Saturday, June 28, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: SCREAMERS (1981)

(Italy/US - 1981)

Directed by Sergio Martino and Miller Drake. Written by Sergio Donati, Cesare Frugoni, Sergio Martino, and Miller Drake. Cast: Barbara Bach, Claudio Cassinelli, Richard Johnson, Beryl Cunningham, Joseph Cotten, Mel Ferrer, Cameron Mitchell, Franco Javarone, Roberto Posse, Giuseppe Castellano, Francesco Mazzieri, Eunice Bolt, Tom J. Delaney, James Alquist, Bobby Rhodes. (R, 90 mins)

The story of how the 1979 Italian fantasy adventure ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN became the 1981 Roger Corman drive-in splatter movie SCREAMERS is one of the more entertaining examples of hucksterism in the annals of exploitation cinema.  Just out on Blu-ray and DVD in its SCREAMERS incarnation courtesy of Scorpion Releasing, the circumstances surrounding the metamorphosis of ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN into SCREAMERS are covered in great detail in the set's bonus features. Contrary to popular belief, Roger Corman didn't have anything to do with the changes despite SCREAMERS being released by his New World Pictures. It came to him with the changes already in place. Richard Kay and Harry Rybnick were two veteran B-movie producers of such titles as 1956's CURUCU, BEAST OF THE AMAZON, and both had a hand in bringing Ishiro Honda's GOJIRA (1954) to the US and its restructuring into GODZILLA in 1956.  By 1980, Kay and Rybnick were still eking out a living on the fringes of Hollywood, with their company United Producers picking up foreign exploitation fare and frequently retitling them for their second and third runs through American drive-ins and grindhouses (for instance, Pete Walker's 1974 imprisoned-fashion-models thriller HOUSE OF WHIPCORD was twice relaunched via United Producers, first as PHOTOGRAPHER'S MODELS and then as the even more lurid STAG MODEL SLAUGHTER). Kay and Rybnick acquired Sergio Martino's ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN, a bizarre aquatic Italian ripoff of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU that blended elements of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft, and approached PIRANHA director Joe Dante about beefing it up with some American actors and gory killings. Dante was busy with THE HOWLING at the time and sent the guys to his buddy Miller Drake, a trailer editor at New World who had been wanting to branch out into directing.  Drake took the job, recruited cinematographer Gary Graver, a longtime exploitation fixture whose main claim to fame among his friends was working on Orson Welles' shelved and never-released THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND in 1972, and assembled a crew comprised mainly of moonlighting New World staffers looking for some quick cash and some additional experience (future TERMINATOR producer and eventual James Cameron ex-wife Gale Anne Hurd is credited on SCREAMERS as "Maui location manager," even though no scenes were shot on Maui). Drake wrote and directed a prologue to be added to the beginning of FISHMEN with Mel Ferrer and Cameron Mitchell, aging warhorses who had been in the business long enough to remember the glory days of Hollywood but were now taking any job that came along if it paid enough, being stalked and killed by slimy creatures that didn't really look like the ones in FISHMEN. Drake was supplied with a $50,000 budget for the prologue and the additional footage was shot in four nights at the caves at Bronson Canyon in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, a favorite location of Corman's going back to the 1950s.

Though Dante, who paid his dues at New World and clearly had bigger fish to fry by this time as he was about to break into the big leagues after THE HOWLING, declined the offer to shoot the new footage and wanted to keep his involvement under the radar, he did help Drake out by editing the footage and overseeing the overhaul of FISHMEN into SCREAMERS. Using the pseudonym "Giuseppe Dantini," Dante worked with Drake to streamline the 99-minute FISHMEN down to its basics, cutting it down to about 75 minutes to work in approximately 12-13 minutes of Drake's footage and a couple of other changes sprinkled throughout, like the addition of one character (James Alquist) who appears briefly only to get killed by one of the fishmen, and a later shot in a laboratory where Drake and soon-to-be-revered makeup effects maestro Chris Walas (THE FLY) replaced a shot of one of Martino's fishmen in a tank with their own, more CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON-ish monster--shot in a makeshift tank in Dante's garage--and the seams barely show until they're pointed out to you by Drake in his interview segment. The film, now running 90 minutes (75 minutes from FISHMEN, 13 minutes of Drake's material, plus new credits) was retitled SOMETHING WAITS IN THE DARK, given a new English dub (star Claudio Cassinelli dubs himself in FISHMEN, Italian accent intact, but has been revoiced by someone else for SCREAMERS) and even though it wasn't a slasher film, that's how Kay and Rybnick wanted it marketed, and they began shopping it around to distributors. Because of their knowing Dante and Drake having used a number of off-the-clock New World guys, Corman was happy to take it off their hands.  And that's where things got really interesting.

Original 1979 Italian ISLAND OF
THE FISHMEN poster art.
Using United Producers' artwork and assorted promo material, Corman sent SOMETHING WAITS IN THE DARK out to ten drive-ins in Virginia for a test run and it bombed.  Refusing to lose money on an investment, he pulled the film from distribution for a marketing overhaul that was assigned to New World advertising honcho and future filmmaker Jim Wynorski.  With SCANNERS being an early 1981 hit, Wynorski proposed the title SCREAMERS and it stuck.  He devised an ad campaign that made it look completely American, with Cassinelli renamed "Charles Cass," FISHMEN producer Luciano Martino changed to "Lawrence Martin," and a non-existent "Dan T. Miller" credited as director (the original Italian names remained intact in the film itself).  Most importantly, the new one-sheet boasted "Be warned: You will actually see a man turned inside out!" and on a Sunday afternoon, Wynorski quickly shot a TV spot that featured just one quick opening shot of actress Eunice Bolt screaming from the new SOMETHING WAITS IN THE DARK scenes and no footage whatsoever from ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN. Instead, it featured Wynorski's then-girlfriend running around the still-standing sets from the same year's GALAXY OF TERROR and a quick shot of a monster thrown together by his pal Rob Bottin (soon to make his mark with his makeup work on THE HOWLING and John Carpenter's THE THING) for free as a favor to Wynorski. A few weeks later, Corman picked Georgia for the new test run, and blitzed Atlanta and the surrounding areas with Wynorski's TV spot and sent out ten prints of the newly-christened SCREAMERS and its second test run was a smash hit.  But there was a problem: exhibitors and customers were furious that there was no scene of a man being turned inside out. Word got back to Corman, who told Wynorski that the scene needed to be there. The prints were recalled, and the shot of the Bottin monster from the TV spot and a couple of additional test footage shots were spliced into the fourth reel when Cassinelli is peeking in some various doors in a hallway. More prints were struck, and SCREAMERS became a decent drive-in and grindhouse hit in the summer of 1981. Unless you saw SCREAMERS on the big screen in 1981, you've never seen the complete "man turned inside out" footage. When Corman had the Bottin monster from the TV spot spliced into the existing prints, no one bothered splicing it into the negative. The prints are long gone.  The footage isn't in the negative, and it was the negative that was used for the Embassy Home Entertainment VHS release in the '80s and the subsequent interpositive utilized for the new Scorpion release (Dante, in his interview segment, is under the mistaken impression that the footage has been restored).

"Look, do you understand that I was
SCREAMERS is definitely an improvement over the lethargic ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN. Opening in 1891 with the prologue as broke fortune hunter Radcliffe (Ferrer) charters a boat to a Caribbean island captained by wily old sea salt Decker (Mitchell) only to have the entire party offed by rampaging fishmen in an orgy of throat-slashing, disemboweling, and decapitations, the action quickly shifts to Martino's original film, also set in the Caribbean in 1891, after the sinking of a prison ship, with a small band of survivors led by the doc in charge, Lt. Claude de Ross (Cassinelli).  They end up on the titular island of the fishmen, which is home to the fortress-like compound of the dastardly Edmund Rackham (a hammy Richard Johnson). Rackham believes the island lies over the ruins of Atlantis, and tells de Ross that the Fishmen are the amphibious descendants of the original inhabitants of Atlantis. Of course, he's lying.  The fishmen are actually mutants created from the remains of dead men by doddering, senile mad scientist Professor Marvin (Joseph Cotten), who believes he's doing altruistic work in abetting humanity's adaptation to the world's future (perhaps the insane doc was an early proponent of climate change?). In reality, Marvin and his daughter Amanda (Barbara Bach) are being held prisoner as Marvin's gill-man creations are being used to raid Atlantis--depicted in miniatures that would make Antonio Margheriti turn away in shame--for the endless buried treasures desired by the despicable Rackham.

