Monday, March 30, 2015


(US/UK - 2015)

Written and directed by Alex Gibney. (Unrated, 120 mins)

"All Scientologists are full of shit" - actor Jason Beghe, who left the Church of Scientology in 2007.

If you're of the opinion that Scientology is a cult, Alex Gibney's documentary GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF, based on Lawrence Wright's book, will do nothing to dissuade you. Delving into the history of the alleged "religion" and its formation by insanely prolific science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the film gives plenty of information and backs it up with transcripts and first-hand accounts by high-ranking "church" officials who now count themselves among the former members. But even in in-depth conversations with these former members--including CRASH director Paul Haggis and CHICAGO P.D. star Beghe--Gibney often explores the "what" at the expense of the "why" when it comes to what drew them to join. What is it about this organization that persuades its members to give it all of their money? Wright mentions that he studied things like Jonestown and radical Islam, and Scientologists follow that same pattern of fervently-devoted, cult-like thought. Of course, these days, Scientology is synonymous with its star representatives Tom Cruise and John Travolta, both of whom--need it even be mentioned?--declined or more likely never responded to interview requests from Gibney. The Scientology origin stories of both actors are explored here, with Travolta being recruited by "a female actress" during the making of his first film, the 1975 horror film THE DEVIL'S RAIN (she isn't mentioned by name, but it's Joan Prather) and top church official Spanky Taylor being assigned as his handler when he soon blows up with WELCOME BACK KOTTER and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. Taylor would eventually become critical of the church and was sent to something called "Project Rehabilitation Force," billed as a retreat for stressed members but, according to Taylor, a prison camp where problem Scientologists are subjected to menial labor and sleep deprivation. She alleges Travolta knew of her predicament and did nothing about it, and that the iconic actor is, for all practical purposes, a prisoner of Scientology.

Cruise's Scientology exploits are even more unsettling than those of Travolta. Following Hubbard's death in 1986 after spending much of the 1970s and into the 1980s in hiding and on the move due to mounting legal problems, the organization has been run by chairman David Miscavige, who's virtually a figure of Mephistophelean evil by the time the end credits roll. And it's not unjustified--Miscavige lobbied hard for Scientology's tax-exempt status, even suing the IRS and individual employees until the government agency caved and granted them tax-exemption, right down to the backlist of Hubbard's science-fiction novels being classified as "religious texts," therefore making the revenue they generate non-taxable. Miscavige and Cruise are shown to have a borderline codependent relationship that was ruined for the better part of the 1990s by Nicole Kidman, who feared that Cruise was becoming too much like Miscavige. When Cruise and Kidman were away in the UK for well over a year working on Stanley Kubrick's 1999 swan song EYES WIDE SHUT, Miscavige, upset that his bromance with Cruise had fizzled over the preceding several years, set in motion a plan to end the Cruise-Kidman marriage by, among other things, getting inside information by having Kidman's phones wiretapped and also through incessant "auditing" of Cruise--"auditing" essentially being rigorous one-on-one "therapy" sessions tantamount to brainwashing the actor into breaking up with his wife. In 2004, Miscavige assigned church member and future HOMELAND actress Nazanin Boniadi to be Cruise's girlfriend (his marriage to Katie Holmes is never mentioned). Miscavige envisioned Cruise to be Scientology's ambassador, and in footage of a gala celebration of Cruise's accomplishments, it's disconcerting to see one of the world's biggest and most powerful movie stars subserviently kissing Miscavige's ass and saluting him.

Gibney delivers the sideshow horror stories but there's still an alarming lack of substance to GOING CLEAR, which is odd considering just how many ex-Scientology big shots are on board, with one former top figure repeatedly being harassed by vengeful members who brazenly show up at his doorstep (they even go so far as to rent the vacant property across the street from his house and watch/videotape him 24/7). There's allegations of physical abuse and virtual slave labor, and one story about a game of musical chairs that reveals Miscavige to be an utter sadist, but it never really gels together. Miscavige and his minions have gone all out trying to trash-talk GOING CLEAR, even launching a bullying troll campaign on Twitter, and while it doesn't disappoint in terms of illustrating just how completely batshit--yet very powerful and financially savvy--the whole organization seems to be, the film never really coalesces into a whole. Why isn't there any mention of Miscavige's wife Shelly not being seen in public since 2007, or that KING OF QUEENS star and former Scientologist Leah Remini filed a missing persons report on her behalf shortly before leaving the church in 2013?  That seems important. Part of this might be that as a filmmaker, Gibney is nearly as prolific as Hubbard was as a writer. GOING CLEAR is the third of five documentary features Gibney's done since the beginning of 2014, with the two-part SINATRA: ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL airing on HBO next week. That's in addition to two short films for ESPN's 30 FOR 30 series.  All told, he's directed or co-directed over 20 feature-length docs since 2010. While it's nice that the workaholic Gibney keeps himself busy, one can't help but wonder if GOING CLEAR could've been a little more consistent, cohesive, and substantive if he didn't have four other irons in the fire at the same time. Maybe Errol Morris or Werner Herzog should've made this film.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

In Theaters: IT FOLLOWS (2015)

(US - 2015)

Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell. Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe, Bailey Spry, Debbie Williams, Leisa Pulido. (R, 100 mins)

It seems like every other month or so, there's a new indie horror movie being hailed as an Instant Horror Classic. Most recently, the scenesters couldn't shut up about STARRY EYES, which has already been forgotten. There's a lot of hype out there, and while you get an occasional OCULUS, THE GUEST, or THE BABADOOK that lives up to it, there's an awful lot of The Fanboy Who Cried Wolf when it comes it to a lot of these things. Horror is a very fan-friendly genre, and you meet the filmmakers at a horror con or they accept your friend request on Facebook, and that kind of interaction, unheard of in the glory days of, say, John Carpenter or Dario Argento or Wes Craven, tends to cloud the judgment of genre fans. When the usual suspects started shilling for IT FOLLOWS, it seemed like more of the same. But then even non-genre critics and media outlets started singing its praises, with the acclaim extending far beyond the usual insulated sycophancy of convention regulars, Rob Zombie superfans, people who think THE INNKEEPERS is good, and guys who hoard limited edition steelbook re-releases of movies they don't even really like.

With most indie horror never living up to the insider hype and big-studio releases beholden to either found footage or the tired jump-scare/shaky-cam aesthetic, IT FOLLOWS is the kind of sleeper sensation that arrives out of nowhere to save the horror genre from itself, with Radius/TWC nixing its planned VOD dumping in favor of a nationwide release once the word-of-mouth gained momentum and it turned into the best-reviewed film of the year thus far. Perhaps a good chunk of its success comes from writer/director David Robert Mitchell not being a "horror guy." His previous film was the 2011 indie THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER, a character piece following a group of teenagers over the last weekend of summer. Like SLEEPOVER, IT FOLLOWS was shot in and around Mitchell's hometown of Detroit, a city whose rundown areas and copious standing ruins almost function as another character (indeed, along with Jim Jarmusch's ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, IT FOLLOWS is a present-day Detroit version of all those early '80s time capsule movies that captured places like The Bronx in all its decaying glory). There's a disorienting sense of time and place throughout, with characters using tablets but driving '80s vehicles or watching cheesy sci-fi movies like 1954's KILLERS FROM SPACE on an old tube TV. The characters are smart, likable, and normal. There's no snark or vocal fry. In a way, the world of IT FOLLOWS is one lost in time, the kind of place where all the neighbors know one another. There's nothing about it that definitively states when it takes place (clearly the present day, given some technology), but the jarring signifiers, chiefly Disasterpeace's sublimely synthy, John Carpenter-inspired score, are there to send the message that this is the kind of movie we would've seen 30 years ago. And unlike 99% of what's out there today, we might actually still be talking about IT FOLLOWS 30 years from now. It's been deemed by some to be the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET of its generation, and that's really an apt comparison.

The story unfolds much more successfully than a synopsis might lead you to believe. 19-year-old Jay (THE GUEST's Maika Monroe, cementing her status as today's reigning scream queen), lives with her mom (Debbie Williams) and sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and attends what looks like a small community college. After having sex with new beau Hugh (Jake Weary) for the first time, he chloroforms her and informs of what she has to do: he passed something on to her, something that only she and those who used to carry it can see. It's a shape-shifting figure that's constantly heading in her direction. It can look like a stranger or be identical to someone you know. To get rid of it, you have to have sex with someone and pass it on to them. If it catches and kills that person before they have a chance to pass it on, it reverts back to pursuing you, and you have to have sex to get rid of it again. It can only walk ("It's slow but it's not dumb," he says), and it's always in pursuit. You can drive far away to give yourself some time, but it's always following you.

