Friday, June 22, 2018

Retro Review: ALIEN PREDATORS (1987)

(US/Spain - 1987)

Written and directed by Deran Sarafian. Cast: Dennis Christopher, Martin Hewitt, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Luis Prendes, J.O. Bosso, Yousaf Bokhari, Yolanda Palomo. (R, 90 mins)

The vault pickings must be getting slim for Shout! Factory if ALIEN PREDATORS is out on Blu-ray. Shot in 1984 and released overseas under its original title THE FALLING, the US/Spanish co-production was rechristened ALIEN PREDATORS for its belated 1987 US release through Trans World Entertainment and subsequently became a fixture in every video store in America. It's the directing debut of then-26-year-old Deran Sarafian, the son of veteran director Richard C. Sarafian (VANISHING POINT), and a sometime actor (he had a bit part as a murder victim in 10 TO MIDNIGHT) who spent most of the '80s working in Europe. In addition to ALIEN PREDATORS, he also directed the late-period Italian post-nuke INTERZONE and starred in 1988's unintended Lucio Fulci/Bruno Mattei collaboration ZOMBI 3. Sarafian returned to the States and quickly established himself as a competent journeyman with 1989's vampire film TO DIE FOR, 1990's Van Damme prison brawler DEATH WARRANT, and a pair of 1994 actioners with GUNMEN and the A-list Charlie Sheen vehicle TERMINAL VELOCITY.  Now 60, Sarafian hasn't directed a feature film since 1995's straight-to-video THE ROAD KILLERS, but has since stayed very busy as a go-to hired gun for TV over the last 20-plus years, piling up directing credits for shows like NASH BRIDGES, CSI, CSI: MIAMI, COLD CASE, LOST, HOUSE, FRINGE, HEMLOCK GROVE, HELL ON WHEELS, and BLUE BLOODS. While he'll never be mistaken for a visionary auteur, Sarafian's career is a success just in terms of the sheer volume of TV gigs he gets, but if ALIEN PREDATORS accomplishes nothing else (and rest assured, it doesn't), it proves the old saying that everybody's gotta start somewhere.

Sarafian's script has an intriguing idea at its core, dealing with the 1979 falling of Skylab back into Earth's orbit. In actuality, the space station, launched in 1973, crashed near Perth, Australia but for the purposes of Spanish producer Carlos Aured (who directed several Paul Naschy films in the 1970s), the location has been moved to Duarte, Spain. It also didn't have a parasitic virus of sorts onboard that turned the entire population of a nearby town into INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS rejects. Three American tourists--Damon (Dennis Christopher), Michael (Martin Hewitt), and their platonic female friend Sam (Lynn-Holly Johnson)--are passing through Duarte in an RV with a dune buggy on a trailer en route to Madrid when the mayhem breaks out. "Breaks out" is a term used loosely, as there only appears to be three people who live in Duarte, and most of our time is spent focused on the trio of annoying tourists, with Damon and Michael in a competition over Sam, followed by the eventual jealousy of Damon once she clearly chooses Michael. One can hardly blame her, considering how broadly Christopher plays the obnoxious Damon, who busts out terrible impressions of James Cagney, Elmer Fudd, and Robert Duvall from APOCALYPSE NOW (Christopher's gift for mimicry was put to much better use in the 1980 slasher film FADE TO BLACK). They're eventually joined by rogue NASA scientist Dr. Tracer (Luis Prendes, sleepwalking and mumbling his way through the film with an expression that seems to say "I'm almost Fernando Rey"), who informs them that Skylab brought back an alien life form that inhabits and takes over both humans and animals, and at the rate it's going, all of Europe will be wiped out in a matter of three weeks.

THE FALLING is actually a more appropriate title, and that's what's on the print used for Shout's Blu-ray (it also occasionally runs on MGM HD and Comet under this title). It barely even qualifies as an ALIEN ripoff except for one faceburster scene at the very end, which is the first time we even get a clear look at a creature. Mostly, we see the gory after-effects of a cow being taken over, a corpse with an alien fetus bulging out of his neck, and one local with his face shredded. The creature effects are sparse but deliver the splattery goods when Sarafian gets around to them. But in the end, ALIEN PREDATORS is a total slog, with far too much time spent on an uninteresting love triangle that doesn't even seem interesting to the three actors, who got a nice vacation out of the deal but probably had to question how their promising careers led them to a cheap Spanish horror movie in such a short amount of time. At the time of filming, Christopher was only a few years removed from his breakout role in 1979's coming-of-age classic BREAKING AWAY and 1981's CHARIOTS OF FIRE; professional figure skater Johnson was nominated for a Golden Globe for the 1978 hit ICE CASTLES and was a Bond girl in 1981's FOR YOUR EYES ONLY; and Hewitt co-starred with Brooke Shields in 1981's popular but multiple Razzie-nominated ENDLESS LOVE, and was part of the ensemble of the 1983 Monty Python offshoot YELLOWBEARD.