This is the original fishman-in-progress creature discovered
in a tank in Prof. Martin's laboratory in  ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN, but
Richard Kay and Harry Rybnick didn't like the design, so
it was replaced with...
...this creature, designed by Chris Walas, for an insert shot
done by Miller Drake in a makeshift tank in Joe Dante's garage 
In its original form, ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN was a harmlessly goofy adventure with a little violence but minimal gore.  It would've easily gotten a PG rating in America, but Kay and Rybnick told Drake they wanted R-rated gore and splatter but, being the old-schoolers that they were, weren't interested in nudity (Drake says he could've easily gotten Bolt, as Radcliffe's female companion, to go topless, but the old-timers shot it down). The SCREAMERS prologue delivers splatter and then some, with Mitchell getting his gut sliced open, Ferrer's throat being ripped out, and another guy getting his head torn off in graphic detail. The biggest cuts Dante and Drake made to FISHMEN in their streamlining it into SCREAMERS was cutting out a good chunk of Beryl Cunningham's screen time as Shakira, a priestess who spends most of FISHMEN blathering on about voodoo and accomplishing little more than slowing the movie down until Martino and co-writers Sergio Donati and Cesare Frugoni finally find a use for her in the climax.

Bach may have been a minor factor in whatever success was enjoyed by SCREAMERS. It's surprising New World didn't play up her involvement a little more, considering that in the summer after John Lennon's murder, anything involving the Beatles was big news, and right around the time of SCREAMERS' release, Bach was a ubiquitous media presence thanks to her marriage to Ringo Starr after the two became an item while shooting the surprise hit comedy CAVEMAN, which hit theaters a couple months before SCREAMERS. Bach's potential breakout role as a Bond girl in 1977's THE SPY WHO LOVED ME got her the global notoriety that came with being a Bond girl, but like many of her predecessors, it evaporated quickly, and by 1979, she was back doing the same European B-movies she was prior to her time with 007, starting with back-to-back aquatic horrors with Martino, first FISHMEN and then THE BIG ALLIGATOR RIVER, which debuted in America on CBS in 1982 as THE GREAT ALLIGATOR.  At the ripe old age of 37, Bach retired from acting after she and Starr appeared in Paul McCartney's 1984 vanity project GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROAD STREET. In the early 1990s, she enrolled in UCLA to get a Master's in Psychology, and in the years since, the now 66-year-old Bach has been involved in humanitarian work for numerous charities, generally staying out of the public eye but almost always seen accompanying Starr at red carpet events. Most of FISHMEN's main cast returned in ALLIGATOR, including Bach, Cassinelli (whose tragic 1985 death on the set of another Martino film is discussed here), Johnson, and Bobby Rhodes, who appeared in FISHMEN as a servant and would later go on to cult movie glory for his roles in Lamberto Bava's DEMONS and DEMONS 2. ALLIGATOR also featured Mel Ferrer, who had no idea he'd inadvertently be part of the FISHMEN reunion in a roundabout way thanks to the SCREAMERS additions. Johnson and Cotten were both busy hamming it up in Eurotrash at the time, with Johnson also starring in Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE the same year as the Martino films. Cotten, who appears to have been granted the privilege of live-on-set sound, really dives into his mad scientist role with the utmost enthusiasm--he only has two or three scenes, but judging from his work here, you'd think he was as invested in this as he was CITIZEN KANE, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, and THE THIRD MAN decades earlier. That's a pro.

Mel Ferrer collecting an easy
$10,000 for his work on SCREAMERS
ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN was never officially seen in its original form in the US until Eurocult outfit Mya Communication released it on DVD in 2009.  The Mya transfer is acceptable for the most part, with some very murky bits and various rough spots. Scorpion's SCREAMERS presentation essentially makes the FISHMEN DVD obsolete--not only is the quality better (except for one exterior scene with Bach offering some blue potion to the fishmen that's still quite murky, which must just be the way it was shot), but SCREAMERS, even with its patched-together nature, is the far more entertaining and fast-paced film. The Blu-ray also offers reversible artwork if you prefer the SOMETHING WAITS IN THE DARK poster design (both one-sheets can be spotted adorning the walls of the Civic TV offices in David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME). Corman knew how to make a movie play, and he obviously taught guys like Dante and Drake well, not to mention Wynorski, whose carnival barker act of an ad campaign upped the hyperbole factor past a point where even Corman was left bewildered.  In the bonus features, Wynorski talks of getting the call from Corman on Saturday morning after he received word of the Friday night debacle of drive-in owners and audiences furiously voicing their outrage at not seeing a man turned inside out.  "Jim, is there a man turned inside out in the picture?" the always soft-spoken Corman asked.  "No, Roger.  There isn't," Wynorski sheepishly replied, expecting to hear the words "You're fired." Instead, Corman told him to get down to the office so they could figure out what they were going to do to fix it. "You mean I'm not fired?" Wynorski asked.  "No, Jim.  You put people in seats.  I'll never fire anyone for putting people in seats.  But we need the inside out man."  Roger Corman:  a man who always knows what his audience wants.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: ENEMY (2014); ROB THE MOB (2014); and WOLF CREEK 2 (2014)

(Canada/Spain - 2014)

Loosely based on Jose Saramago's novel The Double, but not to be confused with the recent Jesse Eisenberg film THE DOUBLE, Denis Villeneuve's ENEMY is one of those frustrating cinematic puzzles where the set up and the placement of the initial pieces prove much more challenging and engaging than the actual solution. ENEMY excels in its early stages in its depiction of the ennui-drenched L'AVVENTURA, RED DESERT, and THE PASSENGER alienation of vintage Antonioni fused with the cold Cronenbergian chill of Toronto high-rises that recalls everything from SHIVERS to CRASH and even Fernando Mereilles' underappreciated BLINDNESS, itself an adaptation of another Saramago novel. There's also an overt DEAD RINGERS vibe that begins with quiet, withdrawn history professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) suffering through small talk with a colleague, who recommends a movie called WHERE THERE'S A WILL, THERE'S A WAY. Adam rents the movie and it's a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, but something catches his attention: cast as "Bellhop #3" is one Daniel Saint Claire, who happens to look exactly like Adam. Adam researches the doppelganger's other roles, which are limited similar bit parts in two other forgettable films from a decade earlier, and eventually goes to the office of the agency representing Saint Claire and is mistaken for him, which gets him Saint Claire's phone number and address.  Adam calls the actor, whose real name is Anthony Claire, and though Anthony is initially hesitant, they meet. Their features are identical and they even have the same scar. Adam freaks out and regrets meeting, but Anthony, who has a history of cheating on his now-pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon), forces Adam to go along with a swap so he can spend some time with Adam's girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent).

