Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: THE FINAL OPTION (1983)

(UK/Switzerland - 1982; US release 1983)

Directed by Ian Sharp. Written by Reginald Rose. Cast: Lewis Collins, Judy Davis, Richard Widmark, Edward Woodward, Robert Webber, Ingrid Pitt, Tony Doyle, John Duttine, Kenneth Griffith, Rosalind Lloyd, Norman Rodway, Paul Freeman, Aharon Ipale, Patrick Allen, Maurice Roeves, Bob Sherman, Albert Fortell, Mark Ryan, Nick Brimble. (R, 125 mins)

Created in 1941 for the duration of WWII and reactivated in 1947, the Special Air Service (SAS) is a Special Forces division of the British Army that enjoyed its height of fame after the six-day Iranian Embassy siege in London from April 30 to May 5, 1980. Globally, the event was overshadowed by the 444-day hostage crisis at the US Embassy in Tehran that began in November 1979 and ended moments after President Ronald Reagan's inauguration in January 1981. But in England, the SAS' swift and precise action after being deployed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the London incident, where Arab terrorists took over the Iranian embassy to demand the release of Arab prisoners from jails in Khuzestan, brought the SAS into the mainstream, making them Thatcher-era national heroes not unlike the 9/11 first responders in America two decades later. Now involved primarily in counter-terrorism efforts, the SAS' motto has always been "Who Dares Wins," and WHO DARES WINS was the name of the 1982 film inspired by their actions at the Iranian Embassy.  Retitled THE FINAL OPTION for its fall 1983 US release from MGM/UA, WHO DARES WINS was the brainchild of producer Euan Lloyd, best known for shepherding the 1978 mercenary classic THE WILD GEESE, a film that was a huge hit everywhere in the world except America, where it was acquired by Allied Artists during their final days on life support. Consequently, the film was a flop in the States, despite being headlined by Richard Burton, Roger Moore, and Richard Harris. Nevertheless, it went on to find an audience on TV, and later, on video and is now regarded as a top action film as well as an influence on such all-star action extravaganzas as THE EXPENDABLES.

THE FINAL OPTION opens with a nuclear disarmament protest march in London, with a member of the militant domestic terror outfit The People's Lobby brutally murdered from a distance with a crossbow arrow through the mouth. The dead man was an undercover government operative who infiltrated the organization and was obviously discovered. SAS administrators Cmdr. Powell (Edward Woodward) and Col. Hadley (Tony Doyle) opt to send in Capt. Peter Skellen (Lewis Collins), going so far as to stage an elaborate, airtight cover that involves him purposely getting booted out of the SAS and, with the help of his handler Ryan (Norman Rodway), posing as someone who's disillusioned and bitter and has an axe to grind with the British government. The cover works for People's Lobby leader Frankie Leith (Judy Davis), who's powerless against Skellen's seductive charms and almost immediately offers to let him move into her place, much to the disapproval of her cohorts Helga (Ingrid Pitt) and Rod (John Duttine). Helga and Rod aren't sold on Skellen or the expertise that he brings as one who knows their enemy, and they follow him to see him having clandestine meetings not just with Ryan but also with his wife Jenny (Lloyd's daughter Rosalind) and their baby daughter. Exposed as a plant, and left on his own once go-between Ryan is offed by Helga, Skellen is forced to tag along with Frankie's half-assed plot to commandeer the home of the US Ambassador to England, where a formal dinner is taking place with US Secretary of State Currie (Richard Widmark) and top-ranking American military official Gen. Potter (Robert Webber) in attendance. Frankie and the People's Lobby have one demand:  for the US to detonate a nuclear weapon at the Holy Loch Naval Base in Scotland, a move that she somehow believes will bring about "peace."

Frankie's plan isn't the most logical, but then, neither is most of this film. Davis, in between her breakout debut performance in 1979's MY BRILLIANT CAREER and her Oscar-nominated turn in 1984's A PASSAGE TO INDIA, turns in a committed performance even though she would later denounce the film over its political messaging.  When it was released in the UK as a slobbering, shoot 'em up love letter to the SAS, the glorification caused a fair amount of controversy for those opposed to the actions of the SAS and the general culture of Thatcher's England. THE FINAL OPTION was labeled "right-wing propaganda," and there's no denying where its politics lie: the nuclear disarmament crowd is portrayed across-the-board as broad-stroked, frothing-at-the-mouth lunatics; the SAS are largely "shoot first and ask questions later"; Frankie, calm and collected in the early part of the siege, quickly turns emotional and frazzled when she's grilled by Currie, Potter, and a bunch of angry, old American men (Widmark gets the film's best line when he barks "Why don't you hijack a plane?  It's more fun. Hell, kids can hijack a dinner!"), and, in its most hysterical and over-the-top plot development, after Skellen and the SAS save the day and blow everyone in The People's Lobby away, a left-wing politico (Paul Freeman) is seen complaining about the level of violence in the raid and questioning why the SAS instigate such an extreme level of national pride just before he meets Malik (Aharon Ipale) for lunch.  Malik is seen very early and is established as the key source of funding for The People's Lobby. So here's the end of the film, with the left-wing member of Parliament literally walking arm-in-arm with the primary money man who's bankrolling domestic terror, not just sympathizing with his cause but clearly conspiring with him as both men chuckle over future terrorist plots against England. There's no mistaking the message there: you're either onboard with the actions and the philosophy of the SAS, or you hate England and want to see it burn.


WHO DARES WINS was released in the UK in the summer of 1982, and it would be over a year later before MGM/UA released it in the US in September 1983 as THE FINAL OPTION. Perhaps MGM felt that the action and the notoriety of the two Iran-related hostage situations would trump the sections of British politics that many potential American moviegoers likely didn't follow too closely. While the film certainly delivers on the action in the climax--with the SAS raiding the US Ambassador's house in a relentless, ferocious barrage of explosions, grenades, splattery squibs, shoulder-rolls, Skellen going on a Rambo-esque rampage against the People's Lobby stooges shortly before anyone knew who Rambo was; and even several shots from the through-the-helmet POV of an SAS officer that presciently foresees later first-person shooter video games, all propelled by Roy Budd's catchy, waka-jawaka-tinged score--it nevertheless bombed in US theaters, opening in 12th place with $750,000.  To put that in perspective, FLASHDANCE landed in seventh place that same weekend, grossing $1.4 million in its 23rd week of release. THE FINAL OPTION made a quick turnaround to VHS and cable, where it developed a cult following through seemingly constant airings on HBO throughout the '80s. While the film didn't catch on in America during its brief theatrical run, it did manage to find one unexpected fan who got a special screening at his residence arranged by producer Lloyd and cited it as the most realistic depiction of a terrorist situation and a counter-terrorism response that he'd ever seen on the big screen. Who was this FINAL OPTION superfan? President Reagan.

