Tuesday, January 22, 2019

On Netflix: CLOSE (2019)

(UK/Ireland - 2019)

Directed by Vicky Jewson. Written by Vicky Jewson and Rupert Whitaker. Cast: Noomi Rapace, Sophie Nelisse, Indira Varma, Eoin Macken, Abdesslam Bouhssini, George Georgiu, Christopher Sciuref, Akin Gazi, Kevin Shen, Sargon Yelda, Huw Parmenter. (Unrated, 94 mins)

To fans of foreign cinema, Noomi Rapace will forever be known as the original Lisbeth Salander in the Scandinavian adaptation of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and its two sequels. The films were big enough arthouse hits in the US that Rapace moved on to Hollywood, co-starring in SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS and headlining Ridley Scott's PROMETHEUS, but she never quite made it on the A-list with smaller films like DEAD MAN DOWN, Brian De Palma's PASSION, and THE DROP. Unless you follow Netflix Original or straight-to-VOD genre offerings, Rapace has likely fallen off the radar a bit with mainstream moviegoers. But since 2017, she's been very quietly establishing herself as a go-to star of action and/or sci-fi fare with 2017's not-bad terrorism thriller UNLOCKED and turning in seven convincing performances as septuplets in Netflix's solid future dystopia saga WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY (plus there was RUPTURE, which wasn't very good, but she's great in it, and she emerged unscathed from Netflix's dismal Will Smith dud BRIGHT). Rapace is back in another Netflix Original film with the British pickup CLOSE, and while it doesn't exactly break new ground, it's further evidence that she's deserving of her own BOURNE-style action franchise.

After barely surviving a skirmish with insurgents where she's assigned to protect two members of the media in a Middle East war zone, freelance counter-terrorism expert and bodyguard Sam Carlson (Rapace) is in no hurry to accept another gig. But she's pressed into service to protect Zoe Tanner (Sophie Nelisse of THE BOOK THIEF), a spoiled teenage party girl whose billionaire father has just died and left her the majority of the shares of his Morocco-based mining company. Troubled by her mother's suicide when she was ten and with a history of drug and alcohol abuse, Zoe doesn't get along with her stepmother Rima (Indira Varma), who plans to contest her late husband's will. She sends Zoe from their British castle to the family compound in the outskirts of Casablanca, in the process getting rid of her friends-with-benefits male bodyguard and insisting her security detail "find one she can't fuck." This leads to Sam, and while neither of them are happy about the arrangement, Sam does the job she's paid to do. Once they're in Morocco, a team of hired killers raid the compound, taking out the entire security team and sending Sam and Zoe on the run.

Directed and co-written by Vicky Jewson, CLOSE doesn't exactly bring anything new to the table in terms of story or style, but it's nice to see a tough, ass-kicking action movie made by and starring women. It's essentially a rehash of THE TRANSPORTER and THE EQUALIZER revamped for Rapace, who just terrific as a stoical woman of few words who's as lethal as any Damon, Statham, or Diesel. Of course, Sam and Zoe are like oil and water from the start but inevitably bond, but the attempt to show Sam's maternal side could've been conveyed without shoehorning in a hackneyed subplot about a daughter she gave up for adoption years ago, though I suppose every lone wolf action hero has to have some tragedy or secret in their past that still haunts them. Nelisse does a good job making a real character out of someone who could've been a one-dimensional caricature, but the gravity of the situation hits Zoe in a credible fashion and she quickly learns to cut the shit and grow up. The finale seems a little too rushed and contrived, like they wanted to avoid making the culprit obvious, but it was a twist that was unnecessary and doesn't seem entirely credible given the character's demeanor up to that point. But on the whole, CLOSE is definitely worth checking out. It's relentlessly-paced and compelling from start to finish, with good chemistry between the leads and a furious, intense performance from Rapace.

Monday, January 21, 2019

In Theaters: GLASS (2019)

(US - 2019)

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Luke Kirby, Adam David Thompson, M. Night Shyamalan, Serge Didenko, Russell Posner, Leslie Stefanson. (PG-13, 129 mins)

After a decade spent as a critical punching bag and all-around industry pariah, M.Night Shyamalan mounted an unexpected comeback with 2015's THE VISIT and 2017's SPLIT, a pair of surprise hits for low-budget horror factory Blumhouse. SPLIT focused on Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a disturbed young man with 23 personalities he collectively calls "The Horde," working to both protect Kevin and contain a 24th, known as "The Beast." Kevin abducts three teenage girls from a mall parking lot and by the end of the film, the monstrous Beast emerges, with a Hulk-like animal rage and a supernatural ability to climb walls. McAvoy's performance was an astonishing tour-de-force and should've been up for some awards, and his work did much of the heavy lifting when it came to making SPLIT Shyamalan's best film in years. A closing credits stinger showing an uncredited Bruce Willis threw everyone for a loop, establishing SPLIT as a secret sequel to Shyamalan's 2000 film UNBREAKABLE, the director's much-ballyhooed follow-up to his blockbuster THE SIXTH SENSE. Considered somewhat of a disappointment at the time, UNBREAKABLE was ultimately a superhero origin story and comic book deconstruction that was made at a time when comic book superhero movies weren't really a thing. The film quickly found loyal cult following and a critical reassessment over the years, and is now regarded by many as every bit as essential the Shyamalan canon as THE SIXTH SENSE.

A lot's changed in 19 years. Comic book and superhero movies rule the multiplex and it seems a new one is opening every other week, with no apparent signs of audience fatigue, so much so that even the ones people hate become blockbusters. The only superhero hit at the time of UNBREAKABLE was Bryan Singer's first X-MEN, and where Shyamalan was once ahead of the curve, he's now playing not so much catch-up, but this sort of analytical, deconstructive take runs the risk of seeming like didactic lecturing to a moviegoing public that, at this point, is pretty knowledgeably savvy when it comes to the medium. It doesn't help that the brief shot of Willis at the end of SPLIT seemed like something added after the fact, and even now, fusing the worlds of UNBREAKABLE and SPLIT into GLASS often feels like Shyamalan is forcibly retconning a superhero trilogy for himself. Set several weeks after the events of SPLIT and 19 years after UNBREAKABLE, GLASS opens with Crumb and his constantly shifting roster of personalities holding another four teenage girls captive in an abandoned Philadelphia factory. Meanwhile, security equipment store owner David Dunn (Willis), the sole survivor of a catastrophic train derailment and a man who's been impervious to injury and prone to superhuman feats of strength, is still moonlighting as a hooded rain poncho-sporting vigilante now referred to by the media as "The Overseer." Gifted with an ESP-like ability to come into physical contact with someone and "see" their criminal past, Dunn, aided by his adult son Joseph (the now-grown Spencer Treat Clark, who played the same role as a kid), goes on frequent walks through the surrounding Philly neighborhoods to seek out wrongdoers, and when Crumb stumbles into him, he "sees" the kidnapped girls. As "The Overseer," Dunn rescues the girls and battles Crumb in his "Beast" form, but when the fight goes outside the warehouse, the cops are already waiting.