There's such an eerie, unsettling, Hitchcockian, De Palma-esque by way of Antonioni and Cronenberg feel to the first hour of ENEMY (at times, you might think it's a horror film) that it's almost enraging when you realize it's gone to such intriguing and fascinating lengths to tell such an ultimately banal story.  And I haven't even gotten into the ham-fisted symbolism of spiders and webs, which wasn't part of Saramago's novel. ENEMY is borderline brilliant for 2/3 of its running time, but the back end of the script by Javier Gullon (who also co-wrote the intriguing 2007 thriller KING OF THE HILL) has all the depth and insight of someone's first and quickly-discarded draft in an Intro to Creative Writing course. The film is very well-directed by Villeneuve, who also teamed with Gyllenhaal on last year's more commercial PRISONERS (ENEMY was shot first, but released after). Villeneuve is a director who brings out the best in the actor, who was riveting in PRISONERS in a performance that deserved more attention than it got. Gyllenhaal delivers two strong performances here, even as the film starts collapsing around him in the closing sequences as--you guessed it--the lines between real and fantasy become impossibly blurred, not to mention hopelessly hackneyed. Still worth seeing for that opening hour and the powerfully dread-filled slow build...at least until it starts sabotaging itself. (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2014)

There's a slight sense of TRUE ROMANCE redux in this somewhat fictionalized account of Tommy and Rosemarie Uva, a Queens couple trying to stay on the right path after jail stints for armed robbery. Struggling in their 9-5 jobs, they started robbing mob-owned bars and social clubs. In one of their jobs, they managed to obtain a list that thoroughly detailed the Gambino and Bonnano family hierarchy, and as they got increasingly cocky and overconfident, they used it to guarantee their safety which, of course, backfired and the couple were whacked on Christmas Eve 1992.  In ROB THE MOB, directed by Raymond De Felitta and written by Jonathan Fernandez, Tommy (Michael Pitt) and Rosie (Nina Arianda) aren't married, for some reason (they're planning to get married on Christmas Day, so perhaps it was a dramatic decision), and some of the names are changed, but otherwise, it mostly sticks to the story. The none-too-bright Tommy has a lifelong grudge against the local gangsters, who strong-armed, shook down, and eventually killed his florist father, so once they get desperate and he starts toying with the idea of ripping them off, Rosie can't talk him out of it, and when the money starts rolling in, she's OK with it as well. During one robbery, they get "the list" from inside the wallet of aged and slightly feeble mobster Joey D (Burt Young), and all hell breaks loose in the family, run by the reclusive Big Al Fiorello (Andy Garcia), a composite of Bonnano boss Joseph Massino and underboss Sal Vitale.

ROB THE MOB does a good job of mixing lighthearted and serious moments, as Tommy's early, haplessly clumsy attempts at pulling a social club stick-up get a reaction from the mobsters that's not unlike Richard Pryor's famous "Mafia Club" bit. But as things get serious and the stakes get higher, the shift to drama is smooth and organic. De Felitta (who previously worked with Garcia on 2009's enjoyable CITY ISLAND) does a superb job with period detail and other than some CGI effects in the closing scene, the whole film has a vivid sense of time and place and feels like it could've been made 20 years ago. The film takes place during the trial of John Gotti, whose 1992 conviction was essentially the beginning of the end for the old-school glory days of the American Mafia, and it deftly ties in an elegiac feeling for that era, though only Big Al seems aware that things are about to change. Most of the goodfellas in ROB THE MOB have seen better days but there's a comfortable complacency that's set in for them. It's a period of Mafia history that isn't glorious and hasn't been covered much in popular culture and ROB THE MOB offers a unique perspective in the "working-stiff gangster" subgenre with films like DONNIE BRASCO (1997) and KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012).  Fine performances all around from Pitt, Garcia, and Ray Romano as NYC crime reporter "Jerry Cardozo," presumably based on Gotti biographer and Mafia historian Jerry Capeci, in addition to colorful supporting turns by familiar faces like Michael Rispoli, Griffin Dunne, Cathy Moriarty, Yul Vazquez, John Tormey, Joseph R. Gannascoli, and Frank Whaley (Aida Turturro is prominently-billed but her role was cut from the film). The standout however, is Tony-winning Broadway actress Arianda in what would be a star-making big-screen breakout had Millennium released ROB THE MOB on more than 30 screens. Arianda is a ball of fire throughout, in her interaction with Tommy ("You bought me flowers!"), chewing people out on the phone at her collection agency job, or overcome with visions of fame and talking way too much when Cardozo wants to interview her. She handles the "tough moll" role in classic fashion and has a very natural, streetwise 1970s presence (these small-time Queens would-be gangsters always seem a little behind the times) that sets her apart from a lot of young actresses today, who probably would've appeared mannered and playing dress-up. It's the kind of showy role that could've easily been turned into a caricature, but Arianda keeps it under control and nails it, and if this movie had gotten any exposure at all, there's a good chance she'd be getting some legitimate Oscar buzz.  On the whole, ROB THE MOB wanders a bit and isn't as ambitious or as focused as it should be, but it's a solid little film, and Arianda's performance is a big reason why.  (R, 104 mins)

(Australia - 2014)

In the horror genre, nine years is an unusually lengthy wait for a sequel, and after that amount of time, you might wonder why writer/director Greg McLean took so long to get to the follow-up to 2005's WOLF CREEK. And after you watch the absurdly tardy WOLF CREEK 2, you'll wonder why he even bothered. When it was released, WOLF CREEK got the attention of hardcore horror fans with its mercilessly bleak vision and its instantly iconic performance by veteran Australian character actor John Jarratt as gregarious Outback serial killer Mick Taylor.  As Mick, Jarratt came across as the terrifying doppelganger of Crocodile Dundee, and the grueling film wasn't for horror amateurs. Indeed, it didn't go over with mainstream audiences (earning a rare F from the ludicrous CinemaScore), and was lumped in with the then in-vogue torture porn craze (which, to be fair, it shared some aspects), but horror scenesters embraced it and McLean was hailed as a major new talent in the genre. He returned with 2008's surprisingly good killer crocodile flick ROGUE, buried by Dimension Films after the similar and inferior PRIMEVAL beat it to theaters and bombed.  McLean's been off the radar since ROGUE, and the pointless WOLF CREEK 2 isn't likely to re-establish his career momentum.

Jarratt is back, and rather than play Mick in the sinister, unsettling way he did nearly a decade ago, McLean instead has him crank it up to 11 and beyond, turning the character into a relentless killing machine with his endlessly-quipping Freddy Krueger zingers and asides ("Welcome to Australia, cocksucker!"). WOLF CREEK 2 eschews the nightmarish qualities of WOLF CREEK to go for broad horror comedy augmented by over-the-top splatter effects. Shifts in tone in a sequel are nothing new: Sam Raimi did it with 1987's EVIL DEAD 2 and it's the same approach Tobe Hooper took for 1986's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2. It doesn't work here, nor does McLean's decision to attempt a "shifting of the protagonists" move from the PSYCHO playbook.  The first hour is essentially one long chase as we spend a bunch of time with two likable German backpackers, Rutger (Philippe Klaus) and Katarina (Shannyn Ashlyn), only to have them exit as Mick's focus turns to British tourist Paul (Ryan Corr). Mick plays road and head games with Paul, eventually getting him back to his vast HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES torture dungeon. It's hard to pinpoint exactly where WOLF CREEK 2 implodes beyond repair, but Mick plowing over kangaroos to the tune of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is as good a location as any. It doesn't really matter in the end, because this only exists to be THE JOHN JARRATT SHOW, with the actor's overbearing histrionics turning his second interpretation of Mick into an extended tribute to the career of Bill Moseley, whether he's screaming at the top of lungs, shouting Aussie jingles and limericks, or mowing down a friendly old couple to "The Blue Danube Waltz."  Some nice cinematography and a tense opening sequence aside, the ill-advised and badly-executed WOLF CREEK 2 is just uninspired, stupid, and lazy. Here's to hoping McLean gets his mojo back before he has to shit out a WOLF CREEK 3 in desperation seven or eight years from now. (Unrated, 106 mins, also available on Netflix Instant)

Monday, June 23, 2014

In Theaters: THE ROVER (2014)

(Australia/US - 2014)

Written and directed by David Michod. Cast: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, David Field, Tawanda Manyimo, Gillian Jones, Susan Prior, Anthony Hayes, Gerald Coulthard, Nash Edgerton, Jan Palo. (R, 103 mins)

"You should never stop thinking about a life you've taken.  That's the price you pay for taking it."

The Outback has been the setting of countless Australian films, and in the best of them, regardless of the genre, the vast, desolate region practically functions as a character. It gets one of its most unsettlingly sinister incarnations in THE ROVER, the latest film from ANIMAL KINGDOM director David Michod. Set "ten years after the collapse," THE ROVER opens with a stunning 15-minute sequence with the grizzled Eric (Guy Pearce) sitting alone in his car outside a shitty shack of a bar.  He goes in for a drink as a pickup truck filled with three quarreling fugitives--Henry (Scoot McNairy), Archie (David Field), and Caleb (Tawanda Manyimo) flips over, careening past the bar and coming to an upright stop on the side of the road. Eric realizes too late that they're ditching the truck and taking his car. Glaring down the road, Eric decides to get in their truck and gets it unstuck by what seems like sheer will and determination, and takes off after them. After some high-speed road games, both cars come to a stop. Words are exchanged. Eric: "I want my car back."  Archie: "I can see that."  Eric: "Give me my car back." Henry: "That's not gonna happen." Even with guns pointed at him, Eric fearlessly charges at the men and gets knocked out for his trouble.  He comes to and the men and his car are gone. He eventually crosses paths with Rey (Robert Pattinson), a slow-witted young man who happens to be Henry's younger brother. Shot in the stomach and assumed dead, Rey was left behind during whatever job his cohorts were pulling off. Eric, who proves time and again that he'll stop at nothing to get his car, takes Rey prisoner and orders him to take him to where his brother and the others are hiding out.