Regardless of your political leanings (if this were released today, it would be a Fox News wet dream), THE FINAL OPTION is a solid action thriller, especially in its nail-biting climactic rescue sequence, which even the film's detractors will usually reluctantly admit is brilliantly-handled by director Ian Sharp, a TV vet who worked on THE PROFESSIONALS and was brought in by Lloyd because he already had a solid working relationship with series co-star Collins. Sharp never distinguished himself beyond this film other than with the acclaimed 1988 Showtime espionage miniseries CODENAME: KYRIL, which reunited him with Woodward, who's sadly underused here. THE FINAL OPTION was originally conceived as a story by journalist and espionage writer George Markstein, best known for writing some early episodes of the 1960s series THE PRISONER. Markstein's outline was commissioned by Lloyd and simultaneously turned into the novel The Tiptoe Boys by James Follett and a script by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Reginald Rose, who honed his skills in the early days of TV drama before writing Sidney Lumet's classic 12 ANGRY MEN (1957). Rose also scripted THE WILD GEESE, and when that became a hit everywhere in the world but America, the same creative team--Lloyd, Rose, star Moore, and director Andrew V. McLaglen (MITCHELL)--reunited in 1980 for the WWII actioner THE SEA WOLVES, another "old guys kicking ass" EXPENDABLES prototype, where the still relatively youthful Moore (then 53) joined forces with 64-year-old Gregory Peck, 70-year-old David Niven, 67-year-old Trevor Howard, and 58-year-old Patrick Macnee. Rose had entered the hired-gun phase of his career by this point, but found a late-career niche with Lloyd, and after WHO DARES WINS/THE FINAL OPTION, they planned a sequel for Collins that would've involved his Capt. Skellen character in the ten-week Falklands War between the UK and Argentina in 1982, but it never materialized.  Instead, Lloyd and Rose went to work on WILD GEESE II (1985), directed by Peter Hunt (ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE), and starring Scott Glenn, Barbara Carrera, Laurence Olivier, and Edward Fox, a last-minute replacement for Richard Burton, who died shortly before filming began.  The film flopped in the UK and was barely released in the US, and Lloyd retired from the movie industry. Now 91, Lloyd was most recently heard on a WILD GEESE DVD commentary track with Moore in 2004. Rose scripted the 1987 CBS TV-movie ESCAPE FROM SOBIBOR and took a few freelance gigs before his death in 2002 at 82.

With THE FINAL OPTION, Lloyd didn't go for the geezer adventure approach of THE WILD GEESE and THE SEA WOLVES and instead tried to make a movie star of British TV actor Collins (1946-2013), who was nearing the end of a six-year run on the popular adventure series THE PROFESSIONALS, from AVENGERS creator Brian Clemens. THE FINAL OPTION marked Collins' first starring role in a feature film and for a brief period in 1982, Lewis Colllins almost happened when he auditioned to take over the role of James Bond. After 1981's FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, Roger Moore informed 007 producer Albert R. Broccoli that felt he was getting too old to play Bond and wanted to quit, and the search was on for a replacement.  Collins and Ian Ogilvy (who already had experience replacing Moore--he was best known at the time for playing Simon Templar on TV's RETURN OF THE SAINT) were on the short list, and Collins would later say that Broccoli found his presence "too aggressive." Broccoli went with the wild-card pick of none other than American James Brolin, who was cast as 007 and set to star in 1983's OCTOPUSSY until an eleventh-hour deal was struck with Moore, who begrudgingly returned for OCTOPUSSY and 1985's A VIEW TO A KILL before leaving the franchise for good at age 58. Despite WHO DARES WINS' success in the UK and his TV popularity, Collins' career never really picked up after losing out on the 007 role. Having played an SAS officer on THE PROFESSIONALS and in THE FINAL OPTION, Collins was essentially the UK's celebrity face of the Special Air Service, even passing the physical endurance test required to join. For a while, Collins parlayed his SAS persona into steady work in a trilogy of West German/Italian WILD GEESE knockoffs from director Antonio Margheriti and producer Erwin C. Dietrich: CODENAME: WILDGEESE (1984), COMMANDO LEOPARD (1985), and THE COMMANDER (1988). CODENAME was released in the US in 1986 by New World, but the other two never found American distribution.  After displaying some convincing action chops in THE FINAL OPTION and still stinging from losing the Bond gig (he frequently called it his biggest career missed opportunity), a wooden Collins doesn't even camouflage his boredom in the Margheriti films and his deflated disappointment over the direction of his career. THE COMMANDER proved to be Collins' final feature film role, and other than co-starring with Michael Caine and Armand Assante in the 1988 CBS TV-movie JACK THE RIPPER, he drifted into increasingly sporadic TV guest spots. He eventually retired from acting in 2002, when he moved his family to Los Angeles and became a 56-year-old college student, enrolling in UCLA to study screenwriting, eventually moving on to create an L.A.-based computer sales and equipment company. He survived a 2008 bout with cancer and was attempting an acting comeback in 2012 when his illness made an aggressive return.  He died in November 2013 at the age of 67.

THE FINAL OPTION was recently released on DVD as part of Shout! Factory's latest four-film "Action Adventure Marathon" set, along with I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND (1973), SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL (1959), and TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS (1983).  They also released it as a double feature Blu-ray with I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND.

Friday, July 25, 2014

In Theaters: LUCY (2014)

(France - 2014)

Written and directed by Luc Besson. Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-Sik, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton. (R, 89 mins)

Where most auteurs start with genre efforts to get their feet wet and mature into serious filmmaking, Luc Besson's career has largely been the exact opposite. Early films like LE DERNIER COMBAT (1983) and THE BIG BLUE (1988) exhibited art-house aspirations that culiminated in his 1990 classic LA FEMME NIKITA, which perfectly combined his artistic and commercial sensibilities.  You could say the same for 1994's THE PROFESSIONAL, aka LEON, initially dismissed by most critics but now considered one of the best films of its decade.  1997's THE FIFTH ELEMENT has amassed a large cult following, though 1999's THE MESSENGER: THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC was badly received and prompted Besson to take a lengthy sabbatical from directing. These days, Besson is best known for his EuropaCorp action assembly line that gave us Jason Statham's TRANSPORTER and Liam Neeson's TAKEN franchises, films directed by Besson proteges yet exhibiting all the signature stylings of their boss. After last year's disappointing gangster comedy THE FAMILY, Besson is making a quick return to American multiplexes with LUCY, which has enough scientific theorizing in it to make it seem like Besson's most ambitious film yet. Instead, it's his dumbest.

Equal parts Besson action movie and "Luc Besson's COSMOS" if the confused director was mistakenly getting scientific and philosophical consultation from Mike Tyson rather than Neil DeGrasse Tyson, LUCY is an absurd sci-fi outing that has occasional flashes of fun but just gets arduously tiresome the longer it goes on. Scarlett Johansson is Lucy, an American college student in Taipei who's forced by her dirtbag boyfriend (Pilou Asbaek) to deliver a briefcase with unknown contents to psychotic Korean gangster Mr. Jang (Choi Min-Sik, the original OLDBOY). Inside the briefcase are bags of a synthetic drug called CPH4, and Jang's men sew it into her stomach, forcing her to work as a mule. Before she can get to the airport, an altercation with some of Jang's goons causes the bag to break and the drug to leak into her bloodstream, giving Lucy an increasingly heightened sense of awareness. She soon has the ability to control everything around her, starting with people and moving on to electronic signals and matter itself. Making her way to Paris and teaming up with cop Del Rio (Amr Waked), Lucy tries to make contact with renowned scientist Prof. Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman), one of the world's leading experts on brain function, with Jang and his underlings in hot pursuit.

"I'm in, Luc.  No, don't send the script.
Not gonna read it anyway. Here's the account number."
It's Norman's assertion--and Besson's as well, I suppose--that human beings use only 10% of their brain capacity. As the CPH4 is absorbed by Lucy's body and completely overhauls her chemical structure, her brain rapidly begins increasing in power.  At 20%, she can control electronic signals and communicate with Norman through the TV in his hotel room. At 30%, she can diagnose undetected health issues just by touching someone. By the time she reaches 50-60%, she's able to control the thoughts and actions of those around her, manipulating matter and even time itself. As Del Rio and the French cops battle Jang's army in a huge shootout, Lucy goes on her own version of the Stargate sequence in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, transforming into a black, sinewy human computer as she travels back through the dawn of time, starting with Native Americans and going back to cavemen, dinosaurs, and eventually, the Big Bang.