Both men are hauled off to a mental institution where they're evaluated by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who specializes in cases of superhero-inspired "delusions of grandeur." She tries to convince them that their abilities aren't real and can be explained away, and brings them together with catatonic patient Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the brittle-boned man who caused the train derailment in UNBREAKABLE and introduced Dunn to his long-suppressed abilities. Price, an aspiring criminal mastermind and comic book villain come to life who calls himself "Mr. Glass," has been confined to the mental hospital for 19 years, faking his vegetative state to wait for the perfect storm. He conspires with Kevin and "The Horde" to plot an escape from the mental hospital and cause a chemical explosion at the opening of the Osaka Tower, a new skyscraper in downtown Philly.

Much of GLASS deals with subverting expectations, which is very much in line with Shyamalan's recurring twist endings. GLASS offers several unexpected turns in the third act, but even under the auspices of a live-action comic book, it too often strains credulity in both its plot developments and the ways it continues to retrofit itself into the events of UNBREAKABLE. The film works better in its first half, particularly with McAvoy's once-again outstanding work as "The Horde" and in the warm relationship between Dunn and his loyal son (bringing Clark back to play Joseph is one of the best decisions Shyamalan makes here). But once "Mr. Glass" starts putting his master plan into motion, things start collapsing. What kind of mental hospital is this? It's made clear that Dr. Staple is visiting and only has three days to evaluate them, but where is the head doctor? Where are the other patients? There appears to be one orderly on duty at any given time, but there's tons of security guards who let Kevin--wearing a nurse's uniform--just wheel Price right out of the ward. Dr. Staple's behavior is inconsistent, even after her motives are revealed--first she's against Kevin's one surviving victim Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, returning from SPLIT) meet with him, but then says she can't help him without her. Shyamalan doesn't seem to know what to do with Taylor-Joy, Clark, or Charlayne Woodard as Elijah's mother, and the big superhero/villain battle outside the mental hospital is an often awkwardly-shot letdown that allows Willis to pull some of his Lionsgate VOD antics and sit out most of the showdown while his double hides under his poncho's hoodie, complete with some Willis dialogue obviously dubbed in post. When all is revealed and the pieces of the puzzle in place after a laborious epilogue, GLASS just never quite jells into a cohesive whole. It's an interesting idea in search of a point. It's well-made, McAvoy is marvelous (introducing even more of the 23 personalities we didn't get to meet the first time around), and in their scenes together, Clark's presence seems to engage Willis enough to remind him of a bygone era when he gave a shit, but in the end, this doesn't live up to either UNBREAKABLE or SPLIT and doesn't fully succeed in making its case that this should've been a trilogy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: SPEED KILLS (2018) and THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE (2019)

(US/UK - 2018)

Remember last summer when everyone had a good laugh over how terrible GOTTI was? Who knew that it was just John Travolta's warm-up act for SPEED KILLS?  Well, congratulations, BATTLEFIELD EARTH, because you're no longer Travolta's worst movie. Another true crime saga that might as well be comprised of GOTTI outtakes, SPEED KILLS stars the two-time Oscar-nominee and former actor--also one of 42 credited producers and wearing what appears to be his GOTTI rug after it was left out in the rain and he tried to dry it in the microwave--as Ben Aronoff, a thinly-veiled and likely legally-mandated rechristening of Don Aronow, a champion speedboat racer and the head of powerboat manufacturer Cigarette Racing, who was killed in a Miami mob hit in 1987. The film then flashes back to his beginnings in 1962, after he made fortune as a New Jersey construction magnate and moved to Florida to pursue an interest in speedboat racing, quickly falling into a "business arrangement" with famed mobster Meyer Lansky (James Remar). His racing and his business soon take precedence over his family, much to the chagrin of his devoted wife Kathy (Jennifer Esposito) and their eldest son (Charlie Gillespie), who winds up paralyzed in a boating accident trying to emulate his superstar father. This dramatic turn is conveyed in narration from beyond the grave by Aronoff, who says "While I was winning championships, I was losing something far more important." He gets over that pretty quickly and is soon hooked up with Emily (Katheryn Winnick), the girlfriend of Jordan's King Hussein (Prashant Shah), who's one of Aronoff's clients. Through the years--it's often difficult to tell because the period detail is atrocious and no one looks any different from 1962 to 1987--Aronoff's speedboats are the transport of choice for South American drug smugglers, who come to him to buy in bulk as he willingly provides false registrations. This catches the attention of FBI Agent Lopez (Amaury Nolasco), who sports the same shaved head and perfectly manscaped stubble in scenes set from the late 1960s to 1987. Tied to Lansky's outfit even after the aging gangster's death, Aronoff tries to make some side deals, including massive government contracts manufacturing boats for both the DEA and the Coast Guard, which comes about after he sells a Blue Thunder speedboat to Vice President George H.W. Bush (Matthew Modine). This doesn't sit will with Jules Bergman (Jordi Molla), the Lansky organization's man in Miami, or with Robbie Reemer (an embarrassingly bad Kellan Lutz), Lansky's hotheaded nephew who wants his cut of Aronoff's action.

Like GOTTI, SPEED KILLS is a collection of scenes in search of a coherent story. It's no wonder director John Luessenhop (TEXAS CHAINSAW) took his name off the finished film, with credit going to apparent Alan Smithee protegee "Jodi Scurfield." It's hard telling how this gets from one point to another, even as you're watching it. Aronoff expresses an interest in speedboat racing, and the next thing you know, he's a speedboat legend with deep mob ties and a completely new family. Esposito just disappears from the film, as does another Aronoff girlfriend (Moran Atias), when he sees Emily, sleeps with her, then in the very next scene, they've got a toddler son whose name we never even hear. There's no dramatic tension, no logical timeline of events, and no reason at all to care. It's like Travolta saw Tom Cruise in AMERICAN MADE and decided to make his own home movie version of it. It's unacceptably sloppy, from the rudimentary, Playstation 1-level CGI during a boat race in a massive storm to a close-up of a subpoena with a misspelled "SUBPEONA" on it. A film so ineptly-made and irredeemably awful that you'll feel sorry for Tom Sizemore being in it, SPEED KILLS is Travolta hitting absolute bottom. When the camera focuses on Aronoff dying after being shot multiple times in his car (of course, there's a close-up of his watch stopping as he takes his last breath, for maximum hackneyed dramatic effect), Travolta's strangely cryptic narration intones "I was on top of the world!" So, who exactly are we talking about here? (R, 102 mins)

The makers of SPEED KILLS don't give a shit. Why should you? 

