Monday, October 20, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: RAW FORCE (1982)

(US - 1982)

Written and directed by Edward Murphy. Cast: Cameron Mitchell, Geoff Binney, Hope Holiday, Jillian Kesner, John Dresden, Jennifer Holmes, Rey King, Carla Reynolds, Carl Anthony, John Locke, Mark Tanous, Ralph Lombardi, Vic Diaz, Camille Keaton, Jewel Shepard. (R, 86 mins)

Fans of early '80s grindhouse and late-night cable have largely kept RAW FORCE to themselves over the years, but that's likely to change with Vinegar Syndrome's release of the film in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. A revival of the MIAMI CONNECTION sort is likely, and while both are equally ridiculous, RAW FORCE at least knows it's ridiculous. Writer/director Edward Murphy is interviewed in the release's accompanying retrospective, and says "It was a movie for 17-year-old boys...and it probably still is." Probably the best Philippines-shot B-grade T&A actioner that Roger Corman never produced, RAW FORCE has a winking and very tongue-in-cheek attitude, mixing action, horror, comedy, and gratuitous nudity into a jawdropping plot that's equal parts kung-fu epic, DAWN OF THE DEAD, Nazisploitation, raunchy slob comedy, GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, and THE LOVE BOAT. Anyone taking this seriously is completely missing the point: RAW FORCE is the kind of sleazy exploitation gem that demands to be resurrected on the midnight movie circuit.

Members of the Burbank Karate Club--including Mike O'Malley (Geoff Binney), John Taylor (John Dresden), Go Chin (Rey King), and Los Angeles cop Cookie Winchell (Jillian Kesner)--are on a cruise organized by dotty Hazel (Hope Holiday) and captained by the disgruntled Harry Dodds (Cameron Mitchell), that runs afoul of the jade trading operation of nefarious, Hitler-mustached villain Speer (Ralph Lombardi). When Speer gets wind of the cruise stopping at Warrior's Island, he dispatches his incompetent underlings--who look like a Village People tribute act--to stop them, which only results in a bar fight where the kung-fu Love Boaters handle them with ease. Speer's jade operation is a cover for his lucrative sex trade, abducting and supplying girls for a sect of monks (led by Filipino exploitation fixture Vic Diaz) that live on the otherwise deserted island. But even that's a cover for what's really going on: the island was settled by this sect in 1779 as the burial ground for disgraced martial artists, and the monks are there to watch over the kung-fu zombies who require the flesh of young women to survive. Not even Speer's henchmen are aware of the truth behind his operation, and when they abduct cruise member Eileen (Carla Reynolds), the Burbank Karate Club and gun-toting Capt. Dodds take action.  Because they're...the RAW FORCE!

There's some spirited and occasionally impressive fight choreography in RAW FORCE if it involves people actually schooled in martial arts, like Kesner (FIRECRACKER) or King. With most of the actors, however, it looks awkward and not-very-rehearsed, which of course only adds to the enjoyment. Like the filmmakers, most of the actors--particularly Lombardi as the evil Speer--seem to be in on the joke. RAW FORCE has such a pronounced sense of anything-goes giddiness that it's indicative of what might've happened if Filipino exploitation legend Cirio H. Santiago was clever enough to make a self-aware spoof of his own trash movies. In that sense, it almost belongs in the same category of self-conscious New World titles like HOLLYWOOD BLVD (1976) and PIRANHA (1978), but if anything, RAW FORCE is more ridiculous and cartoonishly over-the-top than almost anything Roger Corman was releasing in the early '80s, GALAXY OF TERROR worm-rape notwithstanding. It's not enough to have martial arts fight scenes and topless beauties throughout (including I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE's Camille Keaton and future DTV erotic thriller mainstay Jewel Shepard in tiny roles), but RAW FORCE take it several steps further by throwing in a Hitler surrogate as the primary villain along with evil, clapping, cackling monks and a kung-fu zombie army. And it ends with Dresden's Taylor breaking the fourth wall and winking at the audience as a title card promises "To Be Continued..." thereby essentially all but openly stating that yes, RAW FORCE is a comedy.

The cast is only as good as they have to be, though Lombardi, who obviously saw THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL and patterned his performance on Gregory Peck's Josef Mengele, chews the scenery with gusto, and the always-appealing Kesner is enjoyable as the tough-as-nails Cookie. Dresden is the nominal main hero, even though sporadically-employed 1970s TV actor Binney is more prominently-billed in what turned out to be his last role before retiring from acting at 37. It's great fun watching a grumbling Mitchell, who appears to be nowhere near the vicinity of sober, bitching his way through his role, endlessly griping about the lack of maintenance on the ship and the penny-pinching cheapness of Hazel's cruise operation--it's almost as if it's his own personal running commentary on being a once-promising 1950s leading man reduced to appearing in movies like RAW FORCE. With some of the film's financing coming from the Philippines' San Miguel Brewery, Mitchell (1918-1994) was the biggest name the producers could afford, and Holiday--Mitchell's girlfriend according to Murphy, even though she was married to character actor Frank Marth from 1967 until his death in 2014--presumably was part of his deal as they worked together on several D-list exploitation titles in the 1980s, including KILLPOINT (1984) and the MST3K favorite SPACE MUTINY (1988). Holiday had prominent supporting roles in the Billy Wilder films THE APARTMENT (1960) and IRMA LA DOUCE (1963) before she was relegated to TV and drive-in gigs.

Cameron Mitchell (1918-1994)
It was even worse for Mitchell by the early 1980s. He stayed busy but was a long way from Happy Loman in the big-screen version of DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1951), or playing the older brother of Marlon Brando's Napoleon in DESIREE (1954), or clashing with James Cagney over Doris Day in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955). Though he might still turn up in some all-star disaster movie like THE SWARM (1978), gigs for Mitchell in major-studio films dropped drastically by the late 1970s. Around the same time as RAW FORCE, Mitchell had a showy, cigar-chomping supporting turn with an Oscar-nominated Peter O'Toole in MY FAVORITE YEAR, which marked his last appearance in an A-list big-screen project. Mitchell continued making movies and was still guesting on TV shows like FANTASY ISLAND, MAGNUM P.I., KNIGHT RIDER, MURDER SHE WROTE, and SIMON & SIMON, and in miniseries like DREAM WEST (1986), but things like RAW FORCE and KILL SQUAD were pretty much the state of his career in the 1980s. In 1983, Mitchell even co-starred with John Leslie and Veronica Hart in the hard-boiled hardcore porno DIXIE RAY, HOLLYWOOD STAR, which was cut down into an R-rated softcore version retitled IT'S CALLED MURDER, BABY. Though Mitchell didn't partake in any sex scenes, it was very rare for a well-known, mainstream actor to appear in a XXX film (similarly-skidding '50s tough guy Aldo Ray co-starred with Carol Connors in the 1978 porno western SWEET SAVAGE), even if he would later claim he was unaware that it was going to be a hardcore porno. No matter how many lowly, disreputable jobs he was offered, Mitchell never stopped working (eight credits in 1987 alone!) and while he was usually hired to overact and would often appear to be drunk, he would occasionally demonstrate that he still had that fire in his belly and would turn in an interesting and unexpectedly strong performance when no one was looking in something like THE OFFSPRING (1987). He died from lung cancer in 1994, never achieving a big comeback. Mitchell's final role came in Steve Latshaw's no-budget horror film JACK-O, released straight-to-video over a year after his death.