Mitchell has said that the origins of the film stem from a traumatic childhood nightmare about being incessantly followed. Beyond that, the most obvious read is the "It" being a sexually-transmitted disease, but Mitchell refuses to provide definite answers, leaving some plot details intentionally vague and open to interpretation in a way that will no doubt frustrate viewers who need everything concretely explained (what's with the three guys on the boat?  Or the peeping kids in the neighborhood? And what happened to Jay's pool?). In addition to Disasterpeace's score setting the mood on intense edge, Mitchell reveals himself to be a master of widescreen shot composition and choreography. Given the rules of "It," he's constantly having the camera move around the actors as you nervously observe the background--in a park, for example, when anyone walking in the general direction of Jay could be "It." And when it's not, you exhale, realizing you've been holding your breath in horrific anticipation and dread for the entire sequence. (MILD SPOILER) Mitchell is a master manipulator, often using cast members or extras with similar appearances to the stars and having them essay an incarnation of "It." Nowhere is this better handled than when Jay, Kelly, and their friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi), Greg (Daniel Zovatto), and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who carries a torch for Jay, flee to Greg's family's cottage: Yara walks towards them in the background and we don't think anything of it because it's Yara. As the characters sit in the sand and talk, Mitchell shows Yara paddling by in the water and saying "You guys should come in!" followed by a cut back to Jay as the now-threatening "It" Yara is headed straight for her, unseen by the others. From that moment on, nothing can be trusted, and you're at Mitchell's mercy. (END SPOILER)

IT FOLLOWS has a premise that you expect to be riddled with plot holes. If "It" has to walk to get you, then sure, you could ask "Why not go to an island? Or move to Hawaii?" And yeah, it's a little silly when Mitchell toys with the rules a bit and lets Kelly isolate the location of "It" and throw a blanket on top of it, making it briefly resemble a ghost from an old movie. Because it's a horror movie that arrives pre-anointed as the next Instant Classic, you keep waiting for its inevitable collapse...but it never comes. As a metaphor for either STDs or the idea of adult sexuality closing the door on childhood or however you want to interpret it (pay close attention to a framed photo seen in Jay's house near the end of the film for a potentially major alternate interpretation of the events), Mitchell has created an inventive, original, thought-provoking horror film that transcends the confines of its genre label to be a vividly-detailed and superbly-acted post-high school/early-college-age character piece. It's the kind of film that reveals more layers of detail and character with each viewing, particularly in the way that its protagonists initially seem like predictable "types" (Gilchrist's dweeby Paul, Luccardi's frumpy, sloppily-eating Yara) but aren't treated as such by the others. IT FOLLOWS will no doubt launch a thousand thinkpieces, and along with THE BABADOOK, it's the kind of multi-layered work that gives some artistic legitimacy and credibility to an historically-derided genre. It's not a perfect film but there's a lot to digest and dissect, the kind of cinematic experience that will continue to reward and provoke debate on future viewings, confidently standing the test of time. It's rare these days to find a fright film that rewards attentive, serious horror audiences with something of intelligence and depth, while simultaneously scaring the shit out of them.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE HUMBLING (2015) and FEAR CLINIC (2015)

(US/Italy - 2015)

Even though nobody really liked literary lion Philip Roth's universally-panned 2009 novel The Humbling, it's easy to see what appealed to Al Pacino when he bought the movie rights shortly after it was published. The protagonist, Simon Axler, is a legendary stage actor renowned for his devotion to Shakespeare, indirectly linking it to Pacino's terrific 1996 semi-documentary LOOKING FOR RICHARD and his portrayal of Shylock in 2004's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, and is also roundly criticized for being past his prime and a hammy version of what he once was, charges often justifiably leveled at the inconsistent, hoo-aah!-prone 74-year-old screen legend. While Pacino does some top-notch--and restrained--work here, THE HUMBLING starts fine but quickly devolves into a grating, self-indulgent misfire, with Simon suffering an onstage breakdown and haplessly attempting to off himself with a shotgun as an homage to Hemingway ("Hemingway must've had longer arms," he concludes) before being admitted to a psych facility. Once released, he's visited by 31-year-old Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of some past stage colleagues. Pegeen has nursed a crush on the 65-year-old Simon since childhood when he was a family friend, and though she's an out lesbian, she seduces him, much to the disapproval of her just-dumped ex (Kyra Sedgwick) as well as her parents, Simon's now-estranged friends Asa (Dan Hedaya) and Carol (Dianne Wiest). Meanwhile, Simon is badgered by his agent Jerry (Charles Grodin) to get back to work and is stalked by Sybil (Nina Arianda), a deranged fellow psych patient who wants him to kill her pedophile husband, who she claims has been molesting their young daughter.

Directed by Barry Levinson (who teamed with Pacino for the 2010 HBO film YOU DON'T KNOW JACK) and co-written by Buck Henry (penning just his fourth screenplay in the last 30 years), THE HUMBLING gives Pacino ample opportunity to shine in long, single-take monologues and he's up to the challenge. But too much of it plays like second-tier Woody Allen, right down to the very Allen-esque opening credits, the young woman throwing herself at the short old guy, and the presence of Wiest, who won both of her Oscars in Allen films (not to digress, but why hasn't Pacino ever worked with Allen?). There's also an unavoidable and wholly coincidental parallel to last year's BIRDMAN, another film that dealt with an aging, washed-up actor drifting in and out of reality while planning a comeback. The early promise gives way to endless pontificating and shouting matches, the possibly Alzheimer's-stricken Simon being an unreliable narrator in Skype sessions with his therapist (Dylan Baker), and even some tired "old lady being raunchy" humor with Simon's housekeeper (Mary Louise Wilson) matter-of-factly advising Pegeen on how to better store her sex toys, which is just an excuse to hear an elderly woman say things like "vibrator," "butt plug," and "double-dong." The subplot with Arianda's Sybil gets entirely too much screen time and goes nowhere, other than to underscore a hinted-at but never-confirmed detail about Simon and Carol's past that doesn't really need Sybil to enhance it. Pacino dials it down and plays it straight throughout and he's always great to watch when he's legitimately invested in a project, and Grodin gets some laughs as the very Charles Grodin-esque agent, but there's ultimately no reason to care about any of the characters in the forgettable THE HUMBLING. Among the critiques of Roth's novel was that it felt like a short story padded to barely-novel length at 140 pages. To that end, THE HUMBLING is faithful, having little to say and taking nearly two interminable hours to say it. (R, 107 mins)

(US - 2015)

Indiegogo crowd-funding helped make this feature-length spinoff of the six-episode 2009 FearNet web series a reality for its tens of fans. The web series starred A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET horror icon Robert Englund as Dr. Andover in six six-minute segments, each specifically devoted to a patient's phobia. In the film, shot in Medina, OH, Andover's clinic is in a state of disarray after comatose patient Paige (Bonnie Morgan) dies following a session in his "fear chamber," a machine that produces hallucinations of a patient's fears in order to directly face and fight them. Paige was one of several Andover patients who survived a restaurant shooting rampage a year earlier, and they've all noticed manifestations of the others' deepest fears creeping into their own reality. The FearNet series co-starred cult horror convention fixtures Danielle Harris and Kane Hodder because of course it did. Harris and Hodder dropped out of the film, so Englund is joined by future convention fixture and CURSE OF CHUCKY star Fiona Dourif (Brad's daughter) as the tough, proactive heroine Sara. You also get Kevin "Still Coasting on Being 'Waingro' in HEAT" Gage as a handyman named Gage; Thomas Dekker (TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES) as a wheelchair-bound shooting survivor whose big revelation won't surprise anyone; daytime soap vet Brandon Beemer; former porn star Angelina Armani; and Slipknot/Stone Sour frontman Corey Taylor as an insubordinate, bad-tempered orderly.

