Saturday, April 30, 2016


(US/Canada/UK - 2016)

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais. Cast: Ricky Gervais, Eric Bana, Vera Farmiga, Kelly Macdonald, Kevin Pollak, America Ferrera, Raul Castillo, Benjamin Bratt, Jim Norton, Kim Ramirez, Mimi Kuzyk. (Unrated, 101 mins)

The 2009 French comedy ENVOYES TRES SPECIAUX, where two Paris reporters file fake reports from the comforts of home while pretending to be covering an insurgency in Iraq, has been refashioned by writer/director/star Ricky Gervais into this toothless farce that's debuting as a Netflix original movie. Gervais has always been a master of cutting and often uncomfortable comedy, so the potential is there for some scathing digs at politics and the news media. It's all for naught, as Gervais just drops the ball and seems completely lost, relying on stale jokes (a "Go ahead, make my day" reference in 2016?) and painfully protracted set-ups for jokes that either land with a thud or never come at all. Making like Hope and Crosby on The Road to Nowhere, Gervais and Eric Bana star as, respectively, dweeby sound engineer Ian Finch and arrogant, smooth-talking news radio journalist Frank Bonneville. Handsome bullshit artist Frank is the superstar reporter at NYC-based news radio station Q365, and he and his de facto sidekick Finch are assigned by their blustery boss Mallard (Kevin Pollak) to cover a brewing insurgency in Ecuador. Just dumped by his shrewish, materialistic wife Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) and oblivious to the interest of nice, mousy Q365 reporter Claire Maddox (Kelly Macdonald), Finch decides to go along, tossing his suicide note to Eleanor in a garbage truck as they hail a cab to the airport. The problem is, Finch mistakenly threw out their passports, travel itinerary, and money instead of his epic suicide note. Rather than miss the story, Frank and Finch decide to fake it, hiding out in the apartment above a Mexican restaurant that's owned by Brigida (America Ferrera) and Domingo (Raul Castillo), and is directly across the street from the Q365 building.

Hilarity fails to ensue as Frank radios in fake updates and breaking news about a rebel leader named Alvarez and all the upheaval they're witnessing. It's never specified how long they plan to keep up the ruse, but when the US Secretary of State (Mimi Kuzyk) tells Mallard to order the pair to report to the US embassy in Quito, the only thing they can do is actually sneak away to Ecuador in order to show up at the embassy. And of course, once in Ecuador, they impulsively snort some coke and end up getting kidnapped anyway. All the while, aspiring singer Eleanor is raking in the money generated by a "rescue fund" benefit single and subsequent album deal, and she's not in any hurry to bring the pair back to the US safely, especially since she seduced an oblivious Frank--who never met Finch's wife before--shortly before the Ecuador assignment. Much is made of Frank's smooth charm and rogueish good looks--is there some reason he's not on TV? Oh, that's right. Because there'd be no movie if he wasn't a news radio superstar, which doesn't even seem like a thing.

Does any of this sound even remotely funny? It's a bad sign when you're only six minutes into the movie and Frank walks into the Q365 offices and is greeted by one employee standing up and slow clapping which, of course, escalates into office-wide applause. Gervais is a smart enough writer that he's probably making fun of the slow clap, but it's already an easy target that's been mocked endlessly. The same goes for dorky man-child Finch and his obsession with collecting comic books and action figures. Where's the joke here? And on what planet would he and Eleanor ever make it to a second date, let alone years of marriage?  By the end, Gervais is resorting to mawkish sentimentality, antiquated stereotypes (why does Brigida shout "Julio Iglesias!" when she gets excited?) and an action movie finale that has Finch manning up and gunning down his captors to the accompaniment of Motorhead's "Ace of Spades." That's how he decided to wrap up the movie? How many of these contemporary "media/political" comedies have to fail before the plug is pulled on this subgenre? Remember NETWORK?  It was brilliant, outrageous, bile-soaked satire in 1976 and remains so today but young people watching it for the first time now don't get it because the satire has become so depressingly close to reality in the ensuing 40 years. Look at more recent films like THE INTERVIEW, OUR BRAND IS CRISIS, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, and, to an extent, ROCK THE KASBAH. These films don't succeed because today's 24/7 news media-as-entertainment culture is already so inherently ludicrous that any attempts to satirize it only succeed in stating the obvious. Why take shots at something that's already ridiculous? The failure of these other films, and now SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS, is enough to make you appreciate the relative comedic genius of Richard Brooks' expensive 1982 bomb WRONG IS RIGHT, which still isn't very funny but might be worth studying, as its barbs have grown even more prescient with age, almost a thematic precursor to THEY LIVE in the way it predicted the future in many respects. A completely asleep-at-the-wheel Gervais can't even be bothered to try when it comes to SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS, a film nobody's going to remember next week, let alone look back on decades from now. It fails as satire, it fails as comedy, and it fails as anything even slightly resembling entertainment, and there's an almost Sandlerian laziness to the entire project. Is there even a target demographic for this thing?  Who is it for? Why was it made? How is it possible that the creator of THE OFFICE and EXTRAS somehow managed to make an atrocious and incredibly dull WAG THE DOG knockoff with exactly zero laughs?

Friday, April 29, 2016

In Theaters: GREEN ROOM (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier. Cast: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, Macon Blair,  Eric Edelstein, Mark Webber, Kai Lennox, Brent Werzner, David W. Thompson, Jake Love, Kyle Love, Samuel Summer. (R, 95 mins)

Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier established himself as filmmaker to watch after 2014's gritty revenge noir BLUE RUIN and his latest film, GREEN ROOM, finds him putting his characters in even more dangerous territory with grim and horrifying results. The Ain't Rights--bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), frontman Tiger (Callum Turner) and drummer Reece (Joe Cole)--are a small-time, Richmond-based punk band touring the Pacific Northwest in a beat-up van and getting from gig to gig by siphoning gas. When their next show is abruptly cancelled and they're out of money, local zine writer and Ain't Rights superfan Tad (David W. Thompson) hooks them up with a show in the rural outskirts of Portland where his cousin Daniel (Mark Webber) is a bouncer. He warns them that there's a catch: the gig's at the clubhouse of a neo-Nazi stronghold owned by a group of white supremacists who don't take to The Ain't Rights kicking off their show with a cover of Dead Kennedys' "Nazi Punks Fuck Off." The band play their set and get paid and are packing up their gear to make way for the death metal house band Cowcatcher when Pat goes back to the dressing room to get Sam's phone and finds members of Cowcatcher and bouncer Werm (Brent Werzner) standing over a dead girl with a knife planted in her skull. Bouncer Gabe (Macon Blair, the star of BLUE RUIN) tries to contain the situation after Pat calls 911 to report a stabbing and has the phone taken from him as the rest of the bouncers refuse to let them go, with Gabe politely explaining "We're not keeping you...you're just staying." Gabe and club manager Clark (Kai Lennox) try to contain the situation by having two new recruits stage a stabbing outside in order to get rid of the cops, but when the band gets the edge on bouncer Big Justin (Eric Edelstein), grabbing his gun and barricading themselves in the room, Gabe has no choice but to call owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart), who takes charge and immediately decides the band will have to be eliminated and it has to look like an accident.

One of the more memorable things about BLUE RUIN was the way Blair's hapless, homeless hero tried to be a tough guy but had no idea how to handle any kind of weapon. That's a similar motif that pops up here as the dwindling number of Ain't Rights, accompanied by the dead girl's friend Amber (Imogen Poots), aren't really adept at handling guns and end up resorting to other means at their disposal, like box cutters, machetes, fire extinguishers, mic stands, etc, as Darcy keeps sending his guys into the club to deal with them. It's a survival/siege movie in the classic John Carpenter style (there is a synthy score, but it's very subtle, a surprise given the Carpenter score homages so prevalent in genre fare these days), and Saulnier does a great job of capturing that sense of bleak, claustrophobic hopelessness as the situation gets worse by the minute in one of the scariest clubs you'll see in any movie. Early attempts to run out of the club fail miserably as Darcy has guys waiting behind the door of every room they pass, and even breaking through the floor to Darcy's basement storage area for his cash and the neo-Nazis' heroin business fails to lead them to a way out. The Ain't Rights have no choice but to fight their way out and the results are gruesome and hard to watch. Even the most seasoned gorehound will have a tough time withstanding what happens to Pat's left hand, and when they're forced to work with what's available, a box cutter will certainly disembowel someone or slit a throat. But it's tough-going, and Saulnier assaults you with it so quickly that you don't have a chance to look away.

