Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: WOLFEN (1981)

(US - 1981)

Directed by Michael Wadleigh. Written by David Eyre and Michael Wadleigh. Cast: Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines, Dick O'Neill, Tom Noonan, Peter Michael Goetz, Dehl Berti, Reginald Veljohnson, James Tolkan, Victor Arnold, Max M. Brown, Anne Marie Pohtamo, Sarah Felder, Caitlin O'Heaney. (R, 115 mins)

Thanks to influential makeup effects wizards like Rob Bottin and Rick Baker and their mastery of their craft, werewolf movies were able to make a huge comeback in 1981. Rather than the old time-lapse method done with Lon Chaney Jr. in the Universal horror movies of the 1940s, it was now possible to show a character's entire agonizing transformation into a wolf. Released in the spring of 1981, Joe Dante's THE HOWLING boasted stunning man-to-wolf transformation work by Bottin that still looks better than CGI today, and the same goes for John Landis' AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, released at the end of the summer of 1981, which featured makeup so convincing that it won Baker an Oscar. WOLFEN was released in July 1981, between THE HOWLING and AMERICAN WEREWOLF, and while it isn't a werewolf movie in the vein of those other two films, it typically gets lumped in with them. Based on the 1978 novel The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber, who would later be best known for his alien abduction memoir Communion (turned into a 1989 movie with Christopher Walken as Strieber), WOLFEN is much more ambitious in scope than either of 1981's other big wolf movies, with a labyrinthine plot involving Native American folklore, police surveillance, radical activism, urban trust-fund guerrillas, domestic terrorism, voodoo, urban legend, and urban decay, among other themes that range from half-explored to abandoned. With extensive location shooting in the hellhole that was The Bronx of that time, WOLFEN is very much a product of its era, while at the same time being amazingly prescient in its depictions of corporate greed, gentrification, and the way its NYPD's secret surveillance unit draws obvious comparisons to the NSA and prefigures the Patriot Act. Make no mistake--the film is an often unwieldy, confused mess but it's a fascinating mess. If WOLFEN is guilty of anything, it's biting off more than it can chew in two hours.

When multi-millionaire developer and political scion Christopher van der Veer (Max M. Brown), his coke-snorting wife, and their bodyguard are torn to pieces in Battery Park, the culprits are believed to be the "Gotterdamerung," an underground, left-wing urban guerrilla network protesting van der Veer's demolishing of old buildings in the Bronx and other boroughs to replace them with expensive high rises, driving out the longtime residents and bringing in the wealthy and the privileged. Given van der Veer's status and Washington ties, the case is deemed top priority by the mayor and the police commissioner, and is handed to (of course) troubled, eccentric detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney), a recovering alcoholic who's brought off suspension by his beleaguered captain Warren (Dick O'Neill). Department brass works hard to establish any connection to Gotterdamerung, but Wilson and criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) aren't convinced, primarily because the murders were too violent for a bunch of rich kid activists. When a similar slaughtering of a homeless man draws them to an abandoned church in the Bronx, Wilson hears a wolf's howl and is further convinced the killer isn't human when coroner Whittington (Gregory Hines) discovers hairs on the victims belonging to the wolf family but aren't indicative of any known breed. Acting on a hunch, Wilson visits Native American activist Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos)--Wilson arrested him on a murder charge years earlier--who talks of shapeshifting and "Wolfen," a unique breed of wolf that's lived in secret alongside humanity, a close-knit clan that will do what it needs to do to protect its turf--turf that was being threatened by van der Meer's revitalization of the Bronx.

Almost everything in WOLFEN turns out to be red herrings and misdirection. Much time is devoted to the police investigation of Gotterdamerung activists that turns out to have no bearing on anything. Holt's "shapeshifting"--witnessed when he's tailed by Wilson--turns out to be nothing more than Eddie stripping nude after dropping acid and pretending he's a wolf. Unlike the lupine creatures in THE HOWLING and AMERICAN WEREWOLF, the wolves in WOLFEN are just that: wolves, albeit a unique breed of wolf, the next step in canus lupus evolution, complete with near-human intelligence and heat-sensory vision conveyed in then-innovative Steadicam tracking shots using thermal imagery that would be popularized several years later in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger classic PREDATOR. In their hunting and the establishment of their turf, the Wolfen have survived on the least visible, and therefore least missed, people. Hence, their stronghold in the Bronx, an area filled with the homeless and the disenfranchised, and all of that is threatened by van der Veer's attempts to gentrify the area. The message is hardly subtle: whether it's the wealthy or the Wolfen, something's always feeding on society's least fortunate.

Garrett Brown (with Steadicam) and director Michael Wadleigh (turned around,
facing stars Finney and Venora) on location in the ruins of the Bronx in 1979.

Recently released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive, WOLFEN was a troubled production that started shooting in and around NYC in the fall of 1979, with director/co-screenwriter Michael Wadleigh at the helm. This was Wadleigh's first film since his directing debut, the 1970 Best Documentary Oscar-winner WOODSTOCK. Prior to that, Wadleigh dropped out of medical school and enrolled in NYU's film school, where he met fellow student Martin Scorsese. Born in Akron, OH in 1942, Wadleigh made short political documentaries and found work as a cinematographer on several micro-budget underground films, including 1968's WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR?, Scorsese's directorial debut. Scorsese repaid the favor when Wadleigh got his first major gig, helping his friend out as an assistant director and editor on WOODSTOCK. After that film's phenomenal success, Scorsese cemented his place as one of America's great young directors with 1973's MEAN STREETS, while Wadleigh spent the bulk of the decade planning what would've been an epic about the American Revolution that ultimately never came to fruition. When funding fell apart in 1979, he was offered a list of potential projects by then-fledgling Orion Pictures as a consolation prize and chose to adapt The Wolfen, not because of any desire to work in the horror genre but more likely because of the activism themes in the novel. When filming wrapped on WOLFEN in February 1980, Wadleigh assembled a four-hour rough cut and neither the producers nor the execs at Orion were happy with what they saw when Wadleigh turned in his finished version, which clocked in at 149 minutes. Claiming Wadleigh made a "message picture" and lost sight of the fright factor, the producers demanded more horror and a shorter running time. When the filmmaker wouldn't budge and it became obvious that the delays would now force the $10 million film to miss its announced October 1980 release date, Wadleigh was fired. Screenwriter Eric Roth, who would go on to win an Oscar for his FORREST GUMP script, was commissioned for rewrites and director John Hancock (LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY) was called in for reshoots that were done in November 1980 to reach a sufficient horror and gore quota. Neither Hancock nor Roth received credit for their work and an irate Wadleigh unsuccessfully tried to have his name removed from the film, which ran 115 minutes when it was finally released on July 24, 1981, its cost nearly doubled to a then-expensive $17 million by the time it was completed. WOLFEN was met with generally positive reviews, but the often-confused jumble of half-baked ideas is strongly indicative of too many cooks in the kitchen (there are four credited editors), and the lack of werewolves or transformation scenes have always placed WOLFEN a distant third among fans when it comes to the big three 1981 lycanthrope classics.

Finney and Olmos atop the Manhattan Bridge. No doubles, no CGI, no greenscreen.

Nevertheless, it has moments of greatness. Though commonplace today, the groundbreaking thermal imagery tracking shots (with help from Steadicam creator Garrett Brown) are outstanding and the film's sound design is remarkably effective, whether it's garbled surveillance chatter or the fingernails of a corpse scraping across a morgue slab as the body is being moved. WOLFEN has a terrific performance by a grumbly, shaggy-haired Finney and a scene-stealing, star-making one by Hines in what was his big-screen debut, even though Mel Brooks' HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART 1 (1981) was shot later but released first. There's some amusingly dark humor throughout (Finney's Wilson stuffing cookies into his mouth while viewing an autopsy) and the climactic showdown between Wilson, Rebecca, and Warren with a pack of Wolfen (probably shot by Hancock, considering the amount of splatter involved) is terrifying. In addition, WOLFEN boasts one of the earliest scores by the late, legendary James Horner. Wadleigh and cinematographer Gerry Fisher do a stunning job of capturing the sights of 1979-80 NYC, from Battery Park to the war-zone-like Bronx to some dizzying shots of Olmos atop the Brooklyn Bridge and Olmos and Finney on the Manhattan Bridge, both sequences done pre-CGI and with much effort made to show that, yes, the actors are really up there in a way that just wouldn't be done today, both for the sake of safety and efficiency (how did they get a camera crew up there?). Watch Finney on top of the Manhattan Bridge--it's a windy day and he's visibly terrified. That's exactly why the scene works as well as it does.

