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.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Retro Review: SHOCKING DARK (1989)

(Italy - 1989)

Directed by Vincent Dawn (Bruno Mattei). Written by Clayde Anderson (Claudio Fragasso). Cast: Cristofer Ahrens, Haven Tyler, Geretta Giancarlo Field (Geretta Geretta), Tony Lombardo (Fausto Lombardi), Mark Steinborn, Dominica Coulson, Clive Ricke, Paul Norman Allen, Cortland Reilly, Richard Ross, Bruce McFarland, Al McFarland. (Unrated, 90 mins)

For fans of Eurocult cinema, Italian ripoffs are among the most essential and endearing offerings. The flood of imitations in the wake of huge hits like THE GODFATHER, THE EXORCIST, STAR WARS, DAWN OF THE DEAD, ALIEN, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, THE ROAD WARRIOR, and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II only gained momentum in the 1980s when video stores needed product and Italy was offering a seemingly endless supply. Perhaps no other genre-hopping journeyman epitomized the concept of the shameless Italian ripoff more than Bruno Mattei, or, as he's known under his most frequently-employed pseudonym, "Vincent Dawn." Born in 1931, Mattei began his career as an editor in the late 1950s, usually on undistinguished and instantly obscure post-HERCULES peplum, and later, third-tier spaghetti westerns and 007 knockoffs. He's the credited editor on Jess Franco's COUNT DRACULA (1970) and would later work for Joe D'Amato on 1976's BLACK COBRA. By the late '70s, Mattei shifted into directing, with a couple of 1977 Nazisploitation outings with SS GIRLS and WOMEN'S CAMP 119, followed by some dalliances with nunsploitation (THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUN OF MONZA, THE OTHER HELL), zombies (HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD aka NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES), post-nuke (RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR), women-in-prison (CAGED WOMEN, WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE), and even a Lou Ferrigno vehicle for Cannon (THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS). Mattei had a collaborative partnership with writer and future TROLL 2 auteur Claudio Fragasso, and the pair would frequently work as a team behind the camera, sometimes sharing credit with a pseudonym like "Stefan Oblowsky" on the nunsploitation films. In 1987, Mattei directed and Fragasso scripted the RAMBO ripoff STRIKE COMMANDO, their first effort for Italian producer Franco Gaudenzi. Gaudenzi's career in movies began with Mattei as part of the Joe D'Amato stock company, working as a set decorator, art director, and eventually assistant director on BLACK COBRA and the 1979 cannibal/necrophilia classic BEYOND THE DARKNESS. Mattei and Gaudenzi went way back, and when Gaudenzi formed his company Flora Film and became a producer based primarily in the Philippines, he had plenty of work for Mattei and Fragasso.

In his films for Gaudenzi, most of which were shot in and around Manila, Mattei really found his true calling as Italy's premier ripoff artist. He wasn't exactly new to the notion of swiping other people's ideas--HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD stole huge chunks of Goblin's DAWN OF THE DEAD score--but STRIKE COMMANDO really set the template for what the Three Stooges in the Gaudenzi/Mattei/Fragasso team would accomplish (with occasional uncredited script contributions from Fragasso's wife Rossella Drudi). STRIKE COMMANDO completely restages the finale of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, while 1987's DOUBLE TARGET was a somewhat less obvious take on the same material. Gaudenzi kept Mattei occupied during a busy 1988: STRIKE COMMANDO 2 is a Namsploitation outing that's also an unexpected riff on ROMANCING THE STONE, with Mattei and Gaudenzi somehow corralling a seriously slumming Richard Harris (who would later claim to be retired at the time the film was made) for a supporting role; ROBOWAR is an almost scene-for-scene copy of PREDATOR; and so enamored of the Namsploitation craze were Gaudenzi, Mattei, and Fragasso that they even cranked out COP GAME, a quickie imitation of the Saigon-set Willem Dafoe/Gregory Hines non-hit OFF LIMITS. As if Mattei's 1988 schedule wasn't already packed enough in the sweltering Filipino heat (everyone in these movies is profusely sweating at all times), he was even called in from the nearby set of STRIKE COMMANDO 2 by a desperate Gaudenzi to take over for a surly and ailing Lucio Fulci, who had just walked off of ZOMBI 3 with only 50 minutes of usable footage in the can. Mattei and Fragasso finished the film, which feels more Mattei than Fulci, even though the latter retains sole credit. But it's 1989's SHOCKING DARK that is perhaps the most jaw-droppingly audacious of Mattei's ripoffs from his furiously productive Gaudenzi era.

