Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Retro Review: CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1960)

(UK - 1960)

Directed by Sidney Hayers. Written by George Baxt. Cast: Anton Diffring, Erika Remberg, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasence, Jane Hylton, Conrad Phillips, Kenneth Griffith, Vanda Hudson, Yvonne Romain, Colette Wilde, Jack Gwillim, John Merivale, Carla Challoner, Walter Gotell, Kenny Baker. (Unrated, 92 mins)

Known primarily for the first dozen films in the long-running CARRY ON series, the British production company and distributor Anglo-Amalgamated occasionally delved into the respectable with BILLY LIAR and DARLING, but was otherwise a prolific B-movie factory through the 1950s and 1960s. They got in on the residual Hammer horror action with what was unofficially termed "the Sadian trilogy" by film historian David Pirie in his groundbreaking 1971 British gothic horror chronicle A Heritage of Horror. 1959's HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (directed by Arthur Crabtree) and 1960's classic PEEPING TOM (directed by Michael Powell) set the tone with their increased focus on the lurid, whether it's the grisly-for-the-time violence or the sexually suggestive elements (particularly in the self-explanatory PEEPING TOM) that took things a step beyond Hammer. 1960's CIRCUS OF HORRORS closed the "trilogy" in grand fashion and became a box-office success in the US, where it was released by American International and spawned multiple versions of Garry Mills' hit UK single "Look for a Star," which is heard several times throughout. Directed by Sidney Hayers, who would go on to helm 1962's terrifying BURN, WITCH, BURN, CIRCUS OF HORRORS is rather tame by today's standards but remains a trashy delight, anchored by the quintessential Anton Diffring performance, and is just out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory, because physical media is dead.

Diffring, fresh off off the title role in Hammer's THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, stars as Dr. Rossiter, an egomaniacal, quack plastic surgeon who flees post-war, 1947 London after a botched experimental operation that leaves a young socialite (Colette Wilde) horribly disfigured. Still convinced of his own genius, and with a pair of fawning sycophants in tow in sibling apprentices Martin (Kenneth Griffith) and Angela (Jane Hylton), Rossiter changes his appearance--primarily the removal of a proto-beatnik beard-- and starts going by "Dr. Schuller" by the time the trio end up in France, which is still in poverty-stricken devastation from the war. A chance encounter on the side of the road where Schuller asks a little girl (Carla Challoner) for directions leads him to a decrepit circus owned by the girl's widowed, drunkard father Vanet (a young-ish Donald Pleasence). The little girl--Nicole--has extensive facial scarring from a bomb blast, inspiring Schuller to concoct a scheme where he can continue to practice his craft by using the circus as a front. He restores the girl's beauty, which convinces Vanet to sign the circus over to him as part of a partnership. Then Schuller does absolutely nothing to intervene when the celebrating, shitfaced Vanet tries to dance with the circus' bear and is promptly mauled to death.

Ten years pass, and the circus has relocated to Berlin, where the grown Nicole (Yvonne Monlaur) now calls Schuller "Uncle," and the other circus performers--among them the star attraction Magda von Meck (Vanda Hudson) and the ambitious Ellissa Caro (Erika Remberg)--are all formerly scarred criminals being blackmailed by Schuller by being given a new lease on life and hiding incognito in the circus in exchange for letting Schuller operate on them. All goes well for Schuller until inconveniences start popping up--like Magda falling in love with wealthy Baron von Gruber (Walter Gotell) and wanting to leave the circus, or spiteful Ellissa making a lot of noise when Schuller starts devoting his attention to new and formerly burn-scarred attraction Melina (Yvonne Romain)--leading to the doctor cajoling the hapless Martin into staging a series of fatal "accidents" to keep them quiet. Adding to Schuller's dilemma is Angela's increasing resentment of being kept on the backburner after carrying a torch for him since his days as Rossiter, plus a detective (Conrad Phillips) who's gone undercover as a reporter to ingratiate himself into the "jinxed circus" to investigate why a dozen of its pretty female performers have died in freak mishaps over the last several years.

