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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

In Theaters: RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER (2017)



RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER
(US/Germany - 2017)


Written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Cast: Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter, Iain Glen, Shawn Roberts, Ruby Rose, Eoin Macken, Fraser James, William Levy, Rola, Lee Goon Ji, Ever Anderson, Mark Simpson. (R, 106 mins)

The Paul W.S. Anderson-shepherded RESIDENT EVIL franchise has been a mostly reliable source of empty calorie junk food over the last 15 years, with the only real stumble being the second film in the series, 2004's RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE. Directed not by Anderson (who was busy with the execrable ALIEN VS. PREDATOR) but by veteran second-unit guy Alexander Witt--who hasn't directed a film since--APOCALYPSE remains the nadir of a series that sprang back to life when Anderson returned to the director's chair for the fourth entry, 2010's 3D RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE (HIGHLANDER director Russell Mulcahy helmed 2007's so-so RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION). Unfortunately, with RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER, the purported conclusion to the series (not likely), things take a turn toward the APOCALYPSE end of things. Fatigue was starting to set in with the most recent entry, 2012's RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION, but with THE FINAL CHAPTER, everyone involved, starting with star Milla Jovovich, just seems to be over it. The worst decision Anderson makes here--and perhaps he did so under the false assumption that it would liven up a stale formula--is to utilize the services of editor Doobie White. White's credits include CRANK 2: HIGH VOLTAGE, RECLAIM, and MOMENTUM, action films that rely on lighting-fast cutting so that no shot seems to last longer than a second. It's RESIDENT EVIL done quick-cut/shaky-cam style, rendering most of the action sequences an unwatchable, headache-inducing blur. Not only does that aesthetic not gel with Anderson's usual style, but it's nearly a decade past its sell-by date. Anderson takes a lot of shit from fanboy types, but he's always been a stylist first and foremost, and his films do have a distinctive look and feel to them, all the way back to his 1994 debut SHOPPING. Why he would decide, nearly a quarter century into his filmmaking career, to start ripping off the worst tendencies of Michael Bay and the Neveldine/Taylor CRANK guys is a mystery. To say that THE FINAL CHAPTER is marginally better than APOCALYPSE is damning with faint praise, but it's still an incoherent, hideous mess to look at and tantamount to a digital migraine.





Quickly wrapping up the cliffhanger ending of RETRIBUTION with a de facto "Previously on..." recap, THE FINAL CHAPTER begins with Jovovich's Alice wandering the ruins of Washington D.C., and encountering the hologram of the Red Queen (Ever Anderson, Jovovich's Mini-Me daughter with husband Anderson). The Red Queen directs Alice to venture back to the wasteland that is Raccoon City to break into The Hive, the Umbrella Corporation's underground compound, where there's an airborne antivirus to cure the pandemic T-Virus that turned the whole world into zombies with only 4000 humans remaining. The Red Queen was created in Alice's image, her father a humanitarian scientist with the Umbrella Corporation who was murdered by his business partner Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen, returning from APOCALYPSE and EXTINCTION) and Umbrella flunky Wesker (Shawn Roberts, returning from AFTERLIFE and RETRIBUTION and continuing his "I'm almost Hugo Weaving from THE MATRIX" act) when he foolishly decided to put people before profits. Alice gets away from Isaacs, now a ranting prophet wanting to bring about the end of the world, and makes her way to Raccoon City where she encounters the obligatory ragtag band of survivors, including Claire Redfield (Ali Larter, returning from EXTINCTION and AFTERLIFE) and must make their way into The Hive with 12 hours left to save what's left of humanity and start over. They've got Isaacs in a tank leading a zombie horde straight to them as well as Wesker pacing around his underground lair arguing with the Red Queen hologram, who has promised to tell amnesiac Alice the truth about herself.


That truth is obvious since Anderson reveals his cards too early, enabling any viewer with the capacity to fog a mirror to figure out the secret long before Alice does. Gathering cast members from past entries gives THE FINAL CHAPTER that comfort food, high-school reunion, victory lap feel that RETRIBUTION had, but none of the supporting cast are put to good use--Roberts' Wesker and Larter's Claire have nothing to do--except for Glen, who seems to having a good time hamming it up as the evil Isaacs. As the ho-hum story moves from one loud jump-scare, verbose exposition drop, and eye-glazingly incomprehensible set piece to another, you can practically feel the burnout along with Jovovich after six of these. The accelerated pace of the action scenes comes off not so much as a jolt of inspiration on the part of Anderson but rather, an eagerness to just get through this as quickly as possible. Anderson doesn't even take advantage of the easy political subtext of Isaacs and his transformation from scheming CEO to end-of-days Bible thumper. Once upon a time, George Romero was attached to direct a RESIDENT EVIL adaptation prior to Anderson's involvement all those years ago--can you imagine what he could've brought to this in his prime? Even middling installments like EXTINCTION and RETRIBUTION have solid zombie action and some striking dystopian imagery. Here, you can't see any of that because Anderson has instructed White to keep it cut at such a frenetic pace that your eyes can't even process what you're seeing (watch that turbine scene and imagine how much more effective it would've been if sensibly edited). It'll probably be a big enough hit in Asia, where it opened huge in December 2016, a month before it was released in the rest of the world (that also explains the very brief presence--at least in the US version--of South Korean TV star/singer/model Lee Goon Ji) that it'll likely be rebooted with or without Jovovich and Anderson, but it'll be awfully difficult to get excited about it.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

On Netflix: iBOY (2017)



iBOY
(US/UK - 2017)

Directed by Adam Randall. Written by Joe Barton, Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood. Cast: Bill Milner, Maisie Williams, Miranda Richardson, Rory Kinnear, Jordan Bolger, Charlie Palmer Rothwell, Aymen Habdouchi, Armin Karima, McKell David, Shaquille Ali-Yebbuah, Christopher Colcuhoun. (Unrated, 90 mins)

Once you get past the hokey title, the Netflix Original iBOY is a decent-enough time-killer blending sci-fi elements with the vigilante genre, set in familiar-looking HARRY BROWN, FISH TANK, and ATTACK THE BLOCK London housing projects and bathed in that Michael Mann-ish blue sheen that makers of British crime thrillers love so much. Based on a novel by Kevin Brooks, iBOY focuses on Tom (Bill Milner, grown up since the 2007 cult movie SON OF RAMBOW), a shy, quiet teenager who lives in a public housing block with his grandma (Miranda Richardson). He has a crush on classmate Lucy (GAME OF THRONES' Maisie Williams) and when he goes to visit her nearby flat, he walks in on a burglary in progress with Lucy in her bedroom screaming for help. Tom impulsively flees and tries to call for help, but he gets shot in the head and is comatose for ten days. Once he's awake, he's informed that pieces of his iPhone are lodged into his brain from when he was shot, and attempting to remove the fragments is too risky a procedure. All things considered, he's generally fine other than a large scar on the side of his head but complications arise when Tom begins picking up wi-fi connections and phone signals that allow him to instantly hack anyone around him, cataloging images and data of whatever everyone he passes is saying or texting into their phone, iPad, laptop, etc.





Of course, this overloads his brain but he eventually learns how to control it, and when he realizes that the guy who shot him is troublemaking classmate Eugene (Charlie Palmer Rothwell), Tom decides to use his newfound powers for revenge on Eugene and his crew of small-time criminals who work for drug dealer Cutz (Aymen Habdouchi). He starts by playing simple pranks, but it quickly escalates to dangerous games like draining bank accounts and sending them on wild goose chases so he has time to break into Cutz's pad, steal his entire inventory, plant it in the homes of Eugene and all the underlings, then anonymously tip off the cops. This leaves paranoid Cutz frantic about losing his merch and the trust of his gang, and unable to explain what's happening to his boss, big-time London gangster Ellman (Rory Kinnear). All the while, Tom, hiding behind the moniker "iBOY," becomes a folk hero of sorts, a high-tech surveillance vigilante cleaning up all the crime and corruption permeating the housing block.


It's not the most plausible premise, but it's engaging enough to make you wish director Adam Randall and the screenwriters kept the momentum going through a sluggish midsection. The notion of Tom turning into a one-man Big Brother is intriguing, and there's a lot of humor in the games he plays with Eugene and the others, whether it's on their phones or controlling the computer system in their vehicles. It doesn't make much sense that with all of these new powers that permit him to see and hear all and even emit a high-pitched sound to incapacitate his enemies, he still doesn't pick up that Cutz and his gang are right behind him when they ambush him. And sometimes, his capabilities seem to go beyond the possibilities of simple hacking, turning him from a cloud-connected avenger to a Lawnmower Man-inspired CHRONICLE reject whenever it's convenient for the plot. I suppose the idea is that his powers are growing stronger, but we sort-of miss that realization taking place. And why can he suddenly do that trick with the high-pitched whistle?



