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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Retro Review: THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD (1971)


THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
(US/Spain/Liechtenstein - 1971)

Directed by Kevin Billington. Written by Tom Rowe and Rachel Billington. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Yul Brynner, Samantha Eggar, Renato Salvatori, Jean-Claude Drouot, Fernando Rey, Massimo Ranieri, Aldo Sambrell, Tito Garcia, Victor Israel, Tony Skios, Luis Barboo, Tony Cyrus, Raul Castro, Maria Borge. (PG, 128 mins)

Kino's new Blu-ray edition of 1971's THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD was already announced several months before the legendary Kirk Douglas died just before before its release at the age of 103. Unfortunately, it's not one of the iconic actor's better films, but of course, in a storied career as long as his, there will be inevitable ups and downs. LIGHT was made at a time when Douglas found himself in a major slump following a trio of costly big-studio duds with 1968's THE BROTHERHOOD, 1969's THE ARRANGEMENT, and 1970's THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN. His box-office misfortune probably wasn't helped by the youth-driven "New Hollywood" era being ushered in by the likes of BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GRADUATE, and EASY RIDER, so there was little chance Douglas was going to secure the Hollywood studio funding he needed for THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, a passion project that he'd been trying to get off the ground since 1965.





Kirk Douglas (1916-2020)
THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD was based on Jules Verne's posthumously-published 1905 adventure novel The Lighthouse at the End of the World, and Douglas had a history with the author's work, having starred with James Mason in Disney's 1954 live-action Verne adaptation 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. It was hugely popular box-office smash, kickstarting a Verneassaince in Hollywood that led to the likes of 1956's Oscar-winning AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, 1958's FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, and 1959's JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH among several others. Douglas' own production company Bryna was able to front some of the budget for LIGHT, but he had to secure the remainder of the funding through European sources, namely producer Alexander Salkind, who would soon go on to oversee THE THREE MUSKETEERS, THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, and the SUPERMAN franchise. Salkind had been a minor player in the European film scene for some time, and, at least until his attempted "make two movies but only pay the actors for one" chicancery on the THREE/FOUR MUSKETEERS and SUPERMAN/SUPERMAN II, had a reputation as a hands-off producer who put up the money and let directors make the films they wanted to make. Salkind produced Orson Welles' 1962 Franz Kafka adaptation THE TRIAL and while the money ran out before the end of the shoot, it was one of the very few instances in his directing career that the mercurial Welles was able to work without meddling financiers looking over his shoulder and questioning every decision he made, and he always remained grateful to Salkind for demonstrating that trust and respect.


Similar money issues are apparent in much of THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, particularly some almost Antonio Margheriti-worthy miniatures and one embarrassing shot where a ship's crew is obviously just tiny, immobile action figures on a model vessel that could very well be floating in the bathtub in Douglas' hotel room. With its mostly European supporting cast (including spaghetti western stalwart Aldo Sambrell and Spanish genre vet Victor Israel) dubbed by numerous familiar voices, and some shocking violence that flirts with grindhouse brutality (surprising, considering that Verne adaptations were typically family-oriented fare), LIGHT frequently resembles a cost-cutting Harry Alan Towers production of the time despite some class brought to the proceedings by Douglas and Yul Brynner, which is probably where a good chunk of the money went. Douglas is Denton, an assistant lighthouse keeper at the southernmost tip of Argentina in 1865. An American Gold Rush prospector on the run from a checkered past and a broken heart, Denton butts heads with head lighthouse operator Capt. Moritz (Fernando Rey, right before his memorable turn as the villain in THE FRENCH CONNECTION), but gets along fine with affable young apprentice Felipe (Massimo Ranieri), who has a cute capuchin monkey sidekick named Mario. Mario is about as kiddie-friendly as LIGHT ever gets, as the monkey, Moritz, and Felipe will soon be murdered by a crew of slobbering pirates led by the sadistic Kongre (Brynner), who takes over the island and has a testy exchange with Denton ("Do I detect an American accent? I used to have dealings with your countrymen during the happy days of the slave trade!" Kongre sneers), as a cat-and-mouse game unfolds between his psycho crew and the sole surviving lighthouse keeper, who escapes and spends the rest of the film running around the island trying to stay out of sight and stay alive.


Shot on some treacherous, rocky terrain on the coast of Spain, surrounded by some intimidatingly rough waters, THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD is buoyed by some often breathtaking location work, and it's undeniably impressive watching a 55-year-old Douglas doing a lot of his own stunts, sprinting around the island, climbing rocks, and putting himself in harm's way as the waves violently crash on the shore. But that's also a LIGHT stumbling block as it suffers from erratic pacing and numerous shots that seem drawn-out and repetitive (how much of this movie is just people walking around?), and after a while, you realize it's by design so middle-aged Kirk can show off his spry athleticism and make sure we see that it's really him doing all this dangerous shit. British TV director Kevin Billington is at the helm, and his wife Rachel has an "additional dialogue" credit (along with an "additional ideas" credit for Salkind's wife Berta Dominguez D, the driving force behind the later Salkind fiasco WHERE IS PARSIFAL?), but make no mistake--this, like SPARTACUS, is Kirk's baby all the way. But it's not 1960, it's not a mega-budget Hollywood epic, and Kevin Billington is not Stanley Kubrick. The pacing issues improve somewhat at the midpoint when a ship en route from San Francisco to England wrecks and Kongre's men slaughter all of the survivors except Montefiore (Renato Salvatori), who's rescued by Denton, and high society matron Arabella (Samantha Eggar), who is held prisoner by Kongre for obvious assumed reasons.