Anton Diffring (1916-1989)
The story is beyond preposterous, but it works thanks in large part to Diffring. Born in 1916, Diffring fled Hitler's Germany in 1939 only to find himself typecast as Nazi generals and commandants in films throughout the 1950s all the way to the 1980s (most notably in 1965's THE HEROES OF TELEMARK, 1966's THE BLUE MAX, 1969's WHERE EAGLES DARE, 1971's ZEPPELIN, 1975's OPERATION DAYBREAK, the epic 1983 ABC miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR, and Jerry Lewis' infamous and never-released THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED). Diffring turned up in respectable films like Francois Truffaut's 1966 Ray Bradbury adaptation FAHRENHEIT 451, but he also found consistent employment in Eurotrash fare like 1971's THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE, 1973's MARK OF THE DEVIL PART II and SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE, Jess Franco's 1977 nunsploitation potboiler LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN, the same year's German EMMANUELLE ripoff VANESSA (where he played Alain Cuny's aging sexual mentor role), and, in one of his last credits before his death in 1989, Franco's all-star 1988 plastic surgery gorefest FACELESS, where his very presence was an obvious shout-out to his turn in CIRCUS OF HORRORS. As sleazy as the proceedings can be, it's given a classy sheen with the cinematography of the great Douglas Slocombe, a future three-time Oscar-nominee whose long career lasted from 1940 until his retirement following 1989's INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, after which he lived another quarter century until his death in 2016 at the age of 103 (in addition to THX-1138 co-star Pleasence, the film has another George Lucas connection with Kenny Baker, seen briefly as a circus dwarf 17 years before playing R2-D2 in STAR WARS). Though Hayers (1921-2000) displayed some undeniable chops in the horror genre between this and BURN, WITCH, BURN (and a pair of 1971 efforts with IN THE DEVIL'S GARDEN and INN OF THE FRIGHTENED PEOPLE), the remainder of his career was spent mostly in TV journeyman mode with credits on shows like THE AVENGERS, THE NEW AVENGERS, MAGNUM P.I., THE FALL GUY, MANIMAL, T.J. HOOKER, KNIGHT RIDER, and THE A-TEAM.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

In Theaters: IT: CHAPTER TWO (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Andy Muschietti. Written by Gary Dauberman. Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Bill Skarsgard, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Teach Grant, Nicholas Hamilton, Javier Botet, Xavier Dolan, Jess Weixler, Taylor Frey, Molly Atkinson, Joan Gregson, Will Beinbrink, Stephen King, Peter Bogdanovich, Stephen Bogaert, Luke Roessler, Jackson Robert Scott, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Joe Bostick, Megan Charpentier, Juno Rinaldi, Owen Teague, Jake Sim. (R, 169 mins)

A blockbuster hit that currently stands as the highest-grossing horror film of all time (by present-day dollars and not by ticket sales or adjustment for inflation), 2017's IT, an adaptation of the first half of Stephen King's gargantuan 1986 novel, ushered in an era of renewed interest in the legendary author's work. This includes the Netflix films GERALD'S GAME and 1922, this year's remake of PET SEMATARY, this fall's DOCTOR SLEEP, a sequel to both King's novel The Shining and Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film version, which King has spent nearly 40 years criticizing, and several other announced film and TV projects in various states of development or production. Every generation has their genre touchstones, and IT--in many ways a hard-R GOONIES--has become a gateway film for impressionable young horror fans. Every generation's gateway is different, and just as aging purists who cut their teeth on Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi dismissed the blood and guts horror that gained traction in the 1970s, it's easy to for us jaded cynics now in our 40s to take a shit all over whatever it is "the kids" are into and inevitably sound all Old Man Yells at Cloud. I liked IT--it didn't blow me away, but I can see where a 13-year-old might consider it a watershed moment that hopefully leads to further exploration. IT was entertaining but it relied heavily on the now-overused trope of "scary clowns" as well as the crutch of nostalgia, especially by updating the setting of the childhood section of the novel from 1958 to 1989. Of course this also meant recurring invocations of everything 1989, from BATMAN to LETHAL WEAPON 2 to A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5, and a running gag about New Kids on the Block. This retro fetishizing of everything '80s (all that's missing is a John Carpenter-esque synth score) is representative of the move in horror toward The Reference--the AMERICAN HORROR STORY/STRANGER THINGSification of the genre, if you will. And returning director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman push that even further in IT: CHAPTER TWO.

Running a bladder-challenging 169 minutes--a mere three minutes shorter than THE GODFATHER--IT: CHAPTER TWO is a disappointing sequel. With the first film's characters reconvening in 2016 after 27 years apart, the film is a success in terms of its effective casting choices and finding actors who, for the most part, strongly resemble the younger versions of their characters. When murders begin taking place in Derry 27 years after "It" was defeated, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the town librarian and lone member of "The Losers" who never moved away, reaches out to his six childhood friends spread all across the country--Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), a novelist and screenwriter with a habit of writing bad endings; Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), a popular but hacky stand-up comic who doesn't even write his own material; Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone), still a nervous hypochondriac who works insurance risk assessment and married a woman just like his mother (and played by the same actress, Molly Atkinson); Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), now an architect who lost all the weight that made him a target of incessant childhood bullying; Stanley Uris (Andy Bean), who grew up to be an accountant; and Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), a successful fashion designer stuck in an abusive marriage. The reunion is one short when childhood memories come back to Stanley, who commits suicide rather than face the manifestation of It in Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgard). Those youthful traumas are only remembered by Mike, who informs the others that once you leave Derry, the memories slowly fade away. But with "It" rearing its ugly head again and the body count rising, the other Losers begin to remember. Through his research, Mike learns that the only way to defeat It is by performing "The Ritual of Chud," a Native American tribal rite that requires them to find one artifact from their childhood before venturing deep into It's lair underneath Derry.

