Friday, April 26, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: COLD PREY II (2013) and PAWN (2013)

(Norway - 2008; 2013 US release)

A huge box office hit when released in its native Norway and the rest of Europe in 2006, COLD PREY (Norwegian title: FRITT VILT) took three years to get a straight-to-DVD release in the US.  The inevitable COLD PREY II has finally arrived on DVD in the US, a belated five years after its European theatrical run.  The first film had five snowboarders on a trip to the Jotunheimen region of southern Norway finding shelter at an abandoned resort where they're pursued by a relentless killing machine who's basically the Norwegian cousin of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers.  Here, that film's Final Girl, Jannicke (Ingrid Borso Berdal) is found dazed and delirious and holding the dead killer's pickaxe, and transported to a nearby hospital that--of course--is operating with a skeleton crew because it's about to close down for good (helpful hint for slasher film protagonists: if you work in a hospital that's about to close, don't stick around; and when the lights flicker off and then back on, someone will instantly appear directly behind you).  As any fan of classic old-school slasher films like HALLOWEEN II and VISITING HOURS can attest, a nearly-abandoned hospital is an outstanding setting for these types of things, and COLD PREY II is cut from the same cloth.  The hulking killer (Robert Follin), thought dead, simply went into a brief hibernation from the cold.  When the doc in charge (Fridtjov Saheim) idiotically resuscitates him, the bodies start piling up in various gory ways until it's down to Jannicke and other doc Camilla (Marthe Snorresdotter Rovik) for the final showdown. 

There's no real surprises in COLD PREY II and because there's a limited number of people who can get killed, it takes about half of the running time before anything starts happening. But once the killer is on the loose, things pick up considerably, and director Mats Stenberg (awesomely-monikered COLD PREY director Roar Uthaug co-produced and has a story credit) offers some impressively-constructed chase and kill scenes.  Also helping a lot is a truly badass Berdal staking her claim as a modern-day scream queen with her tough, gritty performance as Jannicke.  Like its predecessor, COLD PREY II brings nothing new to the table and relies too much on characters behaving stupidly, but it does a nice job executing tried-and-true genre staples and doing so with respect and affinity.  You don't need to see it, but doing so isn't a waste of your time.  It proved to be another huge success in Europe, prompting a COLD PREY III in 2010, which, following the time frame of the first two, should hit US shores sometime in 2017.  (Unrated, 90 mins)

(US - 2013)

This thoroughly forgettable thriller opened on a couple of screens four days before its DVD/Blu-ray release and showcases a large cast of recognizable faces in a completely by-the-numbers plot that's so routine that if you listen closely, you can practically hear their sighs of ambivalence.  Ex-con Sean Faris promises his pregnant wife (Nikki Reed) that he'll stay out of trouble, but then he finds himself in the middle of a hostage situation at an all-night diner when a crew of gunmen led by Michael Chiklis barge in to rob the place.  They're really after a hard drive that's being kept in the safe, and it's something that involves the grizzled diner owner (Stephen Lang as Scott Glenn) and the local crime boss (Ronald Guttman), whose villainy is instantly given away by the fact that he's the only person in the greasy spoon wearing an ascot.  The slumming cast also includes Ray Liotta as a mob mystery man, Forest Whitaker and Marton Csokas as on-the-take cops, and Common as the hostage negotiator.  For some reason, Chiklis uses a comically over-the-top Cockney accent that's basically an exaggerated impression of Jason Statham as Ray Winstone as Bob Hoskins, certainly to creatively infuse his character with some texture and depth and not at all an attention-hogging stunt suggested and supported by co-producer Michael Chiklis.  (R, 88 mins)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

In Theaters: THE LORDS OF SALEM (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Written and directed by Rob Zombie.  Cast: Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison, Jeffrey Daniel Phillips, Ken Foree, Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace, Meg Foster, Patricia Quinn, Maria Conchita Alonso, Andrew Prine, Richard Fancy, Sid Haig, Michael Berryman, Julian Acosta, Torsten Voges, Lisa Marie, Barbara Crampton. (R, 101 mins)

Rob Zombie's stylistically ambitious THE LORDS OF SALEM is a departure from his sick hilljack horrors of the last decade or so, which seemed to indicate the origins of a career-long tribute to 1986's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2.  Zombie managed to deliver a modern horror masterpiece with 2005's ferocious THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, a sequel to his awful 2003 debut HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, but he's been floundering since.  His 2007 prequel/remake of John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN was passable but unnecessary (do you ever feel the urge to revisit it?), and its 2009 sequel HALLOWEEN II was probably Zombie's career nadir.  It seemed as if Zombie said everything he had to say with THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, a disturbing, nightmarishly savage piece of white-trash horror that felt like Sam Peckinpah remaking THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.  THE DEVIL'S REJECTS established some much-needed bona fides for Zombie as a serious horror filmmaker rather than the object of fanboy adoration from the cult-horror scenesters.  Unfortunately, Zombie hasn't built on the momentum of REJECTS, and an element of sameness has crept in:  you'll get the same cast of B-movie horror and comic-con fixtures, a '70s aesthetic, several hundred F-bombs, and Sid Haig in a gravy-stained wifebeater.  There's no denying Zombie is a huge fan of the genre and loves what he does, but with each new film he makes, it's become increasingly evident that he may very well just plan on coasting on REJECTS forever.

So on one hand, the different directions he takes with THE LORDS OF SALEM are welcome.  But on the other, he's still cribbing from other directors and other '70s movies and the story here is thin, and worst of all, predictable. Salem, MA radio host Heidi LaRoc (Zombie's wife Sheri Moon Zombie) receives a promotional vinyl LP from an unknown rock band calling itself The Lords.  The music is droning and repetitious, and when she plays it on the air, it seems to hypnotize the women of Salem (or, the three that Zombie shows).  Meanwhile, local historian and witchcraft expert Francis Matthias (the ageless Bruce Davison) traces the melody of the Lords' song to a piece of music dating back to Rev. Jonathan Hawthorne's (Andrew Prine) burning-at-the-stake execution of a Salem witches' coven headed by the demonic Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster), back in 1696.  After being exposed to the music, Heidi starts having bizarre hallucinations, relapses into drug abuse, and falls under the spell of her sinister landlady Lacy (Judy Geeson) and her "sisters" Sonny (Dee Wallace) and Megan (Patricia Quinn), modern disciples of the reanimated spirit of Margaret Morgan, determined to use Heidi as the vessel to bring a reborn Satan into the world.

Zombie achieves a really good look with THE LORDS OF SALEM, with a vivid and unforced 1970s aura that brings to mind any number of Satanism-themed films from that era.  But perhaps most of all, Zombie uses this film as his own tribute to Stanley Kubrick, of all people.  Though set in the present day, much of THE LORDS OF SALEM looks like what might've happened if a 1975 Kubrick made a low-budget devil-worshipping flick that debuted at the bottom of an all-night drive-in marathon with RACE WITH THE DEVILTHE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN, and MESSIAH OF EVIL.  The framing, the long tracking shots, the production design, striking visuals, and the droning score are all straight from THE SHINING (listen to the music when Heidi goes into Apt. 5 for the first time; it's that same repetitive beat when Jack goes into room 237 and finds the woman in the bathtub), and there's even some EYES WIDE SHUT stuff going on in a couple of scenes.  There's other bits that are blatantly cribbed from Roman Polanski (there's a big ROSEMARY'S BABY influence here), Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and even Michael Winner, as the finale recreates some imagery from 1977's THE SENTINEL.

THE LORDS OF SALEM looks terrific, but that only takes it so far.  Even with an effective performance by Sheri Moon Zombie (who really doesn't deserve all the "She's in his movies just because she's his wife" backlash), Zombie's script just doesn't have the substance to go along with the style.  There's flashes of well-constructed characterization, particularly in Heidi's platonic relationship with on-air partner Whitey (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips, surprisingly solid considering he's best known as the Geico caveman), but the whole film really shows some signs of post-production tinkering and indecision.  Depending on the scene, Salem is either a bustling suburb with enough of a radio audience to support a nightly show with three hosts (there's also a toupeed Ken Foree), or it's a virtually empty ghost town.  Heidi wakes up in the morning and goes to take her dog for a walk, but it's night when she walks outside.  Maybe that's being nit-picky, but it's sloppy construction.  Zombie revamped much of his script during filming, which led to several actors--including Udo Kier, Daniel Roebuck, Clint Howard, THE BRADY BUNCH's Christopher Knight, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE's Camille Keaton, and the late Richard Lynch in what would've been his final screen appearance--seeing their work entirely Terrence Malick'd out of the completed film.  One of Zombie's better decisions with the actors is to let the three modern-day witches really tear it up:  Geeson and Wallace really sink their teeth into it in the third act, and it's great to see cult actress Foster and her distinct, ice-blue eyes on the big screen again.  Haig (natch), THE HILLS HAVE EYES' Michael Berryman, and RE-ANIMATOR's Barbara Crampton have blink-and-you'll-miss-them bit parts and there's also a small role for apparent cosmetic surgery victim Maria Conchita Alonso as Matthias' wife.

