Saturday, October 24, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: BONE TOMAHAWK (2015)

(US/UK/France - 2015)

Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler. Cast: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Evan Jonigkeit, Kathryn Morris, Sid Haig, Fred Melamed, Michael Pare, Sean Young, James Tolkan, Jamison Newlander, Geno Segers, Zahn McLarnon. (Unrated, 132 mins)

An instant cult classic that actually earns the distinction, the horror-western hybrid BONE TOMAHAWK is the slow-burning directorial debut of novelist/musician/jack-of-all-trades S. Craig Zahler. Zahler's toiled on the fringes for much of his career, with his biggest brush with fame being when he was commissioned to script a ROBOTECH adaptation back in 2007 that ultimately never happened. He wrote the 2011 DTV horror film ASYLUM BLACKOUT, and in 2012, he had a martial arts series titled DOWNTOWN DRAGONS in the works for FX, but the network never moved it beyond the planning stage. Zahler found acclaim for his "western noir" novels like 2010's A Congregation of Jackals and 2013's Wraiths of the Broken Land, both books finding a huge fan in Kurt Russell, and the two became friends. Zahler wrote BONE TOMAHAWK for the legendary actor and the project was a labor of love--made for just $1.8 million, a shoestring budget by today's standards--that took several years to become a reality. It's a western like no other, one of the strangest and grisliest films of the year, and the kind of offbeat, original work that you just don't see much of these days. There's a reason it's getting a very limited theatrical release and being shuffled off to VOD. There's very little concern for commercial appeal here, though it will undoubtedly find an appreciative audience that will show it a lot more love than mainstream multiplexers ever would. Let there be no doubt: for better or worse, Zahler made exactly the film he wanted to make.

In the tiny town of Bright Hope, doctor Samantha O'Dwyer (Lili Simmons), Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit), and injured outlaw Purvis (David Arquette) are abducted in the middle of the night from the sheriff's office by a tribe known as the "Troglodytes." Stone-age cannibals living undetected in caves in the vast terrain several days away from Bright Hope, the tribe came in search of Purvis who, with his late cohort Buddy (Sid Haig), disturbed a Troglodyte burial site and now everyone must pay the price. Sheriff Hunt (Russell), his loyal deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), sartorially dandy, lothario gunman John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and, against the wishes of everyone, Samantha's injured husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), hobbling around and delicately nursing a broken tibia being held together by two splints, embark on the long journey to find Mrs. O'Dwyer and Deputy Nick.

Of course, they encounter every obstacle on the way--the elements, their horses get rustled away, Arthur's leg keeps needing reset--and for about 90 minutes, it's a harsh, brutal western. That's just an opening act for the harrowing last section of the film, when the heroes encounter the Troglodytes and are taken prisoner, at which point the film turns into what might happen if Ruggero Deodato remade THE SEARCHERS. For all the talk of Eli Roth's THE GREEN INFERNO being the big 2015 Italian cannibal homage, time will show that BONE TOMAHAWK was the better gutmuncher throwback, despite its old west setting (the Troglodytes are legitimately terrifying and far more effective than the cannibal tribe in Roth's film). But before all that, in character-driven sequences that many may find laboriously-paced, Zahler spends a lot of time establishing who these people are and what life is like in Bright Hope, engaging in world-building the likes of which you'd find in a novel. That kind of detail is uncommon in most movies today and yes, BONE TOMAHAWK takes a good 40 minutes to really get rolling, but viewer patience pays off by the end, when you realize just how well you know these people and how emotionally invested you are in the horrific, nightmarish predicament in which they've found themselves. Russell (his facial hair a work-in-progress for its epic state in Quentin Tarantino's upcoming THE HATEFUL EIGHT, which he worked on immediately following this) is so good here and has one particular line of dialogue late in the film that's so devastating and heartfelt that it brought tears to my eyes, and I don't get like that over movies, especially cannibal horror westerns. The performances are just terrific across the board. Every few minutes, Jenkins, basically playing the chatty, Gabby Hayes/Walter Brennan old coot sidekick, gets some goofy bit of dialogue or there's some sardonically funny and quotable line from somebody (Sheriff Hunt's deadpan reaction to seeing Chicory's geriatric horse: "That is not a handsome horse") that really makes you come to know and care about the characters.

BONE TOMAHAWK overcomes some early jitters over the possibility of gratuitous fanboy-pandering with the brief presence of cult horror scenesters and convention regulars like Haig, Michael Pare, Jamison Newlander (THE LOST BOYS' Alan Frog) as the mayor, and Sean Young as the mayor's abrasive, henpecking wife, but they're soon out of the picture when the rescue mission gets underway. In an age when horror filmmakers approach their movies with a sense of entitlement that it's a cult classic right out of the gate, it's nice to see a film take some chances and risk alienating the audience, and to see the creative force behind it earn the trust of experienced lead actors who typically don't do this kind of "extreme" fare. Unfolding just like a really good book, BONE TOMAHAWK very slowly and deliberately pulls you in and its power sneaks up you. It's the kind of film where revisits will reveal something new and interesting that you didn't catch before. I can't wait to watch it again. Even the really gross parts.

Friday, October 23, 2015


(US - 2015)

An absolutely atrocious EXORCIST ripoff, THE VATICAN TAPES was directed by Mark Neveldine, best known as half of Neveldine/Taylor, the duo behind the brilliant and insane CRANK (2006). Unfortunately, they've made nothing but unwatchable garbage since (CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE, GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE)  and in stepping out for his debut solo joint, Neveldine just has nothing to say and only succeeds in further proving CRANK was a fluke. How many more of these generic, PG-13 possession movies do we need? It's been 42 years since THE EXORCIST--anyone making a demonic possession movie has to realize they have nothing new to bring to the table, right? With the pointless THE VATICAN TAPES, we just get more of the same, only dumber: attractive young woman (Olivia Taylor Dudley as Angela) gets possessed by a demon after accidentally cutting her finger. As her erratic behavior increases--vomiting; speaking an archaic language she couldn't possibly know; trying to drown a baby in the maternity ward; willing a detective to smash light bulbs into his eyes--she's discharged by the hospital shrink (Kathleen Robertson) into the care of a priest (Michael Pena) who appeals to the church higher-ups until a cardinal (Peter Andersson) who, natch, is some kind of legendary possession whisperer, is dispatched from Vatican City. In between all that, there's lots of mandatory found footage snippets (with a bunch of footage the Vatican couldn't possibly have on file), as the framing story of the film has a vicar (Djimon Hounsou) watching the already-occurred events on what must be the Vatican's top secret "Exorcism's Greatest Hits" YouTube channel.

THE VATICAN TAPES is shameful in the way it wastes overqualified actors: I expect to find Dougray Scott scowling as Angela's overprotective military dad and Michael Pare slouching as a detective, but why is two-time Oscar nominee Hounsou slumming through this, completely wasted in such a frivolous, nothing supporting role that anyone could've played? Why is Pena prominently billed but stepping aside while Andersson's Cardinal does all the exorcising? Swedish actor Andersson, with his unusual screen presence and strange performance (he looks like a shaven-headed David Gilmour and practically growls his dialogue like Christian Bale doing his Batman voice), is the only remotely interesting element of this otherwise miserable waste of time, unless you count an absurd scene where Angela vomits three whole eggs ("The Holy Trinity!" the Cardinal gravely declares) in a moment more reminiscent of AIRPLANE! than THE EXORCIST. It's insultingly bad, and might even be worse than THE DEVIL INSIDE and THE LAST EXORCISM PART II. Lionsgate knew they had a turd on their hands--they shuffled this off to their Pantelion division, specializing in films aimed at Latino audiences, and only released it on 420 screens. There's nothing here specifically geared toward Latino moviegoers (or any moviegoers, for that matter), unless you count the presence of Pena, and if that was their only justification for slapping the Pantelion logo on this, then the level of audience contempt is just off the charts. Fuck this movie. (PG-13, 91 mins)

(US/Switzerland/Iceland - 2015)

