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Monday, May 22, 2017

On HBO: THE WIZARD OF LIES (2017)


THE WIZARD OF LIES
(US - 2017)

Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by Sam Levinson, John Burnham Schwartz and Samuel Baum. Cast: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Alessandro Nivola, Hank Azaria, Nathan Darrow, Kristen Connolly, Lily Rabe, Kelly AuCoin, Geoffrey Cantor, Steve Coulter, Neil Brooks Cunningham, Michael Goorjian, Diana B. Henriques, Michael Kostroff, Kathrine Narducci, Amanda Warren, Gary Wilmes, David Lipman, Sophie Von Haselberg, Clem Cheung. (Unrated, 132 mins)

As far as HBO prestige biopics go, THE WIZARD OF LIES is on the lesser end--not as good as YOU DON'T KNOW JACK but nowhere near the depths of the slobbering apologia of David Mamet's loathsome PHIL SPECTOR. A chronicle of disgraced financier, stockbroker, and former NASDAQ chairman Bernie Madoff, who was arrested in late 2008 for perpetrating the biggest Ponzi scheme in US history, a massive fraud to the tune of $65 billion. The fortunes of famous people (Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, John Malkovich, and, as if he hadn't endured enough in his life, Elie Wiesel), the life savings of Madoff's millionaire friends and some ordinary average people, as well as the funds of numerous Jewish-based charity organizations were lost in what ended up being a 16-year scam where all the stocks, trades, reports, statements, paper trails, everything was made up by Madoff, who was eventually crushed under the weight of it and couldn't find a way out, especially after the housing market crash of 2008. It was after that event that nervous investors began withdrawing their money, prompting him to lure in others to cover the cash that wasn't there, seduced by Madoff's bogus financial reports that showed his investments were still making money despite the severe downturn in the market.





Anyone familiar with the Madoff scandal knows what happened and that most of the money was never recovered, but THE WIZARD OF LIES doesn't really have anything to add. It does offer Robert De Niro as Madoff, in a slouchy and slightly nasally performance that's accurate as far as the Madoff we've seen in news footage, but director Barry Levinson (DINER, RAIN MAN) and the three credited screenwriters, among them Levinson's son Sam, never really let the viewer into Madoff's head to know what makes him tick or what drove him to do what he did. They're working from book by New York Times financial writer Diana B. Henriques (who appears throughout as herself in a hokey framing device that has her interviewing De Niro as Madoff), but from what's presented here, we don't see the charismatic guy that roped so many people into his scheme and somehow convinced them to put their entire fortunes in his hands. Just because he's got De Niro in the lead, Levinson (who previously directed the actor in SLEEPERS, WAG THE DOG, and WHAT JUST HAPPENED) instead tries to make a low-energy Martin Scorsese movie, complete what what sounds like a Scorsese mix cd (The Platters' "The Great Pretender" and the Animals "House of the Rising Sun"--how did the Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter" not make the cut during a "Madoff scrambling for investors" paranoia montage?) playing at a swanky anniversary party for Madoff and his wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer). At this same party, an obsessive-compulsive Madoff goes around inspecting each and every plate to make sure they're spotless while shattering the ones that aren't in a scene that lets De Niro riff on his Ace Rothstein hissy fit over blueberry muffins in Scorsese's CASINO (this bit was also referenced in EQUITY, another recent financial dud). THE WIZARD OF LIES plays like a listless Scorsese knockoff, bullet-pointing its way through the story to such a degree that Wikipedia should've been credited as a fourth screenwriter.


De Niro certainly looks the part as Madoff, and while he's not exactly busting his ass, he seems to be coasting somewhat simply because he isn't really given a character to play. It's as if Levinson and HBO figured "Well, De Niro's gonna look just like Madoff, so everything should just fall into place." Pfeiffer is a great American actress who works too infrequently to re-emerge for inconsequential movies like this (she's been offscreen since co-starring with De Niro in Luc Besson's 2013 mob comedy THE FAMILY). Though she spent time with Ruth Madoff to help prepare her performance and looks a lot like her, Pfeiffer comes off less like Ruth Madoff and more like a tribute to Edie Falco's work as Carmela Soprano. On top of that, she's miscast, as the 58-year-old actress looks several years younger, making it a pretty tough sell to buy that she's playing a 70-year-old who's been married for 50 years. Alessandro Nivola and Nathan Darrow are fine as Madoff's sons Mark and Andrew, who worked for their father and claimed, along with Ruth, to be unaware of the scheme. Some of the film's high points come from the effect of the scandal on their lives, afraid to leave their homes for fear of being accosted by friends, former co-workers, and random strangers, and their arcs are all the more tragic considering Mark would hang himself in 2010 and Andrew, after distancing himself from his father and trying to salvage his own reputation, would succumb to cancer in 2014 at just 48. Despite working in fits and starts (Ruth's hurtful reaction to her favorite hairdresser firing her as a customer is well-played by Pfeiffer is well-done), THE WIZARD OF LIES' chief priority is making sure De Niro looked like a dead ringer for Madoff. It doesn't have much else to say and actually seems so bored with itself that it completely forgets about Hank Azaria, cast as Frank DiPascali, the top Madoff associate who ran the inaccessible 17th floor where all of the books were being cooked--a vital figure in the Ponzi scheme, he disappears from the film around 75 minutes in and is never seen or mentioned again. The more THE WIZARD OF LIES goes on, the more you realize that erhaps the better approach, especially since ABC just aired the Richard Dreyfuss/Blythe Danner miniseries MADOFF a year ago, would've been to examine this story from the perspective of anyone involved with it other than Bernie Madoff.

Friday, May 19, 2017

In Theaters: ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)


ALIEN: COVENANT
(US - 2017)

Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by John Logan and Dante Harper. Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Guy Pearce, James Franco, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Goran D. Kleut. (R, 120 mins)

Despite the pre-release tap-dancing around the issue, it was obvious that 2012's PROMETHEUS was Ridley Scott's return to the universe he created with the 1979 classic ALIEN. After PROMETHEUS' ultimate reveal as a prequel, Scott has returned with no illusions about what's going on with ALIEN: COVENANT. Picking up ten years after the events of PROMETHEUS, COVENANT centers on a colonization mission on the space vessel Covenant, with a crew of 15 carrying 2000 colonists and 1000 embryos on a seven-year, hypersleep mission to an oxygenated planet known as Origae-6. They're under the watchful eye of "Mother," the ship's computer, as well as Walter (Michael Fassbender), a synthetic in charge of maintaining the ship. A "neutrino burst" causes significant damage to the ship, killing some sleeping colonists and forcing Walter to bring the crew out of stasis. Second-in-charge Oram (Billy Crudup) is forced to assume command when mission leader Branson (a barely-seen and uncredited James Franco) is killed in a freak explosion when his pod won't open. They're still seven years from Origae-6, and Branson's wife Daniels (Katherine Waterston, Sam's lookalike daughter), who's also on the crew, voices her objection when Oram decides to investigate a signal (someone singing John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," in a garbled audio transmission that's effectively creepy in an EVENT HORIZON way) from a previously unseen planet just a few weeks away that's showing even better habitability figures than their intended destination.





I guess Daniels is the only one who's ever seen an ALIEN movie or an ALIEN ripoff, since this is obviously a decision worthy of a Bad Idea Jeans commercial. While the Covenant and pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) stay in orbit with two other crew members, a smaller vessel piloted by Tennessee's wife Faris (Amy Seimetz) takes Oram and the rest of the crew to the surface. They split up, with Oram's biologist wife Karine (Carmen Ejogo) collecting samples with soldier Ledward (Benjamin Rigby), who unknowingly stirs some alien spores that enter his ear and go undetected, taking root in his brain. Meanwhile, Oram and the others discover the wreckage of the spacecraft in which Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and synthetic David (also Fassbender) escaped at the end of PROMETHEUS. When a soldier in that group, Hallett (Nathaniel Dean), also gets infected by spores, they head back to the docked vessel where a creature has already burst out of Ledward's back and killed Karine, eventually leading to an explosion that kills Faris. A creature erupts out of Hallett's mouth and soon, others similar to the franchise's signature xenomorphs start attacking until the whole group is rescued by David (also Fassbender), who's been living alone in what appears to be the ruins of a Pompeii-like civilization. Dr. Shaw was killed in a crash landing ten years earlier, and when David isn't weeping at a shrine he's set up in her memory, he's been surviving on his own. He clearly has other intentions, as evidenced by his barely-contained enthusiasm upon being told that there's 2000 hibernating colonists and 1000 embryos aboard the still-orbiting Covenant.


