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Monday, August 3, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES (1969)



CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES
(Italy/France - 1969)

Directed by Robert Hossein. Written by Robert Hossein, Claude Desailly and Dario Argento. Cast: Michele Mercier, Robert Hossein, Lee Burton (Guido Lollobrigida), Daniel Vargas, Serge Marquand, Michel Lemoine, Anne-Marie Balin, Pierre Hatet, Philippe Baronet, Pierre Colet, Ivano Staccioli, Beatrice Altariba. (Unrated, 91 mins)

Rescued from obscurity by Arrow Video's Criterion-quality treatment on a new Blu-ray/DVD combo release, CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES is a rare example of a French spaghetti western, directed by and starring Robert Hossein, a popular French actor from the '50s and '60s, who co-starred in Jules Dassin's 1955 classic RIFIFI and was a go-to guy for directors like Roger Vadim and Claude Lelouch. Hossein, now 87 and looking at least a decade and a half younger in a new interview on the Blu-ray, was a huge fan of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. He wanted to make his own western in the same style, but he didn't resort to simply mimicking the trailblazing auteur. CEMETERY is one of the most unusual entries in the spaghetti western craze, with long passages of silence where facial expressions and glances convey all the necessary information. Shot in the usual spaghetti stomping grounds of Almeria, Spain, CEMETERY also looks like no other of its genre: the town is a desolate wasteland in ruins, with Hossein paying particular attention to the grimy details: you can practically smell the perpetually sweaty characters, the town is unrelentingly dusty, and the saloon is probably the smokiest you'll see in any western. It's a grim and bleak film, choking with malaise, with Hossein's sad-faced anti-hero so glum and stoical that he makes Harmonica, Charles Bronson's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST character, seem like the class clown by comparison.



The plot itself is rather standard, involving a feud between two outlaw clans that escalates beyond everyone's control. When her husband Ben (Benito Stefanelli) is strung up and hanged right in front of her by the Rogers family after he steals and sells some of their livestock, Maria Caine (Michele Mercier, from the "Telephone" segment of Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH) hires loner gunman Manuel (Hossein) to help her in her quest for revenge. Manuel ends up infiltrating the Rogers gang but he's got no love for the Caines, who are just as despicable as the Rogers. That's especially true with Maria's two dirtbag brothers-in-law Thomas (Guido Lollobrigida, credited as "Lee Burton"), and Eli Caine (Michel Lemoine, also known as "Antoine Saint John," and best known to Eurocult fans as Schweik in Lucio Fulci's THE BEYOND), who take turns raping Johanna (Anne-Marie Balin), the virginal daughter of Rogers patriarch Will (Daniel Vargas). Manuel obviously has feelings for Maria but can't stomach her involvement in the increasingly ugly situations that keep getting worse with the back and forth vengeance between the warring factions. Almost no one is innocent in CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES: even Manuel is culpable when he looks the other way, ignoring the screams of Johanna--the one wholly good character in the film--as Thomas and Eli have their way with her.


CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES often looks like what might happen if Jean-Pierre Melville or even Alain Resnais made a spaghetti western. A pervasive sense of melancholy haunts every scene, and with his odd shot compositions and eye for strange details, Hossein could be a gifted filmmaker who's never been given his due. Hossein was friends with Leone, who visited the set and, according to Hossein, guest-directed the almost absurdist dinner sequence at the Rogers house. Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST co-writer Dario Argento shares a screenplay credit on CEMETERY, though Hossein has downplayed his involvement. Prior to making a name for himself with 1970's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, Argento was a busy hired-gun screenwriter on spaghetti westerns (1967's TODAY WE KILL, TOMORROW WE DIE, 1970's THE FIVE MAN ARMY) and WWII macaroni combat adventures (1968's COMMANDOS and 1969's BATTLE OF THE COMMANDOS), and it's likely he was in charge of writing the dialogue for the version dubbed in Italian (Arrow offers both Italian and English audio tracks, even though French was the dominant language on set), but the Leone-directed dinner scene has an almost macabre quality to it that could easily have been concocted by the soon-to-be icon of Italian horror.


CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES marked the seventh pairing of Mercier and Hossein, which included four 17th century historical adventures in the ANGELIQUE series, beginning with 1964's ANGELIQUE, MARQUISE DES ANGES. Based on a series of books by Sergeanne Golon, the five ANGELIQUE films (Hossein sat out the second film) were box office smashes in France and the rest of Europe, but were only given spotty releases in the US until Lionsgate released an ANGELIQUE box set in 2008. Born in 1939, Mercier was a French starlet who arrived on the scene with a small role in Francois Truffaut's 1959 film SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER. Shortly after appearing in BLACK SABBATH, she made her American debut in the 1964 Bob Hope comedy A GLOBAL AFFAIR before beating out the likes of Virna Lisi, Catherine Deneuve, and Jane Fonda for the first ANGELIQUE film. By 1969, Mercier was ready to move on from ANGELIQUE and the series came to an end. She stayed busy in the early 1970s but her career eventually slowed down as she approached 40. From 1977 to 1998, she was in semi-retirement and only appeared in five films, but the now-76-year-old Mercier has since become sporadically active on French television, including several 2009 episodes of VENUS AND APOLLO (sort-of the French SEX AND THE CITY) that had her crossing paths with Hossein once again.


Born in 1927, Hossein's first big break came with RIFIFI, but he starred in a number of successful French films that rarely made waves outside of Europe. He appeared in a few international co-productions, like the 1965 anthology espionage thriller THE DIRTY GAME, with Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, and Vittorio Gassman, and the same year's MARCO THE MAGNIFICENT, with Horst Buchholz, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif, but similar to Jean-Paul Belmondo, he stayed in Europe and never made any attempts at crossover success in Hollywood like contemporaries such as Yves Montand, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Alain Delon. Throughout his seven-decade career, Hossein also directed 17 films going back to 1955's THE WICKED GO TO HELL. Most of his directing efforts were in the 1960s (like 1967's RASPUTIN, with GOLDFINGER's Gert Frobe in the lead), but he also helmed a 1982 version of LES MISERABLES with Lino Ventura as Jean Valjean and Michel Bouquet as Javert. In 1995, Hossein appeared in Claude Lelouch's WWII-set updating of LES MISERABLES, with Belmondo as Jean Valjean, and he also starred in the 1997 Italian horror film WAX MASK, a remake of THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and HOUSE OF WAX produced by Dario Argento. WAX MASK was supposed to have been directed by Lucio Fulci, who dropped out of the project shortly before his death and was replaced by Italian special effects king Sergio Stivaletti, making his directing debut. Still hearty and sharp at 87 on the CEMETERY bonus features, Hossein acts and directs infrequently these days, with his last major role being in 1999's VENUS BEAUTY INSTITUTE, where he played a lonely widower who becomes a sugar daddy to a pre-AMELIE Audrey Tautou.