There's an unconvincing subplot involving Kongre's attempt to trick Denton into believing that Arabella is really his long-lost love Emily Jane (Maria Borge in flashbacks), but it doesn't work at all--either as a Kongre plan or a LIGHT plot device. The film takes numerous liberties with the source material, and the finale gets dangerously close to turning into THE LAST LIGHTHOUSE ON THE LEFT, as Kongre has Montefiore strung up and flayed alive and Arabella gang-raped by his subhuman flunkies. The former is pretty tough to watch even now, and the latter mostly implied, and with the downbeat, nihilistic ending (not to mention a still-controversial instance of animal cruelty where a galloping horse is tripped), LIGHT is decidedly not the kind of film one generally associates with the idea of "Jules Verne." National General Pictures cut nearly 30 minutes from THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD for its US release in the summer of 1971 release. The US cut ran 101 minutes and carried an all-ages "GP" rating, obviously losing the more graphic material but likely tightening up some of the extremely slack pacing. Regardless, it was another flop for Douglas, but Brynner and Eggar would reteam in 1972 on the short-lived CBS series ANNA AND THE KING, an ill-advised period sitcom that was canceled mid-season, with Brynner reprising his Oscar-winning role from the 1956 film. Kino's LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD Blu-ray (because physical media is dead) is the uncut--and entirely too long--128-minute European version, still sporting a PG rating on the packaging but with all of the hard-R violence intact.



THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
opening in Toledo, OH on 8/25/1971

Monday, February 24, 2020

In Theaters: BRAHMS: THE BOY II (2020)


BRAHMS: THE BOY II
(US - 2020)

Directed by William Brent Bell. Written by Stacey Menear. Cast: Katie Holmes, Owain Yeoman, Ralph Ineson, Christopher Convery, Anjali Jay, Oliver Rice, Joely Collins, Natalie Moon. (PG-13, 86 mins)

The modestly-budgeted "creepy doll" horror film THE BOY grossed $35 million back in 2016, making it a profitable enough minor hit in the January dead zone to warrant a sequel four years later. That's a long time, so you can be forgiven if you don't recall much about THE BOY. And that's OK, because the returning creative core behind it--director William Brent Bell and screenwriter Stacey Menear--doesn't seem to either. The kind of disposable, assembly-line fright flick that's sufficiently engaging while you're watching but instantly forgotten the moment the credits start rolling at the 80-minute mark, BRAHMS: THE BOY II's biggest shock is that it's actually making a quick stop in multiplexes on the way to its intended destination: elbow-deep in the $5 Blu-ray bin at Walmart. THE BOY's supernatural shenanigans involving well-dressed, toddler-sized porcelain doll Brahms were rather improbably explained away by a late-film twist that owed a significant debt to the 2014 New Zealand import HOUSEBOUND. But with BRAHMS: THE BOY II, a rare example of a sequel that probably plays better if you never saw Part I, Bell (worst-known for directing THE DEVIL INSIDE, the Nigerian prince e-mail of demonic possession movies) and Menear opt for the HIGHLANDER 2: THE QUICKENING route, ret-conning half of their first movie by making Brahms a legitimately supernatural entity (thankfully not from the planet Zeist) that's instilling a possession-like hold on young Jude (Christopher Convery), who's stopped speaking since burglars broke into his family's London home in the middle of the night and attacked his American expat mom Liza (Katie Holmes) while his dad Sean (Owain Yeoman) was away for work. Liza's been suffering from nightmares since and Jude will only communicate by note pad, but their child psychologist (Anjali Jay) says he just needs time.






Sean and Liza decide they all need to get away, renting a guest house that's on the outskirts of the property of the now-shuttered Heelshire Estate, where the events of the first film took place. While exploring the woods around the stately manor, Jude sees a porcelain hand sticking out of the dirt and unearths a buried Brahms, immediately growing attached to it and always having it by his side. At first, Liza finds it strange (especially when Jude unveils a list of "rules" he claims were dictated by the doll), but when she and Sean overhear Jude talking to it in his room, they believe Brahms is therapeutic for him. But it isn't long before the doll exhibits a strange hold on Jude, who starts acting out against his parents, with Liza discovering a series of violent drawings in his sketch book that show him toting a shotgun and standing over their dead bodies while Brahms looks on approvingly. Heelshire groundskeeper Joseph (Ralph Ineson) knows something is up as well, especially when his dog gets all skittish and growly when Jude and the doll are together. It's not surprising Liza feels like Brahms is always watching her, since he turns his head or moves his eyes when no one is looking, and he even starts playing games like turning on the TV when Liza is in the next room and no one else is around.


Dead-eyed horror movie dolls like Brahms are almost always creepily effective, especially ones that look like they've been motion-captured by Jared Kushner. And once the action moves to the Heelshire mansion, the film takes on a reasonably atmospheric 1970s Hammer/Amicus vibe. There are some scattered pleasures to be had here if one approaches it with low expectations: one eerie moment involves a door creaking open to reveal Jude in the Brahms mask staring at Liza, and one particularly obnoxious character gets a cathartic comeuppance that shuts him up pretty quickly, plus Bell offers one striking dissolve that shows he knows his Kubrick. But it's all quite silly, especially when Sean rushes that obnoxious character to the hospital and takes a seat near an affable stranger in the waiting room who says "The Heelshire mansion?" in the same tone as Charlton Heston's "Gordon Street?" from WAYNE'S WORLD 2 before pulling a full-on Basil Exposition info dump. Likewise, the newly-created history of evil surrounding the Heelshire house of horrors and Brahms' reign of supernatural terror on generations of unsuspecting little boys could've been uncovered much sooner if the film didn't make the otherwise intelligent Liza (Holmes puts forth some effort, admirably taking this paycheck gig seriously as she works her way through a career lull) clueless for the sake of delaying the reveal. She learns that most doll manufacturers put a doll's specific mold number on the hand or the foot, finds the mold number "606H" on Brahms' foot, scribbles it on a piece of scrap paper, and keys it into an online database. She gets a "no matches found" and dismissively tosses the scrap paper into the trash. It takes Liza another 45 minutes of screen time and a dozen other strange occurrences to glance in the trashcan and see the piece of paper with "606H" to realize what any seasoned moviegoer picked up instantly: that the mold number is actually "H909." Of course, this ingeniously tricky plot development--concocted by someone who clearly never punched "01134" into a calculator and turned it upside down--leads her to endless news stories about decades of tragedies and deaths all tied to the Heelshire Estate and the doll with Brahms' mold number.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

