Friday, October 9, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: KNOCK KNOCK (2015)

(US/Chile - 2015)

Directed by Eli Roth. Written by Eli Roth, Nicolas Lopez and Guillermo Amoedo. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Aaron Burns, Ignacia Allamand, Colleen Camp. (R, 99 mins)

Just two weeks after the long-delayed Italian gutmuncher homage THE GREEN INFERNO finally hit theaters, horror fanboy patron saint Eli Roth is back with the home invasion thriller KNOCK KNOCK. A remake of the sleazy, waka-jawaka-drenched drive-in favorite DEATH GAME, aka THE SEDUCERS (shot in 1974 but not released until 1977), KNOCK KNOCK essentially follows the same plot but with required modern updatings and more of a black comedy streak. In DEATH GAME, Seymour Cassel pays dearly when his wife and kids are away for the weekend and he allows himself to be seduced by two young women (Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp) who knock on the door claiming to be lost and waiting for a ride. KNOCK KNOCK--which lists Locke, Camp, and DEATH GAME director Peter Traynor among its committee of producers, with Camp returning for a cameo--has architect Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves) home alone at his luxurious Hollywood Hills residence with the dog over Father's Day weekend so he can finish an important work project while his artist wife Karen (Ignacia Allamand) and their two kids are away at the beach. After taking a break and smoking a little weed, Evan's work plans are put on hold when a torrential downpour brings two young women, Genesis (Roth's wife Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas), to his front door. Claiming to be flight attendants looking for a party but then discovering they're in the wrong neighborhood, the girls persuade Evan to let them in to use the phone. He makes them tea, lends them bathrobes while their clothes are in the dryer, and calls an Uber as his sense of unease increases over small-talk that quickly escalates to flirtation and full-on seduction, as family man Evan can't resist an impromptu threesome in the shower--during which the Uber driver gets tired of waiting and leaves--followed by an all-night fuckfest straight out of Penthouse Letters.

The next morning, Evan finds the girls making a mess in the kitchen as they try to cook breakfast. As his temper flares and his patience runs out, the girls just giggle at him. When he threatens to call the police, they drop a bombshell, saying they're actually only 15, which makes him a pedophile ("And I've still got the evidence!" Bel taunts as she points below her waist). Evan eventually calls their bluff and dials 9-1-1 anyway, at which point Genesis backs off and the girls agree to let Evan drive them home. Later that evening, investigating a noise in the kitchen, Evan discovers the girls have broken back into the house and they knock him unconscious. He wakes up tied to the bed as Bel forces him to have sex with her while she wears his daughter's clothes and calls him "Daddy." Genesis and Bel have declared themselves judge, jury, and, if things go their way, executioner, subjecting Evan to a weekend of psychological torture and sexual sadism as punishment for betraying his wife, his children, and his life of one-percenter privilege, dismantling and destroying every piece of his life, whether it's his rare vinyl collection, Karen's art and sculptures, or scrawling "Whore" on a framed picture of his daughter and "My daddy now has AIDS" on one of his son.

The class struggle element seems almost arbitrarily tossed in and dropped as soon as it's mentioned, it's never really clear why Genesis and Bel have singled out Evan, even after it's revealed that they've been spying on him for some time prior to being invited inside, and some things are groan-inducingly predictable (has there ever been a movie where a character is introduced reaching for their asthma inhaler that didn't telegraph a later scene where that same person couldn't breathe and couldn't find their inhaler?)  For a while, Roth and co-writers Nicolas Lopez and Guillermo Amoedo (the three have worked in various capacities with and for one another several other US/Chilean co-productions like AFTERSHOCK, THE STRANGER, and THE GREEN INFERNO) seem to be attempting a hot-button, FATAL ATTRACTION-type water cooler movie with the ethical and moral dilemma in which Evan finds himself. Initially, he does everything he can to resist the advances of Genesis and Bel, constantly moving from one seat to another in attempt to get them off of him, but when the Uber arrives and they refuse to leave the bathroom, only to have him enter and be rendered helpless when they go down on him simultaneously ("Have you ever had two women do this at once?" Genesis coos). Evan loves his family, but he's feeling a little unappreciated--the family left him alone on Father's Day and Karen hasn't had sex with him in several weeks, and here's two much-younger women stroking his ego about how buff he is and how lucky his wife must be. He gives in to temptation in a moment of weakness but the girls lord his transgression over his head for the rest of the movie ("You're all the same," Genesis scolds him), leading to an epic Keanu freakout that's on the level of Nic Cage's A-game. Tied to a chair, possibly going deaf from a piercing noises Genesis played through a set of headphones, and with a bleeding wound from being stabbed with a fork right over a recent shoulder surgery incision, Reeves dials it up to 11 with a long monologue, shouted at the top of his lungs about how "I'm a good guy! I'm a good father! I let you in! I called you an Uber! I made you tea! You came on to me! You were just free pizza that showed up at my door! What was I supposed to do?"

There's a darkly comedic mean streak throughout the film, but any pretense at seriousness is gone by the climax, where the comedy starts leaning broad and culminates in a great social media gag (between this and THE GREEN INFERNO, Roth has made his disdain for social media loud and clear) that's the funniest Facebook-related punchline I've yet seen in a movie (the melodrama in Reeves' punctuation of it is perfect as well). There's a lot of FATAL ATTRACTION, FUNNY GAMES, and HARD CANDY in KNOCK KNOCK, and if this was getting any kind of wide theatrical release (Lionsgate is dumping it on VOD and only releasing it in a few theaters), there'd likely be thinkpieces about the feminist and/or misogynist subtext (the girls are written off as "crazy bitches" but Roth leaves no doubt that Evan's in deep shit with his wife). Roth pays lip service to such things but doesn't explore it to any serious depth. It's very accomplished from a technical standpoint, especially in the way Roth has cinematographer Antonio Quercia snake and glide the camera through the house. Though it qualifies as a hard R, it's a virtually gore-free departure for Roth, who lets his sense of humor--sometimes clever, sometimes dudebro juvenile--run a little more free here even with the intensity and cringe-inducing discomfort of the whole thing. With solid performances by Reeves, Izzo (whose penetrating glare has some serious Eva Green potential), and de Armas, KNOCK KNOCK is quite enjoyable, guilty pleasure B-movie trash.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST (2015); MANGLEHORN (2015); and COP CAR (2015)

