Wednesday, July 31, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: ASSAULT ON WALL STREET (2013) and BLACK ROCK (2013)

(Canada - 2013)

When he isn't helming crummy video-game adaptations, Uwe Boll has made a habit of belatedly jumping on bandwagons that have already passed through long ago, be it torture porn horror (SEED), an end-of-days LEFT BEHIND ripoff (THE FINAL STORM) or a late '80s-style Vietnam exploitationer (1968 TUNNEL RATS).  Dr. Boll is slightly more topical with his latest, ASSAULT ON WALL STREET, which boasts his best--relatively speaking--cast in years in a hysterically hyperbolic attack on big-money fat cats and assorted one-percenters while putting his "hero" through an introductory hour of deck-stacking misery.  Dominic Purcell stars as armored truck guard Jim Baxford, a decent, hard-working, blue-collar guy just trying to make ends meet in the aftermath of his wife Rosie's (Erin Karpluk) battle with a brain tumor.  The prognosis is good, but she still needs some expensive treatments, and Jim's reached his insurance cap.  At the same time, the economy crashes and he loses his savings in some bad investments, and through some legal fine print in a real estate deal, finds he's on the hook for an additional $60,000 that he doesn't have.  He borrows $10,000 from his buddy (a haggard, bleary-eyed Edward Furlong) to retain the services of a high-priced attorney (Eric Roberts), who then never takes his calls. Then the bank forecloses on his house and his boss is forced to let him go after a collection agency tries to garnish his wages.  Then Rosie kills herself.  Jim decides to make Wall Street pay for ruining his life and does all the textbook things that pissed-off-guys-on-rampages do in movies: wanders the streets, glowering and chain-smoking; rents a room in a fleabag hotel; has maps, newspaper headlines, magazine covers, and pics of the financial bigwigs he's targeting pinned to the wall (of course, he draws a big red "X" through their mugs after he kills them); spends hours listening to talk radio; lets his calls to go voice mail; buys some guns and ammo from a skeezy creep (Clint Howard!); and practices drawing his weapons in front of a mirror.  Stopping just short of giving himself a mohawk and saying his name is Henry Krinkle, Jim arms himself to the teeth with various guns and grenades and goes after the firm that mishandled his savings. 

Boll's glamorization of Jim is appalling.  Of course we're supposed to hate these financial assholes, but the way it pans out--with Jim confronting callous, heartless, egotistical CEO Jeremy Stancroft (John Heard, seated at the same desk in all of his scenes, probably shot in one day) and turning the tables on him in the most improbable way imaginable--makes Jim out to be some avenging superhero of the middle class. There's supposed to be a gray area when it comes to vigilante protagonists.  Movies like DEATH WISH (the first one, not the later ones), TAXI DRIVER, and ROLLING THUNDER justify the cathartic actions of the vigilante in the context of the film but stop short of legitimizing them as "heroes."  Not here.  It's probably just his way of again poking people with sticks, much like POSTAL's jokes about 9/11 and concentration camps, but in POSTAL's defense, it is a comedy. When Jim starts mowing down investment brokers, is the audience supposed to stand up and cheer?   Boll's done ripped-from-the-headlines drama before with surprisingly competent results--his ATTACK ON DARFUR really isn't that bad--but his frothing histrionics over the Wall Street implosion and eventual bailout don't make for a credible film.   It would be one thing if Boll presented this as some anarchic, absurdist, satirical fantasy but up until Jim goes on his rampage, ASSAULT is humorlessly stone-faced and serious, handled with zero subtlety (does any character name scream "rich asshole" like "Jeremy Stancroft"?), and prone to ham-fisted proclamations by the characters (Michael Pare and Keith David, as Jim's disgruntled cop buddies, almost serve as a Greek chorus, spouting dialogue like "We bust homeless people and issue citations for jaywalkin', but the real criminals are downtown, on fuckin' Wall Street, wearin' suits that cost more than we make in a year!").  Purcell doesn't help matters.  This guy's a lumbering bore in everything he does, and even from the outset, Jim comes off like a ticking time bomb with a huge chip on his shoulder, so it's hard to really "like" the guy.  It's also hard for a film to establish any credibility when it casts Edward Furlong as someone who has $10,000 readily available.  (R, 99 mins)

(US - 2013)

Upon first glance, BLACK ROCK looks like writer/producer/mumblecore icon Mark Duplass (BAGHEAD, CYRUS, JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME) designed it as a vanity project for his wife Katie Aselton, who directed and co-stars.  But it's actually a surprisingly effective fusion of character piece and wilderness/survivalist thriller, a sort-of chick flick version of DELIVERANCE or SOUTHERN COMFORT.  Sarah (Kate Bosworth) arranges a weekend getaway with Lou (Lake Bell) and Abby (Aselton) to a distant, abandoned island they explored as children.  It's also a chance for Sarah to play peacemaker for Lou and Abby, who haven't spoken in six years since Lou drunkenly slept with Abby's then-boyfriend.  Tensions flare between the two and when they seem to be making progress toward a reconciliation, they find they aren't alone on the island.   Henry (Will Bouvier), Derek (Jay Paulson), and Alex (Anslem Richardson) stumble upon the girls' camping area, carrying hunting rifles.  They recognize Henry as the younger brother of Jimmy, a guy in their graduating class (Abby to Lou: "Didn't you blow Jimmy in high school?") and Abby invites them to hang out.  Married Abby gets drunk and starts aggressively flirting with Henry, eventually luring him into the woods where they start making out while Derek tells Sarah and Lou about their dishonorable discharge from the military for a murderous act that they justify by saying "you do what you have to do."  Abby tries to stop it from going to far and when Henry gets forceful, she bashes him in the head with a rock.  Enraged, Derek and Alex decide to kill the women but they manage to get away, leading to an all-night pursuit through the island's dense forest.

BLACK ROCK admirably doesn't pretend to be anything more than what it is: a suspenseful B-movie.  There's some clever sleight-of-hand in the way what seems like a mumblecore drama focused on three old friends having a weekend getaway quickly shifts gears and becomes a gritty, intense, brutal thriller.  There's nothing particularly inventive here, but it's well-acted, fast-moving, wastes no time, and does what it does, all in the span of 80 brief minutes.  The three stars have a solid chemistry and really feel like old friends in the way they read each other and know how to push one another's buttons and in the way the set aside the baggage of the past and deal with the serious shit at hand.  The lean and admittedly slight BLACK ROCK isn't a threat to the supremacy of DELIVERANCE or SOUTHERN COMFORT (or even RITUALS) in this sort of genre offering and it only made it into a handful of theaters in early summer, but it's likely to find an audience on DVD, VOD, and its inevitably long life as an eventual Netflix streaming title.  (R, 80 mins)

Saturday, July 27, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE SILENCE (2013); VEHICLE 19 (2013); and THE JEFFREY DAHMER FILES (2013)

(Germany - 2010; 2013 US release)

It took three years to find a US distributor, but the German import THE SILENCE was worth the wait.  In a chilling prologue set in 1986, two pedophiles--apartment-building maintenance man Peer (Ulrich Thomsen) and university math student Timo (Wotan Wilke Mohring)--follow 11-year-old Pia (Helene Doppler).  Peer rapes her in a field while Timo watches.  When Pia fights back, Peer repeatedly hits her in the head until she dies.  A horrified Timo sits in the car in shock as Peer dumps the body in a lake and without even telling Peer, immediately packs his bags and leaves town.  Pia's bicycle and headphones are found in the field and when her body is discovered some weeks later, a memorial is placed in the field by her mother Elena (Katrin Sass).  23 years later, her murder remains unsolved, and on the anniversary of her disappearance, 13-year-old Sinikka (Anna-Lena Clenke) has a fight with her parents and is later ditched by her friends at a carnival.  She then goes missing, with her bicycle and gym bag left in the same spot as Pia's memorial.  Retiring cop Mittich (Burghart Klaussner) is still bothered that he was never able to close the Pia case and is certain Sinikka is dead and it's the work of the same killer.  The investigation is mostly left to the shaky Jahn (Sebastian Blomberg), who's still mourning the death of his wife from cancer, sometimes even blacking out and waking up in her dresses.  The coincidences of both cases create a media frenzy, and guilt-ridden Timo, now a successful architect with a wife and two kids, journeys back to the town to find Peer, convinced he's recreated the crime.  Peer is still working and living at the same building and is happy to see his friend again, even inviting him in to watch kiddie porn.  Peer denies he's responsible for Sinikka's disappearance and that Pia was "a one-time thing," but Timo isn't buying it, and as the cops re-interview potential witnesses and go back through the case files, Jahn doesn't think the parts add up.  And Timo is faced with the dilemma of going to the cops with his suspicions about Peer's involvement in the new crime, which will then expose his own sickness and complicity in the 1986 case.