In Theaters: THE LODGE (2020)


THE LODGE
(US/UK - 2020)

Directed by Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala. Written by Sergio Casci, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. Cast: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone, Lia McHugh, Daniel Keough. (R, 108 mins)

If you're a fan of the so-called "elevated horror" trend and like it uncompromisingly grim and relentlessly downbeat, then be sure to check out THE LODGE, a film so dark and depressing that it makes HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR look like the feel-good crowd-pleasers of their years. The English-language debut of Austrian writers/directors and aunt/nephew filmmaking team Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, THE LODGE shares some superficial similarities with their acclaimed--and wildly overrated--2015 film GOODNIGHT MOMMY, namely that it traps a woman and two children in an isolated house of psychological horrors. While THE LODGE is a superior--and meaner--film in every way, Franz and Fiala still can't help tripping over their own feet in the way overly contrived and illogical things have to happen in order to advance the plot. There almost always has to be a suspension of disbelief to a certain degree, and for a while, you aren't sure what kind of horror you're dealing with in THE LODGE. That's when it works best, when it hasn't shown all of its cards. And even after that, it's still got its hooks in you, but the hoops it has to jump through to accomplish that do diminish it somewhat. Without spoiling anything (and if you've seen it, you'll know what I'm talking about), some immediate questions I had were "Why even show her the gun?" and "Does that even look like a real newspaper?"






Or better yet, don't. THE LODGE is the kind of psychological chiller where it's best to just roll with it and--enjoy, if that's the appropriate word--the way the filmmakers string you along in effective slow-burner fashion. Laura (Alicia Silverstone) doesn't handle it well when her estranged psychologist husband Richard (Richard Armitage) breaks the news that he wants to proceed with their divorce so he can marry his younger girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough). With Laura soon out of the picture in a abrupt and jarring fashion, Richard is left with two grief-stricken children--17-year-old Aidan (Jaeden Martell from the IT movies and KNIVES OUT) and 12-year-old Mia (Lia McHugh)--and even after jumping ahead six months, they aren't ready to accept perceived homewrecker Grace in any capacity, let alone as their potential stepmother. In the first of several displays of his terrible decision-making skills, Richard thinks the four of them spending Christmas at the family's isolated mountain lodge in a remote area of Massachusetts would be a good chance for Grace and the kids to bond. Of course, he's wrong (he gets a curt "Fuck you" from Aidan for even suggesting it), and on top of that, he won't even be there since he has to drive several hours back to the city for two days for work and won't be rejoining the three of them until Christmas Day. The kids dismiss the shy, quiet Grace as a "psycho," and admittedly, she has some heavy baggage: when she was 12, she was the sole survivor of the mass suicide of 39 members of a cult led by her religious fanatic father (Keough's own father Daniel Keough in news footage flashbacks), all of them poisoning themselves after putting duct tape with the word "Sin" over their mouth. Years later, Richard studied the cult, wrote a book about it, and treated Grace before leaving his wife for her. Grace still suffers from PTSD and social anxiety, but has made great strides in putting her past behind her and trying to live a normal life. But when left alone with the kids, there's little else but tension and discomfort. Aidan wants nothing to do with her and won't even acknowledge her when she addresses him, but Mia seems to warm up a little, at least until showing her some old home movie footage of happier times with Mom and Dad at the lodge, which sends Grace into her room scrambling for her pills.





To say anything more would probably be saying too much, but things get more unsettling by the hour, especially with a blizzard rolling through, followed by the loss of electricity and running water, all of the food, coats, Christmas decorations, Grace's meds, and her little dog Grady disappearing, and Grace looking out the window to see the disturbing sight of 39 snow angels as she keeps hearing her dead father's voice commanding her to "repent." Obviously, there's more than one twist by the time it's over, and the big one is a shocker when it lands, especially since it plays out to an even greater tragedy. The Plot Convenience Playhouse elements can be frustrating (the gun!), but this is a terrific showcase for a never-better Keough, who's not quite Toni Collette or Florence Pugh here but still generates sympathy throughout (especially with Grace's story about how Grady was a gift she gave herself since her father never allowed her to have a dog), especially once things go south and her eyes take on an aura of dead, despairing emptiness. The kids probably never take the time to realize it, but if there's any villain in this story, it's Richard, whose selfish narcissism is so subtle that it takes a while to register. But watch how he seems almost inconvenienced by his children needing to grieve the loss of their mother (the kids well-played by Martell and McHugh, especially in the ways Martell shows how fiercely protective Aidan is of his little sister). Richard probably thinks he's a good dad, but he's aggressively trying to force the kids to get over their mom (it's also worth noting the resemblance between Silverstone and Keough, indicating that Richard is trading in his approaching-middle-aged wife for a younger version), and doesn't think anything of having inconsiderately loud sex with Grace during the family's first night in the lodge--Aidan and Mia lie in their beds, listening to all of it--before he heads back to the city for two days the next morning. It might take a second viewing to sift through some of what's going on here, and even as I'm writing this, I'm already thinking the clumsy way the gun is introduced almost has to be intentional in a subconscious ulterior motive kind-of way on Richard's part, though that might be reading too much into it.






It's also hard to ignore some of the similarities between THE LODGE and Ari Aster's HEREDITARY (the big one being a dollhouse diorama that Franz and Fiala utilize as a kind of visual commentary on the proceedings) and MIDSOMMAR (the story kicked off by an inconceivable tragedy), which may be happy accidents considering THE LODGE was shot in early 2018, several months before HEREDITARY even opened (it screened at Sundance in January 2019, but Neon sat on it for another year after bumping it from November 2019 to February 2020, possibly to create some distance from the inevitable Aster comparisons). With its brutally cold, snowy setting over the Christmas holiday, it also joins the ranks of essential wintertime horror movies, a sentiment that it even addresses when Grace, Aidan, and Mia watch John Carpenter's THE THING on TV. It's also the first production in five years from the relaunched, in-name-only Hammer, though it has little stylistic connection with the legendary house of horror aside from a quick shout-out to 1961's SCREAM OF FEAR. THE LODGE has some structural flaws for sure (Mia seems devoutly religious early on, until that character trait is more or less abandoned), but with its disquieting score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, the unnerving sound design, and strong performances by Keough, Martell, and McHugh, THE LODGE is a finely-crafted, claustrophobic day-ruiner of a fright flick that gets under your skin. And while her screen time is brief, it's worth mentioning that between her appearances in KING COBRA, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, and this, along with some other under-the-radar indies, '90s icon Alicia Silverstone has very quietly been establishing some character actor bona fides 25 years removed from CLUELESS.