ALIEN PREDATORS did nothing to further their careers by the time of its eventual 1987 release: Johnson and Hewitt both logged time in the world of DTV (Johnson in Cirio H. Santiago's 1988 Filipino post-nuke THE SISTERHOOD before retiring from acting in the late '90s to focus on her family, Hewitt in several early '90s erotic thrillers like SECRET GAMES and NIGHT RHYTHMS, his last credit to date being a guest spot on a 2003 episode of ER), while Christopher was already reduced to playing the title hero's sidekick in 1986's JAKE SPEED, Hollywood's one-and-done attempt to make Wayne Crawford a big-screen action star. Christopher did play the adult Eddie Kaspbrak in the 1990 TV mini-series version of IT and was a regular presence on TV throughout the '90s and '00s, but it wasn't until 2012 that he had another prominent role, as the attorney for Leonardo DiCaprio's nefarious Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino's DJANGO UNCHAINED. Christopher's place in film history is secure thanks to the beloved BREAKING AWAY, but bottom-of-the-barrel duds like ALIEN PREDATORS only succeeded in killing any momentum he had going. Sarafian would certainly go on to make better movies (am I the world's only GUNMEN fan?), and while I totally get the feeling of nostalgia for the 1980s VHS glory days, there can't possibly be a cult around ALIEN PREDATORS, can there? Sarafian's on a commentary track on the Blu-ray, and judging from the long periods of dead air and the fact that he basically pulls a peace-out and calls it a day five minutes before the movie's over are pretty solid indicators that even he doesn't have much affinity for it.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: IN DARKNESS (2018) and FLOWER (2018)

(US/UK - 2018)

IN DARKNESS might be of interest to GAME OF THRONES superfans, as it stars three series alumni--Natalie Dormer, Ed Skrein, and James Cosmo--and is co-written by Dormer with her fiance, veteran British TV director Anthony Byrne (RIPPER STREET, PEAKY BLINDERS). It begins as an intriguing throwback to "blind woman in peril" standard-bearer WAIT UNTIL DARK, but Dormer and Byrne's script starts trying too hard by throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Dormer is Sofia McKendrick, a London-based pianist who's been blind since she was five. Self-reliant and a bit of a quiet loner, Sofia's world is turned upside down when she hears some loud thuds above, followed by upstairs neighbor Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski) taking a dive out of her window to her death. Only with the resulting media attention does Sofia learn that Veronique is the estranged daughter of Zoran Radic (Jan Bijvoet as Rade Serbedzija), a powerful Serbian businessman and reputed Bosnian War criminal with a shady charity foundation and ties to (of course) the Russian mob. Radic has a sibling henchmen duo--Marc (Skrein) and Alex (Joely Richardson)--tasked not only with killing Veronique but also with getting an incriminating USB stick out of her apartment. The cops rule Veronique's death a suicide, but Marc was in the building and in her apartment with her and came face to face with Sofia while she was getting on an elevator. Believing Sofia to be a witness, he attempts to befriend her with the intent of killing her, but backs off when he realizes she's blind and couldn't have seen him. That's not good enough for Alex or for Radic, who wants all loose ends tied up and needs whatever vital info is on the USB, with all parties are unaware that Veronique secretly stashed it with Sofia before her death.

The basic set-up of IN DARKNESS might've made for an old-fashioned nailbiter, but then it decides to get "tricky." It's fairly early in the film when it's revealed that Sofia is the only survivor of a Bosnian family brutally slaughtered by Radic 25 years earlier. We also learn that she's spent her entire life plotting to kill Radic and she intentionally sought out Veronique and got an apartment in the same building in the hopes that it would get her closer to her target, all under the watchful eye of caring and now-terminally ill adoptive father figure Niall (Cosmo). But that's just the beginning of IN DARKNESS' wildly improbable twists and turns. It gets more contrived with each passing scene, with some details left frustratingly vague--the film never does establish exactly what Marc and Alex do for Radic, nor does it adequately explore their strange relationship, where it's at least hinted that Alex is jealous when she finds out her brother has slept with Veronique. That's a shame because, while Skrein is bland and forgettable, an invested Richardson seems game for some perverse weirdness that never comes to fruition. Neil Maskell does an alright job as the rumpled, perpetually stubbled detective investigating Veronique's death, getting his inevitable wide-eyed Chazz Palminteri-in-THE USUAL SUSPECTS moment of realization when he finally pieces everything together. And it's a lot to piece together, as Dormer and Byrne can't stop piling up the surprise reveals with reckless abandon in the third act. One is so thuddingly obvious that you'll call it long before Sofia figures it out, and other is one of those that pretty much negates the entire movie and convincingly makes its case for the dumbest twist ending of 2018. (Unrated, 101 mins)

(US - 2018)

You know a movie's trying way too hard to be edgy when it opens with its 17-year-old heroine blowing the local sheriff, who asks "Where'd you learn to give a hummer like that?" and her reply is "Middle school." FIGHT CLUB already did a similarly tacky joke exponentially better (Helena Bonham Carter's immortal "I haven't been fucked like that since grade school"), but everything about FLOWER feels like you've seen and heard it years ago. If you can imagine Gregg Araki making a belated JUNO knockoff, then you'll have an idea what this has to offer. Directed and co-written by Max Winkler (Henry's son) and produced by the EASTBOUND AND DOWN and OBSERVE AND REPORT team of David Gordon Green, Danny McBride, and Jody Hill, FLOWER stars 23-year-old Zoey Deutch (Lea Thompson's lookalike daughter) as Erica Vandross, a teenage sociopath in a small California suburb who has a lucrative secret gig blackmailing local guys by giving them blowjobs in parked cars while her best friends Kayla (Dylan Gelula) and Claudine (Maya Eshet) sneak up and record her finishing them off. Kayla and Claudine spend their cut of the take on clothes, but Erica is stashing hers away to bail her father out of jail, where he's been sitting awaiting trial after trying to rob a casino. Erica's mother Laurie (Kathryn Hahn) has moved on and is dating doofus nice guy Bob, aka "The Sherm" (Tim Heidecker), who's about to move in, much to Erica's disapproval. Coming along as part of the "Sherm" package is his troubled son Luke (Joey Morgan), a withdrawn, overweight outcast who's been in rehab for a year trying to kick an oxy addiction. He has a panic attack his first night out of the facility but rejects Erica's offer for a blowjob to help calm him down. The two later grab a burger at the bowling alley, where Luke has another anxiety attack after spotting Will (Adam Scott), a regular at the lanes who's dubbed "Hot Old Guy" by chronic daddy issues case Erica. It turns out that Will used to be a high school teacher who lost his job three years earlier after allegations that he fondled a 15-year-old boy. The accuser? Luke.

