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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: BENEATH THE DARKNESS (2012); IN TIME (2011); PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 (2011)

BENEATH THE DARKNESS
(US - 2012)

Given a limited theatrical and VOD release the first weekend of 2012, the Texas-shot indie BENEATH THE DARKNESS is already on DVD/Blu-ray and streaming on Netflix.  It's not good, but it's not as bad as that dubious distribution schedule would lead you to believe.  It's surprisingly old-fashioned in the sense that there's virtually no gore and no nudity.  Remove a few F-bombs, and this could almost be a made-for-TV movie.  The other surprise is the participation of a slumming Dennis Quaid as a crazed mortician who keeps his dead wife's preserved body in the house on the edge of town and dances with it by romantic mood lighting for passersby--like, say, troublemaking students Tony Oller, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS' Aimee Teegarden (also one of the producers), and Stephen Lunsford--to see.  When Quaid kills one of their friends, the trio can't convince cop Brett Cullen (also a producer) that Quaid, still a hometown hero thanks to his youthful high school football heroics, is a homicidal maniac.

There's certainly an old-school, almost Hitchcockian basis for this fright flick, and it's an admirable quality that isn't given justice by the finished product.  As directed by Martin Guigui, BENEATH THE DARKNESS also appears to be the location where much of the film was shot.  Everything is so dark that most of the time, it's hard to see what's going on.  The teen characters are annoying and one-dimensional and the actors are dull.  You won't believe for a second that skinny, sullen Oller can get the edge on the still-cut Quaid, who's still in great shape at 57.  I'm not sure why Quaid is in this.  He's become quite the B-grade horror regular lately, with roles in forgettable fare like LEGION, HORSEMEN, and PANDORUM.  Four years ago, he was getting some minor Oscar buzz for his performance in SMART PEOPLE, and here he is hamming it up and chewing the scenery in a cartoonish horror role.  Maybe it was a few days work and he owed someone a favor.   Maybe it's because they agreed to put two songs by his band, DQ and the Sharks, in the movie.  Maybe he always wanted to play a horror movie villlain, or maybe he wanted to spend a little time acting like his brother Randy.  Who knows?  Quaid seems to be having fun (I'm sure the electronic cigarette prop was his idea) and he's easily the best thing about BENEATH THE DARKNESS.  It really drags when he's offscreen, but even he gets hard to take by the end.  I guess it's worth a look for Quaid completists, but it's pretty inessential otherwise.  Quaid had roles in SOUL SURFER and the FOOTLOOSE remake, but he needs to ditch these B-movies and get on a good TV show.   He may be pushing 60, but he's still got that gleam in his eye and I'm sure he can summon that rascally charm from the days of THE BIG EASY.  He's always been a likable, dependable actor, one that would no doubt get a career boost from a solid weekly police procedural if BENEATH THE DARKNESS is any indication of where the "and Dennis Quaid" phase of his big-screen career is headed.  (R, 96 mins)



IN TIME
(US - 2011)

Andrew Niccol arrived on the scene as a major new talent in the late '90s when he wrote and directed the often brilliant GATTACA (1997) and got an Oscar nomination for writing THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998).  Since then, he made the unjustly-maligned S1M0NE (2002) and the ambitious LORD OF WAR (2005).  IN TIME is Niccol's first film in six years, and it's also his worst, a half-baked, heavy-handed look at a future (with de rigeur retro iconography) where time is the currency and people are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25 and they die at 26...unless they keep earning time.  Society is divided into the rich, forever young, and virtually immortal (everyone looks 25), while the working class grinds it out, working jobs that pay little time while dealing with the increasing cost of living (four hours for a cup of coffee).  With the harsh economy and class warfare talk of late, there was probably an insightful, powerful, prescient film that could've been made of the story of a working-class guy (Justin Timberlake) who's given 100 years by a suicidal 105-year-old (Matt Bomer) who's grown tired of living.  The police, er...timekeepers, led by dogged Cillian Murphy, pursue Timberlake not because they think he killed Bomer, but because he's upset the balance of society by having so much time.  In this world, time zones separate the haves from the have-nots, and as Bomer points out, "everyone can't live forever...the cost of living keeps rising to make sure people keep dying."  Timberlake ends up on the run with Amanda Seyfried, the spoiled daughter of influential, powerful time magnate Vincent Kartheiser.  They fall in love and begin robbing her father's time banks, and giving the "loot" (time) to the poor.  So, what starts as a potentially thought-provoking sci-fi allegory of our tough economic times and an ever-widening class divide becomes little more than a predictably-plotted, watered-down, pun-filled (a panhandler asks "Got a minute?"), dystopian remake of WISDOM.  What a missed opportunity. (PG-13, 109 mins)


PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3
(US - 2011)

The PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise seems to have supplanted the temporarily dormant SAW series as the annual fall cinematic comfort food for horror fans, as each entry outgrosses the previous one while everyone bitches about how much they suck.  I thought the first film was entertaining and sufficently suspenseful, but as the "found footage" subgenre continues to get beat to death, the makers of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise have had to find new and increasingly ludicrous ways to keep it going.  For about an hour, PA3 is an improvement over the dismal PA2.  At the very least, it explains some of the inconsistencies between the PA1 and PA2, which was a prequel.  The problem is that the explanation, while filling in some blanks, takes the series to a level of improbable silliness the likes of which we haven't seen since HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS.  PA3 goes back to 1988, when sisters Katie and Kristi first started experiencing the title phenomenon.  Luckily, their mom's (Lauren Bittner) boyfriend (Chris Smith) videotapes weddings and has access to all sorts of cameras and tapes.  And it's largely the same as the previous two:  camcorders record various ghostly occurrences and it is effectively done, especially a brilliant bit involving the attachment of a camcorder to the oscillating mechanism of a fan, which allows for some nicely-staged, slow-panning jolts.  But the film falls apart as soon as the family leaves the house and goes to stay with Bittner's mother (shouldn't famed Broadway actress Hallie Foote have better things to do?), which leads to an abrupt change in direction that will no doubt be explored in the inevitable PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, due out later this year.  Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the same guys responsible for the fascinating-but-probably-bullshit documentary CATFISH, do a good job maintaining the tension for a good chunk of the film, but when Christopher Landon's (son of Michael) script goes off the rails in the last third, it all just becomes a big stroke-off that feels like a half-assed attempt to drag it out for another movie.  The first PA is a solid, standalone scare machine.  But this is just getting stupid now.  (Note: DVD version reviewed; Blu-ray version is unrated and runs 11 minutes longer and contains added and extended scenes that, from my research, wouldn't make the finale any less idiotic). (R, 84 mins)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: DOUBLE EXPOSURE (1983)



DOUBLE EXPOSURE
(US - 1983)

Written and directed by William Byron Hillman.  Cast: Michael Callan, Joanna Pettet, James Stacy, Pamela Hensley, Cleavon Little, Seymour Cassel, Misty Rowe, Robert Tessier, David Young, Don Potter, Sally Kirkland, Terry Moore, Victoria Jackson, Kathy Shower.  (R, 95 mins)

Is it possible that someone, in 1983, gave the greenlight to a Michael Callan vanity project?  The winner of the Most Promising Newcomer award at the 1961 Golden Globes, Callan had a long career as a character actor in movies (most notably co-starring with Lee Marvin and Jane Fonda in 1965's CAT BALLOU) and was a regular guest star on countless prime-time TV shows in the 1970s and well into the 1980s.  In 1983, he made a couple of unexpected trips to the grindhouse with a small role in the legendary women-in-prison classic CHAINED HEAT, and the lead in the giallo-inspired slasher flick DOUBLE EXPOSURE, a vintage bit of Crown International sleaze that was a fixture on late-night cable back in the day.  Callan chews the scenery as chick-magnet photographer Adrian Wilde, who's concerned about his relationships with women despite his apparent ability to get more ass than a toilet seat.  The middle-aged, slightly paunchy Callan has more of an average everyman look than most cinematic leading men, which no doubt explains his busy career as a character actor.  As a protagonist, the Adrian Wilde character comes off as a bit of creep, yet women still throw themselves at him with wild abandon, as star Michael Callan no doubt exudes the level of raw machismo and dynamic animal magnetism that producer Michael Callan was looking for in his lead actor. 

