Tuesday, May 29, 2018

In Theaters/On VOD: FUTURE WORLD (2018)

(US/Italy/France/UK - 2018)

Directed by James Franco and Bruce Thierry Cheung. Written by Bruce Thierry Cheung, Jeremy Craig Cheung and Jay Davis. Cast: James Franco, Milla Jovovich, Lucy Liu, Suki Waterhouse, Jeffrey Wahlberg, Margareta Levieva, Snoop Dogg, George Lewis Jr, Cliff "Method Man" Smith, Carmen Argenziano, Scott Haze, Rumer Willis, Ben Youcef. (R, 88 mins)

Last year, THE DISASTER ARTIST showed that director James Franco was maturing as a filmmaker and was ready to move toward the commercially viable and finally leave his self-indulgent, home-movie vanity projects behind.

FUTURE WORLD: "Hold my beer."

His entire career is shaping up to be one long display of bizarre performance art, but as a filmmaker, Franco has historically been a poster boy for misbegotten ambition. Prior to THE DISASTER ARTIST, his efforts behind the camera have been typified by a series of classic American literature adaptations--the works of William Faulkner (AS I LAY DYING and THE SOUND AND THE FURY), Cormac McCarthy (CHILD OF GOD) and John Steinbeck (IN DUBIOUS BATTLE)--projects whose primary reason for being seemed to be their utter unfilmability to the point of being unwatchable by design. Franco's directed over 20 feature films, and has another four set for release this year, including the long-shelved ZEROVILLE, completed in 2014 and co-starring Franco, Seth Rogen, Megan Fox, and Will Ferrell. Right after finishing THE DISASTER ARTIST, which sat around for about a year and half before it was released, Franco dove into FUTURE WORLD, apparently after finding a couple of hours to watch MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and rounding up some of his buddies to quickly shit out their own DIY version of it. Franco co-directs with his longtime cinematographer Bruce Thierry Cheung and called in some favors from some pals, including his frequent star Scott Haze, whose biggest contribution to the Franco legacy thus far is taking an on-camera shit and wiping his ass with a stick at the beginning of CHILD OF GOD. It should tell you everything you need to know about CHILD OF GOD that it was all downhill from there.

A throwback to the kind of post-nuke actioners that came out of Italy and the Philippines and flooded video stores and cable in the wake of THE ROAD WARRIOR back in the early-to-mid '80s is a fun idea, but where most of Franco's work as a filmmaker can be charitably described as self-indulgent home movies made for an audience of one, FUTURE WORLD doesn't even seem to interest its own director. Say what you will about his endurance test literary adaptations, but at least Franco committed to them (and to be fair, IN DUBIOUS BATTLE was a step up in many ways and, at the very least, looks and feels like a real movie). FUTURE WORLD opens in a post-apocalyptic America, after the world's been destroyed following an era of prosperous technological advancement of robotics and artificial intelligence that proved too lethal in the hands of stupid, greedy, self-serving, and self-destructive humanity. "Synthetic" sex android Ash (Suki Waterhouse) is found in an abandoned factory and revived by Warlord (Franco), the despotic leader of a marauding desert biker gang called The Raiders. He keeps her as a slave for sex and murder, and eventually they cross paths with Prince (Jeffrey Wahlberg, Mark and Donnie's nephew), a teenager from the isolated utopian community "The Oasis." Prince is journeying through the "Neon Forest" to reach "The Temple" at "Paradise Beach" or some such nonsense, in the hopes of finding a miracle cure for his deathly ill mother Queen (Lucy Liu, spending almost all of her limited screen time bedridden). At a desert titty bar called Love Town, overseen by wisecracking host Love Lord (Snoop Dogg), Warlord programs Ash to kill Prince, but she starts displaying traces of a conscience and independent thought, defying Warlord and going on the run with Prince. They eventually end up in Drug Town, ruled by the ruthless Drug Lord (Milla Jovovich), with Warlord and his goons in hot pursuit.

You know the writers really put in the time and effort with the script when you've got "Love Town" run by a guy named "Love Lord" and "Drug Town" ruled by someone named "Drug Lord." One could argue that it's a cynical, Terry Gilliam-esque dystopian commentary on people being defined by their work, but that's probably giving FUTURE WORLD a little too much credit. Jovovich doesn't turn up until the midway point, and she provides FUTURE WORLD's only spark of life with what seems to be a largely improvised performance. Her character is completely despicable--and gets naive, innocent Prince hooked on drugs--but while a little of her manic, bug-eyed overacting and general smartassery goes a long way, it shows Jovovich is at least trying to make something out of nothing. Waterhouse, who tread similar ground in last year's dismal-but-suddenly-looking-better-now THE BAD BATCH, doesn't have much to do other than look like she's Pearl Prophet in a 2018 riff on the old Van Damme sci-fi favorite CYBORG. Top-billed Franco is absent for long stretches--probably the case behind the camera as well--and can't help but come off as a poseur Toecutter and Immortan Joe, turning in the kind of performance that makes one wonder whether he was perhaps spending too much time with Tommy Wiseau while prepping THE DISASTER ARTIST (how is a walking freakshow like Wiseau not in this?) Wahlberg doesn't quite have the presence of his uncle Mark or even his uncle Donnie, and it's gotta be an ominous sign that his acting coach gets an onscreen credit. Like most of his "hanging out and dicking off with his buddies" auteur endeavors, Franco corralled a potentially interesting and eclectic cast--there's also Method Man, Rumer Willis, and veteran character actor Carmen Argenziano, who gets killed by Warlord after about ten seconds of screen time--but, as usual, he abandons them, this time in a dull post-nuke flick that's not even up to the level of late-career Cirio H. Santiago.

James Franco in one of Warlord's more pensive moments.

There's an attempt at an intriguing subplot involving Ash discovering her emotions and falling for Lei (Margarita Levieva), Drug Lord's techie mechanic, but it leads to nothing but a tame sex scene, as Franco can't even be bothered to make something like that look exciting. Other than Jovovich's inexplicably spirited and wildly gesticulating performance, the only other positive is Franco managing to secure the services of acclaimed cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, who's been Werner Herzog's go-to D.P. for the last 25 or so years (including the great documentaries GRIZZLY MAN, ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, and CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS). He likely met Zeitlinger while starring in Herzog's globally-panned QUEEN OF THE DESERT, one of approximately 258 movies Franco's been in over the last five years. Zeitlinger does a nice job with some of the desert footage and some long Steadicam takes, but overall, the film has the same ugly, cheaply digital look you'll see in any random clunker on the straight-to-VOD scrap heap. Only Franco could follow the universally-acclaimed THE DISASTER ARTIST with a project that makes him look like he's chucking it all to become the next Albert Pyun.

Friday, May 25, 2018


(Japan - 1970; US release 1971)

Directed by Michio Yamamoto. Written by Ei Ogawa and Hiroshi Nagano. Cast: Kayo Matsuo, Akira Nakao, Yukiko Kobayashi, Yoko Minamikaze, Kaku Takashina, Junya Usami, Atsuo Nakamura, Jun Hamamura. (Unrated, 71 mins)

Japan's Toho Co, Ltd. will forever be inextricably linked with GODZILLA and the entire kaiju universe that it spawned nearly 65 years ago. A close second would be the classic films of Akira Kurosawa, but prompted by the success of the Poe series being churned out by AIP and the Hammer frightfests of the day, Toho briefly dabbled in classic horror in the early 1970s. That type of classical "western" horror was unusual for Toho or any Japanese production company, as most instances of Japanese horror (1965's KWAIDAN being a good example) were based in Japanese and "eastern" myths, customs, and styles. The so-called "Bloodthirsty Trilogy" is a loose collection of mostly classically traditional vampire films produced by Toho from 1970 to 1974, all of them directed by Michio Yamamoto, a former assistant to Kurosawa (1957's THRONE OF BLOOD) who never really broke out and established himself beyond the "Bloodthirsty Trilogy." Born in 1933, Yamamoto was only 43 when he quit the movie industry and became a minor footnote in the grand Toho story, never heard from again before his death in 2004. Just out on Blu-ray in a three-film set from Arrow Video, the titles in the "Bloodthirsty Trilogy" are available in their intended versions for the first time in years (the second film in the series, LAKE OF DRACULA, had the most exposure on American TV back in the day and was released on VHS by Paramount in 1994), hopefully rescuing the forgotten Yamamoto from oblivion.