Part vigilante revenge saga, road movie, Ozploitation throwback, and dystopian nightmare punctuated by sudden bursts of shocking violence, THE ROVER has some surface similarities with John Hillcoat's THE PROPOSITION (2006), the great blood-splattered Outback western that also starred Pearce, but somehow, exists in a world that's even more bleak and nihilistic. Anyone can be killed at any moment in THE ROVER, and at any moment, the sins of your past can come back to haunt you. In his quest for revenge against the men who stole his car, Eric, the ostensible "hero," manages to leave a trail of bodies behind and brings death and tragedy to several people pulled into his destructive orbit. Michod asks a lot for the audience to get behind someone who's as much of an anti-hero as Eric, but as more layers of the character are revealed, there's glimpses of the man that may still lurk, however faintly, deep down. At its core, THE ROVER is a film about relationships, particularly the shaky bond that forms between and Eric and Rey. When Rey grows angry upon the realization that he's been left to die by his brother, it's debatable whether he comes to that conclusion on his own or if he's been manipulated into it by the misanthropic Eric, who's quite the killjoy with lines like "Who cares if he's your brother?  Just because you both came out of the same woman's hole?" These are two men who, by different circumstances, are alone and find some tenuous common ground in a dangerous world where a wrong look gets you killed, seemingly kindly grandmothers offer young boys for sex, and the scenic route through the Outback offers the tourist-friendly sight of roadside crucifixions.

Pearce has rarely been better than he is here.  With his constant snarl and his slumped right shoulder, he looks and moves like a wounded animal, and though Pattinson is sometimes a little too mannered, he generally handles his role well. I didn't care for David Cronenberg's COSMOPOLIS, but Pattinson, who reunited with Cronenberg for the upcoming MAPS TO THE STARS, continues to prove himself a sharper actor than you'd think as he seems to be taking on the most non-commercial projects he can to establish his post-TWILIGHT cred. To say much more would spoil the plot turns that THE ROVER takes, but it does offer a study in duality, not just with its two main characters, but also when the title and even the caption "ten years after the collapse" ultimately take on more than one meaning. Michod, cinematographer Natasha Breier, and the chillingly minimalist score by Antony Partos work together to create an atmosphere of suffocating hopelessness. You can smell the sweat and the despair.  Real flies constantly swarm around the actors' faces. The stench of death and decay are everywhere under the perpetually baking sun. In many ways, THE ROVER is an Outback-set Sam Peckinpah homage, not in a way that Eric and Rey are men out of their own time with nothing left to do but go out with their guns blazing (as with THE WILD BUNCH), but in the quiet ways of loyalty and family and when someone's word meant something.  It's not a crowd-pleasing summer movie for everyone, and you'll find the ultimate reveal either profoundly moving or dismiss it as completely hokey (one guy, a few rows back: "Are you kidding me?").  Eric is a total bastard and he's fully aware of it, but in a world where laws and a basic moral code have disintegrated and are never coming back, a man will do what he has to do to hold on to the slightest shred of humanity and dignity left in him. A love letter of understanding to the bitter misanthrope in all of us, THE ROVER is one of 2014's best films.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray, Special "James Caan Co-Starring With Lumbering Lummoxes" Edition: A FIGHTING MAN (2014) and THE OUTSIDER (2014)

(Canada - 2014)

Even a broken clock is right twice a day, and once in a while, a combination of forces that, under any normal circumstances, would portend certain doom actually turns out to have unexpected merit.  Consider the case of A FIGHTING MAN, a low-budget, straight-to-DVD Canadian-made drama that would appear to be the epitome of every melodramatic boxing cliche you've ever seen going back to the 1930s Warner Bros. programmers. Consider that it stars Dominic Purcell, the once-promising PRISON BREAK star-turned-lumbering charisma-vacuum whose constant employment is one of the great mysteries of the modern DTV era. Consider that it's written and directed by veteran Canadian hack Damian Lee, who's somehow managed to be in the business of making movies for 30 years without ever making a good one (yes, Purcell and Lee also teamed on last year's abysmal BREAKOUT). There's absolutely no reason for A FIGHTING MAN to be anything but a steaming shit sandwich, but...this is actually...pretty good? Lee's script piles on a checklist of tropes and contrivances. Purcell is Sailor O'Connor, an aging ex-boxer with a record somewhat south of mediocre. He's not even worthy of being called a has-been. He's a never-was.  If Sailor O'Connor was an actor, his stage name would be "Dominic Purcell." Sailor's only claim to fame is that, while he's lost almost all of his fights, he's never been knocked down. He hasn't been in the ring in four years, but wants to fight the proverbial One Last Fight.  And it's not for the obligatory One Last Shot at Redemption:  it's because he needs the money to give his fiery, cancer-stricken Irish mom Rose (Sheila McCarthy, thickly laying on the feisty Maureen O'Hara sass) one last trip to the old country since she's got six months to live. He's too proud to accept a handout from his trainers Brother Albright (James Caan) and Max (Michael Ironside), and he won't be talked out of fighting by his mom or by concerned Father Brennan (co-producer Kim Coates), who seems to spend more time fretting over Sailor than he spends in church.  Sailor's opponent is King Solomon (Izaak Smith), a cocky and ambitious young fighter who's trying to escape his hellish life in the projects with his crack-addict mother (Emma Campbell). King needs a fight because he's been reduced to appearing in porn flicks to make ends meet and all he wants is to marry his pregnant girlfriend Peg (Jenessa Grant).

There's also Louis Gossett, Jr. hamming it up with a ridiculous Jamaican accent as King's irascible trainer Cubby, Adam Beach as reptilian promoter Fast Eddie, who's as big a conniving, untrustworthy piece of shit as his name would imply, famed trainer Freddie Roach as himself, and Famke Janssen as Diane, a recovering alcoholic linked to Sailor through a past tragedy that haunts both of them to this day.  Lee also manages to cram in some mid-fight contractions for Peg, a visit to a bar for Diane where she almost falls off the wagon, and a traumatic backstory from Sailor's childhood about his abusive, drunken father that explains why he's the bullheaded fighter he is and how nothing can knock him down. Lee's structure of the film is interesting in the way that the fight is already underway at the very beginning, and between rounds, we're given the fragmented flashbacks detailing the events that led up to the fight we're seeing, and the timelines converge by the end.  I never would've guessed a straight-to-DVD Damian Lee joint starring Dominic Purcell would have an ambitious Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu structure combined with the profound sense of melancholy and grief you'd find in the EXOTICA/THE SWEET HEREAFTER heyday of Atom Egoyan, where all the pieces of the puzzle are slowly put in place and you see how everything fits together in the end. Yes, it's hokey and manipulative, but its straight-faced sincerity sucks you in.  And for all the cheap shots I've taken at Purcell, he may have found his perfect role with Sailor O'Connor, whose terrible boxing record, dead-eyed stare, monotone mumble, and the shuffling, tired gait of a defeated man with nothing left to lose and who's had nothing but shitty cards dealt to him for his whole life allow the actor to use his lackluster screen presence to his utmost advantage. To quote the poet laureate Harry Callahan, "A man's got to know his limitations," and while Purcell looks comatose when he has to do action movies, here, he's perfect. Look, I'm not saying this is some undiscovered classic or anything. We're not talking ROCKY or THE SET-UP or THE HARDER THEY FALL here--it's a maudlin and overly earnest B-movie for sure, but it somehow works, even as it plows head-first into shameless man-weepie territory by the end. Maybe it's Purcell finally finding a role that suits his somber persona, maybe it's the better-than-expected supporting cast (Caan is very good, and really, you had me at "Caan and Ironside as his trainers"), but against all odds, A FIGHTING MAN is an unexpectedly not terrible surprise. Purcell and Lee...who knew?  Eye of the tiger, guys.  Eye of the tiger. (R, 88 mins)