As a serial killer offs Hollywood prostitutes, Wilde is plagued by horrific nightmares in which he kills his scantily-clad subjects, only to find out that those women have been killed in exactly the way they were in his dreams.  Is he the killer?  The bad dreams intensify and the murders continue as he begins a new relationship with the only-in-the-early-1980s-monikered Mindy Jordache (Joanna Pettet), after what can be politely termed a "meet-weird" in a parking garage.  Apparently, she finds it a turn-on when a guy aggressively corners her in an elevator, follows her through a parking garage, and then picks her up in a motor home for drinks outside a closed store.

"Heeeey, Joanna Pettet!  Whaddaya say we hop in my RV and have some wine outside a closed department store, huh?  Yeah, that's right.  You know you want this..."


DOUBLE EXPOSURE was a semi-sequel of sorts to the obscure 1974 film THE PHOTOGRAPHER, also from writer/director William Byron Hillman and starring Callan as Adrian Wilde.  It's not a direct sequel (although it was intended as such until Callan couldn't secure the rights to use footage from the earlier film) and you needn't see THE PHOTOGRAPHER to figure out what's going on in DOUBLE EXPOSURE.  It's rather restrained by '80s slasher standards, though it does have a few gory moments.  Plus, Hillman and Callan seem to have the right idea with the frequent nudity by a number of attractive women in the cast, which is mostly TV actors and friends of Callan's.  In some extraordinarily effective casting, the tragic James Stacy plays Adrian's stunt driver brother BJ, who recently lost his left arm and left leg in a crash.  In 1973, Stacy and his girlfriend were on his motorcycle when they were hit by a drunk driver.  The girlfriend was killed and Stacy had to have his left arm and left leg amputated.   He continued to work until the early '90s when he utterly imploded with alcoholism, a suicide attempt, and a child molestation conviction.  Callan and Stacy look eerily similar, so much so that in a few shots, until the missing arm was brought into view, I mistook Stacy for Callan.  Also appearing in the intriguingly bizarre supporting cast are Pamela Hensley (MARCUS WELBY, M.D., BUCK ROGERS, MATT HOUSTON) as a detective investigating the murders; an underused Cleavon Little as the irate police chief; HEE HAW's Misty Rowe as a model; longtime Howard Hughes girlfriend Terry Moore; and Seymour Cassel as Adrian's shrink.  Cult movie vet Robert Tessier shows up as a bartender; a pre-SNL Victoria Jackson has a couple of scenes as a racetrack model; future Playboy Playmate of the Year (1986) Kathy Shower is seen as a mudwrestler; and a pre-ANNA Sally Kirkland appears long enough to get naked as a soon-to-be-dead hooker.

Callan and near-lookalike co-star James Stacy


But really, DOUBLE EXPOSURE is pretty much The Michael Callan Show (he's also credited as "Post-Production Supervisor"). His shirts are unbuttoned or off, women fall into bed with him, he goes down on Pettet as the camera focuses on her reaching heights of ecstacy never before bestowed upon the female species, he does backflips in a pair of tight swimming trunks, and he gets a long scene where Hillman lets him have a totally over-the-top meltdown.  I'm sure Callan's a nice guy and he was never hurting for work, but he doesn't exactly scream "fashion photographer" as much as he exudes "used-car salesman" or maybe "small-time bookie" depending on how many buttons are undone on his shirt. 



Scorpion's new DVD, part of their "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" line, looks very nice in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, rescuing the film from those cheaply-priced 50-movie sets with mostly outdated VHS transfers. The apparently-retired (or at least, inactive in TV or movies since 2007) Callan, now 76, sits down with Scorpion's horror hostess, "former WWE diva and current TNA knockout" Katarina Leigh Waters, for an interview that mainly touches upon his early years and his thoughts on DOUBLE EXPOSURE and the cast members.  No mention is made of Stacy's legal troubles or personal problems, though Callan erroneously states that Stacy's motorcycle accident was a year before DOUBLE EXPOSURE when it was actually a decade earlier.  It's possible he was confusing it with THE PHOTOGRAPHER, which Stacy wasn't in, but it did come out a year after his accident.  He also can't recall Terry Moore being in DOUBLE EXPOSURE, and mistakenly says she played his mother in THE PHOTOGRAPHER (she didn't).  But other than a couple of 30-year-old brain farts that could happen to anybody, Callan comes off as a pretty genial guy.  He also takes part in a commentary with Katarina and cult movie fixture Scott "Still Coasting on EVIL DEAD II" Spiegel, in which they run out of things to talk about before the credits even start.  Lots of dead air and one-word answers from Callan, who just isn't very talkative, and Spiegel only seems interested in the sex scenes or where certain scenes were shot ("Was this on the freeway?").  It's not the worst commentary I've ever heard (thanks to the respectively hapless* and absurd** Walt and Bill Olsen for sitting this one out), but I bailed on it after about 25 minutes.  There's a second commentary (!) with Katarina and cinematographer R. Michael Stringer and script supervisor Sally Stringer that I didn't check out.







*  © John Charles
** © Marty McKee  

Saturday, February 25, 2012

New from Criterion: WORLD ON A WIRE (1973); ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959); THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI (1964)


WORLD ON A WIRE
(Germany - 1973)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder doing philosophical, dystopian sci-fi is quite a proposition, and the long-lost WORLD ON A WIRE, shot for German TV, is a fascinating experience.  Restored and given a very brief theatrical release in 2011, WORLD ON A WIRE (WELT AM DRAHT) is based on the 1960s sci-fi novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye (also the basis of the 1999 film THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR).  Fassbinder's film draws obvious inspiration from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), as well as Jean-Luc Godard's ALPHAVILLE (1965) and Andrei Tarkovsky's SOLARIS (1972), in addition to the works of Philip K. Dick, while prefiguring later works like the Dick-based BLADE RUNNER (1982), THE LAWNMOWER MAN (1992), EXISTENZ (1999), THE MATRIX (1999),  and the more recent THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (2011), among others, while feeling right in line with classic '70s paranoia thrillers. And it does so with minimal special effects, utilizing the cold, desolate, low-tech environments of early 1970s office buildings, which manage to display a distinct lack of humanity just fine on their own. 

The plot is a labyrinthine maze, exemplified by Fassbinder's strategic use of mirrors and reflective surfaces, involving a top-secret project at the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology, one that involves a computer program that creates an alternate world of "identity units" inside the computer, one that the scientists can enter via ominous-looking VR helmets.  The creator of the program, Prof. Vollmer (Adrian Hoven) has gone insane and dies in a mysterious accident.  His assistant, Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch) suddenly finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy, being followed, talking to people that others insist don't exist. No one is who they seem and it's never certain what's real or imagined. It's a twisty story that exists on multiple levels of reality, and it's difficult at times to keep everything straight, especially at 213 minutes, which might've worked as a two-part TV-movie, but as a feature, it could definitely be whittled down.  You'll figure out the mid-film twist at least an hour before Stiller does, but it's still essential viewing for any Fassbinder or sci-fi fan, or, if nothing else, students of hideous 1973 fashions.  Lots of eccentric Fassbinder humor on display as well, like Stiller's complete non-reaction to a pallet of bricks--intended for him--being dropped on an innocent bystander, and the strange way Stiller and Cybernetics head Siskins (Karl-Heinz Vosgerau) have a meeting while playfully spinning around in their swivel chairs. 