The camaraderie of the young cast of IT--who also appear here in new scenes--was probably its most successful aspect aside from Skarsgard's wild performance as Pennywise. As in IT, the actor is too often replaced by herky-jerky CGI enhancement that almost makes his very presence pointless. IT: CHAPTER TWO, however, spends much of its length with the adult Losers on various solo quests to obtain their artifacts, during which time they have their own confrontations with the past and run-ins with It. There's also the grown-up bully Henry Bowers (Teach Grant), busted out of a mental institution by It in the form of the decayed corpse of his childhood partner-in-crime Patrick Hockstetter (Owen Teague); a little boy (Luke Roessler) who lives in Bill's childhood home and is a new target of It; and Ben's still-unrequited love for Beverly, and these are just some of the too many subplots that IT: CHAPTER TWO has to juggle while jettisoning key characters like Bill's movie star wife Audra (Jess Weixler) and Beverly's asshole husband Tom (Will Beinbrink), who are quickly introduced and never seen again, and still managing to find time for a jokey Stephen King cameo. The film seems long for the sake of being long, and certainly the interminable artifact quests, which constitute almost the entire second hour, could've been condensed or perhaps would've played better if this were made into the limited cable series that it often seems to be emulating, especially with the extended wrap-up that feels more like a series finale than the ending of a movie.

The MVP standout is Hader, whose grown-up Richie is given a new layer of characterization that could've easily come off as woke pandering but is brought to life with heartfelt empathy by the SNL vet, best known for his comedic skills but someone I can easily see morphing into a versatile dramatic actor of the Micheal Keaton variety. As it is, IT: CHAPTER TWO is the HOBBIT of Stephen King adaptations. For all its bloat and overlength despite dumping huge chunks of the novel, it's a story that could've easily been told in two hours, but its predecessor was such a success that Muschietti was likely given carte blanche to run as long as he wanted. It has its moments, but they're spread out over the nearly three-hour run time. Any experienced horror fans will see the jump scares coming a shot before they do since Muschietti's set-ups are all the same, and Pennywise's now-repetitive antics seemed much scarier when they were aimed at the childhood-era Losers (and nothing here even comes close to the terrifying slide projector scene in the first film). Plus, the endless referencing and shout-outs--to things like THE THING, ALIENS, THE SHINING, STAND BY ME, THE LOST BOYS, and even Hader is forced to utter a groaner in the form of DIE HARD's most iconic line in the final battle with Pennywise--just feels lazy. Right around the point when adult Eddie's frightful run-in with It in the dank, cavernous basement of the Derry pharmacy is punctuated by what might go down as the dumbest and most pointless needle-drop in film history in the form of Juice Newton's 1981 hit "Angel of the Morning," I was pretty much over this chapter of IT.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

In Theaters/On VOD: THE FANATIC (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Fred Durst. Written by Dave Bekerman and Fred Durst. Cast: John Travolta, Devon Sawa, Ana Golja, Jacob Grodnik, James Paxton, Josh Richman, Marta Gonzalez Rodin, Kenneth Farmer, Martin Pena, Denny Mendez. (R, 88 mins)

"You are a fan. Without you, I'm nothing" - Hunter Dunbar

"I can't talk too long. I gotta poo" - Moose

From the moment a pic of a bowl-mulleted John Travolta went viral, showing him playing an obsessed stalker named Moose in a thriller directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, THE FANATIC was instantly tapped as 2019's must-see bad movie. It's not as if Durst is a completely terrible director--his family-friendly 2008 Ice Cube comedy THE LONGSHOTS was a modest success in theaters--but THE FANATIC is a perfect storm. That's due in part to Durst's place as the poster boy for a rock subgenre that's aged like a piss-warm Monster energy drink, but mainly for the sorry state of Travoltablivion, with the iconic actor having spent the better part of the last decade in a VOD lull that probably makes him long for the glory days of BATTLEFIELD EARTH. GOTTI was a laughingstock and SPEED KILLS his all-time worst, but THE FANATIC is...well, it's something. So much so that you're torn between declaring it the next THE ROOM or admiring its insanity and marveling at the sheer chutzballs audacity of Travolta's truly unhinged, lunatic performance. For better or worse, you've never seen anything quite like THE FANATIC--not even the similarly stan-themed thrillers like 1981's THE FAN or 1996's THE FAN. It's bowing on VOD a week after tanking hard on about 50 screens across the US, which does THE FANATIC a grave injustice: this deserves to be the next midnight movie sensation playing to packed audiences shouting out Travolta's most ridiculous lines ROCKY HORROR-style. Is THE FANATIC good? Fuck no, it's not good. But it was everything I hoped it would be after seeing that pic of Travolta and everyone who loves movies needs to experience it.

