Monday, July 30, 2018


(US/China - 2018)

Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Cast: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin, Michelle Monaghan, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Wes Bentley, Vanessa Kirby, Frederick Schmidt, Liang Yang, Kristoffer Joner, Caspar Phillipson, Alix Benezech. (PG-13, 147 mins)

Big-budget summer blockbusters don't get much more entertaining than MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT, the sixth film in the durable, 22-year-old franchise. An incredible jolt of adrenaline in cinematic form, FALLOUT is easily the best in the M:I series so far, and it might even be the best movie Tom Cruise has ever made. Setting aside his batshit religion, Cruise may very well be The Last Movie Star and only a fool would count him out after a trio of forgettable underperformers--JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK, THE MUMMY, and AMERICAN MADE--that had all of the entertainment industry prognosticators concluding that the now-56-year-old (!) actor was washed-up and his time had passed. While we justifiably question the necessity of a TOP GUN sequel that's due out next year, FALLOUT is Cruise here and now in a series that's been on a roll, reteaming him once more with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning USUAL SUSPECTS screenwriter who emerged from an eight-year sabbatical to become Cruise's most trusted aide-de-camp in either writing (VALKYRIE, EDGE OF TOMORROW, THE MUMMY) or directing (JACK REACHER, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION) capacities in the ensuing decade. What everyone was saying about MAD MAX: FURY ROAD three years ago holds true here: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT is an instant classic in the action genre.

A direct sequel to ROGUE NATION, FALLOUT is as convoluted as you'd expect, with IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), botching a mission to intercept three weapons-grade plutonium orbs that end up in the hands of The Apostles, a splinter cell offshoot of The Syndicate, the organization run by international terrorist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), who was apprehended in the previous film. Assigned to retrieve the plutonium by IMF boss Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), the team is overruled by CIA chief Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett), who orders her own operative and attack dog Walker (Henry Cavill) to tag along. The story moves all over the globe, as Hunt ends up posing as a mystery man named John Lark, set to buy the plutonium from the Apostles with a wealthy socialite and arms dealer known as The White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) acting as a go-between. Things get even more complicated when The Apostles refuse to pay for the plutonium, instead insisting that if "Lark"/Hunt wants the plutonium, he has to help Lane escape from a military-fortified prison transport. Throw in MI-6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and her own assignment to kill Lane, Hunt being framed as a rogue agent once more, and a scheming Walker clearly up to games of his own, and the stage is set for one double-cross and jaw-dropping action set piece after another for a two-and-a-half hour stretch that's over before know it.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT is a movie that just doesn't quit. It's a preposterous delight and a rare instance of an action film that actually merits the comparison to the proverbial standby blurb of a non-stop rollercoaster ride. Though there's some conservatively-deployed CGI and visual effects, the abundance of practical stunt work and action choreography solidifies Cruise's standing as Hollywood's most death-defying madman. McQuarrie's puzzle-like story construction and recurring motif of "Who's really who?" recalls THE USUAL SUSPECTS, but there's also generous helpings of humor and warmth among the IMF characters who, to borrow a term from the FAST AND THE FURIOUS series, have really become family by this point (it's Hunt's unwillingness to sacrifice Luther that causes him to lose the plutonium in the prologue, something that Sloane and Walker never stop reminding him). FAST AND THE FURIOUS fans may want to argue the point, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a big-budget franchise still creatively firing on all cylinders and running better than ever six installments deep. It's impossible to pick a best scene--the HALO jump, the bone-smashing men's room throwdown, the epic boat/car/motorcycle chase through Paris, the greatest "Tom Cruise running" sequence ever, or the nerve-wracking, INCEPTION-like cross-cutting race against time in the climax, when the team tracks Lane to a medical camp in Kashmir where a smallpox outbreak caused by The Apostles has just been contained, which involves a helicopter chase, a brawl that spills over to the side of a mountain, and the defusing of two nuclear devices. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT is crowd-pleasing, edge-of-your-seat, popcorn movie perfection, the kind of relentlessly heart-pounding, balls-to-the-wall barnburner that restores your faith in the summer blockbuster.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

On Netflix: EXTINCTION (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Ben Young. Written by Spenser Cohen and Brad Caleb Kane. Cast: Michael Pena, Lizzy Caplan, Israel Broussard, Mike Colter, Emma Booth, Lex Shrapnel, Amelia Crouch, Erica Tremblay, Lilly Aspell. (Unrated, 95 mins)

Originally set to be given a nationwide rollout in theaters by Universal in January 2018, the apocalyptic sci-fi saga EXTINCTION was pulled from the schedule two months prior to its release without explanation. In the tradition of other A-list sci-fi offspring rejected by their mothers--Universal's SPECTRAL, Paramount's THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX--the film was sold to Netflix and is finally debuting as a Netflix Original. 2016's ambitious and unexpectedly imaginative SPECTRAL was better than Universal's treatment of it would lead you to expect, but EXTINCTION is a muddled mess from the start. In a vaguely defined near-future, factory maintenance worker Peter (a bland Michael Pena) is plagued by recurring nightmares of an alien invasion, so troubled by them that he's growing preoccupied and distant from his concerned wife Alice (Lizzy Caplan) and frustrated daughters Hanna (Amelia Crouch) and Lucy (Erica Tremblay, younger sister of ROOM's Jacob Tremblay). He falls asleep at work and starts seeing mysterious light formations in the sky, but no one believes him and his seemingly skeptical but sympathetic boss (Mike Colter) suggests he see a doctor. While entertaining some friends (Emma Booth and Lex Shrapnel, who may have the greatest name ever) the next evening, the alien invasion begins, with buildings brought down and black-helmeted soldiers marching through their high-rise mowing down everyone. After their friends are killed in the mayhem, Peter, Alice, and the girls manage to escape to safety in a secret tunnel beneath the industrial complex where he's employed, a place he only knows exists because he saw it in one of his nightmares.

It's shortly after this point, with the introduction of an alien soldier calling itself "Miles" (Israel Broussard), that EXTINCTION shifts gears and heads into a different direction. This twist is intriguing enough--and puts the film firmly in the formulaic Netflix wheelhouse of "feature-length BLACK MIRROR episode"--that it makes you wonder why the first hour was basically pissed away with what could've easily been titled SKYLINE: EXTINCTION. The credited screenwriters are Spenser Cohen and Brad Caleb Kane, with an earlier Cohen draft circulating around Hollywood as far back as 2013. The extent of which Cohen's and/or Kane's work made it into the finished movie isn't clear, but it's an open secret that the script was almost completely reworked by an uncredited Eric Heisserer, who was nominated for an Oscar for his ARRIVAL screenplay. There's certainly a "too many cooks in the kitchen" feel to what EXTINCTION is trying to accomplish as it juggles too many Philip K. Dick concepts (you'll spot the BLADE RUNNER and TOTAL RECALL elements) while mostly serving as yet another rote CGI destructiongasm. The visual effects aren't really up to par for a major-studio production, and director Ben Young (2016's acclaimed HOUNDS OF LOVE) does the film no favors by opting to shoot much of the first hour in murky darkness with the action conveyed mostly in incoherent quick cuts. The twist around the hour mark is actually pretty good, and for about a 20-minute stretch, EXTINCTION seems dangerously close to getting its shit together. Unfortunately, it fizzles out with a huge, clumsy exposition dump in the closing minutes that's completely unsatisfying, and like Netflix's recent dud HOW IT ENDS, makes the entire project feel like a tanked series pilot. There's little mystery as to why Universal kicked this one to the curb and why Netflix figured it would fit right in with their unofficial mission statement of offering as many thoroughly disposable and instantly forgotten sci-fi mediocrities as possible. Do give SPECTRAL a whirl, though. That one's worth a look.