Criterion does the best they can with the restoration, but it's a TV-movie shot in 16mm.  Blown up to 35mm, with this new digital transfer supervised by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (who went on to shoot numerous Hollywood films, including several for Martin Scorsese), it can only look so good, and some scenes have inherent flaws that simply couldn't be eliminated.  Mind you, it's as good as it can look, but don't expect the crystal clear image you usually get from Criterion.  The 1.33:1 aspect ratio makes the film seem a little cramped.  Indeed, at times, some of those expansive office scenes and long corridors seem to be crying out for at least 1.78:1, but it was shot for 1970s TV, so 1.33 is how it was made.  Most of Fassbinder's stock company of actors have roles here:  Gunther Lamprecht, Margit Carstensen, Gottfried John, Kurt Raab, Ulli Lommel, and Eddie Constantine in a cameo.  Ultimately, WORLD ON A WIRE is good, but not great Fassbinder, a film with brilliant ideas and images but often too slow, repetitive, and simply too long.  The obsessive cinephile or sci-fi enthusiast will get much more from this than the casual viewer.  Extras include a 50-minute documentary directed by Fassbinder Foundation head Juliane Lorenz, an interview with German film historian Gerd Gemunden, and a booklet with an essay by critic Ed Halter. (Unrated, 213 mins)

ANATOMY OF A MURDER
(US - 1959)

Otto Preminger's courtroom classic caused quite a sensation in 1959 with its controversial use of graphic language such as "intercourse," "sperm," "panties," and "girdle."  But it's as enthralling as ever, as jazz-loving small-town lawyer James Stewart defends an Army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) who killed the man who allegedly raped his wife (Lee Remick).  Nothing's black and white in this case, as Stewart and big-city prosecutor George C. Scott duke it out in a series of back and forth spats (my favorite is Scott intentionally standing in Stewart's line of sight during a cross-examination of a defense witness).  As great as the film is, it's definitely a product of its time, and the notion that a judge (played by McCarthy hearings judge Joseph N. Welch) has to warn courtroom spectators not to giggle over the word "panties" seems patently ridiculous today.  Courtoom dramas were all the rage during this period, with movies like 12 ANGRY MEN and the popularity of PERRY MASON on TV, and ANATOMY OF A MURDER still stands with the best of them, and it looks better than ever with Criterion's HD restoration, filled with such detail that you can make out textures of decor in a room and the fabric on clothing.  The depth and detail is astonishing, and again shows why Criterion continues to set and raise the standards.  Packed with numerous supplements and packaged with a 29-page booklet with essays, interviews, and photos.  This is the definitive presentation of an American classic.  (Unrated, 161 mins)


THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI
(Japan - 1964)

While not quite on the level of Akira Kurosawa's legendary samurai pictures, Hideo Gosha's THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI is an excellent genre offering, especially in this beautiful new transfer.  In critic Bilge Ebiri's essay in the package's accompanying booklet, he draws numerous parallels between Gosha and Sam Peckinpah, most notably their origins in television.  THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI was a prequel offshoot of a popular Japanese TV series of the same name that debuted a year earlier.  Gosha and his three stars (Tetsuro Tamba, Isamu Nagato, Mikijiro Hira) made an impressive move to the big screen with this B-level samurai film that lacks the epic scope and the artistic touches of a Kurosawa offering, but is thrilling, often savagely-violent entertainment nonetheless.  The story is familiar:  wandering samurai (Tamba) encounters a group of peasants who have abducted the daughter of the local magistrate to protest their taxation and their poor living conditions.  With nothing better to do, he decides to help them by offering the intelligence and fighting skill that they lack.  Two other samurai, one a cold mercenary who's all about money (Hira) and an affable, almost comic-relief troublemaker (Nagato), are hired by the magistrate to lead his men on a rescue mission.  In the first of many changing alliances, Nagato ends up joining Tamba and the peasants.  And since the show had already been on for a year, it's a given that Hira eventually ends up switching sides.  Gosha, whose work hasn't been widely seen in the US, makes an impressive move from TV to film, using every bit of the 2.35 frame with inventive shot compositions and strikingly fluid camerawork.  Excellently-staged action sequences and fine performances by the three leads make this required viewing for fans of samurai cinema.  Few things look better than glorious, crisp black & white when done right in HD, and this is no exception.  (Unrated, 93 mins)

Friday, February 24, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE SON OF NO ONE (2011); LONDON BOULEVARD (2011)

THE SON OF NO ONE
(US - 2011)

THE SON OF NO ONE made headlines after a disastrous screening at Sundance in early 2011, where the Hollywood Reporter's journo in attendance termed the walkouts an "exodus."  And that was pretty much the last anyone heard about it.  Anchor Bay ended up distributing the film, produced by Cannon tribute band Nu Image, but clearly had little confidence in their acquisition, despite a big-name cast:  it was released on 11 screens in the US and grossed $28,000.  But the real question is:  is THE SON OF NO ONE that bad?  Yes.  Yes, it is.

Written and directed by Dito Montiel, THE SON OF NO ONE has one positive thing going for it:  Montiel, as he demonstrated in his last film, 2009's underrated FIGHTING, has an uncanny ability for capturing an old-school NYC aura that you rarely see in today's movies.  THE SON OF NO ONE is shot in areas of Queens that have looked the same for decades.  There's some overhead shots of the Queensboro Projects that are just stunning.  They're like photographs of a bygone era.  If Montiel made a documentary about unchanged areas of the five boroughs, he'd have a visual masterpiece on his hands.  But Montiel shits the bed with THE SON OF NO ONE, a dull and increasingly preposterous story of police corruption and a murder cover-up.  In 2002, for no reason other than Montiel shoehorning 9/11 into the plot, Staten Island cop Jonathan White (Channing Tatum, Montiel's usual star) is assigned to Queens, where irate captain Mathers (Ray Liotta) is frothing at the mouth over a series of letters sent to a muckraking journalist (Juliette Binoche, redefining the term "miscast") that threaten to expose a cop over the cover-up of two murders in 1986.  Those 16-year-old murders were actually committed by a young Jonathan, then known as "Milk," and living in the projects with his grandmother after the death of his cop father.  Jonathan shot two junkie dealers, and despite significant evidence that it was self-defense, Stanford (Al Pacino, showing surprising restraint), the lead detective and Jonathan's dad's partner, buries the evidence and leaves the case unsolved.  Now someone is threatening to expose them all.

To what end?  There's some stuff about Stanford being a real estate commissioner who wants to demolish the projects, and Milk's mentally-disabled childhood friend Vincent (played as an adult by Tracy Morgan, who's pretty good in his brief role) also figures in.  The ultimate revelation is more "Huh?" than "Whoa!", the pace can charitably be described as glacial, Tatum registers absolute zero in the lead and is almost outacted by an ill-advised moustache, and it's hardly a surprise when it's revealed who's harassing Jonathan's wife (Katie Holmes) with phone calls.  Word of advice to Montiel:  you don't have someone with a distinctive voice make anonymous threats on the phone without attempting to disguise that voice.  It couldn't be any more ludicrous if Holmes answered the phone and was told "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."  This is a terrible film, with laughably contrived moments (two people have been shot in a bathroom, and a guy needs to use said bathroom, and only seems to notice in mid-dump that there's blood everywhere), pointless 9/11 exploitation, and completely lacking in any logic or common sense.  I don't think Montiel set out to make a bad movie, but he certainly ended up with one. (R, 92 mins)



LONDON BOULEVARD
(US/UK - 2011)

Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan (THE DEPARTED) makes his directorial debut with this London-set adaptation of Ken Bruen's novel.  I've read a couple of Bruen's books, but not this one.  I hope the novel is more focused than the film.  Monahan struggles to find the right tone in this initially enjoyable story of ex-con and ex-gangster Mitchel (Colin Farrell), just out of prison and wanting nothing more than to stay out of trouble.  But trouble is all he gets, as his dirtbag friend Billy (Ben Chaplin) keeps trying to pull him back into the criminal life by involving him with universally-feared and completely psychotic crime lord Gant (Ray Winstone, cast radically against type as Ray Winstone).  Mitchel gets a job as a handyman/bodyguard for reclusive movie star and tabloid fixture Charlotte (Keira Knightley), and of course they fall in love as Mitchel repeatedly declines the persistent Gant's job offers.  But things get serious and bodies to start to pile up when Gant won't take no for answer.

