Monday, July 31, 2017

In Theaters: ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by David Leitch. Written by Kurt Johnstad. Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Til Schweiger, James Faulkner, Sofia Boutella, Bill Skarsgard, Roland Moller, Barbara Sukowa, Johannes Hauker Johannessen, Sam Hargrave, Lili Gessler, Sara Natasa Szonda. (R, 115 mins)

A Cold War espionage actioner that's an endlessly stylish exercise in retro late '80s cool, ATOMIC BLONDE is adapted from the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City and it's a vehicle custom-engineered for Charlize Theron. Set in the final days before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, ATOMIC BLONDE has several extended action sequences that are stunning on their own, playing out in long and seemingly single-cut fashion that was new and exciting back in 2006 with CHILDREN OF MEN. But these sorts of set pieces--yes, blood hits the camera--have been done many times since, and the illusion loses a little something when one has seen enough of them to spot the editors' trickery and see exactly where the cuts are. That doesn't mean they aren't brilliantly choreographed and convincingly done--Theron is a force of nature when she's kicking ass--but the style in which they're executed by director David Leitch, making his "official" debut as a director even though he co-directed JOHN WICK as a team with Chad Stahelski but had to go uncredited due to a snafu with the DGA, sticks out as too present-day amidst the almost obsessive, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY-level attention to period detail. ATOMIC BLONDE's interior production design and location work in Budapest and Berlin nails that pervasive sense of gloom and gray that screams "John Le Carre," along with some '80s tunes that are used very effectively--Theron strutting through a West Berlin bar drenched in red neon to the tune of After the Fire's "Der Kommissar" is just perfect--but the two distinct aesthetics never quite coalesce.

A framing device has MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) being debriefed by her boss Eric Gray (Toby Jones), who's accompanied by CIA agent Kurzfeld (John Goodman) as all are watched from behind the glass by MI-6 chief "C" (James Faulkner). Broughton was assigned to West Berlin to retrieve a list conveniently termed "The List," which named all British operatives deployed to the Soviet Union and fell into the KGB's hands after Broughton's fellow agent and lover James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) was murdered. The List was given to Gasciogne by a meek East German Stasi officer known as "Spyglass" (Eddie Marsan) who was working with agents from the west and hoping to use it as leverage to defect with his wife and daughter. Broughton was set to meet MI-6 agent David Percival (James McAvoy) in West Berlin, but as she explains, "I was made before my feet hit the ground." She's abducted by KGB goons and manages to kill them before finally meeting Percival, a loose cannon who's completely undercover in the Berlin underground, selling stolen merchandise with his specialty being the hugely-popular-in-the-East Jordache jeans. Broughton has several irons in the fire on her assignment: she must retrieve The List, deal with cowboy Percival, work on a plan to get Spyglass into West Berlin, and figure out the identity of "Satchel," a double agent who's working for MI-6 but providing intel to the KGB. She also finds time for a torrid fling with novice French agent Delphine Lasalle (THE MUMMY's Sofia Boutella) and endures constant bruising and battering but always emerging victorious in some truly nasty and brutal fight scenes.

I realize mileage may vary for some and ATOMIC BLONDE isn't supposed to be the second coming of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, but it's is so hypnotically captivating in its non-action sequences that, for me, the spell was broken and I was taken out of the film somewhat with the CGI-abetted action sequences and digital splatter started taking over. This is in no way a deal-breaker and most likely won't even be an issue on a second viewing, but I'm a sucker for gray, overcast, and dreary espionage and that, coupled with some striking locations and imaginative ideas like staging a brawl between Broughton and some Russian spies at a packed screening of Andrei Tarkovsky's STALKER, is enough to make hardcore cinephiles giddy. Leitch uses period pop music brilliantly, and whether it's a violent, bonebreaking fight scene set to George Michael's "Father Figure" (that's right up there with the "Ordinary World" beatdown in LAYER CAKE) or KGB operative Bakhtin (Johannes Hauker Johanessen) beating a breakdancing Berlin kid to death to the tune of Nena's "99 Luftballoons," the music choices are spot-on. That's something a lot of these present-day Cold War period pieces nail perfectly, whether it's Julio Iglesias' "La Mer" for the montage at the end of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY or Joe Jackson's "Stepping Out" and Pink Floyd's "Run Like Hell" in 2009's little-seen FAREWELL, and both FAREWELL and ATOMIC BLONDE prominently feature Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure."

But this is really The Charlize Theron Show first and foremost, and the Oscar-winning actress got a serious boost among action fans for her work as Imperator Furiosa in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and she continued on that new career path with THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS and now ATOMIC BLONDE. She's nothing short of perfect here, and Theron kicking ass manages to supersede any issues I may have with the more modern style of the action and visual effects techniques breaking the spell the filmmakers cast as they so vividly capture the look and feel of the final days and hours before the fall of the Berlin Wall. They even go out of their way to make the it look like it was made in 1989, complete with old-fashioned and slightly blurry subtitles and location work in Budapest and some parts of Berlin that have remained largely unchanged over the last 30 years. It's in these scenes that ATOMIC BLONDE looks so convincing that you'd swear it's what might've happened if Wim Wenders followed 1987's WINGS OF DESIRE with a mainstream spy movie. ATOMIC BLONDE also gets bonus points for providing a small role for Rainer Werner Fassbinder regular Barbara Sukowa, further establishing its old-school bona fides.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Retro Review: TWO EVIL EYES (1990)

(Italy - 1990; US release 1991)

Directed by Dario Argento and George Romero. Written by George Romero, Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini. Cast: Harvey Keitel, Adrienne Barbeau, Ramy Zada, Sally Kirkland, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, John Amos, Kim Hunter, Madeleine Potter, Bingo O'Malley, Tom Atkins, Jeff Howell, Holter Ford Graham, Julie Benz, Christine Forrest, Chuck Aber, Anthony DiLeo Jr., Tom Savini. (R, 120 mins)

In its earliest stages of development, TWO EVIL EYES was intended by producer Dario Argento to be a four-part anthology horror film celebrating the work of Edgar Allan Poe, with the Italian master of horror joined by fellow genre legends George A. Romero, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter. By the time production began in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1989, Craven and Carpenter bowed out, leaving Argento and Romero as the remaining participants, each helming a present-day Poe segment running approximately one hour in length. TWO EVIL EYES was supposed to be timed with the ill-fated Poesploitation craze of 1989, which primarily saw rival producers Roger Corman and Harry Alan Towers cranking out a series of Poe adaptations in honor of the 140th anniversary of the writer's death (this included two competing versions of THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH). Most of these films weren't released until 1990 or 1991, thereby making the anniversary element pointless, and that went for TWO EVIL EYES as well. While it debuted in Europe in January 1990, it wouldn't hit US theaters until much later in October 1991, courtesy of Taurus Entertainment, who gave it a limited release on just 150 screens. Though an Italian production and Argento's baby, both segments of TWO EVIL EYES were shot in Romero's Pittsburgh stomping grounds, with the beloved NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD auteur providing his usual behind-the-scenes crew for Argento to use, including production designer Cletus Anderson, editor Pasquale Buba, and makeup effects maestro Tom Savini. Though he did some location work in Central Park for 1980's INFERNO, TWO EVIL EYES marked the first time Argento shot an entire project in the US, and he would return to the States for 1993's TRAUMA, which found him unable to create much of a stylish giallo atmosphere in exotic Minneapolis.