(France/Spain/Belgium - 2014; US release 2015)

Giving audiences the rare opportunity to see Benicio Del Toro in a movie about drug trafficking, ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST grants the Oscar-winning actor a role he was seemingly born to play: infamous Medellin Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar (1949-1993). Unfortunately, ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST is a tedious misfire hellbent on making Pablo Escobar a supporting character, and there are long stretches where Del Toro, who gained quite a bit of weight to play the cartel head in his indulgent years just before his 1991 incarceration, is offscreen. Rather, the focus is on Nick Brady (THE HUNGER GAMES' Josh Hutcherson), a Canadian who's somehow found his way into the Escobar inner circle on the eve of the boss turning himself over to Colombian authorities. Flashbacks show Nick was a surfer spending time doing Habitat for Humanity-type charity work in Colombia in the mid '80s with his older brother Dylan (Brady Corbet) and his wife Anne (Ana Girardot). Nick meets and quickly falls in love with nurse Maria (Claudia Traisac), who happens to be the beloved niece of her protective uncle (you guessed it) Pablo Escobar. Nick is welcomed into the family and affectionately dubbed "Nico," but tries to keep a distance from knowing too much about Uncle Pablo. Escobar is lauded as a benevolent hero by the people after his 80% stake in the world's cocaine traffic has made him a multi-billionaire with some interests in legitimate businesses, like opening a hospital for his nurse niece. But Escobar is a powerful and merciless boss who doesn't like loose ends, and he wants them all tied up before he goes to prison. Nick realizes far too late that he knows too much and the lives of everyone he loves are in danger and that Uncle Pablo intends to have him killed.

The directorial debut of Italian actor Andrea Di Stefano (Dario Argento's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and Hollywood fare like EAT PRAY LOVE and LIFE OF PI), ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST is plodding and sluggishly-paced, perhaps because you aren't expecting a movie alleged to be about Pablo Escobar to instead focus on Peeta Mellark and his Colombian girlfriend. Del Toro pops in and out of the story with the majesty of a slovenly Don Vito Corleone, but the bulk of the film focuses on Nick, who's based on a person who was involved with Escobar's niece, but beyond that, his story as presented here is a work of fiction, which begs the question "Who cares?" Di Stefano has essentially dropped the character of Pablo Escobar into a Josh Hutcherson movie that could just as easily be titled THE MEDELLIN GAMES. Things pick up when Nick realizes he's a target and Escobar's men start pursuing him, but then the story just becomes an excuse for Hutcherson to play a suddenly gun-toting, blood-splattered badass blasting caps into some cartel flunkies. After a deadly dull opening hour and change, it at least belatedly comes alive when it turns into a conventional chase thriller, but it's too little, too late. There's one admittedly great scene that's very well-acted by Hutcherson, when he hears an inconceivably savage act on the other end of the line during a phone call, but almost everything else is ponderous, predictable, and boring. The Weinstein Company acquired this in early 2014 and sat on it for a year and a half before releasing it on just 105 screens in June of 2015. Its Blu-ray/DVD release has been expertly timed with the wide release of SICARIO, a far superior Del Toro drug trafficking saga. The actor makes a superb Escobar, but this isn't the Escobar movie he should've done. (R, 120 mins)

(US/UK - 2015)

The third chapter in Al Pacino's back-to-basics, character-driven trifecta of low-key indie films following THE HUMBLING and DANNY COLLINS, David Gordon Green's MANGLEHORN lets the Oscar-winning screen legend be eccentric without resorting to his familiar post-SCENT OF A WOMAN histrionics. Pacino is very good here, but the film is a mixed bag, with Green too often engaging in self-indulgent asides and distracting detours into quirkiness that serve no real purpose other than establishing film festival bona fides. Pacino is A.J. Manglehorn, a sad-eyed locksmith in a smallish Texas suburb. Manglehorn works and spends most of his days alone with his beloved cat Fanny and occasionally takes his adorable granddaughter Kylie (Skyler Gasper) to the park. Divorced and mostly estranged from his high-rolling investment broker son Jacob (Chris Messina), Manglehorn laments a life wasted, spent without his lost love Clara. The proverbial "one that got away," Manglehorn pours his heart out in letters relayed in voiceover and mailed to Clara daily, and every day, there's an envelope in his mailbox stamped "Return to Sender." At first coming across like a tragic and lonely old soul, Manglehorn is soon revealed to be abrasive and a bit of an asshole who seems to sabotage his interactions, whether it's an unpleasant lunch with Jacob, where he complains about the food and how he never loved Jacob's mother because she was a poor substitute for Clara, or running into sleazy tanning salon owner/part-time pimp Gary (SPRING BREAKERS director Harmony Korine, in a role that seems like it was intended for Green pal Danny McBride), a socially inept, no-filter type prone to using words like "retard" and "mulatto" in public, but who still idolizes Manglehorn, his childhood Little League coach. Manglehorn has a friendly flirtation with bank teller Dawn (Holly Hunter) that leads to a disastrous date that goes south as soon as Manglehorn does what he always does: surely as THE BIG LEBOWSKI's Walter Sobchak made everything about Vietnam, Manglehorn steers every conversation into another rambling tale of woe monologue about how he let Clara slip away.

At its core, MANGLEHORN is a tale of redemption for a bitter, angry man who has some good in him, especially when it comes to his devotion to his granddaughter and his willingness to drain a good chunk of his savings on an expensive surgery for an ill Fanny. But Manglehorn wants Clara and is content to make everyone within earshot as miserable as he is about not being with her. It gets repetitive after a while (though his date with Dawn is a small masterpiece for connoisseurs of cringe), and Green's idiosyncratic digressions--a guy breaking into song in the bank and a teller responding in kind; Manglehorn encountering a multi-car pileup involving a truck full of smashed watermelons that looks like a pointless homage to Jean-Luc Godard's WEEKEND; one scene where he shows off some De Palma-style trickery that comes off like directorial wankery--just get in the way. Green also does some obvious telegraphing with the way he deliberately keeps the viewer out of a locked room that Manglehorn enters daily and emerges in a rage--of course, it's the decades-long shrine for the unattainable Clara, every returned letter filed away, every rejected bouquet of flowers wilted and rotting, which makes him look less like an unfortunate man burdened with a lifetime of sorrow and regret and more like an obsessed loon who needs a restraining order. Pacino's skills help him play a largely unplayable character, and by the time it's over, it's little more than a quirky indie version of AS GOOD AS IT GETS. Even with its many ups and downs, MANGLEHORN is still required viewing for Pacino completists, but be warned going in that it includes a feel-good ending that directly involves a mime. (PG-13, 97 mins)

