Friday, August 31, 2018

In Theaters: SEARCHING (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Aneesh Chaganty. Written by Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanion. Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Joseph Lee, Sara Sohn, Stephen Michael Eich, Briana McLean, Ric Sarabia, Dominic Hoffman. (PG-13, 102 mins)

Setting an entire film on a laptop screen isn't a new gimmick. UNFRIENDED did a better-than-expected job of pulling it off, while others, like Nacho Vigalondo's OPEN WINDOWS, start strong but fall apart by trying to ditch the hook as quickly as possible. UNFRIENDED, produced by Russian NIGHT WATCH auteur Timur Bekmambetov, wasn't perfect, but it understood that it needed to stay on the computer screen to work, so to that end, it's not surprising that Bekmambetov is a producer on SEARCHING, a tense nail-biter that takes UNFRIENDED's hook and runs with it, making something smart, substantive, immersive, and wholly engrossing. It's a one-of-a-kind film both in its execution and the way it will actually hold up on repeat viewings even after you know how it ends. It'll be just as riveting to study how the filmmakers and the editors assembled the puzzle and hooked you along the way.

Sure, SEARCHING could be told in a straightforward, narrative fashion. It is, after all, a missing persons mystery first and foremost, with widower David Kim (John Cho) not terribly concerned about his 16-year-old daughter Margot's (Michelle La) whereabouts after a Thursday night. They communicated only by text and Facetime when she was at a study group at a friend's house and said she'd be home late. They had a brief, insignificant disagreement about her forgetting to take out the trash. He falls asleep, misses three calls from her, wakes up Friday morning and assumes she's already left for school, the trash still overflowing in the kitchen. He goes to work and he grows increasingly worried over the course of the day that she isn't answering his texts. He remembers that she has piano lessons after school on Fridays and calls the instructor, who informs him that Margot cancelled her lessons six months ago--lessons for which he's been shelling out $100 a week. He gets home and notices that she never took her laptop and backpack to school. Because she never made it home Thursday night. He calls the school and is told she never showed up that morning.. After being told of an overnight Friday camping trip in which a bunch of students were cutting class to attend and that Margot was invited, his mind is at ease until he gets a hold a student who says Margot was invited to go but didn't show. He finally calls the police, where decorated Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) catches the case (David Googles her while he's on the phone with her), instructing David to let her do the groundwork and instead turn his focus to piecing together Margot's Thursday by seeing what her friends can tell him.

From a straight synopsis perspective, SEARCHING is a functional mystery. But director/co-writer Aneesh Chaganty, a veteran of Google's commercial department, and his writing partner and fellow USC grad Sev Ohanion keep the action entirely on a computer screen, with the actors seen in Facetime chats, webcams, YouTube videos, some dialogue conveyed in text form, and online news services providing updates in the soon-to-be-nationwide hunt for Margot. Everything we as the audience observe and learn is on the screen and in David's relentless Google searches and hacking into Margot's social media--Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr--to see that she's leading a secret life and that he doesn't know her at all (and he's not really tech-savvy with "the kids"--at one point, he's Facetiming one of Margot's friends and asks "What's a tumbler?"). There's names he's never heard, weekly $100 deposits in her bank account, and $2500 being transferred to herself via a now-closed Venmo account. Contacting her Facebook friends reveals she was an outcast who didn't have many friends at all, that she was only in the study group because the others knew she was smart. He's also told that she was only invited to the camping trip because one kid's mom felt sorry for the two of them over their loss of her mom and his wife Pam (Sara Sohn in old videos saved on David's computer), who succumbed to a long battle with lymphoma a year earlier.

From the moment SEARCHING begins, it's clear that Chaganty's film is a remarkably confident and assured debut: with no dialogue, we get a six-minute journey through the last 16 years in the life of the Kim family, all via videos, photos, messages, e-mails, changing social media platforms (they sign up on Facebook in 2007) and calendar appointments on the family computer. It's all there--happy memories, Margot's birth, her birthdays, Mother's Days, Father's Days, family outings, Margot's first days of school with each passing year, Pam's cancer diagnosis, treatment, remission, the cancer returning, a "Mom comes home!" date that keeps get bumped ahead in the onscreen planner until it's finally dragged into the trash and we see the next First Day of School photo with just Margot and David. We learn everything we need to know about this family--their dynamic, their interaction, their affection--through their lives on the computer. The filmmakers also admirably don't succumb to preachy "messages" and statement-making about the ubiquity of computers and social media, although they do skewer the online culture in the way they cleverly weave it into the fabric of the story. As news of Margot's disappearance spreads and "#FindMargot" goes viral, the case starts being tried in the court of public opinion. Soon enough, David is being harangued by trolls and mean-spirited "Father of the Year" memes for losing his daughter. Internet comments sections on news stories and Reddit are flooded with internet bullies saying cruel and horrible things about the Kim family ("The dad did it," "She's a whore," etc), and even the study group friend who says she barely knew Margot posts a teary video where she's devastated about the disappearance of her "best friend."

Never has a film of this sort used the online medium in such a smart and vividly-detailed fashion. David's frantic, dread-inducing Google searches often go by so quickly that you barely get a subliminal flash of a clue that may or may not be important. Chaganty and Oharian have you guessing from the get-go. What is Margot doing?  Is she acting out as a coping mechanism over her mother's death? Is she mad that David kept harping about the trash? Did she run away from home? Why did she recently buy a fake ID? Is she into drugs? Is she laundering money? Why did she try to call David three times? One Reddit commenter claims to be her "pimp." Why doesn't David's pothead brother Peter (Joseph Lee) seem very concerned? Does Vick know more than she's letting on? Is she keeping pertinent details from David? The red herrings and misdirection come at you from all angles and from anywhere in the frame, with at least two potential game-changing plot developments that actually produced audible gasps from the audience. There's a couple of minor quibbles that nit-pickers might not be able to get around (one that doesn't involve spoilers--don't schools call parents when kids no-show?), but SEARCHING is a marvel of intricate story construction and almost flawless execution. It doesn't back itself into corners that require a half-assed deus ex machina to get out of, and it doesn't cut corners to get where it needs to go. Anchored by a quietly powerful performance from Cho with strong support from Messing as the by-the-book cop who's methodical and clinical but still sympathetic and sharing humorous parenting stories about her own teenage son with David to keep him grounded and calm, SEARCHING got some hushed acclaim at Sundance early in 2018, where Sony acquired it for $5 million and critics who saw it wisely kept its many rewards under wraps. Don't be fooled by its Labor Day weekend dumping: this is a near-perfect thriller and one of the best films of the year. Go see this movie.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

In Theaters: OPERATION FINALE (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Chris Weitz. Written by Matthew Orton. Cast: Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Melanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, Haley Lu Richardson, Joe Alwyn, Greta Scacchi, Peter Strauss, Michael Aronov, Ohad Knoller, Greg Hill, Torben Liebrecht, Michael Benjamin Hernandez, Simon Russell Beale, Allan Corduner, Rainer Reiners, Rucio Munoz, Rita Pauls. (PG-13, 123 mins)