RAW FORCE marked Murphy's filmmaking debut, and he only made one other film, 1985's HEATED VENGEANCE, starring BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA's Richard Hatch. In the bonus features, the gregarious writer/director, who left movies to becoming a practicing attorney, talks about living as an expat in the Philippines after serving in Vietnam. He found work as a bit player in a slew of Filipino exploitation titles before stepping behind the camera. Like his cast, Murphy knows RAW FORCE is a stupid movie, but you can see the enthusiasm emanating from Murphy now and immediately see why RAW FORCE is so much fun. Murphy might be a bit too enthusiastic and reveling in the newfound attention that Vinegar Syndrome is bringing him. He talks about Holiday being Mitchell's girlfriend, but never mentioning her husband. Instead, he names Jonathan Winters as Holiday's ex-husband, and that was never the case. Winters was married once, to the same woman from 1949 until her death in 2009. Murphy claims to be good friends with Winters, even saying Winters was brought along by Holiday and Mitchell to a dinner meeting for a potential RAW FORCE II (it was never made, despite the joking promise at the end), yet he's surprised when offscreen interviewer Elijah Drenner informs him that Winters is dead (he died in 2013). I'm not saying Murphy is telling tales out of school--maybe Winters stepped out on his wife with Holiday, who knows?--or indulging in some full-of-shit revisionist history like Mark Damon claiming it was he, and not Roger Corman, who directed 1961's THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, but it's possible that he misspoke and is simply confusing Jonathan Winters with someone else. It's also hard to believe Winters would even entertain the notion of accepting an offer to co-star in RAW FORCE II, unless he was just tagging along to get a free dinner out of it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: KILLER FISH (1979)

(UK/Italy/Brazil/US - 1979)

Directed by Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti). Written by Michael Rogers. Cast: Lee Majors, Karen Black, Margaux Hemingway, Marisa Berenson, James Franciscus, Gary Collins, Anthony Steffen, Dan Pastorini, Roy Brocksmith, Frank Pesce, Charlie Guardino, Fabio Sabag, Chico Arago, Jorge Cherques. (PG, 101 mins)

A hybrid of heist thriller, disaster movie, and JAWS ripoff, KILLER FISH is a perfect example of the kind of international co-production insanity that only could've happened in the 1970s. Produced by the UK's Sir Lew Grade, Italy's Carlo Ponti, the Brazilian company Filmar do Brasil, and American TV power couple Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, the film was designed as a star vehicle for Lee Majors, whose successful five-season run on ABC's THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN had just come to a close in 1978. Majors, a veteran of several past TV hits like THE BIG VALLEY, THE VIRGINIAN, and OWEN MARSHALL, COUNSELOR AT LAW, was trying to parlay his television success into a big-screen career and from 1978 to 1981, starred in several B-movies of usually dubious quality, while at the same time turning down an offer from Paramount to co-star with Nick Nolte in NORTH DALLAS FORTY (1979). Majors' role--a hard-partying, good ol' boy star quarterback--went to Mac Davis and the film is now regarded by many as the definitive serious football film. While NORTH DALLAS FORTY was a box office hit and opened to almost universal acclaim, Majors was making KILLER FISH and other films like THE NORSEMAN (1978), STEEL (1980), AGENCY (1981), and THE LAST CHASE (1981), all of which were out of theaters in a week, and by the end of 1981, he was back on ABC for another series, THE FALL GUY, which ran until 1986.

Of those five films Majors made before going back to TV, KILLER FISH has become a legitimate cult film, primarily for its loony plot and its unusual cast, and that it's directed by legendary Eurocult journeyman Antonio Margheriti, using his usual "Anthony M. Dawson" pseudonym.  Margheriti was just coming off his NYC-shot heist thriller THE SQUEEZE and brought that film's suddenly slumming co-star Karen Black along to Brazil for another heist plot. Shot entirely in some stunningly beautiful locations, it's very likely that it was the idea of a working vacation in Rio that lured much of KILLER FISH's cast, which had an unusually large number of American actors for such trashy European-ish fare. While the Italian/West German co-production THE SQUEEZE is probably Margheriti's most American-looking film thanks to some effective location work in some grimy parts of Manhattan and just over the river in New Jersey, KILLER FISH is right alongside the US/Spanish blaxploitation western TAKE A HARD RIDE (1975) and the rainforest-set Italian RAMBO ripoff INDIO (1989) as the most American-feeling of Margheriti's vast output. Much effort was made to package KILLER FISH like a typical Hollywood disaster movie, with only one Italian actor in the cast (former DJANGO Anthony Steffen, best known for 1971's THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE), several Americans, including model Margaux Hemingway, part-time actor and soon-to-be talk show and Miss America host Gary Collins and, as usual in these types of movies, an off-season football star--in this case, Houston Oilers QB Dan Pastorini.  KILLER FISH also sported its own Maureen McGovern-mandated disaster movie theme song, "Winner Takes All," performed by flash-in-the-pan disco queen Amii Stewart, who had a chart-topping, Grammy-nominated hit in early 1979 with "Knock on Wood."

KILLER FISH is great cheesy entertainment, but other than the outstanding location shooting by cinematographer Alberto Spagnoli, it can barely compete with the budget-conscious likes of Roger Corman, let alone the expensive product that Master of Disaster Irwin Allen was cranking out. The main reason is that Margheriti was too attached to his use of outdated miniatures, which he would be until the end of his career. Sloppy rearscreen projection work is one thing, but toy trains and model dams that look like Lionel factory irregulars aren't going to cut the mustard. Of course, now these laughable effects are part of KILLER FISH's charm, but Margheriti's continued insistence on using techniques that were antiquated in the 1960s would consistently undermine his work into the 1990s. Margheriti was adept at action scenes and shootouts and could stage an explosion as impressively as any director who ever stepped on to a movie set, but it's hard to get into the excitement of a car chase in something like CODENAME: WILDGEESE (1984) when you can clearly see in a few shots that it's a toy car with an immobile plastic action figure in the driver's seat. For all the big names involved in the financing, KILLER FISH often looks ridiculously cheap. It's more likely that most of money went to the actors, their hotel bills, their bar tabs, and their per diems than toward anything that ended up on the screen. KILLER FISH is so lacking in funds for special effects and spectacle that Ponti had Margheriti open it with a factory explosion lifted completely from THE SQUEEZE.