Writer/director Baran Bo Odar, working from a novel by Jan Costin Wagner, has about an eight-hour miniseries' worth of plot to deal with (I didn't even get into Mittich's affair with Elena, or all the other weird things Jahn does as part of the grieving process) in just two hours, but does a commendable job of keeping the dark, grim story clear, concise, and captivating.  There's a definite Friedrich Durrenmatt feel to the story, particularly with the Mittich character, but the film is more about the effect of the dead/missing girls on the people left behind--the families who loved them, the police who want to bring the perps to justice, and the perps who have to live with what they've done.   It's a powerful film about guilt, grief, regret, and loneliness.  Everyone is damaged and hurting.  It's also very refreshing to see a plot take an unexpected direction and have it play very naturally as opposed to a hackneyed, shoehorned-in twist ending.  The wrap-up is unexpected, but it's a plausible unexpected.  THE SILENCE is very downbeat and depressing, but it's superbly-crafted and the ensemble cast is excellent.  Music Box Films only opened this on 11 screens in the US, but it's worth seeking out.  (Unrated, 119 mins)

(US/South Africa/Germany - 2013)

With some down time between FAST & FURIOUS sequels and doing Vin Diesel's laundry, Paul Walker headed to South Africa to shoot this barely-released thriller that offers the novel concept of the actor being chased in a vehicle.  Arriving in Johannesburg to meet up with his estranged girlfriend who's giving him one last chance, American ex-con Michael Wells (Walker) is mistakenly given a mini-van at the airport car rental office but since he's in a hurry, he decides to keep it.  First he's stuck in a traffic jam and his girlfriend doesn't believe him, then he finds a phone in the glove compartment and a gun under the seat.  A cop calls him and says there was a mix-up at the rental office and that his car was intended for a cop on an undercover assignment, that they have his car and that they need to meet to make an exchange.  On his way to meet the cop, Michael discovers a bound and gagged woman stowed away in the storage area behind the backseat.  She's local prosecutor Rachel Shabangu (Naima McLean), who recently disappeared after starting a crusade against corrupt Johannesburg cops.  Michael soon realizes that the cops are going to kill her and frame him for it and finds himself a wanted man in a strange land as the cops start a citywide manhunt, forcing him to clear his name and blah blah blah.

Writer/director Mukunda Michael Dewil tries to do something a little different and sets almost the entire film inside the mini-van, but it never really establishes the claustrophobic tension of a PHONE BOOTH or a BURIED.  Dewil shows little sense of pacing and the film manages to be deadly dull despite the urgency of the situation.  Also, too many details are simply glossed over:  why is Michael's girlfriend in Johannesburg?  Why do they have to start their life over there?  Does she transfer to a job there?  Who knows?  How can Michael so easily violate his parole and board a plane in the US, headed for a foreign country and then effortlessly pass through customs?  It's also amazing how quickly Michael acclimates himself to driving on the opposite side of the car and the road.  After nearly killing someone because of the driving confusion, he's eating a Twinkie, slurping a juice box, and talking on the phone in heavy Johannesburg traffic in no time.  I also love how he's given directions and has no idea where anything is, and just drives around the huge, bustling city hoping he'll find his destination.  Add to that a frustrating non-ending, clichéd dialogue ("I'm a man with nothin' to lose!" Michael tells the taunting cop on the phone), and a bland Walker performance and there's little reason to see the forgettable VEHICLE 19.  (R, 85 mins)

(US - 2013)

Originally titled JEFF--a title I actually like a lot more--this documentary approaches the story of the infamous Milwaukee cannibal/serial killer from the perspective of three people whose lives were changed by their involvement in the 1992 case:  medical examiner Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, homicide detective Pat Kennedy, and Pamela Bass, who lived in the apartment across the hall from Dahmer.  All three are remarkably candid in their memories of Dahmer--Kennedy, who spent hours in an interrogation room with Dahmer, even admits part of him empathized with the killer, and Bass expresses anger when she found out about the house of horrors across the hall, still unsettled by the memories of occasional lunches she had with her introverted but friendly neighbor, saying "We'd have a beer, and he would make sandwiches...I've probably eaten someone's body parts."  Director Chris James Thompson incorporates re-enactments with co-writer Andrew Swant as Dahmer that play a lot like a mumblecore take on Dahmer's day-to-day life, buying several gallons of bleach at the grocery store, inquiring about buying huge barrels, sitting at the bus stop, etc.  The style of the staged footage is probably what attracted IFC Films to pick this up, and while it's interesting, with the facts presented quite bluntly ("There were containers with penises in them"), there's nothing really cinematic about THE JEFFREY DAHMER FILES.  Given its rather short length, it plays a lot like the kind of true crime doc that you see all over cable on the weekends.  Consistently engrossing--how can anything about the Dahmer story not be?--and it offers a sometimes unique perspective on a subject that's been covered to death, but we're not talking Errol Morris-level documentary filmmaking here. (Unrated, 76 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

Friday, July 26, 2013

In Theaters: THE WOLVERINE (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Directed by James Mangold.  Written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank.  Cast: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Famke Janssen, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Will Yun Lee, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Brian Tee, Ken Yamamura. (PG-13, 125 mins)

A largely stand-alone adventure for the most iconic character in the X-MEN canon, THE WOLVERINE draws a bit from events in 2006's X-MEN: THE LAST STAND and the Silver Samurai makes an appearance, though with a significant change to his identity so as to thoroughly enrage the purists.  Hugh Jackman turns in his toughest, grittiest performance yet as Logan, introduced living in the wilds of the Yukon and haunted by visions of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) trying to coerce him into joining her in death.  This is not possible for the immortal Logan, who's then brought to Japan by spunky sword-fighter Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a mutant with the ability to see when someone will die.  Yukio has been sent by dying tech giant CEO Master Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), who was rescued from the Nagasaki bomb by Logan during WWII.  Logan's been told that Yashida wants to personally thank him for saving his life all those years ago, but his real intention is to harness Logan's immortal life force and allow the pained ronin--masterless samurai--to live a normal life and to grow old and die.  Yashida fears for the safety of his beloved granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) and distrusts his duplicitous son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has already committed Mariko to an arranged marriage with promising politico Mori (Brian Tee).  Yashida dies and yakuza thugs ambush the funeral, kidnapping Mariko, sending Logan and Yukio into action.  Logan finds Mariko and the two go on the run, with yakuza and ninjas in hot pursuit, but Logan finds himself in a weakened state, his abilities partially drained by the lethal Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), incognito as Yashida's oncologist.

A somewhat draggy middle is surrounded by a rousing first and third act, with several intense fight and action sequences, most notably Logan and a yakuza battling it out atop a bullet train going 200 mph.  The funeral ambush is another memorable set piece, as well as the final showdown between Logan and the Silver Samurai, introduced much later in the film and with a surprising true identity.  Jackman is a lot of fun here, playing Logan at his absolute crankiest and least patient.  He's given terrific support by a tremendously appealing Fukushima, a beautifully odd-looking young actress who resembles an anime character come to life.  It's great to see '80s Eurocult/Italian post-nuke fixture Yamanouchi (ENDGAME, THE NEW GLADIATORS, 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK, 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS) getting some significant screen time in a huge Hollywood blockbuster, and only Russian actress Khodchenkova seems like the weak link in the ensemble. An award-winning actress in Russia, Khodchenkova is hampered by playing the film's most weakly-constructed character and by the obvious fact that her entire performance has been awkwardly dubbed over by someone else, so distractingly at times that it's very likely this was a rushed, eleventh-hour decision by the filmmakers.  She certainly has the screen presence, so if her performance is lacking, it may not be entirely her fault.