Z FOR ZACHARIAH is a confused adaptation of the 1974 sci-fi novel by Robert C. O'Brien, whose Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was made into the 1982 animated film THE SECRET OF NIMH. Director Craig Zobel (COMPLIANCE) and screenwriter Nissar Modi take so many liberties with O'Brien's novel--for no real reason--that by the end, you'll wonder why they even bothered. The novel centered on two characters: Ann Burden and John Loomis, the apparent sole survivors of a nuclear disaster. The film starts out the same way, with Ann (Margot Robbie) encountering John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) exploring near her farm in a contamination suit. Ann's farm rests in a deep valley that somehow managed to avoid radioactive contamination. John is a chemist who was working in an underground science lab. Ann welcomes John into her home and for a while, the two live a life of platonic domesticity, fishing, farming, and surviving. Things get complicated when Ann makes romantic overtures and a hesitant John is afraid of ruining what they have, instead holding her and telling her they've got plenty of time to take that next step. Zobel and Modi have already dramatically strayed from the novel: Robbie's Ann is about a decade older than the 15-16-year-old girl O'Brien created, and in the book, it's John who makes mostly unwelcome advances on the underage girl, leading to tension for the duration of the story that escalates into violence by the end. At the point where John tells her they should wait, the filmmakers complicate things in the most cliched way imaginable with the mid-film introduction of Caleb (Chris Pine), a character completely invented by the filmmakers. The presence of Caleb immediately creates a standard-issue love triangle, made even more hackneyed by the racial element that didn't exist in the novel because John was white and is now being played by a black actor, with Ejiofor's John even making a snide comment to Ann about her now having a white guy in her life.

If this sounds familiar, that's because instead of an adaptation of O'Brien's novel, Zobel and Modi seem to have just gone ahead and made a rural farmland remake of the 1959 film THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL, where an abandoned NYC is inhabited by two survivors--black Harry Belafonte and white Inger Stevens--whose peaceful existence is complicated by the arrival of a third, an erudite and vaguely bigoted white guy played by Mel Ferrer. They don't even bother to explain the novel's meaning of the title Z FOR ZACHARIAH. The actors bring their A-games: Ejiofor and Robbie are very good and even with the earlier deviations from the book, things are working because they work so well together. Through it's not his fault, the film skids into a ditch when Pine's Caleb shows up and whatever is left of O'Brien's story basically gets tossed so he and John can glower at each other over who's going to get in Ann's pants first. Shot in New Zealand and West Virginia, Z FOR ZACHARIAH looks great, but nobody seemed to have any idea what direction to head in with this thing, rendering the entire project pointless. (PG-13, 98 mins)

(US - 2015)

The 2010 remake of Meir Zarchi's 1977 grindhouse rape/revenge cult classic I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE was surprisingly not terrible, brutal as hell and one of the relatively better torture porn outings, with a committed, ferocious performance by Sarah Butler as a young woman who's gang-raped and, to put it mildly, goes medieval on the asses of the men responsible. One wouldn't think it would spawn a franchise but then, 2013's terrible I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2 was really just another remake, minus Butler, with the setting moved to Bulgaria and with Jemma Dallender as another victim of gang-rape who turns the tables on her attackers. Butler returns for this third installment, which ignores the second film and functions as a direct sequel to the first. Here, Jennifer (Butler) is now calling herself Angela and is in regular sessions with her therapist (Harley Jane Kozak sighting, and she's a long way away from PARENTHOOD and ARACHNOPHOBIA) and attending a weekly rape victims support group. She still encounters creeps everywhere she goes (even a homeless guy grunts "Nice tits" as she gives him some spare change) and is so stand-offish that her co-workers think she's a bitch. She finally befriends group member Marla (Jennifer Landon, Michael's daughter)--whose grating behavior has to be a nod to Helena Bonham Carter's Marla in FIGHT CLUB--only to lose her when she's killed by her crazy ex-boyfriend, who's set free due to lack of evidence. This sets off Jennifer/Angela's vigilante within, and she becomes an angel of vengeance, getting rid of all the male pigs that have caused so much pain and anguish in the group. Of course, hapless SVU detective McDylan (Gabriel Hogan) and hard-nosed homicide investigator Boyle (Michelle Hurd, a long way from the first season of LAW & ORDER: SVU) don't take long to figure out that Angela is a prime suspect, along with the bitter, frothing-at-the-mouth Oscar (Doug McKeon, a long way from ON GOLDEN POND), the lone male in the support group, there to find closure over the suicide of his teenage daughter, a victim who lost her will to live when her rapist got off on a technicality.

Though the reveal isn't handled very well, there's actually a fairly interesting third act plot twist that's telegraphed in distracting ways but probably looked great on paper. Even if director R.D. Braunstein and first-time screenwriter Daniel Gilboy didn't botch their admittedly ambitious whopper in the finale, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE III would still be a pretty dumb movie. The deck is completely stacked, with every human being with a penis a leering, salivating threat. Every cop is an idiot, the legal system is useless, Jennifer/Angela's character arc is a tired cliche, and Butler, so strong playing it straight in the first film, just goes for a grinning, crazy-eyes approach here and comes off as cartoonish, especially when she starts busting out the Freddy Krueger one-liners, like quipping "Just the tip!" when she spits out the bitten-off head of a guy's cock after starting to suck him off, slicing it in the middle and opening it up like she's peeling a banana with both hands; or "You don't deserve the lubricant but it won't go in otherwise" as she's about to shove a long pipe with a daunting circumference up the ass of a man regularly molesting his stepdaughter. Looking at her performances in the first and third films, it's obvious Butler's a strong heroine when playing tough and pissed-off, but she doesn't do nearly as good a job going over-the-top crazy. It's completely skippable, especially since the two big splatter moments (the "just the tip" bit is so graphically over-the-top and so instant-NC-17-worthy that it's actually funny) are likely to become YouTube favorites rather quickly. (Unrated, 91 mins)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

In Theaters: BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

(US/UK/Germany - 2015)

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Sebastian Koch, Scott Shepherd, Austin Stowell, Jesse Plemons, Eve Hewson, Domenick Lombardozzi, Will Rogers, Peter McRobbie, Dakin Matthews, Mikhail Gorevoy, Michael Gaston, Billy Magnusson, John Rue. (PG-13, 141 mins)

The Cold War drama BRIDGE OF SPIES is Steven Spielberg's first film in three years, and his third historical film in a row following the underrated WAR HORSE (2011) and the overrated LINCOLN (2012). It also marks his first collaboration with Joel & Ethan Coen, who revamped the original script by Matt Charman. Like WAR HORSE, his self-described "1940s John Ford film," BRIDGE OF SPIES is Spielberg crafting a deliberately old-fashioned work that, two F-bombs aside, seems to come straight out of 1965 and would probably be in regular rotation on Turner Classic Movies. From the climax on a bridge where west meets east to East German stasi at the Berlin Wall barking "Papers, please!" and, at its core, a very earnest, Jimmy Stewart/Henry Fonda-like performance by Tom Hanks (in his fourth Spielberg film), BRIDGE OF SPIES is very reminiscent of Hitchcock in Cold War mode, even though nobody really cares much for TORN CURTAIN (1966) and the perpetually unappreciated TOPAZ (1969) these days.

Based on the true events that led to the 1962 Glienicke Bridge prisoner swap of Soviet-captured American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers and American-imprisoned Russian spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, BRIDGE OF SPIES focuses on New York insurance attorney James J. Donovan (Hanks), chosen by the US government to defend accused Soviet spy Abel (Mark Rylance), when he's arrested by the FBI in Brooklyn on espionage charges. Donovan served in WWII and was an assistant to the prosecution team at Nuremberg, and though he's been strictly in insurance law for over a decade, the government believes he's got the skills and his glad-handing boss Thomas Watters Jr. (Alan Alda) thinks volunteering him would be great press for the firm. The judge (Dakin Matthews) makes it clear from the start that Donovan isn't supposed to do anything other than provide the most basic defense possible to fulfill the requirements of "due process," and when Donovan motions to have the search of Abel's apartment thrown out when he learns it was done without a warrant, everyone--from the judge to Watters to his own wife (Amy Ryan)--is outraged that he's actually putting forth effort in the defense of his client. Though he's a spy, Donovan respects the sense of duty shown by the soft-spoken Abel, who never once gives up a Soviet secret no matter how many times he's interrogated. Donovan is alarmed by how calm Abel remains through his ordeal (when he asks Abel how he's not panicking as he could be facing the electric chair, Abel replies "Would it help?" which becomes a recurring line). Abel is, of course, found guilty, though Donovan does manage to convince the judge to put in him prison rather than handing down a death sentence, explaining that if an American was ever in his position, going the humanitarian route and not executing Abel might save that American's life and provide leverage for a prisoner exchange.

