Saturday, September 30, 2017

On Netflix: GERALD'S GAME (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Mike Flanagan. Written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard. Cast: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Chiara Aurelia, Kate Siegel, Carel Struycken. (Unrated, 103 mins)

Based on Stephen King's 1992 novel of the same name, the Netflix Original film GERALD'S GAME comes at a particularly zeitgeisty moment in pop culture: Andy Muschietti's IT, from King's 1986 novel, is a bona fide blockbuster and the biggest horror hit in years, and with its themes of sexual abuse and toxic masculinity, GERALD's GAME is a film practically tailor-made for the era of the woke thinkpiece. It's probably taken this long for Gerald's Game to be made into a movie because it's usually cited as one of King's less filmable works, though director/co-writer Mike Flanagan, one of horror's most promising voices of the last decade (OCULUS, HUSH, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, and still-shelved BEFORE I WAKE), gives it his best shot. Gerald's Game was the first novel in what could retroactively be termed King's "woke" phase. It was followed the same year by the acclaimed Dolores Claiborne (made into a movie in 1995) and the middling Rose Madder in 1995 (not yet adapted for the big or small screen, and probably even less filmable than Gerald's Game). GERALD'S GAME works best when it stays focused in the here and now, with its heroine in an increasingly doomed situation. Fatigue sets in and her mind starts playing tricks on her. She begins hallucinating manifestations of long-suppressed traumas of her past that have influenced every decision she's ever made. She summons a degree of inner resolve she never thought possible and King believes in her, and fortunately for Flanagan, he has a game lead actress giving it everything she's got in what should be the role of her career.

GERALD'S GAME is anchored by a gutsy and absolutely fearless performance by Carla Gugino, a jobbing actress who's been a familiar face in movies and TV since the late 1980s, though she first gained notice with her breakout role opposite Pauly Shore in 1993's SON IN LAW. Gugino is Jessie, the beautiful trophy wife of older, wealthy attorney Gerald (Bruce Greenwood). Their marriage has gone stale, and Gerald arranges a weekend getaway at an isolated cabin to reignite the spark. Jessie buys some sexy lingerie, while Gerald packs Viagra and handcuffs. He wastes no time, handcuffing Jessie to the reinforced bedposts and cajoling her to engage in a rape fantasy. Things quickly turn uncomfortable as his play gets a little more rough than Jessie's willing to indulge. She bites his lower lip to get him off of her and in the middle of the ensuing argument, Gerald clutches his arm and his chest, dropping dead of a heart attack right on top of her. She kicks him off the bed and onto the hardwood floor where the fall cracks his head open. There's no one around, Gerald's phone and the keys to the handcuffs are just out of reach, and the design of the bedposts makes it impossible to slide the cuffs off of them to allow freedom. On top of that, Gerald left the front door open in his excitement to get between the sheets, allowing a hungry stray dog inside, who almost immediately helps himself to Gerald's corpse on the bedroom floor. Then the hallucinations start.

Jessie sees herself in the room, giving herself advice and guidance that goes against the vision of Gerald that keeps belittling her and reminding her of her place. The image of Jessie starts bringing up horrific events of her childhood, all centered on an instance of sexual molestation by her father (Henry Thomas in flashbacks) during a solar eclipse while the family was vacationing at a lake when she was 12 (Chiara Aurelia plays Jessie in these scenes). While "Jessie" pushes her to fight, "Gerald" tells her to give in to Death, who will come at night at take her in the form of The Moonlight Man (Carel Struycken), a monstrous specter who collects souvenirs of the dead. When GERALD'S GAME stays in the room, it works, and that's due almost entirely to Gugino's performance. She's ably supported by Greenwood, riffing on his now-standard "Bruce Greenwood" persona (he really is the go-to guy for smug, asshole husbands), but the film falls apart at roughly the same place the book does. Flanagan makes some changes--the book version of Gerald is a unattractive and slovenly, while Greenwood is handsome and impressively buff at 61--but remains faithful to King to a fault. The finale of the novel wasn't a disaster, but on the screen, it doesn't work at all, and not knowing how to end things has been just one problem that's plagued King's inconsistent output since right around the time he wrote Gerald's Game (this was also glaringly apparent with Rose Madder, which starts great but shits the bed and never recovers the moment its battered wife heroine dives into a mirror and enters a fantasy realm, and the issue of whether we're at the point where King's mediocre and forgettable work outnumbers his classics is a valid discussion to have). Flanagan has been a Gerald's Game superfan since he read it as a teenager and has cited it as a dream project that was a main inspiration in his wanting to become a filmmaker. But in the end, his movie adaptation will stand as an example of something not quite translating from page to screen. Stories work differently depending on the medium, and mileage may vary, but the last ten minutes of GERALD'S GAME feel anticlimactic and tacked-on, and the book's ending should've been the first thing to go when Flanagan began outlining the script. Yes, he should be commended for tackling a difficult adaptation and succeeding more often than not (and there's one grisly moment that will make even the most experienced gorehounds grimace and look away), but despite a great performance by Gugino, this aims for the fences but doesn't quite make it.

Friday, September 29, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE BAD BATCH (2017) and IT STAINS THE SANDS RED (2017)

(US - 2017)

In the first ten minutes of THE BAD BATCH, heroine Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is banished to a vaguely post-apocalyptic desert wasteland in Texas, abducted by marauding cannibals who hack off her right arm and right leg and cook them on a grill, then she covers herself in her own shit to make the rest of herself less appetizing. So begins writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour's followup to the acclaimed A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. THE BAD BATCH is a bigger film with bigger names, but it's definitely a classic case of a sophomore slump. Arlen manages to escape her flesh-eating captors and is taken by a mute, nameless hermit (Jim Carrey, of all people) to a makeshift town called Comfort, ruled by a guru-like cult figure known as The Dream (Keanu Reeves, looking like Joe Spinell circa MANIAC). After encountering one of the women who initially abducted her, Arlen, now sporting a prosthetic leg, kills her and takes the woman's young daughter Honey (Jayda Fink) back to Comfort. Honey was stolen from her father Miami Man (Jason Momoa) with the intention of grooming her for a life of sexual servitude to The Dream. Miami Man--himself a cannibal but hey, he's a sympathetic flesh eater and a loving father with artistic talent-- then ventures into the desert and enlists the aid of Arlen and the hermit to find his daughter.