Wadleigh (with headband) and Martin Scorsese (on headset)
during the shooting of the landmark documentary WOODSTOCK 

A 2013 photo of Michael Wadleigh
After his unpleasant experience on WOLFEN, Wadleigh almost completely withdrew from the film industry, emerging from self-imposed exile every now and again, whenever WOODSTOCK gets an anniversary re-release in theaters or on DVD/Blu-ray. He also apparently recorded a commentary track for the 2002 DVD release of WOLFEN with Olmos and the late Hines (who died in 2003) that was ultimately shelved and never heard by the DVD-buying public (any bets that he's still bitter and let it be known on the commentary?). In the decades since, he earned degrees in Physics and Medicine, and became a Harvard professor. Still a counterculture icon to his core at the age of 72, the now-UK-based Wadleigh may be an enigmatic figure in the world of cinema, but he's known in activist circles, working for various nonprofit organizations, traveling the world, and giving interviews, lectures, and multimedia presentations on the dangers of climate change. Barring any surprise comeback attempts after 35 years away from the game, it's a safe assumption that Wadleigh is done with mainstream filmmaking. If so, he leaves a unique, if very brief, body of work behind, with two movies in the last 45 years being the kind of sparse output that makes Stanley Kubrick look like Woody Allen.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: POUND OF FLESH (2015); THE FORGER (2015); and SWORD OF VENGEANCE (2015)

(Hong Kong/Canada/China/US/Monaco - 2015)

In a solid performance, Jean-Claude Van Damme does his best to salvage this overwrought, heavy-handed actioner, but he can't overcome a terrible script by Joshua James, uninspired direction by Ernie Barbarash that relies too much on quick-cuts and shaky cam in the action sequences, and some embarrassingly bush-league CGI and greenscreen work that's inexcusable in 2015. JCVD is Deacon Lyle, a former kidnap-and-rescue black ops specialist who arrives in Manila, is promptly roofied by the seductive Ana (Charlotte Peters) and wakes up in his hotel room the next morning with an envelope full of money and a fistful of painkillers, but minus a kidney. This poses a problem since he was in Manila to donate a kidney to his deathly ill niece Isabella (Adele Baughan). Deacon and his widower brother George (John Ralston), a minister having a crisis of faith, have some bad blood between them, the cause being something the filmmakers think is a big reveal later on but is obvious almost instantly. Desperate to save his niece's life, Deacon goes on a rampage across Manila to recover the organ, almost like TAKEN if Liam Neeson's kidney was abducted instead of his daughter. He gets help from former enemy and now trusted friend Kung ('80s Cannon stalwart Aki Aleong, credited as "Leonard Gonzales") as well as Ana who, being your typical Hooker with a Heart of Gold, isn't really a bad person but was forced into it by her vicious pimp (Philippe Joly), who was paid off by Drake (the late Darren Shahlavi, who died during production of his next teaming with Van Damme, a KICKBOXER reboot due out in 2016), who orchestrated the kidney heist at the behest of his rich and powerful employer.

With JCVD gouging out someone's eye with the corner of a hardcover Bible and shouting things like "Last chance...where's my kidney?" this could've been goofy fun if James' script wasn't so awful. An action movie with a crazy Belgian in search of a missing vital organ shouldn't be this depressing. The film really gets bogged down with George's endless, melodramatic hand-wringing over taking a life to save a life. POUND OF FLESH is the kind of film where it's not enough for George to question if taking part in Deacon's ruthless pursuit of his kidney is for the greater good and saving Isabella at the expense of the person who had it stolen. No, he has to pause and look at his hands--which literally have blood on them--as a cross dangles from his necklace, forcing him to ponder What I've Become. It's also the kind of film where George has a clandestine meeting with a computer hacker and they have to speak in clumsy exposition that laboriously lays out their shared history that the characters should already know ("You testified on my behalf...if I'm caught near a computer, I go back to prison!") despite the urgency of the meeting. It's the kind of movie where the protagonists are on the run and have nowhere to go, only to have George chime in with a convenient "I have a cabin near here," and when Deacon and Kung desperately need to scrape money together to get the information and weapons they need, only much later, after the Hooker with a Heart of Gold throws in her own $20,000 to help Deacon, does George say "I have $50,000 in this account...here's the password," and no one says "Thanks, asshole...we coulda used it earlier." The climax involves Deacon somehow planting explosives all around the exterior and interior of Drake's employer's fortress-like mansion--it's never explained how he gets around an army of bodyguards patrolling the perimeter. And the film has so little use for Ana that while gunfire and explosions that look like they came from apps on Barbarash's iPhone are going off inside and outside of the mansion, she just patiently waits in Kung's van, right there in the driveway. It's a combination of idiotic plotting and ham-fisted seriousness that derails the cheap-looking POUND OF FLESH. Less George angst and more Bible eye-gouging by Deacon would've been a good thing. Though the 54-year-old Van Damme is relying on obvious stunt doubles a little more than he did as a younger man (he does do his signature splits move while being dragged by a car, which is pretty cool), as an actor, he gives it his all and is quite good, especially in the closing scenes. It's too bad he's stuck in a badly-written and very ugly film that often appears to be unfinished. JCVD deserves better. (R, 104 mins)

(US - 2015)

THE FORGER finds John Travolta in one of the frequent lulls of his notoriously up-and-down career and is his second consecutive film to both a) go straight to VOD, and b) feature him with ridiculous facial hair. 2013's little-seen KILLING SEASON was hardly worthy of pairing a chinstrap-bearded Travolta and a slumming Robert De Niro for the first time, and while THE FORGER isn't terrible, it's also not even remotely noteworthy other than for the sight of 61-year-old Travolta sporting a velcro dot of a soul patch and a flowing, rock star wig that looks in danger of sliding off at any moment. Ray Cutter (Travolta) comes from a long line of small-time Boston criminals. He's also a master art forger ten months away from being paroled. He has neighborhood crime boss Keegan (Anson Mount) get him sprung from the joint early so he can be with his cancer-stricken Will (Tye Sheridan of MUD and JOE), who has an inoperable, stage IV brain-stem tumor. Will's spent the last four years living with his crotchety but tough-loving Irish grandfather Joseph (Christopher Plummer) and Ray wants to be able to spend what little time he can bonding with his son. Keegan has other ideas, especially since Ray owes him a favor: forge a Monet painting and plot a heist to swap it with the real thing at the Museum of Fine Arts. Ray's also being hounded by an ambitious FBI agent (Abigail Spencer) who's looking to bust Keegan, who needs the Monet to satisfy a debt to a ruthless Latin American cartel boss. In between working on the forgery and plotting the heist, the three Cutter men bond as Will gets sicker by the day.

Directed by British TV vet Philip Martin and scripted by Richard D'Ovidio (THE CALL, THE DAMNED), THE FORGER is uneven, to say the least. It tries to be a gritty crime drama, low-key character piece, crowd-pleasing tearjerker, and One Last Job heist thriller and doesn't fully succeed at any of them. The heist itself is ludicrous and the broad performances by Travolta and the usually infallible Plummer don't help. Travolta's cartoonish accent isn't really Baaah-ston and instead sounds like he opted to dust off his Vinnie Barbarino voice, while Plummer seems on the verge of breaking into a gravel-voiced rendition of "Danny Boy" at any moment and falls into the trap that so many geriatric actors do in modern cinema: hamming it up and dropping a ton of F-bombs. Jennifer Ehle, a great actress who should be much better-known than she is, does some good work as Ray's drug-addict ex-wife, who walked out when Will was a small child. She briefly re-enters the picture when Will wants to see her one last time, and the day they spend together, with Will awkwardly but politely going along with her obvious lies about being successful and living in NYC instead of popping pills in a trailer park. It's one of the rare instances when THE FORGER feels genuine. The other is at the very end, with the empty look in Ray's eyes showing the kind of pain and heartbreak that Travolta knows all too well offscreen. In that moment, Travolta brings his own personal grief to the forefront and, if only briefly, manages to overcome the soul patch and whatever it is on his head. (R, 96 mins)

(UK - 2015)