Zombie wears his love of B-movies and trashy horror on his sleeve, and that's great.  But it's not enough to carry a weak script that feels like its own writer wasn't sure where he wanted to go with it.  By the time Zombie gets to the climax, which resorts to decidedly unfrightening evil dwarves and other surreal, blasphemous, sub-Jodorowsky imagery, it becomes obvious that he was just throwing anything against the wall to see what stuck.  I like that Zombie tried something different and with little concern for mainstream, commercial appeal with THE LORDS OF SALEM, but when it reaches its crazed fever dream of a finale, you'll realize that Panos Cosmatos did this kind of thing much better with last year's BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW and accomplished it without resorting to things like cheap shock tactic shots of masturbating high priests.

Friday, April 19, 2013

In Theaters: OBLIVION (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Joseph Kosinski.  Written by Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt.  Cast: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo, Zoe Bell.  (PG-13, 125 mins)

With his mega-budgeted 2010 directing debut TRON: LEGACY, Joseph Kosinski fashioned one of the best-looking films you'll ever see, a triumph of visual effects and production design that stood as a prime example of CGI done right, even if the story itself was muddled and the film itself released decades past the point of anyone really caring.  Kosinski's follow-up effort, OBLIVION, continues to show him as a style-over-substance guy, with its apocalyptic visuals, widescreen vistas and landscapes and its coldly clinical futuristic sets demonstrating a stunningly ominous post-nuke wasteland that you don't really see much on the big screen these days.  While this is mostly obviously accomplished via CGI, it's interesting to note that Kosinski's wildly ambitious sci-fi CGI worlds in TRON: LEGACY and OBLIVION feel more real and organic than most of the greenscreen CGI backgrounds you see in contemporary cinema set in the present day.  I spend a lot of time bitching about CGI, but its possibilities are limitless when used as part of the story and executed with diligence and care as opposed to existing only as a necessary time-saving and/or cost-cutting measure.  Say what you will about Kosinski's abilities as a storyteller, but props where they're due:  the guy's made two incredibly beautiful-looking films.  Count me as a fan...for now.

So yeah, the script?  Well, that could use some work.  Based on a graphic novel concept by Kosinski, OBLIVION is set in 2077, around the nuked ruins of the east coast.  In 2017, Earth was invaded by an alien race known as Scavengers, or "Scavs."  The Scavs were defeated in the resulting nuclear war, but the planet was left a desolate wasteland due to both the nuclear option and the Scavs blowing up the moon, throwing off Earth's gravity and atmosphere.  In the ensuing 60 years, humanity has migrated to the Saturn moon of Titan, with water from Earth's oceans extracted and filtered for fuel to provide sustenance.  Overseeing the extraction is "Tech 49" Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), stationed in a facility high above the ground where his communications assistant and significant other Vica (Andrea Riseborough) is in constant contact with their supervisor Sally (Melissa Leo), who's on the space station Tet, orbiting above the planet.  Jack and Vica have two weeks left in their contract before they're to be cycled out and relocated to Titan, but in the meantime, Jack spends his days surveying the ruins, looking for stray Scavs to be eliminated by drones that he periodically has to maintain and repair.

Jack doesn't tell Vica that he's plagued by recurring dreams where he's in NYC in 2017, a time when he couldn't possibly have been alive, and atop the Empire State Building proposing to a woman.  A space vessel crashes and Jack witnesses a drone killing the human survivors.  He rescues one, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who he immediately recognizes as the woman from his dreams.  He takes her back to their base where it's revealed Julia has been in hypersleep since 2017 at the time of the initial Scav attack.  Jack's investigation into her story and his discovery of a band of renegade survivors led by Beech (Morgan Freeman) force him to question everything he thinks he knows about his assignment and himself.

The script by Karl Gajdusek (the barely-released Nic Cage/Nicole Kidman home-invasion dud TRESPASS) and Michael Arndt (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and the upcoming STAR WARS EPISODE 7) takes its time setting up the story and there's quite a bit of opening exposition required to get the audience up to speed.  It's hard to discuss where the story goes once Freeman, GAME OF THRONES' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (as Beech's right-hand man), and an criminally-underutilized Zoe Bell (visible as another Beech follower but getting no dialogue) turn up about an hour in without divulging some serious spoilers.  But for that first hour, Kosinski lets the story unfold very much like a richly detailed novel.  Those expecting nonstop action might actually find the first hour a bit dry, but the world-building and visuals work together in ways that should please fans of hard sci-fi.  Once the twist is revealed (and most will probably see it coming), OBLIVION turns into a much more standard and predictable action/explosion movie, losing some steam and overstaying its welcome to some extent.  At 125 minutes, it could probably lose 15-20 minutes and maybe one or two endings.

The biggest detriment to the story itself is that it feels like Kosinski and the screenwriters just cobbled together some highlights of their favorite sci-fi classics old and new, as OBLIVION constantly straddles the fine line between homage and ripoff.  Even casual sci-fi fans will spot plot elements cribbed from films as varied as TOTAL RECALL, BLADE RUNNER, 12 MONKEYS, WALL-E, INDEPENDENCE DAY,  PLANET OF THE APES, LOGAN'S RUN, EQUILIBRIUM, and PREDATOR.  A battle sequence near the midway point is straight out of STAR WARS, and even the flying drones look and act like distant cousins of the ED-209 from ROBOCOP.  There's even ideas borrowed from more esoteric fare like SOLARIS and MOON.  Just as in the thoroughly enjoyable and underappreciated JACK REACHER from a few months back, Cruise is essentially Cruise throughout--he's fine but performance-wise, he's not really challenging himself very much here.  It's not quite the ego trip that many of Cruise's films turn out to be (he even shares the heroics with someone in the finale), perhaps because he's just an actor here and not a producer, largely leaving Kosinski to run the show even though the film has been unmistakably tailored for its star.

The strengths of OBLIVION lie in its visuals, the cinematography by LIFE OF PI Oscar-winner Claudio Miranda, and its largely synth-based score by M83 that grows more conventional as the film progresses.  Therefore, it's not quite as catchy as Daft Punk's soundtrack for TRON: LEGACY , but it's in the same ballpark.   Perhaps the biggest surprise of OBLIVION is that it wasn't shot in 3D.  It's one of the few films of late where the technology would've been justified, especially in that amazing first hour.  In the end, with its standard "Tom Cruise" performance from Cruise and its predictable and extremely derivative story, OBLIVION is little more than really sweet eye candy, but sometimes that's enough.  Though at some point, Kosinski will have to work from scripts with a little more substance and originality if he's to reach his full potential as a major genre filmmaker.  That is, unless he's content to be the next Paul W.S. Anderson.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT 2: GHOSTS OF GEORGIA (2013) and ESCAPEE (2011) plus bonus Netflix Instant exclusive HOUSE OF BODIES (2013)

(US - 2013)

This geographically confused "sequel" to the forgettable 2009 horror hit was shot in 2010 as A HAUNTING IN GEORGIA and intended to be a sort-of similarly-themed "sister" film to the original.  But Lionsgate, taking a page out of their OPEN WATER 2: ADRIFT book, changed the title to the rather cumbersome THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT 2: GHOSTS OF GEORGIA, finally giving it a limited release in early 2013.  It's an in-name-only sequel and has nothing to do with Connecticut or the events of the first film, instead focusing on an AMITYVILLE HORROR-type situation in Georgia that was profiled on an episode of UNSOLVED MYSTERIES back in the early 1990s.  The Wyrick family--dad Andy (Chad Michael Murray), mom Lisa (Abigail Spencer), and young daughter Heidi (Emily Alyn Lynd), along with Lisa's sister Joyce (Katee Sackhoff), who lives in a trailer near the main house--find out their property was a "station" on the Underground Railroad back in pre-Civil War days.  Lisa and Joyce, both of whom have psychic abilities inherited from their mother that the script introduces and doesn't really explore, realize Heidi shares that gift when she starts seeing the ghost of the previous owner along with visions of two slaves running in the fields, ancestors of kindly old blind lady Mama Kay (an underused Cicely Tyson).  The local preacher (Lance E. Nichols of TREME) comes by to bless the property, and of course all hell breaks loose with a vengeful spirit rising to haunt the family.  There's a few nicely-done bits and things get a little more icky than in the PG-13 original, particularly in a scene with Lynd vomiting a combination of sawdust, cockroaches, and maggots, and another where a character performs what can best be described as "reverse taxidermy" on herself, but the story just gets duller and more confused as it goes along.  This sincere but generally bland film is really no better or worse than its unintentional predecessor, and it's perfectly watchable for horror fans on a really slow night, but other than young Lynd, who has some really terrific facial expressions, there's nothing special here.  (R, 101 mins)

(US - 2011)

How idiotic is the stalk-and-slash thriller ESCAPEE?  At one point, two detectives observe a pair of bodies hanging from a tree and after awkwardly standing around for a few seconds, one finally says "So...these are the victims, huh?"  It actually looks like they left in the part before the director yelled "Action!" This blood-and-cliche-drenched Louisiana-shot dud was released on just a couple of screens in Alexandria and Pineville way back in 2011 (it was shot in those two cities) and has only now surfaced on DVD, seemingly forgotten by its distributor.  There's no scares, suspense, or storytelling competence in this lethargic and nonsensical film, filled with illogical detours and red herrings that serve no purpose other than to pad the running time.  Hulking killer Dominic Purcell escapes from a mental institution and makes his way to the home of a college student (Christine Evangelista) he attacked while she was on a research trip to the ward earlier in the day.  While the bodies in the neighborhood pile up, hard-nosed detective Faith Ford (the veteran TV actress also produced; her husband Campion Murphy wrote and directed) has to contend with condescending police chief David Jenson (who gets the mandatory incredulous "One guy...did all of this?!" line when surveying bodies strewn about a crime scene) and wisecracking partner Kadeem Hardison, somehow keeping a straight face while gritting her teeth and answering the question "Can you get inside his head?" with--what else?--"I'm already there."  There's a laughable twist about 20 minutes before the end (when isn't there?), but this was a washout even before that.  Maybe ESCAPEE could've gotten some mileage out of a committed lead performance, but Purcell is just a lumbering bore, which also accurately describes ESCAPEE.  (R, 97 mins)