In its best moments, OPERATION FINALE recalls the kinds of international espionage, manhunt, and WWII or post-war men-on-a-mission productions that were commonplace in the 1960s, and might star a Sophia Loren or a Julie Christie with a Peter O'Toole or a Christopher Plummer and feature some combination of Jeremy Kemp, Anton Diffring, or Donald Pleasence as monocle-wearing Nazis, along with the inevitable Karl-Otto Alberty as a sinister aide-de-camp to whoever was playing the primary villain. FINALE is set in 1960 and details the plot to extract SS Obergruppenfuhrer and key Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann from Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he was hiding since 1950, working in a Mercedes-Benz factory under the alias "Ricardo Klement." Eichmann is played by Ben Kingsley, in his second "war criminal in hiding" role this year after the forgettable AN ORDINARY MAN and depicted as a captive that recalls, albeit in a much less psychosexual fashion, his role in Roman Polanski's 1994 film DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal was also indirectly involved with supplying intel the early days of the search for Eichmann; he's not seen or mentioned in OPERATION FINALE, but of course, he was played by Kingsley in the 1989 HBO movie MURDERERS AMONG US). Things start to unravel for Eichmann/"Klement" when his son Klaus (Joe Alwyn), who he, as Klement, publicly refers to as his nephew through marriage (Greta Scacchi plays Mrs. Eichmann), begins dating young Sophie (Haley Lu Richardson), the daughter of Lothar Hermann (Peter Strauss sighting!), a blind, half-Jewish German businessman who's lived in Buenos Aires for 25 years. Sophie doesn't get around to mentioning that she's Jewish and flees in horror and disgust when Klaus, who has kept his last name and claims Adolf was just a relative he never knew, takes her to a de facto Nazi rally at a banquet hall, where prominent members of the city's German population still gather to privately goose-step and Sieg Heil like the good old days. Sophie gets suspicious of Klaus and his family when she hears him address his "uncle" Ricardo as "Father," prompting Lothar to notify German prosecutor Fritz Bauer (Rainer Reiners) that Adolf Eichmann might be hiding in Buenos Aires.

Bauer alerts Israel's Mossad intelligence, which launches an investigation as agency head Isser Harel (Lior Raz) assembles a team headed by Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), who's looking for redemption after being disgraced in a 1954 incident in Austria that saw his team thinking they found Eichmann and killing the wrong man in a case of mistaken identity (this plot point seems to be a creation of the filmmakers for dramatic purposes). Getting Eichmann turns out to be the easy part. Once the authorities and powerful Germans in Buenos Aires realize Eichmann is missing, the Israelis will only have a limited time to get him out of the country. It's too long by boat, and no Israeli airline flies direct to Buenos Aires. Harel manages to secure a plane under the guise of some diplomats from Tel Aviv visiting for the anniversary of Argentina's independence, but when the plane is delayed for a week, they're forced to sit on Eichmann at a safe house much longer than anticipated. As Argentine officials and Eichmann's German benefactors--along with an enraged, vengeful Klaus Eichmann--Malkin and chief interrogator Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov) attempt to break their captor and get him to sign a statement confessing to his roles in the atrocities.

Directed by Chris Weitz (AMERICAN PIE, ABOUT A BOY), helming his first film since 2011's A BETTER LIFE, OPERATION FINALE takes some dramatic license (especially in the occasionally talky middle) but remains generally faithful to the story. It's a terrific scene for a Hollywood movie in the way Aharoni coerces a confession, but it's doubtful that a stone cold master manipulator like Eichmann caved as quickly as it's depicted here. The film drags a bit in the middle when Malkin decides to play "good cop" and bond with Eichmann in order to get him to sign a statement, and it comes as no surprise when he learns that he's being played. But the scenes detailing the early procedural work involved in the mission and the nail-biting suspense of Eichmann's extraction, where agent/doctor Hanna Elian (Melanie Laurent, revisiting some more historically accurate INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS stomping grounds) keeps Eichmann in a state of dazed, barely-conscious sedation that requires the team to essentially WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S him out of Buenos Aires, all propelled by a terrific Alexandre Desplat score, provide edge-of-your-seat entertainment. Other than some flashbacks where Kingsley is saddled with some truly horrific-looking de-aging makeup that looks like it's ready to melt off his face at any moment, the actor is superb as Eichmann, even nailing the facial expressions and twitching that we see on the real Eichmann in some archival footage of his trial at the end. Despite the grim topic at hand, OPERATION FINALE is not overly self-serious and gunning for awards. Rather, it's a respectful genre piece that takes the time to treat its subject matter with appropriate respect and sensitivity while still remembering to be a solid, mainstream thriller and actually having some humorous one-liners, mostly provided by Nick Kroll as one of Malkin's wisecracking Mossad colleagues. We're not talking MUNICH here, but OPERATION FINALE is a welcome, old(ish)-school throwback of sorts, and better than the end-of-summer, Labor Day weekend dumping it's getting from MGM would indicate.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Retro Review: GIALLO IN VENICE (1979)

(Italy - 1979)

Directed by Mario Landi. Written by Aldo Serio. Cast: Leonora Fani, Jeff Blynn, Gianni Dei, Maria Angela Giordano, Michele Renzullo, Eolo Capritti, Vassili Karis, Giancarlo Del Duca, Maurizio Streccioni. (Unrated, 99 mins)

After the genre reached its pinnacle with Dario Argento's 1975 classic DEEP RED, the Italian giallo didn't really have anywhere else to go. DEEP  RED tangentially involved the supernatural with its story kicking off with a medium sensing the presence of a murderer who will kill again only to find that she's the next victim. Inspired to explore this new direction, Argento abandoned the giallo for several years to go into the full-on supernatural madness of SUSPIRIA and INFERNO. Gialli were still being made by others, but they were getting increasingly sleazy with the likes of Andrea Bianchi's STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER (1975) and Alberto Negrin's RED RINGS OF FEAR (1978). Some gialli--most notably Roberto Montero's 1972 offering THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC!--were retrofitted with newly-shot porno inserts and released on the XXX circuit. When the Montero film was rechristened PENETRATION in 1976, it featured new hardcore footage of Harry Reems and Tina Russell, much to the chagrin of SLASHER star Farley Granger, who sued to have to it yanked--no pun intended--from porno houses. The introduction of such material foreshadowed the direction the giallo would take by the end of the 1970s before getting a second wind with Argento's 1982 masterpiece TENEBRAE. With interest in the genre waning, directors like Argento, Sergio Martino, and Lucio Fulci (whose 1977 film THE PSYCHIC is a solid giallo from the period) moved on to other things, which cleared the way for the D-list journeymen of Italian exploitation to scrounge for table scraps and make their mark in the mercifully short-lived giallo/porno crossover craze of 1979.

The attempted mainstreaming of pornography reached its apex (or nadir, depending on your POV) with 1980's epic CALIGULA, but as far as the giallo is concerned, it sounds a lot more fun in theory than in practice, because the two signature examples of the movement are both grungy, grimy, ugly, bottom-of-the-barrel affairs. For Eurotrash fans and Italian horror connoisseurs, PLAY MOTEL and GIALLO IN VENICE (neither film received a US theatrical release) had a certain mystique about them when they languished in obscurity in the olden, 1990s days of mail order catalogs and barely-watchable transfers on bootleg VHS often so dodgy and difficult to come by that they'd be in Italian without English subtitles, all the proof you need that the plots in these things didn't even matter. Directed by Mario Gariazzo (THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW), PLAY MOTEL was released on Blu-ray and DVD by Raro a couple of years ago, and it was decidedly not worth the wait. Star Ray Lovelock (THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE) called it the worst movie he ever made and he's probably right. PLAY MOTEL exists in both hardcore and softcore variants, the softcore basically featuring everything but the money shots, and the hardcore footage not involving established, "name" actors like Lovelock and Anthony Steffen. It's a giallo in the sense that people are killed, but the story of blackmail at a no-tell motel is completely DOA, and the sex scenes aren't even remotely erotic. Likewise with the even more notorious GIALLO IN VENICE, directed by Mario Landi, who would also helm 1980's similarly scuzzy fake PATRICK sequel PATRICK STILL LIVES, the most famous scene of which involves C-list Eurocult sex goddess Maria Angela Giordano getting impaled by a fireplace poker rammed into her vagina.