FEAR CLINIC was directed by Robert Hall, whose LAID TO REST (2009) and CHROMESKULL: LAID TO REST 2 (2011) have very minor cult followings with the most undemanding of today's horror fans. Hall and screenwriter Aaron Drane don't give Englund much to work with, but the veteran actor turns in a strong and surprisingly sympathetic performance that doesn't rely on standard mad doctor histrionics. At times recalling a subdued Jack Palance, Englund's Andover is a shattered altruist who was sincerely trying to help his patients only to find that his "fear chamber" inadvertently opened a portal to an alternate world whose evils begin materializing in the real one. A committed Englund (acquiescing to the demands of no one, he gets naked twice) is the film's sole saving grace but by the end, his work is all for naught when his face is stuck on some nonsensical CGI creature as Hall and Drane briefly elevate FEAR CLINIC from boring to shameless, opting to rip off Stuart Gordon's 1986 classic FROM BEYOND with fear subbing for the pineal gland. Robert Kurtzman--the "K" in KNB--handled some of the atrocious makeup and creature effects and just because Taylor is in the cast, the closing credits are accompanied by Stone Sour's lunkheaded cover of Metal Church's "The Dark." The film feels like it was made 20 years ago and has no ending, and afterwards, you realize the only thing you have to fear is not fear itself but rather, the idea of crowd-funding for FEAR CLINIC 2. (R, 95 mins)

Monday, March 23, 2015

In Theaters: THE GUNMAN (2015)

(France/Spain/UK/US - 2015)

Directed by Pierre Morel. Written by Don Macpherson, Pete Travis and Sean Penn. Cast: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance, Jasmine Trinca, Peter Franzen, Sir Billy Billingham, Ade Oyefaso, Rachel Lascar, Sarah Moyle. (R, 115 mins)

Very loosely based on Jean-Patrick Manchette's 1981 novel The Prone Gunman, THE GUNMAN would appear, on the surface, to be 54-year-old Sean Penn's blatant attempt to get a head start hitching a ride on the post-TAKEN, Liam Neeson "aging action star" bandwagon. It even goes so far as to have TAKEN director and former Luc Besson protege Pierre Morel at the helm. Penn doing a straight-up action genre piece is a change of pace for the two-time Oscar-winner, but THE GUNMAN isn't really a TAKEN knockoff. It's more in line with last year's Pierce Brosnan actioner THE NOVEMBER MAN--a gritty, serious action thriller with a certain 1970s throwback feel to it. And with its globe-trotting locales and its protagonist being a hunted man, with filming taking place in London, Barcelona, Gibraltar, and Cape Town, it has more in common with the BOURNE movies than TAKEN. Co-producer Penn obviously had a significant hand in the somewhat disjointed script, sharing credit with journeyman script doctor Don Macpherson (his first big-screen writing credit since 1998's disastrous THE AVENGERS) and DREDD director Pete Travis, and it's pretty clear what the other guys wrote and what Penn contributed. Some have called THE GUNMAN a vanity project with Penn showing off his newly-ripped physique and shoehorning his humanitarian concerns into the story, but he mostly keeps the self-indulgence in check, at least until a whimper of an ending that's somewhat reminiscent--though not nearly as egregiously cumbersome--as Steven Seagal's environmental lecture and slide show presentation at the end of ON DEADLY GROUND. But until then, THE GUNMAN is mostly solid and diverting, similar in many ways to a 1970s conspiracy thriller with a vivid European vibe. The action scenes are coherently staged, the violence is brutal and often shocking, and a game cast of overqualified actors shine in well-written character parts, giving substance to what's essentially upscale DTV fare. THE GUNMAN is by no means a great movie, and perhaps Penn was given too much leeway to tailor it to himself, but it's nowhere near the catastrophe that the reviews and the opening weekend box office would indicate.

THE GUNMAN opens in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006, where Jim Terrier (Penn) is among the contractors working security for an NGO humanitarian effort to provide medical aid and construct an airstrip. Terrier's doctor girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca) is part of the effort, but she doesn't know about the side job that Terrier and his mercenary buddies Cox (Mark Rylance) and Felix (Javier Bardem) have: to coordinate the assassination of the Congo's Minister of Mining at the behest of a multinational corporation that looks to face obstacles and lose profits if he remains in his present position. Terrier ends up being the triggerman, and flees to Europe after the job is done. Eight years later, he's back in the Congo, out of the assassination game and devoting himself full-time to aid work when three killers show up on a job site to take him out. Terrier's instinctive kill skills take over and he survives the attempt on his life and heads to London to warn Cox, now an executive with the very company that once hired them as killers, that he may be next. Terrier makes his way to Barcelona to meet up with Felix, who's now married to Annie. As Terrier and Annie's passion reignites, the attempts on his life continue, and it doesn't take long for him to realize that one of his old cohorts--Felix, Cox, or perhaps even his gregarious buddy Stanley (Ray Winstone), may be the party trying to orchestrate his murder.

Because of Morel's involvement and Penn's age, comparisons to TAKEN are inevitable, but those are surface, coincidental parallels. Penn has designed a star action vehicle to, in part, soapbox his own concerns--not always successfully, mind you--but he doesn't overplay it and turn it into a public service announcement with an overabundance of blood squibs. The action sequences are well-choreographed, the violence and bloodshed convincingly nasty, and Penn's performance, criticized by many as glum and self-serious, suits the story and the surroundings, especially in the way he's suffering from brain trauma and is bogged down by migraines and vomiting spells after some especially hard-hitting showdowns. This is not a wisecracking hero he's playing--he's a damaged guy with regrets who's starting to feel his age. Penn gets some sturdy support from the always-welcome Winstone and Bardem, and Tony-winning Shakespearean stage great Rylance (ANGELS AND INSECTS, INTIMACY) makes a rare appearance in a commercial genre film, and judging from his enjoyably hammy performance, seems to have taken the opportunity to reinvent himself as Richard Harris. Idris Elba turns up 80 minutes in for a glorified cameo as an Interpol agent who tells a drawn-out story with a treehouse metaphor. THE GUNMAN starts stumbling and bumbling on its way to a happy ending and it's probably a film best suited for a low-risk stream on Netflix. Nevertheless, Penn proves he does have potential for a Neeson-style action rebirth if he can maybe just lighten up a little and leave the issues and the statement-making out of it and just let a good action movie be a good action movie.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Ripoffs of the Wasteland: EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000 (1983)

(Italy/Spain - 1983; US release 1985)

Directed by Jules Harrison (Giuliano Carnimeo). Written by Elisa Briganti, Dardano Sacchetti and Jose Truchado Reyes. Cast: Robert Jannucci (Robert Iannucci), Alicia Moro, Alan Collins (Luciano Pigozzi), Eduardo Fajardo, Fred Harris (Fernando Bilbao), Beryl Cunningham, Luca Venantini, Venantino Venantini, Anna Orso, Sergio Mioni, Jose Chinchilla, Goffredo Unger. (R, 90 mins)

One of the more stunt-crazed entries in the Italian post-nuke onslaught that followed the success of THE ROAD WARRIOR in 1982, EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000 kicks off what appears to be a post-apocalypse revival of sorts on Blu-ray, apparently to coincide with George Miller's upcoming reboot MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. Shout! Factory recently released EXTERMINATORS on Blu-ray (they're also handling the original MAD MAX, and Blue Underground will be releasing 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS, ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX, and THE NEW BARBARIANS this summer) in an anamorphic widescreen transfer that's a significant upgrade to the decent-looking but cropped 1.33:1 edition released on DVD by Code Red in 2010. EXTERMINATORS is surprisingly good for its type, with director Giuliano Carnimeo--using the pseudonym "Jules Harrison"--indulging in some ridiculous stunts and car wrecks as well as keeping a distinct western motif to the proceedings--even shooting in and outside of Almeria, Spain, where most of the classic spaghettis were filmed--that echoes the numerous spaghetti westerns he made in the late '60s and early '70s under his usual "Anthony Ascott" nom de plume. Carnimeo dabbled in various genres, as Italian journeymen were wont to do, but he was best known for his several SARTANA westerns with titles like SARTANA THE GRAVEDIGGER (1968), and the 1970 ellipses trio of SARTANA'S COMING...GET YOUR COFFINS READY, HAVE A GOOD FUNERAL, MY FRIEND...SARTANA WILL PAY, and LIGHT THE FUSE...SARTANA IS COMING.