A sluggish GAME OF THRONES and VIKINGS-inspired look at the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, SWORD OF VENGEANCE is a dull, dreary sword & splatter epic with a story credit for Matthew Read, who wrote the equally drab HAMMER OF THE GODS and helped Nicolas Winding Refn script the Viking saga VALHALLA RISING. SWORD has tyrannical William the Conquerer flunky The Earl of Durant (Karel Roden) and his two sniveling sons Romain (Edward Akrout) and Artus (Gianni Giardanelli) ruling the Saxons in their region with an iron fist. The Saxons are given hope in the form of corn-rowed, nomadic, lone-wolf warrior Shadow Walker (Joel Kinnaman lookalike Stanley Weber), who helps lead their depleted forces in revolt against the Durant reign of terror. Loaded with desaturated cinematography that looks sepia-bordering-on-black & white and copious amounts of CGI and slo-mo battle scenes, SWORD OF VENGEANCE is about as forgettable as they come, with lifeless direction by Jim Weedon, tired action sequences that are almost entirely presented in ultra-stylized, 300-like slo-mo, and absolutely no character development or chemistry among its mumbling cast, especially Weber's Shadow Walker, one of the most boring and charisma-deficient heroes in recent memory. Roden, a veteran big-screen villain, is sleepwalking through his performance, hindered by some really unconvincing burn makeup stretched across his face. An empty and incoherent mess with nothing to recommend other than an occasionally interesting electronic score by Steven Hilton, SWORD OF VENGEANCE also features Annabelle Wallis, the late Dave Legeno (best known for SNATCH and as Fenir Greyback in the HARRY POTTER films), who was found dead from heat exhaustion in Death Valley in summer 2014, and Ed Skrein, one-time Daario Naharis on GAME OF THRONES (he was replaced by Michiel Huisman) and star of the upcoming reboot THE TRANSPORTER: REFUELED. (Unrated, 87 mins)

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Cannon Files: ENTER THE NINJA (1981) and REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983)

(US - 1981)

Directed by Menahem Golan. Written by Dick Desmond. Cast: Franco Nero, Susan George, Sho Kosugi, Christopher George, Alex Courtney, Will Hare, Zachi Noy, Constantin de Goguel, Dale Ishimoto, Ken Metcalfe, Joonee Gamboa, Leo Martinez, Jim Gaines, Michael Dudikoff. (R, 100 mins)

The mainstreaming of the ninja in American movies is something that must rank high on Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus' list of accomplishments as the heads of Cannon. Ninjas appeared in American films prior to Cannon's interest in them, most notably 1980's THE OCTAGON, a minor drive-in hit for Chuck Norris, but with the release of 1981's ENTER THE NINJA, ninjas became a ubiquitous pop culture fixture throughout the decade, and proved a very lucrative genre on video and cable. In 1981, the Golan-Globus incarnation of Cannon was still finding its footing and it would be another couple of years before they started to hit their stride as the "contract signed on a cocktail napkin" madmen that cult movie fans find so endearing today. ENTER THE NINJA became a surprise hit when it arrived in theaters in October 1981 but in retrospect, it feels more Roger Corman or Cirio H. Santiago in execution than it does Golan-Globus. This is mostly because it was shot in Manila and uses some familiar locations seen in Filipino action films, not to mention a supporting role for American expat and Santiago regular Ken Metcalfe, who also worked as the film's location manager. While it certainly has higher production values than a Santiago joint, it also appears to be completely looped in post-production, with Italian star Franco Nero's thick accent distractingly dubbed over by what sounds like an American voice actor whose specialty is the narration of workplace instructional videos. Even for viewers who might be unfamiliar with Nero, the dubbing is obvious, as the voice doesn't fit the veteran actor at all. The decision to dub him has remained the primary complaint that fans have about ENTER THE NINJA, and as the actor has become a beloved cult movie icon over the decades, it seems even more egregiously boneheaded now. Nero, 40 when ENTER THE NINJA was made, wasn't an unknown actor--he'd experienced huge success at home starting with DJANGO and was in constant employment between Europe and Hollywood since the mid-1960s--and by this point in his career, headlining a hit movie and having his voice replaced was insulting, to put it mildly.

Nero is Cole, an American ex-mercenary (why couldn't he just be a European mercenary and keep his voice?) traveling the world following a stint serving in the South African Border War. A loner fascinated with Asian culture, Cole has been in Japan studying the art of ninjitsu under Master Komori (Dale Ishomoto). Komori's acceptance of Cole as a ninja angers Hasegawa (Sho Kosugi), a stubborn traditionalist with shogun lineage who doesn't approve of letting outsiders learn their ways. Cole makes his way to Manila to visit his old war buddy Frank Landers (Alex Courtney), now a hopeless, irresponsible drunk whose wife Mary Ann (Susan George) oversees their farm in the outskirts of town. Frank and Mary Ann are routinely hassled and threatened by the flunkies of Charles Venarius (Christopher George), the megalomaniacal CEO of Venarius Enterprises, a corporation that has a serious interest in getting the Landers' land, as Frank and Mary Ann have no idea their farm is directly over a massive oil field. At this point, ENTER THE NINJA essentially becomes a modern-day western, with enigmatic outsider Cole stepping up to defend the Landers' and their workers against the strongarm tactics of the venal Venarius, who even resorts to hiring the embittered Hasegawa to come to Manila and kill Cole.

ENTER THE NINJA was one of the few Cannon releases actually directed by Golan himself. He does a serviceable job behind the camera, though he wisely didn't do it any more often than was necessary (other Cannon titles helmed by Golan include 1980's THE APPLE, 1986's THE DELTA FORCE, and 1987's OVER THE TOP). The film has some decent action scenes, coordinated by martial arts expert Mike Stone, who also gets a story credit (the script is credited to Dick Desmond, which is either a pseudonym or a one-and-done screenwriter, as this the only credit on his IMDb page). Things really come alive in the ENTER THE DRAGON-inspired climax as "white ninja" Cole makes his way through a series of hired killers and warriors, eventually taking out Venarius with a ninja star (Christopher George's performance is ludicrously over-the-top throughout, but the contemplative acceptance he demonstrates in his death scene is the stuff of legend) before his final showdown with Hasegawa, "the black ninja." The biggest problem throughout ENTER THE NINJA is that Golan takes an often too lighthearted tone that doesn't quite gel with the bloodshed on the screen. The score has a TV-show feel to it with a "wacky" cue that's repeated throughout, even when someone's getting their throat slit. There's also the buffoonish antics of the hapless "The Hook" (Zachi Noy), a portly, one-armed Venarius henchman with detachable forearm and hook hand. Cole gives him a beatdown at one point and tosses his hook hand back to him, all accompanied by a "sad trombone" sound effect. "The Hook" turns up again at the end, running away in fright at the sight of Cole, as Nero breaks the fourth wall, turns to the camera and winks. Going lighthearted is one thing, but Golan can't draw the line between lightening the mood and diving into full-on slapstick. It's not a dealbreaker, but indulging that sort-of comedy would be a mistake that Sam Firstenberg wouldn't make in the 1983 semi-sequel REVENGE OF THE NINJA. Indeed, REVENGE OF THE NINJA is hilarious for much different reasons.

(US - 1983)

Directed by Sam Firstenberg. Written by James R. Silke. Cast: Sho Kosugi, Keith Vitali, Virgil Frye, Arthur Roberts, Mario Gallo, Ashley Ferrare, Kane Kosugi, Grace Oshita, John LaMotta, Professor Toru Tanaka, Oscar Rowland, Steven Lambert. (R, 90 mins)

Sho Kosugi made such an impression as Hasegawa, the evil "black ninja" in ENTER THE NINJA that he was promoted to star and hero for the sequel-of-sorts, REVENGE OF THE NINJA. The second of a trilogy of films that aren't really direct sequels and can be enjoyed without having seen the others (though why would you deprive yourself of that?), REVENGE OF THE NINJA definitely exhibits more of a vintage '80s Cannon vibe than its predecessor. You can see the Cannon formula coming together now that Golan & Globus were gaining momentum as Hollywood players. Directing duties were assigned to Polish-born, Israeli-raised Sam Firstenberg, a former Golan assistant who attended film school in the US in the early 1970s. After graduating, Firstenberg moved back and forth between Hollywood and Tel Aviv, handling second-unit duties on a number of Israeli Golan productions in the '70s. Firstenberg would settle in America for good when he came to work for his old bosses once more after Golan & Globus set up shop in Hollywood. Though he was an efficient journeyman director who could handle any job he was assigned, including 1984's BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, Golan quickly realized with REVENGE OF THE NINJA that Firstenberg was a natural with action movies. Soon, Firstenberg became Cannon's go-to guy for ninja mayhem, directing 1984's NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, 1985's AMERICAN NINJA, and 1987's AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION. On Kino's new Blu-ray edition of REVENGE OF THE NINJA, the humble and immensely likable director is quick to thank the stunt coordinators and the editors for their work in helping put together the action sequences and rightly so, but there's no denying that Cannon's ninja movies were operating on a different level once Golan unleashed Firstenberg on them.