(US - 2015)

Often coming off like a hastily-sketched idea that the Coen Bros. penciled into the margins of a script only to not include it, the acclaimed indie COP CAR has a solid premise that isn't quite enough to carry it to feature length. It gets a lot of mileage from a terrific, frantic performance by a Brimley-stached Kevin Bacon as Sheriff Mitch Kretzer, a suburban lawman whose day goes from bad to worse when his cruiser is stolen by a pair of grubby ten-year-old runaways who take it on a joyride. Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) are two of the dumbest, most obnoxious brats in cinema history, a pre-teen Beavis and Butt-Head who make one idiotic decision after another, usually involving playing with Kretzer's weapons they find in the backseat and staring down the barrel of the guns to figure out why they aren't firing. They also don't know there's a body in the trunk, the second of two that a coke-fueled, corrupt Kretzer was trying to bury in a field--he was off disposing of the first body when the idiot kids stumbled on the seemingly abandoned cop car. As the kids recklessly drive around the rural outskirts of town, plowing through fields and stopping to point automatic weapons at one another, Kretzer races around town, first on foot, then in a stolen car, then finally in his own pickup, to try and cover his tracks and locate the kids.

Directed and co-written by Jon Watts, who was rewarded (?) with the upcoming SPIDER-MAN reboot based on the festival buzz around COP CAR, the film mostly works as a thriller, but the implausibilities and the plot conveniences abound. It's never believable that Kretzer manages to misdirect all the other cops on the force and keeping them chasing their own tails all day, and it's tough to buy the way he goes about undetected all day long, even when he's pulled over by one of his own cops, calls in a fake emergency to the dispatcher on his cell phone, and manages to go unrecognized, with the now-distracted cop letting him off with the warning without really even taking a good look at him. Bacon is great as the wiry, frazzled, increasingly wigged-out Kretzer, and the child actors do a convincing job of playing--by design--a pair of stupid and truly appalling little shits, though Wellford's Harrison is slightly less loathsome than Freedson-Jackson's cocky, twerpy Travis. There's a couple of other characters--Camryn Manheim as a concerned citizen who spots the kids swerving in the cop car on a back road, and Shea Whigham ends up playing a prominent role, plus Bacon's wife Kyra Sedgwick provides the voice of the gullible dispatcher--but Bacon is the real show here. He's excellent, but the film seems ultimately too slight even for just under 90 minutes. (R, 88 mins)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

In Theaters: SICARIO (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Taylor Sheridan. Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Donovan, Daniel Kaluuya, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Maxiliano Hernandez, Hank Rogerson, Bernardo P. Saracino, Edgar Arreola, Boots Southerland, Adam Taylor, Eb Lottimer. (R, 121 mins)

A dark and harrowing drug trafficking thriller that's still rather simplistic at its core, SICARIO is nonetheless a gripping and hard-hitting experience. In a horrifying opening sequence, an FBI raid on a Glendale, AZ house near the US/Mexico border results in the discovery of no drugs but 42 dead bodies hidden in the walls. Idealistic agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is lauded for her work in the raid and offered a spot on a task force overseen by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the kind of character whose easy-going, smart-ass demeanor and dress casual look, complete with baggy khakis and flip-flops when everyone else is wearing suits, provides a nice-guy cover for a not-very-nice guy. A divorced loner with no children and nothing in her life other than her job, Macer is the perfect candidate, though it doesn't take her long to conclude that Graver is running some kind of off-the-books black-ops unit. That's confirmed once they're joined by Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a man of few words who comes from Colombia but "goes where he's needed." Alejandro's instincts and skills come into play at a traffic jam massacre at the border when the unit returns from an illegal run into Juarez to pick up Guillermo (Edgar Arreola), an associate of cartel boss Fausto Alarcon (Julio Cesar Cedillo). The more questions Macer asks, the more evasive Graver and Alejandro are, and she gets no answers from her own boss (Victor Garber). As Graver's operations put her at greater risk and the ruthless Alejandro seems to be addressing his own personal agenda, Macer is pulled into a moral and ethical quagmire that puts her career and her life at risk.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, who's no stranger to moral and ethical quagmires with 2013's PRISONERS, and written by former SONS OF ANARCHY co-star Taylor Sheridan (he played Deputy Hale before being killed off in the third season premiere), SICARIO takes place in a world where everything is a gray area and the law is circumvented if it serves the greater good, which is why Macer's partner and seemingly only friend Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), an Iraq War vet with a law degree, is purposefully kept at a distance by Graver. There's been some comparisons made between Macer and Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and it's a good analogy, especially in the way both films are seen through the POV of a strong, independent woman with something to prove in a male-dominated field that constantly underestimates her. It's also worth mentioning that both Foster and Blunt get their thunder stolen to a certain extent by the showier performance of a co-star with much less screen time, with Blunt's Anthony Hopkins being Del Toro as Alejandro, the mysterious angel of vengeance, a former cartel figure who lost his entire family and goes wherever his quest for revenge takes him. His allegiances are suspect and he won't hesitate to put a bullet in anyone who tries to stop him, but Graver is happy to have him along in an "enemy of my enemy is my friend" sort-of way. Del Toro keeps things pretty low-key throughout, never hamming but going for a less-is-more approach that makes Alejandro, the title character ("sicario" meaning "hitman"), utterly terrifying. While Macer is the central character, it's Alejandro who leaves the biggest impression, apparently on the filmmakers as well, as Blunt sits out most of the last 1/4 of the film as the focus shifts to Alejandro and his quest to find and execute Alarcon. It's a jarring move to make 90 minutes into a two-hour film, especially one that's been seen through Macer's eyes to that point, and it makes one wonder if that shift was in Sheridan's script or if it was a change that came about during the editing stage.