(US - 2013)

ESCAPEE is a crackerjack thriller compared to this atrocious clusterfuck. HOUSE OF BODIES debuted with zero fanfare this week on Netflix's streaming service.  It didn't play in theaters and there's currently no DVD/Blu-ray release date.  There's no trailer on any web sites and there's no user or external reviews on IMDb, which still lists the film as being in post-production.  Is this film even finished?  Was it put on Netflix streaming accidentally?   While it's not at all unusual to see terrible micro-budgeted horror films with porn-level production values, video-burned credits, and awful acting in the world of DTV and cable, it is noteworthy when one appears out of nowhere and stars three Oscar nominees.  Can anyone explain exactly what Terrence Howard, Queen Latifah, and Peter Fonda are doing in this?  And why did Queen Latifah produce it?  Is the whole thing just some elaborate tax write-off that her accountant devised?  This film is an unwatchable embarrassment even with three accomplished actors who, it should be noted, have little more than cameos and never interact with the main cast.  Has director Alex Merkin done such a great job cleaning Queen Latifah's pool over the years that she agreed to finance his movie, at the same time somehow convincing Howard to spend a day sitting in a room with Fonda?  Certainly the backstory of this steaming bucket of shit is more interesting than anything that made it to the screen.  The flimsy plot has some hot college girls running an online porn chat room in a house formerly owned by a convicted serial killer (Fonda).  When the girls are offed by a copycat, all witnessed by a hearing-impaired teenager (Harry Zittel) via webcam, irate detective Howard visits Fonda to put together a profile.  The film limps along to a yawner of a twist ending (spoiler:  Fonda took the fall for the real killer--his son--who's still on the loose), dragging so badly that even the generous amounts of nudity and splatter accomplish nothing.  Canadian singer/songwriter Alexz Johnson has a cute Young Naomi Watts thing going on as the Final Girl and she at least appears to be trying, while Fonda manages to be somewhat effective just sitting there Hannibal Lecter-style, but even by his "just pay me and I'll do it" standards, this is a humiliating gig.  Queen Latifah has two brief scenes as a chat room friend of Zittel's, probably Skyped in from her living room.  An already brief film ludicrously padded with endless insert shots of hilariously phony newspaper mastheads, HOUSE OF BODIES is an amateur-night fiasco best left unstreamed.  Don't be surprised if this vanishes from Netflix and is never seen anywhere again.  It really is that bad.  (Unrated, 78 mins, currently available only on Netflix streaming)

Saturday, April 13, 2013

In Theaters/On VOD: TO THE WONDER (2013)

(US - 2013)

Written and directed by Terrence Malick.  Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Tatiana Chilline, Romina Mondello, Marshall Bell, Charles Baker. (R, 109 mins)

After taking a 20-year sabbatical between 1978's DAYS OF HEAVEN and 1998's THE THIN RED LINE, Terrence Malick seemed to inherit the "greatest living American filmmaker" title with the 1999 passing of Stanley Kubrick.  All of his films, from his 1973 debut BADLANDS to 2005's THE NEW WORLD and 2011's THE TREE OF LIFE, are works of stunning beauty that are the singular and unique voice of a true auteur.  Terrence Malick films are distinctly his.  No one else makes Terrence Malick films the way Malick does, though some have come very close (Andrew Dominik's THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is a brilliant example).  And indeed, other than Kubrick, it's possible that no other living American filmmaker is as universally lionized as Malick--even guys like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg aren't immune to criticism.  With THE THIN RED LINE and particularly with the divisive THE NEW WORLD, to criticize Malick was to insult the very art of film itself.  It was just not allowed, and anyone who didn't find Malick brilliant simply didn't "get it."  Malick's fan base is one of the most fervently devoted in all of cinema, and if you spend enough time on film discussion boards, you'll inevitably see a Malick argument break out, with many of his base taking criticism very personally.  In an era where film criticism is gradually being replaced by snark, nitpicking, and hate-watching, few other filmmakers inspire that level of undying devotion.  On one hand, it's nice to see that kind of passion and thought-provoking discussion, but on the other, there's a fine line between sticking up for your guy and sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling "La la la! Can't hear you!"

Having said that, early responses to Malick's latest film, TO THE WONDER, seem to indicate the first sign of trouble in paradise for the director and his fans.  Since returning to filmmaking, Malick's work has become increasingly abstract and less character and plot-driven.  Beautiful visuals accompanied by ethereal, whispery, stream-of-consciousness narration have always been a distinct Malick trademark, but with TO THE WONDER, his focus is more on these sorts of dreamlike ruminations and it's only a matter of time before he abandons plot, characters, and actors altogether. 

Olga Kurylenko stars as Marina, a Parisian in a whirlwind romance with American Neil (Ben Affleck) as the film opens.  There's very little dialogue spoken directly by the actors--almost all of it is past-tense narration.  When we first see Neil, Marina, and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chilline), who, unless I'm mistaken, is the only character referenced by name, Marina's narration states "Newborn.  I open my eyes.  I melt.  Into the eternal night."  As they walk through the streets of Paris, Marina's voiceover continues: "Love makes us one.  Two.  One.  I in you.  You in me."  This goes on for most of the film, though it quickly relocates to an anonymous suburb in Oklahoma, where Neil lives.  Marina and Tatiana have a hard time adjusting to America, though Marina never seems to stop dancing and frolicking in the backyard, in the streets, or at the supermarket.  Eventually, her visa expires and she leaves the unwilling-to-commit Neil, who reunites with his ex-girlfriend Jane (Rachel McAdams) for a short romance before Marina returns, without Tatiana, who's living in Paris with her father.  Neil and Marina marry.  Meanwhile, melancholy local priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) has a crisis of faith and tries to re-establish his connection with God, a theme touched upon by the devoutly religious Jane, and also explored by Marina and Neil, who begin searching for their spiritual side when their marriage starts to crumble. 

This story is largely conveyed visually, with frequent nonsensical narration ("Enter me.  Show me how to love you" and "What is this love that loves us?"), that would be completely laughable to English-speaking audiences were it not mostly in French (for Kurylenko) or Spanish (for Bardem) with English subtitles (maybe French and Spanish audiences will find it just as terribly-written).  There's no denying that TO THE WONDER is a visually stunning film.  Malick and his NEW WORLD/TREE OF LIFE cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki achieve a very European view of suburban America, almost in a Michelangelo Antonioni or Wim Wenders way.  They and the constantly moving camera manage to find the visual beauty in fast-food restaurants, laundromats, appliance stores, Wal-Mart, and Walgreens, and even in a polluted lake or with the buzz of fluorescent lights and the hum of central air units.  In a way, I think this is partially Malick's homage to Antonioni's 1964 film RED DESERT with its depictions of human alienation and loneliness in an increasingly industrialized world of homogenized familiarity.  It's set and shot in Oklahoma but with the chain stores, fast-food joints, gas stations and Econo Lodges all over, it could be anywhere.  Thankfully, Malick doesn't work in texting or Facebook, but that's probably because he isn't aware of those things.  With his increasing disdain for characters and plot construction, it doesn't seem like Malick knows how people talk anymore.  Malick's going to be 70 this year and the writing in TO THE WONDER sounds like he plagiarized the tear-smeared scribblings in an emo kid's journal.  And it's even worse in the rare instances where there's actual spoken dialogue.  Witness the scene where Jane's Italian friend (Romina Mondello) visits her in Oklahoma:  she speaks and behaves like no human being would and it's the film's strongest indication that, like latter-day Kubrick, Terrence Malick probably doesn't get out much.

I get what he was going after with the "together yet isolated" thing.  The religious stuff seems a little wedged in, but hey, whatever, it's his movie.  A lot of TO THE WONDER looks like it was shot on the fly (there's a few instances of passersby glancing at the camera) and Malick didn't really know what he wanted until he started putting it together.  TO THE WONDER was shot in 2010 and 2011 and it took Malick plus five credited editors to put it all together, with the narration (mostly Kurylenko and Bardem) then used to advance the "story."  When other filmmakers display an over-reliance on voiceover, it's a desperation Hail Mary move, but if you listen to Malick fans, when he does it, he's reinventing the rules of cinema. 