After a meandering second act, things really pick up with the first appearance of Ellman a bit after the one-hour mark. As played by Kinnear, perhaps best known to Netflix viewers for his starring role as the British Prime Minister having the worst day of his life in the unforgettable BLACK MIRROR series premiere "The National Anthem," Ellman is a fascinating and complex character who you'll wish had more screen time. Ellman grew up in these projects and has a chip on his shoulder about it, not denying his roots but instead infiltrating high society to take it down from within. When he realizes his operation has been put in jeopardy by "iBOY," he doesn't want revenge--he wants to recruit him. Ellman has a sense of honor--when Tom's only other friend Danny (Jordan Bolger) rats him out, Ellman scolds "If you're gonna betray your friend, at least look him in the eye when you do it!" He's prone to wry observations like "Cutz is a man with a hammer in a world of china, know what I mean?" and seething sarcasm, as when Eugene and his stooges kidnap Lucy and she ends up outsmarting them: "You got everything under control here?  I mean the hostage does have the gun." Kinnear sinks his teeth into the role and in the course of just a few minutes, creates the most detailed and multi-layered character in the movie, stone-cold serious but making you laugh at the same time ("Really, Cutz? The granny?" after Cutz impulsively knocks Tom's grandma unconscious). iBOY isn't a kids movie at all--it's dark, bleak, profane (even Arya Stark drops a bunch of F-bombs), and violent, played completely straight and would easily get an R rating if it was in theaters instead of bowing on Netflix. iBOY shows enough flashes of brains and inspiration that it's worth a watch, but it drops the ball with a certain degree of frequency. It's entertaining, but ultimately, it's still the kind of movie that gathers all of its characters for a climactic showdown at an abandoned warehouse.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Retro Review: THE UNHOLY FOUR (1970)


THE UNHOLY FOUR
(Italy - 1970)

Directed by E.B. Clucher (Enzo Barboni). Written by Mario di Nardo and Franco Rossetti. Cast: Leonard Mann, Woody Strode, Peter Martell (Pietro Martellanza), Luigi Montefiori, Evelyn Stewart (Ida Galli), Helmuth Schneider, Lucio Rosato, Alain Naya, Giuseppe Lauricella, Dino Strano, Andrew Ray (Andrea Aureli), Enzo Fiermonte, Luciano Rossi, Salvatore Billa, Romano Puppo. (Unrated, 94 mins)

A spaghetti western mostly by virtue of being Italian, THE UNHOLY FOUR is a throwback of sorts and more in line with the psychological, character-driven 1950s westerns of Anthony Mann than with the more distinct 1960s spaghettis of the Sergios Leone and Corbucci. Even Riz Ortolani's score sounds like it came from an older Hollywood western, unlike the groundbreaking, iconic cues of Ennio Morricone. The film opens with a Dodge City asylum being set on fire as a distraction for an overnight bank robbery by a gang of miscreants led by Tom Udo (Lucio Rosato), the son of a wealthy landowner (Giuseppe Lauricella). Four inmates escape the burning jail: slow-witted, God-fearing strongman Woody (Woody Strode), intimidating card cheat Hondo (Luigi Montefiori, better known as "George Eastman"), loony Silver (Peter Martell), and Chuck Mool (Leonard Mann), an amnesiac with no idea who he is or why he's in the asylum until one of Udo's dying cohorts sees him and exclaims "Chuck Mool!" With his three unlikely compadres in tow, Chuck Mool (a name concocted by the English dub team--the Italian version was titled CIUKMULL, so everyone constantly refers to him as "Chuck Mool" on the English dub track) embarks on a quest to uncover the chain of events that led him to being locked up in Dodge City






But there's more to the story than the plight of Chuck Mool: the Udo family is fighting off an attempt to take over their land by John Caldwell (Helmuth Schneider), another rich asshole who's buying up everyone's property and wants the Udos out of the way. Caldwell believes Chuck Mool is his son, presumed dead in a fire three years earlier. Learning that Chuck Mool is alive and heading their way with three presumed-dangerous madmen, Old Man Udo devises a scheme to convince Chuck Mool that he's his father and that he's supposed to kill the Caldwells. Udo's daughter Sheila (Evelyn Stewart) isn't happy about the scam and tries to warn Chuck Mool after he arrives. Tensions escalate as Chuck Mool, Woody, Hondo, and Silver are forced to take on the duplicitous Udo family and a bunch of their hired killers (among them ubiquitous Eurocult stalwart Romano Puppo) and shoot their way out of town.


THE UNHOLY FOUR was the directing debut of veteran cinematographer Enzo Barboni, who shot Sergio Corbucci's influential 1966 classic DJANGO, as well as Corbucci's THE HELLBENDERS (1967) and American director Don Taylor's spaghetti western THE FIVE MAN ARMY (1970). Adopting the pseudonym "E.B. Clucher," Barboni (1922-2002) would go on to direct the enormously popular spaghetti western comedies THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1971) and TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME (1972), which led to international fame for stars Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. Barboni's experience as a cinematographer is put to excellent use in THE UNHOLY FOUR, with some expertly choreographed gunfight sequences and some--for the time--unusually fluid, almost Steadicam-like camera movements throughout the action scenes. For the most part, it doesn't really play like the more stylish and violent Leone westerns or the politically charged genre offerings from Corbucci, but rather like something out of the 1950s or early 1960s and more beholden to the Hollywood western. There's one wacky, comedic bar brawl that hints where Barboni's career would soon head with the TRINITY movies, but THE UNHOLY FOUR gets darker and more downbeat as it goes on, making Ortolani's incongruously upbeat music cues sound somewhat inappropriate. There's occasional flashes of genuine unpleasantness scattered throughout, none more shocking than the jaw-dropping moment when a leering, lip-smacking Tom Udo tells Sheila "You got a hell of a lot to offer...too bad we're brother and sister...I could show you what it's all about."


In just his second film, Mann, an American actor who spent the bulk of his career in Italy before retiring from movies in 1989 at the age of 42 (his few American gigs included 1981's NIGHT SCHOOL, 1987's FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, and his final film to date, 1989's SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT) to become a teacher and playwright under his real name Leonard Manzella, is good as the lost hero in an existential crisis. Things slow down a little too much in the sluggish midsection, which seems to just be killing time for the undeniably ass-kicking last 20 or so minutes, where Barboni really starts firing on all cylinders and the titular quartet bands together to take on Udo's army. Though it was dubbed in English by the usual suspects (Ed Mannix, Robert Spafford, and others can be heard), THE UNHOLY FOUR was never released theatrically in the US and pretty much fell into obscurity, a curio known only to the most devoted spaghetti western completists. Wild East released a gray market double feature DVD that paired it with Ferdinando Baldi's 1969 western THE FORGOTTEN PISTOLERO, which also starred Mann and Martell, but it was was recently issued on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber in another textbook example of the death of physical media being greatly exaggerated.

Friday, January 27, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: USS INDIANAPOLIS: MEN OF COURAGE (2016) and THE HOLLOW POINT (2016)


USS INDIANAPOLIS: MEN OF COURAGE
(US - 2016)


The story of the USS Indianapolis is familiar to anyone who's seen JAWS, where Robert Shaw delivers arguably the greatest monologue in film history as salty shark hunter Quint recounts his experiences on the doomed ship near the end of WWII. After completing orders to deliver the materials for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima, the Indianapolis, without sonar and with no customary escort due to the top-secret, classified nature of the mission, was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-58 between Tinian and Okinawa. It sank within 12 minutes, as Captain Charles Butler McVay ordered the crew to abandon ship, leaving them stranded for five days in shark-infested waters. Of the 1196 on board, nearly 300 died in the initial attack. Of the remaining 900 left in the water, only 317 survived, the rest dying from dehydration, saltwater poisoning, drowning, and, as JAWS fans know, shark attacks.  It's a horrific tragedy that deserves a more dignified presentation than USS INDIANAPOLIS: MEN OF COURAGE. The 1991 CBS TV-movie MISSION OF THE SHARK, with Stacy Keach as McVay, did a better job with the limited expectations of being a made-for-TV movie. This film, starring Nicolas Cage as McVay, is undoubtedly sincere in its intentions but can't overcome a trite, cliched script and rock-bottom visual effects that makes it look like an Asylum production debuting on Syfy. The explosions are laughable and the CGI sharks jump out of the water looking like deleted SHARKNADO files e-mailed to director Mario Van Peebles.