In Brazil, former mine executive and fanatical backgammon enthusiast Paul Diller (James Franciscus), pushed out of the company after a heart attack, has hired a team of professional thieves led by Lasky (Majors) to break into a secure part of the mine and make off with a large stash of diamonds and emeralds. Helping Lasky is Diller's girlfriend Kate (Black), and when the team stashes the diamonds in a weighed-down metal container at the bottom of a lake, tensions start to mount when Kate suggests they wait 60 days for the cops to give up looking for them or the loot. That doesn't sit well with Lasky, who's conspired with a pair of sibling mooks, Warren (Frank Pesce) and Lloyd (Charlie Guardino) to replace the container in the lake with another and make off with the goods. When Lloyd dives into the lake to retrieve the container, he's promptly devoured by something unseen, which Warren thinks is "a giant snake." Warren talks their getaway driver Hans (Pastorini) into diving into the lake to check things, and when he starts being eaten in a similar fashion, Warren falls in trying to rescue him and they're both dead. It seems that months before pulling off the heist, Diller introduced an especially vicious strain of piranha into the lake to breed ("There's probably tens of thousands of them by now," he sneers), completely altering the ecosystem of a major tourist destination just in case some criminal co-conspirators got greedy. When one of cinema's least convincing hurricanes hits and destroys a nearby dam, the piranha are let loose in the open water and almost everyone in the cast who hasn't been eaten ends up on a small, damaged, dead-in-the-water charter boat captained by rugged local sea salt Max (Steffen, dubbed by Ted Rusoff), who's acting as a guide for a fashion shoot for supermodel Gabrielle (Margaux Hemingway), her manager Ann (Marisa Berenson), and portly, flamboyant photographer Ollie (Roy Brocksmith). As an untold number of hungry piranha surround the boat, Diller--after a backgammon showdown with Lasky--is willing to kill everyone if it means getting away and keeping his diamonds, and it's up to playboy pilot Tom (Collins) to rescue the stranded boaters.

The climax is quite hilarious at times, with Majors' Lasky and Steffen's Max indulging in heroics so stupid that you might even think they deserve to be piranha chow. Franciscus is appropriately dastardly and Black has one very convincing scene where her character is having a convulsing panic attack as she's being pulled out of the water after nearly being eaten. There's also a strange sexual undercurrent to the film, with Kate growing intensely jealous over Lasky's pre-mayhem resort romance with Gabrielle, and Gabrielle subtly suggesting to Lasky that they have a threesome with the bisexual Ollie. In addition, Margheriti and screenwriter Michael Rogers (probably a pseudonym for a committee of Italian writers, as this is "Rogers"' only IMDb credit) spend far too much time on Tom trying to get in Ann's pants. There's too many characters in KILLER FISH, with Tom and Ann's flirting, Ollie functioning as dual stereotypes of the raging queen and comic-relief fat guy, and even more extraneous characters turning up on the boat with no purpose at all. When KILLER FISH focuses on the heist, the piranha, and the janky special effects--the piranha swimming shots are priceless--it's a lot of fun.

Arriving not long after the definitive piranha movie, Joe Dante's PIRANHA (1978), KILLER FISH opened in US theaters in December 1979 and promptly bombed. It played on NBC a few times starting in 1981, under the title DEADLY TREASURE OF THE PIRANHA, and was released on VHS in 1986 as KILLER FISH, but has only now been released on DVD and Blu-ray, courtesy of Scorpion Releasing/Kino Lorber. The 1.78 transfer is pristine as can be, and the sole bonus feature is a nearly-hour-long informal dinner discussion between Frank Pesce and cult filmmaker William Lustig (MANIAC, MANIAC COP), who's known Pesce for decades and worked as a production assistant on the American location shooting of Margheriti's THE SQUEEZE. Pesce found work as an extra in THE GODFATHER (1972) and THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) and was hanging around the set of ROCKY (1976), lucking into acting after winning $6 million in the New York state lottery in 1976. He's appeared in many movies and TV shows over the years, usually B or straight-to-video titles, but he's occasionally turned up in big movies--he's the bolting cigarette buyer at the beginning of BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984) and returned to further incur Axel Foley's wrath in BEVERLY HILLS COP II (1987), and he played gangsters in MIDNIGHT RUN (1988) and DONNIE BRASCO (1997). His story was chronicled in the 1991 film 29TH STREET, with Anthony LaPaglia as Pesce, and the film produced and based on a story by Pesce and Franciscus, who became good friends after working together on KILLER FISH (Franciscus retired from acting in 1985 and died of emphysema at just 57 in 1991, a few months before 29TH STREET's release). Pesce and Lustig get sidetracked, as old friends do, and don't start talking about KILLER FISH until midway through the segment, but Pesce's got some priceless stories about his and Lustig's late friend Joe Spinell, and about working as a stand-in for Robert De Niro on TAXI DRIVER (1976), and Roy Scheider on MARATHON MAN (1976) and in the NYC scenes in SORCERER (1977). He also talks about Black trying to convert him to Scientology and tells a great story about some KILLER FISH cast and crew members going to a popular Rio disco, where Pesce's working his magic on an attractive blonde and was about to make his move when a bat flew into his hair, startling him and prompting him to scream loudly. The blonde immediately lost interest and Pesce later saw her leaving with Majors, who was "with her" for the rest of the shoot. Regarding Majors and his then-wife Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Pesce recalls that it was during the filming of KILLER FISH that Majors got word that Fawcett was involved with Ryan O'Neal, or as Pesce eloquently puts it, "Lee found out that whatsisname, Ryan O'Neal, was bangin' Farrah."

Friday, October 17, 2014

In Theaters: FURY (2014)

(US - 2014)

Written and directed by David Ayer. Cast: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Brad William Henke, Xavier Samuel, Scott Eastwood, Kevin Vance, Jim Parrack, Anamaria Marinca, Alicia von Rittberg, Laurence Spellman. (R, 133 mins)

It's been 16 years since the visceral brutality of the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, a horrific depiction of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, forever changed the cinematic depiction of war. Sure, plenty of war films, especially those centered on Vietnam, pulled no punches and went straight for the jugular, but SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was a game-changer, at least as far as depictions of long-ago wars were concerned. Its impact has been felt in practically every war film or TV show that came in its wake, from the graphic detail of the beloved HBO miniseries BAND OF BROTHERS and THE PACIFIC to the infamous femoral artery scene in Ridley Scott's BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001). The fictional FURY, set in April 1945 during the final month of action in the European theater, is a film that wants to be another SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, but really only ends up being an exponentially more violent and foul-mouthed take on the kind of WWII saga that would've been made in the days after WWII and into the late 1960s. It has engrossing story, some good performances, and some well-shot battle sequences that abstain from today's standard quick-cut shaky-cam action, but there's a gnawing feeling that you've seen it all before, from the graphic carnage and the way ammunition shreds through flesh to the outsider joining an established unit and going through the requisite hazing and having to prove his manhood, to Brad Pitt's performance being a somewhat toned-down rehash of his work as Lt. Aldo Raine in Quentin Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009). Writer/director David Ayer (END OF WATCH) has Spielberg-sized ambitions, but he can't resist relying on easy genre tropes, cardboard characterizations, and fuckin' macho tough guy fuckin' posturing just like he fuckin' had earlier this fuckin' year in fuckin' SABOTAGE, one of fuckin' 2014's worst fuckin' movies. And please, in the name of all things cinematic, the time has come to declare a moratorium on alpha-male lunkheads in war movies or cop movies or firefighter movies or doctor movies--any kind of real-world movie or TV show with an ensemble of everyday people doing heroic things--feeling the need to emphatically declare "This is what we do!"