After an intriguingly strange opening act, THE BAD BATCH just goes nowhere. Repetitive scenes of people walking through the desert and mumbling give the film the distinct feeling of an '80s post-nuke fused with Gus Van Sant's GERRY. An endless mid-film acid trip after a rave at The Dream's stops the film cold and it never recovers. Waterhouse is OK in the lead, but Amirpour can't decide if the focus should be on Arlen or Miami Man, a quandary that isn't helped by Momoa sporting one of the worst accents ever heard in a movie. He's supposed to be from Cuba, but he sounds like Mushmouth trying to do a Scarface impression, making about 90% of his dialogue unintelligible without putting on the subtitles. There's some nice cinematography and the film's vision of a dystopian hellscape is intermittently effective, as are some incongruously '80s and '90s-sounding music choices by present-day indie bands like Federale, whose track "All the Colours of the Dark" is used in a nicely-done montage. At the same time, a woman getting her neck snapped to Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon" and Arlen getting her arm sawed off to Ace of Base's "All That She Wants" comes off as silly and pointless, and reeking of "Well, we got the clearance on these songs, so I guess we have to use them." Watching THE BAD BATCH, it's apparent that Amirpour had the beginnings of an idea but didn't know where to take it. There's certainly some political commentary to be mined from a fenced-off area of Texas, deporting undesirables--"The Bad Batch"--to the harsh outside, and Miami Man being an illegal immigrant, but Amirpour doesn't bother. She also wastes a potentially interesting supporting cast, with Giovanni Ribisi serving no purpose whatsoever as a nutcase called "The Screamer," Reeves getting a long monologue about where shit travels after it's excreted, and the unexpected casting of a silent, grizzled, barely recognizable Carrey in easily the strangest role of his career. Agonizingly overlong at just shy of two hours, and low-key to the point of catatonia, THE BAD BATCH is a barely half-baked concoction that falls almost completely flat and fails to follow through on the promise Amirpour displayed with her impressive debut. (R, 119 mins)


(Canada/US - 2017)

Under their collaborative moniker "The Vicious Brothers," Colin Minahan and Stuart Ortiz earned a small degree of cult notoriety among horror scenesters with their 2011 found-footage debut GRAVE ENCOUNTERS. The wrote and produced that film's 2012 sequel, and they wrote 2014's EXTRATERRESTRIAL, with Minahan directing solo. That arrangement continues with IT STAINS THE SANDS RED, the duo's day-late-and-a-dollar-short contribution to the zombie apocalypse genre. There's a couple of clever ideas here, but they're enough for maybe a 15-minute short film as opposed to a padded, laborious, 92-minute slog. Opening in medias res with the zombie invasion underway and Las Vegas in ruins, we're introduced to stripper Molly (Brittany Allen, also the star of EXTRATERRESTRIAL) and boyfriend Nick (Merwin Mondesir) speeding down a desert highway on their way to an air field where one of his friends has offered to fly them into Mexico. The car gets stuck in the sand as one lone, shambling zombie (Juan Riedlinger) approaches. Nick wastes his remaining bullets trying to shoot it in the head and is eventually killed and eaten when he tries to get out of the car to retrieve his dropped cell phone. Molly gathers what supplies she can--water, smokes, and a vial of coke--and begins hoofing it 30 miles through the desert in her Gene Simmons platform shoes with the zombie following in persistent pursuit. It moves slow enough that she can get a good distance and take periodic breaks, but it never stops and never gets tired, sort-of like a zombie version of IT FOLLOWS.

That's a nifty idea for a short film, but Minahan and Ortiz really struggle to get this thing to 90 minutes. Once the premise is established, along with a gross but admittedly clever bit where she manages to distract the zombie--who she eventually names "Smalls"--by offering it her bloody tampon to munch on while she gets a head start on her next getaway, this thing runs out of gas in record time. Minahan shoots in a saturated and frequently garish style that's more ugly than anything, and hardly any time has elapsed before Molly's babbling to herself and Minhan's already breaking out the surreal, grotesque, NATURAL BORN KILLERS-esque flourishes. She eventually forms a bizarre kinship with Smalls that comes out of nowhere and makes no sense--she even declines rescue from military personnel on one occasion because she doesn't want to leave the zombie alone. There's also a pointless detour involving a pair of yahoos who rescue then rape her, and she keeps having flashbacks to the son she abandoned in favor of her irresponsible, Vegas party girl lifestyle. The sliver of remaining humanity left in Smalls awakening Molly's dormant maternal instincts might've been a good idea if it had any foundation, but nothing in IT STAINS THE SANDS RED (a cool title, at least) makes sense, and everything that happens requires Molly to be conveniently stupid in order to advance the plot. Riedlinger is OK as Smalls, but he's not giving DAY OF THE DEAD's Howard Sherman any competition when it comes to great zombie performances. It doesn't help that he exits the film with nearly 30 minutes to go as Molly, much like IT STAINS THE SANDS RED, continues on aimlessly. An interesting set-up, but this thing just goes nowhere fast and has nothing to add to an already overcrowded genre. (Unrated, 92 mins)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Retro Review: CYBORG 2087 (1966) and DIMENSION 5 (1966)

(US - 1966)

Directed by Franklin Adreon. Written by Arthur C. Pierce. Cast: Michael Rennie, Karen Steele, Wendell Corey, Warren Stevens, Eduard Franz, Harry Carey Jr., Adam Roarke, Dale Van Sickel, Troy Melton, Jimmy Hibbard, Sherry Alberoni, Betty Jane Royale, John Beck, Jo Ann Pflug, Richard Travis, Byron Morrow. (Unrated, 86 mins)

Made on the cheap and originally intended for TV syndication, CYBORG 2087 has surprisingly bigger aspirations than its paltry budget can accommodate. Shot in a flat fashion on backlots, a western ghost town set, and in a Los Angeles neighborhood, the film was directed by Franklin Adreon (1902-1979), a career journeyman who began writing Republic Pictures serials back in the 1930s like THE FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS and DICK TRACY'S G-MEN before moving into directing television in the 1950s and 1960s like LASSIE and SEA HUNT. Released by the short-lived United Pictures Corporation, CYBORG 2087 was shot back-to-back with DIMENSION 5, using the same crew and many of the same sets and locations, and both were written by Arthur C. Pierce (1923-1987), whose screenplay credits include such gems as 1960's BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER, 1965's THE HUMAN DUPLICATORS, and 1966's WOMEN OF THE PREHISTORIC PLANET. Nothing Pierce ever penned was as imaginative as CYBORG 2087, but the film is repeatedly thwarted by its cheapness and the old-fashioned, get-it-in-the-can attitude of Adreon. He's obviously constrained by a budget that looks like less than an average episode of LOST IN SPACE, but only an anonymous clock-puncher like Adreon could take this ambitious science-fiction story and end it with a old-timey brawl in a barn that looks like an outtake from yet another version of THE SPOILERS. Watching CYBORG 2087 today, it's impossible to ignore the similarities with James Cameron's THE TERMINATOR--a universally-regarded classic--and Charles Band's TRANCERS--a smaller film with a devoted cult following--two films by young, visionary directors that would come a couple of decades later while CYBORG 2087 was consigned to late-night TV well into the 1980s and eventual obscurity once battered prints of old movies on The Late Late Show followed by a sign-off became a thing of the past.

In 2087, half-human/half-machine cyborg Garth A7 (a slumming Michael Rennie, in an obvious riff on his iconic role as Klaatu in 1951's THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL) is beamed aboard a small spacecraft to 1966. His mission: abduct military scientist Prof. Marx (Eduard Franz) and bring him to 2087, preventing him from introducing his latest findings in his study of "radiotelepathy" that will result in government abuse and subjugation of future generations over the next century, turning the America of 2087 into a totalitarian hellhole of controlled thought and rule by evil cyborgs. Garth A7 is programmed to feel no emotion, his focus only on his mission, which makes it easy to exercise control over Marx's colleagues Dr. Zellar (Warren Stevens) and Dr. Mason (Karen Steele). But as they become convinced that what he's saying is true, Garth A7 learns emotion and bonding and feels a need to protect Mason and Zellar when two "tracers" (old-school stuntmen Dale Van Sickel and Troy Melton) are sent from 2087 to kill Garth and prevent him from changing the future.