All of Cannon's ninja films are entertaining to various degrees (think NINJA III: THE DOMINATION with its fusion of a FLASHDANCE-meets-THE EXORCIST story into its ninja plot), but they all take a backseat to REVENGE OF THE NINJA, easily the greatest ninja movie ever made. In a Japan-set prologue, most of ninja Cho Osaki's (Kosugi) family is killed in an attack by enemy ninja. After being persuaded by his American friend and business partner Braden (Arthur Roberts), Cho and the surviving members of his family--son Kane (played, in a real stretch, by Kosugi's son Kane) and his mother (Grace Oshita)--move to Los Angeles where Cho and Braden run a successful gallery that imports high end Japanese dolls. What Cho doesn't know is that Braden is using the gallery as a front to smuggle heroin into L.A. in a side deal with powerful mobster Chifano (Mario Gallo). In his spare time, Braden also dresses up as a silver-masked ninja, taking out members of Chifano's organization and starting a turf war in an attempt to control the heroin trade himself. Chifano unleashes his goons on the gallery, which sets Cho and martial-arts expert cop Dave Hatcher (Keith Vitali) into action against both the mob and the treacherous Braden, who not only tries to kill Kane when the child accidentally breaks a doll and discovers the heroin inside, but also emerges victorious in a battle with Cho's mother, despite Granny Ninja putting up a good fight. Eventually, all parties converge inside Chifano's office building for an orgy of shuriken-hurling ninja carnage, with a final battle between Cho and Braden that's one for the ages, complete with Braden's clown car of a duffel bag somehow containing a robotic decoy ninja arm and a complete dummy ninja in an attempt to fool Cho.

Shot mostly in the very L.A.-like Salt Lake City, REVENGE OF THE NINJA is one of the most sublimely ridiculous action movies ever made. I didn't even mention Braden's eye-glowing powers of hypnosis, as evidenced by his turning his sexy assistant Kathy (Ashley Ferrare) against Cho and Kane and tricking her into trying to kill the boy. Or Cho and Dave's battle with some hilariously-dressed troublemakers in a park and just nonchalantly leaving when it's over. Or a pink-sweatered Kane taking care of some bullies. Or Cho's stealthy ninja-star belt buckle. There's a throwdown between Cho and some Chifano strongarms that turns into an insane van chase, and the final 20 or so minutes inside the skyscraper ranks among the finest set pieces ever seen in a Cannon film, culminating in some SANJURO-level gushing splatter when Cho finally kills Braden. Several of the film's more violent moments were trimmed after the film was originally given an X rating by the MPAA, and that edited, R-rated version is what hit theaters and VHS back in the day. When the film appeared on cable in the mid '80s, it was the uncut, uncensored version, which was eventually released on DVD and remains intact on the new Blu-ray. REVENGE OF THE NINJA was an even bigger hit in theaters than its predecessor. Opening on the slow weekend of September 16, 1983, when the only other new movies in theaters were THE FINAL OPTION and STRANGE INVADERS, neither of which cracked the top ten, REVENGE landed in third place on just 432 screens, with a per screen average of nearly $5000. Small numbers by today's standards, but that weekend's top movie was MR. MOM in its ninth week, on 1300 screens with a $3000 per screen average. It stayed in the top five for two more weeks, and was in the top ten for a month. Though MGM handled the distribution, REVENGE OF THE NINJA was one of the most successful projects undertaken by Golan & Globus and was instrumental in getting the momentum going for Cannon over the next few years.

The Blu-ray features a commentary track with Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert, unfortunately moderated by one-man serial commentary wrecking crew Bill Olsen. Olsen indulges in his usual antics, demonstrating his continued inability to pronounce names correctly (he refers to screenwriter James R. Silke as "James Sikes"), snickering at names he finds funny (he's particularly delighted by one stuntman's name being "Dick Hancock," and giggles about it so much that a clearly unamused Lambert says "Well, his real name is Richard Hancock"), and focusing on things that don't really matter (Olsen seems unusually concerned with why veteran character actor Virgil Frye, as Dave's irate boss Lt. Dime, gets above-the-title billing with Kosugi and Vitali on the poster, and brings it up so many times that Firstenberg finally says "I had nothing to do with the contractual stuff on the poster"). Like many participants on Olsen-moderated commentaries, Firstenberg and Lambert sound audibly annoyed with him and do their best to shut him down, even if Lambert's main contributions are limited to pointing out when he's doubling either Kosugi or Roberts. Olsen's continued presence on these commentaries is baffling, especially when there's so many more knowledgeable film historians out there who won't derail a discussion by snickering like an eight-year-old because a guy has the words "dick" and "cock" in his name. It deserves a better commentary, but make no mistake, for any fan of Cannon and '80s action, REVENGE OF THE NINJA is an essential masterpiece. The insanity continued when Firstenberg, Silke, and Kosugi reunited for NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, with Kosugi as another ninja hero. For more on that classic, and Kosugi's post-Cannon career, click here.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: BEYOND THE REACH (2015) and THE PYRAMID (2014)

(US - 2015)

From 1987's FATAL ATTRACTION through 2001's DON'T SAY A WORD, Michael Douglas had a remarkable run as the king of the controversial, hot-button hit. Whether it was WALL STREET or BASIC INSTINCT or FALLING DOWN or DISCLOSURE and others (you could even go back further and include 1979's THE CHINA SYNDROME), Douglas' string of hits were routinely the subject of water-cooler discussion and zeitgeist-capturing debate. Douglas' star no longer shines like it once did and the movies aren't as attention-getting, but he's kept busy in recent years, even attempting to recapture some of that Gordon Gekko magic in Oliver Stone's dismal WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS (2010). The thriller BEYOND THE REACH finds him in prime "smug, entitled asshole" mode, like a fusion of Douglas' Gekko and his murderous husband in 1998's DIAL M FOR MURDER remake A PERFECT MURDER, and he seems to be enjoying every minute of it. Produced by Douglas, BEYOND THE REACH would've been a hit if it came out 15 years ago, but was only released on 27 screens in the US for a gross of $46,000--a far cry from the actor's early '90s glory days. Douglas is John Madec, a multi-millionaire insurance exec who stops in a small town outside the Mojave Desert to hire a tracker to help him bag a bighorn sheep. The sheriff (Ronny Cox) tells deputy Ben (Jeremy Irvine), "the best tracker in the state," to take Madec out beyond "The Reach," a desolate area of the Mojave. Because he calls the shots in the boardroom, Madec doesn't really care that he's total amateur hour outside the security of a canned trophy hunt, careless with his high-tech weapon and operating under the belief that wealth and privilege trump safety and knowledge. Madec is a man who gets what he wants and brazenly advertises that he's the most important guy in the room (he even parks his obscene, $500,000 Mercedes 6x6 off-road-vehicle--with an espresso machine and calibrated convection oven for perfectly-grilled steaks--across three spots outside the sheriff's office). Madec makes Gordon Gekko look humble, and when he isn't on his phone brokering the sale of his company to some Chinese businessmen, he waxes rhapsodic to Ben about his favorite subject: John Madec. An unimpressed Ben goes along to get along, even taking a bribe when he learns Madec doesn't have a hunting license, but things quickly go south when Madec impulsively shoots something moving in the distance--something that turns out to be a local prospector. Madec uses his manipulative sales techniques to cajole Ben into burying the body and buying his silence with the promise of a college education and a future career, an agreement settled with a bloody handshake. But when Ben's conscience kicks in, he tries to radio back to town and Madec decides Ben has to die--not by gunshot, but by stripping down to his boxers and walking across The Reach, barefoot and without water, in the blistering 120°F sun, with Madec following close behind to ensure he dies of heatstroke. It's like a class struggle version of Tuco's desert torture of Blondie in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY.

Based on Robb White's 1972 YA novel Deathwatch and previously made into the 1974 ABC TV-movie SAVAGES with Andy Griffith and Sam Bottoms, BEYOND THE REACH works when it's a tense game of cat-and-mouse between Madec and Ben. But screenwriter Stephen Susco (THE GRUDGE, TEXAS CHAINSAW) and director Jean-Baptiste Leonetti throw in a lot of inconsequential padding, like Ben moping around over his girlfriend (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) going off to college and entirely too much time spent on Madec's uninteresting deal with the Chinese. As the film proceeds, it starts relying on contrivances and gets increasingly cartoonish, with Madec sipping martinis and blaring classical music in the middle of The Reach while waiting for the right moment to shoot Ben from a distance (also, they're out in The Reach for several days--wouldn't the sheriff come looking for them at some point?). Douglas is obviously enjoying the opportunity to ham it up, but it undermines the genuine suspense of the early-going, and by the time the climax rolls around, Susco and Leonetti have completely driven things off the cliff, with a coda that's more at home in a slasher movie than it is here. Madec is a rich asshole--he's not an unstoppable killing machine.  BEYOND THE REACH is entertaining enough and at just 90 minutes, it's never boring, but the additions made to the story just end up being extraneous filler that does it no favors. It's nice to see Douglas--who, at 70, is looking more like his dad than ever--sinking his teeth into the sadistic extreme of the kind of role he used to own, but BEYOND THE REACH just gets too beyond silly for its own good. (R, 92 mins)