Presumably set in the year 3000, where cars from the late 1970s are still surprisingly functional after 1020 or so years, EXTERMINATORS centers on nomadic, lone-wolf road warrior Alien (Robert Iannucci, billed as "Robert Jannucci"), who reluctantly finds himself helping young Tommy (CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD's Luca Venantini). Tommy and his family are part of a ragtag community overseen by a Bible-thumper calling himself The Senator (Eduardo Fajardo), and he stowed away on a recon mission in search of both water and Tommy's father, who's been missing and presumed dead weeks after being sent on the same hunt for water. The recon mission, led by Tommy's father's best friend (Venantino Venantini), is promptly ambushed by a band of marauding lunatics led by Crazy Bull (Fernando Bilbao, billed as "Fred Harris") and Shadow (Beryl Cunningham) in a truly memorable sequence filled with amazing stunt driving and exploding cars and craniums. Tommy, who has a biomechanical right arm (this is never really explained--he just has it) teams up with Alien, who's already pissed off Crazy Bull by stealing his beloved car "The Exterminator," and they make their way to grizzled old astronaut-turned-mechanic Papillon (Luciano Pigozzi, under his usual "Alan Collins" pseudonym). Papillon tweaks Tommy's bionic arm to make it super-powerful, capable of throwing something to split someone's skull at 200 yards. Into this impromptu group of Humanity's Only Hope comes Trash (Alicia Moro), Alien's car-stealing ex, and the four team up to gather water from a nearby mutant stronghold while constantly fighting off attacks by Crazy Bull and his "Mothergrabbers," as he calls them. It's mostly typical Italian post-nuke silliness, but EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000 has an undeniable energy to it with some of the best action sequences in the entire subgenre. Before the script--co-written by Italian horror stalwarts Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti--falls apart and stupidity takes over (Alien and Trash find the scarce, precious water and of course, start playfully splashing one another with it), there's actually some legitimate attempts at character development. Alien, Trash, Tommy, and Papillon form a classic spaghetti western "unholy alliance" that puts the film firmly into Carnimeo's wheelhouse.

Carnimeo got out of spaghetti westerns as the genre started slowing down in the early '70s. He dabbled in gialli (THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS) and erotic dramas (the Edwige Fenech vehicle SECRETS OF A CALL GIRL) before directing several "Butch and Toby" buddy comedy actioners starring Paul Smith and "Michael Coby" (actually Italian actor Antonio Cantafora), who had a brief run in Italy as the second-string Bud Spencer and Terence Hill. 1975's CONVOY BUDDIES was released in the US in 1978 by Film Ventures, and Smith filed a lawsuit against the company when he and Cantafora were billed in the advertising as "Bob Spencer" and "Terrence Hall" in an effort to fool hopefully inattentive moviegoers into thinking it was the latest film from the popular TRINITY duo. Carnimeo made a few obscure sex comedies before directing EXTERMINATORS, but the now 82-year-old director has been inactive since 1988's RATMAN, which has attained minor cult status thanks to the presence of Nelson de la Rosa as a half-monkey/half-rat mutant running loose on a Caribbean island. De la Rosa would go on to play Marlon Brando's "Mini-Me"-inspiring sidekick in 1996's ill-fated THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU and those connections generated some belated interest in RATMAN years after it was made, and his involvement was enough to get it released on DVD in the UK with the tagline "He's the critter from the shitter." RATMAN sounds a lot more fun than it really is, and it seems to be the final chapter in Carnimeo's career.

EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000 was a one-and-done venture into acting for Ohio-born Calvin Klein model Iannucci, unless you count a bit part in the 1982 comedy YOUNG DOCTORS IN LOVE. He looks the part, though he's dubbed by veteran voice artist Larry Dolgin. The towering Bilbao, also known to Eurotrash fans for his appearances as the Frankenstein monster in Jess Franco's 1972 double-shot of DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN, makes an imposing villain with his very Wez-like look, though dubber Robert Sommer carries a lot of the weight, bellowing Ron Burgundy-isms like "By the beard of the prophet!" EXTERMINATORS was picked up by New Line Cinema and released in the US in January 1985, after which the Thorn/EMI VHS could be found in any video store in America.

Unfortunately, Shout! Factory's otherwise fine edition of EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000 features the 2010 Code Red commentary track with Iannucci and temperamental Code Red head Bill Olsen. True to form as the worst commentary figure in the biz, Olsen torpedoes it almost immediately by grumbling "I'm only putting this out to prove that it doesn't sell" before indulging in his usual unfunny schtick of intentionally mispronouncing names ("Anna Onion!" he says when he sees the name "Anna Onori") or taking shots at things like Detto Mariano's score and Cunningham's "big ass," and spending almost the entire track complaining about how much he dislikes the movie and how "boring" it is (less than five minutes in, Olsen gripes "No offense, Bob, but this needs more action"). At first, Iannucci seems eager to talk about EXTERMINATORS and has a good memory for the details of the shoot, but his sincerity quickly succumbs to Olsen's cynicism and he joins him in the mockery and the bitching ("Any last words?" Olsen asks at the end, to which Iannucci replies "Thank God it's over"). If you've ever experienced a Bill Olsen commentary track or witnessed his behavior online and on social media, where he claims nothing he releases sells and he frequently berates his customers, it's hard to tell if it's some kind of Andy Kaufman performance art or if he's genuinely mentally unstable. Olsen has released some fine product through Code Red and for that he should be commended, but reputable companies like Shout! and Scorpion (the latter run by Olsen's more even-tempered and socially adept brother Walter) continuing to showcase his tiresome antics on commentary tracks, ruining potentially serious discussions and good-natured reminiscing with his inane questions, pathetic jokes, and shitty attitude, is a practice that needs to stop.

Friday, March 20, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: VICE (2015); SON OF A GUN (2014); and MALL (2014)

(US/Germany - 2015)

If you fused WESTWORLD with HOSTEL--and why would you?--you'd get something that looks a lot like VICE, a thoroughly crummy sci-fi shoot 'em up boasting what might be Bruce Willis' laziest performance yet. Another in the ongoing, Redbox-ready series of low-budget action clunkers that feature frequent cutaways to a prominently-billed Willis sitting behind a desk or standing in an office looking annoyed, VICE reteams the actor with director Brian A. Miller, right on the heels of their PRINCE triumph. Willis is Julian Michaels, the CEO of Vice, a fantasy playland of the near-future where the male customers can engage in whatever destructive, illegal, and/or deviant behavior they choose because the rules of society don't apply. And it doesn't matter because the beautiful women that Vice customers beat, rape, and kill--known as "residents" or "artificials"--are just clones sprung from human DNA, significantly more human than machine, and all they need is some tweaking, rewiring, and a memory wipe to be ready for the next night's parade of sociopathic Philip K. Dickheads. One artificial, Kelly (Ambyr Childers) escapes, prompting Michaels to send his Vice officers into the city to find her, much to the chagrin of haggard, greasy-haired detective Roy Todesky (Thomas Jane), a surly cop with an ever-present toothpick in his mouth who plays by his own rules and has some ethical beefs with Vice, namely that once the population gets a taste of getting away with rape and murder with artificials, they'll only start craving it more, but with the real thing.

The real stars of VICE are Childers and Bryan Greenberg as Evan, a Vice designer who created Kelly in the image of his late wife, who succumbed to cancer several years earlier. Kelly and Evan join forces to fight off Michaels' Vice army as well as Todesky, a sort-of Blade Stumbler who has a real chip on his shoulder about artificials and doesn't want Kelly in his city. Of course, Kelly and Todesky eventually pull an "...if they don't kill each other first!" and set aside their differences when she gets an upgrade from one of Evan's associates (Brett Granstaff, one of 21 credited producers) and goes full TERMINATOR on Vice headquarters. Dull and dreary, VICE displays some fleeting hints of being something with interesting ideas, but it constantly backs off and opts for the coasting route. It's also the kind of movie where characters always talk in expository nonsense, saying things they should logically already know but doing so for the benefit of the audience, like two Vice techs working on some artificials and one going into all the specifics about the operation and how it works. Wouldn't the other tech already know that since he works there? Childers doesn't exactly stake her claim as the next Milla Jovovich, while Jane looks understandably bored in the kind of role Willis would've been playing 10-15 years ago. Few actors are worse at masking their utter disinterest in a project than Willis, and as usual for this type of gig, Bruno sleepwalks his way through what was probably two, perhaps three days on the set. His entire role consists of pacing around the Vice control room scowling at a row of monitors like he's auditioning for a role in the next BOURNE movie, and dispatching orders to his chief lackey (Johnathan Schaech), who does all of the leg work in the search for Kelly. Willis mumbles lines like "Find her" and "Whaddaya got?" and "She's experiencing flashbacks?!" and "Bring up the temperature in Sector 5" like it's a chore to even enunciate before finally waking up in the climax to yell "Initiate the kill switch!" when all of the artificials start breaking free from computer control and commence evolving into their own beings. Miller, Childers, and Jane speak gushingly of Willis in the DVD's cast/crew interviews, with Jane saying "It's like he's not even acting." Indeed. Oh, and take a wild guess which VICE star is absent from the cast/crew interviews. (R, 96 mins)

(Australia/UK/Canada - 2014)

