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Monday, May 21, 2018

On Netflix: CARGO (2018)


CARGO
(Australia/UK - 2018)

Directed by Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling. Written by Yolanda Ramke. Cast: Martin Freeman, Anthony Hayes, Susie Porter, Caren Pistorius, Kris McQuade, David Gulpilil, Simone Landers, Bruce R. Carter, Natasha Wanganeen, Andy Rodoreda, Marlee Jane McPherson-Dobbins, Lily Anne McPherson-Dobbins, Finlay Sjoberg, Nova Sjoberg. (Unrated, 104 mins)

With its setting in the desolate Outback and the presence of veteran Australian cult hero David Gulpilil in a supporting role, it would be easy to snarkily dismiss the zombie apocalypse saga CARGO as THE WALKABOUT DEAD. It would seem that the last thing the horror genre needs is yet another zombie movie, but some recent offerings--like TRAIN TO BUSANTHE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, and now this--seem cognizant of that and do things to stand out from the crowd. CARGO, a Netflix pickup, begins in a standard fashion but as it goes on, it stays focused on character and atmosphere, with the zombie sightings and flesh-chomping kept to a minimum. A feature-length expansion of a seven-minute 2013 short film by directors Yolanda Ramke (who also scripted) and Ben Howling, CARGO opens on a boat found and commandeered by Andy (SHERLOCK's Martin Freeman) and his wife Kay (Susie Porter). It's the aftermath of a viral pandemic, and every day is a struggle to find safe food for themselves and their one-year-old daughter Rosie (played by two different sets of twins) and avoid attracting the attention of the undead, here called "diggers." We soon learn, when Kay is attacked, that a bite from a digger usually gives the victim 48 hours before turning. Her wound, however, is so deep that the time is accelerated and as she turns sooner than expected, with an odd, mummified webbing forming over her eyes and face, she attacks and bites an exhausted Andy, who fell asleep while keeping watch on her. After mercy-killing what was once his wife, Andy, carrying Rosie on his back, ventures on foot to find some viable safe haven for his daughter before the inevitable happens.





They meet others along the way, most notably Thoomi (Simone Landers), a teenage aboriginal girl who regularly cuts herself and smears the blood on a tree to keep her turned-to-a-digger father distracted and not interested in attacking her. When Andy later encounters the seemingly affable Vic (Anthony Hayes), he's horrified to find that he rounds up aboriginal locals--including Thoomi and her grandfather (Gulpilil)--and keeps them as caged bait to attract diggers for him to kill in the hopes that they still have cash and jewelry on them that could come in handy in the post-pandemic Bartertown that the Outback has become. It doesn't take long for Vic to become the clear antagonist here, though he does disappear for a long stretch once Andy helps Thoomi escape and the trio moves on. As the clock ticks down and constant obstacles get in their way, a genuine sense of family develops between Thoomi, Andy, and little Rosie (I'm not sure which of the four Rosies are doing what, but in some scenes--and there's probably a lot of outtakes--this little girl's expressions, natural responses, and on-camera discipline are quite remarkable, and it's obvious Freeman spent some time bonding with at least one of them). With Thoomi desperate to get back to the family from which she and her father were separated during the outbreak, Andy's purpose in his dwindling hours becomes clear: to get Thoomi and Rosie--the "cargo" of the title--to safety.


CARGO would've looked great on a big screen. It's filled with breathtaking aerial cinematography that shows off the vast sense of forever that is the Outback. But its heart is on a smaller scale, and it's one of the most character-driven zombie apocalypse films you'll see. Freeman and young Landers are terrific, and while it feels familiar in the early going (especially for fans of 28 DAYS/WEEKS LATER), it gradually finds its own voice and establishes its own zombie mythos, whether it's the specific time or the webbing over the eyes as the victim's turn to digger reaches completion, an unsettling touch that may owe a debt to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The inherent racism of Vic--who's revealed to be a really despicable bastard--allows for the kind of social commentary that's reminiscent of the best work of George A. Romero. That's not to imply CARGO is anywhere near the caliber of Romero's original DEAD trilogy, but it's a film that's worth a look even if you're suffering from zombie fatigue. It has to use the tropes and the template (you might also be reminded of THE ROAD and maybe even SHOGUN ASSASSIN), but it very much becomes its own beast the more it goes on, leading to some serious drama and a surprisingly moving, heartbreaking finale.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

In Theaters/On VOD: DARK CRIMES (2018)


DARK CRIMES
(US/Poland - 2018)

Directed by Alexandros Avranas. Written by Jeremy Brock. Cast: Jim Carrey, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Marton Csokas, Kati Outinen, Vlad Ivanov, Robert Wieckiewicz, Agata Kulesza, Piotr Glowacki, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julia Gdula, Anna Polony. (R, 93 mins)