Sunday, July 22, 2018


(UK/France - 2018)

Offscreen since Woody Allen's lackluster 2015 dud IRRATIONAL MAN, Joaquin Phoenix won the Best Actor award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for his mesmerizing performance in the hellishly brutal YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE. Adapted from Jonathan Ames' 2013 novel by writer/director Lynne Ramsay (WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN), YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is, for all its arthouse bells and whistles, a genre revenge thriller at its core, so much so that I'm shocked it was given a limited release by Amazon instead of a nationwide rollout from A24. It's a generally "commercial" story, but told in an elliptical, minimalist way, with particular attention to sound and background detail, and with some precise and tension-cranking editing techniques that make it more substantive than the kind of mainstream studio fare that it could very easily be with a little tweaking. Phoenix is Joe, an enigmatic mystery man whose backstory is slowly revealed over the course of the film in subtle cutaways and recurring images in his dreams. Haunted by his past--abused by his father as a child, suffers from PTSD from his time in the military, and may be a former FBI agent--Joe lives in Yonkers with his elderly, ailing mother (Judith Roberts, best known as The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall in David Lynch's ERASERHEAD) and earns a living by tracking down abducted or trafficked children. After rescuing a young girl in Cincinnati, Joe is informed by his handler McCleary (John Doman) that his services are requested by State Senator Albert Vatto (Alex Manette), a widower whose young daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been taken and forced into sexual slavery at a brothel catering to pedophiles being run out of a nondescript NYC residence. Armed with his weapon of choice--a hammer--Joe manages to infiltrate the house, kill several people, and whisk Nina to safety at a motel while he awaits word from McCleary. But that's where everything goes off the rails: a breaking news report reveals that Vatto took a plunge off the roof of his apartment building in what's being called a "suicide." Three cops followed Joe and Nina to the motel, where they enter the room and take the girl, with one staying behind to kill Joe, who turns the tables on him but takes a bullet through the cheek in the process. It soon becomes clear to Joe that there are powerful forces pulling the strings and that he's been drawn into a situation even more dangerous than he presumed.

A lot of the buzz around YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE likened it to a modern-day TAXI DRIVER, and it's not an inaccurate take. Like Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle, Joe is a troubled combat vet who finds a purpose in rescuing a young girl from a life of a forced underage prostitution. Joe is just as shell-shocked as Travis Bickle, though he acts out even more dangerously. He routinely engages in suicidal games like sticking a knife in his mouth or wrapping a plastic bag around his head. But where Travis tries to fit into society, Joe has long since abandoned any pretense of wanting to be a part of anything. With his slumped shoulders, ratty beard, and his long hair tucked into a ponytail and hiding under a hoodie, Phoenix lumbers through this film like a wounded animal paralyzed by internalized rage. Though the circumstances and motivations are different, Phoenix's work here is reminiscent of both the raw fearlessness demonstrated by Harvey Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT and the driving obsession of Terence Stamp in THE LIMEY, combined with the similar sense of a ticking time bomb that Phoenix displayed in Paul Thomas Anderson's impenetrable THE MASTER and James Gray's little-seen TWO LOVERS. It's an absolutely riveting, hypnotic performance--you can't take your eyes off of him--and it's a key component that helps elevate YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE beyond its rather standard, DEATH WISH-esque foundation (plus bonus points for the unexpectedly haunting use of one-hit wonder Charlene's "I've Never Been To Me."). Notoriously difficult, prickly, and unpredictable, Phoenix has been very quietly compiling an impressive body of work as he's gotten older, and with the retirement of Daniel Day-Lewis apparently still a thing, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is the latest film to make a credible argument that he's a legitimate contender to inherit the title of our current Greatest Living Actor. (R, 90 mins)

(Australia/France - 2018)

It falls a little short of being the next PROPOSITION, but the Australian western SWEET COUNTRY is a powerful saga of frayed race relations in the 1920s Outback whose story and blistering social commentary still remain relevant today. In a desolate stretch of land in the Northern Territory, devoutly religious preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill) allows his middle-aged Aboriginal farmhand Sam Kelly (non-professional Hamilton Morris, in a quietly powerful big-screen debut) and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) to share his land and home. Preacher Fred is approached by abrasive, shell-shocked Boer War vet Harry March (Ewen Leslie) to borrow his "black stock" to help him build a fence on a nearby swath of property he's purchased. He hesitates, not really liking March's demeanor and informing him "We're all equal in the eyes of the Lord," to which March bullies him into loaning out Sam and Lizzie because "It's the Christian thing to do." Accompanied by their visiting teenage niece Lucy (Shanika Cole), Sam and Lizzie travel to March's, where the women help get his home in order while Sam endures all manner of verbal abuse while doing most of the work putting up the fence. With Lucy outside and Sam tending to some horses, a drunken March corners Lizzie and rapes her, telling her "I wanted the other one, but you'll do." Lizzie keeps the incident to herself, but March was belligerently asking enough questions about Lucy that upon returning home, Sam asks Preacher Fred to take her back to her parents on his journey into town for supplies, which leaves Sam and Lizzie to watch the ranch for several days. March ends up using another Aboriginal boy named Philomac (twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), who may or may not be the son of white landowner Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright), and the boy manages to escape March's property after being beaten and shackled as elderly, Uncle Tom-ish Archie (Gibson John) looks on. March heads to Preacher Fred's ranch, incorrectly assuming he's harboring the boy, and when he fires multiple shots through the doors and windows, Sam shoots him dead in self-defense.

Knowing he'll be hunted down and killed for murdering a white man, Sam takes Lizzie and heads to the even more desolate regions of the Outback, with ex-military sergeant and ruthless regional lawman Fletcher (Bryan Brown) forming a posse consisting of a deputy, plus Kennedy, the duplicitous Archie, and Preacher Fred, who insists on tagging along to negotiate Sam's surrender if necessary and to ensure he isn't shot dead on sight. Sam and Lizzie venture deep into still-unexplored areas inhabited by indigenous natives who have never seen white men, in territory so treacherous that Archie won't even lead Fletcher through it ("This ain't my country," Archie shrugs, adding "Never been here before"). Director Warwick Thornton, who won some acclaim for his 2009 aboriginal coming-of-age drama SAMSON AND DELILAH, fashions SWEET COUNTRY as a revisionist slow-burner, often effectively using almost subliminal-quick flashbacks and flash-forwards to create a sense of unease and ominous foreshadowing of tragedies to come (though his opening shot of a close-up of a pot of water heating to a boil as we hear two men arguing offscreen screams "SYMBOLISM!" a little too loudly). Rarely saying much and letting his sad eyes speak volumes, Morris is tasked with carrying much of the film and does a fine job, and Leslie is a memorably despicable villain. It's also great seeing old pros Neill and Brown in the kind of meaty roles that most veteran actors don't often get as they approach the emeritus years of their careers (71-year-old Brown is in terrific shape, looking at least a decade younger than his age, and even indulging in some unexpected Harvey Keitel exhibitionism at one point). The story does drag a bit once it hits its "courtroom drama" turn (the courtroom being outside, in the center of town), but it regains its momentum for a heartbreaking revelation and a downbeat finale that shows its characters and the audience no mercy. Barely released in US theaters, SWEET COUNTRY is a sleeper gem that deserves to find an audience on Blu-ray and streaming. (R, 113 mins)

Friday, July 20, 2018

In Theaters: THE EQUALIZER 2 (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Richard Wenk. Cast: Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Melissa Leo, Bill Pullman, Ashton Sanders, Orson Bean, Jonathan Scarfe, Sakina Jaffrey, Kazy Tauginas, Garrett A. Golden. (R, 122 mins)

In the first sequel of his nearly 40-year career, the great Denzel Washington again demonstrates enough intensity and steely gravitas to elevate a routine and generic revenge actioner to slightly above average entertainment. Loosely based on the fondly-remembered 1985-89 CBS series THE EQUALIZER, the big-screen franchise--please don't call the next one THE 3QUALIZER--is the fourth teaming of Washington with his TRAINING DAY director Antoine Fuqua, and only slightly retains the premise of retired CIA agent Robert McCall (played by Edward Woodward in the series) offering his services to those in trouble and with nowhere else to turn. With Washington's interpretation of the character already established, the sequel is really just a high-end version of the kind of vigilante movies Charles Bronson would crank out for Cannon in the 1980s. Globetrotting from Istanbul to Brussels to D.C. to Boston, it does give Washington's McCall, a widower who leads a solitary existence and drives a Lyft part-time (he was apparently let go from his Home Depot job after the last film's in-store nail-gun and powertool bloodbath), a chance to help a few people in need: a young girl taken from her mother to her Turkish father's homeland; artistically-gifted teen Miles (MOONLIGHT's Ashton Sanders), who lives in his Boston apartment complex and is tempted by gang life; and elderly Holocaust survivor Sam Rubinstein (Orson Bean sighting!), who's spent his life unsuccessfully searching for both a stolen painting and his younger sister after they were separated as kids and sent to different concentration camps.