Romero kicks things off with "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar," previously filmed by Roger Corman as the closing segment in 1962's TALES OF TERROR and best remembered for Vincent Price waking from the dead and melting into ooze over scheming hypnotist Basil Rathbone. Wealthy Ernest Valdemar (Bingo O'Malley) is in a coma induced by his physician and amateur hypnotist Dr. Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada). Hoffman is having an affair with Jessica (Adrienne Barbeau), a former flight attendant who became an aging Valdemar's trophy wife years ago and is anxious to reap the benefits of his impending passing ("I let him use me," she explains. "For pleasure and for show...and I intend to be paid for my services"). Hoffman puts Valdemar under hypnosis to ease the pain but that's also the time that he can control the old man's mind, getting him to repeat things over the phone to his suspicious attorney Pike (E.G. Marshall) and signing documents transferring untold amounts of cash over to Jessica. They need to keep Valdemar alive for three weeks before the estate transfers to Jessica, but he dies while under hypnosis, putting him in a purgatory where he remains "alive" and part of our world and "the next," with the ominous "the others" attempting to use him to cross over. Romero takes some significant liberties with the story, his attempt to wedge in some social commentary about the greed of the wealthy doesn't really work (nor does the shot of blood dripping on money--Romero wasn't usually so ham-fisted in his societal critiques), and it's flatly shot in a way that makes it resemble a gorier-than-usual episode of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, but "Valdemar" has some effective moments that make it better than its reputation. It's certainly a lesser work in the Romero canon, trying but not quite succeeding in re-establishing that CREEPSHOW mood--with Barbeau as another bitchy harridan, plus the presence of Marshall and O'Malley, not to mention Romero's then-wife Christine Forrest, playing a mean nurse just like she did in 1988's MONKEY SHINES--but it just looks bland and Romero doesn't feel as engaged as he might've been if this project was his idea rather than him being the only guest who showed up to Argento's party thinking Craven and Carpenter would be there as well.

Argento's "The Black Cat" is almost universally regarded as the superior half of TWO EVIL EYES, and while it's got some signature Argento style and, like Romero's "Valdemar," is a reasonably entertaining horror piece, it's too uneven in its approach to be a complete success. A lot of the problems with "The Black Cat" stem from a miscast Harvey Keitel, caught just before his spectacular early '90s resurgence thanks to films like BUGSY (his only Oscar nomination to date), THELMA & LOUISE, RESERVOIR DOGS, and BAD LIEUTENANT. Though he was occasionally appearing in prestigious offerings like THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and THE TWO JAKES around this same time, he was also making ends meet by taking a lot of hired gun gigs in instantly obscure European films that nobody saw. As anyone who's seen the FROM DUSK TILL DAWN documentary FULL TILT BOOGIE will recall, Keitel has been known to be a needy method actor who requires extensive one-on-one time with his directors, and if there's one thing for which Argento has zero patience, going back to his combative working relationship with Tony Musante on 1970's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, it's actors who pester him with questions about character motivation. Argento's been bitching about Musante for 47 years, and while little has been said about his experiences with Keitel, the actor doesn't really look happy to be there, almost like he's intentionally shutting down and withdrawing inside himself when his character is going crazy and he should be a little more animated.

"The Black Cat," written by Argento and frequent collaborator Franco Ferrini, is a mash-up of several Poe stories, filled with characters named after Poe protagonists. Keitel is Rod Usher, a Pittsburgh crime scene photographer who's working on compiling his shots of murder and death into a morbid coffee table book called Metropolitan Horrors. His dark side seems to be known to his younger girlfriend Annabel Lee (Madeleine Potter), a new age-y violinist who adopts a black cat, much to Usher's disapproval. While she's away on a short tour, Usher gets drunk and kills the cat. Of course he denies it, though Annabel isn't buying it, especially when he buys her a new cat--from a sultry barmaid named Eleonora, played by Sally Kirkland--and she catches him trying to murder that one as well. In a violent rage, Usher kills Annabel and walls her up in a closet, while her students (among them a young Julie Benz), nosy neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Pym (Martin Balsam and Kim Hunter), and dogged detective Legrand (John Amos) keep bothering him with questions about her disappearance, clearly not buying his story that she left him. All the while, Usher is tormented incessantly by a ringing phone a la "The Tell-Tale Heart," along with a persistent meowing coming from somewhere in the house.

Where Romero's segment had almost no visual flair at all, Argento goes full throttle, with some arresting camera work, dazzling Steadicam moves throughout Usher's massive three-story house, and some uniquely Argento-ish touches like a premonition of death in the form of a noose-shaped white marking on the cat's otherwise black hair. It ends in an abrupt fashion, which would typify a lot of Argento's films in the coming years, where he often starts the closing credits while the final scene is still playing out (I'm thinking specifically of 2001's SLEEPLESS), and breaks the cardinal rule of horror anthologies that the end segment has be an ace closer to send the audience out buzzing (though Pino Donaggio's closing credits score sorta helps). Regardless of its flaws, Romero's "Valdemar" has the more relatively crowd-pleasing ending, but "The Black Cat" never gets around Keitel being completely wrong for the part. He's a weirdo from the start and it's hard to grasp why Annabel is even interested in this creep, but Keitel makes the mistake of overplaying it early and underplaying it later. He's screaming "I didn't do anything!" immediately after murdering the first cat in a way that only a guilty person would, but later on, when he's being driven batty by the phone and all of the meddling interlopers, he suddenly seems half-asleep, mumbling and morose. It's a strange, mannered performance that never finds the right tone, and it's all the more perplexing because Keitel is one of our great actors, though given the track record of both of them, it's not hard to imagine Keitel and Argento not getting along. Horror fans would've gone to see TWO EVIL EYES in theaters had it been playing anywhere near them. Romero was in his commercial Hollywood phase at the time, between MONKEY SHINES and the Stephen King adaptation THE DARK HALF, and Argento's notoriety among American horror enthusiasts was significant even though much of his work was still difficult to see in the pre-DVD era (his 1987 film OPERA had finally been given a straight-to-video release just a month earlier in September 1991, retitled TERROR AT THE OPERA), with his post-1990 output showing some wild inconsistency that morphed into a precipitous decline from the late '90s onward that continues to this day. TWO EVIL EYES opened the same weekend as HOUSE PARTY 2 and CURLY SUE, but landed in 17th place and was out of theaters a week later, leaving most Argento and Romero fans to discover it in video stores. It doesn't represent either filmmaker at their pinnacle--for that we'd have to go back to 1979 when SUSPIRIA-era Argento helped finance DAWN OF THE DEAD, got Goblin onboard for the score, and recut the film as ZOMBI for European audiences--but it's entertaining enough to make it required viewing for superfans and completists.

George A. Romero and Dario Argento on the set of TWO EVIL EYES

Friday, July 28, 2017


(UK - 2015; US release 2017)

As far as unofficial entries in the Monty Python canon go, ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING is so bad that it makes YELLOWBEARD look like MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. The first film to unite the five surviving members of the legendary comedy troupe since 1983's MONTY PYTHON'S THE MEANING OF LIFE (John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, and Terry Jones; Graham Chapman died in 1989), ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING was directed and co-written by Jones, who had the script stashed away since the early '90s and it shows. Jones almost got it going around 2003 but decided to put it on the backburner after the release of the Jim Carrey hit BRUCE ALMIGHTY, which has an almost identical concept but Jones' script has a Douglas Adams/Terry Pratchett twist. Instead of being granted powers by God, ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING's everyman hero Neil's (Simon Pegg) are granted courtesy of a crew of aliens--whose instantly recognizable voices are provided by the Python guys--who have happened upon Earth in their galactic journey and are deciding whether it's a planet worth saving. Picked at random by lead alien Death Dealing Darkness Bringer (voiced by Cleese), Neil is used as a guinea pig to gauge what a normal human will do with unlimited power. With a flick of his hand, Neil is able to make sweeping changes that he often has to walk back due to lack of specification (for example, after he causes an alien attack at a school that kills 40 people, his command to "Bring back everyone who died," ends up creating a brief zombie apocalypse). He tries to use his new ability to make his downstairs neighbor Catherine (Kate Beckinsale) fall for him while avoiding her psycho ex (a grating Rob Riggle), turns his best friend (Sanjeev Bhaskar) into a sausage, and, of course, makes his dick bigger. He also gets his dog Dennis to talk with the voice of the late Robin Williams, which should give you an idea of how long this thing sat around waiting for a US distributor. Shot in early 2014, ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING was dumped into a handful of US theaters in May 2017 by the rinky-dink Atlas Distribution, a company whose only noteworthy--and I use the term "noteworthy" loosely--accomplishment was releasing all three ATLAS SHRUGGED movies. Pretty much every joke lands with a thud in this flat and almost completely laughless fiasco that's made even more depressing by the fact that it was Williams' last performance and the last comedy we'll get from Jones, who was diagnosed with dementia shortly after shooting wrapped, prompting his retirement from public life in 2016. (R, 85 mins)