On the heels of another departure with a supporting role in Anna Lily Amirpour's post-apocalyptic 2017 freakshow THE BAD BATCH, Jim Carrey has the lead in DARK CRIMES, a suffocatingly grim post-GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO-style mystery set in a perpetually gloomy and overcast Poland as opposed to cold, wintry countries of Scandinavia. Carrey is Tadek, a lone wolf Krakow detective busted down to records after being disgraced in a past murder investigation and a year away from retirement. In addition to his likely getting too old for this shit, he's remained obsessed with that botched case, despite warnings to let it go from his bosses and the negative effect on his home life, with a wife and daughter he barely acknowledges. A body was found bound and gagged in a lake, and Tadek, who never stopped investigating while off duty, has found a clue that leads to The Cage, a long-closed brothel and notorious S&M sex club housed in the basement of an apartment building in Krakow's scenic industrial district. Tadek and his reluctant partner Wiktor (Piotr Glowacki) meet with building's former landlord (Zbigniew Zamachowski, the star of WHITE in Kieslowski's THREE COLORS trilogy) and uncover surveillance VHS tapes detailing the orgies and various activities that took place at The Cage, where the victim was a frequent visitor. Also living in an apartment in the building years ago was Krysztof Kozlow (Marton Csokas), who's now a famous, controversial writer specializing in nihilistic thrillers and being the misanthropic enfant terrible of contemporary Polish genre lit. Kozlow's latest novel describes a murder completely identical to the cold case, including specific details that were never made public. Convinced Kozlow is the killer and determined to redeem himself as a cop before retiring, Tadek grows even more fixated and begins tailing Kozlow as well as his drug-addicted, single mom girlfriend Kasia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), all the while spiraling into the darkness within himself and putting his job in jeopardy, especially when the trail of conspiracy and corruption--wait for it--leads all the way up the chain of command within the Krakow police.







DARK CRIMES is based on a 2008 true crime article written by David Grann (author of the book The Lost City of Z) that detailed a case involving Polish mystery writer Krystian Bala, who used his own 2003 novel Amok as a de facto confession to a murder he committed as well as an unpublished second book detailing a murder he planned to commit. It's a fascinating story that DARK CRIMES uses as a foundation and then quickly abandons, instead focusing on giving Carrey an opportunity to show his darkest possible side. The legendary comedian has done drama effectively before and is up to the challenge, but DARK CRIMES is a laborious, unpleasant, and ultimately oppressive disaster. Anyone well-versed in the Scandinavian mystery genre has to appreciate the sense of cold chill and isolation, but DARK CRIMES is downbeat and morose to the point of misery. It's got an appropriate score by Filter leader Richard Patrick (likely more affordable than Trent Reznor), but it gets no help from the funereal pacing and the obvious story developments. Show of hands: anyone not think Tadek was made the fall guy earlier when he got too close to the truth?


I get that director Alexandros Avranas (MISS VIOLENCE) is going for dreary and depressing, but DARK CRIMES just wallows in stomach-turning ugliness that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, especially in regards to Kasia, a junkie and former sex worker at The Cage who gets the majority of her available orifices violated by most of the male characters over the course of the film. This is getting to be business as usual for ANTICHRIST and NYMPHOMANIAC star Gainsbourg, once again cast radically against type as an irreparably damaged, bruised and abused cum dumpster. It gets even worse when Tadek goes through the inevitable "to know him, I must become him" phase of his pursuit of Kozlow and indulges in angry, violent, sadomasochistic sex with Kasia, which doesn't work when Carrey's vein-popping O-face looks like he's grunting "Alriiiiiighty then!" Carrey really isn't the problem here--his commitment to this long-shelved, straight-to-VOD dud (shot in 2015) is admirable. Production began just a few weeks after Carrey's former girlfriend Cathriona White died of a prescription drug overdose. One can sense that he's channeling that grief, despair, and rage into his performance as Tadek, but to what end? I love dark, bleak movies, but DARK CRIMES is a truly ugly, repulsive, exploitative film that offers absolutely nothing in the way of entertainment, suspense, or tension, has a twist reveal at the end that lands with a lifeless thud, and just leaves you feeling empty and depressed when it's finally over.

Friday, May 18, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: THE FORGIVEN (2018) and BENT (2018)


THE FORGIVEN
(US/South Africa/UK - 2018)


1984's THE KILLING FIELDS and 1986's THE MISSION earned Roland Joffe a lifetime pass to the Respected Filmmakers Club, but his career's been in a near-constant state of freefall for the better part of 25 years. His last good movie was 1998's underrated modern noir GOODBYE LOVER, and in the years since, he crashed and burned with 2007's unwatchable CAPTIVITY, a repugnant SAW ripoff made at the height of the torture porn craze that has to go down in the annals of cinema as one of the most shocking and depressing downfalls for a once-revered filmmaker. Joffe's subsequent films range from forgettable at best to embarrassing at worst (who knows how he got roped into directing the t.A.T.u.-inspired Mischa Barton vehicle YOU AND I, which went straight to DVD in 2012 after three years on the shelf?), but THE FORGIVEN almost qualifies as a return to form. It's ponderous and slow-moving, and has to dumb it down for the audience (opening with a caption that defines "apartheid"), but it's also sincere, well-acted, and get better as it goes on. Set in 1996 in post-apartheid South Africa under President Nelson Mandela, THE FORGIVEN centers on Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Forest Whitaker) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a restorative justice body whose goal is to grant amnesty for those guilty of human rights violations, all in the hopes of the country coming together to put its past behind. Tutu is assessing the amnesty candidacy of Piet Blomfeld (Eric Bana), an ex-death squad member in a maximum security Cape Town prison. Blomfeld doesn't seem interested in clearing his conscience--he taunts the Archbishop with the kaffir slur and enthusiastically recounts his most vile crimes against black South Africans--but Tutu senses something in him when it comes to a court case involving two murdered teenagers that connects Blomfeld with two other death squad cohorts--Francois Schmidt (Jeff Gum) and Hansi Coetzee (Morne Visser)--who are now guards in the very prison housing him.