Regardless, even the most slavishly devoted Malick apologists seem to be rejecting TO THE WONDER, the general feeling being that Malick is simply going too far in his abandonment of conventional narrative.  He doesn't seem to know what to do with his actors:  Of the major stars, Bardem probably comes off best since he gets to play the closest thing resembling a well-rounded character.  You could make a drinking game out of how many times Kurylenko dances, turns and looks at the camera, and does another pirouette.  McAdams isn't in it enough to really make an impression, and Affleck, who had most of his dialogue cut, just looks confused, much like Sean Penn in the present-day scenes in THE TREE OF LIFE (it's worth noting that Penn later said he had no idea why he was even in the finished film).  Young Chilline turns in the most natural performance, since Malick mostly lets her simply be herself.  Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper, and Michael Sheen all had co-starring roles in principal photography--all were left on the cutting room floor, further evidence to support the idea that Malick was just pulling the completed film out of his ass.  Sure, they got paid, but who wastes the time of five name actors?  Of course, like any piece of art, a film can evolve from its inception to completion, but if you're completely cutting people like Chastain and Weisz out of the film, then you simply didn't know what you wanted when you finished shooting, let alone started.  Malick also assembled star-packed casts for three subsequent films that are in various states of post-production (KNIGHT OF CUPS, due out later this year, plus VOYAGE OF TIME and a still-untitled third film), indicating an uncharacteristic burst of productivity for the notoriously sporadic director.  But who knows how many of those performances will get axed before the films are eventually released?

TO THE WONDER is a breathtakingly beautiful film, no question about it. When it hits DVD and Blu-ray, it'll be interesting to see if playing the chapter stops at random makes the slightest bit of difference.  My advice:  wait and watch the Blu-ray and hit the mute button. I have nothing but respect for this one-of-a-kind cinematic figure, but it's disheartening to see Terrence Malick making what looks and feels like a parody of a Terrence Malick film.

Friday, April 12, 2013


(US - 2013)

Directed by Derek Cianfrance. Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder. Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Dane DeHaan, Rose Byrne, Harris Yulin, Mahershala Ali, Bruce Greenwood, Emory Cohen, Gabe Fazio. (R, 140 mins)

Writer/director Derek Cianfrance follows up his acclaimed 2010 breakthrough BLUE VALENTINE with THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, a long and engrossing saga of the irreversible ripple effect of decisions, no matter how small, than can change the course of an untold number of lives.  It's an extremely ambitious work and one that confirms Cianfrance as one of America's major filmmakers.  It's not flawless--one gets the feeling in the third act that the film is getting away from Cianfrance a bit with the motivations of one character coming across as a little forced.  But throughout, Cianfrance and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder fashion a genuinely unpredictable story with complex, often tragic characters that are vividly brought to life by a terrific ensemble cast where each actor, even in the smallest role, gets a memorable moment in the spotlight.

Set in Schenectady over a 15-year period beginning in 1997, the film has motorcycle stunt rider Luke Glanton (Cianfrance's BLUE VALENTINE star Ryan Gosling) working in a traveling fair making its annual stop in the city.  He's visited by townie Romina (Eva Mendes) and finds out that her infant son Jason is the result of their brief fling the year before.  Even though Romina is settled down with new boyfriend Kofi (Mahershala Ali), Luke impulsively quits his job and decides to stay in Schenectady, befriending low-rent mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) and crashing in a trailer on his property, with the intention of winning over Romina, providing for Jason, and settling down as a family.  When Robin confesses that he used to rob banks, the two team up and pull off several jobs (Luke robs the banks, speeds off on his motorcycle and drives into the back of a moving truck that Robin's acquired).  When Luke shows up at Kofi's house with a new crib and gifts for Jason, tempers flare and Luke violently assaults Kofi.  Robin bails him out and tells him they're done with their criminal side activities, but an enraged Luke carelessly pulls off a solo job.

It's here that the film switches gears and enters its second act with the introduction of ambitious rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a law school graduate whose life becomes inextricably linked with Luke's on the day their paths cross in a police chase.  Married to Jennifer (Rose Byrne) and with an infant son, Cross takes a bullet to the leg that derails his career.  Faced with early retirement due to disability or manning a desk, Cross chooses to remain a cop and is assigned to the evidence room, where he falls in with a band of corrupt cops led by the pushy, manipulative DeLuca (Ray Liotta).  Cross decides to pull a Serpico on his fellow cops, instantly becoming a department pariah but using it to leverage himself a career with the D.A.'s office.

The third act takes place 15 years later, as Cross' teenage son AJ (Emory Cohen) comes to live with him in Schenectady after his parents divorce, just as Cross begins his run for the state's Attorney General.  AJ is privileged rich kid but puts on a tough, faux-Long Island act when he's away from his parents.  At his new school, AJ befriends Jason (Dane DeHaan), who's turned into a nice but unhappy loner despite being raised in a loving, stable home with the now-married Romina and Kofi.  It's hard to discuss THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES without giving away major plot points, but needless to say, lives intersect in unforeseen and devastating ways and time and again, one single action or statement carries significant consequences and can alter the course of a life, even years down the road.

Performances are outstanding all-around, from the leads right down to the smaller roles for veterans like Liotta and Harris Yulin, who's superb in his few scenes as Cross' father. Cooper, fresh from his Oscar-nominated turn in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (though PINES, completed in 2011, was shot first), proves again that he's a real actor and probably ready to move on from the HANGOVERs of his career.  Even DeHaan, an actor I've found insufferable in everything I've seen him in up until now (he's best known for the inexplicably acclaimed CHRONICLE), delivers a credible and heartfelt performance as a troubled teenager seeking the secrets of his past and unable to handle the truth when it's revealed. The way Jason acts out could be a sign of that inability or an innate immaturity, but Cianfrance's one major misstep is that this particular plot point is hazy. Cianfrance doesn't spoonfeed details to the audience, assuming instead, unlike many filmmakers, that you can fill in those blanks on your own.  But even taking that into consideration, Jason's motivations need more clarity and unfortunately come off as a shoehorned-in plot necessity rather than an organic development to the story.  It's a minor issue in the big picture, as THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, while not meant to be the raw, gut-wrenching open wound that was BLUE VALENTINE, is still a powerful, emotional, and frequently profound and devastating film, unconventional in its structure and its execution, and while it's perhaps not Cianfrance's masterpiece, it's a strong indication that one isn't very far off.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013


(Germany/Hungary/France - 2010; 2012 US release)

Unbearable grief and crushing loneliness lead to fateful decisions and actions in this thoughtful, intelligent and unsettling sci-fi drama that admittedly may be too uncomfortable for mainstream consumption.  Rebecca and Tommy meet as children in a small seaside community where she's temporarily staying with her grandfather.  As quickly as they bond and become one another's first love, she's off to Tokyo where her mother has a new job.  12 years later, Rebecca (Eva Green) returns looking for Tommy (Matt Smith) and the two pick up where they left off.  Happiness proves to be short-lived as Tommy is hit by a car and killed.  Blaming herself for his death, Rebecca, against the wishes of Tommy's mother (Lesley Manville), but with the blessing of his father (Peter Wight) is artificially inseminated with Tommy's DNA in a now-commonly-practiced human cloning procedure.  She moves away and gives birth to Tommy.  Years go by and Tommy (played as a child by Tristan Christopher) has noticed the frequent sexual tension between him and his spinster mother and her efforts to keep him as isolated as possible after his friends' mothers refuse to let their kids associate with a clone.  Tommy tries to be a regular boy, vaguely aware that something is odd but not fully understanding that it's his mother's intention not to have a son, but to have an eventual lover.  When Tommy reaches adulthood (again played by Smith), he goes off to college and brings his girlfriend (Hannah Murray) home and things get complicated, to say the least.

Hungarian writer/director Benedek Fliegauf lets the story unfold very deliberately (and in hindsight, the final reveal is there in the opening scene if you're paying attention), and makes outstanding use of the North Frisian island of Sylt, off the coast of Germany.  It's a visually striking location, and the gray, chilly atmosphere coupled with Peter Szatmari's cinematography, in which Fliegauf makes use of the entire 2.35:1 aspect ratio and frequently relies on expansive horizons to emphasize the distance and the isolation, makes quite an impression.  It's a difficult and downbeat film, maybe even offensive for some, and its central character remains cold and likely crazy throughout, but Fliegauf and his actors deserve credit for keeping it serious when it easily could've devolved into ludicrous camp.  Released elsewhere in 2010, WOMB was belatedly released in the US in 2012, possibly to capitalize on Eleventh Doctor Smith's DOCTOR WHO notoriety, achieved after he worked on this film.  (Unrated, 112 mins)

(China - 2011; 2013 US release)

Another plodding, lifeless, overly-stylized Chinese CGI extravaganza, THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE is the latest from A CHINESE GHOST STORY director Ching Siu-Tung, using his occasional Anglicized Tony Ching pseudonym.  A decade back, in the midst of that incredible wuxia renaissance that gave us such classics as Ang Lee's CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, and the Zhang Yimou films HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER to name just a few, this type of period Asian fantasy epic was almost always guaranteed to be great entertainment.  But in the years since, with the over-reliance on dubious CGI to the point where the films now look completely animated, and badly at that, these have have become a chore to sit through.  I've spent some time away from the genre, and this drop-by didn't change my opinion.  If anything, these things are getting worse.  Yet, they remain hugely popular in China.

THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE can't decide what it wants to be, and as a result, it succeeds at nothing.  With a story that manages to be both overstuffed and flimsy, SORCERER deals with young herbal healer Xu Xian (Raymond Lam), who nearly drowns but is rescued by Susu (Eva Huang), a snake goddess capable of disguising herself as a human.  Susu is sympathetic, unlike her malevolent companion Qingqing (Charlene Choi), who befriends Neng Ren (Zhang Wen), an apprentice monk who's been bitten by a bat demon and wakes up with fangs and pointed ears.  Meanwhile, Neng Ren's sorcerer monk mentor Fa Hai (a visibly bored Jet Li) isn't fooled by any of these snake demons in human form and gives Susu a chance to leave Xu Xian since he respects her kind-heartedness.  When she refuses, Fa Hai declares war on the snake goddesses, killing Susu, who's later brought back to life by some talking spirit herbs.  The snake demons are also assisted in their battle by an army of mice, led by a particularly sassy rodent with a child's voice.  Oh, and there's also a nervous talking chicken, a grumpy old tortoise, and portals to other dimensions.  There's enough heaping helpings of outright lunacy in this film that should automatically make it fun, so it boggles the mind how incredibly dull this film is.  How can you go wrong with a grouchy tortoise?  SORCERER can't figure out if it's an action epic, a demonic horror film, or a kiddie movie.  It never finds a tone, and the effect of the endless CGI is just numbing.  Like most of these types of films these days, it's stylized to a fault and has no characters, no humanity, and no feeling.  It's a just an assembled product and Li, who's absent for long stretches, isn't even masking his obvious lack of interest.  Completely DOA.  (PG-13, 94 mins)

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Adventures in Netflix Streaming: THE AWAKENING (2012); THE FRANKENSTEIN THEORY (2013); and OSOMBIE (2012)

(France/UK - 2011; 2012 US release)

This atmospheric, old-fashioned ghost story is similar in style and tone to last year's nicely-done THE WOMAN IN BLACK, and very well-shot by cinematographer Eduard Grau, paying particular attention to period detail and the gray, drab look of a dour post-WWI 1921 England.  Rebecca Hall, faring much better here than in the dreadful LAY THE FAVORITE, is Florence Cathcart, a well-known author and paranormal investigator who makes a living debunking fraudulant hauntings and other alleged supernatural occurrences. A misfit who demonstrates social awkwardness that's frequently mistaken for dismissive rudeness, she's summoned by stammering, war-scarred headmaster Robert (Dominic West) to a former private mansion turned boarding school, where an asthmatic pupil cruelly dubbed "Wheezy Walter" by his classmates has died under mysterious circumstances that may involve a ghost child seen as a lingering spectre in school photos for many years.  There is indeed a hoax being perpetrated, but that's just the beginning of the story as director/co-writer Nick Murphy gathers the primary characters--there's also Imelda Staunton as the school housekeeper and Isaac Hempstead-Wright (Bran Stark on GAME OF THRONES) as an orphaned boy who stays behind during a holiday break--all damaged souls who find a strange bond in their status as lonely outsiders who never really fit in anywhere (at one point, Staunton proclaims "I don't think there's a place on Earth where people understand loneliness better than here"), and Florence starts to get an odd feeling that she's been there before.  Murphy does a commendable job in the first 2/3 with an overwhelming sense of eerie foreboding (the dollhouse scene, which essentially--and extremely creepily--recaps the film up to that point, is a small masterpiece), but like last year's RED LIGHTS, another initially solid horror film about debunking the paranormal that just completely collapses in the home stretch, THE AWAKENING doesn't seem to know where it's going.  There's too much time spent on a subplot involving the drooling groundskeeper (Joseph Mawle) that's ultimately a complete red herring, and once the twist--obligatory in post-SIXTH SENSE ghost stories--is revealed, there's too many holes and contrivances for it to withstand any serious scrutiny.  An admirable effort and a great-looking film with strong performances by its leads, THE AWAKENING just loses itself with its inability to follow through on its potential, which is a damn shame because it was well on its way to being a noteworthy sleeper.  (R, 107 mins)

(US - 2013)

THE FRANKENSTEIN THEORY offers a found-footage take on the legendary saga, a concept that was demanded by no one but given to us anyway by a couple of producers of THE LAST EXORCISM.  Documentary filmmaker Vicky (Heather Stephens) is working on a project about her college friend Dr. John Venkenhein (Kris Lemche).  Venkenhein has a theory that's gotten him suspended from academia, branded a laughingstock, and is about to cost him his girlfriend (Christine Lakin):  Mary Shelley conceived her novel Frankenstein as a fictionalized account of true events, with Victor Frankenstein patterned after a Venkenhein ancestor.  The young Venkenhein posits that the monster's DNA and physical makeup is such that he's still alive and still wandering the remote wilderness in barren, northernmost Canada.  With a small camera crew and a crusty, surly guide (SONS OF ANARCHY's Timothy V. Murphy as Robert Shaw as Quint), Venkenhein leads the expedition to track down the factual Venkenhein monster.  Directed and co-written by Andrew Weiner, THE FRANKENSTEIN THEORY is an idea that could've worked, but its set-up is such that nothing can happen for at least an hour, so much of the running time is occupied by bickering, scientific babbling, and talk of caribou migration.  By the time the protagonists are trapped in a yurt with the howling beast outside, the film progresses in the most rote, predictable fashion possible:  destroyed snowmobiles?  Check.  Someone goes off for help and is later found murdered?  Check.  Someone drops a camera and then falls dead in front of it CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST/BLAIR WITCH-style?  Check.  Released to just a scant few theaters in early 2013 after two years on the shelf, THE FRANKENSTEIN THEORY is nothing more than the labored wheeze of a subgenre's death rattle, plodding along and leading to absolutely nothing in a finale so frustratingly, jaw-droppingly anti-climactic that it makes the found-footage fuck-you of THE DEVIL INSIDE look crowd-pleasing by comparison.  (Unrated, 87 mins)

(US - 2012)

A jokey premise in search of a movie, the Utah-shot OSOMBIE has a US Special Forces team in Afghanistan, along with a couple of sibling civilians, battling an army of Al-Qaeda undead under the command of a zombified Osama Bin Laden.  The concept had some satirical potential, but the filmmakers came up with the idea and decided that was enough, delivering yet another run-of-the-mill, otherwise utterly generic zombie apocalypse film with the expectedly shitty CGI that pales in comparison to most iPhone apps.  The characters are your stock, run-of-the-mill military cliches (including the requisite squad joker being creatively nicknamed "Joker") and the actors are terrible, including star Corey Sevier, a veteran Canadian TV actor and DTV regular whose idea of character development is finding a new and dramatic way to take off his shirt in every other scene.  Maybe it's my own fault for expecting something out of a film titled OSOMBIE, but what a pointless waste of time. It's a lot like an Asylum production, only lazier.  At least Asylum flicks have a sense of humor about themselves.  Other than Joker's constant groan-inducing witticisms ("Confucius say 'Man who fart in church must sit in own pew'"), OSOMBIE is played totally straight. If you're making a movie about a zombie Bin Laden, the notion of seriousness is already off the table and you should at least have some fun with it.  They should've just made a fake trailer and left it at that. (Unrated, 94 mins)

Friday, April 5, 2013

In Theaters: EVIL DEAD (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Fede Alvarez.  Written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues.  Cast: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore.  (R, 92 mins)

Producers Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, and Bruce Campbell gave their seal of approval to this remake celebrating the 30th anniversary of their beloved cult horror classic THE EVIL DEAD (shown in its native Detroit and at film fests in 1981-82, but not released nationally until 1983).  Uruguayan director/co-writer Fede Alvarez, making his feature debut, omits most of the humor from Raimi's original film, instead going for a relentless, full-throttle assault of blood, guts, gore, vomit, dismemberment, demonic possession, and all-out madness.  It has a nice eerie vibe, and though it's rarely overtly scary (other than those of the quick, cheap, jump-scare variety), it's an undeniably enthusiastic '80s throwback horror outing with minimal CGI and countless gallons of wet, chunky, sloppy splatter, so if you're sick of cartoonish, digital gore and want to kick it old school, EVIL DEAD will satisfy on that point alone.

While the set-up remains the same--five people in a cabin in the woods--Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues (with uncredited contributions by JUNO's Diablo Cody, of all people) change the circumstances.  Mia (SUBURGATORY's Jane Levy, in a performance that should make her a fixture at horror cons for the next few decades) is a heroin addict brought to the cabin by friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas), along with Mia's estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), for a cold-turkey intervention to get her to kick her addiction for good.  The cabin is a wreck, thanks to a prologue that showed some local hilljacks burning a possessed young woman in the cellar, but they make do and settle in for a long weekend of Mia's inevitably unpleasant withdrawal and ironing out some deep-rooted family issues with David, who went MIA and left Mia to deal with their dying mother on her own.  Eric finds a bunch of dead, hanging cats and some blood in the basement, along with a flesh-bound book of incantations that summons the spectre of the executed girl, who promptly possesses Mia in an ambitious but ultimately facile metaphor for her heroin addiction.  With Mia possessed and transformed into a haggard, vulgar, taunting, vomiting demon, and the only road back to civilization flooded by high water, everyone is trapped in the cabin for the duration as they fall victim to demonic possession one by one.

Alvarez isn't the least bit subtle with the foreshadowing--the moment you see a roast being sliced with an electric carving knife, you know that'll be slicing through human flesh at some point--and no, there wasn't really a need for an EVIL DEAD remake, but as far as remakes go, it's quite good.  It's just nice to see something that bucks the trend and, for the most part, appears to be aimed toward adults and longtime fans who cut their teeth on some classic shit when they were young.  If you grew up on '80s horror or have a significant degree of affection for it, you'll like what Alvarez does here.  These characters are all in the mid-to-late 20s, well into adulthood, there's no snarky or ironic humor (which makes one wonder exactly what Cody's script contributions were; they tried to keep her involvement on the QT, but it's pretty much an open secret by now; rest assured, there's no JUNO or JENNIFER'S BODY quipping going on here), and Alvarez is keenly aware that the old ways are the best, throwing buckets upon buckets of blood and other bodily fluids all over the screen.