Farrell is great in the lead and is perfectly cast as a takes-no-shit tough guy, but Monahan's film is all over the place.  It starts off as what might happen if Martin Scorsese made a Guy Ritchie movie, but it veers wildly from "fun" to extremely downbeat.  Numerous subplots and extraneous characters--David Thewlis as a drugged-out ex-actor living in Charlotte's house; Anna Friel as Mitchel's gold-digging, party-girl sister; Eddie Marsan as Mitchel's parole officer; a stalker hanging out in front of Charlotte's house--drift in and out of the film with little (or, in the case of the stalker, no) purpose, and the Mitchel-Charlotte romance goes nowhere.  Did Monahan have a longer film in mind?  Whole chunks of story seem to be missing.  Plot threads are just left hanging by the end, and the film, with a great soundtrack (Kasabian's "Club Foot" always works) and a number of very good scenes, ends up feeling like an incomplete LAYER CAKE ripoff, right down to the ending, which also cribs from CARLITO'S WAY to a certain extent.  It's also wasteful of an excellent Farrell, who's very quietly done some great work in several under-the-radar films since making an effort to leave his "bad boy" image behind.  Chances are you missed TRIAGE, ONDINE, and THE WAY BACK, but they're all films worth seeing and Farrell's committed performances are a major reason why.  But unfortunately for Farrell, Monahan, and the viewer, LONDON BOULEVARD is a major letdown. (R, 103 mins)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Unseen Cinema: THE WHISTLEBLOWER (2011); ESSENTIAL KILLING (2011)

THE WHISTLEBLOWER
(Canada/Germany - 2011)

Not to be confused with the 1987 Michael Caine vehicle THE WHISTLE BLOWER, another tragically underseen conspiracy gem, this riveting, hard-hitting thriller, inspired by true events, got a lot of publicity on news shows but still didn't get much theatrical exposure.  That's a shame, because this is a suspenseful, tension-filled film with a searing performance by Rachel Weisz as dedicated, by-the-book Nebraska cop Kathy Bolkovac.  The year is 1999.  Recently divorced, losing custody of her daughter, and unable to get a transfer to Atlanta and be near her ex-husband's new job and her daughter for visitation, Bolkovac falls into a $100,000 tax-free, six-month contract with a security company that's part of a UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia.  Her plan is to use that money to move to Atlanta in six months, and she's told by her associates that they're just in Bosnia to be a presence.  However, she soon uncovers a massive sex-trafficking and sex-slavery ring that involves not just the local criminal element, but also the local police, as well as numerous peacekeeping officials, and none of the bureaucratic higher-ups seem very interested in hearing her story.  Bolkovac's only allies are human rights lawyer Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave) and UN internal affairs official Peter Ward (David Strathairn).  Director/co-writer Larysa Kondracki does a terrific job establishing a nerve-wracking sense of paranoia as Bolkovac finds an already-stressful environment even more dangerous with threatening voicemails, discovering her phone's been tapped, and she's ignored and thrown under the bus by bureaucratic officials--from an uncooperative UN repatriation official (Monica Bellucci) to a dismissive, condescending human resources head (William Hope).

Weisz does some of the best work of her career here, and while liberties were no doubt taken with the story and various supporting characters composited for the sake of time and clarity, what's here is a top-notch, relentlessly fast-paced thriller.  Kondracki doesn't shy away from the brutality inflicted on the trafficked girls, and it's often unpleasant viewing, but THE WHISTLEBLOWER is one of the best films of 2011 that nobody saw.  (R, 112 mins)


ESSENTIAL KILLING
(Poland/Norway/Ireland/Hungary/France - 2011)

The winner of the Special Jury Prize and Best Actor (Vincent Gallo) at the 2010 Venice Film Festival only managed a VOD release in the US in the fall of 2011 before quietly appearing on DVD and Netflix Instant a month ago. The subject matter was a guaranteed magnet for controversy, though famed Polish auteur Jerzy Skolimowski (DEEP END, THE SHOUT) isn't really interested in politics as he is in a grueling depiction of survival.  In Afghanistan, a terrorist (Gallo) of undetermined nationality (Skolimowski envisioned the character as a John Walker Lindh-type) kills three American contractors with a rocket launcher and is immediately apprehended by the US military.  He's interrogated and waterboarded before being transported with other prisoners to a holding facility somewhere in eastern Europe.  When the transport vehicle he's in skids off an icy mountain road and down a hill, Gallo manages to escape.  What follows is some of the most rigorous, exposed-to-the-elements filmmaking that an actor has ever endured for their craft.  Gallo runs through snow barefoot, falls down a steep cliff and plunges into an icy lake, eats ants, tree bark, and a just-caught fish on camera, and even forcibly helps himself to a breastfeeding mother's one available nipple (the one moment that comes off as a distracting, gimmicky trangression and seems gratuitously "Gallo-esque").  He's wearing a hood in the waterboarding scene, but I have no doubt that it was really him under it.  After all, this is a career provocateur who directed himself getting a real, on-camera blowjob from Chloe Sevigny in THE BROWN BUNNY, put a hex on Roger Ebert's colon, and tried to sell his semen online for the asking price of $1 million.  The lactation bit aside, Gallo is utterly convincing throughout, and it says a lot that he took top acting honors at the Venice fest for a performance where he never utters a word.  There's almost no dialogue once Gallo escapes military custody, and even when Emmanuelle Seigner appears late in the film, her character is mute. 

There's no message or ideology to ESSENTIAL KILLING.  You aren't asked to like or identify with the protagonist.  It's a tough, arduous film about animal instinct and doing what is necessary to survive.  Stunning cinematography by Adam Sikora, who also shot the incredible visuals of THE MILL AND THE CROSS.  Never a prolific filmmaker, Skolimowski's only made three films in the last 20 years, while occasionally acting in others (he's probably best known to US audiences as the Russian villain in the 1985 hit WHITE NIGHTS, but more recently, he appeared as Naomi Watts' loathsome uncle in David Cronenberg's EASTERN PROMISES), and ESSENTIAL KILLING shows that the 73-year-old director still has a lot to offer. (Unrated, 85 mins)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

WWI on Blu-ray: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930) and WINGS (1927)

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
(US - 1930)

Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 anti-war novel was quickly made into a landmark Best Picture Oscar winner by director Lewis Milestone that's been restored for a new Blu-ray/DVD release.  This version is a major step up from past DVD editions, with a pristine HD transfer that makes the sweeping, muddy, bloody battle scenes even more powerful. 

The film follows a group of young German men, essentially boys in their late teens, cajoled into joining the Army for the "glory" of the Fatherland.  Of course, the message of Remarque's novel and Milestone's film is that there is no glory in war.  The men witness horrors beyond their imagination in some truly nightmarish trench battles that still manage to pack a wallop.  Everything is seen through the eyes of young Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), who sees his friends killed and is himself forced to kill.  It's a role that had a profound effect on Ayres, who became a pacifist in real life (in addition to being the screen's DR. KILDARE a decade later and the focus of one of the most unforgettable horror movie death scenes ever nearly 50 years later when his character drowned under ice in DAMIEN: OMEN II).  The young Ayres, just 21 years old here, looks like a young Edward Norton at times and believably conveys earnest innocence.  Looking at the film in 2012, Ayres is less convincing when he's required to play bitter and traumatized, but I think that's due more to the acting style of the early sound era than any weaknesses in Ayres' performance.  Well into the 1930s, early talkies went through some growing pains that are on full display in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, as actors accustomed to silents tried to make adjustments to their styles for sound (which explains a lot of the playing-to-the-back-row emoting), and filmmakers seemed afraid to use music during any dialogue-free stretches, resulting in a lot of static and dead air (if you haven't seen it lately, the Bela Lugosi DRACULA is one of the most egregious examples of this).  The film's best performance comes from reliable silent film character actor Louis Wolheim as Kat, Paul's fatherly soldier mentor (Wolheim, one of the unsung greats of early cinema, died of stomach cancer less than a year after this was released).  While the message remains powerful, and the battle sequences as harrowing as ever, a lot of the film is quite dry and even plodding, but must be put in its proper historical perspective.  This is a great and important film...it's just that, through no fault of its own, parts of it haven't aged gracefully.

One of the bonus features on the Blu-ray is the simultaneously-shot, mostly-silent version that was released in parts of Europe and also intended for American theaters that had not yet been outfitted for talkies (this was a common practice for a brief period).  Unseen for decades, it was unearthed by the Library of Congress for a Turner Classic Movies airing last year. It's a bit battered and isn't in HD, and utilizes some different takes and camera angles (it runs about 30 seconds shorter than the sound version), features more use of music, and has incidental sound (bombing, gunfire, the sound of marching, etc), just no spoken dialogue. In an essay inside the Blu-ray packaging, Leonard Maltin writes that some have found the silent version a better-paced film.  I didn't watch the silent version in its entirety, but what I saw seemed to play a bit better, considering these were actors and behind-the-scenes technicians not yet fully acclimated to working in talkies.  With the inclusion of both versions, and the classic sound version in stunning high-def, there is no doubt that this is the definitive package for ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. (Unrated, both versions 133 mins).