Boasting outstanding cinematography by the great Roger Deakins and with an effectively droning, tense score by Johann Johannsson, SICARIO works best in its crackling, edge-of-your-set set pieces like the opening sequence and the border shootout, and then later when a marvelously understated Del Toro takes center stage, his silent glare speaking volumes. Despite all the social, econimic, and legel issue lip service, SICARIO isn't as profound as some are making it out to be and is still largely a revenge saga, albeit a very well-made and intense one. It's a promising screenwriting debut for Sheridan, who directed a late-to-the-party SAW knockoff called VILE a few years back, right after he left SONS OF ANARCHY. VILE is one of the absolute worst horror movies you'll ever see and one couldn't blame Sheridan if he tried to distance himself from it now that SICARIO is earning worldwide accolades. Oh, wait...that's exactly what happened. In recent months, VILE has been removed from Sheridan's IMDb page by someone, and now is the lone credit on the page of a "Taylor Sheridan (IV)." Come on, Mr. Sheridan. You made a shitty movie before you were instrumental in the making of a very praised one. Just own it. Google "Taylor Sheridan Vile" and the ruse is exposed. You don't see James Cameron running away from PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING, do you?  Do you see George Clooney sticking his fingers in his ears and yelling "La-la-la can't hear you!" at the mention of RETURN OF THE KILLER TOMATOES? You really think you're gonna just pretend VILE never happened?

Not on my watch.

Monday, October 5, 2015

In Theaters: THE MARTIAN (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Drew Goddard. Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Chen Shu, Eddy Ko, Nick Mohammed. (PG-13, 141 mins)

During a manned mission to Mars, a catastrophic storm suddenly appears and the crew of the Ares III is ordered to evacuate the landing site and abort the mission by Cmdr. Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is blown away by a satellite antenna in a powerful gust of wind and when he doesn't respond and his vitals cease to register, he's presumed dead and Lewis and the crew--Martinez (Michael Pena), Johansson (Kate Mara), Beck (Sebastian Stan), and Vogel (Aksel Hennie)--begin the ten-month journey home. But Watney survived, though he's been impaled by an antenna and has no way to communicate to anyone at NASA that's he's been left behind. With enough pre-packaged meals for the entire crew to last 400 sols (a Martian sol being slightly longer than an Earth day) if he rations carefully, he must find a way to grow food to last four years until the next planned manned Mars expedition. Fortunately, Watney is a botanist and uses his wits and ingenuity ("I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this thing") to grow a small potato crop. Around the 54th sol after being left behind, Mars expedition director Dr. Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and graveyard-shift NASA analyst Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) notice movement of structures on satellite imagery of the landing site, proof that Watney is alive. What follows is the thoroughly engrossing saga of Watney's struggle to survive when faced with one catastrophic obstacle after another, and the efforts of those at NASA to get him home.

Adapted by Drew Goddard (THE CABIN IN THE WOODS) from the novel by Andy Weir, THE MARTIAN is career highlight for director Ridley Scott (BLADE RUNNER, THELMA & LOUISE), an ageless workaholic who shows no signs of slowing down at 77 years of age (he just had EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS in theaters ten months ago). Unlike 79-year-old Woody Allen and 85-year-old Clint Eastwood, two legends who seem to crank out annual movies more out of obligation than anything, Scott still seems interested in challenging himself, whether it's venturing back to the ALIEN universe for PROMETHEUS or going way off on a tangent with the inspired and insane THE COUNSELOR. Scott's hardly been skidding, but THE MARTIAN is his best work in years, a masterful mix of drama, humor (there's a great running gag about Lewis' terrible taste in music), thrills, hard science, and escapist entertainment, operating at a level of quality you rarely see these days. It's rousing without being pandering, and filled with baited-breath intensity, and emotion and sentiment that's earned and not forced. It's a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie done right, with a terrific ensemble whose performances make a very human and universal story rather than simply "CAST AWAY in space." The world comes together in plausible ways to rally behind Watney and his safe return--the Chinese space program even sets its own ambitions aside to work with rival NASA by contributing a necessary booster that the Americans have yet to develop. There's a certain element of "Nobody gets left behind!" but it's not a jingoistic flag-waver. Watley's plight unites the planet.

Sure, that could've been some hokey, feel-good bullshit, and a man stranded alone on the red planet has been explored to some degree in the revered 1964 sci-fi classic ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, but Damon's performance, filled with raw emotion, self-deprecating humor, and a spirit of dogged persistence, is nicely juxtaposed with a large cast of characters. They all get moments in the spotlight (with the possible exception of Kristen Wiig, who isn't given much to do as NASA's media relations coordinator), from each of Watney's fellow astronauts to the brilliant scientific minds on the ground (Ejiofor's Mars mission director, Sean Bean as the launch director, Benedict Wong as a rocket designer, and Donald "Childish Gambino" Glover as an astrodynamicist), to Jeff Daniels as the bottom-line, very Jeff Daniels-ish NASA chairman, a character that other films would've made into an obligatory earthbound adversary but here, his blunt demeanor that occasionally comes off as insensitive is just a realistic reaction to the situation. THE MARTIAN is a triumph across the board, from its story to its performances to its astonishing visual effects, particularly in the tense, nerve-wracking climax. Most of the film was shot on sets constructed at a Hungarian studio, but the Mars exteriors were shot in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, looking appropriately desolate and otherworldly through the lens of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (working on his fourth straight Scott film), augmented by the appropriately otherworldly, Tangerine Dream-ish synth score by Harry Gregson-Williams, who also contributed to the soundscapes of Michael Mann's underrated BLACKHAT. THE MARTIAN is the most satisfying and thrilling time at the movies since MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, and like the mad genius George Miller, the great Ridley Scott is essentially conducting a seminar on how it's done.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (2015); THE CONNECTION (2015); and ALLELUIA (2015)

(UK - 2015)

When it opened in early 2015, the UK import THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY was the other BDSM film, the art-house counterpart to the more commercial and mega-hyped FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. Written and directed by Peter Strickland, whose BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO was a paranoia nightmare told in the vein of a 1970s Italian giallo, THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY follows numerous stylistic tropes seen in BERBERIAN, namely an unabashed adoration of the 1970s and an intricate and fascinating sound design. It's also a bit more substantive than the intriguing but empty BERBERIAN, which opened with a terrific set-up and then didn't really go any deeper than the surface. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY's much-discussed opening credits sequence would appear to portend a softcore '70s sexploitation outing along the lines of a smutty British sex farce or an EMMANUELLE film, complete with a prominent credit for "Perfume by Je Suis Gizella." It's the story of a BDSM relationship between older, erudite lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and younger, demure protege Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna). Their role-playing takes on an almost JEANNE DIELMAN sense of precision repetition: Evelyn arrives at Cynthia's house, and Cynthia proceeds to make her clean the house, do the laundry, and be treated in all sorts of demeaning fashions, whether it's being interrupted or Cynthia making a mess where Evelyn just cleaned. Often, Cynthia will demand a foot massage. This repeats until we see that they're a loving couple and this is their intimate routine. But Strickland gradually reveals more: it's Cynthia who's the submissive, giving into Evelyn's domination and her demands to be humiliated. It's ultimately a story of the compromises, concessions, and the give-and-take involved in any committed relationship, whether it's one party acquiescing and allowing the use of an old trunk as a coffin for the other to be bound and held in as punishment, or whether one draws the line at treating the other as a "human toilet."