An excellent performance by Ewan McGregor isn't enough to overcome the trite cliches in this prison drama-turned-heist flick from Australian writer-director Julius Avery. Making his feature debut, Avery wisely lets the film rest on McGregor's shoulders, and there's a genuine sense of tension and unease in the early part of the film, but shortly after it leaves the prison, it turns into every other double-cross-filled heist flick you've ever seen, regardless of how much it's been gritted up. Brenton Thwaites (OCULUS, MALEFICENT, THE GIVER) co-stars as JR, a 19-year-old serving six months in a tough Australian prison. He's rescued from a shower rape by Brendan Lynch (McGregor), a grizzled con who's serving 20 years for armed robbery. The two bond over a mutual knowledge of chess and Lynch takes the kid under his wing, assigning him to work for him on the outside once his sentence is up in exchange for protection while he's inside. Once he's paroled, JR hijacks a chopper and stages a daring prison yard escape for Lynch and his cronies Sterlo (Matt Nable) and Merv (Eddie Baroo). Lynch is ruthless but at least has some kind of code of honor, beating the shit out of Merv and leaving him behind when a radio news update reveals that Merv was locked up for child rape ("Did you know about that?" Lynch asks Sterlo before smashing Merv's face in). Lynch, Sterlo, and JR get involved in a gold heist masterminded by crime boss Sam Lennox (Jacek Koman), the owner of Tasha (Alicia Vikander), a Russian prostitute who catches JR's eye. Of course, backstabbings ensue as Lennox tries to shaft Lynch out of the deal, with Lynch in turn trying to reduce JR's cut and advising him to stay away from Tasha. Of course, the heist goes haywire thanks to the itchy trigger finger of an incompetent idiot they're forced to take along on the job--in this case Lennox's obnoxious nephew Josh (Tom Budge). And naturally, JR must help Tasha break free from Lennox's shackles while ultimately besting his scheming mentor and all the more experienced criminals around him.

Avery's direction is fine, but his script really needs some work. It's almost as if he thinks he's the first screenwriter to concoct innovative ideas like a career criminal taking on One Last Score So He Can Retire, or an abused Russian hooker with a heart of gold, or a chess analogy for the situations in which his characters find themselves. When McGregor's Lynch (loosely based on real-life Australian criminal Brenden Abbott) is introduced as a chess aficionado, is there any doubt that once he realizes the tables have been turned on him, it'll be confirmed by a phone call that ends with a taunting "Checkmate"? And when Lynch gets the edge on the duplicitous Lennox, was it really necessary for Avery to punctuate this new plot development with a shot of a toppled king on a chessboard? SON OF A GUN starts out fine but fizzles quickly, and while McGregor works overtime to elevate things (getting no help from a dull, listless Thwaites), somebody needed to step in with some toughlove and tell the well-intentioned Avery that this wasn't the first heist movie ever made, and that his rote plot, cardboard characters, and played-out chess references were bush-league conventions more suited for a high-school creative writing exercise. (R, 109 mins)

(US/Japan - 2014)

Based on a 2001 novel by Eric Bogosian, MALL begs one simple question: is there a single reason this film exists? Who thought adapting a decade-old novel into an ennui-soaked, CRASH-like mosaic centered on a mass shooting at a shopping mall would be something anyone wanted to see? The answer: Bogosian's good friend Vincent D'Onofrio. D'Onofrio produced and co-wrote the script with his buddies Sam Bisbee and Joe Vinciguerra, his collaborators on his unwatchable, released-in-2012-after-three-years-on-the-shelf directorial debut DON'T GO IN THE WOODS. D'Onofrio left the direction of MALL to Linkin Park DJ Joe Hahn, who brought along most of his bandmates to compose the grating score. MALL is one of those films that's so stunningly awful and unrelentingly amateurish that I don't even know how to approach writing about it. It doesn't even look finished. There are bad movies and there are bad movies. Then there are movies like MALL. Movies that come around once in a great while and are so staggeringly atrocious that their sheer awfulness is beyond any and all comprehension. How does something go this wrong?  D'Onofrio has been in the business for 30 years. He acts in major movies and television projects. He's worked with pretty much everyone. He knows people. Why are DON'T GO IN THE WOODS and MALL so astonishingly terrible? How is it possible that the man who brought such indelible characters as FULL METAL JACKET's Private Pyle and LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT's Robert Goren to vivid life suddenly makes the work of Ed Wood look like Stanley Kubrick when he decides to work on the production end? Has he learned nothing on the sets on which he's worked? If you're able to read these sentences, or put a sentence together, or hell, even if you've ever been to a mall, you could probably do a better job of scripting and directing MALL than D'Onofrio and Hahn. MALL fails miserably at every turn. It's inept and tone-deaf on an almost Tommy Wiseau-level. It storms out of the gate already shitting the bed, with meth-addled Mal (James Frecheville of ANIMAL KINGDOM) killing his mother (Mimi Rogers) and setting their trailer on fire before going off on a shooting rampage. Less than three minutes into the film and there's already glaring issues too distracting to ignore: the CGI fire is unspeakable; the rusted-out, ramshackle trailer is just awkwardly parked in the middle of an otherwise welcoming, good-looking, middle-class neighborhood where it's doubtful the residents would have much patience for an unstable mother/son meth-head team just loitering about; and when there's a cut to Frecheville walking away from the trailer after setting it ablaze, the filmmakers neglected to add the CGI fire to the shot, so you've got the suddenly not-on-fire trailer plainly visible in the background when, just a moment ago in the previous shot, it was engulfed in fake flames that make the visual effects in BIRDEMIC look professional by comparison. There's a reason--many, actually--that this film was on the shelf for two years before getting a one-screen theatrical release.

Mal makes his way to a nearby shopping mall, but not before we meet an ensemble so loathsome--the exception being widowed Haitian security guard Michel (Gbenga Akinnagbe)--that you're actually rooting for Mal to take them all out. There's bored housewife Donna (Gina Gershon); sleazy tux-rental store owner Barry (Peter Stormare); and lecherous perv Danny (D'Onofrio), who gets busted peeping into a dressing room where Donna is trying to lure him in for an anonymous quickie. But the central character is smug, pretentious, skinny-jeaned Jeff (Cameron Monaghan of SHAMELESS), introduced referencing Orwell's 1984, and Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf while bitching about corporate control, the mall's "dystopian landscaping," and how the fresh cookies "smell just like the ones your mom never made." When he's not perfecting his disaffected poseur act, Jeff pines for the cold, teasing Adelle (India Menuez) and takes some Ecstasy before the mayhem commences, as Mal opens fire, killing some Paul Blarts and quickly fleeing to some nearby woods. Hahn and D'Onofrio (who, over the course of the film, gets two quick sex scenes, one masturbation scene, and a handjob from Adelle, making it clear why producer/screenwriter Vincent D'Onofrio thought veteran character actor Vincent D'Onofrio was perfect for the role) can't even stage Mal's massacre with the slightest modicum of competence: he starts at the upper level where it's dark and Barry is closing the store. We see all the other store gates pulled down, but yet Jeff, Adelle, and some friends are, at the same time, down in the food court, where the mall is packed, people are shopping, and it's bright. After Mal goes to the woods where the cops stand around in one confined area wondering why they can't find him, Jeff and his friends hang around the mall and vandalize shit. Really?  The mall's not closed off? There's no media, no police, no one from the coroner's office, no yellow police tape? Then you start thinking, "Were they killed in the shooting and now they're Shyamalanian ghosts wandering the mall? Because then at least this complete disregard for reality and continuity might, in context, make some kind of sense," but they weren't killed. And it doesn't make sense. Jeff eventually goes to a bar where he runs into Donna and they hook up at a nearby motel and...no. No. You know what? Who gives a shit? Fuck this movie. (R, 88 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

In Theaters: RUN ALL NIGHT (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Written by Brad Inglesby. Cast: Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Common, Vincent D'Onofrio, Nick Nolte, Bruce McGill, Genesis Rodriguez, Boyd Holbrook, Holt McCallany, Rasha Bukvic, Patricia Kalember, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Aubrey Joseph, Daniel Stewart Sherman, James Martinez. (R, 115 mins)

Jimmy Conlan (Liam Neeson) is introduced as a booze-soaked butt of jokes among the other Irish mobsters in the neighborhood bar. He's a nickel-and-dimer, a flunky for Danny Maguire (Boyd Holbrook), the spoiled, coke-snorting, Joffrey-like son of NYC Irish mob kingpin Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). It's Shawn's sense of loyalty and friendship that keep Jimmy around, with the boss regularly reminding the drunk Jimmy of all their glory days and how at the end, they'll cross that final line together. Jimmy was once Shawn's right-hand man and most ruthless enforcer, and now Jimmy can't sleep at night, haunted by the faces and the memories of those he's killed. While Shawn's affection for Jimmy is sincere, it's telling that he keeps him at a distance when it comes to business, instead opting to pawn him off as a gofer for perpetual fuck-up Danny, the kind of insufferable, sociopathic brat who expects to be given everything because of who his father happens to be. A disrespected sad sack reduced to dressing up as Santa for a Maguire Christmas party so Danny will loan him $800 to get his furnace fixed, Jimmy has seen better days.