Knowing his limitations and that he can't top a classic and shouldn't embarrass himself and torpedo his career trying, Alvarez makes his EVIL DEAD its own film, but pays respectful tribute and a certain degree of allegiance to Raimi's film in the process. Some plot elements remain intact, and he replicates the famed fast-tracking shots through the woods.  The major difference, other than the heroin addiction angle, is the significant toning down and near complete-removal of the comedic elements, which were there in Raimi's film but weren't really prevalent until 1987's EVIL DEAD II and 1993's ARMY OF DARKNESS.  Adding to the effectiveness is the committed work of the cast, particularly Levy and Pucci, who gets some of the more crowd-pleasing moments and is the closest thing the film has to comic relief, but even his Eric is a little too shell-shocked to commit to being a smartass.  Is EVIL DEAD 2013 a new genre classic?  No, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do with its grisly excess and stretching the R-rating to its breaking point, and, provided it's in your wheelhouse, it's the probably the most enjoyably fun horror film to see with a big crowd since last year's Raimi-inspired deconstructionist gem THE CABIN IN THE WOODS.

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE BAYTOWN OUTLAWS (2013), THE COMEDY (2012) and RED DAWN (2012)

(US - 2013)

A tired post-Tarantino knockoff that plays like a white-trash BOONDOCK SAINTS by way of SMOKIN' ACES and isn't nearly as witty and quotable as it thinks it is, the barely-released THE BAYTOWN OUTLAWS has the titular Oodie brothers--Brick (Clayne Crawford), McQueen (VIKINGS' Travis Fimmel), and Lincoln (Daniel Cudmore), who used to be a pro wrestler known as The Dixie Reaper--hired by Celeste (Eva Longoria) to retrieve her disabled godson Rob (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) from her psychotic drug lord ex-husband Carlos (Billy Bob Thornton).  This out-of-town job doesn't sit well with the corrupt sheriff (Andre Braugher) who farms his dirty work out to the Oodies to keep his town in order, and now he has to contend with an ambitious ATF agent (Paul Wesley) who shows up to take them down.  Once they get Rob, they have to deal with various assassins dispatched by Carlos, including a crew of lethal prostitutes led by DEATH PROOF's Zoe Bell.  Directed and co-written by one Barry Battles, THE BAYTOWN OUTLAWS starts out OK enough and feels like it might be guilty pleasure material, but it quickly runs out of gas and laughs and just gets dumber and duller as it goes along. Thornton seems to be enjoying a chance to overact in a "Gary Oldman-in-THE PROFESSIONAL" sort-of way, but he only has a few scenes and Longoria even fewer, despite their being prominently displayed in the poster art.  Also with Agnes Bruckner, Natalie Martinez, Michael Rapaport, and songs by Clutch, Five Horse Johnson, Hank Williams III, and, of course, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the spectacularly forgettable THE BAYTOWN OUTLAWS barely qualifies as background noise. (R, 98 mins)

(US - 2012)

This abrasive, frequently squirm-inducing mumblecore black comedy is a scathing indictment of the entitled, ironic, mocking hipster, cast with people generally revered in that particular culture, making it one of the most bile-filled auto-critiques you'll ever see.  Tim Heidecker (of the Tim & Eric comedy duo) is Swanson, the worst embodiment of the disaffected Williamsburg hipster, a slacker and trust-fund man-child who's about to land his dying father's estate.  In his late 30s, Swanson's never had to work a day in his life and idles his time away endlessly dicking around to amuse himself:  needling his father's male nurse by making fun of his job and questioning his manhood; going into stores and pretending he works there; harassing cab drivers (his actions even cause one to be assaulted), going into a bar in an African-American neighborhood, shouting "Williamsburg, represent!" and asking where the bitches are; bringing up Hitler at a party ("If you take murder out of the equation..."); and otherwise generally being a complete dick, usually solo or sometimes with his equally insufferable friends (played by Heidecker's Tim & Eric partner Eric Wareheim, LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, and Gregg Turkington, aka Neil Hamburger).  Swanson has nothing to do and nowhere to be, but Heidecker does a good job of showing the self-loathing under Swanson's above-it-all exterior.  There's hints of a painful past (mother is not in the picture; his brother is in an institution, and he has some kind of past with his sister-in-law that's never specifically detailed, though it's pretty clear they were a couple at some point) and, by the end, signs that he's growing up.  Even if you don't like Tim & Eric or 2012's dubious TIM & ERIC'S BILLION DOLLAR MOVIE (Heidecker and Wareheim are just actors here), you'll find Heidecker's generally serious performance a bit of a revelation.  Co-written and directed by Rick Alverson, and produced by the FOOT FIST WAY/OBSERVE AND REPORT/EASTBOUND AND DOWN team of Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, and Jody Hill, along with Larry Fessenden, whose demands for a subplot involving Swanson's search for the Wendigo were apparently ignored.  (R, 94 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US - 2012)

This pointless remake of John Milius' jingoistic, Reagan-era commie paranoia favorite from 1984 (also famous as the first film released with a PG-13 rating) gathered dust on a shelf for three years while MGM tried to restructure its finances.  Then, so as not to offend China, the villains were changed from Chinese to North Koreans, necessitating reshoots and other tweaks courtesy of dubbing and some CGI.  It's all for naught.  RED DAWN '84 is hardly a great film, but it is a great snapshot of a point in time where something like that seemed like it might be possible, at least to impressionable teenage boys and hardcore right-wingers.  RED DAWN '84 had a personality and even in its own context, had a sense that the stakes were high and that anyone could be killed, quite coldly, at any moment.  RED DAWN '12 is just a lazy retread that's all platitudes and slogans shouted by people who don't sound like they know what they're talking about.  Chris Hemsworth is passable in the Patrick Swayze role, as a Marine on leave who happens to be crashing at his dad's (Brett Cullen) house when the "North Korean" army parachutes into Spokane and takes over.  Hemsworth leads a ragtag group of freedom fighters who dub themselves "Wolverines," including his high school QB younger brother, played by an astoundingly ineffective Josh Peck, as they run around town punking the "North Koreans" with bombs and graffiti.  Most of the reshoots are obvious, but none more so than an early scene where Hemsworth starts delivering a voiceover lecture about "North Korea" that he's clearly reading from a sheet of paper for the first time, then there's a cut to Peck, who's suddenly about 15 lbs lighter and looking a decade older than in the previous scene, with a raspier voice saying something like "North Korea?  But, like...why?"  Peck, formerly of Nickelodeon's DRAKE & JOSH, is incredibly awful throughout, but it's not like the performances matter.  The same goes for logic:  why are some residents rounded up and thrown in internment camps while others are free to shop and eat at Subway?  And with what money?  An inauspicious directing debut for veteran stunt coordinator and second-unit director Dan Bradley, RED DAWN can't provide a single justification for its existence, and its flag-waving and chest-thumping just feels contrived and phony, and it's not even entertaining even on a "something to kill an hour and a half" level.  Also with Josh Hutcherson, Adrianne Palicki, Isabel Lucas, Connor Cruise, ESPN's Mark Schlereth as the football coach, Will Yun Lee as the "North Korean" commander, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Powers Boothe.  (PG-13, 93 mins)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Cannon Files, Special FerrignoFest Edition: HERCULES (1983), THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS (1984), THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES (1985), and SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS (1990)

(Italy - 1983)

Written and directed by Lewis Coates (Luigi Cozzi).  Cast: Lou Ferrigno, Sybil Danning, Brad Harris, William Berger, Rossana Podesta, Ingrid Anderson, Mirella D'Angelo, Bobby Rhodes, John Garko (Gianni Garko), Yehuda Efroni, Delia Boccardo, Claudio Cassinelli, Frank Garland (Franco Garofalo), Gabriella George (Gabriella Giogelli), Steven Candell (Stelio Candelli), Eva Robbins, Roger Larry (Rocco Lerro).  (PG, 99 mins)

When THE INCREDIBLE HULK ended its five-season run on CBS in 1982, two-time Mr. Universe Lou Ferrigno wanted to achieve the big-screen success that his PUMPING IRON rival Arnold Schwarzenegger was enjoying with the hit film CONAN THE BARBARIAN.  The opportunity presented itself when he was approached by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus about several projects for Cannon, including a new version of HERCULES.  It was a dream come true for Ferrigno, who got into a bodybuilding during his teen years as a way of building his self-confidence and to combat bullying after an early childhood ear infection caused him to lose 80% of his hearing.  Ferrigno discovered what would become one of his biggest inspirations when his father took eight-year-old Lou to see Steve Reeves in HERCULES in 1959, so he couldn't turn down the chance to make his own mark with a remake of a film that was such a milestone in his life.