(US - 2014)

Caan also turns up as the villain in THE OUTSIDER, which marks veteran British actor Craig Fairbrass' first attempt at becoming a headlining action star in America.  Fairbrass starred in a couple of British horror films that became mid '90s video store staples (NIGHTSCARE and PROTEUS), and frequently turns up in various D-grade fare like Uwe Boll's FAR CRY, the Randy Couture actioner HIJACKED, and the Dominic Purcell dud VIKINGDOM, but he's best-known for TV's EASTENDERS and for his voice work in various CALL OF DUTY video games. He's got an imposing, square-jawed presence with a Vinnie Jones "fookin' 'ell, mate!" demeanor that could make him an acceptable fourth-string Liam Neeson with the right vehicle, but THE OUTSIDER, which surrounds Fairbrass with the best supporting cast that 2002 had to offer, isn't it. Utterly generic in every way, THE OUTSIDER, conceived by Fairbrass and writer/director Brian A. Miller (a repeat purveyor of completely forgettable Wal-Mart bargain-bin clutter like the 50 Cent-produced CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE and the Stephen Dorff cop thriller OFFICER DOWN), is patched together from elements of THE LIMEY and TAKEN (Fairbrass is even referred to as "the Limey" at one point).  Fairbrass is tough-as-nails British mercenary Lex Walker, called away from a contract gig in the Middle East when his daughter Samantha turns up dead from an apparent drug overdose in Los Angeles. When he arrives at the morgue to identify the body, it's not his daughter, who went missing from her job at tech giant Most Industries a week earlier.  Walker doesn't get anywhere with evasive Most CEO Karl Schuuster (Caan, who couldn't have put in more than two, maybe three days on the set), who obviously knows something he's not telling. Walker teams up with Samantha's waitress friend Margo (Shannon Elizabeth), and her sometime boyfriend Ricky (Johnny Messner), who leads him right to Samantha (Melissa Ordway).  She had to fake her death because Schuuster's goons were coming for her after she uncovered a massive identity theft scam he was masterminding from the Most headquarters.  Meanwhile, Walker forms an uneasy alliance with cynical detective Klein (Jason Patric) to bring down Schuuster and expose his shady dealings.

Lethargically paced and drably shot, THE OUTSIDER offers no surprises or suspense, with Patric and Caan sleepwalking through their performances, everyone else unconvincingly spouting vague techno-jargon, and Fairbrass proving to be a dull action hero.  Sequence after sequence follows the same formula:  Walker blusters and bulldogs his way into somewhere, wants ta ask someone some queestions 'bout 'is daw 'er, gets some guff, and promptly smashes the person's head into a wall or through a door until they staaht tawkin'! The kind of movie that provides an adequate level of white noise while you peruse your Netflix queue for something else to watch, THE OUTSIDER is as bland and paint-by-numbers as it gets.  Nothing overtly terrible about it, but there's really nothing to see here.  (R, 94 mins)

Friday, June 20, 2014

In Theaters: JERSEY BOYS (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Cast: John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken, Mike Doyle, Kathrine Narducci, Renee Marino, Freya Tingley, Steven J. Schirripa, Erica Piccininni, Joseph Russo, Donnie Kehr, Lou Volpe, Elizabeth Hunter. (R, 134 mins)

JERSEY BOYS, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, became a Broadway phenomenon in 2005, going on to win the Tony for Best Musical and Best Lead Actor for John Lloyd Young as Valli. Young recreates the role for Clint Eastwood's big-screen version, which is not quite the adaptation that fans of the original musical or its many touring permutations might be expecting. The Broadway production, with a book by 1970s Woody Allen collaborator Marshall Brickman (ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN) and Rick Elice, was anchored by a "Rashomon structure," which told the group's story from the vastly different POV of the four members, each under the guise of spring, summer, winter, and fall to make up the Four Seasons, supported and propelled by the group's songs. It all tied in together nicely, but Eastwood, working from a script by Brickman and Elice, almost completely abandons that concept other than occasional fourth-wall-breaking comments, but mainly, the focus is whittled down to just Frankie Valli. Eastwood also jettisons the whole "musical" element.  On the stage, JERSEY BOYS uses the music of the Four Seasons to tell the story, but on the screen, it's a standard-issue backstage biopic where the live performances and studio recording sessions essentially function in the place of where a montage might go.  A lavish musical with big production numbers might've been a challenge for Eastwood, but his vision of JERSEY BOYS is pretty much a Scorsese-lite gangster saga peppered with some timeless Four Seasons songs, glossing--sometimes quite sloppily--over details, cutting corners, and taking dramatic license when it's convenient or when something might make co-executive producer Frankie Valli look bad.  On the surface, it's a reasonably entertaining film and the musical performances are fine, and, unlike of a lot of Eastwood's directing efforts, it moves rather briskly, but by the end, it's all surface: if you want a BEHIND THE MUSIC breakdown of the Four Seasons, you'll learn more from their Wikipedia page than you will here.

Opening in 1951 Newark, Valli is introduced as 16-year-old Francis Castelluccio, a neighborhood kid with a killer falsetto and plans to attend barber school.  He has strict parents (there's an inspired running gag where random people keep asking him "Hey, aren't you supposed to be home by 11:00?"), but runs with a rough crowd led by would-be gangster Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), who plays guitar in a group called the Varietones when he isn't planning half-assed burglaries and trying to get in with local mob kingpin Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken). Tommy recognizes Frankie's talent and gets him to join the band, along with another trouble-prone buddy, bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda). They change their name to The Four Lovers and get some local recognition, but that changes when their buddy Joe Pesci (Joseph Russo)--yes, that Joe Pesci, Tommy clarifies, with young Pesci even asking "Funny how?" at one point--introduces them to former Royal Teens keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), who wrote the hit song "Short Shorts."  Gaudio has the songwriting chops they need, and coupled with Frankie's voice and the production expertise of Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), the Four Seasons are born, despite the objections of Tommy, who sees himself as the leader of the group and constantly resorts to the bullying tactics of the Newark streets in order to maintain that authority. What follows is a strictly connect-the-dots chronicle of the band's rise, fall, and eventual rise again at their 1990 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction:  they get screwed by a record contract, life on the road takes its toll, marriages get ruined, Gaudio and Tommy butt heads over the direction of the band, Tommy's excesses cause the whole thing to implode, etc, etc.

After the "1951" title card, the time element in JERSEY BOYS is handled atrociously.  It's completely abandoned by Eastwood, so there's often no way of telling if days or years have gone by. A character in 1951 is talking about wanting to see THE BLOB, which was made in 1958. Frankie marries tough-talking Mary (Renee Marino) and has a daughter.  Then he gets back from a tour and has three teenage girls at home. Sometimes you can only tell that a long period of time has passed because the sideburns get longer, the lapels get wider, and Gaudio's goatee gets more unkempt. Mary says she's sick of Frankie's serial adultery, but we never see it. After the marriage ends, Frankie has a fling with a Detroit reporter (Erica Piccininni), who vanishes only to reappear much later talking about "all the things we've been working for" as she dumps him. What things? Where have you been?  And do we even know your name? Characters appear and disappear throughout with no explanation, and not in a way that feels like their scenes were just cut, but more in a way that these scenes just never existed in the first place. There's little sense of context:  we're told Gaudio wrote "Short Shorts," but we're not told that he was 15 when he wrote it.  As played by the 28-year-old Bergen, Gaudio is introduced like he's some older, experienced musician who can offer them guidance and who knows his way around the music industry, when in fact, he was only 17 when he hooked up with the decade-older Frankie and the even-older Tommy, who was already past 30 when they hit it big. With that in mind, it's easy to see Tommy's resentment of this Gaudio kid taking creative control, but that noteworthy age difference never comes up.  Also, Tommy, Frankie, Nick Massi, and Tommy's brother Nick DeVito had some minor success as The Four Lovers, releasing two albums and several singles on a major label. JERSEY BOYS presents them as music industry novices who had no idea how the business worked prior to Gaudio replacing Nick DeVito and turning them into The Four Seasons. In reality, Valli and Crewe worked together during the Four Lovers era, but the film has Gaudio introducing the band to Crewe.  Crewe would become the band's lyricist and de facto fifth member, but the movie shows Gaudio as the guy who wrote everything and Crewe as their producer, except much later when Gaudio says something about "Bob needing to write some lyrics." Then there's the issue of Frankie's oldest daughter Francine.  At 17, Francine (Freya Tingley) runs away from home and Frankie has to fly from Vegas to Jersey to find her. He does, and tells her that Gaudio will write some songs for her and they'll get a voice coach to help her be the singer she always wanted to be.  It's supposed to be a powerful moment of emotional bonding between an estranged father and daughter, but because we've seen Francine for maybe 30 seconds prior to this and know nothing about her, the whole incident comes out of thin air and falls completely flat.