A long-forgotten gem unearthed, CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES has typically been dismissed and ignored by spaghetti historians (Arrow's liner notes even mention it being derisively referred to as a "baguette western" by REPO MAN director and spaghetti western superfan Alex Cox). Also boasting a very Ennio Morricone-esque score by Hossein's father Andre, featuring the ballad "The Rope and the Colt," sung by Scott Walker (the cool Scott Walker from the '60s), it's an offbeat discovery that spaghetti western fans will want to see, if for no other reason than to observe how all the genre conventions and styles just look slightly different from a French perspective.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: DANNY COLLINS (2015) and WHITE GOD (2015)


DANNY COLLINS
(US - 2015)



Al Pacino, or more specifically, the modern incarnation of Al Pacino, hasn't been known for nuance and sensitivity, but DANNY COLLINS provides the great actor with his best role in years. That DANNY COLLINS works as well as it does is a testament to Pacino's gifts as an actor, because upon a first glance, he seems laughably miscast as an aged '70s rock star on a decades-long greatest hits tour. Danny Collins began his career as a folk singer but soon went for big money, becoming an arena rocker singing songs written by others, songs that are now synonymous with him and the only things that his increasingly elderly audience wants to hear. He's still filthy rich and living the easy life with booze, recreational coke, and being a sugar daddy to a gold-digging plaything in her early 20s (Katarina Cas). But a surprise birthday gift from his best friend and career-long manager Frank (Christopher Plummer) has Danny re-evaluating his life and the choices he's made: it seems John Lennon read a 1971 interview with Danny and sent him a letter of encouragement, telling him that he liked his music and that he should call him if he should ever want to talk or write some songs. Lennon included his home phone number. The letter never got to Danny and somehow ended up in the hands of a collector, who sold it to Frank. It wasn't long after that interview that Danny gave up on his own songwriting and became the flashy, crowd-pleasing Danny Collins known to the world today. Canceling his tour and checking into a New Jersey Hilton, Danny is determined to become the man of integrity that John Lennon reached out to over 40 years ago, not just musically ("I haven't written a song in 30 years...I'm a court jester with a microphone"), but by connecting with Tom (Bobby Cannavale), the result of a one-nighter with a groupie back in the early '80s.



Inspired by an actual incident--British cult folk singer Steve Tilston was interviewed by ZigZag in 1971 and was sent a letter of support by Lennon that he never received until 2010--CARS, TANGLED, and LAST VEGAS screenwriter Dan Fogelman, making his directing debut, takes some liberties with where the protagonist ends up (Tilston has worked steadily to this day, but never came close to the mega-stardom of the fictional Danny Collins), and you're first instinct is to compare Danny to the pre-Rick Rubin critical rebirth of Neil Diamond. Fogelman also can't resist occasional forays into the mawkish--of course a potentially fatal illness comes into play--but it's very hard to dislike DANNY COLLINS. Pacino seems so wrong as a cheeseball Barry Manilow that you're convinced the film is sunk before the opening credits are even over, but fortunately, Fogelman keeps the focus on Collins' offstage life. Pacino imbues the character with the eccentricity he often brings to the screen, but does an admirable job of restraining himself and creating a living, breathing character as opposed to a cartoonish spectacle. Danny Collins is a guy who's let everyone close to him down, but as Frank attests "He has a good heart...it's just stuck up his ass sometimes." It's been a long time since Pacino was this charming in a movie, and his mischievous grin while flirting with uptight hotel manager Mary (Annette Bening) and his persistent, heartfelt attempts to bond with Tom and his wife (Jennifer Garner) and their daughter (Giselle Eisenberg) represent Pacino at the top of his game. It's hard not to see Danny as a commentary on Pacino himself, with so many hammy performances in the second half of his career that are so unlike the relatively reserved work of his younger self (though, really, even as far back s DOG DAY AFTERNOON, Pacino's been prone to indulging his hammy side). DANNY COLLINS is often maudlin and manipulative, and a third act downward spiral can be seen coming a mile away, but it works thanks to a restrained and engaged Pacino and a solid supporting cast. (R, 108 mins)


WHITE GOD
(Hungary/Germany/Sweden - 2014; US release 2015)



A heavy-handed societal allegory about oppression and class struggle, WHITE GOD is nonetheless an impressive achievement in that the filmmakers managed to depict an army of angry dogs taking over Budapest without using CGI. Over 250 dogs were brought in for the insane final half hour, which is largely a canine version of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, with director Kornel Mundruczo working with a large team of trainers to coordinate what amounts to a precision, military-like attack. Some of the dogs, particularly a pair of Arizona-born Rhodesian Ridgeback brothers named Luke and Bodie who play the lead dog, are naturals who deliver remarkably expressive performances. The film itself is rather silly, with the kind of metaphor-heavy plot one might concoct in a high-school creative writing class: 13-year-old Lili (Zsofia Psotta) is forced to spend the summer with her estranged father Daniel (Sandor Zsoter, who looks like the Hungarian Terry Kinney), and brings her dog Hagen (Luke and Bodie) along. Daniel isn't too keen on the street mutt-turned-beloved pet and refuses to pay a tax on unregistered dogs after a busybody neighbor reports him. Lili pleads with Daniel to not dump Hagen in a shelter, and in a fit of road rage, Daniel yanks Hagen out of the car and abandons him on the side of the road. Forced to fend for himself, Hagen explores the city, struggles to find food, befriends other stray mutts, and is eventually abducted into a dogfighting ring. As Lili grows rebellious and her relationship with her father deteriorates, she tries to find Hagen, who eventually ends up in a dog pound and leads a canine revolt against their captors before running wild through the streets, the pack of dogs becoming Hagan's army on his quest for vengeance against those who ruined his life and the lives of so many other dogs. The symbolism is obvious (especially when the dogs start attacking privileged, bourgeois shoppers), but on a technical level, Mundruczo's presentation of the dogs running rampant makes for some stunning moments--it's hard to imagine how much work went into getting 250 dogs to work together in unison. Veteran Hollywood animal trainer Teresa Ann Miller's team worked with a Hungarian crew to pull it off, using many strays and shelter dogs, all of whom found permanent homes after the shoot. Mundruczo presents the dogs in harrowing situations, whether it's dogfights or Hagen trying to cross a busy highway, and by abandoning any use of CGI, it makes the experience that much more immediate and intense. Even though we know the dogs were in good hands and none were harmed, it still makes for some nerve-wracking scenes simply wouldn't have worked with CGI dogs. (R, 121 mins)