WINGS
(US - 1927)

This silent classic and the first Best Picture Oscar winner is a grandiose epic in every sense of the word and remains a monumental achievement today.  I'm convinced that if a WWI story were made today, using the latest in CGI technology, that the aerial dogfight and battle sequences in this 85-year-old film would still look better.  There's a number of shots that you simply won't believe director William A. Wellman managed to pull off--not just in the air, but even in then-difficult tracking shots.  Though the story and some of the acting are a bit hokey at times (actors of the silent era had a tendency to overdo it), WINGS is a thrilling and emotional story of war, friendship, and loyalty that remains timeless.  The film follows two young men from the same town--David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) and Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers)--as they enlist and go off to become fighter pilots in The Great War.  They bond despite a rivalry over Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), who loves David but doesn't want to hurt Jack.  Also in the mix is Mary (Clara Bow), the girl who lives next door to Jack's family and who's loved him since they were kids...but he doesn't even notice her.  Also appearing, and prominently billed in subsequent years, is a young Gary Cooper, who gets about three minutes of screen time as a doomed cadet.  By the time he says "When your time comes, then that's it," it's obvious he'll be dead within the next two minutes.  There's also some brief bits of pre-Code graphic violence and even some brief male nudity in a recruitment exam room, plus the infamous flash of a topless Bow (it's quick, and you'll need the pause button).  This is 1927, folks!  Damn Flappers and their loose morals...

Paramount's Blu-ray restoration is breathtaking, especially considering the original negative has been long lost.  Simply put, WINGS has never looked this good.  The Blu-ray offers two score options, but it should be noted that these are two different prints with different running times.  The option with a newly-recorded version of J.S. Zamecnik's original orchestral score runs 144 mins with a new, extended opening with the Paramount logos through the decades, sound effects throughout, an intermission card, and restoration credits.  The option with Gaylord Carter's pipe organ score runs 139 mins, opens with the 1927 Paramount logo, and has no intermission card or restoration credits.  The re-recording of the Zamecnik score with the sound effects is the default option.

In the relative infancy of movies, WINGS must've been quite an experience in 1927, and it still is today.  It's a bit overlong and top-billed (and utterly adorable) Bow, the legendary 1920s "It" Girl, isn't in it nearly enough, but this is a major piece of cinema history here, lovingly restored to its full splendor and a must-have for any serious cinephile. (Unrated, 144/139 mins).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Warner Archive Files: THE LAST RUN (1971); NO BLADE OF GRASS (1970)

THE LAST RUN
(US - 1971)

THE LAST RUN is exactly the kind of forgotten gem that makes Warner Archive's manufactured-on-demand online catalog such an invaluable source for committed cult movie nerds.  A flop at the time of its release, THE LAST RUN came out shortly after George C. Scott's  Oscar-winning turn in PATTON.  John Huston started directing, but left at some point early on after clashing with Scott.  Veteran journeyman Richard Fleischer was brought in to replace him.  If that wasn't already a troubled enough shoot, Scott likely found himself in a bit of a pickle when he and co-star Trish Van Devere became romantically involved during filming.  They got married a short time later, and were together until Scott's death in 1999.  However, also featured in THE LAST RUN was Colleen Dewhurst...Scott's wife at the time of filming.  Awkward!

THE LAST RUN, with the tag line "In the tradition of Hemingway and Bogart," is a noir throwback that probably seemed a bit old-fashioned for 1971 audiences, but it's a fine film that didn't deserve the dismissive reaction that it got.  Scott is retired mob driver Harry Garmes, living in self-imposed exile in a small fishing village in Portugal, about to take One Last Job just to see if he's still got it.  The job is driving Paul Rickard (Tony Musante), an American criminal, and his girlfriend Claudie (Van Devere) through Spain and into France.  Complications and double-crosses ensue.

THE LAST RUN is low-key and a bit formulaic, but Scott totally owns it and makes it a much better picture.  Fresh off making history as the first Oscar winner to refuse his award, Scott never had much patience for playing the Hollywood game, so it shouldn't be surprising that he took on smaller projects like this and THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS when he was on top of the world after PATTON. He gets excellent support from the criminally underrated Musante, who just never seemed to catch a break and become the star he should've been.  Admittedly, it would be interesting to see what Huston would've done with the film, as the genre-hopping Fleischer never really had an auteur sense and was known more for being able to get the job done before moving on to the next one.  But it's still very good, with some exciting chase sequences, beautiful European scenery, and excellent cinematography by Sven Nykvist.  Warner Archive's DVD transfer is 2.40:1, remastered and looks very good.  No extras, not even a trailer. (PG, 95 mins)


NO BLADE OF GRASS
(UK - 1970)

As his career as a 1940s-1950s leading man began to fade, Cornel Wilde (1912-1989) started dabbling in independent filmmaking as early as the mid-1950s, usually directing himself in several brutal, uncompromising films that didn't seem to gel with his dashing onscreen image. Wilde really hit his stride as a filmmaker with 1966's THE NAKED PREY and 1967's BEACH RED, neither of which were major successes but both have attained huge cult followings in the ensuing decades, so much so that Criterion released a terrific edition of THE NAKED PREY a few years back.  Some have dismissed Wilde's directorial efforts as vanity projects to show off his admittedly great physique (he spends 95% of THE NAKED PREY running around in nothing but a tiny loincloth), but around the time of Criterion's NAKED PREY set, critics and film fans started to re-evaluate his work as a filmmaker. 

While I can't imagine anyone defending his final directing effort, 1975's SHARKS TREASURE, largely a home movie disguised as a treasure hunting adventure, THE NAKED PREY and BEACH RED are now held in high regard, but until recently, that kindness wasn't extended to 1970's NO BLADE OF GRASS, which finds Wilde exclusively behind the camera.  Criticized for its ugly violence and, especially in its early scenes, preachy and heavy-handed lecturing, NO BLADE OF GRASS tanked badly.  With its sermonizing on man's violent nature (a theme explored in Wilde's previous films) and the destruction of the environment, it's clear that NO BLADE OF GRASS (based on a novel by John Christopher and co-scripted by Wilde under the pseudonym "Jefferson Pascal") is a deeply personal film for Wilde, and a message that likely got drowned by the extraordinary lack of subtlety, such as stock footage of a starving, emaciated African child juxtaposed with slobbering, racist Brits blithely stuffing their faces in a posh restaurant while blaming "the chinks" for the world's problems.  And that's just in the first five minutes. Wilde's sincerity is not in question, but christ...take it down a notch. 

Set in a world destroyed by pollution, famine, and the selfishness and greed of humanity, NO BLADE OF GRASS was probably a decade ahead of its time with its depiction of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, especially with the later introduction of a marauding motorcycle gang that looks like it came straight out of THE ROAD WARRIOR, though it does owe a bit of a debt to 1962's PANIC IN YEAR ZERO.  The focus is the Custance family, led by dad Nigel Davenport and mom Jean Wallace (Wilde's wife, an absolutely terrible actress who appeared exclusively in her husband's projects from 1952 to this, her final film), trying to get out of London and to the outlying country regions before the city is completely shut down and nerve-gassed by a government resorting to genocide.  People fighting for their lives resort to extreme measures to stay alive, and Wilde pulls no punches.  Once the protagonists are out of London, Wilde tones down the awkward, ham-fisted soapboxing and focuses on action and suspense, and the film drastically improves.  NO BLADE OF GRASS is about as misanthropic a film as you're likely to see, with heroes only slightly less ruthless than the villains, but I admire the way Wilde doesn't sugarcoat anything (you know he means business when he puts his own wife in a harrowing rape scene).  This IS how normally good people would likely act in similar circumstances, especially with the increasingly self-centered mindset of the last 42 years.  While not without its problems, NO BLADE OF GRASS is an impressively mean, grim, and disturbingly violent film for its time, and must've shocked the hell out of the few people who saw it in 1970.  Wilde only directed one more film before acting sparingly until his death in 1989, usually with guest roles on television like FANTASY ISLAND, THE LOVE BOAT, and MURDER, SHE WROTE, all shows that graciously welcomed aging actors with open arms when good roles were hard to find.