That's pretty much the level you're at with GIALLO IN VENICE, a problematic 99-minute Vulture/AV Club/Vice doomsday scenario that also features an almost identical vaginal violation involving a large pair of scissors that's somehow less distasteful for what it depicts and more offensive for the cheap and shoddy way in which the gore effect is accomplished. Unlike PLAY MOTEL, GIALLO IN VENICE actually makes a few half-assed overtures at pretending to be a giallo, and in better hands, a couple of its plot twists and a few genuinely striking shots, even if achieved accidentally, might've made it at least a serviceable justification for the giallo/porno mash-up. But it's saddled with some terrible actors, a hilariously inappropriate score, which has graphic scenes of sexual sadism accompanied by what sounds like the kind of brassy, big-band orchestration more suited for an old MGM musical, and endless, extremely unerotic and unpleasant sexual interludes. It never quite goes full-on porno, but there's explicit female masturbation, a cunnilingus scene that leaves almost nothing to the imagination, and an onscreen erection with a guy jerking off in a movie theater, all showcasing the finest in 1979 pubic grooming standards, plus one of the least subtle uses of an oyster you'll ever see. The gore is also over-the-top, but done so amateurishly that you can't help but laugh at it if the film doesn't put you to sleep. It's really hard to believe that an X-worthy grinder filled with wall-to-wall sex and violence could be as boring as GIALLO AS VENICE.

The film utilizes a flashback-heavy structure, opening with the murders of Venice architect Fabio (Gianni Dei) and his wife Flavia (Leonora Fani). Enter shaggy-haired, hard-boiled egg-fixated Insp. De Pol (Jeff Blynn, a Maurizio Merli clone who looks more like Jefferson Starship frontman Mickey Thomas here) going through their sordid life to find out what happened. He questions her friend Marzia (Giordano), who has a drug rap with dealer Marco (Maurizio Streccioni). Marzia tells De Pol of the couple's dirty secrets, with Fabio a sadistic exhibitionist with a strong desire for public sex with Flavia, often hoping that strangers joined in (including a movie theater perv who's silently encouraged by Fabio to jerk off on his wife). Flavia tried to go along, especially since Fabio couldn't achieve arousal unless he was humiliating her, even agreeing to take part in an orgy, which was documented in a series of photos De Pol's slovenly, Kojak-looking sidekick (Eolo Capritti) snags from Marzia's apartment. Soon, a sunglassed killer (Michele Renzullo, who resembles a balding Klaus Kinski) kills a hooker (the vaginal scissor stabbing) and then sets his sights on Marzia, who dumped him after the pair briefly dated.

Jeff Blynn as Maurizio Merli as Mickey Thomas
It should become clear to De Pol who the killer is, but he's unquestionably the worst detective in the entire giallo canon. He's there when the killer leaves an obscene message for Marzia, who claims that it's an ex but he doesn't bother asking her the guy's name, and he has an eyewitness but doesn't ask any follow-up questions, probably because he can't think of anything other than hard-boiled eggs. The killer soon takes out Marco and Marzia in ways that are simultaneously (intentionally) gross and (unintentionally) hilarious, but the story takes an unexpected twist that lands with a thud but could've been a knockout if handled by a better filmmaker than the clock-punching Landi, who had a lengthy career in TV going back to the 1950s but did little to make a name for himself. There's essentially two storylines going on in GIALLO IN VENICE, which may make it sound like Flavio Mogherini's ambitious 1977 gem THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE, but the comparisons end there. It's ultimately all pointless smoke and mirrors, especially since De Pol never does get to the bottom of what happened. It's obvious with the introduction of Flavia's ex-boyfriend, comic book artist Bruno (Vassili Karis), that he's there for a reason, but while it's not the one you expect, the resolution is still ultimately unsatisfying. Of course, it hardly matters by that point anyway, as the film's sole reason for being is to wallow in as much tawdry lewdness that Landi can cram into its seemingly interminable running time.

About as titillating as watching your mother get bukkaked, GIALLO IN VENICE--just out on Blu-ray from Scorpion, because physical media is dead--is pretty miserable, unless you count one vigorously enthusiastic Giordano sex scene that's still nevertheless tainted by the fact that it starts out as a brutal rape that she comes around to enjoying. This was one of several trashfests that she starred in for sleaze merchant producer Gabriele Crisanti, with whom she was romantically involved from the late '70s to the early '80s. This included her best-known role as the object of her zombified son's breast-biting lust in 1980's legendary BURIAL GROUND, and in addition to PATRICK STILL LIVES (which also featured Dei as the comatose title character), other films in the Giordano/Crisanti tribute to tackiness included 1979's MALABIMBA (where she played a horny nun who decides the best way to cure her possessed niece is to seduce her), and 1982's SATAN'S BABY DOLL. Fani starred in various Italian exploitation films in the late '70s into the '80s, including 1976's bestiality-themed DOG LAY AFTERNOON, which is exactly what you think it is. Los Angeles-born Blynn had a modeling career in Europe before finding some movie work as a bargain-basement Maurizio Merli in some late-period poliziotteschi like the forgettable Henry Silva vehicle WEAPONS OF DEATH. He never found stardom on any level, and he's absolutely terrible here as one of the least charismatic and most ineffectual protagonists in any giallo. Other than a novel twist that it botches, a few admittedly cool shots of victims reflected in the killer's mirrored shades, and Giordano's spirited reverse cowgirl histrionics, GIALLO IN VENICE is a depressing drag, though I suppose it's necessary viewing for Eurocult completists. Just plan on feeling really disgusted with yourself and needing a Silkwood Shower (© Marty McKee) when it's finally over.

Friday, August 24, 2018

In Theaters: PAPILLON (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Michael Noer. Written by Aaron Guzikowski. Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Eve Hewson, Yorick van Wageningen, Roland Moller, Tommy Flanagan, Michael Socha, Joel Basman, Christopher Fairbank, Slavko Sobin, Antonio de la Cruz. (R, 133 mins)

Based on the 1969 memoir of Devil's Island escapee Henri Charriere, the 1973 hit PAPILLON provided the legendary Steve McQueen with one of his most indelible characters, even if the film wasn't exactly faithful to Charriere, nicknamed "Papillon" because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest. A remake was completely unnecessary but we've got one anyway, and while it's based more on the 1973 film's script by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr., it still takes its own, different liberties. The results are better than expected, due in large part to its straightforward approach to its action sequences (who would've thought camera stability and visual coherence would be considered "old school?"), and guys throwing punches that actually sound like real punches hitting flesh. It's also R-rated versus the 1973's PG (it was originally R, but got a PG on appeal, and it does get away with a lot for a PG), allowing acclaimed Danish filmmaker Michael Noer (R, NORTHWEST), making his American debut, much more room for graphic violence and brutality, including a knife fight in a shower that clearly shows Noer is a fan of EASTERN PROMISES. The central story remains the same, opening in 1931 Paris with safecracker Papillon (Charlie Hunnam) keeping a few diamonds from a recent job for himself and being framed by his employer (Christopher Fairbank) for the murder of a pimp and sentenced to a brutal penal colony in French Guiana. Once there, he forms an alliance with wealthy counterfeiter Louis Dega (Rami Malek in Dustin Hoffman's 1973 role), offering protection in exchange for bankrolling an attempted escape. Time and again, Papillon runs afoul of Warden Barrot (Yorick van Wageningen), earning two-year and five-year stints in solitary. Eventually, Papillon plans his most ambitious escape attempt yet, using the last of Dega's money--usually stored in his rectum--to secure a boat from a local trader (Hunnam's SONS OF ANARCHY co-star Tommy Flanagan) as he and Dega form an unholy alliance with brutish Celier (Roland Moller) and young Maturette (Joel Basman).

