Sunday, March 30, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: OTHELLO (THE BLACK COMMANDO) (1982)

(Spain/France - 1982)

Written and directed by Max H. Boulois. Cast: Tony Curtis, Joanna Pettet, Max H. Boulois, Ramiro Oliveros, Nadiuska, Gerard Barray, Fernando Sancho, Aldo Sambrell, Sara Mora, Tom Hernandez. (Unrated, 86 mins)

Martinique-born jack-of-all-trades Max-Henri Boulois has dabbled in a bit of everything over his career: he was some sort of "French athletics prodigy" in the early 1960s before embarking on his career as an author and political commentator.  He also found time in the 1970s to record some albums under the name "Max B," parlaying whatever notoriety that brought into a few supporting roles under his "Max B" moniker, which led to a three-film run as independent auteur Max H. Boulois, self-financing, writing, directing, and starring in films under his Spain-based "M.B. Diffusion S.A." production banner.  Boulois' filmmaking efforts are little more than clumsy, Martinique-shot vanity projects that are among the most obscure in all of exploitation cinema:  1980's BIG GAME, aka MAD MEX: THE BLACKFIGHTER and the 1981 casino heist thriller BLACK JACK never scored a US release, though by the time of BLACK JACK, Boulois was able to afford real actors like the legendary Peter Cushing and former THUNDERBALL Bond girl Claudine Auger.  But Boulois' magnum opus is his ill-conceived, budget-starved 1982 effort OTHELLO (THE BLACK COMMANDO), a modern updating that turns the Shakespeare tragedy into an action film set in an unnamed African country, with Boulois' General Othello leading a band of guerrila fighters against the rule of a tyrannical despot. Shakespeare updates are nothing new in movies, but you know you're in for something special when the opening credits misspell Shakespeare's name.

Like his previous films, OTHELLO (THE BLACK COMMANDO) is pretty much a Boulois home movie, with barely-audible dialogue often drowned-out by the overbearing use of Beethoven selections on the soundtrack.  The only real reason to sit through it is to check out a hammy Tony Curtis booze-and-coke-sweating his way through his performance as the duplicitous Col. Iago, Othello's racist second-in-command who plots his superior's downfall.  Resentful of Othello and his marriage to humanitarian aid worker Desdemona "DeDe" Fergusson (Joanna Pettet), the daughter of a powerful US senator (Tom Hernandez),  Iago sets in motion a complex plan to destroy Othello and Major Cassius (Ramiro Oliveros), and usurp control of the guerilla fighters himself.  Curtis sports a ten-gallon hat in a couple of scenes for no reason, and elsewhere rants and raves, likely ad-libbing lines where he expresses his disgust at Othello's "chimpanzee hands, those thick lips, and that smell" all over the privileged, white Desdemona (almost every white male is a vile racist, right down to Sen. Fergusson, outraged over his daughter's marriage, complaining that Othello practices witchcraft and probably "cast a spell" on Desdemona). Boulois doesn't use much of the Bard's actual writing, but when he does, as in one scene where Curtis delivers an Iago soliloquy, it comes off as hokey and awkward amidst the modern vernacular. OTHELLO (THE BLACK COMMANDO) came at a time in Curtis' career when his substance abuse problems essentially made him an unemployable pariah in Hollywood, resulting in appearances in some truly dreadful films like Ulli Lommel's BRAIN WAVES (1983) and the Alexander Salkind fiasco WHERE IS PARSIFAL? (1984).  As far as he could be from the likes of SOME LIKE IT HOT and SPARTACUS, desperate for work and probably figuring he could score some primo blow in Martinique, Curtis appears to be invested in this and even showed up at Cannes in 1982 to shill for it, going so far as to sit down with Roger Ebert to discuss it. Cannon chief Menaham Golan acquired the distribution rights to Boulois' film, but didn't do much with it other than dump it in a few foreign territories under their "Cannon International" banner. They never released it in US theaters and it never turned up on video, though it can be found on the bootleg and torrent circuit.

OTHELLO (THE BLACK COMMANDO)'s cult status is minor, due largely to the depressing presence of a slumming Curtis, reduced to appearing in a Eurocine co-production that looks like the typically slipshod Jess Franco films that the French company was financing around the same time. In keeping with the Eurocine tradition, shots vacillate from night to day in the same scenes, while other scenes end abruptly, sometimes in mid-sentence, there's little continuity, and the dialogue--Curtis and Pettet appear to be speaking on-set; Boulois and the others sound dubbed--often ranges from garbled to completely inaudible. There's little sense of pacing, and even with spaghetti western stalwarts Fernando Sancho and Aldo Sambrell in supporting roles, the whole thing is a real snooze when Curtis is offscreen. But such is the life of the cult film enthusiast. Bad-movie fanatics and connoisseurs of trashy cinema are always willing to explore films of the "Does this piece of shit really exist?!" variety, and on that front, OTHELLO (THE BLACK COMMANDO) doesn't disappoint.   What can I say?  This is the life we've chosen.

Joanna Pettet during her 1970s heyday
Pettet, whose career got off to a promising start in the late 1960s with Sidney Lumet's THE GROUP, the 007 spoof CASINO ROYALE, and Peter Yates' ROBBERY, doesn't embarrass herself, though it's hard to believe she wasn't entertaining better offers than this or another vanity project around the same time, co-starring in the drive-in thriller DOUBLE EXPOSURE, where producer Michael Callan cast schlubby character actor Michael Callan as a fashion photographer surrounded by a bunch of models who can't wait to sleep with Michael Callan.  The beautiful, British-born Pettet was a constant presence on American TV in the 1970s but for some reason, she never made it big. Not long after her OTHELLO (THE BLACK COMMANDO) triumph, she had a short but acclaimed run on KNOTS LANDING, followed by a few other appearances of no significance.  Pettet quit acting after a harrowing experience in late 1989, when she was among the hostages held by Filipino rebels plotting a coup against then-President Corazon Aquino.  She was in Manila shooting the low-budget Roger Corman/Cirio H. Santiago production TERROR IN PARADISE and the insurgents took over the hotel where she was staying and the area around it as they closed in on the Presidential residence at the Malacanan Palace.  Pettet managed to escape and decided that easy money in shit movies wasn't worth it anymore.  The film was unreleased until 1995, the same year Pettet and ex-husband Alex Cord (AIRWOLF's "Archangel") lost their 26-year-old son to a heroin overdose.  She was a companion to the great British actor Alan Bates in the final days before his 2003 death from pancreatic cancer, but beyond that, the now-71-year-old Pettet has completely retired from public life.  She deserves to be better-known.

The hulking Boulois has a bit of screen presence but isn't much of an actor, though as far as self-financed, would-be auteurs go, he's not as bad as, say, John De Hart in GETEVEN, Tommy Wiseau in THE ROOM, or Phil Pitzer in EASY RIDER: THE RIDE BACK. Despite all the ingredients for some outstanding Cinema du Batshit, OTHELLO (THE BLACK COMMANDO) is a pretty dry and tedious affair, very rarely going as bonkers as its misbegotten concept and incompetent execution would imply. After the world failed to embrace his "Sheakespeare" interpretation, Boulois abandoned movies and music and returned to journalism, writing several non-fiction books and being a regular French TV presence in the coverage of European and Middle East politics.  His website hasn't been updated since 2011.

(special thanks to Marty McKee for sending me his copy of this--you sure you don't want it back, Marty?)

Friday, March 28, 2014

In Theaters: SABOTAGE (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by David Ayer.  Written by Skip Woods and David Ayer.  Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington, Olivia Williams, Mireille Enos, Terrence Howard, Harold Perrineau, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Max Martini, Martin Donovan, Troy Garity, Maurice Compte, Kevin Vance, Michael Monks, Gary Grubbs, Mark Schlegel. (R, 109 mins)

Arnold Schwarzenegger's return to movies after a decade in politics has largely found the action icon in self-deprecation mode, poking fun at his age in the sadly neglected THE LAST STAND and cutting loose while Sylvester Stallone played his straight man in ESCAPE PLAN.  Those two films, along with his appearances in the EXPENDABLES outings, showed a fully self-aware Schwarzenegger who seemed to be happy just making formula action movies again. Unfortunately, if the word "expendables" isn't in the title, formula action movies with '80s action stars aren't doing very well in the 2010s, so Schwarzenegger tries something different with SABOTAGE, teaming with writer/director David Ayer, who's made a name for himself with tough, gritty L.A. cop thrillers--he scripted the great TRAINING DAY (2001) and the underrated DARK BLUE (2002), directed the frequently absurd STREET KINGS (2008), and both wrote and directed END OF WATCH (2012). Ayer's had some stumbles--his 2006 directing debut HARSH TIMES features what's thus far the only bad Christian Bale performance--but the idea of collaborating with Schwarzenegger had some interesting potential. Unfortunately, SABOTAGE is an almost total bust with only the hints of a better film occasionally peaking through the rubble.  I like the idea of an aged Schwarzenegger exploring the dark side of a character who's spent his life in law enforcement and has seen far too much horrible shit, and that comes through in a powerfully effective closing shot that strongly suggests Ayer might've been going for something meaningful, but until then, SABOTAGE is filled with tired cliches, obnoxiously cartoonish heroes, and illogical plotting.  It seems torn between being a Schwarzenegger vehicle and an Ayer film, clumsily reaching a happy medium that comes off as an awkward, compromised attempt at the most mediocre of both worlds.