FURY focuses on a close-knit Sherman tank crew (the tank has been christened "Fury") led by Wardaddy (Pitt), a stern, no-nonsense type who lives for war because it's what he does. He's fiercely protective of his men: devoutly-religious Bible (Shia LaBeouf), fast-talking Gordo (Michael Pena), and sub-literate hillbilly Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal). They've just lost their assistant driver and Wardaddy isn't happy with his newest addition: inexperienced and terrified Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a typist who's been in the Army for eight weeks. Naturally, Norman is razzed and ridiculed by the others and an early fumbling of the ball leads to another tank commander being ambushed and killed by German soldiers ("That's on you!" Wardaddy yells, because of course he does). Ayer's episodic script follows the men on a series of assignments, culminating in an epic battle where every other tank in their company is destroyed and they hit a mine shortly after, rendering the tank immobile. Rather than turn the film into DAS TANK, Ayer introduces a battalion of German officers approaching from further down the road as the men of Fury strap in, hunker down, and arm themselves for a 5-against-300 suicide mission that jettisons the relative realism of the preceding 80 or so minutes as the film degenerates into the equivalent of a WWII cartoon.

Ayer leaves no cliche unused, and the men of Fury exit in the exact order you expect.  Of course, Norman proves his worth to the crew and earns his own cool nickname--"Machine"--because that's what he is. The arc of "Machine" hits all the required marks of a naive, innocent, baby-faced kid turning into a battle-hardened killer. And of course, Coon-Ass isn't the complete dipshit he spends almost the entire film being, acting like a bullying Neanderthal before putting his arm around Machine and grunting "Yer alright." Some attempts at character depth are made, like Wardaddy excusing himself so he doesn't look shaky and apprehensive in front of his adoring men, and LaBeouf turns in a strong performance as Bible, with a stare that belongs to a good-hearted man who's dangerously close to losing it--it's too bad Ayer undermines LaBeouf's performance by almost constantly showing him with tears welling in his eyes to the point where it becomes unintentionally funny. But for a film where none of war's graphic horrors are spared--heads are blown off, tanks squash corpses underneath, limbs are seared off, bodies split in half, Norman has to clean up pieces of his dead predecessor's face--the most impressive and suspenseful section of FURY is a long sequence where Wardaddy and Norman invite themselves into the home of a German woman (Anamaria Marinca) and her niece (Alicia von Rittberg). We're not sure where it's going, but as the women make eggs and coffee and Wardaddy shaves, a romance blossoms between Norman and the niece and there's a temporary and oddly tranquil domesticity amidst the madness that's destroyed when the other three guys from Fury drunkenly barge in and behave like animals. The ultimate end to this detour is that it makes Norman a man in more ways than one, but it's a strange sequence (I'm surprised the studio didn't make Ayer shorten it or cut it entirely) that demonstrates something genuinely substantive beyond Ayer's uber-macho dick-swinging and the checklist of war movie cliches and could almost function as a stand-alone short film. If only the rest of FURY was as unpredictable and willing to take chances.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix Instant: VENUS IN FUR (2014) and WITCHING & BITCHING (2014)

(France/Poland - 2013; US release 2014)

In adapting David Ives' play, shifting its location from Manhattan to Paris, and casting his wife Emmanuelle Seigner as one of the two leads, Roman Polanski turns Venus in Fur into an often very personal look at his own obsessions. Perhaps too personal, as the other lead, QUANTUM OF SOLACE Bond villain Mathieu Amalric, looks almost exactly like a younger Polanski. The legendary and always controversial filmmaker, still going strong at 81, tosses in some callbacks to several of his past works, from CUL-DE-SAC (1966) to BITTER MOON (1992) to DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (1994) and even THE TENANT (1976), as playwright and first-time director Thomas Novachek (Amalric) adapts Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch's scandalous 1870 novel as a modern stage production and gets a late audition in Vanda Jourdain (Seigner) that goes places he never expected. Vanda, conveniently named after the dominating mistress of the book, is brash, rude, and pushy, and seems ill-prepared and not very articulate ("I'm like, demure and shit"). But when she starts reading, something clicks and Thomas is transfixed. Soon, the dialogue of the play starts mirroring the developing situation between them as Vanda, who somehow knows the play front to back even though Thomas hasn't given the complete script to anyone, slowly peels away at Thomas' exterior and forces him to reveal his true submissive nature while his fiancee keeps calling to see why he's so late getting home. Polanski plays visual tricks throughout, like an increase of shots staged in a way that Seigner towers over Amalric, and indulging in some cruelly sick humor like a spotlight on a large phallic cactus prop with two bushes on each side of its base (left over from a musical production of STAGECOACH, Thomas explains earlier) during the moment of Thomas' ultimate emasculation at the hands of Vanda.

While best known to mainstream audiences for Hollywood hits like ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) and CHINATOWN (1974), Polanski has repeatedly utilized claustrophobic settings and seems to have a particular affinity for putting as few characters as possible in very tight quarters, going all the way back to his 1962 debut KNIFE IN THE WATER. His previous film, 2011's CARNAGE, had four characters seemingly trapped EXTERMINATING ANGEL-style in an apartment as they argued over a playground scuffle between their children.  It, too, was based on a stage play and Polanski did a good job of creating fluid camera movements to alleviate the confined nature and make it more cinematic. He tries to replicate that feeling with VENUS IN FUR, but with two less protagonists, increased staginess is inevitable and at times, the verbal sparring and psychological gamesmanship grow tiresome (it helped that CARNAGE ran a brief, brisk 81 minutes). Still, Seigner and Amalric are excellent even though you can't help but wonder if Polanski is revealing a bit too much of his and Seigner's relationship here. It can't be coincidental that Amalric can practically function as a Polanski doppelganger while Seigner spends most of the film strutting around the theater in high heels and a seemingly painted-on leather bustier. Maybe the couple's next collaboration should just be a leaked sex tape. (Unrated, 96 mins)

(Spain/France - 2013; US release 2014)

Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia has frequently been compared to Mexico's Guillermo del Toro, as both arrived on the scene around the same time (de la Iglesia with 1993's ACCION MUTANTE, and del Toro with 1992's CRONOS), and both made their name in fantasy/horror. This is probably more so with del Toro, who has stayed under that umbrella while de la Iglesia has frequently dabbled in other genres but remained true to his kinetic, gonzo style. While del Toro has gone on to commercial fame and fortune, de la Iglesia remains on the fringes of cult cinema stateside, with his one attempt at a Hollywood blockbuster--a late '90s big-screen version of the video game DOOM that was set to star Arnold Schwarzenegger--falling apart in pre-production (it was eventually made by Andrzej Bartkowiak in 2005, with Karl Urban and The Rock). De la Iglesia still hasn't had a major breakthrough in the US but enjoys a respectable cult following thanks to oddities like 1997's DANCE WITH THE DEVIL, aka PERDITA DURANGO, a road thriller with a bizarre cast featuring Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Don Stroud, REPO MAN director Alex Cox, and James Gandolfini in a plot that involves homicidal lovers on the lam, explicit sex, kidnapping, rape, incompetent feds, voodoo, pedophilia, and a big rig transporting black market human fetuses across the US/Mexico border and isn't likely to be mentioned by Perez on THE VIEW anytime soon. He also tried his hand at formulaic mysteries with the forgettable Elijah Wood thriller THE OXFORD MURDERS (2008), but de la Iglesia's milieu is over-the-top insanity, and his latest, the horror-comedy WITCHING & BITCHING, finds the director in his primary comfort zone.