ALIEN: COVENANT is consistently interesting, but it's still a hot mess. The biggest obstacle that it can't overcome--and it didn't seem apparent to me until I considered it and PROMETHEUS as a whole piece--is that knowing the backstory to the events of ALIEN and the whole Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) saga is completely unnecessary. When the actual H.R. Giger-designed xenomorphs finally appear in the last half hour or so, we see entirely too much of them, and in their sleek new CGI incarnation, pinballing all over the screen like sprinting zombies in 28 DAYS LATER, they lack the sense of tangible menace like the aliens in ALIEN and its equally great 1986 sequel ALIENS. This whole saga of PROMETHEUS and COVENANT ultimately feels like little more than ALIEN fan fiction that does nothing to enhance the movies we've been watching for going on 40 years now. Scott throws in enough bizarre and unexpected elements that COVENANT has always got your attention even when it's stumbling--the whole midsection of the film, showing David's routine around the ruins of the society he's adopted as his home, is another example of the director's occasionally insane side making its presence known. But in the end, it doesn't go far enough, like a lobotomized Ray Liotta eating his own sauteed brain in HANNIBAL or Cameron Diaz fucking a car in THE COUNSELOR. Before long, we once again start getting that PROMETHEUS feeling that Scott realizes he needs to appease the studio and abandons the project's unique ideas in favor of rushing through the last 30 or so minutes because he seems to suddenly remember he's making an ALIEN movie. In other words, almost right down to the minute, the same flaws in PROMETHEUS are repeated in COVENANT, with the added detriment of a laughably predictable twist ending and an attempt to turn David into a quipping, synthetic android Freddy Krueger.






Fassbender is fine in both roles, especially as David, with his gentlemanly sinister demeanor and erudite line delivery recalling Peter Cushing not just in his performance, but also in the echoes of Cushing's Nazi mad scientist living on a deserted island among his aquatic zombie creations in 1977's SHOCK WAVES (instead of CGI-ing Grand Moff Tarken in ROGUE ONE, they should've just hired Fassbender to do his Cushing impression). ALIEN: COVENANT feels like three movies in one, all of them tonally different (a late shower kill with gratuitous T&A as an apparently pervy xenomorph peeps in on a cavorting couple feels like it belongs in an '80s slasher movie or, at best, a Roger Corman ALIEN ripoff like GALAXY OF TERROR). Waterston makes a tough, gritty heroine, but elsewhere, there's too much distracting stunt casting, whether it's McBride coming off as "Kenny Powers in space" and not selling lines like "That's one hell of an ionosphere!" or Franco turning in his finest performance in years as a burnt corpse (Guy Pearce also appears as evil CEO Peter Weyland in a prologue). It's intriguing that the crew is almost entirely made up of married couples, with some sociopolitical commentary in Oram being established as conservative and bitching that his faith has held him back in his career, or that Hallett and badass security head Lope (Demian Bichir) are a gay couple, but it's never really explored other than as transparent thinkpiece-bait. Ridley Scott owes no explanations to anyone, and it's great that the 79-year-old legend is still full of piss and vinegar and able to work so much in his emeritus years, but like others in his age bracket such as Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, his average of a new film every year or year-and-a-half is an indication that maybe a break and a recharging wouldn't be a bad thing. Scott is just spinning his wheels here, and so is the ALIEN franchise.



Tuesday, May 16, 2017

In Theaters: KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017)


KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD
(US - 2017)

Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Eric Bana, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillan, Mikael Persbrandt, Neil Maskell, Freddie Fox, Greg McGinlay, Tom Wu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Peter Ferdinando, Bleu Landau, Annabelle Wallis, Geoff Bell, Poppy Delevingne, Jacqui Ainsley. (PG-13, 125 mins)

Already a costly flop and the first bomb of the summer, Guy Ritchie's extremely revisionist, $175 million KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD is reasonably entertaining if taken strictly--and I do mean strictly--on its own terms. It's an approach not unlike his excellent, steampunkish take on SHERLOCK HOLMES, though not as consistently solid as that or his underrated THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. a couple years back (but it's better than that second SHERLOCK HOLMES movie, which was pretty terrible). Ritchie throws everything but the kitchen sink into his Arthurian world, which is bound to not go over well with purists--indeed, the Three Stooges short SQUAREHEADS OF THE ROUND TABLE might be more faithful to the legend--but it's perfectly acceptable escapism that probably would've done better if released in March or September. John Boorman's EXCALIBUR remains the last word on this subject as far as big screen adaptations go, and I really feel sorry for any corner-cutting junior high and high school students who watch this instead of doing their assigned reading, because giant elephants, snakes, rats, and bats and an Asian martial arts master named "Kung Fu George" are certainly not elements discarded from rough drafts of T.H. White's The Once and Future King or Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.





Equal parts early Ritchie crime movies, LORD OF THE RINGS, and GAME OF THRONES, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD has King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) and Queen Igraine (Poppy Delevingne) being killed in a supernatural, Mordred-abetted uprising instigated by Uther's treacherous younger brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Their toddler son Arthur is put on a small boat and sails into the night, where he's found by the denizens of a brothel and raised in the red light district of Londinium, where he grows into adulthood and is played by SONS OF ANARCHY's Charlie Hunnam. Arthur is unaware of his heritage and lives as a disreputable but affable con man and peacekeeper at the brothel, making sure the prostitutes who raised him aren't abused by the clientele. One such abusive customer is sinister Viking warrior Greybeard (Mikael Persbrandt) who's humiliated by Arthur, the future hero unaware that Greybeard and his soldiers are under the protection of King Vortigern. Vortigern has been rounding up age-appropriate young men all over England and having them herded to his castle to attempt to pull Uther's sword Excalibur from the stone so he can find his nephew. Once Arthur's true nature is discovered, Vortigern tries to have him executed, but he's rescued by a band of rebels led by Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and Goosefat Bill (GAME OF THRONES' Aidan Gillan), who have enlisted the help of a nameless mage and protegee of Merlin (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) to defeat the tyrannical and despised Vortigern and enable Arthur to assume his rightful place on the throne.


Fast-moving and frequently amusing, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD looks terrific most of the way, with some eye-popping 3-D visuals and the kind of hyperkinetic, flash-forward/flash-back structure that Ritchie used in LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS and SNATCH. He's more or less a big-budget journeyman at this point, but this is the first of Ritchie's hired-gun assignments that actually has significant stretches that, for better or worse depending on whether you're a fan, feel like vintage Ritchie. While mileage may vary as far as one's acceptance of a King Arthur being given snake venom to enhance his vision and perception, or stranded on a de facto Skull Island where he's forced to battle giant snakes and bats to prove his mettle after being trained in combat by the aforementioned Kung Fu George (Tom Wu), the film works as mindless fun most of the way. That is, until Ritchie lets the blurry, quick-cutting shaky-cam take over for the mess of a climactic battle where Arthur finally takes on Vortigern, who's transformed into a demon knight and starts sounding like Dr. Claw from INSPECTOR GADGET. Law is enjoying himself as an appropriately hissable villain, while Hunnam doesn't really have to stretch much outside of his Jax Teller persona, getting to use his natural British accent but faring much better in James Gray's recent THE LOST CITY OF Z. The mage, an obvious reinterpretation of the sorceress Morgan Le Fay (Morgana in EXCALIBUR), functions as a stand-in for the barely-seen Merlin, who here is credited with the forging of Excalibur. Spanish-French actress Berges-Frisbey (ANGELS OF SEX) has an intriguing presence that's reminiscent of a young Isabelle Adjani, while two-time Oscar nominee Hounsou, once again cast in a thankless sidekick role, continues to be arguably the most insufficiently-utilized great actor in Hollywood. The origin story (the Round Table is seen under construction at the end) in what was planned as a six-film series in a Warner Bros. King Arthurverse that's most likely now joined the ranks of THE GOLDEN COMPASS in being whittled down to a series of one, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD will exit theaters very quickly but should play well on streaming and on cable for the next decade or more. It's enjoyable and filled with rousing action, but it can't stop itself from stumbling when it matters most. And as entertaining as it is most of the time, the $175 million price tag does seem a tad excessive.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

On Netflix: MINDHORN (2017)


MINDHORN
(UK - 2017)

Directed by Sean Foley. Written by Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby. Cast: Julian Barratt, Andrea Riseborough, Essie Davis, Steve Coogan, Russell Tovey, Simon Farnaby, Richard McCabe, David Schofield, Nicholas Farrell, Harriet Walter, Kenneth Branagh, Simon Callow, Jessica Barden, Robin Morrissey, Jordan Long. (Unrated, 88 mins)