Warner Archive's remastered DVD is 2.40:1, and sales of it were temporarily suspended immediately after it was made available when the initial purchasers found that some sequences were out of order.  The problem has since been corrected. (R, 97 mins)

Friday, February 17, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: TAKE SHELTER (2011); ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN (2011); THE RUM DIARY (2011)

TAKE SHELTER
(US - 2011)

The general consensus in the recent weeks since the Oscar nominations were announced has been that Michael Shannon got robbed when he didn't get a Best Actor nod for TAKE SHELTER.  Well, not that the other gentlemen weren't deserving, but Shannon was robbed.  TAKE SHELTER reunites Shannon with Jeff Nichols, the writer/director of their previous collaboration SHOTGUN STORIES, the best movie from 2008 that no one saw (unless I'm mistaken, SHOTGUN STORIES might the newest title to be aired on Turner Classic Movies).  Shannon has a tendency to be typecast as twitchy weirdos, but he's become one of the most reliable character actors in recent years (he got a Supporting Actor Oscar nod a few years ago for REVOLUTIONARY ROAD), and TAKE SHELTER is the best showcase yet for an actor that more than one critic has called "the Christopher Walken of his generation."

Family man Curtis (Shannon) has a good job, a loving wife (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain), and a young daughter (Tova Stewart).  He also has a lot of bad dreams.  And he's seeing things.  He's concerned that he's at the same age that his mother (Kathy Baker) was when she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.  Convinced that "a storm is coming," Curtis becomes obsessed with refurbishing a tornado shelter underneath the backyard of his rural Ohio home, growing so consumed by it that it becomes his undoing in more ways than one.  Nichols lets TAKE SHELTER build slowly, and Shannon wisely underplays what could've easily been a performance of bouncing-off-the-walls histrionics and makes Curtis terrifying and tragic at the same time.  He's matched by Chastain, in what might be the best of her many 2011 roles.  Many viewers find the ambiguous ending frustrating.  I'm not sure how I feel about it immediately after watching it, but it's certainly the kind of film that provokes discussion and debate.  Highly recommended and, if you haven't seen it, check out Nichols' even better SHOTGUN STORIES.  This is a filmmaker to watch.  (R, 121 mins.)



ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN
aka ELITE SQUAD 2
(Brazil - 2011)

The highest-grossing film in Brazil's history is a sequel to 2007's ELITE SQUAD, but still works as a stand-alone film.  I haven't seen ELITE SQUAD, but I think doing so most likely would enrich ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN to some degree, but director/co-writer Jose Padilha does a commendable job of catching neophyte viewers up to speed.  Padilha's sequel to his earlier film was an astonishing, record-smashing success in its native country, even outgrossing AVATAR.  It's a gritty, furious indictment of the status quo by Padilha that obviously resonated deeply with Brazilian audiences, but there's plenty here to which global viewers can relate.  The film opens with a botched raid into a prison riot by BOPE, the Rio de Janeiro military police outfit commanded by Nascimento (the intense Wagner Moura, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mark Ruffalo).  Nascimento is about to be thrown under the bus by his bosses, but public support forces them to scapegoat someone else and give Nascimento an intel position as head of wiretap surveillance.  Meanwhile, his ex-wife's (Maria Ribeiro) husband Fraga (Irandhir Santos), an academic and left-wing human rights activist, tries to make a difference by entering the political arena, much to the sneering dismissal of the far-right Nascimento, who resents the influence Fraga has on his teenage son.  It's inevitable that the crusading Fraga and the increasingly disillusioned Nascimento are taking different paths to the same place, considering that Rio is riddled with rampant corruption on every level.  The police steal from the drug dealers before wiping them out, then mark their newly-acquired territory by shaking down the slum dwellers themselves.  Politicians don't serve the people, they serve themselves, concerned only with re-election and acting only on the demands of bloviating right-wing political TV personalities.  Sound familiar?   Padilha does a superb job not just with the pervasive sense of paranoia, but also with his handling of many riveting action sequences.  It's easy to see why he was tapped to direct the still-in-development remake of ROBOCOP. (Unrated, 113 mins)


THE RUM DIARY
(US - 2011)

Can someone gently break it to Johnny Depp that he's not really Hunter S. Thompson?   To be fair, Depp keeps his Thompson mannerisms mostly in check for this adaptation of his friend's novel, written in 1960 but unpublished until 1998.  For the majority of its duration, THE RUM DIARY maintains a loose, freewheeling feel that's infectiously fun and often laugh-out-loud hilarious.  Hard-drinking ("the high end of social") failed novelist and Thompson surrogate Paul Kemp (Depp) arrives in 1960 Puerto Rico to work for a failing newspaper amid violent strikes and protests.  He finds a pair of fast friends with fellow miscreants Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the disheveled, squawking Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi, who steals every scene he's in), and gets caught up with scheming land developer Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) and his sexy girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard), when Sanderson tries to bribe him in exchange for favorable news coverage.  In between all of this, Kemp and Sala drink to excess, get thrown in jail, and enrage their badly-toupeed editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) to no end.  It moves along breezily and briskly, but starts sputtering when it takes a serious turn maybe 3/4 of the way through.  THE RUM DIARY goes on far too long and WITHNAIL & I writer/director Bruce Robinson, helming his first film since the 1992 thriller JENNIFER 8, doesn't seem to know how to wrap it up.  Depp, Rispoli, and especially Ribisi make a great team, though Eckhart, a fine actor, seems miscast and comes off like a dot-com era douchebag inexplicably dropped into 1960.  The $45 million film was completed in 2009 and spent two years on the shelf before bombing in theaters, grossing less than 1/3 of its cost.   Flaws and inconstencies aside, I enjoyed THE RUM DIARY a lot more than the trailers led me to believe I would.  The most interesting aspect of the film is that Robinson, a recovering alcoholic with six years of sobriety at the time of filming, intentionally fell off the wagon to get in the proper frame of mind that the story required (he's since resumed sobriety).  So, regardless of the uneven results, you can't question Robinson's risky (some may even say "foolish") dedication to the project.  (R, 120 mins).

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: BLOODFIST (1989)



BLOODFIST
(US/Philippines - 1989)

Directed by Terence H. Winkless.  Written by Robert King.  Cast: Don "The Dragon" Wilson, Rob Kaman, Billy Blanks, Kris Aguilar, Michael Shaner, Riley Bowman, Joe Mari Avellana, Marilyn Bautista, Kenneth Peerless, Vic Diaz, Ned Hourani. (R, 86 mins)


For the last 40 or more years, Roger Corman's keen instincts as a producer/moneymaker have always been quick to predict a trend or hop on one as soon as possible.  From the women-in-prison classics of the early '70s to the car chase movies of the late '70s to the ALIEN, STAR WARS, and CONAN ripoffs of the early '80s, no one in Hollywood knew how to make a buck quicker or cheaper than Corman.  So when kickboxing movies entered the mainstream with Jean Claude Van Damme in 1988's BLOODSPORT and 1989's KICKBOXER, it was inevitable that Corman would quickly unveil his own kickboxing opus. 