Set not in Gaudenzi's usual Manila stomping grounds but in a toxic Venice "after 2000," SHOCKING DARK has an elite Marine unit called "Megaforce" venturing beneath the city's canals to investigate the disappearance of another group of soldiers offed by mutant creatures. It doesn't take long to recognize that this is a blatant ALIENS ripoff. Not only are entire scenes completely recreated and played out verbatim (including one where a meter shows the creatures closing in on them and somebody yells "That's impossible, they'd already be here!" and another where two people are seen on a monitor silently waving for help but the mission's saboteur stealthily turns it off) but the characters themselves are exact replicas. There's the team of military badasses led by the hysterically raging Koster (Geretta Geretta, best known as the doomed Rosemary from DEMONS and credited here as "Geretta Giancarlo Field"), who's a composite of ALIENS' Vasquez and Apone; Sarah (Haven Tyler), a scientist and the Ripley-like outsider sent along as a consultant; young orphan and Newt stand-in Samantha (Dominica Coulson); and special ops badass Samuel Fuller (Cristofer Ahrens), an operative from "The Tubular Corporation," which sounds about as believable as Vandelay Industries, who eventually functions as SHOCKING DARK's Burke but in a completely different way. You see--and SPOILERS follow--SHOCKING DARK isn't content to just rip off one classic James Cameron film. It's also a knockoff of THE TERMINATOR, a mid-film twist hinted at by naming Tyler's character "Sarah." The mutant creatures eventually take a backseat once "Samuel Fuller" is exposed as a cyborg hellbent on sabotaging the mission. Though the film was made as SHOCKING DARK, it was eventually retitled by Gaudenzi and sold as...wait for it..TERMINATOR 2 (!), flashing back to the practice of Italian ripoffs being passed off as sequels to blockbuster American movies.

The real TERMINATOR 2 was still a couple of years away, but Gaudenzi's rechristening of SHOCKING DARK certainly did it no favors in finding US distribution, where it would've likely gone straight-to-court instead of straight-to-video. Long available on the bootleg circuit, SHOCKING DARK has finally received an official US release nearly 30 years after it was made, thanks to Severin's new Blu-ray, along with two other Gaudenzi productions, ZOMBI 3 and 1989's AFTER DEATH, directed by Fragasso and now commonly known as ZOMBIE 4: AFTER DEATH. SHOCKING DARK comes barrelling out of the gate and seems poised to become a new MIAMI CONNECTION or NIGHTMARE WEEKEND-level bad movie discovery of WTF? proportions. The ridiculous dialogue works beautifully in conjunction with the cast, comprised mostly of one-and-done American non-actors who were never seen or heard from again. Portland, OR-born model Geretta Geretta is probably the most experienced cast member (now a convention regular, she spent a significant amount of time in Italy in the '80s and also acted in Mattei's RATS under the name "Janna Ryann"), but she's killed off 35 minutes in. Fausto Lombardi appeared in several Italian B-movies from the early '80s on (RATS, HANNA D: THE GIRL FROM VONDEL PARK, the TOP GUN ripoff BLUE TORNADO). And Ahrens had some small parts in Italian genre fare but seems to have left the industry after 1999.