The film was originally set to be helmed by PI and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM director Darren Aronofsky, who bowed out and was eventually replaced by the unlikely James Mangold, director of COP LAND, GIRL INTERRUPTED, WALK THE LINE, and the remake of 3:10 TO YUMA.  More at home with character-driven drama, Mangold handles massive action sequences quite well, but as far as superhero movies go, this is comparatively smaller and more character-based, so perhaps he's not as unusual a choice as one might think.  If anything, THE WOLVERINE deserves some credit for being the first big superhero/sci-fi event movie of the summer to not resort to climactic 9/11 disaster-porn imagery and benefits nicely from its unique Japan setting.   The script is credited to Mark Bomback (UNSTOPPABLE) and veteran screenwriter Scott Frank (OUT OF SIGHT, MINORITY REPORT, THE LOOKOUT), though they reworked an early draft by an uncredited Christopher McQuarrie (THE USUAL SUSPECTS), who was attached when Aronofsky was supposed to direct it.  THE WOLVERINE could use some tightening in the midsection, and runs a little long at just over two hours, but if you're burned-out with the same old blurrily-edited schtick in big-screen superhero cinema and if your eyes just glaze over at the thought of more dull and interchangeable CGI destruction, then this welcome change-of-pace may have come along at just the right time in the summer.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: TWIXT (2012) and TRANCE (2013)

(US - 2012)

Since taking a decade-long sabbatical from directing and returning with 2007's YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH and 2009's TETRO, the legendary Francis Ford Coppola has essentially abandoned Hollywood and the mainstream and made it a stated point that he's only making personal films for himself.  While the commercial appeal of the ponderous YOUTH and the intermittently-interesting TETRO were limited, they admirably avoided the self-indulgence that normally accompanies such endeavors, and while both are little more than interesting curios by a fabled filmmaker, the uneven TWIXT is Coppola's most satisfying effort of this post-comeback "experimental" phase.  Recalling the low-budget B-movies Coppola cut his teeth on as an assistant to Roger Corman back in the early 1960s, TWIXT more often than not feels like an old-school horror movie that you used to find on late-night TV, at least until it starts taking esoteric, art-house detours as it goes on.  In his best role in years, Val Kilmer stars as hard-drinking horror novelist Hall Baltimore, once hailed as a fresh, next-big-thing literary talent but now "the bargain-basement Stephen King," reduced to holding unattended book signings in small-town carry-outs.  He finds a fan in gregarious Swann Valley sheriff Bobby LaGrange (an enjoyably hammy Bruce Dern), who wants to collaborate with him on a book where they solve a series of brutal stakings that LaGrange believes are the work of some goth kids who hang out across the lake.  Initially apprehensive, but with mounting debt, his wife (Kilmer's ex-wife Joanne Whalley) threatening to sell his priceless, bound-by-Walt Whitman-himself copy of Leaves of Grass, and needing to move on from the recent death of his 14-year-old daughter in a boating accident, Baltimore pitches the idea to his publisher (David Paymer) and gets an advance...that he conveniently keeps secret from LaGrange.  Meanwhile, Baltimore is visited by a strange girl named V (Elle Fanning) that no one else sees, and while out wandering through the Swann Valley woods, he nearly falls off a rope bridge but is rescued by the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe (Ben Chaplin), who takes him under his wing and shows him the dark secrets of the town.  As Baltimore struggles with the book, he comes to terms with the guilt over his daughter's death and with Poe's help, starts uncovering the truth about what happened to V and how it ties into the serial stakings that are occupying the sheriff's time.

Coppola financed TWIXT out of his own pocket and when it failed to land a US distributor, he ended up arranging a scant few screenings himself before setting up a VOD distribution deal.  Look, I realize the commercial prospects for an artsy endeavor like this are limited, but can someone explain to me what kind of bullshit state of cinema we're in where Francis Ford Fucking Coppola has to personally schlep his latest movie to individual theaters?  He even shot a couple of sequences in 3-D!  Some may find TWIXT meandering and obfuscating, but it feels a lot like an old Corman or William Castle flick, or sometimes like a TWILIGHT ZONE episode, especially since a good chunk of it is shot in black & white.  It its more accessible sections, it occasionally feels--perhaps because of the presence of THE 'BURBS and THE HOLE co-star Dern--like the kind of throwback film that Joe Dante might make.  Coppola's script never really ties everything together all that securely and the ending is a bit too abrupt, but it really captures the feeling of those old low-budget movies without doing so ironically.  Coppola keeps it legit because he came from that school.  He's not a young filmmaker paying ironic homage to it--he was actually there.  That's just part of the personal touch Coppola brings to TWIXT.  Baltimore's overwhelming grief over the loss of a child is something Coppola knows all too well: he lost his 22-year-old son Gio in a 1986 boating accident that's identically recreated in the way Baltimore's daughter is killed.  Gio's wife was pregnant at the time of his death, and their daughter Gia worked on TWIXT with her grandfather.  Knowing the story behind TWIXT and how it brings together a grandfather who lost his son and a granddaughter who never got to meet her father adds a powerful subtext to the film. 

And it's great to see guys like Kilmer and Dern getting meaty, starring roles for a change.  Kilmer's performance as Doc Holliday in 1993's TOMBSTONE is one of the most beloved and oft-quoted in modern cinema, but he's spent much of the last decade in a stunning career free-fall that found him starring in some of the worst of the worst in the world of DTV with unwatchable garbage like MOSCOW ZERO, THE CHAOS EXPERIMENT, PLAYED (where his character's repeated "You are not gonna taco!" failed to become the new "I'm your Huckleberry") and several ill-advised collaborations with 50 Cent.  Kilmer is an eccentric actor who's frequently been labeled difficult (THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU director John Frankenheimer: "Will Rogers never met Val Kilmer") and has a tendency to run amok in some of these DTV films where he's only on the set for a couple of days and is given room to riff and improv.  Coppola successfully reins him in here, but does give him some leeway in an amusing scene where an increasingly intoxicated Baltimore struggles to get a single sentence written, allowing Kilmer to once more bust out his famous Marlon Brando impression in addition to an impeccable James Mason.  I've long maintained that Kilmer still has some real work and maybe even an Oscar left in him, and it was an admirable and perhaps conscious decision on Coppola's part to give Kilmer--a guy who can probably relate to the sorry state of Hall Baltimore's career--the lead role in this project.  These three most recent Coppola films probably won't even make his career highlight reel, and of course I don't mean to imply that it's on the level of THE GODFATHER or its first sequel, or APOCALYPSE NOW, or THE CONVERSATION, but for a more thorough understanding of him as a filmmaker and as a still-grieving father, there's a strong argument that TWIXT is essential Coppola.  (R, 88 mins)

(France/US/UK - 2013)

Even after the crowd-pleasing Best Picture Oscar winner SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), the grueling Best Picture Oscar nominee 127 HOURS (2010), and supervising the razzle-dazzle of the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, TRANCE, the latest from director Danny Boyle, didn't inspire much confidence from distributor Fox, who only rolled it out on 443 screens at its widest release.  It's easy to say TRANCE, a remake of a 2001 British TV-movie, is Boyle's attempt at a Christopher Nolan mindfuck, but the head games here seem too contrived and complicated just for its own sake, eventually devolving into trying-too-hard misdirection and incoherence.  Boyle's direction is as stylish as ever, but the plot's intriguing twists and turns and the eventual revelation that what you thought the film was about isn't what it's about at all probably seemed clever on the page, but it grows tiresome on the screen.