Based on the Michael Ashton play The Archbishop and the Antichrist, THE FORGIVEN was scripted by Ashton and Joffe and expands on the play by adding a subplot involving a 17-year-old black inmate (Nandiphile Mbeshu) forced into the attempted murder of Blomfeld to establish his cred on the inside only to be taken under his target's wing. Blomfeld's demonstration of a capacity to forgive and his AMERICAN HISTORY X/Come-to-Jesus moment where he realizes the error of his ways never quite come off as believable, despite Joffe's ham-fisted attempts to hammer it home by providing the loathsome, rage-filled racist with a tragic backstory to excuse the monster he's been for his entire adult life. But Bana is good, as is Whitaker, despite being forced to act around an almost comically large prosthetic nose that makes him look less like Desmond Tutu and more like Squidward from SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. The long scenes between Tutu and Blomfeld (a fictional composite) constituted Ashton's play and here, with Blomfeld's unapologetic and horrifically detailed descriptions of his misdeeds, almost makes these sequences play like a post-apartheid EXORCIST III with back and forth monologues by the two stars. The climactic courtroom showdown between an on-trial Coetzee and the grieving mother (Thandi Makhubele) of two teenagers brutally slaughtered by Blomfeld while Coetzee and Schmidt looked on is powerful and unexpectedly moving. THE FORGIVEN is a mixed bag--it's too slow and meandering and the story arc for Blomfeld smacks of plot convenience--but it has its moments, especially once you can get around Whitaker's cartoonishly fake nose and focus on his performance. It's not enough to say the 72-year-old Joffe is back per se, but THE FORGIVEN shows that there might be some signs of life. (R, 120 mins)




BENT
(Spain/US - 2018)


After winning an Oscar for co-writing CRASH with Paul Haggis, Bobby Moresco made the little-seen crime drama 10TH AND WOLF and moved on to TV, creating the acclaimed but short-lived series THE BLACK DONNELLYS. He wrote and directed the straight-to-VOD BENT, his first feature film in over a decade, and it's a thoroughly generic and utterly forgettable present-day noir-inspired cop thriller. Disgraced ex-cop Danny Gallagher (Karl Urban) has just been paroled after serving three years for the killing of an undercover officer during a botched drug bust set up by his broke, gambling-addicted partner Charlie (Vincent Spano). They were supposed to nail scumbag businessman Driscoll (John Finn), but Charlie ended up getting killed, Gallagher took two bullets, and both Charlie's and Gallagher's names were dragged through the gutter after Driscoll framed them as corrupt, or "bent" cops on the take. Once he's out, Gallagher makes like an unlicensed and uncharismatic Philip Marlowe, trying to get to the bottom of the mystery that may involve the car bomb death of the wife of a Driscoll associate, as well as shady and untrustworthy femme fatale government agent Rebecca (a miscast Sofia Vergara), who's been ordered to keep Gallagher from digging any further, an assignment that inevitably involves showing up unannounced at his ramshackle pier house and immediately disrobing and stepping into the steaming shower with him.






Based on a series of Gallagher novels by J.P. O'Donnell, BENT is hopelessly muddled (there's even a red herring about "Arab terrorists" being involved), with an uncharacteristically dull Urban on what seems to be one of the least urgent quests for vengeance you'll ever see. BENT is filled with would-be hard-boiled dialogue that rarely works, mainly because it's delivered in such a bland fashion. It's the kind of movie that has a climactic showdown and shootout at a shipyard. It's the kind of movie where the bad guy delivers a long-winded, Christopher Walken-esque speech ("You know, in Alaska, they smoke this fish on the beach...") while intimidatingly slicing salmon with a huge knife. It's the kind of movie where you know a prominently-billed name actor has to have more to do with what's going on since he's barely in it until the last 15 minutes. Also with Andy Garcia as Gallagher's retired, fatherly cop mentor who pops up periodically to tell him to let the past go and get out of town, BENT doesn't even muster the energy to be a harmless time-killer on a slow night. Nobody seems really invested in it, and New Orleans is rather unconvincingly played by Rome, of all places. At least everyone got a nice Italian vacation out of it. (R, 96 mins)


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Retro Review: EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS (1977)


EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS
aka TRAP THEM AND KILL THEM
(Italy - 1977/US release 1984)

Directed by Joe D'Amato (Aristide Massaccesi). Written by Romano Scandariato and Aristide Massaccesi. Cast: Laura Gemser, Gabriele Tinti, Susan Scott (Nieves Navarro), Donald O'Brien, Percy Hogan, Monica Zanchi, Annamarie Clementi, Geoffrey Copleston, Dirce Funari, Cindy Leadbetter. (Unrated, 93 mins)

The penultimate entry in the Joe D'Amato/Laura Gemser "Black Emanuelle" series, EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS is a mash-up of the softcore porn that defined the films to that point, fused with the burgeoning cannibal craze that would explode in Italy over the next few years. Umberto Lenzi's MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (1972) got the ball rolling, but it was more of a MAN CALLED HORSE ripoff that kept its extreme gore limited to very small doses. It was Ruggero Deodato's JUNGLE HOLOCAUST (1977), aka THE LAST SURVIVOR and his landmark CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) that really established the subgenre as it would come to be known, along with Sergio Martino's MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978) and Lenzi's double-shot of EATEN ALIVE (1980) and CANNIBAL FEROX (1981), the latter being pretty much the last word in the purely exploitative nature of the Italian cannibal gut-muncher cycle. To that end, D'Amato (real name: Aristide Massaccesi) was a bit ahead of the curve in 1977. Over the course of 1976 and 1977, he'd already sent Gemser's intrepid, globe-trotting, and sexually adventurous photojournalist Emanuelle to Bangkok in EMANUELLE IN BANGKOK, America in EMANUELLE IN AMERICA, and around the world in EMANUELLE AROUND THE WORLD. After the snuff film and bestiality extremes of EMANUELLE IN AMERICA, D'Amato probably figured the cannibal subgenre was the only transgressive depth to plummet. That is, until he decided necrophilia was a viable horror film subject with 1979's BEYOND THE DARKNESS.