Shot two years ago and tied up in part due to the apparently-defunct production company Red Granite's legal problems tied to racketeering and an ongoing Malaysian government scandal (Red Granite had to pay a $60 million settlement to the US Justice Department and the company's name is no longer in the credits or the advertising), PAPILLON '18 hits all the same bullet points as PAPILLON '73 with some changes of varying significance--a changed name here, a different circumstance there. But Noer and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (PRISONERS) include enough unique touches to allow their version to stand on its own. It's also an unexpected development that, unlike almost all prison wardens in popular culture, von Wageningen's Barrot is stern and unsympathetic without crossing the line into sadism, even almost begrudgingly respecting Papillon's resolve for emerging from years in silent solitary confinement with his mind intact. Hunnam and Malik are very good, but they're obviously not McQueen and Hoffman, and they'd probably be the first to agree with that point. No one in this film sounds French but then, neither did the stars of PAPILLON '73.

One minor stumble of PAPILLON '18 is that some of the vernacular in its early scenes doesn't really sound very "1931 Paris," especially when characters start dropping tough guy GOODFELLASisms like "Fuck that piece of shit!" and "Cut his fuckin' balls off!" (there's even another variant later as Flanagan's character yells "Pay me or fuck you!"). There's a nightmare sequence as Papillon comes close to breaking in solitary that looks like an outtake from Alejandro Jodorowky's SANTA SANGRE, and when he's eventually condemned for life to Devil's Island, his arrival has surreal, otherworldly feel of AGUIRRE and HEART OF GLASS-era Werner Herzog (or, possibly, the "Village of the Crazies" sequence in GYMKATA). Such arthouse flourishes aren't something usually seen in a generally mainstream summer release, and the location work in Serbia and Malta, the very physically committed performances of Hunnam and the other actors, and the reliance on as much practical shooting as possible on painstakingly constructed recreations of the penal colony give the film a real-world tangibility that's lost a lot these days as more films utilize CGI and greenscreen for even the simplest shots (Hunnam seems drawn to this sort of thing, between this and James Gray's THE LOST CITY OF Z). Regardless of its superfluous nature, PAPILLON '18's work ethic is admirable. It obviously doesn't supplant it predecessor, but it's fine film in its own right, and better and more compelling than it has any business being.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: BLACK WATER (2018), BLEEDING STEEL (2018) and DAMASCUS COVER (2018)

(US - 2018)

A more apt title for this nautical non-actioner might be ESCAPE PLAN: RUN STAGNANT, RUN DULL, as cult action heroes Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren reunite once again, though this is really a JCVD vehicle with a glorified cameo from Dolph. Van Damme is Scott Wheeler, an off-the-grid CIA agent who wakes up on a sub that doubles as a secret black-ops detention facility, located in deep waters off the southern coast of the US. He has no memory of how he got there, but he stands accused of traitorous actions against the US, specifically trying to sell classified intel on a drive that's gone missing. He repeatedly professes his innocence, even under the threat of gruesome eyeball injection torture by rogue agent Ferris (JCVD's old DEATH WARRANT nemesis Patrick Kilpatrick). Of course, Wheeler's being set up by former boss Rhodes (Al Sapienza), whose goons (the inevitable Kris Van Damme among them) take over the sub in search of Wheeler after he escapes from his holding cell and finds an unlikely ally in rookie agent Taylor (Jasmine Waltz), who doesn't buy what her bosses are selling her. Lundgren appears briefly in the beginning, as a German detainee named Marco, offering sage advice to Wheeler from an adjacent cell, but he then vanishes for most of the next hour and change before Wheeler springs him and then he finds a way to completely sit out the climax, ample evidence that Lundgren didn't spend more than a day working on this. If you're expecting an enjoyably old-school, throwback Van Damme/Lundgren actioner from the glory days of 1992, then you're better off rewatching UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. Murky and slow-moving, BLACK WATER is an inauspicious directing debut for cinematographer Pasha Patriki (GRIDLOCKED), not helped in the slightest by the fact that passing this tedious submarine thriller off as a JCVD/Dolph teaming is some straight-up Das Bullshit. (R, 105 mins)

(China - 2017; US release 2018)

When his Liam Neeson-esque revenge thriller THE FOREIGNER hit US theaters last year, many moviegoers probably assumed it was a comeback of sorts for Jackie Chan, who, other than voice work in the KUNG-FU PANDA movies, hadn't been seen onscreen in American multiplexes since the 2010 remake of THE KARATE KID. Quite the contrary, as the 64-year-old action icon remains as busy as ever, averaging three to four movies a year for the Asian market, most of which get no publicity whatsoever on their way to domestic VOD and Redbox kiosks. Chan's most recent Chinese film to stealthily drop in the US is BLEEDING STEEL, and it's one of his worst, an incoherent hodgepodge of ideas and styles that tries to be everything and succeeds at nothing. It's mostly dour and serious but has slapstick moments that come out of nowhere, and it might make a good kids or at least YA movie, but it's R-rated and far too bloody and violent for younger audiences. Even worse, it's no fun at all, and Chan is uncharacteristically boring as Lin Dong, a Hong Kong special agent whose young daughter XiXi (Elena Cai) is dying of leukemia in a hospital. He's unable to make it to her deathbed when he's called upon by his government superiors to deal with securing Dr. James (veteran Australian character actor Kim Gyngell), a recently defected geneticist whose witness protection has been compromised. Lin and his fellow officers protecting Jones are attacked by a "bioroid" creation of James' called Andrew (Callan Mulvey) and his group of pale, leather-trenchcoated bald dudes who look like they wandered in from a DARK CITY cosplay convention.

Jump ahead 13 years, and Lin ends up in Sydney, Australia when sci-fi author Rick Rogers (Damien Garvey) is killed by the Woman in Black (Tess Haubrich), a ruthless, bloodthirsty underling of a now-ailing Andrew. Rogers' latest book Bleeding Steel shares an alarming number of details that go into specifics on James' experimental work on Andrew, and it turns out the writer was buying the session notes of a witch (Gillian Jones) who's been serving as a quack therapist to confused orphaned teenager Nancy (Nanan Ou-Yang), who feels like her memories aren't her own and she isn't who she thinks she is. That's because she's really XiXi, who didn't die, and was instead treated with a regenerative drug by Dr. Jones. Lin figures this out and teams with younger sidekick Leeson (Show Lo) to protect his daughter from a sickly Andrew, who wants to transfuse her blood to give himself unlimited biomechanical powers. Or something. Chan (one of 50 credited producers) and director/co-writer Leo Zhang take this nonsense a lot more seriously than they should, so much so that it doesn't really gel when the star takes a few lengthy sabbaticals so the film can focus on Show's puerile antics, which include some asinine kung-fu moves while his pants fall down, accompanied by what sounds like someone trying to do the SEINFELD bass line. There's also a wacky food court brawl where an undercover Lin is working at a fast-food joint and wearing a nametag that reads "Jackie Chan." Only Haubrich seems to find the right tone in playing her role, and BLEEDING STEEL comes alive whenever she's onscreen, especially in the one standout sequence, a fight with Chan atop one of the shells of the Sydney Opera House. The film does earn some points for pulling arguably the most shameless deus ex machina in recent memory out of its ass in the climactic battle on Andrew's spacecraft (!) hovering over Sydney (!!), but this is far and away the dumbest movie Jackie Chan has ever made, and not in a good way. (R, 109 mins)

(Singapore/UK - 2018)

Based on a 1977 novel by Howard Kaplan but with its setting updated to 1989 just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, DAMASCUS COVER is a spy thriller that wants to be both a BOURNE actioner and a methodical TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY-style espionage saga from the John Le Carre school, and definitely landing more in the latter camp with its low-key presentation and slow pacing that's frequently too plodding for its own good. The notion of showing the evolution of the spy game from the Cold War to the eventual War on Terror shows that director/co-writer Daniel Zelik Berk (a veteran producer whose most high-profile directing credit is the 1998 TV-movie SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK...FOR MORE) has put some thought into the project, but DAMASCUS COVER never really catches fire. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is Ari Ben-Sion, an undercover Mossad agent based in Berlin and posing as a German businessman named "Hans Hoffman." After he botches an extraction of an asset who blew his cover, he tries to redeem himself with his cantankerous boss Miki (the late John Hurt in his final role before his death in January 2017) by volunteering for a dangerous assignment that involves smuggling a chemical weapons scientist and his family out of Syria. He also crosses paths with an intrepid USA Today photojournalist (Olivia Thirlby) while trying to keep her at a distance, and ingratiates himself into the Damascus business world by glad-handing with a wealthy ex-Nazi (Jurgen Prochnow) in a time-consuming subplot that doesn't really go anywhere.