It's almost certain that James Cameron saw CYBORG 2087 at a drive-in or on TV at some point in his life prior to 1984 (Garth A7's bond with Mason and Zellar also prefigures the Terminator's friendship with young John Connor in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY). While it's entertaining and never dull, it more or less boxes itself in as an MST3K-worthy "bad" movie with its inherent time-capsule cheesiness that puts in in the same category as everything else Pierce wrote: the ridiculous western brawl between Garth A7 and a tracer; the cheap "future" sets in the 2087 prologue (featuring a lab technician played by a debuting Jo Ann Pflug, who would co-star in Robert Altman's MASH a few years later), including a time-travel console with old-school 1960s tapewriter labels, the script not even foreseeing the era of the P-Touch; the instantly-dated pandering to "the kids" with 1966 teenagers who look like they're in their mid-20s and behave like it's a decade earlier (one is played by a debuting John Beck, later of ROLLERBALL and AUDREY ROSE); the exterior of the sheriff's office being an obvious condo that probably belonged to someone on the production; the sheriff being played by a skidding Wendell Corey (REAR WINDOW), drunk and slurring his words (he'd be even more shitfaced in 1968's THE ASTRO ZOMBIES before he died the same year from liver failure at 54 but looking 74); the tracers jogging around L.A. neighborhoods with toy ray guns and Great Gazoo helmets as they scour the area for Garth A7; Garth A7's mechanized left arm just being some silver retractable pens Scotch-taped to Rennie's arm; and Rennie running around throughout the film apparently completely oblivious to how Garth A7's tight space outfit makes it awkwardly obvious that the veteran British actor is going commando and totally freeballing it.

Michael Rennie (1909-1971)
Rennie made a name for himself in his native England in the 1940s before coming to Hollywood in 1950. After THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, he co-starred in some prestigious productions throughout the decade (THE ROBE, DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS, DESIREE) before moving to TV in the 1960s. By the time of CYBORG 2087, his career was in a serious downturn and despite appearances in a couple of big-budget Hollywood movies in 1968 (THE POWER and THE DEVIL'S BRIGADE), he was becoming a regular fixture in European genre fare like Antonio Margheriti's THE YOUNG, THE EVIL AND THE SAVAGE (1968) and Giorgio Ferroni's "macaroni combat" outing THE BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN (1968). Battling emphysema and forced to have his final performances dubbed by someone else due to his weakening health and voice, Rennie finished his career in an undistinguished fashion, playing a mad alien scientist sent to Earth (between that and CYBORG 2087, you can see the Klaatu-inspired typecasting that plagued his final years) to resurrect dubious incarnations of classic movie monsters in the 1970 Spanish-made Paul Naschy monster rally ASSIGNMENT: TERROR. Always a consummate professional, Rennie brings some gravitas to CYBORG 2087 and appears to be taking it seriously, despite his impressive package shifting and flopping around for all to see. CYBORG 2087 isn't the standard definition of a "good movie," but it's better than its reputation and deserves some credit for attempting some ambitious ideas with a budget that can be politely termed "woefully inadequate."

(US - 1966)

Directed by Franklin Adreon. Written by Arthur C. Pierce. Cast: Jeffrey Hunter, France Nuyen, Harold Sakata, Donald Woods, Linda Ho, Robert Ito, David Chow, Jon Lormer, Bill Walker, Kam Tong, Marianna Case, Deanna Lund. (Unrated, 91 mins)

Shot immediately after and released at the same time as CYBORG 2087, DIMENSION 5 is just as cheap but completely lacking in any entertainment value. The less said about it, the better, and filled with endless clumsy exposition drops of the walk & talk variety (early on, one of these has the actors going through doors but walking down the same barely redressed corridor three times, and the same condo from CYBORG 2087 is somehow used as the entrance to a spy agency previously established as existing in the California Federal skyscraper), DIMENSION 5 runs 90 minutes but feels like a week and a half. American superspy Justin Power (Jeffrey Hunter) teams with sexy Chinese agent Kitty (France Nuyen) to use a nonsensical time travel belt (don't ask) to stop a plot by nefarious crime lord Big Buddha (Harold Sakata, best known as GOLDFINGER's Oddjob) to blow up Los Angeles (of course, it's later revealed that Kitty's reasons for going after Big Buddha are personal). Absolutely nothing happens in DIMENSION 5--one argument between Power and Kitty plays like a dry run for the "Whose reality? Yours or mine?" argument from THAT'S ARMAGEDDON! in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE--and the whole clunky, unpolished fiasco plays like the kind of painfully bad Z-movie you'd expect from an Al Adamson or a Jerry Warren. It's hard to believe the same director and writer made CYBORG 2087, which isn't necessarily "good" but at least has some inventive ideas and tries to look as presentable as it can while being financed with pocket change. DIMENSION 5, on the other hand, is an endurance test that only has a charming Nuyen to make it remotely bearable, and not even the imposing Sakata--badly dubbed by Paul Frees, who also revoiced Toshiro Mifune in John Frankenheimer's GRAND PRIX the same year--can liven it up, other than some amusing overacting in his death scene. Fans of QUINCY, M.E. will enjoy seeing Robert Ito as a Chinese agent (never mind that Ito is of Japanese descent) a decade before his career-defining role as Sam, medical examiner Quincy's hapless assistant, constantly forced to cancel his plans and stay late at work while an easily-distracted Quincy abandoned his job duties to play amateur sleuth, ordering him to "Cover for me, Sam."

Jeffrey Hunter (1926-1969)
DIMENSION 5 gets nothing from a bored, coasting Hunter, who co-starred with John Wayne in John Ford's timeless classic THE SEARCHERS a decade earlier and played Jesus in the epic KING OF KINGS just five years before this bottom-of-the-barrel dud. Hunter had recently finished "The Cage," the unaired pilot episode of STAR TREK, where he starred as Capt. Christopher Pike opposite Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. After some retooling by creator Gene Roddenberry, Hunter declined to shoot a second pilot and wasn't interested in committing to the show if NBC picked it up, so the Pike character was essentially rewritten as Capt. James T. Kirk, giving William Shatner the role of a lifetime as Hunter made mostly garbage movies for his few remaining years. Like Michael Rennie on CYBORG 2087, Hunter was at a career low circa DIMENSION 5. His subsequent roles were TV guest spots, supporting roles in the 1968 Robert Shaw western CUSTER OF THE WEST and the same year's Bob Hope/Phyllis Diller bomb THE PRIVATE NAVY OF SGT. O'FARRELL, and several low-budget European productions, including the raunchy German sex comedy SEXY SUSAN SINS AGAIN and the Spanish gangster movie CRY CHICAGO. Hunter suffered a concussion during an on-set mishap near the end of production on CRY CHICAGO. He subsequently had a seizure on the flight back to the US, later believed to be a smaller stroke preceding a massive cerebral hemorrhage he would suffer at home in Los Angeles, during which he fell and fractured his skull. He was rushed to the hospital for surgery and never woke up. He died on May 27, 1969 at just 42, only three months after marrying his third wife. It would be 1971 before SEXY SUSAN SINS AGAIN would open in the US, along with the 1968 Italian spaghetti western FIND A PLACE TO DIE, and SUPER COLT 69, a 1969 Mexican western Hunter shot just prior to CRY CHICAGO, which ended up going straight to syndicated TV at some point in the 1970s.