(US - 2014)

20th Century Fox planned on opening THE PYRAMID on over 2000 screens until shortly before its December 2014 release, when some studio exec must've accidentally watched it and it was abruptly scaled back to around 600, essentially a tacit admission that 600 screens would be 600 too many. Produced by Alexandre Aja (HIGH TENSION, the remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES) and the debut directing effort by his longtime writing partner Gregory Levasseur, THE PYRAMID is yet another faux-doc/found-footage time waster, centering on a bickering father-daughter archaeologist team (Denis O'Hare, Ashley Hinshaw) investigating an underground, three-sided pyramid in Egypt that's supposedly been unexplored for untold millennia. They're being tailed by a documentary crew, but Levasseur can't be bothered to establish any consistency in the way the film is shot. Sometimes it's documentary shaky-cam, sometimes it's a straight narrative horror movie, switching back and forth at random. Once inside the pyramid, they encounter feral, cat-type creatures and are picked off one by one by a larger monster, ultimately concluding that the pyramid is a) the prison of Anubis, the heart-weighing, heart-devouring jackal god of ancient Egypt, and b) probably still a more pleasant place to be trapped than inside a theater showing THE PYRAMID. Most of the film consists of screeching characters running around in total darkness, and what little you can see isn't scary or even remotely interesting. The worst film to come from the Aja camp since the remake of PIRANHA, THE PYRAMID is further evidence that this style of horror film has just run its course and should be mercifully taken off life support. Dull, uninspired, impossibly lazy, and filled with the kind of stupid dialogue exchanges where people are having things they should already know clumsily explained to them strictly for the sake of informing the audience, THE PYRAMID is so bad that it may actually induce a newfound appreciation for the similarly-set AS ABOVE SO BELOW. You're better off just listening to Mercyful Fate's 1993 song "Egypt," which essentially tells the whole Anubis/Osiris story in a more coherent fashion, with the added bonus of some killer guitar work and King Diamond's signature falsettos. (R, 89 mins)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

In Theaters: JURASSIC WORLD (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Colin Trevorrow. Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly. Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D'Onofrio, Irrfan Khan, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Judy Greer, Lauren Lapkus, Brian Tee, Andy Buckley, Katie McGrath. (PG-13, 124 mins)

JURASSIC WORLD, the long-in-gestation reboot/continuation of the JURASSIC PARK franchise, opts to ignore 1997's THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK and 2001's underappreciated JURASSIC PARK III and instead function as a direct sequel to Steven Spielberg's 1993 classic. Much has changed in the ensuing 22 years and JURASSIC WORLD exists in a CGI-driven cinematic environment. There's very sporadic animatronics used for a close-up here and there, but overall, the dinosaur effects are CGI creations, utilized sparingly by Spielberg (who has an executive producer credit here) in 1993 but relied upon heavily here by director Colin Trevorrow. With only one feature film to his credit, 2012's low-budget Aubrey Plaza rom-com SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, Trevorrow is an odd choice to helm a mega-budget summer tentpole, but honestly, any anonymous indie filmmaker or idealistic, wide-eyed kid fresh out of film school could've supervised the actors in JURASSIC WORLD. There's really nothing for Trevorrow to do but direct his actors and let the plethora of CGI and visual effects teams do the heavy lifting. There's no Spielbergian sense of wonder this time around--Trevorrow really just needs to make sure the camera's pointed in the right direction and the actors are looking exactly where the dino threats will be added during post. JURASSIC PARK was the JAWS of its day and by the time you get to the fourth film in the franchise, there's not much magic left to mine. That doesn't mean JURASSIC WORLD is another JAWS: THE REVENGE. It's big-budget summer junk food of the highest order: dumb, derivative, but undeniably entertaining since all Trevorrow really has to do is not screw it up. The film almost owes as much to James Cameron's ALIENS as it does to JURASSIC PARK, with one sequence directly harking back to when soldiers encountering the aliens are killed and their monitors start flatlining one-by-one back at the control station. Trevorrow does a nice job handling these scenes, but we've seen them before. There's some early digs at marketing tie-ins, commercialization, and that bored, "can't even" teens aren't even excited about seeing live dinosaurs anymore, but the satire is a gentle nibble rather than a bite, and it's quickly dropped to get on with the action. About the only "Trevorrowian" touch the director brings comes in the form of two minor characters in the control room: ironic hipster Lowery (Jake Johnson, who co-starred in SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED), who wears a vintage Jurassic Park tee he found on eBay, and his snarky quipping with co-worker Vivian, played by comedian Lauren Lapkus, who looks and acts like a somewhat less deadpan Aubrey Plaza.

Going back to Isla Nublar off the coast of Costa Rica, Jurassic Park has been reinvented as Jurassic World, a massive theme park that allows visitor interaction with the more docile dinosaurs, who have been genetically engineered to be safe for such activities. Except, of course, for the carniverous ones like the T-Rex, kept in glass compounds safe for guest viewing. Jurassic World's billionaire owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), the eighth-richest person in the world, vows to follow in the footsteps of John Hammond (the late Sir Richard Attenborough in the original films), to allow the public to experience these wondrous creatures, "no expense spared." Masrani's workaholic marketing chief Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is constantly monitoring the bottom line and ways to enhance profits, so much so that she dumps her visiting nephews, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) off on her harried, distracted assistant Zara (Katie McGrath). Most of her attention is devoted to a Jurassic World-created hybrid dinosaur, the Indominus Rex, engineered in absolute secrecy by the scientific team of Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, the only holdover from the 1993 film). The Indominus Rex has lived its entire life in its compound, has no social interaction skills other than with a backup Indominus that it opted to have for dinner instead of companionship, and has a DNA makeup so secret that even Masrani doesn't know what really went into its creation. Of course, the Indominus will escape its inescapable paddock, and of course Zach and Gray will get separated from the inattentive Zara, and of course, icy, brittle Claire will fall for Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), the ex-Navy hero velociraptor expert--a Raptor Whisperer, of sorts--who understands the dinosaur mind and is constantly at odds with Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio), the security contracting chief who wants to train raptors for use in military situations as a replacement for boots on the ground.

Trevorrow, one of four credited screenwriters (William Monahan and even John Sayles had a crack at the script as far back as 2007), pulls off a good number of exciting sequences and for the most part, keeps JURASSIC WORLD moving at a furious clip, whether the Indominus is rampaging or the pterosaurs are escaping from the massive aviary and attacking the 20,000 park visitors. Sometimes, the action is diminished somewhat by the disconnect that comes with too much CGI. Aerial shots of a helicopter going down look embarrassingly bush league and there's no denying that some shots have an almost SyFy look to them. There's also some glaring inconsistencies in logic and character portrayals: Masrani is a benevolent humanitarian with no concern for profits and margins in one scene, and in the next, he's refusing to authorize the killing of the Indominus, a clear threat to the visitors and a certain PR nightmare, because "We've got $26 million tied up in this thing!" The whole military contracting subplot with Hoskins and Wu is only barely touched upon and completely forgotten about, with Wu, made into a snarling Dr. Frankenstein villain for some inexplicable reason and even getting a hissing "This is what we do!" speech when Masrani asks him what he's been up to, boarding a chopper with lab-created dino DNA samples and promptly disappearing from the movie. And how does it make any sense whatsoever--other than plot convenience--that Masrani isn't authorized to know what DNA strands make up the Indominus?  Isn't he the owner of Jurassic World? Isn't he signing Wu's checks? How does he not have clearance?  If not Masrani, then who? Does Dr. Wu answer to no one? Wu's character shift from the first film to this one couldn't be any more ludicrous if he was Fiendish Dr. Wu from BLACK DYNAMITE. And who put Hoskins in charge of security? I guess it wouldn't be a Jurassic Park without an incompetent and dangerous Dennis Nedry somehow slipping through the vetting process and the background check and ending up on the payroll, but D'Onofrio plays him a lumbering loose cannon who's just salivating over the opportunity to mutiny and take control of the park.