Perhaps most egregiously, JERSEY BOYS implies that the Four Seasons broke up after some Tommy-instigated money problems at some point in the 1960s (I'm guessing--the timeline isn't really clear). It's a huge blow-up that prompts a frustrated Massi to quit the band and stay home with his family, which would put it in 1965 if we go by actual history, which Eastwood, Brickman, and Elice apparently don't have the time or the inclination to do. Tommy exits the story at this point, and Frankie becomes a solo artist to pay off Tommy's debts, but in reality, Tommy was in the band for another five years, and while Tommy and Gaudio would eventually quit (though he retired from recording and touring, Gaudio continued to work behind the scenes as the group's songwriter), Valli never disbanded the Four Seasons and has remained the sole constant member.  The film doesn't even mention the successful late '70s incarnation of the group, with future drummer Gerry Polci handling lead vocals on the 1976 hit single "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)," a song that JERSEY BOYS portrays, along with Valli's 1975 solo hit "My Eyes Adored You," as belonging to the original Four Seasons lineup.  Perhaps this is how co-executive producers Valli and Gaudio see things in their own Rashomon structure, but there's a fine line between dramatic license and rewriting history.

Young has this role down, so it's no surprise that he's fine as Valli, even if it's asking a bit much to buy the now-38-year-old performer playing 16 in the early parts of the film. Bergen and Lomenda are both vets of the touring versions of the musical, and handle their roles reasonably well, considering their relative newness to the medium.  Bergen has an odd Jeff Goldblum-meets-Michael Shannon demeanor that indicates he'd do well in character parts if he chooses to pursue a career in movies, while Lomenda, who plays Massi as a bit of a lunkheaded lug, more or less gets relegated to the background but does get a couple of instances where he does an effective job of playing not-very-articulate guy struggling to get his feelings across.  Piazza, the only non-musical performer of the quartet, goes for the standard "tough mook" act that he does as Lucky Luciano on HBO's BOARDWALK EMPIRE, but isn't asked to do much other than be the self-centered asshole of the group. Walken has a few scenes where he gets to be Walken, which is always fun, and at least a couple of his lines feel improvised (especially "Don't use my bathroom!" which, in context, sounds like a hilarious ad-lib). The cliched scenes of Frankie's home life do nothing but slow the film to a halt, especially since we have no idea who the women in his life really are, whether it's his wife or, after the divorce, the reporter.  Like Bergen and Lomenda, Marino is a veteran of the touring version of JERSEY BOYS and played various female roles on different tours, but her performance here as Mary Valli is embarrassingly bad.  Perhaps she's too accustomed to theatrically over-projecting for the live-on-stage factor and didn't adjust to the different medium like Bergen and Lomenda, but her shrewish, booze-swilling, bitch-on-wheels act is unbearable and more fitting for a WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? production staged by Tommy Wiseau. She's overwrought and completely over-the-top, snarling and shrieking her way through her scenes, but given the liberties that the story takes with other elements, perhaps Marino should be given the benefit of the doubt.  Is it possible that her performance is the way it is because that's how Valli wanted his ex-wife portrayed? JERSEY BOYS has some good performances, from both acting and musical perspectives, but it suffers from the same issues that plague several recent Eastwood films:  known as the most efficient director in Hollywood, one who always comes in under budget and ahead of schedule, perhaps he's getting a little sloppy.  He throws in some nice touches--I liked his attempts at sticking to filming techniques of the era, like a blatantly fake process screen background in a car scene, the kind you'd see in a 1960s movie, and the obvious backlot used for the early Newark neighborhood scenes--but he doesn't really seem fully committed here. The Eastwood of 40 or even 20 years ago wouldn't have allowed a performance as mind-bogglingly awful as Marino's to happen, regardless of her inexperience or (hypothetically) Valli's wishes. An engaged Eastwood would've seen during production that it wasn't working. It's one thing to think it's a good idea to cast Raul Julia and Sonia Braga as Germans in a dumb action movie like 1990's THE ROOKIE, but this is something else entirely. Around the time of INVICTUS--his worst film as a director--I had a discussion with some friends and we concluded that perhaps Eastwood was cranking his films out a little too quickly. Eastwood need not prove anything to anyone, and at 84 and in his seventh decade in the movies, it's great that he can work so frequently, but if he's going to rush through them and not give a shit, then what's the point?

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE MACHINE (2014) and ALMOST HUMAN (2014)

(UK - 2014)

An ambitious film that works wonders with a small budget, THE MACHINE, written and directed by Caradog James, successfully manages to balance the precarious divide between thinking person's sci-fi and winking, reference-heavy '80s homage. In a not-too-distant future, "the West" is at war with China, and the British government is in the business of building and selling mechanized warriors. Widower scientist Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens, one-time Bond villain in DIE ANOTHER DAY) works for the corporation contracted to create the unstoppable "Machines," the foundation of which are the remains of dead soldiers, rewired and programmed to kill. It hasn't been a total success, but McCarthy's heart isn't in his job anyway: unbeknownst to his unscrupulous boss Thomsen (Denis Lawson), he's using government funds to find a cure for his brain-damaged daughter who's suffering from a rare neurological disorder. He's also recently brought Ava (Caity Lotz of THE PACT), an American colleague, onboard to help with the creation of a new Machine, for which she volunteers to be the physical model. But Ava starts asking too many questions about Thomsen's business, prompting Thomsen to have her killed. In what Thomsen calls "a monument to his dead assistants," McCarthy creates a Machine version of Ava, one capable of cognitive reasoning and emotion.  The Ava Machine declares herself "the future," while Thomsen demands McCarthy remove the chip that allows reasoning and feelings.

Of course, the message of the increased dehumanization of society and how computer-programmed cyborgs are now capable of more emotion and genuine feeling than actual humans is a bit obvious and heavy-handed (McCarthy doesn't call the new Ava by her name, instead opting for the much colder "Machine"), but THE MACHINE is the kind of film that becomes an instant cult classic.  Looking like the kind of moody, atmospheric, dystopian sci-fi film you might've blindly rented at the video store in 1991 if their one copy of it was in stock, THE MACHINE throws a lot of influences into the mix:  you'll spot elements of BLADE RUNNER, HARDWARE, and THE LAWNMOWER MAN, along with VHS staples like CIRCUITRY MAN and especially CYBORG 2. The throwback vibe is enhanced magnificently by Tom Raybould's score, a giddy mash-up of John Carpenter synth and 1980s Italian post-nuke that showcases some of the best genre compositions since Tomandandy's work on RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE and Sinoia Caves' hypnotic soundtrack for BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW. When that score drones on and on as Ava rampages through the complex, mowing down Thomsen's army as bullets ricochet off of her, it's pretty damn hard not to have a stupid grin on your face (and Lotz is absolutely terrific here).  To his credit, James keeps that sense of nostalgia in check, and despite the myriad of influences of past works classic and not-so classic, THE MACHINE manages to be its own creation.  It's tough to make films like THE MACHINE and not fall into a trap of your own making, but James pulls it off.  If my references and points of comparison made any sense to you at all and had you nodding in recognition, then this one's not to be missed. (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2014)

