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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Retro Review: HIGHPOINT (1984)


HIGHPOINT
(Canada - 1984)

Directed by Peter Carter. Written by Richard Guttman and Ian Sutherland. Cast: Richard Harris, Christopher Plummer, Beverly D'Angelo, Kate Reid, Peter Donat, Robin Gammell, Saul Rubinek, Maury Chaykin, George Buza, David Calderisi, Ken James. (PG, 87 mins)

Aside from one good car chase and stunt legend Dar Robinson taking a dive off of Toronto's CN Tower, which at the time was the tallest free-standing structure in the world, the justifiably obscure Canadian tax shelter comedy-thriller HIGHPOINT is an absolute shit show. Filmed in 1979, subjected to reshoots in 1981, given a brief European release in 1982, and unseen in the US until 1984 in a drastically restructured version that was assembled following even more reshoots and post-production tweaking, HIGHPOINT was deemed a lost cause by anyone who came into contact with it. Director Peter Carter and co-writer Ian Sutherland had just made the Canadian survivalist horror film RITUALS, and intended HIGHPOINT to be a spoofy homage to NORTH BY NORTHWEST and other Hitchcockian "innocent man caught in a web of intrigue" tropes, even though Mel Brooks' HIGH ANXIETY did the job quite well in 1977. By the time HIGHPOINT was finally dumped in a handful of theaters on Labor Day weekend in 1984 (opening the same day as BOLERO and C.H.U.D.), the new regime at New World Pictures, which had just changed hands after being sold by Roger Corman, jettisoned the lighthearted score by Oscar-winner John Addison (TOM JONES) and replaced it with more bombastic, Jerry Goldsmith-style cues by Christopher Young, who would become an in-house New World composer on films like FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC and HELLRAISER before going on to a busy career with the major studios (he received a Golden Globe nomination for his work on Lasse Hallstrom's 2001 film THE SHIPPING NEWS). New World also excised as much of the comedy as they could, opting to retool it in the editing room as a relatively straight-faced, serious action-heavy thriller, with what appears to be half of the jobs in the credits being prefaced by the word "additional," and all without the involvement of Carter, who died of a heart attack at just 48 in June of 1982. As anyone who's seen Sam Peckinpah's THE KILLER ELITE can attest, taking a comedy and turning it into a serious movie in post-production is a terrible idea, and HIGHPOINT, which would be more accurately titled NORTH BY NORTHWORST, is such an ineptly-assembled dumpster fire of a movie that it's surprising it was ever released at all. And even after all the time, effort, and money (approximately $2 million) spent revamping HIGHPOINT as a thriller, New World's poster art sold it as a comedy anyway, further proof that no one at any point could reach an agreement on what they wanted from this project and that no one involved was on the same page. A new exposition-filled opening sequence was shot with co-stars Peter Donat and Robin Gammell after test audiences had no clue what was happening, and veteran Roger Corman associates Clark Henderson and Barry Zetlin are among the heavily-staffed behind-the-scenes triage unit credited with "additional editing," which is enough to seriously question whether HIGHPOINT was acquired by the Corman-owned New World prior to his selling the company in late 1983 and perhaps thrown in as a freebie for the new owners. Speaking purely hypothetically, if there was ever a wreckage so beyond salvaging that not even Roger Corman could get it in profitable shape, it's HIGHPOINT.





Unemployed accountant Lewis Kinney (Richard Harris, trying desperately to be Cary Grant) rescues a young woman from an attempted suicide by drowning and ends up getting involved in all manner of complex and incoherent machinations. The woman is Lise Hatcher (Beverly D'Angelo, who replaced a bailing Katharine Ross shortly before filming began), the adopted younger sister of noted playboy and con artist James Hatcher (Christopher Plummer), whose funeral she just left. But Hatcher is very much alive, faking his own death after absconding with $10 million of CIA cash that was loaned to the Mafia for a top secret money laundering scam code-named "Highpoint." When Hatcher's ailing mother (Kate Reid) hires Kinney to help locate her son, the nebbishy accountant finds himself targeted by government goons working at the behest of corrupt CIA agent Banner (Gammell), as well as incompetent, slapstick hit men Centino (Saul Rubinek) and Falco (Maury Chaykin), dim-witted flunkies working for mob boss Maronzella (Donat). The plot begins in Los Angeles before moving to NYC and eventually Quebec and Toronto, probably per the rules of the tax shelter incentive, but it's anyone's guess why anything happens in HIGHPOINT. One admittedly well-done car chase early on is still plagued by obvious post-production stitching, awkward cutting, and continuity issues that run rampant throughout, like two repeats of the same reaction shot of D'Angelo laughing. And while Robinson's jaw-dropping 700 ft free fall off the CN Tower in the climax (he's doubling Plummer in the scene) is the sole reason HIGHPOINT got any attention at all back in the day and probably why New World worked so hard to make this presentable, even it's handled in a way that ruins the moment, looking as if Carter and the crew didn't get enough coverage for the shot and had no way of cutting it together without asking Robinson to do it again. And to give you some perspective on just how incredible this HIGHPOINT stunt was, Robinson's famous free fall from the Peachtree Plaza at the end of SHARKY'S MACHINE, where he's doubling Henry Silva, was only 220 ft.