Almost prophetically, that's exactly what happens the next year when Powers (Austin Stowell), on a secret CIA reconnaissance mission, is shot down over the Soviet Union and taken prisoner. Like Abel, he refuses to divulge what he knows, and when the US is desperate to get him back but wants to leave the government out of it, they once again call on Donovan to negotiate an exchange of Powers for Abel with the Russians. Once in East Berlin, much to the disapproval of his CIA handler Hoffman (Scott Shepherd), Donovan goes off script with his Soviet contact Schischken (Mikhail Gorevoy) and is forced to negotiate separately with East German Vogel (Sebastian Koch) for the release of a second American prisoner, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), a graduate student working preparing his dissertation on European economics.

BRIDGE OF SPIES won't go down as essential Spielberg, and it's infrequently prone to the same kind of preachy speechifying that bogged down LINCOLN (sure, Daniel Day-Lewis was an uncanny Honest Abe, but do you remember anything else about the movie?). Fortunately, it's kept in check here and there's quite a bit of snappy wit to prevent it from being a SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD or TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY-style downer, almost certainly a contribution of the Coen Bros. Whether it's Abel's refrained "Would it help?" or a running gag about Donovan's annoyance with how long the official names of the USSR and East Germany are (about the tenth time he hears Schischken say "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics," Donovan snaps "Can you just say Russian?  It'll save time"), or the CIA putting Donovan up at an unheated West Berlin safe house where he can see his breath as Hoffman informs him "I'm staying at the Hilton," or the way a sniffling head cold makes its way from Abel to Donovan to Hoffman over the course of the film, there's a lot of subtle, sly humor throughout the otherwise deadly serious proceedings. At 68, Spielberg isn't looking to blaze new trails and as such, BRIDGE OF SPIES is hardly SCHINDLER'S LIST or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and could even be termed "minor" if one were cynical enough (though it's not as minor as 2004's THE TERMINAL, his last teaming with Hanks and one of the director's weakest films), but second-tier Spielberg is better than most others' A-games. It trucks along quite nicely for a nearly two and a half hour film, Hanks again shows he's the durable master of the game as the American Everyman, and I like this throwback/historical side of Spielberg. Like WAR HORSE and probably LINCOLN, it's easy to label BRIDGE OF SPIES "an old people movie," but doing so is actually a compliment. More of today's directors could learn about shot composition, plot construction, and storytelling from old men like Spielberg and the Coens.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: MALONE (1987)

(US - 1987)

Directed by Harley Cokliss. Written by Christopher Frank. Cast: Burt Reynolds, Cliff Robertson, Lauren Hutton, Kenneth McMillan, Cynthia Gibb, Scott Wilson, Philip Anglim, Tracey Walter, Dennis Burkley, Alex Diakun, Brooks Gardner, Mike Kirton, Blu Mankuma, Don Davis. (R, 92 mins)

"Got a name?"
"Got a first name?"

From the late '70s and into the early '80s, Burt Reynolds was the top box-office draw in America. The busy actor appeared in two to three movies a year, and there was rarely a time when a Burt movie wasn't in theaters. But after a while, his base grew fatigued with increasingly lazy efforts like 1983's STROKER ACE and 1984's CANNONBALL RUN II. 1984's CITY HEAT, a much-anticipated teaming with Clint Eastwood, the other biggest movie star in America, proved to be a disappointment for both actors, but it would be far more devastating to Reynolds than your average box-office underperformer. While filming a fight scene, Reynolds was supposed to be hit across the face with a lightweight, breakaway prop chair. Somehow, the prop chair was replaced with a real one and Reynolds was hit in the face with it at full force. His jaw broke on impact, requiring extensive surgery that kept his mouth wired shut for months, forcing him on a liquid diet and later resulting in an addiction to painkillers. It took over two years for him to recover, during which time Hollywood and many of his friends abandoned him and tabloids had a field day with the rumors about his health and his weight loss. Reports stated that he was dying of either cancer or AIDS. Reynolds had his long-delayed Elmore Leonard adaptation STICK in theaters in 1985, but it was actually shot in late 1983, prior to CITY HEAT and the jaw incident. Other than a cameo in his buddy Mel Tillis' 1986 comedy UPHILL ALL THE WAY, Reynolds was offscreen until the release of HEAT in March 1987. Savaged by critics and ignored by audiences, HEAT was a troubled production that cycled through three directors--Robert Altman quit after one day, his replacement Dick Richards made most of the film before quitting after an on-set physical altercation with Reynolds, and then TV vet Jerry Jameson finished it; director credit went to "R.M. Richards"--and opened in 11th place. In three years, Reynolds went from box office king to Hollywood pariah. Burt was back and he was in good shape, healthy, and fully recovered, but HEAT's paltry gross left little doubt: nobody cared.

HEAT was the first of three comeback vehicles Reynolds had lined up for 1987. The second was MALONE, opening less than two months after HEAT. The results were almost identical: MALONE opened in 11th place and grossed $3 million before quickly disappearing from theaters. HEAT grossed just under $3 million but both were stunning freefalls from the blockbuster revenue generated by Reynolds films over the preceding decade or so (even CANNONBALL RUN II grossed $28 million in theaters and that was considered weak by Reynolds standards in 1984). HEAT and MALONE bombed so badly that the third Burt comeback movie, RENT-A-COP, which paired him with Liza Minnelli, saw its wide release nixed and was unceremoniously bumped to January 1988, grossing $300,000 on just 200 screens. The idea of a megastar like Reynolds being downgraded to a limited release was almost unheard-of in 1988, but the message came through loud and clear: moviegoers no longer gave a shit about Burt Reynolds.

Of course, Reynolds has proven himself to be nothing if not resilient. There was an undeniable "pile-on" mindset in the way critics approached Reynolds films during his 1987-and-onward return to the big screen, and these films during his darkest period (at least to that time) aren't nearly as bad as their reputations would suggest. HEAT has aged well as a character piece, and 1988's THE FRONT PAGE/HIS GIRL FRIDAY remake SWITCHING CHANNELS is a perfectly enjoyable screwball comedy that shows Burt in fine form engaging in witty, rapid-fire repartee with Kathleen Turner and Christopher Reeve. Even a dull misfire like 1989's PHYSICAL EVIDENCE has a decent Reynolds performance for completists. Reynolds got some of his best reviews in years in the low-key 1989 indie BREAKING IN, which led to the short-lived ABC series B.L. STRYKER before Reynolds' career saw a major resurgence in 1990 with the CBS sitcom EVENING SHADE, and this was all prior to his Oscar-nominated career-best performance in 1997's BOOGIE NIGHTS.

MALONE's incredible
VHS cover art 
Of the films from this period of Reynolds' career, it's MALONE that seems to have resonated the most, though certainly some of its appeal is ironic. It's not a particularly good movie, but it's an entertaining one. Its cult seems to be a sentimental one: as pointed out by Johnny Larue's Crane Shot's Marty McKee, it's got one of the most ridiculous cover boxes of the VHS era (much improved over the bland theatrical poster art), and Reynolds sporting a softball-sized shotgun blast in his gut and the most ludicrous wig of his career. It's McKee who posited the groundbreaking theory that the poofier Burt's wig, the dumber the movie, unlike, say, SHARKY'S MACHINE, where he's wearing his smaller, "serious toupee" (© Marty McKee). Also, the title MALONE just sounds like a cliched cop movie that might be on a double bill with Rainier Wolfcastle's latest MCBAIN joint. From a nostalgia standpoint, though it was made by Orion, MALONE is the closest Reynolds came to making a Cannon-type actioner. Everything about it, from the action and the style to the pace and the score, looks and feels like it should be a Golan-Globus production being directed by a pre-comeback John Frankenheimer. If you're unsure if you'll enjoy MALONE, just play the Cannon intro before watching it and it instantly improves. It's hardly Reynolds' best film, but like HEAT and SWITCHING CHANNELS, it didn't deserve the miserable response it got from critics and fickle audiences who were moving on to things like LETHAL WEAPON and other bigger and louder Joel Silver extravaganzas like DIE HARD. The action movie was in transition, and Reynolds, like Charles Bronson and even Clint Eastwood, would fall victim to the shift, forcing them to adapt or move on to other things.

Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, MALONE opens with burned-out covert ops CIA agent Malone (Reynolds) unable to pull the trigger on his latest target. He informs his handler/lover Jamie (Lauren Hutton, Reynolds' GATOR co-star) that he's leaving the agency. "You know too much! You can't just walk away!" she implores. "Watch me," Malone glumly replies. Driving with no particular place to go, Malone finds himself stranded in a small town in rural Oregon when his car breaks down. Malone befriends Vietnam vet mechanic Paul (Scott Wilson) and his spunky late teens daughter Jo (Cynthia Gibb). Paul is one of the last remaining holdouts, refusing to sell his business and his property to Charles Delaney (Cliff Robertson), a paranoid, far-right zealot who's taking over the town and turning it into his base of operations for his plot to "take America back." Delaney has assembled a cabal of one-percenters with the intent of getting himself a Senate seat and bringing down the US government. As Paul, Jo, and Malone are repeatedly hassled by Delaney's goons, Malone finds himself in a classic SHANE situation, helping them protect their property (and trying hard to not succumb to Jo's obvious crush on him) while being the only one tough enough to stand up to Delaney--who keeps a tight leash on useless Sheriff Hawkins (Kenneth McMillan) and thinks Malone was sent there to kill him--and amassing a blood-splattered body count in the process. Malone's troubles don't end there: once news that Malone has surfaced reaches the CIA, the powers that be dispatch Jamie to eliminate him.

An on-set photo from MALONE posted on actress
Cynthia Gibb's web site. Gibb on Burt:
"He made me feel like an equal on set
when I was still such a novice."
MALONE adheres to the SHANE template pretty closely, with some additional FIRST BLOOD in the way that the asshole sheriff keeps trying to run Malone out of town. It's also interesting to note how, even in the context of the jingoistic, "Born in the U.S.A." Reagan era of 1987, Delaney is clearly presented as a psychotic, delusional, and dangerous madman, and an ideological relative of John P. Ryan's similarly politically insane villain in the 1986 Cannon classic AVENGING FORCE. Forget the Senate--today, Charles Delaney's beliefs and statements would likely catapult him straight to 2016 GOP Presidential front-runner. Based on the novel Shotgun by William Wingate, MALONE's credited screenwriter is Christopher Frank, a British novelist who spent most of his career working in French cinema (he wrote the post-BREATHLESS Valerie Kaprisky film L'ANNEE DES MEDUSES). Reynolds said in an interview around the time of MALONE's release that the project originated in Europe and was intended for Gerard Depardieu and then Christopher Lambert before it exchanged hands and ended up in Hollywood with him. Frank's script was reworked for Reynolds by an uncredited Rudy Wurlitzer, best known for writing Monte Hellman's TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971) and Sam Peckinpah's PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (1973). MALONE was directed by American journeyman Harley Cokliss, whose past credits included the post-nuke WARLORDS OF THE 21ST CENTURY (1982) and the John Carpenter-scripted BLACK MOON RISING (1986), in addition to serving as a second-unit director on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). Cokliss never really distinguished himself enough to rise above the level of C-lister, though his 1988 British horror film DREAM DEMON, which took several years to get a straight-to-video release in the US, was written by the venerable Christopher Wicking and was one of the more ambitious NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET ripoffs. He's worked very sporadically in TV and mostly unseen movies from 2000 on, but in the early '90s, Cokliss pulled a "Fronk-en-steen" and started calling himself "Harley Cokeliss," presumably to ensure the correct pronunciation and to prevent people from snickering at "Cokliss."

Reynolds at the Philadelphia Comic Con in May 2015

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: TERROR IN THE AISLES (1984)

(US - 1984)

Directed by Andrew J. Kuehn. Written by Margery Doppelt. Cast: Donald Pleasence, Nancy Allen. (R, 83 mins)

Can you imagine moviegoers lining up today to see what essentially amounts to a feature-length version of one of those Bravo 100 SCARIEST MOVIE MOMENTS-type TV specials? It's hard to believe there was a time that they would, but that's exactly what happened when Universal released TERROR IN THE AISLES in theaters on October 26, 1984, the same day as James Cameron's THE TERMINATOR and Brian De Palma's BODY DOUBLE. When the weekend was over, THE TERMINATOR landed in first place and BODY DOUBLE in third. That TERROR IN THE AISLES was the second most popular movie in America that pre-Halloween weekend only serves as a reminder of how huge horror was with moviegoers of the time. Horror's always been a popular genre, but it was exploding in the early '80s, with countless slasher films, splatter movies, and the innovative makeup effects work of guys like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, and Tom Savini. The effects guys were often the superstars of the genre: Savini already had a prominent role as the head of the biker gang in DAWN OF THE DEAD, but was so well-known to fans and had such a gregarious personality that he parlayed his special effects fame into the popular VHS rental SCREAM GREATS, which looked at Savini and his techniques and his career highlights, and a second career as a character actor, starring in one of the earliest straight-to-video titles, 1985's THE RIPPER, and, years later, appearing as biker Sex Machine in Robert Rodriguez's FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996).

Compilations of this sort were nothing new: in the early 1960s, Robert Youngson assembled several compilations of silent film clips, like 1960's WHEN COMEDY WAS KING and 1961's DAYS OF THRILLS AND LAUGHTER), and 1974's THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! and its 1976 sequel THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT, PART 2 celebrated the legacy of MGM musicals (and it's tag line "Boy, do we need it now!" seemed to assure aging moviegoers that there wouldn't be any of the violence, sex, or F-bombs that were becoming commonplace by the early '70s). Horror was a prime genre for the reverential clip-show treatment: every video store in America probably stocked Wizard Video's FILMGORE, Continental Video's TERROR ON TAPE, and Universal's John Landis-assembled COMING SOON. And Paramount tried releasing one of these genre clip comps in theaters exactly two years earlier, when IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD opened on Halloween weekend in 1982. A collection of scenes from vintage exploitation and campy sci-fi movies, with snarky commentary by hosts Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Cheech & Chong, and Gilda Radner, IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD flopped but in retrospect, served as somewhat of a dry run for MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. TERROR IN THE AISLES approaches its highlights with a more reverent attitude, with hosts Donald Pleasence (HALLOWEEN) and Nancy Allen (DRESSED TO KILL) addressing the viewer while watching a horror movie with an enthusiastic, sell-out crowd. That Pleasence and Allen are never seen together is a strong indication that they weren't there at the same time and probably shot their segments in a single day, tops. Director Andrew J. Kuehn and writer Margery Doppelt have Pleasence and Allen wax rhapsodic on the nature and appeal of horror films, why they're so popular, and what the genre tropes (promiscuous woman = victim) are really saying, but there's nothing particularly deep in the analysis and it comes across as armchair psychology much of the time. The clips are mostly from the then-modern era, with popular hits like ALIEN, THE SHINING, SCANNERS, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, HALLOWEEN II, POLTERGEIST, John Carpenter's THE THING, and VIDEODROME, and "oldies" like PSYCHO, THE BIRDS, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE EXORCIST, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, JAWS, and the 1978 remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, plus thrillers like MARATHON MAN, MS. 45 and VICE SQUAD among many, many others, mixed with archival footage of Alfred Hitchcock explaining the nature of suspense and terror.