Considering its subject matter, BURGUNDY, whose creative spark was ignited, oddly enough, when Strickland turned down an offer to remake Jess Franco's 1974 film LORNA THE EXORCIST, is hardly the Skinemax softcore throwback you'd expect from the opening credits (which, as amusing and dead-on retro as they are, end up feeling like a stunt that has little to do with what transpires later) and the butterfly symbolism a tad too heavy-handed an obvious (and reminiscent of the 1995 art film ANGELS & INSECTS), but it manages to convey an overtly explicit feel without being very graphic at all. There's barely any nudity and only some fleeting onscreen sex. Yet Strickland's film is a hazy fever dream of erotica, with plenty of caressed skin, a couple of tastefully-executed sex scenes (he keeps the water sports heard but not seen), two excellent performances (Knudsen, in particular), and enough lingering shots of Knudsen's and D'Anna's feet to send it to the top of Quentin Tarantino's Best of 2015 list. (Unrated, 104 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

(France/Belgium - 2014; US release 2015)

This French crime saga directed and co-written by Cedric Jiminez purports to tell the French side of the drug trade depicted in THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Despite his love of handheld cameras for maximum immediacy, Jiminez never achieves the kind of wired, adrenalized intensity that William Friedkin established 44 years ago, and aside from the immediate art-house cred that comes with being a subtitled, foreign-language film, THE CONNECTION is utterly and frustratingly ordinary in every way. Jiminez borrows some Friedkin here, some Scorsese there, a good-sized portion of Ridley Scott's AMERICAN GANGSTER, and a heaping helping of Michael Mann's HEAT in its mirror-image motif of law enforcer vs. criminal and how they're flip sides of the same coin. Just to hammer it home, Jiminez even casts two actors who look very much alike, almost like you expect him to pull a Bunuel switch at the midpoint and have the stars switch roles. At least that would've been something unpredictable. THE ARTIST Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin busts his ass to enliven the uninspired material, often channeling the pent-up rage of a young De Niro as Pierre Michel, a Juvenile Court magistrate in 1975 Marseilles. He's transferred over to the Organized Crime unit and ordered to do everything at his disposal to bring down drug kingpin Gaetan Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), the key figure in the Marseilles-to-NYC heroin trade.

What follows is over two hours of Michel and his task force of interchangeable, nondescript supporting actors unable to make anything stick to teflon Zampa during an obsessive investigation that lasts from 1975 to 1981, and both men see their private lives suffer as a result of their respective professions: Zampa's wife (Melanie Doutey) is temporarily placated when her husband gives her a disco to run (cue Blondie's "Call Me," which must mean the producers couldn't secure the rights to "Heart of Glass," the mandatory song for every establishing shot of a disco in a movie set in the 1970s), but Mrs. Michel (Celine Sallette) grows weary (as will the viewer) of Michel being called away by work from literally every meal he's able to have at home with the family. You could almost make a drinking game out of it. And of course, just as in HEAT, Michel and Zampa have a mid-film confrontation where they acknowledge they're not much different from one another, but they best stay out of the other's way. Jiminez admirably doesn't get sidetracked by paying too much attention to period detail other than long sideburns, a detour to Manhattan that shows off a badly CGI'd shot of the half-built Twin Towers (which were completed by 1975 anyway), and one character name-dropping John Travolta and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. Dujardin and Lellouche are excellent, and Benoit Magimel and Cyril Lecomte have some standout moments as some Zampa criminal associates, but they all deserve more worthy material than this rote, paint-by-numbers non-epic that plays like lukewarm leftovers of too many better movies that inspired it. (R, 135 mins)

(Belgium/France - 2014; US release 2015)

With his 2004 feature debut, the rural, backwoods-set CALVAIRE, Belgian filmmaker Fabrice Du Welz became linked with the French "extreme horror" movement popularized by the likes of Alexandre Aja's HIGH TENSION (2003), Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's INSIDE (2007), Xavier Gens' FRONTIER(S) (2008) and Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS (2008). Du Welz followed CALVAIRE with the ambitious but unfocused VINYAN (2008), an English-language "ramshackle-boat-journey-upriver as metaphor for journey-into-madness" horror film that took too long to get to its genuinely unnerving, terrifying finale. VINYAN tanked worldwide before going straight-to-DVD in the US in 2009 and Du Welz vanished. He resurfaced in 2014 with a pair of thrillers, ALLELUIA and COLT 45, though only the former has received a US release (Du Welz's next project will bring him to Hollywood 12 years after he made a splash with CALVAIRE--the Chadwick Boseman action thriller MESSAGE FROM THE KING is due out in early 2016). ALLELUIA is a very loose and aggressively unhinged retelling of the 1940s "Lonely Hearts Murders," where spinster nurse Martha Beck and con-artist/gigolo Raymond Fernandez pursued victims through personal ads and proceeded to rob and murder the women whose ads Fernandez answered, with Beck posing as his sister. The story was previously depicted in the 1969 cult classic THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, with Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco, the 1996 Mexican film DEEP CRIMSON, and the barely-released 2006 thriller LONELY HEARTS, which focused on the detectives (John Travolta, James Gandolfini) pursuing the Lonely Hearts serial killers (Jared Leto, Salma Hayek). Du Welz's version updates the story to the present-day, with lonely morgue attendant and single mother Gloria (frequent Almodovar star Lola Duenas) meeting Michel (Laurent Lucas) after her friend Madeleine (Stephane Bissot) posts her profile on an online dating site. After falling hard for Michel even knowing he's a scheming con artist, Gloria impulsively leaves her young daughter with Madeleine and hits the road with Michel, finding women on dating sites and often going for the long con, with Michel marrying them and Gloria posting as his sister. The adventure stirs some kind of psychosis in Gloria, who grows insanely jealous when Michel has to sleep with their marks, which usually results in Gloria going off the deep end and brutally murdering the women. Michel becomes her unwitting accomplice, helping her dispose of the bodies--her job experience at the morgue comes in handy--but as their con games go on, Gloria grows increasingly deranged, with Michel unable to control her and her wild impulses.