Both CYBORG 2087 and DIMENSION 5 have just been released on Blu-ray (!) by Kino Lorber. They've been given the red carpet treatment with HD restorations--4K in DIMENSION 5's case, which completely undeserving. The rights to the films ended up with Paramount at some point, and they've been languishing in a vault for years, if not decades. They look better than ever, certainly an improvement over scratchy old TV prints and incomplete versions on YouTube. There's an audience for every movie, and I'm sure someone will find some semblance of entertainment value in DIMENSION 5 that a sane person cannot, but CYBORG 2087, once you get past its cheesy TV look and general cheapness and ineptitude, has something there in its concept--it's one of the earliest instances of pop culture specifically using the term "cyborg," first coined in 1960--that paved the way for smarter, better explorations of its themes and ideas.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: CARTELS (2017) and THE RECALL (2017)

(US - 2017)

Shot back in 2015 under the title KILLING SALAZAR and probably retitled to cash in on Netflix's NARCOS, CARTELS "stars" Steven Seagal but was held from release as six more Seagal movies were shat out ahead of it in 2016 (I'd list them but that would surpass the effort Seagal put forth in all seven movies total). It's hard to fathom the existence of a present-day Seagal joint that's so bad that Lionsgate delays releasing it, but CARTELS is maybe the least terrible of the bunch, though that's in no way meant to be interpreted as a recommendation. As usual, Seagal is a top-billed guest star who was probably on the set in Romania for a couple of days, while another actor--in this case, Luke Goss, still cornering the market on second-string Stathams--is the real lead. Seagal and his double are featured in a framing device as John Harrison, a covert CIA black ops mastermind interrogating US Marshal Tom Jensen (Goss) over a botched assignment involving Mexican-Russian cartel boss Joseph "El Tiburon" Salazar (Florin Piersic Jr), who's introduced ruminating over a chess board as he tells his top underling "You know why I love this game so much? Because there can only be...one king!" The CIA fakes Salazar's death in order to take him into custody after he offers to flip and go informant, turning him over to a crew of US Marshals and military personnel and holing them up in a luxury hotel in Romania to await extraction for 24 hours. Knowing Salazar has turned on them, his betrayed crew, led by second-in-command Bruno Sinclaire (Georges St-Pierre), lead an assault on the hotel, going up floor by floor in pursuit of their old boss--somehow, the hotel remains open for business--and taking out the Marshals and soldiers one by one until, of course, only the disgraced Jensen, seeking redemption after a previous assignment went south, remains to kill them all.

Seagal's usual director Keoni Waxman is on hand, and for what it's worth, he does an acceptable job handling what's basically a RIO BRAVO/ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13/THE RAID scenario. Goss is actually trying, for some reason, and creates a surprisingly credible hero, and while the fight scenes and gun battles are mostly an incoherent, quick-cut blur, Waxman at least uses a decent-looking mix of practical and CGI splatter that looks a lot wetter and splashier than in most films of this sort. CARTELS starts stumbling when it tries to get tricky, doling out increasingly ludicrous twists and double-crosses before abandoning logic altogether: the team has obviously been infiltrated by at least one mole, but when that person's identity is revealed, it certainly begs the question of whether CARTELS' version of the CIA has ever heard of a background check and wait, Seagal's character knew this person was a mole all along? Then why are you interrogating Jensen? It's no surprise that Seagal is once more the epitome of laziness, mumbling and wheezing, sporting his standard tinted glasses and a bushy goatee dyed with shoe polish, doubled in every shot where he's not facing the camera and in an embarrassing fight scene with GSP, where the MMA champ is forced to pretend he's getting his ass handed to him by the three-decades older and almost completely immobile Seagal, master of the timeless "wave your hands around and let your opponent run into them" move. CARTELS would've been an ordinary and perfectly watchable B-movie had Waxman just focused on Goss and the siege of the hotel and shitcanned the framing device. But the need to shoehorn Seagal into the movie ends up being its biggest detriment, stopping things cold every time he or the double pretending to be him shows up. The age-old question remains: Seagal doesn't give a shit. Why should we? (R, 100 mins)

(Canada/US/UK - 2017)

A muddled jumble of a sci-fi thriller, the Freestyle pickup THE RECALL can't figure out what it wants to be: alien invasion saga, CABIN IN THE WOODS ripoff, sensitive YA weepie, conspiracy movie, superhero origin story, or Wesley Snipes comeback vehicle. There's three credited writers plus someone else credited with "additional writing," so there's a big tip off to the indecisiveness and lack of focus. THE RECALL can't stop tripping over its own feet, shifting tone and direction so many times that it constantly stonewalls any momentum it generates. Five uninteresting college-age kids--two couples and a nerdy fifth wheel played by BREAKING BAD's RJ Mitte--head to a cabin for a weekend getaway only to find their plans ruined by an inconvenient alien invasion. Hothead Rob (Niko Pepaj) accidentally shoots and kills his girlfriend Kara (Hannah Rose May) and promptly gets pulled into the sky and zapped aboard a spacecraft, leaving heartbroken Charlie (someone calling himself Jedidiah Goodacre), who's still grieving after his girlfriend's death in a car crash ten months earlier, Kara's friend Annie (Laura Bilgeri), and Brendan (Mitte), to seek the protection of a local survivalist (Snipes) with a complicated backstory who's been preparing for "the arrival" for over 20 years. Snipes' character has some kind of psychic connection with a Russian prisoner (Graham Shiels) being held at a remote military base in Alaska in one of several subplots that never quite come together.

Top-billed Mitte has little to do and Snipes gets more screen time than you might expect for his "and Wesley Snipes" billing (he's also one of 22 credited producers), but the real stars are Goodacre and Bilgeri, which requires director Mauro Borrelli to frequently stop the film cold to establish their love connection and his emo bona fides. There's nothing like a violent attack by a seven-foot-tall, lizard-like alien brought to a screeching halt by a guy who picks the most inopportune times to wallow in self-pity over his dead girlfriend. Sorry for your loss, brah, but is this really the time? Borrelli has made a few low-budget DTV horror movies over the last decade in between his far more lucrative day job as a conceptual artist and illustrator on any number of big budget movies going back to the late '80s--THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, BATMAN RETURNS, a couple PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN entries, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, and the upcoming STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI just to name a few--and early on, some of the visual effects and the creature design are surprisingly well-done, which isn't a surprise considering he probably has some friends in the business who did him a solid. But those guys must've had other things to do midway through production, because the effects get much shoddier as the film goes on, but it's right in line with everything else in THE RECALL that starts falling apart around the same time. The only reason to bother checking this out is Snipes, who turns in a far more spirited and amusing performance than he needed to, putting forth much more effort here than he did in most of the films leading up to his stretch in the hoosegow for tax evasion. Snipes turns the character into a bitterly sarcastic smartass ("Come on, sissy boy!" he keeps telling Brendan), though that could just be a coping mechanism once the veteran actor realized he was merely a supporting actor in a Jedidiah Goodacre movie that ends with three young characters newly imbued with otherworldly powers, looking in the distance at a gray sky with one actually saying "Looks like a storm's coming." (R, 91 mins)

Friday, September 15, 2017

In Theaters: MOTHER! (2017)

(US - 2017)