Andrew J. Kuehn, the father of the modern movie trailer
Kuehn (1937-2004) was well-known in the movie industry as the head of Kaleidoscope Films, a marketing outfit that served as the big studios' go-to trailer supplier going back to 1968. While independents like Roger Corman would have their trailers assembled in-house, the studios went to Kuehn, whose team would write the narration and create the trailers. It was one of Kuehn's staffers who came up with JAWS 2's immortal and much-referenced "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water," still regarded as one of the greatest tag lines of all time. Kuehn would also be commissioned to direct behind-the-scenes "making of" documentaries that would air on TV (like INSIDE "THE SWARM," LIGHTS, CAMERA, ANNIE! and JOURNEY TO KRULL) prior to a huge movie being released (many of these archival documentaries have been preserved as extras on eventual DVD and Blu-ray releases), and 15 years after TERROR IN THE AISLES, he directed the documentary GET BRUCE!, about famed comedy writer Bruce Vilanch. Kuehn's trailer-assembling expertise works in TERROR IN THE AISLES' favor in the often clever ways structurally similar shots from many different films are cut together (there's a door-slamming montage early on where he establishes a visual and sonic rhythm that's very well-done). Kuehn obviously put some thought into the way some of the clips should be shown, and for a while, TERROR IN THE AISLES is a pretty fun snapshot of where horror was in 1984 and what it was like to see a horror movie in that pre-pager, pre-cell phone, pre-texting era when devoted fans were so into the story that it would frequently become a communal experience the likes of which you very rarely see anymore. But Kuehn really starts to stumble and TERROR IN THE AISLES loses its way after about a hour. For starters, he and Doppelt have Pleasence and Allen referring to "terror films," which is a term nobody used. It almost seems as if they didn't want to limit themselves to horror movies, but even "terror films" is a stretch when trying to justify the inclusion of clips from TO CATCH A THIEF and KLUTE, and when Kuehn is editing Zoe Tamerlis from MS. 45 into a climactic scene from KLUTE with Jane Fonda and Charles Cioffi, you can't help but think he's wandered way off on a tangent that's probably just there to pad the running time. Kuehn had no way of knowing how beloved Italian horror of that time would become, but even then, it had enough interest to warrant stronger representation than a couple of one-to-two second shots from Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA very late in the proceedings. Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE gained some notoriety when it was released in the US in the summer of 1980. Wouldn't the zombie vs. shark scene or the Olga Karlatos splinter-in-the-eye make more sense to show than a dialogue scene from KLUTE?

TERROR IN THE AISLES stayed in the top five at the box office for a couple of weeks and grossed over $10 million--small change today but keep in mind, it opened better than BODY DOUBLE and were it not for THE TERMINATOR, it would've been the most popular movie in America. It's one that's held in sentimental regard by children of the '80s, some of whom likely used it as a checklist of things they needed to see, and has become regular Halloween viewing for fans of a certain age. After its VHS release and some cable airings in the '80s, TERROR IN THE AISLES fell into obscurity and was a much sought-after title until 2011, when it was included as a bonus feature on Universal's 30th anniversary Blu-ray release of HALLOWEEN II. Just a year later, HALLOWEEN II was re-released on Blu-ray again, this time by Shout! Factory, but minus TERROR IN THE AISLES. AISLES then received its own DVD release through Universal's made-to-order "Vault Series," which was long thought impossible given the number of rights issues and clearances involving the clips, obstacles that caused Paramount to cancel IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD's planned DVD release in 2006. Clip shows like 100 SCARIEST MOVIE MOMENTS are always entertaining, but with TV specials of that sort and the ability of pretty much anyone to create their own horror scene compilation and put it on YouTube, the idea of something like TERROR IN THE AISLES not only being given a wide release in theaters but playing to packed houses seems quaintly absurd. Even though it veers way off point in its final third, it still stands as a decent, though by no means comprehensive, representation of early '80s horror.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

In Theaters: CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins. Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Bruce Grey, Jonathan Hyde, Sofia Wells, Emily Coutts. (R, 119 mins)

It seems as if all of Guillermo del Toro's films are long-gestating dream projects he's had toiling in the deepest recesses of his mind since he was a child. He announces more projects that he can possibly make (face it, kids--PACIFIC RIM 2 ain't happening) and there's seemingly no end to his boundless imagination and love for what he does. Del Toro's latest, CRIMSON PEAK, is an absolute triumph of style, set design, costuming, and an almost choking Gothic aura. Among the most ambitious of throwback homages, it plays like a never-made film where Alfred Hitchcock chose Mario Bava to be his cinematographer. It's the realization of what might've happened if Merchant-Ivory remade THE SHINING and moved it to Victorian-era England. Owing as much to Henry James, Daphne du Maurier, Charlotte Bronte, and Edith Wharton as it does to THE HAUNTING THE CHANGELING, and del Toro's own back catalog, CRIMSON PEAK is more of a supernatural Gothic tragedy than a non-stop frightfest, which isn't to imply that it skimps on the shocks and the gore. The jolting scares and the shocking violence are sporadic enough that del Toro makes them count. The found-footage and the digital splatter crowd will probably be bored senseless by CRIMSON PEAK--like the Wachowskis, del Toro is a visionary who still somehow manages to get studios to spend exorbitant amounts of money on his wildly inventive and very personal passion projects. CRIMSON PEAK is probably the best-looking film of the year, and it's a rare case where the surface beauty and visuals are stunning enough to give its writing and structural weaknesses a pass. The script, by del Toro and Matthew Robbins (his writing collaborator on MIMIC and the del Toro-produced DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK), with uncredited contributions from British playwright Lucinda Coxon, hinges on too many predictable plot twists and familiar elements you've seen in a hundred other Gothic dramas and ghost stories. Had the plot been a little more inventive and up to del Toro's standards of production design, he would've had a legitimate classic instead of the year's best-looking retread. The layout, the decor, the architecture--del Toro's attention to even the most minute aesthetic detail is obviously obsessive on a Stanley Kubrick level. As exquisitely and hypnotically jaw-dropping as CRIMSON PEAKS looks, it's obvious where del Toro's priorities lied.

Just after the turn of the 20th century in Buffalo, shy Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) has aspirations of being the next Mary Shelley. A headstrong, independent young woman forced to grow up early upon the death of her mother, Edith had an early supernatural experience as a child when she was visited by the ghost of her mother (played by del Toro's go-to guy Doug Jones) and warned to "Beware of Crimson Peak!" A bit of a loner with no interest in being a snobbish society matron, Edith lives with her loving, protective industrialist father Carter (Jim Beaver) and keeps ophthalmologist and potential suitor Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) in the friend zone, but her comfortable upper-class life is upended with the arrival of Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lady Lucille Sharpe (a delightfully scowling Jessica Chastain) from England. Sir Thomas is hoping to convince Carter to invest in a machine that mines clay from the earth, but Carter is unconvinced of the worth of the machine and dismisses Sir Thomas and his "soft hands" as indicative of a life of too much privilege. After Sir Thomas begins courting Edith in an attempt to prove his worth, Carter has a private investigator (Burn Gorman) look into the Sharpe's background and is so perturbed by what he finds that he pays Sir Thomas to break Edith's heart and leave Buffalo at once. When Carter is brutally murdered, Edith finds solace and comfort in the loving arms of Sir Thomas and the two are quickly married, much to Alan's suspicion and Lady Lucille's apparent seething jealousy.

When the newlyweds and Lady Lucille relocate to the Sharpe ancestral home at Allerdale Hall, a decrepit mansion so far out in rural England that it's four hours to the nearest town, the truth becomes clear: the Sharpes are penniless, and Allerdale Hall is in almost complete ruins, with a hole in the roof that allows leaves , rain, and snow to pour down directly into the main living room. It also rests on a large deposit of natural clay into which it's been very slowly sinking for decades. While it's clear the Sharpes are running a con game of sorts in an attempt to get Edith's money, it's also obvious that Allerdale Hall is haunted by the vengeful ghosts of those who have died within its walls. Edith encounters these ghosts but can't convince Sir Thomas or Lady Lucille that they're real, and Edith grows even more alarmed when she learns that, because of the red clay surrounding Allerdale Hall, the home is referred to by some as "Crimson Peak," the very place the ghostly spectre of her mother warned her about years earlier.