But for its first half, it's mostly a standard EMANUELLE affair: there's one gratuitous sex scene after another, with a pretty ballsy one on the banks of the East River in broad daylight, between the Brooklyn and the Manhattan Bridges, with locals and some tourists on a passing ferry presumably getting an eyeful (this scene is shot in the same spot as the opening of Lucio Fulci's THE NEW YORK RIPPER and Yul Brynner's introduction in Antonio Margheriti's DEATH RAGE). Emanuelle is first seen undercover doing an expose of a NYC mental institution (an obvious Rome studio interior, with signs reading "Farmacy" and "Phisical Therapy") with a typically conspicuous camera, this one hidden behind the blinking eyes of a doll. One patient (Cindy Leadbetter) bites off the breast of a lesbian nurse, prompting Emanuelle to graphically grope her for information, discovering a tattoo just above her pubic region that's the sign of the Tupinamba, the last cannibal tribe still present in the Amazon jungle. Teaming professionally and sexually with anthropologist Dr. Mark Lester (Gabriele Tinti, Gemser's real-life husband), Emanuelle ventures to the jungle where Lester's old missionary pal Rev. Wilkes (Geoffrey Copleston) has his virginal daughter Isabelle (Monica Zanchi) and nun Sister Angela (Annamaria Clementi) accompany them on their quest to find evidence of the Tupinamba tribe. They eventually cross paths with impotent hunter Donald McKenzie (Donald O'Brien) and his sex-starved, nympho wife Maggie (Nieves Navarro, under her "Susan Scott" pseudonym), who's getting it on with their guide Salvador (Percy Hogan), before running afoul of the Tupinamba who, to the surprise of no one, start hunting, killing, and eating them one by one.




Factor out the plethora of sex scenes, and the set-up of EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS is virtually identical to DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. (both films were written by Romano Scandariato), where a group of New Yorkers make their way to the jungle only to encounter cannibals and zombies, thanks to the experiments of the titular doctor (played by the busy O'Brien). Other than the bit of gore in the opening sequence of LAST CANNIBALS, D'Amato waits about an hour before the horror really gets going. Until then, it's a slightly more explicit than usual EMANUELLE outing, with one surprisingly creative bit where D'Amato skips the initial coupling of Emanuelle and Dr. Lester, merely implying it until he flashes back to it later during a cab ride to the airport. It's a like a softcore porn precursor to the non-linear editing style Steven Soderbergh would use to memorable effect with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in OUT OF SIGHT. Given the context, it's an unusual and inventive decision, demonstrating the kind of pure cinema that one usually doesn't expect to see in a Joe D'Amato joint, whether it's traditional genre fare like THE GRIM REAPER or his ATOR films, his horror/porno crossovers like 1980's EROTIC NIGHTS OF THE LIVING DEAD and 1981's PORNO HOLOCAUST, or the straight-up hardcore porn he'd churn out near the end of his career.




Just out on Blu-ray from Severin, EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS is a film that gives the devout Eurotrash exploitation fan everything they want: near-constant T&A, laughably bad dubbing, misspelled English-as-second-language signs, extreme gore, incredible 1977 NYC location work, a supporting cast filled with Eurocult stalwarts, a catchy Nico Fidenco theme song with "Make Love on the Wing," bullshit claims that it's a true story (citing the work of a fictitious reporter named "Jennifer O'Sullivan"), and the iconic Gemser, who looks even more gorgeous than usual here. And as an added bonus, unlike most of its type in the cannibal cycle, there's no graphic onscreen animal violence, which has always been the biggest obstacle in the "enjoyment" of this stuff (the closest it gets is a friendly chimpanzee helping himself to a Marlboro). It took the film seven years to make it to America, where the short-lived Megastar Films gave it a spotty release on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit in 1984 as TRAP THEM AND KILL THEM, a retitling obviously designed to capitalize on the notoriety of MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY, the rechristening given to Umberto Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX when it hit the US in 1983. D'Amato and Gemser would make one more EMANUELLE film with 1978's EMANUELLE AND THE WHITE SLAVE TRADE, which features copious amounts of redubbed stock footage from earlier entries (Emanuelle's meeting with her editor and shots of Gemser and Tinti driving around NYC--complete with a theater showing KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE--are lifted completely from LAST CANNIBALS), plus an amazing newly-shot bowling alley brawl. Though the D'Amato-run "Black Emanuelle" series would wrap up after WHITE SLAVE TRADE, Gemser starred in a few offshoots as a character named "Emanuelle," most notably a pair of wonderfully nasty and batshit Bruno Mattei women-in-prison classics with 1982's VIOLENCE IN A WOMEN'S PRISON (released in the US in 1984 as CAGED WOMEN) and 1983's WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE (released in the US in 1985). Gemser retired from acting following Tinti's death from cancer in 1991, though she worked behind the scenes as a costume and wardrobe designer on several Filmirage productions, most notably the cult classic TROLL 2. She's spent the last 25 years almost completely out of the public eye, resurfacing only for a few audio interviews and one on-camera interview for a 2000 British TV documentary on Sylvia Kristel's EMMANUELLE movies.