The film is divided into three sections, with the interminable opening act devoted to the camaraderie and ballbusting among an interchangeable and impossibly dull group of sailors, focusing on two--wholesome, all-American Bama (Matt Lanter) and gregarious D'Antonio (Adam Scott Miller), who does everything short of yell "Hey, you's boys wanna play some stickball?" to let you know he's from Brooklyn--who fall in love with the same woman (Emily Tennant). The second is the sinking of the ship and the five days stranded in the water, where Van Peebles turns the film into a cheap jump-scare shark attack horror movie, and third is a courtroom drama when the Navy, looking for someone to scapegoat for their failure to answer multiple distress calls (they thought it was the Japanese trying to deceive them), decides to court-martial McVay, saying he could've "zig-zagged" the ship to avoid the torpedoes. McVay's story is a sad one--he committed suicide in 1968 after over two decades of harassment and death threats by the families of the dead sailors even though he was fully supported by the survivors as well as by I-58 commander Mochitsura Hashimoto (Yutaka Takeuchi), who testified that there was no way McVay could've avoided the torpedoes. McVay and the men aboard the USS Indianapolis deserved something a little more polished and professional-looking than a WWII movie that looks like it was directed by Anthony C. Ferrante. The writing isn't much better--try not to laugh at the torpedoes hitting the ship a nanosecond after a guy playing dice in the mess hall rolls snake eyes. Or at decisions being made in darkened and ominous film noir-lit rooms filled with cigar-sucking fat cats ("War's good for business, and business is good for America!"). Or at McWhorter, the Chief Petty Officer played by Tom Sizemore in what's apparently an extended tribute to William Bendix (and of course, McWhorter's wife just had a baby that he describes as "nine pounds of rompin' stompin' dynamite!" which is code for "McWhorter's never going to meet his kid"). There are scattered moments where USS INDIANAPOLIS rises above its schlocky, Redbox-ready nature: Thomas Jane does some nice work in a small role as Lt. Adrian Marks, the pilot who disobeyed orders and made a daring water landing to rescue as many survivors as he could, and Cage, who's subdued and surprisingly restrained throughout, shares a scene with Takeuchi very late in the film where both actors are demonstrating such raw emotion that they almost convince you that they're in a better movie. With more money, a better script, a supporting cast of actors that you could actually tell apart, more directorial flair (Van Peebles' heart may be in the right place, but his bland direction is pure clock-punching and irrefutable proof that his NEW JACK CITY and POSSE days of being a filmmaker of note are long gone), and a time machine to go back to around 2000 when Nicolas Cage movies were still major events, the well-meaning USS INDIANAPOLIS could've been a strong WWII movie instead of what has to be the cheapest-looking $40 million movie ever, looking like total amateur hour despite having 30 credited producers and the participation of RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION cinematographer Andrzej Sekula. (R, 130 mins)


THE HOLLOW POINT
(US - 2016)



There's absolutely no reason why this shouldn't be a nifty little desert noir B-movie in the vein of '90s video store mainstays like RED ROCK WEST and BLACK DAY BLUE NIGHT, but the barely-released THE HOLLOW POINT just never gets its shit together. Content to churn out a nearly decade-too-late ripoff of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego (APOLLO 18, OPEN GRAVE) and first-time screenwriter Nils Lyew waste an inspired and entertaining performance by the great Ian McShane in total Al Swearengen mode as Leland Kilbaught, a gruff, grubby, hard-drinking, burned-out sheriff of Los Reyes County, right along the Arizona-Mexico border. Kilbaught's got a reputation among the locals for not really caring much about the rules, and after he shoots Clive Mercy (Nathan Stevens) in the head during a traffic stop, he's relieved of his duties and new sheriff Wallace (Patrick Wilson) is sent in to replace him. Kilbaught knows what Clive was up to--running armor-piercing ammo into Mexico as a flunky for a cartel operation. Clive's equally hapless loser brother Ken (David Stevens) ends up killing a mid-level cartel figure after a botched ammunition run before skating back to Los Reyes County and hiding out. Complicating matters is that Wallace, who's from the area and couldn't wait to get away, knows his ex-wife Marla (Lynn Collins) is hooked up with Ken, which puts her at serious risk when the cartel sends unstoppable killing machine assassin Atticus (John Leguizamo as Javier Bardem) to find Ken and kill anyone who knows him, including Marla and sleazy used car dealer Shep Diaz (Jim Belushi), who also has connections to the cartel.




Other than a truly startling moment when Atticus hacks off Wallace's right hand with a machete, the only thing THE HOLLOW POINT has going for it is McShane, who single-handedly saves it from total oblivion. Lyew's script is an incoherent mess, Lopez-Gallego, who also serves as his own editor, couldn't generate any dramatic momentum if his career depended on it, occasionally resorting to stupid POV shots like the one from inside a spinning washing machine at a laundromat. The entire film is so sloppily-constructed that we never get a full grasp of who's who or why they're even in danger. Leguizamo is just Anton Chigurh with a better haircut and Belushi, sporting a cheap suit and a hideous combover, can play this kind of obnoxious shitbag in his sleep. But McShane valiantly tries to save the day, with his gravelly line readings and snide deliveries of mellifluously poetic bon mots like "You are not an unfortunate man...you're an auspicious parasite!" and "Buenos Diaz!" He seems to be having a blast playing this character, making it almost criminal that his efforts are squandered on such an uninspired and otherwise completely forgettable project. (R, 97 mins)

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Retro Review: SCAVENGER HUNT (1979)



SCAVENGER HUNT
(US - 1979)

Directed by Michael Schultz. Written by Steven A. Vail and Henry Harper. Cast: Richard Benjamin, James Coco, Scatman Crothers, Ruth Gordon, Cloris Leachman, Cleavon Little, Roddy McDowall, Robert Morley, Richard Mulligan, Tony Randall, Dirk Benedict, Willie Aames, Stephanie Faracy, Richard Masur, Meat Loaf, Vincent Price, Pat McCormick, Avery Schreiber, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Liz Torres, Maureen Teefy, Carol Wayne, Stephen Furst, Stuart Pankin, Henry Polic II, Hal Landon Jr, Marji Martin, Jerado Decordovier. (PG, 116 mins)

When you go a couple of decades or longer without seeing a favorite film from your younger, formative years, you always run the risk of childhood nostalgia blowing up in your face, forcing you to confront the harsh realization that this thing you loved so much just might be a steaming pile of dog shit. Such is the case with SCAVENGER HUNT, a comedy that did only middling business in theaters when it was released the week of Christmas 1979. It found an audience on cable, where it was in constant rotation on Showtime and The Movie Channel in the early '80s, watched over and over again by latch-key kids like me who got home from school and had a couple of hours to kill before Mom and Dad got home from work. It was a movie I watched many times and always guffawed at the wacky, slapstick antics of the all-star cast of comedy stars and familiar character actor ringers I recognized from TV. I hadn't seen SCAVENGER HUNT in over 30 years and I still vividly recalled specific scenes. The film was just released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber and in watching it again, many of those scenes played out exactly as I remembered, but something was different this time. It's the same movie, but I wasn't laughing. So is it me? Have maturity, life experience and age combined to make SCAVENGER HUNT a miserable slog now compared to the uproarious classic it was when I was eight or nine? Other comedies from that era that I watched a million times hold up beautifully. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. THE BLUES BROTHERS. CADDYSHACK. AIRPLANE! PORKY'S. I still love the Three Stooges and Looney Tunes shorts I watched repeatedly at that age. But SCAVENGER HUNT? Was it always this awful and I was just too young and dumb to know any better? Because let me be clear: what was comedy gold at nine was excruciatingly painful to watch through 44-year-old eyes.





The film opens with the death of wealthy board game creator Milton Parker (Vincent Price). His attorney Charles Bernstein (Robert Morley) reveals that Parker left a unique will for the "scavengers" looking to inherit his $200 million fortune: they're to form five groups and work from a checklist with objects to acquire for point value and bring back to the Parker estate by 5:00 pm that day. The teams: Parker's greedy sister Mildred Carruthers (Cloris Leachman), her oafish man-child of a son Georgie (Richard Masur), and her sleazy lawyer Stuart Selsome (Richard Benjamin); the servant staff consisting of butler Jenkins (Roddy McDowall), limo driver Jackson (Cleavon Little), chef Henri (James Coco), and sexy French maid Babette (Stephanie Faracy); Parker's hunky, nice-guy nephews Jeff (Dirk Benedict) and Kenny (Willie Aames), who welcome Mildred's outcast stepdaughter Lisa (Maureen Teefy) along; Parker's widower son-in-law Henry Motley (Tony Randall), who sees it as a way to bond with his four kids after his wife's death; and lunkhead cabbie Marvin Dummitz (Richard Mulligan), who failed to get Parker's business partner to a meeting in a timely fashion many years earlier, therefore enabling him to take over their company and include Dummitz in the scavenger hunt as a form of gratitude. That Mad-inspired name--obviously a riff on Melvin Dummar, the guy who claimed to have given a ride to a disheveled Howard Hughes and was later named in a disputed will after Hughes' death--is the closest SCAVENGER HUNT comes to a clever joke, and it's a reference I never would've gotten at nine years of age.