The Ain't Rights are generally OK, though other than Yelchin, they don't really have much to do but be frantic and try to survive. Outsider Amber is the toughest of the bunch--and she's not with the neo-Nazis but has a specific reason for being there--but even before she's injured, Poots' performance is overly affected and off-putting, almost like she's speaking at half-speed for no reason. She's the major misstep in GREEN ROOM, as Amber is a character who's a fierce, independent badass but Poots is playing her like a tranquilized Aubrey Plaza. The real revelation here is Patrick Stewart like you've never seen him before. Stewart is all calm, soft-spoken menace as the malevolent Darcy, doing whatever he can to keep the cops away from a situation that's spiraling out of control thanks to the resourceful nature of prey he's drastically underestimated ("They're smarter than you!" he shouts at Gabe in his one moment of losing his cool). Stewart is such a beloved, iconic figure that it's hard to get by him playing such a despicable character who says some things it's hard to imagine Patrick Stewart saying, but he makes it work by not overdoing it. Darcy isn't a raving maniac. In fact, he seems oddly detached at times, almost like he just assumes the situation will work itself out, even as more and more of his guys go inside to kill the Ain't Rights but don't come back out. Stewart underplays Darcy, a charismatic leader who can blend into society and be a nice guy on the surface, which makes his being a cold-blooded killer, heroin trafficker, and unapologetic racist and anti-Semite all the more chilling. Like many close-quartered, powderkeg nerve-shredders of this sort, GREEN ROOM works perfectly (Poots' terrible performance aside) until it goes outside, leaving the compound for a conclusion that seems abrupt and a bit unsatisfying given the buildup. Still, for 90% of its duration, it's a bold, brutal, stone cold piece of work, sickeningly violent in all its extreme, hard-R glory and unrelentingly intense in its execution.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: JANE GOT A GUN (2016); BACKTRACK (2016); and #HORROR (2015)

(US - 2016)

An infamously troubled production that changed directors and cinematographers and went through multiple rewrites and several cast switch-ups before filming began and then spent nearly three years on a Weinstein Company shelf before bombing in theaters, JANE GOT A GUN is rivaled only by EXPOSED and FLIGHT 7500 as the biggest catastrophe of the first quarter of 2016. A longtime pet project of Natalie Portman (one of 31 credited producers), JANE was set to go in early 2013 with director Lynne Ramsey (WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN) at the helm, and with SEVEN and frequent Woody Allen collaborator Darius Khondji as director of photography. Even before Ramsey quit over a dispute with one of the producers over final cut and Khondji left with her, co-star Michael Fassbender was forced to back out over a scheduling conflict with X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. Joel Edgerton was already cast as the villain, but that role was given to Jude Law and Edgerton was shifted over to Fassbender's vacated role. Law signed on specifically to work with Ramsey, and when she left, he followed suit. Gavin O'Connor (WARRIOR) took over as director and Bradley Cooper signed on to replace Law, but quit over a scheduling conflict with AMERICAN HUSTLE and was replaced by Ewan McGregor (now the fourth actor to be cast in the villain role). In addition, Edgerton pulled double duty by rewriting Brian Duffield's original screenplay. Filming was completed in the fall of 2013, and after multiple canceled release dates that stretched back to summer 2014, the $25 million production was finally released in theaters in January 2016, grossing just $1.5 million.

JANE GOT A GUN has all the hallmarks of compromise, clashing ideas, and behind-the-scenes rancor: released with little fanfare after languishing in limbo, a truncated running time, choppy editing, slack pacing and stretches where important scenes seem to be missing, and a couple of prominently-billed actors who are barely in the movie. In the New Mexico territory in 1871, feisty rancher Jane Hammond (Portman) tends to bullet wounds on her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich), who informs her that the gang of outlaw John Baxter (McGregor) is headed their way. She enlists the help of ex-fiance and hired gun Dan Frost (Edgerton), while flashbacks fill in the complicated backstory of the quartet of characters. It's filled with darkness and tragedy, from Civil War prison camps to sex slavery to a dead child, with Jane forced into a hellish life servicing Baxter's gang until she's rescued and whisked away by one of his men, the kind-hearted Bill. For obvious reasons, Baxter remains enraged at the couple and when some of his men spot Bill and soon pay with their lives when Bill guns them down, he leads the rest of the gang after them for revenge (it does beg the question, if Bill ran into the gang and killed some of them, how does he manage to get several days ahead of the rest, back to his ranch with time to warn Jane that they're coming?). While Bill lies immobile in bed, Jane and Dan fortify the ranch and get their guns ready for the showdown. This should've been a RIO BRAVO situation, but it plays out in almost total darkness with intermittent breaks for flashbacks and long dialogue scenes that are incoherently mumbled by Portman and Edgerton. McGregor's appearances are so fleeting and brief that he has no chance to make any kind of impact as a threatening presence, and the best you can say for it is that it looks nice for a while, but even that ceases to help by the climax since you can't see a damn thing. Nothing works in JANE GOT A GUN, a doomed project plagued by pre-production turmoil from which it never recovered. Stick with HANNIE CAULDER instead. (R, 98 mins)

(Australia/UK/UAE - 2016)

A horror movie that feels like it should've gone straight to video in 2002, BACKTRACK is a shameless ripoff of THE SIXTH SENSE, with some STIR OF ECHOES, JU-ON/THE GRUDGE, and INSIDIOUS thrown in, perhaps to prevent M. Night Shyamalan from suing. Continuing his post-Oscar slide into irrelevance, Adrien Brody offers a fairly credible accent as Peter Bower, an Australian psychologist who's still reeling over the tragic death of his daughter Evie a year earlier when she was hit by a truck while riding her bike. While Peter is at least doing slightly better than his shattered wife Carol (Jenni Baird), who can't even get out of bed, he's haunted by visions of a dead girl named Elizabeth Valentine (Chloe Bayliss), and the realization that all of the patients referred him by his mentor Duncan (Sam Neill) seem to be people who died in an accident on July 12, 1987. This prompts him to return to his childhood home and visit his estranged father (George Shevtsov), triggering memories of a traumatic incident from his teen years (lemme guess...July 12, 1987?) that may have indirectly had a hand in his daughter's eventual death nearly 30 years later. Writer/director Michael Petroni (who scripted QUEEN OF THE DAMNED, THE RITE, and THE BOOK THIEF) thinks he's being clever by introducing incredibly hackneyed elements that would be painfully obvious twists to any seasoned viewer and revealing them almost immediately, like Elizabeth Valentine's initials E.V. sounding out "Evie" and that Duncan's really a ghost, which isn't a spoiler since it's revealed 20 minutes in. But he just keeps piling on one coincidence and absurd contrivance after another until you're too busy rolling your eyes and shaking your head to catch all the post-INSIDIOUS jump scares preceded by that distinctive JU-ON croak, which is something filmmakers in 2016 are still fucking doing. Some shoddy greenscreen work and a hilariously awful CGI train derailment provide some unintentional laughs, but BACKTRACK is stale, cliched, and dated, obviously a script Petroni's had stashed in a drawer for at least a decade. Though it does provide a brief role for THE ROAD WARRIOR's Bruce Spence as a ghost, there's not much to recommend with BACKTRACK, which continues Brody's fool's quest to become Nicolas Cage. I see dead careers. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2015)

Actress and artist Tara Subkoff, best known as the kidnapping victim in 2000's THE CELL, makes her writing and directing debut with this ambitious horror indie that succeeds and stumbles in equal measure, amounting to 98 uneven minutes. It's a social media-savvy slasher film that admirably doesn't approach its subject with snarky irony, but too often overstates its message to the point of harping. It's set over one night at a sleepover at the isolated Connecticut mansion of bitchy Sofia (Bridget McGarry), the 12-year-old queen of a group of Mean Girls who tear one another down in vicious hashtags using a Bejeweled Blitz-type app (Subkoff really overuses this visual motif), tagged to their endless postings of selfies. Their targets change by the minute, whether it's Cat (Hayley Murphy), whose mother recently died; overweight Georgie (Emma Adler), who they've fat-shamed into bulimia; tomboyish Francesca (Mina Sundwall), who they've labeled a "dyke," or lesser-income Sam (Sadie Seelert), who's new to their school and has cut scars on her arm from past self-harming. And these girls are friends. When Cat tears into Georgie about her weight in a way that even Sofia thinks is over the line, Cat is expelled from the party. She leaves a hysterical message on the voice mail of her preoccupied cosmetic surgeon dad (a furious Timothy Hutton), while Sofia's alcoholic, ennui-drowning mom (Chloe Sevigny) leaves the girls alone to go through the motions at an AA meeting, completely unaware that her philandering husband (Balthazar Getty) has had his throat slashed by the same maniac who's now in the house and offing the girls one by one.