BLOODFIST, starring three-time WKO light heavyweight world champ Don "The Dragon" Wilson, opened in the fall of 1989 and became one of the biggest successes of Corman's Concorde Pictures.  Which is not to imply that it was a blockbuster, but rather, it actually played two weeks instead of just one.  Several months later, BLOODFIST proved to be hugely popular in video stores, so it was a certainty that Wilson would return for BLOODFIST II (1990).  Seven additional sequels followed, six starring Wilson, and zero of which were actual sequels.  After BLOODFIST II, the films had no connection other than Wilson in the lead role--as a different character in each film--and BLOODFIST in the title.  1992's BLOODFIST III: FORCED TO FIGHT might've made it into a few theaters, but after that, they all went straight-to-video:  BLOODFIST IV: DIE TRYING (also 1992); BLOODFIST V: HUMAN TARGET (1994); BLOODFIST VI: GROUND ZERO (1995); BLOODFIST VII: MANHUNT (also 1995); and BLOODFIST VIII: TRAINED TO KILL (1996).  Wilson sat out the most recent entry, the 2005 straight-to-DVD reboot BLOODFIST 2050, but there's no reason to believe that's the end of the franchise.  The series proved extremely popular with fans and profitable for Corman, even when parts III to VIII were disconnected, stand-alone Don "The Dragon" Wilson vehicles with the BLOODFIST title tacked on.  Wilson's output has slowed considerably in the last decade (he's 57 now and hasn't been in a movie since 2007), but he had quite a video store following throughout the '90s and headlined in the vicinity of 30 low-budget actioners in the decade after BLOODFIST, including several different franchises that ran simultaneously with BLOODFIST.  In addition to his work for Corman, he also made three RING OF FIRE's and two CYBER-TRACKERS for the action-crazed madmen at PM Entertainment, and starred in the first of two BLACK BELT's for Corman, plus such video store fixtures as FUTUREKICK, RED SUN RISING, NIGHT HUNTER, and VIRTUAL COMBAT.  PM Entertainment even gave Wilson his own Chuck Norris/SIDEKICKS ripoff, playing himself in the family-oriented martial arts comedy MAGIC KID, about a young kickboxer whose hero is...you guessed it...Don "The Dragon" Wilson!   In short, he never became a household name like a Stallone or a Schwarzenegger, or even a Van Damme (well, except in the MAGIC KID's house), but you couldn't walk into a Blockbuster in the 1990s without seeing at least one recent Don "The Dragon" Wilson flick on the New Release wall, and it all started with BLOODFIST.





The plot is pretty threadbare:  L.A.-based gym owner and former fighter Jake Raye (Wilson) heads to Manila when his half-brother Mike (Ned Hourani) has died under mysterious circumstances. Through circumstances best described as "plot convenience," Jake meets Kwong (Joe Mari Avellana), an eccentric trainer who takes him under his wing to prepare him for the Red Fist, a fight-to-the-death kickboxing tournament that looks like the Kumite restaged in the gym of a condemned high school.  Kwong believes that Mike's murderer is one of the fighters in the tournament.  While fast-moving and with lots of scenes of bloodied guys beating the shit out of each other, BLOODFIST looks budget-starved even by the standards of Philippines-shot Corman productions.  But where BLOODFIST no doubt scored with kickboxing fans was the cred it establishes with the all-star cast of kickboxing and martial arts figures:   karate champ and future Tae Bo fitness king Billy Blanks kicked off a brief but busy straight-to-video acting career with his work here as ruthless fighter Black Rose.  There's also kickboxing champs Rob Kaman and Kris Aguilar as other tournament fighters/possible murder suspects.

Billy Blanks, Don "The Dragon" Wilson, and Rob Kaman in a BLOODFIST publicity shot


Van Damme had Donald "Ogre from REVENGE OF THE NERDS" Gibb as his hard-living American sidekick in BLOODSPORT, so of course Wilson also gets a wacky pal in BLOODFIST in the form of the obnoxious Baby Davies (Michael Shaner), a con-man/party animal who's also in the tournament and may as well be named Dead Meat.  Jake also hooks up with Baby's sister Nancy (Riley Bowman), thus allowing director Terence H. Winkless to meet Corman's required topless-shot quota.  Winkless, a co-writer on the 1981 classic THE HOWLING, made the mutant cockroach thriller THE NEST for Corman a year earlier and would continue to be a journeyman on the Corman assembly line for several years to come, with such B fare as CORPORATE AFFAIRS, THE BERLIN CONSPIRACY and one of the 17 remakes of NOT OF THIS EARTH, in addition to work away from Corman, helming a number of episodes of MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS, and shows like the USA Network's PACIFIC BLUE and TNN's 18 WHEELS OF JUSTICE.  He's not exactly an auteur, but he obviously demonstrates the kind of efficient professionalism that Corman wanted.  The New World Corman of the '70s was about making money, but also about shepherding directing talent like Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, and so on.  The Concorde Corman of the '80s was mainly about making a profit, and his stock company of directors had capable craftspersons like Winkless, Rodman Flender, Jim Wynorski, Katt Shea, Kristine Peterson, and Larry Brand--people who could take the script and get it in the can on time and on budget--but no one from this period of Corman's career really broke out into the big time except for Luis Llosa (who went on make such films as SNIPER, THE SPECIALIST, and ANACONDA) and Carl Franklin (who left Corman and made ONE FALSE MOVE, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, HIGH CRIMES, and OUT OF TIME).  Winkless does the best with what he's got.  It's not a particularly good-looking movie, but it gets the job done (and has a surprising twist ending, albeit with an awkwardly bizarre reveal), and has that uniquely grungy, cheap Filipino action vibe to it throughout (plus a supporting role for Vic Diaz, as required by Filipino law).   Wilson isn't the most magnetic leading man, though he did get better with the superior follow-up BLOODFIST II.

Joe Mari Avellana as Mr. Miyagi.  Er, I mean, Kwong.

Still, BLOODFIST was an important film for Corman, Concorde, Wilson, video stores, and the entire straight-to-VHS business model of the 1990s.  BLOODSPORT, and perhaps even 1986's NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER might've started the kickboxing genre, but the success of BLOODFIST on video really started a flood of low-to-no-budget kickboxing movies, much like BASIC INSTINCT instigated a wave of unrated erotic thrillers.  As the drive-ins faded away, these types of films simply migrated over to video store shelves.  It was a unique era that produced franchises and stars of its own who still amassed tons of fans without the benefit of a big-screen national rollout, and it gave fading stars and second/third-tier actors a place to call their own.  The big studios maybe didn't want them, but that didn't mean they weren't in-demand or lacking a fan base.


Currently available on Netflix Instant



Sunday, February 12, 2012

PIECES: Greatest Bad Movie Ever?



PIECES
(Spain/Italy - 1983)

Directed by J. Piquer Simon.  Written by Dick Randall and John Shadow.  Cast: Christopher George, Paul Smith, Edmund Purdom, Lynda Day George, Ian Sera, Jack Taylor, Frank Brana, Gerard Tichy, Isabelle Luque, Hilda Fuchs, May Heatherly. (Unrated, 85 mins)




I love PIECES.  I love PIECES so much that if I was told I had 24 hours left to live, I'd be sure to set aside 1.5 of those 24 hours to watch PIECES one last time.  It has everything:  extreme gore, gratuitous nudity; slumming actors; bad dubbing; a complete disregard for logic and common sense; and no sense of restraint or decency whatsoever.  It is pure Bad Movie joy of the highest order.

The plot?  Well, for what it's worth, the film opens in 1942 Boston with a child putting together a nudie jigsaw puzzle, prompting his mother to throw an hysterical fit.  Not to be outdone, the kid kills Mom with an axe.  Cut to 1982, and a chainsaw killer, using that same jigsaw puzzle as his inspiration, is killing girls on a Boston college campus and collecting the body parts to piece together a real-life puzzle.  Get it?  PIECES!



On the case are Lt. Bracken (Christopher George) and Sgt. Holden (Frank Brana, best known to MST3K fans as the butt of the "Leslie Nielsen! Leslie Nielsen! Leslie Nielsen!" jokes from POD PEOPLE), seeking the cooperation of the Dean (Edmund Purdom), who understandably doesn't want a panic.  As what's left of the bodies continue to pile up, Bracken enlists the aid of Kendall (Ian Sera), the unlikely BMOC, a smirking twerp who scares easily and inexplicably has all of the campus hotties succumbing to his Horshackian charms despite owning an alarming number of Cosby sweaters.



As the mayhem continues, Bracken, cementing his place as the laziest detective in cinema history, has Kendall keep an eye on tennis pro-turned-cop Mary Riggs (George's wife Lynda Day George, strangely billed as "Linda Day" even though she'd been going by "Lynda Day George" since their 1970 nuptuals), who's undercover as...wait for it...the new tennis coach!  The list of suspects is seemingly endless:  is the killer Kendall?  Is it the Dean?  Is it grumbling, stink-eyed groundskeeper Willard (Paul Smith)?  Or is it the mysterious Professor Brown (Jack Taylor)?  The Dean seems to think so, as he snottily informs Bracken that Brown is "unmarried and lives with his mother."