Schwarzenegger is John "Breacher" Wharton, a veteran Atlanta-based DEA badass who runs a crew of hardcore, hypermacho, undercover dude-bros who play by their own rules and look like the types of guys who go to metal shows just to beat the shit out of people in the mosh pit.  They fuckin' live on the edge 24/7, motherfucker. They fuckin' work hard and they fuckin' play harder.  They make SONS OF ANARCHY look like fuckin' pussies and they've always got each others' backs, bro, because that's all fuckin' matters in this world. It's not just a fuckin' job...they fuckin' live it, man.  It's what they fuckin' do. They fuckin' crush fuckin' cartels, they fuckin' get shit done, and they fuckin' answer to fuckin' no one.  Then they fuckin' go to fuckin' titty bars and they fuckin' make it rain, slammin' fuckin' shots, fuckin' smashin' bottles, and kickin' the fuckin' shit outta some fuckin' pussy bouncers, just because they fuckin' can. They're the fuckin' best at what they do.  They got fuckin' names like Breacher, Monster (Sam Worthington), Sugar (Terrence Howard), Grinder (Joe Manganiello), Neck (Josh Holloway), Pyro (Max Martini), Tripod (Kevin Vance), and Smoke (Mark Schlegel).  But the fuckin' sickest of all is Monster's old lady Lizzy (Mireille Enos), who's like, just totally fuckin' off the chain, bro.

"Get up, come on, get down with the sickness!"
Breacher's still getting over his wife and son being murdered by a Guatemalan cartel boss when he and his crew orchestrate a $10 million heist of drug money to set themselves up for life.  The money goes missing and the Feds are on to them, but after laying low for six months, they get nothing and have no choice but to send Breacher and his team back in the field.  Shortly after, members of the crew start getting offed one by one in assorted gruesome ways that mimic the revenge tactics of the cartel:  one is smashed to pieces by a train, another is disemboweled, gutted, and nailed to the ceiling.  Hard-nosed Atlanta homicide detective Brentwood (Olivia Williams) and her partner Jackson (Harold Perrineau) are in charge of the investigation and get no cooperation from the crew (who, naturally, want to fuckin' deal with this in their own fuckin' way, telling Brentwood--what else--"Welcome to our world"), though a reluctant Breacher slowly begins to warm up to her.  As the body count rises and a drug raid reveals they aren't being targeted, Breacher and the team lose trust in one another with the pending exposure of their corruption and the increasing likelihood that the killer is one of their fuckin' own.

Ayer doesn't shy away from graphically gory carnage, making SABOTAGE an unusually grim Schwarzenegger film.  But Ayer and co-writer/screenwriting pariah Skip Woods (A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD) never really establish a consistency between a brutal DEA thriller and an Arnold actioner. Schwarzenegger seems up to the challenge of playing a morally-conflicted, burned-out DEA field op whose years on the job mixed with unspeakable tragedy have prompted him to go rogue, but Breacher and his colleagues are some of the most absurdly posturing, gratingly repulsive heroes to hit screens in ages.  They act like the kind of roid-raging, fart-obsessed Beavis & Butt-heads who go to public places just to yell, start fights and break shit. They're the kind of no-rules renegades who leave a trail of dead bodies and just strut away from the scene of a meth-stronghold massacre, telling the cops "Cleanup, aisle 3."  It's hard to care about Monster and Lizzy's imploding marriage, since it's obvious these two sacks of shit were made for each other. Enos is a fine actress, but she's completely over-the-top here, and not in a good way (see Eva Green in 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE). You can tell Ayer handled the writing in the scenes with Williams and Perrineau, because their rapport and ribbing with one another expertly conveys the kind of lived-in comfort and trust of two veteran cops who've worked together for some time.  The scenes with these two are far more interesting than anything involving Breacher and his crew of goonish idiots (Williams also gets the film's best line, telling a posturing Grinder "I hate to interrupt your bro-down, but..."). I also liked some amusing asides here and there, like Breacher being under constant surveillance during his suspension, bringing Pop Tarts to the Feds parked outside his house and sharing his Netflix DVDs with them.

As an actor, Schwarzenegger has overcome the obstacle of his thick Austrian accent with his larger-than-life screen presence and sheer charisma--when he plays a Texas sheriff in RAW DEAL or a US Special Forces vet in COMMANDO or a big-city cop or even a KINDERGARTEN COP, he's Arnold and you just roll with it, no matter how inherently absurd his casting may be.  That's why he's awesome.  But with SABOTAGE, it's the first time it feels like Schwarzenegger is out of place.  Maybe it's the conflicted script, maybe it's the ill-fitting suits he wears in the DEA offices, or maybe it's his age, but for whatever reason, it's hard to buy the Breacher that he's selling here.  He doesn't look comfortable in the action scenes, and while it's commendable that he isn't going full Seagal and checking out entirely while his stuntman does the heavy lifting, Arnold just doesn't move like he used to.  He looks oddly slumped when he's carrying a shotgun and barging through doors.  It's perfectly understandable--no matter how great of shape he's in, he's still 66 years old and it's not 1990 anymore.  There's no mention made of his character's age, but maybe it would've been smart to work it in, especially given the implications of the closing scene.  But as it is, for the first time since his post-Governator comeback, he actually comes across as too old for this shit.  Perhaps if SABOTAGE were as relatively lighthearted as THE LAST STAND or ESCAPE PLAN, the miscasting wouldn't come off as so glaring.  But that again speaks to how SABOTAGE is constantly working at cross purposes.  It's Schwarzenegger taking on dark, serious material, but it's at least a decade too late, and the filmmakers feel too much of an obligation to make it an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, and as a result, it's a complete mess that unfortunately feels like it should've gone straight to DVD.  Ultimately, the basic center of the film--the mystery of who's offing the crew and why--doesn't really hold up to any serious scrutiny.  Also, SABOTAGE can't even follow the advice of its own one-sheet ("Leave no loose ends"):  what was the point of introducing Troy Garity's bitter, whistleblowing Fed only to drop him completely after two scenes? And if Breacher's crew followed their directive to blow up all the money in their initial raid, then how did the DEA suits know $10 million was missing?  That's got "Skip Woods" written all over it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE GREAT BEAUTY (2013); THE PAST (2013); and THE GRANDMASTER (2013)

(Italy/France - 2013)

The recent Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film is equal parts majestic and ponderous, profound and obvious.  It's often stunningly beautiful, and purposefully reminiscent of the legendary likes of Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti.  Like its characters, THE GREAT BEAUTY overstays its welcome and probably would've been more effective had there been maybe 20-30 minutes less of it, but the things in it that work, work extremely well.  Directed and co-written by acclaimed Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (IL DIVO), coming off his little-seen, Weinstein-buried English-language debut THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, which featured Sean Penn in probably the strangest role of his career, THE GREAT BEAUTY could almost be seen as the later years of Marcello Mastroianni's LA DOLCE VITA character.  Sorrentino's favorite actor, the chameleon-like Toni Servillo (think of him as Italy's Daniel Day-Lewis), stars as Jep Gambardella, a 65-year-old journalist who's always seen where it's important for society's elite to be seen, where people are famous for being famous.  Jep wrote a legendary novel 40 years ago and never wrote another, instead choosing to pen puff pieces and live the celebrity life ("I wrote one book 40 years ago and no bookstore carries it!"). He's no longer able to mask his contempt for his assignments, openly mocking interview subjects like pretentious performance artist Talia Concept (Anita Kravos), whose entire schtick is stripping nude and head-butting a concrete wall.  He's grown increasingly misanthropic with age and can always be counted on to deliver a scorched-earth screed if he's prodded enough (his dressing down of a friend who chastises his "novellette" over drinks at a party provides some unforgettable cringe).  When he's informed by the devastated husband (Massimo De Francovich) of his teenage first love that she's recently passed and her diary reveals she carried a torch for him for nearly 50 years, it forces Jep to re-evaluate his life and what's he's done with it.  He feels emotion where a sardonic crack once sufficed.  He considers writing that second novel and trying to find the promise that once was, saying "I'm at the age where I can't waste any more time doing the things I don't want to do."