Saturday, February 22, 2020

On Netflix: THE LAST THING HE WANTED (2020)


THE LAST THING HE WANTED
(US/UK - 2020)

Directed by Dee Rees. Written by Marco Villalobos and Dee Rees. Cast: Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Rosie Perez, Willem Dafoe, Toby Jones, Edi Gathegi, Mel Rodriguez, Onata Aprile, Carlos Leal, Ben Chase, Julian Gamble, Rob Sedgwick, Billy Kelly, David Vadim. (R, 115 mins)

"You wanna see how a monkey drives? Buckle up. Follow the bananas." 

That's an actual line of dialogue from the new Netflix Original film THE LAST THING HE WANTED, and relatively speaking, it's one of its better ones. Based on a 1996 novel by Joan Didion, perhaps best known for scripting films like 1971's THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK, 1976's A STAR IS BORN, and 1996's UP CLOSE & PERSONAL, THE LAST THING HE WANTED utilizes much of the florid, purple prose coming directly from the source, which only serves to demonstrate just how Didion's acclaimed novel fails to translate to the screen in every possible way. We're talking unfilmable on a level of Alan Rudolph's catastrophic 1999 Kurt Vonnegut adaptation BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. Think I'm exaggerating? Then take a spin with this voiceover monologue delivered in a hard-boiled, staccato fashion by Anne Hathaway like a vocal-fried HIS GIRL FRIDAY five minutes into the movie:

"For a while, we thought time was money. Find the time, the money comes with it. Moving fast. Get the suite, the multi-line telephones. Get room service on one, get valet on two, premium service, out by nine, back by one. Download all data, uplink Prague, get some conference calls going. Sell Allied Signal, buy Cyprus Minerals, work the management plays. Plug into the news cycle, get the wires raw, nod out on the noise. Somewhere in the nod, we were dropping cargo. Somewhere in the nod, we were losing infrastructure, losing redundant systems, losing specific gravity."





Is that a monologue from a serious geopolitical thriller or a rejected Geoff Tate spoken word section from the most pretentious outtake in the Queensryche songbook? I'm gonna memorize it and just blurt it out at random times to see how people react. Hathaway stars as Elena McMahon, a reporter for the fictional Atlantic Post, and as the film opens in 1982, she's embedded with the FMLN, covering the civil war in El Salvador with her photographer colleague Alma (Rosie Perez). She's getting wind of some secret deals going on with the Contras in Nicaragua that she traces back to D.C. only to get stone-walled by Secretary of State George Shultz (Julian Gamble). That gets her shitlisted in politico circles and when the paper caves to pressure and shuts down their Central American field office, she's reassigned to cover the 1984 Reagan/Bush re-election campaign. At the same time, her shady father Richard (Willem Dafoe, who puts forth some valiant effort in his few scenes) is suffering from the early stages of dementia and ends up in the hospital, at which point he clues her in that she needs to take care of some "business" for him, namely his secret gig as a gunrunner for the Contras.


What follows is an incoherent mishmash of Oliver Stone's SALVADOR and Michelangelo Antonioni's THE PASSENGER, with Elena taking a leave from her job to act in her ailing father's stead, which leads to unintentionally hilarious scenes of her making a gun drop on a Nicaraguan air strip and shouting "Is this the payment?" as guys in Jeeps with guns swarm around her. She travels from Florida to Salvadors El and San, Costa Rica, and eventually Antigua, where she ends up taking a job as a housekeeper for wealthy and flamboyant Paul (Toby Jones), who made his fortune in gay Costa Rican bathhouse getaways for rich, closeted American one-percenters. This somehow gets her close to...whatever it is she's searching for? Ben Affleck, looking alternately catatonic and confused, appears sporadically as Treat Morrison, a sinister Shultz State Department flunky who happens upon a despondent Elena eating chocolate ice cream and a plate full of bacon strips at a St. John's bar before they hop into bed and slog through some painfully arduous post-coital pillow talk (he talks about his dead wife, she quotes poetry). Hathaway is an excellent actress but she's just hopelessly miscast here, mistaking chain-smoking and a gravelly vocal affect for grit and toughness. The awful dialogue doesn't do anyone any favors--Hathaway is completely wrong for the part, but in her defense, how could anyone do anything with nonsensical, sub-James Ellroy word salads like "I covered many interesting things before my desk got froze and I was relegated to following around the circus filing white propaganda about all the elephant shit!" Suddenly, last year's SERENITY isn't looking so bad.


