Thursday, July 16, 2015


(US - 2015)

On the heels of JODOROWSKY'S DUNE comes another LOST IN LA MANCHA-style documentary about a film that never was, Richard Stanley's THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. Stanley, the eccentric visionary behind the cult classics HARDWARE (1990) and DUST DEVIL (1992), had a lifelong fascination with the H.G. Wells novel about an island of man-beasts created by the mad Dr. Moreau that had already been filmed as ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) and THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977), and got the greenlight from New Line Cinema as his MOREAU entered pre-production in 1994. Of course, the film was ultimately released in 1996, directed not by Stanley, who was fired less than a week into shooting, but by veteran journeyman John Frankenheimer, bombed with critics and audiences, and is universally considered one of cinema's all-time great camp classics. LOST SOUL isn't a particularly cinematic documentary in the hands of director David Gregory, the head of cult Blu-ray/DVD outfit Severin Films and an old hand in the world of DVD extras--LOST SOUL often feels less like a movie and more like a long bonus feature on a deluxe Blu-ray edition of MOREAU. While Gregory drops the ball in some areas--it's understandable that co-star David Thewlis probably didn't want to be interviewed, but his name never even comes up when he actually has the film's main role--the stories told are fascinating. Fairuza Balk and Marco Hofschneider are the only two stars who take part, though you also get Rob Morrow, who quit a few days into production and was replaced by Thewlis. Stanley envisioned DAS BOOT's Jurgen Prochnow as Dr. Moreau but when New Line executive Michael DeLuca got involved, the role suddenly went to Marlon Brando, which turned the modestly-budgeted $8 million film into something more expensive. Bruce Willis agreed to play the central character, Edward Douglas, a shipwreck victim trapped on Moreau's island of horrors, and James Woods signed on to play Montgomery, Moreau's psychotic assistant. Even in pre-production, chaos reigned: execs started demanding changes to the script. Brando almost dropped out when his daughter Cheyenne committed suicide, and when he finally committed, he wanted Roman Polanski brought in to direct. Then Willis bailed upon his split from Demi Moore, saying it wasn't a good time to head off to Australia for several months. Stanley went along with some uncredited script revisions by Walon Green (THE WILD BUNCH), had a meeting with Brando and managed to win him over, but cites his biggest strategic error as "meeting Val Kilmer."

Ousted MOREAU director Richard Stanley
The first half of LOST SOUL deals with Stanley and his vision, but Gregory knows you're watching for the much-talked-about Kilmer horror stories (the late Frankenheimer once said of Kilmer: "Will Rogers never met Val Kilmer") that begin with him burning a crew member's sideburns with a lit cigarette and escalate from there. Kilmer's behavior on the set of MOREAU has become the stuff of legend, and several lament that with him onboard and red-hot after BATMAN FOREVER, using his newfound A-list clout to upstage, second-guess, and overrule Stanley, the project was no longer about Stanley's serious, thoughtful $8 million Wells adaptation but rather, a $40 million commercial horror movie with Marlon Brando and blockbuster expectations thanks to the presence of Kilmer. Just before filming began, Kilmer announced that he was too busy to play Douglas and demanded 40% less shooting time while keeping his salary. He decided that he wanted to play Montgomery instead of Douglas (the Morrow role that ultimately went to Thewlis), which bounced Woods from the production. He then proceeded to slow down shooting by questioning every one of Stanley's directorial decisions and grill him about his editing choices ("Tell me how you're gonna do this, Richard," and "That's not gonna cut together...that won't work"). Hofschneider, who does a perfect Kilmer impression and obviously has no love for the actor, states that Kilmer's treatment of Stanley "wasn't about the shoot anymore. This was a power game."

Things were so bad less than a week into filming that Morrow called New Line head Robert Shaye personally and begged to be let out of his contract ("There's just a bad vibe...I just want to go home"), and when a hurricane struck the Cairns location on the Australian coast and caused a several-week production delay, New Line took the opportunity to make a change, firing Stanley and bringing in Frankenheimer, who only took the job to work with Brando. Frankenheimer barely managed to complete the film with both Brando's insane ideas (like playing one scene with an ice bucket on his head) and Kilmer being abrasive and uncooperative (Frankenheimer is quoted as saying "If I was making THE LIFE OF VAL KILMER, I wouldn't cast Val Kilmer"). Stan Winston makeup assistant Paul Katte remarks that "Marlon showed his legendary contempt for what he did for a living, but he was at least nice and respectful of other people. Val Kilmer just acted like a classic prep school bully." Morbid curiosity about what was going on got the better of him, and Stanley (who still retained a co-writing credit on the released version of MOREAU) would eventually be snuck back on the set by a pair of rebellious production drivers, hiding under a dog mask--he's actually visible in some fleeting shots and production personnel heard rumors of Stanley returning to sabotage the shoot, one even noting in hindsight that "there was always one extra who wouldn't take his mask off during lunch." Stanley's done some documentaries and some short films, and co-wrote Nacho Cerda's THE ABANDONED (2006), but thus far, he has yet to make another feature film. With two mishandled masterpieces to his credit as the cult of HARDWARE and DUST DEVIL grew, Stanley is revered among genre fans as a bold visionary stifled by suits and in way over his head with the big money expectations of New Line Cinema, with Balk, Hofschneider, Morrow, and producer Edward R. Pressman speaking very highly of him. One wishes Gregory could've dug a little further (Kilmer is unsurprisingly absent, as are Thewlis, Ron Perlman, Temuera Morrison, and Mark Dacascos among the film's surviving stars), and while the extras and the production assistants are willing to talk about what they observed, Gregory seems a little too easily detoured by their reminiscing about the drugs, sex, and goofing off during all the down time. Still, LOST SOUL serves as a fascinating document of a tumultuous clusterfuck of a production, riddled with big egos, rotten behavior, and just plain bad luck combining to derail the career of a promising filmmaker who was perhaps too much of an oddball to be playing the Hollywood game anyway (Stanley credits his friend, a "warlock chappy" named Skip, with casting a spell to help him win over Brando). Still, there's no denying that footage of late Mini-Me inspiration Nelson de la Rosa tearing up the dance floor at a Cairns nightclub is absolutely priceless. (Unrated, 98 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

