Tuesday, June 28, 2016

In Theaters: THE NEON DEMON (2016)

(France/US/Denmark - 2016)

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Written by Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola, Charles Baker, Jamie Clayton, Stacey Danger. (R, 118 mins)

With his latest film THE NEON DEMON, DRIVE director and cult filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is aspiring to be the same kind of poking-with-a-stick provocateur as his fellow Danish countryman Lars von Trier. Refn's last film, 2013's hypnotic and hyper-stylized masterpiece ONLY GOD FORGIVES (infamously booed at Cannes, which is essentially a badge of honor, if not the entire endgame to guys like Refn and von Trier) is a key influence here, at least in terms of the throbbing synth score by Cliff Martinez, the obsessive perfectionism of the Kubrickian shot composition, and the red and blue Dario Argento colorgasms. But THE NEON DEMON is Refn's worst film, a huge disappointment that looks like the equivalent of an ONLY GOD FORGIVES B-side, with the visual and aural elements crammed into a puerile, simplistic, and embarrassingly heavy-handed metaphorical allegory that's part supernatural spin on BLACK SWAN and part good vs. evil lecture on whatever it takes to get ahead in the Los Angeles modeling world. One senses around 3/4 of the way through that it's all a goof to amuse Refn, no doubt chuckling to himself thinking about how cineastes will sift through every last bit of faux symbolism and gawk in astonishment at some of the shocking imagery on display. Sure, THE NEON DEMON is the most transgressive summer release to hit mainstream multiplex chains in years, but it feels like lukewarm leftovers otherwise: Refn seems like he's just copying himself, and even the score sounds familiar and uninspired. The busy Martinez--a former drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers back in the Freaky Styley days-- has composed some of the most memorable film music of the last several years, but even he appears to be on autopilot here, with only the sights and sounds of an early club scene hitting the exhilarating, intoxicating heights of DRIVE and ONLY GOD FORGIVES.

A proverbial wide-eyed innocent just off the bus and on her own on the mean streets of L.A., Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16-year-old orphan posing as 19--"18 is too on-the-nose," she's told by her agent (Christina Hendricks)--and trying to make it in modeling. She befriends nice-guy photographer Dean (Karl Glusman of Gaspar Noe's LOVE), who takes some shots for her portfolio, and at a test shoot, she meets makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone, in the film's best performance). Ruby senses Jesse is something special, and more or less takes her under her wing, advising her how to navigate the pit of vipers that is the world of fashion modeling. A natural beauty of virginal purity who catches the eye of every photographer and designer she meets, Jesse quickly earns the jealous derision of Ruby's friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), models in their very early 20s who have undergone extensive cosmetic surgery and are quickly aging their way out of the business. It doesn't take long before Jesse is well on her way to becoming the next big thing after a photo shoot with starmaker Jack (Desmond Harrington) and closing the latest show by L.A.'s hottest fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola). It's the designer who drives home the notion that "Beauty isn't everything...it's the only thing," passive-aggressively chastising Gigi and her cosmetic artifice. As Jesse is indoctrinated--in an almost ritualistic, sacrificial way--into this new world, she rejects the sincere affections of both Dean and Ruby, starts lording her gift of beauty over others, and the seething Gigi and Sarah decide they've had enough of the ingenue usurping the attention and adoration for which they've had themselves almost completely surgically reconstructed but have yet to reap the benefits.

I suppose it's some kind of auto-critique that a film calling out the shallowness of surface beauty is all shallow surface itself. THE NEON DEMON is an exercise in tedium for its first 90 minutes, riddled with cliches and going nowhere slowly, and by the time the really sick and twisted shit starts in the last half hour, it doesn't come off as shocking, but rather, juvenile and attention-seeking. Refn has nothing new to say here about L.A., fashion, or fame--he's just trying to outrage people and get a reaction. All the foreshadowing about "fresh meat" and the like should give you an idea of where at least some things are going, and it ultimately plays like an unfilmable short story from the halcyon days of splatterpunk, a lot of stuff that reads better on the page than it can possibly play out on the screen. Refn manages to create a few striking images here and there, mostly in the early going (the aforementioned club scene is a highlight), and Hendricks has a memorably acidic line about small-town girls pursuing modeling because "some guy named Chad in the food court told them they were beautiful enough to be a model." But there's an awful lot of very little otherwise, from extraneous supporting characters who serve little or no purpose (Glusman's Dean is absent for long stretches, then just vanishes altogether, and Keanu Reeves seems to have put in a day's work tops, as the repugnant manager of the fleabag motel where Jesse lives) to its painfully obvious metaphor for the way "the scene" chews up the naive innocents and spits them out. There's absolutely no doubt that a cult will form around this and I'm not ruling out another look at it down the line, but this seems like it's all smoke and mirrors, with Refn making a lot of noise but having very little to say.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Retro Review: NIGHTFALL (1988)

(US - 1988)

Written and directed by Paul Mayersberg. Cast: David Birney, Sarah Douglas, Alexis Kanner, Andra Millian, Starr Andreeff, Charles Hayward, Jonathan Emerson, Susie Lindeman, Russell Wiggins, Larry Hankin. (PG-13, 83 mins)

As an acclaimed screenwriter working in conjunction with an experienced, visionary director, Paul Mayersberg has been a key figure in at least two legitimate classics and several other fascinating works. A frequent collaborator with Nicolas Roeg, Mayersberg scripted the director's 1976 masterpiece THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH as well as his eccentric 1983 curio EUREKA. He also worked with Roeg in 1979 in the early stages of an abandoned adaptation of J.G. Ballard's novel High Rise, which ended up getting made decades later by Ben Wheatley in 2016. He also co-wrote the 1983 WWII drama MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE with director Nagisa Oshima, and enjoyed a short-lived renaissance when he wrote GET CARTER director Mike Hodges' 2000 comeback CROUPIER, which became a word-of-mouth hit on the arthouse circuit and made a star of Clive Owen. But in the three instances he's been left to his own devices to direct his scripts himself, without a Roeg, an Oshima, or a Hodges at the helm, Mayersberg simply implodes. He made his directing debut with 1986's obscure, Patty Hearst-inspired straight-to-video UK kidnapping thriller CAPTIVE, which starred Oliver Reed but is only remembered today because its score was composed by U2 guitarist The Edge, with vocals by a then-unknown Sinead O'Connor (the soundtrack was released as an Edge solo album). In 1988, Mayersberg wrote and directed NIGHTFALL, a bizarre adaptation of a highly-regarded 1941 Isaac Asimov short story, for Roger Corman's late '80s company Concorde.

Born in 1941, the British Mayersberg had a history with Corman: Roeg was the cinematographer on Corman's 1964 classic THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, on which Mayersberg served as a production assistant. It's possible Mayersberg just needed the work, but it's hard to believe the guy who wrote THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE was responsible for the mess that is NIGHTFALL, which has just been released in a limited edition Blu-ray sold exclusively on Code Red's web site. It's not particularly faithful to Asimov's story, which involved a planet existing in eternal daylight thanks to it being surrounded by six suns, but that got whittled down to just three suns by the time Mayersberg got the green light. In one of those vague settings that may be the future or the past, guru-like astronomer Aton (David Birney, sporting what looks like a discarded Ritchie Blackmore wig) is the science-minded leader of the populace of a planet that's never experienced the darkness of night but is about to thanks to an event that, until then, has only occurred every 2500 years. His followers are looking for guidance into this heretofore unknown phenomenon, but a distracted Aton has been bewitched by the alluring Ana (Andra Millian) and is blowing off his work for some constant afternoon delight. This opens the door for an insurrection led by blind prophet and fearmongering doomsayer Sor (Alexis Kanner), who claims "The Book of Illuminations" has foretold that Nightfall means the end of the world. Sor has brainwashed his acolytes and also seduced Aton's estranged wife Roa (Sarah Douglas), eventually strapping her in some bizarre contraption where birds peck out her eyes in a rather blatant bit of "blind leading the blind" symbolism.

There's some prescient themes of science vs. religion in NIGHTFALL, culminating in Aton admonishing the zealot-like Sor (a terrifically hammy performance by Canadian stage vet Kanner) with "You took our doubts and turned them into fears." Unfortunately, Mayersberg lets the plot get bogged down with endless new age babbling and tiresome subplots involving the bedhopping extracurricular activities of Aton and Ana, Sor and Roa, and later, Ana leaving Aton and having a clandestine affair with Kin (Charles Hayward), who happens to be married to Aton and Roa's daughter Bet (Starr Andreef). For a PG-13-rated film, there's a surprising amount of skin and sex, with Millian's Ana frequently naked and with one scene showing a post-coital Kin being bitten by a snake, with Ana sucking the venom out of his upper inside thigh with Millian's face practically buried in Hayward's copious pubes. Mayersberg takes great advantage of a terrific location with the commune-like Arcosanti, an experimental "arcology" community set up in Arizona in 1970 by architect and ecology enthusiast Paolo Soleri (some Arcosanti residents and University of Arizona students served as extras). That and some surrounding desert areas shot by debuting cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who would go on top be a top figure in his field with films like THE CROW, DARK CITY, the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series, and numerous Ridley Scott titles like PROMETHEUS, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, and THE MARTIAN, give NIGHTFALL a vivid and distinctive look despite its pitifully low-budget.