Like THE MACHINE, the micro-budgeted indie ALMOST HUMAN wears its love of the 1980s on its sleeve, but writer/producer/director/cinematographer Joe Begos ultimately doesn't have much to offer beyond paying homage to his DVD and Blu-ray collection. ALMOST HUMAN isn't very good...in fact, it's mostly pretty terrible, but Begos' enthusiasm isn't in question, and he's probably a lot of fun hosting movie nights at his place. He seems well on his way to winning you over right away by having his production company named Channel 83, a direct nod to VIDEODROME's Civic TV graphic, by breaking out some John Carpenter-esque synth music and having the opening credits in the Carpenter font and dragged out over several minutes a la PRINCE OF DARKNESS, but then ALMOST HUMAN almost sets a land speed record for wearing out a welcome. PRINCE is definitely an influence on ALMOST HUMAN, but it draws even more from the likes of THE THING, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE HIDDEN, and XTRO. Set in the late '80s for no particular reason and with little attention to period detail other than the background decor of VCRs, cassettes, and land lines (characters sport present-day hipster beards and there's not a mullet in sight), the film opens with Seth (Graham Skipper) claiming his buddy was abducted into the sky by a powerful blue light.  His skeptical pal Mark (Josh Ethier) is soon taken by the same light, seemingly never to return.  Two years later, Mark's girlfriend Jen (Vanessa Leigh) has moved on, but Seth is still suffering from nightmares and nosebleeds, and has a premonition that Mark is returning.  Sure enough, a pair of hunters find Mark's nude body in the woods, covered in an extraterrestrial ooze and possessed by an alien force. "Mark" goes on a killing spree, collecting bodies for cocoons on his way back to town to impregnate Jen with his alien seed, while Seth fails to convince anyone that something bad is about to happen.  ALMOST HUMAN might work if any of the actors were good, but they're strictly amateur-night across-the-board. The material is spread so thin that Begos has to run a ludicrously slow-moving eight-minute closing credits crawl just to get this to 79 minutes. Things pick up a bit in the splatter-and-slime-drenched climax, and the film displays some genuine chutzpah with one of the more icky alien impregnation scenes you're likely to see, but it's too little, too late, and ALMOST HUMAN is a mostly empty experience. Sure, it pays tribute to a lot of great movies and Begos is obviously a die-hard horror nerd, but unlike THE MACHINE, ALMOST HUMAN lacks its own voice.  It gives you plenty of reference points, but that's all it gives you, and by its NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD-inspired finish, you have to question why you're watching what looks a home-movie remake of THE THING or BODY SNATCHERS when you could just be watching the real thing. The poster art is pretty cool, though. (Unrated, 79 mins)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: MACHINE GUN MCCAIN (1969)

(Italy - 1969; US release 1970)

Directed by Giuliano Montaldo. Written by Mino Roli and Israel Horovitz. Cast: John Cassavetes, Britt Ekland, Peter Falk, Gabriele Ferzetti, Gena Rowlands, Florinda Bolkan, Tony Kendall, Salvo Randone, Luigi Pistilli, Pierluigi Apra, Steffen Zacharias, James Morrison, Claudio Biave, Margherita Guzzinati, Val Avery, Carol Doda. (Unrated, 96 mins)

Actor/writer/director John Cassavetes (1929-1989) was one of the key figures in the birth of the American independent film. He was already a jobbing character actor throughout the 1950s in films like THE NIGHT HOLDS TERROR (1955), CRIME IN THE STREETS (1956) and EDGE OF THE CITY (1957), and on television, where he earned a shot at headlining his own series with the short-lived NBC private eye drama JOHNNY STACCATO in 1959. Though he was building a solid reputation as an actor, Cassavetes' true passion was directing (NBC let him direct several JOHNNY STACCATO episodes) and that same year, he released his self-financed writing/directing debut SHADOWS, which he actually shot twice, once in 1957 and again in 1959, preferring the reshot '59 version. SHADOWS received high praise, particularly from European critics, and it led to Cassavetes getting a couple of Hollywood studio directing gigs with the 1961 Bobby Darin vehicle TOO LATE BLUES and 1963's A CHILD IS WAITING, with Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland.  Cassavetes took the latter film as an assignment after original director Jack Clayton (ROOM AT THE TOP, THE INNOCENTS) left over a scheduling conflict, and didn't get along with either of his legendary stars or producer Stanley Kramer, all of whom were old school Hollywood and very set in their ways and had no use for Cassavetes' love of improvisation and gritty sensibilities.  Kramer took the film away from Cassavetes and fired him during the editing stage.  Cassavetes ultimately disowned A CHILD IS WAITING while reiterating his respect for Kramer and conceding that it wasn't the kind of film he should've been directing in the first place.  If Cassavetes took anything away from his unsuccessful stint as a Hollywood studio director, it was the mindset of the character played by Darin in TOO LATE BLUES, a talented jazz musician torn between selling out for easy money or sticking to his ideals and making the art he wished to make, regardless of commercial appeal or financial reward.

After his miserable experience on A CHILD IS WAITING, Cassavetes decided that he would no longer compromise himself as a filmmaker, and the easiest way to do this would be to compromise himself as an actor.  Cassavetes wanted to make the films he wanted to make and didn't give a shit that some found them talky and self-indulgent. Like their maker, Cassavetes' films are raw, intense, and unpleasant, sometimes to the point of belligerence.  He didn't want to fall into the same trap that continually managed to snag another maverick, Orson Welles, who perpetually found himself beholden to producers and investors who seduced him with romantic promises of total autonomy only to take the films away from him anyway once the realization set in that they most likely wouldn't be getting their money back. Cassavetes started taking acting gigs to both support his growing family with actress wife Gena Rowlands (they married in 1954) and their three children, but also to bankroll his own directing efforts so he'd have to answer to no one.  He spent the next several years on television with guest spots on shows like THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR, BURKE'S LAW, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, and COMBAT! plus 1964's THE KILLERS, which was shot as the first made-for-TV-movie but released to theaters when it was deemed too violent, including a notorious scene where Angie Dickinson is slapped around by a vicious gangster played by Ronald Reagan in his final acting role before entering politics. Cassavetes returned to the big screen in 1967 with the biker movie DEVIL'S ANGELS and as one of THE DIRTY DOZEN. His performance in THE DIRTY DOZEN earned him an unexpected Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (he lost to George Kennedy in COOL HAND LUKE), and much to his surprise, his acting career was taking off. 1968 was a banner year for Cassavetes, as he co-starred in ROSEMARY'S BABY and re-established his dormant filmmaking career with his breakthrough FACES, which received Oscar nominations for Cassavetes' script as well as the supporting performances of Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin.  As his career behind the camera gained significant momentum, Cassavetes' interest in acting diminished, but he soldiered on since it provided him with the budgets he needed for his personal projects, and as that interest waned, his reputation as "difficult" grew, which certainly wasn't helped by his heavy drinking.  He didn't get along with Roman Polanski on ROSEMARY'S BABY, and this would be a recurring theme throughout the rest of Cassavetes' acting career. Shortly after THE DIRTY DOZEN and ROSEMARY'S BABY, Cassavetes acted in a pair of Italian gangster films:  Alberto De Martino's ROME LIKE CHICAGO (1968), which wasn't even seen in the US until it aired on CBS in 1974, and Giuliano Montaldo's MACHINE GUN MCCAIN (1969), released in the US in the summer of 1970.