(Spain/US - 2017)

A remake of a 2008 French film with the same title, BLACK BUTTERFLY was set to roll in 2011 with Nicolas Cage starring and Rod Lurie (THE CONTENDER) producing, but the project fell apart during pre-production. Director Brian Goodman, an actor whose only previous credit behind the camera was the little-seen 2008 crime drama WHAT DOESN'T KILL YOU, remained attached, and by the time filming began, Cage was replaced by Antonio Banderas, and the film was now a Spanish co-production, shot in Italy with a mostly Italian crew (Mario Bava's grandson Roy Bava served as assistant director), and set in an isolated area of Colorado. Banderas is Paul, a washed-up novelist once anointed the Next Big Thing, but now in his fourth year of writer's block, drinking heavily, feeling sorry for himself after his wife left him, and holed up in a remote cabin failing to deliver an overdue film script that he hasn't even started writing. He's trying to sell his cabin out of financial necessity, and his real estate agent Laura (Piper Perabo) has yet to find any takers. After a road rage incident with a belligerent trucker continues at the local diner, Paul's ass is saved by Jack (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a glowering drifter looking for a place to stay. Out of gratitude, Paul offers Jack his guest room for the night, but Jack decides to stick around, doing some much-needed handyman work around the cabin and showing an intense interest in getting Paul off the bottle and writing again. Jack's demeanor gets more threatening and controlling and Paul, and eventually Laura, find themselves being held captive by the deranged Jack, who Paul is now convinced is a serial killer responsible for a string of murders in the region that date back several years.

BLACK BUTTERFLY is merely dull and nonsensical for most of its duration, with all the talk about writing, plot, and characters threatening to spill over into a trite exercise in meta storytelling. It doesn't even do anything interesting with the unexpected casting of legendary cult director Abel Ferrara (KING OF NEW YORK, BAD LIEUTENANT) as the manager of the town's tiny carryout, and anyone else would've asked Paul to leave after the first night, but then there'd be no movie. A third act twist requires some significant suspension of disbelief but livens things up in a vaguely giallo-like way portended by the title (I was briefly reminded of AMUCK and Dario Argento's TENEBRE as things started to fall into place), putting things in a different perspective and making it appear that the film is well on its way to maybe not quite completely redeeming itself but at least finishing big in a way that makes it a reasonably entertaining time-killer. But then Goodman and writers Marc Frydman (Lurie's longtime producing partner) and Justin Stanley shit the bed by adding one last twist that represents arguably the hoariest of all thriller genre cliches, one so ancient and played out that it almost qualifies as some kind of sick practical joke that it's being used seriously in 2017. Really, guys? That's how you decided to wrap this up? It couldn't be any more infuriating if Goodman, Frydman, and Stanley appeared on camera and said "You just watched this for 90 minutes. Dumbass."  (R, 93 mins)

(US - 2017)

Adapted by Daniel Clowes from his 2010 graphic novel of the same name, WILSON doesn't continue the success of two previous big screen Clowes adaptations, 2001's GHOST WORLD and 2006's ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL. Both directed by Zwigoff, GHOST WORLD and ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL succeeded where WILSON fails. That's probably not the fault of WILSON director Craig Johnson (THE SKELETON TWINS), but rather from Clowes watering down his own source material and not having the right person in the lead. Woody Harrelson is one of our finest actors, but he's all wrong as Wilson, taking the kind of grumpy misanthrope that's similar to Steve Buscemi's Seymour in GHOST WORLD and the kind of character that was owned by Paul Giamatti a decade or so ago in AMERICAN SPLENDOR and SIDEWAYS, but playing it as an inconsistent mixture of Asperger's and unbalanced psycho.  A bitter curmudgeon whose only friend is his Miniature Schnauzer Pepper, Wilson is the kind of guy who rails against everything that's wrong in the world, smugly spouting off about all of the world's ills without provocation. He's the kind of guy who will sit down next to someone on an otherwise empty bus or invite himself to share a table with someone in an empty coffee shop and make pushy small talk. There will be five available urinals and he'll take the one right next to the one being used and strike up a conversation, of course excusing himself with "Nice cock, by the way." Wilson is supposed to be an fearless guy who doesn't play by society's norms and conventions but he's really just an abrasive, irredeemable prick, and when Harrelson plays him cackling and with wild eyes, you realize how much this needs a Buscemi or a Giamatti, or maybe even a Kevin Spacey to really convey the tone of Clowes' work. You'll want to get away from this movie the same way everyone else tries to back away from Wilson.

Even if having Harrelson play it this way was the intent, the film just never catches fire, lurching lugubriously from one DOA set piece to the next as almost every joke gets chirping crickets in response. WILSON feels like a film made by people who don't understand the material, which is inexplicable considering Clowes wrote the script himself (or, at least, he's the only credited writer). Tired of his angry routine, Wilson searches for a new purpose in his life after his father dies. He seeks out his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern) who left him 18 years earlier, aborting their child and getting involved with drugs and prostitution. She's cleaned up her act and turned her life around, and she reveals to Wilson that she actually had the baby and put it up for adoption. Ecstatic about being a father, Wilson finds the girl, Claire (Isabella Amara), an overweight, 17-year-old outcast, and he and Pippi try to establish a relationship with her. What follows is one improbable plot development after another, including an ill-fated trip to visit Pippi's bitchy sister Polly (Cheryl Hines), and Wilson being arrested on kidnapping charges. Sequences just seem to exist in a vacuum in WILSON--there's little forward momentum, either comedic or dramatic, and no one seems to exist in the real world. Clowes really nailed the psychology of his characters in GHOST WORLD, one of the best films of its decade, but this just feels like watered-down GHOST WORLD outtakes, right down to the very Enid-like Claire. There's one legitimately funny scene where Wilson intentionally rear-ends a woman's car just so he can ask her out on a date, and instead attracts a large crowd of witnesses, and Judy Greer is as charming as ever as a dog-sitter who somehow finds something worthwhile about Wilson, but in the end, it just goes nowhere and says nothing, and never gets around the obstacle of a great actor being badly miscast. Fox apparently knew they had a dud on their hands, releasing this on just 300 screens for a total gross of $650,000. (R, 94 mins)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Retro Review: THE LAST OF THE FINEST (1990)

(US - 1990)

Directed by John Mackenzie. Written by Jere Cunningham, Thomas Lee Wright and George Armitage. Cast: Brian Dennehy, Joe Pantoliano, Jeff Fahey, Bill Paxton, Deborra-Lee Furness, Guy Boyd, Henry Darrow, Lisa Jane Persky, Michael C. Gwynne, Henry Stolow, John Finnegan, J. Kenneth Campbell, Xander Berkeley, Pamela Gidley, Michelle Little, Burke Byrnes, Patricia Clipper, Ron Canada, Tom Nolan. (R, 106 mins)

"Oh, don't give me that 'patriot' shit! Every time you assholes fuck around with the Constitution, you call it 'patriotism.'"