This sets in motion a half-assed scheme to blackmail Will but Erica finds herself falling for him. Unforeseen problems ensue in ways that recall both HARD CANDY and the forgotten PRETTY PERSUASION, and those comparisons, combined with the obvious JUNO influence, end up making FLOWER feel like a 15-year-old Sundance offering that was found frozen in the mountains surrounding Park City and just now thawed. From the various transgressions and would-be shock tactics that fall flat ("If we don't act now, then other little kids might get butt-raped!" Erica says when everyone else wants to back out of their plan to extort Will) to the casting of the appealing Deutch, everything about FLOWER feels forced and affected, and by the time things pan out in a predictably tragic way that culminates in Erica and Luke donning cheap wigs and fleeing to the Mexican border, it's clear that FLOWER doesn't have much to say. Deutch is a tremendously appealing actress, but Winkler tries to make Erica similarly appealing when she's really not, and a film that really wanted to explore the kind of darkness inherent in the story would recognize that turning her into the white trash version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (© Nathan Rabin) is the wrong approach. As a result, nothing feels real or believable for a second, not even when Laurie--who's historically been more interested in being Erica's buddy than her mother--finally melts down and tears into Erica for chasing away all of her potential boyfriends and calling her a "selfish twat." There is one legitimately funny line when Erica is asked what she plans to do with her life and boasts "I'm goin' to DeVry, bitch! 98% acceptance rate!" but no film that imagines itself to be an edgy and shocking dark comedy would actually have Erica look at Luke with tears in her eyes and say "I don't wanna run...I don't wanna spend the rest of our lives looking over our shoulders." (R, 94 mins)

Sunday, June 17, 2018


(US/UK - 2018)

There's probably an interesting film to be made of the daily life of a most-wanted fugitive from the 1990s Yugoslav Wars in present-day Belgrade, but AN ORDINARY MAN is inert and lifeless, and in the end, just feels like a vanity project for producer and star Ben Kingsley. A hammy Kingsley does a lot of acting as The General, still beloved by many of his own countrymen but under indictment by The Hague, making him the subject of an international manhunt with a $10 million bounty placed on him by the US government. After nearly two decades of a solitary existence as he's moved from one safe house to another by his chief handler Miro (Peter Serafinowicz) and supported by donations from hardline loyalists, The General has never left home and more or less hides in plain sight. He refuses to stay put and regularly walks to the nearest market or newsstand, and is recognized by citizens who still support him and stay silent out of respect. After The General intervenes in a robbery, a frustrated Miro moves him to yet another new location and provides a maid named Tanja (Hera Hilmar) to handle all of his outside needs and errands to keep him inside. Tanja can neither cook nor clean, and it isn't long before The General is forcing her to take him places, be it shopping or at a swanky dance hall. They form a tentative bond after The General suffers a medical emergency and Tanja reveals herself to be an agent in the employ of Miro, assigned to keep The General on a tight leash and provide assurance to his benefactors--many of whom are high-profile figures in the Serbian government--that he'll behave himself.

With the exception of a handful of times Miro is seen, AN ORDINARY MAN is largely a two-person show, with Hilmar's Tanja mostly left in a reactionary role as writer/director Brad Silberling (CITY OF ANGELS, CASPER), helming his first big-screen work since 2009's LAND OF THE LOST, lets Kingsley take over. The General talks a lot, and Kingsley probably loved the idea of having long, verbose monologues and scenes where his character gets to sarcastically harangue Tanja about her cooking, her fashion sense, and everything else ("I've seen detention cells with more character!" he says of Tanja's apartment, to which she replies "Well, you'd know"). There's little dramatic tension or any kind of story development or forward momentum. If she's supposed to be an agent assigned to keep The General on his best behavior, Tanja proves to be a bumbling incompetent almost immediately: a naive maid would go along with going to a dance hall, but would a trained agent? Silberling seems more concerned with showing the human side of a monster whose atrocities and war crimes are the stuff of legend, but we still don't learn enough about him to care about his inevitable and undeserved redemption (nor does the film explore the implications of The General still having so much love and support from the locals). Hilmar works well with Kingsley when their characters are on the same level and Kingsley isn't dominating the proceedings (they also co-starred in 2017's THE OTTOMAN LIEUTENANT, both shot back in 2015 and logging some time on the shelf before being seen by no one), and there's some occasionally effective location work in gray, foggy Belgrade. But this is just a tedious, pointless exercise that feels like a transparent attempt by Silberling (who's been busy in TV, most recently producing the CW's DYNASTY reboot) to establish some arthouse cred by crafting the most boring drama about a fugitive you'll ever see. (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2018)