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, Stephen McHattie, Emily Hampshire, Laurence Leboeuf. (R, 121 mins)

To say MOTHER! isn't for everyone is the understatement of the year. The latest film from director Darren Aronofsky (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, THE WRESTLER, BLACK SWAN), MOTHER! might be his crowning achievement thus far. A nightmare that makes the last half-hour of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM look restrained, MOTHER! is so intricately constructed that there's too much to unpack and analyze on just one viewing. Certainly it's a film that's going to provoke debate and discussion, but most importantly, polarizing reaction. The phrase "love it or hate it" gets thrown about a bit too freely sometimes, but that's precisely the response MOTHER! is going to get. Much has been made of the horrific events in the film and they're there, but mileage may vary: genre fans who have some background in extreme horror and/or transgressive art cinema won't be as shocked as casual moviegoers who are fans of THE HUNGER GAMES and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and think they're going to see the latest Jennifer Lawrence vehicle. MOTHER! is intense, grueling, incredibly uncomfortable, and frequently off-the-charts cringe-worthy. But it's also brilliantly acted, richly textured with metaphorical interpretations and symbolism, and one of the best and most audacious films of 2017. In an era of franchises, branding, and endless reboots and remakes, major studios and A-list stars just don't make risky and provocative movies like this anymore. And they've never made one like MOTHER!

A plot synopsis is pointless, but for what it's worth: Lawrence (as "Mother") and Javier Bardem (as "Him") are a married couple who live in a large, isolated old house in the country, in the middle of a vast field with no visible roads leading to it. He's a famous author suffering from particularly difficult bout of writer's block. She's a homemaker currently deeply involved in renovating the more dilapidated parts of the house. One night, there's a knock at the door and it's Ed Harris (as "Man"), a professor who mistakes the house for a bed & breakfast. Bardem invites Harris to stay the night, even though he presumptuously lights up a cigarette in the house and seems offended when Lawrence asks him to put it out. Harris gets very ill and spends the night coughing and vomiting but in the morning, is fine and acts like nothing happened. That's when Michelle Pfeiffer (as "Woman") shows up. She's Harris wife, and is even ruder houseguest, dismissing Lawrence's life choices, going through her laundry and making derisive comments about her frumpy underwear, and questioning why she's married to such an older man. Pfeiffer makes a mess in the kitchen, leaves faucets running, and goes into Bardem's study after being told multiple times by Lawrence that he doesn't want people in there without him. When she and Harris go into Bardem's study and accidentally shatter a cherished crystallized glass piece that's of utmost important to him, they're offended about being asked to leave ("We said we were sorry!") and Lawrence walks in on them having sex in the next room five minutes later. Then their adult sons Domnhall Gleeson (as "Older Son") and Brian Gleeson (as "Younger Brother") show up, arguing about what's in Harris' will. A brotherly brawl results in the death of one of the siblings and Bardem agrees to host a post-funeral dinner gathering without telling Lawrence. More and more guests arrive without notice and from out of nowhere, help themselves to all areas of the house, try to fuck in Lawrence's and Bardem's bed, damage the kitchen sink and tear the plumbing out of the wall, and eventually, the entire house starts to resemble the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers' A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Then things just go off the rails and get really bizarre.

MOTHER! is like going through a two-hour anxiety attack. Upon a cursory glance of the trailer and the promotional material, the obvious influence is ROSEMARY'S BABY, but Aronofsky is actually paying homage to Polanski's unofficial "Apartment Trilogy"of REPULSION (1965), ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), and THE TENANT (1976). The first hour of the film has that same slow-burning intensity, escalating discomfort, and frequently dark and absurdist humor of those three Polanski films, centering on people beset by psychological demons and unwanted interlopers who keep aggressively manipulating them into submission (there's also a nod to a famous shot in Dario Argento's TENEBRAE). The second half--and the less you know about it the better--loses Harris and Pfeiffer (do they ultimately have anything to do with anything?) but goes full Luis Bunuel Apocalypse, an overwhelming and delirious nightmare of EXTERMINATING ANGEL proportions put through a Lars von Trier filter that can be interpreted as everything from a Biblical allegory and a rebuking of religious extremism to a metaphor for the creative process and a scathing auto-critique of the narcissism and self-absorption of pretentious artists. Lawrence's "Mother" is constantly denigrated and marginalized, whether it's by her husband who revels in the adoration of the fans who show up at the house while forgetting all the support she's given him when no one else was around (how much of himself is Aronofsky putting on display here?), or by the invasive throng of houseguests who refuse to leave and look at her as an intruder on their time with "The Poet" as they hang on his every word and treat him like a god. But then there's other things--heartbeats in the wall, a strange yellow powder that Lawrence mixes with water, frogs in the basement, a freshly built basement wall that hides a secret room, and a spot on a hardwood floor that becomes a festering wound that won't stop bleeding no matter what lengths Lawrence--who's never been better than she is here--will go to cover it up. And there's a toilet clogged by what looks like some kind of human organ. It's been years since a major Hollywood studio bankrolled something this unapologetically fucked-up (thanks for your service, A CURE FOR WELLNESS, but you're no longer the weirdest wide-release movie of 2017). Exhausting, exhilarating, challenging, thought-provoking, beyond audacious, and fearless about going into some extremely dark places, MOTHER! is a masterpiece. Regardless of your response to it, there's no denying that there's never been anything like it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

In Theaters: IT (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Andy Muschietti. Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman. Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgard, Nicholas Hamilton, Owen Teague, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Steven Williams, Megan Charpentier, Javier Botet. (R, 134 mins)

Stephen King's gargantuan 1986 best seller was already turned into an ABC miniseries in 1990 with middling results, and the long-in-the-works big screen adaptation of half of it takes a more successful if still flawed stab at the material. I remember checking It out of the library when I was 13 and barely sleeping for the next week as I devoured over 200 pages per day, reading well into the night. At 69, King is more prolific than ever, even if his current output doesn't carry the same cache as his glory days--he's probably dusting off second-rate stuff he's had stashed away for 30 years--but in 1986, the Stephen King brand was at its ubiquitous zenith. He was cranking out what seemed like at least two books a year, and every other week, it felt like a new King movie adaptation was hitting theaters. The 1990 miniseries did what it could with some of the more graphic horrors depicted on the page, but it's hard not to think that an epic big-screen version of the novel would've been a better move 25 or 30 years ago. IT 2017 began as a project for Cary Fukunaga, best known for directing the first season of TRUE DETECTIVE. He eventually bailed over disagreements during pre-production, with Gary Dauberman (ANNABELLE) reworking Fukunaga and Chase Palmer's script and MAMA director and Guillermo del Toro protege Andy Muschietti at the helm. MAMA showed Muschietti had sufficient genre chops, and IT doesn't disappoint if you're looking for loud, constant jump scares.

But that's often its stumbling block as well. With a running time of 134 minutes--epic by horror standards--IT plays that post-INSIDIOUS/CONJURING jump scare card time and time and time again. As you might expect, it works the first few times but eventually, you'll know when they're coming and they lose more power with each one. The malevolent evil of the novel, personified by nightmarish clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard, who'll be raking in serious cash on the convention circuit for the rest of his life thanks to this movie), seems more focused on the no-longer-novel concept of scary clowns, which of course got a big boost from King's book in the first place but also from cult movies like KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE and Sid Haig's Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie's HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and THE DEVIL'S REJECTS. Scary clowns have always been a thing, but it's only in the relatively recent era that they've become a pop culture trope. Skarsgard is a flamboyantly terrifying Pennywise when he's allowed to act, but so many of his appearances are so heavily enhanced by CGI and digital trickery that it sometimes minimizes him until he's just part of the scenery, the shaky-cam clown attacks all becoming a bit of a blur.

