this misfire, which doesn't seem so much completed as it does abandoned. As far as Arcel is concerned, add him to the always-growing list of European filmmakers with cautionary tales of being seduced by Hollywood studios and a bigger budget than they've ever had only to find the film subjected to compromises, business decisions, and the fickle whims of test audiences, neutering any of the individuality and vision that got them the job in the first place, and sending them back home to regroup and focus on a small-scale, back to basics project.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

In Theaters: DETROIT (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal. Cast: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie, John Krasinski, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O'Toole, Nathan Davis Jr, Peyton Alex Smith, Malcolm David Kelley, Joseph David-Jones, Laz Alonso, Austin Hebert, Jennifer Ehle, Chris Coy, Miguel Pimentel, Chris Chalk, Glenn Fitzgerald, Dennis Staroselsky, Darren Goldstein, Jeremy Strong, Gbenga Akkinagbe. (R, 143 mins)

A harrowing chronicle of the 12th Street Riots in Detroit in late July 1967, with a focus on the infamous "Algiers Motel Incident," DETROIT is the latest from the HURT LOCKER and ZERO DARK THIRTY team of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal. It's pretty powerful--unflinching and disturbing, and difficult to watch at times. As a dramatization, it takes some liberties, changes a few names, and condenses some incidents for time and storytelling purposes, but according to those who were there who were either interviewed by Bigelow and Boal or, in the case of Juli Hysell, who was 18 years old at the time (played in the film by Hannah Murray), on the set as a consultant, it largely sticks with the events of the night, if not the aftermath. DETROIT's themes and imagery resonate today with seemingly endless police shootings of frequently unarmed suspects by inevitably acquitted cops and the resulting protests by groups like Black Lives Matter. Things haven't changed over 50 years, and while the more "woke" film cognoscenti argue, in their increasingly ludicrous pursuit of things to find offensive, that it's a film that shouldn't have been directed by a 65-year-old white woman, Academy Award-winner Bigelow again demonstrates that that she's one of the top American filmmakers going, something anyone in the know figured out back in 1987 with NEAR DARK, and one that you wish would work more frequently.

In an unusual prologue conveyed by a series of Jacob Lawrence paintings, white flight to the suburbs begins to take hold in post-WWII, leaving much of the Detroit area as segregated black neighborhoods left to decline, with increased police presence slowly ratcheting up the racial tension. That tension explodes on July 23, 1967 with a raid on a private club, without a liquor license, hosting a party for returning black Vietnam vets. The cops herd them out of the building like cattle, prodding them into paddy wagons as bystanders demand to know "What did they do?" Before long, bottles are thrown, windows are smashed, stores are looted, and a Molotov cocktail sets a gas station ablaze. Despite pleas from congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso), his constituents continue destroying their neighborhood out of a sense of frustration that's only growing. Gov. George Romney (seen in archival news footage, used frequently throughout) deploys the National Guard, the US Army, and the state police to maintain a presence in the area in a virtual martial law-like state. The riots force aspiring R&B group The Dramatics, led by frontman Larry "Cleveland" Reed (Algee Smith), to leave a gig at the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit, but they're separated after a bus is hit by bottles, with Larry and his buddy Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) venturing off on their own and ultimately checking into the nearby Algiers Motel to lay low for the night.

Larry and Fred end up partying with some people in a house on the Algiers property known as "the annex," where rooms are also rented. These people include hot-tempered Carl (Jason Mitchell, best known as Eazy-E in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON), his friend Aubrey (Nathan Davis Jr), and Vietnam vet Greene (Anthony Mackie), among others, plus 18-year-old Hysell and her friend Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two white girls from Ohio. Demonstrating what black men go through with cops on a daily basis, Carl shoots Aubrey with a blank from a tiny starter pistol, which provides a laugh for everyone. Emboldened, Carl fires more blanks out of a window in the direction of some National Guardsmen on patrol. This sends the Guard, some Army officers, and some local cops on the scene to raid the Algiers. Three Detroit P.D. patrolmen arrive and, under the leadership of bullying, racist Krauss (Will Poulter of THE REVENANT), the situation escalates into a grueling night of intimidation and torture as Krauss (who's already killed Carl and planted a knife on him to claim it was justified), Demens (Jack Reynor), and Flynn (Ben O'Toole) are set off by the sight of two white girls hanging out in a motel filled with black men and begin terrorizing everyone in search of the gun and the shooter.They play a "death game," a psychological tactic of taking someone into another room and firing a gun, tricking the others into talking, lest they be shot as well. Things get even worse from there, as Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard working at a market across the street from the Algiers, tries to maintain some semblance of order by going along to get along, respecting the cops and deferring to Krauss with the best intentions for everyone's safety even though he's horrified by what he sees and feels too outnumbered to stop it.

DETROIT's midsection is bookended by a clunky beginning and a protracted finale that turns into a standard courtroom drama not helped by the distracting late-film appearance of John Krasinski, who's still too recognizably John Krasinski to play an asshole defense attorney more concerned with putting the victims on trial (Dismukes is also charged, along with the three cops, when the story breaks and ultimately three dead bodies and several seriously injured motel residents need to be explained). But the long, agonizing Algiers sequence that makes up the biggest chunk of the film is a masterpiece of sustained, visceral tension. You'll actually feel your heart racing and your stomach knotting as things quickly spiral out of control, with Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (THE HURT LOCKER, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) creating an unbearably claustrophobic atmosphere with a lot of close-ups and a refusal to shy away from the brutality exhibited by the cops, whose power trip is abetted by the military and the state police looking the other way and leaving when they see Krauss' unhinged handling of the situation. Poulter is a big reason the Algiers section works as well as it does. Not a classically attractive leading man, the British Poulter scowls and smirks so much that he looks like an inbred Dylan Baker much of the time, vividly portraying what will probably go down as the most repugnant movie villain of 2017, and doing it so convincingly that it may actually do him more harm than good. Krauss is the kind of loathsome character that can be a typecasting career-killer for the actor who brings him to life, and Poulter (who never overdoes it, which makes it even more terrifying) is so good here that you may end up instantly despising him every time you see him in the future.

Top-billed Boyega is ostensibly the star as Dismukes, but his character arc seems like some scenes are missing, at least when it comes to the extent of his culpability in what happened. It's not really clear why he was put on trial or why Juli picks him out of a police lineup and gets him charged with the cops, beyond a knee-jerk need to pin it all on a black guy, which homicide detectives seem eager to do until too many people start telling the same story of three out-of-control cops. As presented here, Dismukes went along to get along. He was a passive observer who didn't take part in any of the violence or mayhem but felt powerless to stand up to Krauss, and may have been deemed guilty by association simply because of his security guard uniform. By the end, the emotional core of the film is Larry "Cleveland" Reed," a man with an incredible singing voice who was so traumatized by his night at the Algiers that it altered the course of his life. He walked away from a lucrative career with The Dramatics to live a quiet life in Detroit, where he leads a church choir to this day. Smith's performance is every bit as powerful as Poulter's in different ways, but despite a middle that's as brilliantly-handled as anything you'll see in a movie this year, along with convincing period detail that's right up there with ZODIAC, DETROIT falls short of greatness due to a cumbersome and unfocused start and finish that's kind of all over the place. Still a terrific film that needs to be seen, though one really must question the logic of releasing this in the summer.