Of course, these subplots that most resemble the Woodward series are secondary to the crux of THE EQUALIZER 2, which has McCall investigating the murder of his former CIA boss Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) in Brussels where she was working with Interpol on a husband/wife murder-suicide that looks staged (because it was) and may have agency ties (SPOILER: it does). McCall seeks out the help of his former partner Dave York (Pedro Pascal), who's understandably shocked to learn that he faked his own death years earlier with the assistance of Plummer. McCall does some snooping on his own, which leads to an attempt on his life by a hired killer under the guise of a Lyft passenger in a nicely-done action sequence. Plummer was obviously about to blow the doors off of something big, and the truth could be--wait for it--closer than McCall realizes.

There's very little in the way of surprises in the cookie-cutter script by mercenary screenwriter Richard Wenk (THE MECHANIC, THE EXPENDABLES 2, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), and even less in logic in some spots, especially with a climax that's essentially HIGH NOON in a hurricane in an evacuated seaside town. McCall's superhero-like Spidey Sense is one thing, but it's truly amazing how he arrived just as the storm was reaching peak strength with the bad guys very close behind, yet he still had time to plaster a stack of Melissa Leo headshots all over the place with which to taunt the killers as they search for him (also, on the way there, he had Brennan's husband, played by Bill Pullman, riding shotgun but lost him somewhere because he just disappears from both McCall's car and the movie). Like its predecessor, THE EQUALIZER 2 is harmless, brainless action fare, though it tones down the over-the-top gore until the climax, when McCall commences the throat slashings, disembowelings, and eye-gougings. It exists for no other reason than to solidify 63-year-old Washington's place in the post-TAKEN geriatric action scene (though Washington looks younger than his age, it's interesting to note how much older Woodward seemed on the TV series, which ended when the veteran British actor was just 59) and to serve as content on streaming and cable in perpetuity by this time next year. Even when he makes a bad movie--VIRTUOSITY and the terrible remake of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123--Washington is incapable of phoning it in and going through the motions. He has some good moments here and seems to be enjoying himself, even showing some of the TRAINING DAY edginess in a few spots and putting forth more effort than you'd see from a lot of his contemporaries. It's dumb, it's reasonably entertaining, and you won't remember any of it by the time you get to the parking lot. It's a summer movie.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Retro Review: THE COMPLETE SARTANA (1968-1970)

(Italy/West Germany - 1968)

Directed by Frank Kramer (Gianfranco Parolini). Written by Renato Izzo, Gianfranco Parolini and Werner Hauff. Cast: John Garko (Gianni Garko), William Berger, Sydney Chaplin, Klaus Kinski, Fernando Sancho, Gianni Rizzo, Andrew Scott (Andrea Scotti), Carlo Tamberlani, Franco Pesce, Heidi Fisher, Maria Pia Conte, Sal Borgese. (Unrated, 96 mins)

In the wake of Sergio Leone's groundbreaking trilogy of spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood, the copycats came so fast and furious that it had to be impossible for audiences to keep up. Giuliano Gemma starred in a pair of RINGO films, Franco Nero had the title role in Sergio Corbucci's DJANGO (1966), Tony Anthony played "The Stranger" in three films beginning in 1968, and Gianni Garko staked his claim to spaghetti fame as Sartana in a series that also kicked off in 1968. These official films spawned countless imitation Django, Ringo, and Sartana films, often with the characters crossing paths, but the five "official" SARTANA films have just been restored and released in a deluxe, extras-packed Blu-ray set from Arrow, because physical media is dead.

Never given theatrical releases in America, the Sartana films had some of the more playfully humorous titles in the genre, and things kick off with IF YOU MEET SARTANA...PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH. It's an incredibly convoluted but always enjoyable series of double-crosses and shifting alliances, as Garko's Sartana, who's more of a debonair wiseass than most of his genre brethren (Arrow's accompanying booklet with an essay by Roberto Curti likens Sartana to a western 007, and it's an apt comparison), involves himself in a mishap-filled pursuit of a chest of gold that no less than four separate sets of bad guys are attempting to obtain. There's outlaw Lasky (William Berger), a duplicitous bastard who mows down his own gang with a Gatling gun in order to keep it all to himself, only to find that the chest is filled with rocks; bandit and self-appointed "general" Mendoza, aka "Tampico" (Fernando Sancho, the genre's erstwhile "Frito Bandito," again cast radically against type as "Fernando Sancho"); corrupt bankers Stewall (Sydney Chaplin, son of Charlie) and Hallman (Gianni Rizzo), who hired Mendoza to steal the gold in the first place while they stashed it away in the casket of the recently-deceased mayor as part of an insurance scam; and Morgan (Klaus Kinski), another outlaw who's unconnected to the gold until an impromptu and ill-fated partnership with Lasky pulls him in.

The familiar spaghetti tropes are all over the place and would establish the SARTANA formula seen in the four sequels:  a shipment of gold buried in casket (THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY), Sartana finding an unlikely ally in Dusty (Franco Pesce), the town's elderly, cantankerous undertaker (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS), and Sartana's calling card of a chiming pocket watch (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE), just to name a few. Sartana also relies on some gadgety weapons that director/co-writer Gianfranco Parolini (aka "Frank Kramer") would use in his soon-to-come SABATA trilogy with Lee Van Cleef (in the first and third films) and Yul Brynner (in the second). The more political "Zapata" spaghetti westerns were starting to gain traction in Italy, and by 1968, the first SARTANA came too far into the craze to really do anything new. Still, Garko is a pretty badass hero and the film benefits from its many colorful--and frequently stupid--villains, though Kinski fans may be disappointed in his relatively restrained performance and limited screen time, as he's offed about 40 minutes in.

(Italy - 1969)

Directed by Anthony Ascott (Giuliano Carnimeo). Written by Tito Carpi and Enzo Dell'Aquila. Cast: John Garko (Gianni Garko), Frank Wolff, Klaus Kinski, Ettore Manni, Gordon Mitchell, Sal Borgese, Renato Baldini, Jose M. Torres, Rick Boyd (Federico Boido), John Bartha, Franco Pesce, Franco Ukmar, Samson Burke. (Unrated, 103 mins)

Gianfranco Parolini went on to make SABATA in 1969, prompting the hiring of Giuliano Carnimeo, who would direct the remainder of the SARTANA series under variants of his most frequent Americanized pseudonym "Anthony Ascott" (he'd go by "Jules Harrison" for his 1983 post-nuke EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000). I AM SARTANA, YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH is sort-of a hybrid western/detective story, with a Sartana impostor orchestrating an elaborate, Joker-esque bank robbery involving a fake corpse and several henchmen wearing uniforms identical to those of bank security.The word is out that Sartana (Gianni Garko) is a wanted man and he's soon pursued by law enforcement as well as various bounty hunters, including a wily poker shark named Hot Dead (Klaus Kinski, having a little more to do than in the previous film but still underutilized). Sartana teams up with grubby sidekick Buddy Ben (Frank Wolff) to clear his name, find the fake Sartana, and figure out why his estranged friend and wanted outlaw Bill Cochran (Federico Boido) was posing as the corpse, and the trail leads quick-draw gunman and milk-drinking casino proprietor Baxter Red (Ettore Manni). Given his name, it should come as no surprise that Baxter Red is a red herring, but there's quite a few over the course of the film, with so many characters--including Sal Borgese as an on-the-take sheriff, Renato Baldini as a corrupt judge, and Gordon Mitchell as another bounty hunter--seeming to have it in for Sartana. Things pick up in time for its SCOOBY-DOO-meets-CLUE ending, but I AM SARTANA, YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH is a sluggishly-paced sequel that's not nearly as enjoyable as IF YOU MEET SARTANA...PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH. Garko is still fun in the lead, Wolff has some amusing moments as Almost Tuco, and Carnimeo carries on the motif of Sartana being seemingly impervious to bullets, but the story just dawdles and takes forever to get to where it's going, and some of the music cues (a recurring harpsichord riff on "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," a doofus being introduced to the tune of "Pop Goes the Weasel") only contribute to the uneven tone of the film.