Its in the last third that Besson totally goes off his rocker and LUCY becomes a self-indulgent action version of THE TREE OF LIFE. But honestly, LUCY just never works. Besson fails to get any momentum going early on by running two parallel stories--Lucy being cornered and trapped in her situation with Jang is frequently intercut with a heavy-handed display of stock nature footage and Norman lecturing to a large auditorium of students and fellow scientists at a Paris conference. The science is mostly made up by Besson, but the real problem is that the cutting to Norman grinds the film to a halt in a way that recalls Steven Seagal's mumbling environmental speech at the end of ON DEADLY GROUND, only spread apart to constantly interrupt any suspense or action that might be developing. A barely-awake Freeman, in his second terrible sci-fi movie in the last three months (anyone remember TRANSCENDENCE?), has obviously stopped giving a shit and will apparently read whatever is handed to him. It's nice to see Choi doing some vintage OLDBOY screaming, but he has little else to do. LUCY might make an interesting companion piece to Johansson's recent UNDER THE SKIN as both films require her to rely on an otherworldly stare and an innate seductiveness (and both films have her utilizing a mysterious, undetermined black matter), but LUCY goes in an opposite direction as her character becomes more unemotional and alien as the story proceeds. And the comparisons end there. There's some amusing moments as Lucy experiments with her newfound powers, but such bits are few and far between, and even a big action sequence like a car chase is ruined by crummy, carelessly-executed CGI and gratuitous shaky-cam. Besson tries to make some grand, life-affirming points about humans living to their potential, which he probably intended as something profound and powerful, but instead comes across as an utterly tone-deaf lack of self-awareness.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: BLUE RUIN (2014); ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE (2014); and OPEN GRAVE (2014)

(US/France - 2014)

A moody, highly effective slow-burner of a revenge thriller that works in large part due to its "hero" not really being cut out for what he's doing. Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) is a homeless man sneaking into houses for a bath, eating out of garbage cans, and living in his beat-up car on the beach. He's taken to the police station by a sympathetic cop (Sidne Anderson) who tells him he's not in trouble, but she wanted him to be in a safe place when he heard the news she has for him: Wade Cleland (Sandy Barrett) is being released from prison. Several years earlier, Wade killed Dwight's parents, a tragedy from which Dwight never recovered.  Dwight visits a pawn shop but can't afford a gun, then he steals one from someone's truck, but can't unlock the chamber. Armed with a steak knife, he sits in his car outside the prison and follows the Cleland family to Wade's coming-home party at a local bar. Hiding in the men's room, Dwight stabs Wade in the neck and head when he comes in to take a leak, then runs outside and slashes the tires of the Cleland's limo, slicing open his hand in the process. When he gets in his own car, he realizes he dropped the keys next to the body. Stealing the limo and driving it on a flat tire, he finds a teenage Cleland boy in the back and lets him go. Dwight visits his estranged sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) and confesses what he's done. She's glad Wade is dead, though Dwight wonders why it hasn't been in the news. Believing the Cleland family hasn't called the cops because intend to respond to Dwight's act personally, Dwight tells Sam to leave town with her kids as he's suddenly in way over his head with a shady family who's more dangerous than he ever imagined.

Writer/director/cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier doesn't present Dwight as a tough badass, but rather, a sad incompetent whose plan for revenge is short-sighted, to say the least. He desperately wants to avenge the murder of his parents, but doesn't plan ahead and isn't equipped to handle the unexpected problems that arise, like getting his sister to safety or getting shot in the leg with an arrow. Dwight doesn't go after the Clelands with guns blazing--in fact, he's lucky if he can manage to get a shot off at all. Saulnier disperses the backstory very conservatively, and only near the end do all the details, and just how deeply the bad blood between the Evans and Cleland families runs become clear to the audience. Though the Clelands are a family of rednecks, Saulnier avoids the cliches that come with that label. BLUE RUIN drew a lot of comparisons to early Coen Bros., particularly BLOOD SIMPLE, in its depiction of unlikely people getting into deadly situations that quickly spiral beyond their control and capabilities, but with its early bits of dark humor, the film plays more like the Coens doing WINTER'S BONE. It's anchored by a powerfully internalized performance by Blair, and there's a brief, scene-stealing supporting turn by Devon "Buzz from HOME ALONE" Ratray as a high school friend who helps Dwight out (THE BRADY BUNCH's Eve Plumb also appears as one of the Cleland clan). True to its title, BLUE RUIN is a bleak and gritty noir of sorts that presents an atypical, low-key spin on the standard revenge saga. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2014)

It's a little late to be making knockoffs of THE CRAFT, and if ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE seems a little tardy, part of the reason might be that the filmmakers already made it 15 years ago. The writing-directing team of Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson made an ultra low-budget, shot-on-video version immediately after graduating from college.  Since then, both have remained gainfully employed in the industry with varying degrees of success: McKee is best known for his 2003 cult classic MAY, with Sivertson's claim to infamy being Lindsay Lohan's 2007 dumpster fire I KNOW WHO KILLED ME. Both have made Jack Ketchum adaptations, with McKee co-directing 2008's RED (a terrific little gem that no one knows about) and handling 2011's inexplicably acclaimed THE WOMAN solo, while Sivertson directed 2006's THE LOST. Older, wiser, and having played and barely survived the Hollywood game, the two old friends reunited to give their debut a do-over. They made some incidental plot changes, but the general idea is the same: a group of cheerleaders are killed and one's goth, Wiccan ex-girlfriend casts a spell that brings them back to life, but they need the blood of the living to survive, all the while still being catty bitches about everything. Yes, it's essentially VAMPIRE ZOMBIE HEATHERS. McKee and Sivertson offer an intriguing set-up that finds student videographer Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) infiltrating a tight-knit clique of cheerleaders after one dies in a horrific cheering accident. Her whole plan is to rip apart the perfect world of the cheerleaders and their jock boyfriends. That storyline is working quite well until it's abandoned after an intense and well-acted confrontation that unfortunately leads to silliness once a car chase results in the girls dying when their car plummets into a river. The jocks chasing them split, but lesbian Maddy's witch ex Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) happens to be in the area and brings them back to life. From then on, McKee and Sivertson can never settle on a tone, careening wildly between sick, black humor (virginal, sensitive dudebro has sex in a bathroom stall with one undead cheerleader, then brags to his buddy "I was all up in that sweet freezer!  It's supposed to be cold, right?") and grueling, Rob Zombie-esque unpleasantness. There's some worthwhile moments, and the directors get a pair of strong performances from Stasey and Smit-McPhee, but it's all rather uneven and quite dumb, some of the visual effects are pretty bush-league, and the film feels like it's visiting from the distant netherworld of 1998.  (R, 90 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US/Hong Kong - 2014)

A promising premise is quickly squandered in this ponderous Hungary-shot horror film from Spanish director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego, who's somehow still able to find employment after the universally-loathed APOLLO 18. Sharlto Copley (DISTRICT 9) wakes up in the titular location, surrounded by rotting corpses.  He's rescued by a mute woman (Josie Ho) who takes him to a house where several others (among them Thomas Kretschmann) are suffering from group amnesia. Hazy details slowly come into view over what's happened to them and why as they try to escape and are met by strange, almost feral people and keep running into corpses used as scarecrows. The twists and turns in the story aren't really that interesting or suspenseful and the film ultimately turns into yet another stale variant of an already played-out subgenre. Copley is a bit more tolerable here than he was in Spike Lee's OLDBOY, but Ho, whose character doesn't understand English and can only write Chinese, has absolutely nothing to do but stand around and look at her histrionic co-stars and may as well be wearing a T-shirt that says "I'm only here to satisfy a Hong Kong co-production deal." Scenes of tense bickering are supposed to convey the sense of mistrust and paranoia among the protagonists, especially when a foggy Copley starts to think he might be the one responsible for all the mayhem. But after the 19th or 20th shouting match between frazzled people who can't remember who or where they are in a film that feels way longer than it is, there's a good chance you'll stop caring. Even Leonard Shelby would run out of patience with these assholes. (R, 102 mins)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Cannon Files: TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS (1983)