As this miserable film slogged on, the most interesting thought I had was wondering if, years later on the set of Clint Eastwood's 1992 classic UNFORGIVEN, Harris (as English Bob) and Rubinek (as bespectacled, tenderfoot biographer W.W. Beauchamp) reminisced about the trainwreck they appeared in together over a decade earlier. Harris and Plummer, both in the midst of a string of Canadian tax shelter gigs, walk through HIGHPOINT looking smug and punchable, delivering their lines with an annoyingly glib tone that might've been appropriate for a comedy but makes no sense now that these performances are in a thriller. The "comedy" cut is included in a 112-minute workprint version on Code Red's new Blu-ray, though I can't imagine anyone caring enough to do a comparison with New World's 87-minute US cut, which only came about because no one, from test audiences to the suits at New World, could follow the original version, even though executive producer William J. Immerman (TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT, SOUTHERN COMFORT) is on hand for an interview to defend the 112-minute cut as superior. Even in its restructured and streamlined incarnation, too much unfunny comedy remains, whether it's Harris breaking the fourth wall and winking at what I presume is a vacant theater where an audience was expected to be, or a long mid-film chase involving horse-drawn carriages, cars, and a portly guy chasing them all, with everything sped up Benny Hill-style complete with high-pitched voices, wacky music and zany sound effects. It sticks out like a sore thumb in what's supposed to be a thriller (imagine the Keystone Kops pulling up alongside Cary Grant while he's being chased by the crop dusting plane in NORTH BY NORTHWEST), but if that was an indication of what constituted "funny" in the original cut, then New World probably had the right idea, but just no way to make it better regardless of the tone. With today's constant crowing about the so-called death of physical media, I'm glad to see any obscure movie resurrected on Blu-ray, but does this film have any fans? Thanks--I guess--but special edition restorations don't get much more pointless than HIGHPOINT, currently the front-runner for my Buyer's Remorse Blu-ray of 2017.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Retro Review: WILLARD (1971) and BEN (1972)


WILLARD
(US - 1971)

Directed by Daniel Mann. Written by Gilbert A. Ralston. Cast: Bruce Davison, Ernest Borgnine, Sondra Locke, Elsa Lanchester, Michael Dante, Jody Gilbert, William Hansen, John Myhers, J. Pat O'Malley, Joan Shawlee, Alan Baxter, Sherry Presnell. (PG, 95 mins)

A surprise sleeper smash for Cinerama Releasing in the summer of 1971, WILLARD, from the masters of horror at Bing Crosby Productions, has been out of circulation for a number of years but has resurfaced, along with its sequel BEN, on Blu-ray courtesy of Shout! Factory. To those under 30, WILLARD has probably been supplanted by the minor cult following of its over-the-top 2003 remake, but for Gen Xers and older--those fortunate enough to have seen it theatrically or on one of its many TV airings as kids throughout the '70s and '80s--the original WILLARD remains one of the most beloved horror films of its day. It's creepy enough to make you squirm and give everyone the willies, but carries a PG (or GP at the time) rating that allowed it to have a huge impact on kids who were actually allowed to see it. It also helped that everyone at some point in their lives probably felt like Willard Stiles, the slumped-shouldered sad sack played by Bruce Davison in the role for which the veteran character actor is best known, even with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 1990's LONGTIME COMPANION. Endlessly picked on at work by his cruel, bullying boss Al Martin (an essential Ernest Borgnine performance) and never given a moment of peace at home by his needy, domineering mother Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester), Willard is a ticking time bomb looking for a way out. He has no friends and his birthday party is attended only by his mother's elderly friends who start in on him about how he needs to stand up to Martin, a conniving asshole who co-owned a foundry with Willard's late father only to muscle him out of the partnership and stress him into an early grave. Martin kept Willard on the payroll as a consolation prize for being screwed out of co-ownership, putting him in sales accounting, dumping everyone else's work on him and forcing him to come in on weekends in the hopes that he'll quit. Willard's only joy in life comes from a family of rats he finds in the backyard. He spends all of his free time with them, playing with them and teaching them tricks, eventually getting them to understand voice commands and perhaps even developing a kind of psychological connection with them. He bonds with two in particular: good-natured and playful white rat Socrates and clingy and vaguely sinister black rat Ben.