Tuesday, July 28, 2015

In Theaters: SOUTHPAW (2015)


SOUTHPAW
(US - 2015)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Kurt Sutter. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Naomie Harris, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Oona Laurence, Miguel Gomez, Skylan Brooks, Victor Ortiz, Beau Knapp, Dominic Colon. (R, 124 mins)

SOUTHPAW is the first big-screen project scripted by Kurt Sutter, who made a name for himself as a writer and producer on THE SHIELD and went on to become the mastermind behind SONS OF ANARCHY. As any viewer of those classic TV shows is aware, Sutter is drawn to strutting, tough-talking bro-huggers whose macho bravado masks a torrent of pain and anguish, men who play by their own rules and go outside the law if necessary if that's what it takes to get to another day because that's what they do. SOUTHPAW plays a lot like a whittled-down series that Sutter might've produced for FX, and as such, there's jumps in the narrative where things can be easily glossed over but there's no natural flow or feel for how one event leads to another. Plus, if you were to remove a few Eminem songs, the constantly spitting blood, and the plethora of F-bombs, and SOUTHPAW is every bit as hokey and melodramatic as any late 1930s/early 1940s Warner Bros. boxing programmer with James Cagney or Arthur Kennedy as a scrappy, wunderkind pugilist and Humphrey Bogart or Barton MacLane as his unscrupulous manager. SOUTHPAW is certainly watchable and has moments that are fine, but it hits every genre trope and cliche like it's bulldozing through a checklist, and yet it behaves as if it's somehow the first boxing movie with a down-and-out hero, once on top of the world, now kicked to the curb with something to prove, going the distance in the fight of his life.


Jake Gyllenhaal is light heavyweight world champion Billy Hope (Sutter never was one for subtlety), currently holding a 43-0 professional record but being urged to slow down by his Noo Yawk-talking wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). Billy and Maureen both "came up through the system," and met in a Hell's Kitchen orphanage when they were 12 years old. They've been blessed with fame and fortune and only want the best for their young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Maureen, or "Mo," wants Billy to call it a career, but with all of his homeboys on his payroll and his opportunistic manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent, cast radically against type as a piece of shit) always pushing him, Billy has to keep the money rolling in, with a $30 million offer from HBO already on the table for his next fight. All of that goes south when mouthy up-and-comer Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) keeps publicly calling him out to grant him a shot at the title. During one such encounter at a gala benefit for the orphanage, Miguel threatens to "take your title and your bitch," and a brawl ensues that results in Mo being shot and killed. Almost overnight, Billy's lawyer informs he's in serious debt and owes back taxes. When a drunk, depressed Billy crashes his car into a tree on the front lawn, the house goes into foreclosure and Child Protective Services take Leila into custody. Almost all of his friends abandon him and Mains dumps him in favor of Escobar (cue Fiddy with the mandatory "Nothin' personal...it's just business, baby"). Billy moves into a shithole apartment in the projects and when a grieving Leila refuses to see him during one of his supervised visits, he has nowhere to go but the ramshackle gym of Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), an old-school trainer, blind in one eye from his days in the ring, the kind of taskmaster who charges fifty push-ups for swearing and whose speed and heavy bags are barely held together with duct tape. Through Tick, will Billy learn back-to-the-basics boxing and earn the respect of the kids at the gym, thereby attaining respect for himself? Will he find the fire--the "eye of the tiger," if you will--that once propelled him into the upper echelons of the sport, win back the love of his embittered daughter and symbolically avenge his wife's death by regaining the belt that's has since been won by the ever-boasting Escobar?  If you've ever seen a movie before, you'll know where SOUTHPAW is going long before it gets there.




Sutter and director Antoine Fuqua (TRAINING DAY, THE EQUALIZER) leave no cliche untouched throughout SOUTHPAW. They also gloss over subplots that range from undeveloped (the home situation of a kid who hangs out at Tick's gym) to outright abandoned (Escobar's crack-addled wife and the investigation into who shot Maureen). The film seems to think that it can coast by solely on Gyllenhaal's startling physical transformation into the ripped Billy Hope. It's quite a contrast to last year's NIGHTCRAWLER, where the actor lost weight to appear wiry and gaunt as a sleazy, greasy tabloid videographer. Gyllenhaal's lack of an Oscar nomination for NIGHTCRAWLER remains one of the more outrageous Academy snubs in recent years, but his performance in SOUTHPAW reeks of transparent Oscar bait. The role was originally conceived with Eminem in mind, and that seems to be who Gyllenhaal is trying to emulate. As a result, his performance too often feels like mannered posturing and a collection of twitches and flinches. Billy Hope is a man who has a hard time articulating himself to the point where exploding in violence is all he can do, but Gyllenhaal's performance is too much of a performance. Compare his work to that of Channing Tatum in FOXCATCHER--a film I really didn't like, but Tatum is a revelation in it--and you see the difference. Gyllenhaal is simply trying too hard and it ends up backfiring on him. Whitaker makes some good moments out of a stock, cardboard character. Young Laurence does a good job of capturing the sass and fire demonstrated by McAdams in her brief screen time (she's gone by the 30-minute mark), enough that they're both quite believable as mother and daughter, while Naomie Harris can't do much with a superfluous supporting role as Leila's child services case worker (why is she at the final fight between Billy and Escobar?). Fuqua's staging of the fight sequences is mostly well-handled, but occasionally demonstrates an overuse of today's quick-cut, shaky-cam approach--not to the point where it's overwhelming, but enough that you miss the in-the-ring intensity of ROCKY or RAGING BULL.  Never boring but instantly forgettable, SOUTHPAW is one of Fuqua's weakest films and as far as recent boxing movies go, it isn't even as interesting as last year's DTV Dominic Purcell B-movie A FIGHTING MAN, with the film's sporadic positive elements negated by a thoroughly predictable and maddeningly formulaic presentation. Regardless of how much time Gyllenhaal spent getting physically prepped for the role, there isn't a single thing here that hasn't been recycled from a hundred other boxing movies before it.