It succumbs to predictability when the comedy gives way to formulaic action in the third act, but the British-made Netflix acquisition MINDHORN, starring and co-written by THE MIGHTY BOOSH's Julian Barratt, gets its share of big laughs from an inspired premise. Barratt is Richard Thorncroft, a washed-up Isle of Man-born actor best known for a late '80s/early '90s TV series called MINDHORN, In it, Thorncroft starred as Bruce Mindhorn, an MI-5 agent who was captured and held prisoner at a secret compound in the outer regions of Siberia, where Soviet scientists replaced his left eye with a cybernetic optical lie detector, "allowing him to literally see the truth!" according to the show's dead-on INCREDIBLE HULK-type voiceover intro ("It's Truth Time!" Mindhorn declares when he nabs a perp). MINDHORN was a big hit for a few years but Thorncroft did a poor job of handling his fame. After releasing an album with the minor hit single "You Can't Handcuff the Wind" (sample lyric: "It's like tryin' to put thunder in jail!"), the show's popularity waned, ratings plummeted, his relationship with leading lady Patricia Deville (Essie Davis of THE BABADOOK) fell apart, and he had a very public meltdown when he appeared falling-down drunk on a live talk show, trash-talking co-star Peter Easterman (Steve Coogan), who played Mindhorn's sidekick Windjammer. Upon MINDHORN's cancellation, Easterman became a bigger star than Thorncroft ever was thanks to the spinoff WINDJAMMER, currently in its 16th season and still the most-watched show on British TV. Thorncroft's fall from grace continued when he ditched his loyal agent Geoffrey Moncrief (Richard McCabe) and went off to Hollywood when a megabudget producer promised to make him the next Burt Reynolds. The movie bombed and Thorncroft crashed and burned, and he's been scrounging for work and licking his wounds in London in the 20 years since. He's still trying to stage a comeback, still sucking in his gut and throwing on a Mindhorn toupee to cover his now-bald head, with his latest agent (Harriet Walter) unable to find any publisher interest in his autobiography (Easterman has just published his third memoir), while his most prominent recent gigs have found him coasting on what little MINDHORN notoriety he still has in TV commercials endorsing man-girdles and orthopedic socks.






After a disastrous audition with Kenneth Branagh where he humiliates himself pretending he and Branagh go back decades ("Kenny B!"), Thorncroft is about to throw in the towel, but he gets an unexpected offer from an Isle of Man police precinct: escaped lunatic Paul Melly (Russell Tovey), who makes squawking sounds and calls himself "The Kestral," is the prime suspect in a recent murder, but he refuses to speak with Baines (Andrea Riseborough), the detective on the case. Instead, MINDHORN superfan Melly, who thinks the character is real, will only talk to Agent Mindhorn, which leads the cops to hire Thorncroft to once again essay his signature role to help capture "The Kestral." Of course, at-an-all-time-low Thorncroft can't help but become a braying jackass and all-around egomaniac now that he thinks he's in-demand once more, and he very nearly screws up the entire investigation before accidentally helping apprehend Melly. But after reconnecting with Patricia, now a crusading reporter, and learning she ran off with his old stunt double Clive Parnevik (co-writer Simon Farnaby), Thorncroft is once more despondent until evidence surfaces that Melly has been framed for the murder, with Geoffrey having the proof on a VHS tape. When Geoffrey turns up dead and Thorncroft is implicated, he and Melly escape and set out to clear both of their names. Thorncroft's bigger concern seems to be his career, which, after a brief resurgence of interest thanks to his role in capturing Melly, immediately goes back into the shitter following an escalating confrontation with the gloating Easterman that goes viral when Thorncroft takes a swing at his former co-star and instead punches an innocent female bystander.





It should come as no surprise as MINDHORN (which counts Ridley Scott among its producers) reaches its conclusion that getting to the bottom of the case is key to Thorncroft's personal and professional redemption, as are rekindling his romance with Patricia and getting the idiotic Clive out of the picture. MINDHORN is consistently amusing but works best in its early scenes, especially its establishment of the current sad state of Thorncroft's life and career. There's a definite sense of Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant-style cringe comedy that gives way to a more HOT FUZZ-esque genre parody, and the styles don't always mesh. Also, the identity of the real villain is a bit of a letdown, since the individual doesn't have much to do with the plot and just seems arbitrarily tossed in. Barratt is appropriately self-deprecating in a role that would've had Kevin Kline written all over it 25 years ago, though he and debuting director Sean Foley could've just as easily gone in either direction the whole way through, be it a squirming discomfort about a washed-up actor or as an outright parody with a feature-length MINDHORN episode in the vein of  an AUSTIN POWERS or a MACGRUBER. There's some very funny inside jokes for fans of British cinema, whether it's Branagh's deadpan cameo as himself ("No fucking clue who that was," he tells his assistant when Thorncroft finally leaves), or Thorncroft dealing with the ballbusting of actor/author Simon Callow, another of his agent's clients ("Fuck off, Callow!"). There's also some big laughs coming from his diva-like attitude when he arrives to help with the investigation, stopping a cop and ordering a coffee or requesting his tea with two teabags and name-dropping Sean Bean in the process ("Picked that up from Sean Bean...'Double-Bag' Bean, we called him."). MINDHORN doesn't maintain that same level of absurdist inspiration all the way through, but as far as Netflix Originals go, it's a better British comedy than DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD and a much better cop comedy than the dismal HANDSOME: A NETFLIX MYSTERY MOVIE.




Friday, May 12, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE VOID (2017); MINDGAMERS (2017); and THE BYE BYE MAN (2017)


THE VOID
(Canada/US - 2017)


For children of the '80s who still hold dear the films of their formative years in that eventful decade of horror, it's always nice to see something new created by people who get it--filmmakers who get you and speak your language. The writing and directing team of Jeremy Gillespie & Steven Kostanski--part of the Canadian filmmaking collective Astron-6 (MANBORG, THE EDITOR)--are two such guys. THE VOID is basically one big '80s horror lovefest that storms out of the gate but ultimately falls victim to its own void: no matter how many beloved '80s horror treasures you reference, invoke, or outright steal from, there still needs to be a foundation of something at its core beyond mere shout-outs and callbacks. Partially crowd-funded on Indiegogo by fans who would've otherwise spent the money buying steelbook editions of movies they already own, THE VOID is the cinematic equivalent of perusing your DVD/Blu-ray collection for something to watch. It puts an ensemble cast into a classic John Carpenter scenario, trapped in a hospital with shape-shifting creatures taking over dead bodies while robed, hooded cult figures stand guard outside, preventing them from leaving. Deputy Carter (Aaron Poole, who might convince less attentive viewers that he's Aaron Paul) tries to contain the situation, which is exacerbated by a trigger happy father and son (Daniel Fathers, Mik Byskov) after a local meth head (Even Stern), a pregnant teenager (Grace Munro) and her loving grandfather (James Millington), a trainee nurse who can't even (Ellen Wong, best known as Knives Chau in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD), a state trooper (Art Hindle) who gets devoured by a Lovecraftian creature as soon as he arrives on the scene, and a head nurse (Kathleen Munroe) who happens to be Carter's estranged wife, their marriage falling apart after the death of their infant child.