Willard soon devotes all of his time to the rats, especially after his mother dies. He moves the fertile rat pack, which has grown exponentially, into the basement, where he has a hard time corralling and controlling them. He ignores the attention given to him by shy, pretty co-worker Joan (Sondra Locke, several years before hooking up with Clint Eastwood) and begins using the rats to plot vengeance against his tormentors. Director Daniel Mann (THE ROSE TATTOO, BUTTERFIELD 8, OUR MAN FLINT) and veteran TV writer Gilbert A. Ralston (BEN CASEY), working from Stephen Gilbert's 1969 novel Ratman's Notebooks, play a little coy with the horror element for a good chunk of the film's running time, whether it's the lighthearted, cute antics of the rats or the completely, almost sarcastically inappropriate score, which sounds like it belongs in a cheerful, uplifting kids movie. Willard just seems shy, lonely, and unable to stand up for himself until his dark side takes over. First it's relatively harmless pranks like setting some rats loose at a swanky work party hosted by Martin that everyone was invited to except Willard, who was nevertheless put in charge of mailing the invitations. But before long, he's using the rats as a decoy to stage a theft of some cash at the home of Martin's sleazy new business partner (Alan Baxter) and eventually, after bringing Socrates and Ben to work with him only to have Martin kill Socrates after he's spotted in the supply closet, training them to attack under the newly-assumed leadership of Ben. It's about 2/3 of the way through WILLARD before its shift to outright horror, and the much talked-about scene where Willard finally exacts his revenge on Martin by bringing along a few thousand of his friends ("Tear him up!" a wild-eyed Willard commands) was the kind of cathartic, crowd-pleasing entertainment that helped make WILLARD such a huge word-of-mouth hit.


WILLARD's inspired willingness to go off the rails in the home stretch makes it especially endearing all these years later. With his mother gone and Martin no longer around to make his life miserable, Willard is finally free and doesn't need his rodent friends anymore. But Ben, feeling rejected on an almost-FATAL ATTRACTION level, won't be ignored, and the scene where Willard's romantic dinner with Joan is interrupted when he spots Ben on the mantle stink-eye squinting at him in a jealous, silent rage is absolute genius. WILLARD inspired one direct ripoff with 1972's STANLEY, about a PTSD-stricken Vietnam vet (Chris Robinson) who trains his pet rattlesnake to take out his enemies, but can be seen in retrospect as a loose precursor to two later 1970s trends: the "nature run amok" (JAWS, GRIZZLY, THE FOOD OF THE GODS, etc) and the "social outcast exacting telepathic revenge" subgenres (CARRIE and JENNIFER--the latter about a teenage girl with both CARRIE-like powers and an ability to control snakes, starring Lisa Pelikan, who was married to Davison for many years--as well as popular made-for-TV-movies like THE SPELL and THE INITIATION OF SARAH). What helps WILLARD a lot is the genuinely terrific performance by Davison, who sells the character much the way Anthony Perkins did with Norman Bates in PSYCHO. Sure, there's the similarities in that they're both sheltered mama's boys, but like Norman Bates, you sympathize with Willard until he starts crossing lines. Norman Bates got off easy by getting to spend two decades in an institution for his crimes. Willard Stiles wasn't so lucky: he made the mistake of fucking with Ben.


WILLARD opening in Toledo, OH on July 2, 1971



BEN
(US - 1972)

Directed by Phil Karlson. Written by Gilbert A. Ralston. Cast: Joseph Campanella, Arthur O'Connell, Meredith Baxter, Lee Harcourt Montgomery, Rosemary Murphy, Kaz Garas, Kenneth Tobey, Paul Carr, Richard Van Fleet, James Luisi, Norman Alden. (PG, 94 mins)