Thursday, July 23, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2015); WILD HORSES (2015); and DER SAMURAI (2015)

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
(New Zealand - 2014; US release 2015)


FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS' Jemaine Clement and EAGLE VS. SHARK and THE INBETWEENERS director Taika Waititi wrote and directed this overrated but still affectionate and often quite amusing Christopher Guest-inspired vampire spoof, with a documentary crew following the nightly routine of four vampire flatmates prior to the annual Unholy Masquerade. Viago (Waititi) is the den mother of sorts, a worrisome bloodsucker who's always trying to manage the household and make sure the bills are paid and the chores are getting done.  That's the kind of absurdist humor that's on display throughout the film, and while it has moments that are very funny, it's a thin premise for a feature-length film (it seems like it should be one of those filmed SNL pieces that they call back to three or four times over the course of a show), with a really draggy middle that makes it feel longer than 86 minutes. There's also the perverse and jaded 800-year-old Vladislav the Poker (Clement), the younger--at just 183 years of age--and irresponsible Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who thinks it's "bullshit" that he has to do the dishes, and the ancient, Nosferatu-like Petyr (Ben Frasham), with a new flatmate brought in when Petyr bites Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer). WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS works best when it sardonically looks at the impracticalities of vampirism, like neat-freak Viago spreading newspaper over the floor around a female victim in preparation for any bleeding out that takes place (and a real mess ensues when he accidentally bites the main artery, sending gory arterial spray shooting everywhere and confessing "That didn't go as I expected"). Or, when a depressed Vladislav lets himself go and starts showing his true age and opting to stay in for the evening as Viago implores "You don't look that good, but if you eat someone on the way..." The vampires also have a hilarious, ballbusting back-and-forth with a pack of asshole werewolves, with a scene-stealing performance by Rhys Darby as their hectoring leader, who sounds like a scolding parent when he informs his fellow lycanthropes "It's transformation night! Where's your track suit pants! Your legs expand when you transform and you're gonna rip through those jeans completely!" There's a lot of clever, deadpan humor throughout the film, but it never really rises to the level of laugh-out-loud funny or to the point where it can carry an entire film. It's likable and if you're a horror fan, you'll enjoy it, but it's not the new SHAUN OF THE DEAD. It's more like the new TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL. (R, 86 mins)




WILD HORSES
(US - 2015)



Stepping behind the camera for the first time since 2003's middling ASSASSINATION TANGO, the great Robert Duvall stumbles badly with the awful WILD HORSES, a rambling, self-indulgent home movie with two purposes: to allow Duvall to yet again play--wait for it--an irascible, ornery old coot and to give a leading role to his much younger wife Luciana, who has a total of three acting credits, two being in films directed by her husband. Duvall has helmed five films since 1977's little-seen, self-released rodeo documentary WE'RE NOT THE JET SET, and his directing efforts are small, often self-financed passion projects, with 1983's ANGELO MY LOVE scoring some significant critical acclaim and 1997's THE APOSTLE breaking through to the mainstream and netting Duvall a Best Actor Oscar nomination. With the barely-released WILD HORSES however, Duvall is all over the place as a writer and director, with a meandering story that goes nowhere and entirely too many scenes brought down by the atrocious non-acting of Luciana Duvall and a supporting cast of non-professionals from the Salt Lake City and Magna, UT area where the film was shot. Duvall's wife--truly one of the worst actresses you'll ever see--has a monotone delivery that makes her sound hypnotized and she repeatedly trips over her dialogue.  Some of the local actors pause their readings like they momentarily forgot their line, find their bearings and keep going. Then there's the poor kid playing Duvall's grandson, obviously distracted by the crew and looking directly into the camera several times in one scene as a reassuring Josh Hartnett visibly tries to keep him focused. It actually looks like Hartnett and the child were still rehearsing the scene when Duvall decided it was good enough. Personal passion projects with a gritty, DIY feel are fine, but there's a big difference between "naturalistic acting" and "people who have no business being in front of a camera." The 84-year-old Duvall has been a working actor in film and television since 1960. He's a living legend, but with all due respect, that doesn't excuse his attempting to pass this amateur-night vanity project off as a real movie.


The film opens with crotchety, gun-toting, Bible-thumping Texas rancher Scott Briggs (Duvall) finding his youngest son Ben making out with his best friend Jimmy in the barn. 15 years later, Texas Ranger Samantha Payne (Mrs. Duvall) re-opens an investigation into the disappearance of Jimmy, who was never seen again after that night on the Briggs farm. Scott remains close to his two older sons, Johnny (Devon Abner) and KC (Hartnett), and extends an olive branch to the estranged, openly gay Ben (James Franco), who ran away to live with his mother (wives leaving them years earlier is a recurring motif for Duvall's grizzled old cowpokes) and hasn't seen his father since that fateful night. Scott wants his sons home so he can finalize his will and set things right, which also involves revealing that family friend Maria (Angie Cepeda, also in the recent Duvall-as-cantankerous-old-bastard dud A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO), who's "like a sister" to the Briggs boys, actually is their sister, thanks to a years-ago fling. When he isn't mending fences with Ben, Scott, who obviously knows the truth behind Jimmy's disappearance, is pressuring the local law, who gave him a pass 15 years ago, into "encouraging" Payne to give up her investigation and leave him alone, and after multiple attempts on her life by goons in the employ of the corrupt deputy sheriff, she's not about to ease off on old Scott. WILD HORSES has the makings of an intriguing mix of family skeletons drama and revenge thriller, but Duvall can't be bothered to focus on either of those potentials. He's more interested in local color and capturing the chattering, non-professional actors being "real," which doesn't really translate to watchable cinema when they can't hold their own with experienced vets like himself, Franco, Hartnett, and BABEL Oscar-nominee Adriana Barraza as Jimmy's still-devastated mother. At times, it seems like WILD HORSES is trying to go for a THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA-type vibe, but Duvall's aimless script, lax direction, and unconditional love for his wife prevent it from accomplishing anything at all. (Unrated, 104 mins)


DER SAMURAI
(Germany/UK - 2014; US release 2015)



This ultra low-budget, partially Indiegogo crowd-funded fusion of cult genres deserves some special mention for never self-consciously winking at the audience, like it's a prefab, self-aware cult movie. The film began as writer/director Till Kleinert's senior thesis for the German Film & Television Academy (though he already has one feature, 2009's THE LONGEST NIGHT, under his belt), and while its allegorical implications are perhaps a little too obvious, DER SAMURAI has enough wit, style, and spirit (cue the now-mandatory John Carpenter-style synth score!) to work quite well, and at just 80 minutes, it doesn't have chance to wear out its welcome. In a small German town near the Polish border, young police officer Jakob (Michel Diercks) lives with his grandmother (Ulrike Hanke-Haensch) and gets zero respect from his colleagues or the townies. He's mocked by his boss for hanging bags of meat in the woods to attract a wolf that's been terrorizing neighborhoods, and gets an oddly-sized package sent to the station addressed to "The Lonely Wolf." A strange phone call sends him to a seemingly abandoned hovel where he finds a nameless, transvestite squatter (Pit Bukowski) who says the package is for him. It's a samurai sword, and the squatter--Der Samurai--goes on a rampage of violence and destruction across the town with Jakob in pursuit. Der Samurai's constant chatter about how he and Jakob are one and the same and Jakob's constant failed attempts at displaying any sense of manhood or masculinity certainly make gay panic one very likely subtext. For a while, it seems as if Kleinert might even be going into Chuck Palahniuk territory with the way he seemingly goes out of his way to avoid having Jakob and Der Samurai in the shot together when other characters are involved. Der Samurai is Jakob's repressed homosexuality run rampant, trying to goad him into a killing spree to assert his hetero manliness. There's a lot of potential to be offensive here--some overseas poster art comes dangerously close to Uwe Boll territory, with the tag line "The deadliest thing from Germany since 1945," which erroneously sends the message that it's a shock value-type of film--but Kleinert directs with much self-confidence, never letting things get too jokey or over-the-top, and the performance by Bukowski in the title role--he looks like a deranged DNA experiment that fused Klaus Kinski, Jake Busey, and Carrot Top--should establish the character as a minor-league cult icon. (Unrated, 80 mins)