IT 2017 works best when it's grounded and practical. Muschietti puts forth great effort to make this feel as much like a genuine 1980s horror movie as possible. The period detail of its 1989 setting (updated from the late '50s in King's book) is right: the decor, the cars, the hairstyles, a movie theater showing BATMAN, LETHAL WEAPON 2, and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5, but sometimes Muschietti oversells it. There's too many mentions of New Kids on the Block, a rock fight set to Anthrax's "Antisocial" seems too slapsticky, and a DONNIE DARKO-esque Steadicam trip through the junior high school set to The Cult's "Love Removal Machine" in place of Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels" all smack of the kind of lazy referencing that's supposed to be funny simply because it's old and easily-recognized. The ensemble of young actors is extremely well-cast, with MIDNIGHT SPECIAL's Jaeden Lieberher the nominal lead as Bill Denbrough, whose younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) was sucked into a sewer drain by It a year earlier. The town of Derry, ME is beset by a string of child disappearances, just the latest in a series of tragedies that befall the town every 27 years. Of course, only the kids--an outcast clique dubbed "The Losers"--figure this out as they're haunted one-by-one by sudden appearances of Pennywise, sometimes as a clown and sometimes as an evil woman or a homeless leper (Javier Botet) on the outskirts of town. And this is when they aren't dealing with psychotic bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton, a potential William Zabka of his generation, briefly seen in a similar role in the recent King adaptation THE DARK TOWER), or abusive parents, whether it's hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) being Munchausen-by-proxy'd by his crazy mother or tomboyish Beverly (Sophia Lillis), whose mother seems to be out of the picture and whose father (Stephen Bogaert) has obviously sexually molested her in the past and possibly the present. It's one of IT 2017's more intriguing elements that the most sympathetic parental figure in the film is police chief Bowers (Stuart Hughes), who knows exactly what kind of monster his son is, intervenes when he's about to shoot a helpless cat, and often turns up as a guardian angel of sorts for The Losers and doesn't hesitate to humiliate his asshole son in front of his stupid buddies. This is one of many notable departures from King's book, where Chief Bowers is depicted as an abusive loathsome racist and anti-Semite largely responsible for turning his son into the person he's becoming.

With the setting and the '80s nostalgia (this really does feel like an evil clown version of THE GOONIES at times), it's hard not to draw comparisons to last year's Netflix hit STRANGER THINGS, especially since both share co-star Finn Wolfhard though IT was already in production when STRANGER THINGS took off. The timing is unfortunate, as the novel It certainly had a hand in influencing the outcast character ensemble of STRANGER THINGS, but it's another example of IT 2017 coming years, if not decades later than it should've. A couple of the young actors--Chosen Jacobs as Mike Hanlon, the only black kid in town, and Wyatt Oleff as Jewish Stanley Uris--get lost in the shuffle with the focus on Bill, Beverly, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the overweight bookworm nursing a crush on Beverly, and constantly wisecracking, Coke-bottle specs-wearing nerd Richie (Wolfhard). There's some serious jolts in IT (the slideshow scene is an instant classic) and the '80s atmosphere is very well-handled, but IT leans on easy references a little too aggressively at times, sacrificing its painstaking recreation of 1989 and coming off like 2017's idea of a 1980s movie instead of an actual 1980s movie. Even going well past two hours, it feels a little rushed and with the door obviously being left open for a sequel covering the second half of the book, you can't help but wonder if it would've been smarter to adapt this as a limited series of maybe eight episodes for Netflix, Amazon, or HBO.

Friday, September 8, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE LAST FACE (2017) and SECURITY (2017)

(US - 2017)

"Turgid" and "overwrought" don't begin to describe this oppressive, self-indulgent fiasco from director Sean Penn. Filmed in 2014 and laughed off the screen when it was in competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, THE LAST FACE was shelved for another year before getting an unceremonious premiere on DirecTV and then expanding to VOD the same weekend that star Charlize Theron's ATOMIC BLONDE opened. A heavy-handed "message" film that makes you appreciate the comparative subtlety of Steven Seagal's climactic lecture in the 1994 eco-actioner ON DEADLY GROUND, THE LAST FACE tries to address the atrocities in war-torn areas of the world like Liberia, South Sudan, and Sierra Leone, but quickly relegates those concerns to the background to center on the torrid on-again/off-again romance between activist/doctor Wren Peterson (Theron) and Spanish playboy surgeon Miguel Leon (Javier Bardem). Dedicated to helping refugees through an aid organization set up by her late father--from whose shadow she can't seem to escape even though no one's trying to keep her there--Wren insists she doesn't need a man to complete her, then can't stop delivering anguished, Terrence Malick-inspired narration like "Before I met him, I was an idea I had." Wren's and Miguel's relationship has its ups and downs, as evidenced by three separate scenes of Wren yelling "You don't even know me!" and one where she even adds "Being inside me isn't knowing me!" Penn presents their initial, hesitant hooking up with all the grace and restraint of a daytime soap, trapping two Oscar-winning actors in the most unplayable roles of their careers. It's hard to give THE LAST FACE a chance when it opens with onscreen text that's an incoherent word salad about "the brutality of corrupted innocence" and how it ties into "the brutality of an impossible love..." (fade to black) "...shared by a man..." (fade to black) "...and a woman." Spicoli, please!

THE LAST FACE began life as a project for Penn's ex-wife Robin Wright. It was written by her close friend Erin Dignam, but when Penn's and Wright's marriage ended, Penn hung on to the script and pressed forward several years later with his then-girlfriend Theron. There's no shortage of camera adoration of Theron throughout, with Penn veering into Tarantino territory with shots of Theron's toes picking up a pencil before Bardem slithers across the floor to kiss her feet. Their relationship is consummated with a "cute" scene of making faces while they brush their teeth, and for some reason, songs by the Red Hot Chili Peppers figure into the plot, with a sweaty sex scene set to "Otherside" and an earlier bit where a helicopter pilot (Penn's son Hopper Jack Penn) can't shut up about the band. There's so much RHCP love here that it wouldn't be a surprise if Flea showed up as a spazzing doctor with a sock on his dick. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR's Adele Exarchopoulos has an underwritten role as Wren's cousin and brief Miguel love interest, and reliable character actors like Jared Harris and Jean Reno disappear into the background as other doctors (Reno's character is named "Dr. Love" but he doesn't have the cure you're thinkin' of). Penn's intent may be earnest, but when he isn't haranguing the audience about how they need to pay more attention to what's going on in the world, he's sidelining what he wants you to focus on by turning the entire film into what looks like the world's most tone-deaf Harlequin romance adaptation. Penn has made some intelligent and challenging films as a director--1991's THE INDIAN RUNNER, 1995's THE CROSSING GUARD, 2001's THE PLEDGE, and 2007's INTO THE WILD--but THE LAST FACE is catastrophic less than a minute in and insufferable for the next 130. (R, 131 mins)