Owing a debt to many things, but primarily FROM DUSK TILL DAWN in its shifting structure, WITCHING & BITCHING opens very promisingly with a team of strangers pulling a jewelry store heist in the middle of a busy Madrid shopping square. They're dressed as costumed entertainers for the outdoor mall, which allows us the unique sight of a machine-gun-toting SpongeBob Squarepants. Ringleader Jose (Hugo Silva) is dressed as a silver-painted Jesus and brought along his young son Sergio (Gabriel Delgado) since he didn't want to miss a visitation day. A few of the makeshift gang are killed or apprehended, but Jose gets away with Tony (Mario Casas) and they carjack a cab, thereby involving driver Manuel (Jaime Ordonez) and his fare (Manuel Tallafe), with the cops and Jose's enraged ex-wife Silvia (Macarena Gomez) in hot pursuit. Heading to France, they end up in the small Spanish town of Zugarramurdi, known for its centuries-old witch trials. Sure enough, they've been lured there by a witches' coven led by Gracia (Almodovar regular Carmen Maura), desperate to sacrifice men to a giant, grotesque female god and anoint Sergio as "the chosen one," with Gracia's sympathetic, rebellious daughter Eva (Carolina Bang, de la Iglesia's wife) the sole voice of reason trying to help the guys out of their situation. WITCHING & BITCHING is all over the map, making obvious statements about men and women, with the guys venting that all the women in their lives are "witches" before running afoul of actual witches. And the witches spend their downtime talking about men and articles they read in Cosmo. In addition to shifting gears from heist thriller to spoofy horror, de la Iglesia also manages to work in demonic possession, supernatural rom-com, escalating homoerotic tension between the two detectives (Pepon Nieto, Secun de la Rosa) investigating the robbery, and the witches turning into a sprinting zombie horde before finally settling on a CGI-heavy knockoff of the remake of THE WICKER MAN, with ballbusting witches settling the score with misogynists everywhere. It's never meant to be taken seriously, right down to the casting of de la Iglesia regular Santiago Segura--the Spanish Clint Howard--and Carlos Areces (star of de la Iglesia's THE LAST CIRCUS) in drag as catty witches and a comical henchman played by Enrique Villen, who looks like the perfect genetic fusion of Marty Feldman and Sid Haig. There's a frenzied, anarchic Joe Dante-meets-Peter Jackson-meets Edgar Wright ethos here amidst the digital splatter and the embarrassing, Asylum-level CGI, but it basically degenerates into a series of undisciplined and increasingly random homages that never really come together. De la Iglesia's enthusiasm is admirable, but he simply doesn't know when or where to stop, and at nearly two hours, it's exhaustingly overlong for such slight material. (Unrated, 114 mins)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On VOD: STRETCH (2014)

(US - 2014)

Written and directed by Joe Carnahan. Cast: Patrick Wilson, Ed Helms, James Badge Dale, Brooklyn Decker, Jessica Alba, Chris Pine, Ray Liotta, David Hasselhoff, Norman Reedus, Randy Couture, Shaun Toub, Ben Bray, Jason Mantzoukas, Kevin Bigley. (R, 94 mins)

VOD has proven to be a viable distribution channel in our post-SNOWPIERCER world, and Universal is hoping to replicate The Weinstein Company's unintended phenomenon with Joe Carnahan's STRETCH. Abruptly yanked from the schedule just a few weeks before its planned March 2014 release, STRETCH was one of several titles produced by Jason Blum's Blumhouse Productions (INSIDIOUS, SINISTER) that distributor Universal decided to leave languishing in limbo on the shelf, along with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY creator Oren Peli's AREA 51 (completed in 2009) and Joe Johnston's thriller NOT SAFE FOR WORK (completed in 2012), among others (STRETCH's time gathering dust was relatively brief, having wrapped in 2013). Universal hasn't said much about the shelving of these films, but it's mainly that the typical Blumhouse production costs $5 million or less, and that Universal balked at spending "$25 to $30 million" to market and distribute the films. It's now the major studio mindset that anything less than a $150 million take at the box office is a flop and movies grossing $30 million domestically simply aren't worth releasing in theaters anymore. There's no such thing as a moderate hit. Something's either a blockbuster or it's a bomb and in that climate, there's no in-between. Outspoken NARC and SMOKIN' ACES director Carnahan wasn't happy with Universal's decision, especially since he had a proven track record after he helmed a blockbuster with 2010's THE A-TEAM and had a decent-sized hit with the critically-acclaimed 2012 Liam Neeson vehicle THE GREY, which "only" grossed $51 million. When Universal shelved STRETCH earlier this year, they allowed Blum the chance to shop it around to other distributors, and when no one bit, the rights reverted back to Universal, and seeing the success of SNOWPIERCER, they opted to release it on VOD rather than dumping it straight-to-DVD. In interviews leading up to STRETCH's VOD debut, Carnahan has more or less taken an "It is what it is" approach to the release, expressing his disappointment that Universal abandoned what he considers his best film thus far. Carnahan is so sure that moviegoers will dig STRETCH that he posted messages on Facebook and Twitter promising that if you didn't enjoy STRETCH and can send him a pic proving you paid to watch it, he'll personally refund your money.

Like the word-of-mouth buzz with SNOWPIERCER and it being The Little Movie That Could, all of Carnahan's incessant yapping only serves to publicize STRETCH, though you have to applaud him for standing by his work and his in-your-face enthusiasm in making sure people know about it. It's too bad STRETCH isn't going to be another SNOWPIERCER, nor is it Carnahan's best film (that would be NARC). But then, the filmmaker has always straddled the line between maverick and loudmouth, better known for the films he didn't make--walking off of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III during pre-production, the collapsed DEATH WISH remake with Liam Neeson, and his dream project, an adaptation of James Ellroy's 1992 noir novel White Jazz--than the ones he's made. Carnahan's an enthusiastic filmmaker with a terrific sense of humor in his writing, and one of the few people making generally smart, no-nonsense, manly movies for men in the old-school tradition of Walter Hill. Sometimes he just talks too much.