Let's address the elephant in the room that is the terrible title, which does the film no favors and makes it tempting to dismiss outright. And things get off to a dubious start with the gimmicky ENTER THE VOID-style opening credits that look like a bunch of rapid-fire Candy Crush images. But amidst the catty bitchery of the mostly overprivileged, underparented kids, Subkoff manages some small accomplishments that start to add up. The massive house is a great location that allows Subkoff to really take advantage of open space in the 2.35:1 image, especially when the creepy-masked killer starts materializing anywhere in the frame. The film takes place in the dead of winter and there's a vividly chilling, uniquely Canadian-inspired coldness that's conveyed in striking imagery both outside in the snowy setting and inside in the Cronenberg-like design and decor of the house (I'm willing to bet Subkoff is a big fan of the 1983 cult classic CURTAINS). There's also a pronounced giallo influence, particularly in one Argento-styled murder that takes place in a glass-enclosed tennis court, and it's all supplemented by an unsettling, driving score by EMA. Subkoff does such a solid job with the horror elements that you wish it didn't take her 70 minutes to get to them. With the exception of the opening murder (Getty's in the film for about seven seconds), the first hour and change focuses on the Mean Girl bullying, with the girls supporting and turning on one another with no notice, exploiting weaknesses and pushing to the breaking point, and it goes on long after Subkoff has made her point. The young actresses are convincingly unlikable, and Hutton is outstanding in his few scenes, one in particular when he barrels through the house in a frothing rage searching for Cat. Hutton plays it like a vein-popping homage to Alec Baldwin, screaming at the girls and shredding them for their shallow, nasty actions, and it's a scene that's destined to become a YouTube favorite. There's a lot to appreciate in #HORROR, especially a devastating reveal at the very end, but there's a lot of missteps as well. Call it a flawed but nonetheless interesting film that shows it's worth keeping an eye on what Subkoff does next. Incidentally, nothing's made me feel older lately than seeing Sevigny, Getty, and Natasha Lyonne now playing the parents in a horror movie. (R, 98 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Retro Review: THE HOLCROFT COVENANT (1985)

(UK - 1985)

Directed by John Frankenheimer. Written by George Axelrod, Edward Anhalt and John Hopkins. Cast: Michael Caine, Anthony Andrews, Victoria Tennant, Lilli Palmer, Mario Adorf, Michael Lonsdale, Bernard Hepton, Richard Munch, Carl Rigg, Shane Rimmer, Michael Balfour, Andre Penvern, Andrew Bradford, Tharita Olivera De Sera. (R, 113 mins)

A misfire that reunites director John Frankenheimer with his MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE screenwriter George Axelrod (who shares script credit with two other respected scribes in Edward Anhalt and John Hopkins), THE HOLCROFT COVENANT is an intriguing conspiracy thriller that just never finds its footing. Adapted from Robert Ludlum's novel, the film has a fatally miscast Michael Caine as Noel Holcroft, an American architect who gets involved in a decades-old plot hatched by his biological father--a high-ranking Nazi and member of Hitler's inner circle--to pay reparations to surviving Holocaust victims and heirs to those killed using a secret Zurich bank account that's ballooned to $4.5 billion in the 40 years since the end of WWII. Certain parties have other plans for the money, like creating a Fourth Reich, which requires getting rid of Holcroft, who has completely disavowed his father and whose mother (Lilli Palmer, in her last big-screen role before her death in 1986) fled Germany when he was 18 months old and settled in America where she married the man who would adopt Noel (Holcroft's repeatedly proclaiming "I'm a foreign-born American citizen!" seems to be Caine trying to explain away his distinctly Michael Caine accent). Holcroft isn't alone in this inheritance. He must share the proceeds with the children of two other Nazis who entered this "covenant"--the Von Tiebolt siblings (Victoria Tennant and Anthony Andrews) and famed conductor Jurgen Mass (Mario Adorf), which of course leads to numerous double and triple crosses and assassins lurking in the background and foreground of scenes, constantly making attempts on Holcroft's life.

Made during a several-year stretch when he was turning absolutely nothing down (how can we forget his triumphant turn in 1987's JAWS: THE REVENGE?), Caine finished shooting the comedy WATER on a Friday when he got a call to begin work on HOLCROFT on the following Monday, a last-minute replacement after a disagreeable James Caan bailed the day before shooting was to begin. In his memoir, Caine wrote that he arrived for his first day of work on HOLCROFT without seeing even a page of the script, so he had no idea what he was doing, only that it was a thriller and that he wanted to work with Frankenheimer (and, presumably, the pay was good). Nobody seemed to consider that Caine was completely wrong for the part and early scenes find him doing some weird thing with his voice where he's trying to sound American but quickly throws in the towel (Caine is one of the all-time greats, but his American accent, which sounds like someone doing a bad Michael Caine impression, wasn't any better when he tried it again on 2013's LAST LOVE). Frankenheimer spends too much time doing some distracting camera trickery and weird zooms and pointless Dutch angles instead of creating a suspenseful story. The script is a mess--it almost seems like none of the three credited screenwriters looked at what the others wrote--and Holcroft's transformation from a clueless dolt to a coldly lethal manipulator who becomes a crack shot when the movie needs him to never seems plausible. Coming soon after 1983's equally scattershot Sam Peckinpah swan song THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, this would be the last big-screen Ludlum adaptation (other than a couple of TV-movies) until Hollywood finally got it right with THE BOURNE IDENTITY in 2002. For a globetrotting international thriller, it also looks surprisingly cheap and sloppy at times, with a London backlot doing a piss-awful job of portraying a Manhattan street, looking almost Bulgarian in its utter lack of conviction. And one laughable process screen shot shows Holcroft with some construction workers atop a skyscraper backed by a bush-league NYC skyline that looks edited in with all the cutting edge technology of your local TV weather forecast.  Also, why does Noel Holcroft need a remote control for his answering machine?  Is it that important that he put his bag on a chair ten feet away that he can't stand there and press "skip"?

THE HOLCROFT COVENANT is also the kind of film that gives away its surprises when you realize a prominently-billed actor has been given almost nothing to do and is barely in the first 3/4 of the movie, so of course, he has to end up being the chief villain (also, are we to believe that Caine, Tennant, Andrews, and Adorf are all roughly the same age?). There's some good work by Bernard Hepton as a British agent who helps Holcroft and the sluggish film finally comes to life with a climactic press conference that has a nice wink-and-a-nudge from Frankenheimer that's an obvious self-referential nod to a memorable scene in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. But all in all, THE HOLCROFT COVENANT is one of the great director's most forgettable films--not terrible (we're not talking THE EXTRAORDINARY SEAMAN or YEAR OF THE GUN here), but by no means essential, unless you never miss a Mario Adorf vehicle. Universal picked up the British-made HOLCROFT for the US but pretty much buried it, releasing it on just 73 screens in the fall of 1985 before it quickly turned up on video store shelves.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Retro Review: EDGE OF SANITY (1989)

(UK/Hungary - 1989)

Directed by Gerard Kikoine. Written by J.P. Felix and Ron Raley. Cast: Anthony Perkins, Glynis Barber, Sarah Maur-Thorp, David Lodge, Ben Cole, Ray Jewers, Jill Medford, Lisa Davis, Briony McRoberts, Claudia Udy. (R, 91 mins)