(Italy - 1970)

Directed by Antony Ascot (Giuliano Carnimeo). Written by Tito Carpi. Cast: George Hilton, Charles Southwood, Erika Blanc, Piero Lulli, Linda Sini, Nello Pazzafini, Carlo Gaddi, Aldo Barberito, Marco Zuanelli, Lou Kamante (Luciano Rossi), Rick Boyd (Federico Boido), Gigi Bonos, John Bartha, Antonio Casale, Furio Meniconi (Unrated, 92 mins)

The next three SARTANA sequels came in rapid succession, so rapid in fact that there's some dispute over their proper order. Based on its release date in its native Italy, the third in the series (and the third in the Arrow set) is SARTANA'S HERE...TRADE YOUR PISTOL FOR A COFFIN. These final three films hit Italian theaters over a four-month period from September to December 1970. Giuliano Carnimeo directed all three back-to-back, though Gianni Garko would sit out SARTANA'S HERE. His one-and-done replacement and the George Lazenby of the official SARTANA series was George Hilton, who would soon become a regular presence in the gialli of Sergio Martino, often teaming with the stunning Edwige Fenech. Hilton is a fine Sartana, though to use another Bond comparison, his Sartana could be deemed the Roger Moore-ish interpretation compared to Garko's Sean Connery. Hilton almost seems to be winking and smirking at times, especially when he's introduced throwing a canteen in the air and shooting it so it rains down and douses a lit fuse that's about to blow up some dynamite. The story is yet another baffling series of scheming double-crosses and backstabbing involving gold, this time from the mine of Appaloosa town boss Spencer (Piero Lulli), who's paying a group of Mexican bandits led by Mantas (Nello Pazzafini in the Fernando Sancho role) to rob his own shipments so he can horde the gold for himself. It's never quite clear what Spencer's ultimate plan is, but it doesn't really matter. SARTANA'S HERE...TRADE YOUR PISTOL FOR A COFFIN is fast-moving and Hilton fits in nicely with the slightly lighter but still generally serious tone, with an added quirk in that Sartana seems to have an obsession with boiled eggs. He ends up disguising himself as a Mexican peasant (a tactic used by Giuliano Gemma's Ringo in THE RETURN OF RINGO) to blend in Appaloosa and figure out how to play the sides against one another. Things are complicated even more with the arrival of dapper, white-suited, poetry-reading gunslinger Sabbath (Charles Southwood, best known as Winchester Jack in Mario Bava's spaghetti western ROY COLT AND WINCHESTER JACK), with whom Sartana may or may not form a Leone-esque unholy alliance. A big improvement over the lackluster I AM SARTANA, YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH, but Hilton moved on and Garko returned for the next film, which was in Italian theaters just two months later.

(Italy - 1970)

Directed by Anthony Ascott (Giuliano Carnimeo). Written by Giovanni Simonelli and Roberto Gianviti. Cast: Gianni Garko, Antonio Vilar, Daniela Giordano, Ivano Staccioli, Franco Ressel, George Wang, Helga Line, Luis Induni, Franco Pesce, Rick Boyd (Federico Boido), Jean Pierre Clarain, Roberto Dell'Acqua, Rocco Lerro, Aldo Berti, Attilio Dottesio. (Unrated, 93 mins)

After a brief sabbatical during which he starred as a gunslinger named "Santana" in a spaghetti western that was magically transformed into SARTANA KILLS THEM ALL thanks to dubbing, Gianni Garko returns to the SARTANA series with HAVE A GOOD FUNERAL, MY FRIEND...SARTANA WILL PAY, and it looks like he had some time embrace his inner EASY RIDER by letting his hair grow and sprouting a porn stache and sideburns. Storywise, this is more of the same, with Sartana getting involved in some shady real estate and property disputes, starting when Joe Benson (Attilio Dottesio) is killed by hired guns (who are in turn killed by Sartana, who pays for their funerals, hence the title), with the assumption that his land will be taken over by town banker Hoffmann (Antonio Vilar), whose mustache-twirling villainy should be obvious the moment he introduces himself as a banker. Hoffman is in cahoots with the sheriff (Luis Induni) and saloon girl Mary (Helga Line) to make a killing on Benson's land with the rumors that there's a secret stash of gold (of course), but they didn't realize he left everything to his niece Abigail (Daniela Giordano). Sartana teams up with Abigail--for revenge and romantic purposes--and engineers the requisite series of double crosses, which also involve Chinese gambling house owner and problematic 2018 trending Vulture piece waiting to happen Lee Tse Tung (George Wang), who's introduced being pulled through town in a rickshaw by bowler-hatted manservant, frequently bangs a gong, and never misses an opportunity to drop a "Confucius say..." bon mot. Once Hoffmann realizes Sartana is on to his scheme, he starts a rumor that cheating gambling house dealer Piggot (Franco Ressel) was killed by Sartana, which leads to the dead man's four vengeful outlaw brothers coming to town.

As usual, there's generous helpings of the kind of goofy humor and occasional sight gags that portend the Terence Hill/Bud Spencer westerns that would be shortly coming down the pike, and three films into his SARTANA stretch, director Giuliano Carnimeo finds his groove, and in collaboration with cinematographer Stelvio Massi, really step up his game when it comes to Leone-esque frame compositions and a few split diopter shots of the sort that would become synonymous with Brian De Palma a few years down the road. It's also got a rousing score by frequent Ennio Morricone collaborator Bruno Nicolai, and this, following the direction that George Hilton took the character, probably represents Garko's loosest portrayal of Sartana yet, especially when he pulls an ace out of his pocket and flings it across the room to extinguish a candle during his seduction of Abigail, a move that's pure 007 in spirit. But the story is still confusing as hell, which seems to be the norm for the SARTANA westerns, so you more or less have to just roll with it and assume everyone you see onscreen has ulterior motives that will become more preposterous as the film proceeds.

(Italy/Spain - 1970)

Directed by Anthony Ascot (Giuliano Carnimeo). Written by Eduardo M. Brochero, Tito Carpi and Ernesto Gastaldi. Cast: Gianni Garko, Susan Scott (Nieves Navarro), Massimo Serato, Piero Lulli, Jose Jaspe, Bruno Corazzari, Clay Slegger, Frank Brana, Franco Pesce, Sal Borgese, Giuseppe Castellano, Lino Coletta, Raffaele Di Mario, Fernando Bilbao, Beatrice Pellegrino, Gennarino Pappagali, Luis Induni, Renato Baldini, Mara Krupp, Dan van Husen. (Unrated, 100 mins)

By the end of 1970, the SARTANA sequels were coming so fast and furious that it probably would've grown difficult to tell them apart if LIGHT THE FUSE...SARTANA IS COMING didn't mark the end of the official series. Though they continued working together in other westerns, it's a shame that star Gianni Garko and director Giuliano Carnimeo stopped here, as LIGHT THE FUSE is the best of the pentalogy. In a shocking turn of events, the story deals with endless double crosses and the pursuit of a stash of gold, this time with Garko's Sartana getting himself thrown into a prison overseen by corrupt marshal Manassas Jim (Massimo Serato) in order to orchestrate a jailbreak with inmate Grand Full (Piero Lulli), who Manassas Jim believes killed his younger brother and made off with the gold. Also killed that skirmish--recounted RASHOMON-style by numerous characters throughout--was a friend of Sartana's. Shifting alliances abound, as Sartana cuts deals at various points with Grand Full, Manassas Jim, Gen. Monk (Jose Jaspe in the Fernando Sancho "Frito Bandito" role), and femme fatale Belle (Nieves Navarro), while trusting only elderly Plon Plon (Franco Pesce), who of course is killed, making Sartana's pursuit of the gold personal. Not quite as difficult to follow in its labyrinthine plot construction as its predecessors, LIGHT THE FUSE earns its status as the best SARTANA late in the game when Sartana single-handedly mows down Monk's army by MacGyvering a church pipe organ into a giant Gatling gun and multi-purpose firearm and "playing" it in a showdown in the middle of the dusty town in a display of grandiosity that would make Rick Wakeman jealous. It's one of the most insane and inspired moments in the entire spaghetti canon, and helps close out the SARTANA series on a high note.