Barely released by Orion in the spring of 1990, THE LAST OF THE FINEST tries really hard to be a Joel Silver production of the era. With its ballbusting banter among buddy cops who play by their own rules, irate captains chewing them out before suspending them, and a drum machine-heavy soundtrack filled with bluesy licks by a famous British guitarist--instead of Eric Clapton, they got former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor--THE LAST OF THE FINEST plays like THE UNTOUCHABLES re-imagined as a post-LETHAL WEAPON cop thriller. It's a lot more overtly political than most, but as we're likely to continue seeing with many films of the last 20-30 years, it takes on new layers of subtext when viewed through the distorted prism of 2017 America and the years that got us to this point. For the most part, THE LAST OF THE FINEST is a routine and by-the-numbers affair, but it makes some pretty angry and cynical points that remain prescient and give this generally forgotten and relatively obscure film some unexpected relevance three decades later.

In a rare big-screen lead, Character Actor Hall of Famer Brian Dennehy stars as Frank Daly, the head of an elite squad of LAPD badasses assigned with busting up the city's drug trade. Daly and his guys work hard and play harder, as evidenced by their regular flag football games with a team of DEA stooges. Joining Frank are brainy, bespectacled smartass Wayne Gross (Joe Pantoliano), straight-from-the-barrio-by-way-of-adoption Ricky Rodriguez (Jeff Fahey), and easygoing Howard Jones, aka "Hojo" (Bill Paxton), and they're convinced local drug kingpin Anthony Reece (Michael C. Gwynne) is running a narcotics distribution ring out of a meat-packing plant but, as per genre rules, they have no proof. Daly is read the riot act and suspended by his captain Torres (Henry Darrow) and warned that he's "close to the edge," to which Daly replies "That's where we live! We're cops, remember?" Daly and his crew's pursuit of Reece ends up getting informant/pimp Fast Eddie (Xander Berkeley) and hooker Haley (Pamela Gidley) murdered, and after a chase, Hojo is killed by a psycho hit man (Henry Stolow) in Reece's employ. Torres isn't interested in hearing about Reece's operation or his ties to wealthy, right-wing businessman R.J. Norringer (Guy Boyd as J.T. Walsh), so Daly, Gross, and Rodriguez turn in their badges in disgust, resort to raiding local drug lords themselves and using the money to launch their own war on Norringer and Reece. Things get really personal when Norringer tries to have Daly's wife (Australian actress and future Mrs. Hugh Jackman Deborra-Lee Furness, really struggling to hide her accent) and family killed. This ultimately leads to a showdown at a baseball diamond (the nearest abandoned warehouse must've been hosting another shootout that night) after they steal $22 million in Norringer's laundered drug money, which he's been secretly funneling to Central American freedom fighters with the help of shady government operative Calvert (J. Kenneth Campbell). Any resemblance to the Reagan Administration's Iran-Contra scandal is 100% intentional.

Directed by British journeyman John Mackenzie (THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY, THE FOURTH PROTOCOL) and written by Jere Cunningham (JUDGMENT NIGHT), Thomas Lee Wright (NEW JACK CITY), and George Armitage (MIAMI BLUES, GROSSE POINTE BLANK), THE LAST OF THE FINEST leaves no cop movie cliche untouched, and a scene where they visit retired cop Tommy Grogan (John Finnegan), who busts out his unparalleled lip-reading skills for a silent surveillance video, is ready-made for MST3K mockery. Nevertheless, it gets a lot of mileage from a commanding performance by Dennehy and the enjoyable camaraderie between the actors, even though Paxton is killed off 30 minutes in. Initial villain Reece eventually becomes a non-factor as the investigation turns to Norringer, a villain cut from the same cloth as Cliff Robertson's megalomaniacal Charles Delaney from MALONE, another unjustly neglected Orion actioner from the same era. Norringer goes on and on about patriotism and how the end justifies the means, but he's really just a right-wing fanatic who would probably be holding a key position in the government or hosting a Fox News show if this was made today. There's little subtlety in anything this film does, from Dennehy's barrel-chested bombast ("You just made a fatal fucking mistake!" he yells as he backhands Norringer) to Boyd's snarling villain, and nothing hammers the point home like a climactic explosion of a playground septic tank that's storing Norringer's $22 million, leaving most of the cast standing in a downpour of dirty money and human feces, culminating in the crash of Norringer's getaway chopper because the pilot can't see out of the shit-covered windows. Perhaps skittish about the film's criticism of Reagan-era policies and its direct invocation of Iran-Contra, Orion dumped it in 400 theaters with no publicity at all, grossing just over $1 million. Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), THE LAST OF THE FINEST is hardly an unheralded classic, but it deserved more of a shot than it got at the time and seems to play better now than it did then.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


UAE/US/Belgium - 2017)

Written and directed by Luc Besson. Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delavingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Rutger Hauer, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabot, Peter Hudson, Xavier Giannoli, Ola Rapace, Matthieu Kassovitz, Louis Leterrier, Olivier Megaton, voices of John Goodman, Elizabeth Debicki. (PG-13, 137 mins)

A long-planned pet project of legendary French auteur Luc Besson, VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is an adaptation Valerian and Laureline, a sci-fi comic book series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres that began way back in 1967 and ran until 2010. Filled with eye-popping artwork, the comics became a clear influence on other films, ranging from old-school animated classics like FANTASTIC PLANET and HEAVY METAL to STAR WARS and TOTAL RECALL and CGI-era films like AVATAR and JOHN CARTER. Mezieres also did some conceptual artwork during pre-production on Besson's 1997 favorite THE FIFTH ELEMENT, which now looks like a test run for VALERIAN, a $210 million, six-country co-production that currently stands as the most expensive independent film ever made. It's a film that manages to succeed entirely on being deliriously imaginative eye candy. The story on the other hand, inadvertently suffers from so many of its ideas and plot points already being utilized by films that came one to five decades before it. Among other things, there's a giant virtual reality shopping mall, some space battles straight out of STAR WARS, an alien baddie--voiced by John Goodman--who looks like Jabba the Hutt's younger brother, and a race of alien beings that not only seem to have wandered in from AVATAR outtakes but also have a FANTASTIC PLANET look about them, living on a planet that looks like a Roger Dean wet dream.

Set in the 2700s, VALERIAN deals with intrigue aboard a massive space station called Alpha, which was created in 1975 and spent the next eight centuries growing as it became a giant, peaceful utopian city floating through the galaxy, with hundreds of species from a thousand planets living and working together in harmony. That harmony is disrupted by a radioactive presence somewhere deep within the core of Alpha. Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delavingne) are law enforcement agents assigned to protect Cmdr. Fillit (Clive Owen) to an Alpha summit where he plans to inform them that the radiation pocket is growing and could threaten the existence of Alpha in a matter of weeks. The summit is crashed by a group of Na'vi-looking beings who kidnap Fillit. These beings were also seen by Valerian in a dream. They're from the planet Mul, which was destroyed 30 years earlier for reasons classified to Valerian and even to Fillit's second-in-command Gen. Okto-Bar (Sam Spruell). The Defense Minister (Herbie Hancock?!) sends Valerian and Laureline on a mission to the outer reaches of the space to find and rescue Fillit, while at the same timeValerian attempts to get to the bottom of what his dreams mean and what these renegade beings from Mul are trying to tell him via the psychic connection they've established.