As a basic point-A to point-B plot, THE GREAT BEAUTY is hardly innovative.  Where Sorrentino succeeds is with the incredibly poetic way that the film plays out. Showcasing marvelous tracking shots, sweeping crane shots, and Kubrickian framing, it's LA DOLCE VITA with the hypnotic look of Alain Resnais' LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD and the sense of melancholy for the gone forever past of Visconti's THE LEOPARD.  It's a film that mourns the past, lost youth, lost time, missed opportunities, and fading memories, as Jep, from his spacious penthouse apartment overlooking the Coliseum, surrounds himself with the frustrating vapidity of a modern Rome that doesn't understand the beauty it once was. When we first meet Jep, it's at his birthday party, a garish rave populated by the vulgar, the cretinous, and the insufferable:  Eurocult icon Serena Grandi appears as a bloated, haggard, coke-snorting ex-reality TV star, now reduced to jumping out of Jep's cake, and one pompous woman huffs "I wouldn't know her...I've never owned a TV," to which her sighing friend replies "You remind me of that at least once a day." Sorrentino gives the film a freeform structure that sometimes causes it to drag, especially in the second half, but the cinematography is gorgeous and the great Servillo is outstanding as always. (Unrated, 141 mins)

(France/Italy - 2013) 

Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi ventures to Europe for this searing drama that functions as somewhat of a French-language companion piece to his 2011 Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner A SEPARATION.  Like that film, THE PAST has lives intersecting in unforeseen ways with consequences the players never see coming.  Farhadi has demonstrated his ability at building strong, believable, and very human characters in situations where all of the details are distributed in a deliberate but never hokey fashion.  There are surprises and shocking revelations in THE PAST, but it's very organic in its construction and Farhadi avoids the easy pitfall of hackneyed melodrama.  THE PAST is an excellent film but, through no fault of its own, it can't help but feel like a bit of a retread after A SEPARATION, even though its characters aren't in exactly the same scenario.  Ali Mosaffa stars as Ahmad, an Iranian man who, in the midst of a severe depression, left Paris, his French wife Marie (Berenice Bejo of THE ARTIST) and her two daughters from a previous relationship, Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Lea (Jeanne Jestin).  Four years later, he returns from Iran at Marie's request to finalize their divorce.  She's now involved with Samir (Tahar Rahim), who's moved in with his five-year-old son Fouad (Elyes Aguis).  Ahmad doesn't expect to walk into a quietly dysfunctional powderkeg of tension, resentment, and other unresolved issues as he's drawn into the various conflicts existing in the household.  Lucie is now a rebellious teenager who regards Ahmad like a father and objects to Samir being in their lives as another of her mother's men who will "just go away after a few years." Samir's wife has been in a coma for eight months for reasons that may or may not involve Samir and Marie having an affair.  Fouad has a playmate in young Lea but is angry that he isn't living at his own house and that he has to share a bunk bed with Ahmad.

As with A SEPARATION, Farhadi slowly reveals layers of the story, methodically filling in the audience on the history of the characters and refusing to paint things in mere black and white.  Almost everyone--Ahmad, Marie, Samir, and Lucie--provoke shifting alliances with the viewer.  Is Marie a homewrecker?  Does Ahmad relish the turmoil in which he finds himself?  Though you may question the decisions they make, no one is completely right and no one is completely wrong, but they're unmistakably human and deeply flawed.  It's hard to not compare THE PAST to the masterpiece that was A SEPARATION, but it's filled with powerful moments, committed performances (as he did with little Kimia Hosseini in A SEPARATION, Farhadi gets a movie-stealing performance out of a child actor, in this case the amazing young Aguis) , and Farhadi isn't afraid to let takes linger to the point where you're as uncomfortable as the characters.  Witness the scene where Ahmad and Samir find themselves left alone at the kitchen table and just sit there, not with animosity--they aren't by any means chummy but they seem to realize they have no reason to dislike one another--but with the shrugging realization that they don't really have anything to say.  (PG-13, 130 mins)

(US/Hong Kong/China/France/Netherlands - 2013)

Legendary Wing Chun martial-artist and Bruce Lee mentor Ip Man (1893-1972) has been the subject of numerous films and a TV series in the last several years, virtually saturating the Asian market to become their version of Italian DJANGO westerns and French films about Coco Chanel. Donnie Yen starred in two hugely popular but highly fictionalized accounts, IP MAN (2008) and IP MAN 2 (2010) before declaring he was done because the Ip Mania was getting out of hand (he seems to have had a change of heart since he recently signed on for a third IP MAN, due out in 2015).  There were also the competing IP MAN films THE LEGEND IS BORN: IP MAN (2010) with Dennis To, and IP MAN: THE FINAL FIGHT (2013) with Anthony Wong (because of its title, this is often mistaken as a sequel to the two Yen films), as well as the Chinese TV series IP MAN, which premiered in 2013 and starred Kevin Cheng in the title role.  2013 also saw the release of the most ambitious IP MAN project: Wong Kar Wai's THE GRANDMASTER, a more arthouse take on the legendary figure that was nonetheless controversially recut by US distributor Harvey Weinstein and sold as an action-centered kung-fu epic. Wong (CHUNGKING EXPRESS, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE) had already released two versions, running 130 minutes and 123 minutes.  Weinstein--allegedly with Wong's involvement--overhauled the film to 108 minutes for the US, adding some English captions to give a sense of perspective and exposition to American audiences not necessarily familiar with the Sino-Japanese conflicts that impacted Ip Man's life in the 1930s, and while that's helpful, the US release also makes further edits and rearranges some sequences.  Wong wrote that it was a chance to "re-shape it" for a different audience while at the same time admitting that his 130-minute cut is his preferred version prepared with "precision and perfect balance."

Precision and perfect balance are not among the feelings you get watching the American cut of THE GRANDMASTER.  It's a dazzling, sweeping epic (Philippe Le Sourd's cinematography got a well-deserved Oscar nomination), but its storytelling is muddled and confusing, even with the addition of English expository text and additional voiceover from Tony Leung's Ip Man.  The purpose of Weinstein ordering the re-edit was to make Wong's film more linear, but the timeframe still jumps all over the place and there's still enough flashbacks and side stories that you're frequently unaware what year certain parts of the story are taking place.  Covering Ip Man's life from 1936 to the early 1950s, Ip Man establishes himself as a great martial arts philosopher and practitioner and Grandmaster and is forced to leave Foshan after the Japanese invasion in 1938.  The unwieldy plot also involves disputes between northern and southern China, traitorous Chinese martial artists selling out to the Japanese invaders, Ip Man's competitive rivalry/unrequited love with Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of Master Gong Yutian (Wang Quigxiang), and how the Gong legacy is defamed and usurped by the treacherous Ma San (Zhang Jin) before Ip Man is forced to relocate to Hong Kong in 1950, where the film even tangentially involves Pu Yi, the subject of Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-winning THE LAST EMPEROR (1987).  What's odd--at least in the US cut--is how the last third of the film has Ip Man essentially step aside as a peripheral character in his own story.  Zhang's Gong Er becomes the center of the plot in an extended flashback that details her reclaiming of the Gong dynasty in a brilliantly-shot fight sequence with Ma San, as Wong even works in an opium den sequence that's a straight-up homage to Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984), right down to the use of Ennio Morricone's famed "Deborah's Theme." Even in this truncated form, THE GRANDMASTER looks incredible--Wong really loves shooting epic fights in wind, rain, and snow--and the performances of Leung and Zhang are excellent, but there was enough of a cineaste backlash over this recut version that a domestic special edition Blu-ray release of Wong's 130-minute version is inevitable, so why not wait for that?  (PG-13, 108 mins, also available on Netflix Instant)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: MEET HIM AND DIE (1976)

(Italy/West Germany - 1976)

Directed by Franco Prosperi.  Written by Peter Berling, Antonio Cucca, Claudio Fragasso, Alberto Marras. Cast: Ray Lovelock, Martin Balsam, Elke Sommer, Riccardo Cucciolla, Ettore Manni, Heinz Domez, Ernesto Colli, Peter Berling.  (Unrated, 94 mins)

Raro USA has done a fine job bringing cult classic 1970s poliziotteschi and other Eurocult gems to DVD and Blu-ray over the last few years, frequently in comprehensive, near Criterion-level packaging (their first box set of Fernando Di Leo crime films, featuring CALIBER 9, THE ITALIAN CONNECTION, THE BOSS, and RULERS OF THE CITY is absolutely essential).  There have been stumbles along the way:  a pressing error caused the entire run of Massimo Dallamano's THE SECRET OF DORIAN GRAY (1970) to be recalled, the DVD release of Di Leo's TO BE TWENTY (1978) had a glitch that causes it to skip the last chapter of the film, forcing you to go to the chapter selections to see the end of the movie, and their recent Blu-ray release of Umberto Lenzi's NIGHTMARE CITY (1980) has been knocked for its subpar transfer that doesn't even look as good as the decade-plus-old Anchor Bay DVD.  You can't knock them all out of of the park, but their edition of MEET HIM AND DIE is an unmitigated disaster of shit-the-bed proportions.