1970's THE VAMPIRE DOLL is a stylish and eerie contemporary tale with ominous goings-on that begin on a dark and stormy night in a cursed, Usher-like house of the damned in the middle of nowhere. After working in America for six months, Kazuhiko Sagawa (Atsuo Nakamura) arrives at the family home of his girlfriend Yuko (Yukiko Kobayashi) only to be told by her grieving mother Mrs. Nonomura (Yoko Minamikaze) that she was killed in a car accident two weeks earlier. Kazuhiko is devastated and ultimately skeptical, especially when he keeps seeing Yuko in the house and on the grounds, confronting her at her own grave where her pale visage greets him and begs "Please kill me." Back home, Kazuhiko's younger sister Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) senses he's in danger and drags her fiance Hiroshi (Akira Nakao) to the Nonomura house to investigate. They arrive only to be told by Mrs. Nonomura that Kazuhiko left, but car trouble forces them to stay the night, and it isn't long before Keiko starts seeing Yuko as well. Yamamoto fills THE VAMPIRE DOLL with memorably creepy imagery, whether it's the appearance of the undead Yuko with her bloodied arms and glowing yellow eyes, Hiroshi exhuming Yuko's corpse and finding a lifeless doll in her coffin, an untraceable sound of weeping that faintly echoes through the house ("It's the wind blowing through the skylight window," Mrs. Nonomura claims), or Hiroshi's discovery of Kazuhiko's bloodstained cufflink at Yuko's grave, proof that he never left the grounds and that Mrs. Nonomura and her loyal, mute manservant Genzo (Kaku Takashina) are hiding something. THE VAMPIRE DOLL does stumble a bit when it tries to explain too much in regards to the tragic Nonomura family backstory as it ventures down a path that prefigures the later JU-ON films and J-Horror tropes as the town doctor (Junya Usami) shows up to function as a Japanese Basil Exposition. But it gets back on track fairly quickly, with Yamamoto fashioning the film as an almost identical replica of AIP, Hammer, and Amicus (Hiroshi even compliments his host's "splendid Western-style house") and despite the cultural differences, the universal language of classic horror translates beautifully. This is a moody, vividly atmospheric, and scary little gem with well-done jolts, wonderful set design and shot compositions and it benefits greatly from a brief 71-minute running time that relentlessly cuts through the bullshit.

(Japan - 1971; US release 1973)

Directed by Michio Yamamoto. Written by Ei Ogawa and Masaru Takesue. Cast: Choei Takahashi, Sanae Emi, Midori Fujita, Shin Kishida, Kaku Takashina, Hideji Otaki, Michiyo Yamazoe, Fusako Tachibana. (Unrated, 82 mins)

Yamamoto and VAMPIRE DOLL co-writer Ei Ogawa were back the next year with LAKE OF DRACULA, a peculiarly uneven vampire outing that gets off to a terrific start but stumbles and bumbles when it starts trying to pretend it's not a vampire movie. On a seasonal leave from her studies, Akiko (Midori Fujita) is spending her break at a cabin in a lakeside village with her younger sister Natsuko (Sanae Emi). She's haunted by a childhood memory 18 years earlier when her dog Leo wandered into a strange house and she encountered what appeared to be a vampire. A strange cargo delivery dropped off for local handyman Kyusaku (Kaku Takashina) is revealed to contain the coffin of Dracula (Shin Kishida). Dracula immediately puts the bite on Renfield...er, I mean, Kyusaku, who proceeds to kill Leo (who's pretty spry and energetic for a dog who must be at least 18 years old by this point) and attack Akiko. She gets away, but as Natsuko falls under Dracula's spell, Akiko and her doctor boyfriend Saeki (Choei Takahashi) attempt to get to the bottom of the strange occurrences.

Kishida is a terrifying Dracula, complete with a guttural, gurgling growl that makes him sound possessed. When LAKE OF DRACULA focuses on him--which isn't nearly enough--it's great stuff. But the film makes the bizarre decision to go off on a psychological tangent, with Saeki, who functions as whatever the plot needs him to be at any given moment (hard-working ER doc, vampire expert, psychologist, hypnotist), convinced that Akiko's problems lie with her repressed memories of sibling jealousy and that "Dracula" is just a mortal madman hypnotizing everyone into believing he's a vampire. It's an absurd bit of misdirection that only serves to pointlessly pad the story, since a) it's obvious from the supernatural shenanigans that this is a purely evil agent of the undead wreaking havoc, and b) the already short movie would only be about an hour long without it. The script tries to draw parallels between Akiko's family issues and a curse affecting the family of the vampire--who may be Dracula or just a present incarnation of him--but it's all psychological smoke and mirrors that works to the film's detriment. It's so preoccupied with bending over backwards to not be a Dracula movie that it ends up sabotaging itself, especially since Kishida is so great in the role. LAKE OF DRACULA has been the easiest of the "Bloodthirsty Trilogy" to see over the years. In addition to its surprise VHS appearance in 1994, it got a subtitled theatrical release in the US in 1973 before turning up in a dubbed version in a TV syndication package in 1980, along with its follow-up, EVIL OF DRACULA.

(Japan - 1974; US release 1975)

Directed by Michio Yamamoto. Written by Ei Ogawa and Masaru Takesue. Cast: Toshio Kurosawa, Kunie Tanaka, Katsuhiko Sasaki, Shin Kishida, Mariko Mochizuki, Mio Ota, Mika Katsuragi, Keiko Aramaki, Yunosuke Ito. (Unrated, 83 mins)

The final installment in the "Bloodthirsty Trilogy" rights the ship after the erratic and uneven LAKE OF DRACULA. Shin Kishida is back as, if not Dracula, then a very similar vampire, this time in the guise of a principal at an isolated girls school in northern Japan. Prof. Shiraki (Toshia Kurosawa), a young instructor from Tokyo, arrives for a new teaching post and is shocked to walk into an already grief-filled situation: the professor's wife died two days earlier and her body is being kept in coffin in the basement per "local custom," and one of the students has gone missing. It doesn't take long for Shiraki to find both of them when they attack him in his room after he's been drinking, which causes him to dismiss it as a bad dream. Then next morning, the principal tells Shiraki that he's ill and wants him to take over his job. He's apprehensive, especially after meeting superstitious colleague Dr. Shimomura (Kunie Tanaka), an expert in local folklore, who informs him of a well-known area legend involving a European shipwreck survivor from two centuries earlier who was forced to drink his own blood to survive. He met a local woman and they continued feasting on one another's blood, thus perpetrating a curse that has haunted the region since. Doing some further digging and finding evidence of a string of long-missing "principals" who ran the school (which is a front for the vampire to procure slavishly-devoted "brides"), Shiraki and Shimamura discover that the vampiric "spirit" lives on, assuming the shape its latest victim and requiring a new body when its host is about to die.

Again drenched in atmosphere and showcasing numerous chilling moments (few more haunting than a student nearing the completion of her turn into the undead and using her last traces of humanity to make the conscious decision to fling herself to her death), EVIL OF DRACULA is also an interesting, almost HORROR EXPRESS-meets-THE THING-like take on vampire lore, with Kishida once again crushing it as one of the most ferocious of all cinematic "Dracula"s, for all intents and purposes. Like LAKE OF DRACULA, EVIL OF DRACULA doesn't use Kishida as much as it should, but it's a much more consistent and straightforward film with some inventive ideas and several solid jump scares. Yamamoto directed a couple more TV projects before calling it a career in 1976, while Kishida stayed busy as a character actor (he turned up in SHOGUN ASSASSIN in scenes culled from the first two LONE WOLF AND CUB movies) until he succumbed to lung cancer in 1982 at the far-too-young age of 42. If Arrow's release of this trilogy can lead to a renewed appreciation of the obscure Yamamoto as a sort-of Japanese Mario Bava, then let's hope it also serves to show horror fans that they've been missing one of the great screen Draculas in the form of Shin Kishida.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Retro Review: SEVEN (1979)

(US - 1979)

Directed by Andy Sidaris. Written by William Driskill and Robert Baird. Cast: William Smith, Barbara Leigh, Guich Koock, Christipher Joy, Martin Kove, Art Metrano, Ed Parker, Richard LePore, Lenny Montana, Reggie Nalder, Seth Sakai, Kwan Hi Lim, Tino Tuiolosega, Henry Ayau, Peter Knecht, Susan Kiger, Robert Relyea, Terry Kiser, John Alderman, Nick Georgiade, Little Egypt, Charles Picerni, Sandra Bernadou, Tadashi Yamashita, Russell Howell, Carol Needham. (R, 101 mins)