He gets his obligatory One Last Shot at Redemption when a domino effect of plot conveniences force him to step up and take action to protect his estranged son Michael (Joel Kinnaman), his pregnant wife (Genesis Rodriguez) and the two granddaughters he's never met. Michael, an honest family man who wants nothing to do with his father or his criminal legacy, witnesses childhood friend Danny kill a powerful Albanian heroin dealer (Rasha Bukvic) over a deal that went south. Word gets out that Danny is after Michael, so Shawn sends Jimmy to make sure Michael doesn't talk to the cops. Danny tracks down Michael and is about to kill him when Jimmy walks in and shoots him dead. He immediately informs Shawn what happened ("He was about to kill Michael...I had to do it"), but no matter how justified it was, Shawn has lost his only son and will not rest until Jimmy loses his. Mobsters and corrupt cops conspire to frame Michael for the Albanian's murder, and as the media attention grows, Shawn's inner circle of gangsters, unstoppable freelance hitman Price (Common), and the last honest cop in NYC (Vincent D'Onofrio) close in on Jimmy and Michael, putting them in a position where they must set aside their differences and survive the night...if they don't kill each other first!

A major improvement over January's lackluster TAKEN 3, RUN ALL NIGHT is the busy Neeson's third teaming with director Jaume Collet-Serra (UNKNOWN, NON-STOP). Collet-Serra's key to success with Neeson seems to be that the stories are frequently as ludicrous as something Luc Besson would cook up for TAKEN, but he gives Neeson enough breathing room to flex his acting muscles. Whether he's presenting Neeson as an amnesia victim in UNKNOWN or a paranoid, alcoholic air marshal in NON-STOP, Collet-Serra understands that Neeson is a real actor and works some moderately challenging characterization into the actor's now-standard action-movie badass routine. There's actually a lot of similarities between Jimmy Conlan and Neeson's Ottway in THE GREY, and like THE GREY, Neeson is surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast--there's also Holt McCallany and Bruce McGill as Maguire mob guys, and a one-scene bit by a more-grizzled-than-usual Nick Nolte as Jimmy's older brother--but the most pleasure comes from watching him play off a steely-as-ever Harris. While he can bellow and rage like the best of them, Harris has always been one of those actors who can also speak volumes with just a look, and he does a terrific job of conveying that sense of friendship just with the way he looks at Jimmy with a combination of fond memories for days gone by and pitying sympathy for what Jimmy is today. They're both outstanding in their later scene together, where they have what's essentially their own version of the HEAT diner meet in a swanky restaurant, each vowing to do what they have to do regardless of the respect and love they have for one another.

RUN ALL NIGHT's strengths lie with Neeson and Harris, and it's too bad they don't have more scenes together. The father-son issues and bickering between Jimmy and Michael are played well enough by Neeson and Kinnaman (THE KILLING, ROBOCOP), but you've seen it all before. The only major misstep with the casting is Common's high-tech hitman seemingly wandering in from the nearest TERMINATOR audition. He doesn't appear until over an hour into the film, but he never quite gels with his surroundings, and we don't learn enough about him for his showdown with Jimmy to have much resonance beyond the visceral thrill of watching Neeson do his Neeson thing. The script by Brad Inglesby (OUT OF THE FURNACE) errs in the way it abruptly makes Common's Price the chief adversary when the emotional impact lies with the broken bond between Jimmy and Shawn. One other major stumble is a badly-edited car chase early on, assembled in the now-standard way of entirely too much CGI augmentation in a quick-cutting blur with frequent close-ups of a grimacing Neeson clutching the wheel, making constipated faces like he's driving a car at high speed through Times Square. Nitpicking asdie, RUN ALL NIGHT is slick and satisfying entertainment for Neeson's base, the kind of undemanding but compelling actioner that you'll happen upon and end up watching several times as it finds its permanent home in constant rotation on the various HBO channels for the next two decades.

Friday, March 13, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: ROSEWATER (2014); PIONEER (2014); and BLACK NOVEMBER (2015)

(US - 2014)

ROSEWATER, a chronicle of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari's 118 days of interrogation and torture at Tehran's Evin Prison, is the big-screen writing and directing debut of THE DAILY SHOW's Jon Stewart--viewers will recall John Oliver hosting over the summer of 2013 while Stewart made this pet project that has a direct tie to the show. A resident of London, Bahari (played here by Gael Garcia Bernal) was in Tehran covering the 2009 Iran presidential election for Newsweek and staying with his mother Moloojoon (Shohreh Aghdashloo) when he was arrested and held in solitary confinement. Initially, Bahari thinks he was arrested for filming some protests over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's questionable victory. But his interrogator (Kim Bodnia), referred to as "Rosewater" by the constantly blindfolded Bahari, who never saw his face but recognized the rosewater scent of his perfume, informs him that he's been arrested for being a spy. The proof? Bahari was interviewed in a DAILY SHOW segment by Jason Jones (playing himself), who was pretending to be an American spy incognito as a reporter.

Stewart occasionally flirts with black comedy but always pulls back, which is too bad, since he would seem to be a natural for exploring the absurdity of the situation with some satirical bite (early on, Iranian authorities label Bahari's DVD collection, with things like THE SOPRANOS and Pasolini's TEOREMA, as "porn"). Instead, Stewart fashions ROSEWATER as a reverent, inspiring, triumph-of-the-human-spirit saga that just never catches fire. There's little suspense or tension in Bahari's situation--not because we know the outcome that he gets released after 118 days and will be OK, but because Stewart tackles the subject in such a perfunctory and by-the-numbers fashion. Perhaps he wanted to be taken seriously as a filmmaker and be respectful of his subject but he erred too much on the side of caution, ending up with a film that's dull, plodding, and predictable. None of Stewart's personality comes through in a creative way and his voice is nowhere to be heard (and THE DAILY SHOW is never even referenced by name) and when he starts showing Bahari having imaginary conversations with and getting "hang in there!" pep talks from the ghosts of his late father (Haluk Bilginer) and sister (Golshifteh Farahani), ROSEWATER starts to look like something any hired gun director could've put together. In Stewart's defense, these conversations with his dead father and sister, both political prisoners, are in Bahari's memoir Then They Came for Me, and while it may have worked on the page and he wanted to remain faithful to Bahari's writing, it's a mawkish, eye-rolling cliche when put on the screen. Given his status as both a comedy figure and an astute political junkie, as well as his own indirect involvement with the situation, there's so many other approaches Stewart could've taken with ROSEWATER rather than going for superficial, transparent awards-bait. Open Road didn't really know what to do with the dry, tedious ROSEWATER, only putting it on 371 screens at its widest release for a gross of $3 million. It's doubtful it would've even gotten that without Stewart's name attached to it. There was a lot of potential here and the intentions are nothing but sincere, but all things considered, this is a major disappointment. (R, 103 mins)

(Norway/Germany/Sweden/Finland/France - 2013; US release 2014)

Set in the late 1970s and looking like it was made then as well, the nautical conspiracy thriller PIONEER is a throwback in every way, right down to an on-set mishap that looks like something out of the original GONE IN 60 SECONDS. Star Aksel Hennie's (HEADHUNTERS) character is being chased in his Jeep, and the actor insisted on doing his own driving. He lost control of the Jeep, flipping twice, windows shattering and top torn off before the Jeep lands upright, Hennie clearly visible in the driver's seat and looking terrified. Even as it happens in the film, it's attention-getting simply for the spontaneous and awkward way it happens...like a real car wreck would rather than one precisely engineered by stunt coordinators or pulled off with CGI. Hennie emerged uninjured but quite shaken, and even in a DVD special feature called "The Crash," he still gets emotional recounting it. It's left in the film as it happened, taking a rather humdrum car chase and making it unforgettable. The film itself has origins in fact, dealing with the installation of an oil pipeline along the floor of the North Sea off the coast of Norway. The job requires training professional divers to do the work and the project is a joint Norwegian-American venture, with the Norwegian divers, headed by Petter (Hennie) and his brother Knut (Andre Eriksen) at odds with the arrogant American divers, represented by Mike (a scowling Wes Bentley). Tragedy strikes when Petter blacks out on a dive, failing to close a valve that results in Knut's death. Aside from losing his younger brother, something doesn't feel right about what happened, and the more he presses for answers, the less anyone around him wants to talk. He begins to suspect that someone tampered with his oxygen supply. Anyone with answers turns up missing or dead, the videotape documenting the accident is nowhere to be found, the perpetually surly Mike speeds up behind Petter and tries to run him off the road, and the bottom-line-watching American oil company rep Ferris (Stephen Lang) is running out of patience with Petter's refusal to let it go.