The movie itself is fine--it's not the best polizia and it's not where one should start when exploring the subgenre, but it's an entertaining action thriller.  The plot is filled with shootouts, double-crosses, and some nicely-done chase sequences.  Massimo (Ray Lovelock of LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN) is busted for holding up a jewelry store and sent to prison.  It's revealed very early that he's actually an undercover cop, ostensibly posing as a criminal to help orchestrate an escape for incarcerated mob boss Giulianelli (Martin Balsam), who's still overseeing his smuggling operation from the inside and the cops know there's bigger fish to catch.  But Massimo's ultimate goal is to use Giulianelli to get to Perrone (Ettore Manni), who employs the two goons who shot and paralyzed his mother.  From the action to the memorable score by Ubaldo Continiello to--if you watch the English track--the appearances of all the usual suspects in the dubbing world (Balsam--the same year he co-starred in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN--dubs himself, while Lovelock is voiced by Ted Rusoff, and Elke Sommer turns up about an hour in and is dubbed by Pat Starke), MEET HIM AND DIE is a perfectly serviceable polizia.  There's nothing new here, but fans will find a lot to enjoy.

That is, if they can get past the botched transfer.  Whether it was Raro's doing or them just working with what they had, the DNR (digital noise reduction) here is off-the-charts.  It's as bad as the infamous PREDATOR Blu-ray.  In the long shots, it actually looks sort-of OK, but close-ups of the actors--and director Franco Prosperi (more on him in a bit) uses a lot of close-ups--look like they're coated in a waxy glaze, all lines and definition completely removed as everyone just has a smooth, lifeless appearance, surrounded by garish, overly-bright colors.  All the grain has been removed, with a fake grain sort-of "hovering" over the image (Blue Underground's Blu-ray release of Dario Argento's THE CAT O'NINE TAILS is a horrific example of this), and it's most noticeable whenever Riccardo Cucciolla (as Massimo's boss) is on screen--watch how the designs on his loud sport jackets sort of move.  Sure, there are some moments where it's not awful-looking, but for the most part, this is a horribly ugly transfer and indicative of everything people misunderstand about the concept of high-definition.  This is not how movies should look. This is not how film looks, especially when it's one from the mid-1970s.  It's anti-HD.

As if the transfer and the absurd levels of DNR weren't bad enough, Raro completely embarrasses itself with the accompanying booklet.  There's an essay about the film by polizia expert Mike Malloy, who recently directed the documentary EUROCRIME, which looks at the genre and interviews virtually every still-living actor who appeared in them.  Malloy obviously knows his shit, and his essay, as well as a video segment in the bonus features where he talks about the movie, the actors, and the subgenre itself, are nicely-done (I liked his description of the Italians latching on to what was popular--peplum, spaghetti westerns, crime movies--and "strip-mining" it until everyone was completely exhausted with it).  But there's also a two-page bio of Prosperi and an accompanying filmography, and here lies the problem:  as strange as it seems, there were two Franco Prosperi's working in Italian cinema from the 1960s to the 1980s. The MEET HIM AND DIE Prosperi was a genre and exploitation journeyman who dabbled in a little of everything over his mostly unexceptional career (007 ripoffs in the '60s, horror films in the '70s, and CONAN ripoffs in the '80s).  The two-page bio is for the other Franco Prosperi, best known for co-directing, with Gualtiero Jacopetti, the MONDO CANE documentaries.  The filmography listed after the bio?  That's for the correct (MEET HIM AND DIE) Franco Prosperi.  Now, I don't expect the general public to know (or care) that there are two very different Franco Prosperi's--I didn't know until a few years ago and even the most hardcore Eurotrash disciple has gotten them confused at some point in their travels.  But shouldn't someone at Raro maybe not fallen asleep at the wheel?  Was anyone paying attention?  Was anyone in charge of proofreading or fact-checking?  Did they even watch the video that Malloy shot for them?  Because he specifically mentions the "two different Franco Prosperi's" phenomenon and he specifically says "The director of MEET HIM AND DIE is not the guy who made MONDO CANE." Can you imagine Criterion ever making a gaffe that egregious?  Did anyone not find it odd that the bio of Prosperi made no mention of the film in which it's packaged?  Malloy is the only credited author of the booklet, but it's obvious from his video segment that he didn't write the bio, since he knows it's not the correct Prosperi.  So, between the shitty picture quality and the careless packaging, is there any reason at all to get behind this tire fire of a Blu-ray release?  The relatively obscure MEET HIM AND DIE (which may have had some brief US exposure under the title RISKING) is far from essential, but even the worst polizia deserves better than what it gets here:  a release that does nothing for the film, the genre, either Franco Prosperi, or Raro USA's sinking reputation.  This whole package is riddled with the kind of bush-league fuck-ups that make you hesitant to purchase anything else they release in the future.  Get it together, guys.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: BLOOD TIES (2014)

(France/US - 2013; US release 2014)

Directed by Guillaume Canet.  Written by Guillaume Canet and James Gray.  Cast: Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Marion Cotillard, James Caan, Mila Kunis, Zoe Saldana, Matthias Schoenaerts, Lili Taylor, Noah Emmerich, John Ventimiglia, Domenick Lombardozzi, Yul Vazquez, Richard Petrocelli, Jamie Hector, Eve Hewson, Griffin Dunne, Olek Krupa.  (R, 129 mins)

Since his 1994 debut LITTLE ODESSA, writer/director James Gray's films have always felt out of place with contemporary cinema.  Initially lumped in with the post-RESERVOIR DOGS, Tarantino indie scene, the not-prolific Gray has established himself as more of a Sidney Lumet disciple with his gritty, character-driven, low-key NYC period pieces that frequently involve cops, criminals, and the blurred lines that separate them (most notably his underrated 2007 gem WE OWN THE NIGHT, set in the late '80s with connected club owner Joaquin Phoenix taking on his Russian mob friends after they shoot his cop brother Mark Wahlberg).  BLOOD TIES seems like the movie Gray's wanted to make for the last 20 years, but alas, he only co-wrote it, as TELL NO ONE director Guillaume Canet fashions this French production as a loving throwback to the tough, hard-edged NYC cinema of the 1970s.  It's a triumph of production design and visual detail as Canet and the crew flawlessly recreate 1970s Brooklyn, augmented by subtle examples of seamless, non-intrusive CGI done right.  If only as much attention had been paid to the script.

A remake of Jacques Maillot's 2008 film LES LIENS DU SANG (RIVALS), which was set in 1979 Paris, BLOOD TIES opens in 1974 Brooklyn (with a bloody, brain-splattering shootout accompanied by the Ace Frehley version of "New York Groove," which wasn't recorded until 1978 but let's not nitpick because it's a terrific scene) and offers the old standby of the just-paroled con (Clive Owen as Chris) trying to stay straight. He's constantly butting heads with his resentful brother, NYPD cop Frank (Billy Crudup in the role Canet himself played in RIVALS), who gets him a job at a garage where he meets and falls for cashier Natalie (Mila Kunis), while trying to connect with his two kids and dealing with his bitter, hooker ex Monica (Marion Cotillard).  Meanwhile, Frank has arrested low-level mook Scarfo (BULLHEAD's Matthias Schoenaerts), who owns a van that's been tied to a rash of robberies.  Scarfo claims he's innocent and the whole thing is a set-up by a vengeful Frank, who used to be involved with his wife Vanessa (Zoe Saldana).  As Chris struggles to stay afloat after a potential deal to open a snack stand with his ex-con buddy Mike (Domenick Lombardozzi) falls apart, he eventually accepts a job from mob-connected bar owner Fabio (Yul Vazquez) to rub out three rivals with the Famous Last Words caveat "I just wanna get back on my feet...I'm not gonna make a habit of this."  Of course, one job leads to another and as the cops continue to keep an eye on Chris, who buys Natalie a beautiful engagement ring and is suddenly able to afford an expensive new TV for their ailing father (James Caan), Frank starts getting heat from his boss (Noah Emmerich) and the NYPD brass starts questioning his loyalty.