Du Welz sometimes gets a little too goofy for his own good, such as Gloria getting a somber musical number before taking a saw to the corpse of the couple's latest victim, or a half-baked attempt at putting a vague supernatural spin on things with Raymond's prayer rituals and a bizarre sequence of a naked Michel and Gloria dancing by a raging fire, but ALLELUIA is a grim and disturbing sleeper that sneaks up on you. A lot of it has to do with the almost claustrophobic immediacy of the grainy, 16mm cinematography by Manuel Dacosse (AMER, THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS), but most of it is the thoroughly off-the-chain performance of Duenas. Du Welz and Duenas pull a cunning bait-and-switch with how plain and mousy she's introduced. You question the logic of her going to work the morning after meeting Michel and having him stay the night, then leaving her daughter with him. Once they're a couple and on the road, Michel soon realizes he has no idea what he's gotten himself into, and doesn't enter into his con games with murder in mind until Gloria puts him in that position. Michel is just a scheming heel who's trying to con lonely women out of their money--it's he who becomes an accomplice to murder and it's he who's forced into murder by Gloria, in whom he's awakened a sleeping giant prone to uncontrolled fits of rage and limb-flailing meltdowns. It's a slightly different take on the subject that seems to have been chosen simply because Du Welz wanted Duenas to let it rip with wild abandon, and she obliges. There are some instances where Du Welz is distracted by what he probably perceived to be transgressive shock value, like a scene where Gloria masturbates while Michel sucks on her toes and jerks off, or when he stages one of the most precariously-framed mainstream cinema blowjobs in recent memory, but ALLELUIA is a mostly effective bit of grim bleakness that stumbles here and there, didn't need the dumb musical number and could use a stronger ending, but Duenas' mad, almost possessed performance makes it a must-see. (Unrated, 93 mins)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Cannon Files: HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983)

(UK - 1983; US release 1984)

Directed by Pete Walker. Written by Michael Armstrong. Cast: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Desi Arnaz Jr, John Carradine, Sheila Keith, Richard Todd, Julie Peasgood, Louise English, Richard Hunter, Norman Rossington. (PG, 102 mins)

When it came to ninjas, Namsploitation, and breakdancing, Menaham Golan had his fingers on the pulse of what audiences wanted to see. But just as often, he'd keep Cannon cranking out increasingly geriatric Charles Bronson actioners directed by an aging J. Lee Thompson, cheapjack franchise offerings like the one-and-done MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE (1987) and the ill-advised SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987), and misguided attempts at arthouse legitimacy that played to smaller and smaller audiences. When Golan decided to make an all-star horror movie with the screen's titans of terror in 1983, he didn't come up with the kind of horror movie that 1983 audiences had in mind. HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS was born when screenwriter Michael Armstrong (director of the 1970 barf-bag classic MARK OF THE DEVIL) and cult British horror filmmaker Pete Walker (DIE SCREAMING MARIANNEFRIGHTMARE, HOUSE OF WHIPCORD, THE CONFESSIONAL) came to Cannon with an idea for a gory horror movie called DELIVER US FROM EVIL. Golan rejected the idea and told them he wanted a vintage "old dark house" story with all the classic horror stars, so Armstrong and Walker concocted a script inspired by the 1932 James Whale classic THE OLD DARK HOUSE and based largely on the oft-filmed 1913 George M. Cohan play Seven Keys to Baldpate, itself based on a novel by Charlie Chan author Earl Derr Biggers.  According to legend, Golan demanded Walker and Armstrong cast Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in this all-star horror summit, and was not deterred by minor inconveniences like Karloff's death in 1969 and Lugosi's a decade before that in 1956.

While Karloff and Lugosi were out of the question, Golan did manage to snag four living horror legends: 72-year-old Vincent Price, 61-year-old Christopher Lee, 70-year-old Peter Cushing, and 77-year-old John Carradine. The big selling point of HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS--a playful nod to how beloved its stars were--was these iconic figures not just being in the same movie together, but finally having significant amounts of screen time interacting with one another. Of course, Lee and Cushing were paired up many times over the years (this would be their last movie together), and Cushing co-starred with Price in 1974's MADHOUSE and Price with Carradine in 1981's THE MONSTER CLUB, but usually, it would be a case of them being in the same movie but having no scenes together, like Price, Lee, and Cushing in 1970's SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN or Price and Cushing in 1972's DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN or Cushing and Carradine in 1977's SHOCK WAVES. There was also Price and Lee in 1969's THE OBLONG BOX , where they had one brief scene together very late in the film when Price finds Lee's dead body. In that respect, HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS was sort-of the old-school horror EXPENDABLES of its day. And of course, upon its US release in the spring of 1984, it bombed with critics and audiences, who loved these old-timers on late-night TV and Saturday afternoon Creature Features, but didn't venture out to see a new movie with them in theaters. A gothic Hammer/Amicus throwback didn't really appeal to the slasher and special effects crowd. LONG SHADOWS was recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber and on one of the two commentary tracks, film historian David Del Valle and moderator Elijah Drenner also cite Cannon's poor marketing campaign: a tongue-in-cheek, old-fashioned horror mystery set on a dark and stormy night, the film has enough of a playful atmosphere that it never really takes itself too seriously, though it never quite takes the plunge into all-out comedy. Cannon didn't seem to know whether to sell this as a mystery, a horror movie, or a spoof.