Thursday, July 16, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY'S ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (2015); CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (2015) and LET US PREY (2015)


LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF 
RICHARD STANLEY'S ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU
(US - 2015)



On the heels of JODOROWSKY'S DUNE comes another LOST IN LA MANCHA-style documentary about a film that never was, Richard Stanley's THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. Stanley, the eccentric visionary behind the cult classics HARDWARE (1990) and DUST DEVIL (1992), had a lifelong fascination with the H.G. Wells novel about an island of man-beasts created by the mad Dr. Moreau that had already been filmed as ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) and THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977), and got the greenlight from New Line Cinema as his MOREAU entered pre-production in 1994. Of course, the film was ultimately released in 1996, directed not by Stanley, who was fired less than a week into shooting, but by veteran journeyman John Frankenheimer, bombed with critics and audiences, and is universally considered one of cinema's all-time great camp classics. LOST SOUL isn't a particularly cinematic documentary in the hands of director David Gregory, the head of cult Blu-ray/DVD outfit Severin Films and an old hand in the world of DVD extras--LOST SOUL often feels less like a movie and more like a long bonus feature on a deluxe Blu-ray edition of MOREAU. While Gregory drops the ball in some areas--it's understandable that co-star David Thewlis probably didn't want to be interviewed, but his name never even comes up when he actually has the film's main role--the stories told are fascinating. Fairuza Balk and Marco Hofschneider are the only two stars who take part, though you also get Rob Morrow, who quit a few days into production and was replaced by Thewlis. Stanley envisioned DAS BOOT's Jurgen Prochnow as Dr. Moreau but when New Line executive Michael DeLuca got involved, the role suddenly went to Marlon Brando, which turned the modestly-budgeted $8 million film into something more expensive. Bruce Willis agreed to play the central character, Edward Douglas, a shipwreck victim trapped on Moreau's island of horrors, and James Woods signed on to play Montgomery, Moreau's psychotic assistant. Even in pre-production, chaos reigned: execs started demanding changes to the script. Brando almost dropped out when his daughter Cheyenne committed suicide, and when he finally committed, he wanted Roman Polanski brought in to direct. Then Willis bailed upon his split from Demi Moore, saying it wasn't a good time to head off to Australia for several months. Stanley went along with some uncredited script revisions by Walon Green (THE WILD BUNCH), had a meeting with Brando and managed to win him over, but cites his biggest strategic error as "meeting Val Kilmer."

Ousted MOREAU director Richard Stanley
The first half of LOST SOUL deals with Stanley and his vision, but Gregory knows you're watching for the much-talked-about Kilmer horror stories (the late Frankenheimer once said of Kilmer: "Will Rogers never met Val Kilmer") that begin with him burning a crew member's sideburns with a lit cigarette and escalate from there. Kilmer's behavior on the set of MOREAU has become the stuff of legend, and several lament that with him onboard and red-hot after BATMAN FOREVER, using his newfound A-list clout to upstage, second-guess, and overrule Stanley, the project was no longer about Stanley's serious, thoughtful $8 million Wells adaptation but rather, a $40 million commercial horror movie with Marlon Brando and blockbuster expectations thanks to the presence of Kilmer. Just before filming began, Kilmer announced that he was too busy to play Douglas and demanded 40% less shooting time while keeping his salary. He decided that he wanted to play Montgomery instead of Douglas (the Morrow role that ultimately went to Thewlis), which bounced Woods from the production. He then proceeded to slow down shooting by questioning every one of Stanley's directorial decisions and grill him about his editing choices ("Tell me how you're gonna do this, Richard," and "That's not gonna cut together...that won't work"). Hofschneider, who does a perfect Kilmer impression and obviously has no love for the actor, states that Kilmer's treatment of Stanley "wasn't about the shoot anymore. This was a power game."


Things were so bad less than a week into filming that Morrow called New Line head Robert Shaye personally and begged to be let out of his contract ("There's just a bad vibe...I just want to go home"), and when a hurricane struck the Cairns location on the Australian coast and caused a several-week production delay, New Line took the opportunity to make a change, firing Stanley and bringing in Frankenheimer, who only took the job to work with Brando. Frankenheimer barely managed to complete the film with both Brando's insane ideas (like playing one scene with an ice bucket on his head) and Kilmer being abrasive and uncooperative (Frankenheimer is quoted as saying "If I was making THE LIFE OF VAL KILMER, I wouldn't cast Val Kilmer"). Stan Winston makeup assistant Paul Katte remarks that "Marlon showed his legendary contempt for what he did for a living, but he was at least nice and respectful of other people. Val Kilmer just acted like a classic prep school bully." Morbid curiosity about what was going on got the better of him, and Stanley (who still retained a co-writing credit on the released version of MOREAU) would eventually be snuck back on the set by a pair of rebellious production drivers, hiding under a dog mask--he's actually visible in some fleeting shots and production personnel heard rumors of Stanley returning to sabotage the shoot, one even noting in hindsight that "there was always one extra who wouldn't take his mask off during lunch." Stanley's done some documentaries and some short films, and co-wrote Nacho Cerda's THE ABANDONED (2006), but thus far, he has yet to make another feature film. With two mishandled masterpieces to his credit as the cult of HARDWARE and DUST DEVIL grew, Stanley is revered among genre fans as a bold visionary stifled by suits and in way over his head with the big money expectations of New Line Cinema, with Balk, Hofschneider, Morrow, and producer Edward R. Pressman speaking very highly of him. One wishes Gregory could've dug a little further (Kilmer is unsurprisingly absent, as are Thewlis, Ron Perlman, Temuera Morrison, and Mark Dacascos among the film's surviving stars), and while the extras and the production assistants are willing to talk about what they observed, Gregory seems a little too easily detoured by their reminiscing about the drugs, sex, and goofing off during all the down time. Still, LOST SOUL serves as a fascinating document of a tumultuous clusterfuck of a production, riddled with big egos, rotten behavior, and just plain bad luck combining to derail the career of a promising filmmaker who was perhaps too much of an oddball to be playing the Hollywood game anyway (Stanley credits his friend, a "warlock chappy" named Skip, with casting a spell to help him win over Brando). Still, there's no denying that footage of late Mini-Me inspiration Nelson de la Rosa tearing up the dance floor at a Cairns nightclub is absolutely priceless. (Unrated, 98 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)


CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
(France/Germany/Switzerland - 2014; US release 2015)



The latest film from French auteur Olivier Assayas (BOARDING GATE, CARLOS) is one of those smug "industry insider" pieces about movies and acting that critics usually trip over themselves to laud with praise and adulation. Yes, Assayas takes some cheap shots at the vapidity of Hollywood, but like his script, it's labored, heavy-handed, and obvious. Veteran European actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) wants to get back to her serious roots after selling out to Hollywood blockbusters for several years. After walking away from her recurring role in the X-MEN franchise, she heads to Europe with her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to speak at a ceremony honoring her mentor, a playwright from whom she got her first break two decades earlier. The playwright dies before the ceremony, and his widow (former Fassbinder regular Angela Winkler) and a stage director (Lars Eidinger) offer Maria a role in a new version of the play: The Maloja Snake, about the DEVIL WEARS PRADA relationship between middle-aged executive Helena and her young, naive assistant Sigrid. Maria became a star playing Sigrid 20 years ago, but now she's aged into the Helena role, with Sigrid to be played by American actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a talented but self-destructive, Lindsay Lohan-like trainwreck who's constant fodder for tabloids and paparazzi, and has even broken up the marriage of a famous writer (shades of Stewart's fling with her married SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN director?). As Maria comes to terms with aging in an industry where good roles dwindle with each passing year, she and Valentine role-play the script, which starts showing strange similarities between their relationship and the codependent one between Helena and Sigrid in the play.


Like Abel Ferrara's somewhat similar and equally pretentious 1993 film DANGEROUS GAME (which at least had a palpable energy and handheld immediacy to it), the lines between life and art blur throughout, because of course they do. Assayas has made some terrific films, and there's fleeting moments of inspiration here that recall his brilliant 1996 breakthrough IRMA VEP, but he just gets lost up his own ass here, and by the end CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA is little more than Assayas jacking himself off in a one-man writer's workshop. It's too bad, because Binoche and Stewart have a very natural, unaffected chemistry together (Stewart is very good here) that deserves a better showcase than Assayas gives them. Binoche has worked with Assayas before (2008's SUMMER HOURS, and she first gained notice in Andre Techine's 1985 Assayas-scripted RENDEZ-VOUS) and this role was obviously created specifically for the Oscar-winning actress. There's nothing smart or edgy in the presentation of Moretz's tabloid bad girl, and while she's fine, the character is the kind of one-dimensional caricature we've seen before. Binoche is a great actress and Stewart is a revelation (she won the Cesar--the French Oscar--for Best Supporting Actress), but CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA is one of those relentlessly talky, self-indulgent, life-imitates-art looks at "the biz" that are apparently enjoyed only by film festival attendees. Why not just call it JULIETTE BINOCHE IS 50: THE MOVIE and be done with it? (R, 124 mins)


LET US PREY
(UK/Ireland - 2014; US release 2015)


Do filmmakers think it's OK to rip off a terrible movie that nobody saw? Do they think no one will find out? LET US PREY is a convoluted slow-burner that borrows elements of the Stephen King-scripted TV miniseries STORM OF THE CENTURY and a Stuart Gordon-directed FEAR ITSELF episode titled "Eater." But for the bulk of its length, it shamelessly swipes from 2010's THE TRAVELER, a straight-to-DVD Canadian horror film with Val Kilmer--see where his ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU power-tripping got him?--as Mr. Nobody, a supernatural stranger who mysteriously appears at a small-town police station to exact ghostly, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER-style revenge on the squad of six cops who falsely accused him of a crime and tortured him to death. LET US PREY switches up some details but again, we have a supernatural mystery man, in this case Six (GAME OF THRONES' Liam Cunningham) who appears at a police station in the middle of nowhere in Ireland to exact--wait for it--vengeance on a squad of cops. Instead of being the victim, Six is a soul collector, his job to journey from beyond to collect the sinners, and there's plenty among these cops and criminals, including adulterers, drunk drivers, and a serial killer. The moral center is outcast Sgt. Rachel Heggie (Pollyanna McIntosh of OFFSPRING and THE WOMAN), a new transfer who doesn't get along with her co-workers and is a quiet loner with scars both emotional and physical after a traumatic childhood where she was subjected to horrible sexual abuse by her father. Director Brian O'Malley and screenwriters David Cairns and Fiona Watson also throw in a late-in-the-game ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 riff and there's a synthy, John Carpenter-like score, but this is another one of those new horror movies that gets all sorts of accolades from sycophantic publications and fanboys when all it really does is show up and make references. Cribbing most of the plot from a crummy Val Kilmer movie is one thing, but keeping the always-interesting Cunningham locked up and glowering in a jail cell for 90% of his screen time is an even bigger offense. I'll give it credit for some enthusiastically no-holds-barred splatter late in the game, but it's too little, too late. (Unrated, 92 mins)


Monday, July 13, 2015

Ripoffs of the Wasteland: THE NEW BARBARIANS (1983) and Trashtastic bonus film ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX (1983)


THE NEW BARBARIANS
aka WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND
(Italy - 1983; US release 1984)


Directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Written by Tito Carpi and Enzo Girolami (Enzo G. Castellari). Cast: Timothy Brent (Giancarlo Prete), Fred Williamson, George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori), Anna Kanakis, Thomas Moore (Enio Girolami), Venantino Venantini, Massimo Vanni, Giovanni Frezza, Iris Peynado, Andrea Coppola, Zora Kerova, Fulvio Mingozzi, Stefania Girolami, Paul Costello. (R, 91 mins)

Affectionately but often mistakenly considered by fans and historians to be part of the non-existent "BRONX WARRIORS trilogy," Enzo G. Castellari's THE NEW BARBARIANS is also the only actual ROAD WARRIOR-inspired post-nuke of the three films in question and has no relation to the other films aside from being directed by Castellari. It was shot between 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS (1982) and ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX (1983), but rather than post-apocalyptic, the two BRONX films were closer in setting and tone to Walter Hill's THE WARRIORS (1979) and John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), with their then-futuristic setting (the sequel ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX takes place ten years after the events of 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS) perhaps misleading people into lumping it in with all the post-nukes being made at the time. THE NEW BARBARIANS was Castellari's only entry in the Italian post-nuke cycle, and while it features all the expected crazy cars and futuristic, rocket-launching dune buggies, post-nuke despots, nomadic heroes, and that same desert portraying the same scorched-earth wasteland, it also stands alone in its subgenre. Taking what others might use as a subtle subtext and bringing it to the forefront as a major plot point, THE NEW BARBARIANS is the CRUISING of Italian post-nuke ripoffs.