Every bit the piece of cinematic magic you'd expect the directing debut of a NYC promoter and club owner to be, FIRST WE TAKE BROOKLYN plays like a glossed-over highlight reel of Scorsese, SCARFACE, CARLITO'S WAY and every other gangster movie from the last 30 years, with production values around the level of a late '90s Master P rapsploitation joint. It's co-written, produced, directed by and starring Danny A. Abeckaser, known as "Danny A" in the Manhattan club world, who's been hanging around the VOD action scene for a few years now, landing bit parts in some Lionsgate/Grindstone releases like FREELANCERS and MARAUDERS and taking a stab at respectability by co-producing Michael Almereyda's little-seen 2015 Stanley Milgram biopic EXPERIMENTER. He also produced and co-wrote the semi-autobiographical CLUB LIFE, with Jerry Ferrara as a Danny A-type club entrepreneur named Johnny D. As an actor and filmmaker, Abeckaser is a great club owner, starring here as Mikki Levy, who's in an Israeli prison, 18 years into a life sentence for murder handed down when he was a teenager. His sentence is overturned after consideration of his age at the time, and a long-stashed envelope from his dead mother includes a wad of cash and a note telling him to go to Brooklyn to visit his Uncle Dudu (Eli Danker) and Aunt Gale (Kathrine Narducci). Dudu associates with some shady types and helps move merchandise of the "fell off the back of a truck" sort. He also runs a gambling den in the back of a bar owned by Avi (Guri Weinberg), who's being hassled by Russian gangsters in the employ of the ruthless Anatoly (what are you doing here, Harvey Keitel?), who's forced his way into the business as a 50% partner. It isn't long before hot-tempered Mikki makes his presence known, and when Anatoly's goons almost beat Uncle Dudu to death after being dissed by Mikki, he becomes a powerful drug and gun dealer over what appears to be a single hip-hop montage, naturally intercut with shots of Mikki nodding while counting Benjamins.

Mikki also hooks up with sexy bartender Esther (AnnaLynne McCord, who I thought would be going places after her remarkable and fearless performance in 2012's EXCISION) after killing her asshole boyfriend, a partner of the Russians. As Mikki and Avi gain power in the Brooklyn underworld (cue more hip-hop montages with money and sped-up shots of Brooklyn neighborhoods in lieu of actually, you know, constructing a story) by whacking Anatoly's goons, a showdown is inevitable, along with trite dialogue like Avi being told, re: Mikki, "You've created an attack dog. They attack...that's what they do." It's also inevitable that it won't involve Harvey Keitel, who looks to have worked on this for a day, tops. He has three or four brief scenes where he's sitting in a restaurant giving orders or getting a manicure, and one where he takes a call that his nephew's been killed and it appears he may break out the legendary Keitel Cry, but he obviously concluded that a Danny A. vanity project wasn't worthy of the effort. Abeckaser's obviously a successful and wealthy guy in his field, and as a producer, he can afford to bankroll someone experienced like David Lynch protege Almereyda for something like EXPERIMENTER. But FIRST WE TAKE BROOKLYN just has an amateurish, student-film, shot-on-digital, slapdash cheapness to it, right down to the trailer misspelling Abeckaser's name as "Abekacser," which would be unacceptable even if Abeckaser's name wasn't all over the movie. Abeckaser can't act and tries to do a lot of Al Pacino bellowing but ends up sounding like Charlie Day. The only thing that really separates this from any run-of-the-mill DTV D-list gangster saga is that Abeckaser tries to go for some authenticity with probably half of the film being in Hebrew with English subtitles. It ends up being all for naught, since the characters would be cardboard cutouts in any language (and like his recent turn as a shady Greek businessman in LIES WE TELL, a slumming Keitel can't even be bothered to attempt an appropriate accent for his Russian crime lord and apparently just showed up for the free mani), but it indicates some degree of sincerity on Abeckaser's part, for whatever that's worth. It just had to be difficult for producer Danny A. Abeckaser to convince director Danny A. Abeckaser and star Danny A. Abeckaser that they were liabilities to whatever producer Danny A. Abeckaser was trying to accomplish. (Unrated, 90 mins)

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: THE DEBT COLLECTOR (2018) and INCOMING (2018)

(US - 2018)

Busy DTV action star Scott Adkins reteams with his SAVAGE DOG and ACCIDENT MAN director Jesse V. Johnson for THE DEBT COLLECTOR, an attempted departure that offers plenty of fight scenes but lacks the necessary screenwriting skills to accomplish its unexpected goal of being a Shane Black knockoff. Sporting his sparingly-used natural British accent and in Jason Statham mode, Adkins is French, a ex-British military man and Iraq War vet who's strapped for cash and about to lose his tiny dojo in a rundown L.A. neighborhood. Thanks to a referral from wealthy client Mad Alex (Micheal Pare), French gets a job as a collector for local gangster and loan shark Big Tommy (Vladimir Kulich). Big Tommy pairs French with Sue (Louis Mandylor), a burned-out, hard-drinking cynic who fell into a sketchy life of Hollywood crime after a brief stint as an actor 30 years ago in D-grade '80s ninja movies. Sue shows French the ropes, and much of THE DEBT COLLECTOR's first hour has French learning the ins and outs of "collecting," with a hesitant bond forming between the two. Some semblance of a plot forms when Big Tommy does a favor for powerful club owner Barbosa Furiosa (Tony Todd), who wants French and Sue to track down a rogue employee (Jack Lowe) who he claims embezzled cash from one of his clubs.