With the ground rules set, the rest of the movie basically consists of acts of wanton slapstick destruction as a bunch of actors run and flail around, shouting, screaming, and mugging shamelessly as they do whatever it takes to get the items on their list. This leads to scenes where the servants have to steal a toilet, Selsome has to move a huge safe from the top floor of a building with an out-of-service elevator, Kenny has to tear the clown head off the drive-thru order speaker at a Jack-in-the-Box, and Dummitz has to disguise himself as a mummy, for some reason. Other objects on the list include tennis rackets, laughing gas (yes, it leads to a scene with everyone hysterically laughing), a fat person (yes), false teeth, a bulletproof vest, a globe, five ostriches, a stuffed fish, an oar, a stroller, a medicine ball, a table, assorted kitchenware, a football helmet, an old cylinder phonograph, etc. By the time of the climactic car chase with everyone heading to the Parker mansion with the random junk spilling out of their vehicles, SCAVENGER HUNT starts to look like an unfunny hybrid of IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD and SANFORD AND SON. As in IAMMMMW and other similar, star-studded comedies that send their large casts on a madcap pursuit (THE GREAT RACE, THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES, THE GUMBALL RALLY, MIDNIGHT MADNESS, THE CANNONBALL RUN, GREEDY, THE RAT RACE, etc), other parties end up joining the ensuing fracas, including a bridal shop security guard (Scatman Crothers), three obese people (Stuart Pankin, Stephen Furst, and Marji Martin) who are among the "items" and exist only to be the butt of endless "fatty eats and/or falls down" jokes, an old Native American (Jerado Decordovier) whose dentures were stolen by Selsome, and a lisping, Sylvester the Cat-sounding zookeeper (Avery Schreiber), looking for his stolen ostriches. Various parties also cross paths with a batty old weapons nut (Ruth Gordon), fearsome motorcycle gang leader Scum (Meat Loaf), and pumped-up gym trainer Lars (Arnold Schwarzenegger).


Over 116 laborious minutes, nothing funny happens. It's a pretty amazing grouping of actors and they seem to be having a good time (Benjamin, especially), but SCAVENGER HUNT is the kind of comedy where everyone equates being loud with being funny. Everyone plays everything too broadly and most of the one-liners are totally rimshot-ready ("I loved him like a brother," Mildred says of Parker, to which Bernstein replies "He was your brother"). Bankrolled by shopping mall magnate turned movie producer Melvin Simon, SCAVENGER HUNT was co-written and produced by Steven A. Vail, whose only prior credit was the smutty 1978 late night cable favorite and KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE ripoff JOKES MY FOLKS NEVER TOLD ME, and directed by Michael Schultz, which leads to the bizarre opening credit "A Steven A. Vail film by Michael Schultz." Schultz already had a reputation as a top African-American filmmaker of the decade with hit films like 1975's COOLEY HIGH and 1976's CAR WASH, and was a frequent Richard Pryor collaborator (WHICH WAY IS UP? and GREASED LIGHTNING, both from 1977, and he directed some of 1981's BUSTIN' LOOSE, though only Oz Scott received credit). Schultz's career hit a major speed bump with the expensive 1978 flop SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, which gathered a huge cast of non-singers in a musical starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees. After SCAVENGER HUNT, Schultz stayed busy but he never lived up to the potential of his early hits. He enjoyed moderate box office successes with THE LAST DRAGON and KRUSH GROOVE in 1985, and directed the 1987 comedy DISORDERLIES, notable for its much-anticipated teaming of The Fat Boys and Ralph Bellamy. Other than 1991's LIVIN' LARGE and 2004's WOMAN THOU ART LOOSED, the now-78-year-old Schultz has worked exclusively in TV since the late 1980s, directing episodes of a myriad of shows, among them PICKET FENCES, ALLY MCBEAL, FELICITY, THE PRACTICE, BOSTON PUBLIC, EVERWOOD, TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL, JAG, BROTHERS & SISTERS, and most recently, BLACK-ISH and ARROW. Schultz contributes a commentary track to the SCAVENGER HUNT Blu-ray, and cites it as his most successful film in terms of people mentioning it to him. It's remained a minor cult classic beloved by those who saw it at an impressionable age, and part of that ongoing affection might be because it was out of circulation for so long unless, as Schultz points out, "you taped it off of TV years ago or found an old VHS tape at a garage sale or on eBay." If you want to keep having fond memories of SCAVENGER HUNT, then you'd be wise to just leave it alone, because revisiting this one was a soul-crushing disappointment.



Wednesday, January 25, 2017

On HBO: BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN (2017)


BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN
(US - 2017)

Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky. (Unrated, 115 mins)

Hobbled by leaden pacing and an unfocused narrative, BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN isn't exactly the second coming of PARADISE LOST as far as documentaries about arrested teens and moral panics go. Irene Taylor Brodsky's film looks at the circumstances surrounding the attempted murder of 12-year-old Payton "Bella" Leutner, a Waukesha, WI girl who was lured into the woods on May 31, 2014 by two friends--Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, also 12 at the time--and stabbed 19 times. The reason? Morgan and Anissa wanted to impress the Slenderman, a fictional supernatural figure in a suit, with long arms and no face. The character was created in 2009 for a paranormal Photoshop contest on the Something Awful forum, which led to a viral explosion of Slenderman photos, YouTube videos, and fan fiction. Morgan and Anissa discovered Slenderman on the Creepypasta Wiki and became obsessed with the idea of becoming "proxies," or servants, to him. Morgan eventually convinced Anissa that killing Bella would sufficiently appease the Slenderman, enabling them to live in his so-called "Slender Mansion," which they believed to be located in the middle of Nicolet National Park in northern Wisconsin.






The fact that the girls attempted to walk from Waukesha to Nicolet National Park after leaving the crime scene--it's a 320-mile trip--is as good a tip-off as any to show how disconnected they were from reality. Through interviews with parents, police, psychologists, teachers, and footage from the girls' interrogations (Morgan and Anissa were not interviewed for the film, nor was Bella, who miraculously survived the attack), we're given background information on the accused. Anissa was a loner who had a hard time making friends, and bonded with Morgan over their mutual interest in Slenderman. Lonely Anissa tells her fourth grade teacher "You're like a second father to me," and the teacher wonders if any of this would've happened if the girls had more friends ("In a group of eight girls, this wouldn't have happened--they wouldn't be talking with just each other and spending all of their time on the Internet"). Both girls come from stable homes with loving parents who can't help but wonder how or why any of this happened or what they should've done differently (Anissa's father says Bella's parents would be completely justified if they hated him). Brodsky withholds a vital piece of information about Morgan, who never showed much in the way of empathy even as a little girl (her mother recalls watching BAMBI with young Morgan years earlier and being shocked that she wasn't even fazed by the death of Bambi's mother, a scene that's traumatized children for over 70 years), until very late in the film and while her reasons for doing so make sense in the context of the audience needing to remain objective, it still plays like a fumbled attempt at a plot twist and something that should've been divulged earlier.


At nearly two hours, BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN eventually becomes a laborious slog. The girls haven't even gone on trial yet (that's happening sometime in 2017) and the courtroom footage seen here is simply to determine if they should be tried as adults or as juveniles. Brodsky and her crew went to Waukesha to chase the story almost immediately after it happened--the first round of parent interviews in the film take place just two months after the stabbing--so there's a lot of repetitive interrogation footage that's sometimes chilling in the girls' shrugging ambivalence (when told Bella is fighting for her life, a presumably shell-shocked Anissa's only concern is "How far did I walk before I got picked up?") but eventually grows tiresome. There's some eerie recreations of Slenderman imagery and a history lesson in folklore (talking heads label Slenderman a mythical figure along the lines of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Pied Piper) and how Slenderman varies from person to person to be whatever the person telling the tale needs it to be, whether it's a malevolent evil or a guardian angel of sorts for troubled children. Brodsky also examines the power of the viral meme, with mentions of planking and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and Richard Dawkins briefly drops by to helpfully define the word "meme." All of this is very informative, but the story jumps all over the place, and by the time Brodsky spends several minutes of screen time with the camera planted on a monitor as we go through Morgan's and Anissa's browser history, it really just feels like she's belaboring the point. The tedious BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN has its moments, but it might've made a better DATELINE or 20/20 segment than a two-hour movie.