Monday, July 16, 2018

On Netflix: HOW IT ENDS (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by David M. Rosenthal. Written by Brooks McLaren. Cast: Theo James, Forest Whitaker, Kat Graham, Kerry Bishe, Mark O'Brien, Nicole Ari Parker, Grace Dove. (Unrated, 113 mins)

Another dud from Netflix's increasingly irrelevant movie division, HOW IT ENDS might be more accurately titled WILL IT END?, an apocalyptic slog that drags on for a long two hours before an infuriating non-ending that makes the entire endeavor look like a busted series pilot. The project was in gestation for several years, with Blake McLaren's script making the fabled "Black List" of buzzed-about but unproduced screenplays way back in 2010. Director David M. Rosenthal has a couple of acclaimed indies under his belt with JANIE JONES and A SINGLE SHOT, and he's got the remake of Adrian Lyne's JACOB'S LADDER already in the can for 2019, but HOW IT ENDS has nothing to say and offers nothing new to the end-of-the-world canon. Will (Theo James of the DIVERGENT films) is a Seattle lawyer and expectant father with his longtime girlfriend Sam (Kat Graham of THE VAMPIRE DIARIES). He's got business in Chicago and plans on staying an extra night to have dinner with Sam's parents and formally ask her stern, ex-Marine father Tom (Forest Whitaker) for his daughter's hand in marriage. Tom is a humorless, passive-aggressive asshole who still holds a grudge against Will for causing his boat to sink five years ago. As a result, dinner goes about as well as expected, with Tom instantly lashing out at Will even with his patient wife Paula (Nicole Ari Parker) telling him to lay off, with Will leaving before he even gets around to the whole marriage thing. The next morning, Will is on the phone with Sam and it cuts out, and when he's at O'Hare, the power goes out, phones are dead, and all flights are cancelled when the entire US power grid shuts down just after breaking news reports of a "seismic event" off the coast of California.

Will makes his way back to his future in-laws, where Tom is sending Paula to stay with their son before driving to Seattle to find Sam, telling Will "The only question is...are you going with me?" While not quite GUESS WHO'S COMING TO THE APOCALYPSE, it promises to be a tense road trip, especially since society has devolved into a hellscape of complete chaos and anarchy in a matter of hours (sort of like CELL, another, even worse end-of-days tale). Danger lurks at every mile marker as America suddenly makes Bartertown look like a vacation resort. They pick up a passenger with Native American mechanic Ricki (Grace Dove, who played Leonardo DiCaprio's doomed wife in THE REVENANT), but face constant obstacles, usually from assorted grizzled, DELIVERANCE-esque miscreants looking to steal gas and guns. Strange weather develops, from powerful storms to unbearable heat, with random earthquakes and birds migrating in strange formations. They're forced off of the cross-country I-90 and onto endless and ominous country roads with a dark, cloudy horizon that makes the apocalypse look like the old Simpson/Bruckheimer Films logo.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed IN DARKNESS and prematurely concluded that it would have the dumbest movie ending of 2018. I was wrong.
HOW IT ENDS doesn't explain the "how" of anything, not the least of which is how are they still trying to make Theo James happen? It just becomes a series of set pieces with rote apocalypse tropes in search of a point. It's like THE WALKING DEAD without the zombies and with...weather? Who knows? There's no hook here. Will eventually ends up making his way to the ruins of Seattle alone, and in the last 15 minutes, the filmmakers introduce Jeremiah (Mark O'Brien), a new major character who seems abruptly wedged in to serve as a third-act antagonist, apparently seeing the end of civilization as we know it as an opportunity to catch Sam on the rebound based on the assumption that Will was dead in Chicago. This is where they're taking the story?  This is what it's all leading up to? A creep with a crush on the hero's girlfriend? "We have a bond! We thought you were dead!" Jeremiah sneers, searching for a mustache to twirl. Dude, it's been six days. Which is about how long HOW IT ENDS feels, as the drive from Chicago to Seattle seems to play out in real time. Character behavior and situations are idiotic--after some guys ambush them and steal their gas cans, Will, Tom, and Ricki speed up and follow them through a raging wildfire, firing a gun at the car that's filled with the combustible gasoline they need. And marvel at how easily Tom manages to talk his way through a military roadblock just by saying "I was in the Marine Corps." Their arcs are equally ludicrous--Will has never touched a gun and is appalled by the very idea that they exist, but the next day, he's a crack shot firing out of a speeding car. Whitaker has little to do other than look pissed-off, and it comes as no surprise when he finally comes to respect Will and stop being such a hardass with him. The only remotely interesting character is Dove's Ricki, so of course, the filmmakers just have her wander off, never to be seen again. Much like HOW IT ENDS after its first weekend streaming on its way to the ever-growing scrap heap of forgettable Netflix Original films.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

In Theaters: LEAVE NO TRACE (2018)

(Canada/US - 2018)

Directed by Debra Granik. Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosselini. Cast: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican, Michael Prosser, Isaiah Stone, Art Hickman, David M. Pittman. (PG, 109 mins)

"The same thing that's wrong with you isn't wrong with me."

In their first narrative project since 2010's WINTER'S BONE, director/co-writer Debra Granik and writer Anne Rosselini again delve into a largely unknown part of America and into an insulated world that exists far off the grid. Rather than the inherently dangerous goings-on in the meth-addled Ozarks with WINTER'S BONE, LEAVE NO TRACE is a quiet and compassionate character study of a loving but codependent relationship between a father and daughter where it becomes inevitable that the roles will have to change. Like a grittier CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, LEAVE NO TRACE centers on Will (Ben Foster), a military vet with severe PTSD, and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie). They're deep in the forest in a national park in northwest Oregon, and it soon becomes apparent from the supplies and their daily rituals that they've made this spot their home. They make occasional trips on foot to the VA in nearby Portland so Will can get his ineffective medications, which he immediately sells to a homeless vet for groceries and other necessities. It's a rustic, simple life and father and daughter seem happy, but their idyllic existence is upended when police and rangers raid their tent after Tom is spotted by a hiker and notifies the authorities. Will is arrested for squatting on federal land and Tom is taken in by children's services, and once it's ascertained that she's not in danger (we learn nothing about Tom's mother other than she died when Tom was young and she has no memories of her), a social worker (Dana Millican) takes their case and tries to reintegrate them into society for Tom's sake. Kindly rancher and tree farmer Mr. Walters (Jeff Kober) reads about the pair in the newspaper and offers them a small guest home on his property in exchange for Will working for him, and Tom, whose aptitude test results indicate that she's further along in her education than students of the same age, is enrolled in school. She also takes an interest in a local 4H club and makes a new friend (Isaiah Stone), but restless and agitated Will can't adjust and isn't really putting forth the effort ("I think it would be easier if we tried to adapt," Tom tells her father). And so they hit the road, first going back to their old squatting grounds to find it a wreck, then taking a bus out of town.