Wednesday, May 9, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: THE HUMANITY BUREAU (2018); JOSIE (2018); and STEPHANIE (2018)


THE HUMANITY BUREAU
(Canada/US/UK - 2018)


Nicolas Cage is in total coast mode in this lifeless and embarrassingly cheap-looking post-apocalyptic sci-fi dystopia dud. Set in a future America being rebuilt 30 years after a second Civil War, famine, and nuclear fallout wreaked nationwide destruction, THE HUMANITY BUREAU has Cage as Noah Kross, an agent with the titular government organization. They're in charge of weeding out and investigating those who aren't contributing their fair share to New America, where the rule is that you must give more than you take. These laws primarily affect the lower class, making the very concept a Fox News wet dream, but THE HUMANITY BUREAU can't be bothered to muster up any political subtext, unless you count one minor character being Photoshopped into that creepy pic of Donald Trump and Mitt Romney at dinner. Those who are deemed burdens on society are sent packing to a controlled welfare community called New Eden. Now, anyone who's seen a future dystopian sci-fi movie before will instantly figure out that New Eden is really a concentration camp set up for the genocidal extermination of the lower and underclass undesirables. It's a great concept for a film that gave a shit and maybe tried, but that's not THE HUMANITY BUREAU. Instead, glum Kross, who's shocked--shocked!--to learn what New Eden really is (watch Cage gravely intone "What have we done?" when he finds out, long after anyone watching does), decides to go against his ruthless boss Adam (Hugh Dillon as Stanley Tucci as Dean Norris) and protect single mom Rachel Weller (Sarah Lind) and her 11-year-old son Lucas (Jakob Davies) when they're deemed New Eden-worthy. They head to Canada in Kross' improbably still-functional late '70s El Camino, with Adam and comic relief agent Porter (Vicellous Shannon, who saw better days as a child actor when he starred opposite Denzel Washington in THE HURRICANE) in lukewarm pursuit.





Like Andrew Niccol's just-released Netflix film ANON, THE HUMANITY BUREAU feels like a high-concept sci-fi film that might've been something in 2001 or 2002, when Cage was still an A-lister. But with most of the budget obviously going to its star, the film never effectively conveys a post-apocalyptic atmosphere. There's a ton of scenes with Cage laughably fake driving his El Camino against an amateurishly phony digital backdrop that looks like it was done by Mattel's My First Greenscreen. There's a lot of interior scenes and the exteriors just look like remote areas of Canada, where the film was shot. People live a normal life considering how hellish it was just three decades earlier according to Rachel, who tells Kross stories of neighbors selling their children for quick cash or eating them to survive (wait--he was alive then...wouldn't he know that?). Any of that would've made a more compelling film than somber Nic Cage in his new limited edition Christopher Lee Memorial Hairpiece pretending to drive a car or bonding with an obnoxious kid. Speaking of Lucas, at one point Rachel begs Kross to delay their shipping out to New Eden because Lucas has a recital the next day for which he's been "rehearsing for months."  Kross agrees and shows up at the recital to watch. Never mind that this film doesn't even seem to exist in its own world--the recital is filled with suburban middle-class parents supposedly living in a post-nuke dystopia where water is still a scarce commodity--but the big performance? Lucas and his class singing "Amazing Grace" and Lucas getting a solo dramatic reading of...The Pledge of Allegiance? This took months of preparation? Lucas is 11 years old. These kids are in 5th or 6th grade. Is this movie even trying? No, it's not. As MOM AND DAD showed earlier this year, Cage is still capable of bringing his A-game when he gives a shit, but to say he brought his even C-game to THE HUMANITY BUREAU would be charitable. He hasn't been this disinterested and disengaged with the material since BANGKOK DANGEROUS. Screenwriter Dave Schultz appears to show some affinity for CHINATOWN by giving Cage's character a name that riffs on John Huston's despicable Noah Cross, but other than that? Forget it, Jake. It's THE HUMANITY BUREAU. (R, 94 mins)



JOSIE
(US - 2018)


It seems that much of today's film criticism consists of writers trying to out-"woke" one another by airing grievances, looking for reasons to be outraged, and listing ways in which they were offended instead of reviewing the movie itself. I consciously avoid that unless the film's offenses are so upfront and blatant that addressing them is unavoidable and thus making it impossible to separate the art from the artist. One time in which that kind of review approach was unfortunately justified was back in 2014, when I reviewed the indie horror film CONTRACTED. Click here for more about that, but in short, the film's chronicle of the degenerative body and STD-related horrors that result from a young bisexual woman's acquaintance rape at a party came across as heavy-handed and frankly gross slut-shaming on the part of director Eric England, largely because the film keeps referring to the inciting act as a "one-night stand," when it clearly isn't. I was unfamiliar with England's work at that point, but upon seeing CONTRACTED, a film that willfully refuses to differentiate rape and a one-night stand and subsequently blames its heroine for the venereal horrors that result from it, it was uncomfortably obvious that this guy seemed to have some issues with women. Cut to 2018, and just as England's latest film JOSIE was going straight to VOD and the #MeToo movement was well-established as a powerful force in the entertainment industry, allegations by his ex-girlfriend Katie Stegeman (who appeared in CONTRACTED and his earlier film MADISON COUNTY) surfaced on social media detailing several years of physical and psychological abuse. Her story is quite harrowing, and if it's true (like JOSIE, any resulting scandal pretty much vanished instantly because nobody knows or cares who Eric England is), then it's safe to infer that England is every bit the creep that CONTRACTED went out of its way to reveal him to be.