Perhaps wanting a more traditional "Hercules" feel (but probably doing the math and realizing it would be cheaper to do it this way), Golan and Globus farmed HERCULES out to their Italian branch, which was being run by John Thompson, now an executive with Avi Lerner's Cannon cover band Millennium/NuImage.  According to a 1992 Starlog interview with co-star Sybil Danning, the original script for HERCULES was filled with generous amounts of violence and sex, much like the very R-rated CONAN THE BARBARIAN.  But as the project was near and dear to Ferrigno's heart and he likely didn't want to risk turning away the younger fan base he amassed from THE INCREDIBLE HULK, he and his wife Carla instituted some changes to make the film much more PG-ready and kid-friendly.  What resulted was a bizarre collection of vignettes with a distinct sci-fi edge, with the retooled script liberally borrowing more from STAR WARS, SUPERMAN, and CLASH OF THE TITANS than it did from CONAN (Danning referred to the completed film as "a bad episode of FAERIE TALE THEATER").  Former Dario Argento associate Luigi Cozzi (using his regular pseudonym "Lewis Coates"), who had a minor drive-in hit with 1979's STAR WARS ripoff STARCRASH, was hired to write and direct the film and brought with him STARCRASH special effects designer Armando Valcauda, whose stop-motion animation and time-lapse photography techniques were antiquated at best, and laughable at worst, even more so coming at the end of a summer ruled by RETURN OF THE JEDI.  So what began as a full-blooded sword-and-sandal saga for grown-ups turned into a cheap-looking, childish sci-fi adventure whose pitiful visual effects and cheesy dubbing (even Ferrigno, his natural voice affected by his hearing loss, would be dubbed by someone else in all of his Italian-made Cannon productions) got it laughed off multiplex screens nationwide when it opened in US theaters in late August 1983.  Instead of Schwarzenegger-sized stardom, Ferrigno and the film were rewarded with a slew of Razzie nominations, including Worst Film, Worst Screenplay, and Worst Actor, with Danning winning Worst Supporting Actress (shared for this and her work in CHAINED HEAT) and Lou being named Worst New Star over such competition as Reb Brown in YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE and Cindy & Sandy, the Shrieking Dolphins in JAWS 3-D.

Good luck following the plot:  on the moon, Zeus (Claudio Cassinelli) hurls a ball of light to Earth below and it enters the body of a newborn child of royal lineage who becomes baby Hercules.  Then Hercules' parents are killed at the behest of the wicked King Minos (William Berger) and his scheming daughter Adriana (Danning), who orders flunky centurion Valcheus (Gianni Garko) to kill the child.  When Hercules is sent floating down the river in a basket, a soldier is about to shoot an arrow at him when the idiotic Valcheus instructs him to just let him go, that "the river will take care of him for us."  Hercules is then found and raised by childless couple Ma & Pa Kent...er, I mean, Father and Mother (Stelio Candelli, Gabriella Giorgelli).  Years later, the grown Hercules finds his father being killed by a wild bear, which Hercules promptly hurls into space, creating a new constellation.  When his mother is killed by a flying robot sent to Earth by King Minos, Hercules decides to forge his own path on his way to exacting vengeance on Minos and finding love with Cassiopea (Ingrid Anderson), daughter of the honorable King Augeias (Brad Harris, himself a former 1960s Hercules and another inspiration to Ferrigno), and briefly being turned into a giant by Circe (Mirella D'Angelo).  This all leads to a showdown on a narrow catwalk over a bottomless pit with King Minos, who swings a multi-colored laser-y flaming sword that strongly resembles a light saber in a sequence that in no way is meant to look anything like a certain memorable part of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  Hercules then defeats Minos by pulling a sword from a golden stone ("This sword consecrated to Zeus fears nothing!"), but it's in no way meant to remind you of EXCALIBUR.

HERCULES is just dreadful, from the lousy special effects to the copious amounts of stock footage from other sword & sandal epics that were at least 20 years old with completely mismatched film stock.  Sure, there's some Bad Movie Night value, but it doesn't really get goofy until the climax.  Until then, it's deadly dull despite a committed physical performance by Ferrigno, whose as effective-looking a Hercules as his idol Steve Reeves.

(Italy - 1984)

Directed by Bruno Mattei.  Written by Claude Fragass (Claudio Fragasso). Cast: Lou Ferrigno, Sybil Danning, Brad Harris, Dan Vadis,  Carla Ferrigno, Barbara Pesante, Yehuda Efroni, Mandy Rice-Davies, Robert Mura, Ivan Beshears (Emilio Messina), Jody Wanger (Giovanni Cianfriglia), Michael Franz (Sal Borghese), Gary Levine (Raul Cabrera). (PG, 86 mins)

When HERCULES was released in theaters at the end of the summer of 1983, it was supposed to be Ferrigno staking his claim to Schwarzenegger-level big-screen fame.  When that didn't exactly pan out, his subsequent Cannon films didn't get nearly the same rollout as HERCULES.  THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS made it into a handful of US theaters exactly a year later in August of 1984, but it was shot before HERCULES, which Cannon and Ferrigno clearly deemed the more important picture in their new partnership.  A CONAN-inspired remake of both Akira Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) and its own remake THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS is surprisingly straight-faced and competently-made, considering it's directed by veteran Italian schlock king Bruno Mattei and written by future TROLL 2 director Claudio Fragasso.  Mattei and Fragasso worked together throughout the '80s on such revered trash classics as HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE (1983), RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR (1984) and the legendary STRIKE COMMANDO (1987), and its 1988 sequel, just to name a few, but THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS finds the dynamic duo in rare, restrained form, even making effective use of mostly outdoor locations.  Even 1983 Cannon was big-time for these two, so maybe the additional money and answering to Golan & Globus helped them buckle down and stay focused (it also helps that the film necessitates relatively little in the way of inevitably hilarious visual effects), but I'll be damned if Mattei and Fragasso didn't turn in a generally serious and thoroughly watchable film not aimed for the kiddie crowd.  Cheap and cheesy, yes...but surprisingly okay, very respectful of its sources, and other than the villain's clothing, not demonstrating much at all in the way of unintentional laughter.

The premise should be familiar to anyone who's seen the older films.  Sadistic despot Nicerote (Dan Vadis) raids a village yearly to steal their food.  Unable to defend themselves, the citizens, ruled by Nicerote's blind mother Anakora (Barbara Pesante), use a magical sword to guide them to the chosen one who will come to their aid.  That turns out to be enslaved gladiator Han (Ferrigno), who brings along aging buddy Scipio (Brad Harris), and the two recruit five more magnificent gladiators along the way, including Julia (Sybil Danning). Ferrigno, Danning, and Harris would also go on to star in HERCULES, though Harris didn't have much to do.  Oddly, it's Scipio who gets romantically involved with Julia, while Han only has eyes for village maiden Pandora, which isn't all that surprising when you consider that she's played by Ferrigno's wife Carla.  Danning has said in interviews that she and Ferrigno didn't get along very well on either of these films, which may have resulted in her getting a different--and smaller--role in HERCULES than was originally intended.   And that's a shame, because she's perfectly cast, even if she's dubbed by Pat Starke, who's here along with most of the golden era Italian dubbing icons. 

Dan Vadis (1938-1987)
Vadis, himself a former Hercules and peplum regular in the '60s who had fallen on hard times by the '80s, is suitably hateful is the evil Nicerote.  With the '60s muscleman craze finished, Vadis was acting infrequently in the early 1970s until Clint Eastwood started giving him small roles in some of his films (Vadis appeared in 1973's HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, 1977's THE GAUNTLET, 1978's EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, and 1980's BRONCO BILLY and ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN), but the troubled actor was already losing a battle with alcohol and drugs.  He was no longer in bodybuilding shape and was rather thin and gaunt-looking by 1983, and wasn't getting much help from his character's ludicrous wardrobe.  As was the case with Harris (who also guest-starred on a final-season INCREDIBLE HULK episode), Ferrigno was a big fan of Vadis' old movies in his youth and probably pulled some strings to get him the part.  THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS proved to be Vadis' last film:  he died of a drug overdose at just 49 in 1987, his body found in his car in the Mojave Desert town of Lancaster, CA.

(Italy - 1985)

Written and directed by Lewis Coates (Luigi Cozzi).  Cast: Lou Ferrigno, Milly Carlucci, Sonia Viviani, William Berger, Carlotta Green (Carla Ferrigno), Claudio Cassinelli, Nando Poggi, Maria Rosaria Omaggio, Venantino Venantini, Laura Lenzi, Margi Newton, Cindy Leadbetter, Serena Grandi, Eva Robbins.  (PG, 88 mins)

Operating under the utterly false assumption that audiences were demanding a sequel to HERCULES, Ferrigno and Cozzi reunited for 1985's THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES, released in some parts of the world as HERCULES II.  Golan and Globus didn't even put their names on this one, and it doesn't look like they put much money into it, either.  With an even more paltry budget than the first go-around, Cozzi relies on quite a bit of recycled footage from the first film (not to mention using the same Pino Donaggio score), so much so in the early going (the eight-minute, whoosh-filled SUPERMAN-inspired opening credits sequence contains highlights from the first film) that it's 17 minutes in before we get a new shot of Ferrigno, and you can tell when Cozzi's using stock footage from the 1983 film because in the new footage,  Ferrigno's hair is cut shorter and he isn't nearly as bulky--his shoulders and neck aren't quite as huge and his chest is noticeably smaller.   Cozzi's script is just as incoherent as the first:  four rebel gods have stolen the seven thunderbolts of Zeus (Claudio Cassinelli), who calls on Hercules (Ferrigno) to recover them and stop the evil and chaos unleashed by their theft.  Hercules teams up with two adoptive sisters, Urania (Milly Carlucci) and Glaucia (Sonia Viviani) to help him in his quest.  The four rebel gods:  Hera (Maria Rosaria Omaggio), Flora (Laura Lenzi), Aphrodite (Margi Newton), and Poseidon (Nando Poggi) resurrect the dead King Minos (William Berger), who is given a protective shield of "cunning, connivance, and chaos" by his snarky sidekick Daedalus (Eva Robbins).  Hercules battles various types of weird creatures and is kidnapped by the Spider Queen and imprisoned in her magnetic web before escaping for his final battle with King Minos.