STRETCH is entertaining if a bit slight, definitely in the over-the-top style of SMOKIN' ACES, but set in a typically excessive vision of L.A. Failed actor Kevin Bryzkowski (Patrick Wilson), who unsuccessfully tried to market himself as "Kai Bruno" before giving up after losing a guest role on CSI: MIAMI and taking a job as a limo driver, has kicked his coke, booze, and gambling habit and gotten over his ex-girlfriend (Brooklyn Decker) dumping him for the quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. He's been paying off a $12K debt to his bookie Iggy (Ben Bray), who's been bought out by some Cantonese gangsters who want the remaining $6000 he owes by midnight. Kevin, or "Stretch" as he's known to his friends, is on thin ice with his boss (Shaun Toub), who's paid guys to hack into the computer system of rival limo company Cossack, run by a hair-metal-coiffed hulk known as "The Jovi" (Randy Couture) so they can steal their gigs. Stretch gets one-upped by the Jovi when he's late picking up David Hasselhoff ("You don't have any respect for the Hoff!" he scolds Stretch), so he gets revenge by jacking the Jovi's next client, Carnahan regular Ray Liotta, from a movie set. Liotta leaves a prop gun and a fake badge from the movie behind, and Stretch doesn't get it back to the set before stealing the Jovi's next pickup: insane, cokehead billionaire Roger Karos (an unrecognizable Chris Pine). Karos has Stretch drop him off at an EYES WIDE SHUT-type sex party while he sends him off on a series of dangerous errands throughout L.A., involving a money pickup, a drug deal, and an undercover FBI agent (James Badge Dale), in exchange for a $6000 tip to clear his debt, and all the while Stretch is pursued by Iggy's goons, forced to pose as hard-assed LAPD cop "Raymond Liotta," and is harangued by the taunting ghost of his mentor, legendary limo driver Karl With a K (Ed Helms), who got so fed up with the business that he blew his brains out in mid-job, "marking the first time in 20 years that someone else had to clean his limo."

Carnahan packs a lot of plot into STRETCH's 94 minutes, and most of it works. Wilson has rarely been this loose onscreen before, but that's nothing compared to the way Pine (uncredited, but arguably the second lead) dives headfirst into his role with no concern for his image or any modicum of good taste. It's a literally balls-out performance, as he's first seen skydiving in nothing but a vest and a jockstrap, landing on top of Stretch's limo as Carnahan introduces him via a taint shot as his exposed scrotum slides down the front windshield.  Yeah, STRETCH is that kind of a movie. Pine's overtly demonic Karos (often shot in reddish Italian horror lighting) seduces the desperate Stretch with the promise of $6000, with the resulting AFTER HOURS-inspired parade of grotesqueries an obvious metaphor for the way the power players of L.A. use, abuse, chew up, and spit out generally decent people like Stretch (or, if you expand on it, Hollywood dicking over well-meaning filmmakers like, oh I dunno, Joe Carnahan). Elsewhere, Karos snorts mountains of blow and cavorts with an array of high-class prostitutes, to whom he's also known as "Captain Fisty." Liotta, who also had a memorable cameo as himself in WANDERLUST, is very funny as an alternate universe, asshole version of "Ray Liotta," getting an assistant's name wrong and flat-out admitting "I don't give a fuck" when he's corrected, and being furiously indignant over the Jovi picking up "a TV actor" instead of him, even though he has no idea who Hasselhoff is ("Don't know him...should I?") or what KNIGHT RIDER and BAYWATCH are ("A talking car? What the fuck?"). Norman Reedus also has an inspired bit as himself, in a flashback where Karl With a K helps him cover up a motel room bloodbath ("Is that a severed penis?" Karl With a K asks). As funny as it can be, we've seen this sort-of "L.A. as immoral, hedonistic hellscape" motif a thousand times before, and despite some enthusiastic work by Wilson and Pine, some genuinely funny bits of offensive humor, and some periodic respites from the obnoxiousness courtesy of Jessica Alba as a limo dispatcher and Stretch's dependable Girl Friday, it frequently comes off as a Carnahan tantrum, and a louder, more aggressively garish version of John Landis' underrated 1985 gem INTO THE NIGHT. The actors are obviously having a good time, and it's worth a look on a slow night once it hits Redbox or Netflix Instant. Enough of it works that only a shameless asshole would ask Carnahan for their money back, but let's cut through the shit here: it's an offbeat little film that will find a minor cult following and probably enjoy a long future as the kind of movie you stop at while channel-surfing, but it wasn't going to be a hit in theaters.

Monday, October 13, 2014


(US/Italy - 1984/2012)

Directed by Sergio Leone. Written by Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone, and Stuart Kaminsky. Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Louise Fletcher, Tuesday Weld, Danny Aiello, Richard Bright, James Hayden, William Forsythe, Darlanne Fluegel, Larry Rapp, Richard Foronjy, James Russo, Amy Ryder, Jennifer Connelly, Scott Tiler, Rusty Jacobs, Brian Bloom, Noah Moazezi, Adrian Curran, Mike Monetti, Mario Brega, Robert Harper, Olga Karlatos, Arnon Milchan, Frank Gio, Paul Herman.  (R, 251 mins)

SPOILERS: This review assumes you've seen ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA.

It's probably a safe bet that we'll never see a definitive, last-word version of Sergio Leone's final masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Known for his legendary spaghetti westerns that made Clint Eastwood an international star, Leone set out to make the ultimate gangster film and in many ways, he succeeded. Though he made some uncredited contributions to Tonino Valerii's comedic western MY NAME IS NOBODY (1973) and Damiano Damiani's semi-sequel A GENIUS, TWO FRIENDS AND AN IDIOT (1975), Leone hadn't directed a film since 1971's DUCK, YOU SUCKER!, aka A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE, and he spent the better part of the 1970s prepping ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, based on Harry Grey's novel The Hoods.  The rights to The Hoods were initially purchased by DARK SHADOWS creator Dan Curtis, who was nursing ambitions of breaking out of TV horror and making a name for himself on the big screen. Leone desperately wanted the rights to Grey's book, prompting his then-producer Alberto Grimaldi to cut a deal that saw Curtis signing over the film rights to The Hoods to Grimaldi and Leone in exchange for Grimaldi ghost-producing Curtis' 1976 film BURNT OFFERINGS. With the rights secured, Leone and a committee of screenwriters (among them frequent Dario Argento collaborator Franco Ferrini) began work on his vision of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, though it ultimately didn't begin shooting until June 1982. By that time, Grimaldi was no longer in the picture and Leone finally got the project going through Israeli producer Arnon Milchan, who was just making a name for himself by producing Martin Scorsese's THE KING OF COMEDY (1983) and would eventually go on to form his Regency Enterprises production company and become a major Hollywood player, bankrolling films like Oliver Stone's JFK (1991), Michael Mann's HEAT (1995), David Fincher's FIGHT CLUB (1999), and Steve McQueen's 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013).