Released in Europe last year at 144 minutes, BLOOD TIES has been cut by 15 minutes for its dump-job of a US release (28 screens and VOD).  Whether distributor Lionsgate made these edits with or without Canet's involvement is unknown, but at least in this incarnation, it feels rushed and incomplete.  It aspires to be an epic, sprawling crime saga, but it suffers from an awfully choppy opening half-hour and a finale that feels too abrupt, and as a result, the film jumps all over the place and feels like a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive whole. What exactly is Chris?  It's explained that he was in prison for a revenge killing when his girlfriend--presumably Monica--was raped and he offed the attacker.  But once out, he becomes a hit man and later, out of nowhere, he's suddenly a pimp. The film takes place over a few months from late 1974 into early 1975 but the time element never feels right.  Too much goes down in such a short amount of time. Also, there's numerous instances where people are congregated in a scene and behaving as if their last scene together didn't happen.  There's one glaring instance of two scenes that seem to be out of order when Frank kicks temporary roommate Chris out of his apartment, and in the very next scene, Frank is outraged and storms out of the room when he's told by an NYPD honcho that unless he tells Chris to move out, he'll have to turn in his gun and badge.  The large supporting cast gets little to do:  Caan has a big, emotional speech that feels shoehorned in, and Cotillard and Schoenaerts finally get their own plot threads going around 100 minutes into the movie, as if the filmmakers suddenly remembered they were in it.

Is this something unique to the US cut or was this a problem in the European version as well?  Even if the flow and the rhythm of the story are improved by those missing 15 minutes, it won't eliminate the predictable story elements and the cliched execution.  How many times have we seen the ex-con sucked back into "the life"?  How many times have we seen brothers on opposite sides of the law clash only to have the familial bonds reunite them?  It's a great song, but at what point do we stage an intervention for a filmmaker who makes the conscious, straight-faced decision to use the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" for a scene where a junkie falls off the wagon and hits bottom?  Canet indulges in some heavy Scorsese worship throughout BLOOD TIES, and it's fun early on when he shows Chris watching Monica walk away in slo-mo to Lee Moses' "Bad Girl" or late in the film when he's fleeing the cops and speeding from place to place like Ray Liotta's coke-addled Henry Hill in GOODFELLAS.  Scorsese-worship can be a blast--David O. Russell's AMERICAN HUSTLE is recent proof of that--but someone needs to tell Canet that you can't have the camera slowly move in on the pensive visage of Clive Owen to the opening guitar riff of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" nearly 25 years after GOODFELLAS and expect to be taken seriously.

BLOOD TIES is a mess, but it's a beautiful mess, and the performances of Owen and Crudup (looking a lot like a younger Harvey Keitel here) are top-notch.  Canet aims high and sometimes hits the mark (there's a kinetic energy to the opening shootout, and one late phone call between Chris and Frank has a gut-wrenching moment of clarity for both of them), and even with its copious cliches, there's a very good film trying to break out of the merely OK one in which it's trapped.  It's pretty obvious that Gray was a gun-for-hire on this one, probably brought on to ensure that the dialogue had a genuine NYC feel to it instead of sounding awkwardly translated from French.  Gray's films don't lean this heavily on cliches and convention, whereas Canet is a movie buff with an obvious affinity for 1970s crime flicks and wanted to make one of his own.  That's great, and he certainly succeeded on a visual level and got the right attitude from his actors--this is a rare-for-these-days example of a 1970s-set film not looking like a bunch of out-of-their element, in-over-their-heads actors playing ironic hipster dress-up against a gaudy digital greenscreen--but the script just doesn't hold up its end of the deal.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


(US/Mexico - 2013)

You'll pick up on the PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK vibe in this occasionally unsettling demonic possession film from Mexico long before writer/director Adrian Garcia Bogliano gives it a specific shout-out in the closing credits.  Shot with a zoom-heavy, '70s grindhouse aesthetic, HERE COMES THE DEVIL is an art-house horror film that gets under your skin but ultimately suffers from a big reveal and subsequent conclusion that are just too predictable.  It's one of those horror films that's working just fine in its ambiguity but starts stumbling when it feels the need to explain everything.  After a prologue where a lesbian couple is attacked by a crazed home intruder, we're introduced to a typical family on a day trip--dad Felix (Francisco Barreiro of the original WE ARE WHAT WE ARE), mom Sol (Laura Caro), teenage daughter Sara (Michele Garcia), and younger son Adolfo (Alan Martinez).  Sara gets her first period during the outing, but Sol comforts her and gets her through it.  They're about to call it a day when the kids ask to go exploring in a nearby cave.  Sol tells them to come back in an hour and a half, but she and Felix fall asleep after fooling around in the parked car.  Several hours later, the kids still haven't returned and the local cops tell the distraught parents to get some sleep in the motel, where the stress of the situation causes some long-withheld resentment and grudges to boil over (an interesting parallel to Lars von Trier's ANTICHRIST).  The kids reappear the next day and for a while, everyone is happy.  But the kids aren't acting like themselves and are behaving rather VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED-y, and Sol finds out they're regularly skipping school to catch a bus to the cave, located in a mountain that's reputed by the locals to be the center of some supernatural activity.  Back at home, the family is haunted by strange noises at night, a visit to the doctor reveals Sara's hymen is no longer intact, and Felix and Sol sneak back to the mountain area to deal with a man (David Arturo Cabezud) they believe molested their daughter, but obviously there's something much more sinister in store for them.

Refreshingly light on CGI histrionics and far from the EXORCIST-style depiction you might expect, HERE COMES THE DEVIL's subtext addresses the transition to adulthood, the trauma of child abuse, incest, and sexuality in a frank fashion (yeah, the title has a dual meaning), but elsewhere, its horrors are just a bit rote.  Rooms shake, the kids levitate, and a family friend has a nightmarish experience while sitting them.  And the whole nature of the mountain's true evil just feels too hackneyed to be really scary.  Bogliano's direction is very stylish and he utilizes some inventive camera angles (and a De Palma split diopter in one scene!) even if he's a bit too enamored of the kind of aggressively exaggerated zooms that other modern directors use for ironic laughs.  One shot of the kids lying in bed grinning at something hovering above their beds (we don't see it) is very chilling.  The film has its moments and is intriguing to a point as a different kind of demonic possession film but once you see its destination, it just loses some of its intrigue.  Bogliano (PENUMBRA) is obviously a talented filmmaker and HERE COMES THE DEVIL doesn't suffer from a lack of trying, but he just doesn't bring this one all the way home.  Maybe next time.  (Unrated, 98 mins)

(Canada/Germany - 2014)

Feeling like a by-the-numbers courtroom/suspense thriller frozen in 1994 and only recently thawed for release, REASONABLE DOUBT is every bit as generic as its title suggests.  20 years ago, this is the kind of PRESUMED INNOCENT, DISCLOSURE, FINAL ANALYSIS or THE FIRM entertainment that would've easily boasted a Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas, Richard Gere, or Tom Cruise in the lead, and likely would've topped the box office for a month.  But times have changed, and now it stars the elfin Dominic Cooper and was dumped in a few theaters and on VOD two months before hitting Blu-ray.  Sporting an unconvincing Chicaaahgo accent and the kind of character name that only exists in terrible thrillers, the British Cooper is arrogant ("I never lose"), hot-shot Windy City assistant D.A. Mitch Brockden, and Mitch has it all:  loving wife (Erin Karpluk), newborn daughter, successful career.  He's also drunk behind the wheel when he plows over a pedestrian after a night out with some guys at the office.  Not wanting to risk losing everything on a DUI and vehicular manslaughter, Mitch calls 911 from a pay phone (yes, there's one right there on a dark side street) and flees the scene, leaving the man fighting for his life.  The next day, the cops arrest Clinton Davis (a coasting Samuel L. Jackson, visibly irritated that he's been talked into second-billing in a Dominic Cooper movie), who was pulled over with Mitch's now-dead hit-and-run victim in his car.  Davis insists he was taking the man to the hospital but hard-nosed detective Blake Kanon (Gloria Reuben) thinks some injuries on the victim are consistent with those of recent murder victims in the area and that Davis might be a serial killer.  And guess who gets assigned to prosecute him?