While it doesn't work for a variety of reasons--paltry budget, comatose pacing, Birney's dull performance (did he only take this gig because he got to roll around in some sex scenes with Millian?)--there's a strangeness to NIGHTFALL that makes it too odd and too ambitious to just simply dismiss as schlock, even though it's generally considered one of the worst films to come off the Corman assembly line. It's filled with sequences and images throughout that just need more of an auteur touch than Mayersberg--a significantly better writer than he is a director--is capable of providing. There's an eccentric and surreal vibe to NIGHTFALL that's crying out for the masterful guidance and artistic vision of an Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Ridley Scott, a Nicolas Roeg or even the late Andrei Tarkovsky. Indeed, this is as close to an abstract, avant-garde art film that a Corman production would ever get during the Concorde era. Alas, there's too many things working against Mayersberg--time, money, Paul Mayersberg--to make it a success. He's obviously trying hard, but it's tough to figure out if he's making a serious Asimov adaptation or providing the inspiration for a terrible David Arkenstone concept album. By the end, it basically looks like Corman just commissioned a cheap knockoff of DUNE. Now 75, Mayersberg has laid low in the years since CROUPIER. He only directed one more film after NIGHTFALL--the South Africa-shot adventure THE LAST SAMURAI (not to be confused with the Tom Cruise epic), with Lance Henriksen and John Saxon, released straight-to-video in 1995 after six years on the shelf--and co-wrote a 2000 straight-to-video thriller titled THE INTRUDER, with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Nastassja Kinski. Apparently still owning the movie rights to Asimov's story, Corman produced a straight-to-video remake of NIGHTFALL in 2000, directed by Gwyneth Gibby and starring David Carradine.

NIGHTFALL opening in Toledo, OH on 5/27/1988. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

In Theaters: THE SHALLOWS (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Written by Anthony Jaswinski. Cast: Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Angelo Josue Lozano Corzo, Jose Manuel Trujillo Salas. (PG-13, 86 mins)

THE SHALLOWS doesn't give JAWS any cause for concern about losing its place as the greatest shark movie ever, but it gets the job done as mindless summer entertainment and the kind of relatively low-budget film ($17 million--pocket change by today's industry standards) that can quietly become a very profitable sleeper hit. It's handled in the best B-movie fashion by director Jaume Collet-Serra, who's become a reliable genre craftsman in the last several years with 2009's underrated and insane ORPHAN, and a pair of enjoyable Liam Neeson vehicles with 2011's Hitchcockian UNKNOWN and 2014's NON-STOP. Keeping the film lean and fast-moving (the closing credits start just shy of the 80-minute mark), Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski (the terrible VANISHING ON 7TH STREET) plow through the exposition as quickly as possible and get to the heart of the surfer vs. shark story.

Still mourning her mother's death from cancer and seeking some kind of closure, med school dropout Nancy (Blake Lively) is ditched by her hard-partying friend and opts to go alone to an isolated Mexican beach that her mother visited while pregnant with her. An experienced surfer, Nancy rides some waves, enjoys the scenery, and briefly chats with a pair of nice locals who soon head back to the shore. Of course, that's just about the time Nancy is bitten and dragged under the water. She gets free, climbing onto a nearby decomposing whale carcass floating in the water. The shark, a great white, rams the carcass, throwing her off and sending her swimming for a nearby rock formation sticking out of the water. From there, it's Nancy vs. the great white, one trying to outsmart the other as Nancy fashions a tourniquet from her wet suit to stop the profuse bleeding from the bite on her leg (a great excuse for Collet-Serra to show off Lively in the skimpiest swimwear this side of Jacqueline Bisset in THE DEEP, at least until the gangrene makeup gets applied), which she holds together using her earrings as makeshift stitching. She finds an unlikely sidekick in an injured seagull she dubs "Steven Seagull." A few other characters wander into the water despite Nancy screaming "Shark!" and of course, they usually end up as dinner. As the tide comes in, Nancy needs to get off the rock as the persistent shark just endlessly circles her, almost sending Nancy a message that it's got nowhere else to be and she's got nowhere to hide.

THE SHALLOWS is a high-end junk movie that knows it's a junk movie. Lively makes a strong and believable heroine and for the most part, the CGI effects are pretty good (the shark is much more convincing here than the technology allowed in, say, 1999's DEEP BLUE SEA, a wild and fun shark flick completely undone by primitive CGI work that was unconvincing then and simply embarrassing now). Structurally similar to OPEN WATER, THE SHALLOWS is a lot prettier to look at, not just with Lively but with some crystal clear blue ocean off the coast of Queensland, filling in for Mexico. There isn't much depth and there isn't whole lot to say with this--it's a classic case of "It is what it is," and it works. It's not trying to be another JAWS, though it certainly acknowledges its influence, from the always-unnerving shots of the shark fin protruding from the water to giving Lively her own Roy Scheider last word when she finally gets the shark where she wants it. However, it's a sign of the times that the comparative gentlemanly elegance of "Smile, you son of a bitch!" has given way to the more blunt and verbally economical "Fuck you!" but I suppose it's an appropriate farewell.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016) and 45 YEARS (2015)

(US - 2016)

Terrence Malick makes movies for no one other than Terrence Malick, and by this point, you're either onboard with his improvisational, self-indulgent, stream-of-consciousness journeys up his own ass or you're not. So if you've been open to his increasingly prolific output in recent years or found him stretching well beyond the point of myopic self-parody, KNIGHT OF CUPS isn't going to do a thing to change your opinion. Similar to 2013's ponderous misfire TO THE WONDER--notable for being the first instance of some of his most devoted acolytes finally having the stones to admit he kinda lost them with this one--Malick continues to move away from the concept of narrative altogether in his presentation of Hollywood screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale, who worked with Malick on 2005's significantly better THE NEW WORLD), a man hopelessly lost in a suffocating malaise of L.A. ennui. No, KNIGHT OF CUPS isn't one of those bile-spewing insider takedowns of Hollywood but that might've actually been preferable. There's lots of scenes of Rick walking and driving around various obligatory recognizable locations (other than Bale, the most screen time goes to the 405 and some Death Valley wind turbines, and yes, at one point, he engages in some thousand-yard staring at the nearly bone-dry concrete of the L.A. River, whose appearance in a Los Angeles-set film is apparently required by law) and replaying the bad decisions and lost loves in his life. It's all accompanied by the expected ponderous, insufferable, pained-whisper narration by various characters that's become Malick's trademark (note: these make even less sense in context):
  •  "Fragments...pieces of a man...where did I go wrong?" 
  •  "I want you. Hold you. Have you. Mine."
  •  "All those years...living the life of someone I didn't even know."
  •  "You gave me peace. You gave me what the world can't give. Mercy. Love. Joy. All else is cloud. Be with me. Always."
  •  "We find me."
  •  "Oh. Life."
  •  "Begin."

Many familiar faces drift in and out throughout, some playing characters (Cate Blanchett as Rick's ex-wife; Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas, Freida Pinto, and Teresa Palmer as various lovers; Wes Bentley as Rick's brother, who commited suicide; Brian Dennehy as their dad; barely visible bits by Nick Offerman, Jason Clarke, Clifton Collins Jr., Joel Kinnaman, Dane DeHaan, Shea Whigham, and Kevin Corrigan as Rick's buddies or colleagues) and others playing themselves in what amounts to an arthouse ZOOLANDER 2 (Ryan O'Neal, Fabio, Joe LoTruglio, Joe Manganiello, Thomas Lennon, and Antonio Banderas, who offers this bit of sage relationship advice to Rick: "It's like flavors...sometimes you want raspberry and after a while, you get tired and want strawberry," in a way that sounds like Antonio Banderas imitating Chris Kattan imitating Antonio Banderas on SNL). TO THE WONDER was terrible, but at least it captured the beauty in the bland sameness of middle America in a vividly Antonioni-esque, RED DESERT fashion. With KNIGHT OF CUPS, shot way back in 2012 and endlessly tinkered with by its dawdling maker, Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki don't even find a unique visual perspective of Los Angeles, mainly because we've seen all of these places in 50,000 other movies and Malick, currently American cinema's top auteur who doesn't seem to get out much, has no new perspective to offer. Sure, Malick injects some personal pain into the story--his own brother committed suicide--but does it matter when his writing has regressed to the level of an angsty teenager who's just had his heart broken for the first time? Do we need another movie about depressed and loathsome L.A. dickbags and their first-world problems? The Malick of old could bring a singularly original perspective to this tired and played-out concept, but all the Malick of today has to offer are sleepy, enigmatic voiceovers and more California cliches than a Red Hot Chili Peppers song. Look, film snobs. Let's just cut the shit. Stop giving Malick a pass simply because of your fond memories of what he once was. (R, 118 mins)