Taking on the dual roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has always been an opportunity for a distinguished actor to deliver a tour-de-force performance. Legends like John Barrymore, Fredric March (who won on Oscar for 1931's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE), Spencer Tracy, Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, and John Malkovich among many others have taken a turn (even Jerry Lewis if you count the Jekyll & Hyde-inspired THE NUTTY PROFESSOR), but it was 1989's EDGE OF SANITY that provided the great Anthony Perkins with his contribution to the Jekyll & Hyde canon. After nearly 30 years of PSYCHO-derived typecasting as nervous, twitchy weirdos, Perkins had long since given up trying get out of Norman Bates' shadow by the time EDGE OF SANITY came along, with multiple PSYCHO sequels under his belt, including one he directed himself (1986's PSYCHO III). There's a case to be made that Perkins wasn't being very choosy about the gigs he was accepting by 1989, and EDGE OF SANITY is Exhibit A. Produced by the always-suspect Harry Alan Towers, who shepherded many a Jess Franco project in the late '60s and early '70s, EDGE OF SANITY is probably the most jawdroppingly sordid take on Robert Louis Stevenson's source novel that you'll ever see, the possible exception being Walerian Borowczyk's 1981 masterpiece THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE, which was least artistic and genuinely disturbing in its shocking transgressions. EDGE OF SANITY, on the other hand, is an unabashed raunchfest that seems poised to break out into a hardcore porno at any given moment. Perhaps that's not surprising given that French director Gerard Kikoine had previously dabbled in European porn prior to joining the Towers stock company, where he was assigned several of the producer's dubious, apartheid-era South Africa-lensed projects like DRAGONARD (1987) and its simultaneously-shot companion piece MASTER OF DRAGONARD HILL (1987) and the Poesploitation dud BURIED ALIVE (1990). So feverishly perverse is EDGE OF SANITY that rumors have persisted for years that Jess Franco secretly co-wrote it. Even though the credited J.P. Felix doesn't really sound like a real person and has no other IMDb credits, it's not Franco, despite the name sounding very much like his occasional pseudonym "J.P. Fenix."

Shot using more tilted Dutch angles than a Hal Hartley wet dream, EDGE OF SANITY presents Perkins' Jekyll as a milquetoast London surgeon whose experimentation with a cocaine-based anesthetic ends up inadvertently creating Victorian-era crack. With himself as the subject, Jekyll transforms into a gaunt, pale, compulsively-masturbating, crackhead Jack Hyde, sucking on a glass pipe and cruising for Whitechapel streetwalkers. They tend to turn up brutally slaughtered as Hyde's drug-fueled spree of sex murders earns him the name "Jack the Ripper." It's an interesting angle to fuse Mr. Hyde with the Ripper mythos, but EDGE OF SANITY is more concerned with letting Perkins fly his freak flag, using all the tics and mannerisms in his arsenal and borrowing a lot of his leftover Rev. Peter Shayne histrionics from Ken Russell's CRIMES OF PASSION (1984). Jekyll already has some sexual hangups in his psyche, stemming from a childhood voyeurism incident involving a servant girl (Sarah Maur-Thorp), a figure who repeatedly turns up in various guises in Hyde's nightly travels. It's another interesting touch to have Maur-Thorp play a series of prostitutes who all look the same to the out-of-control Hyde, the id of the more outwardly proper Jekyll. But again, whatever deeper themes Fenix, co-writer Ron Raley, and director Kikoine are going for are obliterated by the garish lighting, a demeaning role for Maur-Thorp (who only made a couple of other movies before quitting acting) and Perkins' insane performance, which manages to be simultaneously fearless and embarrassing. As a goth-looking Hyde, Perkins grimaces, twists and contorts his body, moans, groans, and grunts while aggressively rubbing bare asses, sucks on a crack pipe, head-butts Cockney pimps, initiates threesomes, masturbates a prostitute with his walking stick, and repeatedly gropes and fondles himself throughout.

In what's certainly his last memorable--for better or for worse--role before his death from AIDS in 1992, Perkins simply doesn't know where to stop, and considering some of the peccadilloes he demonstrated in his direction of PSYCHO III, one can't help but wonder how much of Hyde's antics stemmed from the actor being given some wide latitude by Kikoine. You'll need to shower after watching EDGE OF SANITY, though on Shout! Factory's new double feature Blu-ray, where it's paired with 1988's haunted prison dud DESTROYER simply because Perkins co-stars in it, it ends up looking far better than it has any business being. Filmed in Budapest using some of the same sets and locations as the same year's Robert Englund-headlined PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (also produced by Towers), EDGE OF SANITY is opulent and ornate, looking deceptively high-end for the in-your-face, late '80s T&A grinder that it is. The Blu-ray features the uncensored 91-minute version, five minutes longer than the R-rated 86-minute theatrical cut released in the spring of 1989 by the short-lived Millimeter Films, an offshoot of Miramax and sort-of a precursor to the Weinsteins' later Dimension Films genre brand. It's hard to believe Perkins hit all the major promotional destinations to plug this thing, showing up to talk EDGE OF SANITY on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT and some morning shows, as well as the late-night circuit with Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and Arsenio Hall.

Saturday, April 23, 2016


(Italy/Canada - 1977)

Directed by Martin Herbert (Alberto De Martino). Written by Vincent Mann (Vincenzo Mannino) and Frank Clark (Gianfranco Clerici). Cast: Stuart Whitman, John Saxon, Martin Landau, Gayle Hunnicutt, Tisa Farrow, Carole Laure, Jean Leclerc, Jean Marchand, Anthony Forest. (R, 99 mins)

Filmed as BLAZING MAGNUM, this Italian/Canadian co-production was sold in the US by AIP as STRANGE SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM, with chillingly effective poster art that unfortunately has little to do with the actual film. Coming from producer Edmondo Amati (THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE) and the same creative personnel behind the goat-tastic 1974 EXORCIST ripoff THE ANTICHRIST, which wouldn't even be released in the US until late 1978 as THE TEMPTER, STRANGE SHADOWS is a very American-looking police procedural that happens to be shot and set in Montreal. Almost everyone is hiding behind Americanized pseudonyms--director Alberto De Martino is "Martin Herbert," while screenwriters Vincenzo Mannino and Gianfranco Clerici (a pair who also collaborated on the scripts for HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK and THE NEW YORK RIPPER) have been respectively rechristened "Vincent Mann" and "Frank Clark"--an exception being composer Armando Trovajoli, whose moody, jazzy score wouldn't be at all out of place in a then-contemporary cop show on TV. Only in a late-film flashback does STRANGE SHADOWS feel even remotely Italian, and even the end, with the camera pulling away from the obligatory pissed-off, plays-by-his-own-rules cop in an aerial shot as he walks away in disgust, looks like the final shot of any DIRTY HARRY movie. Poliziotteschi may have been big in Italy at this time, but STRANGE SHADOWS is only very vaguely indebted to them, playing more like a Canadian tax shelter actioner with some DIRTY HARRY/FRENCH CONNECTION overtures and some slight hints at giallo. The US poster is a selling a horror film that's really a mean-spirited little gem of a cop movie that's just been resurrected on Blu-ray by Kino (which drops the "STRANGE" and is now just called SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM) but it stands out as an Italian cop thriller that seemingly makes strenuous effort to be as North American as possible.