Mention Andy Sidaris to any well-traveled B-movie fan of a certain age and you'll probably get a snicker of acknowledgment over the T&A action auteur's esteemed contributions to the video store glory days. Best known for his "Bullets, Bombs and Babes" series of Hawaii-shot, scantily-clad "L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies" actioners featuring Playboy Playmates and Penthouse Pets that ran from 1985's MALIBU EXPRESS to 1998's RETURN TO SAVAGE BEACH, Sidaris' spot in exploitation history is secure. But before embarking on his movie career, he was already a highly-regarded, Emmy-winning sports director for ABC going back to the 1960s, known for his work on the network's coverage of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City as well as the long-running WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS. He also ran the control booth in the early years of ABC's MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL, pioneering what's known in the TV sports industry as the "honey shot"--close-ups of cheerleaders on the sideline--and his expertise in directing live sports action led to him being called upon by Robert Altman to serve as a technical adviser on the legendary football sequence in his 1970 classic MASH. Bitten by the filmmaking bug after spending time on the set with Altman, Sidaris made his feature directing debut with 1973's Roger Corman-financed actioner STACEY. It was a minor hit on the drive-in circuit, and Sidaris had enough clout with the networks to get some TV gigs, directing episodes of KOJAK and THE HARDY BOYS/NANCY DREW MYSTERIES. It would be six years before Sidaris made his second film with SEVEN, which effectively set the template and tone for the singularly unique Sidaris style seen over the next two decades.

Released in the fall of 1979 by American International in their waning days on life support just before being acquired by Filmways (LOVE AT FIRST BITE, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and MAD MAX would be their final hits amidst bombs like C.H.O.M.P.S. and GORP), SEVEN was produced by shopping mall magnate Melvin Simon. Simon's time in the movies only lasted from the late '70s to the early '80s but yielded some big hits (LOVE AT FIRST BITE, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, and the PORKY'S series), an acclaimed Oscar nominee (THE STUNT MAN), and a few stinkers (SCAVENGER HUNT, CHU CHU AND THE PHILLY FLASH). SEVEN came fairly early in Simon's brief run as a Hollywood mover and shaker, but in hindsight, considering how Sidaris' later, self-produced indies turned out, he obviously left the director alone to make the film he wanted to make. Sidaris films are way more convoluted and character-heavy than they need to be, and SEVEN is no exception. The needlessly and almost comically labyrinthine plot has a US government assignment being handed down to covert ops agent Drew Sevano (William Smith, in a role intended for Burt Reynolds in Sidaris' wildest dreams): kill six dangerous criminal figures in the employ of a seventh, The Kahuna (Lenny Montana, best known as Luca Brasi in THE GODFATHER), a nefarious Hawaii-based mastermind of a plot to eliminate key political and law enforcement figures and engineer a hostile takeover of the state for their own illegal interests. Sevano would rather spend his downtime with buxom Sybil (Carol Needham), but with the promise of $7 million and the ability to assemble his own motley crew of assassins, Sevano and his "Seven" take action.

Barbara Leigh and Susan Kiger in a scene
absolutely essential to the plot of SEVEN.
There's sultry Alexa (Barbara Leigh), good ol' boy Cowboy (the great Guich Koock), drag racer and all-around man of action T.K. (Christipher Joy), terrible stand-up comic Kincella (Art Metrano), lecherous gadget man "The Professor" (Richard LePore), and black belt karate instructor Ed Hunter (played in a real stretch by black belt karate instructor Ed Hunter, whose client roster once included Elvis Presley). They're joined by masseuse sidekick and soon-to-be Cowboy squeeze Jenny (former Playmate Susan Kiger, having an amazing 1979 at the drive-in between SEVEN, H.O.T.S, and ANGELS' BRIGADE), as Sevano lays out the mission, which is set to take place during a 30-minute period, with all of their targets eliminated before any of them have a chance to alert the others that they're being wiped out. The targets: crime lord The Hermit (Reggie Nalder, the same year he played the vampire Barlow in SALEM'S LOT), heroin dealer Butterfly (Henry Ayau), gunrunner and human trafficker Mr. Chin (Kwan Hi Lim), improbably-named money launderer Keoki McDowell (Seth Sakai), black market art dealer Mr. Lee (Tino Tuoilosega), and Hawaii's most lethal hit man, Kimo Maderos (Peter Knecht), with the ultimate prize, The Kahuna himself, reserved for Sevano.

Andy Sidaris (1931-2007), seen here having another
 shitty day at work at Malibu Bay Films headquarters
If you've seen any of Sidaris' later works under his banner of Malibu Bay Films, the company he formed with his wife and producing partner Arlene, the set-up and execution of SEVEN will sound very familiar. It may not officially be part of the extended Sidaris universe (though LePore did reprise a similar "Professor" role in 1988's PICASSO TRIGGER, and Sidaris would recycle the skateboarding henchman and the gag involving the inflatable sex doll in later films), but it's a de facto pilot film for the "Bullets, Bombs and Babes" series. Sidaris gets a bit more squibby and splattery here than he would once he established his formula (Hawaii, explosions, teams of assassins, hot tubs, saunas) with the likes of 1987's HARD TICKET TO HAWAII and 1989's SAVAGE BEACH, but SEVEN's got plenty of action, gratuitous nudity, and enough intentional humor (Ed Hunter's character having his own name, Savano staring right at Sybil's breasts and deadpanning "I think you need a nose job") that it's obvious Sidaris never took himself too seriously, not even when he was fairly new to movies. Sidaris kept going throughout the '90s, briefly stepping back and letting his son Christian Drew Sidaris direct a couple of "Bullets, Bombs and Babes" installments with 1993's ENEMY GOLD and 1994's THE DALLAS CONNECTION. But when he returned from that sabbatical with 1996's DAY OF THE WARRIOR, the formula was growing tired. The films looked cheaper, he wasn't getting recognizable names like MALIBU EXPRESS' Sybil Danning, GUNS' Erik Estrada, or DO OR DIE's Pat Morita, and the new group of L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies didn't have the charm or even the talent level of Hope Marie Carlton or Dona Speir from the early entries. RETURN TO SAVAGE BEACH marked the end of the series and Sidaris subsequently retired from directing. Under the subtle pseudonym "Dick Bigdickian," Sidaris appeared in Jim Wynorski's trilogy of Skinemax-ready BLAIR WITCH PROJECT spoofs with 2000's THE BARE WENCH PROJECT, 2002's THE BARE WENCH PROJECT 2: SCARED TOPLESS, and 2003's THE BARE WENCH PROJECT: NYMPHS OF MYSTERY MOUNTAIN. Sidaris succumbed to throat cancer in 2007 at the age of 76.

In addition to vets like Montana and Nalder onboard, SEVEN features small supporting turns for future familiar faces like Martin Kove (THE KARATE KID) as a Kahuna flunky and Terry Kiser (Bernie in WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S) as a Hawaii senator offed in the opening scene. But Smith is the big name here (unless you count blatant product plugs for Orange Julius and Subaru), and he makes for a solid tough guy hero. He might not have had any Oscars in his future, but he was well-known for early '70s biker movies like ANGELS DIE HARD and CHROME AND HOT LEATHER and exploitation hits like INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS, would regularly turn up in supporting roles in respectable films, and was having a bit of a moment in 1979 on the heels of his acclaimed turn as Falconetti in the gargantuan mini-series RICH MAN, POOR MAN and its followup RICH MAN, POOR MAN BOOK II and joining the cast of HAWAII FIVE-0 in its 12th and final season as a replacement for James MacArthur. After SEVEN, Smith would co-star as Clint Eastwood's bare-knuckle nemesis in ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN and would have his best-known '80s role a few years later as the leader of the Soviet invasion of small-town America in RED DAWN. Now 85, Smith's IMDb page over the last 20 years is cluttered with dismal, Z-grade DTV fare that no one's heard of, his last notable credit being a guest spot on a 1999 episode of WALKER, TEXAS RANGER. Smith wasn't exactly Sir Laurence Olivier with his acting ability, but relative to the later likes of Sidaris male leads like Steve Bond and Bruce Penhall, he was established and accomplished, though even with Melvin Simon backing him, it's hard to believe Sidaris ever seriously entertained the absurd notion of getting an in-his-prime Burt Reynolds to star in this thing. Though it was released on video in the '80s, the enjoyably ridiculous SEVEN has been difficult to see for a number of years, a problem rectified with Kino Lorber's recent Blu-ray release, because physical media is dead.