Set in 2019, several years after the nuclear holocaust, the world is a desert with scattered bands of survivors trying to rebuild and restart the human race. That doesn't work for One (Luigi Montefiori/George Eastman), the tyrannical leader of the Templars, the "high priests of death" and the "warriors of vengeance," a brutal, militarized squad of hilariously-coiffed psychos bent on making the living pay for the crime of being alive. It is One's goal that "the seed of man will be canceled forever from the face of the earth." It's telling that there's only men in the Templars, and that One's goal is zero population growth. Enter Scorpion (Giancarlo Prete, billed as "Timothy Brent" and looking like a post-apocalyptic Bert Convy), a nomadic warrior with a giant plastic bubble on top of his car. Scorpion tries to help a wandering group of survivors that includes Alma (Anna Kanakis of 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK), and gets help from two other post-nuke loner mercenaries, the tough-as-nails Nadir (Fred Williamson) and a fix-it-all kid mechanic (THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY's Giovanni Frezza) who also helps build a bullet-and-laser-proof body torso shield for Scorpion in his final battle against the Templars.




Action-wise, THE NEW BARBARIANS is pretty much business as usual: there's a ton of wrecked vehicles, car chases, explosions, smashed faces, heads are sliced and blown off, and there's no shortage of amusing dummy deaths and silly contraptions, like Scorpion's clear, illuminated, portable fuck-pad that comes in handy when he meets Alma. It looks like a portable, see-through bounce house, but Castellari intercutting the sex scene with Scorpion and Alma's prior discussion of their lives over a campfire is a less explicit homage to DON'T LOOK NOW and an interesting precursor to the similar and very praised George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez love scene in Steven Soderbergh's OUT OF SIGHT (1998). You get the feeling that there's some strong sexual undercurrent to THE NEW BARBARIANS with Castellari's abundance of weaponry protruding and extending from speeding vehicles like some kind of post-nuke Cialis commercial, but that's just a warm-up for what happens later. Where the film differentiates itself from overcrowded Italian post-nuke scene is its open depiction of the homosexual villains. One, clearly crushing on Scorpion, keeps trying to get him to join the Templars, but is only met with rejection. Their sexual preference--or at least the preference of One, who seems to rule his men by force and coercion--is not from innate desire for other men but to avoid the possibility of procreation and to have the world end. Late in the film, One gets so fed up with Scorpion that he has him strung up, and forcibly "initiates" him into the Templars via anal rape, a ceremony the rest of the Templars seem to know all too well. It's only after this humiliation and emasculation (along with some vaguely homophobic ballbusting from Nadir) that Scorpion rises like an avenging angel and decides to take out the Templars once and for all. It's here that THE NEW BARBARIANS vacillates between a post-apocalyptic spaghetti western with Scorpion, Nadir, and the kid mechanic forming the requisite unholy alliance, and a post-nuke DELIVERANCE as Nadir and the kid step aside and let Scorpion handle One on his own. Scorpion's final revenge on One is about as twistedly funny as this subgenre would ever get: a car chase with Scorpion barreling up on One, and an erect drill-like mechanism penetrating the back of One's ride and right through the lower part of the driver's seat, literally plowing through One's ass and ripping it apart.




ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX
(Italy - 1983/US release 1985)


Directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Written by Tito Carpi and Enzo G. Castellari. Cast: Mark Gregory, Henry Silva, Valeria D'Obici, Antonio Sabato, Paolo Malco, Timothy Brent (Giancarlo Prete), Thomas Moore (Enio Girolami), Massimo Vanni, Alessandro Prete, Romano Puppo, Eva Czenerys, Andrea Coppola, Moana Pozzi, Carla Brait, Thomas Felleghy, Martin Sorrentino, James Sampson, Paul Costello. (R, 90 mins)

THE NEW BARBARIANS opened in Italy in July 1983 and it would be picked up by a pre-NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET New Line Cinema, who rechristened it with the much snappier WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND for its January 1984 release in US theaters. ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX was released in Italy in August 1983, just a month after THE NEW BARBARIANS, and like that film, New Line would also acquire it for the US, rolling it out in January 1985, minus some of the more excessive gore to secure an R rating. ESCAPE is an an enjoyable follow-up to BRONX WARRIORS, though it's not quite as good. Set in the year 2000, it involves a plot by an evil corporation overseen by Clark (Castellari's brother Enio Girolami, billed as "Thomas Moore") to gentrify the Bronx and relocate its denizens to lovely, scenic New Mexico. In truth, he's ordered armed "disinfesters" led by renegade cop Floyd Wangler (Henry Silva, in a slightly reworked version of Vic Morrow's Hammer the Exterminator from BRONX WARRIORS), to corral and exterminate the remaining residents. After his parents are killed, Trash (a returning Mark Gregory), who's now a nomadic warrior thanks to his entire gang being wiped out in the previous film, teams up with mercenary Strike (Giancarlo Prete), his dutiful son Strike Jr (Prete's son Alessandro), affable gang leader Dablone (Antonio Sabato), and crusading reporter Moon (Valeria D'Obici) to take on Clark, his ambitious second-in-command Hoffman (Paolo Malco), and mad dog Wangler, who spits coffee, berates everyone, and acts insane, because he's played by Henry Silva. Like its predecessor, ESCAPE isn't really a post-nuke outing, but everyone seems OK with letting them into the club. With less location shooting in the Bronx and more set work done at Cinecitta, ESCAPE is able to have a more dystopian feel than the urban war-zone immediacy of BRONX WARRIORS. Gregory was only 17 when BRONX WARRIORS was shot, and though it's just a year later, he looks a bit older and seems much more composed and comfortable compared to his awkward presence in the first film. ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX was featured on MST3K under the title ESCAPE 2000 (not to be confused with the Brian Trenchard-Smith film) and indeed has no shortage of amusing elements, from unconvincing miniatures to constant explosions to Silva's overacting to Trash's parents having a huge Mark Gregory-as-Trash poster adorning their living room wall.