Working with screenwriter John Hodge (SHALLOW GRAVE, TRAINSPOTTING, A LIFE LESS ORDINARY) for the first time since 2000's THE BEACH, Boyle's TRANCE gives us mid-level London art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy), who takes a nasty blow to the head during a museum theft where a priceless Goya is ripped off by Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his crew.  Franck discovers the canvas has been sliced from the frame and once Simon, hailed as a hero by the media, is released from the hospital, he and his gang endlessly hassle and torture him, believing he stashed the painting somewhere.  But Simon is suffering from amnesia, and can't remember anything during the robbery itself.  Franck sends Simon to hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), hoping she can put him in a trance and extract the information from wherever it is in his memories.  Elizabeth figures out what's going on and wants a percentage of the take.  Then a love triangle develops.  And then things get really twisty.  The thing is, the more twists that Boyle and Hodge pile on, the more absurd TRANCE becomes, though I'm sure it's some kind of snickering joke on their part that a major element of the plot hinges on Dawson's shaved bush (the actress does some nudity here that leaves nothing to the imagination and should make her a frontrunner at the next Mr. Skin's Anatomy Awards).  By the end, when all the pieces are (I think) in place, the reaction is less "Whoa!" and more "Really?!  All that for this?" Some of those pieces have to get forced in place for the puzzle to be complete, and even in a film with this many acceptable implausibilities, it's asking a lot for an audience to buy a body decomposing in the trunk of a car for months and no one--least of all the people riding in the backseat--realizing it.  TRANCE is never dull or uninteresting and McAvoy and Cassel are good, but Dawson feels a little miscast, despite her instantly legendary nude scene. Initial reaction might be mild disappointment, but something about this feels like it might be one of those movies that play better when viewed again in a year or two. (R, 101 mins)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

In Theaters/On VOD: ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013)

(Denmark/France - 2013)

Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.  Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Rhatha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke, Byron Gibson, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Kovit Wattanikul. (R, 87 mins)

Anyone who expressed concern that polarizing Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn would go mainstream after his 2011 American debut DRIVE can rest easy.  His latest, ONLY GOD FORGIVES, might reunite him with DRIVE star Ryan Gosling, but it sprints pretty far away from commercial cinema, probably ending up as more of a companion piece of sorts to Refn's VALHALLA RISING (2010).  ONLY GOD FORGIVES got some pretty toxic word of mouth after being booed at Cannes, and most American critics have expressed vehemently negative opinions of it (for what it's worth, Rex Reed declared it "one of the five worst movies ever made," which, given Reed's sunken rep, should actually be used as a positive blurb right out of the David Lynch playbook).  This is unquestionably a divisive film that isn't meant for multiplex consumption.  If you're looking for narrative, plot, a fast pace, or DRIVE II or some kind of accessible Gosling vehicle, then you'd best steer clear.  It's decidedly not for everyone, but if you approach it with an open mind and the idea that it's a Nicolas Winding Refn and if you give it time to settle in and allow yourself to get accustomed to its style and its rhythms--and if you have a strong stomach--you may find ONLY GOD FORGIVES to be a richly rewarding experience.

Chances are there won't be another 2013 film that looks better than this one.  Refn dedicates it to still-with-us EL TOPO and SANTA SANGRE director Alejandro Jodorowsky, and gives an additional shout-out to IRREVERSIBLE and ENTER THE VOID director Gaspar Noe, and while there's indisputable nods to both filmmakers, ONLY GOD FORGIVES struck me as Refn's Kubrick film.  The cinematographer is Larry Smith, and this isn't the first time he's been recruited by Refn--he also shot 2003's misunderstood FEAR X and 2009's BRONSON.  Smith is a former Kubrick associate, having shot his last film, 1999's EYES WIDE SHUT, in addition to working on the camera crew for BARRY LYNDON (1975) and THE SHINING (1980).  FEAR X had elements of Refn mimicking Kubrick's cold and detached style, but Refn and Smith take that even further with ONLY GOD FORGIVES.  I'm not one to throw around terms like mise-en-scene very often, but the tracking shots, intricate compositions, the almost obsessive detail, the visual and thematic dualities, and the way that everything in every shot is positioned where it is for a specific reason is vital to a proper experience of this film.  If you're just looking for the plot, you're going to miss what Refn is doing here.  It's a character study told in the most visual of means--through the framing, the colors, the camera movement, the editing, the timing, the cutting.  He utilizes a lot of Kubrickian editing techniques that recall the legendary bone-to-space station cut in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).  From a story standpoint, ONLY GOD FORGIVES is a fairly standard B-movie revenge/redemption saga. It doesn't break any new ground in that department.  But it's Refn's crowning achievement thus far in terms of purely visual, symbolic, cinematic storytelling.

In Bangkok, depraved American boxing club owner/drug dealer Billy (Tom Burke) brutally kills a 16-year-old prostitute. Lounge-singing, sword-wielding renegade warrior cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows the girl's father Choi (Kovit Wattanikul) to kill Billy.  Billy's quiet, withdrawn brother Julian (Gosling), who also works in the drug trade, attempts to avenge Billy's death by going to kill Choi, but when he learns what Billy did and that Chang cut off one of Choi's arms as a penance for not being a better father and permitting his daughter to sell her body, he decides to let him go.  Julian's mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives from the States and demands blood (when told what Billy did, she huffs "I'm sure he had his reasons"), sending Billy's enforcer Gordon (Gordon Brown) to kill Choi.  Once Choi is dead, Crystal wants Chang dead since he allowed Billy's murder.  This sets off a back-and-forth war between Crystal/Julian and Chang/the corrupt Bangkok police.

For a while, it feels as if Gosling is a supporting actor in his own movie.  Much of the film follows Pansringarm's Chang, a dirty cop who does what he needs to do to maintain law & order in an unfathomably sleazy part of town.  With the arrival of Crystal, Gosling's Julian starts to take center stage.  He's so detached, aloof, and emotionally stunted that his only "friend" seems to be Mai (Rhatha Phongam), a prostitute who ties his hands to the arms of the chair while he silently, sullenly watches her masturbate.  Julian brings Mai to dinner with Crystal, and Scott Thomas immediately establishes Crystal as one of cinema's great reprehensible monster mothers by discussing the differences in the penis sizes of her sons ("Billy's was so much bigger than Julian's"), telling Julian how weak and pathetic he is, and when Mai tells her she's "an entertainer," Crystal spits "An entertainer?  Well...how many cocks can you entertain in that cum dumpster of yours?"   Crystal has incestuous designs on her sons and it's strongly implied that she had a sexual relationship with Billy, and also reveals that Julian fled to Bangkok after killing his father.  Quite obviously, Julian is carrying some significant emotional baggage.  When Mai asks him "Why do you let her talk to you like that?" he mumbles "Because she's my mother."

Refn spills gallons upon gallons of blood in some sequences with some truly startling, audacious violence, almost the "beautiful" kind of bloodletting you see in samurai films, though there's one torture scene that, even for a jaded viewer who's seen pretty much everything, is pretty tough to endure.  But even if you have difficulty finding the narrative accessible, the film is utterly hypnotic.  The score by former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez, who has slowly become arguably the best film score composer working today, melds perfectly with the unique look that Refn and Smith bring, the humidity and stink of the Bangkok red-light district coming through in every shot that's bathed in melancholy neon red, pink, and blue.  ONLY GOD FORGIVES is probably most ideally viewed at 2:00 am in a depressed, sleep-deprived state of mind--with its colors and trance-like feel, maybe it would make an interesting double feature with BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW--though I'd love to see it on a huge screen (Radius/TWC only released it on 78 screens in addition to VOD).  This is one of those movies that will overcome its initial round of almost unanimous critical and audience dismissal and outright scorn and it won't take long for it to become a genuine cult classic.  When it was over, I wanted to immediately watch it again.  I'm calling it now:  this is a masterpiece.