I missed England's 2017 kidnapping-gone-awry dark comedy GET THE GIRL (whose cast featured convention regulars like Noah Segan and Scout Taylor-Compton), but JOSIE is a step up, at least in terms of relative prestige, as it marks the first time England's got some well-known and reasonably big-ish names who may or may not regret being in it now. In a small, depressing California town, Hank (Dylan McDermott) is a quiet loner living in a dive motel and working as a parking monitor at the local high school, where he's derisively referred to as "Spank" by a student body who look and act like they missed a casting call for Larry Clark's BULLY. Hank goes home to his dingy room, where two turtles are his only companions, and is annoyed when his nosy neighbors won't leave him alone. Hank comes out of his shell with the arrival of Josie (GAME OF THRONES' Sophie Turner), a tattooed high-schooler from the wrong side of the tracks who's new in town and arrives alone (her mom is on her way, she claims), quickly befriending Hank as well as Marcus (Jack Kilmer, Val's son), Hank's chief tormenter at school. Josie gets Hank to open up about his dark past and what drove him to choose a life of isolation and solitude, while Hank sees--though he knows he shouldn't--the possibility for something more. It isn't long before things come to a head, with Marcus vandalizing Hank's truck and boat and Josie ditching Hank to have sex with Marcus to make Hank jealous. Anyone who's ever seen a movie with a femme fatale will figure out precisely what Josie's up to at exactly the midway point and the only suspense really comes from watching how she's got both Hank and Marcus wrapped around her finger. And around the time of the climax, as things play out in the worst way possible for lonely, hapless Hank and dense, horny Marcus, that CONTRACTED ugliness and rage and England's alleged violence against Stegeman pops into your head. In fairness, JOSIE is an accomplished and more disciplined film compared to CONTRACTED, and it gets a lot of mileage from an excellent performance by McDermott, who's often achingly sad to watch as Hank talks to his turtles, is the butt of jokes and pranks at the high school, and plays some old-school country music while he puts on his best cowboy duds and slow dances by himself as he gets ready to have dinner with Josie only to find out Marcus is already in her room, leaving him to stand outside and listen to them fuck. And if you listen closely, you can probably hear England just out of camera range muttering "Yeah...that fucking bitch." (R, 87 mins)



STEPHANIE
(US - 2018)


There has to be fascinating story about what went wrong with STEPHANIE because the signs are all there that this had to be a total clusterfuck behind the scenes. Curiously short running time, with super-slow closing credits rolling at 78 minutes? Check. Produced by profitable horror factory Blumhouse and left to gather dust on a Universal shelf for three years before getting a stealth VOD debut two weeks before hitting Blu-ray? Check. The least-finished-looking visual effects this side of A SOUND OF THUNDER? Check. Familiar names present in the IMDb cast listing (Harold Perrineau, Kenneth Choi, Alexa Mansour) but nowhere to be seen in the released film? Directed by Oscar-winning mercenary screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A BEAUTIFUL MIND)? Check. It's all too apparent that Universal had no clue what to do with this movie, which doesn't even have a real trailer (see below--it's just one out-of-context clip), and doesn't even look finished, exhibiting an abundance of evidence that it was just abandoned and completely given up on by everyone involved. That's too bad, because it gets off to an odd and interesting start, with the entire opening half-hour being a one-girl show for young Shree Crooks (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) in the title role. She's alone in nice-looking suburban house and seems to have been left there for a while. Food is rotting in the fridge, she's down to pretzels and slices of American cheese, and she spends her time watching TV and talking to her stuffed toy turtle Francis. She's wary of periodic appearances of "the monster," and we see occasional flickering shadows of something around a corner, but she hides in her room and it goes away. There may or may not be the dead body of her older brother Paul in his room, and TV news reports show brief snippets of catastrophic disasters all over the world. Her parents (Frank Grillo of the PURGE sequels and FRINGE's Anna Torv) finally return home from wherever they were, casting concerned glances at Stephanie and seemingly shocked that she's alive. Talk soon turns to dealing with "the monster" as STEPHANIE proceeds to move at a glacial pace while doling out details to a story that never really comes together.