ACCIDENT MAN was one of Adkins' most entertaining films not directed by Isaac Florentine, and it signaled a shift into more versatile fare for the actor. THE DEBT COLLECTOR really wants to continue that shift, but its aspirations are far beyond the talent it's got at a core level. Johnson and co-writer/Adkins pal Stu Small seriously lack the gift for biting wit, smartass repartee, and crackerjack plot construction that Shane Black has, which is really a key thing if you're trying to go for something along the lines of KISS KISS BANG BANG or THE NICE GUYS. Instead of lighting-quick ballbusting and guffaw-worthy one-liners, the script just gives Adkins and Mandylor a lot of grumbling and bitching, which is loud but not very funny. THE DEBT COLLECTOR's idea of clever wit is the running gag about French being British--which usually involves someone being introduced to French and replying "Your name's French? You don't sound French"--which lands with as big a thud the tenth time as it does the first. It even tries to go for that self-referential meta-humor with an opening scene that has a trio of gangsters trying to strongarm French into signing over ownership of his dojo, with French even commenting that their plan sounds like something out of an '80s movie. That works if you're KISS KISS BANG BANG, but THE DEBT COLLECTOR just doesn't have the personality or the personnel to play in that league. It's commendable that Adkins is demonstrating a desire to stretch, and he should've been headlining major theatrical action movies for years by now, but with every new Adkins vehicle, I find myself repeating that he's paid his dues and is ready for bigger action movies. The script is lacking, but Johnson also directs Adkins and Mandylor to play their characters way too seriously for this kind of L.A.-set shaggy dog crime story that also fancies itself to be a DTV version of INHERENT VICE with its colorful supporting characters and their silly names. Well-intentioned, but a swing-and-a-miss. (Unrated, 95 mins)

(US/UK - 2018)

Workaholic Adkins also stars in INCOMING, a very low-budget sci-fi thriller shot on the cheap in Serbia. It's got a potentially interesting idea that's conveyed in a derivative fashion for the most part, though like THE DEBT COLLECTOR, it does represent a stretch of sorts, this time with marginally better results. INCOMING is set in a future where the world's terrorists are all held at the International Space Station, a sort of Gitmo-in-space that's a black ops site sanctioned by all of the world's governments but still somehow a secret. The whole operation is run by one guy, eccentric and sadistic Kingsley (Lucas Loughran), who regularly subjects the prisoners to "enhanced interrogation" and also designed the infallible (SPOILER: it's fallible) security system. Supply pilot Bridges (Aaron McCusker of SHAMELESS) arrives for a delivery with a pair of visitors in tow: rogue CIA agent Reiser (Adkins), who's ostensibly there to check on Kingsley, and Dr. Stone (Michelle Lehane), who's there to make sure the prisoners are being treated in a humane fashion ("The Geneva Convention doesn't apply in space!" Reiser barks). Stone expresses concern over Kingsley's treatment of Argun (Vahidin Prelic), the suspected "Alpha" leader of a terrorist organization known as "Wolf Pack," who claimed responsibility for the destruction of Big Ben in London five years earlier (a really shitty visual effect that opens the film). Of course, bleeding heart Stone disobeys protocol and lets herself into Argun's cell to talk to him, and he promptly overpowers her and frees his other Wolf Pack cohorts. They gain control of the Space Station and commandeer its nuclear-capability self-destruct system, steering it toward Moscow, rendering the spacecraft a giant suicide bomb that will start WWIII.

INCOMING doesn't really do Adkins any favors as far as advancing his career beyond DTV, but he at least has the chance to play a sociopathic, cold-blooded anti-hero, taking on both the Wolf Pack and Stone and Bridges, who he eventually sees not as allies but as potential whistleblowers. The film isn't really interested in exploring those implications, but it doesn't have the budget to do much else, so there's a lot of talking and walking around to get it to a reasonable running time. The "standoff on a space station" motif can't help but remind you of somewhat similar scenarios in OUTLAND and the obscure SPACE RAGE, and when the Wolf Pack takes over the vessel, INCOMING essentially turns into CON AIR IN SPACE, minus a cast of recognizable character actors seeing who can go the most over the top. No offense to Prelic, but Argun is hardly the next Cyrus the Virus. Despite the Asylum-level visual effects, INCOMING has a harmless, early '80s New World vibe to it, with a space station set that's moderately effective in a GALAXY OF TERROR/FORBIDDEN WORLD kind of way. It's hardly the worst thing Adkins has done, but it's another example of him spinning his wheels in forgettable fare when he should be headlining bigger movies. It seems like I just said that... (Unrated, 89 mins)

Monday, June 11, 2018

In Theaters: HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018)

(UK/US/China - 2018)

Written and directed by Drew Pearce. Cast: Jodie Foster, Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Jeff Goldblum, Dave Bautista, Charlie Day, Zachary Quinto, Brian Tyree Henry, Jenny Slate, Kenneth Choi, Evan Jones, Josh Tillman. (R, 94 mins)

Publicity materials, trailers, and TV spots for HOTEL ARTEMIS did a good job of hiding that it could more or less qualify as sci-fi, with its future dystopia setting, high-tech surgical procedures, and assassins upping their game with ocular implants. The feature directing debut of IRON MAN 3 co-writer and music video vet Drew Pearce--a member of the inner circle of hipster rocker Father John Misty, who appears here under his real name Josh Tillman--HOTEL ARTEMIS is a derivative mash-up of BLADE RUNNER and SMOKIN' ACES, with generous doses of JOHN WICK and John Carpenter. It's exactly the kind of mid-budget film that used to do decent business in spring or early fall but is virtually guaranteed to bomb in the summer season of sequels-and-superheroes. HOTEL ARTEMIS doesn't have an original thought in its head, but what it does have is a wildly eclectic and very game cast, some colorfully effective future/neo-noir cinematography by frequent Park Chan-wook collaborator Chung-hoon Chung, and an appropriately synthy, Carpenter-esque score by Cliff Martinez. It's fast-paced, has some dark-humored wit, and there's no shortage of blood-splattered mayhem. Admittedly, there isn't really much here of any substance, but it's enjoyable fun while you're watching, and it's gonna have a long life on streaming and cable not long after its blink-and-you-missed-it departure from theaters.