Most of these characters may as well be named "Dead Meat," thanks to Dr. Powell (Kenneth Welsh), the doc on duty who happens to be the head of a cult that's set up shop in the basement of the hospital. Powell has made a pact with a force in "The Void," a netherworld whose entry portal exists behind an illuminated triangle in the basement. Powell is able to "transform" people into other beings and defeat death, which became his obsession after the death of his teenage daughter, with his ultimate goal to bring the power of The Void into our world. Gillespie and Kostanski are obviously having a lot of fun here and for a while, you too can have a good time playing Name That Reference. The big selling point of THE VOID is the filmmakers' insistence on using practical creature and gore effects, which look great but are too often left in murky darkness. Seeing old-school splatter of that sort was enough to establish THE VOID's bona fides with many, but with a set-up that combines Carpenter's THE THING and PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the extent of homage crosses the line by the climax, when Gillespie and Kostanski are ripping off no less than three films at the same time--PRINCE OF DARKNESS, Clive Barker's HELLRAISER, and Lucio Fulci's THE BEYOND--plus some gratuitous H.P. Lovecraft for good measure. It's one thing to wear your love of these films on your sleeve, but it's another entirely to just straight-up copy shots and imagery without bringing anything new to the table. What's here is reverent and respectful of iconic '80s horror, but at the same time, it's not that far removed from the same mentality that drives a Friedberg/Seltzer spoof movie--namely, just making the reference is supposed to be good enough. Seeing a transformed Dr. Powell acting like a combination of Frank and Pinhead from HELLRAISER as he blathers endlessly at the Void portal--stopping just short of proclaiming that he "has such sights to show you"--just makes me want to watch HELLRAISER again (if nothing else, THE VOID proves to be a better HELLRAISER sequel than most HELLRAISER sequels). Gillespie's and Kostanski's hearts are in the right place, and it was a joy seeing these kinds of vintage practical effects in a new movie in 2017, further demonstrating that no matter the advancements or the cost-effectiveness, CGI will never be able to top practical in these circumstances. But by the time the credits roll, THE VOID is a film whose title ultimately becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Unrated, 90 mins)



MINDGAMERS
(Austria - 2017)


Shot in 2014 as DXM, the sci-fi hodgepodge MINDGAMERS is about as good as you'd expect a movie produced by an energy drink to turn out. Bankrolled by Red Bull's Terra Mater Factual Films media division, MINDGAMERS really wants to be a circa-1999 Wachowski Brothers groundbreaker but ends up feeling like a decade-too-late MATRIX ripoff. Directed and co-written by Andrew Goth (the ill-fated GALLOWWALKERS, a film shelved for several years while star Wesley Snipes was incarcerated), MINDGAMERS opens in 2027 and deals with quantum technology being the next evolution of human connectivity. Renegade priest Kreutz (a visibly befuddled Sam Neill, probably getting a lifetime supply of Red Bull whether he wanted it or not), a deranged quantum physicist who only joined the church so it would fund his pseudo-theological experiments, argues with a monsignor that "the border between physics and faith is dead!" before making his point by bashing the monsignor's head in. Cut to years later at the exclusive DxM Academy ("DxM" an abbreviation for Deus Ex Machina--no, really, it is), where a group of hip and edgy young geniuses led by Jaxon (Tom Payne, now on THE WALKING DEAD) are recruited to perfect the ability to transmit thought and ability via "brain connectivity." Their case study is quadriplegic combat veteran Voltaire (Ryan Doyle) and things start progressing when new team member Stella (Melia Kreiling) taps into DxM super computer "En.o.ch." Once their minds are all linked, the DxM Xtreme Fyzzicystz (OK, that one I made up) start demonstrating as a group the levels of Voltaire's strength and agility prior to his paralysis. There's also an aged Kreutz, slowed down by a stroke, trying to hijack their discoveries for his own purposes, whatever they may be, and then everyone convenes for some kind of interpretive dance flash mob in a torrential downpour.





I'll be honest with you: I haven't the slightest idea what's going on in MINDGAMERS. But I'm not alone, because I don't think the filmmakers do either. Hard sci-fi so flaccid that it might've been better off being financed by Cialis, MINDGAMERS starts out like an extreme gamer remake of PRINCE OF DARKNESS before changing course and finally answering the never-asked question "What would WHAT THE BLEEP DO WE KNOW!? look like if just got fuckin' rekt with more parkour and random Jesus Christ poses, brah?" MINDGAMERS screened at the 2015 Grimmfest in the UK, but then sat on a shelf for almost two years before Universal gave it a one-night, live-streamed theatrical release through Fathom Events in March 2017, where it was hyped that 1000 audience members nationwide could wear connectivity headbands and gather data from their thoughts as the movie unfolded. There wasn't much to report, as many of the screenings were cancelled due to no tickets being sold. There's some impressive-looking Romanian ruins used for exterior shots and the ornate sets show the movie isn't cheap, but it's a mercilessly talky, hopelessly muddled buzzkill that's pretentiously pleased with itself and completely full of shit. (R, 99 mins)



THE BYE BYE MAN
(US - 2017)


STX Entertainment's half-assed attempt at creating a new horror franchise with a would-be horror icon ready-made for convention cosplayers, THE BYE BYE MAN plays like a low-end Dimension Films production that went missing in 2000 and has just now been discovered in a vault. Mixing elements of CANDYMAN, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and FINAL DESTINATION, THE BYE BYE MAN has a trio of college students--Elliot (Douglas Smith), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and his perpetual third wheel buddy John (Lucien Laviscount, which could either be the name of an actor or a rakish cad about to face Barry Lyndon in a duel)--moving into a spacious and creepy old house where strange things start happening. A nightstand drawer has a warning "Don't think it don't say it" scrawled "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"-style, along with "The Bye Bye Man" carved into the wood. After they hold a seance with the requisite psychic friend Kim (Jenna Kanell), they're all haunted by hallucinations and jump-scare visions of the titular hooded, demonic figure (Guillermo del Toro favorite Doug Jones). The Bye Bye Man was awakened by Elliot's discovery of his existence, which was long buried by local newspaper reporter Larry Redmon (SAW's Leigh Whannell), who went berserk back in 1969 and went on a shooting rampage, killing several of his neighbors before guzzling a can of drain cleaner. THE BYE BYE MAN lumbers along, utilizing every cliche in the book as the characters are stalked one by one before the film wheezes to its conclusion which, of course, leaves the door open for a sequel.





Filled with amateurish performances, scenes that play like rehearsal footage, arbitrary Bye Bye Man rules ("When you hear the hound and the coins, you know he's near!"), multiple characters serving no purpose other than being motor-mouthed exposition dumps, and outright stupid plot contrivances--with one getting killed when she's standing in the middle of a darkened road for no reason whatsoever other than the movie needed her to be there at that time--THE BYE BYE MAN was directed by Stacy Title and written by her husband Jonathan Penner, both of whom have made real movies in the past. She directed and he wrote and co-starred in the acclaimed 1995 indie THE LAST SUPPER and 1999's little-seen Hamlet-inspired L.A. mystery LET THE DEVIL WEAR BLACK before their filmmaking careers petered out. They both resurfaced in 2006 with the unlikely SNOOP DOGG'S HOOD OF HORROR, and this is Title's first film since. There isn't much to say about the Cleveland, OH-shot THE BYE BYE MAN, other than it gets even more depressing when Carrie-Anne Moss turns up in a frivolous supporting role as a hard-nosed cop and downright tragic with the arrival of Faye Dunaway (yes, that Faye Dunaway), the Oscar-winning screen legend squandered in a five-minute cameo as Redmon's reclusive widow, on hand to provide more exposition before quickly disappearing from the movie. Heed this warning about THE BYE BYE MAN: don't think it, don't say it, and better yet, don't even see it. (PG-13, 96 mins, also available in a 100-minute unrated version if anyone cares)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Retro Review: THE OTHER HELL (1981)


THE OTHER HELL
aka GUARDIAN OF HELL
(Italy - 1981; US release 1985)

Directed by Stefan Oblowsky (Bruno Mattei, Claudio Fragasso). Written by Claudio Fragasso. Cast: Franca Stoppi, Carlo De Mejo, Andrew Ray (Andrea Aureli), Francesca Carmeno, Susan Forget (Susanna Forgione), Frank Garfeeld (Franco Garofalo), Paola Montenero, Sandy Samuel (Ornella Picozzi), Tom Felleghy, Simone Mattioli. (R, 89 mins)

A relative latecomer to the '70s Nunsploitation craze, 1981's THE OTHER HELL is a bit of an outlier as far as the subgenre is concerned, in that its focus is primarily on horror and there's no onscreen sex. One of the key components of Nunsploitation is its recurring depiction of sexually repressed nuns letting themselves go and giving into their wicked, uninhibited carnal desires, usually with other sex-starved nuns. Though the mainly Italian subgenre really took off in the mid '70s, it began with the serious drama THE NUN OF MONZA in 1969, directed by Eliprando Visconti (nephew of Luchino Visconti) and starring British actress Anne Heywood. Heywood would find a niche in roles that depicted her in various states of prudish sexual repression, most notably the 1979 American film GOOD LUCK, MISS WYCKOFF, aka THE SHAMING, where she played a 40-year-old spinster schoolteacher in a small town in the 1950s who loses her virginity via rape and falls in love with her attacker. Domenico Paolella's STORY OF A CLOISTERED NUN (starring Catherine Spaak and Suzy Kendall) really got the ball rolling in 1973, which he followed quickly that same year with Heywood, back for more nunsploitative action in THE NUNS OF ST. ARCHANGEL. After that, the floodgates were open, with Florinda Bolkan in Gianfranco Mingozzi's FLAVIA THE HERETIC (1974), Francoise Prevost in Sergio Grieco's THE SINFUL NUNS OF ST. VALENTINE (1974), Susan Hemingway in Jess Franco's LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN (1977), Laura Gemser in Giuseppe Vari's SISTER EMANUELLE (1977), Anita Ekberg in Giulio Berruti's KILLER NUN (1978), Ligia Branice in Walerian Borowcyk's BEHIND CONVENT WALLS (1978), Paola Senatore in Joe D'Amato's IMAGES IN A CONVENT (1979), Zora Kerova in Bruno Mattei's THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUN OF MONZA (1980), and Eva Grimaldi in D'Amato's fashionably late CONVENT OF SINNERS in 1986. Though Italy was the primary purveyor of Nunsploitation, Japan got into the act with 1974's SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST, 1976's CLOISTERED NUN: RUNA'S CONFESSION, and 1978's SISTER LUCIA'S DISHONOR, among a handful of others.