(UK/Germany - 2015)

A quiet and low-key character piece that subtly grows more tense and uncomfortable as it goes along, 45 YEARS is also a showcase for a pair of late-career triumphs for stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. Rampling received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Kate Mercer, a retired schoolteacher in a small, rural British town. The film follows Kate and husband Geoff (Courtenay) over the week leading up to a swanky party with all of their friends--the Mercers never had children--celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary (a party was planned for their 40th, but Geoff's heart attack and bypass surgery led to its cancellation). On Monday of that week, Geoff receives a letter from Germany informing him that the still-preserved body of Katya, his German girlfriend who died over 50 years ago, was found in a melting glacier where she fell into a crevasse while they were mountain climbing in Switzerland. Memories from a half-century ago come back to haunt Geoff, and while Kate is initially supportive of the wave of grief overcoming her husband, she grows increasingly concerned over the week as long-buried details of his relationship with Katya come to the surface. He was contacted because the initial report listed him as her next-of-kin, which leads Kate to think Geoff and Katya were married. He insists they weren't, only that they pretended to be since it was a much more conservative era. After a failed attempt at sex due to Geoff's mind being elsewhere, she catches him rummaging around in the attic in the middle of the night, looking for pictures of Katya. Geoff starts smoking again, tries to back out of a lunch with some old work buddies, and even their friends remark that he seems distant, agitated, and preoccupied. He starts reading up on global warming and Kate finds out he's been talking to a travel agent about booking a trip to Switzerland. While Geoff is out one afternoon, Kate goes through his old photos and notebooks in some boxes stashed away in the attic and finds something that makes her question everything about their 45-year marriage.

Based on David Constantine's short story "In Another Country" and written and directed by Andrew Haigh, who cut his teeth working on the editing team of several Ridley Scott films (GLADIATOR, BLACK HAWK DOWN, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN), 45 YEARS is a fascinating, unsettling, and often deeply moving meditation on marriage, trust, love, and the disturbing realization that no matter how long or how well you've known someone, you'll never know everything about them. Kate was aware of Katya's death when she met Geoff, but it never occurred to her just how much of a presence the memory of Katya was in her marriage to Geoff, or the ways in which Katya has been the driving force in many of Geoff's--and by association, Kate's--decisions over the years. Haigh doesn't ask the audience to pick sides--indeed, there are times when Kate seems insensitive to Geoff's grief, but Geoff doesn't make it easy, yammering on about "my Katya" in ways that sometimes seem like an inadvertent slap in Kate's face. There's no doubt that Geoff loves Kate dearly, but it's just as clear that Katya has always been on his mind. In their best roles in years (probably decades for Courtenay, who's been nominated for two Oscars and was big in the mid '60s but seemed to consciously avoid the commercial pursuits of his British "angry young man" contemporaries like Richard Burton, Albert Finney, and Peter O'Toole), the two living legend stars are just superb, their body language and mannerisms expertly conveying decades of lived-in familiarity and shorthand communication, culminating a long, static shot near the end that up-ends all of that in a devastating portrait of ambiguity and uncertainty. (R, 95 mins)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: RABID DOGS (2016); GRIDLOCKED (2016); and THE ABANDONED (2016)

(France/Canada - 2015; US release 2016)

Mario Bava's RABID DOGS was shot in the summer of 1974 but went unseen for 23 years after being caught up in a bankruptcy quagmire involving producer Roberto Loyola. A departure for horror icon Bava, RABID DOGS (also seen in the inferior alternate cut KIDNAPPED, with scenes added two decades later by Bava's son Lamberto) was a crime thriller that crammed all of its characters into a getaway vehicle commandeered by a trio of robbers, with a hostage, and the carjacking victim who's trying to get his sick kid to a hospital. Now that the long-lost RABID DOGS has been readily available in the home video age (unfortunately, only the KIDNAPPED cut is currently on Blu-ray in the US), fans of Bava and Eurocrime have had a chance to see one of the director's strongest efforts from the latter days of his career. Directed and co-written by Eric Hannezo (THE HORDE director Yannick Dahan also co-wrote, and Oscar-winning ARTIST star Jean Dujardin is one of the producers), the remake of RABID DOGS follows the same basic concept but consistently displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what made Bava's film work so well. Sure, RABID DOGS '15 is a lot more flashy and stylish than Bava's minimalist thriller, but that only goes so far. Hannezo spends much more time on the robbery and the getaway, and makes some incidental changes: here, it's not a random flunky who gets killed, but the ringleader (Laurent Lucas), leaving his protege Sabri (Guillaume Gouix) in charge of two volatile hotheads, Vincent (Francois Arnaud) and Manu (Franck Gastambide). During a badly-staged shootout at a mall and a standoff in the underground parking garage, they take an innocent bystander (Virginie Ledoyen) hostage and eventually carjack a father (Lambert Wilson), who only has a few hours to get his gravely ill daughter to a hospital for a kidney transplant.

That's more or less how Bava's film starts, minus the remake's specificity of the child's illness and the gaudy visual flourishes. Bava got his characters in the car a lot quicker than Hannezo does, and unlike Bava, he can't wait to keep getting them out of the car, never establishing the sweaty tension and increasing claustrophobia that makes RABID DOGS '74 so intense and nerve-wracking. No, Hannezo insists on giving us backstories of the bank robbers--who gives a shit that Manu is participating in the bank robbery to get enough money to get to see his estranged son?  It doesn't humanize him at all, and it doesn't make him as dangerous as Aldo Caponi's comparable Bisturi in Bava's film. All we knew about the bad guys in Bava's film is that George Eastman's psychotic "32" had a huge dick. Hannezo's characters encounter various obstacles along the way, with a traffic jam of almost Godard/WEEKEND proportions slowing them down, and when they stop so the father can change a flat tire, the film completely falls apart. Even though the clock's ticking on the transplant, they take time to bullshit in the woods, share some smokes, and talk about themselves, as Hannezo cuts to a flashback of Vincent and Manu in some FIGHT CLUB-type activities in a garishly-lit red hallway seemingly on loan from Gaspar Noe. Later on, they get stuck in a WICKER MAN situation, with a town of gun-toting weirdos celebrating "The Feast of the Bear," which shuts the whole area down, preventing them from getting through or back out. The filmmakers do keep the devastating twist ending from the Bava film, but don't pull it off nearly as effectively. There's a few good moments that come mostly early on, though a later one, in the Bear town where an elderly, mute woman paralyzed by a stroke recognizes Manu from TV news reports and keeps incessantly ringing her little bell for help that never comes, is a memorable little set piece of which RABID DOGS '15 doesn't have nearly enough. There's some nice scenery in the Quebec location shooting (even though it takes place in France), but Hannezo is too focused on style over suspense here, as when he stops the climax cold for a slo-mo scene of everyone in the car bathed in more Gaspar Noe lighting schemes to the tune of Scala & Kolacny Brothers' cover of Radiohead's "Creep," featured prominently in the trailer for THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Why? Who knows?  Who cares?  On one hand, it's nice to see an obscure Bava film getting props from a fan who must love the movie (there's even a music cue that recalls Stelvio Cipriani's score for the 1974 film), but on the other, if he loves it so much, it's too bad Hannezo didn't do better by it. Then again, revisiting Bava's RABID DOGS right before watching the remake probably didn't do it any favors. (Unrated, 94 mins, also streaming on Netflix).

(Canada - 2016)

When you wade through enough DTV B-movie swill, you're bound to accidentally find a pleasant surprise every now and again. The NYC-set, Canadian-made GRIDLOCKED is an unabashed homage to the late '80s-to-mid '90s heyday of action producer Joel Silver, though the chief influence, according to director/co-writer Allan Ungar, was John Badham's THE HARD WAY (1991), with James Woods as an angry cop forced to chaperone a spoiled movie star (Michael J. Fox) who's riding along with him to prep for an upcoming role. Ungar goes so far as to have HARD WAY villain Stephen Lang play the bad guy here, but the whole movie is an affectionate mash-up of Silver-produced classics like LETHAL WEAPON, DIE HARD, and THE LAST BOY SCOUT, with a big nod to John Carpenter's ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 to cap it off. When Canadian-born child actor-turned-Hollywood bad boy Brody Walker (Canadian karate champ Cody Hackman) has yet another public meltdown when he punches a cameraman for a TMZ-like tabloid show and gets the latest in a string of DUIs, his foul-mouthed agent Marty (Saul Rubinek, cast radically against type as "Saul Rubinek") tells him his next mega-budget, pre-packaged blockbuster will be canceled if he doesn't get his shit together. Brody's lawyer plea bargains a cushy deal for him: community service in the form a ride-along with a local cop. The cop turns out to be Hendrix (Dominic Purcell), a badass SWAT legend busted down to patrol duty after a botched raid that resulted in too many casualties. The stoical, humorless Hendrix isn't excited about the assignment and resists any attempt by Brody to bond, sighing in disgust as the pampered Hollywood brat takes selfies with perps and generally makes an ass of himself.