Sir John Hurt (1940-2017)
As expected, the story does some globetrotting, jumping between Berlin, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Damascus, with some attractive areas of Morocco portraying Israel and Syria, and there's the usual double-crosses and people not being who they claim to be, but DAMASCUS COVER just sort of putters along with no real sense of urgency and very little suspense. Igal Naor has a few good moments as a Syrian general, but Rhys Meyers is a bland hero and Prochnow has nothing to do (and I'm pretty sure that's a publicity shot of Prochnow from 1983's THE KEEP serving as the file photo in his character's Mossad dossier). It's competently made and looks nice, but DAMASCUS COVER is a footnote to the careers of everyone involved and it's notable only as Hurt's last film (he was cast as Neville Chamberlain in DARKEST HOUR but his battle with cancer forced him to back out just before shooting began, and he was replaced by Ronald Pickup). He's the old pro he always was in his sporadic appearances as Miki (who isn't too far removed from his Control in TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY) and by the end, one gets the feeling that a more intriguing film could've been made about his and Naor's characters. Hurt's final shot near the end, hanging up a pay phone after somberly sighing "Goodbye, my friend," serves as a perfect farewell to a wonderful actor. (R, 94 mins)

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

In Theaters: MILE 22 (2018)

(US/China - 2018)

Directed by Peter Berg. Written by Lea Carpenter. Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Lauren Cohan, Iko Uwais, John Malkovich, Ronda Rousey, Terry Kinney, Carlo Alban, Sam Medina, Natasha Goubskaya, Chae Rin Lee, Emily Skeggs, Keith Arthur Bolden, Poorna Jagannathan, Peter Berg, Nikolai Nikolaeff, Sean Avery, David Garelik. (R, 93 mins)

A fictional offshoot of actor-turned-director Peter Berg's "Mark Wahlberg: American Hero" trilogy, MILE 22 sees the duo hitting rock bottom and serves as irrefutable proof that whatever potential Berg might've had is gone and he's totally regressing as a filmmaker. LONE SURVIVOR was prone to military cliches but was a solid, well-acted film overall, and the underappreciated DEEPWATER HORIZON was even better, probably because it didn't paint Wahlberg as the sole hero and gave a lot of screen time to Kurt Russell and other actors, making it more of an ensemble piece. PATRIOTS DAY, Wahlberg/Berg's laughably simplistic take on the Boston Marathon bombing, which placed Wahlberg's completely fictional everyman cop as a tough-talking Johnny On-the-Spot who's magically at the center of all the action, even barking orders at FBI guys and government officials who hold off on making their next move until they consult with him, was a huge stumble, and MILE 22 finds the pair suffocating on the toxic fumes of their alpha male bullshit. This film is atrocious on nearly every level, from its confused plot to its quick-cut action sequences, which are over-edited to the point of sheer incoherence, to Berg functioning as less of a director and more of an enabler who's derelict in his duties, doing nothing to rein in his star, who turns in one of the most embarrassingly self-indulgent performances in recent memory. It's Mark Wahlberg imploding into bad self-parody by doing a ludicrously amped-up impression of "Mark Wahlberg," and that's long before another character actually says "Say hi to your mother for me." Imagine Jason Bourne as a loud, loathsome, motor-mouthed asshole and you'll get an idea of how insufferably grating an over-the-top Wahlberg is here. When John Malkovich yells "Stop monologuing, you bipolar fuck," one gets the impression that the line was unscripted.

Wahlberg is James Silva, the leader of an elite CIA black ops/counterterrorism unit called Ground Branch. He's supposed to be the best of the best, but as the opening sequence at a suburban American safe house of a rogue Russian terror cell and the subsequent 90 minutes demonstrate, a lot of colleagues seem to die on his watch. This isn't surprising seeing that he's almost like the perfect hero for the Trump era: a vein-popping anger management case and bellicose know-it-all prone to blowhard lectures that include long quotes from Wikipedia, frothing-at-the-mouth tantrums, dismissive insults to his colleagues, and endlessly yapping displays of bloated arrogance that make it hard to believe anyone would work under this prick, let alone lay down their lives for him. In an unnamed Asian country, nine containers of cesium have gone missing and Silva's team is activated by remote Overwatch commander Bishop (Malkovich) to deal with Li Noor (THE RAID star Iko Uwais), a cop and former Indonesian government agent who knows the worldwide locations of the missing cesium and wants asylum to the US in exchange for the information. This leads to a sort-of DIPSHIT GAUNTLET as Silva and his team, which includes Alice (Lauren Cohan as Milla Jovovich) and Sam (Ronda Rousey), have to safeguard and escort Li on a 22-mile trip across the city to the airport, all the while evading corrupt local cops charged with taking them out.

It speaks to Berg's clueless approach to MILE 22 that he has Uwais onboard and utterly squanders the opportunity by feeling the need to edit his action sequences into a scrambled, eye-glazing blur. THE RAID and its even better sequel THE RAID 2 were perfect showcases for the Indonesian action star, and Berg must be a fan since the last half hour of MILE 22 makes a sudden switch from DIPSHIT GAUNTLET to DIPSHIT RAID, with Silva, Alice, and Li trapped in a high-rise apartment complex as corrupt local cop Axel's (Sam Medina) goons try to corner and kill them. Working from a script by Lea Carpenter that should've been redacted in pre-production, Berg has made this film a loud, headache-inducing mess, with constant shaky-cam, bizarre camera angles, an over-reliance on close-ups, characters screaming at each other for no reason, and Wahlberg allowed to run rampant, unleashed, unchecked, and completely out of control, shouting at everyone and, in his more introspective moments, constantly snapping his wristband as a way of controlling his fury (it never seems to work). There's half-assed attempts at topicality with passing mentions of "collusion" and "Russian election hacking," and at character development with Alice in a custody battle with her ex-husband, an almost instantly-abandoned subplot that seems to exist only to give Berg some brief screen time as the asshole ex. Rousey's character has nothing to do but sit and watch Silva hurl her birthday cupcake across the room in a fit of rage like a toddler who can't find his binky, and Malkovich, sporting a distracting buzzcut wig and sneakers with a suit, tries out a mannered, halting, staccato delivery that suggests Christopher Walken having a stroke. The abrupt ending leaves the door wide open for a sequel, a presumptuous way to end things that's right in line with its abrasive hero's stratospherically-inflated sense of confidence even though almost everyone bites it under his command and he never sees the big plot twist coming. Cohan shows some action potential and Uwais gives it his best shot even though his work is repeatedly sabotaged by his director, but MILE 22 is just torpedoed from the start by Wahlberg in one of the most aggressively off-putting "hero" star turns you'll ever see in a major movie.