Best-selling novelist Kenneth Magee (Desi Arnaz Jr) is good at cranking out books but really only cares about the money. His British publisher Sam Allyson (Richard Todd) wants Kenneth to challenge himself and after dissing the likes of Wuthering Heights, Kenneth bets Sam $20,000 that he can write an old-fashioned gothic novel in 24 hours. To get in the right frame of mind, Sam arranges to have Kenneth spend the night at a desolate Welsh estate called Baldpate Manor, which has been empty for 40 years. After he's interrupted by Sam's secretary Mary (Julie Peasgood), sent there to distract him, things get weird when Baldpate becomes the location of an impromptu family reunion of the Grisbanes: patriarch Lord Grisbane (Carradine), eldest son Lionel (Price), younger son Sebastian (Cushing) and daughter Victoria (Walker regular Sheila Keith). Baldpate Manor was home to the Grisbanes until a terrible scandal brought shame upon them in 1935: the youngest of the Grisbane sons, black sheep Roderick, raped and killed a 14-year-old village girl. The horrible crime was covered up by Grisbane and his other sons, who dispensed their own family justice by sentencing Roderick to live in chains in a hidden, locked room on one of the upper floors of the manor. For over 40 years, Roderick has resided in the dilapidated manor alone, surviving on food brought by Victoria or snacking on whatever rats he encounters, and tonight is the night the Grisbanes confront him and come to terms with their ugly past. Also complicating matters is the arrival of Corrigan (Lee), a sneering businessman who plans to buy Baldpate Manor to demolish it and develop the surrounding area. It doesn't take long before they're all being picked off one by one by an unseen Roderick, who's gotten out of his room, cut the phone line and slashed the tires on everyone's cars, and won't stop until he gets his revenge.

Critics savaged HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, with Arnaz's performance inexplicably singled out as the film's biggest problem (from the film's listing in the Leonard Maltin guide: "Arnaz Jr. singlehandedly sinks this adaptation..."). He's not the most magnetic lead actor, but he does what he's required to do and graciously steps aside at the right time and lets the masters do their thing. Del Valle, a longtime friend of Price's, even recalls the legendary actor defending Arnaz and his performance in the film. Both Del Valle and Drenner are incredulous over the amount of heat Arnaz took for his work here, and they're right: he didn't deserve the pummeling he got and isn't bad at all. You could almost compare him to Michael O'Keefe in CADDYSHACK: he plays the central character and he's the real star of the movie, but you're actually there to see everyone else around him. Walker and Armstrong do take too long to get all of the players together (it's nearly 50 minutes in and the film is half over when Lee first appears), but they all get some time to shine and seem to genuinely enjoy working off of one another. Cushing amuses himself by adding an Elmer Fudd-type speech impediment, Carradine is befuddled and cranky, Lee is huffy and pompous, and Price is gloriously florid and over-the-top as Lionel Grisbane, gravely intoning "I have returned" upon his arrival and admonishing Magee for asking a question during his eulogy for the Baldpate Manor of old with a hand wave and a firm "Please...don't interrupt me whilst I am soliloquizing."

Cannon could've easily put these guys in a gory, T&A-filled slasher movie, which probably would've been more in line with Pete Walker's comparatively trashy and sleazy B-horror films of the 1970s. HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS was practically a departure for the director, whose cult status has grown in the subsequent decades. A true indie auteur accustomed to working on his own and outside the system, LONG SHADOWS was Walker's first and last gig as a hired gun director--he retired from filmmaking afterwards and in the decades since, has had success owning a chain of movie theaters in London. He remains active in the cult movie scene, recording DVD and Blu-ray commentaries for Redemption's "Pete Walker Collection," and he's on hand for a commentary track on the LONG SHADOWS release. LONG SHADOWS does demonstrate some infrequent concessions to the times in which it was made--there's a couple of mildly gory deaths and a few curse words (where else will you hear Vincent Price hiss "bitch" to Christopher Lee?), but it's a throwback before nostalgic throwbacks became a thing. It unfolds less like a Cannon production and more like a vintage Hammer or Amicus chiller and it does right by its cast, respecting them and the history they bring instead of derisively dismissing them, and when the actors are the butt of jokes, they're in on it.

Drenner points out on the commentary that it's easy to look back at the film now with a sense of nostalgia while seeing that it had to be very out-of-touch with where horror was in the early 1980s. Indeed, while it was enjoyable in 1983, it's a film that's improved over time and it's a rare instance where nostalgia is enough to carry it through. Of course, the story and the final twist are predictable, but watching these legends together is truly a joy that's helped the film out in the long run, especially now that a significant chapter of genre history has closed with the passing of Lee in June 2015 (Carradine died in 1988, Price in 1993, and Cushing in 1994).  HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS has aged like fine wine and sentimental feelings have won out over jaded cynicism, earning it a loyal cult following among classic horror fans enjoying the masters having one last hurrah without the baggage and expectations that came with its era. It may have been released in 1983 but it certainly wasn't made for 1983, and just about everyone back then--critics, audiences, and Cannon--was wrong about HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS.

Friday, September 25, 2015

In Theaters: THE GREEN INFERNO (2015)

(US/Chile - 2015)

Directed by Eli Roth. Written by Eli Roth and Guillermo Amoedo. Cast: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Daryl Sabara, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Sky Ferreira, Richard Burgi, Aaron Burns, Magda Apanowicz, Ignacia Allamand, Nicolas Martinez, Matias Lopez, Ramon Llao, Antonieta Pari, Eusebio Arenas. (R, 100 mins)

For being as ubiquitous a cult horror figure as he is, Eli Roth's filmography has been surprisingly sparse. THE GREEN INFERNO is just his fourth feature film as a director, arriving eight years after his last, 2007's HOSTEL PART II, though he's produced and "presented" several others and co-starred as Sgt. Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz in buddy Quentin Tarantino's INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009). Part of the delay was beyond Roth's control: filmed back-to-back with AFTERSHOCK (co-written by and starring Roth, and utilizing most of the same cast and crew) in 2012 and shown at festivals in 2013, THE GREEN INFERNO saw its September 2014 release abruptly cancelled by Open Road Films. They sold it to High Top Films and Blumhouse offshoot BH Tilt, who have finally gotten it into theaters three years after it was completed, still sporting a 2013 copyright. A longtime pet project of Roth's, the film is homage to the most vile of Italian horror subgenres, the cannibal film, itself an offshoot of the 1960s mondo craze. The Italian cannibal film was born with Umberto Lenzi's 1972 adventure MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, a more violent ripoff of the 1970 Richard Harris hit A MAN CALLED HORSE. There were other cannibal films that followed--Ruggero Deodato's THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD, aka JUNGLE HOLOCAUST (1977) and Sergio Martino's foul MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978), but it really exploded with Deodato's groundbreaking, found-footage-inspiring CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980), and consecutive Lenzi assaults, EATEN ALIVE (1980) and CANNIBAL FEROX, aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY (1981). The latter three, in particular, took the cannibal subgenre as far as it could go and even today, remain so extreme in their content that they still shock and repulse even the most jaded of uninitiated present-day gorehounds raised on post-SAW torture porn and hipster snark. I attended a midnight showing of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST about 11 or 12 years ago and the packed theater was ready for a good time. They wasted no time talking back to the screen, making fun of the dubbing, and mimicking one particularly cheesy synth cue in Riz Ortolani's score. Around 25 minutes in, something happened that quieted down the audience. The discomfort escalated over the next half hour. By the one hour mark, many were leaving. When the closing credits rolled, those who remained exited the theater in traumatized silence. 35 years after it was made, the snark-proof CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST still separates the players from the poseurs in horror fandom, and approaching it with a derisive MST3K attitude won't cushion the blow. You don't just watch CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.  You survive it.