Wanting to visit his old pals, Hendrix takes Brody on a late-night tour of his old Strategic Response outpost and armory about 40 miles outside of Manhattan, where the staff includes elderly Sully on desk duty, running the check-in. That Sully is a) near retirement, and b) played by LETHAL WEAPON star Danny Glover, it should come as no surprise that he ends up dead not long after declaring that he's gettin' too old for this shit. A dull and quiet night comes to an abrupt end when disgraced former SRT commander Korver (Lang) leads a team of mercenaries in an attempt to raid the facility, which the government has been using to covertly store assets seized both legally and illegally. Korver is after several hundred thousand dollars in bonds acquired from a raid involving a Central American drug lord, and he's not about to let his old buddy Hendrix stand in his way. Of course, the SWAT team on duty, plus Hendrix and Brody, have to work together--if they don't kill each other first!--to survive the night and keep Korver's guys (Vinnie Jones among them, as a corrupt and improbably Cockney, fookin' 'ell, mate!-accented NYC cop) from getting in. Purcell is an actor who has specialized in the unwatchable since PRISON BREAK went off the air, and relative to 98% of his headlining filmography, GRIDLOCKED is pretty damn good, right up there with his surprisingly solid boxing drama A FIGHTING MAN. He's perfectly cast and a great seething foil for the snotty Brody, who's obviously meant to be Justin Bieber several years from now (strangely, the film never makes use of Hackman's martial arts skills). GRIDLOCKED doesn't have an original thought in its head, but it wears its love of a specific era of action cinema on its sleeve and replicates it quite convincingly in a John Badham/Richard Donner/Walter Hill kind-of way, from the glossy production values to the smartass buddy action comedy bickering, and it's punctuated with some occasionally shocking, stomach-turning violence. Against all odds, this is definitely one of the better straight-to-DVD titles to come down the pike in quite a while, even if it's several years too late: had Purcell had this in theaters with some major studio backing right after PRISON BREAK ended, he would've never returned Uwe Boll's phone calls. (R, 113 mins)

(US - 2016)

Not to be confused with Nacho Cerda's 2006 Lucio Fulci homage with the same title, THE ABANDONED (shot in 2013 under the title THE CONFINES) is an intermittently effective chiller with some terrific atmosphere but it's saddled with a story derived from a hodgepodge of influences ranging from THE ORPHANAGE to SESSION 9 to CROPSEY to the jump-scares of Blumhouse to the facepalm-worthy twists of M. Night Shyamalan. Julia, aka "Streak" (Louisa Krause) is a troubled single mom in danger of losing her daughter if she screws up one more time. Her last chance is a gig as an overnight security guard at a posh, abandoned NYC apartment building. Her co-worker is bitter, wheelchair-bound Cooper (Jason Patric), who mans the control room and watches the monitors as Streak patrols the premises. They get off to a rocky start, with Cooper tired of breaking in newbies only to have them flake out after a week over the tedious nature of the job (though it could be that he's just an unpleasant asshole) and not even masking his contempt for Streak. She doesn't win him over by breaking the rules on her first night by letting a homeless man (Mark Margolis) and his dog stay in one of the rooms. It gets worse when she finds a bolted door blocking off a section of the building that Cooper claims was unfinished. Of course, Streak unlocks the door and finds that it leads to a series of dark, ominous underground tunnels branching off of the basement, along with the requisite checklist of things you find in dark, ominous underground tunnels, like hidden rooms with filthy mattresses, creepy childrens' drawings on the walls, and occasional taunting whispers and banging on doors. Of course, this used to be a secret orphanage from decades back, used to stash away deformed or mentally and physically challenged children of parents too poor to care for them or too embarrassed to acknowledge them at all, and of course, their vengeful spirits still haunt the premises. Or do they?

Making his feature directing debut, Eytan Rockaway has a good eye for chill-inducing atmosphere with his use of darkness, light, and shadows. But the script by Ido Fluk seems like the end result of a particularly wild weekend video roulette binge with his DVD collection. As messy as THE ABANDONED's story is, it's a film that's obviously trying hard. Maybe too hard, as if its makers weren't confident they'd ever corral the cash to make another movie, so they're cramming everything they've got into this one. They had to be happy to get access to even a faded star like Patric, who helps the young filmmakers out by turning in a surprisingly strong performance and giving this low-budget affair what little commercial value he can (it still took three years to get released). The final twist packs a punch, but at the same time renders much of what's happened before meaningless. THE ABANDONED falls apart by the end, but it's not fair to bag on it too much--Rockaway and Fluk give it their best shot, and even when you're shaking your head as the plot collapses and the cliches abound, it looks too good to just dismiss. He's not quite there yet, but if Rockaway can find a script that's up to par with his command of the camera and his staging of set pieces, he might go places. (PG-13, 87 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Retro Review: STREET SMART (1987)

(US - 1987)

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg. Written by David Freeman. Cast: Christopher Reeve, Kathy Baker, Mimi Rogers, Morgan Freeman, Jay Patterson, Andre Gregory, Anna Maria Horsford, Frederick Rolf, Erik King, Rick Aviles. (R, 97 mins)

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, who guided a young Al Pacino to his breakout role in 1971's THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK, 1987's STREET SMART represents Cannon/Golan-Globus in serious mode, a gritty look at ambition and ethics in the world of TV and print journalism. Christopher Reeve is Jonathan Fisher, a reporter in a slump, pulling the desperation move of fabricating a piece about 24 hours in the life of a NYC pimp he dubs "Tyrone." "Tyrone" has alarming similarities to Fast Black (Morgan Freeman), a sadistic pimp who's facing a murder charge. The article becomes a sensation and Fisher the toast of the town, but when the D.A.'s office wants to subpoena his notes--which don't exist--and Fast Black wants him to produce notes that provide him with an alibi, things quickly head south for the fabulist--with his employers, with a ruthless Fast Black, and with his girlfriend (Mimi Rogers), when he gets dangerously close to Punchy (Kathy Baker), one of Fast Black's long-suffering hookers.

STREET SMART still has the look and feel of a Cannon film, and though there's some NYC location work, most of it was shot in Montreal, which isn't the most convincing understudy for pre-Giuliani Times Square. A longtime pet project of Reeve's (he only did the embarrassing, corner-cutting SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE for Cannon because they agreed to make this), STREET SMART was supposed to be the actor's latest shot at escaping his SUPERMAN image but is best known today for launching the little-known, 50-year-old Freeman, up to then a jobbing character actor in minor roles going back to 1970. Prior to his portrayal of Fast Black, Freeman's biggest gig was as a cast member of the PBS educational series THE ELECTRIC COMPANY during its 1971-77 run, where his recurring characters included Easy Reader, Mel Mounds, and Vincent the Vegetable Vampire. Though STREET SMART was not a hit, Freeman stole the film from Reeve and made enough of an impression on critics and the few who did see it that he scored a surprise Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, losing to Sean Connery in THE UNTOUCHABLES. Everything Freeman does as Fast Black commands the screen--facial expressions, adjusting his ballsack, the snarling look when he bites his lower lip, or just his terrifying glare. He takes what could've been a cardboard cliche in any random Cannon genre offering and adds depth and complexity while turning him into one of the most terrifying villains of the '80s ("It's not your face, bitch. It's my face. My tits and my ass," he tells one of his girls when she begs him to not cut her with a broken bottle). For the most part, STREET SMART is a TV-movie with a lot of F-bombs, and sometimes it's kind of dumb and takes some too-easy shots at Manhattan high society (represented by Fisher's editor, played by MY DINNER WITH ANDRE's Andre Gregory), but Freeman's unforgettable performance makes it mandatory viewing.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Retro Review: PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (1971)

(US - 1971)

Directed by Roger Vadim. Written by Gene Roddenberry. Cast: Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, Telly Savalas, John David Carson, Roddy McDowall, Keenan Wynn, James Doohan, William Campbell, Barbara Leigh, Susan Tolsky, Aimee Eccles, Margaret Markov, June Fairchild, Joy Bang. (R, 91 mins)