MACHINE GUN MCCAIN is an interesting film on Cassavetes' acting resume.  While it's obviously a money gig for him first and foremost, producers Bino Cicogna and Marco Vicario allowed him to bring along members of his stock company, including Rowlands, and two of his best friends, Peter Falk and Val Avery. MCCAIN is an occasionally uneven film that tries to juggle more characters than it can handle in its 96 minutes (though the European version is reportedly 20 minutes longer), but it contains one of Cassavetes' best performances as ex-con Hank McCain.  Hardened criminal McCain is unexpectedly pardoned 12 years into a life sentence at San Quentin.  He's met by his 20-year-old son Jack (Pierluigi Apra), a two-bit hood who claims to have paid $25,000 to have him set free. Jack and two buddies, Cuda (James Morrison, in a role IMDb erroneously credited to Jim Morrison for years--yes, the Doors singer) and Barclay (Claudio Biave), woo him with a $2 million heist of The Royal, a new casino in Las Vegas.  McCain doesn't buy that these three losers came up with this plan--or the $25,000--on their own (he gives Jack some tough-love with "You're gonna be small change your whole life"), and he's right:  the job has been orchestrated by powerful mobster Charlie Adamo (Falk) and his consigliere Duke Mazzanga (Luigi Pistilli), who run the west coast operation for New York-based Don Salvatore (Salvo Randone) and his second-in-command, nephew Don Francesco DeMarco (Gabriele Ferzetti).   Based in San Francisco, Adamo was given the west coast with specific instructions to stay out of Vegas, but believing Don Salvatore lacks confidence in him, Adamo thinks asserting his power in Vegas will prove that he's a player.  What he doesn't know is that Salvatore and DeMarco secretly own The Royal, and when he finds out, he backs down, telling Jack that the heist is off and that he'll no longer need McCain.  McCain doesn't care and moves ahead with the job on his own, along with Irene (Britt Ekland), a young woman he met at the Royal and impulsively married. Once McCain pulls off the heist and with Adamo and Mazzanga dead men walking, Don Salvatore dispatches top hit man Peter Zacari (Tony Kendall) to track down an on-the-run McCain and Irene, who are offered sanctuary by McCain's bitter ex Rosemary (Rowlands).

MACHINE GUN MCCAIN is almost three films in one:  McCain doesn't figure much in the first third, which focuses more on the scheming of Adamo and Mazzanga, their ill-conceived plan to rob the casino, and the mob bosses deciding what to do with them. Then things shift to McCain and Irene and things bog down a bit, since Ekland, who looks great, isn't given much of a character to play and we never really care about Irene or, for that matter, learn anything significant about her (another missed opportunity: Cassavetes and Falk have no scenes together). Once the heist, pulled off with a complicated set of small explosions inside the casino, is over, MCCAIN becomes almost like a Cassavetes film, especially when Rowlands turns up about 80 minutes in. What makes MCCAIN an interesting and offbeat film for its type is not just its eclectic mix of American and European actors and settings (location work was done in California and Nevada, with most of the interiors shot in Rome), its fusing of the gangster genre with the then in-vogue international heist film (Montaldo had just directed 1967's GRAND SLAM, an essential entry in the subgenre), and its in-depth depiction of the legitimate business side of the Mafia, but most notably in what Cassavetes took from the project.  The role almost seems written for him: Hank McCain is a gangster version of Cassavetes himself, doing things his own way, refusing to back down, and taking on the Mafia (read: "the system") all on his own, consequences be damned. This is a motif that would turn up again in later Cassavetes films like 1976's THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE, with connected strip club owner Ben Gazzara roped into killing the head of the Chinese Mafia on the west coast in order to settle a debt to a mob boss; in 1980's GLORIA, his biggest commercial success as a director, with Rowlands in an Oscar-nominated performance as a hit woman on the run, protecting an orphaned boy after his parents are murdered by her bosses; and again with Cassavetes as an actor, co-starring with Falk in Elaine May's largely improvised and very Cassavetes-ish MIKEY AND NICKY (1976). Considering his increasingly surly reputation as an actor (it's no accident that he's name-checked by Denis Leary in the song "Asshole"), Cassavetes found some common ground with Montaldo, who speaks highly of his star on Blue Underground's 2010 DVD/Blu-ray release of the film.  They clashed early in the filming, but once Montaldo asserted that he was the director and earned Cassavetes' trust, the pair got along fine, and Cassavetes even assisted his director with some indie/underground, guerrilla location filming tactics during the American portion of the shoot, securing a couple of rented cars and helping Montaldo catch some scenes on the fly in San Francisco, bypassing permits.  It's probable that Cassavetes wrote much of his own dialogue, though the script is credited to GRAND SLAM co-writer Mino Roli, who would work again with Montaldo on 1971's SACCO & VANZETTI and go on to write Enzo G. Castellari's 1976 spaghetti western KEOMA. English dialogue is credited to Israel Horovitz, whose most noteworthy credit otherwise is for writing the 1982 Al Pacino comedy AUTHOR! AUTHOR!, though undoubtedly his biggest contribution to popular culture is fathering Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys. MACHINE GUN MCCAIN also featured a catchy score by Ennio Morricone, as well as the over-the-top "Ballad of Hank McCain," a Jackie Lynton-sung ditty more appropriate for a spaghetti western of the era, and one that was covered in 2000 by John Zorn and Faith No More frontman Mike Patton.

Using the money from his lucrative Hollywood and Italian acting gigs, Cassavetes funded 1970's HUSBANDS, a mid-life crisis drama starring himself, Falk, and their other best buddy Ben Gazzara (the trio going on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW completely drunk to plug the film is some priceless TV history, where they give Cavett so much grief that the host quips "This is why I didn't join a fraternity").  Occasionally, Cassavetes would be promised total freedom, as was the case with 1971's MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ, made by Universal during their short-lived courting of indie filmmakers in post-EASY RIDER Hollywood that resulted in Monte Hellman's TWO-LANE BLACKTOP and Dennis Hopper's infamous THE LAST MOVIE. Universal still cut an early scene out of MINNIE despite Cassavetes' objections--the scene was later restored but he was once again disillusioned with Hollywood and went back to his usual routine.  Only now, the acting roles temporarily slowed down and Cassavetes mortgaged his house to finance 1974's A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE with Rowlands and Falk.  He followed that and CHINESE BOOKIE with 1977's OPENING NIGHT while finding work in front of the camera in big-budget movies like TWO-MINUTE WARNING (1976), BRASS TARGET (1978), and Brian De Palma's THE FURY (1978), which ends with Cassavetes getting one of cinema's all-time greatest death scenes.

Cassavetes made GLORIA with Columbia, originally planning to simply sell the studio his screenplay but Rowlands talked him into directing it and it became a surprise sleeper hit. Still, Cassavetes wasn't interested in going Hollywood.  He continued acting in films for others, starring opposite Richard Dreyfuss in John Badham's WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY? (1981), with Rowlands in Paul Mazursky's acclaimed TEMPEST (1982), and reteaming with BRASS TARGET director John Hough on the grimy horror film THE INCUBUS (also 1982). In 1984, the drinking and the chain-smoking caught up with Cassevetes as he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and given months to live.  He decided to spend the time making one more film, this time teaming up with none other then Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus for LOVE STREAMS. Though known for schlocky action movies, the Cannon duo of Golan & Globus also tried to cultivate a serious reputation with directors like Cassavetes, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, and Franco Zeffirelli just to name a few.  Time went on, and though Cassavetes was slowed down by his liver problems, he was still around.  In 1986, he directed his last film, the doomed BIG TROUBLE. Conceived as a follow-up to 1979's THE IN-LAWS and reuniting stars Falk and Alan Arkin with writer (and now director) Andrew Bergman, the film was a disaster from the start.  Bergman quit 1/3 of the way into filming and had his writing credit removed (the script is credited to "Warren Bogle"). Knowing his friend's days were numbered, he could use the money, and would probably like to direct again, Falk talked Columbia into letting Cassavetes step in and finish the film, which he did without incident.  He viewed it as a job and wasn't really bothered when the studio recut the film and barely released it.  BIG TROUBLE is so bad then even producer Mike Lobell took his name off the movie.  A few more years went by and Cassavetes was still beating the odds and planning to direct a project titled SHE'S DE-LOVELY, but he finally succumbed to his illness and died in February 1989 at 59, five years after he was told he had just a few months to live. Cassavetes and Rowlands' three children have all become filmmakers: son Nick (born in 1959), a sometime actor (FACE/OFF), would direct the retitled SHE'S SO LOVELY in 1997 as a tribute to his dad and go on to direct his mom in the tearjerker THE NOTEBOOK (not quite the Hollywood iconoclast his old man was, Nick's most recent film is the Cameron Diaz comedy THE OTHER WOMAN), daughter Xan (born in 1965) directed the acclaimed 2004 documentary Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and the 2012 horror indie KISS OF THE DAMNED, and daughter Zoe (born in 1970) directed their mom in 2007's BROKEN ENGLISH.

Cassavetes and Rowlands in a photo
taken near the end of John's life.