There's an overabundance of dazzling style, wall-to-wall visual effects, and other wild eccentricities in every frame of VALERIAN (the cute Melo the Converter, a tiny, Mul creature that can replicate any object it ingests would make a must-have toy for kids if this ended up being a hit). No expense was spared, and it's indeed one of the best-looking films of the year, making THE FIFTH ELEMENT look almost quaintly old-fashioned by comparison. But VALERIAN isn't on the level of THE FIFTH ELEMENT, and while it's never less than stunning just to watch it, the story is lacking, partially due to the familiarity of it being co-opted so much over the years, but also because Besson's characters aren't very interesting. Owen, Rihanna (as an imprisoned, shape-shifting alien princess), Ethan Hawke (as Jolly the Pimp, a loud but less flamboyant incarnation of Chris Tucker's Ruby Rhod from THE FIFTH ELEMENT), and Rutger Hauer (who has less than a minute of screen time during the opening credits as the President of the World Federation) have little to do, and the stunt casting of jazz legend Hancock--seen mostly as a hologram--is utterly pointless aside from Besson simply wanting to hang out with Herbie Hancock. At least Rihanna gets to sing and dance.

Delavingne is OK, but it's a good thing VALERIAN can get by on its visuals, because there's a massive black hole at the center of it thanks to the almost deal-breaking miscasting of DeHaan, an actor that Hollywood is hellbent on making a thing no matter how many times audiences flatly reject them (see also "Courtney, Jai"). The decision to cast him as a sarcastic, womanizing, hot-dogging Han Solo-esque space jockey is a miscalculation that stops VALERIAN cold every time he smirks and/or opens his mouth. DeHaan is trying to go for Harrison Ford's bad boy charm but can only convey "smug twerp." In the form of DeHaan, it's impossible to buy Valerian's plethora of sexual conquests--his "playlist," as Laureline calls it--or that Laureline is even the slightest bit won over by anyone with DeHaan's shit-eating grin. Try not to Picard Facepalm hen he pours his heart out with "You're the only one I want on my playlist." DeHaan can work in the right role--he's fine in THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES and A CURE FOR WELLNESS--but casting him as Valerian is a decision that comes from an alternate universe 1977 where George Lucas wanted to cast someone from AMERICAN GRAFFITI as Han Solo but sent Harrison Ford home and gave the part to Charles Martin Smith instead. Lest it sound like I'm piling on DeHaan, Besson's dumb script doesn't help, as shown in one scene where Valerian mumbles something about "I'm a soldier! I follow orders!" 30 seconds after he just cold-cocked his commanding officer. VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is entertaining and endlessly watchable pulp sci-fi, but it's just too bad that Besson spent so much time envisioning this incredibly ambitious and expensive movie in his head and kinda blew it to an extent by making such a terrible decision for his lead actor that it ends up having a profoundly negative effect on the movie.

Monday, July 24, 2017

In Theaters: DUNKIRK (2017)

(US - 2017)

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Joachim ten Haaf, Matthew Marsh, Damien Bonnard, Will Attenborough, Bill Milner, voice of Michael Caine. (PG-13, 106 mins)

Christopher Nolan's painstakingly-constructed DUNKIRK brings a harrowing you-are-there immediacy to the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk with an intensity that plays like a feature-length version of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN's opening sequence at Normandy. At 106 minutes, it's Nolan's shortest film since his 1998 pre-MEMENTO debut FOLLOWING, but it never feels less than epic in its presentation and its ambition. One of the few true purists left among A-list filmmakers, Nolan uses the barest minimum of CGI in DUNKIRK, instead going the classic route, shooting on film--mostly with IMAX cameras--with real extras, real locations, real ships, and real planes. For those who don't spend a lot of time watching old movies where such things were more commonplace, the difference is immediately, staggeringly obvious. There's a tangible sense of reality to the aerial shots and the long/wide shots up and down the beach, filled with thousands of extras as British soldiers waiting to be rescued that would've been compromised if done digitally. Nolan's approach to the film stands as proof that no matter how far CGI has progressed (WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is the current standard-bearer as far as fantasy cinema goes), when it comes to recreations of historical events such as this WWII story, the old ways remain the most effective.

There's a scene very late in the 1980 gangster classic THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY where British mob boss Bob Hoskins, trying to sever his ties with gangland past, chews out his New York Mafia partners for backing out of a business deal over fears that his criminal empire will interfere with their legit interests. "Us British," he explains, "We're used to a bit more vitality, imagination, touch of the Dunkirk spirit, know what I mean?" The Dunkirk spirit is present throughout, as Nolan presents three intercut narratives over the course of DUNKIRK: "The Mole," takes place one week before the evacuation; "The Sea" takes place one day before; and "The Air" one hour before. Of course, all three eventually come together, and while it may seem gimmicky, it's in line with Nolan's recurrent motif of playing with time elements (so important to MEMENTO, INCEPTION, and INTERSTELLAR). It works beautifully, with imagery in one tying into and complementing something going on in another, and with occasional characters popping up in other sections as the threads begin to overlap. It's not confusing at all, and it's becoming one of the things that make Christopher Nolan films so unique. "The Mole" focuses on young soldiers Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and later, Alex (One Direction's Harry Styles, who's surprisingly solid in his dramatic acting debut) at Dunkirk, where 400,000 mostly British soldiers are waiting to be evacuated after German forces have pushed them to the edge of the town, making them sitting ducks for German air raids. "The Sea" follows mild-mannered Dawson (BRIDGE OF SPIES Oscar-winner Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter's shy, introverted friend George (Barry Keoghan) as they take Dawson's boat out to sea, joining other civilians and Navy-commandeered private vessels on a dangerous mission to Dunkirk to rescue their officers. "The Air" centers on two Spitfire pilots--Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden)--left on their own after the squad leader is shot down, heading to Dunkirk to take out German planes, with Collins forced to land on the water and Farrier playing guessing games with his fuel after his gauge is damaged in a skirmish.

Nolan presents the stories in a clinical, matter-of-fact fashion. There's very little in the way of personal backstories of the characters (one emotional bit involving Dawson's reasons for partaking int he rescue are mentioned almost as an afterthought), with everything taking place in the moment. While it's debatable whether this leaves a cold chilliness to the human element, it works in the context of DUNKIRK because nothing matters but the evacuation. That doesn't mean there aren't powerful moments for some of the characters, whether it's outcast George going along in order to feel good about contributing to the war effort; or a shell-shocked sole survivor of a U-Boat attack (Cillian Murphy) picked up by Dawson; or the sympathetic Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) demonstrating true leadership in making sure every last soldier is evacuated from the beach. Nolan doesn't engage in jingoism or over-the-top chest-thumping here. The word "Nazi" is never said and German officers are never seen, and if this were made back in the '60s, it would be one of the very few WWII movies with no role for Karl-Otto Alberty. This is a nuts-and-bolts chronicle of the triumph of the human spirit, of a nation pulling together to do what it needs to do, even if it means civilians putting their lives at risk. With very little in the way of dialogue--Nolan's script was only 76 pages long--the film relies on visuals and sound design to tell its story, whether it's the constant, repetitive Hans Zimmer cues with a subtle clock ticking audible in the mix almost constantly, Hoyte van Hotema's cinematography showcasing the vast forever of the sea and the beach, and the terrifying, deafening shriek of German planes as they fly overhead, DUNKIRK transports the audience to another time and place. It also exists in a less divisive time when everyone did their part, and it's only fitting that it's made in such an old-school fashion. A defiant and very welcome "they don't make 'em like they used to anymore" exercise, DUNKIRK establishes Nolan as arguably the best commercial filmmaker working today, at this point boasting an almost Kubrick-ian track record of consistent high quality (the exception being the Nolan-produced sci-fi dud TRANSCENDENCE, which he had the sense to turn over to cinematographer-turned-debuting director Wally Pfister) and one of the few auteurs of his caliber doing everything humanly possible to preserve the classical notion of cinema as it's always been known.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

In Theaters/On VOD: FIRST KILL (2017)

(US/UK - 2017)