(US - 2017)

A perfunctory, go-through-the-motions clock-punch for everyone involved, SECURITY is an instantly forgettable time-killer that probably would've played better 20-25 years ago as a Joel Silver production with the same two lead actors, someone like Peter Hyams or Renny Harlin directing, and several million additional dollars in the budget. Consider it DIE HARD IN A MALL or ASSAULT ON FOOD COURT 13, or maybe even JOHN CARPENTER'S PAUL BLART: MALL COP, but any way you slice it, the biggest takeaway from SECURITY is how hilariously inept it is at trying to pass off three bizarrely-dressed soundstages at Bulgaria's Nu Boyana Studios as a suburban American shopping mall. There's about five or six storefronts with very little in the way of merchandise, a clothing store called "Luxury Fashion," randomly placed American flags, a stairway that leads to a wall, some plants, and letters on another wall spelling "M A L L," as if shoppers don't know where they are, plus the building used for the exterior looks like an abandoned factory. But even before the action moves to the mall, the Bulgarian ruse is up when a convoy of US Marshals assemble to move a witness to safety and all are in jackets and bulletproof vests reading "U.S.A. Marshals," which looks and sounds exactly like a task left to an Eastern European prop crew with a shaky grasp of English and no one following up on the work they did before the cameras started rolling. SECURITY was produced by Millennium Films, Avi Lerner's Cannon cover band, and they regularly pass off Bulgarian sets and locations as American, and while it's usually only noticeable if you're looking for it, it's rarely been as sloppily-executed as it is here. It's as unconvincing as the Millennium-produced 2009 remake of IT'S ALIVE, shot in Bulgaria but set in New Mexico, with the interiors of the lead character's house looking like the locally-hired carpenters came up with the layout and architectural design by doing a Google image search for Chi-Chi's.

Eddie Deacon (Antonio Banderas) is a former Special Forces captain suffering from PTSD after three deployments to Afghanistan. Separated from his wife and daughter and desperate for employment, he takes a job as an overnight security guard at a dilapidated mall in the outskirts of a city that's fallen prey to economic downturns and meth labs. Immediately after meeting his cocky, dudebro boss Vance (Liam McIntyre of Starz' SPARTACUS series) and his three other co-workers--how can this rundown mall afford five overnight guards seven nights a week?--ten-year-old Jamie (Katherine Mary de la Rocha) is pounding on one of the entrances, begging to be let in. She was the cargo in the "U.S.A. Marshals" transport, set to testify against the high-powered crime organization that employed her informant father before killing him and her mother, murders that she witnessed. The criminals, led by a man who calls himself "Charlie" (Ben Kingsley) but whose name may as well be Hans Gruber, then spend the rest of the night trying to get into the mall to get Jamie, which requires taking out the security crew, now led by the take-charge Eddie, who of course, views protecting Jamie as his shot at redemption and proof that he's capable of taking care of his own daughter. Director Alain Desrochers employs a few clever touches--like Jamie chasing some of Charlie's goons with a remote control car and the security team communicating via pink, toy walkies--but the whole production is just too chintzy-looking for its own good, looking very nearly as cheap as a Bratislava-shot Albert Pyun rapsploitation trilogy. 57-year-old Banderas is still in great shape and could easily handle the transition into the 60-and-over action star field that Liam Neeson has owned for several years, but he looks bored. Kingsley brings a little class just by being Ben Kingsley, but even he can't do much with a one-dimensional villain who, at one point, stands outside a barricaded door and purrs "...and I'll huff...and I'll puff..." In the requisite Alexander Godunov henchman role, Cung Le glowers and grimaces as someone named "Dead Eyes," and you'll also get some bonus shitty CGI explosions courtesy of Lerner's usual Bulgarian clown crew at Worldwide FX. SECURITY is hardly the worst of its type and is a perfectly acceptable way to kill 90 minutes if you're bored and you find it streaming, but any effort you exert to see it would still be more than the production design team put in to make those sets look like an actual, functioning mall. (R, 92 mins)

Monday, September 4, 2017

In Theaters/On VOD: UNLOCKED (2017)

(US/Switzerland/UK - 2017)

Directed by Michael Apted. Written by Peter O'Brien. Cast: Noomi Rapace, Orlando Bloom, Michael Douglas, John Malkovich, Toni Collette, Matthew Marsh, Makram J. Khoury, Brian Caspe, Philip Brodie, Michael Epp, Ayman Hamdouchi, Tosin Cole, Raffello Degruttola. (R, 98 mins)

There's a few moments of inspiration for an overqualified cast in this mostly generic terrorism/spy thriller that's been gathering dust on a shelf since it was shot back in late 2014. It was in development long before that, as Peter O'Brien's script was kicking around Hollywood as far back as 2008. There's been some updates to the story, including an overdubbed line by a minor character referencing the 2015 Paris terror attacks, which took place long after the movie was completed. Though its concerns remains topical, UNLOCKED still plays like the kind of hot-button, post-9/11 thriller that would've been more timely in 2007 instead of 2017. Living in London and suffering from PTSD after a 2012 terrorist attack in Paris for which she still blames herself for not preventing, reassigned CIA interrogator Alice Racine (Noomi Rapace) is pulled back in when UK-based CIA agents uncover a potential biological terror plot engineered by David Mercer (Michael Epp), a rich kid from Bloomfield Hills, MI who was radicalized by the teachings of ISIS-like extremist Yazid Khaleel (Makram J. Khoury) and now recruits disillusioned teenagers throughout Europe for his cause. One such kid is Lateef (Ayman Hamdouchi), a 19-year-old Afghanistan-born British national and Khaleel courier. Lateef is apprehended by the CIA and when their London-based interrogator is found floating face down in a hotel swimming pool, Alice is ordered back on duty. Things go south when a phone call from an old colleague midway through the interrogation--informing her that she'll be needed to interrogate a 19-year-old British national named Lateef--immediately tips her off that she's been tricked by traitorous agents who have breached CIA security.

Alice manages to escape and meets with her former mentor Eric Lasch (Michael Douglas as more or less the same character he played in Steven Soderbergh's HAYWIRE), who directs her to a safe house and is immediately killed for his trouble by the same crew of CIA impostors. At the safe house, she interrupts what she thinks is a burglar but is really covert ops agent and neck tat enthusiast Jack Alcott (Orlando Bloom), an Iraq War vet now doing dirty work for the CIA in London. It's double and triple crosses and increasingly nonsensical twists and turns from then on, with high-ranking CIA honcho Bob Hunter (John Malkovich) running point from Langley and MI-5 agent Emily Knowles (Toni Collette, looking like a dead ringer for Annie Lennox) working with Alice in London for a race against the clock to stop a bio-terror attack on an American college football game being played at Wembley Stadium in what amounts to a blimp-less version of John Frankenheimer's BLACK SUNDAY. Developments grow more preposterous as the story goes on as UNLOCKED thinks it's got some tricks up its sleeve, but any savvy moviegoer can probably figure out that Michael Douglas wouldn't be hired to play two brief scenes and get killed off 25 minutes in and that maybe--just maybe--he might turn up later in a plot twist that's telegraphed the moment Alice goes to him for help and he immediately excuses himself to another room for a good minute and we don't see what he's doing and then bad guys show up two minutes later.