In a corporation-controlled 2028 Los Angeles, the water supply has been cut off from all but the extremely wealthy, leading to large-scale, city-wide rioting. The police are overwhelmed, and even with drones and missiles regularly hitting targets throughout the area, the city is a crime-infested hellscape. Caught in the rioting are a quartet of bank robbers that's reduced to a duo after a shootout with cops (for the curious, Father John Misty bites it fairly quickly). They make their way to the Hotel Artemis in the heart of downtown L.A., a 12-story building where the penthouse floor is a secret hospital for the city's criminals seeking refuge and off-the-record medical attention (the first rule: "No killing the other patients"). Membership is required and everyone is given an alias based on their room assignments. The brothers--sensible, diligent Waikiki (THIS IS US' Sterling K. Brown) and irresponsible, drug-abusing Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry)--arrive and are tended to by The Nurse (Jodie Foster), who runs a tight ship with her loyal orderly and security chief Everest (Dave Bautista).

With Honolulu requiring a new 3-D printed liver, Waikiki is forced to wait out the night while his brother recovers, and he mingles with other "guests," including his old flame Nice (Sofia Boutella), who shot herself in order to hide out at the Artemis on purpose in order to whack another patient, and loud, abrasive, and xenophobic arms dealer Acapulco (Charlie Day as Joe Pantoliano). The frumpy and sarcastic Nurse, a shut-in who's been holed up at the Artemis for 22 years and is still haunted by the overdose death of her son, tries to keep it together, but multiple complications ensue, starting with Morgan (Jenny Slate), an injured cop who knew The Nurse's son when they were kids, and Crosby Franklin (Zachary Quinto), a sniveling hothead who's nearly an hour away and en route with his gunshot-wounded father Orian Franklin (Jeff Goldblum), aka "The Wolf King," L.A's most powerful crime boss and the owner of the Hotel Artemis. When the city shuts down the grid, a power struggle ensues with The Nurse and Waikiki trying to escape as Crosby and his goons try to get in, thus creating another one of those classic RIO BRAVO/ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 situations.

The first thing that's obviously going to come to mind when watching HOTEL ARTEMIS is the Continental, the swanky hotel-for-hired killers in the JOHN WICK films. Granted, the Artemis is significantly more rundown and Skid Row-ish with its elaborately grungy production design both in its postmodern interiors and in its secret passageways. And that's the dilemma with HOTEL ARTEMIS on a creative level: almost everything in it has been done before. It's hard to believe it's 2018 and we're still getting a restaging of the OLDBOY corridor scene, which was already done to death when the instantly-forgotten Jude Law bomb REPO MEN did it eight years ago, and that was three years before Spike Lee's ill-advised OLDBOY remake which also redid it. Just because Boutella is using knives instead of a hammer doesn't make it unique. Pearce doesn't do it in a single take, and while it and the film are better showcases for Boutella than THE MUMMY ever could've been, it's still the same idea. The film does offer one very inspired "death by 3-D printer" scene that's pretty entertaining, and a restrained and almost regal Goldblum gets a terrific intro and offers a withering dismissal of his "soft" son's aspirations to be just like his father. The standout though, is Foster in her first acting role since 2013's ELYSIUM. Under unflattering aging makeup, slightly hunched, and taking brisk and tiny steps like a little old lady while using a broad accent, she seems to be relishing the chance to kick back and ham it up a bit in a junky B-movie. Her no-nonsense Nurse isn't afraid to stand up to ruthless killers, and she has a surprisingly endearing mother-son relationship with Everest, who respectfully defers to her ("Yes, Nurse") even as she's busting his chops to lose weight ("I'm not fat!"). HOTEL ARTEMIS may not offer much in the way of originality, but it does give you the Jodie Foster/Dave Bautista comedy team you never knew you wanted.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: THOROUGHBREDS (2018); DELIRIUM (2018); and I KILL GIANTS (2018)

(US - 2018)

Though it's anchored by two of the year's top performances, the noir-inspired THOROUGHBREDS never quite gels together like you hope, or at the very least, it's never quite as clever as it thinks it is. It's the directing and screenwriting debut of playwright Cory Finley, and though its talky script contains some insight and some often lacerating dialogue, the film never seems to shake the notion that it might've been a better fit for the stage.  Lily (THE WITCH's Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (READY PLAYER ONE's Olivia Cooke) were once best friends in high school but have grown distant in the years since. Now in college, they awkwardly reconnect when Lily agrees to tutor Amanda, who's awaiting trial for animal cruelty in the killing of her horse. As they spend more time together, the dynamic of their relationship undergoes subtle shifts and Amanda, who's been "diagnosed with everything" in the DSM-V ("I don't have any feelings. Ever.") brings out the sociopath within Lily, who's grown intolerant of her boorish, asshole stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks) and doesn't need much prodding when Amanda suggests killing him. The murder plot involves securing the services of a fall guy in the form of Tim (the late Anton Yelchin in his last film; production wrapped just two weeks before his tragic death in June 2016), a none-too-bright local drug dealer and registered sex offender following a fling with a high school student ("I wasn't 25, I was 23!" he tries to explain). Amanda records Tim agreeing to the plan to kill Mark and the girls prepare their alibi, but since this is that kind of film, things don't quite go according to plan.