Director/co-writer Erik Skjoldbjaerg, who helmed the original Norwegian INSOMNIA and came to Hollywood for his mandatory Horrible Harvey Weinstein experience--pretty much a rite of passage for foreign filmmakers at this point--with the four-years-on-the-shelf PROZAC NATION, really gets a solid '70s paranoia vibe throughout, helped a lot by the short, balding Hennie looking nothing like your conventional leading man. He really does look like an average, blue collar guy getting in way over his head with powerful people, but still bulldozing forward, not giving it up--even his widowed sister-in-law (Stephanie Sigman) seems content to take Ferris' fat settlement offer--and it's admirable that Skjoldbjaerg and the screenwriters aren't always concerned with making Petter appealing. Indeed, there's times when he's a bellicose prick. There's a doomy, palpable tension as the screws tighten and Petter realizes that somebody's hiding something and it could cost him his life, but Skjoldbjaerg shows his cards too soon and it's too obvious that the Americans are shady and untrustworthy. Bentley's Mike is a completely unlikable asshole, glaring, seething and yelling at the Norwegians from the moment he first appears, for no real reason. And it makes no sense when he stops someone from torturing Petter in a pressurized chamber ("I didn't sign on to kill anyone," he protests), only to resume the torture as soon as the other guy leaves the room. We've also seen Stephen Lang in enough movies to know that if he's acting altruistic and sympathetic, it's because his character is anything but. PIONEER has its glaring flaws and plot holes, and its ambiguities are such that they lead to an unsatisfying ending, but its positives still outweigh its negatives, generating significant suspense and establishing an effectively bleak, gray atmosphere, which gets an immense push from an occasionally Tangerine Dream-ish score by Air. (R, 111 mins)

(Nigeria/US - 2015)

BLACK NOVEMBER is a bad movie, but at least it's a bad movie with noble intentions. A feature-length lecture on the evils of Big Oil and government corruption, BLACK NOVEMBER opens with text explaining that Nigeria is the world's fifth largest oil supplier, while neglecting to mention that their top export is deposed princes who just need your checking account and social security numbers. A group of Nigerian terrorists led by Opuwei (Akon) and Timi (Wyclef Jean) are holding Western Oil CEO Tom Hudson (Mickey Rourke, looking embalmed) hostage in the 2nd Street Tunnel in Los Angeles. Unlike their needlessly complex plan of orchestrating a massive rush hour traffic jam, their demand is simple: arrange the release of activist Ebiere (a convincing Mbong Amata), currently in a Warri prison in the Niger Delta, where she's about to be executed. Flashbacks reveal that Ebiere attended college in America on a Western Oil scholarship, and Hudson would use her to settle disputes between Nigerians (irate that their land has been ruined by constant oil spills) and the corrupt military that acts at the behest of the oil company, frequently going over the line into atrocities like murder and gang-rape. In time, Ebiere is driven to a shocking act of violence when she realizes she's been set up by Hudson and the whole thing was a ploy to get the protesters arrested. Shockingly, the unscrupulous Hudson is one of those billionaire CEOs who cares more about profits than people, and back in L.A., he's about to pay for his misdeeds if he can't convince the Nigerian government to spare Ebiere's life.

Very sporadically enlivened by bits of action and some inexcusably crummy CGI explosions, BLACK NOVEMBER is essentially a 96-minute public service announcement disguised as a commercial movie. Characters don't speak naturally but rather, in hackneyed, exposition-heavy proclamations, almost like the script is just a bullet-pointed outline (Hudson's model-like daughter, just before he's abducted from his limo: "You always get nervous before you fly to Nigeria."). It's terrible, but that's only because Nigerian writer/director Jeta Amata (Mbong's husband--it's a family affair with Amatas everywhere in the credits, with Mbong being much more talented than the other Amatas in the cast) is more concerned with shouting his points than telling a story with any subtlety or nuance. It's too sincere in its intent to be dismissed as a mere vanity project (though Amata calling his production company "Jeta Amata Concepts" doesn't bode well), but that doesn't give it a pass. The backstory of BLACK NOVEMBER is much more interesting than the film itself. Amata took his shelved 2011 film BLACK GOLD--produced by Nigerian oil baron Captain Hosa Wells Okunbo--dumped roughly half of it and shot additional footage to restructure it into its current form as BLACK NOVEMBER. BLACK GOLD starred Mbong Amata as Ebiere, along with a veritable Who's Who of Redbox All-Stars including Tom Sizemore, Michael Madsen, and Billy Zane, the latter three nowhere to be seen in BLACK NOVEMBER. Conversely, Rourke, Kim Basinger (as intrepid reporter Kristy Ames, covering the L.A. hostage situation), Anne Heche (a virtual walk-on with maybe two lines of dialogue as an FBI agent), Jean, and Akon did not appear in BLACK GOLD. Footage of Vivica A. Fox as a US government official and former WALKING DEAD star Sarah Wayne Callies as a crusading cable news reporter comes from BLACK GOLD, as do most of Mbong Amata's scenes that take place in the Niger Delta (she looks noticeably different in NOVEMBER-shot footage with Rourke). Amata has a confused mess on his hands, but with the help of four credited editors, he almost makes the whole thing hang together, with the seams only slightly showing when Callies picks up a ringing phone in BLACK GOLD and it's BLACK NOVEMBER's Basinger on the other end of the line, and when Fox is seen at a command center that seemingly belongs in another movie, that's because it does. Jean and Akon put up some of the financing for Amata to transform BLACK GOLD into BLACK NOVEMBER, which was completed way back in 2012 and shelved after being screened for events at the Kennedy Center and the United Nations before getting its belated commercial release in early 2015. Regardless of its good intentions, BLACK NOVEMBER is still junky, cobbled-together DTV material (it's too bad the original cut of BLACK GOLD isn't included as a bonus feature for the masochistically-inclined), with Rourke, Basinger, and Heche looking especially perplexed over exactly how they ended up being Raymond Burr'd into a Nigerian protest drama. (Unrated, 97 mins)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW (1974)

(Italy - 1974; US releases 1977 and 1981)

Directed by Mario Gariazzo. Written by Ambrogio Molteni and Ted Rusoff. Cast: Stella Carnacina, Chris Avram, Lucretia Love, Ivan Rassimov, Gabriele Tinti, Luigi Pistilli, Umberto Raho, Gianrico Tondinelli, Piero Gerlini, Giuseppe Addobatti, Edoardo Toniolo, Gianni de Benedetto. (R, 85 mins)

After the phenomenal success of THE EXORCIST (1973), the imitation game was on, and nobody made more entertaining--often for all the wrong reasons--EXORCIST ripoffs than the Italians. Italy started cranking them out in 1974, though it sometimes took them a while to turn up in the US (THE ANTICHRIST, released in Italy in 1974, was retitled THE TEMPTER when it was finally shown in America in 1978). Few of the post-EXORCIST knockoffs had as many titles as L'OSSESSA, which translates to "The Obsessed." Beating Alberto De Martino's THE ANTICHRIST and Ovidio G. Assonitis' BEYOND THE DOOR to Italian theaters by two weeks in November 1974, L'OSSESSA holds the distinction of being the first Italian EXORCIST ripoff. Known in various parts of the world under the far more lurid moniker of THE SEXORCIST (it's listed on IMDb as ENTER THE DEVIL, which seems to be confused with a 1972 American horror film with the same title), the film would be acquired by the exploitation outfit 21st Century, who released it in the US throughout 1977 and into 1978 as THE TORMENTED. It was successful enough, at least in my hometown of Toledo, OH, to play for four (!) weeks at the two-screen theater in the tiny Greenwood Mall in April 1977. Someone at the Greenwood Cine thought so highly of THE TORMENTED that they brought it back for a week in July of that year! I don't think anything illustrates how times have changed quite like the idea of a tawdry, softcore Italian EXORCIST ripoff playing for a month straight at a shopping mall.