But the brontosaurus in the room and the plot element set to launch a thousand inane thinkpieces thanks to the internet's perpetually churning outrage machine is Howard's Claire. Complaints of sexism dogged the film prior to its release, starting with a Joss Whedon tweet, and while it's easy to dismiss the complaints of SJWs who need to invent things to be offended by, there might actually be some merit to the charges. Claire is portrayed as an incomplete woman because she chooses to focus on her career instead of having a family, unlike her sister (Judy Greer), Zach and Gray's mom. There's tension between Claire and Owen, who went out on one disastrous date at some point, over which he chides her for having such a stick up her ass that she brought an itinerary with them ("I'm an organized person!" she whines). Much was made of Claire being in high heels the entire film--at times, Trevorrow goes to almost Tarantino lengths to get a shot of Howard's heels, and Owen even mocks her about them at one point, as he does when she rolls up her sleeves to get down to business when they find themselves in the middle of the forest, needing to get back to the main part of the park, asking "What was that supposed to be?" to which she replies "That was me getting ready for this!" All of Claire's attempts to be heroic are dismissed, even by her own nephews, who cling to Owen because he's a "badass." What finally loosens Claire up is a big kiss from Owen after she finally gets it together and saves his life, after which she largely stands aside and lets him be the hero. The film doesn't go so far as to directly send the message that what she really needs is some Owen dick, and the treatment of Claire by the filmmakers isn't necessarily awful (she does step up when she has to) as much as it is out of step with the franchise's past portrayals of women. Laura Dern's paleobotanist in JURASSIC PARK and Julianne Moore's paleontologist in THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK were independent career women who weren't made into an object of smirking derision for it. Maybe Claire was a throwback, Fay Wray, "damsel in distress" idea that played better on paper than it does on the screen...who knows? Regardless of how sexist the film's treatment of Claire is and how Owen is lauded as a hero for being the same kind of career-driven loner more comfortable with raptors than people, anyone going to a big-budget dinosaur rampage movie and fixating on the heroine wearing heels and needing to be rescued by a big, strong man probably lost the ability to have fun years ago anyway.

JURASSIC WORLD is an easy film to pick apart, but in the end, plot holes, logic lapses, and missed satirical jabs aside, it gets the job done. It doesn't do it with the same intelligence and sense of freshness that Spielberg brought over 20 years ago, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do. Those who will get the most out of this are those too young to have seen JURASSIC PARK on the big screen 22 years ago or those moviegoers who don't really care to learn much any pop culture that existed before they were born. To them, sure, JURASSIC WORLD probably kicks ass and JURASSIC PARK may as well be a relic from the Cretaceous. But where Spielberg forged his own path, Trevorrow is merely following in the footsteps, more or less admitting as much during the press junket when he said that Spielberg would provide feedback on what needed to be fixed and it was he who ultimately had final cut. So really, like any good soldier, Trevorrow was just following his boss' orders, but that's really all one can do four films and 22 years into a franchise in an era when any kind of deviation from formula or challenge to the audience are simply not realistic options. It's Trevorrow's second movie and being hand-picked by Spielberg would be a big deal for anyone in his position. With that in mind, it really didn't matter who directed this, but it's doubtful an experienced and long-established filmmaker would want to enter such an arrangement. Just ask Tobe Hooper.

Friday, June 12, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: SERENA (2015); MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT (2015); and ASMODEXIA (2014)

(US/France/Czech Republic - 2015)

Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier (2004's BROTHERS) cracked the US market with the 2007 Halle Berry vehicle THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE, but is best known for the 2010 Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner IN A BETTER WORLD. SERENA, however, will not go down as one of her career highlights, despite the notoriety of being another Bradley Cooper-Jennifer Lawrence teaming that didn't exactly generate the buzz of SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and AMERICAN HUSTLE. SERENA was shot in the Czech Republic in the spring and summer of 2012, several months prior to SILVER LININGS' release and before the stars moved on to AMERICAN HUSTLE, which hit theaters in December 2013. Bier displayed what must've seemed like an alarming lack of urgency to her backers, spending a year and a half tinkering with the footage while her stars went on to awards and accolades as SERENA languished in a state of perpetual incompletion. Even on the heels of Lawrence's blockbuster HUNGER GAMES success and Cooper's megahit AMERICAN SNIPER, the $30 million SERENA went straight-to-VOD in the spring of 2015 with just a 59-screen rollout following, for a gross of $176,000. You'd be correct in assuming SERENA is terrible--for all the time she spent assembling various cuts, Bier seems to have no idea what she wanted to accomplish with this film. Character behavior and motivation seem to change from scene to scene, and considering how well they worked together in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, Cooper and Lawrence just appear lost throughout. They're certainly capable actors, but neither get a handle on how they're supposed to play their characters, and both looking hopelessly out of their element in a rural period setting.

In the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina in 1929, timber magnate George Pemberton (Cooper) marries the unpredictable Serena (Lawrence) after a whirlwind courtship, or at least Bier's depiction of a whirlwind courtship: they meet, introduce themselves, screw, step off a train as man and wife, and she's immediately running his business, all in about 75 seconds of screen time. George's business is in trouble, he's been cooking the books, and the stock market crash has rendered his holdings worthless. On top of all that, he has an illegitimate son with dirt-poor Rachel (Ana Ularu), secretly supporting the boy behind Serena's back. Their marriage deteriorates after Serena miscarries and begins manipulating the clearly insane Galloway (Rhys Ifans), a glowering employee who gets his hand hacked off and believes Serena has been prophesied to him as he swears to do her bidding, whether it's killing a disgruntled employee (Sean Harris) who provided the irate sheriff (Toby Jones) with evidence of George's corruption, or killing Rachel and her son as George slowly comes to realize that his wife is a sociopathic shrew. Of course, George is no angel either, whether he's callously breaking Rachel's heart or killing his business partner (David Dencik) when his plans don't gel with what Serena wants to do with the company. It's hard to get behind George as a hero when he's not, and we never know enough about him or Serena to get a handle on either of them. There's stretches of the film where Bier seems to be assembling scenes at random, with no consistent time element whatsoever. Screenwriter Christopher Kyle took significant liberies with Ron Rash's 2008 novel, but that doesn't explain the poorly-defined characters and their vague and often nonsensical motivations. Bier just seems actively disengaged from the story and her actors, and instead demonstrates an almost Cimino-like fixation on the look and the atmospheric background details. Indeed, the only real positive of SERENA is the marvelously picturesque production design and period detail, which bring the era to vivid life in the same way that HEAVEN'S GATE did with its late 19th century Wyoming setting for the Johnson County War. If nothing else, SERENA looks like it costs a lot more than $30 million, but that's all it has going for it. It's under-the-radar enough that it'll likely be a minor footnote in the careers of its stars, but I'm still willing to bet that their publicists will be erring on the side of caution and instructing media types and TV talk show hosts to avoid bringing it up for the foreseeable future. (R, 110 mins)

(UK - 2015)

2010's MONSTERS, a monster movie that seemed to go out of its way to spend as little time as possible dealing with the titular tentacled creatures, nevertheless received much acclaim and vaulted writer/director Gareth Edwards to the big-time, winning him the job of last year's GODZILLA reboot. Edwards' GODZILLA utilized his MONSTERS ethos by sidelining Godzilla to a point where he was virtually a minor supporting character in his own movie. Edwards is onboard as an executive producer for MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT, which is more of a spinoff than a sequel, taking place ten years after the events of the first film, with clusters of the giant creatures now scattered all over the globe. Director/co-writer Tom Green (not the FREDDY GOT FINGERED Tom Green, though that undoubtedly would've been more interesting) is even less concerned with making a giant monster flick than Edwards was, and both strike me as the kind of guys whose favorite Frankenstein movies are the mid-1940s Universal monster rallies where Glenn Strange's Frankenstein monster doesn't even get off the table until the last two minutes of the movie, when he stands up, stumbles over some electrical equipment, and blows up the lab. The End. If these guys remade JAWS, the opening hour would be devoted to Sheriff Brody dealing with the karate school kids who keep "karate-ing" that old islander's fence down. If they remade THE EXORCIST, they'd spend the first 90 minutes of the film focusing on the trials and tribulations of Chris MacNeil and Burke Dennings ironing out the script details for the movie they're shooting in Georgetown. If they made a ROCKY reboot, it would focus on Adrian working at the pet store, with Rocky occasionally mentioned and maybe dropping in once or twice to say hello. These guys are so actively against giving the audience what they came for that they wouldn't even have Rocky say "Yo, Adrian."

MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT focuses on a trio of Detroit guys who are part of a military unit deployed to the Middle East, where they're taken under the wing of battle-hardended Sgt. Frater (Johnny Harris, in an intense performance) and captured by insurgents after numerous combat sequences. The monsters are offscreen for long stretches, and when they're seen, they're just sort of doing their thing in the background, now an accepted part of the scenery after a decade of migrating over the world. With a few CGI touch-ups to remove shots of the monsters, this could just as easily be called THE HURT LOCKER II: DARK CONTINENT. Green's insistence on keeping the monsters--you know, the title of the movie--offscreen and out of the action is initially baffling and ultimately infuriating. Edwards' minimalist approach to the monster element with the overrated first film was annoying, but at least he got to them eventually. Green doesn't even give us that, instead letting the whole film build up to a showdown between a crazed, shell-shocked Frater and young soldier Parkes (Sam Keeley), while a couple of skyscraper-high creatures dick around in the background, seemingly as confused as the viewer as to exactly what they're doing here. Green is clearly more interested in making a war drama than a sci-fi/horror film, and while the dramatic elements aren't bad (and Harris is very good), it still begs the question: what is the point of this movie? Is there some allegorical, "I wonder who the real monsters are" statement about the American military presence in the Middle East? Green neither knows nor cares. If he's not interested in making a giant monster movie, then why is he wasting his time and ours?  Green made an ostensible sequel to MONSTERS, with the word "monsters" in the title, but what he's got is a Middle East-set combat movie with very sporadic shots of creatures lingering the background, having no effect on the story whatsoever. I'm sure there's apologists out there prepping bullshit MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT think pieces about "subverting genre expectations" in a hapless attempt to defend this pathetic sham of a movie, but here's the deal: rarely in modern cinema has a film so stubbornly refused to live up to its end of the bargain. (R, 119 mins)

(Spain - 2014)

On the surface, the Spanish horror film ASMODEXIA is yet another in a seemingly endless parade of possession potboilers, with aging exorcist Eloy (Lluis Marco) traveling around Spain with his 15-year-old granddaughter and partner-in-exorcism Alba (Claudia Pons). They're drawn to possession victims and perform exorcisms on their way to an unspoken destination in the days leading up to 12-21-12, the Mayan calendar end of the world.  There are parallel storylines involving an institutionalized woman (Irene Montala), and that woman's sister (Marta Belmonte), a Barcelona detective who's frantically searching for Eloy and Alba, as well as a hooded figure and a black van that also make sporadic appearances. Screenwriters Marc Carrete (who also directed) and Mike Hostench (who scripted a couple of Brian Yuzna's Spanish horror films a decade ago) take a pretty much in medias res approach to the story and it's a good 45 of the film's 81 minutes before all of the pieces are in place and things start making sense. The demonic possession angle is a bait-and-switch as Carrete and Hostench just start throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks. There's some Fulci, there's some of THE SENTINEL, there's a little of THE KEEP, and there's a great twist late in the film that up-ends everything, but Carrete has some serious pacing issues, the script is entirely too convoluted, and the filmmakers try to take it in more directions than 81 minutes will allow. There's some good ideas in ASMODEXIA but the execution is lacking. The script needed another draft and the film could actually use maybe five or ten more minutes to give it some breathing room to flow  and maybe clarify some plot points to eliminate some of the confusion that dominates the sometimes frustrating opening half. As it is, ASMODEXIA is constantly taking one step forward and two steps back. There's something here, but it really could've been a lot better. (Unrated, 81 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: CANNIBAL FEROX (1981)

(Italy - 1981; US release 1983)

Written and directed by Umberto Lenzi. Cast: John Morghen (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), Lorraine De Selle, Bryan Redford (Danilo Mattei), Zora Kerova, Robert Kerman, Venantino Venantini, John Bartha, Walter Lloyd (Walter Lucchini), Meg Fleming (Fiamma Maglione), "El Indio" Rincon, Perry Pirkanen, Dominic Raacke, Jake Teague. (Unrated, 93 mins)

The Italian cannibal genre is always a touchy subject. Its origins are in 1962's MONDO CANE and the subsequent mondo documentaries of the 1960s and into the 1970s by Gualtiero Jacopetti & Franco Prosperi and others. There's also the influence of the 1970 Richard Harris hit A MAN CALLED HORSE, which spawned Umberto Lenzi's 1972 Italian ripoff THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER. In HORSE, Harris is an English aristocrat abducted and treated like an animal by a Sioux tribe until he eventually comes to earn their respect, abandons his privileged upbringing and ultimately becomes the tribe's leader. THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER took a very similar concept--with Ivan Rassimov as a British wildlife photographer in the jungles of Thailand--but steered it in a Mondo direction that a Hollywood film wouldn't dare venture. THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, a fixture in American drive-ins throughout the 1970s under various alternate re-release titles (DEEP RIVER SAVAGES, SACRIFICE!), offered sparse but still graphic depictions of cannibalism, sex and rape involving subgenre mainstay Me Me Lai, and brutal animal killings, and though it's rather tame compared to what would come later, it's almost universally considered the first Italian cannibal film.

While Lenzi is generally credited with creating the Italian cannibal genre, it was Ruggero Deodato who established it as a legitimate craze with 1977's THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD, released in the US in a cut version in 1978 as THE LAST SURVIVOR, but best known today as JUNGLE HOLOCAUST. A far more graphic riff on THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER and featuring Rassimov in a supporting role, THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD stars Massimo Foschi as an oil prospector stranded in Mindanao after a plane crash. He's abducted and humiliated by a cannibal tribe and eventually resorts to cannibalism to earn their respect. Allegedly based on a true story, THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD raised the bar for what the Italian cannibal genre was willing to depict. Here was the more aggressive barrage of flesh-eating, graphic rape, Foschi and Lai (again as a tribe girl/sex object) completely nude for a good chunk of the film, and on-camera animal slaughter, hands-down the most troubling element of the genre. Sergio Martino hopped on the cannibal bandwagon with 1978's MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (released in the US in cut form as SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD), which got a minor boost in class thanks to the presence of Ursula Andress as a socialite venturing into the jungles of New Guinea to find her missing husband, and Stacy Keach as the experienced guide she hires, traumatized by his own experiences being abducted by a cannibal tribe years earlier. MOUNTAIN's really foul elements, including a monkey obviously being thrown into a snake's mouth, a borderline pornographic cannibal orgy that showcases gratuitous masturbation involving a female cannibal, and one really unpleasant depiction of simulated bestiality with a cannibal and a water buffalo, are mostly confined to the climax, don't directly involve Andress or co-star Claudio Cassinelli, and happen long after Keach's character is killed off, a certain indication that Martino pulled a CALIGULA on his cast and shot the really vile stuff when they weren't around.

If THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD got the ball rolling on the cannibal craze, it was Deodato's infamous CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) that really caused the movement to explode. One of the key films in the genesis of found-footage that was used so effectively nearly 20 years later with 1999's THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and became practically standard after 2009's PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is a horrifying and intensely disturbing experience--go to a midnight showing of it with a snarky audience that's ready to mock it MST3K-style and you'll see them grow silent about 25 minutes in as the shell-shocked crowd starts really thinning out by the one-hour mark. It remains one of the very few irony-proof films that separates the players from the pretenders when it comes to cult hipster fandom. You don't simply watch CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST--you survive it. Deodato's handling of the found-footage element--the second half of the film consists of a professor (Robert Kerman, better known at the time as porn actor R. Bolla) watching increasingly damning footage left behind by a documentary crew who vanished while investigating the existence of cannibals in the Amazon--has yet to be equaled by any of its countless faux-doc/found-footage offspring. Deodato's film was so believable that Italian authorities actually thought he made a snuff film and he had to prove he didn't kill off his unknown actors. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST has legitimate statements to make about the comparisons between the stone-age jungle and modern civilization, evidenced in the way that the tribes are generally peaceful but only end up turning on the documentary crew when the raw--no pun intended--footage shows the crew (civilization) acting like sociopathic assholes and goading them into acts of increasing savagery and abhorrence. One of the film's most telling moments involve two of the crew raping a tribe girl, who's later punished in one of the film's iconic images: impaled on pole that enters her vagina and exits her mouth. Lead filmmaker Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke) is smirking and visibly amused at the horrific punishment until one of the other guys says "Watch it, Alan...I'm shooting," at which point he turns serious and melodramatically declares "Oh, good Lord!  This is horrible!" CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is an intelligent film with moments that remain prescient today in an era when there is no depth to which the media won't plummet to sensationalize or outright manufacture a story. But any indicting aspirations it has to being the NETWORK of Italian cannibal movies is negated somewhat by Deodato also wallowing in the same exploitation and sensationalism that he's criticizing, whether it's turning his camera on the gruesome slaughter of a helpless animal (the turtle scene is arguably the most revolting thing ever filmed for a commercial movie, and co-star Francesca Ciardi's vomiting is real) or playing up the graphic exploitation elements.