(US - 2019)

It was demanded by no one, but 42 years after the 1977 demonic car-from-Hell cult classic THE CAR, Universal decided to bestow upon us a DTV sequel from DEATH RACE 2050 director G.J. Echternkamp, who's not exactly shaping up to be the next Roel Reine. It's really a reboot at best, and actually feels more like a ripoff of the 1986 sci-fi thriller THE WRAITH. Shot on barely-dressed sets that make it look like BLADE RUNNER on a Bulgarian backlot, the dreary THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE is set in a dystopian future where James Caddock (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA's Jamie Bamber), an ambitious, unscrupulous district attorney, is going all out to ensure the conviction and execution of the city's criminal element. He's got a data chip containing a ton of incriminating evidence against Talen (Martin Hancock), a megalomaniacal scientist and crime lord who's created an army of genetically-enhanced street punks who look like they wandered in from a Thunderdome cosplay convention. Talen's goons break into Caddock's office, torture him, and toss him out of his office window, sending him crashing through the roof of his high-tech sports car. This causes a melding of sorts, Caddock's spirit fusing with the car to become an instrument of driverless revenge. Meanwhile, hard-nosed cop Reiner (DEFIANCE's Grant Bowler) tracks down Caddock's ex-girlfriend Daria (Kathleen Munroe), who was seen with him the night he was murdered and is now being pursued by Talen, the assumption being that he stashed the data chip with her.

What does any of this have to do with THE CAR? Jack shit, that's what. Universal's press release sees fit to mention Ronny Cox "returning as The Mechanic," but considering he played not a mechanic but sheriff James Brolin's deputy in the 1977 film, it begs the question, "Has anyone in Universal's 1440 DTV division even seen THE CAR?" Cox turns up about 65 minutes in and exits five minutes later as a junkyard owner who finds Caddock's damaged car and switches its parts with an old relic that's identical to the customized 1971 Lincoln Continental used in the original, after which it repays the favor by running him over and killing him. Cox is never shown with any other cast members and it's doubtful they flew him all the way to Bulgaria for a two-scene cameo that looks exactly like something hastily-added in post to get someone from the original film onboard after James Brolin repeatedly let their calls to go voice mail. Filled with janky CGI, over-the-top gore, badly-dubbed Bulgarian bit players, and a bunch of shitty, dated nu-metal on the soundtrack (including a 2012 song by ex-Queensryche guitarist Kelly Gray and Queensryche drummer Scott Rockenfield sporting the prophetic title "No Redemption"), THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE is one of the most cynical scams perpetrated by a major studio in a quite a while. It's a sequel in name only, a reboot in the vaguest sense, and entertaining in no conceivable way. (Unrated, 89 mins)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

On Netflix: THE LAST LAUGH (2019)

(US - 2019)

Written and directed by Greg Pritikin. Cast: Chevy Chase, Richard Dreyfuss, Andie MacDowell, Kate Micucci, Chris Parnell, George Wallace, Lewis Black, Richard Kind, Ron Clark, Carol Sutton, Chris Fleming, Allan Harvey, Kit Willesee. (Unrated, 98 mins)

In the prime of their careers, a comedy starring Chevy Chase and Richard Dreyfuss would've been a major cinematic event. But in 2019, it's THE LAST LAUGH, a Netflix Original film that they seemed to have covertly stashed away on their site in their version of a January dump-job, calling as little attention to it as possible. Both actors have checkered histories of mercurial behavior and bridge-burning, with Chase the guest of honor at a brutal 2002 roast that was actually uncomfortable to watch, with almost none of his friends or former colleagues even caring enough to show up, the end result so unpleasant and mean-spirited --even by roast standards--that Comedy Central announced they'd never re-air it. Almost none of his SNL and COMMUNITY co-stars have anything good to say about him, and while he turns up in occasional cameos (most recently as Burt Reynolds' best friend in THE LAST MOVIE STAR), he hasn't headlined a film since FUNNY MONEY, a German-made comedy that went straight-to-DVD in 2007. Oscar-winner Dreyfuss certainly had his moments, clashing with Robert Shaw on the set of JAWS and most infamously with Bill Murray on WHAT ABOUT BOB? but he seems to have mellowed with age, keeping busy in projects of varying quality in film and TV, with his last really high-profile big-screen role being Dick Cheney in Oliver Stone's W back in 2008.

Written and directed by Greg Pritikin (one of the writers of the abysmal sketch comedy bomb MOVIE 43), and co-produced by arthouse horror filmmaker Osgood Perkins (THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER), of all people, THE LAST LAUGH has Chase and Dreyfuss hitting the age where they're apparently required to contribute to the "Geezers Behaving Badly" genre, and the only surprise is that Morgan Freeman isn't in it. Chase is Al Hart, a retired Hollywood talent agent--if the opening scene is to be believed, he once managed the likes of Buddy Hackett, Carol Channing, and Phyllis Diller--with nothing but time on his hands, listening to old jazz records and falling asleep to late-night reruns of THE LAWRENCE WELK SHOW. His wife recently died, and his granddaughter Jeannie (Kate Micucci) is concerned about him living alone after a couple of minor falls. He agrees to visit the Palm Sunshine retirement community, where he runs into wildman resident Buddy Green (Richard Dreyfuss). The community cut-up and elderly stoner, Buddy was also Al's first client over 50 years ago, when he abruptly quit comedy to focus on his family and become a podiatrist. A widower enjoying the friends-with-benefits arrangement he has with his "horny" lady friend Gayle (Carol Sutton), Buddy loves Palm Sunshine, but Al isn't ready for retirement. All he knows is work, and he wants to give Buddy the shot he never took all those decades ago, convincing him to polish his one liners and hit the comedy club circuit from L.A. to NYC, promising him a shot on Jimmy Fallon once they generate some word-of-mouth momentum.

So begins the usual road trip, one that commences with Al trying to start his car but turning on the windshield wipers instead because...he's old, I guess? THE LAST LAUGH always goes for the easiest, cheapest laughs, whether it's a detour to a Tijuana where they wind up in jail where hard-partying Buddy has a bout of Montezuma's Revenge, forcing Richard Dreyfuss to be shown shitting himself in a crowded jail cell. In Texas, Al meets hippie poet Doris (Andie MacDowell), who still lives the Woodstock lifestyle and introduces him to weed and shrooms, where just the sight of Chase, channeling Clark Griswold at his most befuddled, makes goofy faces while hitting a bong before the shrooms lead to a trippy--and endless--musical number is apparently supposed to be hilarious. I get it--it's a simple, feelgood comedy for elderly audiences, but it constantly aims for the gutter, where, as per the Burgess Meredith Amendment set forth in GRUMPY OLD MEN, the humor is seeing old people being vulgar, whether it's copious F-bombs or other anatomical or bodily function references (cue Buddy telling a dick joke where the punchline involves "coming dust").