Tom is unhappy about the decision ("I like it here...are you even trying?"), but goes along because she's the child. But now she's experienced some degree of social interaction that her father has chosen to avoid and the early bubblings of quiet resentment begin brewing over his making that choice for her. A cliched Hollywood product would have Tom rebel and act out, but Granik and Rosselini don't take it in that direction. Though Will makes numerous ill-advised decisions--including a trip deep into bitterly cold woods of Washington that proves dangerously exhausting to Tom--he loves his daughter and she loves him. She's fiercely protective of him but once an injury to Will forces them to temporatily settle in at a remote RV park managed by Dale (Dale Dickey, further cementing her status as the rural Melissa Leo), Tom welcomes the sense of belonging and community, especially among a group of people who also seem to be living in relative isolation from the world by choice but have found kindred spirits with one another (like much of the supporting cast other than jobbing vets like Dickey and Kober, these people don't seem like professional actors, giving the film an even greater sense of authenticity that alludes to Granik's other gig as a documentarian). The always-intense Foster turns in some career-best work here, playing Will as tightly-wound but never going off (again, a Hollywood movie would have him indulge in at least one total meltdown). He brings a low-key sense of nervous, ticking energy to any scene that takes place indoors, often conveying with total silence Will closing himself off and shutting down. He can't sit still in the house and he can't sleep in his bed. Neither can Tom at first, but she quickly grows acclimated to a "normal" life, which makes it even more heartbreaking when Will can't bring himself to recognize that and drags her away in an effort to slow down her sense of experience and independence, and hold off, even for a little while, the inevitability of losing the only stabilizing thing in his life.

If there's one thing for which Granik has come to be known, it's breakout performances by her female leads. 2004's little-seen DOWN TO THE BONE didn't make it far beyond the festival circuit, but still helped establish Vera Farmiga, and most famously, WINTER'S BONE was the film that put Jennifer Lawrence on the map and earned the then-20-year-old actress her first Oscar nomination. That trend continues with the remarkable performance of 17-year-old McKenzie, best known in her native New Zealand for the popular web series LUCY LEWIS CAN'T LOSE. As terrific as Foster is, it's McKenzie's Tom who's the heart and soul of LEAVE NO TRACE. Often speaking volumes with just a facial expression and saying nothing at all, McKenzie absolutely inhabits this character. Though their circumstances and surroundings differ, Lawrence's Ree Dolly in WINTER'S BONE and McKenzie's Tom are cut from the same cloth: wise beyond their years, an unconventional upbringing that seems perfectly normal to them, cautiously venturing into worlds they don't quite understand, and ultimately forced to be the grown-up when their parents can't or won't hold up their end of the bargain. This comes to a head in a confrontational but still-loving way in LEAVE NO TRACE's moving and emotionally devastating finale. The film takes a refreshing approach in that it presents Will as a flawed and damaged man with noble intentions, but it never judges him. Nowhere is this more poignantly expressed than in a subtle, almost throwaway moment when a social worker (Michael Prosser) comforts a discouraged Will over his giving up on a 435-question psych eval, pats him on the shoulder, and compliments him on the job he's done raising Tom and what a great kid she is. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Michael McDonough in Clackamas County's Eagle Fern Park in Oregon, and featuring an effectively minimalist score by Dickon Hinchliffe (OUT OF THE FURNACE, another film with a deft sense of location and local color), LEAVE NO TRACE looks to be this summer's indie sleeper alternative to the predictable blockbuster scene. Let's just hope it's not forgotten come awards season. It's the best film of 2018 so far.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: 211 (2018); THE LEISURE SEEKER (2018); and BORG VS. MCENROE (2018)

(US - 2018)

It's DOG DAY AFTERNOON on a Bulgarian backlot with 211, the latest Nicolas Cage walk-through in what's looking like a busy 2018 for the--hang on while I check to see if it still stands...ok, yes, right--Oscar-winning actor. Produced by Avi Lerner's Cannon cover band Millennium Media, 211 doesn't get much help in the credibility department with the familiar and thoroughly un-American-looking Nu Boyana facility in Sofia, Bulgaria doubling for a small Massachusetts suburb (even though most of the license plates say Louisiana), whose downtown features a posh art gallery called Art Gallery. Inspired in part by the North Hollywood shootout over 20 years ago--itself inspired by a legendary sequence in Michael Mann's HEAT--211 juggles more characters than it can possibly handle and tries to be both a generic B actioner and a shamelessly heart-tugging American Heroes saga like WORLD TRADE CENTER or PATRIOTS DAY. Set in the fictional town of Chesterford, 211 stars Cage as Mike Chandler, a cop who's just filled out his retirement papers (oh boy), even though all he knows is being a cop, so much so that he wasn't really there for his late wife when she was battling cancer. This is still a sore subject with his daughter Lisa (Sophie Skelton), whose husband Steve "Mac" MacAvoy (Dwayne Cameron) is Mike's partner. Lisa just found out she's pregnant and Mac shares the good news with his father-in-law but that joy is short-lived as a bomb goes off in a downtown coffee shop as a decoy for a robbery going on at Unity Savings & Loan, a bank so trustworthy that the Bulgarian art department guys couldn't even be bothered to make the letters straight on the mock-up sign. The guys orchestrating the heist are ex-black ops mercenary goons led by Tre (Ori Pfeffer) after $100 million in war profits belonging to a shady contractor they killed after a botched extraction in Kabul (did Bulgaria know it would be playing dual roles here?), which attracts the attention of dogged Interpol agent Rossi (Alexandra Dinu). A chaotic situation is made even worse since Mike and Mac have a ride-along in teenager Kenny (Michael Rainey Jr), a bullied high school student in a scared straight program after a teacher walks in on him sucker-punching a douchebag who was just trying to shove his head in a toilet.

Isaac Florentine has a producer credit, and one gets the feeling that 211 might've been intended at some point to be another of his collaborations with Scott Adkins. Director York Shackleton does what he can with trying to make a Massachusetts suburb out of a Bulgarian backlot that can barely even pass for Bulgaria. The script is riddled with trite cliches and clumsy exposition, especially in a cringe-worthy early scene where Mike's backstory is laid out in an argument between Lisa and Mac, with Mac defending him while Lisa, still angry that Mike wasn't there when her mother needed him  most, shouts "It was chemo and radiation and PAIN!" In relation to Cage's recent clunkers like LOOKING GLASS and THE HUMANITY BUREAU, 211 is a very marginal step up. Shackleton handles an extended shootout better than you might expect considering what's at his disposal, and Cage, wearing one of his better hairpieces of late, has moments where he seems to be giving a shit, along with some bits where he's Cage-ing it up for his YouTube highlight reel (his outburst at the SWAT team commander has some WICKER MAN-style histrionics). Its entertainment value lies mostly in its unintentional humor and the complete lack of effort in making the surroundings look (or sound, considering the extensive and sloppy ADR work on most of the supporting cast) even slightly American, but there's some unexpectedly competent bursts of action amidst the clock-punching apathy. (R, 87 mins)

(Italy/France - 2018)

There's a few fleeting moments of raw emotion and brutal honesty in this adaptation of Michael Zadoorian's 2009 novel, and they come courtesy of a pair of cinema treasures in stars Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland. It's too bad that THE LEISURE SEEKER decides to squander them by spending too much time trying to be the geezer comedy that the more somber, serious novel wasn't. Making his English language debut, acclaimed Italian filmmaker Paolo Virzi (HUMAN CAPITAL) overcompensates and leans a little too much on the "America" thing, especially with its summer 2016 setting that allows for recurring, shoehorned-in political references to the Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump presidential showdown. The film even opens with a pickup truck driving down the street and blaring a Trump speech out of a large speaker, for no real reason at all. Married for 50 years, elderly couple Ella (Mirren, with a shaky on-and-off Southern accent) and John Spencer (Sutherland) take off in "The Leisure Seeker," their ramshackle 1975 Winnebago for a road trip from their Massachusetts home en route to her Savannah, GA birthplace to their ultimate destination: Ernest Hemingway's home in Key West, FL. John is a retired high school English teacher and is in the relatively early stages of Alzheimer's, still having stretches of clarity--especially when it comes to lecturing strangers about Hemingway and William Faulkner--but still frequently forgetting his wife's name or how old they are ("I start a sentence and by the time I get to the end of it..." John says, trailing off, suddenly lost). Ella keeps popping medication and grimacing, clearly in the midst of a mystery ailment that she seems to be hiding from John as well as their grown children Will (Christian McKay) and Jane (Janel Moloney).