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

In Theaters: SPLIT (2017)


SPLIT
(US - 2017)

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Izzie Coffey, M. Night Shyamalan, Neil Huff. (PG-13, 118 mins)

While most viewed 2015's THE VISIT as a comeback for wunderkind-turned-pariah M. Night Shyamalan, I was in the minority and hated it with a near-blind fury that even LADY IN THE WATER and THE LAST AIRBENDER couldn't touch. A tardy trendhop onto the found footage bandwagon, THE VISIT was the most cynical move yet in the cratering of Shyamalan's career and I was pretty much ready to write him off for good. But now there's SPLIT, an ingenious and ambitious horror film that's easily his best work since the post-SIXTH SENSE glory days of UNBREAKABLE and SIGNS. A complex Hitchcockian mindfuck, SPLIT opens with three teenage girls--birthday girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), her best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula), and quiet outcast Casey (THE WITCH's Anya Taylor-Joy)--being abducted from a shopping mall parking lot and kept in a locked room in a vast basement. Their captor is Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), who suffers from an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder and has 23 personalities existing within him. The girls were kidnapped by OCD neat-freak "Dennis," and the girls soon meet the prim, proper, British-accented "Miss Patricia," who wears a dress and explains that "Dennis knows he can't touch you." "Hedwig" is an eager-to-please, nine-year-old boy who knows what Dennis and Miss Patricia are up to: the two biggest troublemakers of the 23 personalities, they've planned an internal revolt and launched a coup in Kevin's mind, with Dennis even going so far as to pretend to be the affable, laid-back amateur fashion designer "Barry," the personality who regularly represents Kevin in his appointments with psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), and the most conscientious and good-hearted of "The Horde," the collective name given to Kevin's personalities. All of this is to prepare for the coming of "The Beast," a powerful 24th personality brewing within the deepest recesses of Kevin's mind. Dr. Fletcher senses something is off about Barry in her sessions ("I'm gonna guess that you're....Dennis?" she asks at one point, and Dennis denies it) and is alarmed by the number of urgent e-mails he sends her, wanting to meet with her to warn her that something bad is about to happen but always overpowered when either Dennis or Miss Patricia step into "the light" or, the center of Kevin's head, making it necessary for Dennis to pass himself off as Barry to keep Dr. Fletcher from digging further.






"Dennis"
Among the girls, the focus is on Casey, who elects to hang back and survey the situation before attempting to escape. Casey has no friends and was only at Claire's party because Claire felt guilty about inviting everyone in her art class but her. Casey needed a ride home and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time ("Dennis" has been stalking Claire and Marcia for days). Periodic flashbacks to young Casey (Izzie Coffey) and her relationship with her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and uncle (Brad William Henke) add depth to her character and help illustrate why she can read the situation more accurately and react to it more effectively than Claire or Marcia (sensing Dennis' germphobia and how to use it to their advantage, she advises Marcia to "pee on yourself" when she's carried into another room by Dennis, knowing he'll be too grossed out to touch her). To say anything more would risk spoilers, but SPLIT shows a Shyamalan that's rejuvenated and at the top of his game, with the film going into some disturbing places that stretch the PG-13 rating to its breaking point. SPLIT is a strange and inventive take on the psychological horror film, with a late development that has you scratching your head until a stinger early in the closing credits drops a ballsy twist that has you reconsidering the entire film from a different perspective once you realize exactly what Shyamalan has been up to for the last two hours. Shyamalan has demonstrated no shortage of arrogance and chutzpah over his career, to a detrimental degree in recent years, but the wrap-up of SPLIT is one that immediately goes down as one of the most daring and divisive that you'll see in any movie in 2017.

"Miss Patricia"


"Barry"


"Hedwig"


SPLIT wouldn't work nearly as well as it does without the tour de force performance of McAvoy in the most difficult role of his career. Though we only meet maybe eight of Kevin's 23 personalities, McAvoy is a sight to behold in each one, switching characters on a dime and also tasked with playing a personality impersonating another personality. He runs the gamut of emotions and acting techniques, sometimes playing to the back row as with the child Hedwig, or pursing his lips and emoting only with the slightest judgmental eyebrow arch that speaks volumes, as with Miss Patricia. The direction that SPLIT heads--and with it, Kevin's character and McAvoy's performance--requires a leap of faith from the audience that Shyamalan rewards with that reveal in the stinger. It doesn't so much change anything that happens before, but it does change your perspective on the film and what it's really doing. SPLIT isn't for everyone: it's a tad too long, Shyamalan still gives himself an annoying cameo, and some may find the extensive psychoanalytical dialogue a little too talky and clinical (though it does provide veteran actress Buckley with her most significant big-screen role in many years). Regardless, it's already going to go down as one of the strongest genre films of the year, with a go-for-broke, gives-it-everything-he's-got performance by McAvoy that's deserving of serious award consideration but will receive none. All is not yet forgiven, Mr. Shyamalan...but this is a huge step in the right direction and it's great to have you back for now.


Monday, January 23, 2017

Retro Review: SPLIT IMAGE (1982)


SPLIT IMAGE
(US - 1982)

Directed by Ted Kotcheff. Written by Scott Spencer, Robert Kaufman and Robert Mark Kamen. Cast: Michael O'Keefe, Karen Allen, James Woods, Peter Fonda, Elizabeth Ashley, Brian Dennehy, Ronnie Scribner, Michael Sacks, Lee Montgomery, Ken Farmer, Cliff Stevens, John Dukakis, Peter Horton, Deborah Rush, Irma Hall, Bill Engvall. (R, 111 mins)

Journeyman director Ted Kotcheff (WAKE IN FRIGHT, NORTH DALLAS FORTY, UNCOMMON VALOR, WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S) had two movies in theaters in October 1982. One was the Sylvester Stallone sleeper hit FIRST BLOOD, a relatively serious drama that introduced the iconic John Rambo, loner Vietnam vet turned flag-draped American killing machine in a series of increasingly ridiculous sequels not directed by Kotcheff. The other was the barely-released SPLIT IMAGE, which only played on 129 screens at its widest release but found a major cult following in video stores and through constant cable airings throughout the decade. Made at a time when Jim Jones and 1978's Jonestown Massacre in Guyana were still in the public consciousness, SPLIT IMAGE followed the very similar 1981 Canadian drama TICKET TO HEAVEN, both involving a young man brainwashed by a religious cult until his family arranges for his kidnapping and subsequent deprogramming. TICKET was nominated for a whopping 14 Genies--the Canadian Oscars--winning four, including Best Film and Best Actor for star Nick Mancuso. SPLIT IMAGE is a bit more conventional take on the subject, with better-known actors for commercial potential, but still has moments of grueling intensity, unflinching brutality, and stomach-knotting suspense.






Following his Oscar-nominated performance in 1979's THE GREAT SANTINI and having 1980's CADDYSHACK stolen from him by four comedy legends, Michael O'Keefe stars as Danny Stetson, a college gymnast from a normal, happy, well-to-do upper-middle class family, with dad Kevin (Brian Dennehy), mom Diana (Elizabeth Ashley), and younger brother Sean (Ronnie Scribner). At a sports bar, Danny flirts with and is immediately attracted to Rebecca (Karen Allen, who had just been in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK), who invites him to a movie night at an outreach program called "Community Rescue." He then attends a weekend retreat where he and other visitors meet Neil Kirklander (Peter Fonda), the charismatic leader of "Homeland." Kirklander talks of life needing meaning and how Homeland needs to become a self-sustained community by turning their back on the greed and decadence of modern society (he rails against "Cuisinarts, Perrier, and designer jeans") to focus on love and "creating a better world." While longstanding members busy themselves with woodworking, pottery, and a print shop, newer members are deprived of sleep and sufficient levels of nutrition as a way of systematically breaking them down. Danny is immediately skeptical ("This is a religious cult, isn't it?") and thinks about leaving but as he soon discovers, none of the new recruits (another is played by ubiquitous '70s child star Lee Montgomery of BEN and BURNT OFFERINGS) are ever left alone, and a clingy Rebecca won't even let him go off to use the bathroom by himself. Eventually, Danny decides he's seen enough and attempts to escape in the middle of the night. He almost drowns in a river in the process, and is taken back to Kirklander, and it doesn't take long before an exhausted, scared, and emotionally drained Danny surrenders to what's been a slow and insidious indoctrination. He renounces his former life, burning his clothes and his belongings as Homeland renames him "Joshua," and he calls his mother to curtly inform her that he loves them but he's never coming home.