Sergio Leone (1929-1989)
Shooting wrapped in April 1983 and Leone spent over a year editing the footage. His initial, very rough cut ran around ten hours. He cut it down to six, and eventually down to 269 minutes. Still not satisfied, his official version screened at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, with a running time of 229 minutes. While the film and its majestic Ennio Morricone score were lauded at Cannes--but not winning any awards as it was screened out of competition--US distributor The Ladd Company, a division of Warner Bros., had already decided American audiences weren't seeing the 229-minute cut. Against Leone's wishes (Milchan, then new to the ways of Hollywood, has admitted "I should've fought harder"), The Ladd Company had assigned in-house editor Zach Staenberg to completely recut the film, jettisoning the vital flashback structure and putting the scenes in chronological order. Under orders from his bosses, Staenberg (often dismissively referred to by Leone fans and co-star James Woods as "the guy who edited POLICE ACADEMY," but he did go on to win an Oscar for his work on THE MATRIX, and in his defense, he was just doing what he was told to do) took Leone's film from 229 minutes down to 139 minutes, and that was the version released in US theaters on June 1, 1984. Needless to say, it was a disaster critically and commercially, with Ladd/Warner yanking it from theaters after two weeks following a barrage of negative press from major film critics who just saw the superior long version at Cannes less than a month earlier. Eventually, The Ladd Company relented and gave Leone's cut a very limited release (at 227 minutes, more on that in a bit) before it debuted on VHS and cable in 1985, but by then, the damage was done. Leone was heartbroken over the treatment given to his dream project in the US, and his health began to rapidly decline. The stress of the arduous shoot and the resulting massacre in the editing room took years off of his life, and he died in 1989 at just 59, looking at least a decade older. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA was his final film.

Leone and his cast at Cannes in 1984

In the US, the long version went from 227 minutes back to Leone's "official" 229 minutes over the years, reinstating some snipped shots from a pair of rape scenes--one with Robert De Niro and Tuesday Weld, and an especially graphic one with De Niro and Elizabeth McGovern--that were trimmed so the long version could secure an R rating. The 139-minute version, released on VHS and shown on cable in the mid '80s, is now rightfully regarded as one of the most shameful instances of a studio cluelessly destroying a filmmaker's vision. It's since been buried in the Warner vaults, presumably never to be seen again, though it would be interesting to view again for curiosity's sake. Even in its "official" 229-minute form, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA leaves questions unanswered. Given the argument that the 1968 portions of the film are a dream being experienced by Jewish mobster Noodles (De Niro) in an opium den in 1933, it's possible that clarity was never meant to be had with the film. Perhaps it's hazy and incomplete by design. That still doesn't explain other mysteries of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, like the significance of Frankie Minaldi (Joe Pesci) turning up in the lobby of a hospital long after his portion of the story is over, unseen by Noodles and Max as they get off an elevator and never seen or referenced in the film again, unless something in Leone's earlier rough cuts showed that he has a role in the ill-conceived Federal Reserve robbery that proves to be the gang's undoing or he's an unseen power player pulling the strings of union leader Jimmy O'Donnell (Treat Williams). As unwieldy and wandering as dreams can often be, there will never be definitive answers for a lot of what happens in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, much like there can never be a definitive version. No matter how much gets put back in, the enigmatic elements remain. We're watching--presumably--the dreaming, drugged-out mind of a man consumed by guilt, who's just ratted on his friends and inadvertently gotten them killed. It's never going to make perfect sense.

The 251-minute restoration has been marketed as an "extended director's cut," but Leone's original pre-release version ran 269 minutes before he settled on the 229-minute Cannes 1984 cut. With Martin Scorsese throwing his weight behind the project, the restoration involved Leone's family members and various collaborators, though 18 minutes of footage was apparently tangled in rights issues and it would seem that the 251-minute version finds the film once again released in a compromised state (perhaps the real explanation is that the still-missing 18 minutes aren't salvageable?). Whether that full 269-minute version will ever see reassembly is still up in the air. The six additional scenes came from a workprint source, and when the "director's cut" played at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and was released on Blu-ray in Italy later that year, the image quality didn't win it any praise. It's been cleaned up significantly in the ensuing two years, but the added scenes still stick out like a sore thumb. Some look better than others, especially later on, but the first addition--Noodles encountering a cemetery director (Louise Fletcher, who was completely excised from all previous versions) when he visits the mausoleum where Max (Woods), Cockeye (William Forsythe), and Patsy (James Hayden, who died of a heroin overdose in November 1983, eight months before the film's release) are interred--looks the worst, by far. Faded and scratchy, it's hard to imagine what this looked like before it was cleaned up, but Fletcher's scene is usually cited as the most famous of the "lost" sequences, even though she doesn't really have much to do. Other than a few minutes of screen time for the ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST Best Actress Oscar winner, the biggest significance of this scene comes near its end when Noodles spots a black car that's following him, giving him more evidence that after a 35-year self-imposed exile, the ghosts of his past have finally caught up to him. Of the five other restored scenes--including a heated 1968 meeting between Max-as-"Secretary Bailey" and O'Donnell, Noodles getting defensive when a Jewish chauffeur (played by Milchan) disapproves of his lifestyle, and an additional scene after Noodles drives the car into the water after the gang pulls off the Detroit diamond robbery for Frankie and his brother Joe (Burt Young)--the most important gives us a much more thorough introduction to Eve (Darlanne Fluegel), Noodles' girlfriend in 1933, a prostitute with whom he took up after his brutal rape of love-of-his-life Deborah (McGovern), finally driving her away for good. In the 229-minute cut, Eve more or less appears and we can easily figure out that she's Noodles' girlfriend, and we didn't really need background on her to ascertain that, but by reinstating their introduction, the viewer gets a better read on their relationship and how Noodles still isn't over Deborah.

All of the scenes explain things in some way, but given the inherently enigmatic and impenetrable nature of the film and its construction, less can be more. Not less as in "139 minutes," but nothing in these additional 22 minutes makes ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA necessarily better, nor do they make anything worse. It's also a different Blu-ray transfer than Warner's previous release of the 229-minute cut, darker and with a more muted color palette. There are moments where it doesn't look all that great, and there's been chatter online--which I don't really buy--that the whole transfer was degraded to more closely match the inferior quality of the added scenes. While devoted fans of Leone and the film will want to see this cut, I'm not sure it surpasses the 229-minute version, which had a pretty good if not demo-quality HD transfer. At any rate, it's not a "director's cut." It's a big step toward the restoration of the 269-minute cut, but Leone more or less dismissed that as a definitive edition when he cut it down to 229 minutes and signed off on it. Maybe his feelings changed before his death and maybe he'd prefer the 269-minute version now and be cool with settling for this 251-minute cut instead, but he's not here to speak for himself, and much like the intricacies and the specifics of the film's deliberately ambiguous plot, we'll simply never know.