(France/Germany/Switzerland - 2014; US release 2015)

The latest film from French auteur Olivier Assayas (BOARDING GATE, CARLOS) is one of those smug "industry insider" pieces about movies and acting that critics usually trip over themselves to laud with praise and adulation. Yes, Assayas takes some cheap shots at the vapidity of Hollywood, but like his script, it's labored, heavy-handed, and obvious. Veteran European actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) wants to get back to her serious roots after selling out to Hollywood blockbusters for several years. After walking away from her recurring role in the X-MEN franchise, she heads to Europe with her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to speak at a ceremony honoring her mentor, a playwright from whom she got her first break two decades earlier. The playwright dies before the ceremony, and his widow (former Fassbinder regular Angela Winkler) and a stage director (Lars Eidinger) offer Maria a role in a new version of the play: The Maloja Snake, about the DEVIL WEARS PRADA relationship between middle-aged executive Helena and her young, naive assistant Sigrid. Maria became a star playing Sigrid 20 years ago, but now she's aged into the Helena role, with Sigrid to be played by American actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a talented but self-destructive, Lindsay Lohan-like trainwreck who's constant fodder for tabloids and paparazzi, and has even broken up the marriage of a famous writer (shades of Stewart's fling with her married SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN director?). As Maria comes to terms with aging in an industry where good roles dwindle with each passing year, she and Valentine role-play the script, which starts showing strange similarities between their relationship and the codependent one between Helena and Sigrid in the play.

Like Abel Ferrara's somewhat similar and equally pretentious 1993 film DANGEROUS GAME (which at least had a palpable energy and handheld immediacy to it), the lines between life and art blur throughout, because of course they do. Assayas has made some terrific films, and there's fleeting moments of inspiration here that recall his brilliant 1996 breakthrough IRMA VEP, but he just gets lost up his own ass here, and by the end CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA is little more than Assayas jacking himself off in a one-man writer's workshop. It's too bad, because Binoche and Stewart have a very natural, unaffected chemistry together (Stewart is very good here) that deserves a better showcase than Assayas gives them. Binoche has worked with Assayas before (2008's SUMMER HOURS, and she first gained notice in Andre Techine's 1985 Assayas-scripted RENDEZ-VOUS) and this role was obviously created specifically for the Oscar-winning actress. There's nothing smart or edgy in the presentation of Moretz's tabloid bad girl, and while she's fine, the character is the kind of one-dimensional caricature we've seen before. Binoche is a great actress and Stewart is a revelation (she won the Cesar--the French Oscar--for Best Supporting Actress), but CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA is one of those relentlessly talky, self-indulgent, life-imitates-art looks at "the biz" that are apparently enjoyed only by film festival attendees. Why not just call it JULIETTE BINOCHE IS 50: THE MOVIE and be done with it? (R, 124 mins)

(UK/Ireland - 2014; US release 2015)

Do filmmakers think it's OK to rip off a terrible movie that nobody saw? Do they think no one will find out? LET US PREY is a convoluted slow-burner that borrows elements of the Stephen King-scripted TV miniseries STORM OF THE CENTURY and a Stuart Gordon-directed FEAR ITSELF episode titled "Eater." But for the bulk of its length, it shamelessly swipes from 2010's THE TRAVELER, a straight-to-DVD Canadian horror film with Val Kilmer--see where his ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU power-tripping got him?--as Mr. Nobody, a supernatural stranger who mysteriously appears at a small-town police station to exact ghostly, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER-style revenge on the squad of six cops who falsely accused him of a crime and tortured him to death. LET US PREY switches up some details but again, we have a supernatural mystery man, in this case Six (GAME OF THRONES' Liam Cunningham) who appears at a police station in the middle of nowhere in Ireland to exact--wait for it--vengeance on a squad of cops. Instead of being the victim, Six is a soul collector, his job to journey from beyond to collect the sinners, and there's plenty among these cops and criminals, including adulterers, drunk drivers, and a serial killer. The moral center is outcast Sgt. Rachel Heggie (Pollyanna McIntosh of OFFSPRING and THE WOMAN), a new transfer who doesn't get along with her co-workers and is a quiet loner with scars both emotional and physical after a traumatic childhood where she was subjected to horrible sexual abuse by her father. Director Brian O'Malley and screenwriters David Cairns and Fiona Watson also throw in a late-in-the-game ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 riff and there's a synthy, John Carpenter-like score, but this is another one of those new horror movies that gets all sorts of accolades from sycophantic publications and fanboys when all it really does is show up and make references. Cribbing most of the plot from a crummy Val Kilmer movie is one thing, but keeping the always-interesting Cunningham locked up and glowering in a jail cell for 90% of his screen time is an even bigger offense. I'll give it credit for some enthusiastically no-holds-barred splatter late in the game, but it's too little, too late. (Unrated, 92 mins)

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