Travolta is Moose, an obsessive movie nerd, autograph hound and painfully awkward denizen of Hollywood Blvd, clearly on the spectrum but THE FANATIC doesn't address that. Moped-riding Moose makes some spare cash doing a terrible "London bobby" busking act on the street, but he lives to nab autographs set up by his only friend, low-level aspiring paparazzo Leah (Ana Golja). Leah gets the score of a lifetime for Moose by talking him into crashing a swanky party where his favorite actor Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa) is rumored to be in attendance. He isn't, and Moose makes such a scene with another actress (Denny Mendez) that security throws him out. But Moose is undeterred, since Dunbar is also doing a book signing at a local comic shop the next day, but just as Moose gets to the front of the line, Dunbar is called away by a personal matter with his irate girlfriend who's waiting out back. And Moose--who bought the very jacket Dunbar wore in VAMPIRE KILLERS in the hopes of having it signed--never does get his autograph. This leads to a tense confrontation outside prompting Moose to write a heartfelt fan latter and, using a star maps app suggested by Leah, deciding to hand-deliver it, waiting outside Dunbar's house to get his autograph so he can personally tell him how much his movies mean to him. An enraged Dunbar writes his name with a Sharpie across Moose's favorite shirt ("You want an autograph? Here's your autograph!") and angrily tells him to get lost. Moose leaves and comes back, again and again, and the cycle repeats and gets increasingly weird and uncomfortable.

Moose eventually gets inside Dunbar's house as the film ultimately becomes a rote rehash of MISERY, but it's everything up to that point that makes THE FANATIC a must-see. From his first line of dialogue--telling the comic shop manager "I can't talk too long...I gotta poo"--Travolta's go-for-broke performance is astonishing, almost like it's his personal version of the sandwich board scene in DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, as if someone has made a grave threat and is "Simon Says"-ing him into engaging in increasingly absurd ways of embarrassing himself. It's impossible to take your eyes off Travolta, starting with his ludicrous appearance, but then with nearly everything he says and does: rubbing behind his ears and sniffing his fingers whenever he gets nervous or excited; standing in front of the mirror practicing what he'll say to Dunbar ("You were really rad in VAMPIRE KILLERS!") and being so proud of himself for coming up with something "rememorable" ("He's gonna love me!"); getting angry with Leah, grabbing his phone, and screaming "See! Watch me! I'm unfollowing you on social media!"; choking a bullying street hustler (Jacob Grodnik) and drooling uncontrollably as he shouts about how he wishes Freddy Krueger would chop off his head; having a crying fit when he's rejected time and again by Dunbar, burning all of his Hunter Dunbar memorabilia and rocking back and forth on his couch as he watches Dunbar movies in his shithole apartment while screaming "You're a big fake!"; sneaking into Dunbar's house after accidentally killing his housekeeper (Marta Gonzalez Rodin) and puttering around, raiding his fridge, taking a dump, sniffing and licking his toothbrush and hiding in his bedroom closet; waiting for Dunbar's insomnia meds to kick in and knock him out so he can rub behind Dunbar's ears and sniff his fingers, stick his finger in Dunbar's mouth, then take selfies with the passed-out actor; and finally tying Dunbar to his bed and demanding his autograph, and totally being seduced by promises that they'll hang out, watch movies, go to Musso & Frank's and get strawberry ice cream, and be total BFFs. You really haven't lived until you've seen a weeping John Travolta crawl into bed to cuddle and put his head on the shoulder of a restrained Devon Sawa and coo "I love you!"

Devon Sawa: in character or genuinely
marveling at Travolta's work in THE FANATIC?
THE FANATIC promised the Bad Movie event of 2019 and goddammit, it delivers. It's got--by the widest margin imaginable--the most over-the-top performance of Travolta's career. You'll marvel at the idiotic machinations that the script (co-written by Durst) has to go through to make the twist ending happen. You'll roll your eyes at Dunbar driving around with his young son and asking "You wanna listen to some music? How about a little Limp Bizkit?" You'll wonder why Travolta needed an "executive assistant" and three additional personal assistants in the closing credits. You almost have to think this is a joke and that Travolta and Durst are in on it. If that's the case, someone forgot to tell Sawa--in some clever casting in that he was the title fanatic in Eminem's "Stan" video nearly 20 years ago--who plays it serious and somehow manages to keep a straight face amidst Travolta's off-the-chain histrionics. It's competent on a technical level--it's not that kind of bad movie--but I can't stress enough how spectacularly terrible it is. I don't know whether to feel sorry for Travolta for sinking this low or to give him a standing O for his unwavering commitment to this mad vision. You're actually uncomfortable not so much for what the character is doing but for watching Travolta bring it to life. It's one of the ten worst films of 2019 but I guarantee it's the only one on that list that I'll be buying on Blu-ray and watching several more times. I don't exaggerate when I say that I haven't been to this level of Bad Movie nirvana in the modern era since the heyday of Uwe Boll.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: INTO THE ASHES (2019) and COLD BLOOD (2019)

(US - 2019)

The grim rural Alabama indie noir INTO THE ASHES seems to have all the ingredients for a compelling story that's heavy on the bleak hopelessness, but it just never quite manages to get its shit together and become the next BLUE RUIN or BAD TURN WORSE. Nick Brenner (YELLOWSTONE's Luke Grimes) lives a quiet life doing repairs for a local furniture company, but his past is about to come back and bite him in the ass in the form of Sloan (Frank Grillo). Just paroled after serving a several-year stretch because Nick hung him out to dry, Sloan wants revenge, and he doesn't care that Nick has cleaned up his act and built a new life--including buying a home with Sloan's money--with Tara (Marguerite Moreau). Sloan and two associates, Charlie (David Cade) and Bruce (Scott Peat), with the help of a sleazy private eye who learns the hard way that he shouldn't gouge Sloan for more money, end up at Nick's house while he's away for the weekend working on restoring a boat with his buddy Sal (James Badge Dale). When Nick returns, he's greeted by Sloan and his crew, who inform him that they killed Tara before shooting him twice in the back and leaving him for dead. He wakes up handcuffed to a hospital bed under the steely glare of Sheriff Frank (Robert Taylor, taking his LONGMIRE act for another spin), who also happens to be his father-in-law and always knew he was no good. Nick manages to escape from custody when Frank leaves him with his idiot deputy (Brady Smith), and teams up with Sal to go after Sloan, Charlie, and Bruce.