A textbook example of the kind of movie that could never be made today, PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW is a brazenly smutty, time-capsule-worthy T&A black comedy where laughs are mined from an awkward virgin being seduced by his sexy teacher and from underage, nympho high school girls hooking up with and being murdered by their charming, predatory guidance counselor and pillar-of-the-community football coach...with music by The Osmonds! It's a plot more suited for a New World Pictures drive-in comedy produced by Roger Corman, even featuring frequently nude Corman starlets like Barbara Leigh (THE STUDENT NURSES), Joy Bang (NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN), and Margaret Markov (THE ARENA, BLACK MAMA WHITE MAMA), but it came from MGM, directed by French auteur and enfant terrible Roger Vadim, making his American debut ("his tribute to the high school girls of America!" the trailer crows) following the international success of 1968's BARBARELLA, and scripted by none other than STAR TREK creator Gene Roddenberry. Based on a 1968 novel by Francis Pollini, the film began life as a project for one-time Stanley Kubrick producing partner James B. Harris, with the lead role of serial killing counselor, coach, and sex addict Tiger McDrew intended for New York Jets QB Joe Namath. Given his playboy reputation, Namath would've been perfect casting, but the film spent two more years in development before it ended up in the hands of Vadim, with the role of Tiger McDrew eventually going to Rock Hudson. It's against-type casting that works, considering Hudson's past in light romantic comedies with Doris Day and years later, his closeted homosexuality becoming common knowledge to the world beyond industry insiders. Despite an Oscar nomination for 1956's GIANT, Hudson was always labeled a lightweight actor. He was making efforts to tackle more complex and challenging roles, starting with John Frankenheimer's 1966 cult classic SECONDS (easily his best performance), but the public wasn't buying it. Hudson spent most of the rest of his career in TV after PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, appearing in just five more big-screen features (and only three of those were leads) until his death in 1985. As McDrew, Hudson, sporting longer hair than usual as well as an impressive early '70s porn stache, has a few extra pounds on him than he did in his heyday but he's still got all of the charm that made him a star, even with a sinister gleam in his eye and an unsettling leer as a bevy of beauties disrobe and throw themselves at him with reckless abandon. It's an inspired decision that allows Hudson to slyly explore the dark and twisted flipside of his onscreen persona.

Hudson's McDrew is a married dad introduced having sex with a student in his office at the same time confused, sexually frustrated virgin Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson) is so taken with substitute English teacher Miss Smith (Angie Dickinson, introduced with a close-up of her ass jiggling in a miniskirt) that he goes to the lavatory to jerk off but instead discovers a girl's nude body in the next stall. While clueless principal Mr. Proffer (Roddy McDowall) can't get a grip on what's happened ("I don't understand this...we've always kept our academic averages so high!") and can only offer superficial memories of the victim ("She was a fine girl...and a terrific little cheerleader") and incompetent sheriff Poldaski (Keenan Wynn) lets a bunch of curious onlookers loiter about the crime scene, no-nonsense detective Surcher (Telly Savalas) and his partner Follo (James Doohan, the only STAR TREK cast member present) arrive to take charge of the investigation. All the while, Tiger continues to score with a succession of high school hotties as the body count rises, while simultaneously advising Ponce on understanding women and learning to control his awkward and badly-timed erections. Tiger even recognizes a kindred spirit in Miss Smith, who needs little prodding when Tiger suggests she seduce Ponce and make him a man.

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW is inappropriate in all kinds of ways. Sure, the bulk of the film is a series of dirty jokes and naked women (the August 1971 issue of Playboy was devoted to the film, with pictorials for Dickinson as well as all of the actresses playing the Pretty Maids), but there's some brilliant bits of dark humor and social commentary, whether it's a student asking Ponce if they've got football practice and Ponce responding with a dead-serious "No, we never have practice the day of a murder," or idiotic and knee-jerk Poldaski arriving on the scene of the first murder and impulsively grabbing the first black student he sees for questioning with a threatening "Not so fast...where do ya think yer goin'?" There's a running gag with Surcher constantly busting Poldaski down to traffic duty, with a great sneering performance by Savalas in what plays like a sarcastic dry run for his years on KOJAK. PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW was a box office flop in 1971, though it found a second wind on late-night Showtime and HBO in the early '80s, when the relationship between Dickinson's Miss Jones and Carson's Ponce (Dickinson has never been sexier onscreen than she is here) made the film fit right in with the "Hot for Teacher" craze spawned by the likes of PRIVATE LESSONS (1981), HOMEWORK (1982), MY TUTOR (1983), and THEY'RE PLAYING WITH FIRE (1984). With the ubiquity of teacher-student sex scandals, it's hard to believe there was once a time when such things were played for good-natured laughs, and were so part of the pop culture norm that Van Halen even had a huge MTV hit inspired by the subject. In that respect, perhaps PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW was ahead of its time, but can you even imagine it or something like PRIVATE LESSONS--a smash sleeper hit in theaters in 1981--getting the green light today without a shitstorm of controversy and trigger warnings?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

In Theaters: NOW YOU SEE ME 2 (2016)

(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Jon M. Chu. Written by Ed Solomon. Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, David Warshofsky, Tsai Chin, Ben Lamb, Richard Laing. (PG-13, 129 mins)

Sure, 2013's enjoyable NOW YOU SEE ME was a sleeper hit, grossing $120 million in the US, but was anyone demanding more? Apparently so, as it did almost double that overseas. In what will go down as one of the least necessary sequels of the year, the thoroughly superfluous, $90 million NOW YOU SEE ME 2 isn't even inspired enough to be subtitled NOW YOU DON'T, and is the kind of perfunctory, clock-punching follow-up that makes you retroactively like the first one a little less. That film was directed by Luc Besson protege Louis Leterrier, a sure-handed pro who kept the story engaging and fast-moving, and really conveyed a knowledge and appreciation of magic. In the hands of STEP UP 2: THE STREETS, STEP UP 3D and JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER director Jon M. Chu, whose most recent film is 2015's flop-turned-inevitable-cult-movie JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, NOW YOU SEE ME 2's chief goal seems to be how many nonsensical dei ex machina it can pull out of its ass like rabbits out of a hat. NOW YOU SEE ME had the magician team of The Four Horsemen using their skills to bankrupt greedy and corrupt insurance titan Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), whose company denied claims to scores of Hurricane Katrina victims. Tressler figures into the second half of this sequel in a way that you'll figure out long before the Four Horsemen do, but initially, the heroes--illusionist J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and presumed-dead street magician Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), along with new addition Lula May (Lizzy Caplan)--have been in hiding, but are called back to public view at the behest of The Eye, the top-secret society of magicians. Their assignment: expose tech billionaire Owen Case (Ben Lamb) as a fraud intending to use his software to steal the personal info of millions of his customers and sell it on the black market. But someone else hijacks their presentation, also publicly outing rogue FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who's still pretending to pursue the Four Horsemen for the benefit of his boss (Sanaa Lathan), even though he was revealed to be the enigmatic Fifth Horsemen at the end of the first film.

The figure behind all the mayhem is Case's former partner Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), who faked his death a year earlier and has spent that time in Macau putting into play his Blofeldian plot to control the world's economy with a data chip device. Now a fugitive, Rhodes springs imprisoned magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) from custody and takes him to Macao to help get to the bottom of Mabry's plan. Of course, Bradley manages to get away from Rhodes--who blames Bradley for the magic trick mishap death of his father 30 years earlier--while the Four Horsemen pull off a complicated heist of the chip device from a top secret facility, with constant double-crosses coming from Mabry as well as Chase McKinney, Merritt's duplicitous and more-than-slightly effeminate twin brother played entirely too broadly by Harrelson, with a curly wig and a toothy grin that suggests what might've transpired had there ever been a hypothetical Marjoe Gortner one-man show based on the biography Center Square: The Paul Lynde Story.

NOW YOU SEE ME 2 is a mess. There's some of the charm of the first film in the camaraderie between the Four Horsemen, particularly some ballbusting between Atlas and McKinney, and it seems Eisenberg and Harrelson are having a good time. The globetrotting plot goes from NYC to Macao to London and makes a lot of noise, but not much sense. There's no sense of magic to a film where the tricks and illusions are all CGI'd or revealed to be some kind of absurdly complex conspiracy. Its twists and turns are such that the characters on the receiving end of them--be they the FBI, Mabry, Rhodes, various security guards, or Tressler--have to be completely incompetent idiots to fall for them (again in Tressler's case). The heist of the chip device starts out clever but becomes too belabored and improbable to even laugh at. The script, written by a returning Ed Solomon (BILL & TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, MEN IN BLACK), has little consistency, especially with Freeman's Stevens, whose purpose and loyalties change with little or no logic or flow whenever the movie needs them to (he and Caine are just here for the paid vacation to Macau). Taiwanese singer and actor Jay Chou, who you probably haven't thought of since his turn as Kato in the forgotten Seth Rogen disaster THE GREEN HORNET, is on hand as another new Horseman once they arrive in Macau (his character's grandmother is played by veteran actress Tsai Chin, best known as the treacherous daughter of Christopher Lee in the 1960s FU MANCHU movies), but he barely figures into the story and only seems to be there to satisfy a Chinese co-production deal with TIK Films. He likely has more to do in the version being released in Asia, but his complete insignificance to the film only highlights the fact that more work went into negotiating the business deal than coming up with a coherent story to justify its existence.