When his kid sister Louise (Carole Laure) is poisoned at college in Montreal and her doctor/possible lover George Tracer (Martin Landau) is the main suspect, perpetually aggravated Ottawa police captain Tony Saitta (Stuart Whitman) decides to go out of his jurisdiction and take over the investigation himself. Getting some help from agreeably sympathetic Sgt. Matthews (John Saxon), the tactless, bull-in-a-china-shop Saitta follows a convoluted trail of clues and dead ends that involve Louise's secret life about which overprotective Saitta knows nothing; Louise's blind friend Julie (Tisa Farrow); Tracer's creep son (Anthony Forest); a slutty prof (Gayle Hunnicutt), who may be sleeping with the married Tracer but is definitely screwing Tracer Jr; Louise's ex Fred (Jean Leclerc), who's still not happy about being dumped; the theft of a valuable necklace and someone wanting to keep potential witnesses from squawking; and a dismembered transvestite whose body parts are found in a scrapyard. Saitta cracks skulls all over Montreal and doesn't care who he pisses off or how much destruction he leaves in his wake, whether it's a ridiculously violent penthouse brawl with a trio of kung-fu cross-dressers that ends with him shoving a hot curling iron up exactly the worst place you can imagine, or one of the great unsung car chases of the '70s, coordinated by the venerable car stunt legend Remy Julienne and one that just keeps getting more ludicrous the longer it goes on. Even though he seems more like Laure's father than her brother, Whitman is very entertaining as the irate Saitta, who practically goes full McBain by the end with one of the most reckless acts of wanton destruction that a no-rules, one-man-force movie cop has ever pulled off.  De Martino and producer Edmondo Amati reteamed later in 1977 for HOLOCAUST 2000 (aka THE CHOSEN and RAIN OF FIRE), an Italian OMEN ripoff with plenty of spectacularly gory deaths and a fully-committed and full-frontal Kirk Douglas giving it his all at the beginning of his exhibitionism phase.

Friday, April 22, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: PRECIOUS CARGO (2016)

(US/UK - 2016)

Directed by Max Adams. Written by Max Adams and Paul Seetachit. Cast: Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Bruce Willis, Claire Forlani, Daniel Bernhardt, Jenna Kelly, Nick Loeb, Lydia Hull, John Brotherton, Tyler John Olson, Sammi Barber, Christopher Rob Bowen. (R, 89 mins)

The latest in the landmark "Bruce Willis phones in his performance from his hotel room" series, PRECIOUS CARGO is marginally better than the likes of FIRE WITH FIRE, THE PRINCE, VICE, and EXTRACTION, but that's not saying much. Willis does even less than usual here, playing Gulfport crime boss Eddie Filosa, who's introduced in a hotel room berating and slapping a tailor and complaining that his tie looks "dipped in shit." He's doing this before sending his chief flunky Simon (Daniel Bernhardt) after disobedient cohort Karen (Claire Forlani), who tried to shaft him out of his 60% cut on her last job, so now he wants it all. Karen ends up involving her career-criminal ex Jack, referred to by Eddie as "the Michelangelo of thieves" and played with cocky wiseassery by SAVED BY THE BELL's Mark-Paul Gosselaar as if he's attempting to carve a niche as "the Ryan Reynolds of VOD," in a plot to rip off Eddie's diamond shipment. She's also got another surprise for him: she's pregnant with his child, which puts a damper on his blossoming relationship with nice veterinarian Jenna (Lydia Hull), who has no idea that he and his abrasive, little sis-like sidekick Logan (a legitimately enjoyable performance by the promising Jenna Kelly, who deserves her own movie) deal guns and kill people for a living. Double and triple crosses ensue, with Jack and Karen forming an uneasy alliance and putting together a crack team of hired criminals to take Eddie down in a way that is in no way reminiscent of a certain fast and/or furious franchise, with Simon in hot pursuit and Eddie right where you expect a modern-day Willis character to be: on his phone, either yelling "Find him!" or smirking as he sleepily recites tepid bon mots being fed to him just off-camera.

When Eddie derisively calls Jack "Cowboy," it's probably meant to be a winking homage to DIE HARD, but all it does is remind you of how great Willis once was and how little he cares now. If you stop-watched Willis' screen time in PRECIOUS CARGO, you probably wouldn't even get to five minutes. He has one brief scene away from Eddie's hotel room and the outside patio, and that's for the requisite visit to an abandoned shipyard for an incoherently-edited shootout. His most lifelike moment comes when he does an uncomfortably overlong half-assed chuckle that seems like less a character action and more like Willis' response to director/co-writer Max Adams requesting "Bruce, let's run through that last part again." Demonstrating a work ethic that makes you appreciate the comparatively tireless dedication of Steven Seagal, it's almost as if Willis' career has become a tribute to Henry Fonda's one morning of work on 1977's TENTACLES, where the legendary actor was cast as the scowling head of an oil company and was given vague lines like "Just fix it!" and "Why wasn't I notified of this?"--lines that could be about anything and it quickly becomes apparent that Fonda very likely has no idea that he's in a movie about a giant mutant octopus. Fonda didn't even leave his house to shoot his three or four brief scenes--the crew came to him. Willis is at least willing to go to expensive hotels to work on these low-budget movies for a couple of days, but we're maybe two or three of these things away from him texting in his performances while taking a dump.

There are a few things that work in PRECIOUS CARGO that make it a bit more endurable than most of its ilk: some of the stunt work is well-done, and there's a reasonably decent over-the-top jet skis-vs-speedboat chase that took some planning and looks like something out of a Bond movie. It also really relishes and sinks its teeth into its R rating. The blood splatters and Adams (who also co-wrote EXTRACTION) supplies Bernhardt and Kelly with some occasionally funny and at times unabashedly offensive one-liners (Bernhardt's Simon to a trio of dim, surgically-enhanced bimbos at Eddie's pool: "Hey! You. Dickbreath. Where's Eddie?"), but Gosselaar and Forlani have zero chemistry as the bickering ex-lovers forced to work together on One Last Job. The less said about the rest of Jack's crew, the better: Tyler Jon Olson fails to make "You owe me a vacation!" a new catchphrase despite tireless efforts to do so, and Sammi Barber, as the idiot wife of one of the guys, uses a forced and indescribably awful Southern-twanged vocal fry that brings every scene she's in to a screeching halt. Cashing another easy paycheck from his enablers at Grindstone Entertainment and Emmett/Furla Films, Willis coasts through his few scattered scenes with the expected disinterest and visible contempt (he's also the only main cast member absent during the closing credits blooper reel, a good indication that people weren't having as fun a time with him as they were with everyone else). This is an actor who looks like he hates what he does for a living. Over the last 30 years, Willis has done great work in some great movies. By most standards, he's had a stellar career and likely gets a lifetime pass just on the basis of DIE HARD. Why he takes on these frivolous cameos in B and C-list Redbox-destined clunkers when he still has star power is a mystery. Actors fall into periodic slumps, but Willis seems to have intentionally created this one. Why? Not since Klaus Kinski followed FITZCARRALDO with an endless string of C-list genre fare has a gifted actor been so openly brazen about not giving a shit. Willis' chief objective these days is "What's the most amount of money I can make for the least amount of work?" You've still got some good stuff in you, Bruno. Maybe start following your own advice.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Retro Review: CRY OF A PROSTITUTE (1974)

(Italy - 1974; US release 1976)

Directed by Andrea Bianchi. Written by Piero Regnoli. Cast: Henry Silva, Barbara Bouchet, Fausto Tozzi, Vittorio Sanipoli, Mario Landi, Patrizia Gori, Dada Gallotti, Alfredo Pea. (Unrated, 93 mins)

Titled QUELLI CHE CONTANO in Italy, which translates to the vague THE ONES WHO COUNT in English, this tawdry 1974 Eurocrime thriller was given a sleazy, drive-in-ready rechristening as CRY OF A PROSTITUTE for its 1976 US release by grindhouse outfit Joseph Brenner Associates, Inc. It's not exactly false advertising--there is an ex-prostitute who figures into the story and she indeed cries--but it probably disappointed those specifically looking for T&A trash, though audiences did end up getting a more-violent-than-usual Italian mob movie out of the deal. The great Henry Silva, who was getting a ton of work in poliziotteschi films throughout the 1970s, is Sicilian-born hit man Tony Ariante, who returns to his rural Sicily village birthplace after spending years with the American mob in Brooklyn. He's back at the behest of Don Cascemi (Vittorio Sanipoli), who wants to start a war between two other bosses, Don Cantimo (Fausto Tozzi) and Don Scannapieco (Mario Landi). The three warring dons have gotten involved in the drug trade, though Cascemi and Tony are appalled that the bodies of dead kids are being used to move junk back and forth between Europe and America. In classic YOJIMBO fashion, Tony plays both sides against the other ("Whose side are you on?" Scannapieco asks, to which Tony replies "The winner") and things escalate when he steps in and offs three goons who try to kill Don Scannapieco's handicapped son Zino (Alfredo Pea). If that's not enough, Tony's lured into a sadomasochistic fling with Don Cantimo's alcoholic, nympho wife Margie (Barbara Bouchet), the former prostitute of the title, who ropes Tony in by gently fellating the tip of a peeled banana at the dinner table. Fortunately for Tony, Don Cantimo gets off on being a cuckold, demanding dirty-talk confessionals about her extramarital flings while they have sex ("God, what a whore you are!" he ecstatically moans in the velvet tones of veteran voice dubber Michael Forest). Tony doesn't have time for romance, instead opting to anally rape Margie in the barn while beating her and forcing her face-first into the gutted, raw carcass of a hung-up pig in a scene so wrong in so many ways that it has to be seen to be believed.