When an attempt to visit Danny at Homeland results in a scuffle that gets Kevin arrested, the desperate Stetsons have nowhere to turn. They're soon contacted by Charles Pratt (James Woods), an outwardly sketchy sleazebag who's actually an expert deprogrammer hellbent on taking Kirklander down. For $10,000 cash, Pratt and his team will find Danny, abduct him, and bring him home for deprogramming--"to clean out his mind and hang it out to dry"--which, in Pratt's experience, can take anywhere from one hour to several days. Pratt finds Danny handing out pamphlets and flowers on a college campus and his guys grab him and throw him in the back of a van, taking him back to the Stetson home and locking him in a room with boarded-up windows, where Pratt goes to work. Hours upon hours are spent with the aggressive, enraged Pratt breaking through to Danny/"Joshua" in ways that almost parallel an exorcism (Pratt's repeated invocation of "I will not leave this room until Joshua is dead on the floor and Danny is reborn!" is SPLIT IMAGE's version of THE EXORCIST's "The power of Christ compels you!"). Things approach a religious cult take on STRAW DOGS as Rebecca and other Homelanders show up at the Stetson residence under Kirklander's orders in an attempted home invasion to bring "Joshua" back to Homeland.






SPLIT IMAGE is a riveting experience--the sequence where the Homelanders get into the house and Pratt reveals just how driven, obsessed, and violent he can be is absolutely terrifying--filled with top-notch performances that can't help but pale next to Woods. Three years after his breakout in 1979's THE ONION FIELD, the actor was perfecting that twitchy, crude ("I live in a pisshole," he tells Diana), fast-talking "James Woods" persona that we saw in so many great performances in his prime years (FAST-WALKING, VIDEODROME, SALVADOR, BEST SELLER, COP), and his work in SPLIT IMAGE is right up there with the best of them (Woods and Kotcheff would reunite for 1985's much more low-key Mordecai Richler adaptation JOSHUA THEN AND NOW). Another standout is Dennehy (who would later team with Woods in the underrated BEST SELLER), for whom SPLIT IMAGE also helped establish a recurring onscreen persona. Dennehy's Kevin is a loving father but also a successful businessman used to throwing his weight around and getting his way, evidenced in the way he presumptuously assumes he can just buy Danny out of Homeland ("Look, I'm just gonna write a check to this yo-yo," he says of Kirklander). This is vintage Brian Dennehy, who's always been one of our greatest character actors when it comes to conveying overconfident arrogance, which Kotcheff also used for maximum effect in FIRST BLOOD, where the actor's Sheriff Teasle gets way more than he bargained for when he decides to start harassing quiet drifter John Rambo for no reason when all he wants to do is pass through town.


Though O'Keefe is fine in a difficult role, he's overshadowed by Woods, Dennehy, and a coolly sinister Fonda and ultimately undermined by an unconvincing wig he's forced to wear in the second half of the film when he gets his post-indoctrination haircut, almost sidelining him in the same way the quartet of Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, and Bill Murray made him all but invisible in CADDYSHACK (no one cares about Danny Noonan and his college money and his Irish girlfriend anyway, right?). O'Keefe does get a few good moments, particularly in a creepy and absurdly comedic scene where a brainwashed "Joshua" is so overcome with desire for Rebecca--Kirklander forbids romance and any kind of sexual interaction and expression--that he's stirred awake in mid-ejaculation by a wet dream, which traumatizes him so much that he and Rebecca request an immediate meeting with Kirklander, who orders "Joshua" to speak in tongues to rid him of his filthy thoughts. There's some ahead-of-its-time commentary with a pre-emptive rebuking of the culture of greed of the '80s, only in its infancy here, but still voiced in criticism leveled at Kevin and Diana for not noticing that Danny was having a quarterlife crisis because they were focused on money and materialism. It's a facile argument that's not really explored to its full potential, and it's voiced by Danny's little brother Sean in a hackneyed speech that seems more than a little unlikely. SPLIT IMAGE has some other things that don't work. The time element isn't handled very well--it's not clear how long Danny is at Homeland before trying to escape and as a result, his brainwashing can either be seen as too abrupt or so subtle that you don't realize how well they've slowly worked him over (I'm guessing the filmmakers intended the latter, but it doesn't always play that way). And as great as Woods is here, we could use more background into his character. Was he a member of Kirklander's cult who got away?  Did he lose a loved one Homeland?  He's wearing a wedding ring but a wife is never mentioned. All we learn from the script, credited to Scott Spencer (1981's ENDLESS LOVE was based on his novel), Robert Kaufman (FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, LOVE AT FIRST BITE), and future KARATE KID screenwriter and frequent Luc Besson collaborator Robert Mark Kamen (THE FIFTH ELEMENT, THE TRANSPORTER, TAKEN), is that Pratt really hates Kirklander.


Things almost shit the bed with a terrible final scene that reeks of someone demanding a happy ending, as it just doesn't seem plausible that Kirklander and some of the more intimidating Homelanders would chase Danny and Rebecca (who's ready to leave the cult to be with the reborn Danny), finally corner them and just let them skip away hand-in-hand after Danny simply tells Kirklander to leave them alone. It's a pat and far too easy wrap-up when we should've had at least one confrontation between Pratt and Kirklander, considering how much they allegedly hate one another. It's an unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise mostly solid film, one that managed to overcome its almost non-existent theatrical release to become a word-of-mouth cult movie on VHS and cable. SPLIT IMAGE has been hard to see over the years. It's never been released on DVD or Blu-ray, though it's available to stream on YouTube and still occasionally appears on late-night TV (Epix recently ran it at 2:20 am on a weeknight) if you scour the outer reaches of your onscreen cable guide.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: DEATH RACE 2050 (2017); TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016); and THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM (2016)


DEATH RACE 2050
(US - 2017)


The Roger Corman-produced 1975 classic DEATH RACE 2000 already got a remake with 2008's Jason Statham-starring DEATH RACE. That film has spawned a series of DTV sequels with Luke Goss in place of Statham, with a fourth installment due out later this year. With DEATH RACE 2050, the belated DTV sequel to/unnecessary remake of the 1975 film, Universal now has two different DEATH RACE franchises going. But only DEATH RACE 2050 has the direct involvement of Corman. who wanted another DEATH RACE that recaptured the look and feel of Paul Bartel's original. The satirical element is definitely here, along with some IDIOCRACY-style roasting of American culture, self-aware Syfy snark, and over-the-top Troma levels of comedic gore. In the future of 2050, the United Corporations of America is run by the Chairman (Malcolm McDowell), and the biggest cultural event going is the Death Race, what the Chairman terms an annual celebration of "the freedom to sit on your big fat ass all day!" The top driver is Frankenstein (Manu Bennett), the reigning champion of the Death Race, where the key is to win the race but points are scored by running down pedestrians. Frankenstein's competition is comprised of macho but insecure Jed Perfectus (Burt Grinstead), a closet case unable to face his homosexuality; religious fanatic and right-wing domestic terrorist Tammy the Terrorist (Anessa Ramsey); and rapper/sex tape celebrity Minerva Jefferson (Folake Olowofoyeku). The final car is the self-driving A.B.E., the product of UCA ingenuity and the kind of technological advancement that Death Race co-host Junior (Charlie Farrell) calls a gift that "finally eliminated America's outdated burden of employment." The race is jeopardized by a Resistance movement led by disgruntled former network TV exec Alexis Hamilton (Yancy Butler), who's got a mole inside the operation in the form of Frankenstein's proxy navigator Annie Sullivan (Marci Miller).