Like any genre fad that overstays its welcome and starts showing signs of running its course, Nunsploitation films got increasingly abhorrent, transgressive, and grubby-looking as time went on. They also tried experimenting with subgenre crossover in an attempt to shake things up. Franco Prosperi's THE LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH (1978) combined Nunsploitation with the post-LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT/I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE rape/revenge subgenre, with Florinda Bolkan as a Mother Superior with a group of young girls being terrorized by a crew of rapists led by Ray Lovelock. Another example is THE OTHER HELL, which was shot simultaneously in 1980 with the same crew and much of the same cast as THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUN OF MONZA. Bruno Mattei (STRIKE COMMANDO) and writer Claudio Fragasso (TROLL 2) were the creative forces behind both, but while Mattei focused most of his attention on MONZA, Fragasso did the majority of the shot-calling on THE OTHER HELL, with both men splitting directorial duties over both films and credited under the shared pseudonym "Stefan Oblowsky." THE OTHER HELL deals with the requisite convent full of sexually repressed nuns, with Mother Superior Sister Vincenza (Franca Stoppi) convinced an evil force has been unleashed after two nuns appear to commit suicide under mysterious circumstances. Father Valerio (Lucio Fulci regular Carlo De Mejo) is sent by the Archbishop (Tom Felleghy) to investigate after an older priest, Father Inardo (Andrea Aureli, credited as "Andrew Ray") proves ineffective and later set ablaze by a supernatural force. There's a whole lot of very little that happens in THE OTHER HELL for the first hour and change. It's hobbled by a ponderously slow pace and cheap-looking cinematography that borders on the barely watchable, with some fleeting bits of chuckle-inducing lunacy like Sister Assunta's (Paola Montenero) rant about how "the genitals are the door to evil!" or a striking giallo-like discovery of a room filled with hanging, unclothed dolls lost amidst a lot of Valerio walking around and asking questions, the requisite stone-walling from Sister Vincenza, a few mysterious deaths, and an obvious red herring in twitchy groundskeeper Boris (Franco Garofalo, credited as "Frank Garfeeld"), the kind of socially-inept creep who grins a little too much when he has to cut the head off a chicken to prepare dinner.



But then something strange happens. There's a big revelation about a secret Sister Vincenza is hiding, all hell breaks loose, and suddenly, THE OTHER HELL gets its shit together and turns into a really good and genuinely atmospheric horror movie, almost like Mattei and Fragasso are trying to put a Dario Argento spin on the Nunsploitation genre. They essentially go for broke and just start throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, turning a laborious dud into a dizzying, nonsensical Eurotrash mishmash of sexual repression, black magic, scientific mumbo jumbo, possession, exorcism, catchy Goblin cues recycled from BEYOND THE DARKNESS and two of their older albums, 1976's Roller and 1978's Il Fantastico Viaggio del Bagorozzo Mark (much like Mattei swiped huge chunks of Goblin's DAWN OF THE DEAD score for his 1980's HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD), and a couple of zombies because hey, why not? Giving a further boost to THE OTHER HELL's sudden jolt of life is another unhinged freakout of a performance by Stoppi--the Eva Green of early '80s Italian sleaze--breaking out every bonkers move in her batshit repertoire for the final act. Stoppi--who has a small but devoted cult following thanks to her unforgettable performance as Iris, the (wait for it) sexually repressed and maniacally insane housekeeper hopelessly in love with her necrophile employer (Kieran Canter) in BEYOND THE DARKNESS (aka BURIED ALIVE)--keeps things rather restrained for much of THE OTHER HELL, but about the same time that Mattei and Fragasso decide "Fuck it, whatever," she unleashes the beast, turning Sister Vincenza into a character almost as memorable as Iris. A tireless animal rights activist in Italy after she quit acting in the mid '80s, Stoppi died in 2011 at the age of 64, but a 2002 archival interview with her appears on Severin's new Blu-ray release of THE OTHER HELL and shows she had a good sense of humor about these kinds of movies. She comes off as thoroughly charming and thankfully nothing at all like the shrieking, wild-eyed crazy bitches she so excelled at playing onscreen.


Franca Stoppi (1946-2011)


Released in Italy in 1981, THE OTHER HELL didn't turn up in the US until the fall of 1985, when the short-lived Film Concept Group, a restructured Motion Picture Marketing co-owned by mobster-turned-future born again Christian motivational speaker Michael Franzese, acquired it and retitled it GUARDIAN OF HELL. That title actually makes a little more sense given what transpires, but the title was changed back to THE OTHER HELL when Vestron Video released it on VHS in 1987 with new artwork. FCG had GUARDIAN/OTHER in US theaters at the same time as another already several-years-old Italian acquisition, Andrea Bianchi's incredible Oedipal epic BURIAL GROUND, and below is visual proof of them playing in a first-run theater in Toledo, OH at the same time. It's hard to believe that actually happened, but there it is. FCG only released a few titles before folding, including Paul Naschy's THE CRAVING in 1985 (a retitling of 1980's THE NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF), Mattei's RATS in 1986, Bobby A. Suarez's Filipino post-nuke WARRIORS OF THE APOCALYPSE in 1986, and John Grissmer's BLOOD RAGE re-edit NIGHTMARE AT SHADOW WOODS in 1987. I'm not sure how FCG managed to get such schlocky films prime spots in first-fun theaters, but I'd like to think it involved Franzese reminding a National Amusements regional manager "Nice little five-screen ya got there in Toledo...be a real shame if somethin' happened to it."


GUARDIAN OF HELL opening in Toledo, OH
on September 13, 1985, at the same theater as
BURIAL GROUND, somehow in its second week. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Retro Review: NAM ANGELS (1989)


NAM ANGELS
(US/Philippines - 1989)

Directed by Cirio H. Santiago. Written by Dan Gagliasso. Cast: Brad Johnson, Vernon Wells, Kevin Duffis, Rick Dean, Mark Venturini, Jeff Griffith, Romy Diaz, Ken Metcalfe, Archie Adamos, Eric Hahn, Tonichi Fructuoso, Frederick Bailey, Leah Navarro. (R, 93 mins)

Filipino exploitation auteur Cirio H. Santiago (1936-2008) dabbled in nearly every genre over the course of his long career, specializing in blaxploitation knockoffs in the mid '70s and post-nukes in the early '80s, but as B-movie trends went, so went Santiago. By the late '80s, after the success of macho MIA rescue fantasies like UNCOMMON VALOR, MISSING IN ACTION and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, and more serious films like the Oscar-winning PLATOON and Stanley Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET, Namsploitation became one of the most profitable genres for the burgeoning home video market. Ripoffs flooded New Release shelves at video stores nationwide, whether it was Santiago's Philippines-shot actioners or Italian knockoffs like Fabrizio De Angelis' THUNDER WARRIOR series and OPERATION NAM, and Bruno Mattei's legendarily craptacular STRIKE COMMANDO. Even Australia got into the act with Brian Trenchard-Smith's cult classic THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA. Usually working in conjunction with Roger Corman, Santiago cranked out a ton of Namsploitationers from 1984 to 1993, including FINAL MISSION (1984), THE DEVASTATOR (1986), EYE OF THE EAGLE (1987), BEHIND ENEMY LINES (1988), THE EXPENDABLES (1988), EYE OF THE EAGLE III (1989), FIELD OF FIRE (1991), BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY (1992), FIREHAWK (1993), and KILL ZONE (1993) before demand died down and he moved on to a string of kickboxing movies.