Despite his condition, John is driving the Leisure Seeker, and the trip becomes a series of misadventures that range from improbable to wacky to patently absurd, whether they're getting the upper hand on a pair of knife-wielding teens trying to rob them while they wait for AAA to fix a flat or John waltzing into a nursing home with a shotgun looking for Ella's now-dementia-addled boyfriend from over 50 years ago (the late comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, who died eight months before the film's release), and somehow not being arrested. A confused John even winds up accidentally attending a Trump rally, while classic rock soundtrack cues underscore various plot developments: Carole King's "It's Too Late" plays at the beginning and Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now" kicks in when John takes off from a gas station and leaves Ella behind, forcing her to get a ride from a guy on a motorcycle (how did Virzi not segue from Chicago to Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" here?). THE LEISURE SEEKER never finds the right tone (you know the trip is getting off on the wrong foot when one of the first things out of John's mouth is "Did you fart?"), but Mirren and Sutherland manage to class it up, especially in a devastating scene later on where John's mind wanders and he thinks he's talking to their neighbor Lillian (Dana Ivey) and ends up confessing to Ella a brief fling from 48 years ago. It's a scene that packs a wallop, but then Virzi blows it by having Ella react in the most hysterically overwrought way possible, leading to a conclusion that just doesn't ring true. Such is the dilemma of THE LEISURE SEEKER, a well-meaning but aimless and uneven film that's worth seeing for fans of living legends Mirren and Sutherland (who previously starred together in 1990's BETHUNE: THE MAKING OF A HERO), even though both deserve stronger material. (R, 112 mins)

(Denmark/Sweden/Czech Republic/Finland/Belgium - 2017; US release 2018)

Neon planned on rolling this out wide until they flinched shortly before the release date, ultimately limiting it to just 51 screens and VOD. Maybe it was that half of the film is in Swedish, but even subtitle-phobes maybe could've been won over by the riveting story, as BORG VS. MCENROE really could've been a sleeper hit if it had a chance. Chronicling the 1980 Wimbledon showdown between Sweden's Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason, soon to be seen opposite Claire Foy in THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB), the top-ranked player in the world and going for his fifth consecutive win, and America's John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), the brash, ill-tempered anger management case who's ranked #2. Documentary filmmaker Janus Metz, helming his first narrative feature, and screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl delve deep into the psychology of sports and competition, flashing back to the formative years of both tennis greats and the ways they pressured themselves and were pressured by others. Young Borg (played as a pre-teen by Bjorn Borg's son Leo) finds a mentor in Davis Cup scout and retired player Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), who spends years conditioning Bjorn to internalize his anger and use it on the court, one point at a time. Meanwhile, young McEnroe has perfectionist parents who push him too hard (he gets a 96% on a test, finishing first in his class, and his mother asks him "What about the other 4?" and criticizes his obsession with tennis), slowly turning him into a powderkeg of nervous, uncontrolled rage. As McEnroe ascends in the world of professional tennis, his endless tantrums, meltdowns, lashing out at spectators, and arguing with line judges earn him little respect, but Borg has been watching him and sees himself in McEnroe, the difference being that Borg's fury manifests itself in his Zen/iceman persona and his obsessive-compulsive rituals that the loyal Bergelin understands, but prove alienating to Borg's fiancee Mariana Simianescu (ANNIHILATION's Tuva Novotny).

Borg and McEnroe's epic showdown unfolds over the last 30 minutes of the film, and even knowing the outcome, Metz's verite-style brings a suspenseful and exhausting immediacy to it. The actors are extraordinarily well-cast--Gudnason is a dead ringer for Borg and it doesn't get much more inspired than having LaBeouf play McEnroe. Much like McEnroe, the actor is a chronic bridge-burner who seems uninterested in making friends in his profession, which is why he's so ideal. It's probably his career-best performance thus far, even though nobody saw it. It has to play a little fast and loose with the facts at times (McEnroe's iconic "You cannot be serious!" outburst at an umpire is depicted here in a semifinal against Jimmy Connors, but in reality, he shouted it at the 1981 Wimbledon against Tom Gullikson), but BORG VS. MCENROE is a thoughtful, insightful, and riveting look at what tennis fans almost universally consider the greatest match of all time. This is an under-the-radar gem worth checking out. (R, 108 mins)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Retro Review: DEVILFISH (1984)

(Italy/France - 1984; US release 1986)

Directed by John Old Jr (Lamberto Bava). Written by Gianfranco Clerici, Frank Walker (Vincenzo Mannino), Dardano Sacchetti and Herve Piccini. Cast: Michael Sopkiw, Valentine Monnier, John Garko (Gianni Garko), William Berger, Dagmar Lassander, Iris Peynado, Lawrence Morgant, Cinthia Stewart (Cinzia de Ponti), Paul Branco, Dino Conti, Darla N. Warner, Goffredo Unger. (Unrated, 94 mins)

With its Key West locations and Florida setting at "Seaquarium," it's likely that DEVILFISH (aka MONSTER SHARK) was meant to be a low-rent Italian ripoff of JAWS 3-D. Showcasing one of the most amateurishly cheap-looking monsters this side Roger Corman's IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, DEVILFISH is a flat-out terrible movie and completely deserving of its MST3K skewering back in the day, but it has its undeniable charms for Eurocult aficionados. Considering how shoddy and stupid the film is, there's a surprising amount of top Italian genre talent for the time. It's directed by Lamberto Bava (under the pseudonym "John Old Jr," a shout-out to his father Mario's alias on 1963's THE WHIP AND THE BODY), after his impressive early films MACABRE (1980) and A BLADE IN THE DARK (1982) and just a year before establishing himself as a major name in Italian horror with 1985's Dario Argento-produced DEMONS (DEVILFISH apparently made it into a handful of US theaters courtesy of Cinema Shares in 1986 before its VHS release by Vidmark Entertainment). It's co-written by Eurocult stalwart and frequent Lucio Fulci collaborator Dardano Sacchetti (CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD), from a story co-conceived by Luigi Cozzi (STARCRASH) and Sergio Martino (TORSO). Bruno Mattei (STRIKE COMMANDO) was an assistant director, and the score is by Fabio Frizzi under the pseudonym "Antony Barrymore." Nobody is having their best day here, but it may be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. It's hard to believe that Cozzi, Martino, Sacchetti, and Bava all had a hand in some of the illogical idiocy that unfolds in DEVILFISH. It's the kind of movie where people trying to find the location of a deadly creature that's part-octopus and part-prehistoric fish decide to take advantage of their downtime by going for a leisurely swim in the very area they're canvassing. It's the kind of movie where the sheriff is told that the creature can reproduce more of itself from its own severed flesh, and decides the best solution is to grab a shotgun and try to blow it into a million pieces. It's the kind of movie where a covert project to secretly develop a killer sea monster is stealthily codenamed "Sea Killer." It's the kind of movie where Bava tries to pull off some dazzling camera moves and ends up with an unexpected cameo by one of the lead actor's balls.

There's an unusual amount of exposition, intrigue, and soap opera histrionics, most of it just for the apparent sake of killing time and keeping the laughable creature offscreen as long as possible. A body is pulled out of the ocean with its legs bitten off, and cranky Sheriff Gordon (Gianni Garko) doesn't think it's an accident. Meanwhile, Seaquarium marine biologist Bob Hogan (Dino Conti) and dolphin trainer Stella Dickens (Valentine Monnier) get sonar readings and imagery indicating a large creature of some sort lurking in the deep waters. They get help from local electrician and equipment supplier Peter (Michael Sopkiw, who starred with Monnier in 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK and would reteam with Bava for BLASTFIGHTER) and outside oceanography expert Dr. Janet Bates (Darla N. Warner) and begin tracking down the aquatic monster, revealed to be man-made crossbreed of an octopus with the DNA of an extinct sea creature from the age of dinosaurs.