DEATH RACE 2050 earns some goodwill by wearing its love of its predecessor on its sleeve, looking every bit as cheap as  the 1975 film, with CGI that's probably intentionally bad filling in for some old-school matte work. The jokes fly fast and furious, with Farrell's Junior an almost carbon copy of the performance by The Real Don Steele, and the same goes for the way Shanna Olsen's sycophantic co-host Grace Tickle captures the cloying ass-kissing of Joyce Jameson's Grace Pander in the old film, right down to the repeated refrain of every famous person being "a very good friend of mine." Director/co-writer G.J. Echternkamp has some fun with the renamed cities and states of 2050 (there's "Nueva York," Baltimore is now "Upper Shitville," Arkansas is "Walmartinique," and Dubai is "Washington, DC"), the subplot with Abe suddenly quitting the race to drive off and find itself after an existential AI crisis ("What am I?" the computer voice wonders) is inspired nonsense, and with his crazy toupee, crude demeanor, and being surrounded by topless women, McDowell's Chairman is obviously a 2050 incarnation of Donald Trump. But a little of DEATH RACE 2050 goes a long way. The comedy is too blunt and heavy-handed, and the referencing a little too winking for its own good. It drifts off into post-nuke MAD MAX territory by the end, probably to take advantage of being shot on Corman's old Peru stomping grounds where several of his VHS mainstays from the late '80s and early '90s were made (Luis Llosa, one of Corman's top proteges from that period, went on to direct Hollywood movies like THE SPECIALIST and ANACONDA, and gets a producer credit here). As Frankenstein, the dull Bennett doesn't even come close to the stoical badassery of David Carradine, but shows he can adequately function as a backup Scott Adkins should the first choice be unavailable. In the end, DEATH RACE 2050 has its moments, and if approached with low expectations, isn't terrible by any means, even if it's just a significantly louder and much more obnoxious DEATH RACE 2000. (R, 93 mins)


TRAIN TO BUSAN
(South Korea - 2016)


At this point, there really isn't much anyone can add to the zombie genre, but the South Korean import TRAIN TO BUSAN finds ways to spruce up the familiar with clever ideas, inspired set pieces, interesting characters, and some unexpected instances of gut-wrenching emotion. Saek-woo (Gong Yoo) is a workaholic fund manager whose wife left him and their young daughter Su-an (Kim Soo-an), who's now mostly left in the care of Saek-woo's live-in mother. Upset at her father's distance and that her birthday gift is a duplicate of something he already gave her, Su-an insists on being taken by train to Busan to visit her mother. Once on the train, all hell breaks loose when a bleeding, nearly feral woman sprints about, bites a passenger, and unleashes a rapidly-spreading virus that turns victims into ferociously aggressive zombies. What follows is the usual scenario of a small band of resourceful survivors fighting their way through the train to safety, trying to outrun the contagion and the growing zombie horde as a state of emergency is declared and train station after train station is closed. An easy description of TRAIN TO BUSAN would be "WORLD WAR Z meets SNOWPIERCER," but it also plays a bit like DEMONS on a bullet train as well as demonstrating the tone of a 1970s disaster movie. Where writer Park Joo-suk and director Yeon Sang-ho help separate TRAIN TO BUSAN from the rest of the crowd is by packing it with one nail-biting sequence after another, with the stop at the Daejean train station cementing itself as an instant classic, culminating in the horrifying revelation that the military personnel sent to save them have already been infected and have turned. Other standout scenes include the devastating moment when Saek-woo calls his mother and expresses concern about the sound of her voice as her infection becomes apparent and he's forced to listen to her turn over the phone.





The bond that forms between the ever-diminishing group of survivors is strong and the actors excellent, making you really feel it when they start getting killed off. Saek-woo has an initial adversary in burly smartass Sang-hwa (a terrific performance by Ma Dong-seok), which isn't helped by Saek-woo not hesitating to leave Sang-hwa stranded in one of the cars with the zombies until the last second, but they set aside their differences, form a grudging partnership and take turns looking out for one another's loved ones, whether it's Su-an or Sang-hwa's very pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-Mi). Self-absorbed Saek-woo undergoes a transformation into a selfless hero over the course of the film, starting out by telling his daughter "Look out for yourself before anyone else" when she offers her seat to an elderly woman who reminds her of her grandmother ("Granny's knees always hurt!" the compassionate child says). His daughter shows him the error of his ways ("You only care about yourself! That's why Mommy left!") and between that and Sang-hwa's merciless ballbusting ("Fund manager? No wonder you're an asshole"), Saek-woo becomes a hero. To go with the notion of this being an updated take on a '70s disaster epic, there's also the obligatory villain who makes an already bad situation worse with his actions: loathsome businessman Yong-suk (Kim Eui-sung) is this film's Richard Chamberlain from THE TOWERING INFERNO or Paul Reiser from ALIENS, an unbelievably duplicitous asshole who starts rumors, sabotages the safety of others, and puts his own well-being ahead of everyone, usually in the form of literally throwing other passengers at zombies in order to save his own ass. At one point, he even cavalierly sacrifices someone who comes to his assistance after he trips and falls running away from the zombies. This archetype is a staple of such films, and they've rarely been as off-the-charts despicable as Yong-suk, but true to TRAIN TO BUSAN's refusal to stick too closely to convention, even he gets a slightly redeeming trait by the end. The crux of the story with TRAIN TO BUSAN breaks no new ground, but there's enough tweaking and unexpected depth to its characters that it manages to separate itself from the crowd and successfully establish its own zombie bona fides. (Unrated, 118 mins)




THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM
(US - 2016)


There's a legitimately sincere attempt at a modern gothic aesthetic to THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM, but it just never takes off. It's co-written by PRISON BREAK star Wentworth Miller, who wrote Park Chan-wook's similarly gothic 2013 arthouse film STOKER, and perhaps this was intended as some sort of companion piece with its dark secrets and family tragedies. These are definitely recurring themes to Miller's work as a screenwriter, but THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM's title becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Obviously mangled in post-production and even after it set a land-speed record for vacating multiplexes--the DVD/Blu-ray and streaming version runs seven minutes shorter than what was in theaters last fall, omitting an apparently important scene where the main character has a meltdown in front of some dinner guests; here the guests are shown waiting for her then simply leaving as if the dinner never happened--the film was also left on the shelf for two years as a casualty of Relativity's bankruptcy woes. The end result is a film that feels unfinished and abandoned, even more so now that it's missing that dinner scene.





Architect Dana (Kate Beckinsale), her Mr. Mom husband David (the unbelievably bland Mel Raido), and their young son Lucas (Duncan Joiner) move to a decrepit mansion ominously known as The Blacker House. They're trying to get away from the city and some bad memories, namely the sudden death of their infant daughter. While exploring the house, Dana moves a large armoire and discovers a hidden room that's not on the blueprints and can only be locked from the outside. She learns from a local historian (Marcia DeRousse) that it's a "disappointments room," the kind of room where wealthy families in less enlightened times would lock away a deformed or mentally challenged child that would cause social embarrassment. Dana regularly visits the room and is soon plagued by visions of a young girl with a facial deformity as well as encountering the ghost of Judge Blacker (Gerald McRaney), the home's original owner, a rich and powerful local who kept his "disappointment" daughter hidden from the public. Dana goes off her meds, starts losing track of time and unknowingly becoming violent toward Lucas, all while engaging in a testy but flirtatious back-and-forth with stud handyman Ben (Lucas Till), one of many story threads that go absolutely nowhere as slowly as possible. Some of Miller's gothic intentions come through (a character is shown watching JANE EYRE on TV at one point), director D.J. Caruso (THE SALTON SEA, DISTURBIA) occasionally invokes a mood tantamount to a modern take on an early '60s AIP production, and the film seems to be trying to say something about motherhood and mental illness a la THE BABADOOK or LIGHTS OUT, but by the time the big reveal comes and the credits abruptly start rolling at 77 minutes, you're left with the realization that there's simply nothing here and the whole endeavor was just smoke and mirrors that can't even be salvaged by a pro like Beckinsale. Still, as disastrous as THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM is, it has to get a little credit for the effective casting of McRaney as the ghostly villain. But that's all it's got going for it. (R, 85 mins)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: AMERICAN HONEY (2016) and THE WHOLE TRUTH (2016)

AMERICAN HONEY
(US/UK - 2016)


British filmmaker Andrea Arnold comes from the Mike Leigh and Ken Loach school of kitchen sink cinema, with films like 2006's RED ROAD and 2009's FISH TANK capturing the harsh and gritty world of lower-income and disenfranchised UK residents. Even her 2011 period adaptation of WUTHERING HEIGHTS was able to fuse Arnold's gritty vision to the Bronte classic. AMERICAN HONEY finds Arnold focusing on America, its impoverished, its socioeconomic inequalities, and like many foreign-born directors, she manages to vividly depict the look and feel of the "heartland" of middle America in ways that sometimes only outsiders can. Shot in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri, AMERICAN HONEY, like FISH TANK before it, has a non-professional Arnold discovery in the lead role. Houston native Sasha Lane was on spring break with friends when Arnold spotted her on a beach. Lane has moments where she shines, but fails to make the impact that Katie Jarvis did in FISH TANK. Part of the reason is that Jarvis' character was aggressive and in-your-face and that the debuting actress was a force of nature (Arnold approached Jarvis on a street where she saw the enraged young woman tearing her boyfriend a new asshole and knew she had the actress FISH TANK needed). Lane's Star is more of a passive observer throughout AMERICAN HONEY, taking in the sights and sounds of America, and while she finds herself on this journey, it's just not a very interesting one. 18-year-old Star leaves her dysfunctional home where she's sexually abused by a man we assume is her stepfather (it's never made clear) to join a free-spirited, vagabond magazine sales crew run by the stern, money-driven Krystal (Riley Keough). It's a rambunctious group of misfits prone to bacchanalian partying after hours but they take their jobs seriously as they travel by van from city to city, especially Jake (Shia LaBeouf), Krystal's top seller and master bullshit artist. Star falls for the charismatic--at least in the context of this film--Jake despite warnings from Krystal to stay focused on her work.