Goldsman, who doesn't have a writing credit here (that's left for the team of Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, who went on to script the cult indie SUPER DARK TIMES), gives us the what but the rest--the why and the how--remain frustrating mysteries, and not in a cleverly ambiguous or thoughtfully enigmatic way. It seems to use the classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode "It's a Good Life" as a springboard but it just doesn't make sense on any narrative or logical level. Apparently, a much different cut of STEPHANIE screened at the 2017 Overlook Film Festival, containing a framing device and a ton of exposition about the setting being a dystopian 2027 (this is where Perrineau's character appeared), but that's all gone in this version. It'll be obvious to anyone who watches enough movies even without knowing that Perrineau and others have been cut from the movie that huge chunks of this thing have been hacked away seemingly willy-nilly. There's a few positives barely salvaged in the wreckage--Crooks is very good and looks so much like Torv that the two of them playing mother and daughter is inspired casting; and there's one intense bit involving a blender--but the climactic CGI display is a bush-league embarrassment and the released film (I hesitate to call it "completed") is a botched shitshow that looks like Universal said "Hey, what's going on with this?" and Jason Blum and everyone involved shouted "Not it!" and went home. (R, 86 mins)


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

On Netflix: ANON (2018)


ANON
(Germany/US/Canada - 2018)

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol. Cast: Clive Owen, Amanda Seyfried, Colm Feore, Mark O'Brien, Sonya Walger, Joe Pingue, Iddo Goldberg, Charlie Ebbs, Damon Runyan, Sara Mitich, Doug Murray, Jean Michel Le Gal, Douglas Stolfi. (Unrated, 100 mins)

The Netflix pickup ANON finds filmmaker Andrew Niccol back in the realm of high-concept sci-fi that briefly established him as the Next Big Thing in the 1990s. He's best known for writing and directing 1997's GATTACA and he received an Oscar nomination for scripting 1998's THE TRUMAN SHOW. Since then, Niccol's career has been on an erratic trajectory, splitting time between further explorations in sci-fi like the 2002 Al Pacino flop S1M0NE and 2011's terrible IN TIME, and political films like 2005's LORD OF WAR and 2015's barely-released drone treatise GOOD KILL, which was overshadowed by the more successful sleeper hit EYE IN THE SKY. He also tried his hand at big-budget YA sci-fi with 2013's THE HOST, but 20 years on, Niccol still hasn't matched the one-two punch of GATTACA and THE TRUMAN SHOW. His latest film ANON explores themes previously seen in his earlier sci-fi films but with middling and repetitive results. The production design is superb and it's a very expensive-looking film, but after a promising start, Niccol's script devolves into a string of rote cliches and tired genre tropes, becoming the kind of film that doesn't even bother following its own internal logic.






Set in a dystopian near-future (is there any other kind?), ANON presents a world where everyone's POV is one of constant information. Pass a stranger on the street, you get a readout of their name, age, and vital stats. Order a hot dog from a food truck, and the nutritional information is displayed. It's a totalitarian practice that makes crime solving easy for glum, burned-out cop Sal Frieland (Clive Owen). He can simply look at a victim, access the playback of the last ten seconds of their life, and see what the victim saw. But after coming across several corpses whose digital memories have been hacked and scrambled, it's clear to Frieland and his boss Gattis (Colm Feore) that they're dealing with a "ghost," a face without a name that goes about undetected, their stats and identity not in "The Ether," a term used to describe the seemingly limitless digital reality that holds the data and images and the place in which they venture to solve crimes. The only thing they know for sure is that the killer is female, and the trail eventually leads to "Anon" (Amanda Seyfried, also in IN TIME), a mercenary hacker who specializes in erasing memories and playback that a client wants gone, be it criminal activities, extramarital affairs, etc. But Anon's clients are turning up dead, so Frieland goes undercover as an investment broker for over a month, establishing an identity and memories outside of his existence as a cop and then seeking out "memory hackers" in the hopes that he'll draw Anon out of hiding, setting himself up as bait to catch her in the act. This ultimately leads to Frieland's perception of reality becoming dangerously skewed as Anon--or someone--gets inside his head and starts toying with his mind.


After an intriguing set-up, ANON soon demonstrates little urgency settling into a groove of Philip K. Dick worship combined with Niccol's usual sci-fi fixations of identity, individuality, and privacy. It all culminates in a heavy-handed lecture from Anon for a final scene, and the ultimate reveal of the guilty party is largely a non-event since we don't even spend enough time with the character in question for it to pack much resonance. And the longer ANON goes on, the more careless it becomes. Every inconsistency or deux ex machina that it pulls out of its ass can be explained away with "He got in my memory...that's what he wanted me to think!" The biggest eye-roller comes after Frieland spends over a month undercover and hires Anon to do a job and the cybersecurity experts working with the police are able to begin tracking her. After three days back as a cop, Gattis tells Frieland he has to go back undercover and re-establish contact with Anon, which concerns Frieland since his most recent memories and experiences will show him being a cop doing cop things and investigating her. "We'll put a patch over it!" Gattis says, as if Frieland has asked him a silly question. A patch? If you could just "put a patch over it" and mask the memories, then why make Frieland spend over a month working as an investment broker, creating a fake girlfriend for him to cheat on with a real hooker in order to give Anon a specific memory to digitally wipe when they could've just faked it all along? A patch? Owen treads on familiar ground here, with Frieland essentially being a cop version of his CHILDREN OF MEN character. Niccol doesn't really do Owen any favors, giving Frieland a checklist of cliched baggage--he's an alcoholic, his kid was killed in a tragic accident, and he's got a bitchy and unsympathetic ex-wife (Sonya Walger) who's moved on--that's supposed to function as backstory. ANON certainly isn't terrible, but it's tired and uninspired, feeling like the kind of sci-fi movie that should've hit theaters in 2002 or thereabouts. In a way, Netflix is the perfect venue for it, since there's a good chance at least some people will mistake it for a feature-length BLACK MIRROR episode.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Retro Review: THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS (1973)


THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS
(Italy - 1973; US release 1975)