While reminiscent of Rebecca and The Turn of the Screw, CRIMSON PEAK has a long stretch of being a Victorian take on THE SHINING. From her childhood, Edith has had a "shining" of sorts that she blocked and let manifest in her writing of ghost stories. The Kubrickian design and layout of Allerdale Hall, with its endless corridors, a bathtub scene that's a blatant riff on Jack's encounter in room 237, a ball that enters the frame and rolls to Edith but there's no one there who could've rolled it to her, and warnings from Lady Lucille to stay out of certain areas, all owe a debt to at least Kubrick's (perhaps not Stephen King's) vision of the Overlook Hotel. There's even a Dick Hallorann surrogate in Alan, who journeys overseas from Buffalo to England and travels a great distance in a blinding blizzard to the snowed-in Allerdale Hall in an attempt to rescue Edith once he realizes the Sharpes' true intent. All of this looks incredible, but in terms of story and theme, del Toro's a bit on autopilot. His efforts were unquestionably concentrated in the visual aspects of the film, and to that respect, it works beautifully. If you want an impossibly gorgeous piece of Gothic eye candy, you can't beat CRIMSON PEAK, which demands to be seen on as big of a screen as possible. Del Toro has said, in envisioning Edith as his heroine, that CRIMSON PEAK is for his "inner 14-year-old bookish girl." That's a telling statement, because in terms of content, CRIMSON PEAK isn't really for 14-year-old bookish girls, but its character arcs and story progression could've very well been concocted by a 14-year-old del Toro. There's a lot to love here, especially if you're a fan of Gothic chillers, haunted mansions, and the garish lighting of Roger Corman's AIP Poe adaptations and when Mario Bava started making movies in color with 1964's BLACK SABBATH. But del Toro the screenwriter just isn't working at the same level as del Toro the director.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: NIGHTMARE WEEKEND (1986)

(US/UK/France - 1986)

Directed by H. Sala (Henri Sala). Written by Georges Faget-Benard and Robert Seidman. Cast: Debbie Laster, Dale Midkiff, Debra Hunter, Robert Burke, Lori Lewis, Preston Maybank, Wellington Meffert, Kim Dossin, Andrea Thompson, Kimberley Stahl, Bruce Morton, Karen Mayo, Nick James, Dean Gates, Marc Gottlieb. (Unrated, 86 mins)

PIECES. TROLL 2. MIAMI CONNECTION. THE ROOM. GETEVEN. There are bad movies and then there are bad movies that take the art of bad movies to another level of cinematic nirvana. Films made with sincerity but so misguided and thoroughly bizarre that they simply must be seen to be disbelieved. You can add 1986's NIGHTMARE WEEKEND to that by-no-means comprehensive list. Just out on Blu-ray (Blu-ray!) from the folks at Vinegar Syndrome, the insane NIGHTMARE WEEKEND is poised to break out as the next great Bad Movie sensation. A US-British-French co-production starring American actors and shot in Ocala, FL in 1984 by a French crew headed by a director who didn't speak English, couldn't communicate with his cast, and was primarily known for his work in French hardcore porn (helming such classics as S COMME SPERME and CLUB PORNO POUR CHATTES ENRAGEES), NIGHTMARE WEEKEND is so deliriously bonkers that it feels like a lost Jess Franco film, only somehow less coherent.

In the '80s, many European exploitation directors (Lucio Fulci with THE NEW YORK RIPPER, Enzo G. Castellari with 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS, Umberto Lenzi with EATEN ALIVE and CANNIBAL FEROX, and Romano Scavolini with NIGHTMARE all come to mind) would shoot in America, particularly NYC and usually without permits, and would deftly capture its mood and aura in an almost verite way, in ways that sanitized and secured Hollywood productions couldn't. Not so with Henri Sala, barely hiding behind the name "H. Sala." Whether it's his living in a porn bubble or his lack of fluency in English, his "America" of NIGHTMARE WEEKEND seems to work from a list of vague caricatures of 1980s America: Big hair? Check. Computers? Check. Sony Walkman? Check. Aerobics? Check. It demonstrates the kind of cultural tone deafness that runs rampant throughout PIECES (Kung-fu professor? Retired tennis pro-turned-cop going undercover as a tennis pro? Lead detective letting Cosby-sweater-wearing, Horshack-looking campus babe magnet take over the murder investigation?) and it's almost as funny. The communication breakdown between all involved parties is apparent in nearly every frame. NIGHTMARE WEEKEND seems like the pieces of at least three movies stitched together at random. Though it was shot with live sound, the audio was tossed for some reason, leading to the American actors--including three young up-and-comers and one Brit who would go onto varying levels of success in years to come--all being dubbed over by other voice actors, giving it a distinctly foreign vibe that only adds to its ludicrous charms. According to cast member and American co-producer Marc Gottlieb, who gave up acting after this movie and became a Wall Street lawyer, the French script by Georges Faget-Benard was rewritten multiple times, both by a credited Robert Seidman (a co-writer on 1984's ALPHABET CITY) and by an uncredited Gottlieb. No one had any idea what was going on, and it's obvious when you see the finished product. When the action cuts three times between one set of characters and two others in a sex scene, and the two actors in the sex scene go from 1) naked and fucking to 2) clothed and talking to 3) naked and fucking again, it's almost offensive that someone in the closing credits is actually credited with "continuity." You had one job, Christine Rondwasser.

The plot--and I use the term loosely--focuses on three college girls on a weekend getaway at a mansion where they're the unwitting subjects of a scientific experiment. A behavior-based computer program called "APACHE" has been developed by the respected Edward Brake (Wellington Meffert) but has been hijacked for nefarious purposes by his bitch-on-wheels assistant Julie Clingstone (Debbie Laster). Clingstone has sad-sack hunk Ken (Dale Midkiff, a few years away from the NBC miniseries ELVIS & ME and the blockbuster hit PET SEMATARY)--who's still grieving over the death of his best buddy Bob (Preston Maybank) in another botched Clingstone experiment--under her thumb but she also has to contend with his attraction to Brake's daughter Jessica (Debra Hunter). Jessica spends a lot of time messing around with the APACHE program on a computer she calls "George" (played by a Coleco Adam), which has a sentient hand-puppet attachment that keeps demanding "More data please!" Meanwhile, there's constant cutaways to a local bar/arcade called Stag, where badass stud Dave (future ROBOCOP and DUST DEVIL Robert John Burke, currently guest starring on a network or cable TV show near you) has sex with a woman (Karen Mayo) on a pinball machine, an idiot named Tony (Bruce Morton) dances around to the music on his Walkman, and the alcoholic Brake limo driver is given "special sandwiches" by the bartender, a stealth way to disguise his drinking by putting a mini-bar bottle in between two slices of bread. Eventually, all of these parties end up at the Brake estate, where various hook-ups take place (even the Walkman guy gets laid!) and Clingstone unleashes the full power of APACHE, which materializes in the form of small silver balls that force themselves down the mouth of their victim and turn them into zombies.

"More data, please!"
A hodgepodge of nonsensical plot (watch Jessica and "George" control Clingstone's car via computer, and Clingstone's utterly blase non-reaction to her car driving itself!), endless filler (why is Sala so concerned with what's going on that bar? Why is the limo driver hiding tiny bottles of liquor between two slices of bread?), terrible dubbing, and even worse puppetry, NIGHTMARE WEEKEND is a film so fucked-up that cocaine should've gotten at least a co-producer credit. Sala made one more porno in France before calling it a career and hasn't been heard from since.  Dead? Alive? Who knows?  With the exception of four people, everyone else in the cast vanished into bad movie witness protection: Midkiff and Burke went on to busy careers; Mayo became better known as Karen Mayo-Chandler when she appeared in a few scattered B-movies like STRIPPED TO KILL II: LIVE GIRLS and 976-EVIL II and was a girlfriend of Jack Nicholson's in the late '80s (she died from breast cancer in 2006 at just 48); and one of the three college girls is played by Andrea Thompson, who would go on to stints on FALCON CREST, BABYLON 5, JAG, 24, and HEROES, but is best known for her role as Det. Jill Kirkendall for five seasons midway through NYPD BLUE's run. How could guys named "Wellington Meffert" and "Preston Maybank" not make it?  It's safe to say that aside from the Ocala party scene and cast members hooking up after hours (Gottlieb even says the best thing to result for him from the film is that his daughter was conceived during the making of it), none of them have fond memories of NIGHTMARE WEEKEND as a movie--none take part in the Blu-ray special features, though Gottlieb does mention Midkiff having an on-set meltdown upon realizing he might not be finished with the film in time to move on to a more promising project that he had lined up immediately following (considering the time frame, it was probably the Roger Corman-released STREETWALKIN'). Watching the film, one can hardly blame Midkiff's hysterical reaction to such news. Yes, NIGHTMARE WEEKEND is...well, words can hardly do it justice. It's much more than the overwrought theme song's declaration of "You are a nightmare, a nightmare fantasy!" Simply put, if you haven't seen it, you must. And like me, you'll wonder where it's been all your life.