And like a lot of comedies of this sort, the filmmakers really overshoot the "age" aspect of it. Chase is 75 years old and playing a generally healthy character of seemingly sound mind. Why then, is he asked to portray Al as an old fuddy-duddy who suddenly can't figure out how to start his car and pines for the good old days of Lawrence Welk? They make a point of him never smoking pot back in the day, but would this guy have been listening to Lawrence Welk in the 1970s when he was in his 30s?  Considering the people Al supposedly managed, these characters should be played by guys in their 90s, like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Dreyfuss is 71 and playing 80, and he seems more hip and with-it than Al, making Chase the straight man while Dreyfuss hams it up. Dreyfuss seems to be having a good time doing it, at least until the requisite Serious Revelation and the arrival of Buddy's uptight son (Chris Parnell) in the third act completely throws things off course. Buddy's routine really isn't even all that funny (though the audience is always seen doubled over in hysterics), but some genuinely hilarious guys show up in supporting bits--Lewis Black as one of Al's bitter former clients, Richard Kind as a big-time Chicago comic, and George Wallace as Johnny Sunshine, a Palm Sunshine resident who takes it upon himself to function as the town crier, beginning every morning being rolled around in his wheelchair to announce who fell or died the night before. Wallace's character is a good indication of where THE LAST LAUGH could've gone. It could've approached this premise with a mix of dark humor and honest emotion, but instead takes the easy way, with Chase tripping balls and Dreyfuss shitting his pants. I don't care how big of assholes these guys were in their heyday. They deserve something better and more substantive in their emeritus years than THE LAST LAUGH.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Retro Review: NEMESIS (1993) and ANGEL TOWN (1990)

(US - 1993)

Directed by Albert Pyun. Written by Rebecca Charles (Albert Pyun). Cast: Olivier Gruner, Tim Thomerson, Deborah Shelton, Brion James, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Merle Kennedy, Yuji Okumoto, Marjorie Monaghan, Nicholas Guest, Vince Klyn, Thom Mathews, Marjean Holden, Tom Janes (Thomas Jane), Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Gatti, Borovnisa Blervaque, Mabel Falls, Branscombe Richmond. (R, 96 mins)

In the late '80s, Imperial Entertainment was primarily known for acquiring Italian (DEMONS 2, THUNDER WARRIOR 3, SPECTERS) and low-budget American genre fare (BLACK ROSES, THE DEAD PIT). Run by brothers Sundip R. Shah, Sunil R. Shah, and Ash R. Shah, Imperial eventually expanded to film production with the 1988 Sho Kosugi actioner BLACK EAGLE, which co-starred Belgian full-contact karate champ Jean-Claude Van Damme. Van Damme, who played the bad guy in the 1986 camp classic NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER, already had BLOODSPORT in the can when he shot BLACK EAGLE, but they were ultimately released two weeks apart, with BLOODSPORT coming first and becoming an unexpected hit. Though he only had a supporting role in BLACK EAGLE, Van Damme's presence was hyped and it served as a symbolic passing of the torch of action B-listers from ninja icon Kosugi to kickboxing poster boy Van Damme. Van Damme was already commitred to Imperial's WRONG BET, which was ultimately retitled LIONHEART when it was picked up by Universal in early 1991 after Van Damme scored three more B-movie hits with CYBORG, KICKBOXER, and DEATH WARRANT. And with that, the "Muscles from Brussels" moved on to the big leagues and was out of Imperial's price range, though they still had another project intended for him. Enter Olivier Gruner, a French kickboxing champion with a passing resemblance to Van Damme and little else. Imperial plugged Gruner into Van Damme's starring role in 1990's ANGEL TOWN (more on that below) and in 1993, Gruner teamed with Van Damme's CYBORG director Albert Pyun for NEMESIS, which would ultimately be the star's first and last great film.

Pyun's best days came early, directing 1982's surprise hit THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER but never really capitalizing on it. He ended up doing several films for Cannon in the latter half of the '80s (DANGEROUSLY CLOSE, DOWN TWISTED, ALIEN FROM L.A.), which led to CYBORG and, post-Cannon, the troubled CAPTAIN AMERICA for Menaham Golan's doomed 21st Century. Pyun's career after NEMESIS and into the 2000s was incredibly prolific but largely inept (best represented by his trio of Bratislava-shot rapsploitation outings affectionately referred to as his epic "Gangstas Wandering Around An Abandoned Warehouse" trilogy by film critic Nathan Rabin). In recent years, he's been slowed down by multiple sclerosis but maintains a strong presence online while trying to get his latest dream project--a self-referential Pyuniverse tribute titled CYBORG NEMESIS--off the ground. NEMESIS was an idea Pyun had been working on since his Cannon days, though with a teenage girl as the hero. He already had Megan Ward in mind to star, having worked with her on the Full Moon sci-fi film ARCADE (shot before NEMESIS but released after). With Cannon on life support and 21st Century faring even worse, he took the idea to the Shah brothers at Imperial. They liked the script but had one demand: lose the teenage girl and retool the character for Olivier Gruner, and in exchange, you'll be left alone to make the movie you want to make.

In a perfect world, NEMESIS would've catapulted Gruner and Pyun into the big leagues, but it wasn't meant to be. With the possible exception of THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, it's arguably Pyun's best film. NEMESIS opens in the future Los Angeles of 2027, with cybernetically-enhanced cop--he's still "86.5% human--Alex Rain (Gruner) in a brilliantly-choreographed shootout with freedom fighters from a rebel faction known as the Red Army Hammerheads. Severely injured, Rain undergoes repairs and an upgrade and goes off the grid in New Baja for nearly a year. That's where he tracks down and kills prominent Hammerheads figure Rosaria (Jennifer Gatti), before he's found and reactivated by his old boss Farnsworth (Tim Thomerson) and his two flunkies Maritz (Brion James) and Germaine (Nicholas Guest). The assignment: retrieve stolen, top-secret national security intel needed for a US-Japan summit that's scheduled in three days. The culprit: Jared (Marjorie Monaghan), an android and Rain's former lover, who plans to sell it to current Hammerheads leader Angie-Liv (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who's based on the Pacific Rim island of Shang-Lu. In true ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK fashion, Rain has until the summit to find Jared and the intel or a bomb implanted in his heart will explode. In addition a surveillance unit implanted in his eyeball will monitor his activities and ensure he doesn't go rogue.