But as for the bulk of the remaining cast members--Tyler, Coulson, Cortland Reilly as the rad surfer-dude soldier Caine, and Bruce McFarland as the colonel at the command center--they all seem to be American college students who may have been in an exchange program or were just partying in Italy when they answered a casting call to be in a low-budget horror movie (even Coulson, who's supposed to a child but is probably in her late teens and is almost as tall as Tyler). Their inexperience as actors is only highlighted by the fact that this is one of the rare instances in Italian exploitation where the filmmakers are using live sound and not dubbing everyone over. None of the usual suspects in the dubbing world are present here. Nope, these deer-in-the-headlights newbies are bellowing their lines in an overwrought fashion and standing around looking confused (Tyler never seems comfortable and looks directly into the camera twice in one scene), with Mattei doing little to hide their obvious inexperience. Most of Mattei's films for Gaudenzi had some established name actors to provide even the slightest modicum of credibility--Reb Brown and Christopher Connelly in STRIKE COMMANDO, Brown in ROBOWAR, Richard Harris (Richard Harris?!?!) in STRIKE COMMANDO 2, Miles O'Keeffe, Donald Pleasence and Bo Svenson in DOUBLE TARGET--but there's no such voice of experience for the neophyte actors to look to here, only the performances of Sigourney Weaver and everyone else on a VHS copy of ALIENS that they probably had to share.

Eventually, SHOCKING DARK settles into a bunch of repetitive scenes of people walking down long corridors in the maintenance area under Rome's Termini Station, standing in for the Venice underground, with the possibility of playing a great drinking game for every time Coulson's character shouts "Sarah!" It's got some dull stretches, but the sheer chutzballs of its straight-up plagiarism of early James Cameron (what, no flying piranha?), and its final ridiculous twist in the closing minutes, is at times truly astonishing. It's also the kind of film that's so sloppy that it misspells Fragasso's usual "Clyde Anderson" pseudonym as "Clayde Anderson." Before long, stealing plots wouldn't be enough for Mattei. By 1995's belated JAWS ripoff CRUEL JAWS, he was swiping footage wholesale from JAWS, JAWS 2, and the slightly less-belated 1982 ripoff GREAT WHITE. This blew open new doors of duplicity for the veteran director. By the time of his final films--zero-budget, shot-on-video drek like 2004's THE TOMB and 2007's ZOMBIES: THE BEGINNING--Mattei was pilfering unlicensed footage from the likes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, ARMY OF DARKNESS, the 1999 version of THE MUMMY, and CRIMSON TIDE. Mattei died in 2007 at the age of 75, but the recent Blu-ray releases of SHOCKING DARK and WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE are doing their part to keep his dubious legend alive. Now all we need is a deluxe Blu-ray edition of STRIKE COMMANDO.

Monday, June 4, 2018


(US - 1975)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Written by Max Ehrlich. Cast: Michael Sarrazin, Jennifer O'Neill, Margot Kidder, Cornelia Sharpe, Paul Hecht, Tony Stephano, Normann Burton, Anne Ives, Debralee Scott, Steve Franken, Fred Stuthman, Addison Powell. (R, 105 mins)

Gifted with a vividly distinctive title that's ultimately more memorable than the film itself, THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD has become one of those horror movies from a bygone era whose scarce availability has led to somewhat of an inflated reputation that it's some mythical, lost masterpiece. Rarely seen since its 1980s VHS release and its long-ago days in regular rotation on late-night TV in what had to be a drastically-cut version, PETER PROUD was never released on DVD but is now reincarnated on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead). It's likely that some may find it a little too dry and too skimpy with the shocks, considering its contemporaries were the likes of THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN. In its own way, THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD, from the masters of erotica-infused horror at Bing Crosby Productions, carved its own niche for hard-R notoriety with its then-copious amounts of nudity and occasionally explicit sex, particularly an extended Margot Kidder bathtub masturbation scene that's usually the first and only thing anyone who's seen the film can recall whenever it's mentioned. "The Bathtub Scene" is also the subject of two different extras on the Blu-ray, which may further contribute to the legend that it's the 1970s horror geek equivalent of the LAST TANGO IN PARIS butter scene. But while Kidder leaves little to the imagination, it's still not the quite the teenage spank bank fodder that time and three decades of limited accessibility have made it out to be.