Monday, May 21, 2018

On Netflix: CARGO (2018)

(Australia/UK - 2018)

Directed by Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling. Written by Yolanda Ramke. Cast: Martin Freeman, Anthony Hayes, Susie Porter, Caren Pistorius, Kris McQuade, David Gulpilil, Simone Landers, Bruce R. Carter, Natasha Wanganeen, Andy Rodoreda, Marlee Jane McPherson-Dobbins, Lily Anne McPherson-Dobbins, Finlay Sjoberg, Nova Sjoberg. (Unrated, 104 mins)

With its setting in the desolate Outback and the presence of veteran Australian cult hero David Gulpilil in a supporting role, it would be easy to snarkily dismiss the zombie apocalypse saga CARGO as THE WALKABOUT DEAD. It would seem that the last thing the horror genre needs is yet another zombie movie, but some recent offerings--like TRAIN TO BUSANTHE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, and now this--seem cognizant of that and do things to stand out from the crowd. CARGO, a Netflix pickup, begins in a standard fashion but as it goes on, it stays focused on character and atmosphere, with the zombie sightings and flesh-chomping kept to a minimum. A feature-length expansion of a seven-minute 2013 short film by directors Yolanda Ramke (who also scripted) and Ben Howling, CARGO opens on a boat found and commandeered by Andy (SHERLOCK's Martin Freeman) and his wife Kay (Susie Porter). It's the aftermath of a viral pandemic, and every day is a struggle to find safe food for themselves and their one-year-old daughter Rosie (played by two different sets of twins) and avoid attracting the attention of the undead, here called "diggers." We soon learn, when Kay is attacked, that a bite from a digger usually gives the victim 48 hours before turning. Her wound, however, is so deep that the time is accelerated and as she turns sooner than expected, with an odd, mummified webbing forming over her eyes and face, she attacks and bites an exhausted Andy, who fell asleep while keeping watch on her. After mercy-killing what was once his wife, Andy, carrying Rosie on his back, ventures on foot to find some viable safe haven for his daughter before the inevitable happens.

They meet others along the way, most notably Thoomi (Simone Landers), a teenage aboriginal girl who regularly cuts herself and smears the blood on a tree to keep her turned-to-a-digger father distracted and not interested in attacking her. When Andy later encounters the seemingly affable Vic (Anthony Hayes), he's horrified to find that he rounds up aboriginal locals--including Thoomi and her grandfather (Gulpilil)--and keeps them as caged bait to attract diggers for him to kill in the hopes that they still have cash and jewelry on them that could come in handy in the post-pandemic Bartertown that the Outback has become. It doesn't take long for Vic to become the clear antagonist here, though he does disappear for a long stretch once Andy helps Thoomi escape and the trio moves on. As the clock ticks down and constant obstacles get in their way, a genuine sense of family develops between Thoomi, Andy, and little Rosie (I'm not sure which of the four Rosies are doing what, but in some scenes--and there's probably a lot of outtakes--this little girl's expressions, natural responses, and on-camera discipline are quite remarkable, and it's obvious Freeman spent some time bonding with at least one of them). With Thoomi desperate to get back to the family from which she and her father were separated during the outbreak, Andy's purpose in his dwindling hours becomes clear: to get Thoomi and Rosie--the "cargo" of the title--to safety.

CARGO would've looked great on a big screen. It's filled with breathtaking aerial cinematography that shows off the vast sense of forever that is the Outback. But its heart is on a smaller scale, and it's one of the most character-driven zombie apocalypse films you'll see. Freeman and young Landers are terrific, and while it feels familiar in the early going (especially for fans of 28 DAYS/WEEKS LATER), it gradually finds its own voice and establishes its own zombie mythos, whether it's the specific time or the webbing over the eyes as the victim's turn to digger reaches completion, an unsettling touch that may owe a debt to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The inherent racism of Vic--who's revealed to be a really despicable bastard--allows for the kind of social commentary that's reminiscent of the best work of George A. Romero. That's not to imply CARGO is anywhere near the caliber of Romero's original DEAD trilogy, but it's a film that's worth a look even if you're suffering from zombie fatigue. It has to use the tropes and the template (you might also be reminded of THE ROAD and maybe even SHOGUN ASSASSIN), but it very much becomes its own beast the more it goes on, leading to some serious drama and a surprisingly moving, heartbreaking finale.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

In Theaters/On VOD: DARK CRIMES (2018)

(US/Poland - 2018)

Directed by Alexandros Avranas. Written by Jeremy Brock. Cast: Jim Carrey, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Marton Csokas, Kati Outinen, Vlad Ivanov, Robert Wieckiewicz, Agata Kulesza, Piotr Glowacki, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julia Gdula, Anna Polony. (R, 93 mins)

On the heels of another departure with a supporting role in Anna Lily Amirpour's post-apocalyptic 2017 freakshow THE BAD BATCH, Jim Carrey has the lead in DARK CRIMES, a suffocatingly grim post-GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO-style mystery set in a perpetually gloomy and overcast Poland as opposed to cold, wintry countries of Scandinavia. Carrey is Tadek, a lone wolf Krakow detective busted down to records after being disgraced in a past murder investigation and a year away from retirement. In addition to his likely getting too old for this shit, he's remained obsessed with that botched case, despite warnings to let it go from his bosses and the negative effect on his home life, with a wife and daughter he barely acknowledges. A body was found bound and gagged in a lake, and Tadek, who never stopped investigating while off duty, has found a clue that leads to The Cage, a long-closed brothel and notorious S&M sex club housed in the basement of an apartment building in Krakow's scenic industrial district. Tadek and his reluctant partner Wiktor (Piotr Glowacki) meet with building's former landlord (Zbigniew Zamachowski, the star of WHITE in Kieslowski's THREE COLORS trilogy) and uncover surveillance VHS tapes detailing the orgies and various activities that took place at The Cage, where the victim was a frequent visitor. Also living in an apartment in the building years ago was Krysztof Kozlow (Marton Csokas), who's now a famous, controversial writer specializing in nihilistic thrillers and being the misanthropic enfant terrible of contemporary Polish genre lit. Kozlow's latest novel describes a murder completely identical to the cold case, including specific details that were never made public. Convinced Kozlow is the killer and determined to redeem himself as a cop before retiring, Tadek grows even more fixated and begins tailing Kozlow as well as his drug-addicted, single mom girlfriend Kasia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), all the while spiraling into the darkness within himself and putting his job in jeopardy, especially when the trail of conspiracy and corruption--wait for it--leads all the way up the chain of command within the Krakow police.

DARK CRIMES is based on a 2008 true crime article written by David Grann (author of the book The Lost City of Z) that detailed a case involving Polish mystery writer Krystian Bala, who used his own 2003 novel Amok as a de facto confession to a murder he committed as well as an unpublished second book detailing a murder he planned to commit. It's a fascinating story that DARK CRIMES uses as a foundation and then quickly abandons, instead focusing on giving Carrey an opportunity to show his darkest possible side. The legendary comedian has done drama effectively before and is up to the challenge, but DARK CRIMES is a laborious, unpleasant, and ultimately oppressive disaster. Anyone well-versed in the Scandinavian mystery genre has to appreciate the sense of cold chill and isolation, but DARK CRIMES is downbeat and morose to the point of misery. It's got an appropriate score by Filter leader Richard Patrick (likely more affordable than Trent Reznor), but it gets no help from the funereal pacing and the obvious story developments. Show of hands: anyone not think Tadek was made the fall guy earlier when he got too close to the truth?

I get that director Alexandros Avranas (MISS VIOLENCE) is going for dreary and depressing, but DARK CRIMES just wallows in stomach-turning ugliness that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, especially in regards to Kasia, a junkie and former sex worker at The Cage who gets the majority of her available orifices violated by most of the male characters over the course of the film. This is getting to be business as usual for ANTICHRIST and NYMPHOMANIAC star Gainsbourg, once again cast radically against type as an irreparably damaged, bruised and abused cum dumpster. It gets even worse when Tadek goes through the inevitable "to know him, I must become him" phase of his pursuit of Kozlow and indulges in angry, violent, sadomasochistic sex with Kasia, which doesn't work when Carrey's vein-popping O-face looks like he's grunting "Alriiiiiighty then!" Carrey really isn't the problem here--his commitment to this long-shelved, straight-to-VOD dud (shot in 2015) is admirable. Production began just a few weeks after Carrey's former girlfriend Cathriona White died of a prescription drug overdose. One can sense that he's channeling that grief, despair, and rage into his performance as Tadek, but to what end? I love dark, bleak movies, but DARK CRIMES is a truly ugly, repulsive, exploitative film that offers absolutely nothing in the way of entertainment, suspense, or tension, has a twist reveal at the end that lands with a lifeless thud, and just leaves you feeling empty and depressed when it's finally over.