Dumbest of all is the opening at the expose of Case, where the Four Horseman are posing as waiters, bartenders, and security staff to get behind the scenes. These are world-famous magicians and international fugitives and the subject of ongoing media scrutiny and yet, here they are, undisguised, milling about a highly publicized event at a massive arena for America's biggest tech mogul, TV cameras everywhere, and not a single person recognizes them. Even dumber, right there at the event is Rhodes, openly talking to the Horsemen near the stage, in full view of everyone even though his sole case seems to scouring the ends of the earth to find them. Compare that to a scene later on in London when each of the magicians just show up at various street corners to set up their final takedown of Mabry as everyone stops what they're doing and whips out their phones because they recognize them as globally-known celebrities. Everything in this film relies on contrivance and convenience. NOW YOU SEE ME was hard to swallow, but it was a fun movie that had some inspired moments. The sequel turns its heroes into a combination of David Copperfield, Jason Bourne, 007, and Wikileaks. Honestly, by the end, I had no idea what was going on and I really didn't care. And it was upon that realization that I felt a kinship to Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine that I will likely never feel again.

Monday, June 13, 2016

In Theaters: THE CONJURING 2 (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by James Wan. Written by Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes, James Wan and David Leslie Johnson. Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Frances O'Connor, Madison Wolfe, Simon McBurney, Franka Potente, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon Delaney, Sterling Jerins, Lauren Esposito, Benjamin Haigh, Patrick McAuley, Bob Adrian, Steve Coulter, Bonnie Aarons, Javier Botet, Joseph Bishara. (R, 134 mins)

Paranormal icons to some, fraudulent fundamentalist hucksters to others, the husband & wife ghostbusting team of Ed and Lorraine Warren made their name with their involvement in the investigation of the legendary Amityville house in the late 1970s (Lorraine is now 89; Ed died in 2006 at 79). As played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in James Wan's surprisingly terrific 2013 film THE CONJURING, the Warrens are an immensely likable couple with a deep-rooted sense of Christianity and family values, with Wan and the screenwriters never questioning their sincerity and legitimacy. Amityville has pretty much been debunked as a hoax for decades, but it still makes for entertaining cinema, and it provides a prologue for Wan's uneven sequel which, for a horror film, runs an epic length of well past two hours. While investigating the Amityville house in 1976, Lorraine saw the spectre of a demonic nun and had a premonition of Ed's death by impalement. She's further perturbed when Ed, unable to sleep, gets up and paints a picture of a face he saw in a dream--of course, it's the demon nun, though judging from the looks of it, it could've just as easily been a premonition of the coming of Marilyn Manson.

At Lorraine's insistence, Ed agrees to take time off from active pursuits of the paranormal and focus strictly on lecturing. Their altruism gets the better of them in late 1977 when the church asks them to travel overseas to Enfield in northern London, where Peggy Hodgson (Frances O'Connor), a single, working-class mother of four, is dealing with an entity that makes its presence known to all in the house but seems to be specifically targeting her second child, 11-year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe). It's a lot of the usual stuff: deep, guttural voices, levitation, and objects moving themselves, mixed with the usual loud crashes, piercing booms, and the sudden appearances of evil faces that's become Wan's go-to jump scare since the first INSIDIOUS. Ultimately, Janet is possessed by a demon who claims to be the home's elderly previous owner, bellowing "This is my house!" and demanding everyone get out, as the Warrens, British paranormal investigator Maurice Grosse (Simon McBurney) and skeptical, cynical psychology professor Anita Gregory (Franka Potente) converge on the Hodgson home to determine the validity of "The Enfield Poltergeist."

The case attracted a lot of attention at the time, with the press referring to it as "the British Amityville." THE CONJURING 2 takes significant liberties with it, starting with the fact that this was largely Grosse's investigation, with his team doing most of the work related to it, while the Warrens had a significantly lesser role. The poltergeist targeted Janet and older sister Margaret (played here by Lauren Esposito), and both were caught red-handed staging occurrences. The film portrays one instance of Gregory catching Janet on film throwing chairs, breaking things, and bending spoons after locking herself in the kitchen to create the illusion of paranormal phenomena. Taking dramatic license to its limits, Wan and his screenwriters work Janet's rationale for doing so into a bigger event centered on the Warrens, who the film posits as being drawn into a mystery involving a more powerful force that's using the Hodgsons to target them. In other words, THE CONJURING 2 shoehorns the Enfield Poltergeist into a newly-concocted work of Ed & Lorraine Warren fan fiction. The Enfield case (covered in the 2015 British miniseries THE ENFIELD HAUNTING, with Timothy Spall as Grosse and no one as the Warrens since their characters aren't even in it) has been deemed a hoax by most investigators, though Grosse did feel it had some legitimacy. Taken on its own terms, THE CONJURING 2 isn't bad. It goes on far too long and there's only so many scary face-and-slamming door jump scares you can get hit with before it grows stale and repetitive. Wan does a great job with the period look and detail of the film, shooting it in drab, gray, muted tones indoors and a near-constant rain on the outside, really capturing the kind of gritty, '70s kitchen-sink British atmosphere that makes parts of this look like what might happen if Ken Loach or Mike Leigh made a demonic possession movie (bonus points for STARSKY & HUTCH superfan Margaret's wall adorned with David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser pics, faithfully recreated from actual 1977 file photos).

Wan also takes the approach of classics like THE EXORCIST and THE SHINING, letting the dread and tension build for over an hour and change before all hell breaks loose. Oddly, it's when all hell breaks loose that the film starts to feel draggy and uninspired, and the climax has some unintentional laughs that really diminish the impact. And speaking of unintentional laughs, whose idea was it to use the Bee Gees' "I Started a Joke" to underscore a dramatic plot turn in the most ham-fisted way possible? And the appearance of The Crooked Man (Guillermo del Toro contortionist Javier Botet, who had the title role in MAMA) would be a lot more effective if he didn't look like The Babadook's more sartorially flashy cousin. Wilson and Farmiga are quite appealing together (Wilson in particular is very likable, especially when he's bonding with the Elvis-loving Hodgson kids by playing his own acoustic take "Can't Help Falling in Love") and young Wolfe is excellent as the anguished Janet, giving it everything she's got as the demonic spirit's grip on her tightens. As far as Hollywood horror movies go these days, THE CONJURING 2 isn't bad, but between his two INSIDIOUS entries (the second was awful, and he didn't direct the third) and now two CONJURINGs, Wan does alright here but doesn't have much in the way of new tricks up his sleeve.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Retro Review: MCQ (1974) and BRANNIGAN (1975)

(US - 1974)

Directed by John Sturges. Written by Lawrence Roman. Cast: John Wayne, Eddie Albert, Diana Muldaur, Colleen Dewhurst, Clu Gulager, David Huddleston, Al Lettieri, Jim Watkins (Julian Christopher), Roger E. Mosley, William Bryant. (PG, 111 mins)

67-year-old John Wayne tried to belatedly hop on the post-BULLITT/DIRTY HARRY bandwagon with this cop thriller from MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and GREAT ESCAPE director John Sturges, the first of two such contemporary departures for the screen icon. The Duke moves a little slow and his rug is terrible, but he's a lot of fun as Lon McQ, a plays-by-his-own-rules Seattle detective out to nail drug kingpin Santiago (Al Lettieri, best known as the treacherous Sollozzo in THE GODFATHER) after his partner (William Bryant) gets ambushed and later dies. What follows is a pretty standard cop movie material, with corrupt cops, McQ getting info from a Huggy Bear-like informant named Rosey (Roger E. Mosley), and eventually quitting the force in disgust when he's busted down to desk duty by his boss (Eddie Albert).

A couple of great car chases (with one spectacular wreck performed by future Burt Reynolds BFF Hal Needham), and a lively performance by a machine-gunning Duke help get you by the more mechanical elements of the story and a midsection that drags a bit.  And it's the only time you'll see the Duke about to close the deal on his second lay of the movie only to be cockblocked by Clu Gulager. Also with Diana Muldaur, Colleen Dewhurst, Julie Adams, Julian Christopher (billed as "Jim Watkins"), and David "The Big Lebowski" Huddleston. MCQ was only a moderate success for Wayne, who had the similar BRANNIGAN in theaters a year later.

(UK - 1975)

Directed by Douglas Hickox. Written by Christopher Trumbo, Michael Butler, William P. McGivern and William Norton. Cast: John Wayne, Richard Attenborough, Judy Geeson, Mel Ferrer, John Vernon, Ralph Meeker, Daniel Pilon, Lesley-Anne Down, John Stride, James Booth, Barry Dennen, Arthur Batenides, Brian Glover. (PG, 111 mins)

A year after MCQ, John Wayne starred in another contemporary cop actioner, the British-made BRANNIGAN, directed by Douglas Hickox (SITTING TARGET, THEATRE OF BLOOD) and written by an eclectic committee of screenwriters including Dalton Trumbo's son Christopher, Michael Butler (THE GAUNTLET, CODE OF SILENCE, PALE RIDER), William P. McGivern (THE BIG HEAT, I SAW WHAT YOU DID), and William Norton (BIG BAD MAMA, NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER). Brannigan isn't all that different from Lon McQ, other than he's in Chicago instead of Seattle. Sent to London to extradite mobster Larkin (John Vernon), who's hired a deadly assassin (Daniel Pilon as a second-string Helmut Berger) to off him, Brannigan has some good-natured culture-clashing with Scotland Yard's affable but uptight Cmdr. Swann (Richard Attenborough). But the pair have to work together--if they don't kill each other first!--when Larkin is kidnapped and his shady attorney (Mel Ferrer, cast radically against type as a smirking, duplicitous prick) arranges a ransom.