In theaters less than 12 months after WILLARD, the quickie sequel BEN looks and feels even more like a made-for-TV movie than its predecessor, a vibe enhanced by the presence of TV stalwarts like Joseph Campanella and a young Meredith Baxter in leading roles, both of whom accumulating only a small handful of big-screen credits over their long careers (unless I'm mistaken, BEN is the only time Campanella headlined a theatrical release). Stepping in for Daniel Mann was veteran journeyman Phil Karlson, whose directing career dated back to Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys programmers in the 1940s and included some westerns and film noir in the 1950s and Dean Martin's Matt Helm movies in the 1960s. Karlson's biggest success would come 30 years into his career with his next-to-last film when, right after BEN, he directed the surprise 1973 blockbuster WALKING TALL, with Joe Don Baker in his signature role as ass-kicking, hickory-clubbing Sheriff Buford Pusser. Karlson came from the "Let's just get it in the can and move on" school of no-nonsense efficiency, but things get off to a shaky start with an awkward and stilted opening with a bunch of people standing as silent and still as a freeze frame outside the home of Willard Stiles, with BEN picking up immediately after the events of WILLARD. Willard's body has been found in the attic following the Ben-orchestrated revenge attack on him. Dogged detectives Kirtland (Campanella) and Greer (Kaz Garas) find Willard's diary, where he details his training of an army of rats, but the incredulous cops are quick to dismiss it as the rantings of a kook since the rats are nowhere to be found. That's because Ben has directed them to hide in the walls undetected, and while the detectives bicker with cigar-chomping newshound Hatfield (Arthur O'Connell), Ben waits patiently to lead them to a safe place. The safe place turns out to be the sewer, from which Ben and a few other scouts emerge to befriend lonely Danny (Lee Harcourt Montgomery), a frail eight-year-old with a weak heart who lives in Willard's neighborhood. Like Willard, Danny has no friends and spends his time putting on marionette shows in the garage, converted into a workshop/playroom by his single mom Beth (Rosemary Murphy) and big sister Eve (Baxter). Danny and Ben bond immediately, with Ben doing for Danny exactly what he did for Willard when he leads a rat attack on a neighborhood bully who's picking on Danny. Meanwhile, Kirtland and Hatfield are scouring the city for the rat army, though who knows what they intend to do when they find it?






BEN wasn't as big of a hit was WILLARD, though it was just as ubiquitous on late-night TV in the '70s and '80s. With the killer rat angle already established, BEN is able to get right to the horror element and as such, it follows a template not unlike later slasher films like HALLOWEEN, with Ben and the rats terrorizing a small suburban town and going back into hiding, pursued by cops and the media, both of whom have little success in catching them as the body count escalates. Again scripted by Gilbert A. Ralston, BEN manages to be simultaneously more nasty and grisly and more maudlin and silly than WILLARD. There's some amusing scenes like rats invading a health spa and walking on treadmills and an absolutely ludicrous shot of Ben and a few other rats peeking out of the sewer with their eyes fixated on the display window of a nearby cheese shop, not to mention the fact that while Danny speaks and Ben squeaks, they're both able to understand each other perfectly ("Which way, Ben?  Left or right?" Danny asks, to which Ben replies with a series of short squeaks.  "OK, left!" Danny somehow concludes). But elsewhere, it goes bigger and grosser. There's several times the number of rats here than in WILLARD and Karlson really likes going for lingering shots of them swarming over a victim, putting several cast members in visibly unpleasant situations (Eve ends up looking for Danny in the sewer, and Baxter proves herself a real sport by crawling through all sorts of wet gunk and piles of live rats in the glory days of pre-CGI), or taking over a grocery store to the point where literally the entire floor is covered in large rats climbing all over one another. Young Montgomery, who would go on to be a regular presence in '70s horror cult classics like BURNT OFFERINGS (1976) and in the terrifying "Bobby" segment of the TV-movie DEAD OF NIGHT (1977), is pretty hard to take as the whiny Danny, but he's boldly fearless when it comes to working and physically interacting with his rodent co-stars. BEN could use more smartass banter between seasoned pros Campanella and O'Connell and less of Montgomery's Danny and his marionette song and dance productions, but kids ended up digging WILLARD, so they had to make BEN appeal to that audience. That appeal went so far as getting 13-year-old Michael Jackson to record the title song, a heartwarming ballad about a young boy and his best friend who happens to be a super intelligent, insanely possessive, serial-killing rodent. Titled "Ben" but generally known as "Ben's Song," Jackson's theme song ultimately ended up being more popular than the movie it was from, becoming his first chart-topping solo hit and scoring a Best Original Song Oscar nomination, losing to Maureen McGovern's "The Morning After" from THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Yes, BEN is an Oscar-nominated film.







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.