Adapted by veteran TV writer Max Ehrlich (THE DEFENDERS, THE UNTOUCHABLES, STAR TREK) from his 1973 novel, THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD managed to be modest hit in the summer of 1975, though it's almost certain that some of those movie tickets were purchased by people who couldn't get into a sold-out JAWS and were already at the theater anyway. Haunted by recurring dreams where he's someone he's never met being murdered by a woman he doesn't know, college professor Peter Proud (Michael Sarrazin) is referred to parapsychologist Dr. Goodman (Paul Hecht), who puts him in a dream study only to discover that his dream activity isn't even registering and that they may be psychic visions showing him events that took place 30 years earlier. Peter eventually concludes the town he sees in his visions is in Massachusetts, and with his skeptical and eventually unsympathetic girlfriend Nora (Cornelia Sharpe) in tow, Peter travels across the country and eventually finds the town, Crystal Lake (!). He seeks out Marcia Curtis (Kidder), the woman in his visions who he repeatedly sees kill her husband Jeff (Tony Stephano), and in time, he becomes increasingly unable to differentiate between his own memories and the memories of the dead Jeff, feeling certain that Jeff's spirit has been reborn in his body. To get to Marcia, Peter befriends her 30-year-old daughter Ann (Jennifer O'Neill), though Marcia rightly assumes that something is off about Peter, disturbed by the overwhelming sense that she's met him before.

With a bored Nora heading back to California, Peter is freed up, which inevitably leads to a romance with Ann, thus establishing an undeniable ick factor in the sense that Peter, his body slowly becoming the vessel for the murdered and reborn Jeff, is essentially sleeping with his own daughter, who was only three months old when her father was killed. With Jeff inside his head, Peter comes to sympathize with why Marcia did what she did (Jeff was abusive and a serial adulterer) and as his love for Ann grows (even though he occasionally slips and refers to her as "my daughter"), he doesn't want to return to his old life. It wouldn't take a whole lot of tweaking to turn this into a maudlin, supernaturally-skewed Nicholas Sparks story if it were made today. Of course, you'd have to factor out the incestous elements, along with the fact that the masturbation scene is intercut with Marcia fantasizing about a time when Jeff violently raped her, a juxtaposition that, coupled with the incest, would launch at least two weeks' worth of AV Club and Vulture thinkpieces.

Even without her showstopping bathtub scene, Kidder gives the showiest performance, even though half of it is under aging makeup that's passable but doesn't quite stand up in the age of high-definition. Quebec-born Sarrazin, best known for 1969's THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? and in the midst of his run as a '70s Hollywood leading man before heading back to Canada in the mid '80s (he was big enough in his day to host SNL in 1978), is fine as the troubled Proud, though his performance requires more reacting than acting and a lot of driving, as the first hour offers so much of Peter behind the wheel that it threatens to become a supernatural road movie. THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD is a middling effort from journeyman director J. Lee Thompson, whose career ran that gamut from revered classics like 1961's THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and 1962's CAPE FEAR to later Cannon essentials like 1983's 10 TO MIDNIGHT and 1989's KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS. There isn't much in the way of suspense or scares as the story plays out, requiring Thompson offer a little more skin than usual for this sort of thing, but there is one of Jerry Goldsmith's most unusual scores, one that eventually turns distinctively Goldsmithian near the end but for the most part, is a lot of eeric electronically-based sounds and effects. The most effective scene isn't Kidder's much-ballyhooed adult bathtime, but an emotional and heartbreaking one where Ann introduces Peter to her dementia-addled grandmother (Anne Ives), whose mind immediately returns from wherever it was as she sees her long-dead son Jeff in Peter and asks where he's been all this time. Most horror fans satisfying their curiosity about PETER PROUD won't be asking that when this reaches its conclusion, but for cult movie connoisseurs and fans of the recently deceased Kidder and the somewhat forgotten Sarrazin (who died in 2011), it's at least worth a look.