The so-called "BRONX WARRIORS trilogy" has just been released in Blu-ray/DVD combo sets by Blue Underground (to their credit, they don't use the "trilogy" moniker) in impressive new transfers and bonus features. Castellari previously recorded commentaries for the Media Blasters/Shriek Show DVD editions of 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS and THE NEW BARBARIANS from a decade ago, but has recorded new tracks for these editions. There's a lot of repeat info, but Castellari, even with his heavily-accented English (his son and former production assistant Andrea Girolami, completely fluent and with barely an accent, is on hand to occasionally help him find the right words), is such a likable presence and entertaining raconteur and has enough new material that they're worth hearing. This marks ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX's first appearance on DVD or Blu-ray in the US, and it's the uncensored version with all of the New Line-trimmed violence intact. All three titles feature an "In Conversation" featurette with Castellari and producer Fabrizio De Angelis in 2015, discussing the films and reminiscing about the productions, with plenty of interesting anecdotes for fans.


Friday, July 10, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE PACT II (2014) and INFINI (2015)

THE PACT II
(US - 2014)


Nicholas McCarthy's THE PACT (2012) was given a completely under-the-radar VOD release and later quietly appeared on Netflix streaming where it became a legitimate word-of-mouth cult horror hit. One of the scariest films of the last decade and a reference point for slow-burn horror done right, THE PACT should've been huge, especially considering the junk that gets national theatrical exposure these days (what do you think will have a longer shelf life with fans, THE PACT or the POLTERGEIST remake?). Unfortunately, even low-budget, stand-alone horror films that become word-of-mouth Netflix sensations aren't immune from spawning superfluous sequels, and so we have THE PACT II. McCarthy is only onboard as a producer, with writing and directing tasks handed off to the team of Dallas Hallam & Patrick Horvath, the duo behind another impressive slow-burn horror gem, ENTRANCE (2012). THE PACT II centers on June (Camilla Luddington of GREY'S ANATOMY), an aspiring artist who works as a crime scene cleaner. June lives with her cop boyfriend Daniel (Scott Michael Foster) and is soon being hassled by Ballard (Patrick Fischler), an abrasive, dweeby FBI profiler who thinks she knows something about a spate of murders with an M.O. resembling that of the Judas Killer (Mark Steger), the serial killer offed at the end of THE PACT by heroine Annie (Caity Lotz). As with Annie, June starts getting paranormal warnings that danger is near, and soon, her recovering addict mother (Amy Pietz) is killed and Ballard informs her that she in fact has a very close connection to the Judas Killer, who may not be dead after all.


McCarthy left the door open for a sequel at the conclusion of THE PACT, but that didn't mean one was necessary or that he even planned on one. Though Hallam and Horvath utilize a lot of the style and ambient sounds of ENTRANCE for THE PACT II and briefly bring back Lotz (absolutely terrific in the first film) and Haley Hudson (as the oddball and now blind psychic Stevie) to establish bona fides for die-hard PACT fans, they still can't avoid the pitfalls of the most insidious paranormal activity fodder: just because it's a low-budget, navel-gazing, mumblecore slow-burner doesn't make the cliches of slamming doors, bodies being dragged down hallways by unseen spirits, and pointless jump scares accompanied by piercing music cues any less tiresome. Though lightning doesn't strike twice, THE PACT II is functional and perfectly watchable, and there's nothing really wrong with it (other than the twist ending being visible from pretty early on), but it doesn't build on anything in its predecessor and can't help but pale in comparison and exist in its shadow. Luddington is fine as the heroine, but when Lotz finally shows up around 50 minutes in for her "Charlton Heston-in-BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES" extended cameo, you just wish she was in it more. Of course, at the end, all signs point to THE PACT III. (Unrated, 96 mins)



INFINI
(Australia - 2015)



To its credit, the Australian sci-fi thriller INFINI goes extremely light on the CGI and is boldly old school in its reliance on detailed sets, production design, and in-camera visual effects that provide its world with a much more organic and tangible feel than actors simply standing in front of an obvious greenscreen. As a result, INFINI's look is more impressive than films with several times the budget, and it really makes you want to like it. That's what might've caused some film festival attendees to oversell its worth, because once you look past the cosmetics, it's an incoherent disaster and the dullest space movie this side of 1987's NIGHTFLYERS. Writer/director Shane Abbess (GABRIEL) wears his influences on his sleeve, and there's so many of them that it's hard to gauge exactly what it is he's hoping to accomplish with INFINI. It's mostly a mix of OUTLAND, EVENT HORIZON, SUNSHINE, and PANDORUM (remember PANDORUM? How has that not spawned a DTV franchise by now?) set in a poverty-stricken 23rd century where those desperate for employment do grunt mining and repair work on the outer edges of the galaxy. Such travel is possible thanks to a technology known as "slipstreaming." This involves an "Apex device" being wired into someone's central nervous system, allowing flesh and matter to be converted into a digital file and essentially downloaded to its destination. It's not perfect--glitches in the transport system have been known to cause "file corruption," where people are converted back to flesh form during the slipstream home and emerge disintegrating and vomiting blood before dying. It's a risk the downtrodden and desperate are willing to take and it's a fascinating set-up that's far more interesting than the boring film that ultimately unfolds.


Infini is the most distant mining outpost in the galaxy, and one man, Whit Carmichael (Daniel MacPherson), has been left behind after a bacterial outbreak claimed his co-workers and the first rescue team sent after him. Another crew is sent and something seems off with Whit, prompting some concern that he's been exposed to the contagion. From then on, it's anyone's guess, as multiple plot lines ensue, there's dead bodies everywhere, dead skin masks hanging in what looks like space abattoir, and you're never sure what's "real" in the film and what isn't. Abbess goes for some Christopher Nolan mindfuckery but it seems like he's in over his head and never pulls the storylines together. Most of the film is Whit twitching, staring, and getting into grating, endless shouting matches with everyone. No one in the cast really stands out (Luke Hemsworth--Chris and Liam's older brother who stayed home in Australia and somehow hasn't been forced on the American moviegoing public--is third-billed in a supporting role as one of the rescue team, and he's as magnetic as you might expect), no one sounds Australian--most are using American accents but a couple are clearly dubbed. and MacPherson, a ubiquitous TV celebrity down under and best known as the host of Australia's version of DANCING WITH THE STARS, is a boring lead. A complete waste of an interesting set-up and the work of some obviously dedicated craftspeople on the crew, INFINI unfortunately belongs with STRANDED and THE LAST DAYS ON MARS on the recent outer space cinema scrap heap, banished to the outer reaches of your Netflix queue. (R, 111 mins)