There's more, including a duplicitous android named Sam (Marjean Holden); Rain forming an unholy alliance with Rosaria's vengeful sister Max Impact (Merle Kennedy); and Julian (Deborah Shelton), a cyborg associate of Jared, whose intentions are not what Rain has been told. Little is what it seems to be in the world of NEMESIS, a film that takes elements of cyberpunk and Hong Kong-inspired action and mashes them up into a wholly original film that feels like it was directed in tag-team, relay fashion by John Woo, Ridley Scott, Charles Band, and Cirio H. Santiago, and that's meant as a compliment. Though it may look like a B-grade BLADE RUNNER knockoff on the surface (even borrowing James, memorable as escaped replicant Leon in the 1982 classic), NEMESIS is overflowing with more ideas and imagination that it can handle (note how several of the male characters have female names, and vice versa, and how one major male character is revealed to be a reconfigured female cyborg--is NEMESIS the world's first non-binary existential sci-fi action movie?). In many ways, it's the 1990s equivalent of TRANCERS, Band's 1985 cult classic that starred Thomerson and utilized key elements of BLADE RUNNER and THE TERMINATOR but was more inventive and intelligent than it had any business being. Like TRANCERS, NEMESIS got a limited theatrical release but never went wide, topping out at 86 screens in late January 1993. And like TRANCERS, NEMESIS spawned a series of straight-to-video sequels of precipitously declining quality (two featuring future JOHN WICK director Chad Stahelski), all but one directed by a stumbling Pyun and none starring Gruner.

NEMESIS ended up finding a cult following once it hit video, though its devotees did a good job of keeping it to themselves (it's also of interest today for brief supporting turns by Jackie Earle Haley, over a decade before his comeback, and a then-unknown Thomas Jane, billed as "Tom Janes"). But with Van Damme enjoying significant A-list success at the time, Hollywood studios decided they didn't need another European kickboxer, leaving Gruner vying for video store shelf space with Don "The Dragon" Wilson  (BLOODFIST) and Loren Avedon (THE KING OF THE KICKBOXERS and NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER 2 and 3). He had a busy career throughout the '90s as a C-lister whose films could be regularly found in the one-copy "Hot Singles" section of the new release wall at Blockbuster: 1995's kickboxing western THE FIGHTER was an early effort by DTV action maestro Isaac Florentine and paired Gruner with BEVERLY HILLS 90210 and future SHARKNADO star Ian Ziering; he had the title role in 1997's MERCENARY, opposite an unlikely John Ritter, which led to 1998's MERCENARY 2: THICK AND THIN, teaming him with HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE's Robert Townsend. There were also titles like INTERCEPTOR FORCE, THE CIRCUIT, INTERCEPTOR FORCE 2, and THE CIRCUIT 2: THE FINAL PUNCH, and he capped off another tenuously-connected DTV action trilogy with 2000's CRACKERJACK 3, which was probably a shock to fans of the Thomas Ian Griffith-starring CRACKERJACK as the second installment--where Griffith was replaced by Judge Reinhold (!)--was retitled HOSTAGE TRAIN. Gruner also co-starred in the one-season, 1999 TV series CODE NAME: ETERNITY, a Canadian import that aired on what was then known as the Sci-Fi Channel.

Born in 1960, Gruner isn't headlining these days, but he's occasionally directed himself in titles even the most ardent Redbox devotee probably never heard of, like SECTOR 4: EXTRACTION and EXECUTIVE PROTECTION, and he still turns up in bottom-of-the-barrel fare like Pyun's ABELAR: TALES OF AN ANCIENT EMPIRE, and had cameos in garbage like DIAMOND CARTEL and SHOWDOWN IN MANILA, where he turns up about an hour in with Don "The Dragon" Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock as part of a team of mercenaries that may as well have been called THE AVAILABLES. Early in his career, Olivier Gruner served a purpose as a second-string Jean-Claude Van Damme, at least until Van Damme started going straight-to-DVD, thus negating the need for a Gruner, which is clearly reflected in the declining quality of the gigs he started getting in the 2000s. And unlike Van Damme, Gruner never evolved into a good actor. But for a brief moment, he got to headline a legitimate cult classic with NEMESIS, which has just been released on Blu-ray in an extras-packed edition with two (!) alternate versions, because physical media is dead.

(US - 1990)

Directed by Eric Karson. Written by S.N. Warren. Cast: Olivier Gruner, Theresa Saldana, Frank Aragon, Tony Valentino, Peter Kwong, Mike Moroff, Lupe Amador, Daniel Villarreal, Jim Jaimes, Gregory Cruz, Mark Dacascos, Claudine Penedo, Lorenzo Gaspar, Tom McGreevy, William Bassett, Nick Angotti, Robin Ann Harlan, Julie Rudolph, Linda Kurimoto, Bruce Locke, Stephanie Sholtus, Lilyan Chauvin. (R, 106 mins)

Gruner's career began inauspiciously with ANGEL TOWN, a project initially developed by Imperial Entertainment for Van Damme. Set in the mean streets of East L.A., it's essentially a SHANE scenario that drops a JCVD-like, former Olympic-qualifying kickboxer into the middle of a low-budget COLORS ripoff. Gruner is Jacques Montaigne, who arrives in Los Angeles to pursue a graduate degree in engineering. Unable to find any decent student housing, he ends up in a barrio neighborhood, renting a room at the home of Maria Odones (Theresa Saldana), a widow who lives with her son Martin (Frank Aragon) and her grandmother (Lupe Amador). Maria lost her anti-gang activist husband to a driveby shooting six years earlier, and since then, feared gang leader Angel (Tony Valentino) has persisted in harassing the family and trying to coerce Martin into joining his gang. Maria refuses to leave, finding an ally in embittered, wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet neighbor Frank (Mike Moroff). Jacques is hassled from the start, and quickly makes enemies after beating the shit out of several of Angel's crew, but as the violence escalates and the body count rises (starting with Grandma having a fatal heart attack after a home invasion), Jacques calls in a favor from Henry (Peter Kwong), an old Olympic buddy who now owns an L.A. gym. They work with Martin, teaching him to defend himself and after Maria is gang-raped by Angel's goons, Jacques, Martin, Henry, and Frank prep for the inevitable RIO BRAVO siege at the Odones house.

ANGEL TOWN has the makings of a solidly formulaic martial-arts outing, but until an admittedly lively finale, it's mostly awful. Director Eric Karson had made perfectly competent action movies before with Imperial's BLACK EAGLE and the 1980 Chuck Norris vehicle THE OCTAGON, but he's having an off-day here. Amateurishly-shot flashbacks set in France make little effort to hide that it's still Los Angeles, whether it's a cemetery with visible American names on the headstones or Karson's seemingly spur-of-the-moment solution being to plaster a misspelled decal reading "Parisien" onto a cab and having guys running around in checkered pants and berets in a depiction of Paris that's about as convincing as a Pepe Le Pew cartoon. Gruner being a terrible actor doesn't help, but for the most part, the fight scenes seem stilted and awkward (why is one brawl on a tennis court accompanied by wailing jazz trumpet?) and the dramatic elements sometimes have an almost surreal, Tommy Wiseau-like quality to them. Every scene at the university is mind-bogglingly bad, with a bizarrely misanthropic dean who openly insults the graduate students with no provocation and comes off like a woke doomsday scenario today, telling one young woman "I knew your father...he always wanted a boy...what a disappointment you must've been," and another "How can you be expected to bleed and think at the same time?"