Friday, May 18, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: THE FORGIVEN (2018) and BENT (2018)

(US/South Africa/UK - 2018)

1984's THE KILLING FIELDS and 1986's THE MISSION earned Roland Joffe a lifetime pass to the Respected Filmmakers Club, but his career's been in a near-constant state of freefall for the better part of 25 years. His last good movie was 1998's underrated modern noir GOODBYE LOVER, and in the years since, he crashed and burned with 2007's unwatchable CAPTIVITY, a repugnant SAW ripoff made at the height of the torture porn craze that has to go down in the annals of cinema as one of the most shocking and depressing downfalls for a once-revered filmmaker. Joffe's subsequent films range from forgettable at best to embarrassing at worst (who knows how he got roped into directing the t.A.T.u.-inspired Mischa Barton vehicle YOU AND I, which went straight to DVD in 2012 after three years on the shelf?), but THE FORGIVEN almost qualifies as a return to form. It's ponderous and slow-moving, and has to dumb it down for the audience (opening with a caption that defines "apartheid"), but it's also sincere, well-acted, and get better as it goes on. Set in 1996 in post-apartheid South Africa under President Nelson Mandela, THE FORGIVEN centers on Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Forest Whitaker) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a restorative justice body whose goal is to grant amnesty for those guilty of human rights violations, all in the hopes of the country coming together to put its past behind. Tutu is assessing the amnesty candidacy of Piet Blomfeld (Eric Bana), an ex-death squad member in a maximum security Cape Town prison. Blomfeld doesn't seem interested in clearing his conscience--he taunts the Archbishop with the kaffir slur and enthusiastically recounts his most vile crimes against black South Africans--but Tutu senses something in him when it comes to a court case involving two murdered teenagers that connects Blomfeld with two other death squad cohorts--Francois Schmidt (Jeff Gum) and Hansi Coetzee (Morne Visser)--who are now guards in the very prison housing him.

Based on the Michael Ashton play The Archbishop and the Antichrist, THE FORGIVEN was scripted by Ashton and Joffe and expands on the play by adding a subplot involving a 17-year-old black inmate (Nandiphile Mbeshu) forced into the attempted murder of Blomfeld to establish his cred on the inside only to be taken under his target's wing. Blomfeld's demonstration of a capacity to forgive and his AMERICAN HISTORY X/Come-to-Jesus moment where he realizes the error of his ways never quite come off as believable, despite Joffe's ham-fisted attempts to hammer it home by providing the loathsome, rage-filled racist with a tragic backstory to excuse the monster he's been for his entire adult life. But Bana is good, as is Whitaker, despite being forced to act around an almost comically large prosthetic nose that makes him look less like Desmond Tutu and more like Squidward from SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. The long scenes between Tutu and Blomfeld (a fictional composite) constituted Ashton's play and here, with Blomfeld's unapologetic and horrifically detailed descriptions of his misdeeds, almost makes these sequences play like a post-apartheid EXORCIST III with back and forth monologues by the two stars. The climactic courtroom showdown between an on-trial Coetzee and the grieving mother (Thandi Makhubele) of two teenagers brutally slaughtered by Blomfeld while Coetzee and Schmidt looked on is powerful and unexpectedly moving. THE FORGIVEN is a mixed bag--it's too slow and meandering and the story arc for Blomfeld smacks of plot convenience--but it has its moments, especially once you can get around Whitaker's cartoonishly fake nose and focus on his performance. It's not enough to say the 72-year-old Joffe is back per se, but THE FORGIVEN shows that there might be some signs of life. (R, 120 mins)

(Spain/US - 2018)

After winning an Oscar for co-writing CRASH with Paul Haggis, Bobby Moresco made the little-seen crime drama 10TH AND WOLF and moved on to TV, creating the acclaimed but short-lived series THE BLACK DONNELLYS. He wrote and directed the straight-to-VOD BENT, his first feature film in over a decade, and it's a thoroughly generic and utterly forgettable present-day noir-inspired cop thriller. Disgraced ex-cop Danny Gallagher (Karl Urban) has just been paroled after serving three years for the killing of an undercover officer during a botched drug bust set up by his broke, gambling-addicted partner Charlie (Vincent Spano). They were supposed to nail scumbag businessman Driscoll (John Finn), but Charlie ended up getting killed, Gallagher took two bullets, and both Charlie's and Gallagher's names were dragged through the gutter after Driscoll framed them as corrupt, or "bent" cops on the take. Once he's out, Gallagher makes like an unlicensed and uncharismatic Philip Marlowe, trying to get to the bottom of the mystery that may involve the car bomb death of the wife of a Driscoll associate, as well as shady and untrustworthy femme fatale government agent Rebecca (a miscast Sofia Vergara), who's been ordered to keep Gallagher from digging any further, an assignment that inevitably involves showing up unannounced at his ramshackle pier house and immediately disrobing and stepping into the steaming shower with him.

Based on a series of Gallagher novels by J.P. O'Donnell, BENT is hopelessly muddled (there's even a red herring about "Arab terrorists" being involved), with an uncharacteristically dull Urban on what seems to be one of the least urgent quests for vengeance you'll ever see. BENT is filled with would-be hard-boiled dialogue that rarely works, mainly because it's delivered in such a bland fashion. It's the kind of movie that has a climactic showdown and shootout at a shipyard. It's the kind of movie where the bad guy delivers a long-winded, Christopher Walken-esque speech ("You know, in Alaska, they smoke this fish on the beach...") while intimidatingly slicing salmon with a huge knife. It's the kind of movie where you know a prominently-billed name actor has to have more to do with what's going on since he's barely in it until the last 15 minutes. Also with Andy Garcia as Gallagher's retired, fatherly cop mentor who pops up periodically to tell him to let the past go and get out of town, BENT doesn't even muster the energy to be a harmless time-killer on a slow night. Nobody seems really invested in it, and New Orleans is rather unconvincingly played by Rome, of all places. At least everyone got a nice Italian vacation out of it. (R, 96 mins)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018


(Italy - 1977/US release 1984)

Directed by Joe D'Amato (Aristide Massaccesi). Written by Romano Scandariato and Aristide Massaccesi. Cast: Laura Gemser, Gabriele Tinti, Susan Scott (Nieves Navarro), Donald O'Brien, Percy Hogan, Monica Zanchi, Annamarie Clementi, Geoffrey Copleston, Dirce Funari, Cindy Leadbetter. (Unrated, 93 mins)

The penultimate entry in the Joe D'Amato/Laura Gemser "Black Emanuelle" series, EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS is a mash-up of the softcore porn that defined the films to that point, fused with the burgeoning cannibal craze that would explode in Italy over the next few years. Umberto Lenzi's MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (1972) got the ball rolling, but it was more of a MAN CALLED HORSE ripoff that kept its extreme gore limited to very small doses. It was Ruggero Deodato's JUNGLE HOLOCAUST (1977), aka THE LAST SURVIVOR and his landmark CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) that really established the subgenre as it would come to be known, along with Sergio Martino's MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978) and Lenzi's double-shot of EATEN ALIVE (1980) and CANNIBAL FEROX (1981), the latter being pretty much the last word in the purely exploitative nature of the Italian cannibal gut-muncher cycle. To that end, D'Amato (real name: Aristide Massaccesi) was a bit ahead of the curve in 1977. Over the course of 1976 and 1977, he'd already sent Gemser's intrepid, globe-trotting, and sexually adventurous photojournalist Emanuelle to Bangkok in EMANUELLE IN BANGKOK, America in EMANUELLE IN AMERICA, and around the world in EMANUELLE AROUND THE WORLD. After the snuff film and bestiality extremes of EMANUELLE IN AMERICA, D'Amato probably figured the cannibal subgenre was the only transgressive depth to plummet. That is, until he decided necrophilia was a viable horror film subject with 1979's BEYOND THE DARKNESS.