Monday, July 22, 2013

In Theaters: RED 2 (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Dean Parisot. Written by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber. Cast: Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Byung Hun Lee, Brian Cox, Neal McDonough, David Thewlis, Steven Berkoff, Garrick Hagon, Tim Pigott-Smith, Vlasta Vrana, Titus Welliver. (PG-13, 117 mins)

RED, the 2010 big-screen version of Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner's comic book series, was a surprise hit at the box office, a sort of GRUMPY OLD BLACK-OPS AGENTS, featuring an ensemble cast that seemed to be legitimately having a great time.  The Retired and Extremely Dangerous crew returns in this bigger-budgeted sequel that's lacking the novelty and freshness of the first film, but it's still quite fun, and you can have a great compare/contrast with the Bruce Willis in this film and the one who barely showed up for this year's earlier A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD.  There aren't many actors worse at hiding their obvious lack of interest in a project than Willis, but when he likes what he's doing, he's still got it.

Frank Moses (Willis) is still retired, living with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), and seemingly spending most of his days shopping at Costco when he's ambushed by his eccentric old cohort Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich).  Marvin informs Frank that they're being hunted by agents from around the globe because of Nightshade, a secret 1970s operation involving the planting of nuclear device somewhere in Moscow.  After evading a CIA-sanctioned assassin (Neal McDonough), Frank, Sarah, and Marvin head to Europe, pursued by killers from around the globe, including their old colleague Victoria Winters (Helen Mirren) and Korean assassin Han (Byung Hun Lee), and a Russian femme fatale from Frank's past (Catherine Zeta-Jones) before springing Dr. Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), who designed the weapon and knows its whereabouts, from a London mental institution, where he's been stashed away by MI-6 for 32 years and is now completely insane.

RED 2 is pretty undemanding and you'll either go along with its silliness or you won't.  It sets out to be a fun summer popcorn movie and mostly succeeds.  Some jokes fall flat and, at 117 minutes, it runs a little too long.  Willis and Malkovich have a terrific camaraderie, Parker is as appealing as ever, and Mirren is enjoyable poking fun at her image, again playing a badass killer striking clichéd action movie poses while metal riffs rip on the soundtrack.  There's also an unexpected bonus in the form of a brief Hannibal Lecter summit, with Hopkins sharing scenes with Brian Cox (returning as Russian ally Ivan Simanov), who played Lecter in 1986's MANHUNTER.  The film also does a nice job with putting together action sequences (particularly a Paris car chase) that are completely ridiculous but always coherent, and there's a lot of amusing oddball touches, like Malkovich's wardrobe and facial expressions, Sarah opting to get an enemy agent (David Thewlis) to talk by appealing to his soft side instead of letting Frank and Marvin go straight to torture (Frank: "This is what we do!"), Ivan admiring Victoria's toes and taking a moment to take a deep whiff of the inside of her boot, and the RED team sneaking into the underground tunnels of the Kremlin via an adjacent Papa John's.  The enthusiasm of the cast does much of the heavy lifting during the film's occasional slow stretches, and if you liked the first one, this is mostly more of the same, though I imagine a third installment will probably belabor the point a little and increase the likelihood of that other Bruce Willis showing up instead.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

New from Shout! Factory: SCI-FI MOVIE MARATHON

The venerable Shout! Factory has released another four-film, budget-priced "Movie Marathon" package on the heels of their excellent "Action-Packed Movie Marathon" from a few months back.  This time, however, the results are mixed at best.  They were upfront well before the release with the fact that three of the four films in this sci-fi package were being presented in cropped, 1.33 full frame transfers, which is really inexcusable at this point in time.  But, those are the materials they got for these titles in their licensing deal with MGM and that's the best with which they had to work.  It's just unfortunate that a genuine cult movie like ELIMINATORS is finally represented on DVD, and it looks like little more than a slightly cleaned-up VHS transfer.  Shout! Factory is run by people who love these movies, and if they say that's what they had at their disposal, then that's what they had.  You can't knock 'em all out of the park, and they've done enough great things for cult movie preservation that they can certainly get a pass for an occasional flubbed, second-rate job like this one.  With a list price of $9.99 for four movies (no extras, not even trailers), it comes out to about $2.50 per flick, so when it's all put in perspective, I guess it's not that bad.

Disc 1 offers 1991's ARENA and 1986's ELIMINATORS, a double feature showcasing the collaborative efforts of Empire Pictures fixtures Peter Manoogian, Danny Bilson, and Paul DeMeo.  Manoogian directed several films for Empire (including 1987's high-rise mayhem gem ENEMY TERRITORY), and these two were penned by the TRANCERS writing team of Bilson (father of THE O.C.'s Rachel Bilson) and DeMeo, who would go on to script Disney's THE ROCKETEER (1991), produce the CBS superhero series THE FLASH, and create the UPN series THE SENTINEL.  On the merits of TRANCERS alone, Bilson & DeMeo are a cult duo deserving of far more attention and employment than they've received.  The pair haven't scripted a feature since THE ROCKETEER.  They spent much of the last decade writing and designing video games, and got a story credit on this year's COMPANY OF HEROES, a WWII vehicle with Tom Sizemore and Vinnie Jones that went straight to DVD, as it starred Tom Sizemore and Vinnie Jones.  Disc 2 presents a pair of one-and-done big-screen directing efforts from screenwriters who should've avoided the urge to get behind the camera:  Cannon's forgotten 1986 post-nuke effort AMERICA 3000 and the 1987 Australian TERMINATOR-inspired THE TIME GUARDIAN.

(US - 1991)

Completed in 1988, ARENA was one of several shelved Empire titles that were left in limbo went the company began its late '80s collapse.  Trans-World Entertainment acquired it but it ended up going straight to video stores in the fall of 1991.  Bilson and DeMeo's script is built on the interesting concept of taking the kind of 1930s Warner Bros. boxing programmer like KID GALAHAD and putting it in a futuristic setting on a space station where humans and alien creatures battle in high stakes, one-on-one battles.  Steve Armstrong (daytime soap star Paul Satterfield) is a gifted arena fighter but only does it to settle a debt with galactic crime kingpin Rogor (Marc Alaimo).  With his four-armed sidekick Shorty (Hamilton Camp) and tough-as-nails trainer Quinn (Claudia Christian) in his corner, Steve naturally makes it through the tournament, past opponents like a human-sized mutant grasshopper, to face Rogor's ultimate fighter, the alien warrior Horn (Michael Deak).  Every boxing movie cliché is here, from the montages to the pep talks to the antagonist's moll (Shari Shattuck as Jade) seducing the hero, but despite the fun setting and the potential, ARENA is never as lively, campy, or goofy as it should be.  Shot at Empire's Rome studio (and featuring a rare on-camera role for gravelly-voiced expat dubbing vet Robert Spafford), ARENA looks cheap, perhaps intentionally so, and has some OK creature designs by the likes of John Buechler and Screaming Mad George, but despite some occasional amusing bits, it just never kicks into gear, largely because the bland Satterfield is a complete charisma vacuum.  The film's minor cult following is due largely to the presence of several future stars of popular '90s syndicated sci-fi TV series: Christian went on to co-star on BABYLON 5, and Alaimo and Armin Shimerman (as Rogor's aptly-named flunky Weezil) would reunite on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE.  Worth seeing for Empire completists and Shimerman stalkers, but Shout! might've been better off nixing ARENA and including Bilson & DeMeo's much better ZONE TROOPERS (1986) on this set.  (PG-13, 94 mins)


(US - 1986)

Manoogian, Bilson, and De Meo first teamed on this engagingly silly sci-fi actioner that, like TRANCERS, has aspirations well beyond its budget.  The basic summary is that a ragtag group of heroes joins forces to stop Abbott Reeves (Roy Dotrice), a time-traveling, megalomaniacal madman who wants to change the course of world history by going back to rule ancient Rome.  One of his creations is Mandroid (Patrick Reynolds), a military pilot shot down in action and transformed into a cyborg with an accompanying tank-like mobile unit.  When Reeves tries to decommission him, the Mandroid escapes and finds Dr. Nora Hunter (Denise Crosby, around the same time she appeared in Black Sabbath's "No Stranger to Love" video and a year before STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION), who created the android technology used to assemble him and is unaware that Reeves is using it for evil purposes.  Nora, along with her helpful pet-like robot S.P.O.T., decides to accompany Mandroid to deep into Mexico to find his secret underground jungle lair and they hire cynical river guide Harry Fontana (Andrew Prine) to guide them.  Some time later, the three meet up with ninja Kuji (Conan Lee), the son of Reeves' sympathetic assistant, who was killed for trying to help Mandroid escape.  The quartet battles rival boatmen in the employ of Reeves, plus some Neanderthals brought back by Reeves during one of his time-traveling excursions. 