"Agatha Christie got nothin' on Juan Piquer Simon!" - Tomb It May Concern's David Zuzelo


Directed by Spanish hack Juan Piquer Simon, PIECES was destined for grindhouse glory.  It was produced by Dick Randall, an American exploitation vet who spent most of the 1960s and 1970s working between Italy and Hong Kong.  Randall co-wrote the script with one "John Shadow," generally assumed to be one of the countless pseudonyms of legendary Italian sleaze merchant Aristide Massaccesi, best known as "Joe D'Amato."  Also involved in this and a few future Randall projects was American producer Steve Minasian, who was peripherally involved in getting the original FRIDAY THE 13TH made.

Where to start in listing the many highlights of PIECES?  Is the stupidity of the plot enough?  The ease at figuring out the killer's identity?  The inept direction?  The way two actresses in a tennis match have clearly never played tennis before?  The way Simon can't get the extras watching the tennis match to follow the ball in unison?  The way the CSI guys find a sawed-up body and put one arm in a plastic bag, and the rest of the body parts in one giant bag, while perpetually useless Bracken asks if the killing could've been done by the blood-splattered chainsaw left next to the body?  The way Bracken emphatically tells the Dean that the killer "is someone on...or near the campus"?   The way Bracken keeps pawning his work off on a college student?  The way the killer hides his chainsaw behind his back while on an elevator with his next victim?  The way Holden forgoes a holster and just puts his gun in the waist of his pants?  The completely uncoordinated aerobics class?   One of the most ludicrous final shots in all of horror cinema?  The out-of-nowhere attack on Mary by Kendall's "kung-fu professor"?









Or how about the quotes?
--"We're just buying clothes without labels and trying them on for size."
--"The most beautiful thing in the world is...smoking pot and...fucking on a waterbed!"
--"So I'm slayed by a withering look.  Who gives a shit?"
--"One, two, three...OK!"
--"Get me a plastic bag!  I'm gonna burn everything!"
--"Hey, it's my kung-fu professor!  What's the story, Chow?"
--"Bad chop suey!  So long!"
--"I just love the cream!"
--"Take some uppers or something!"
--"I'll send you a case of lollipops!"
--"Casanova!"


And, of course....



Somehow, Oscar ignored Lynda Day George.

I've had a strange obsession with PIECES since June 1984, when it belatedly opened in the Toledo area and I saw a couple of ads for it on TV.  Back then, the idea of straight-to-video wasn't as prevalent as it would become in just a few years, and things took longer to come out on home video.  With drive-in schlock like PIECES, the plan in many cases would be to open it slowly and, with a limited number of prints, it would make its way around the country slowly as opposed to opening wide.  PIECES opened in the US in September 1983, and took uncommonly long to reach my area.  So long, in fact, that Christopher George was dead by the time the film hit Toledo.  George died of a heart attack in November 1983, and PIECES was the veteran actor's next-to-last film.


The great Christopher George (1931-1983)





There was something captivating about the bluntness of the TV spot and the luridness of the newspaper ads ("You don't have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre!"), and, of course, the tell-tale sign that it was the real deal for gorehounds: it was unrated, with the warning "Absolutely no one under 17 admitted!" which was usually reserved for the likes of Lucio Fulci films and stuff like MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY.  It took me a couple of years, but I eventually caught up with PIECES via the Vestron Video VHS.  And what child of '80s trash cinema doesn't get misty over the old Vestron logo?



And even as a teenager, it was easy to laugh at PIECES.  But damn...this was a sick movie.  For all its controversy, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE really isn't that gory.  But PIECES was a different beast.  It showed everything.  Pig carcasses were used for the chainsaw-slicing closeups.  The shot of a scared victim wetting herself seemed a little too real (because it was).  As terrible as PIECES is--and it is indeed a terrible, horrible, laughable movie--my love for it knows no bounds.  I've lost count of how many times I've seen it, especially since the definitive two-disc special edition DVD was released by Grindhouse in 2008 (packed with bonus features, this also includes the Spanish audio track with a completely different score by Librado Pastor that doesn't work at all; the US version had CAM library tracks that are an infinitely better fit), with a really nice 1.66 anamorphic transfer.



PIECES probably isn't the funniest bad movie ever, and the rampant sleaze and extremely graphic violence will likely be a major turn-off for some, but something about this has just clicked with me since I first saw those TV commercials back in 1984 when I was 11.  This actually opened at an eight-screen cinema at the then-biggest mall in the city. I'm just trying to imagine seeing PIECES in a mall cinema.   What else can I say?   The hipsters can have their prefab bad movies like BIRDEMIC.  For me, PIECES is the gift that keeps on giving and shows no signs of stopping. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

In Theaters: SAFE HOUSE (2012)



SAFE HOUSE
(US/Japan/South Africa - 2012)

Directed by Daniel Espinosa.  Written by David Guggenheim.  Cast: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Ruben Blades, Robert Patrick, Liam Cunningham, Joel Kinnaman, Nora Arnezeder, Fares Fares.  (R, 115 mins)




The ominously-named Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) finds himself pursued by men with guns in Cape Town, South Africa, and when they close in on him from all sides, his only way out is to walk into Cape Town's US embassy.  Turns out he's a rogue CIA superagent who's been off the grid for ten years and wanted for espionage on four continents.  The honchos at Langley (among them Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga and the always-authoritarian Sam Shepard) order him to be transported to a secret CIA safe house, where ambitious, low-level operative Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) spends his days listening to his iPod and throwing a tennis ball at the wall while waiting to be stationed somewhere other than Cape Town.  The extraction team--led by Kiefer (Robert Patrick)--arrives to interrogate the uncooperative Frost (who's such a badass that he can withstand waterboarding), when the same men who were pursuing him show up and kill everyone except Weston, who gets Frost out through a secret passageway.  No one knows about the safe house except the CIA, and Weston begins to doubt that Frost is the traitor his bosses say he is, and the two have to set aside their differences and work together.

If they don't kill each other first!

Watching SAFE HOUSE, one can be forgiven for assuming it's directed by Tony Scott, who's collaborated with Washington a number of times in the past, on films ranging from straightforwardly entertaining (UNSTOPPABLE, DEJA VU) to garish and barely-watchable (MAN ON FIRE, THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123).  Swedish director Daniel Espinosa definitely shows off his inner T-Scott here, utilizing a grainy, oversaturated look (lots of closeups, and you can see every pore on the actors' faces) and, especially in the second half, a lot of dizzying, hyper-edited shaky-cam.  The second half of the film goes in a mostly predictable direction, but Espinosa and screenwriter David Guggenheim do much better with the first half, which relies less on headache-inducing directorial wankery and more on character and suspense.  The entire sequence inside the safe house when Frost first arrives is knots-in-your-stomach intense, and the car chase when Weston and Frost first escape is one of the best in quite some time.  But once it's established that Frost isn't the bad guy after all, and that someone at the CIA wants him silenced, it becomes pretty standard fare.


Nevertheless, Washington, with his usual gravitas and expert command of the screen, is as awesome as you expect him to be.  It's a testament to his abilities that, with all the familiar things in his bag of tricks (cue the sarcastic slow clap and the mildly condescending "alright, alright...AH-HA-HAAA!"), he hasn't pulled a Nic Cage and completely succumbed to self-parody.  He's got a good chemistry with the consistently-underrated Reynolds, who holds his own with his co-star while seeming genuinely awestruck at the same time.  Also a big plus is the effective use of Cape Town locations (the City Bowl/Table Mountain; the Cape Town Stadium; the slums of Langa) in some of the many action sequences.  SAFE HOUSE is an entertaining time at the movies, but it does suffer from some overfamiliarity in the back-end.  Not that it runs out of steam, but just that it turns into something we've seen a hundred times before.  A riveting first hour and the seemingly effortless work of the ageless Washington (is he really 57?  One character refers to Frost as "the black Dorian Gray," and the line might very well have been improvised by co-star Ruben Blades) make it an overall solid action outing.