(US/Spain - 1983)

Directed by Ferdinando Baldi. Written by Lloyd Battista, Jim Bryce, and Jerry Lazarus. Cast: Tony Anthony, Ana Obregon, Gene Quintano, Jerry Lazarus, Francisco Rabal, Emiliano Redondo, Francisco Villena, Lewis Gordon. (PG, 101 mins)

When 1983's TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS aired on The Movie Channel's JOE BOB'S DRIVE IN-THEATER back in the late '80s, host Joe Bob Briggs remarked that it was "the first hit in a series of one" for producer/star Tony Anthony. A funny line, yes, but not exactly true. Though he enjoyed some minor success and his COMIN' AT YA! was a surprise hit in 1981, he is, for the most part, an almost completely-forgotten C-lister as far as mainstream audiences are concerned. But the long, strange journey of Tony Anthony is the kind of oddball story that should be made into a movie. He wanted to run his career his own way, and like most independent-minded mavericks, his career achievements, such as they were, came about from ingenuity, perseverance, salesmanship, and having some good friends in unexpected places.

Anthony was born Roger Anthony Pettito in West Virginia in 1937. He broke into movies with his buddy Saul Swimmer (1936-2007) with their 1961 Miami-shot indie FORCE OF IMPULSE. Anthony and Swimmer wrote the script, Swimmer directed, and Anthony co-starred with a decidedly odd cast that featured Robert Alda, J. Carrol Naish, and jazz great Lionel Hampton. Anthony played a poor high-school student trying to woo a rich girl, so he robs his father's grocery store with tragic results. FORCE OF IMPULSE was barely released and probably hasn't been seen in decades, but Anthony and Swimmer kept at it with the 1962 circus drama WITHOUT EACH OTHER. Anthony and Swimmer briefly went their own ways, with Anthony going to Europe and finding work in some Italian films and Swimmer heading to London. As the spaghetti western genre exploded following 1964's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, which wasn't released in the US until 1967, producers were scrambling to find the next Clint Eastwood, and Anthony would soon parlay what little notoriety he had into a series of "Man with No Name" knockoffs as "The Stranger."  A STRANGER IN TOWN (1967), THE STRANGER RETURNS (1967), and THE SILENT STRANGER (shot in 1968, shelved until 1975) has varying degrees of success in America and Anthony took on more creative control as the series went on. Swimmer, meanwhile, directed the 1968 Herman's Hermits movie MRS. BROWN, YOU'VE GOT A LOVELY DAUGHTER and, through his friendship with Abkco Records chief and Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein, would eventually be part of the Beatles' inner circle once Klein took over managing the band after Brian Epstein's death in 1967. Swimmer co-produced the Beatles' 1970 documentary LET IT BE and would later direct George Harrison's THE CONCERT FOR BANGLADESH (1972). Anthony would eventually be pulled into the Beatles' orbit via his old friend Swimmer, and the pair wrote the post-EASY RIDER road movie COME TOGETHER (1971), starring Anthony, directed by Swimmer and produced by the pair with Ringo Starr. Starr and Anthony hit it off, and after COME TOGETHER, Starr co-starred in Anthony's next film, 1971's BLINDMAN, co-produced by Klein and directed by Italian journeyman Ferdinando Baldi. Due mostly to the novelty of seeing a former Beatle playing a bad guy in a spaghetti western, BLINDMAN was, to that point, Anthony's most significant success with American audiences. In 1972, he starred in the Italian gangster film 1931: ONCE UPON A TIME IN NEW YORK, unfortunately retitled PETE, PEARL AND THE POLE for its US release, one of the last titles handled by National General Pictures. In 1975, he and Baldi made GET MEAN, the fourth and final "Stranger" outing. Anthony appeared in just 12 films from 1961 to 1975, and other than BLINDMAN and whatever cult status his spaghetti obscurities have, his career appeared stalled and he didn't even pursue hired-gun acting gigs.

Anthony had other things in mind and it would be six years before the world heard from him again. Teaming with American producers Gene Quintano and Marshall Lupo, Anthony formed a new production company and found his true calling: he was bringing 3-D back in a big way.  The process had been used only sparingly since its flash-in-the-pan craze from 1953 to 1954. Anthony recruited his BLINDMAN and GET MEAN director Baldi for COMIN' AT YA!, a violent, R-rated, 3-D spaghetti western throwback that became a sleeper hit for Filmways in 1981. Anthony and his collaborators had one goal: throw everything at the screen. Audiences loved it, though obviously because of the novelty of 3-D rather than the inanities of Anthony's script. COMIN' AT YA! was enough of a success that the same creative personnel--Anthony, Quintano, Lupo, and Baldi--moved on to their next 3-D outing, TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS, a modernized but still quite blatant ripoff of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Anthony and Quintano conceived the story, which was scripted by frequent Anthony collaborator Lloyd Battista, Jim Bryce, and co-star Jerry Lazarus. Shot in Spain with American and Spanish actors and an Italian crew, with music by none other than Ennio Morricone, TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS was acquired by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus and released by Cannon in US theaters on January 21, 1983. By this time, the second big 3-D craze was underway with the previous year's FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3 and PARASITE, and, later in 1983, films like JAWS 3-D, AMITYVILLE 3-D, METALSTORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED-SYN, and SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE. Additionally, 3-D classics from the first wave like 1953's HOUSE OF WAX and 1954's DIAL M FOR MURDER were given nationwide re-releases to capitalize on the trend. To the surprise of no one, the fad fizzled as quickly as it did 30 years earlier, but the renewed enthusiasm, however brief, can largely be credited to Tony Anthony and COMIN' AT YA!

While today's digital 3-D primarily adds depth, texture, and detail, the old-school 3-D films were about having things pop out of the screen, and few understood this as well as Tony Anthony. After an opening crawl in no way inspired by STAR WARS, TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS commences with a 20-minute prologue as soldier-of-fortune J.T. Striker (Anthony, of course) searches for a hidden key inside a haunted castle. Over the course of those 20 minutes, Baldi and Anthony throw bats, buzzards, snakes, dogs, glass, spears, ropes, arrows, swords, cigarettes, and fireballs at the viewer. Anthony does everything short of unzipping his fly and showing the goods in his non-stop quest to just constantly dangle things in the audience's face. Virtually every scene--even boring exposition--features awkwardly-staged shots of people just sticking things in front of the camera.  Usually, you can clearly see the strings pulling the items. Audiences ate it up, and while FOUR CROWNS is a sentimental favorite to those of a certain age thanks to it seemingly being aired on a constant loop on cable in the '80s, it really doesn't play well flat. Time and again, things come to a dead halt when an actor has to stop the flow of a scene to hold something--a pen, a piece of paper, a key--in front of the camera for an absurd amount of time.  And the story is utter nonsense: Striker is hired by an aging professor (Francisco Villena) and money man Ed (Quintano, a terrible actor) to seek out the remaining two of four mystical, supernatural crowns with otherworldly powers. Striker assembles his team: Ed, "90 proof courage" alcoholic Rick (Lazarus), and father-daughter acrobatic pair Socrates (Francisco Rabal) and Liz (Ana Obregon) to infiltrate the impenetrable fortress of crazed cult leader Brother Jonas (Emiliano Redondo), who has the Crowns hidden in a booby-trapped lair inside.