After a clunky opening, ELIMINATORS finds a nice groove and gets much better as it proceeds, even if takes too long to get all of the heroes together (Lee doesn't even appear until a little over an hour in).  One element of ELIMINATORS that's a bit ahead of its time is the way the film often becomes a sort-of meta-commentary on itself, usually in the form of Fontana's disbelief at the lunacy happening around him ("What is this, some kinda goddamn comic book?  We got robots, we got cavemen, we got kung fu!").  One of the more ambitious productions of Empire's glory days, ELIMINATORS isn't always successful (the first half could use some tightening), but it hits a lot more than it misses, and really gets a nice momentum going in its last third.  ELIMINATORS could've benefitted from a decent restoration--or at least presented in its proper aspect ratio--and really deserves its own special edition release with a commentary track from the filmmakers.  Shortly after co-starring in this, Reynolds, grandson of R.J. Reynolds and eventual black sheep of the Reynolds tobacco family, would quit acting to denounce the family business and become a prominent anti-smoking activist.  (PG, 96 mins)

(US - 1986)

I haven't seen everything released by Cannon, but I've seen enough to make the judgment call that AMERICA 3000 could very well be the worst film they ever made.  The lone directorial effort from DEATH WISH II screenwriter David Engelbach, AMERICA 3000 takes place in post-nuke Colorado, 900 years after the end of civilization.  The world is once again in caveman times, and ruled by women, who are known as "tiaras," with men--aka "seeders" if they're well-hung or "machos" if they're slaves--the subservient class.  Nomadic warrior Corbus (Chuck Wagner, fresh off the title role on the short-lived NBC series AUTOMAN) has taught himself to read from an old childrens book he found and tries to lead the machos and seeders into a fight for equality that's actually supported by Tiara leader Vena (Laurene Landon), who reluctantly took charge upon the passing of her beloved Tiara mother (Camilla Sparv, the only somewhat big name in the cast, and she's dead by the 15-minute mark).  Vena doesn't have the support of her underlings, namely her jealous sister Lakella (Victoria Barrett), who leads a revolt against her.  I think AMERICA 3000 is trying to be a comedy, but it's so painfully unfunny that it's hard to tell.  Engelbach makes some half-hearted attempts at political satire--the voiceover narration of Corbus' brother, played by William Wallace, mentions a "Camp Reagan," with the caveat "I never figured out what 'Reagan' meant," and Corbus finds the underground bunker of the US President, still in pristine condition after 900 years with a functioning boombox and an arcade version of Centipede, and watches a video tape that convinces him that he is the "Pres-ee-dent" as he pronounces it--but he just has nothing to say and his sole purpose seems to be to make this as gratingly annoying as possible. The constant use of the film's own specific post-nuke slang (tiaras, seeders, machos, "woggos" for crazy, "hot eats" for food, "scan-it" for seeing), makes for maddening dialogue like "You're machos, but I'm a free man.  You hungry?  We've got hot eats, scan-it?" that would make it hard to follow the plot if there was one.

There's probably a lot of reasons there weren't many post-nuke comedies in the '80s, and AMERICA 3000 should be labeled Exhibit A.  Golan & Globus spent $2 million on this thing?  It's one of Cannon's most obscure titles and it should've stayed that way.  If they wanted a post-nuke comedy that was in the MGM library, Shout! would've been better off putting the sublimely ridiculous 1985 version of SHE with Sandahl Bergman on this set.  Unfunny, uninspired, unwatchable, and cropped to 1.33, I can't imagine anyone getting anything remotely enjoyable or entertaining out of AMERICA 3000.  Look, I love Shout! Factory, and they're doing great things, but there's so many more worthwhile things they could've resurrected.  Are there really AMERICA 3000 fans out there?  Any whose surname isn't Engelbach?  It's not even entertaining on a "so bad, it's good" level.  It's just bad.  Engelbach went on to write an early draft of 1987's OVER THE TOP that was reworked by star Sylvester Stallone, but he's been MIA since writing a few episodes of MACGYVER in the late '80s.  (PG-13, 93 mins)

(Australia - 1987; 1989 US release)

The only film in this set presented in its proper aspect ratio (2.35:1 anamorphic), THE TIME GUARDIAN is a big-budget 1987 Australian sci-fi film that took two years to get a token US release from Hemdale in the fall of 1989.  I know I rented the VHS back then and recall thinking the film was bad, but 23 or so years on, I remembered nothing about it until this revisit.  Yep...still terrible.  There's promising ingredients:  nice-looking BLADE RUNNER-esque production design, an interesting concept, directed and co-written by Brian Hannant, who co-wrote THE ROAD WARRIOR, so he certainly knows his way around a sci-fi action movie...but THE TIME GUARDIAN never really comes together.  Here's a situation where some bonus features would be nice, as Hannant has said in the years since that interference from Hemdale and script changes that were forced on him ended up compromising the film.  It's clear that Hannant was shown the door at some point during production, since second-unit director A.J. Prowse is also credited with directing additional scenes with an entirely different crew.  Whatever drama went down behind the scenes was probably more interesting than anything that ended up onscreen, and it seemed to have a career-altering impact on the now-73-year-old Hannant:  26 years later, he has yet to direct or write another film.

Opening in the year 4039, THE TIME GUARDIAN deals with a post-apocalyptic world where armies of armored robots known as Jen-Diki have wiped out almost all of humanity.  That is, except for one domed city that has found a way to bounce back and forth through time when the Jen-Diki find them.  Two warriors--the tough-as-nails Ballard (Tom Burlinson of THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER) and 20th century expert Petra (Carrie Fisher, onboard to lure in the STAR WARS crowd) are sent by their leader (Dean Stockwell, who puts in a few scenes and goes off to enjoy his paid Australian vacation) to survey 1988 Australia in a daring attempt to trap the Jen-Diki and be done with them once and for all.  Petra is quickly injured and sidelined (meaning, the filmmakers probably only had Fisher for a few days) as Ballard teams up with attractive local geologist Annie (Nikki Coghill) and some aborigines to thwart the Jen-Diki.  They don't get any help from McCarthy (Tim Robertson), who seems to have graduated summa cum laude from the Brian Dennehy Academy of Small-Town Asshole Sheriffs, tossing Ballard and Annie in the slammer and messing around with their futuristic armbands, after which, of course, the Jen-Diki figure out exactly where Ballard is and launch a full-scale invasion of this small outback town, starting with the police station in a sequence that's in no way modeled on a similar one in THE TERMINATOR.  Ultimately, despite some good ideas (I liked the notion of the time-traveling city), THE TIME GUARDIAN is just too confusing, too dull, and too derivative of other, better movies (THE TERMINATOR, BLADE RUNNER, STAR TREK, and the whole subplot with the dumbass, bullying sheriff is straight out of FIRST BLOOD), and Burlinson, fine in the SNOWY RIVER films and PHAR LAP, overdoes it and isn't a very convincing jaw-clenched badass of the Schwarzenegger mold. The material is there, but judging from the apparently troubled production history, this one just feels like it got away from everyone involved.  Also featuring the maudlin closing credits tune "This Time I Know" by Rose Tattoo frontman Angry Anderson.  (PG, 88 mins)