It shouldn't take much to make something like INTO THE ASHES function as an engrossing thriller, but writer/director Aaron Harvey (best known for the dismal 2011 Tarantino knockoff CATCH .44, one of Bruce Willis' earliest forays into the world of straight-to-VOD) keeps the pace at a lugubrious crawl, and repeatedly errs in having significant events take place offscreen, only to have the characters talk about them after. That includes a late-film POV switch from Nick to Frank, who arrives on the scene of a motel shootout, sending him on a search for his son-in-law. Harvey eventually shows what happened in a later flashback, but by that point it doesn't matter, since we know who was killed and whatever minimal momentum was building has been completely quashed by a director trying to be stylish. Grillo (among the team of producers, along with his buddy Joe Carnahan) is an effective bad guy, but he's absent for long stretches, a tell-tale sign that they only had him for a few days. Grimes is sufficiently glum and dour but he remains a blank slate throughout, and only Taylor manages to create a genuinely interesting character, which Harvey of course diminishes by giving him pretentious voiceovers referencing religious parables about Samson in reference to Nick. INTO THE ASHES would've been a lot better if it just told a straightforward story instead of incessantly stalling itself and fumbling around with Creative Writing 101-level subtext in an attempt to be "deep." (Unrated, 97 mins)

(France/Ukraine - 2019)

A thriller so blandly by-the-numbers that it actually fades from your memory while you're watching it, COLD BLOOD could almost qualify as Luc Besson fan fiction on the part of debuting director Frederic Petitjean, right down to the hiring of cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, a frequent Besson collaborator going back to 1990's LA FEMME NIKITA. But the real Besson worship is evidenced by the presence of Jean Reno in what amounts to an alternate universe incarnation of his Leon character from Besson's 1994 favorite THE PROFESSIONAL, only here he's called Henry. The film opens in the snowy nowhere of the Pacific Northwest wilderness, where Melody (Sarah Lind) crashes her snowmobile. Bleeding and unconscious, she's found and nursed back to health by Henry, who lives in quiet solitude in a cabin on the lake. Flashbacks reveal Henry is actually a hit man in hiding after whacking a billionaire CEO (Jean-Luc Olivier) in NYC ten months earlier. The CEO was actually born in the nearest town in Washington state and chose to be buried there (of all the places for Henry to hide), which prompts irate local detective Kappa (BACKDRAFT 2's Joe Anderson) to investigate the murder himself. Other characters exist on the fringe, like an assassin (David Gyasi) hired by the CEO's sinister chief aide (Francois Guetary) and a "surprise" involving Melody that will only surprise you if COLD BLOOD is the first movie you've ever seen.

A French-Ukrainian co-production shot in Kiev, COLD BLOOD never quite looks or feels "American," starting with most of the Ukrainian supporting cast being unconvincingly dubbed. But there's also a ton of awkward, stilted dialogue like Kappa's wizened old partner Davies (Ihor Ciszkewycz) asking him why he transferred from NYC to the middle of nowhere and being told, in a way that suggests a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma that's covered in pretentious bullshit, "Maybe I wanted to get lost." Or a head-scratcher of an exchange that actually sounds like Petitjean fishing for a distribution deal, where Davies asks Kappa "They got Netflix in New York?" and Kappa glowers "You see the things I see in New York City, you won't need Netflix." Or a floridly overwritten scene between Kappa and the CEO's estranged, dementia-stricken ex-wife (DOWNTON ABBEY's Samantha Bond, also Miss Moneypenny in the Pierce Brosnan-era 007 films), who's prone to surprisingly verbose purple prose and mellifluous exposition dumps for someone who can't remember a damn thing. For his part, Reno is Reno. At first, it's nice to see him in lethal assassin mode again, but he looks tired and bored, and after watching COLD BLOOD, one could hardly blame him. (R, 91 mins)

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

In Theaters/On VOD: ANGEL OF MINE (2019)

(Australia/US - 2019)

Directed by Kim Farrant. Written by Luke Davies and David Regal. Cast: Noomi Rapace, Yvonne Strahovski, Luke Evans, Richard Roxburgh, Pip Miller, Tracy Mann, Rob Collins, Rachel Gordon, Finn Little, Annika Whiteley, Indy Serafin, Mirko Grillini. (R, 98 mins)