Giovanni Lombardo Radice and Umberto Lenzi
on the set of CANNIBAL FEROX
Even with its ultimately heavy-handed message ("I wonder who the real cannibals are," muses Kerman's pipe-smoking professor), CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST was as smart as the genre ever got. After that, there was nowhere to go but down, and Umberto Lenzi was happy to oblige. A veteran journeyman who went wherever genre trends took him (he really found his niche with 1970s polizia), Lenzi returned to the cannibal genre he helped create with EATEN ALIVE (1980), which fused the cannibal craze with the then-topical Jonestown massacre, with yet another wealthy young woman (Janet Agren) hiring a guide (Kerman, again) to find her missing sister (Paola Senatore), who's run off to Sri Lanka and fallen in with a religious cult led by the insane Jonas (Rassimov, again). EATEN ALIVE is grimy, trashy, and cheap, with animal slaughter scenes pilfered from MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD, ears and breasts being sliced off, perpetual subgenre abuse object Me Me Lai being gang-raped, Senatore being sodomized by a cannibal, Rassimov inducting Agren into his cult by penetrating her with a venom-dipped dildo, and a seriously slumming Mel Ferrer, no doubt questioning the state of his career while appearing in his second movie in three years titled EATEN ALIVE, as a professor dropping exposition to a NYC detective (gay porn star Gerald Grant) about how cannibal tribes still exist.

Lenzi quickly followed EATEN ALIVE with CANNIBAL FEROX, the most infamous Italian cannibal film after CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, and one of the most notorious films ever made.  HOLOCAUST at least had something to say and broke new ground, but EATEN ALIVE and CANNIBAL FEROX are pure exploitation all the way. Abandoning any illusions of restraint and not about to be told "Don't go there!" Lenzi goes all-in with CANNIBAL FEROX as NYU anthropology grad student Gloria Davis (Lorraine De Selle), her brother/research assistant Rudy (Danilo Mattei, billed as "Bryan Redford"), and her friend Pat (Zora Kerova) venture deep into the Amazon to prove cannibalism has never existed. Of course, they're wrong, but cannibals aren't their only problem: they soon fall in with Mike Logan (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, using his "John Morghen" pseudonym) and Joe Costolani (Walter Lucchini), a pair of on-the-run, small-time NYC lowlifes who ripped off $100,000 from a mafioso (John Bartha) and fled to South America to make their bones in the cocaine business. It doesn't take long for Mike to expose himself as a dangerous psychopath whose actions only stir up the natives who, in true CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST style, turn on the white interlopers. Whether it's animal killings or cannibal mayhem, Lenzi holds nothing back in CANNIBAL FEROX, with the most horrific punishment reserved for the much-deserving Mike, who's paid back in kind after he ties up a tribesman, gouges out his eye, and chops off his penis. Since Lenzi goes for maximum tactlessness, Mike is given the further indignity of having his dick not only chopped off but devoured by a cannibal in loving close-up. Mike's terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day continues when he gets his hand hacked off before being restrained under a table with his head poking through and locked in place has the top of his skull is macheted off and his brains picked at like hors d'oeuvres at a dinner party. And then there's one of FEROX's iconic images: Pat's punishment for her part in Mike's murder of a native girl by being strung up with hooks through her breasts.

Where Deodato tried to make a statement with CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, Lenzi just unabashedly goes over the line time and again in ways not telegraphed by the film's opening theme that's so "'70s cop show" that you almost expect to hear an announcer intone "Previously on CANNIBAL FEROX..." (Lenzi opened EATEN ALIVE with a similarly incongruous Budy-Maglione number). CANNIBAL FEROX was acquired by Terry Levene's Aquarius Releasing--the company behind the cannibal/zombie crossover ZOMBI HOLOCAUST's transformation into DOCTOR BUTCHER, M.D.--and released in 1983. under the instantly legendary title MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY, advertised with Levene's typically hyperbolic hucksterism ("Bizarre Human Sacrifices! The Most Violent Film Ever! Banned in 31 Countries!"). A grindhouse and drive-in staple well into the fall of 1984, MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY became a fixture in video stores and scarred many budding gorehounds in those mid-1980s glory days of PMRC outrage and Satanic Panic. We knew slasher movies and zombie movies, but the Italian cannibal films were another beast entirely. To those who cut their teeth on horror in that era, MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY and its ilk were as far as grossout cinema could possibly go, which of course, was part of its charm (plus, grindhouse gorehounds in America saw it before most of the others: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and EATEN ALIVE, the latter as both DOOMED TO DIE and later on VHS as THE EMERALD JUNGLE, didn't turn up in the US until 1985).  Of course, CANNIBAL FEROX is garbage. Of course it's indefensible and utterly reprehensible. But it has its charms and it left its mark. In many ways, it's the ultimate exploitation movie: it's trashy, sleazy, sloppily-dubbed; has some incredible late 1980 time capsule NYC location shooting (DIVINE MADNESS, HOPSCOTCH, FAME, and THE EXTERMINATOR all playing at one NYC theater!); a pointless Manhattan mob subplot that Lenzi simply abandons; gratuitous nudity; delirious overacting by Radice; supporting roles for NYC-based porn actors (Kerman is present once again, this time as rumpled cop Lt. Rizzo in scenes shot at the same precinct Lenzi used for Ferrer and Grant's scenes in EATEN ALIVE), over-the-top violence, ridiculous dialogue ("Hey bitch, where's your stud?" and one of the greatest lines of all time as a starved Pat is tempted by a piece of meat: "No! Stop! It might be Rudy!"), and one of the most unforgettable and effective retitlings ever, even utilized by Rob Zombie for an early, pre-fame White Zombie album. You remember a movie called MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY, even if it has a trailer as unappealingly narrated as this one:

After CANNIBAL FEROX, there was really nowhere else for the cannibal subgenre to go. By this point, they were all following the same template and audiences quickly grew fatigued with the repetitive mayhem. Joe D'Amato tried to get into the act with the softcore/cannibal fusion jams EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS (1977), released in the US in 1984 as TRAP THEM AND KILL THEM, and PAPAYA, LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS (1978), and Jess Franco inevitably chimed in with DEVIL HUNTER (1980) and CANNIBALS (1980), both borrowing Lucio Fulci regular Al Cliver and Sabrina Siani for Italian legitimacy purposes but nevertheless exhibiting Franco's tendency toward amateur hour and his expected lack of attention to detail, whether it's a cannibal sporting a visible wristwatch or another with a disco perm, porn 'stache, and sideburns. There were a few later stragglers, like Michele Massimo Tarantini's MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY (1985), Mario Gariazzo's AMAZONIA (1985) and Antonio Climati's dubiously titled CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST II (1988). Italian hack Bruno Mattei tried to restart the cycle with a pair of 2004 shot-on-video atrocities, MONDO CANNIBAL and IN THE LAND OF THE CANNIBALS, both of which shamelessly rip off CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, and Jonathan Hensleigh (THE PUNISHER, KILL THE IRISHMAN) directed the justifiably little-seen 2007 American found-footage dud WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, with two dipshit couples encountering cannibals while on a get-rich-quick plan to retrace the journey of Michael Rockefeller before his disappearance in New Guinea in 1961. Eli Roth's long-delayed THE GREEN INFERNO, shot in 2012 and finally due in theaters in fall 2015 after some distribution snafus, is purported to be an overt homage to the entire Italian cannibal subgenre.

MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY, opening in my hometown of Toledo, OH on 9/14/1984

the Liberty in Times Square
The legend of CANNIBAL FEROX has grown over the years, and is cemented by Grindhouse's recent Blu-ray release, which is without question the definitive edition. Packed with extras, including Calum Waddell's feature-length documentary EATEN ALIVE: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ITALIAN CANNIBAL FILM, and the instant-classic commentary with Lenzi and Radice--recorded separately--ported over from the 1997 laserdisc and later DVD edition. The commentary is one for the ages, with Lenzi's repeated defending of the film alternating with scorn and derision from Radice. The actor is known for his early '80s horror film work and being on the receiving end of the legendary drill scene in Lucio Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), but whose first love has always been the stage, more or less admitting that he took these roles for the money. He doesn't hold back on the commentary, whether he's dissing Lenzi or repeatedly declaring that he's ashamed of CANNIBAL FEROX, citing it as the only film he regrets making.  Radice also appears in a new interview segment, as do Zora Kerova and Danilo Mattei (Lorraine De Selle, retired from acting since 1988 and now a successful producer for Italian TV, is MIA). Grindhouse's two-disc Blu-ray set gives this landmark bit of drive-in scuzz the veritable Criterion treatment. CANNIBAL FEROX obviously isn't for everybody, but as Eli Roth points out in the Blu-ray's accompanying booklet of essays, "Lenzi's film was reviled for many years but for many of us, the film is a treasure." It's also a snapshot of a bygone era when something as vile as MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY could play in American movie theaters and drive-ins, a time when impressionable young fans were devouring everything they could find at the holy sanctuary that was the video store. It's an era that's passed and the likes of which we'll never see again. It's more about sentiment than quality, especially since it's not even the best of the cannibal subgenre, but Grindhouse's CANNIBAL FEROX brings those memories and images and that sense of discovery back in all its sleazy, offensive, gut-munching HD glory. You'll probably need to shower after watching CANNIBAL FEROX, but that's not a criticism--that means it did its job.