Directed by Steven C. Miller. Written by Nick Gordon. Cast: Hayden Christensen, Bruce Willis, Gethin Anthony, Megan Leonard, Tyler Jon Olson, Shea Buckner, Ty Shelton, Will Demeo, Deb Girdley, Magi Avila, Christine Dye. (R, 101 mins)

The latest installment in Lionsgate/Grindstone's landmark "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series offers a bit of a stretch for Bruno. He's out and about in this one, sitting in a police cruiser, strolling through town while some extras gawk at him, and walking through the woods, but on several occasions, the former actor demonstrates his seething contempt for both his craft and his colleagues, going full Seagal by being clumsily doubled for shots in which he simply couldn't be bothered to stick around. For instance, in a scene where he's seated in a diner and he's joined by someone, it's Willis in the close-ups, but when there's a cut to an over-the-shoulder shot of the actor who's in the booth across from him, Willis is doubled from the back by a bald stand-in with a narrower head and ears that stick out, almost as if director Steven C. Miller (who previously tolerated Willis' lack of commitment to EXTRACTION and MARAUDERS) is passive-aggressively calling out the star's laziness. It gets even worse later on, when Willis is holding a gun on someone, threatening to shoot them, and in close-up, moves to point the gun down and to his left. Cut to the person he's about to shoot, and Willis' Fake Shemp is pointing the gun at the person from behind and to the right, his face obscured by a tree trunk. Is Miller even trying to match these shots after Willis leaves? There's even a few shots of the back of the double's head with dialogue and it's not even Willis' voice. There's no way Willis spends more than a day or two on these VOD trifles, but they can't even Facetime him or get him on speaker and have him say a couple of rewritten lines after he's gone?

It probably took me longer to write the above paragraph than it did for Willis to shoot his scenes for FIRST KILL. As far as forgettable VOD thrillers go, it's hardly the worst of its kind, but that's far from an endorsement. Miller seemed to be heading in the right direction with the surprisingly OK MARAUDERS, which was good despite the presence of Coast Hard. MARAUDERS had an inspired performance by Christopher Meloni to help it rise above the norm for these things, but all FIRST KILL has is Hayden Christensen, whose bland, blank persona has worked in his favor in SHATTERED GLASS and nothing else. Christensen is Will Beeman, a Wall Street broker who decides to get away for some bonding time with wife Laura (Megan Leonard) and bullied 11-year-old son Danny (Ty Shelton). Heading back to his rural hometown of Granville, OH (where this was shot, about 30 miles outside of Columbus) to stay with his Aunt Dottie (Deb Girdler), Will thinks teaching Danny how to use a rifle and taking him on a deer hunt will toughen him up. All's going well until they witness an argument between two men about the location of a bag of money that ends up with one being shot. The other sees Danny and starts shooting, prompting Will to kill him in self defense. The first man is still breathing, so Will takes him back to the cabin where nurse (conveniently enough) Laura removes the bullet and stitches him up. The injured man--wanted bank robber Levi Barrett (Gethin Anthony, best known as Renly Baratheon on GAME OF THRONES and as Charles Manson on AQUARIUS)--is so grateful that he takes Danny hostage, instigating a chain of events that finds Will playing along and helping Levi recover the money if it means keeping Danny safe, all under the watchful eye of Granville police chief Howell (Willis), who, per the script and presumably Willis' contract, exists on the periphery of the story most of the way, appearing periodically to remind the viewer of two things: 1) that Howell has a personal stake in recovering the money that goes beyond the duties of his job, and 2) that Bruce Willis is still in the movie.

FIRST KILL owes a bit to Bruce Beresford's THE CONTRACT, a 2007 Bulgaria-shot DTV thriller where John Cusack and his son are camping and end up tangling with a government-contracted killer played by a slumming Morgan Freeman. But its primary influence seems to be Clint Eastwood's 1993 drama A PERFECT WORLD, where Clint played a sheriff pursuing fugitive Kevin Costner, who bonds with a little boy he's taken hostage. Much effort is made to show that Levi is not a bad guy--after all, he's using the money to pay for medical care for his girlfriend's terminally ill mother. He also lets Danny play violent video games that his parents won't allow, and the shy, introverted child feels more at ease around Levi than he does living up to the expectations of his well-meaning but hard-driving dad. Christensen doesn't exactly sell it well when he's shown as the top power player at a bustling Wall Street office where he's barking orders at underlings and asking "Was the meeting with the Saudis today?" FIRST KILL doesn't offer any surprises as far as plot developments go--it's shown too early that Willis' Howell is up to something when he quietly tells his deputy "We may have a problem," though that's hard to tell if it's related to the script or if Miller caught Willis telling an actor whose name he likely never bothered to learn that he's upset about still being on the set. FIRST KILL is never dull and it isn't awful, but it's dumb (nice convenient placement of the four-wheelers for the chase scene) and the very definition of perfunctory, and it's brought down a notch by Willis' utter disinterest. You've crossed the line into Seagal territory when your double is laughably obvious. The only time that's acceptable is if an actor died during production and it's out of tragic necessity to complete the movie and pay respect to the late actor. Here, it's just done to keep Willis from being inconvenienced. The climax involves an emboldened Danny pointing a gun at Howell. It's tough to stage a face-off when one of the actors isn't even there, but I guess young Ty Shelton learned something about dealing with the demands of spoiled actors on his first movie. Hey kid, maybe someday you'll actually meet Bruce Willis and you can remind him you were in a movie together.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Retro Review: STAR CRYSTAL (1986)

(US - 1986)

Written and directed by Lance Lindsay. Cast: C. Jutson Campbell, Faye Bolt, John Smith, Taylor Kingsley, Marcia Linn, Emily Longstreth, Eric Moseng, Lance Bruckner, Charles Linza, voice of The Gling. (R, 94 mins)

There was no shortage of blatant ALIEN ripoffs throughout the 1980s--GALAXY OF TERROR, FORBIDDEN WORLD, and HORROR PLANET are but a few--but none were quite as bizarre as STAR CRYSTAL, released by the second, post-Roger Corman incarnation of New World Pictures in the spring of 1986. Inexplicably shown in multiplexes and first-run theaters, STAR CRYSTAL looks like a student film that somehow got picked up for nationwide distribution. Perhaps New World thought they had another DARK STAR on their hands. In the early '70s, USC students John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon got funding to expand their student film project to feature length, and when it was released in 1974, the sci-fi spoof became a cult classic that put both filmmakers on the map. That was decidedly not the case with STAR CRYSTAL, which was just released on Blu-ray (!) by Kino Lorber. The only extra is a trailer, but STAR CRYSTAL's backstory is likely an interesting one that probably warranted telling, because for better or worse--mostly worse--there's never been anything quite like it.

Little is known about the driving forces behind STAR CRYSTAL: writer/director Lance Lindsay and producer/editor/ special effects makeup artist/second unit director Eric Woster, who also shares story credit with Lindsay. Born in 1958, Woster broke into the business in the early '80s as part of the Cheech & Chong crew (he's credited as Tommy Chong's assistant on CHEECH & CHONG'S NICE DREAMS, THINGS ARE TOUGH ALL OVER, and STILL SMOKIN') and would eventually serve as the cinematographer on Chong's 1990 solo comedy FAR OUT MAN. After that, writer-director-star Woster began work on a horror film called SANDMAN which featured an unusual cast including Chong's wife Shelby, Stuart Whitman, Robert Wuhl, Dedee Pfeiffer, Gailard Sartain, Rose Marie, and Morey Amsterdam. On the last day of shooting on February 15, 1992, Woster died suddenly at the age of 33. Google searches reveal internet gossip suggesting suicide but those who knew him said he was born with a heart condition and his heart simply stopped beating. SANDMAN--not to be confused with J.R. Bookwalter's 1995 film THE SANDMAN or anything related to Neil Gaiman--is listed as a 1993 film on IMDb but doesn't appear to have ever been officially released, though IMDb and Letterboxd reviews magically exist. Lindsay's career is even more of a footnote: after debuting with STAR CRYSTAL, he wrote and directed the low-budget, straight-to-video 1990 thriller REAL BULLETS, which featured one-and-done would-be action star John Gazarian and several STAR CRYSTAL alumni, as well as a real actor in Martin Landau, coming off of two consecutive Oscar nominations for Francis Ford Coppola's TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM (1988) and Woody Allen's CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989) and yet still somehow reduced to appearing in a film by the director of STAR CRYSTAL. Lindsay has yet to make another film after REAL BULLETS and other than a supporting role in QUIET FIRE, a straight-to-video 1991 obscurity directed by and starring Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (best known as WELCOME BACK KOTTER's Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington), he completely fell off the face of the earth.