The Australian-made Lionsgate VOD pickup ANGEL OF MINE, a remake of a 2008 French film of the same name, is a throwback of sorts to the "(blank)-from-Hell" thrillers that were so prevalent in the '90s and will sufficiently scratch that itch if you're nostalgic for the days of THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE. 25 years ago, this probably would've starred Sharon Stone and Nicole Kidman and been the #1 movie in America for at least a couple of weeks. But in 2019, it skips theaters and stars Noomi Rapace--forever the original GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO--and THE HANDMAID'S TALE's Yvonne Strahovski. Rapace has very quietly built a solid resume of strong performances in VOD and Netflix streaming fare (WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY, CLOSE) and she's at the top of her game here as Lizzie, the divorced mother of ten-year-old Thomas (Finn Little), who spends every other week with her as part of the joint custody she shares with ex-husband Mike (Luke Evans). But Thomas doesn't like being around his mother ("He feels your darkness," Mike admonishes) and Mike has petitioned for full custody. Seven years earlier, their newborn daughter Rosie died in a tragic hospital fire that left significant burn scars on Lizzie's back. She spent a year in a mental institution and hasn't been able to pick up the pieces. Her therapist thinks she's gone off her meds, she can't focus on her job at an upscale cosmetics store, and things start spiraling downward when she takes Thomas to his friend Jeremy's (Indy Serafin) birthday party and sees Jeremy's seven-year-old sister Lola (Annika Whiteley). She instantly senses that Lola is her daughter and becomes obsessed with her, slowly ingratiating herself into the lives of Lola's wealthy parents, Claire (Strahovski) and Bernard (Richard Roxburgh), first by pretending to be interested in buying the house they've just put up for sale, then by tagging along on a trip to an ice skating rink where she inadvertently causes Lola to fall and hit her head. Lizzie also starts lingering outside Claire's and Bernard's house, peering through the privacy fence, hanging out backstage at Lola's ballet recital and distracting her during her performance, and eventually breaking into the house and hiding in a closet.

While Bernard tries to give her the benefit of the doubt ("She lost her baby!"), Claire sees the fixation and doesn't ignore the red flags, warning the clearly unstable Lizzie to stay away from them. Of course, she doesn't, and even with an intervention arranged by Mike, her therapist, and her parents (Pip Miller, Tracy Mann), Lizzie refuses to listen to anyone and insists Lola is her Rosie and will stop at nothing to prove it. Directed by Kim Farrant (2015's little-seen STRANGERLAND), ANGEL OF MINE strains credulity the more it goes on, the pieces don't always add up (Roxburgh's Bernard being particularly clueless), and it ends in a way that's a little more restrained and sympathetic than aficionados of these sorts of thrillers would prefer. But it's carried entirely by the powerhouse performances of Rapace and Strahovski, the former being one of the best actresses around these days, though she still hasn't quite cracked the American A-list market beyond starring in Ridley Scott's PROMETHEUS.

Nevertheless, ANGEL OF MINE is an essential for Rapace fans, as she fearlessly dives into this (including the most uncomfortable and cringe-worthy post-blind date hookup in recent memory), and wisely never overplays the hysteria or careens out of control on the crazy train. Lizzie is a profoundly sad and troubled woman who's crossing lines in increasingly unacceptable ways but still manages to elicit sympathy for her unimaginable loss (Rapace is just heartbreaking when she's in the middle of a tearful meltdown and insists to Claire "I used to be funny!"). Farrant and screenwriters Luke Davies (LION) and David Regal (a TV vet who logged time on RUGRATS, THE WILD THORNBERRYS, and ACCORDING TO JIM, among other shows) allow Rapace to create a fully-developed character instead of a stalker caricature in the way she means no harm to Claire's family--she just knows in her heart that Lola is her child and wants her back and she won't be deterred by threats of a restraining order or the police. A cut above the usual Lionsgate/Grindstone VOD fare, ANGEL OF MINE is generally well-done for this sort of thing, despite a weak and improbable wrap-up. The obligatory "big reveal" in the climax won't really surprise any seasoned movie watcher, but Rapace and Strahovski put forth some valiant effort in selling it.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Retro Review: FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1972)

(UK - 1972; US release 1974)

Directed by Jimmy Sangster. Written by Jimmy Sangster and Michael Syson. Cast: Judy Geeson, Joan Collins, Ralph Bates, Peter Cushing, James Cossins, Gillian Lind, Brian Grellis, John Bown. (PG, 94 mins)

A minor late-period Hammer thriller that's rarely referenced today, 1972's middling FEAR IN THE NIGHT gets by almost entirely on atmosphere alone, set in an eerily empty boarding school that allows director/co-writer Jimmy Sangster to maximize the sense of isolation felt by the film's terrorized heroine. But the story is so rote, predictable, and ultimately silly that the payoff isn't really worth the buildup. Recovering from what's been unfairly deemed a nervous breakdown (someone slipped her a mickey in a restaurant) followed closely by an attack by a one-armed man that no one around her believes really happened, Peggy (Judy Geeson) leaves her job as a caregiver for elderly Mrs. Beamish (Gillian Lind) when she marries teacher Robert (Ralph Bates) after a whirlwind romance. Robert moves them to an isolated rural area outside of London where he's accepted a position at a boarding school run by headmaster Carmichael (Peter Cushing). But right away, something is off and naive Peggy never does quite pick up on it: there doesn't seem to be any other teachers aside from Robert, and she keeps hearing voices in classrooms but there's no sign of any students. Carmichael--who has a prosthetic left arm--acts weird around her, she gets a strange vibe from his much-younger wife Molly (Joan Collins), and she's eventually attacked again by a one-armed man, but an incredulous, dismissive Robert tells her to "sleep on it" before talking her out of calling the police.