Friday, July 19, 2013

In Theaters: THE CONJURING (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by James Wan.  Written by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes.  Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Joey King, Hayley McFarland, McKenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton, Sterling Jerins. (R, 112 mins)

James Wan may have directed 2004's SAW, one of the key horror films that kicked off the much-maligned "torture porn" subgenre, but he's used it as a means to an end.  Upon turning that franchise over to others, Wan has revealed himself to be an old-schooler when it comes to genre fare.  He hasn't always been successful--2007's DEATH SENTENCE was a good idea, but ended up a tired and uninspired DEATH WISH throwback that had one memorable chase sequence and little else, and the same year's DEAD SILENCE was a seemingly archaic "evil ventriloquist dummy" movie that flopped because it seemed too tame and passé for SAW fans but might be worth another look in retrospect.  Wan took some steps in the right direction with 2011's sleeper hit INSIDIOUS, which was a great fright flick for 2/3 of its running time before collapsing in the home stretch.  With THE CONJURING, Wan finally gets it right with a haunted house/possession film that's shockingly light on the gore but earns its R rating the old-fashioned way:  by masterful audience manipulation and sheer, nerve-wracking tension relentlessly ratcheted up to a point where you'll find yourself holding your breath on several occasions.  Wan doesn't break new ground here, but he's studied the classics and he knows what works and exploits it to its full potential.  Wan knows that the real horror lies in the unseen and the suggested.  He lets that build over the course of 80 or so minutes until it finally explodes in a horrific onslaught that's almost a relief because we're no longer dealing with the anticipation of shadows, slowly creaking doors, faint whispers, pounding on walls, a chair rocking itself, a bouncing ball, or the piercing, almost mocking glare of a creepy doll.

Based on the experiences of controversial husband-and-wife paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), best known for their investigation of the Amityville house in 1975 and since labeled everything from groundbreaking paranormal researchers to hardcore right-wing religious zealots and outright kooks, THE CONJURING focuses on a pre-Amityville case in Harrisville, Rhode Island in 1971.  Trucker Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their five daughters move into a lakeside house made cheaply available at a county auction.  First their dog Sadie refuses to enter the house, and is found dead outside the next morning.  Then all the clocks in the house stop at 3:07 am.  Roger finds the basement sealed off, with the previous owner's possessions still there.  One of the daughters starts sleepwalking and another has a new imaginary friend named Rory.  Another daughter sees a figure standing behind a door and another is attacked by a ghostly specter that vanishes.  Carolyn starts developing unexplained bruises all over her body.  She attends a Warren seminar and pleads with them to come and look at the house.  Instantly, the clairvoyant Lorraine senses malevolent forces in the house and on the surrounding property, including one particular spirit that she describes as the angriest and most hateful she's ever encountered.  Convinced of the validity of the Perrons' story, the Warrens and two assistants set up shop in the house to conduct their investigation, as Ed believes the house may be possessed and an exorcism required.  But the spirit has other ideas, zeroing in on a particular individual to possess while also latching itself onto the Warrens.

There's no plot details in THE CONJURING that you haven't seen before.  But where Wan succeeds is in the way he presents it.  With the exception of a few instances of incidental CGI (one involving a bed sheet that briefly takes human form), it feels like a movie that could've been made 30 or 40 years ago, and not just because of the impeccable period detail.  It takes time to build the characters, allowing us to get to know both the Warrens and the Perrons and making their mutual ordeal that much more emotionally involving as well as balls-out terrifying.  Too many of today's horror movies don't take the time to do this and they suffer for it (also note the several long and intricately choreographed, uninterrupted tracking shots of the Perron home early on, done to both show off and make sure the audience gets a grasp of the layout of the house). The performances, particularly Taylor, who's really great here, are top-notch.  The film is so defiantly old-fashioned in many respects that when there actually is a bit of over-the-top violence, it seems out-of-place and just a little shocking simply because we then realize just how effective it was without any of that.  And while the work of the Warrens themselves--Ed died in 2006; Farmiga consulted with Lorraine for the film--has been scrutinized over the years and much of it, especially the Amityville case, has been deemed suspect, it doesn't take away from the effectiveness of the film overall.  Take out the opening crawl with "Based on the true story," and you still have one of the most solid horror films to come down the pike in quite a while, perhaps not quite on the same "classic" level as THE HAUNTING (1963) or THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973), but still the source of some powerful jolts that you don't see much of anymore, proof that a modern horror movie doesn't always have to be all up in your business and rubbing your face in it to show how "intense" and "real" it is.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: ERASED (2013) and WRONG (2013)

(Belgium/Canada - 2012; 2013 US release)

Another entry in the post-TAKEN sweepstakes, the by-the-numbers ERASED allows Aaron Eckhart to channel his inner Liam Neeson as Ben Logan, an ex-CIA agent living in Antwerp where he's working as a consultant for a high-tech security firm.  He's recently been joined by his estranged teenage daughter Amy (Liana Liberato) after the death of his ex-wife back in the States, and while they're taking baby steps, they aren't exactly getting along.  Father and daughter set aside their differences quickly when they make an evening stop at Ben's office to find it completely empty, his e-mail account and phone records wiped, and the company headquarters in Brussels having no record of employment for him or his MIA co-workers.  It would seem he's been...wait for it....hold on...you guessed it...ERASED!

What follows is a convoluted conspiracy involving a nefarious corporation hiring a none-too-wise Ben to inadvertently assist in a plot to arm a rebel faction in Mozambique in exchange for access to a lithium mine.  But it allows Eckhart a chance to kick ass and shoot bad guys throughout Belgium, as he's pursued by an ex-lover and CIA black-ops colleague played by Olga Kurylenko, who's introduced dropping two Alka-Seltzers into a glass of water and chugging it so we know she's hard, driven, and on-the-clock 24/7.  And, SPOILER ALERT, the first thing out of Amy's mouth when she realizes her father was once a government-contracted killer is "I don't even know who you are!"  Feeling like the kind of cable-ready international programmer that should've debuted on Reelz, ERASED makes nice use of Antwerp and Brussels scenery and shows that Eckhart can be a formidable action guy, but this material is pretty second-rate, Arash Amel's predictable script is riddled with clichés, and NORTH FACE director Philipp Stolzl, a music video vet who's worked with artists like Madonna, Garbage, and Rammstein, really lets the pace lag at times.  There is one unexpected noteworthy bit where Ben's car tumbles from an on-ramp and down to the highway below after a chase sequence, and you can tell they really let the car roll off because it looks as clumsy and awkward as something like that would look in real life.  Sure, Eckhart is a much better actor than, say, Steven Seagal, but for the most part, there's nothing to differentiate the instantly-forgettable and aptly-titled ERASED from any of the countless other DTV black-ops conspiracy thrillers you've seen hundreds of times before, probably why it only managed to get a US release on just 51 screens.  (R, 105 mins)

(France - 2012; 2013 US release)

WRONG is the latest film from French writer/director/musician Quentin Dupieux, who gave us RUBBER, arguably cinema's greatest "killer tire on a rampage" movie.  WRONG is similar in its oddball nature with its Franz Kafka-meets-Michel Gondry-and-Charlie Kaufman sense of absurdist, nightmare whimsy as it follows affable Dolph Springer (Jack Plotnick) on a quest to find his missing dog, Paul.  WRONG opens with a firefighter taking a dump in the middle of the street and quickly gives us Dolph dealing with oddball neighbors; a clock that goes from 7:59 to 7:60;  an organic pizza joint with a clingy cashier (Alexis Dziena) who loves Dolph but gets him confused with his gardener Victor (Eric Judor) and gets pregnant, going from conception to labor in one day; a blank, empty, stamped envelope that arrives in Dolph's mailbox; Dolph going to his job every day in an office where there's a constant torrential downpour, even though he got fired three months earlier; a belligerent cop (Mark Burnham) who's far too eager to speak his mind; and a wealthy mystery man named Master Chang (William Fichtner) who knows the whereabouts of Paul.  There's also a private eye (Steve Little) searching for the dog, using a new technology that involves recording onto cassette the subconscious memories of canine bowel movements, which of course gives us the line "I was able to access the turd's memories."  Like RUBBER, WRONG is a prefab cult movie that's amusing for awhile until it stops being amusing and just becomes tedious and overly impressed with its own eccentricity. (Unrated, 93 mins)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: COHEN AND TATE (1989)