It wouldn't be until 1981 that L'OSSESSA (or whatever you want to call it) would settle on a definitive title by which everyone would refer to it from that point forward. 21st Century decided to relaunch the film for the burgeoning home video and cable markets, only this time, they ditched the rather bland THE TORMENTED and rechristened it THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW, complete with a set of ROCKY HORROR lips adorning the newly-commissioned artwork. It was attention-getting, to say the least, and the film found a cult following both in video stores and through late-night airings on Showtime, where its mix of gory horror and softcore sex made it ideal for their "After Hours" programming. The plot concerns virginal art history grad student Danila (Stella Carnacina) and a large wood carving of one of the two men crucified with Christ, recovered from a deconsecrated church. The wooden man comes to life in the form of Eurotrash regular Ivan Rassimov and quickly reveals himself to be Satan, ravaging Danila in a sexual frenzy. As expected, her behavior becomes increasingly bizarre and inappropriate, whether she's masturbating in front of her parents Mario (Chris Avram) and Luisa (Lucretia Love), trying to seduce her father, or beating her head against the wall and escaping a sanitarium with the entire town in pursuit. Like a certain blockbuster from 1973, psychiatrists are consulted but with no success and ultimately, the local clergy recommends an exorcism despite concern that almost no priests are trained in the ritual. Fortunately, the hermit-like Father Xeno (Luigi Pistilli) is an experienced exorcist and happens to live high in the hills of a neighboring town because of course he does.

Like THE ANTICHRIST, there's a strong sexual element to THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW but where the former was focused more on blasphemy and other unmentionables (like the infamous rimjob-on-a-goat scene), the latter has a kinky, S&M quality to it. It's personified mainly by Danila's mother, who's having a torrid, FIFTY SHADES fling with a sadistic playboy (Gabriele Tinti), who regularly whips her with roses, leaving cuts and lashes all over her body. Luisa's cuckolding of Mario is a main reason why Danila has so many hang-ups about sex and is keeping her boyfriend Carlo (Gianrico Tondinelli) waiting. But that's not really explored and Tinti serves little narrative purpose in the film, other than upping the softcore sleaze factor. Luisa's masochistic sexual tendencies do provide an interesting but underdeveloped parallel with Father Xeno, who almost succumbs to the temptation of a Satanic knobshine from the possessed Danila and responds by shouting "Abomination!" and apologizing to God for his weakness and making amends by engaging in some self-flagellation. As the sexual escapades of THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW and THE ANTICHRIST demonstrate, Italians tended to get away with a lot more if they made the possession victim a young woman (or a young man in the case of 1975's unwatchable NAKED EXORCISM, aka THE POSSESSOR) instead of a teenage girl. One thing that differentiates THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW from THE EXORCIST and its clones is that Danila doesn't hurl obscenities in a deep, demonic voice. She mainly just cries and screams (or moans, depending on where her fingers are). She doesn't even spew green vomit until the exorcism, and that's only after she eats clumps of her own hair, essentially barfing the devil out of her.

Finally looking good on home video (the occasional scratches and print damage only enhance the experience) with Code Red's recently-released Blu-ray (!), THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW was directed by Mario Gariazzo (1930-2002), a perennial D-lister in the world of Eurocult journeymen, always sure to pop up with an obscure contribution to a then in-vogue genre, whether it's the 1969 spaghetti western GOD WILL FORGIVE MY PISTOL with Wayde Preston or the 1973 polizia THE BLOODY HANDS OF THE LAW with Philippe Leroy and Klaus Kinski. The same year as THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW, he directed the G-rated tearjerker THE LAST CIRCUS SHOW, where he somehow managed to get James Whitmore, Lee J. Cobb, and Cyril Cusack onboard. Often working under the pseudonym "Roy Garret," Gariazzo dabbled in a little of everything, whether it was 1978's unbelievably boring post-CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND alien-invasion conspiracy thriller EYES BEHIND THE STARS, featuring Academy Award winner Martin Balsam absurdly dubbed by a British voice actor, or 1985's post-CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST jungle cannibal thriller AMAZONIA. Gariazzo rarely distinguished himself and THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW is probably his best-known film by default, though his 1979 giallo/porno-crossover PLAY MOTEL has its admirers. L'OSSESSA's script was written by Ambrogio Molteni, another gun-for-hire who penned several insignificant spaghetti westerns before hopping on the BLACK EMANUELLE bandwagon in the mid '70s, and later, Bruno Mattei's skeezy 1982 women-in-prison classic VIOLENCE IN A WOMEN'S PRISON, released in the US in 1984 as CAGED WOMEN.

Dubbing maestro Ted Rusoff (1939-2013)
 posing with the 2010 issue of Video
with him as the cover story.
Molteni no doubt supplied L'OSSESSA with its more pervy elements, but a good chunk of its American EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW grindhouse/drive-in charm came from Ted Rusoff. The smooth tones of Canadian expat Rusoff can be heard in countless Eurocult films from the 1960s through the early 2000s. Rusoff spent his career in Italy and supervised the English dubbing of L'OSSESSA (with 21st Century even giving him a writing credit) while also providing the voice for Tondinelli's character. If you've seen enough of these things, you start recognizing the voices, and Rusoff brought the whole gang along for this one: his wife Carolynn De Fonseca dubbed Love, the gruff Ed Mannix dubbed one of the psychiatrists, Michael Forest supplied the voice of Rassimov's Satan, and the mellifluous Tony La Penna handled the actor playing Danila's professor. Rusoff must've had them in the recording studio after a long day and a lot of wine with dinner, because it's one of the most gloriously sloppy dub jobs this side of a vintage GODZILLA movie. In their scripting of English translations, guys like Rusoff would at least try to utilize words and phrasings that would closely match the lip movements while retaining the ideas and the intentions of the original Italian script. No such effort is put forth here. The English words rarely match the what the actors are saying in Italian, and the dialogue is often riotous, especially when Carlo yells at Luisa about her affair and "the whips and belts and other masochistic tomfoolery," pausing briefly before capping it off with a blunt, barked "Whore!" But Avram's back is turned when the dubbed voice spits "Whore!" and the over-the-top way that it's said is more comedic than anything. In other words, the voice actor dubbing Avram didn't have to say it, but it's almost like they knew it would get a big laugh, or maybe they were just amusing themselves. This is not Rusoff and his voice posse's finest hour in terms of quality control, but it's obvious they had a great time working on it...or at least a great time before working on it. Rusoff died in 2013 in the midst of a renewed interest in the world of dubbing, thanks in part to an extensive interview he did with John Charles in a 2010 issue of Video Watchdog. I corresponded with Rusoff on Facebook on several occasions and he had fascinating and often unfiltered stories to share about working with everybody in the business as well as a very self-deprecating attitude about his career, once replying with "I'm sorry you've seen so much of my work."

Stella Carnacina was 19 when she starred in THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW. It was her first significant role and it led to a brief period where she was a frequently nude starlet in Italian sex comedies (the same year, she co-starred with Italian comedian Lando Buzzanca in THE HANDSOME DEVIL). Carnacina also graced the cover of the Italian edition of Playboy in May 1975, and embarked on a singing career that eventually took precedence over acting. She's been offscreen since 1982 and her musical output seems to have ceased in 1985 as the now-60-year-old Carnacina appears to be long retired from public life. The rest of the film's main cast is filled out by several familiar Eurotrash faces, most notably Rassimov, best known for his sinister performance in Sergio Martino's THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH (1971) and as the Jim Jones-like cult leader Jonas in Umberto Lenzi's EATEN ALIVE (1980) and Tinti, who appeared in occasional Hollywood movies like THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965) and THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE (1968), but was better known for co-starring in several EMANUELLE films with wife Laura Gemser.

Luigi Pistilli's naturally glum, sad face suits the morose Father Xeno. A respected Italian stage figure, Pistilli became a busy big-screen character actor and was a veteran of numerous westerns and gialli, even headlining Sergio Martino's YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY (1972) and co-starring with Avram in Mario Bava's BAY OF BLOOD (1971). Pistilli's place in film history is cemented by his brief role as Father Ramirez, the angry and heartbroken brother of Tuco (Eli Wallach) in Sergio Leone's THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966). Wallach does some of his career-best acting in his scene with Pistilli, who's dubbed but the performance shines through just with the look in his eyes. Pistilli spent most of the 1980s and into the 1990s concentrating on stage work. His life came to a tragic end on April 21, 1996 when he killed himself just before he was to take the stage for the final performance of the Terence Rattigan play Tosca, which had been shredded by critics and audiences. The 66-year-old Pistilli was believed to be depressed about the negative response to the play and was also angry and remorseful over the recent end of a relationship with Italian singer Milva, leaving a suicide note that included an apology for making several disparaging remarks about her to the press following their breakup.