While its set-up owes pretty much everything to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, right down to Striker being chased by a boulder, TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS becomes more of a goofy heist movie. And it's never goofier than in the bonkers climax, which makes the whole tedious affair worthwhile. Striker finds the remaining two Crowns and the jewels inside cause him to be possessed by an otherworldly entitiy. His head spins around EXORCIST-style and his face mutates before he starts wiping out Jonas' army of followers by shooting fire from his hands. That's capped off by a nonsensical appearance by a disgusting lizard creature that seemingly there to set up a sequel that we're still waiting to see.

Sweating profusely throughout and looking like Christopher Hitchens with a bad case of heartburn, Anthony has absolutely no charisma and zero screen presence, making you appreciate Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones, David Warbeck in some of Antonio Margheriti's Italian RAIDERS knockoffs, and Richard Chamberlain's affable Allan Quatermain in Cannon's KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1985) even more. Anthony had his biggest box office hits with COMIN' AT YA and TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS, and that must've made him happy: after his triumphant turn as J.T. Striker, Anthony retired from acting and shows no signs of making a comeback. He continued producing movies with Quintano, like 1990's HONEYMOON ACADEMY and the popular 1998 TNT western DOLLAR FOR THE DEAD. Anthony also co-produced the Zalman King late-night cable favorite WILD ORCHID (1990), while Quintano went on to write the aforementioned KING SOLOMON'S MINES, as well as POLICE ACADEMY 3: BACK IN TRAINING (1985) and POLICE ACADEMY 4: CITIZENS ON PATROL (1987), and direct the instantly forgotten Christophers Lambert & Lloyd heist comedy WHY ME? (1990) and NATIONAL LAMPOON'S LOADED WEAPON 1 (1993).

Tony Anthony doing a Q&A
at a 2012 screening of
Now 76, Anthony has been inactive in movies since his producing credit on DOLLAR FOR THE DEAD, but he occupied his time owning and operating a successful optical supply company that stemmed from his longstanding interest in camera and projection equipment (he designed a special lens around the time of COMIN' AT YA! that was used by studios and theater chains in the subsequent early '80s 3-D craze). He briefly returned from his self-imposed exile in 2011 when he converted COMIN' AT YA! to digital 3-D and it was re-released on an Alamo Drafthouse tour. TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS, meanwhile, has finally been released on DVD as part of a Shout! Factory "Action Adventure Movie Marathon" four-film set, with I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND (1973), THE FINAL OPTION (1983), and SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL (1959).  I wish the news was better, but Shout!'s presentation of FOUR CROWNS is one of the worst DVD transfers in the history of the medium, barely sub-YouTube in quality, cropped from 2.35 to 1.33, and riddled with extensive scratches and debris, inconsistent color, and significant print damage, rendering it an almost-unwatchable travesty. Yes, the four-film set retails at $9.99, but the picture quality is shockingly bad for a company of Shout!'s reputation. I get that it's the only print they had access to, but you could find a 30-year-old VHS tape at a flea market and the picture quality would be better. It does offer a pleasant and enthusiastic commentary track by "pop culture historian" and TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS superfan Russell Dyball, but a sentimental cult favorite like this deserves something a little more than what Shout! has given it.

Monday, July 21, 2014

In Theaters: THE PURGE: ANARCHY (2014)

(US/France - 2014)

Written and directed by James DeMonaco. Cast: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Zoe Soul, Michael K. Williams, Justina Machado, John Beasley, Jack Conley, Noel G, Edwin Hodge, Keith Stanfield. (R, 104 mins)

Last summer, the $3 million THE PURGE grossed $64 million to become one of season's surprise sleeper hits, despite no one really liking it that much. And yet, exactly one year later, here's THE PURGE: ANARCHY. When any film rakes in 21x its budget, a sequel is going to happen whether you want one or not. A year is a long time, and a lot of people have forgotten that over half of that $64 million came from the opening weekend before the negative word-of-mouth spread, sending the film on a precipitous 76% freefall in its second weekend. THE PURGE had a great concept, one that was ripe for social and political commentary: five years into the future, unemployment and crime are an all-time low, due to the revamped US government, overseen by a group of elected officials known as "The Founding Fathers" having legalized "The Purge," a one-night, 12-hour block of time where all crime, including murder, is legal, thereby allowing everyone to get a year's worth of rage out of their systems and allow society to flourish. It's the kind of dystopian high concept that could've led to an incendiary metaphor for the divisive state of the world today. But writer/director James DeMonaco blew it. After the intriguing set-up, THE PURGE quickly devolved into a rote, run-of-the-mill home invasion thriller, with a well-to-do family led by dad Ethan Hawke and mom Lena Headey under siege by a group of privileged thrill-killers trying to get in their locked-down house after they give shelter to young African-American man.

DeMonaco (who scripted 1998's THE NEGOTIATOR and the 2005 remake of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13) is back for THE PURGE: ANARCHY, and he's more or less admitted that he bungled the first film and is attempting to set things right. For the entire duration of THE PURGE, I kept wondering what an in-his-prime John Carpenter might've done with such an idea. That's a big shift in the direction that DeMonaco takes with the sequel, a sort-of PURGE 2.0, if you will, that jumps ahead to 2023, opening up the action and taking it to the streets as we follow a group of strangers thrown together to survive the night. There's low-income single mom Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her teenage daughter Cali (Zoe Soul), nearly killed by riot-geared soldiers rounding people up in a high-tech truck; about-to-split married couple Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), stranded on the highway when their car breaks down on the way home; and a nameless mystery man (Frank Grillo) armed to the teeth on a mission of vengeance in a souped-up, steel-covered Italian-post-nuke-looking hot rod, who ends up rescuing them and reluctantly becoming their protector.

THE PURGE: ANARCHY doesn't really hold up under much scrutiny, but it's a vast improvement over the first film. While putting the heroes in a position to make their way across an urban hellscape may bring to mind everything from THE WARRIORS (1979) to the underrated JUDGMENT NIGHT (1993), DeMonaco keeps things moving at a fast clip and offers some striking imagery like ominous overhead shots or a school bus engulfed in flames speeding by in the background. He also has a lot of interesting if not fully-baked ideas while taking some crowd-pleasing shots at easy targets, like the bloody, mutilated remains of a stockbroker, chained up and hanging outside of a bank in the financial district, sporting a hand-written shame-sign stating that he stole the pensions of middle-class workers ("Maybe he deserved it," Shane muses as they stare up at the body), or a large gathering of Botoxed one-percenters holding an auction where the highest bidders get to go on a canned hunt of some captured underclass in an enclosed recreation area, fist-bumping as they don night-vision glasses to make the hunt easier. There's also Carmelo Jones (Michael K. Williams), leader of an online revolutionary organization determined to overthrow the Founding Fathers and expose their SNOWPIERCER-like plan for society. DeMonaco wears his politics on his sleeve, basically shooting fish in a barrel with the points he makes in ANARCHY (SPOILER ALERT: if you think the Botoxed one-percenters and the dead stockbroker are the victims, then you're probably not part of the target audience), but taken at face value, it's exactly the kind of subversive, cynical little B-movie--think CAGED HEAT or DEATH RACE 2000--that Roger Corman would've shepherded in the 1970s. Some action sequences get a little shaky-cammy and one is murkier than it should be, but the entire project gets a huge boost by a terrific lone-wolf performance from veteran character actor Grillo, playing a man who's lost everything and is using The Purge as a last-ditch way of setting things right. His character arc is predictable, but Grillo is perfect in the role, speaking volumes with a squint or a look of disgust, and it's easy to see why the terrified quartet latches on to him after he tries to extricate himself from them and continue on his mission. It's also nice that DeMonaco doesn't make the others into stock cowards and whiners--Liz turns out to be a crack shot, and Cali is a smart kid with wisdom beyond her years, and the protective father-daughter bond that develops between her and the mystery man is well-played by Soul and Grillo. THE PURGE: ANARCHY isn't a great film and it can be kind of dumb, but it's undeniably entertaining and works on a visceral, red-meat level.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: UNDER THE SKIN (2014) and A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO (2014)