If this review seems all over the place, that's just because it's impossible to really discuss THE LAST THING HE WANTED. It feels like it's either unfinished or huge sections of it have been removed willy-nilly with no thought given to how it would impact the narrative. People appear then disappear before we can find out who they are. Elena just turns up in places with no explanation why she's there. Why does she take a job running errands for the bathhouse guy? Who is Jones (Edi Gathegi), some guy who just shows up after a weapons drop and gets ordered out of a car at gunpoint by Elena, only to turn up again much later and save her during a hotel shootout? There's endless talk about a gunrunning mystery man code-named "Bob Weir," and not only does no one make a Grateful Dead joke, but the ultimate revelation of his identity is tied to a sudden flashback that the film just pulls out of its ass very late in the game in maybe the laziest deus ex machina in recent memory, all leading up to what was clearly intended to be a devastating twist ending that just fails to land or tie together any loose ends because you have no clue what's even led up to it. Somehow, this dumpster fire was directed and co-written by Dee Rees, who earned significant acclaim and an Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination for her 2017 Netflix film MUDBOUND, so it's obvious Netflix attached themselves to this sight unseen before filming even began. The buzz at Sundance in early 2020 was utterly toxic, so it's little wonder the streaming giant snuck this one online with little fanfare despite the prestigious cast. THE LAST THING HE WANTED is bound to go down as a cautionary tale of what happens when aggressively unfilmable novels are adapted to the wrong medium. Still think I'm exaggerating? Well, here's the rest of that early Hathaway monologue:

"Weightlessness seemed, at the time, the safer mode. Weightlessness seemed, at the time, the mode in which we could beat the clock and the affect itself. But I see now that it was not. I see now that the clock was ticking. I see now that we were experiencing not weightlessness, but what is interestingly described on page 1513 of the Merck Manual, 15th edition, as a sustained reactive depression, a bereavement reaction to the leaving of familiar environments. I see now that the environment we were leaving was that of feeling rich. I did not see it then."

Friday, February 21, 2020

On Blu-ray/DVD: FIRST LOVE (2019) and DISTURBING THE PEACE (2020)


FIRST LOVE
(UK/Japan - 2019)



With over 100 feature film credits plus some assorted TV gigs over his 30-year career, Japan's Takashi Miike is perhaps the most insanely prolific international filmmaker of the modern era. When he first gained significant notoriety with transgressive stunners like AUDITION and ICHI THE KILLER two decades ago, he was averaging anywhere from five to eight movies a year. The now-60-year-old Miike has mellowed somewhat with age, and these days he works at a relatively more relaxed pace (he only made one movie in 2018, the mystery thriller LAPLACE'S WITCH, which has yet to be released in the US). His latest film--and the first to open in the US since 2017's BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL--is FIRST LOVE, which is generally restrained, but kicks off with a comedic decapitation (complete with blinking eyes and an expression of outrage on the face of the severed head) and closes with a wild bloodbath to keep the superfans from losing their shit. The opening half hour has a significant amount of exposition to establish, but once all the pieces are in place and it gets going, FIRST LOVE is an entertaining "survive the night" scenario centering on Leo (Masataka Kubota from Miike's 13 ASSASSINS), an up-and-coming boxer who's just been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.





A despondent Leo is wandering the Shinjuku streets aimlessly into the night after being given the bad news, and he ends up literally bumping into Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a troubled, drug-addicted young woman who's being held prisoner and pimped out by low-level drug courier Yasu (Takahiro Miura) as repayment for her deadbeat, sexually-abusive father's debts to just-paroled Yakuza boss Gondo (Seiyo Uchino). Meanwhile, Kase (Shota Sometani), an ambitious Gondo underling, is conspiring with corrupt narcotics cop Otomo (Nao Omori, best known for the title role in ICHI THE KILLER) to intercept a shipment of drugs in a foolishly-planned scheme that involves kidnapping Monica and gets dumber from there. She manages to get away--that's when she bumps into Leo, though she thinks she's being chased by the ghost of her father in a recurring hallucination--but the plot goes south when Kase kills Yasu and tries to blame it on the soldiers of Chinese Triad boss One-Armed Wang (Cheng-Kuo Yen), a longstanding rival of Gondo's who earned his nickname when Gondo hacked off his arm years ago. That sets off Julie (Japanese pop star Becky), Yasu's girlfriend and a Ken Takakura superfan who knows what Kase has done and vows revenge. As the night goes on, terminally ill Leo, already feeling like he's got nothing to lose, takes it upon himself to become Monica's protector. They're pursued by various parties, all of whom eventually converge at a huge department store, where Miike really cuts loose with some inspired mayhem, including some splattery shootouts, decapitations, amputations, and disembowelings, much of which is played for laughs.




Miike's films aren't getting the global exposure they once did, but FIRST LOVE is easily the most entertaining work of his I've seen since 2010's 13 ASSASSINS. There's quite a bit of Takeshi Kitano-esque sequences of pissed-off yakuza guys yelling at each other (and Kase's phony indignation when he's told that Yasu is dead is hilariously played by Sometani), Kubota's Leo is a hero you can get behind, and everyone takes a backseat to Becky, who delivers an impressively unhinged performance as the vengeance-obsessed Julie. FIRST LOVE has no shortage of blood-soaked insanity, but it's also one of Miike's most commercially accessible films, probably why it managed to get a little more worldwide play than a lot of his recent work. If you've lost touch a bit with Miike since 13 ASSASSINS, then FIRST LOVE is a good opportunity to get reacquainted. (Unrated, 108 mins)



DISTURBING THE PEACE
(US/UK - 2020)



Is everything OK with Guy Pearce? I only ask because, even for someone who hasn't top-lined a hit movie in a few years, he's still a fine actor, and the unbelievably bad DISTURBING THE PEACE is absurdly beneath him. Maybe he did it as a favor for someone, maybe he was scammed into it...hell, I even checked to see if he was getting divorced and had to go on a "fuck it, just pay me" B-movie spree. This is a film so strangely inept and displaying such a shocking lack of polish or even basic filmmaking and editing skills that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Pearce has been unwittingly deep-faked over a Steven Seagal performance because an embarrassed Seagal needed to distance himself from it. Pearce--yes, the same Guy Pearce from L.A. CONFIDENTIAL--stars as Jim Dillon, a one-time Texas Ranger who got busted down to marshal in podunk Horse Cave, KY (playing itself in a way that certainly won't promote tourism) after paralyzing his partner from the neck down with an errant shot in a hostage standoff. That was ten years ago, and Dillon just got word that his partner has died. He blames himself, and as a result, he hasn't once picked up a gun in the ensuing decade. He doesn't really need to in quiet Horse Cave, at least not until a biker gang rides into town looking for trouble. Their leader is Diablo (Devon Sawa, also a producer), and their plan is to commandeer the local bank and wait for an armored car to pass through with the deposit from the casino in the next town over. Diablo has his goons--among them Branscombe Richmond as "Big Dog," John Lewis as "Shovelhead," others named "Pyro," "Diesel," "Jarhead," "Spider," and "Dirty Bob," and Barbie Blank (better known as wrestler Kelly Kelly) as "Amanda," who's been working at the bank as their insider--corral all the townsfolk over to the local church, where the minister is Catie (Kelly Greyson), who also owns the local diner in addition to being Dillon's love interest. Diablo seems to know a lot about Dillon, taunting him about his dead partner while dropping melodramatic bon mots like "There's a new paradigm here," and declaring himself "the prodigal son who's come back to collect his dues."