Like a less hysterical companion piece to MIAMI CONNECTION, ANGEL TOWN is the kind of movie that feels like it was made by people who don't get out much, and where the serious drama comes off as unintentionally funny, while the intentional humor falls completely flat, particularly one bit that probably would've seemed cringe-worthy in 1990, let alone today: a Middle-Eastern student calls Jacques "frog," to which Jacques replies by grabbing the kid's tie and informing him "That's Mr. Frog to you, rag-head!" I realize this was a time of escalating Middle East tensions with Saddam Hussein, but even Cannon handled their shameless jingoism with a little more dignity and grace. It's Gruner's debut, so you almost have to cut him a little slack for having no acting experience and with a small-time outfit desperate to find a new Van Damme after he left them for greener pastures, but he's just in over his head here. Not even an experienced pro like RAGING BULL co-star Saldana (right before she enjoyed a bit of a career resurgence as Michael Chiklis' wife on the acclaimed ABC series THE COMMISH the next year) can elevate the C-listers around her, including Valentino, who, for the most part, comes off as the poor man's Trinidad Silva. ANGEL TOWN generated a minor controversy during its limited release in early 1990 when rival gangs caused a riot on its opening night at an L.A. drive-in, but that's really the most noteworthy thing about it. It was a fixture in video stores throughout the '90s, but with Gruner's deer-in-the-headlights thesping and its many moments of MST3K-worthy yuks, perhaps MVD's  recent Blu-ray resurrection can give it a second life on the midnight movie circuit.

Friday, January 11, 2019

In Theaters: REPLICAS (2019)

(US/UK/China - 2019)

Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff. Written by Chad St. John. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Alice Eve, Thomas Middleditch, John Ortiz, Nyasha Hatendi, Aria Leabu, Emily Alyn Lind, Emjay Anthony, Amber Rivera. (PG-13, 107 mins)


The sci-fi pastiche REPLICAS arrives in theaters in the second week of 2019 adorned with all the tell-tale signs of an ignominious January dump-job that should've gone straight-to-VOD: multiple bumped release dates after playing everywhere else in the world last fall; a 2017 copyright; bush-league CGI that can charitably be described as "unfinished;" a script that's a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas shamelessly stolen from at least a half-dozen other, better movies; and a slumming star who seems mildly irritated that his paid vacation is being interrupted by work. Filmed way back in 2016 in a pre-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico, REPLICAS stars Keanu Reeves as Dr. William Foster, a scientist working for Bionyne, a top secret research facility in San Juan, where he moved his family after securing funding for his life's work: perfecting the transfer of neural energy and memories of the recently dead into "artificial" androids that look suspiciously like Sonny, the title character from I, ROBOT. The results haven't been promising thus far--every time an android wakes to find themselves in a new robotic body, they freak out and tear themselves to pieces. Foster's bottom-line, profit-obsessed boss Jones (John Ortiz) tells him the clock is ticking for results but, like all movie scientists in these situations, Foster insists he's "this close" to success. Work concerns don't stop him from taking a trip with the family--his wife Mona (Alice Eve), teenage daughter Sophie (Emily Alyn Lind), son Matt (Emjay Anthony), and young daughter Zoe (Aria Leabu)--and as soon as Mona says "Maybe we should pull over" during a torrential downpour on a dark, twisty road, they crash into the ocean and everyone is killed except for Foster.

The Asylum presents
Giving it little thought, Foster calls Ed (the perpetually grating Thomas Middleditch of HBO's SILICON VALLEY and entirely too many Verizon TV commercials), a Bionyne colleague who's working on human cloning. Ed meets him at the scene of the accident and, with little convincing, goes along with Foster's risky plan to upload the neural energy of his dead family and use Ed's cloning techniques to fashion new, synthetic human bodies for them like nothing ever happened (at this point, you may wonder why, if Ed can create human-looking bodies, Foster wasting his time with robotic, herky-jerky androids, but then you'd be putting more thought into REPLICAS than the filmmakers did). To do so requires massive, water-filled pods that cost $1 million a piece, but Ed somehow manages to swipe them from Bionyne with nobody noticing. Ed only has three pods, so Foster picks a name out of a bowl to make the SOPHIE'S CHOICE decision of who doesn't get cloned. It's Zoe, which also requires that he tweak the program to erase all memories of her from the rest of the family. Per Ed's instructions, they have to incubate in the pods for exactly 17 days and a backup generator is required because the pods can't be without power for more then seven seconds. No problem, as Foster finds an impromptu backup power source for his basement lab by stealing about 20 batteries from all the parked cars in the neighborhood and the cops don't seem to think it's weird that his SUV was the only vehicle whose battery hasn't gone mysteriously missing. Of course the family is "reborn." Of course they're confused and awkward and gradually start having flashes of their past memories. And of course,  an irate Jones comes sniffing around after Foster goes absent at work for long stretches as he finds it increasingly difficult to keep his activities secret from both his family and Bionyne.

Reeves either executing the memory cortex
or initiating the neural implant. 
REPLICAS is such an utterly incoherent, illogical mess that it makes TRANSCENDENCE look good. How exactly does Foster intend to sell the idea of Zoe never existing to, oh, I dunno, everyone who knows the family? Its idea of science is just to have Reeves blurt out of bunch of gobbledygook exposition that a) his research team should already know, and b) is ultimately just him gravely and unconvincingly blurting Philip K. Dipshit-sounding buzzwords like "Stasis modality!" and "Execute the memory cortex!" and "Initiate the neural implant!" while he dons a virtual reality headset and starts emphatically conducting a symphony in front of a MINORITY REPORT holographic screen to transfer the memory and brain energy, which, when it finally occurs, looks about as complicated as downloading a song from iTunes. The details are inconsequential, and so is everything else, especially after numerous nonsensical plot turns where it seems the filmmakers--Jeffrey Nachmanoff, a busy TV director helming his first feature since 2008's TRAITOR, and LONDON HAS FALLEN co-writer Chad St. John--aren't even paying attention to their own movie. Some of the gaping plot holes might be by design, but the third act is so rushed, disjointed and thrown-together that I'm still not sure what happened, other than Foster implanting his memory into an I, ROBOT android as both Keanu and a RoboKeanu take on Jones' goons, which might be fun if we had any clue why the hell it was even happening.