But for its first half, it's mostly a standard EMANUELLE affair: there's one gratuitous sex scene after another, with a pretty ballsy one on the banks of the East River in broad daylight, between the Brooklyn and the Manhattan Bridges, with locals and some tourists on a passing ferry presumably getting an eyeful (this scene is shot in the same spot as the opening of Lucio Fulci's THE NEW YORK RIPPER and Yul Brynner's introduction in Antonio Margheriti's DEATH RAGE). Emanuelle is first seen undercover doing an expose of a NYC mental institution (an obvious Rome studio interior, with signs reading "Farmacy" and "Phisical Therapy") with a typically conspicuous camera, this one hidden behind the blinking eyes of a doll. One patient (Cindy Leadbetter) bites off the breast of a lesbian nurse, prompting Emanuelle to graphically grope her for information, discovering a tattoo just above her pubic region that's the sign of the Tupinamba, the last cannibal tribe still present in the Amazon jungle. Teaming professionally and sexually with anthropologist Dr. Mark Lester (Gabriele Tinti, Gemser's real-life husband), Emanuelle ventures to the jungle where Lester's old missionary pal Rev. Wilkes (Geoffrey Copleston) has his virginal daughter Isabelle (Monica Zanchi) and nun Sister Angela (Annamaria Clementi) accompany them on their quest to find evidence of the Tupinamba tribe. They eventually cross paths with impotent hunter Donald McKenzie (Donald O'Brien) and his sex-starved, nympho wife Maggie (Nieves Navarro, under her "Susan Scott" pseudonym), who's getting it on with their guide Salvador (Percy Hogan), before running afoul of the Tupinamba who, to the surprise of no one, start hunting, killing, and eating them one by one.

Factor out the plethora of sex scenes, and the set-up of EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS is virtually identical to DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. (both films were written by Romano Scandariato), where a group of New Yorkers make their way to the jungle only to encounter cannibals and zombies, thanks to the experiments of the titular doctor (played by the busy O'Brien). Other than the bit of gore in the opening sequence of LAST CANNIBALS, D'Amato waits about an hour before the horror really gets going. Until then, it's a slightly more explicit than usual EMANUELLE outing, with one surprisingly creative bit where D'Amato skips the initial coupling of Emanuelle and Dr. Lester, merely implying it until he flashes back to it later during a cab ride to the airport. It's a like a softcore porn precursor to the non-linear editing style Steven Soderbergh would use to memorable effect with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in OUT OF SIGHT. Given the context, it's an unusual and inventive decision, demonstrating the kind of pure cinema that one usually doesn't expect to see in a Joe D'Amato joint, whether it's traditional genre fare like THE GRIM REAPER or his ATOR films, his horror/porno crossovers like 1980's EROTIC NIGHTS OF THE LIVING DEAD and 1981's PORNO HOLOCAUST, or the straight-up hardcore porn he'd churn out near the end of his career.

Just out on Blu-ray from Severin, EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS is a film that gives the devout Eurotrash exploitation fan everything they want: near-constant T&A, laughably bad dubbing, misspelled English-as-second-language signs, extreme gore, incredible 1977 NYC location work, a supporting cast filled with Eurocult stalwarts, a catchy Nico Fidenco theme song with "Make Love on the Wing," bullshit claims that it's a true story (citing the work of a fictitious reporter named "Jennifer O'Sullivan"), and the iconic Gemser, who looks even more gorgeous than usual here. And as an added bonus, unlike most of its type in the cannibal cycle, there's no graphic onscreen animal violence, which has always been the biggest obstacle in the "enjoyment" of this stuff (the closest it gets is a friendly chimpanzee helping himself to a Marlboro). It took the film seven years to make it to America, where the short-lived Megastar Films gave it a spotty release on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit in 1984 as TRAP THEM AND KILL THEM, a retitling obviously designed to capitalize on the notoriety of MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY, the rechristening given to Umberto Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX when it hit the US in 1983. D'Amato and Gemser would make one more EMANUELLE film with 1978's EMANUELLE AND THE WHITE SLAVE TRADE, which features copious amounts of redubbed stock footage from earlier entries (Emanuelle's meeting with her editor and shots of Gemser and Tinti driving around NYC--complete with a theater showing KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE--are lifted completely from LAST CANNIBALS), plus an amazing newly-shot bowling alley brawl. Though the D'Amato-run "Black Emanuelle" series would wrap up after WHITE SLAVE TRADE, Gemser starred in a few offshoots as a character named "Emanuelle," most notably a pair of wonderfully nasty and batshit Bruno Mattei women-in-prison classics with 1982's VIOLENCE IN A WOMEN'S PRISON (released in the US in 1984 as CAGED WOMEN) and 1983's WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE (released in the US in 1985). Gemser retired from acting following Tinti's death from cancer in 1991, though she worked behind the scenes as a costume and wardrobe designer on several Filmirage productions, most notably the cult classic TROLL 2. She's spent the last 25 years almost completely out of the public eye, resurfacing only for a few audio interviews and one on-camera interview for a 2000 British TV documentary on Sylvia Kristel's EMMANUELLE movies.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: THE HUMANITY BUREAU (2018); JOSIE (2018); and STEPHANIE (2018)

(Canada/US/UK - 2018)

Nicolas Cage is in total coast mode in this lifeless and embarrassingly cheap-looking post-apocalyptic sci-fi dystopia dud. Set in a future America being rebuilt 30 years after a second Civil War, famine, and nuclear fallout wreaked nationwide destruction, THE HUMANITY BUREAU has Cage as Noah Kross, an agent with the titular government organization. They're in charge of weeding out and investigating those who aren't contributing their fair share to New America, where the rule is that you must give more than you take. These laws primarily affect the lower class, making the very concept a Fox News wet dream, but THE HUMANITY BUREAU can't be bothered to muster up any political subtext, unless you count one minor character being Photoshopped into that creepy pic of Donald Trump and Mitt Romney at dinner. Those who are deemed burdens on society are sent packing to a controlled welfare community called New Eden. Now, anyone who's seen a future dystopian sci-fi movie before will instantly figure out that New Eden is really a concentration camp set up for the genocidal extermination of the lower and underclass undesirables. It's a great concept for a film that gave a shit and maybe tried, but that's not THE HUMANITY BUREAU. Instead, glum Kross, who's shocked--shocked!--to learn what New Eden really is (watch Cage gravely intone "What have we done?" when he finds out, long after anyone watching does), decides to go against his ruthless boss Adam (Hugh Dillon as Stanley Tucci as Dean Norris) and protect single mom Rachel Weller (Sarah Lind) and her 11-year-old son Lucas (Jakob Davies) when they're deemed New Eden-worthy. They head to Canada in Kross' improbably still-functional late '70s El Camino, with Adam and comic relief agent Porter (Vicellous Shannon, who saw better days as a child actor when he starred opposite Denzel Washington in THE HURRICANE) in lukewarm pursuit.

Like Andrew Niccol's just-released Netflix film ANON, THE HUMANITY BUREAU feels like a high-concept sci-fi film that might've been something in 2001 or 2002, when Cage was still an A-lister. But with most of the budget obviously going to its star, the film never effectively conveys a post-apocalyptic atmosphere. There's a ton of scenes with Cage laughably fake driving his El Camino against an amateurishly phony digital backdrop that looks like it was done by Mattel's My First Greenscreen. There's a lot of interior scenes and the exteriors just look like remote areas of Canada, where the film was shot. People live a normal life considering how hellish it was just three decades earlier according to Rachel, who tells Kross stories of neighbors selling their children for quick cash or eating them to survive (wait--he was alive then...wouldn't he know that?). Any of that would've made a more compelling film than somber Nic Cage in his new limited edition Christopher Lee Memorial Hairpiece pretending to drive a car or bonding with an obnoxious kid. Speaking of Lucas, at one point Rachel begs Kross to delay their shipping out to New Eden because Lucas has a recital the next day for which he's been "rehearsing for months."  Kross agrees and shows up at the recital to watch. Never mind that this film doesn't even seem to exist in its own world--the recital is filled with suburban middle-class parents supposedly living in a post-nuke dystopia where water is still a scarce commodity--but the big performance? Lucas and his class singing "Amazing Grace" and Lucas getting a solo dramatic reading of...The Pledge of Allegiance? This took months of preparation? Lucas is 11 years old. These kids are in 5th or 6th grade. Is this movie even trying? No, it's not. As MOM AND DAD showed earlier this year, Cage is still capable of bringing his A-game when he gives a shit, but to say he brought his even C-game to THE HUMANITY BUREAU would be charitable. He hasn't been this disinterested and disengaged with the material since BANGKOK DANGEROUS. Screenwriter Dave Schultz appears to show some affinity for CHINATOWN by giving Cage's character a name that riffs on John Huston's despicable Noah Cross, but other than that? Forget it, Jake. It's THE HUMANITY BUREAU. (R, 94 mins)

(US - 2018)