Monday, August 20, 2018


(Italy - 1974; US release 1977)

Directed by Massimo Dallamano. Written by Ettore Sanza and Massimo Dallamano. Cast: Giovanna Ralli, Claudio Cassinelli, Mario Adorf, Franco Fabrizi, Farley Granger, Marina Berti, Paolo Turco, Corrado Gaipa, Micaela Pignatelli, Ferdinando Murolo, Eleonora Morano, Sherry Buchanan, Roberta Paladini, Renata Moar, Adriana Falco, Lorenzo Piani, Giancarlo Badessi, Steffen Zacharias, Attilio Dottesio. (Unrated, 91 mins)

The second film in a loosely-connected trilogy of "schoolgirl in peril" thrillers, WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? is a semi-sequel of sorts to 1972's giallo/krimi hybrid WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?, jettisoning the German "krimi" element to instead function as a giallo/poliziotteschi mash-up. Both films were directed and co-written by Massimo Dallamano, who earlier established himself as a top cinematographer for Sergio Leone on A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE before becoming a filmmaker in his own right. Dallamano was set to direct the third film in the series, 1978's ENIGMA ROSSO, aka RED RINGS OF FEAR, but was killed in a car accident in late 1976 before finishing the script, which was completed by others with directing duties assigned to Alberto Negrin. All three films share the "schoolgirls in peril" motif, but where SOLANGE dealt with a string of brutal murders--where a group of teenage girls are stabbed in the vagina--committed in the wake of an unspeakable, heartbreaking tragedy, DAUGHTERS takes sociopolitical aim at the powers that be in the upper echelon of Italian society, with its darkly misanthropic tone abetted by one of Stelvio Cipriani's top scores, with a chipper-sounding, wordless vocal refrain that, given the subject matter, comes across as incongruously unsettling.

The film opens with the discovery of a nude 15-year-old girl found hanged in a small apartment that appears to be a secret love nest. Insp. Valentini (Mario Adorf) catches the case, but is soon replaced by the more bullish Silvestri (Claudio Cassinelli) and his partner Sgt. Giardana (Ferdinando Murolo), who team with deputy D.A. Vittoria Stori (Giovanna Ralli) in their investigation. For much of its first half, DAUGHTERS is more of a polizia-tinged procedural than a giallo, with Silvestri and Stori looking into the background of the dead girl, Silvia (Sherry Buchanan), who they soon discover was murdered at a different location, then taken to the apartment, with her body staged to look like a suicide. They also learn that Silvia was part of a secret teenage prostitution ring, much to the dismay of her wealthy parents, with her mother (Marina Berti) expressing outrage at finding her stash of birth control pills, and her father (Hollywood expat Farley Granger, in one of several gialli he made around this time) remorseful that he loved his daughter but never really tried to get close to her. Before long, the giallo end of the story kicks in as a meat cleaver-wielding hired killer decked out in leather and a black motorcycle helmet starts going after the other girls in the ring as well as any clients who pose a threat at exposing the powerful forces in charge of running it and profiting off the forced sexual servitude of underage girls.

From the beginning, Dallamano pulls no punches with WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? Valentini's reading of the coroner's report on Silvia's murder is graphic, mentioning the semen of multiple men found in her vagina, anus, and stomach, and later on, one scene where Silvestri and Stori listen in shock and disgust to secretly-recorded tapes of teenage girls being subjected to abhorrent sexual violence--including an impotent john who resorts to penetrating the girls with a bottle--is excruciating. With 1970s Italy in constant political upheaval and with crime rampant, there was also an epidemic of teenagers running away from home, disappearing, falling into drug abuse, etc. Secret prostitution rings were a recurring theme in Italian genre fare around this time, as seen in ENIGMA ROSSO as well as Sergio Martino's THE SUSPICIOUS DEATH OF A MINOR (1975), which also starred Cassinelli, Paolo Cavara's PLOT OF FEAR (1976), and Carlo Lizzani's bluntly-titled THE TEENAGE PROSTITUTION RACKET (1975), arguably the CHRISTIANE F of Red Brigade-era Italy. DAUGHTERS does an excellent job of balancing its dual polizia and giallo nature, with some dizzying camera work in a couple of chase scenes as well as a terrific suspense set piece with the killer pursuing Stori through a dark parking garage. There's also a few jarring moments of over-the-top splatter (one that prefigures a famous bit in Argento's TENEBRAE) along the way to its appropriately bleak, cynical, and pissed-off ending.

WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? wasn't released in the US until 1977, when short-lived exploitation outfit Peppercorn-Wormser sent it out on the grindhouse and drive-in circuit. It was re-released in 1980 as THE COED MURDERS, but never made it to video stores in VHS' 1980s glory days. It's been difficult to see in America outside of the bootleg circuit until Arrow's recent Blu-ray release with numerous extras, including a commentary by film historian Troy Howarth that takes time to give props to the unsung dubbing heroes revoicing the actors on the English version. Arrow's restoration really does the film justice in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio, of which former cinematographer Dallamano takes full advantage. It also benefits from a strong cast, though one wishes the great Adorf wasn't sidelined for much of the film, even though Cassinelli and Ralli make a fine LAW & ORDER: SVU team. Veteran actress Ralli was back in Italy after a brief attempt to break into Hollywood with James Coburn in the 1966 Blake Edwards farce WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY?, the 1967 Stephen Boyd/Yvette Mimieux heist comedy THE CAPER OF THE GOLDEN BULLS, and the 1970 George Peppard actioner CANNON FOR CORDOBA. She's given an especially substantive role, and her casting is practically progressive--perhaps even approaching woke--on the part of Dallamano, considering the unusual notion of a strong, independent female lead in a 1970s Italian polizia, a genre where women usually existed as victims, complaining girlfriends, or abused junkies. Ralli's Stori takes no shit from anyone, is respected by her male colleagues, lives alone, and she and Cassinelli's Silvestri never hook up.  Fans of Aldo Lado's NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS will recognize Marina Berti and Franco Fabrizi in familiar roles, with Berti as the distraught mother of a victim and Fabrizi as a voyeuristic Peeping Tom. Also worth noting are some of the young actresses cast as the girls in the prostitution ring, with Mississippi-born Buchanan going on to a reasonably busy Eurotrash career over the next decade (TENTACLES, THE HEROIN BUSTERS, ESCAPE FROM GALAXY 3, DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D.), Micaela Pignatelli co-starring as James Franciscus' wife in Enzo G. Castellari's infamous JAWS ripoff GREAT WHITE, and Renata Moar, whose place in film history would be secured the next year as the girl forced to eat a handful of human excrement in Pier Paolo Pasolini's SALO, a moment preserved on the cover of the film's Criterion release.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: SHOCK AND AWE (2018) and THE YELLOW BIRDS (2018)

(US/UK - 2018)

There's a strong and critical indictment of a film to be made of the journalistic lapses and outright cheerleading in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq based on the false claim of Saddam Hussein having WMDs, but SHOCK AND AWE isn't it. It wants to be another ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN or, to use a more recent example, SPOTLIGHT, but it loses its way when it constantly has to stop to hammer home the political leanings of director Rob Reiner and use its characters to spout ham-fisted talking points and gratuitous, clunky info dumps. Too frequently, SHOCK AND AWE feels less like a film utilizing a screenplay and one that instead just has its actors reading old transcripts of COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN. Shot back-to-back with Reiner's 2017 film LBJ, SHOCK AND AWE reteams the veteran director with that film's screenwriter Joey Hartstone and star Woody Harrelson, the latter cast as Knight Ridder reporter Jonathan Landay who, along with Warren Strobel (James Marsden), became the unintended Woodward & Bernstein of the WMD story. Unlike Woodward & Bernstein, their work wasn't fully recognized until after the fact, when the media--particularly The New York Times, who infamously issued an apology for their kid gloves coverage--took a lot of criticism for essentially being derelict in their duty and, as Knight Ridder Washington Bureau chief John Walcott (played here by Reiner) puts it, "working as stenographers for the Bush Administration." Landay, Strobel, and Walcott, along with weary, cynical Vietnam War correspondent and We Were Soldiers author Joe Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones), dug deep into the Bush White House's false claims of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, leading to the invasion of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.