Hammer fans will recognize recycled elements from other Sangster-scripted women-in-peril thrillers like SCREAM OF FEAR (1961), PARANOIAC (1963), NIGHTMARE (1964), and CRESCENDO (1970), with some dashes of classics like GASLIGHT and DIABOLIQUE for good measure. But some of the big third-act reveals are so obvious that you'll figure out that someone is trying to drive Peggy insane and frame her for a murder long before Peggy does, especially with Robert's behavior and the presence of Collins, cast radically against type as a scheming, manipulative bitch. Robert's confession to Peggy about why he's actually at the school and what he's actually doing for Carmichael is utter nonsense, and the ultimate trick pulled off by Carmichael just comes off as one contrivance too many. Despite its myriad flaws, FEAR IN THE NIGHT is a reasonably enjoyable Hammer suspense thriller if approached with shrugged shoulders and an appropriately diminished level of expectation. Geeson (best known for co-starring with Sidney Poitier in 1967's TO SIR, WITH LOVE and more recently emerging from semi-retirement to appear in Rob Zombie's THE LORDS OF SALEM and 31) turns in an appealing performance even though you'll wish she wasn't so meek, passive, and slow on the uptake. It's obvious from the moment he's introduced sinisterly grimacing while adjusting his prosthetic arm like Dr. Strangelove that Cushing's Carmichael can't possibly be the villain, and with what's essentially a four-character story, it doesn't take much sleuthing on the part of the viewer to figure out what's going on and who's responsible.

Having written trailblazing Hammer titles like 1957's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and 1958's HORROR OF DRACULA among many others, Sangster saw his short-lived and largely negatively-received directing career end with FEAR IN THE NIGHT, which followed 1970's THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN and 1971's LUST FOR A VAMPIRE. All three of Sangster's films starred Ralph Bates, FEAR being the last of several unsuccessful attempts at grooming the young actor to be Hammer horror's heir apparent, selected to help nab the youth market as Cushing was pushing 60 and Christopher Lee was nearing 50. Hammer and Bates parted ways by the time FEAR IN THE NIGHT was barely released in the US in 1974, and it marked the only film to team Bates with Cushing, the legend he was supposed to succeed. The film is old-fashioned enough and completely lacking in the lurid sex and skin in which Hammer was beginning to indulge that, aside from the hairstyles and the fashions and one shouted "Bastard!," it could've been made a decade earlier.

Ralph Bates and Jimmy Sangster
on the set of FEAR IN THE NIGHT
For all its stale twists and predictability issues, FEAR IN THE NIGHT (just out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory because physical media is dead), is probably Sangster's most accomplished directorial effort from a technical standpoint. The money shot that concludes the opening credits sequence is legitimately creepy, there's some unusual cutting techniques that are well-handled, and the use of all the open space in the hallways and abandoned rooms at the school indicates that he may have caught some of the early hits of the Italian giallo craze. But without the shocking violence and the innovative style of a Dario Argento, FEAR IN THE NIGHT can't really compete in that field, and the story is so old-hat that most of the "surprise" twists are really just hoary cliches. Sangster (1927-2011) would soon leave Hammer behind, relocating to Hollywood by late 1972, where he became a busy television writer, only periodically dabbling in big-screen horror (he wrote 1978's THE LEGACY and 1980's PHOBIA) while focusing on TV shows like BANACEK, IRONSIDE, CANNON, MCCLOUD, MOVIN' ON, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, WONDER WOMAN, and B.J. AND THE BEAR.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: KILLERS ANONYMOUS (2019) and ASTRONAUT (2019)

(UK/US - 2019)