Reeves is sleepwalking through this, though one can hardly blame him. Between this and VOD duds like EXPOSED, THE WHOLE TRUTH, THE BAD BATCH, and SIBERIA, it's clear that the JOHN WICK franchise is the only thing keeping him from forming an unholy alliance with John Cusack and Bruce Willis('s double) at your nearest Redbox kiosk. There's so many directions this could've gone and been a much more interesting, entertaining film. Reeves can't even muster a "Whoa!" but someone like Nicolas Cage would've recognized the absurdity of the premise and brought a manic, batshit energy that would've done a lot to sell it, especially the scenes where Foster has to keep up the ruse that his family is still alive, texting his kids' friends and e-mailing the principal to tell them they've decided to homeschool. Another more interesting idea would've been to have Mona and the kids already be cloned replicas and then gradually find out as the film goes on. Instead it winds up as a BLACK MIRROR episode that might as well be titled I, MINORITY RECALL. REPLICAS swipes so much from other movies and TV shows that you can't fault its upfront honesty with its truth-in-advertising title. It also feels like it was frozen in 2002 and just now thawed out by comedian Byron Allen's dubiously-monikered Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures, a company that would've been the next Freestyle Releasing were it not for them having an accidental hit with the Weinstein cast-off 47 METERS DOWN. Allen specializes in acquiring long-shelved lost causes and somehow releasing them on 2500 screens, and while he accidentally stumbled on a good movie with 2017's underappreciated HOSTILES, blind luck can't be a sustainable business model, and with barely-VOD-worthy duds like FRIEND REQUEST, THE HURRICANE HEIST, and now REPLICAS, it's hard telling how much longer he's gonna be able to keep the lights on. Oh, wait. 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED is out this summer.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: LET THE CORPSES TAN (2018), WHAT THEY HAD (2018), and GALVESTON (2018)

(Belgium/France - 2017; US release 2018)

If Alejandro Jodorowsky followed up EL TOPO and THE HOLY MOUNTAIN with an Italian crime thriller in the mid-1970s, it would probably end up looking a lot like LET THE CORPSES TAN, the latest from the Belgium-based filmmaking duo of Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Much like their previous efforts, the giallo homages AMER and THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS, LET THE CORPSES TAN is a fetishistic rollercoaster ride of Eurocult worship, incorporating elements of poliziotteschi, spaghetti westerns, the work of French crime novelist and screenwriter Sebastien Japrisot (RIDER ON THE RAIN), and liberally borrowing soundtrack cues from 1971's tawdry ROAD TO SALINA as well as composers like Ennio Morricone and Nico Fidenco. Based on a 1971 novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid, LET THE CORPSES TAN is riddled with bizarre, impenetrable, and hypnotic imagery but at the same time, it's the most narrative-driven of Cattet and Forzani's films thus far. The fusion of the wildly surreal and the rigidity of story structure don't always mesh, especially since the story is pretty much a standard-issue cops-and-robbers standoff on a sparsely-populated Mediterranean island getaway. The action centers on an isolated resort of adobe-style ruins run by misanthropic artist Madame Luce (Elina Lowensohn, who a brief moment in the '90s indie spotlight with Hal Hartley's AMATEUR and FLIRT and the title role in Michael Almereyda's NADJA). Among the guests are Max Bernier (Marc Barbe), a washed-up  writer, and Luce's sleazy attorney and occasional lover Brisorguiel (Michelangelo Marchese). There's also three criminals--Rhino (Stephane Ferrara), Gros (Bernie Bonvoisin, lead singer of the French metal band Trust, whose "Prefabricated" was on soundtrack for 1981's HEAVY METAL), and Alex (Pierre Nisse)--who sport Frankenstein masks as they pull off a gold heist from an armored car but get stopped by a trio of hitchhikers during their escape. The hitchhikers include a woman (Dorylia Calmel), who's just stolen her son (Bamba Forzani Ndiaye) from her ex-husband and escaped with him and his nanny (Marine Sainsily). As it turns out, they're all headed to Madame Luce's, as the criminals plan to use it as a safe house and the woman is tracking down her estranged second husband Bernier.

Things more volatile by the minute, especially once two cops (Herve Sogne, Dominique Troyes) happen by with news of the gold heist and an abducted child on the radio, completely unaware that they're about to walk into both situations at once. From then, it's a mix of violent shootouts and trippy imagery, with frequent cutaways to a nude woman looming over a miniature recreation of Luce's resort, populated by ants in an apparent homage to the opening scene of THE WILD BUNCH. There's more, from urination to champagne lactation to an overt reference to a really nasty moment in Andrea Bianchi's CRY OF A PROSTITUTE, and a foolhardy attempt by Brisorguiel to steal the gold and drive a wedge between Gros and his cohorts, and from a plot standpoint, there's little here that's going to surprise anyone, even with supernatural allusions regarding Madame Luce. There's still that sense of surreal delirium that's become synonymous with Cattet and Forzani, and they also use some impressive, rapid-fire editing techniques in conjunction with an occasionally non-linear time element that keeps bouncing back to show events from different perspectives. But by embracing both their style and attempting to stick to the structure required by a story and to do right by the novel, they're sometimes working at cross purposes. Cattet and Forzani are admittedly an acquired taste, but if you liked AMER and THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS, you'll generally like LET THE CORPSES TAN. The difference here is that you've got an abundance of plot and characters getting in the way of what this filmmaking team does best. (Unrated, 92 mins)

(US/UK/Canada - 2018)

Whether it was a lack of confidence or cash flow, it's a shame that distributor Bleecker Street didn't treat WHAT THEY HAD a little better, stalling its release at just 53 screens for a gross of $260,000. Showcasing some of the best performances of 2018 that nobody saw, the film is a semi-autobiographical look at a family affected by Alzheimer's, written and directed by a debuting Elizabeth Chomko, a playwright and occasional actress who conceived the project as a tribute to her parents. Elderly Ruth (Blythe Danner) gets out of bed on Christmas Eve and wanders out into a Chicago snowstorm wearing only her robe and slippers. Her husband Burt (Robert Forster) wakes up to find her missing and the front door wide open. He places a frantic call to his son Nick (Michael Shannon), who lives nearby, and Nick calls his sister Bridget, or "Bitty" (Hilary Swank), who flies in from California with her teenage daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga). By the time Bitty and Emma land, Ruth has been found, and it's just the latest incident in an ongoing and inevitable decline that's now a few years running and one that stubborn Burt refuses to see as a problem. Bullheaded and devoutly Catholic, he believes in taking care of his wife on his own ("In sickness and in health...that's the deal!") and has no patience for "teenage doctors" who don't know his wife as well as he does. Nick keeps unsuccessfully trying to convince Burt--who's 75, survived four heart attacks, and is clearly physically and emotionally exhausted from being a round-the-clock caregiver--that Ruth needs to be put in a nursing home, and he's hoping Bitty, who has power of attorney if their parents are incapacitated, will back him up.