It seems that much of today's film criticism consists of writers trying to out-"woke" one another by airing grievances, looking for reasons to be outraged, and listing ways in which they were offended instead of reviewing the movie itself. I consciously avoid that unless the film's offenses are so upfront and blatant that addressing them is unavoidable and thus making it impossible to separate the art from the artist. One time in which that kind of review approach was unfortunately justified was back in 2014, when I reviewed the indie horror film CONTRACTED. Click here for more about that, but in short, the film's chronicle of the degenerative body and STD-related horrors that result from a young bisexual woman's acquaintance rape at a party came across as heavy-handed and frankly gross slut-shaming on the part of director Eric England, largely because the film keeps referring to the inciting act as a "one-night stand," when it clearly isn't. I was unfamiliar with England's work at that point, but upon seeing CONTRACTED, a film that willfully refuses to differentiate rape and a one-night stand and subsequently blames its heroine for the venereal horrors that result from it, it was uncomfortably obvious that this guy seemed to have some issues with women. Cut to 2018, and just as England's latest film JOSIE was going straight to VOD and the #MeToo movement was well-established as a powerful force in the entertainment industry, allegations by his ex-girlfriend Katie Stegeman (who appeared in CONTRACTED and his earlier film MADISON COUNTY) surfaced on social media detailing several years of physical and psychological abuse. Her story is quite harrowing, and if it's true (like JOSIE, any resulting scandal pretty much vanished instantly because nobody knows or cares who Eric England is), then it's safe to infer that England is every bit the creep that CONTRACTED went out of its way to reveal him to be.

I missed England's 2017 kidnapping-gone-awry dark comedy GET THE GIRL (whose cast featured convention regulars like Noah Segan and Scout Taylor-Compton), but JOSIE is a step up, at least in terms of relative prestige, as it marks the first time England's got some well-known and reasonably big-ish names who may or may not regret being in it now. In a small, depressing California town, Hank (Dylan McDermott) is a quiet loner living in a dive motel and working as a parking monitor at the local high school, where he's derisively referred to as "Spank" by a student body who look and act like they missed a casting call for Larry Clark's BULLY. Hank goes home to his dingy room, where two turtles are his only companions, and is annoyed when his nosy neighbors won't leave him alone. Hank comes out of his shell with the arrival of Josie (GAME OF THRONES' Sophie Turner), a tattooed high-schooler from the wrong side of the tracks who's new in town and arrives alone (her mom is on her way, she claims), quickly befriending Hank as well as Marcus (Jack Kilmer, Val's son), Hank's chief tormenter at school. Josie gets Hank to open up about his dark past and what drove him to choose a life of isolation and solitude, while Hank sees--though he knows he shouldn't--the possibility for something more. It isn't long before things come to a head, with Marcus vandalizing Hank's truck and boat and Josie ditching Hank to have sex with Marcus to make Hank jealous. Anyone who's ever seen a movie with a femme fatale will figure out precisely what Josie's up to at exactly the midway point and the only suspense really comes from watching how she's got both Hank and Marcus wrapped around her finger. And around the time of the climax, as things play out in the worst way possible for lonely, hapless Hank and dense, horny Marcus, that CONTRACTED ugliness and rage and England's alleged violence against Stegeman pops into your head. In fairness, JOSIE is an accomplished and more disciplined film compared to CONTRACTED, and it gets a lot of mileage from an excellent performance by McDermott, who's often achingly sad to watch as Hank talks to his turtles, is the butt of jokes and pranks at the high school, and plays some old-school country music while he puts on his best cowboy duds and slow dances by himself as he gets ready to have dinner with Josie only to find out Marcus is already in her room, leaving him to stand outside and listen to them fuck. And if you listen closely, you can probably hear England just out of camera range muttering "Yeah...that fucking bitch." (R, 87 mins)

(US - 2018)

There has to be fascinating story about what went wrong with STEPHANIE because the signs are all there that this had to be a total clusterfuck behind the scenes. Curiously short running time, with super-slow closing credits rolling at 78 minutes? Check. Produced by profitable horror factory Blumhouse and left to gather dust on a Universal shelf for three years before getting a stealth VOD debut two weeks before hitting Blu-ray? Check. The least-finished-looking visual effects this side of A SOUND OF THUNDER? Check. Familiar names present in the IMDb cast listing (Harold Perrineau, Kenneth Choi, Alexa Mansour) but nowhere to be seen in the released film? Directed by Oscar-winning mercenary screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A BEAUTIFUL MIND)? Check. It's all too apparent that Universal had no clue what to do with this movie, which doesn't even have a real trailer (see below--it's just one out-of-context clip), and doesn't even look finished, exhibiting an abundance of evidence that it was just abandoned and completely given up on by everyone involved. That's too bad, because it gets off to an odd and interesting start, with the entire opening half-hour being a one-girl show for young Shree Crooks (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) in the title role. She's alone in nice-looking suburban house and seems to have been left there for a while. Food is rotting in the fridge, she's down to pretzels and slices of American cheese, and she spends her time watching TV and talking to her stuffed toy turtle Francis. She's wary of periodic appearances of "the monster," and we see occasional flickering shadows of something around a corner, but she hides in her room and it goes away. There may or may not be the dead body of her older brother Paul in his room, and TV news reports show brief snippets of catastrophic disasters all over the world. Her parents (Frank Grillo of the PURGE sequels and FRINGE's Anna Torv) finally return home from wherever they were, casting concerned glances at Stephanie and seemingly shocked that she's alive. Talk soon turns to dealing with "the monster" as STEPHANIE proceeds to move at a glacial pace while doling out details to a story that never really comes together.

Goldsman, who doesn't have a writing credit here (that's left for the team of Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, who went on to script the cult indie SUPER DARK TIMES), gives us the what but the rest--the why and the how--remain frustrating mysteries, and not in a cleverly ambiguous or thoughtfully enigmatic way. It seems to use the classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode "It's a Good Life" as a springboard but it just doesn't make sense on any narrative or logical level. Apparently, a much different cut of STEPHANIE screened at the 2017 Overlook Film Festival, containing a framing device and a ton of exposition about the setting being a dystopian 2027 (this is where Perrineau's character appeared), but that's all gone in this version. It'll be obvious to anyone who watches enough movies even without knowing that Perrineau and others have been cut from the movie that huge chunks of this thing have been hacked away seemingly willy-nilly. There's a few positives barely salvaged in the wreckage--Crooks is very good and looks so much like Torv that the two of them playing mother and daughter is inspired casting; and there's one intense bit involving a blender--but the climactic CGI display is a bush-league embarrassment and the released film (I hesitate to call it "completed") is a botched shitshow that looks like Universal said "Hey, what's going on with this?" and Jason Blum and everyone involved shouted "Not it!" and went home. (R, 86 mins)

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

On Netflix: ANON (2018)

(Germany/US/Canada - 2018)

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol. Cast: Clive Owen, Amanda Seyfried, Colm Feore, Mark O'Brien, Sonya Walger, Joe Pingue, Iddo Goldberg, Charlie Ebbs, Damon Runyan, Sara Mitich, Doug Murray, Jean Michel Le Gal, Douglas Stolfi. (Unrated, 100 mins)

The Netflix pickup ANON finds filmmaker Andrew Niccol back in the realm of high-concept sci-fi that briefly established him as the Next Big Thing in the 1990s. He's best known for writing and directing 1997's GATTACA and he received an Oscar nomination for scripting 1998's THE TRUMAN SHOW. Since then, Niccol's career has been on an erratic trajectory, splitting time between further explorations in sci-fi like the 2002 Al Pacino flop S1M0NE and 2011's terrible IN TIME, and political films like 2005's LORD OF WAR and 2015's barely-released drone treatise GOOD KILL, which was overshadowed by the more successful sleeper hit EYE IN THE SKY. He also tried his hand at big-budget YA sci-fi with 2013's THE HOST, but 20 years on, Niccol still hasn't matched the one-two punch of GATTACA and THE TRUMAN SHOW. His latest film ANON explores themes previously seen in his earlier sci-fi films but with middling and repetitive results. The production design is superb and it's a very expensive-looking film, but after a promising start, Niccol's script devolves into a string of rote cliches and tired genre tropes, becoming the kind of film that doesn't even bother following its own internal logic.