The casually cruel nature of CRY OF A PROSTITUTE shouldn't be a surprise since it's directed by Italian trash auteur Andrea Bianchi, whose later films include the charming 1975 giallo STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER, the sleazy 1979 supernatural horror/porno crossover MALABIMBA: THE MALICIOUS WHORE, and the 1981 zombie incest masterpiece BURIAL GROUND. Silva plays one of the most vile sociopaths of his career, possibly even more despicable than the similarly nihilistic asshole he played in Fernando Di Leo's THE BOSS, aka WIPEOUT!, a year earlier, the difference being that Tony's the hero. Not only is there the extremely brutal sodomy scene in the barn, but he also later whips Margie with his belt, finishing her off with a few thwacks across her face with the buckle (the end result adorned Joseph Brenner's US poster art, which would not fly today). He also finds it's not enough to kill a couple of rival gangsters, but he also has to drive over and flatten them with a conveniently-available steamroller. The only thing that makes Tony even slightly human is the small amount of sympathy he feels for the helpless Zino, and a surprise reveal at the end tries to justify Tony's actions, but it's pretty hard to excuse his--or the film's--treatment of the pathetic Margie, played by the gorgeous Bouchet at her least glamorous. After opening with an instant classic decapitation, CRY OF A PROSTITUTE is a little slow-going and predictable for a while, but Bianchi clearly gets bored and starts going increasingly over-the-top in ways that make Silva's next Eurocrime gig--Umberto Lenzi's incredible ALMOST HUMAN--seem tame by comparison. Whether it's the misogynistic sexual violence, the pervy antics of Don Cantimo, or the insane killings (another guy gets his head split when it's pushed through a band saw), CRY OF A PROSTITUTE never resists a chance to go for shock value.

It also takes advantage of its rural, old-country setting by essentially making the story a spaghetti western in poliziotteschi disguise, from Tony's FISTFUL OF DOLLARS machinations to his climactic resurrection to take on Don Cantimo's men after he's presumed dead. Also noteworthy to the spaghetti western motif is Tony's ominous whistling before the kill, an obvious nod to Charles Bronson's Harmonica in Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. There's some good ideas in Piero Regnoli's script but Bianchi, by all accounts still with us at 90 though long-retired from the movies, is just too rude and crude to pull off any notion of stylistic, genre-melding subtleties. In the relatively controlled hands of a Di Leo, an Enzo G. Castellari (STREET LAW), or a more politically-minded genre figure like a Damiano Damiani (CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN), CRY OF A PROSTITUTE could've been a much smarter film. But Andrea Bianchi never did subtle or smart, so it still scores as unabashed drive-in garbage, which is fine on its own. It also offers an essential Silva performance, with the actor getting in one of his signature, emphatic "MotherFUCKER!" bellowings ("Will you please clean my shoes?") that have retroactively made him the Samuel L. Jackson of Eurocrime.

Newspaper ad for CRY OF A PROSTITUTE, opening in Toledo, OH
on 6/2/1977, significantly toned down from the brutal one-sheet art. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Retro Review: HEARTS AND ARMOUR (1983)

(Italy - 1983; US release 1985)

Written and directed by Giacomo Battiato. Cast: Zeudi Araya, Barbara De Rossi, Rick Edwards, Leigh McCloskey, Ronn Moss, Maurizio Nichetti, Tanya Roberts, Giovanni Visentin, Tony Vogel, Lina Sastri, Lucien Bruchon, Al Cliver, Robert Spafford, Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, Bobby Rhodes, Hal Yamanouchi. (Unrated, 101 mins)

A virtually forgotten adventure saga set during the Crusades, 1983's HEARTS AND ARMOUR was a handsomely-produced, reasonably big-budget Italian film picked up for US distribution by Warner Bros. in 1984. A cursory glance puts it in the same class as any number of imported CONAN THE BARBARIAN ripoffs playing drive-ins and grindhouses at the time, but it's a comparatively highbrow affair, based on Ludovico Ariosto's 16th century, 38,000-line epic poem Orlando Furioso. Rather than muscular barbarians, it's closer in tone and chivalrous knighthood spirit to John Boorman's EXCALIBUR, which was a huge hit for Warner Bros. in 1981. But HEARTS AND ARMOUR never achieved that level of success or exposure. After a few test screenings that didn't go well, the studio shelved the film for a year before releasing it straight-to-video in 1985. It also had a few sporadic HBO airings not long after, but has largely languished in obscurity for 30 years, trudged up only by the curious obtaining import or bootleg copies or hoping somebody's put it on YouTube. Thanks to its review in the Maltin movie guide, a rumor has persisted among the film's tiny cult following (mainly confined to the daytime soap crowd, as two of the film's stars went on to make names for themselves in that field) that a longer version exists, and that the 101-minute US release was cut down from a four-hour miniseries for Italian TV. While that was the case with some films from that period (1983's YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE, being one major example), HEARTS AND ARMOUR was never a four-hour miniseries. It was shot in 2.35:1 widescreen, which would be unheard-of for a made-for-TV project in those 1.33:1 broadcast days, and nobody's ever found any evidence of air dates in Italy or anything whatsoever to corroborate a four-hour version, despite the persistence of that one inevitable dude in an IMDb comments thread who insists he's seen it.

Directed by Giacomo Battiato, a career journeyman who primarily worked in Italian television and is still active there today, HEARTS AND ARMOUR simplistically whittles the Crusades down to a tale of forbidden love and personal vengeance between warring Christian and Moor families. Bradamante (Barbara De Rossi) is a noblewoman who has rebelled against her Christian family, renouncing her wealth and comfort to go wherever the road takes her, coming into possession of an indestructible suit of armor that renders her most powerful in battle. She rescues Moor princess Angelica (Tanya Roberts, in between THE BEASTMASTER and SHEENA) from the first of many attacks (Angelica seems on the verge of being gang-raped every time we see her) and takes her prisoner, intending to turn her over to the Christians. Things are complicated when Bradamante meets Ruggero (future soap star Ronn Moss, then best known as the bassist in the late '70s soft rock juggernaut Player, of "Baby Come Back" fame), a Moor prince and heir to the throne of his king father (dubbing legend Robert Spafford). She falls in love with Ruggero, but is fearful of a witch's prophecy that he will die at the hands of Christian paladin Orlando (Rick Edwards, an American model and another future soap star). Orlando meanwhile, comes to love Angelica as various forces from the Moors--Ruggero's sister Marfisa (Zeudi Araya, who went on to marry the film's producer Franco Cristaldi) and an improbable Asian warrior (Hal Yamanouchi) who seems to have wandered in from SHOGUN ASSASSIN--and the Christians--evil mercenary Ganelon (Giovanni Visentin) and duplicitous knight Ferrau (a scenery-chewing Tony Vogel, who speaks every one of his lines through clenched teeth as if he's in physical pain trying to shit and it's stuck)--relentlessly pursue them, leading to numerous extensive scenes of swordplay, jousting, and one-on-one combat.