None of Diablo's floridly verbose shit-talking ever amounts to anything significant--the big reveal about him is that his dad drank himself to death after the local factory closed and as a result, he hates Horse Cave. How the fuck does stealing the deposit of a casino that's not even in Horse Cave avenge his dead dad? Director York Alec Shackleton, last seen guiding Nicolas Cage through one of the funnier fake American suburbs on a Bulgarian backlot (prominently featuring a posh art gallery called Art Gallery) in the bank robbery standoff dud 211, at least manages a more realistic-looking town in DISTURBING THE PEACE, even though he keeps things mostly confined to one intersection (drink every time you see that "Main St/Guthrie St" sign) as Diablo and the gang follow their master plan of...standing in the street and waiting for the armored car. Pearce spends most of his screen time away from the action in a way that would make Bruce Willis proud, running around town setting booby-traps and bombs that never come into play since the bad guys never leave their comfort zone of Main & Guthrie, while periodically getting on the walkie to tell his deputy Matt (Michael Sirow) to stand down. Shackleton's 211 wasn't a good movie, but it was at least competent under the circumstances. Here, he can't direct an action scene to save his life, some shots don't even look correctly framed, and he even manages to botch the final showdown between Dillon and Diablo. This is the kind of movie where a  reasonably in-shape sheriff from the neighboring county has set up a speedtrap on the outskirts of town and gets killed by the gang, then the biker who killed him--weighing around 350 and sporting a long ponytail and a madman beard down to his belly--manages to fit perfectly into his uniform, and the armored car guys on their usual route see him and don't seem to think that anything's wrong here. There has to be a story behind Pearce's involvement in this. It's got the production values of a regional faithsploitation movie, and the entire supporting cast from Sawa on down--the guy playing the mayor is visibly reading cue cards--isn't even up to the standards of a below-average community theater group. I'm trying to think of an apt comparison of leading men, but seeing Pearce in this is like watching a circa 1970 Al Adamson joint headlined by, say, James Garner. It just doesn't make sense. There's an incongruity here that defies description. He shouldn't be here. It's like a lost David Heavener movie. I expect to see current DTV regular Devon Sawa and perpetual D-list henchman Branscombe Richmond in something like this, but it's truly beyond comprehension that nearly 30 years into a generally well-managed career, Guy Pearce is starring in a grade-Z actioner as crudely janky as DISTURBING THE PEACE. (R, 91 mins)


Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Retro Review: ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS (1987)


ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS
(Italy - 1987)

Directed by Joe D'Amato (Aristide Massaccesi). Written by Sarah Asproon (Rossella Drudi) and Clyde Anderson (Claudio Fragasso). Cast: Jessica Moore (Luciana Ottaviani), Joshua McDonald, Mary Sellers, Tom Mojack, Laura Gemser. (Unrated, 92 mins)

A softcore cult classic that was instrumental in helping establish the legend of Skinemax while playing a significant role in the depletion of many a pubescent teenage boy's tube sock supply back in the day, 1987's ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS is a gender-swapped Italian ripoff of 9 1/2 WEEKS from notorious Eurocult journeyman Joe D'Amato. Written by Claudio Fragasso and Rossella Drudi--the husband-and-wife masters of erotica who would later gift us with TROLL 2--ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS pretty much follows the template of D'Amato's "Black Emanuelle" films of the late '70s, right down to the presence of Laura Gemser, this time as the editor to nympho journalist Sarah Asproon (Jessica Moore), who's writing a scintillating memoir of her sexual exploits entitled My One Hundred Men (Drudi uses the pseudonym "Sarah Asproon" for her writing credit, giving the film a bogus autobiographical ruse in the tradition of "Emmanuelle Arsan"). Sarah is nearing completion of the book as she seduces man #100, none-too-bright New Orleans engineer Michael Terenzi (Joshua McDonald, absurdly dubbed by the dulcet tones of the venerable Ted Rusoff). They have a torrid sexual encounter on a ferry, during which she steals his wallet and calls him later that evening for another hookup. Michael is due to be married in twelve days to his nice but boring, sexually unadventurous fiancee Helen (Mary Sellers) and isn't looking forward to a dull sex life or dealing with his controlling in-laws. So he doesn't hesitate to get all of his wild desires out of his system, diving head-on into a kinky and obsessive fling with Sarah, who wants to make the most of what little time they have, purring: "Give me all the nights you have left! Eleven nights...just for me!"