(US - 1989)

Written and directed by Eric Red.  Cast: Roy Scheider, Adam Baldwin, Harley Cross, Cooper Huckabee, Suzanne Savoy, Frank Bates. (R, 86 mins)

With a title that sounds like a late '80s buddy cop comedy, COHEN AND TATE was all but abandoned by Hemdale, who only gave it a limited release with zero publicity or advertising in January 1989 before it quietly appeared on video store shelves a year later.  The directorial debut of Eric Red, who made a name for himself as a screenwriter with 1986's THE HITCHER and 1987's NEAR DARK, the mob thriller/road movie COHEN AND TATE, inspired by O. Henry's short story The Ransom of Red Chief, may be a surface departure from Red's work in the horror genre, but it's pretty squarely in his wheelhouse, as he loves the sinister potential and inherent unease of late nights on dark highways and deserted back roads.  COHEN AND TATE makes excellent use of color, particularly in the recurrent red glow of taillights on the faces of the characters, giving it an effectively moody feel that makes it ideal for 2:00 am viewing.  COHEN AND TATE was quickly forgotten after its initial, far-below-the-radar release, but has proven surprisingly resilient in cult movie circles.  Shout! Factory has just answered the demand with a special edition Blu-ray release, which features a Red commentary, interviews with cast and crew members, and deleted/alternate scenes, including several scenes of graphic violence that had to be toned down to avoid an X rating.

After witnessing a mob hit in Houston, nine-year-old Travis Knight (Harley Cross of THE BELIEVERS and THE FLY II) and his parents are put in witness protection at a small Oklahoma farmhouse.  Thanks to an FBI agent on the mob's payroll, two hired killers show up and slaughter the agents and Travis' parents before hitting the road back to Houston to deliver Travis to the bosses.  Cohen (Roy Scheider), the older of the two and sporting a hearing aid, is cynical about his job and knows he's expendable and that guys like him can get whacked at any moment, but he's a professional and does what he's paid to do.  He's always worked alone, and he's offended that the bosses made him take a partner for this job: the hulking, sadistic, hot-headed Tate (Adam Baldwin), who just wants to shoot Travis in the head and be done with it.  Cohen doesn't like Tate and the feeling is mutual.  The perceptive Travis picks up on this and starts playing the two against each other before forming a tentative alliance with Cohen when they both figure out that Tate would just as soon kill both of them.  The job gets more complicated when a radio report reveals that Travis' dad (Cooper Huckabee) has somehow survived his gunshot wounds and has given a description of the pair to the police--perhaps the bosses have realized that Cohen's lost a step or two in his advancing age--who are now actively pursuing the pair on the way from Oklahoma to Houston.

COHEN AND TATE is an involving little B-picture but it has some major issues.  Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but the plot is frequently too far-fetched for its own good.  For instance, early on, when Travis briefly escapes and ends up with a highway patrolman (Frank Bates), does it make any sense at all that Cohen, ostensibly the cooler, more level-headed of the two killers, would drive up behind the cruiser and shoot the patrolman in the head, forcing Travis to steer the speeding vehicle from the passenger seat?  Don't they need to deliver him alive?  On what planet does that make sense?  Cohen might be hard of hearing, but he's not suffering from dementia.  Also witness what might be cinema's least likely way of getting through a roadblock in a scene that's often cited as suspenseful highlight but just seems silly and unintentionally funny.  And how does Tate chase Travis across a busy highway with Frogger-levels of speeding traffic in both directions, while hoisting a shotgun, and yet, no one seems to notice?  Not only that, but the highway was practically empty two seconds earlier.  Where did all this traffic come from?  Did a sellout performance at Plot Convenience Playhouse just let out?

OK, so COHEN AND TATE has some problems.  But Red's stylish direction and the work of the three leads do a lot of the heavy lifting that salvages Red's script occasionally dropping the ball.  The great Scheider delivers one of his best performances in one of his last big-screen leads before aging into supporting roles, TV and straight-to-video.  His Cohen is a fascinating character--in a retrospective doc on the Blu-ray, Red describes Cohen as a gangster with a "samurai code"--and one to which Scheider fully commits.  Late in the film, the cool, steely Cohen turns momentarily frantic and helpless when his hearing aid pops out, and Red says that bit was all Scheider's idea to use the hearing aid as more than just a visual prop.  Baldwin, best known at the time for the title role in 1980's MY BODYGUARD and as Animal Mother in Stanley Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET (1987), though he would go on to co-star in the cult TV series FIREFLY and its big-screen spinoff SERENITY, is a good match with Scheider and the two do a fine job of getting on one another's nerves.  But it's Cross who's really the emotional center of the film and he plays it very believably and never gets annoying, displaying a wisdom beyond his years that the young actor possessed in real life:  he was interviewed on TODAY in 1987 to plug THE BELIEVERS, and the then-nine-year-old actor cited LAST TANGO IN PARIS as his favorite Marlon Brando movie.  Cross appeared in a few films into his teen years, most notably the little-seen underground film THE BOY WHO CRIED BITCH (1991) and Alex de la Iglesia's insane PERDITA DURANGO (1997) aka DANCE WITH THE DEVIL but hasn't acted since a bit part in 2004's KINSEY.  He stayed in touch with Bates over the years, with the two eventually becoming business partners and founding the Hint Mint line of breath mints.

COHEN AND TATE writer/director Eric Red

Red reteamed with NEAR DARK director Kathryn Bigelow for her 1990 film BLUE STEEL, was one of several screenwriters who turned in a draft for the troubled ALIEN 3 (1992), and directed two horror films (1991's BODY PARTS and 1996's BAD MOON) and a Showtime movie (1996's UNDERTOW) before making news more for his personal problems than his work.  Years of battling financial troubles and personal demons culminated in a bizarre and tragic 2000 incident that involved a car crash that might've been a Red suicide attempt but inadvertently killed two bystanders instead, followed by Red getting out of his vehicle and slitting his own throat with a shard of glass.  This horrific incident essentially derailed his filmmaking career.  While his former writing partner Bigelow has gone on to Oscar glory with THE HURT LOCKER and the acclaim of last year's ZERO DARK THIRTY, Red has only made one film since the accident (2008's straight-to-DVD 100 FEET) but has become a regular fixture on the convention circuit and at midnight screenings of THE HITCHER and NEAR DARK.  It didn't take long for those Red-penned films to find an audience, but COHEN AND TATE's fan base has been gradually expanding over the last 20+ years, and Red has even recently hosted some screenings of it. The odd circumstances of his suicide attempt still follow him but he seems to have rebuilt his life and gained acceptance in cult movie circles.

COHEN AND TATE isn't an undiscovered classic by any means.  It suffers from too many lapses in logic to entirely work as a credible thriller, but fans of the actors, particularly Scheider, should definitely give it a look.  Scheider (1932-2008) had a reputation for being difficult (he bailed on THE DEER HUNTER and only agreed to do JAWS 2 to avoid a lawsuit, and during the shooting of JAWS 2, he and director Jeannot Szwarc allegedly came to blows), and his days on the A-list ended quite abruptly in the mid-1980s.  COHEN AND TATE showed that even though he may have fallen out of favor in Hollywood as a leading man, he still had that same fire and that same intensity that he brought to essential films like THE FRENCH CONNECTION, JAWS, SORCERER, and ALL THAT JAZZ.  COHEN AND TATE isn't necessarily a great movie, but it does showcase a great Roy Scheider performance.