That leaves STAR CRYSTAL as the sole testament to the lunatic vision of Lance Lindsay and Eric Woster. Because so little is known about them and that, with one exception, the cast either went on to REAL BULLETS or nothing else at all, the famous crack from the MST3K skewering of MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE may also apply here: every frame of this movie looks like someone's last known photograph. The only cast member who had any semblance of a career post-STAR CRYSTAL is Emily Longstreth, and even hers didn't last long: the same year as STAR CRYSTAL, she had a supporting role in PRETTY IN PINK and the lead in the post-nuke sci-fi outing WIRED TO KILL, but she's best-known for co-starring as Kevin Bacon's girlfriend in Christopher Guest's 1989 comedy THE BIG PICTURE. Despite the film's critical acclaim, Columbia buried it, generating zero momentum for the appealing Longstreth, and she was out of movies by 1991 (her last credit is 1994's CONFESSIONS OF A HITMAN, which was shelved for three years). It goes without saying that nobody's career was advanced in any way by STAR CRYSTAL, which kicks off with an incredibly clunky opening as some space explorers on Mars find an egg and bring it aboard their ship. It hatches, revealing some strange crystal formation with some kind of lifeform inside. The tiny creature kills several crew members and the rest die when oxygen supply depletes. Their shuttle returns to its base, a space station that's destroyed in some kind of cataclysmic event, but not before five people manage to escape on the shuttle that just returned, embarking on an 18-month trip back to Earth and unaware that there's an alien stowaway onboard.

That cumbersome set-up takes up nearly 20 minutes, with Lindsay padding the running time and dawdling by establishing several characters (including a scientist played by Longstreth) only to kill them off almost instantly. The next 50 or so minutes are your standard ALIEN knockoff, with the quintet of irritating crew members--all of them awful actors--slaughtered one by one by the growing creature, which has somehow hacked into the ship's computer (named "Bernice") and is not only controlling the shuttle, but absorbing all of the information from the hard drive. To describe STAR CRYSTAL's plot is an exercise in futility, and for about 75 of its 93 minutes, it's amateurish, embarrassing, and borderline unwatchable. The story makes no sense, the acting is painfully bad, the logistical design of the ship is a Kafka-esque nightmare of inconvenience (the crew needs to crawl on their hands and knees through some narrow, tube-like shaft to get anywhere), the interior of the space station looks a hotel, visible text on computer screens are riddled with typos (some gems include "Artic" for Arctic and "Judisum" for Judaism), and there's several ill-advised attempts at humor, like hero Roger Campbell (played by one C. Jutson Campbell) making Campbell's soup and using a grating, faux-Jimmy Durante voice to tell colleague and disinterested love interest Dr. Adrian Kimberly (Faye Bolt) a story about his great-grandfather founding the legendary soup company.

All of this is periodically interrupted by shots of a crystal housing a shapeless, one-eyed lifeform that oozes goo and wheezes like the Blob with a bad chest cold. But this creature grows, and when it reaches full maturity, suddenly resembles E.T. crossed with a gelatinous turtle, creating the illusion of an extraterrestrial Mitch McConnell, albeit slightly more likable. It's here that STAR CRYSTAL decides to carve its own path in the crowded ALIEN ripoff scene, and the people who most likely walked out of the theater before the final act really deprived themselves of some joy. No spoilers here, but with its sudden empathy for humanity and the understanding that's reached between the two surviving crew members and the alien--named "Gar"--STAR CRYSTAL establishes itself as the MAC AND ME of ALIEN knockoffs, almost resembling some kind of bizarre MR. SHOW sketch, which makes it a must-see. Unfortunately, that means enduring the first 75 minutes, but part of me thinks this whole movie is some kind of elaborate, Andy Kaufman-esque prank on the part of everyone involved (the closing credits boast "Filmed entirely in space"). You'll also have the closing credits song "Crystal of a Star"--performed by Stefani Christopherson, best known for being the voice of Daphne on the first season of SCOOBY-DOO back in 1970--stuck in your head for a week. It's too bad Kino didn't track down any of the film's surviving cast and crew because STAR CRYSTAL is the kind of WTF? bad movie classic in the vein of recent DVD/Blu-ray unearthings like NIGHTMARE WEEKEND, THE EXECUTIONER PART II and R.O.T.O.R. that's ready-made for a midnight movie resurrection. And that Gar is just adorable.

STAR CRYSTAL opening in Toledo, OH on 5/23/1986, for some reason

Monday, July 17, 2017


(US - 2017)

Directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves. Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Michael Adamthwaite, Amiah Miller, Aleks Paunovic, Sara Canning, Ty Olsson, Max Lloyd-Jones, Devyn Dalton, Gabriel Chavarria, Lauro Chartrand. (PG-13, 140 mins)

Following 2011's RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and 2014's DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the rebooted series reaches its pinnacle with WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, and it's the best genre trilogy to come down the pike since Christopher Nolan's DARK KNIGHT saga. It's really hard to convey what a stunning achievement WAR is in terms of Weta's CGI and motion capture work on star Andy Serkis and the rest of the actors playing apes. It was impressive in RISE, better in DAWN, and now it looks so natural that you forget they're visual effects. It helps that Serkis, the king of motion capture (LORD OF THE RINGS, KING KONG), has been able to create a well-drawn and very "human" character in terms of his performance as ape leader Caesar, which runs the gamut of emotions throughout WAR and regardless of the CGI work, it is Serkis acting and it's a performance so good that it may be a game-changer as far as motion capture performances getting some award recognition. The same creative personnel from DAWN returns here--director/co-writer Matt Reeves (CLOVERFIELD) and co-writer Mark Bomback--and though the new trilogy works beautifully on its own, much effort is made to put the three new films, particularly WAR, in the circular context of the original franchise that lasted from 1968 to 1973, from Caesar's young son Cornelius to the name given to a mute supporting character to some locations replicated from 1970's BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970) and 1973's BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. The Serkis trilogy can stand on its own but for APES fans, it's very much a part of the classic series that began with the Charlton Heston-starring 1968 original, even if it's not a completely perfect fit.

Set 15 years after the "Simian Flu" of RISE and three years after DAWN ape revolt led by the vengeful Koba (Toby Kebbell), WAR opens in medias res as battle between ape and human armies is ongoing, with Caesar's tribe set up in the woods and under constant threat by the armed forces of Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson), who employs what left of the late Koba's faction of traitorous apes--dubbed "donkeys"--to assist in the hunt for Caesar. When Caesar captures some of McCullough's soldiers and shows mercy by sending them back with a plea to simply leave the apes alone in the woods and there will be no more fighting, McCullough responds by launching a raid and killing Caesar's wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and eldest son Blue Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones). Sending the rest of his ape tribe off through the desert to find a new, safe settlement, Caesar goes off on his own to find and kill McCullough, but is followed and eventually joined, despite his protestations, by his voice of reason and orangutan consigliere Maurice (Karin Konoval), gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary). They're eventually joined by a mute, orphaned human girl (Amiah Miller) and comic relief zoo escapee Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), pick up McCullough's trail and find some of his dead soldiers left behind, apparently shot and killed by their commander for unknown reasons. Caesar and the others find McCullough's camp, where the rest of Caesar's tribe is being held captive, captured by the colonel's men en route to their new home. Seething with rage and warned by Maurice that he's starting to act and sound just like Koba, Caesar ends up being taken prisoner by McCullough, a despot who's gone full Col. Kurtz against the US military, worshiped by his renegade followers and forcing the apes to function as slave labor to build a wall around the camp in fear of a virus that's causing humanity to regress to an inarticulate, animal-like state while apes continue to evolve and grow more intelligent.