EYE OF THE EAGLE III is probably Santiago's best Namsploitation outing (he sat out 1988's EYE OF THE EAGLE II), but a close second is 1989's NAM ANGELS, a loose remake of the 1970 Jack Starrett drive-in hit THE LOSERS mixed with a little KELLY'S HEROES. Just out on Blu-ray from Code Red in further defiance of the "Physical media is dead" myth (and introduced by Code Red head Bill Olsen in his inane "Banana Man" get-up, referring to Cirio Santiago as "Sollio Sariago"), NAM ANGELS opens at the height of the Vietnam War as Army Lt. Vance Calhoun (a debuting Brad Johnson) loses most of his men in a skirmish while the rest are taken prisoner by Chard (Vernon Wells, best known as Wez in THE ROAD WARRIOR), a "round eye" mercenary with ties to both the CIA and the North Vietnamese, who has set up shop as a despotic ruler, out there operating without any decent restraint, beyond the...oh wait, that's Col. Kurtz. Back at the base, Calhoun can't convince Gen. Donipha (Ken Metcalfe) to send in a rescue team, so he organizes his own--an off-the-books op where he recruits a quartet of incarcerated Hell's Angels who were nabbed trying to smuggle drugs out of Cambodia back to the States. Calhoun gets them out and convinces them they're on a mission to recover $10 million in VC gold that his men found in a cave on the outskirts of Chard's camp. Calhoun and Army mechanic Hickman (Kevin Duffis) butt heads with the biker gang leader Larger (Rick Dean) and the rest of the Angels--Bonelli (Mark Venturini), Carmody (Jeff Griffith), and Turko (Romy Diaz), especially when Larger finds out the primary reason for the journey--but before long, they set aside their differences and find common ground, realizing they have to work together to make it out alive...if they don't kill each other first!


NAM ANGELS is one of Santiago's fastest-paced programmers. The director drops the ball when it comes to period detail, best represented by Santiago capturing the exact and very brief window in time in 1989 when Chard's rather ahead-of-its-time and decidedly un-1969 combination mullet/tiny ponytail would be even remotely socially acceptable, and he has the chutzpah to close the film with a John Milton quote ("Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven"), but NAM ANGELS is a lot of fun. The action, explosions, and motorcycle stunts are almost non-stop, and there's some attempt at making a serious statement ("Even your own people don't care about you!" Chard yells when Calhoun realizes no one's coming to rescue them), and while none of these guys are any great shakes as actors, there's enough of a developing camaraderie over the course of the film that it turns into a better-than-expected men-on-a-mission outing.


The film marked the big-screen debut of Johnson, a professional rodeo cowboy who served a three-year stint as the Marlboro Man before turning to modeling and eventually acting. Like many before him, Johnson got his start in the world of Roger Corman (and Santiago put Johnson's lassoing skills to use throughout NAM ANGELS) but it wasn't long before he was declared a Next Big Thing. Later in 1989, still a virtual unknown and given an "Introducing" credit despite already starring in NAM ANGELS, he was picked by Steven Spielberg to co-star with Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, and the legendary Audrey Hepburn in the director's ALWAYS. He next starred with Danny Glover and Willem Dafoe in John Milius' 1991 military actioner FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER, and...that was it. With the big studios deciding they already had one actor to fill their Tom Berenger needs, Johnson's time on the A-list was short-lived, rivaled in its brevity only by Patrick Bergin, another Next Big Thing from that same period who flamed out in record time. Like Bergin, Johnson became a fixture in the world of straight-to-video and/or cable, with films like 1993's THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT 2, 1994's THE BIRDS II, and 1995's LONE JUSTICE 2, along with several TV gigs and the syndicated series SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, INC, with fellow straight-to-video mainstay Tim Abell. Johnson's career got a second wind with the faithsploitation crowd when he co-starred as pilot Rayford Steele in the Kirk Cameron-headlined LEFT BEHIND trilogy, but with the exception of a one-off comeback in the barely-seen church-funded indie NAIL 32 in 2015, the devoutly religious Johnson's been retired from acting since 2008. Now 56 and the father of ten with his wife of 30 years, Johnson appears to have left Hollywood behind and now owns a real estate and property development company.


Monday, May 8, 2017

On Netflix: HANDSOME: A NETFLIX MYSTERY MOVIE (2017)


HANDSOME: A NETFLIX MYSTERY MOVIE
(US - 2017)

Directed by Jeff Garlin. Written by Andrea Seigel and Jeff Garlin. Cast: Jeff Garlin, Natasha Lyonne, Christine Woods, Steven Weber, Amy Sedaris, Eddie Pepitone, Leah Remini, Timm Sharp, Brad Morris, Ava Acres, Kaley Cuoco, Joe Kenda, Hailee Lautenbach, Dave Sheridan, William Standford Davis. (Unrated, 80 mins)

Best known for his years as Larry David's manager and best friend on CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM as well as for the ABC series THE GOLDBERGS, Jeff Garlin is one of those comedian's comedians, a guy respected by his peers and with a lot of friends in the business. Garlin's attempts at branching out on his own, writing, directing, and starring in indie films, have yielded mixed results. 2007's I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH was a surprisingly heartfelt MARTY homage that did a nice job if balancing the discomfort comedy of CURB with some genuinely solid dramatic work from Garlin as an overweight aspiring comedian who lives with his mother and is trying to find his place in the world. By contrast, 2013's abysmal DEALIN' WITH IDIOTS was a near-laughless, self-indulgent dud that was little more than an excuse for Garlin and some comedy buddies to hang out and pretend they were making a movie.






Garlin's latest effort as a writer/director/star is the Netflix Original film HANDSOME: A NETFLIX MYSTERY MOVIE, which doesn't have much of a mystery since it opens with a fourth-wall-breaking intro that has co-star Steven Weber announcing "I'm Steven Weber, and I play the killer in this Netflix mystery movie and multi-platform event" before the opening credits roll. It's not exactly the best way to keep the audience on the edge of its seat in anticipation like, say, Edward Van Sloan at the beginning of FRANKENSTEIN. Garlin is affable L.A. homicide detective Gene Handsome, who catches a case with his partner Det. Fleur Scozzari (Natasha Lyonne) that's conveniently close to home: his new single mom neighbor Nora's (Christine Woods of HELLO LADIES) babysitter Heather Dromgoole (Hailee Lautenbach) is found decapitated, with the rest of her body dismembered and arranged into a macabre Star of David on the front lawn of famous movie star Talbert Bacorn (Weber). The investigation leads Handsome and Scozzari to sleazy Lloyd Vanderwheel (Timm Sharp), the owner of a fireworks distribution center called Fireworks! Fireworks! Fireworks!, who hired Heather to spy on his ex-wife--wait for it--Nora, to get dirt on her for an upcoming court case over custody of their daughter Carys (Ava Acres). Of course, Handsome starts to have feelings for Nora, while nympho Scozzari keeps hooking up with Lloyd, who's still a suspect. But the trail keeps taking them back to the arrogant Bacorn, the kind of asshole who pronounces the word "premiere" as "prem-yay."


Judging from its structure, HANDSOME looks a lot like a feature-length pilot for a potential Netflix series. Handsome and Scozzari have the kind of back-and-forth banter that TV cop partners have; Handsome is in charge of a group of incompetent rookie detectives--headed by the hapless Burt Jurpis (Brad Morris), who sees the condition of Heather's body and her severed head at the crime scene and immediately declares "This looks like a driveby"--who seem to be a wacky supporting ensemble but vanish from the movie; and Handsome is always getting his ass chewed out by his boss, Lt. Tucker (Amy Sedaris), who's also pretty brazen about sexually harassing him ("By the way...my tubes are tied"). HANDSOME has some legitimately funny bits in the early going, with humor ranging from quirky to raunchy, whether it's Handsome citing SAN ANDREAS as his favorite movie ("Best absurdity ever!" he raves), Scozzari's unfiltered commentary ("I'd bend him over and eat popcorn out of his ass," she says of Bacorn, and later, after a hookup with Lloyd, "My pussy can't handle more than four toes anymore"), or that the entire mystery hinges on a particularly slippery brand of body cream, which is something straight out of the Larry David school of comedy. But Garlin's script is all over the place, and it just flatlines once the story kicks into gear, especially since Garlin ensures from the first scene that there's no mystery in this "Netflix Mystery Movie."