Set in a dystopian near-future (is there any other kind?), ANON presents a world where everyone's POV is one of constant information. Pass a stranger on the street, you get a readout of their name, age, and vital stats. Order a hot dog from a food truck, and the nutritional information is displayed. It's a totalitarian practice that makes crime solving easy for glum, burned-out cop Sal Frieland (Clive Owen). He can simply look at a victim, access the playback of the last ten seconds of their life, and see what the victim saw. But after coming across several corpses whose digital memories have been hacked and scrambled, it's clear to Frieland and his boss Gattis (Colm Feore) that they're dealing with a "ghost," a face without a name that goes about undetected, their stats and identity not in "The Ether," a term used to describe the seemingly limitless digital reality that holds the data and images and the place in which they venture to solve crimes. The only thing they know for sure is that the killer is female, and the trail eventually leads to "Anon" (Amanda Seyfried, also in IN TIME), a mercenary hacker who specializes in erasing memories and playback that a client wants gone, be it criminal activities, extramarital affairs, etc. But Anon's clients are turning up dead, so Frieland goes undercover as an investment broker for over a month, establishing an identity and memories outside of his existence as a cop and then seeking out "memory hackers" in the hopes that he'll draw Anon out of hiding, setting himself up as bait to catch her in the act. This ultimately leads to Frieland's perception of reality becoming dangerously skewed as Anon--or someone--gets inside his head and starts toying with his mind.

After an intriguing set-up, ANON soon demonstrates little urgency settling into a groove of Philip K. Dick worship combined with Niccol's usual sci-fi fixations of identity, individuality, and privacy. It all culminates in a heavy-handed lecture from Anon for a final scene, and the ultimate reveal of the guilty party is largely a non-event since we don't even spend enough time with the character in question for it to pack much resonance. And the longer ANON goes on, the more careless it becomes. Every inconsistency or deux ex machina that it pulls out of its ass can be explained away with "He got in my memory...that's what he wanted me to think!" The biggest eye-roller comes after Frieland spends over a month undercover and hires Anon to do a job and the cybersecurity experts working with the police are able to begin tracking her. After three days back as a cop, Gattis tells Frieland he has to go back undercover and re-establish contact with Anon, which concerns Frieland since his most recent memories and experiences will show him being a cop doing cop things and investigating her. "We'll put a patch over it!" Gattis says, as if Frieland has asked him a silly question. A patch? If you could just "put a patch over it" and mask the memories, then why make Frieland spend over a month working as an investment broker, creating a fake girlfriend for him to cheat on with a real hooker in order to give Anon a specific memory to digitally wipe when they could've just faked it all along? A patch? Owen treads on familiar ground here, with Frieland essentially being a cop version of his CHILDREN OF MEN character. Niccol doesn't really do Owen any favors, giving Frieland a checklist of cliched baggage--he's an alcoholic, his kid was killed in a tragic accident, and he's got a bitchy and unsympathetic ex-wife (Sonya Walger) who's moved on--that's supposed to function as backstory. ANON certainly isn't terrible, but it's tired and uninspired, feeling like the kind of sci-fi movie that should've hit theaters in 2002 or thereabouts. In a way, Netflix is the perfect venue for it, since there's a good chance at least some people will mistake it for a feature-length BLACK MIRROR episode.

Monday, May 7, 2018


(Italy - 1973; US release 1975)

Directed by Sergio Martino. Written by Ernesto Gastaldi. Cast: Luc Merenda, Richard Conte, Silvano Tranquilli, Carlo Alighiero, Martine Brochard, Chris Avram, Luciano Bartoli, Lia Tanzi, Steffen Zacharias, Bruno Corazzari, Luciano Rossi, Cyrille Spiga, Rosario Borelli, Antony Vernon (Antonio Casale), Bruno Boschetti, Sergio Smacchi, Tom Felleghy. (R, 99 mins)

After the artistic triumphs of Dario Argento's gialli, the next most notable figure in the genre in the early 1970s was arguably the journeyman Sergio Martino. Frequently teamed with the stunning Edwige Fenech, Martino cranked out a series of verbosely-titled gialli like 1971's THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH and THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL, and 1972's ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK and YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY, and his 1973 masterpiece TORSO. Though directors like Umberto Lenzi and Fernando Di Leo also dabbled in gialli, their strengths at that point in time were the violent, politically-charged poliziotteschi, a craze to which Martino inevitably contributed a handful of entries, beginning with 1973's THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS, which has just been released on Blu-ray from Code Red.

Though it works in the social and political implications of an early '70s Milan that these films frequently presented as a violent, crime-infested hellhole, there's a definite DIRTY HARRY influence to THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS in its central character, Giorgio Caneparo (Luc Merenda). A standard-issue plays-by-his-own-rules cop, hot-tempered Caneparo is read the riot act by his boss Del Buono (Chris Avram) after blowing away a pair of escapees from a locomotive prisoner transport when they were already cornered and ready to give up and he was more than capable of simply arresting them. Del Buono suggests Caneparo lay low and look into some robberies that he's been investigating, and no sooner than mentioning that does Del Buono get gunned down in the street by a trio of mystery assailants. Obsessed with avenging his boss and fed up with the useless lip service paid to his memory ("Pathetic!" he shouts, interrupting an official government tribute to his slain boss), Caneparo goes undercover to infiltrate the bank robbery operation, which is being coordinated by Milan mob boss Padulo (Richard Conte). Caneparo gets a job as a wheelman for Padulo's current crew, and his first job with them goes off the rails when a psycho Padulo flunky (Bruno Corazzari) opens fire on a pregnant woman for no reason. But the rationale for the robberies runs deeper, as Caneparo gradually figures out that Padulo isn't quite who he says he is, and that the supposedly powerful mobster is just a cog in the wheel, serving much more powerful masters with more ambitiously sinister plans.

Those plans are never completely clear given the muddled political subtext of THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS. There's a lot of talk in Ernesto Gastaldi's script about creating an aura of chaos around Milan and throughout Italy and "rebuilding this country all over again," which probably played better for Italian audiences living through the political tumult of that era. But even in the English-dubbed version released in the US by Scotia in 1975, the film is a solid second-tier polizia offering, with a memorable score by Guido & Maurizio De Angelis, some not-quite-but-still-spirited FRENCH CONNECTION-style car chases and Merenda (dubbed by Michael Forest) a believably pissed-off lone wolf cop in the Dirty Harry vein (he even gets a final moment comparable to tossing his badge away in disgust). It's also worth noting for those with polizia experience that THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS is also the source of that oft-used shot of a car crashing through a stack of cardboard boxes engulfed in flames, which resurfaced in seemingly a dozen other polizias and even more trailers. Born in 1943, Merenda got his first big break as a doomed French racing driver in the 1971 Steve McQueen vanity project LE MANS. He would go on to work with Martino on several occasions, most notably in a supporting role in TORSO and in a pair of entertaining 1975 actioners, GAMBLING CITY and SILENT ACTION. Merenda was a regular presence in Italian action films throughout the '70s and he would shift to Italian TV in the '80s. He grew disenchanted with the entertainment industry and walked away, retiring from acting in 1992 to focus on his family and opening a successful antique shop in Paris, which he still runs to this day, taking a break only to make a one-off return to the screen when Merenda superfan Eli Roth talked him into accepting a small role in 2007's HOSTEL PART II.

Richard Conte (1910-1975)
After a memorable turn as the duplicitous Barzini in 1972's THE GODFATHER, veteran American actor Conte found himself in much demand in Italy. In 1973 alone, including THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS, he played mob figures in no less than seven Italian crime movies, including Fernando Di Leo's THE BOSS and the gangster spoof MY BROTHER ANASTASIA, which teamed him with beloved Italian comedian Alberto Sordi. Conte and Merenda reteamed in 1974 for Di Leo's SHOOT FIRST...DIE LATER, with Merenda as a corrupt cop and Conte as a subservient mob lawyer who jumps at the chance to throw his boss under the bus and take over as soon as he's feeling unappreciated. Thanks to the worldwide success of THE GODFATHER, Conte was such a sought-after export-value name for the Italian crime genre that he wound up spending the rest of his career in Europe and never appeared in another American film. Conte died in April 1975 from complications of a heart attack and a subsequent series of strokes (he's dubbed by someone else and looks noticeably frail and aged in SHOOT FIRST...DIE LATER compared to THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS just a year earlier), and by the end of his life, the jobs he was getting in Italy were on a marked decline compared to the exemplary polizia work and GODFATHER-associated star treatment he was receiving just two years earlier. Conte's final film found him as a glum, morose exorcist in 1975's tawdry and embarrassing NAKED EXORCISM, by far the worst Italian EXORCIST ripoff of them all, released in the US as THE POSSESSOR in 1977, two years after his death.