Friday, October 9, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: KNOCK KNOCK (2015)

(US/Chile - 2015)

Directed by Eli Roth. Written by Eli Roth, Nicolas Lopez and Guillermo Amoedo. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Aaron Burns, Ignacia Allamand, Colleen Camp. (R, 99 mins)

Just two weeks after the long-delayed Italian gutmuncher homage THE GREEN INFERNO finally hit theaters, horror fanboy patron saint Eli Roth is back with the home invasion thriller KNOCK KNOCK. A remake of the sleazy, waka-jawaka-drenched drive-in favorite DEATH GAME, aka THE SEDUCERS (shot in 1974 but not released until 1977), KNOCK KNOCK essentially follows the same plot but with required modern updatings and more of a black comedy streak. In DEATH GAME, Seymour Cassel pays dearly when his wife and kids are away for the weekend and he allows himself to be seduced by two young women (Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp) who knock on the door claiming to be lost and waiting for a ride. KNOCK KNOCK--which lists Locke, Camp, and DEATH GAME director Peter Traynor among its committee of producers, with Camp returning for a cameo--has architect Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves) home alone at his luxurious Hollywood Hills residence with the dog over Father's Day weekend so he can finish an important work project while his artist wife Karen (Ignacia Allamand) and their two kids are away at the beach. After taking a break and smoking a little weed, Evan's work plans are put on hold when a torrential downpour brings two young women, Genesis (Roth's wife Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas), to his front door. Claiming to be flight attendants looking for a party but then discovering they're in the wrong neighborhood, the girls persuade Evan to let them in to use the phone. He makes them tea, lends them bathrobes while their clothes are in the dryer, and calls an Uber as his sense of unease increases over small-talk that quickly escalates to flirtation and full-on seduction, as family man Evan can't resist an impromptu threesome in the shower--during which the Uber driver gets tired of waiting and leaves--followed by an all-night fuckfest straight out of Penthouse Letters.

The next morning, Evan finds the girls making a mess in the kitchen as they try to cook breakfast. As his temper flares and his patience runs out, the girls just giggle at him. When he threatens to call the police, they drop a bombshell, saying they're actually only 15, which makes him a pedophile ("And I've still got the evidence!" Bel taunts as she points below her waist). Evan eventually calls their bluff and dials 9-1-1 anyway, at which point Genesis backs off and the girls agree to let Evan drive them home. Later that evening, investigating a noise in the kitchen, Evan discovers the girls have broken back into the house and they knock him unconscious. He wakes up tied to the bed as Bel forces him to have sex with her while she wears his daughter's clothes and calls him "Daddy." Genesis and Bel have declared themselves judge, jury, and, if things go their way, executioner, subjecting Evan to a weekend of psychological torture and sexual sadism as punishment for betraying his wife, his children, and his life of one-percenter privilege, dismantling and destroying every piece of his life, whether it's his rare vinyl collection, Karen's art and sculptures, or scrawling "Whore" on a framed picture of his daughter and "My daddy now has AIDS" on one of his son.

The class struggle element seems almost arbitrarily tossed in and dropped as soon as it's mentioned, it's never really clear why Genesis and Bel have singled out Evan, even after it's revealed that they've been spying on him for some time prior to being invited inside, and some things are groan-inducingly predictable (has there ever been a movie where a character is introduced reaching for their asthma inhaler that didn't telegraph a later scene where that same person couldn't breathe and couldn't find their inhaler?)  For a while, Roth and co-writers Nicolas Lopez and Guillermo Amoedo (the three have worked in various capacities with and for one another several other US/Chilean co-productions like AFTERSHOCK, THE STRANGER, and THE GREEN INFERNO) seem to be attempting a hot-button, FATAL ATTRACTION-type water cooler movie with the ethical and moral dilemma in which Evan finds himself. Initially, he does everything he can to resist the advances of Genesis and Bel, constantly moving from one seat to another in attempt to get them off of him, but when the Uber arrives and they refuse to leave the bathroom, only to have him enter and be rendered helpless when they go down on him simultaneously ("Have you ever had two women do this at once?" Genesis coos). Evan loves his family, but he's feeling a little unappreciated--the family left him alone on Father's Day and Karen hasn't had sex with him in several weeks, and here's two much-younger women stroking his ego about how buff he is and how lucky his wife must be. He gives in to temptation in a moment of weakness but the girls lord his transgression over his head for the rest of the movie ("You're all the same," Genesis scolds him), leading to an epic Keanu freakout that's on the level of Nic Cage's A-game. Tied to a chair, possibly going deaf from a piercing noises Genesis played through a set of headphones, and with a bleeding wound from being stabbed with a fork right over a recent shoulder surgery incision, Reeves dials it up to 11 with a long monologue, shouted at the top of his lungs about how "I'm a good guy! I'm a good father! I let you in! I called you an Uber! I made you tea! You came on to me! You were just free pizza that showed up at my door! What was I supposed to do?"

There's a darkly comedic mean streak throughout the film, but any pretense at seriousness is gone by the climax, where the comedy starts leaning broad and culminates in a great social media gag (between this and THE GREEN INFERNO, Roth has made his disdain for social media loud and clear) that's the funniest Facebook-related punchline I've yet seen in a movie (the melodrama in Reeves' punctuation of it is perfect as well). There's a lot of FATAL ATTRACTION, FUNNY GAMES, and HARD CANDY in KNOCK KNOCK, and if this was getting any kind of wide theatrical release (Lionsgate is dumping it on VOD and only releasing it in a few theaters), there'd likely be thinkpieces about the feminist and/or misogynist subtext (the girls are written off as "crazy bitches" but Roth leaves no doubt that Evan's in deep shit with his wife). Roth pays lip service to such things but doesn't explore it to any serious depth. It's very accomplished from a technical standpoint, especially in the way Roth has cinematographer Antonio Quercia snake and glide the camera through the house. Though it qualifies as a hard R, it's a virtually gore-free departure for Roth, who lets his sense of humor--sometimes clever, sometimes dudebro juvenile--run a little more free here even with the intensity and cringe-inducing discomfort of the whole thing. With solid performances by Reeves, Izzo (whose penetrating glare has some serious Eva Green potential), and de Armas, KNOCK KNOCK is quite enjoyable, guilty pleasure B-movie trash.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST (2015); MANGLEHORN (2015); and COP CAR (2015)

(France/Spain/Belgium - 2014; US release 2015)

Giving audiences the rare opportunity to see Benicio Del Toro in a movie about drug trafficking, ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST grants the Oscar-winning actor a role he was seemingly born to play: infamous Medellin Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar (1949-1993). Unfortunately, ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST is a tedious misfire hellbent on making Pablo Escobar a supporting character, and there are long stretches where Del Toro, who gained quite a bit of weight to play the cartel head in his indulgent years just before his 1991 incarceration, is offscreen. Rather, the focus is on Nick Brady (THE HUNGER GAMES' Josh Hutcherson), a Canadian who's somehow found his way into the Escobar inner circle on the eve of the boss turning himself over to Colombian authorities. Flashbacks show Nick was a surfer spending time doing Habitat for Humanity-type charity work in Colombia in the mid '80s with his older brother Dylan (Brady Corbet) and his wife Anne (Ana Girardot). Nick meets and quickly falls in love with nurse Maria (Claudia Traisac), who happens to be the beloved niece of her protective uncle (you guessed it) Pablo Escobar. Nick is welcomed into the family and affectionately dubbed "Nico," but tries to keep a distance from knowing too much about Uncle Pablo. Escobar is lauded as a benevolent hero by the people after his 80% stake in the world's cocaine traffic has made him a multi-billionaire with some interests in legitimate businesses, like opening a hospital for his nurse niece. But Escobar is a powerful and merciless boss who doesn't like loose ends, and he wants them all tied up before he goes to prison. Nick realizes far too late that he knows too much and the lives of everyone he loves are in danger and that Uncle Pablo intends to have him killed.