(UK/Switzerland/US - 2014)

A loose, stripped-down adaptation of Michel Faber's 2000 novel, UNDER THE SKIN spent nearly seven years in pre-production before director/co-writer Jonathan Glazer (SEXY BEAST, BIRTH) finally started shooting in 2011. On a very basic, narrative level, it's about an alien visitor (Scarlett Johansson) driving around Glasgow in a van, picking up men, seducing them, and draining their lifeforce. It sounds like the plot of cheesy B-movie, but UNDER THE SKIN is a hypnotic, abstract, and often surreal and experimental sci-fi art film that lulls you into a near trance with its visuals and Mica Levi's eerie, minimalist score. It owes a certain debt to Nicolas Roeg's THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976) but bringing to mind a markedly less-abrasive stylistic take on Gaspar Noe's ENTER THE VOID (2011). Johanssen takes the men--played mostly by non-professional actors using improvised dialogue--to what looks like a typical Glasgow flat from the outside but the interior is an otherworldly realm with a black liquid floor into which they descend. As she collects more victims, she begins to experience emotional connection, especially with a painfully shy young man with a facial disfigurement (Adam Pearson, who suffers from neurofibromatosis), which marks the turning point in the story. She's also being pursued by a perpetually one-step-behind mystery cyclist (retired Grand Prix motorcycle racer Jeremy McWilliams) monitoring her activities. Dialogue is sparse throughout, and when it's used the Scottish accents of the non-actors are often so thick and garbled that the audience will feel--by design--as alienated as Johansson does. For the first hour, UNDER THE SKIN has an enigmatic, dream-like aura, complete with unnerving, droning music, soundscapes, and bizarre visuals as Glazer adamantly avoids clear-cut explanations. The latter part of the film finds Glazer taking things in a--relatively speaking--conventional direction as he begins telling something of an actual story.

UNDER THE SKIN is most effective when it's providing as few details as possible. If approached from a position of expecting a linear, cohesive story, the film is bound to disappoint, especially with its abrupt conclusion. Fortunately, the bulk of the film is not concerned with narrative issues as we see a disorienting Glasgow through Johansson's alien eyes, traveling through the streets and shopping malls, trying to comprehend the human existence. It doesn't make any philosophical or political points and it doesn't need to. It's Glazer using film as a visual and sound medium in a way that lives up to its title. A perfectly-cast Johansson is excellent, accomplishing very much by doing very little in a brilliantly nuanced and very subtle performance that should be studied side by side with David Bowie's in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. UNDER THE SKIN is a film that washes over you, casts a spell, seduces and haunts you, much like the victims of its protagonist. The midnight movie crowds of decades passed would've embraced the hell out of this. (R, 108 mins)

(Spain/US - 2014)

The great Robert Duvall is a national treasure showing no signs of slowing down, but A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO, which could easily be titled NO COUNTRY FOR GRUMPY OLD MEN, again finds him in his now-standard "cantankerous old coot" mode. Duvall has nothing to prove to anyone at this point in his career, but he's played this role so many times that he can do it in his sleep. Perhaps that's why he opts to go through A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO doing a feature-length impression of Uncle Pecos. We all love Duvall, but this film is just awful. Duvall co-produced it with his buddy Bill Wittliff, who also wrote the teleplay to LONESOME DOVE, one of the actor's most iconic works. Wittliff has also scripted films like THE BLACK STALLION (1979), BARBAROSA (1982), and LEGENDS OF THE FALL (1994), but OLD MEXICO won't go down as a career highlight. Duvall is Red Bovie, an irascible old Texas rancher being forced off his property to make room for a new housing community. Just as he's about to blow his brains out, he meets Gally (Jeremy Irvine), the grandson he never knew he had. Gally's father left home decades earlier, following the path forged by Red's wife, who got fed up with her husband's crotchety ways and split (this is a recurring motif with geriatric Duvall characters; see also JAYNE MANSFIELD'S CAR, or better yet, don't). Soon enough, Red and Gally are heading off in Red's classic Cadillac to "old Mexico" on a male-bonding road trip (thankfully we're spared a Tex-Mex cover of "Born to Be Wild") that gets a brief detour thanks to a pair of shitbag hitch-hikers who are carrying a bag of cash that belongs to Mexican drug cartel kingpin Panama (Luis Tosar). After getting a bad vibe, Red ditches the pair when they get out of the car to take a leak, and proceeds into Mexico unaware that a vast sum of cash in his car. Once in Mexico, Red stops at a whorehouse to get his "horn honked," and harangues Gally with taunts of "ol' Five-Finger Nelly" when he declines the old man's offer of a prostitute. Meanwhile, a very Anton Chigurh-like assassin named Cholo (Joaquin Cosio) relentlessly pursues Panama's cash as Red and Gally deal with long-dormant family issues.

Every development and character arc is either completely predictable or thoroughly unbelievable, starting with Red's unlikely romance with aspiring, several-decades-younger singer Patty Wafers (Angie Cepeda), which prompts an almost creepy competition between grandfather and grandson over who's going to sleep with her. Of course Red and Gally will butt heads, part ways, and of course big city tenderfoot Gally, with his red cowboy boots and ridiculous hat, will return to show his grandfather that he's a real man by facing down Panama. Wittliff and director Emilio Aragon can't decide if A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO is a serious look at an aging hellraiser's last hurrah or a raunchy geezer comedy, or whether it's a leisurely, comfort-food road movie for Duvall's aging fans or a loud, bloody Sam Peckinpah shoot 'em up. There's a reason this only made it to a few theaters and VOD: too vulgar for elderly moviegoers, too dumb for the arthouse, and too boring for just about everyone else, it's a film with no target audience. It's an aimless, plodding mess that not even the presence of Duvall can salvage. At 83 years of age, it's nice to see that Duvall is still getting lead roles.  It would be a lot nicer if they were in projects that were worthy of him. (Unrated, 104 mins)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

In Theaters/On Netflix Instant: THE IMMIGRANT (2014)

(US/France - 2014)

Directed by James Gray. Written by James Gray and Richard Menello. Cast: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Yelena Solovey, Angela Sarafyan, Jicky Schnee, Antoni Corone, Maja Wampuszyk, Ilia Volok, Joseph Calleja. (R, 117 mins)

"You are not nothing."

Writer/director James Gray isn't the most prolific of American filmmakers with just five films over his 20-year career (plus co-writing this year's BLOOD TIES), but there's been a growing consensus that he's among the most under-appreciated. His latest film, THE IMMIGRANT, was poised to be his breakthrough that would get him the accolades and respect that's been a long time coming. Early buzz on THE IMMIGRANT prior to its May 2014 release was overwhelmingly positive, and then...nothing. US distributor The Weinstein Company began slowly rolling it out and abruptly pulled the plug. It trickled into some major cities and the people who saw it raved about it.  As recently as last week, it was still playing in a few art houses in the US, but at its widest release, it was only on 150 screens. Whatever momentum that was building for the film has long since stalled and while there's no DVD/Blu-ray street date as of yet, it unexpectedly turned up as a Netflix Instant streaming title this week. While such a move makes THE IMMIGRANT available to more audiences than ever, the treatment given to the film by its distributor borders on criminal, and once again, Gray is relegated to being the next big thing in American cinema, which he apparently always will be.