Shot almost completely handheld for maximum immediacy in Arnold's preferred aspect ratio of 1.33:1, AMERICAN HONEY finds hypnotic imagery in the utterly normal, with scenes in a K-Mart, non-descript convenience stores, skeezy motels, on desolate highways, and other locations providing a document of the sameness of the American landscape like Terrence Malick's otherwise forgettable TO THE WONDER. There's some effective scenes scattered throughout but with long sequences on the road and about ten too many mag crew sing-alongs, the meandering-by-design AMERICAN HONEY muddles its message and overstays its welcome by a good 45 minutes. While neophyte Lane acquits herself as best she can, Star simply isn't an interesting enough character to justify such a bloated and self-indulgent running time. (R, 163 mins)



THE WHOLE TRUTH
(US - 2016)


A throwback to the kind of John Grisham courtroom dramas that were opening every other week in the 1990s, THE WHOLE TRUTH is one of the dullest films of its kind, a sleepy shrug of a thriller that can't even be bothered to embrace some of its more tawdry elements. Lionsgate knew they had a dud on their hands, sitting on this for two years before giving it a stealth VOD burial, even with a cast headlined by Keanu Reeves and Renee Zellweger, in her first screen appearance in six years. Set and shot in the usual Lionsgate stomping grounds of Louisiana, THE WHOLE TRUTH has Reeves (a last-minute replacement for Daniel Craig, who wisely bailed) as Richard Ramsay, a cynical defense lawyer representing Mike Lassiter (Gabriel Basso), a 17-year-old on trial for the murder of his wealthy father Boone (Jim Belushi), who happened to be Ramsay's best friend. The film opens in the courtroom, the trial already in progress, with flashbacks filling in the backstory as witnesses testify. A picture is painted of Boone as a bullying, physically abusive, philandering drunk and all-around asshole who deserved the knife Mike confessed to plunging in the middle of his chest in a fit of blind rage. Friends and acquaintances tell of Boone's cruel and humiliating treatment of his wife Loretta (Zellweger), and even darker details are revealed when Mike eventually takes the stand, but is the whole truth being withheld? And could a major character be hiding a deep, dark secret that will be revealed in a thoroughly ludicrous twist ending? SPOILER: Yes.





I have to admit, when I woke up the day I watched THE WHOLE TRUTH, it's safe to say that one of the things I least expected to see before my head hit the pillow that night was a nude Jim Belushi violently restraining Renee Zellweger's arms and anally raping her against a marble banister. Mike's best buddy next door also spies on Loretta in the shower (a game Zellweger going all in after her extended sabbatical), and we discover that Ramsay's co-counsel Janelle Brady (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) lost her job at her last firm after having a torrid affair with a married lawyer and went off the deep end as a crazy, obsessed psycho stalking him and his family. These are unabashedly sleazy elements that should be accentuated to a point but get thrown on the backburner by director Courtney Hunt, making her first film since 2008's acclaimed FROZEN RIVER, which earned her a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination as well as a Best Actress nod for Melissa Leo. The FROZEN RIVER Courtney Hunt isn't who showed up for this uninspired yawner. Hunt's also kept busy by directing a few episodes of LAW & ORDER: SVU, and even those have more flair and style than the static, sleep-inducing THE WHOLE TRUTH. The script is credited to one "Rafael Jackson," who's really Nicholas Kazan, the son of the legendary Elia Kazan and the writer of such revered films as 1982's FRANCES, 1986's AT CLOSE RANGE, and 1991's REVERSAL OF FORTUNE. Kazan hasn't scripted a film since the 2002 Jennifer Lopez thriller ENOUGH, and it should speak volumes that he had his name removed from THE WHOLE TRUTH but left it on ENOUGH (odd trivia bit: after the abysmal EXPOSED, this is the second 2016 Keanu Reeves thriller dumped on VOD by Lionsgate where he was an eleventh-hour replacement for another actor--Philip Seymour Hoffman was supposed to star in EXPOSED but died shortly before production began--and one of the key creative personnel had their names removed from the finished product). You don't generally see things like THE WHOLE TRUTH much anymore. Reeves (who's terrible), Zellweger, and Belushi (who's quite convincing as a total shitbag) could've headlined this in 1998 and it would've been exactly the same movie--age doesn't make Reeves any more believable as an attorney--only back then it would've cleaned up at the box office for a week until the bad word of mouth got around. Courtroom dramas are a tried-and-true formula that's tough to screw up. It's too bad THE WHOLE TRUTH bungles it from the start, never finding its way and lacking the courage to embrace its inherent pulpy Southern trashiness. (R, 93 mins)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

On Netflix: CLINICAL (2017)


CLINICAL
(US - 2017)

Directed by Alistair Legrand. Written by Luke Harvis and Alistair Legrand. Cast: Vinessa Shaw, Kevin Rahm, William Atherton, India Eisley, Aaron Stanford, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Nestor Serrano, Wilmer Calderon. (Unrated, 104 mins)

A committed performance by Vinessa Shaw (EYES WIDE SHUT) isn't enough to salvage this sub-Shyamalianian bed-shitter that digs itself into a hole so deep that it can't possibly claw its way out. It starts out decently enough, with Shaw as Dr. Jane Mathis, a psychiatrist still traumatized two years after being attacked with a glass shard by a teenage patient named Nora (India Eisley, daughter of Olivia Hussey and David Glen Eisley, frontman for '80s hair metal B-listers Giuffria), who then used the shard to slit her own throat. Jane is still in therapy with her own shrink Dr. Terry Drummond (DIE HARD's William Atherton), dating nice cop Miles (Aaron Stanford, Shaw's co-star in the remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES) and cautiously restarting her practice on a part-time basis at her home (is that ever a good idea?). One of her new patients is Alex (Kevin Rahm of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and MAD MEN), who's suffering from severe PTSD and anxiety after a car accident that took the life of his daughter and required multiple reconstructive surgeries that have left his face horribly scarred. Strange things begin happening: a sleepwalking Alex appears rummaging through Jane's garage one night, she keeps hearing noises outside the back door, she suffers from sleep paralysis and nightmares, and is having visions of a maniacal, blood-splattered Nora chasing her through the house. Is Nora really there or is it a manifestation of Jane's guilt over believing she mishandled her treatment, something she fears she's doing again with Alex?






Directed and co-written by Alistair Legrand (THE DIABOLICAL), CLINICAL is an acceptable slow-burner for about an hour and change until Legrand and co-writer Luke Harvis drop the Shyamalan twist and everything promptly falls apart. From then on, nothing makes any logical sense no matter how many times the characters explain it (and the culprit is one of these types who just talk and talk and talk). It's weird in that the twist is overexplained yet still doesn't make any sense, almost as if Legrand and Harvis are not so much spelling it out for the viewer as much as they're trying to convince themselves "Yeah, you see how with this and that, and...yeah, I mean, see...this works...right?" Legrand is pretty generous with the splatter and also throws in a few nice split diopter shots (the one with the snow globe is the foreground is well done) to let us know that he's seen some Brian De Palma movies. But by the end, you'll have pretty much given up on trying to figure out what the hell's going on with all the rapid fire revelations and just feel bad for Shaw, a journeyman who's never been out of work over her 25-year career and has been plugging away at it since her teen years (HOCUS POCUS, 3:10 TO YUMA, TWO LOVERS, COLD IN JULY, tons of TV guest spots). She really brings her A-game to this, as if she was certain this was the breakout that would finally take her to the next level. Shaw carries this entire project on her shoulders and it eventually crushes her, and despite some obvious competence behind the camera by Legrand, the weak script (much is made of the Christmas setting, but it doesn't really do anything with it) just seems like its last few pages were blank and everyone just crossed their fingers and hoped it would work itself out.