UNLOCKED was directed by Michael Apted, the incredibly prolific British filmmaker behind the every-seven-years UP series of documentaries that's been going since 1964 (63 UP should be coming in 2019 if he stays on schedule). With a career currently in its sixth decade, the 76-year-old director's magnum opus is certainly the UP series, but he also pays the bills by being the J. Lee Thompson of his generation, dabbling in nearly every genre imaginable, with credits ranging from biopics like COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER and GORILLAS IN THE MIST to '90s thrillers like CLASS ACTION, BLINK and EXTREME MEASURES to Jodie Foster in NELL and Jennifer Lopez in ENOUGH to documentaries like Sting's BRING ON THE NIGHT and the Leonard Peltier chronicle INCIDENT AT OGLALA, and even big-budget franchise fare like the 007 outing THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH and the third CHRONICLES OF NARNIA film. UNLOCKED is Apted's first narrative feature since 2012's CHASING MAVERICKS, for which he shared directing credit after taking over for an ailing Curtis Hanson, and in the meantime, he's been working mostly in TV on shows like RAY DONOVAN, MASTERS OF SEX, and BLOODLINE. He brings a journeyman's sense of efficiency to UNLOCKED by keeping it moving so briskly that you hopefully won't question how needlessly convoluted or cliched it is and just roll with it (yes, Bloom tells Rapace "I'm thinkin' I'm the only friend you've got," and Douglas is heard at one point declaring that he's "getting too old for this shit"). There's a few things worthy of praise--despite the clumsiness of Douglas' reappearance that will surprise absolutely no one, and at least two other characters presumed dead but magically returning later, Apted does play with the audience in a Samuel L. Jackson-in-DEEP BLUE SEA kind of way by suddenly eliminating another major character out of nowhere, and it almost constitutes a twist when that person doesn't turn up again later. Malkovich is basically on hand to Malkovich it up to his heart's content, introduced bitching to his underlings that he's been called into the office on his anniversary and later middle-finger ad-libbing on a Skype chat with Collette's character when she isn't looking (this really does look like something Malkovich came up with and Apted let him run with it). And Rapace continues her string of committed performances after being the only good thing about the sci-fi thriller RUPTURE and playing seven different roles in this entertaining Netflix original WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY.  After the already somewhat forgotten PROMETHEUS (does anyone talk about that anymore?), Rapace has very quietly made her case to be a major female action star, but who knows if anyone's paying attention?

Friday, September 1, 2017

Retro Review: AMSTERDAMNED (1988)

(Netherlands - 1988)

Written and directed by Dick Maas. Cast: Huub Stapel, Monique van de Ven, Wim Zomer, Serge-Henri Valcke, Hidde Maas, Tanneke Hartzuiker, Lou Landre, Tatum Dagelet, Edwin Bakker, Pieter Lutz, Barbara Martijn, Door van Boekel, Lettie Oosthoek, Jaap Stobbe, Freark Smink. (R, 113 mins)

A movie guaranteed to be on the shelf of any video store you walked into in the late '80s into the mid '90s, the brilliantly-titled AMSTERDAMNED has acquired a major cult following over the decades and is finally available on Blu-ray courtesy of Blue Underground. Dutch writer/director Dick Maas cut his teeth on music videos like Golden Earring's 1982 hit "Twilight Zone"  before establishing himself with genre fans with the 1983 possessed elevator saga THE LIFT, which Blue Underground will be releasing on Blu-ray in October, along with Maas' little-seen 2001 US remake DOWN, aka THE SHAFT. After the 1986 comedy FLODDER (the first in very popular series of movies and TV spinoffs in the Netherlands), Maas returned to the thriller/horror genre with AMSTERDAMNED, an action-driven Dutch giallo, with Amsterdam in a state of panic over a string of murders committed by a maniac in scuba gear who emerges from the canals to claim his victims before going back to the water undetected. Plays-by-his-own-rules cop Eric Visser (Maas regular Huub Stapel) frantically pursues the killer, perpetually one step behind and following multiple leads that prove to be dead ends.

Maas spends a lot of time establishing characters, showing single dad Visser's home life with snarky teenage daughter Anneke (Tatum Dagelet), who he's raising alone after his wife walked out on them years earlier. He's also reluctantly partnered with canal officer John (Wim Zomer), who's now with his ex-wife. He also engages in some ballbusting banter with boss Vermeer (Serge-Henri Valcke) and gets involved with widowed museum guide and diving enthusiast Laura (Monique van de Ven), who he meets chasing a lead and who may be involved with a vaguely sinister shrink (Hidde Maas) who doesn't seem to like Visser very much. Despite the foreign setting and the Dutch dialogue with English subtitles (Stapel and several of the main actors dubbed themselves for the English-language version that got a limited theatrical release by Vestron in late 1988, so either option is fine, though there are some descriptive elements that get lost in the English translation), AMSTERDAMNED is very much an American-style action/suspense thriller with decidedly giallo-like elements, especially in the black diving suit and mask worn by the killer and in some of the imaginative murders. Maas' dark, macabre humor comes through in amusing ways, whether it's a murder that cuts to a shot of squeezed ketchup, a phallic knife shot that would make BODY DOUBLE-era De Palma proud, or the unforgettable scene early on when the first victim is found hanging from a bridge over a canal before being snagged by a passing tour boat and dragged across its glass ceiling in full view of horrified tourists.

Stapel is a solid hero with a very 1980s Rutger Hauer-like screen presence, but the romance with van de Ven's Laura seems superfluous at times and probably only exists to inevitably put her in jeopardy. After starring in Paul Verhoeven's 1973 breakout TURKISH DELIGHT with Hauer, van de Ven would later co-star in Brian Trenchard-Smith's incredible 1978 cult film STUNT ROCK before spending the late '70s and most of the '80s alternating between Hollywood and Holland, logging guest appearances on TV shows like STARSKY AND HUTCH, REMINGTON STEELE and VOYAGERS! while also starring in Dutch films like Fons Rademakers' THE ASSAULT, the 1986 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film. In addition to the giallo-style murders, the big standout in AMSTERDAMNED is a pair of chase sequences, one involving a motorcycle that's short but extremely well-crafted, the other a stunning speedboat chase through the canals (though most of this sequence was shot in Utrecht) with some death-defying stunt work, most of which was done by Stapel himself, who was knocked out of commission for three weeks after a boat crashed into a wall in one on-location mishap. The AMSTERDAMNED speedboat chase is one of the great unheralded movie chases, thanks in large part to veteran stunt coordinator Dickey Beer, who's worked on several Bond movies among countless others (his most recent credit was for some stunt driving on XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE and he's working on the upcoming JURASSIC WORLD sequel), and stunt legend Vic Armstrong, another Bond vet who served as stunt double for Christopher Reeve on the SUPERMAN movies and for Harrison Ford's first three turns as Indiana Jones. AMSTERDAMNED runs a little long and could use some trimming in the first hour (as entertaining as Dagelet's scenes are, she doesn't really serve a purpose), but ultimately, it's a clever, atmospheric, and frequently hair-raising thrill ride that takes full advantage of its unique setting in a city with 160 canals totaling 25 miles, where a madman can literally be swimming anywhere under the surface to strike at any moment. Also, try to get the closing credits tune by Dutch pop duo Lois Lane out of your head.