BRANNIGAN is much more lighthearted than MCQ, with a mid-film pub brawl that's played completely as a comedy set piece. Wayne, sporting a toupee that's somehow worse than the one he had in MCQ, is once again enjoying himself and has a terrific camaraderie with Attenborough and with Judy Geeson as a young female officer charged with driving Brannigan around and keeping him out of trouble. BRANNIGAN was a box-office disappointment as the Duke's fans made it clear they didn't like seeing him doing this geriatric DIRTY HARRY routine, even with a requisite smartass catchphrase ("Knock knock!"). Wayne returned later in 1975 with the western ROOSTER COGBURN, where he reprised his Oscar-winning TRUE GRIT character, and finished his career with 1976's THE SHOOTIST before retiring from the screen. He died in 1979.  A few decades removed from the shock of seeing an aged, slow-moving Wayne try to be Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood, MCQ and BRANNIGAN aren't Duke classics by any means, but they're entertaining departures that are well worth seeing, particularly BRANNIGAN, which is much better than its reputation.

Friday, June 10, 2016


(Germany/Canada/France/Sweden/Norway - 2015)

One of the major voices of the 1970s New German Cinema who reached his pinnacle in the next decade with the classics PARIS, TEXAS (1984) and WINGS OF DESIRE (1987), Wim Wenders has enjoyed his biggest success in the latter half of his career with documentaries like THE BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (1999), PINA (2011), and his contributions to the PBS series THE BLUES. His first narrative feature since 2008's surreal PALERMO SHOOTING (one of Dennis Hopper's last films, and still unreleased in the US), EVERY THING WILL BE FINE plays more like an homage to SWEET HEREAFTER-era Atom Egoyan, from the crux of its story being a tragedy uniting several people, to its cold, wintry Canadian setting. Judging from the end result, Wenders can't do vintage Egoyan any better than Egoyan can these days. Making superfluous use of 3-D, which is limited mostly to some falling snowflakes for the six people who managed to see this in a theater, EVERY THING WILL BE FINE offers the most somnambulant cast this side of Werner Herzog's HEART OF GLASS, headed by James Franco as Tomas Eldan, a struggling Quebecois novelist whose marriage to Sara (Rachel McAdams, with a distracting and stilted Swedish--I think--accent) is in a rough patch. It gets worse when Tomas is involved in a freak accident on a snowy rural road where he thinks he narrowly averted hitting a young boy in a sled but realizes too late that there were two boys on the sled and the other died, pinned under his SUV. This scene, where Tomas thinks he and the surviving kid had a close call but slowly realizes, when the boys' shell-shocked single mother Kate (Charlotte Gainsbourg) asks where the other boy is, that he's accidentally killed the unseen second child, is by far the best in the film and it's all downhill from there.

Of course, even though it was a tragic accident, Tomas is plagued by guilt and half-heartedly attempts suicide, demonstrated in a trite montage where Wenders shows him crashing in a cheap motel, empty booze and pill bottles and torn up papers strewn about the room. The film repeatedly jumps through a few years at a time. Tomas and Sara have split up and he feels compelled to help the devoutly-religious Kate in some way. She's forgiven him and doesn't blame him and though they seem drawn to one another through their mutual grieving, Wenders and screenwriter Bjorn Olaf Johannessen don't indulge anything further, since that would mean something happening. The film takes place over an 11-year period, and every time Wenders seems to be building to something, he calls a time-out and jumps ahead four years. It's especially frustrating in the last section, when Tomas gets a letter from troubled, 16-year-old Christopher (Robert Naylor), who was five when he survived the accident that killed his little brother. Tomas has become a bestselling author, channeling his pain into prose and becoming rich and famous, and while Christopher is a fan of his work, he feels his brother's death has somehow worked in Tomas' favor while his mother has never really recovered. While Tomas and his second wife Ann (Marie-Josee Croze) are away on a brief book tour, someone--obviously Christopher--breaks into their house and urinates all over their bed. Just as EVERY THING WILL BE FINE seems poised to turn into a thriller of some kind, the film abruptly ends in the most enraging way possible, with Franco--who's about as believable a Quebecois novelist named Tomas as you'd expect--turning to the camera and smiling. Did Wenders just feel "Hey, it's been a while, I should probably make a drama again"? There's some beautiful cinematography by the venerable Benoit Debie, but EVERY THING WILL BE FINE is a film that keeps stopping itself dead in its tracks. Scenes crescendo into nothing and collapse, actors appear and disappear (Peter Stomare has one scene as Tomas' publisher; frequent Wenders actor Patrick Bauchau plays Tomas' dementia-addled father). It seems to be actively avoiding being about anything. The actors seem to be partially sedated, even more so as the film goes on. When a remarried Sara has a chance meeting with Tomas at a Patrick Watson concert (yes, time-killing concert footage) and slaps him, it seems less out of anger than to simply revive Franco. A comatose Wenders misfire like 2001's THE MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL moved at the pace of plate tectonics but at least had an insane performance by a neck-braced Mel Gibson to occasionally liven things up--there's nothing of the sort in EVERY THING WILL BE FINE. Life is filled with disappointments, regrets, and unresolved issues--which can make for compelling cinema but not when it's done the way Wenders does it here. It seems like a sincere enough film, but what's the point? (Unrated, 119 mins)

(UK/US/Canada - 2016)

The kind of slight, low-key character piece that goes over like gangbusters at film festivals but plays to crickets and tumbleweed in general release, THE CONFIRMATION is the directing debut of Oscar-nominated NEBRASKA screenwriter Bob Nelson. As in that film, we have a story set in a blue collar town where most of the residents have seen better days. Anthony (MIDNIGHT SPECIAL's Jaeden Lieberher) has it pretty good other than his ambivalence about being prodded into confession and confirmation by his church-going mom Bonnie (Maria Bello) and stepdad Kyle (Matthew Modine). Bonnie and Kyle are going away to a church-sponsored couples retreat for the weekend, leaving Anthony in the care of his alcoholic, sporadically-employed carpenter dad Walt (Clive Owen). Slumped-shouldered Walt has been dealt some shitty hands and is beaten down by life, but he's trying to make things work. He's on his latest attempt to quit drinking and isn't sure what to do with Anthony over the weekend, but that soon becomes a moot point as the pair encounter one obstacle after another. Walt gets a lucrative job lined up for Monday morning, but his expensive and sentimental (they were his dad's) specialty tools get stolen from his truck, his truck breaks down, a trip to drop a huge jar of change into a Coinstar machine at the grocery store to get some quick cash is all for naught when Anthony accidentally hits the "Donate" button, and they get locked out of the house when Walt gets an eviction notice. Borrowing Bonnie's SUV--Anthony neglects to tell Walt the brakes need replaced--the pair spend the weekend tracking down Walt's tools BICYCLE THIEF-style, getting help from a variety of odd folks both helpful and dubious, ranging from Walt's fatherly friend Otto (Robert Forster), drunken gun nut Vaughn (Tim Blake Nelson), and eccentric drywaller Drake (Patton Oswalt) whose claim to have the inside info on Walt's tools is negated by the fact that everyone knows he's back on meth.

THE CONFIRMATION is basically a standard redemption saga, with Walt and Anthony bonding and everyone realizing Walt's not such a loser after all. Nelson gives the story time to breathe and find its way, even with the trite symbolism of carpenter Walt "building" a relationship with his son. Walt tries to keep his temper in check as the deck is constantly stacked against him and and does everything he can to not cave to temptation and disappoint his son (after a bad withdrawal episode the first night, the first thing out of Walt's mouth in the morning is "Are you OK? Did I hurt you?"). Though he's hardly a textbook role model, Walt tries to dispense life lessons to the boy, and of course, he learns just as much from the wise-beyond-his-years Anthony. There's some legitimate surprises in the development of some of the characters: Anthony forms a friendship with Vaughn's sensitive son Allen (Spencer Drever); when Walt finds out who stole his tools, he feels sympathy rather than anger; and after constantly hearing from Walt what a useless tool he is, we're surprised to find that Kyle is actually a genuinely nice and sincere guy once we meet him. There's no big scenes or huge plot reveals in THE CONFIRMATION. It's a quiet, working-class indie film where the actors probably wore there own clothes and packed their own lunches for Nelson's heartfelt labor of love. It's not much to get excited about, but Owen and Lieberher make a good team, and fans of the actors will definitely want to check it out. (PG-13, 101 mins)

Thursday, June 9, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: GODS OF EGYPT (2016); THE ASIAN CONNECTION (2016); and JARHEAD 3: THE SIEGE (2016)