Gary Oldman really should have better things to do after his DARKEST HOUR Oscar triumph than dropping in for Bruce Willis duty on a straight-to-VOD Lionsgate/Grindstone clunker like KILLERS ANONYMOUS. So should Jessica Alba, who has even less to do here than Oldman, yet both are prominently displayed on the cut-and-paste poster art for this utterly dreadful dark comedy that squanders them and an interesting premise and crosses its fingers hoping that frantically piling on one nonsensical twist after another in the final act will gaslight you into thinking you're watching a more clever movie than you are (and just take a moment and look at that poster--it looks like the graphic design team had a 5:00 pm deadline and started working on it at 4:57). KILLERS ANONYMOUS opens with a prologue where Oldman's unnamed character (a mystery man known only as "The Man") is summoned from Los Angeles to London by underling Jade (Alba) to assess a botched assassination attempt on a popular US senator (Sam Hazeldine) who's a rising star with presidential aspirations. Jade is killed during the opening credits (and that's it for Alba, who couldn't have worked on this for more than a day) by Krystal (co-writer Elizabeth Morris), who heads straight to a meeting of Killers Anonymous, a support group for assassins dealing with job-related stress and burnout. It's a potentially amusing idea, but once everyone arrives--there's also group leader Jo (MyAnna Buring); player Leandro (Michael Socha); mild-mannered Calvin (Tim McInnerny); sensitive Ben (Elliot James Langridge); 'fookin' 'ell, mate!" LOCK STOCK knockoff rage case Markus (top-billed Tommy Flanagan); and new member Alice (EMPIRE's Rhyon Nicole Brown), a mysterious American who's hesitant to say much--the film stops dead in its tracks as director/co-writer Martin Owen (LET'S BE EVIL) gives each of the characters their own long monologue about who they are and what brought them to KA.

This goes on for about an hour, intermittently broken up by frequent bitching about quiet Alice by resident loudmouths Markus and Krystal, and while it might be a nice acting class exercise for the cast, it doesn't make for a very engaging film. Owen occasionally cuts away to Morgan (Isabelle Allen), a teenage runaway who's hiding in a crawlspace and eavesdropping on everything, and to a grimacing Oldman, whose enigmatic "The Man" is positioned on a nearby rooftop listening in on the bugged session while on the phone counseling a troubled killer (Suki Waterhouse) back in L.A. Not unlike a deadening mash-up of early Guy Ritchie, SMOKIN' ACES, and THE ICEMAN COMETH, the pointless and self-indulgent KILLERS ANONYMOUS is an absolute endurance test that doesn't have a single clever or even remotely amusing moment in its 96 excruciating minutes, which is pretty tough to accomplish considering the offbeat black comedy potential of a support group for assassins. Your first inclination would be to think that this must be some unreleasable dud that was shot four or five years ago and is only now being dusted off because of Oldman's DARKEST HOUR awards run. Nope...production began in July 2018, a good three months after the Oscars. Gary Oldman showed up on the set of KILLERS ANONYMOUS a newly-anointed Academy Award-winner. Did he lose a bet? Was his family being held hostage? Was he choking in a restaurant and Owen was there to successfully administer the Heimlich, making Oldman feel obligated to do him a solid in return? What is Gary Oldman doing in this movie?  What is Jessica Alba doing in this movie? Hell, I don't even know what Tommy Flanagan is doing in this movie. (R, 96 mins)

(Canada - 2019)

It's hard to watch ASTRONAUT and not think that it might exist in some alternate post-CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND where an elderly Roy Neary is still watching the skies. That's because Richard Dreyfuss stars in this slight but sincere Canadian drama from debuting writer/director Shelagh McLeod. Dreyfuss is Angus Stewart, a 75-year-old retired civil engineer, astronomy enthusiast, and recent widower who's been forced to sell his home and move in with his daughter Molly (Krista Bridges), son-in-law Jim (Lyriq Bent), and adoring young grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence) after recurring TIAs and a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation and angina. Though Barney loves having him around and learning about space, his presence causes tension between between Molly and Jim, so he reluctantly agrees to move into a nursing home after Molly finds him in the midst of another mini-stroke. Though he befriends other residents--including a flamboyant Art Hindle and Graham Greene as a partially paralyzed stroke survivor--the irascible Angus quickly grows bored with the rigidity of the facility's director (Mimi Kuzyk), and at Barney's suggestion, enters himself in an online lottery created by Elon Musk-like multi-billionaire Marcus Brown (Colm Feore), where the winner gets a seat on Brown's ultimate dream project: the first commercial space flight. The age cut-off is 65, so Angus simply shaves off a decade and divulges nothing about his worsening health situation. And of course, he makes the cut.

A film aimed at senior audiences who might balk at all the R-rated talk and geriatric threesomes in Clint Eastwood's THE MULE, ASTRONAUT is corny, maudlin and shamelessly manipulative. But Dreyfuss admirably resists his innately hammy impulses and turns in a heartfelt performance as a man who knows the end is near and just wants one shot at his lifelong dream. There's certainly a strong argument to be made that everything that unfolds is just a fantasy of dying man, and an attempt at suspense in the third act where Angus' expertise in engineering helps avert a potential disaster for Brown is a little too hokey, but this is really all about Dreyfuss. He shows a genuine camaraderie with young Lawrence and his scenes with Bridges have a realism to them that will resonate with anyone who's lost a parent and knows the other doesn't have much time left. ASTRONAUT loses its way a little in the home stretch, but it's the kind of film that probably would've been a minor sleeper hit of the STRAIGHT STORY sort in the late '90s. And it gives Dreyfuss--last seen embarrassing himself by playing a deranged criminal mountain man like the love child of Walter Brennan and Strother Martin in the dismal Gina Carano actioner DAUGHTER OF THE WOLF--a worthy late-career dramatic lead. Call it MR. HOLLAND GOES TO SPACE. (Unrated, 97 mins)