Here's where Cozzi just loses control of the film and lets things go completely bonkers.  Just as Hercules and Minos face off--it's important to note that it's bulky 1983 Ferrigno at the beginning of this sequence--there's a couple of odd closeups of a grinning Berger before Minos and Hercules both turn into neon animated figures and begin dueling.  Yes...Cozzi and his effects team simply used cheap rotoscoping effects over Hercules and Minos' climactic battle in the 1983 film to present it in a weird neon animated form and pass it off as a new confrontation.  But that ends quickly as the animated Minos turns himself into a T-Rex and the animated Hercules becomes a giant gorilla and they start wrestling.  The T-Rex Minos then turns into a giant snake and is hurled into space by Gorilla Hercules. 

But Cozzi's cut-rate hackery doesn't end there!  Cozzi recycles footage from the 1983 film where Circe turned Hercules into a giant, as Zeus calls upon him to "save mankind!" (cue destruction footage from the 1960 Steve Reeves version of THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII) and proceeds to awkwardly construct a climax around inferior-looking, unused workprint footage of Ferrigno from the first film.  In other words, the last 20 minutes of THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES consist of two climactic action sequences that were assembled completely without Ferrigno's participation.  Cozzi managed to have a Hercules/King Minos showdown with neither Ferrigno nor Berger anywhere near the set.  I would've liked to have been in the room when someone said "Hey, a rotoscoped T-Rex and a gorilla!  We can do this!"

Considering that Ferrigno isn't really even in the first or last 20 minutes, it's probably a safe bet that they didn't have him for very long or, given the universally negative reception the 1983 film got, maybe he just wasn't all that into it this time.  It's hard to believe anyone wanted a sequel to such a dismal film, but it must've been a hit somewhere.  In an odd way, THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES is more entertaining than HERCULES, largely because of the batshit looney tunes climax.  It's not quite as STAR WARS-influenced as the first film and some of the sets have a more traditional peplum look to them.  Cannon didn't give this one the nationwide rollout that HERCULES was granted, only dumping it in a handful of theaters before it appeared on video store shelves and on cable.

(Italy - 1990)

Directed by Enzo G. Castellari.  Written by Tito Carpi, Enzo G. Castellari, and Ian Danby.  Cast: Lou Ferrigno, John Steiner, Roland Wybenga, Cork Hubbert, Enio Girolami, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Yehuda Efroni, Alessandra Martines, Teagan, Leo Gullotta, Stefania Girolami, Donal Hodson, Melonee Rodgers, Romano Puppo, Daria Nicolodi, Giada Cozzi, Ted Rusoff. (PG-13, 93 mins)

Luigi Cozzi had a script ready for SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS, which was set to be shot as a miniseries for Italian television right after HERCULES but Cozzi and Ferrigno ended up doing THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES instead.  After that, Cannon relieved Cozzi of his duties and turned SINBAD over to veteran journeyman Enzo G. Castellari (STREET LAW, 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS), who rewrote Cozzi's script with frequent collaborator Tito Carpi (with additional rewriting by dubbing veteran Ian Danby), with Cozzi retaining a "Story by" credit under his "Lewis Coates" pseudonym.  SINBAD was shot in 1986 and, according to an interview with Cozzi, Castellari had six hours of raw footage that Cannon deemed unusable and the entire project was shelved.  Three years later, in an attempt to salvage something of the wreckage, a struggling Cannon rehired Cozzi to take the Castellari footage and construct a 90-minute feature out of it, which obviously explains the disjointed nature of the resulting film, released straight-to-video in late 1990.  An attempt was also made to haphazardly tie it into a brief and mostly botched Edgar Allan Poe revival that was taking place (over 1988-1991,  there were two new versions of THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, plus THE HAUNTING OF MORELLA, THE HOUSE OF USHER, BURIED ALIVE, and Cozzi's own THE BLACK CAT, plus the George A. Romero/Dario Argento collaboration TWO EVIL EYES) by adding a pre-credits crawl claiming the film was based on Poe's short story "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade."  Cozzi shot new wraparound sequences with Daria Nicolodi as a mom reading a bedtime story to her daughter (Cozzi's daughter Giada), with extensive voiceover narration valiantly attempting to hold things together.  As in THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES, stock footage was utilized to tie up further loose ends (including snippets from two older Ray Harryhausen SINBAD films and even Argento's PHENOMENA), with one amazing shot of Ferrigno's clean-shaven Sinbad about to dive in the water followed by a cut to stock footage from HERCULES of a fully-bearded Ferrigno swimming.  Sloppily assembled and with no oversight at all (at one point, courtesy of some careless or desperate editing, Romano Puppo's character is in two places at once), it's a miracle that Cozzi was even able to assemble anything, considering the apparent mess left by Castellari, who's got a number of beloved genre films to his name (including the original 1978 cult classic INGLORIOUS BASTARDS) but was having a really off-day with SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS.

The resulting film understandably feels made up as it goes along, with Ferrigno's heroic Sinbad on a quest to defeat evil wizard Jaffar (John Steiner), who casts a spell over the Caliph of Basra (Donal Hodson) in an attempt to steal his princess daughter (Alessandra Martines) from Prince Ali (Roland Wybenga).  Sinbad faces all manner of danger, from zombie knights to styrofoam rock monsters to a wicked sorceress (Melonee Rodgers) and is aided by his faithful companions:  Ali, along with the "Viking warrior" (Enio Girolami), Poochie the Dwarf (Cork Hubbert), "the bald cook" (Yehuda Efroni), and "the Chinese soldier of fortune" (played by Japanese Haruhiko Yamanouchi).  Sinbad eventually meets the lovely Kyra (Castellari's daughter Stefania Girolami), daughter of a wacky comic relief magician (a shamelessly mugging Leo Gullotta), and is forced to fight an evil clone of himself created by Jaffar. Despite Cozzi's Herculean efforts, SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS makes 90 minutes feel like 90 days, and the whole thing would be a complete washout were it not for one saving grace:  Steiner's incredible, insane performance as Jaffar.

Unlike Ferrigno's past Italian efforts, some of the actors in SINBAD were recorded with live sound and not dubbed over (though Lou remains dubbed).  British actor Steiner had a long and busy career in Euro-cult cinema (SALON KITTY, SHOCK, CALIGULA, TENEBRE, and countless others), sometimes dubbing himself, sometimes not.  His magnificent voice is on full display here, as his perpetually wide-eyed Jaffar preens, sneers, grins, hisses his S's and rolls his R's with mad glee, turning all of his scenes into his personal playground and conducting a virtual seminar in how to perfectly play a camp movie villain, which he dials up even more with the mid-film arrival of his bitchy sidekick Soukra (female bodybuilder Teagan Clive), who asks "Have you taken your medication this morning?"  In that respect, we should thank Cannon for rehiring Cozzi to piece together what he could from the stagnant remains of the shelved miniseries.  Otherwise, we'd be deprived of Steiner's truly inspired histrionics:  watch him shake his fist and yell "I'm winning!" or threaten Sinbad with "You are forcing me to carry out my most devastating act of magical madness!" or the way he yells "Guards!" or, in one of the greatest moments in all of cinema, getting in the princess' face and proclaming "No one, not Prince Ali, not even his friend Sinbad, the man who I hate more than hate itself, will stand between me...and my heart's desire! (long pause) HA!"  Steiner doesn't just chew the scenery--he gorges on it with the rabid fervor of Mr. Creosote after skipping breakfast and lunch.  Steiner's fully aware that he's in a shit sandwich of a movie, and where most actors would just punch a clock and move on to the next gig, Steiner acts like he's taking center stage in a Cecil B. DeMille production,  just blowing everyone off the screen with his deliriously crazed acting.  It's surprising that he never attempted to work in major Hollywood movies--there's any number of big budget '80s and '90s action movies where he could've played a perfect over-the-top villain.  Steiner's hysterical Jaffar was a bit of a last hurrah for the veteran actor.  A few years after SINBAD, he would grow bored with the lack of decent roles and the diminishing paychecks of the declining Italian film industry, prompting him to retire from acting in 1991 and make a completely unpredictable career and life change:  at 50, he moved to Los Angeles and became a major Beverly Hills real estate mogul.

Is there any caption that will do this shot justice?

The marriage between Cannon and Ferrigno didn't really work out for either party, though each of the four films have their charms, and THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS, despite a recipe for disaster with Mattei and Fragasso, is the unlikely best of the bunch.  Ferrigno has said in interviews that he enjoyed working on all four of these films and has nothing but nice things to say about Cozzi and Castellari.  After his ill-fated journey through the Italian B-movie industry, Ferrigno returned to the US and appeared in several INCREDIBLE HULK TV-movies until star Bill Bixby's death in 1993.  He also teamed with YOR's Reb Brown in the 1989 cagefighting actioner CAGE and its 1994 sequel CAGE II.   Now 61, he's a regular guest at fan conventions as well as a sought-after motivational speaker about overcoming disabilities, and he's also proven willing to poke fun at himself, even spending some time on the Kevin James sitcom THE KING OF QUEENS as next-door neighbor "Lou Ferrigno."