Mitch might be the dumbest lawyer in the history of courtroom thrillers.  He all but advertises his involvement in the accident with the way he openly throws the case to get Davis acquitted.  But then he stupidly starts looking into Kanon's theory and finds that the hit-and-run victim was a just-paroled sex offender, as are a lot of recent murder victims in the area.  Davis lost his family in a home invasion and is exacting his revenge by taking out ex-cons.  So now Mitch tries to gather evidence to put away Davis who, of course, has Mitch's business card, which fell out of his coat pocket at the scene of the accident, and has the victim's blood on it (Butterfingers Brockden is constantly dropping things that later put him somewhere he shouldn't be).  Screenwriter Peter A. Dowling (FLIGHTPLAN) also crams in a subplot about Mitch's secret ex-con stepbrother (Ryan Robbins), who took the fall for a crime that a pre-law school Mitch was accessory to so as not to ruin his future, and there's a ridiculous scene where Mitch breaks into Kanon's office in the middle of a workday and rifles through her desk and accesses her computer files.  And would it be a cat-and-mouse thriller if Davis' over-the-phone taunting didn't prompt Mitch to frantically yell "Is this a fucking game to you?"  Director Peter Howitt (SLIDING DOORS, JOHNNY ENGLISH), rightfully cowering under the pseudonym "Peter P. Croudins," might've salvaged things if he had Cooper's Mitch Brockden and Reuben's Blake Kanon debate which of them has the more ridiculous name, but no such luck.  This is another 80-minute movie padded out with ludicrously slow-moving credits, almost always a sure sign that everyone involved is doing the bare minimum, and the big-screen equivalent of using large print and triple-spacing on a book report to get it to the required length.  (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2013)

Or, SERVES YOU RIGHT, YOU WHORE.  One of the most egregiously tone-deaf, idiotic, and offensive films in recent memory, CONTRACTED tries to be too many things--Cronenberg "body horror," viral outbreak paranoia film, stalker thriller, drug addiction drama, critique of L.A. vapidity--even before its rampant stupidity causes it to collapse in on itself.  Samantha (Najarra Townsend) goes to a party at the home of her friend Alice (Alice Macdonald), who prods her into having too much to drink.  She's eventually drugged by a stranger named BJ (YOU'RE NEXT writer Simon Barrett) and the two have a sexual encounter in her car that the filmmakers and the advertising call a one-night stand but it sure plays out like a roofie-abetted acquaintance-rape. The next day, she feels ill and has a persistent bloody discharge from her vagina, but tries to keep it a secret from her mother (Caroline Williams, aka "Stretch" from THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2) as well as her on/off girlfriend Nikki (Katie Stegeman).  A visit to what might be cinema's most useless doctor concludes that Samantha may have a head cold or some kind of STD and her physical condition deteriorates over the next two days--dizziness, vertigo, her eyes turn blood red, the vaginal discharge gets thicker, fingernails fall off, her skin becomes gangrenous, gums bleed, teeth fall out or blacken, she pulls out clumps of hair, starts gasping and wheezing--and Alice tells her that the police are looking for "some guy named BJ" who was at her party and they need to speak with anyone with whom he came into contact.

I'm not sure what writer/director Eric England (MADISON COUNTY) was going for with CONTRACTED.  It's not a badly-made film (he also includes a couple of visual cues from CARRIE), but the script is awful, and England's deliberately evasive approach to the what's and why's (BJ is introduced in a lab, screwing a barely-conscious woman with a biohazard tag on her toe) are infuriating.  Also, are Samantha's friends blind or just a product of L.A. self-absorption?  They see her looking emaciated, purple, veiny, vomiting blood, flesh slowly eating itself away, and all they can say is "Are you OK?"  And if Samantha is a recovering addict, what kind of best friend is Alice to pressure her into getting drunk when she repeatedly says no?  No one in this film behaves like a real person.  Samantha is a server at a restaurant and her boss makes her work looking the way she does.  Everyone is an asshole or a moron. What to make of concerned nice-guy Riley (Matt Mercer)--who's been carrying a torch for Samantha--when he finally gets a chance to get her into bed?  He seems like he might be a little clingy but he cares about her--does he not see that she's basically a rotting corpse by this point?  Does he not...smell her?  England wants this to be the seminal "maggots pouring out of a vagina" movie, but it's at the expense of any semblance of logic. Imagine if Geena Davis kept sleeping with Jeff Goldblum 3/4 of the way through his metamorphosis in Cronenberg's THE FLY and you'll have an idea of how badly this scene plays out.  Townsend is alright in a second-string Rooney Mara kind of way, but even taken metaphorically as a depiction of AIDS or someone falling off the wagon or their emotional and psychological scars made physical (though that might be giving it too much credit--the implications of the abrupt finale point to the film being nothing more than a back door entry to a very stale subgenre), CONTRACTED is too overwrought and scattershot to work, and the punishment Samantha endures for her transgression (actually, victimization) is appalling.  This isn't a horror film--it's heavy-handed slut-shaming.  (Unrated, 84 mins, also available on Netflix Instant)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: SONNY BOY (1990)

(US/Italy - 1990)

Directed by Robert Martin Carroll.  Written by Graeme Whifler and Peter Desberg, Ph.D.  Cast: David Carradine, Paul L. Smith, Brad Dourif, Conrad Janis, Sydney Lassick, Savina Gersak, Alexandra Powers, Michael Griffin, Steve Carlisle, Steve Ingrassia, Robert Broyles, Jeff Bergquist.  (R, 97 mins)

There's genuine heart and a feeling of twisted love deep within the sick horrors contained in SONNY BOY, a one-of-a-kind exploitation film whose cult status seems to be gaining momentum with each passing year and each subsequent late-night "TCM Underground" airing on Turner Classic Movies.  Alternately grim, horrifying, and hilarious, SONNY BOY is indebted to the '70s drive-in horrors of Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven and along with those films, probably influenced the hillbilly horror of Rob Zombie's HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003) and THE DEVIL'S REJECTS (2005).  SONNY BOY just came out at the wrong time--a decade earlier or later and it probably would've gotten more attention from fans.  Filmed in 1987 but--for a variety of reasons--unreleased until 1990, the film had an extremely troubled production that seems to be the norm with Egyptian-born, Italy-based producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (BEYOND THE DOOR, TENTACLES, THE VISITOR).  In the late '80s, Assonitis had a co-production deal with Trans-World Entertainment that produced films like David Keith's THE CURSE (1987),  Alfonso Brescia's fake-ATOR entry IRON WARRIOR (1987), Ruggero Deodato's LONE RUNNER (1988), and Federico Prosperi's THE BITE (1989), rechristened CURSE II: THE BITE though it's completely unrelated to THE CURSE but is likely the only film that will ever contain both radioactive snakes and Jamie Farr getting laid.  SONNY BOY was part of that same deal, but proved a much bigger headache than the others, most of which got small releases on their way to video stores, except for THE CURSE, which actually made some money thanks to a post-STAND BY ME Wil Wheaton, who has blogged about what a terrible experience he had making it (from wilwheaton.net):
 "Well, at the time, your Uncle Willie was just a young'un, and some really evil producers from a scary foreign country came to him and said, 'We have this movie for you to be in, and we want to give you lots of money to be in it.' And Uncle Willie didn't have the best advisors at the time, and nobody told him that this big pile of shit would be around forever. Consider it the very expensive lesson.  At least I didn't get a tattoo."

Equal parts Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, Sam Peckinpah, and John Waters, with bonus Christ and Frankenstein metaphors, SONNY BOY opens in Harmony, New Mexico in 1970, with Weasel (Brad Dourif) killing a couple outside a cheap motel and making off with their car and a black & white TV from the motel room.  Weasel delivers the goods to his boss Slue (Paul L. Smith), a hulking, intimidating brute who lords over the town from his desert junkyard base which also includes a bargain-basement recreation of the Louvre.  Slue isn't happy with Weasel's take, especially since he had to kill the couple and that he took the TV (Slue: "What the fuck am I supposed to watch on black & white?  DRAGNET?"  Weasel: "OK, I'll take it back to the motel!"  Slue: "I own the fucking motel!")  Slue really loses his shit when he finds a baby in the backseat, which Weasel somehow missed.  Wanting no evidence of his crimes, Slue makes a quick decision to feed the baby to some wild hogs, but that plan is thwarted by his lover Pearl, played by David Carradine in drag.  Pearl wants to keep the baby and raise him as her own, and Slue agrees under duress.  Years pass--at age 6, Sonny Boy is given "the gift of silence" by Slue, who removes the boy's tongue.  Sonny Boy is kept locked in a shed and fed live chickens.  By 17 (now played by Michael Griffin), he's a feral beast despite the unconditional love of Pearl, and he's only brought out to off Slue's enemies or clean up the messes left by the incompetence of Slue's flunkies Weasel and Charlie P. (Sydney Lassick).  Eventually, Sonny Boy manages to escape and finds caring souls in Rose (Alexandra Powers, who went on to DEAD POETS SOCIETY) and disgraced, drunken local doc Bender (Conrad Janis of MORK & MINDY), who lost his medical license in a scandal involving transplanted monkey organs.  But the folks of Harmony, egged on by white-trash barfly Sandy (Assonitis' then-girlfriend Savina Gersak, a regular in his late '80 productions, here sporting teeth that look like she just re-enacted a pivotal moment in SALO) are turning on Slue and all but break out the torches and pitchforks in pursuit of Sonny Boy, leading to an explosive, Peckinpah/WILD BUNCH-style showdown at Slue's desert fortress.