Battiato, who wrote the script with uncredited assistance from Italian genre stalwarts Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, doesn't do a very good job of presenting the story in a remotely coherent fashion, nor does it help that he's asking you to accept Tanya Roberts and Ronn Moss as Moors alongside black actors like Araya and DEMONS' Bobby Rhodes. But it's this choppy editing and the random introduction of new characters with no information who they are or how they relate to other people that certainly lends much credibility to the "this was cut down from a four-hour miniseries" argument. Leigh McCloskey (INFERNO) appears quite a bit as Rinaldo, a paladin friend of Orlando's, but he doesn't really have much of a purpose. In the poem, Rinaldo is Bradamante's brother and they're both Orlando's cousins, but the muddled HEARTS AND ARMOUR doesn't establish that. Battiato instead opts to focus on the action sequences, which take up most of the running time and are brutal, gory, and well-choreographed. Blood splatters, limbs and heads fly, and armor and swords clang furiously, all set to a rousing score by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark members Martin Cooper and David Hughes. This ensures the film is never boring but it's awfully difficult to follow, especially for those who aren't already very familiar with Ariosto's poem.

De Rossi does a convincing job as Bradamante, but everyone else wanders in and out, making it difficult to leave an impression. Roberts, formerly of CHARLIE'S ANGELS and a big enough name in 1983 to provide credible American export value with then-DALLAS co-star McCloskey, has little to do with a character who's constantly in distress, with her wardrobe perpetually ready to fall off (it never does). A musician attempting to break into acting, Moss would go on to play Rowdy Abilene in Andy Sidaris' HARD TICKET TO HAWAII (1987) before spending 25 years as Ridge Forrester on the CBS soap THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, while Edwards found much less job security, making a couple of little-seen Italian films before appearing for a few years on NBC's SANTA BARBARA, his career essentially over by the early '90s. Both do decent work in the battle scenes, though they don't fare as well dramatically, as both are dubbed by familiar-sounding Eurocult voice actors. There's also small roles for Eurotrash vets Yamanouchi, Rhodes, Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, and Lucio Fulci regular Al Cliver, who shows up long enough to get his throat sliced open by Angelica after yet another attempted gang rape, which these knights don't really grasp is hard to do with all the armor. Battiato went back to TV, directing the four-hour 1986 Italian TV miniseries BLOOD TIES, a mob drama with an impressive cast headlined by Brad Davis, Tony Lo Bianco, Vincent Spano, Maria Conchita Alonso, Michael V. Gazzo, Joe Spinell, and De Rossi. BLOOD TIES would be cut down to two hours for its American premiere as a Showtime original movie, later losing another 20 minutes for its eventual VHS release. HEARTS AND ARMOUR doesn't have much going for it aside from De Rossi's beauty and some impressive, spirited action, but a proper restoration to its 2.35:1 widescreen to show off the work of cinematographer Dante Spinotti, perhaps as a remastered Warner Archive release, would go a long way toward boosting its reputation. Or even reminding people that it exists.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Retro Review: VENOM (1982)

(UK - 1982)

"Half the big-name cast appears to be drunk; the other half looks as though it wishes it were" - Leonard Maltin on VENOM.

One of the most stupidly entertaining guilty pleasure horror movies of the 1980s, VENOM finds a claustrophobic London hostage situation made worse when the party is crashed by the world's deadliest and most venomous snake. Philip (Lance Holcomb) is the animal-obsessed, dangerously asthmatic ten-year-old son of a wealthy American hotel CEO based in London. When Mom (Cornelia Sharpe, wife of the film's producer Martin Bregman, and the Lorraine Gary to his Sid Sheinberg) goes on a business trip with Dad, Philip is left in the care of his grizzled, retired safari guide grandfather (the always wonderful Sterling Hayden, in his last big-screen role) and maid Louise (Susan George). Unbeknownst to Philip and Grandpa, Louise and surly chauffeur Dave ("and Oliver Reed as Dave") are conspiring with Louise's beau, international terrorist Jacmel (Klaus Kinski, who turned down the role of Toht in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK because he felt the script was "moronically shitty" and VENOM paid more) to kidnap Philip and get a fat ransom from his dad. That plan goes south when Philip's package at the neighborhood pet store--a harmless African house snake--is mixed-up with an order for a black mamba placed by an area toxicology lab overseen by Dr. Stowe (Sarah Miles). The box containing the mamba is opened and it immediately bites and kills Louise, then proceeds to hide in the vents, occasionally slithering out to launch itself at someone or just play games by scaring the shit out of them. Meanwhile, irate hostage negotiator Bulloch (Nicol Williamson) tries to contain the escalating crisis from outside the house and meet Jacmel's demands. And, of course, Philip can't breathe.

Opening in theaters in January 1982, VENOM began production in the fall of 1980 with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE director Tobe Hooper at the helm, fresh off of his success with the 1979 CBS miniseries SALEM'S LOT and the 1981 hit THE FUNHOUSE. Shortly into filming, creative differences manifested, leading to Hooper either quitting or being dismissed, depending on who's telling the story.  While Hooper went on to direct (or "direct") POLTERGEIST, his hastily-chosen VENOM replacement was found in journeyman Piers Haggard. A respected and consistently busy director for British television, Haggard occasionally dabbled in features like 1970's THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW and Peter Sellers' horrendous 1980 swan song THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU, where he was fired by the star, who finished directing the film himself, though only Haggard--the third director cycled through the doomed project--remained the credited fall guy. Haggard arrived on VENOM with very little prep time and had to not only contend with an already troubled production falling behind schedule, but also with the numerous volatile personalities in his cast. The key focus of the damage control was on anger management poster boy Kinski, whose legendarily bad behavior and near-constant screaming fits prompted even the normally difficult Reed and Williamson to tone down their acts and just stay out of the path of Hurricane Klaus. Haggard contributed a very enjoyable commentary to Blue Underground's 2003 DVD release of VENOM (a Blu-ray upgrade is due out this summer) where he detailed all of the hassles and brouhahas that developed during the shoot (Haggard recounts Miles at one point telling Reed to just punch Kinski in the face to shut him up, to which the usually short-fused Reed quietly balked and said "I'm no fool").

As problematic as everything was, he seems like a good sport about it, and the film works in spite of its silliness. It's hard not to be entertained by Kinski's climactic spaz attack as he flails around wrapping a rubber snake around himself, Williamson's obviously grouchy disinterest in the whole endeavor, and a gun-shot Reed rendered immobile and forced to watch the mamba crawl up his pants leg and bite him on the dick. Also with brief appearances by Michael Gough as the London Zoo's leading snake expert, and John Forbes-Robertson--best known as Hammer's ineffective replacement Dracula when Christopher Lee refused to appear in 1974's horror/kung-fu hybrid THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES--as a doomed cop killed by an impulsive and panicked Dave. Reed apparently had such a great time doing a horror movie about a snake that he did another one a year later with 1983's Canadian-made SPASMS(R, 92 mins)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Retro Review: CONQUEST (1983)

(Italy/Spain/Mexico - 1983; US release 1984)

Every few years, I feel compelled to revisit Lucio Fulci's bizarre contribution to the 1980s sword & sorcery craze, thinking "I'll figure it out this time," and I never do. There's no making sense out of CONQUEST, an acid-trippy ripoff of CONAN THE BARBARIAN by way of EL TOPO, shot in the most gauzy, foggy, smeary lens filter this side of Robert Altman's QUINTET. About as coherent as fragments of a barely-remembered dream, CONQUEST has young Ilias (Andrea Occhipinti of BOLERO) sent by his people on a quest to defeat the nefarious Ocron (Italian CONAN ripoff fixture Sabrina Siani, billed here as the more American sounding "Sabrina Sellers"), an iron-masked, topless overlord who spends most of her time writhing with snakes, eating the brains of her victims, and ordering around her army of talking wolf/dog creatures who walk upright. Ilias gets some help from mercenary warrior Mace (Jorge Rivero, during his "George Rivero" phase). who becomes his mentor in their quest to defeat Ocron, who's later joined by her own masked co-conspirator Zora (Conrado San Martin). Mace and Ilias then spend a lot of time walking around and encountering various creatures of undetermined origin before their final, fateful laser arrow showdown with the evil Ocron and her minions.