(US/China - 2016)

A mega-budget franchise non-starter that arrived on a wave of bad publicity due to casting controversies--a ridiculous grievance, really, considering that it's not a remotely serious film--GODS OF EGYPT seemed doomed the moment the trailer hit the internet. By the time it was released, the pile-on had already begun, and director Alex Proyas (THE CROW, DARK CITY, I ROBOT) didn't handle it well, taking to Twitter and social media to excoriate critics and detractors. Regardless of how legitimate his complaints were, he couldn't help but come off as, in the parlance of our times, a little butthurt. Is the movie good?  Sometimes. "Kinda, almost" might be a good answer. Despite its lofty ambitions, it seems by the end that its sole purpose was to be played continuously on rows of display TVs in the electronics department of a big box retailer. Working with the screenwriting team of Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (whose previous triumphs include DRACULA UNTOLD and THE LAST WITCH HUNTER), the visionary Proyas establishes a pretty clearly campy tone, with the early scenes featuring intentionally anachronistic dialogue for its ancient Egypt setting ("This old thing?" one female character sasses when asked about her dress) and a very deliberate sense of humor. But the tone changes from scene to scene, along with the quality of the visual effects. The film is wall-to-wall CGI and looks almost completely animated at times. There are moments where the visuals are jawdroppingly beautiful and others where it looks like it's not even Asylum-worthy. The schizophrenic tone coupled with the repetitive set pieces eventually turn the film into a slog by the midway point.

That doesn't mean it's the catastrophic washout that everyone says it is. Oh, it's an unwieldy mess, but Proyas has stretches where he seems possessed by an in-his-prime Terry Gilliam, and for that reason alone, one shouldn't just blithely dismiss GODS OF EGYPT as soulless schlock. This just looks like a film that got away from its maker and had too much riding on it in terms of becoming a studio's next tentpole franchise. In Egypt, where gods are ten feet tall, bleed gold, and coexist with men, beloved and benevolent King Osiris (Bryan Brown sighting!) intends to pass the throne on to his son Horus (GAME OF THRONES' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). That plan is thwarted by Osiris' scheming brother Set (a scenery-chewing Gerard Butler), who kills the king and gouges out the eyes of Horus, who goes into hiding as a power-crazed, despotic Set takes his nephew's intended, the Goddess of Love Hathor (Elodie Yung) for himself, enslaves the population, and destroys all the good Osiris has done like some ancient Egyptian Donald Trump. Bek (Brenton Thwaites), a wily young thief, also loses his love Zaya (Courtney Eaton) when she's killed by her owner, Set's architect Urshu (Rufus Sewell). Bek manages to steal one of Horus' eyes--the source of his godly powers--from Set's vault, promising him the other if he helps him find and restore Zaya to earthly life. Horus agrees, as he and Bek form an unholy god-and-man alliance to save Zaya and exact vengeance on Set...if they don't slay each other first!  There's some fun in the early going, and it's hard not to get a kick out of Geoffrey Rush engulfed in CGI flames and hurling balls of fire as Horus' grandfather Ra, but GODS OF EGYPT is all over the place, and nearly every stop on their quest involves them being attacked by giant CGI creatures and fleeing an interior or exterior structure, outrunning the destruction as it crumbles around them. It loses its sense of fun and starts to seem more like a GODS OF EGYPT video game. The actors, especially Rush and Butler, came prepared to ham it up, but after a promising start, GODS OF EGYPT just switches to autopilot and becomes one eye-glazingly dull CGI action sequence after another. (PG-13, 127 mins)

(US - 2016)

A pretty generic Far East shoot 'em up that features one of Steven Seagal's more lifelike performances in recent years, THE ASIAN CONNECTION would probably be a forgettable but diverting enough actioner if it had better leads. As the nominal villain, a Cambodia-based crime lord named Gan Sirankiri, Seagal is as mumbly as ever but actually logs some significant screen time and even takes part in a few big action sequences without being doubled (surprisingly, he's also a participant in the making-of featurette, a good indication that, for whatever reason, he gave a shit about this one). While Seagal has an "and Steven Seagal" credit and a puffy-eyed Michael Jai White gets top billing for a one-scene cameo as a gun dealer named Greedy Greg, the real star is the thoroughly unappealing John Edward Lee--who resembles some kind of Frankenstein fusion of Stephen Dorff and Josh Duhamel, but somehow with exponentially less charisma--as Jack, an expat American living in Bangkok with his Thai girlfriend Avalon (Kempo black belt Pim Bubear). Desperate for cash, Jack and his buddy Sam (Bryan Gibson) decide to rob a bank in Cambodia and take the cash back over the border into Bangkok. The bank they rob is holding the money of Sirankiri, who understandably wants it back and dispatches his chief goon Niran (Sahajak Boonthanakit, memorable as the gregarious taxi driver "Kenny Rogers" in the otherwise pedestrian NO ESCAPE) to recover it. Niran has other plans, like blackmailing Jack by having him and Sam rob a bunch of banks that hold various amounts of Sirankiri cash and giving him the bulk of the proceeds behind his boss' back, lest something nasty happen to Avalon.

Boasting a story credit for none other than former actor Tom Sizemore, THE ASIAN CONNECTION suffers from a smirking Lee as a hero you never care about, plus an inept performance by Bubear, who may be a karate champ but she can't act. On top of that, director Daniel Zirilli takes zero advantage of her Kempo skills. The script is predictable from start to finish, with Sam turning into a humorless, trigger happy loose cannon with each successive job, a character arc that was obvious upon the first of many times he admonishes Jack with "Don't call me stupid!" when he does something stupid (which is a lot). And yes, it all ends up with a shootout at an abandoned factory. Seagal is in character actor mode here, not nearly as loose as he was in GUTSHOT STRAIGHT, but definitely not sleepwalking through it, either, perhaps a major sign that he's ready to hand over his long-held Laziest Actor in the World crown to Bruce Willis. Not good at all but hardly the worst VOD/DTV title out there, the biggest problem with THE ASIAN CONNECTION is that you've seen it all before, and most likely with better actors than Lee and Bubear. Some more White really could've helped, even though he looks like he got stung by a bee right before his scene was shot. Wasn't BLACK DYNAMITE supposed to take him to better places than this? (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2016)

The third entry in one of the most unlikely DTV franchises, JARHEAD 3: THE SIEGE has nothing to do with 2014's JARHEAD 2: FIELD OF FIRE and almost nothing to do with Sam Mendes' original 2005 film version of Anthony Swofford's Gulf War memoir. Unlike JARHEAD 2, JARHEAD 3 at least brings back one character from JARHEAD with a brief appearance by Major Lincoln, played by Allstate insurance salesman Dennis Haysbert. Lincoln was a minor character in the 2005 film and is even less significant here, usually observing the action from a chopper and shaking his head when something bad happens. Now an action franchise whose main connecting thread is that it involves Marines, JARHEAD 3: THE SIEGE is budget-conscious 13 HOURS, as ambitious Corporal Evan Albright (HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER's Charlie Weber) arrives at the US Embassy in an unnamed-but-obviously-Benghazi-like location, where everyone gets along with the locals and the US Ambassador (Stephen Hogan) has it pretty easy. Albright quickly establishes himself as an impulsive cowboy during a botched training exercise, and he doesn't win himself any friends by reporting a suspicious cameraman lurking outside the compound to the Ambassador, going over the head of his commanding Gunny Raines (top-billed Scott Adkins). Of course, Albright is right: the cameraman is notorious terrorist Khaled (Hadrian Howard), who leads an assault on the Embassy in which Albright and the other Marines get to engage in some Benghazi fan fiction where tragedy is averted and America triumphs, all while referring to the locals as "Ali Baba" and bellowing things like "This is OUR house! Let's show these motherfuckers how we do it!" and "Locked & loaded!" and, of course, "Let's roll!"

It's mostly jingoistic right-wing military porn in the grand tradition of "America! Fuck Yeah!" but veteran DTV director William Kaufman (now going by the hipper "Will Kaufman") pulls off a few decent shootouts amidst the shaky cam and the iPhone app-level explosions. Weber is a pretty bland hero, and the film doesn't give Adkins much to do other than glower and lecture Albright before being killed off in an explosion about an hour into the movie. The characters are largely cliches, like loudmouth racist Stamper (Joe Corrigall), who goes full Hudson-from-ALIENS as soon as the shit hits the fan, but the worst by far is Blake, a grating comedy relief blogger/documentarian played by 41-year-old Dante Basco, who's a good 15-20 years too old for the role. Blake is constantly filming (cue found-footage scenes) and saying inane things like "When the ambassador is burning shit, you know like, heavy shit is going down" (Blake also has a gluten allergy, making him even more insufferable). As far as in-name-only sequels go, JARHEAD 3: THE SIEGE is passably entertaining and never dull, but that still doesn't seem to be reason enough to justify its existence. (R, 89 mins)