HANDSOME can't decide if it wants to be a straight procedural (for a movie purporting to be a comedy, Heather's murder seems like it belongs in SE7EN); a spoof of hard-boiled detective movies; an introspective, I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH character study with Handsome a schlubby guy who just wants to settle down and have a family; a ripoff of INHERENT VICE with its ridiculous character names and the recurring image of a woman dancing with hula hoops serving as a Sortilege of sorts who may or may not be real; and a lot of quippy smartassery in a Hollywood setting that's the unmistakable KISS KISS BANG BANG and THE NICE GUYS territory of Shane Black. Garlin even borrows the "self-loathing Jew" line from CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM which, in all fairness since he's a creative partner on the show as well, might've been his in the first place. With its supporting cast and cameos by comedian Eddie Pepitone, Leah Remini as Handsome's sultry, accordian-playing neighbor, HOMICIDE HUNTER host Joe Kenda, and Kaley Cuoco as herself, HANDSOME has plenty of Garlin pals onboard but it's no INHERENT VICE, KISS KISS BANG BANG or THE NICE GUYS, and its jarring tonal shifts constantly stall any momentum it comes close to generating, making it feel like an interminable slog even at just 80 minutes. Garlin can be funny as hell in the right situation, and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM wouldn't be the same without him. But movies don't seem to play to his strengths, and aside from some occasional jokes that land in the opening third, the best that can be said for HANDSOME: A NETFLIX MYSTERY MOVIE is that it's at least a marginal improvement over DEALIN' WITH IDIOTS, an assessment that may very well set a new standard for "damning with faint praise."

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Retro Review: THE MESSENGER (1987)


THE MESSENGER
(Italy - 1987)

Directed by Fred Williamson. Written by Brian Johnson, Conchita Lee and Anthony Wisdom. Cast: Fred Williamson, Christopher Connelly, Cameron Mitchell, Joe Spinell, Val Avery, Jasmine Maimone, Micheal Dante, Sandy Cummings, Peter Brown, Stack Pierce, Suzanne von Schaack, Umberto Raho, Riccardo Parisio, Maurizio Bonuglia, James Spinks, Cyrus Elias, Stelio Candelli, Frank Pesce, Chris Conte, Vince Townsend. (R, 97 mins)

During his eight-season career in pro football with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Oakland Raiders, and the Kansas City Chiefs, DB Fred Williamson earned the nickname "The Hammer," and upon his retirement in 1968, he parlayed his tough gridiron persona into a TV and movie career. He landed a recurring role as Diahann Carroll's love interest on the NBC series JULIA and made his big-screen debut as Spearchucker Jones in Robert Altman's 1970 classic MASH. Williamson followed that with a supporting role in Otto Preminger's 1970 Liza Minnelli vehicle TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON before finding his niche as one of the top blaxploitation stars of the 1970s. Williamson enjoyed one drive-in and grindhouse success after another, with HAMMER and THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY in 1972, and no less than four films in 1973, with the sequel THE SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY, BLACK CAESAR and its sequel HELL UP IN HARLEM, and the 007-inspired THAT MAN BOLT. Williamson worked relentlessly throughout the decade, often teaming with fellow football legend Jim Brown in films like 1974's THREE THE HARD WAY and 1975's TAKE A HARD RIDE, but by the mid '70s, Williamson grew restless and wanted to start making his own independent movies through his own Po' Boy Productions. He made his directing debut with 1976's MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS and managed to talk some celebrity friends into co-starring, including MASH buddy Elliott Gould in a cameo as a bum, and Roddy McDowall ludicrously cast as a Mafioso. Williamson directed and starred in three more films in 1976: the western ADIOS AMIGO with Richard Pryor, followed by NO WAY BACK and its immediate sequel DEATH JOURNEY, the first two of four films where he'd play private eye Jesse Crowder. With Enzo G. Castellari's 1978 cult classic THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, Williamson began a second career in Italy, even directing the Italian-made MR. MEAN during his BASTARDS downtime. Though he made some American films in the '80s, most notably 1983's THE BIG SCORE and the same year's VIGILANTE, Williamson spent most of that decade in Italy, starring in Castellari's 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS (1983) as well as the director's post-nuke WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND (1983) and Lucio Fulci's post-nuke THE NEW GLADIATORS (1984). 1985 also saw him as a pitchman in a series of King Cobra malt liquor commercials, and the same year, he took a break from Italian genre fare to co-star in the short-lived Joe Pesci NBC series HALF NELSON.





But by the mid '80s, Williamson was getting lazy. He made a pair of almost interchangeable back-to-back thrillers with 1986's FOXTRAP and 1987's THE MESSENGER, both vanity projects (well, every Williamson movie is a vanity project to some extent) that co-starred Williamson BFF Christopher Connelly and were little more than an excuse to get Italian production company Realta Cinematografica to send him on paid vacations throughout Europe and the US. THE MESSENGER is especially bad, with Williamson demonstrating a level of carelessness that borders on audience contempt, whether it's staging inept action sequences, putting himself in an overlong love scene where he has the camera pan down so we see his co-star Sandy Cummings' hands caressing his gyrating ass, or padding the running time with absurdly long establishing shots like following two actors on a golf course for over a minute or planting the camera inside a cab and giving us an impromptu, MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE-style travelogue every time his character arrives in a different city. We get a two-minute look at Vegas, up and down the strip, past the casinos and hotels, and even going blocks away, taking the audience on a captivating drive past the local Woolworth. There's also a scene where Michael Dante, as a Hollywood mobster, is shown pulling into his driveway, turning his car around in the driveway, then backing into the garage, pulling back out and then maneuvering the car back into the garage again so he can straighten it out. Then Williamson keeps the camera right where it's at while Dante gets out of the car and leisurely walks into what I presume is the actor's own home. It's at least a solid minute and a half of static screen time devoted to watching Dante dick around in his driveway.


The threadbare vigilante/revenge plot requires location work in Rome, Chicago, Hollywood, and Las Vegas simply because Williamson was given enough money to do so. The Hammer is Jake Sebastian Turner, a Green Berets legend released from a Rome prison and reunited with his wife Sabrina (Cummings, in her first and thus far only film), who's turned into a junkie while he was locked up. She's killed in a drive-by shooting and Jake is informed by the improbably-named Italian mob boss Gielgud (Riccardo Parisio) that Sabrina got involved with Rome drug traffickers who were supplying Chicago gangster Paolo (Maurizio Bonuglia). The same people who killed Sabrina also murdered Gielgud's stepson, and he offers Jake $500,000 to go to Chicago and track down and kill those responsible. Arriving in Chicago, Jake kills Paolo with a ninja star only to find out that he was just a part of the machine and he'll need to head out west to find the real bosses behind the operation. His path of vengeance takes him to Hollywood (Schwarzenegger's RAW DEAL on a theater marquee!), where he finds Emerson (Dante), whose tool company is used as a money-laundering and narcotics distribution front for Vegas mob kingpin Rico (Joe Spinell) and his top flunkies Clark (John Cassavetes inner circler Val Avery) and Harris (Peter Brown). Meanwhile, loose-cannon, plays-by-his-own-rules FBI agent Parker (Connelly) develops a begrudging admiration for the so-called "Messenger of Death" who's wiping out syndicate goons, and butts heads with Chicago police captain Carter (Cameron Mitchell, hamming it up but still outacted by his garish eyeglasses that must be seen to be believed) and irate detective Leroy (Stack Pierce), who want this mystery vigilante off the streets.


THE MESSENGER is grossly incompetent but calling it "so bad it's good" is a stretch. Williamson's direction is unbelievably sloppy, from the half-assed action scenes to his direction of the actors, none of whom appear to be aware of what kind of movie they're in. As a director, his chief concern seems to be getting women to throw themselves at him and staging as many King Cobra product placements as possible (they even get a shout-out in the closing credits). Williamson and Connelly play it straight, Connelly especially enjoying himself as Parker, pointlessly doing a T.J. HOOKER shoulder-roll into Rico's mansion and throwing around the usual made-up insults that he used in a lot of his Italian films (RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS, OPERATION NAM, STRIKE COMMANDO). His favorite standby "suckfish" makes a required appearance (calling someone "suckfish" is Connelly's "John Cusack vaping"), along with "shitstick" and calling Spinell "butt-wipe." Mitchell just seems to be goofing off (did he borrow his mother-in-law's glasses for this role?), Dante does what he's required to do--be the guy you get when John Saxon, Henry Silva and Tony Lo Bianco turn you down--and Spinell plays it broad, turning Rico into a whiny, sniveling Joe Besser of a mob boss. The Rome scenes with Italian actors are shot with live sound, and it's pretty clear when you listen to Eurocult stalwarts like Stelio Candelli (DEMONS) and Umberto Raho (THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE) that their grasp of English is tenuous at best (bonus points if you can understand a single word Raho says as the warden who releases Jake from prison). Even the dialogue in the American scenes is often difficult to decipher, as the actors are constantly cut off or drowned out by William Stuckey's repetitious, flatulent synth score.