SONNY BOY was written by music-video director Graeme Whifler, who went on to script DR. GIGGLES  (1992) and direct segments of the 2000-2002 Dean Cain-hosted revival of RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT.  Whifler was hoping to direct SONNY BOY but was ousted from the project right after selling the script to Assonitis.  The producer instead went with Robert Martin Carroll, whose only prior credit was a 1980 short film (there was a rumor that "Robert Martin Carroll" was a pseudonym for CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and Assonitis' LONE RUNNER director Deodato, but Carroll is indeed a real person; his only other credit is the 2005 indie BABIES FOR SALE, which was shot five years earlier as BABY LUV).  Much of Whifler's script was altered by Assonitis and Carroll (Sonny Boy was originally written as a disfigured monstrosity instead of an animalistic teenage boy), and someone going by "Peter Desberg, Ph.D" is credited with "additional dialogue" (Carroll has said that Whifler's original script was even more extreme and bizarre than what was filmed).  Whifler remained bitter about SONNY BOY and for a long time, there was no love lost between him and Carroll, though in recent years as the film's cult has slowly grown, they've made peace with one another and, in a classic "enemy of my enemy is my friend" development, seem to have come together and found some common ground in their mutual loathing of Assonitis.  Assonitis has long had a reputation as a meddling producer who hires rookie directors just to fire them--most infamously, he gave James Cameron his first directing gig on 1982's PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING and butted heads with the future King of the World throughout the production, kicking him out of the editing room and eventually firing him altogether, infuriating the young Cameron enough that he was finally inspired to devote all of his energies to finishing his script for THE TERMINATOR (cue the PRICE IS RIGHT losing horn for Assonitis).  Carroll got a taste of the Cameron experience during SONNY BOY's post-production in Rome as Assonitis--I hope you're sitting down for this--locked him out of the editing room and fired him. 

SONNY BOY had to undergo a few cuts in the US to secure an R rating and the choppiness shows, especially in a scene where Sonny Boy is confronted by an angry mob and somehow escapes.  The escape is never shown in the US cut, but in the version released overseas, which runs about seven minutes longer, he's shown clawing and biting his way through the crowd, with blood and flesh dripping from his mouth.  In the US cut, someone runs into the bar and simply tells the sheriff that Sonny Boy escaped.  Another pivotal moment cut from the US release is a shot of milk dripping from a mechanism on Pearl's breast as Slue walks in on her feeding an infant Sonny Boy. Carradine as Pearl is a bit of inspired and jaw-dropping stunt casting that, for some reason, the filmmakers never really exploit, at least not in the truncated American cut.  Despite being granted a grand entrance and with top and above-the-title billing, Carradine is a supporting actor in SONNY BOY and absent for long stretches (presumably, they only had him for a limited time), though he was involved enough to sing the theme song "Maybe It Ain't."  The central characters in SONNY BOY are Sonny Boy and Slue, and the film gives the great character actor Paul L. Smith perhaps the showiest role of his career.  Dourif has said in interviews and at conventions that Smith and Carroll didn't get along at all, so perhaps some of that frustration helped fuel his performance.  The Massachusetts-born Smith (1936-2012) was a former bouncer and bodyguard with a degree in Philosophy who got his start as the Bud Spencer fill-in in a series of low-grade Italian buddy movies with Terence Hill wannabe "Michael Coby" (actually Italian actor Antonio Cantafora) in the mid '70s.  He's best known for his burly, leering, sneering presence in films like 1978's MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (as the brutal head prison guard Hamidou), 1980's POPEYE (as Bluto), 1983's chainsaw classic PIECES (as the stink-eyed, red herring handyman Willard), and 1984's DUNE (as The Beast Rabban).  SONNY BOY gave Smith a rare starring role and he runs with it, glowering, glaring, and sweating through the entire film with a masterful slow burn.  Smith retired from acting in the late 1990s and left Hollywood to recommit to his Jewish faith, changing his name to Adam Eden and relocating with his wife to Israel where he spent his last years.  The folks at Grindhouse Releasing tracked him down and visited him at his home in Ra'anana for a candid and gregarious career-spanning interview on their PIECES DVD in 2008.

Griffin, who soon started going by Michael Boston, but has done nothing of note in the years since SONNY BOY, turns in a very credible and often haunting performance as the tortured Sonny Boy, and what's most interesting about the characters in SONNY BOY is how the actors don't ham it up and go over the top.  Sure, Smith glares and yells, Dourif acts twitchy and sketchy, and Lassick does his patented Cheswick whining (this is probably not the ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST reunion either envisioned in 1975), but there's an oddly natural and lived-in feeling to their performances that makes the film that much more unsettling.  No one is outraged by anything that goes on.  No one seems to notice that Pearl is hideous and has chest hair.  And even the townspeople are bunch of hatemongering yahoos.  The straight performances of the cast--even Carradine is restrained, despite his garb--heighten the outrage factor when something completely batshit happens, whether Sonny Boy bites off Weasel's thumb or an irate Slue fires a cannon and blows up a snooping deputy sheriff who's not on board with how things operate in Harmony.  Even Janis' quack doctor is portrayed as a noble guy who was just trying to do the right thing with what he had available, even if it invites endless derision from the residents (after he tells Weasel to get his severed thumb looked at, Weasel scoffs "What?  And let you put a monkey dick on it?").  The film has a surprising conflict and depth to it in terms of its depiction of abuse and Sonny Boy's continued love of Slue despite everything he's put him through.  Though it never justifies Slue's despicable actions, the film makes it clear that in his own way, he loves Sonny Boy.  Yes, it's an often nightmarish freakshow, but it touches upon some difficult and complex topics and what's most surprising is that it retained these elements even with all the behind-the-scenes battles and Assonitis pulling rank and commandeering the editing process.

SONNY BOY languished on the shelf for a couple of years before Trans-World's financial issues--no doubt brought on by their expansion from home video into mostly unsuccessful theatrical exhibition--resulted in it being handed off to Triumph Releasing, a small Sony subsidiary.  Triumph obviously didn't have much faith in the box office potential and only released it to a handful of theaters and it vanished after a week.  It was released on VHS by Media Home Entertainment, and that's the blurry source of the print that TCM runs--they even forgot to remove the pre-film FBI and Interpol warnings.  SONNY BOY was shot by Assonitis' usual cinematographer Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli in 2.35 widescreen, which is extremely compromised on the cropped 1.33 VHS print.   The film has never been released on R1 DVD or on Blu-ray and is largely a forgotten obscurity, though it has had a few scattered midnight movie showings in recent years.  For the most part, SONNY BOY's cult is a quiet one.  It's growing thanks to the TCM exposure, but this is a film that demands a proper restoration to both its uncensored European version and to its proper aspect ratio. Somebody needs to make this happen, preferably with a commentary track that gets Assonitis, Carroll, and Whifler in the same room together.  It manages to find an ideal balance, walking the line between gloriously unrepentant, offensive trash and surprisingly heartfelt drama with real, albeit twisted, emotion.  Often sloppy and haphazardly-assembled, especially in the last half hour, SONNY BOY is nevertheless the kind of film that will have you laughing and cringing in equal measures, one where even the most jaded cult-movie cineastes who think they've seen it all will have to admire its audacity and forgive its flaws. There's never been anything else quite like it.