THOROUGHBREDS only made it to 500 or so screens during its spring 2018 release, but it was one of those films that managed to develop a cult following while it was still in theaters. Many people went for the easy description of "HEATHERS meets AMERICAN PSYCHO," which is pretty much meaningless as far as what the film is all about. It's more of a cerebral mood piece in the guise of a Hitchcockian thriller, but its strengths come not from suspense but from the outstanding performances by Cooke (also great in the recent THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM) and Taylor-Joy. They manage to create multi-dimensional characterizations even though Finley's insistence on withholding details often works against building any kind of flow or momentum. That works when the film plays more cinematically, but for a film that most often has the feel of a play, it too frequently comes off as forced and trying too hard, with characters referencing things they already know but having to stop and backtrack to shoehorn vital info in to get the audience caught up, leaving them to realize "Oh, Lily's father died?" or "Oh, she was expelled." Cooke and Taylor-Joy are terrific, and with limited screen time, Yelchin creates a memorably hapless sketchball with entrepreneurial pipe dreams that are clearly going nowhere fast, but THOROUGHBREDS is a film where the end result is a bit less than the sum of its parts. (R, 92 mins)

(US - 2018)

Hot on the heels of STEPHANIE comes another long-shelved Blumhouse production, this one from director Dennis Iliadis and screenwriter Adam Alleca, the team behind the surprisingly not-terrible 2009 LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT remake. Shot in 2015 under the title HOME and quietly dumped on DVD two weeks after its gala VOD premiere, DELIRIUM is marginally better than the obviously unfinished and abandoned STEPHANIE, but that's not exactly a glowing recommendation. Released from a mental institution where he's been held since he was 12 years old, Tom Walker (Topher Grace) is placed under house arrest and left alone for 30 days at the family mansion where his disgraced politician father (Robin Thomas) has recently committed suicide. Tom is regularly badgered by his chain-smoking, flask-swilling, bitch-on-wheels parole officer Brody (Patricia Clarkson), but things get worse when he starts hearing noises and catching glimpses of his father's decaying corpse. He finds a tentative friend in grocery delivery driver Lynn (Genesis Rodriguez), but then his psychotic older brother Alex (Callan Mulvey) shows up and periodically vanishes as Tom is no longer sure what is real and what's in his imagination. 20 years earlier, 12-year-old Tom was rejected and humiliated by a girl and Alex talked him into getting back at her with a prank. Instead, Alex forced his little brother to watch as he beat the girl to a pulp and drowned her. Alex was sent to prison and Tom to a mental institution, and their shell-shocked mother vanished, leaving their domineering and impossible-to-please father behind. As the possibly paranormal hacktivity continues, Brody isn't buying Tom's stories of the house being haunted and doesn't believe that Alex has been visiting him because he was recently killed in prison fire.

Even on a rudimentary jump-scare level, DELIRIUM is a dull, unfocused mess. Iliadis drops the ball early on by never really getting the audience acclimated with the house, so when we hear noises and see Tom exploring, we really have no clue where he is in relation to the other areas or how he gets from one place to another. There's missed opportunities with the handling of Clarkson's character, who vacillates between sympathizing with Tom and openly expressing her desire to send him back to the institution for good. She even tries to seduce him at one point in what could've been an intriguingly perverse plot development, but then it's just dropped, which is a shame because Clarkson gives this thing its biggest jolts of life. The film spends a lot of time trying to convince you that Lily and Alex are figments of Tom's imagination, which is the only way those characters can possibly make any sense. Grace is cast radically against type as Topher Grace, and the film attempts to mine some easy humor from Tom being 20 years behind on pop culture and rocking out to The Presidents of the United States of America's "Lump" while wearing a Gin Blossoms concert tee and not knowing what Wikipedia is. DELIRIUM is bad, and while it's not quite engulfed in the dumpster fire flames of STEPHANIE, it's still easy to see why Universal sat on it for three years before a borderline covert release. Co-producer Leonardo DiCaprio took his name off of the movie, probably around the time that REVENANT Oscar buzz was picking up some heat. (R, 96 mins)

(US/Belgium/China/UK - 2018)

Adapted from Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura's 2008 graphic novel and counting Chris Columbus among its boatload of producers, I KILL GIANTS is an earnest and sincere examination of a child coping with the grieving process that's frequently too heavy-handed for its own good. It's also a victim of bad timing. J.A. Bayona's A MONSTER CALLS explored very similar territory two years ago, and while the I Kill Giants graphic novel preceded both the book A Monster Calls and its eventual film version, the impact of I KILL GIANTS can't help but be diminished. In a small town on the coast of Long Island (but shot in Ireland and Belgium), young Barbara (Madison Wolfe of THE CONJURING 2) is living with her adult sister Karen (Imogen Poots) and teenage brother Dave (Art Parkinson). Karen is struggling to keep up with her own job and taking care of her siblings, and while Dave is engrossed in his video games, Barbara is acting out, seemingly spending her time with 20-sided die role-playing games but quietly prepping the town for an inevitable giant attack that she's certain she can ward off with traps and an all-powerful weapon she dubs "Covaleski," named after early 20th century Phillies pitcher Harry Covaleski. Derided as "the nerd queen" by Dave and relentlessly bullied at school by imposing mean girl Taylor (Rory Jackson), Barbara is frequently visited by "harbingers" warning of the pending attack. At the same time, she reluctantly befriends shy, lonely British transfer student Sophia (Sydney Wade) and gradually opens up to her and school psychologist Mrs. Molle (Zoe Saldana) about her plot to take on the giants.