The directorial debut of Italian actor Andrea Di Stefano (Dario Argento's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and Hollywood fare like EAT PRAY LOVE and LIFE OF PI), ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST is plodding and sluggishly-paced, perhaps because you aren't expecting a movie alleged to be about Pablo Escobar to instead focus on Peeta Mellark and his Colombian girlfriend. Del Toro pops in and out of the story with the majesty of a slovenly Don Vito Corleone, but the bulk of the film focuses on Nick, who's based on a person who was involved with Escobar's niece, but beyond that, his story as presented here is a work of fiction, which begs the question "Who cares?" Di Stefano has essentially dropped the character of Pablo Escobar into a Josh Hutcherson movie that could just as easily be titled THE MEDELLIN GAMES. Things pick up when Nick realizes he's a target and Escobar's men start pursuing him, but then the story just becomes an excuse for Hutcherson to play a suddenly gun-toting, blood-splattered badass blasting caps into some cartel flunkies. After a deadly dull opening hour and change, it at least belatedly comes alive when it turns into a conventional chase thriller, but it's too little, too late. There's one admittedly great scene that's very well-acted by Hutcherson, when he hears an inconceivably savage act on the other end of the line during a phone call, but almost everything else is ponderous, predictable, and boring. The Weinstein Company acquired this in early 2014 and sat on it for a year and a half before releasing it on just 105 screens in June of 2015. Its Blu-ray/DVD release has been expertly timed with the wide release of SICARIO, a far superior Del Toro drug trafficking saga. The actor makes a superb Escobar, but this isn't the Escobar movie he should've done. (R, 120 mins)

(US/UK - 2015)

The third chapter in Al Pacino's back-to-basics, character-driven trifecta of low-key indie films following THE HUMBLING and DANNY COLLINS, David Gordon Green's MANGLEHORN lets the Oscar-winning screen legend be eccentric without resorting to his familiar post-SCENT OF A WOMAN histrionics. Pacino is very good here, but the film is a mixed bag, with Green too often engaging in self-indulgent asides and distracting detours into quirkiness that serve no real purpose other than establishing film festival bona fides. Pacino is A.J. Manglehorn, a sad-eyed locksmith in a smallish Texas suburb. Manglehorn works and spends most of his days alone with his beloved cat Fanny and occasionally takes his adorable granddaughter Kylie (Skyler Gasper) to the park. Divorced and mostly estranged from his high-rolling investment broker son Jacob (Chris Messina), Manglehorn laments a life wasted, spent without his lost love Clara. The proverbial "one that got away," Manglehorn pours his heart out in letters relayed in voiceover and mailed to Clara daily, and every day, there's an envelope in his mailbox stamped "Return to Sender." At first coming across like a tragic and lonely old soul, Manglehorn is soon revealed to be abrasive and a bit of an asshole who seems to sabotage his interactions, whether it's an unpleasant lunch with Jacob, where he complains about the food and how he never loved Jacob's mother because she was a poor substitute for Clara, or running into sleazy tanning salon owner/part-time pimp Gary (SPRING BREAKERS director Harmony Korine, in a role that seems like it was intended for Green pal Danny McBride), a socially inept, no-filter type prone to using words like "retard" and "mulatto" in public, but who still idolizes Manglehorn, his childhood Little League coach. Manglehorn has a friendly flirtation with bank teller Dawn (Holly Hunter) that leads to a disastrous date that goes south as soon as Manglehorn does what he always does: surely as THE BIG LEBOWSKI's Walter Sobchak made everything about Vietnam, Manglehorn steers every conversation into another rambling tale-of-woe monologue about how he let Clara slip away.

At its core, MANGLEHORN is a tale of redemption for a bitter, angry man who has some good in him, especially when it comes to his devotion to his granddaughter and his willingness to drain a good chunk of his savings on an expensive surgery for an ill Fanny. But Manglehorn wants Clara and is content to make everyone within earshot as miserable as he is about not being with her. It gets repetitive after a while (though his date with Dawn is a small masterpiece for connoisseurs of cringe), and Green's idiosyncratic digressions--a guy breaking into song in the bank and a teller responding in kind; Manglehorn encountering a multi-car pileup involving a truck full of smashed watermelons that looks like a pointless homage to Jean-Luc Godard's WEEKEND; one scene where he shows off some De Palma-style trickery that comes off like directorial wankery--just get in the way. Green also does some obvious telegraphing with the way he deliberately keeps the viewer out of a locked room that Manglehorn enters daily and emerges in a rage--of course, it's the decades-long shrine for the unattainable Clara, every returned letter filed away, every rejected bouquet of flowers wilted and rotting, which makes him look less like an unfortunate man burdened with a lifetime of sorrow and regret and more like an obsessed loon who needs a restraining order. Pacino's skills help him play a largely unplayable character, and by the time it's over, it's little more than a quirky indie version of AS GOOD AS IT GETS. Even with its many ups and downs, MANGLEHORN is still required viewing for Pacino completists, but be warned going in that it includes a feel-good ending that directly involves a mime. (PG-13, 97 mins)

(US - 2015)

Often coming off like a hastily-sketched idea that the Coen Bros. penciled into the margins of a script only to not include it, the acclaimed indie COP CAR has a solid premise that isn't quite enough to carry it to feature length. It gets a lot of mileage from a terrific, frantic performance by a Brimley-stached Kevin Bacon as Sheriff Mitch Kretzer, a suburban lawman whose day goes from bad to worse when his cruiser is stolen by a pair of grubby ten-year-old runaways who take it on a joyride. Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) are two of the dumbest, most obnoxious brats in cinema history, a pre-teen Beavis and Butt-Head who make one idiotic decision after another, usually involving playing with Kretzer's weapons they find in the backseat and staring down the barrel of the guns to figure out why they aren't firing. They also don't know there's a body in the trunk, the second of two that a coke-fueled, corrupt Kretzer was trying to bury in a field--he was off disposing of the first body when the idiot kids stumbled on the seemingly abandoned cop car. As the kids recklessly drive around the rural outskirts of town, plowing through fields and stopping to point automatic weapons at one another, Kretzer races around town, first on foot, then in a stolen car, then finally in his own pickup, to try and cover his tracks and locate the kids.

Directed and co-written by Jon Watts, who was rewarded (?) with the upcoming SPIDER-MAN reboot based on the festival buzz around COP CAR, the film mostly works as a thriller, but the implausibilities and the plot conveniences abound. It's never believable that Kretzer manages to misdirect all the other cops on the force and keeping them chasing their own tails all day, and it's tough to buy the way he goes about undetected all day long, even when he's pulled over by one of his own cops, calls in a fake emergency to the dispatcher on his cell phone, and manages to go unrecognized, with the now-distracted cop letting him off with the warning without really even taking a good look at him. Bacon is great as the wiry, frazzled, increasingly wigged-out Kretzer, and the child actors do a convincing job of playing--by design--a pair of stupid and truly appalling little shits, though Wellford's Harrison is slightly less loathsome than Freedson-Jackson's cocky, twerpy Travis. There's a couple of other characters--Camryn Manheim as a concerned citizen who spots the kids swerving in the cop car on a back road, and Shea Whigham ends up playing a prominent role, plus Bacon's wife Kyra Sedgwick provides the voice of the gullible dispatcher--but Bacon is the real show here. He's excellent, but the film seems ultimately too slight even for just under 90 minutes. (R, 88 mins)