Gray's 1994 debut LITTLE ODESSA got some good reviews but landed him with the "Tarantino wannabe" tag and the film lumped in with the post-RESERVOIR DOGS crime genre. His follow-up, THE YARDS, the first of four collaborations with star Joaquin Phoenix and the first of two pairing Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg, sat on a Miramax shelf for two years before Harvey Weinstein barely released a recut version on just 146 screens in 2000 (Gray's improved director's cut was eventually issued on a special edition DVD).  It was another seven years before Gray resurfaced with the major-studio crime saga WE OWN THE NIGHT (2007), which reteamed Phoenix and Wahlberg and harkened back to the gritty cop dramas of Sidney Lumet, a major Gray influence. Despite generally positive reviews, audiences didn't respond. Gray's next film was 2009's TWO LOVERS, a departure with Phoenix as a sad sack recovering from a suicide attempt and torn between manipulative Gwyneth Paltrow and sweet Vinessa Shaw. It was a step away from cops & criminals films and demonstrated Gray's versatility, but any chance TWO LOVERS might've had was torpedoed when Phoenix used its publicity tour to go on talk shows in his madman-bearded, Andy Kaufman-esque meltdown stunt which was later revealed to be a hoax for his faux documentary I'M STILL HERE.  With a history of credible critical acclaim but minimal audience interest, Gray's day in the sun was finally supposed to happen with THE IMMIGRANT. At this point, one can hardly blame the man if he may start to feel that the entire film industry is conspiring against him.

THE IMMIGRANT finds Gray in familiar--and problematic--company: it reunites him with Phoenix, even after the TWO LOVERS debacle, and the film's distribution rights were picked up by The Weinstein Company. Considering how unpleasant Gray's last experience with Miramax-era Harvey Weinstein proved to be, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Weinstein's abandonment of THE IMMIGRANT and its unceremonious dumping on Netflix Instant less than two months after its miniscule theatrical release and before a DVD/Blu-ray street date has even been announced has the distinct stench of score-settling. Even if it isn't, the treatment that's been bestowed upon THE IMMIGRANT is a tragedy.  It's a great film--emotional, heartfelt, beautifully acted, masterfully filmed.  It's the kind of richly-detailed, exquisitely-crafted, prestigious period piece that was commonplace in the 1970s and 1980s--the time that a director like Gray really would've flourished--and the kind of majestic Oscar-sweeper that the Weinstein of 10-15 years ago would've been aggressively pushing come awards season. Times have changed, and if something like THE IMMIGRANT gets swept under the rug and banished to the world of Netflix streaming without ever being given much of a shot, then the movie industry is indeed broken beyond repair.

In a career-best performance, Marion Cotillard is Ewa Cybulska, a Polish woman arriving at Ellis Island in 1921 with her sickly sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). Magda is quarantined for six months due to tuberculosis, while Ewa, thanks to dubious claims of "immoral" behavior on the trip to America, is immediately processed for deportation back to Europe. Ewa, a nurse in her homeland for a British diplomat's family, speaks perfect English and after a chance process-room encounter with one Bruno Weiss (Phoenix), ends up leaving with him and staying at his Lower East Side apartment. Weiss seems to manage a crew of "doves"--beautiful young immigrant women who perform at a burlesque venue and whom he pimps out to customers backstage after the shows. He has a connection at Ellis Island with processing officer McNally (Antoni Corone), who helps him procure new women. Bruno senses something special with Ewa, who only wants to free her sister from quarantine and get their piece of the American dream.

Nothing happens the way you expect it to with THE IMMIGRANT. You expect Bruno to be a heartless bastard.  You expect Ewa to be a naive innocent. Bruno talks a good game but isn't the smoothest operator, and Ewa has street smarts and a keen sense of self-preservation that you rarely see in immigration dramas of this sort. Ewa begins working as one of Bruno's prostitutes, and rather than gleefully count the money she makes for him, Bruno feels genuine remorse because he loves her. The story gets complicated with the introduction of Bruno's cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), aka "Orlando the Magician," who arrives back home and is immediately drawn to Ewa. THE IMMIGRANT isn't so much a "dark side of the American dream" misery-fest as much as it's a somewhat cynical triumph of the human spirit saga, one that remains plausible in Ewa's many disappointments but also earns its few feel-good moments legitimately. Lives can change in an instant, and nothing in THE IMMIGRANT is black or white. Even when Bruno is at his worst, Phoenix manages to make you care about him, as when he eavesdrops on Ewa as she's in a confessional and only then understands the horrific life she and her sister have had and how much the promise of America means to them.  Also, Gray doesn't paint Ewa as a crucified martyr. She can be just as cold and cruel as the world around her, and even a shift in Emil/Orlando's behavior plays as completely natural and believable, where many less nuanced directors would've crammed it into place.

James Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji
Gray, cinematographer Darius Khondji (THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, SE7EN, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS) and the production design team have fashioned a visual triumph with THE IMMIGRANT. Shot in muted and sepia-tinged tones, the look of the film recalls the Young Vito Corleone sequences in THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) and the flashback scenes in Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984), as well as Milos Forman's RAGTIME (1981) and Paul Thomas Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), and though it's not a western, you'll sense the visual influence of Michael Cimino's HEAVEN'S GATE (1980) as well. Movies just don't look like THE IMMIGRANT anymore:  the attention to detail is such that you feel transported to 1921 Manhattan. Gray's use of CGI is seamless, utterly non-intrusive, and highly effective. He tells the story efficiently and succinctly, always focused and making every moment and every shot count as the film just under two hours and feels complete, where nine out of ten filmmakers would've had this clocking in at a minimum of three hours. His framing of the actors and the action throughout frequently resemble old photographs, and the composition of the final shot is stunning in its presentation.  THE IMMIGRANT would obviously play best on a big screen, but most of us won't have that option. In the end, sure, it's just a movie, but when something this vital, ambitious, powerful, and just flat-out beautiful can't seem to find its place in the world, much like its beleaguered heroine, then there's something very wrong with the state of cinema and film distribution.  This is a film that should be celebrated. Instead, it's being streamed. In short, THE IMMIGRANT is a masterpiece in search of an audience and it's time for James Gray to get his props as one of today's great filmmakers. The "James Gray is the best filmmaker you've never heard of" pieces every time he makes a movie are getting tiresome. Give him a seat at the table. He's earned it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE (1977)

(Italy/Spain - 1977)

Written and directed by Flavio Mogherini. Cast: Ray Milland, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Mel Ferrer, Michele Placido, Howard Ross, Ramiro Oliveros, Rod Mullinar, Eugene Walter, Fernando Fernan Gomez, Vanessa Vitale, Giacomo Assandri, Luis Barboo. (Unrated, 102 mins)