SHOCK AND AWE has the potential to be a fine movie about investigative journalism, but Reiner succumbs to polemics and seems content to coast on everything he remembers from ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. There's numerous scenes of Landay and Strobel on the phone with sources who give them bombshell information, prompting them to incredulously ask, wide-eyed and jaw agape, "OK, wait a minute...so you're telling me...?" The film even has its own Deep Throat, with Galloway having clandestine meetings over pad thai at a hole-in-the-wall Asian restaurant where he gets classified intel from a high-ranking intelligence official known as "The Usual Suspect" (Richard Schiff). Jessica Biel has a few fleeting appearances as Strobel's girlfriend (their first date, where she wows him by going into the history of the Shia-Sunni conflict, makes her sound like a Manic Pixie MSNBC Host), and Milla Jovovich is badly-utilized as Landay's Yugoslav-born wife, who has nothing to do but drop heavy-handed talking points with clumsy dialogue about The New York Times being "propaganda." There's also an inept attempt to put a human face to the WMD lies, with periodic cutaways to a young black man (Luke Tennie) compelled to enlist after 9/11 only to end up a paraplegic in a roadside IED explosion. But Reiner can't even do that without having the kid's dad intently watching HANNITY & COLMES (which he calls "the news") and nodding along in agreement with what Sean Hannity says as his wife yells "Stop calling that the news!" That's the problem with SHOCK AND AWE: even if you're in agreement with Reiner's political stance, it grows cumbersome and tiresome when the story is put on pause every few minutes so someone can get on a soapbox and deliver speechifying talking points. The barely-released SHOCK AND AWE dropped on VOD and just 100 screens a month ago for a box office gross of $77,000. I missed LBJ and in fact, though he's stayed very busy, I haven't seen anything Reiner's done since 2007's THE BUCKET LIST until this. Anyone see FLIPPED? THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE? BEING CHARLIE? Remember when Rob Reiner movies were a big deal? (R, 91 mins)

(US/UK/China - 2018)

An intermittently intriguing Iraq War drama, THE YELLOW BIRDS is based on a 2012 novel by Kevin Powers but still feels like it should've been made a decade ago around the time of THE HURT LOCKER or STOP-LOSS. There's some powerful moments and strong performances, but it never seems to be building to anything even as its mystery is revealed at the end. Completed in early 2016, the film was released straight to DirecTV with a cursory VOD and very limited theatrical dumping to follow, and in the home stretch, it exhibits the ragged feel of something that's been recut or cut down from something bigger (it ran 15 minutes longer when it screened at Sundance in early 2017), with the arc of a key character feeling rushed and incomplete in a way that diminishes the impact. Told in a non-linear fashion, THE YELLOW BIRDS focuses on two soldiers who become friends in boot camp: 20-year-old Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) and 18-year-old Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan). Bartle seems to have a troubled background, doesn't respond to his single mother's (Toni Collette) attempts to reach out, and he joined the Army out of bored aimlessness, while "Murph" is shy, quiet, and comes from a stable home, is doted on by his loving mother (Jennifer Aniston) and ex-Marine father (Lee Tergesen), and has plans to follow his military service with college. Taken under the wing of tough-as-nails Sgt. Sterling (Jack Huston), Bartle and Murph see extensive combat, but as the film jumps around, we see that only Bartle returns home, suffering from debilitating PTSD--even attacking his mother at one point in a fit of rage--and taking off when an Army CID investigator (Jason Patric) comes snooping around to ask him some questions about Murph, who never returned home and disappeared without a trace.

A replacement brought in when screenwriter and intended director David Lowery (AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS) bailed to do Disney's PETE'S DRAGON remake, French-born filmmaker Alexandre Moors, best known for directing music videos for Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj and helming his first feature since the 2013 Beltway sniper chronicle BLUE CAPRICE, brings the expected visceral intensity to the combat sequences. These sequences recall Iraq War standard-bearers like THE HURT LOCKER and AMERICAN SNIPER, but having come along in such a tardy fashion, they can't help but suffer from an overall familiarity. The non-linear arrangement keeps things generally compelling, but the film only starts to stumble when all of the pieces begin to coalesce. Murph starts thousand-yard-staring out of nowhere, and what happens to him is confusingly conveyed and the decision made by Bartle and Sterling doesn't seem plausible. It feels like both Patric and Huston had their roles significantly hacked down in the editing room, but Collette and especially Aniston--one of 41 (!) credited producers--are excellent in their limited screen time. Ehrenreich and Sheridan are also good, and it's obvious that this grim drama was a tough sell that Lionsgate probably sat on since early 2016, waiting patiently to time its belated release with Ehrenreich's turn in SOLO (Sheridan also had READY PLAYER ONE in theaters a couple months earlier). Some strong moments and solid performances, but in the end, THE YELLOW BIRDS just comes up a little short. (R, 95 mins)

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Retro Review: THE CHANGELING (1980)

(Canada - 1980)

Directed by Peter Medak. Written by William Gray and Diana Maddox. Cast: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, Jean Marsh, John Colicos, Barry Morse, Madeleine Thornton-Sherwood, Helen Burns, Frances Hyland, Ruth Springford, Eric Christmas, Roberta Maxwell, Bernard Behrens, J. Kenneth Campbell, Michelle Martin. (R, 107 mins)

Though a huge success in its native Canada, the tax shelter-era haunted house chiller THE CHANGELING was released to middling box office in the US in the spring of 1980, sandwiched between the previous year's megahit THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and the soon-to-be-released THE SHINING. While it didn't really find an audience in American theaters, it gained a strong cult following on cable and in video stores throughout the decade. Time has been kind to THE CHANGELING, and it's held in high regard today and belongs near the top of any short list of great haunted house horror movies, often mentioned in the same breath as 1963's THE HAUNTING and 1973's THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. In a year where the horror genre was dominated by the controversy and game-changing impact of FRIDAY THE 13TH and the explosion of the slasher film, THE CHANGELING, directed by versatile career journeyman Peter Medak (THE RULING CLASS), brought a level of class and respectability thanks to the presence of revered, award-winning actors like George C. Scott and Melvyn Douglas and a notable lack of gore, exploitation, or even gratuitous post-EXORCIST/OMEN demonic histrionics (though one minor supporting character dies an OMEN-esque death late in the film). Even in 1980, THE CHANGELING felt like a bit of a throwback that didn't quite go in the direction that horror was trending, which may have diminished its commercial appeal then but almost certainly helped contribute to its ability to stand the test of time and remain as chillingly effective nearly 40 years later. The film has never been ideally represented on home video until now, thanks to Severin's recent Blu-ray release, which finally gives this classic the loving presentation it so richly deserves.

After his wife Joanna (Jean Marsh) and daughter Kathy (Michelle Martin) are tragically killed in a horrific road accident, music professor and composer John Russell (Scott) leaves NYC and moves to Seattle for a teaching position at his alma mater. Still grieving and looking for privacy and place to compose music, Russell rents the long-abandoned Chessman House, a massive, isolated Victorian mansion that's owned by the local historical society. It's more space than he needs, but there's a large music room with a grand piano, and he appears to be settling in until he's awakened every morning at 6:00 am by a loud banging that the caretaker writes off to the house having an "old furnace." Soon, there's strange sounds, doors slamming, faucets turning themselves on, and a brief apparition of a boy drowned in a bathtub. One historical society matron informs him "That house doesn't want people," criticizing society rep Claire Norman's (Trish Van Devere, Scott's wife) decision to lease the house to Russell. After other inexplicable instances--the discovery of a secret, hidden room, Russell finding a music box in the attic with a melody identical to the one he's been composing, and Kathy's ball bouncing down the steps, prompting him to throw it in a nearby river only to be greeted by the same, dripping wet ball bouncing down the steps to welcome him when he returns home--Russell and Claire make arrangements for a seance where the medium (Helen Burns) establishes contact with a restless spirit residing in the house and unable to find peace. At first, Russell assumes it's his daughter trying to make contact with him, but the spirit soon reveals itself to be a boy named Joseph who was killed in the house in 1906. What follows is a labyrinthine conspiracy mixing the paranormal and the political, especially once the events are brought to the attention of wealthy and powerful Senator Carmichael (Douglas), who seems to hold the key to the secret of what happened at the Chessman House over 70 years earlier and desperately wants to keep that truth buried.