Of course, the absence of a visible paternal figure in the house and Barbara's head-first dive into a complicated fantasy world is too big of a tip-off as to where I KILL GIANTS is ultimately headed, especially if you've seen A MONSTER CALLS. Making his feature debut, Danish director Anders Walter (an Oscar-winner for 2013's Best Live Action Short HELIUM), gets a marvelous performance out of Wolfe, who's so good that you'll wish her dedication was in service of a more consistently strong film. The ultimate reveal may result in more questions than answers--such as "How did this family situation never come up in conversation?" and "Is Dave even a member of this family?"--but it has some convincing visual effects and some genuinely heartfelt moments that may make it therapeutic for younger children coping with similar circumstances. Some strong parts but it never quite comes together as a whole. (Unrated, 106 mins)

Friday, June 8, 2018

In Theaters: HEREDITARY (2018)

(US - 2018)

Written and directed by Ari Aster. Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Mallory Bechtel. (R, 127 mins)

The buzz around HEREDITARY has been nonstop since it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival six months ago. Written and directed by Ari Aster, it's one of the most confident and impressive debuts in a long while, a harrowing, cerebral shocker that eschews the overplayed jump scares in favor of a slowly escalating sense of suffocating dread, hopelessness, and absolute terror that mercilessly tightens its grip over two intense hours. It's not surprising that A24 acquired the distribution rights--they've been positioning themselves as Blumhouse's nerdy, brainier alternative and the home for "serious" horror for a few years now, going back to THE WITCH, THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER, and IT COMES AT NIGHT, all thoughtful, uncompromising films that earned significant critical accolades but tended to frustrate and alienate mainstream audiences. With the festival hype calling HEREDITARY "this generation's EXORCIST," you can expect the same commercial response again once the multiplex moviegers and the horror scene's notoriously insular "gatekeeper" (© Jason Coffman) crowd gets a look at it. Unlike the increasingly generic horrors offered by Blumhouse, A24 acquisitions like HEREDITARY provoke thought, discussion, and are works that play the long game and will stand the test of time. It's not the game-changer that THE EXORCIST was because horror is probably past the point where game-changers even exist. There isn't much more that can be classified as "innovative," and like any filmmaker who grew up watching any kind of movie, Aster is going to be influenced by the works of others that paved the way.

So to that end, yes, there's familiar tropes in HEREDITARY. Yes, there's shout-outs to THE EXORCIST and ROSEMARY'S BABY. And yes, Aster has clearly seen THE SHINING several times (and other Kubrick classics, judging from some shot compositions and several nicely-done match cuts). But HEREDITARY takes those elements and uses them to fashion a devastating metaphor about the pain of a family in turmoil and hanging on by a thread, a family overwhelmed by grief, dysfunction, a history of mental illness, and other things always there but left unspoken. It's about things passed down, genetically and otherwise. No film in recent memory has offered more disturbing evidence that you don't get to choose your parents and that nothing is in your control. In what is unquestionably her career performance thus far, Toni Collette is Annie Graham, an artist who creates obsessively detailed miniature dioramas of her life. She's mourning the death of her estranged mother Ellen. To say their relationship was frayed and perpetually at a breaking point is an understatement. A domineering, controlling woman who suffered from depression and dissociative personality disorder, Ellen dealt with a lot in her life beyond her own psychological problems: a clinically depressed husband who starved himself to death when Annie was a baby, and a schizophrenic son named Charles who hanged himself when he was 16, leaving a note for his mother blaming her for putting the voices in his head. Annie has a seemingly "normal," upper-middle class suburban life with her doctor husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), stoner teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and odd, withdrawn 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Ellen's passing stirs all sorts of trauma that's been bubbling under the surface in the Graham household--unresolved issues, long-buried resentments, things that should never be spoken aloud, and habitual secrets and lies (Annie attends a weekly grief support group but covers it with a lie about "going to see a movie," and Steve is notified by the cemetery that Ellen's grave has been desecrated but keeps it to himself). HEREDITARY is the kind of movie where going in knowing as little as possible is really the only possible way to approach it. But in the midst of the grief over Ellen and everyone handling it in their own way, something happens around the 40-minute mark that is so unexpected and so traumatizing (to the Grahams and to the audience) that Aster instantly sends the message that the screws are tightening and that no one--onscreen or in the theater--is safe going forward.

Everything that unfolds over the next 90 minutes is a direct result of what happens at the 40-minute mark, so it's impossible to discuss without spoiling everything. What can be discussed is the ensemble cast. The unique-looking Shapiro creates an instant impression as Charlie, the Graham family member who was closest to Ellen and the most outwardly affected by her death. Her appearance and her bizarre "clucking" tic (which gets extremely creepy as the film goes on) will probably guarantee her a spot on the roster at any horror con of her choosing for the rest of her life. Wolff is superb in what becomes an unexpectedly complex and difficult role, Ann Dowd (THE HANDMAID'S TALE's Aunt Lydia) has a small but important role as a support group acquaintance of Annie's, and Byrne brings a stoical standoffishness to Steve, who loves his family but is convinced that ignoring the increasingly bizarre mayhem going on around him is for the best and everything will just work itself out. In any other scenario, Wolff's performance would be HEREDITARY's secret weapon, but this is Toni Collette's movie from start to finish. Horror films typically aren't known for containing gut-wrenching performances that exhaustively run the gamut of emotions, but Collette throws herself into this role and into Annie's indescribable pain with a commitment bordering on feral. You don't often see performances on this level in films that don't contain Daniel Day-Lewis.

At 127 minutes, HEREDITARY is long and takes its time building its multi-layered story. It demands patience and attention but it's never dull and there's never a wasted moment, even from the start with a brief glimpse of a creepily-grinning onlooker at Ellen's funeral. It's not a perfect film. Astor is a little too ham-fisted in making sure we know that Charlie has a nut allergy and one significant plot turn doesn't really pass the smell test: as a point of comparison, it would be tantamount to Minnie and Roman Castevet and all of their neighbors taking pictures of their activities and leaving them in a photo album for Rosemary to discover later on. I guess it's HEREDITARY's "All of them witches" moment but this particular variant seems forced. And the final scene has the distinct feeling of a producer pleading with Astor to explicitly spell out what would be best left ambiguous. That said, this is a bold, terrifying, and profoundly unsettling film with numerous moments and images that will haunt you for days. And Collette's performance will likely go down as the best in any movie in 2018.