Directed by Sergio Martino. Written by Ernesto Gastaldi. Cast: Luc Merenda, Richard Conte, Silvano Tranquilli, Carlo Alighiero, Martine Brochard, Chris Avram, Luciano Bartoli, Lia Tanzi, Steffen Zacharias, Bruno Corazzari, Luciano Rossi, Cyrille Spiga, Rosario Borelli, Antony Vernon (Antonio Casale), Bruno Boschetti, Sergio Smacchi, Tom Felleghy. (R, 99 mins)

After the artistic triumphs of Dario Argento's gialli, the next most notable figure in the genre in the early 1970s was arguably the journeyman Sergio Martino. Frequently teamed with the stunning Edwige Fenech, Martino cranked out a series of verbosely-titled gialli like 1971's THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH and THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL, and 1972's ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK and YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY, and his 1973 masterpiece TORSO. Though directors like Umberto Lenzi and Fernando Di Leo also dabbled in gialli, their strengths at that point in time were the violent, politically-charged poliziotteschi, a craze to which Martino inevitably contributed a handful of entries, beginning with 1973's THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS, which has just been released on Blu-ray from Code Red.






Though it works in the social and political implications of an early '70s Milan that these films frequently presented as a violent, crime-infested hellhole, there's a definite DIRTY HARRY influence to THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS in its central character, Giorgio Caneparo (Luc Merenda). A standard-issue plays-by-his-own-rules cop, hot-tempered Caneparo is read the riot act by his boss Del Buono (Chris Avram) after blowing away a pair of escapees from a locomotive prisoner transport when they were already cornered and ready to give up and he was more than capable of simply arresting them. Del Buono suggests Caneparo lay low and look into some robberies that he's been investigating, and no sooner than mentioning that does Del Buono get gunned down in the street by a trio of mystery assailants. Obsessed with avenging his boss and fed up with the useless lip service paid to his memory ("Pathetic!" he shouts, interrupting an official government tribute to his slain boss), Caneparo goes undercover to infiltrate the bank robbery operation, which is being coordinated by Milan mob boss Padulo (Richard Conte). Caneparo gets a job as a wheelman for Padulo's current crew, and his first job with them goes off the rails when a psycho Padulo flunky (Bruno Corazzari) opens fire on a pregnant woman for no reason. But the rationale for the robberies runs deeper, as Caneparo gradually figures out that Padulo isn't quite who he says he is, and that the supposedly powerful mobster is just a cog in the wheel, serving much more powerful masters with more ambitiously sinister plans.


Those plans are never completely clear given the muddled political subtext of THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS. There's a lot of talk in Ernesto Gastaldi's script about creating an aura of chaos around Milan and throughout Italy and "rebuilding this country all over again," which probably played better for Italian audiences living through the political tumult of that era. But even in the English-dubbed version released in the US by Scotia in 1975, the film is a solid second-tier polizia offering, with a memorable score by Guido & Maurizio De Angelis, some not-quite-but-still-spirited FRENCH CONNECTION-style car chases and Merenda (dubbed by Michael Forest) a believably pissed-off lone wolf cop in the Dirty Harry vein (he even gets a final moment comparable to tossing his badge away in disgust). It's also worth noting for those with polizia experience that THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS is also the source of that oft-used shot of a car crashing through a stack of cardboard boxes engulfed in flames, which resurfaced in seemingly a dozen other polizias and even more trailers. Born in 1943, Merenda got his first big break as a doomed French racing driver in the 1971 Steve McQueen vanity project LE MANS. He would go on to work with Martino on several occasions, most notably in a supporting role in TORSO and in a pair of entertaining 1975 actioners, GAMBLING CITY and SILENT ACTION. Merenda was a regular presence in Italian action films throughout the '70s and he would shift to Italian TV in the '80s. He grew disenchanted with the entertainment industry and walked away, retiring from acting in 1992 to focus on his family and opening a successful antique shop in Paris, which he still runs to this day, taking a break only to make a one-off return to the screen when Merenda superfan Eli Roth talked him into accepting a small role in 2007's HOSTEL PART II.


Richard Conte (1910-1975)
After a memorable turn as the duplicitous Barzini in 1972's THE GODFATHER, veteran American actor Conte found himself in much demand in Italy. In 1973 alone, including THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS, he played mob figures in no less than seven Italian crime movies, including Fernando Di Leo's THE BOSS and the gangster spoof MY BROTHER ANASTASIA, which teamed him with beloved Italian comedian Alberto Sordi. Conte and Merenda reteamed in 1974 for Di Leo's SHOOT FIRST...DIE LATER, with Merenda as a corrupt cop and Conte as a subservient mob lawyer who jumps at the chance to throw his boss under the bus and take over as soon as he's feeling unappreciated. Thanks to the worldwide success of THE GODFATHER, Conte was such a sought-after export-value name for the Italian crime genre that he wound up spending the rest of his career in Europe and never appeared in another American film. Conte died in April 1975 from complications of a heart attack and a subsequent series of strokes (he's dubbed by someone else and looks noticeably frail and aged in SHOOT FIRST...DIE LATER compared to THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS just a year earlier), and by the end of his life, the jobs he was getting in Italy were on a marked decline compared to the exemplary polizia work and GODFATHER-associated star treatment he was receiving just two years earlier. Conte's final film found him as a glum, morose exorcist in 1975's tawdry and embarrassing NAKED EXORCISM, by far the worst Italian EXORCIST ripoff of them all, released in the US as THE POSSESSOR in 1977, two years after his death.