The Italian giallo craze, popularized in the early 1970s by, among many others, Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and DEEP RED and other films by Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Sergio Martino, was dying down by the latter part of the decade. Though gialli were still being produced (Antonio Bido's THE BLOODSTAINED SHADOW is a solid offering from 1978) and would still be made into the 1980s (Argento's TENEBRE in 1982, Lamberto Bava's A BLADE IN THE DARK in 1983), the filmmakers were moving into other areas, as evidenced by the supernatural element woven into Argento's DEEP RED as early as 1975. He would soon go into the realm of the overtly supernatural with SUSPIRIA (1977) and INFERNO (1980), while Fulci would find his niche with his 1979 classic ZOMBIE. During this giallo downturn, some films were being produced that were classified as giallo, but didn't strictly adhere to all of the genre tropes and expectations, like Pupi Avati's dark, bleak THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS and Paolo Cavara's sordid giallo/polizia hybrid PLOT OF FEAR (both 1976). Flavio Mogherini's THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE (1977), despite sporting a title that sounds like a lost Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew mystery, is one of the most unconventional offerings in the giallo subgenre for a variety of reasons, starting with it being set and shot in Australia even though it's an Italian/Spanish co-production. Basing his film on a 1934 murder case in Australia, where the pajama-clad body of 28-year-old Linda Agostini was found mutilated and partially burned beyond recognition, Mogherini wasn't interested in making a typical giallo, and by subverting the expectations that came with that label, he created a haunting and very unusual film that was ahead of its time in some ways. It never scored a US theatrical release and was probably a hard sell considering its unorthodox construction that's admittedly confusing and seems choppy and disorienting for a first-time viewer. I didn't like THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE the first time I saw it, but it's a rare mystery that actually plays better a second and third time through, once you know its trickery and its final revelation and can admire the sleight of hand of Mogherini and editor Adriano Tagliavia (Pieter Jan Brugge's little-seen 2004 thriller THE CLEARING, with Robert Redford and Willem Dafoe, plays out in a similar fashion). Mogherini, occasionally to the film's detriment, is so concerned with the how of his gimmick that he often glosses over or outright neglects the what and the why, sometimes cramming key plot points into place to force the twist to work. It's a flawed film with its share of stumbles along the way, and its structure was probably a lot more innovative in 1977 before fractured timelines and the ubiquity of twist endings became more commonplace, but THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE is one of the most ambitious gialli of its time. Even though it doesn't quite knock it out of the park, it constantly aims for the fences and has deservedly--and quietly--become a cult item after being rescued from decades of obscurity by Blue Underground's 2006 DVD.

After a woman's body is found on a Sydney beach, wearing yellow pajamas and with her face burned beyond recognition, the police are baffled. This prompts crotchety, retired Inspector Timpson (Ray Milland in one of his best late-career roles), who misses the action and has grown bored spending his days tending to his flower garden, to offer his services on his own time ("Don't expect to get paid!" the chief yells). Timpson is an old-school sleuth who follows his gut instinct and has no time for the psychological analyses of college-educated cops like Inspectors Taylor (Ramiro Oliveros) and Morris (Rod Mullinar), who have been put in charge of the case. They initially have no leads since they don't even know the victim's identity, resulting in the film's most memorable scene, a desperation decision to publicly display the woman's mutilated corpse in the hopes that someone might recognize her (this actually happened in the 1934 source case). After Taylor and Morris beat a confession out of local pervert Quint (Giacomo Assandri), the case is closed despite Timpson's protestations otherwise. Meanwhile, Linda (Dalila Di Lazzaro, best known as the "female zombie" in FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN) has recently been seduced by a bisexual female friend who wore yellow pajamas very similar to the murder victim. With the woman gone on a trip and temporarily out of the picture, Linda goes back to juggling the three men in her life: her Italian immigrant husband Antonio (Michele Placido), his buddy Roy (Howard Ross), and Prof. Douglas (Mel Ferrer), her elite, upper-class sugar daddy. The parallel narratives intersect on occasion until fusing in a way that should've landed with more oomph than Mogherini gives it, but once you rewatch it knowing how it all plays out, it's fascinating to observe the way he obfuscates and intentionally misdirects the audience. It's easy for a first-time viewer to leave THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE feeling gypped and disgruntled, but there's a lot more going on in it than just a simple murder mystery or a cookie-cutter giallo, and its rewards might only manifest on subsequent viewings. That's more work than most people might wish to devote to a movie, which is why this film has flown so under-the-radar for so many years, with its cult growing as those who are pulled back to it discover its intricacies and what Mogherini was really doing.

Though some interiors were shot in Rome, most of the film was done on location in Sydney, and the presence of future PATRICK and BREAKER MORANT co-star Mullinar gives it some legitimate Aussie/Ozploitation credentials. Mogherini uses the downtown, business district of Sydney in ways that make it seem as barren, desolate, and unwelcoming as the intimidating Outback of something like WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971). There's an unmistakable Antonioni chilliness to some of the location work as Mogherini frequently sets exterior shots in vast, empty spaces--often with the Sydney Opera House in the shot to establish scale--emphasizing the isolation and loneliness of the characters. Antonio's introduction is one of the film's most striking moments as Mogherini has Placido wandering through an empty downtown Sydney business district, surrounded by the concrete and steel of towering skyscrapers as he eats lunch alone on a bench without a soul in sight. It's a scene that, taken out of context, could easily be mistaken for a new version of THE LAST MAN ON EARTH or THE OMEGA MAN. That sense of isolation is a key theme for Mogherini:  Italian Antonio, German Roy, and Dutch Linda are all immigrants who have ended up in Sydney. They often complain that they're second-class citizens, intimating that Australians aren't particularly hospitable to outsiders. I don't see the film making this claim overtly as a knock on Australia specifically, as one could say that immigrants could feel that way anywhere.  Linda gets dealt even worse as she's constantly leered at and objectified by men, whether she's stopping at a bar or working her shift at a restaurant, where every male customer checks her out as she walks away and makes no effort to be subtle about it. Even the men who line up at the public viewing of the corpse seem to be doing it more for the chance to ogle another naked woman. With the exception of Timpson, the men in THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE are a sad and immature lot. Almost all of them have homes lined with nudie magazine pics on the walls, and Quint is introduced vigorously and openly masturbating to his neighbor as she hangs laundry in her yard, only to be rudely interrupted by Timpson and Taylor barging into his shack of a house (the sight of 70-year-old Oscar winner Milland making the "jerk off" motion in mockery of Quint is itself worth the price of admission). Roy claims Antonio is his friend but thinks nothing of sleeping with Linda. Even the seemingly mature Prof. Douglas is a self-centered bastard, wooing Linda with promises of a life together only to bail when she finally takes him up on his offer, almost as if he suddenly remembered they met while he was on a business trip to Amsterdam, where Linda was working as a prostitute before following him to Sydney (there's also another love triangle involving the professor, Linda, and her bisexual lover with the yellow pajamas). It's the rejection by Prof. Douglas that sends Linda on a self-loathing, self-destructive downward spiral that eventually starts bringing the dual narratives together.

Mogherini (1922-1994) didn't direct anything else of note other than the minor Marcello Mastroianni comedy LUNATICS AND LOVERS (1976).  He spent most of his career in art direction and production design on films like Mario Bava's DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968) and Federico Fellini's FELLINI SATYRICON (1969). With his unique depiction of Sydney as harsh and almost alien world (almost none of the Australian characters sound Australian, which effectively adds to the sense of detachment even if it's just a happy accident courtesy of a fast-working Nick Alexander-led dubbing crew), supplemented by a Riz Ortolani score that often sounds like a dry run for Giorgio Moroder disco (the songs croaked by Amanda Lear, however insidiously they burrow into your head, are an acquired taste regardless of how relevant their lyrics are), Mogherini created an uneven yet inventive and melancholy giallo like no other, offering a unique view of Australia through an Italian lens to tell a story of lost souls adrift, strangers in a strange land who left home out of a sense of not belonging only to arrive at a place that was even less welcoming. Perhaps THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE was ahead of its time in more ways than plot structure.