UPDATE (1/30/2016): On January 26, 2016, Shout! Factory released SONNY BOY on Blu-ray in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and in its uncut 103-minute version, with all the missing scenes reinstated, and two commentary tracks, one with Carroll and the other with Whifler. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013) and BEYOND OUTRAGE (2013); plus bonus Netflix Instant exclusive SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF (2014)

(US/France/UK - 2013)

Short on plot-driven momentum and long on atmosphere and richly-textured characterization, one's gut reaction to INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS may be that it isn't top-tier Coen Bros., but it's still very good.  Though written and directed by the Coens, the film belongs just as much to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, whose contributions earned one of the film's two Oscar nominations (the other was for sound mixing).  The Coens and Delbonnel use a muted color palette to bring a snowy, slushy 1961 Greenwich Village to vivid life.  Inspired by the real-life Greenwich Village folk fixture Dave Van Ronk, folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is dealing with the suicide of his performing partner and the tanking of his subsequent solo album.  He's homeless, crashing on the couches of area friends, including Jean (Carey Mulligan), who's part of a duo with Llewyn's friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and is carrying a child that might be Llewyn's or Jim's.  Through a series of mishaps, Llewyn's also taking care of a cat that belongs to his academic friends Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett).  Llewyn's a bit on the misanthropic side and doesn't always set out to be a jerk, but that's usually how he comes off, and the film basically follows him through one week of hassles, arguments, and letdowns, whether it's turning down royalties on a song in favor of the quick payday he needs to pay for Jean's abortion or having to carpool with two other musicians (John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund) to a gig in Chicago that goes horribly awry.  In terms of story, it's one of the Coens' slighter efforts, but where it really stands out is capturing the look and feel of a unique place and time, from the work of Delbonnel to the production design to the songwriting (Isaac, in what should've been a star-making performance, performs original songs by T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford).  I also liked the recurring visual motif of narrow, claustrophobic hallways and the stunning interior of a massive Fred Harvey restaurant that's almost Kubrickian in its presentation.  While not on the level of a FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, or NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, nor the Oscar magnet that many predicted, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS feels like one of those films that isn't initially powerful but sticks with you and quietly works on you over time.  (R, 105 mins)

(Japan/France - 2012; US release 2013)

After leaving yakuza films behind following his underrated US crossover attempt BROTHER (2001), Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano (VIOLENT COP, SONATINE) spent most of the next decade--except for his 2003 ZATOICHI reboot--in personal art-house projects, most of which didn't connect with his audience.  2010's blood-splattered OUTRAGE was his "give the fans what they want" return to the yakuza genre, and while it possessed an extremely complicated plot that wasn't always easy to follow, it was enormously entertaining in the almost comedic way it kept presenting the same set pieces.  You could probably stage a drinking game over how many times a bunch of pissed-off Japanese gangsters would congregate in a room, hurl insults at each other until brawling and gunfire erupted, culminating in someone being obligated to slice off their pinky to atone for their disrespect.  The film was such a success in Japan that Kitano has returned with the sequel BEYOND OUTRAGE (or, as the onscreen title reads, OUTRAGE BEYOND).  Kitano again stars, under his usual acting alias "Beat Takeshi," as steely, ruthless gangster Otomo, believed dead by his former yakuza associates but actually incarcerated.  When a police official and a nightclub hostess are found murdered in a car dragged from the bottom of a river, the police decide they've had enough of the yakuza families overstepping the established boundaries of their cop/criminal arrangement.  Going against the wishes of his superiors and colleagues, Detective Kataoka (Fumiyo Kohinata) poses as a dirty cop to get on the good sides of both warring organizations--the Sanno and the Hanabishi.  The Sanno are ruled by Kato (Tomokazu Miura), who concedes most of his decision-making to his ambitious young right-hand man Ishihara (Ryo Kase), much to the resentment of the embittered old guard yakuza who don't like that it's all about pressure to meet the bottom line and long for a return to the glory of the good old days ("Fuck hedge funding!" one grumbles).  Sensing some discord in the ranks, Kataoka decides to spring Otomo from prison--he's there in part because his former underling Ishihara sold him out--and pull a vintage YOJIMBO by starting a war between the two yakuza clans.  Needless to say, much arguing, insults, brawling, and impromptu pinky amputation ensue.

BEYOND OUTRAGE has its moments but it feels too much like a stale retread not just of OUTRAGE, but of other, better Kitano yakuza films in general.  As a director, it seems like Kitano's just punching a clock on this one and as an actor, Beat Takeshi is offscreen far too much for what's ostensibly a Beat Takeshi vehicle (he doesn't even appear until 25 minutes in).  Most of the violence is confined to the last half hour and it's noticeably more restrained than some of the things seen in the first film.  There's so many double and triple crosses and conflicting loyalties that I doubt even Kitano can keep it all straight.  Still, when he's the center of attention, he's as much of a badass as ever at 65 (no one twitches more intimidatingly than Beat Takeshi), and it's great fun watching him fearlessly mouth off to powerful crime bosses.  But too much of BEYOND OUTRAGE feels like obligation and filler.  It's relentlessly talky and it could've easily lost 20-25 minutes and been a much tighter, more exciting thriller instead of the overlong, draggy one it is.  There's enough here for die-hard Kitano completists to enjoy and it's not a waste of time by any means (Kitano is smart enough to end it with a great final shot), but ultimately, one OUTRAGE was probably enough.  (R, 112 mins)

(UK - 2012; US release 2014)

Anybody remember Mike Figgis?  With his melancholy, jazz-and-rain-soaked British noir STORMY MONDAY (1988) to his Hollywood debut INTERNAL AFFAIRS (1990), and the devastating LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995), which earned Nicolas Cage an Oscar, 1990s Figgis was poised to become one of the decade's top filmmakers.  Around the time of 1999's THE LOSS OF SEXUAL INNOCENCE, Figgis seemed to grow bored with conventional storytelling, and 2000's TIMECODE caused a bit of a stir at the time of its release for its unique four-frame split-screen, real-time structure.  TIMECODE is the kind of intriguing creative experiment that really only works once, but Figgis beat it to death in the redundant and borderline-unwatchable semi-sequel HOTEL (2002), which no one saw.  Figgis has always marched to the beat of his own drum, but since the forgettable Dennis Quaid/Sharon Stone thriller COLD CREEK MANOR--clearly a paycheck gig for the director--bombed in 2003, he's almost completely gone off the mainstream cinema grid, focusing on experimental short films, music videos, and opera documentaries, though he did contribute to the 2003 PBS series THE BLUES and directed one episode of THE SOPRANOS in 2004.  Now 66, Figgis has only made two narrative features since COLD CREEK MANOR:  2008's virtually unseen LOVE LIVE LONG, which still hasn't been released in the US, and SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF, which was released in Europe to mostly dismissive reviews two years ago and has only now turned up in the US as a Netflix Instant exclusive.  It's a terrible film, insufferably pretentious and unfathomably dull, with a noir-based premise that might've been fun and entertaining in the hands of say, an in-his-prime Brian De Palma, but Figgis is so lost up his own ass that the film is doomed from the very start, opening with a crawl about Karl Marx's "Participation Mystique" and the blurred lines between fact and fiction.  Before four minutes even pass, Figgis is already breaking out the BRADY BUNCH squares and a douchebag filmmaker (Eoin Macken) is blathering on about his "film within a film within a film."

Figgis abandons the TIMECODE quadrants around the same time he decides to ditch the notion of a coherent story, as German-born, London-based screenwriter Martin (Sebastian Koch of THE LIVES OF OTHERS) sees his latest script, an erotic thriller, put in the hands of arrogant director Greg (Macken), who casts Martin's daughter Sarah (Rebecca Night) in the lead role.  Sarah still lives with her father, who hosts a birthday party for her where he's approached by a French mystery woman named Angelique (Lotte Verbeek of the Showtime series THE BORGIAS), who offers him a joint and disappears.  When she's found floating dead in a nearby canal, Martin is a suspect since it also coincides with the 15th anniversary of his actress wife's (Emilia Fox) still-unsolved disappearance.  Martin is half-heartedly questioned by rumpled, wheezing detective Bullock (Kenneth Cranham), who seems more interested in getting feedback on his own cop screenplay.  Enter Therese (also Verbeek), Angelique's twin sister, who arrives in London to identify the body.  Therese stays with Martin and Sarah, leading to dark secrets, sexual tension and still, nothing much happens.  Lots of long scenes play out only to be revealed as scenes in Martin's script being filmed by Greg or as re-enactments with different actors in one of the films within the film or as a staging of one of Martin's lectures to his screenwriting class.  Professor Figgis frequently halts the action to flash things like "Character Is Plot" and the Webster's definition of "twin" on the screen.  At one point, Therese sits down to read Martin's latest script and on the page, it describes her sitting down and reading Martin's latest script.   SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF gets so bogged down in endless academic, deconstructionist, meta bullshit that it forgets everything else.  There's no mystery, there's no suspense, there's no eroticism, there's no character development...it's just a smug, meandering film-school exercise in anti-cinema that wastes Koch and a very good one-scene performance by Figgis regular Julian Sands as a sarcastically incredulous detective who takes over the case after Martin's criticisms of Bullock's script induce a heart attack in the aging, out-of-shape cop.  With cheap production values making it look like a 3:00 am Skinemax offering with less skin and, somehow, even less story, SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF shows the once-relevant Figgis light years removed from the triumph of LEAVING LAS VEGAS and strictly focused on pleasing what's since become his primary audience:  Mike Figgis. (Unrated, 107 mins)