To paraphrase SNL Weekend Update city correspondent Stefon, ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS has it all: public sex, psycho-sexual dom/sub head games, gender role reversals, cross dressing, bondage, honey as a gooey sex accoutrement, silhouetted hard-ons, reacharounds, self-degradation, emasculating hot cuck action, a Jackie Rogers Jr cosplayer, and cringey Sarah rape fantasies ("Why don't you rape me? I'm dying to be raped!"). It's rather difficult to take any of it seriously, though it's easy to see why it was in regular rotation on late-night pay cable. D'Amato (one of the many pseudonyms of cinematographer-turned-director Aristide Massaccesi) dabbled in a little bit of everything but was best known for his EMANUELLE collaborations with Gemser, his horror gorefests like BURIED ALIVE (aka BEYOND THE DARKNESS) and THE GRIM REAPER (aka ANTHROPOPHAGUS), and he also directed the Miles O'Keeffe ATOR films under the name "David Hills." By the mid '80s, he started occasionally venturing into hardcore porn, where he'd eventually work almost exclusively in his later years until his death in 1999. But he also produced numerous films through his company Filmirage, including the future bad movie favorite TROLL 2, and thanks to ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS, he also carved himself a niche in late night cable, where his Eurosleaze exports always found a home. The film spawned an immediate follow-up in 1988, with Moore reprising her role as Sarah for what was shot as ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS PART 2, but released as TOP MODEL. That was followed by a string of numerically-challenged D'Amato-helmed sequels without Moore, including 1989's unrelated 11 DAYS, 11 NIGHTS 3, which offered a male protagonist in unknown American actor Cort McCown (who had small roles in '80s comedies TEEN WOLF and CAN'T BUY ME LOVE) and 1991's bafflingly-titled fourth installment 11 DAYS, 11 NIGHTS 2 (no, "2" is not a typo, and since the actual second film was rechristened TOP MODEL, perhaps D'Amato was trying to backtrack with a retroactive "part 2"), which starred Kristine Rose as a returning Sarah Asproon. Making matters even more mystifying is the existence of 1990's TOP MODEL 2, which was neither produced nor directed by D'Amato and starred neither Moore nor Rose. With this franchise--with its actual order being a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma--and with 1989's BLUE ANGEL CAFE and 1990's HIGH FINANCE WOMAN (aka THE LOVES OF A WALL STREET WOMAN), a pair of softcore titles with CANNONBALL RUN Lamborghini girl Tara Buckman, D'Amato was slightly ahead of the curve with the straight-to-video erotic thriller explosion that would hit American video stores over beginning in 1990-1991.


Recently-released on an all-region Blu-ray from the UK-based 88 Films (because physical media is dead), ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS was shot almost entirely on location in New Orleans, one of many Filmirage productions of the period that were being primarily lensed stateside, usually in Louisiana, Virginia, or Florida. They would also rely heavily on local--and frequently terrible--actors, though once in a great while, an unknown would break out and go somewhere (future MELROSE PLACE star Josie Bissett made her debut starring in the 1989 Virginia-shot D'Amato production HITCHER IN THE DARK, directed by Umberto Lenzi). Jessica Moore was actually an Italian model named Luciana Ottaviani, who acted in several films under a variety of pseudonyms from 1986 to 1989 before abruptly quitting the business (D'Amato would later say that her boyfriend disapproved of the movies she was making), though she did resurface for an interview on a 2010 Italian DVD release of ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS (unfortunately not included in the extras of the 88 Films edition). She appeared in Lucio Fulci's 1988 film SODOMA'S GHOST under her real name, and her gory death scene in Mario Bianchi's 1988 horror outing THE MURDER SECRET (as "Jessica Moore") was recycled in Fulci's 1990 meta cut-and-paste job A CAT IN THE BRAIN, where she was credited as "Gilda Germano." Her most high-profile job from a mainstream perspective was a small role in the 1987 Richard Chamberlain ABC TV-movie CASANOVA, where she played Faye Dunaway's niece and was credited with the "Gilda Germano" alias.


It's no wonder Moore never caught on considering she acted under at least three different names in her four-year career, but she's a bold and uninhibited presence throughout ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS (some of her nudity is quite graphic), and while she's dubbed, she displays a remarkable confidence for an inexperienced actress who was only 20 years old at the time (and perhaps too young to be playing a worldly writer just about to wrap up a memoir of 100 conquests). Elsewhere in the cast, Sellers is American, though she's spent her entire career in the Italian film industry and was a member of the Filmirage stock company for several years, also appearing in Michele Soavi's debut STAGEFRIGHT, Umberto Lenzi's GHOSTHOUSE, and Fabrizio Laurenti's THE CRAWLERS (aka CONTAMINATION .7). McDonald's career ended faster than Moore's--this was his second acting credit (after a bit part in Empire's shot-in-Italy ZONE TROOPERS), and he was out of movies after his third, Aldo Lado's 1988 actioner SAHARA HEAT. ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS isn't, by the standard definition, a good movie. But it's never dull (for obvious reasons), it's an essential title from an era of sexploitation that's somewhat fallen off the radar, and Jessica Moore is a stunning beauty who deserves her rightful place alongside Sylvia Kristel and Laura Gemser in the Softcore Eurotrash Hall of Fame. The Blu-ray release of ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS takes one back to a time in their formative junior high years before the age of the internet and streaming, when one would sneak downstairs in the middle of the night if one of these trashy imports was on, the wailing sax always the telltale indication that one of "the good parts" was coming up and you had to make sure the volume was low enough so as not to wake up the rest of the house. Hypothetically, of course.



Monday, February 17, 2020

In Theaters: FANTASY ISLAND (2020)


FANTASY ISLAND
(US - 2020)

Directed by Jeff Wadlow. Written by Jeff Wadlow, Chris Roach and Jillian Jacobs. Cast: Michael Pena, Maggie Q, Lucy Hale, Austin Stowell, Michael Rooker, Jimmy O. Yang, Portia Doubleday, Ryan Hansen, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Kim Coates, Mike Vogel, Robbie Jones, Evan Evagora, Goran D. Kleut, Ian Roberts, Charlotte McKinney. (PG-13, 109 mins)

It was only a matter of time before the ball landed on FANTASY ISLAND on the Intellectual Property roulette wheel. Airing on ABC on Saturday nights from 1978 to 1984, FANTASY ISLAND followed THE LOVE BOAT, and both shows offered endless guest spots for both popular TV actors of the time and past-their-prime stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was a big hit and briefly turned Herve Villechaize's Tattoo into a pop culture phenomenon until the reportedly difficult actor was fired from the show just before its final season. Tattoo's catchphrase "The plane! The plane!" is really all anyone remembers about FANTASY ISLAND these days, though it did provide veteran actor and Chrysler pitchman Ricardo Montalban his most recognizable role until 1982's STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN as Mr. Roarke, the mysterious, white-tux-clad overseer of a luxurious vacation getaway where, for a price, visitors could fulfill their ultimate fantasies (or at least as "ultimate" as network TV would allow). There was always a dark undercurrent to the show with its "be careful what you wish for" scenarios, so re-imagining it as a straight-up horror movie might've had some potential, but in the erratic hands of the wildly inconsistent Blumhouse, the end result is an almost total disaster.