Coming soon after the end of his unstoppable 1979-1982 run of iconic gorehound classics like ZOMBIE, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE BEYOND, and others, Fulci had grown into enough of a genuine auteur by this point--even if it hadn't yet been recognized--that you can see him attempting to imbue CONQUEST with his unique stamp. Claudio Simonetti's score is mostly then-trendy synth material, but there are some cues that are strikingly similar to Fabio Frizzi's work on CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, and it shares with it the same hazily nonsensical, anything-goes dream logic, plus Mace has a mark on his forehead that looks very similar to the "Eibon" symbol from THE BEYOND. From the laser arrows to the wolf/dog army to a drowned Mace being brought back to life by dolphins, there's no way to predict what will happen next in CONQUEST. Fulci also doesn't skimp on the trash and the gore: Siani is topless every moment she's onscreen, and there's plenty of gore, from cannibalism to scalping to one unfortunate female victim being ripped up the middle like a broken wishbone and disemboweled. His partnership with Fabrizio De Angelis over after the producer slashed the budget of 1982's MANHATTAN BABY by 75%, and his relationship with frequent screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti in tatters, Fulci is in hired gun mode on CONQUEST even with his attempts to personalize it, brought in by Italian producer Giovanni Di Clemente after the latter entered a co-production deal with Mexican producers/screenwriters Carlos Vasallo and J. Antonio de la Loma. 

Mexican actor Rivero likely came as part of the Vasallo/de la Loma package deal, as he starred in several of their past and future de la Loma-directed films, like the 1982 espionage thriller TARGET: EAGLE, the 1984 DEATH WISH-meets-CONVOY trucker revenge actioner KILLING MACHINE, the 1988 DELTA FORCE ripoff COUNTERFORCE, and the 1989 bare-knuckle brawler FIST FIGHTER. Rivero attempted to break into Hollywood when he co-starred with John Wayne in 1970's RIO LOBO and with Charlton Heston and James Coburn in 1976's THE LAST HARD MEN, but he never happened in the US. Instead, Rivero built a career in Mexico and overseas in Spain, with occasional appearances in a few straight-to-US-video titles in the 1990s, like the Traci Lords thriller ICE and the 1995 MST3K staple WEREWOLF. Released in the US by United Film Distribution Company in the spring of 1984, CONQUEST has its devoted defenders but is generally considered second, if not third-tier Fulci. It's not a good movie, but there's something to it that keeps drawing me back, whether it's the splatter and surrealism inherent to Fulci or some of the humor that seems intentional, like Ocron screaming "Stop him, Zora!" as Zora just emits an exasperated sigh and vanishes into thin air as if he can't even with this bitch anymore, or the closing credits caveat "Any reference to persons or events is purely coincidental." Thanks for clearing that up. (R, 89 mins)

Friday, April 15, 2016

In Theaters: CRIMINAL (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Ariel Vroman. Written by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg. Cast: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Alice Eve, Gal Gadot, Ryan Reynolds, Michael Pitt, Jordi Molla, Antje Troue, Scott Adkins, Amaury Nolasco, Colin Salmon, Natalie Burn, Lara Decaro. (R, 113 mins)

Your tolerance for the high-concept sci-fi espionage actioner CRIMINAL is dependent upon a number of things: how much you can suspend your disbelief, how much you can stomach graphically brutal and gleefully over-the-top violence, and how perversely fascinating you find serious, award-caliber actors slumming it in a trashy genre offering from Cannon cover band Millennium (I'd recommend running the Cannon intro on your own as the movie starts to get the maximum effect). To Millennium's credit, they brought their A-game to this, opting to actually shoot a London-set story in London instead of their usual unconvincing Bulgarian backlot. Even their go-to CGI clown crew at Worldwide FX seems to have admirably stepped up to the challenge and produced possibly the best splatter and explosions they've ever done. At a cursory glance, CRIMINAL has "straight-to-VOD" written all over it, but with a wild script by the late Douglas Cook (he died in July 2015) and David Weisberg, the same duo who wrote THE ROCK (Michael Bay's one legitimately awesome movie), assured direction by the promising Ariel Vroman (the little-seen 2013 mob movie THE ICEMAN), and an absurdly overqualified cast, CRIMINAL ultimately transcends its dubious first impression and if you're approaching it in the right mood, ends up a hell of a lot more enjoyable than it has any business being.

When London-based CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds, who's all over the trailers but not in the print ads or the poster) is tortured and killed by international terrorist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Molla--was Rade Serbedzija busy?), his London CIA bureau chief Quaker Wells (a ranting Gary Oldman) needs vital info Pope had but has no way of obtaining it. Enter Dr. Micah Franks (Tommy Lee Jones), who's spent 18 years working on the transplanting of memories but is still five years away from human trials. Wells decides that time is now when the dead Pope's brain is kept alive and Franks--short for Frankenstein?--springs Jerico Stewart (Kevin Costner) from a maximum security hellhole to be their guinea pig. Stewart, a psychotic, sociopathic, zero-remorse killing machine who feels no emotion and no pain thanks to a broken home and a childhood abuse incident where he suffered a traumatic brain injury at the hands of his enraged dad that caused his frontal lobe to stop forming at the age of ten, is flown to London and has Pope's memories injected into his brain. The experiment doesn't initially take, and despite the sympathetic Franks insisting Stewart needs more recovery time, an impatient Wells orders him terminated. Of course, Stewart ends up escaping custody and heading on a rampage across London when Pope's memories start materializing in his head. Stewart is alarmed to find that he can suddenly speak French (though he thinks it's Spanish) and has tastes for the finer things in life like lattes, but he's still Jerico Stewart and can't stop himself from killing innocent people in cold blood or beating the shit out of a pompous asshole in a coffee shop ("Who punches someone in a patisserie?" the outraged victim yells, in one of the many intentionally funny bits). With Wells and the CIA as well as Heimdahl's ruthless hit woman Elsa Mueller (Antje Troue) in hot pursuit for the information that is becoming clearer by the minute, Stewart eventually hides out with Pope's widow Jill (Gal Gadot), and feels genuine emotion for the first time when Pope's perceptive and impossibly cute daughter Emma (Lara Decaro) is nice to him. Stewart finally grows a conscience and decides to act on Pope's memories, which involved negotiating a CIA deal with hacker Jan Strook, aka "The Dutchman" (Michael Pitt), who has the ability to override all US military launch codes and intends to sell that info to the megalomaniacal Heimdahl, a crazed anarchist hell-bent on bringing down all of the world's governments.

Costner, introduced in chains with long hair and a madman beard like Sean Connery in THE ROCK and speaking in a guttural, Nick Nolte grumble, has never cut this loose onscreen before, whether he's hamming it up as the insane Stewart or bopping his head Roxbury-style as he steals a van and cruises around London looking for trouble. But when Stewart grows more human thanks to the gradual clarification of Pope's memories that trigger actual feeling within him, Costner gives Liam Neeson some serious competition in the "60-and-over asskicker" club by demonstrating acting chops that a Van Damme or a Dolph Lundgren wouldn't had this been a typical Millennium/NuImage offering. Jones remains low-key and somber and doesn't have much to do after the initial surgical procedure, and the same goes for Alice Eve, prominently billed in a thankless supporting role that gives her nothing to do. Likewise for DTV action hero Scott Adkins, who's in the whole movie as one of Wells' flunkies but is tragically underused, only getting a few "Yes, sir, whatever you say!"s to Oldman and no action scenes of his own (speaking of Adkins--while Vroman does a fine job, here's another larger-scale Millennium/NuImage project that would've been perfect for Isaac Florentine). With his hair flopping all over the place and froth forming in the corners of his mouth, Oldman works at two speeds here: irritable and apoplectic. He paces around what looks like a vacant BOURNE crisis suite as everyone watches monitors, waiting for just the right time to bellow "Find Jerico Stewart!" and "It's him! Let's go!" or, in his more introspective moments, "FUCK!" like a bloviating jackass who seems blithely unaware that he's got a ridiculous name like "Quaker Wells" (Adkins' character is listed as "Pete Greensleeves" in the credits, but I don't recall any of the agents working under Wells ever being referred to by name). CRIMINAL is total empty calorie junk food, but it's junk food of the highest caliber. Like sweets and snacks that really do nothing good for you, you just need them once in a while, and CRIMINAL scratches that '80s/'90s throwback itch not just with its ridiculous premise and hooky electronic score by Brian Tyler and Keith Power (yes, like nearly everything else these days, it's "Carpenter-esque"), but with the casting of real actors--I wonder if Costner, Oldman, and Jones did any JFK reminiscing between takes--to seal the deal.