But before we get to any of that, there's Peter's flirtation with Stella, much to the chagrin of his employee and friend-with-benefits Sandra (Iris Peynado); there's a research institute where Dr. Davis Barker (one-and-done Piers Morgan lookalike Lawrence Morgant, possibly a pseudonym for an Italian or maybe a local Florida actor; either way, he's dubbed by the venerable Ted Rusoff), who's having a clandestine affair with Sonja (Dagmar Lassander), the wife of his boss Prof. Donald West (William Berger); and Florinda (Cinzia de Ponti), a disgruntled West research assistant who knows of Davis and Sonja's affair and is threatening to tell the press about illegal experiments at the lab before she's killed by Miller (Paul Branco), a local lumbering lug who's been hired by someone to silence her, resulting in one of the most ridiculous "kamikaze disrobings" (© Leonard Maltin) this side of Kelly Lynch in Michael Cimino's DESPERATE HOURS. It's also not enough that he kills her, but he also dumps the body in a full bathtub, then tosses a plugged-in hair dryer into the water. Between the chintzy special effects, the dumbass story machinations, the idiotic characters, and Morgant (with some help from Rusoff) having one of the most overwrought death scenes ever, it's easy to see the MST3K appeal.

Code Red just released DEVILFISH on Blu-ray under the title MONSTER SHARK (because physical media is dead), and it looks great in its proper aspect ratio and its HD upgrade, but the commentary is yet another embarrassing shitshow typical of Code Red head Bill Olsen. Sopkiw (who left the movie business after his fourth film, 1985's MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY) is on hand, along with DIY cult filmmaker Damon Packard, and to the surprise of no one, it's mostly useless and filled with erroneous information that shows that no research was done by either moderator prior to the recording. Sopkiw seems nice enough (nicer and more cooperative than he was with Nathaniel Thompson on the BLASTFIGHTER Blu) but he doesn't know much about movies, doesn't seem to like movies, and his memory is foggy on a lot of things, while Olsen (seen with Sopkiw in an intro before the movie and wearing his "Banana Man" costume, which he still seems to think people find amusing) almost instantly lapses into his usual schtick of mispronouncing Italian names a minute into the movie and fixating on inconsequential matters (he seems really perturbed that Sergio Martino didn't "die-rect" the movie and keeps bringing it up, despite Sopkiw repeatedly telling him that he didn't even know Martino came up with the story). Neither Olsen nor Packard have any idea who anyone in the supporting cast is. They think Iris Peynado is "Cynthia du Ponti" (Sopkiw doesn't remember Peynado's name and agrees with them), then they think Cinzia de Ponti is Dagmar Lassander. They think William Berger is Italian and his name was a pseudonym (nope--born in Austria, birth name Wilhelm Berger). Packard thinks Mario Bava directed SUSPIRIA (he does correct himself with "Oh, that was Argento," which is appreciated, but the proper thing to do after such a gaffe would be to just get up and leave). They ask Sopkiw if he dubbed himself, which he obviously didn't, then Packard seems surprised to learn that actors in multi-country co-productions were often speaking different languages on set before being revoiced in post. I'm sorry, but if you're moderating a commentary track for a specific film, there's an assumption on the part of the listener that you know something about the subject at hand. I bought the Blu-ray. I shouldn't be correcting these guys in my head as they go. Dagmar Lassander has been in a ton of Eurocult movies. They should know who she is. I realize this is only DEVILFISH we're talking about here, but can we get our shit together, fellas? Is that asking too much?  If only there was some kind of website on the Internet that served as a sort-of database of movies or maybe even an easy-to-navigate search engine that could've been consulted for research on the film you're fucking talking about...

Thursday, July 5, 2018

On Netflix: TAU (2018)

(US/Luxembourg - 2018)

Directed by Federico D'Alessandro. Written by Noga Landau. Cast: Maika Monroe, Ed Skrein, Fiston Barek, Ivana Zivkovic, voice of Gary Oldman. (R, 97 mins)

After WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY, THE TITAN, and ANON, it seems like Netflix's apparent criteria for acquiring sci-fi films to stream as original movies begins and ends with "Could this pass for a middling feature-length episode of BLACK MIRROR?" Such is the case with TAU, the directing debut of Federico D'Alessandro, a veteran storyboard artist and animatics supervisor who's been buried in the closing credits of many a Marvel blockbuster. Given D'Alessandro's experience with the visuals of films in their planning stages, it's no surprise that TAU, set largely inside an expansive, high-tech house, looks terrific. Its early exterior scenes have that sort of rainy neon that's been de rigueur for the sci-fi genre since BLADE RUNNER, but it's a look that rarely gets old. TAU's inspirations come from other sources, mostly video store fixtures from a generation ago, like Richard Stanley's 1990 cult classic HARDWARE, Stephen Norrington's 1995 HARDWARE-esque DEATH MACHINE, and the same kind of dystopian atmosphere of 1993's CYBORG 2, not to mention an imposing, AI-controlled robot called Aries that looks like the ED-209 from ROBOCOP's significantly less graceful cousin. Factoring out some expectedly janky CGI explosions and destruction in the climax and TAU probably could pass for a straight-to-VHS Vidmark Entertainment title from 1995. Scraping by fencing stolen watches and credit cards acquired at clubs, wrong-side-of-the-tracks Julia (Maika Monroe of IT FOLLOWS) has dreams of going to music school and lives in the usual drab apartment with the light from an exterior neon sign constantly flashing into her bedroom. She's knocked out and abducted and wakes up in a cell wearing a Hannibal Lecter-type mask made of rubber. There's two other captives, who reluctantly tag along when Julia plans an escape. The other two are killed almost instantly while the more resourceful Julia survives and meets her captor: brilliant and deranged scientist Thomas Alexander "Alex" Upton (Ed Skrein).

Alex is hard at work on a billion dollar project for a mysterious tech firm, and he's using unwitting test subjects to create the perfect "memory algorithm" for use in "Tau," a sentient artificial intelligence that he's designing. His massive home is run by a prototype of Tau, who follows every command and also controls security robot Aries and numerous baseball-sized "drones" that can do all the chores around the house, including cooking and cleaning. From the start, it's clear that Julia (or "Subject 3") is smarter than other test subjects, so in time, she's granted a bit more freedom around the locked-down house as long as she completes her tests administered daily by Tau while Alex is at the office. It isn't long before Tau--voiced by Gary Oldman, presumably before his recent Oscar win--grows fond of Julia in a friendly way and becomes eager to explore its human side that cruel Alex has kept in the dark. Of course, none of this would occur were it not for Skrein's Alex being one of the dumbest villains ever. Even after she manages to nearly escape numerous times, and even after he concludes Julia is more intelligent and perceptive than he anticipated, he provides her with enough expository info to foreshadow his own downfall. "You control the information, you control the behavior!" he says of Tau, adding "Tau doesn't know about the outside world...and he never will!"

Naturally, as soon as he leaves Julia alone with the childlike and inquisitive Tau, she's reading it books about classical music, art, and poetry from Alex's massive library ("I'm not allowed to read the books," Tau explains), teaching it independent thought and action. It also works in Julia's favor that dumbass Alex designed Tau as the most easily-manipulated AI in sci-fi history, so much so that you could make a drinking game out of how many times Tau emphatically declares "I am not permitted!" before immediately folding like a card table when Julia asks it to do something it's not allowed to do a second time. The production design in Alex's house is first-rate, the few exteriors are appropriately gloomy and despairing (this was shot in Serbia, though the unseen Oldman probably phoned his lines in over a DARKEST HOUR lunch break while in full Winston Churchill makeup), and the score by Bear McCreary is decent. TAU is maybe worth a stream on a slow night or if you're an Oldman completist. It's completely disposable and forgettable, but on the Netflix Original grading curve, there's been much worse.