The set-up remains the same, with a group of vacation package contest winners landing on the titular island. Tattoo is nowhere to be found in these more sensitive times--and rest assured, there's already woke thinkpieces about his "troubling legacy"--so their arrival is met with an exuberant "The plane! The plane!" exclaimed by Julia (Parisa Fitz-Henley), the newly-hired assistant to Mr. Roarke (Michael Pena). The vacationers looking for their greatest wish fulfillment include Gwen (Maggie Q), who turned down a marriage proposal five years earlier and has regretted it every day since; desk-bound cop Patrick (Austin Stowell), who always wanted to follow in his hero father's footsteps and join the military but never did; dudebro stepbrothers J.D. (Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang), who just want a kickass party weekend; and Melanie (Lucy Hale), who's seeking revenge on Sloane (Portia Doubleday), the Mean Girl who made her life hell in high school. Mr. Roarke encourages them to enjoy their fantasies, with the caveat that he is powerless to intervene and that "all fantasies must come to their natural conclusion."


So far, so meh, as director/co-writer Jeff Wadlow (who also directed Hale in Blumhouse's universally-reviled TRUTH OR DARE) cuts back and forth between the various fantasies, much like the TV show. J.D. and Brax--who gets very irate when J.D. refers to him by the past nickname "T" in a cumbersome way that you know it must mean something later--hook up with available hotties and bond as brothers, which is important to Brax as everyone in their family but J.D. cut him off after he came out of the closet years earlier. Patrick is given combat fatigues and set loose in the jungle, where he immediately comes upon a covert military operation; Gwen opens a door to find her ex-boyfriend Alan (Robbie Jones) waiting for her in the very restaurant where she rejected him to propose to her once more; and Melanie is taken to an underground control room where she finds Sloane strapped to a chair with a variety of physical and psychological torture methods at the ready, ranging from electric shocks to posting a secret video of Sloane's recent adulterous tryst all over social media for her husband and her friends to see. But then the fantasies start intersecting--a grenade blast taking place in one is heard in another, and all parties keep running into Damon (Michael Rooker), a disheveled, machete-wielding mystery man who's hiding out on the island, warning everyone that it and Mr. Roarke are pure evil.


With its tired plot machinations, predictable jump scares, mostly annoying characters, and a PG-13 target audience that's, at best, vaguely aware of its 40-year-old inspiration, FANTASY ISLAND goes nowhere slowly, and it gets even worse when it starts piling on twist after twist until nothing makes sense anymore. The story just becomes a series of rote rehashes of horror films past, with M. Night Shyamalan plot turns; a vaguely CABIN IN THE WOODS situation in the way the island is "controlled;" an evil, hulking, stitch-mouthed figure known as "The Surgeon" (Ian Roberts), who looks like he lumbered in from a bad circa 2002 Dark Castle production; and clumsy references, like when the island transports Patrick 25 years into the past to a Venezuela military operation run by his dad (Mike Vogel), and another soldier says "You look dazed and confused...you know, like that movie that came out last year!" And there's even black-ops Russian mercenaries in PURGE masks led by Kim Coates, plus some zombies oozing black goo from their eyes, because what the hell, why not? As everyone's fantasies start intersecting, it becomes clear that something bigger--and dumber--is going on, especially as Mr. Roarke grows more evasive about the true nature of the island. It all leads to at least a half dozen false endings (it seriously looks ready to wrap up at one point, but it drags on for another 25 minutes), culminating in an eye-rolling groaner of a punchline that's notable not just for its belabored set-up and execution but also in its hubristically ballsy assumption that this thing is getting a sequel.


Ricardo Montalban and Herve Villechaize
in a publicity shot for the original series


Maggie Q is really the only one who seems interested in giving a real performance here. Elsewhere, the almost-40-year-old Will Arnett-lookalike Hansen (of VERONICA MARS and PARTY DOWN) is way too old to be playing someone still indulging in these kind high-fiving bro-downs, Hale (PRETTY LITTLE LIARS) brings nothing to her obnoxious character aside from hip snark and can't even 'tude, and Rooker only seems to be here in a desperate attempt to curry favor with the convention crowd. Worst of all is a horribly miscast Pena, who registers none of the effortless magnanimity or the subtly sinister presence of the great Montalban. This was shot mostly on Fiji, and the one thing Pena convincingly sells is that he's only here for the paid vacation. Montalban's Mr. Roarke was a master class in exquisitely-tailored, regal authority. Pena is visibly slouching in more casual, wrinkled attire, is absent for long stretches, and only seems to perk up when he gets to put some extra sauce on every utterance of "faaaahntahhsssyyy." Maybe he's too young for the role--Andy Garcia did a fine job of playing Montalban in HBO's Herve Villechaize biopic MY DINNER WITH HERVE, and a black-suited Malcolm McDowell also acquitted himself well on ABC's otherwise forgettable one-season 1998 revival. Any number of older actors could've brought more suavely erudite gravitas to a new Mr. Roarke: Antonio Banderas, Javier Bardem, and Pierce Brosnan immediately jump to mind. Coming soon after the latest revamp of CHARLIE'S ANGELS tanked, FANTASY ISLAND (or, "Blumhouse's FANTASY ISLAND," according to the opening credits) could serve as a teachable moment for producers and studios to cease raiding the back catalog of classic TV intellectual property and maybe come up with some new ideas (you'd think Pena and Hansen would've learned their IP lesson after appearing in 2017's CHiPS, which you completely forgot about, didn't you?). Of course, we know that won't happen, so all we can really do is wait for Blumhouse to get around to putting a DEATH SHIP/GHOST SHIP spin on THE LOVE BOAT, hopefully with the ominous tag line "Come aboard...they're expecting you."