Reeves and Bomback structure WAR in a way that initially reminds you of LOGAN, with its use of western tropes and motifs in a completely different genre. As Caesar and the other venture on horseback through the wilderness in search of McCullough, it's hard not to imagine you're in a classic western. But the tyranny of McCullough and his God complex also brings to mind APOCALYPSE NOW, with Harrelson's shaved head and a couple of shots that mimic Marlon Brando lounging around in Kurtz's shadowy, sweaty lair (there's also some graffiti in an underground tunnel that reads "Ape-pocalypse Now!"). And by the final act, it turns into a de facto jailbreak movie, with Caesar leading a revolt from within McCullough's prison camp with help from the motley crew of companions led by Maurice, who have patiently been waiting from a distance for the right time to strike. While Harrelson's colonel is a monster, there's efforts made to humanize him and show how and why he's become what he is, and for a few brief moments, the audience, and even Caesar, might sympathize with him. There's certainly parallels to be drawn with both figures (fortunately, we're spared a McCullough "We're not so different...you and I" speech), especially with Caesar's tunnelvision focus on revenge putting his entire ape clan in jeopardy, and indeed, their cold response to him when he gets thrown into the prison camp is proof that they blame their predicament on his abandoning them. But this is Serkis' show from start to finish. It's a masterful, commanding performance that takes the actor through every conceivable state of mind, complete with a devastating yet necessary end result. It's a beautifully made film, with stunning imagery that owes a debt to the surreal journey upriver in APOCALYPSE NOW to the one-way journey to madness of AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is proof that summer blockbuster sequels can still be intelligent, imaginative, moving, and slyly subversive (I doubt the presence of a power-mad, dictatorial, would-be king ordering the building of a wall is coincidental) and that CGI imagery can indeed look completely natural with some care and attention. It's just about as great a PLANET OF THE APES movie as the 1968 original and maybe even better than 1972's CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, and it's the new standard-bearer of what the possibilities can be with CGI and motion capture. An instant classic and one of 2017's best.

Before-and-after motion capture of Karin Konoval as Maurice,
 Terry Notary as Rocket, Andy Serkis as Caesar,
and MichaelAdamthwaite as Luca

Saturday, July 15, 2017

On Netflix: TO THE BONE (2017)

(Italy/US - 2017)

Written and directed by Marti Noxon. Cast: Lily Collins, Keanu Reeves, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Alex Sharp, Liana Liberato, Brooke Smith, Leslie Bibb, Kathryn Prescott, Ciara Quinn Bravo, Maya Eshet, Lindsey McDowell, Retta, Joanna Sanchez, Alanna Ubach. (Unrated, 107 mins)

Anyone who's known someone suffering from anorexia nervosa will instantly recognize Ellen, the pale, gaunt, 20-year-old woman played by Lily Collins in the Netflix Original film TO THE BONE. You'll spot the body language, the posture, the hiding under oversized, baggy clothing, the way she moves her food around her plate rather than eating it. You've heard all the things Ellen says to those concerned about her: "I'm maintaining." "Nothing bad's gonna happen." "I've got it under control." And in your struggle to comprehend just what this person you care about is doing to themselves, you'll recognize the frustration of Ellen's younger half-sister Kelly (Liana Liberato) when she bluntly says "I don't really get it, you know? Just...eat!" because you've said those same words. The makers of TO THE BONE come from that place: Collins (Phil's daughter) battled an eating disorder in her teens, and writer/director Marti Noxon (a veteran TV writer and producer best known for her work on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, ANGEL, GLEE, and most recently, CODE BLACK) spent most of her teens and 20s in and out of hospitals being treated for anorexia (when she was 17, Noxon weighed 70 lbs and was cast as Jennifer Jason Leigh's body double in the 1981 made-for-TV anorexia drama THE BEST LITTLE GIRL IN THE WORLD. Noxon based a lot of TO THE BONE on her own experiences and in partnership with Collins, the the film really nails the psychology, the struggle, the frustration and the anger felt by all parties and the effect it has on family relationships and friendships.

In terms of Ellen and her psyche, TO THE BONE walks the walk--Noxon doesn't shy away from unpleasantries, whether it's her bruised spine from her obsessive, excessive sit-ups, the fact that she can't remember when she last menstruated, or the fur-like hair sprouting in unusual places as her emaciated body goes in defense mode and begins eating muscle in an effort to maintain itself.  But almost everywhere else, it's a by-the-numbers melodrama that's just about on the level of a disease-of-the-week TV-movie that these days would air on Lifetime. The supporting characters are a predictable collection of superficially diverse caricatures, whether it's Ellen's harping stepmother Susan (Carrie Preston), who constantly makes excuses for the perpetual absence of her father, who's often-mentioned but never seen; her rustic, luddite mother Judy (Lili Taylor), who suffered from post-partum depression before outing herself and leaving her husband when Ellen was young (Moxon took this directly from her own bio); the girls in a group home in which she's committed to a six-week treatment program, including pregnant bulimic Megan (Leslie Bibb), whose miscarriage will be called by any seasoned moviegoer the moment she's introduced; the lone male in the therapy program, British ballet dancer Luke (Alex Sharp, who won a Tony for the 2015 Broadway production of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME), who's combating anorexia and the possibility of his career ending over a knee injury, but whose most notable traits seem to be his wacky eccentricity and that he's extremely British.

There's also Keanu Reeves, who's starting to look completely lost in any movie whose title doesn't contain the words "John" and/or "Wick," as Dr. William Beckham, the kind of renegade, patchy-bearded, outside-the-box therapist that only exists in movies, with his edgy propensity for bluntly telling it like it is largely limited to his saying "fuck" a lot. TO THE BONE is sympathetic to its heroine while in no way glamorizing her or her condition in a world where impressionable young girls watching might get the wrong idea. But at the same time, TO THE BONE doesn't go far enough. This should be a harrowing, disturbing film that's hard to watch but far too often, it settles for being a quirky, YA indie about eating disorders that never misses an opportunity to play to convention and character tropes, from Ellen's tentative romance with Luke all the way to its vague yet assumed happy ending. Never is that quirkiness spotlighted more than in an already much-discussed scene late in the film that Noxon draws from a real-life experience that was obviously powerful for her but it just doesn't play onscreen. Collins, who did lose weight under medical supervision but was assisted in her performance by some effective makeup and occasional obvious insert shots from body doubles, really sells the state of Ellen's (rechristened "Eli" in therapy, as part of forming a new identity) condition, and for viewers of a certain younger age, TO THE BONE could very well become a classic for its generation and the kind of movie that will likely be shown in schools for years to come. And to give them the credit due, Noxon and Collins completely captured--with almost frightening accuracy--everything about a close friend I lost to an on-again/off-again, 25-year battle with anorexia that took finally took its toll in April 2017. I saw her in Collins' portrayal and in regards to just the depiction of Ellen, it's a degree of realism so high that anyone who has lived it--either as someone with an ED or someone close to them--will immediately "get" it. It's everything else about TO THE BONE that's just not up to that level.