So in that respect, Roth is to be commended for daring to bring that kind of experience to the multiplexes of today. THE GREEN INFERNO (named after a documentary film-within-a-film in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST) stretches its R rating about as far as it can go and more often that not, Roth and co-writer Guillermo Amoedo make a concerted effort to replicate the intensity of their influences. Alas, Roth is a director who has always straddled the line between fanboy and dudebro, and those conflicting identities trip him up throughout the film. His heart is in the right place: the jungle locations in Chile are stunning, he stays with practical effects as much as possible (though one CGI ant attack is just embarrassing to watch); in one shot, he frames his heroine (wife Lorenza Izzo) in a way that very purposefully recalls a memorable image of final girl Lorraine De Selle in CANNIBAL FEROX; and the closing credits feature a list of recommended Italian cannibal movies and end with a "Per Ruggero" dedication to the still very-much-alive Deodato, clearly a huge influence on the director (he also gave Deodato a cameo as "The Italian Cannibal" in HOSTEL PART II). But Roth also can't resist the temptation to play to the lowest common denominator, with comedic detours into a grossout humor involving vomit and diarrhea and a Scooby-Doo plan of stashing a bag of weed into the corpse of a soon-to-be-eaten character in order to make the natives high and allow the heroes to escape. That one character even derisively refers to it as "a Scooby-Doo plan" doesn't get Roth off the hook, nor does the resulting attack of the munchies that thwarts the escape when the buzzed tribesmen start chowing down on one guy like he's a bag of Funyuns.

Roth takes some shots at the college culture of hashtag activism and the political correctness of Generation Trigger Warning with mixed results. College freshman Justine (Izzo), the daughter of a big-shot U.N. attorney (Richard Burgi), falls in with a group of SJW campus activists led by the charismatic Alejandro (Ariel Levy). Alejandro and his buddy Carlos (Matias Lopez) are orchestrating a trip deep into the Peruvian rain forest to chain themselves to bulldozers to prevent an evil corporation from destroying the land and displacing the indigenous people to get to the natural gas supply deep underground. After successfully shaming the construction workers and their protecting militia via a live stream online, the group's plane crashes in an even more remote part of the jungle. While some die on impact, the survivors are soon abducted by a terrifying tribe, with one being eaten alive by the natives as an example of atrocities to come. The long sequence where the crash survivors watch in horror as one of their own is devoured limb-by-limb does a very credible job of replicating the brutal intensity of Deodato and Lenzi. Roth also makes the wise decision to avoid one troubling and indefensible element of Italian cannibal films that have always dogged them and rightly so: he doesn't even flirt with the idea of depicting on-camera animal killings, either for real or by special effects. The animals in THE GREEN INFERNO are treated with dignity (the tribe's pigs are pets who actually eat human flesh as well) and reverence, as shown by the respectful attitude displayed toward a majestic, beautiful jaguar resting near the river.

But then there's the juvenile, played-for-laughs diarrhea scene, where even the native kids are holding their noses and waving their hands in front of their faces. And there's the whole "stoned natives" sequence and the subsequent munchies. And a completely baffling scene where one character has committed suicide and Alejandro responds by vigorously masturbating in front of everyone in order to keep his mind focused. The standard-bearers of the Italian cannibal genre--CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and CANNIBAL FEROX--depict generally docile tribes goaded by cruel white interlopers into committing the horrific atrocities they do. In CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, a documentary team needs to sensationalize their film, so they burn down a village and rape a native girl, who's punished by the tribal elders by being impaled on a pole that goes through her vagina and exits her mouth. In CANNIBAL FEROX, a doctoral student (De Selle) ventures to the Amazon to once and for all disprove cannibalism, but first she encounters a fugitive, small-time NYC coke dealer (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) who also rapes a native girl and tortures another tribesman to death, and the tribe rises up to attack the white invaders and give them what's coming to them. Alejandro fills that "white villain" role to a certain extent, at least in terms of his increasingly sociopathic behavior, but in an unexpected switch that's either Roth subverting genre expectations or keeping the door open for a sequel, Alejandro never gets what's coming to him.

Like Tarantino, Roth wears his love of grindhouse trash on his sleeve and his sincerity is never in doubt. But he's neither the stylist nor the writer that Tarantino is, though of course, QT's is a unique voice in contemporary movies. Roth wants to make THE GREEN INFERNO his CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST or CANNIBAL FEROX, and while he occasionally succeeds, he too often doesn't have the courage of his convictions, whether it's his handling of Alejandro or in the way the film repeatedly brings up the subject of female genital mutilation and seems poised to present it, much like those old Italian cannibal films always had some poor schmuck getting his dick hacked off and eaten by a cannibal. Not that I'm advocating female genital mutilation, but if Roth really wanted to push the envelope like his genre heroes did, he would've crossed that line. Deodato's and Lenzi's films aren't the infamous transgressions they are for holding back in the name of good taste and a desire to treat the audience with kid gloves. All in all, THE GREEN INFERNO is...alright. It's doubtful it's going to catch on with mainstream multiplexers, but the hardcore cult aficionados who form Roth's base will eat it up, pun intended. When Roth approaches the story seriously, the film works quite well, both as a tribute and as an intense experience in horror cinema that perfectly exemplifies what Roth is about. When he doesn't, then, well, you get some smirking dudebro jerking himself off for no reason, and to a certain degree, that also exemplifies what Roth is about.

Original 2014 poster art when the film was still being handled by Open Road