The two-disc edition of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA: EXTENDED DIRECTOR'S CUT lists "theatrical cut" as the second disc. This is not the 139-minute US theatrical cut--it's simply the 229-minute "official" version that you probably already own if you're a fan. While everyone is likely in agreement that the 139-minute Zach Staenberg cut is an abomination, it would be interesting to watch, much like Universal's botched, shelved "Love Conquers All" cut that Criterion included in their BRAZIL box set. Why not include it for the sake of completist fans? Don't bury it. Don't deny its existence. Present it as a cautionary tale of studio meddling gone horribly awry. Hell, get Staenberg to do a commentary over it. Can you imagine the stories he's got about hapless execs telling him to make those nonsensical cuts and re-edits?  That's a missed opportunity. Fortunately, if you already have the 229-minute version, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA: EXTENDED DIRECTOR'S CUT is also available on its own in a single-disc edition on both Blu-ray and DVD.

Treat Williams, William Forsythe, James Woods, and Robert De Niro
at the New York Film Festival screening of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA:
EXTENDED DIRECTOR'S CUT in September 2014.

Friday, October 10, 2014

In Theaters: THE JUDGE (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by David Dobkin. Written by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque. Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Emma Tremblay, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O'Hare, Sarah Lancaster. (R, 142 mins)

THE JUDGE is a film that tries to be too many things and succeeds about half of the time. On one hand, it perceptively deals with the idea of family, the ties that bind, the consequences of one's actions, and ultimately, the love that triumphs over the adversity of grudges that have lasted the better part of a lifetime. It's also the kind of glossy courtroom drama that used to be commonplace in the late '80s and into the '90s. Its tonal shifts are whiplash-inducing, including one jawdropper of a subplot that seems more fitting for the raunchy comedies that director David Dobkin has made in the past, like WEDDING CRASHERS (2005) and THE CHANGE-UP (2011). Working from a script by Nick Schenk (GRAN TORINO) and Bill Dubuque, Dobkin throws a little of everything into THE JUDGE, and while he gets outstanding and fully committed performances by his stars, the film too often compromises itself, sacrificing honesty and raw emotion for grandstanding, cliched speeches that ensure every cast member gets some time in the spotlight,  THE JUDGE is the kind of film where it's not enough for things to reach the boiling point for an embittered father and son as they have a knock-down, drag-out screaming match during a family get-together--no, the family get-together has to be in the basement because there's a massive tornado blowing through town, and of course, the argument extends beyond the basement as they take it out into the yard while battling violent winds before heading back into the house again.

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr), is a hot-shot, high-powered, big-money Chicago defense attorney who has no qualms about getting his guilty clients off ("Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there's a dead hooker in the hot tub," he explains). Devoted to his job and never around for his young daughter (Emma Tremblay), he's in the middle of a nasty divorce after his neglected wife takes up with an ex-boyfriend. All of that takes a backseat when he's summoned to his small Indiana hometown after his mother dies unexpectedly. Hank has never visited after leaving 25 years earlier and has had minimal contact with his older brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), and younger, possibly autistic (it's never specified) brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), who carries a Super 8 camera around at all times, filming everything (Clumsy foreshadowing alert!  Yes, Dale's extensive collection of film reels will hold an important piece of information!). There's no love lost between Hank and the Palmer patriarch, stern local judge Joseph (Robert Duvall), who curtly thanks his son for attending and promptly ignores him. Just as Hank is about to head back to Chicago, he's called off the plane by Glen:  "The Judge," as everyone calls Joseph, has been hauled in by the cops for questioning after a dead body is found in a ditch and his damaged car has traces of the victim's blood and hair in the grille. Complicating matters is that the victim is an area shitbag who was recently paroled after serving a long sentence for killing a girl--which he did only after The Judge gave him a light, 30-day sentence for his earlier harassment of her in the first place. This scandal was the one smudge on The Judge's otherwise exemplary career, and there's overwhelming evidence that he ran down the parolee with the specific intent of killing him. The Judge hires wet-behind-the-ears townie lawyer C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), who can't stop vomiting before court every morning, and when Kennedy proves too inexperienced to deal with special prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), sent in from Gary, and the kind of impeccably-dressed, merciless attack dog who brings his own expensive, Sharper Image-looking, gadgety metal water glass to court. The Judge reluctantly sets aside his differences with his middle son and accepts his legal services.

When THE JUDGE deals with old wounds reopened by Hank's return, it works very well. There's numerous moments of blunt realism in the way Dobkin and the screenwriters rely on family shorthand to convey things that only a family know but we can perceive. When Hank is greeted by Glen, there's an odd way they won't look at each other and you wonder why Glen half-heartedly uses his left hand for a handshake. That's followed by mention of Glen's once-promising baseball career being derailed by an accident, and though it remains unspoken for most of the film, it's clear that there's some involvement in this accident on Hank's part. Hank ran away and never looked back, and his high-school girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga), who owns the diner she worked in as a teenager, won't let him forget it. Incidents are referenced and they don't need to be fully explained for the audience to grasp the significance they hold in the lives of these characters, and that's where THE JUDGE often excels.

Where it stumbles is when it devolves into various plot contrivances, medical crises, and hackneyed courtroom histrionics. Hank learns early on that The Judge is secretly getting chemo treatments for advanced colon cancer, and it's caused memory issues that come and go as the plot mandates. And after the ludicrous father-son argument in mid-tornado, they of course get a chance to hash out all of their issues on the witness stand, culminating in a guffaw-worthy shot of the trial judge (Ken Howard) starting to tear up. And there's that whopper of a subplot involving cute bartender Carla (Leighton Meester) that appears to be heading in one direction that the filmmakers don't have the balls to attempt in a major studio movie, and yet somehow, the way they explain themselves out of it manages to make it even more awkward given one character's non-reaction and the fact that the whole tasteless episode is played for laughs. On one hand, it's admirable what Dobkin tries to get away with before backtracking, but on the other, it's tacky and doesn't belong in this movie. At 142 minutes, THE JUDGE runs a good 30 minutes too long, and Meester's plot thread could've--and should've--been completely eliminated.

Aside from the writing in its more successful introspective and honest moments, it's Downey and Duvall who carry this through. Downey's persona works perfectly for an unscrupulous lawyer and Duvall, comfortably in his "crusty old coot" wheelhouse, at least has better material to work with than bombs like Thorton's unwatchable JAYNE MANSFIELD'S CAR and the terrible A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO provided him. There's still an unfortunate desire by mainstream Hollywood to turn geriatric actors into dirty old men, as set forth by the Burgess Meredith Amendment. A feared, respected authoritarian taskmaster like The Judge doesn't seem the type to mockingly chide Hank because his wife "played Hide the Pickle with some other guy." Inconsistencies and assorted silliness aside, THE JUDGE is worth seeing for the performances of Downey and Duvall, but Dobkin has been given a strange amount of leeway in what made it to the final cut. This thing could've used another run through the editing room and quite a bit less overbaked courtroom melodrama. Or it could've settled on being a either a glossy, commercial courtroom thriller or a gritty, in-your-face look at frayed family dysfunction, because in committing fully to neither, it comes up harmlessly entertaining but curiously lacking.