THE CHANGELING is an absolutely terrifying film that's not easily shaken, with numerous spine-tingling scenes that stay with you and more than a few passing references to staple of the Italian horror and gialli (the central character being a composer, an old house with a horrible secret, the existence of a walled-up room where something unspeakable occurred). The believable performance of Scott keeps the film grounded and gives it an indisputable degree of seriousness and gravitas that a younger actor and character would've lacked. Scott's casting also links it to the then-trendy genre trope of aging Hollywood leading men doing horror (Gregory Peck in THE OMEN, William Holden in DAMIEN: OMEN II, Kirk Douglas in THE FURY, Charlton Heston in THE AWAKENING, etc), but the PATTON Oscar-winner plays it totally straight and never once conveys the feeling that the material is beneath him (for example, as great as it was, Peck wasn't that enthused about being in THE OMEN, and Holden only did the sequel after turning down the role that went to Peck and seeing what a blockbuster it became). The venerable Melvyn Douglas is also marvelous as the ailing politico with a dark secret. With a distinguished acting career that dated back to 1928, Douglas was coming off of his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1979's BEING THERE (he also won for 1963's HUD) but certainly didn't phone it in for THE CHANGELING. The frail, 79-year-old actor can be seen late in the film slowly ascending a staircase that's engulfed in flames in a truly startling shot that wouldn't even be attempted today without the extensive deployment of unconvincing CGI ("Fucking Melvyn...he did it," Medak gushes on the Blu-ray's commentary track). A tireless workhorse to the end, Douglas died in August 1981, with his final two films released posthumously: the Peter Straub adaptation GHOST STORY (which teamed him with fellow legends Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and John Houseman) hit theaters in December 1981, while the little-seen Roger Vadim caper comedy THE HOT TOUCH received a very spotty release much later in December 1982.

Like THE SHINING, which would be in theaters two months later, or any great ghost story for that matter, THE CHANGELING gets a ton of atmosphere out its haunted central location, in this case the expansive Chessman House, represented by an exterior facade and built on three-story soundstage at a Vancouver production facility at the cost of $500,000. While lacking the hypnotic Steadicam effect of what Stanley Kubrick accomplished with THE SHINING, Medak still uses the house's endless corridors and maze-like structure to maximize tension and terror, even featuring one of the best horror movie staircases this side of PSYCHO. 1972's THE RULING CLASS hailed the Hungarian-born Medak as a major new talent, but the disastrous, long-shelved 1973 Peter Sellers comedy GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN immediately derailed him. He's alternated between TV and film for his entire career, job-hopping on a diverse list of TV staples like SPACE: 1999, HART TO HART, REMINGTON STEELE, MAGNUM P.I., FAERIE TALE THEATER, HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, LAW & ORDER: SVU, THE WIRE, HOUSE, BREAKING BAD, and HANNIBAL. After THE CHANGELING, Medak floundered on the big screen in the '80s with misfires like ZORRO, THE GAY BLADE and THE MEN'S CLUB, but he enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in the early 1990s with a trio of acclaimed crime thrillers with THE KRAYS, LET HIM HAVE IT, and ROMEO IS BLEEDING before settling back into hired-gun mode with the likes of SPECIES II. The now-80-year-old Medak also directed the upcoming documentary THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS, chronicling the chaotic shooting and colossal failure of GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN, which has clearly haunted him over the years like the spirit of Joseph in the Chessman House.

Toledo, OH on April 25, 1980. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

In Theaters: THE MEG (2018)

(US/China - 2018)

Directed by Jon Turtletaub. Written by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber. Cast: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Cliff Curtis, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Robert Taylor, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Sophia Cai, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Masi Oka, Vathaya Pansringarm. (PG-13, 113 mins)

Based on Steve Alten's 1997 novel Meg and in development hell since about that time, THE MEG is enjoyably stupid summer junk food that may as well be titled DEEP BLUE SEA: JURASSIC SHARK. A $140 million US/China co-production, THE MEG offers a nice working vacation in New Zealand for its international cast, brought on board mainly to play paper-thin characters but really serving as chum for a giant CGI shark. The film opens with deep sea rescue hotshot Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) losing three members of his team in a split-second decision that meant losing three or losing everyone. He swears the vessel was attacked by a giant shark but no one sees it and he's written off as a coward who cracked under pressure. Cut to five years later, and the billion dollar underwater research facility Mana One, located 200 miles off the coast of China and run by Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao), has a small submersible disabled after breaking through the frozen thermocline and finding a second level of the ocean beyond the Mariana Trench, never before explored by man. Zhang and crew member Mac (Cliff Curtis) know there's only one man in the world capable of saving them: The Transporter. Er, I mean, Jonas, now a hopeless drunk idling his days away, living in a shithole apartment above a bar in Thailand, presumably next door to John Rambo.

Jonas agrees to help, especially since one of the stranded personnel is his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee), and after a rescue that involves researcher Toshi (Masi Oka) sacrificing himself to save the others, they have visual proof of what Jonas saw five years earlier: the Megalodon, a giant, 70 ft. long shark thought to have gone extinct in prehistoric times. Trapped for centuries under the frozen thermocline breached by Zhang's research submersible, "The Meg" breaks free and begins attacking the research facility, also staffed by Zhang's daughter and colleague Suyin (Li Bingbing); her precocious, 8-year-old moppet daughter Meiying (Sophia Cai); engineer and computer hacker Jaxx (Ruby Rose as Pauley Perrette from NCIS); sneering Dr. Heller (Robert Taylor), with whom Jonas has some bad blood after Heller dismissed his claims about a giant shark years earlier; burly ox with a heart of gold "The Wall" (Olafur Darri Olafsson); comic relief black guy DJ (Page Kennedy), on hand to frequently yell "Aw, hell no!" and "This is not in my job description!"; and Morris (Rainn Wilson), the money behind Mana One, and an obnoxious billionaire man-child for whom the world is a playground.

Clearly, there are few surprises to be had in THE MEG, unless you consider the title creature's ability to somehow sneak up on people, lure them into traps, or the way people continue to venture out in vessels that can easily be devoured whole (also, the inevitable "It's right under us!" moment). It's nice to see the always-engaging Statham headlining his own action movie again after a series of middling underperformers threatened to relegate him to VOD until his addition to the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise gave his career a much-needed boost. He has a nice chemistry with both Li (though maybe not to the degree of John Barrowman and Jenny McShane in 2002's SHARK ATTACK 3: MEGALODON) and Cai and gets to work a good slow burn with his reactions to both Wilson's Morris and Taylor's Heller. As far as CGI sharks go, "The Meg" isn't bad until you start to see too much of it, though both Statham and director Jon Turtletaub (WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, NATIONAL TREASURE) expressed dissatisfaction with the studio's decision to cut down the gore to secure a PG-13. While an unrated Blu-ray is inevitable, THE MEG as it stands is reasonably entertaining, never boring and often amusing brain-dead summer multiplex fare, and it even throws in a yapping dog named "Pippin" as a shout-out to the doomed black lab Pippet from the shark movie that will never be surpassed.