And whether it's a fault of the script--somehow the work of three people, two of whom did nothing else after while the other (Anthony Wisdom) went on to write 1990's THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY--or Williamson's slapdash direction, THE MESSENGER offers one of the all-time great continuity gaffes, one that involves Mitchell's pissed-off Capt. Carter. When introduced, he's bitching at Parker and refusing to cooperate with him after the Chicago hit on Paolo. When others turn up dead in Hollywood, Parker informs Carter that the Messenger must've left Chicago and made his way out west, with Parker announcing "I'm going to L.A." as Carter chomps on his cigar and seethes, adjusting his ill-fitting Estelle Getty glasses. Much later, in Hollywood, after Emerson is killed and his naive wife (Suzanne von Schaack) finds out he's a drug dealer and that's how he was providing for her and their children, she inexplicably turns up as a cokehead hooker in Vegas for no reason at all. She recognizes Jake at a casino, dials the operator and asks for the Los Angeles police department, specifically "Chief Carter," as we see Cameron Mitchell pick up the phone. Wait..,LAPD Chief Carter? Wasn't he just a precinct captain in Chicago a few scenes back, with a map of Illinois on the wall of his office? Sure enough, Carter rounds up the cops and Parker and they go straight to...Rico's mansion in Las Vegas?! Is Williamson even paying attention to his own movie?


Williamson campaigning for
Donald Trump in 2016. 
Williamson continued dividing his time between Italy and America, and by the 1990s was a C-lister relegated to straight-to-video status with films like 1991's THREE DAYS TO A KILL and 1992's SOUTH BEACH. He enjoyed a brief resurgence in 1996 with the all-star blaxploitation throwback ORIGINAL GANGSTAS and with longtime fans Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez giving him a showy supporting role in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, two years after turning down an offer from Tarantino to play crime boss Marcellus Wallace in PULP FICTION. Williamson passed on the part because of the scene where Wallace is raped by Zed in the Gimp dungeon in the pawn shop basement.. He got to demonstrate some slow-burn comedy skills, playing off Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as the perpetually flustered Capt. Doby in 2004's STARSKY & HUTCH, but other than that, Williamson has done some sporadic TV guest spots and some Z-grade DTV swill you find in the New Release section at Walmart. He's also become a regular presence in low-budget faithsploitation dramas like 2015's LAST OUNCE OF FREEDOM, where he played a villain trying to stop a small rural town from celebrating Christmas. Now 79 and probably still able to kick your ass, Williamson most recently made the news in 2016 when he was spotted on the presidential campaign trail competing with Ben Carson for the coveted "Donald Trump's black friend" role.

Monday, May 1, 2017

In Theaters: THE CIRCLE (2017)


THE CIRCLE
(France/UAE/US - 2017)

Directed by James Ponsoldt. Written by James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers. Cast: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Bill Paxton, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly, Nate Corddry, Judy Reyes, Mamoudou Athie, Smith Cho, Amir Talai, Poorna Jagannathan, Eve Gordon. (PG-13, 110 mins)

Based on the 2013 novel by Dave Eggers, who shares screenplay credit with director James Ponsoldt (THE SPECTACULAR NOW), THE CIRCLE has a premise with such a short window of topicality that the movie adaptation feels dated just four years later. It doesn't help that TV shows like MR. ROBOT and BLACK MIRROR have already explored similar themes much more effectively, but THE CIRCLE loses the satirical elements of Eggers' novel and opts for a much more heavy-handed approach. What might've worked on the page doesn't work always work on the screen, as characters here don't have conversations as much as they drop exposition and make important speeches. Everything has to be simplified so the audience can stay caught up, then it starts glossing over things so much that the entire second half of the film is a complete mess. A lot of this was likely due to negative test screenings leading to extensive reshoots being done in January 2017, just three months before the film's release and long after filming wrapped in late 2015. The film goes in a completely different direction than the book, so much so that it's a safe assumption that the finished film isn't exactly a collaborative effort between Eggers and Ponsoldt.





Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is temping in customer service at the local water department when her Scottish college friend Annie (Karen Gillan) lands her an interview with her employer, The Circle. A Google-like tech empire in Silicon Valley, The Circle is always pioneering advances in social media and software dedicated to making people "connected." Their latest product launch involves "SeeChange," a tiny, round camera that can be placed anywhere and go unnoticed, utilizing GPS and facial recognition software and generating much in the way of moral and ethical dilemmas over privacy and surveillance. Circle founder and CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) claims that such advances are for the greater good of humanity, but loner Mae's gut reaction is one of apprehension. The mostly millennial employees base their lives around The Circle, living in dorm-like apartments "on campus," and participating in "suggested" activities on their off time with a fervent and almost cult-like devotion to their employer. Mae is passive-aggressively reprimanded by a Circle social media adviser for not taking part in the events and for going home to visit her parents--mom Bonnie (Glenne Headly) and dad Vinnie (the late Bill Paxton in his last film)--and she's somewhat alarmed that The Circle already knows her father is suffering from multiple sclerosis. Mae is chastised for taking a job with The Circle by her childhood friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane of BOYHOOD), who hates texting and the internet and has no doubt condescendingly uttered, at least once in his life, "I don't even own a TV." Her friendship with Mercer falls apart after she shares a pic of his custom-made antler chandeliers and outraged millennials start following him around to harass him get in his face, and shout "deer killer!" After an incident involving her trespassing to go kayaking ends with her being rescued after being seen on a SeeChange camera aimed at the bay, Mae makes the ultimate commitment to The Circle: she goes "transparent," wearing a small camera 24/7 to document every moment of her life for Circle's 240 million members. This plot turn could've been a great BLACK MIRROR episode in the hands of Charlie Brooker, and it also recalls both Bertrand Tavernier's remarkably ahead-of-its-time cult film DEATH WATCH (1980) as well as Peter Weir's THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998), but once Circler comments turn up on the screen for most of the remainder of the film, it more or less starts to look like INSTAGRAM: THE MOVIE.


Mae's advance up the ladder at The Circle puts a strain on her friendship with Annie as well as her relationship with her parents, who are also required to install cameras at their house. Those cameras are taken offline when Mae's followers, seeing what Mae sees, accidentally catch a glimpse of her parents having sex with the aid of a penis pump for her disabled father, humiliating both of them. Mae also forms a muddled alliance with Ty Lavitte (John Boyega of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS), a legendary hacker who works for The Circle, designing a program that's been hijacked by Bailey and his business partner Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) to spy on every Circle user and store all of their personal information, phone calls, e-mails, texts, etc. Much to Lavitte's disgust, Bailey and Stenton use this information to blackmail a senator (Eve Gordon) who's been publicly critical of The Circle, and with Mae's help, they even concoct a plan to tie The Circle into voter registration records and not only allow users to vote through their Circle account, but require them to be Circle users in order to vote ("The US government needs us more than we need them," Stenton says). There's some heady implications in a lot of what goes on in THE CIRCLE, especially the ultimate fate of Mercer as a scathing critique of social media hysteria, but Ponsoldt bungles it at every turn. THE CIRCLE is content to lecture the audience and too often comes off like it's taking an approach to technology that's equal parts Stubborn Luddite and Scared Old Man. What could've been a smart, topical critique of our reliance on technology and our willingness to sacrifice privacy and human interaction for convenience and a feeling of connection with the rest of the world comes off as smug and sanctimonious, complete with a laughably simplistic non-ending that has Mae staging a revolt against Bailey and Stenton and literally Pied Pipering her newly-woke colleagues out of a darkened, pitch black auditorium through an exit door, outside into the light. Watson is a capable actress but she's strangely one-note here. Boyega seems to have been affected most by the reshoots, looking like he spent his entire time on the set unsuccessfully trying to locate Ponsoldt, while Paxton musters what trace amounts of dignity he can with a penis pump and in another scene that requires him to piss himself. What little novelty this misfire offers comes from seeing Hanks and Oswalt atypically cast as quietly sinister villains, but neither seems to have spent more than a few days working on this, enough for one to surmise that when Bailey turns to Stenton at the end and says "We are so fucked," it's very possible that it was just Hanks talking to Oswalt without knowing the cameras were rolling. Altered extensively from Eggers' novel, THE CIRCLE is disjointed, already past its sell-by date, and completely unsure of what point its even trying to make.

Bill Paxton (1955-2017)