As is the case in films like this, old wounds are reopened and the family gnaws on one another's nerves as only family can, but WHAT THEY HAD never panders and never goes the easy maudlin route. Having experienced Alzheimer's with her own mother, Chomko cuts through the bullshit and sugarcoats nothing, particularly in the script's many instances of dark humor, recognizing the ordeal as one of those situations where you frequently have to laugh to keep from crying. Danner plays Ruth with compassion and dignity, never overdoing it or going for cliched awards-bait moments, often speaking volumes just with a confused look on her face or a periodic flash of clarity (it's also heartbreaking to see Bitty's optimism when her mom sees her and excitedly says "Is that my baby?" only to soon realize Ruth says that to anyone younger than she is). Of course, those clear moments get increasingly rare as the story unfolds, and her family is forced to contend with embarrassing and uncomfortable incidents like Ruth in church flipping the bird to a fellow parishioner or drinking the Holy Water ("Well, at least she's hydrated," Nick deadpans), then hitting on Nick on the way home, completely unaware that he's her son. Bitty, presumably based on Chomko, has her own problems, namely an increasingly distant Emma and a stale marriage to Eddie (Josh Lucas), while abrasive Nick ("What are you, dead inside?" Emma asks, and he replies "Almost"), who resents his sister for living across the country and leaving him to deal with Burt and Ruth, has sunk his life savings into a bar and sleeps in its basement, seemingly never able to live up to his dad's standards (Shannon is terrific in a scene where he completely loses his composure and starts stammering when Burt keeps derisively calling him a "bartender"). But it's the great Forster who provides the rock-solid foundation of this ensemble with his best performance since JACKIE BROWN, making a complex character out of Burt that other films would just turn into a loud, Catholic blowhard. Even as he's laying down his "my way or the highway" stance on Ruth's care, Forster lets you see in his face that Burt is finding it increasingly difficult to keep believing his own excuses, but doing his best to ignore the fact that, despite his best intentions, he may be doing her more harm than good (also, nobody yells "What am I, some kinda horse's ass?!" quite like Robert Forster). He's a goddamn national treasure who, in a perfect world, would be a Best Supporting Actor Oscar front-runner right now, and it's unfortunate that this fine film completely fell through the cracks and was never given a chance by its distributor. (R, 101 mins)

(US - 2018)

Nic Pizzolatto's debut novel Galveston earned some critical acclaim upon its release in 2010, but didn't attract much attention from the book-buying public until his later success as the creator of the HBO series TRUE DETECTIVE. It's likely the success of that show (at least its first season, probably not the much-maligned second) that led to Pizzolatto adapting Galveston into a screenplay, and while he gets a "Based on a novel by" credit, he ultimately had his name removed from the film--script credit now goes to his vaguely hard-boiled pseudonym "Jim Hammett"--when he felt that director Melanie Laurent's reworking and reshaping of his screenplay into her own work during production was so extensive that he didn't feel he should take sole credit per WGA rules, so he took none at all. Laurent, the French actress best known for her performance as the vengeance-seeking Shosanna in Quentin Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, has very quietly been establishing herself--at least among critics and festival programmers--as a versatile filmmaker, with works that include narrative features (BREATHE, DIVING), and a documentary about climate change (TOMORROW). GALVESTON is her US directing debut, and it's very much a slow-burning, often mumbly mood piece that isn't in any hurry to get to where it's going, but it sneaks up on you in an emotional and often devastating second half.

Set in 1988, the story focuses on Roy Cady (Ben Foster), a 40-year-old New Orleans hit man who's introduced storming out of a doctor's office when faced with what he knows is a terminal lung cancer diagnosis. After narrowly escaping a set-up orchestrated by his boss, dry-cleaning magnate and Big Easy crime kingpin Stan Pitko (Beau Bridges), Cady goes on the run with teenage prostitute Rocky (Elle Fanning), who was being held captive by the men hired to kill him. Cady was just doing the right thing by rescuing her, with the expectation of dropping her off somewhere on his way to die in his hometown of Galveston, but the two form a tentative bond that's strengthened when Rocky insists they make a stop and end up with her three-year-old sister Tiffany (twins Tinsley and Anniston Price) after Rocky shoots their abusive stepfather. Cady's got files of Pitko's invoices that leave a paper trail of his corrupt and shady business dealings, and tries to blackmail his boss for $75,000 in an attempt to do one good thing before he dies and provide some money to Rocky and Tiffany to start a new life, but seeing as this is a downbeat, back roads noir written by Nic Pizzolatto, it's certain the worst will happen. It's easy to see why some found GALVESTON inert and uninvolving. Laurent is more focused on mood than action, so much so that a late Cady rampage at Pitko's business, done in a long take reminiscent of similar sequence in the first season of TRUE DETECTIVE, initially seems jarring, but it's a natural response given a key event that led to it. For the most part, GALVESTON is more early Terrence Malick than TRUE DETECTIVE, with fine work by Foster and especially Fanning, who does a marvelous job with Rocky's motel room revelation (that you'll figure out long before Cady does), which is just about the point where you realize you're more engrossed in this than you thought. (Unrated, 93 mins)

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Retro Review: DORIAN GRAY (1970)

(Italy/West Germany - 1970)

Directed by Massimo Dallamano. Written by Marcello Coscia and Massimo Dallamano. Cast: Helmut Berger, Richard Todd, Herbert Lom, Marie Liljedahl, Margaret Lee, Maria Rohm, Beryl Cunningham, Isa Miranda, Eleonora Rossi Drago, Renato Romano, Stewart Black, Giancarlo Badessi, Bobby Rhodes. (Unrated, 101 mins)

Calling itself "a modern allegory based on the work of Oscar Wilde," DORIAN GRAY is an adaptation of Wilde's scandalous 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, updated to the mod, swinging London of its present day 1970. The shift to a then-contemporary setting seems gimmicky, especially with its protagonist becoming a cover-boy centerfold in a gay nudie mag and seen in some garish outfits that Austin Powers wouldn't be caught dead in, but more importantly, it helps allow the film to go to places forbidden in the era of the prestigious 1945 version from MGM. Produced by the well-traveled Harry Alan Towers, who never found a public domain source novel he didn't love, the film is explicit and exploitative, but it's also surprisingly faithful to both Wilde's novel and the 1945 film, and with its supporting cast comprised largely of Towers stock company regulars, it feels very much like a high-end, Towers-produced Jess Franco film of the era, such as VENUS IN FURS, COUNT DRACULA, or THE BLOODY JUDGE. But it's directed by Massimo Dallamano, a veteran cinematographer (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE) who would soon cement his place in Eurocult history with the 1972 giallo/krimi hybrid WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?  Dallamano is a much more disciplined filmmaker than Franco, and while he doesn't shy away from numerous gratuitous sex scenes, they're handled with a certain degree of eroticism that avoids the inevitable erratically-focused crotch-zooms that Franco would've offered.

DORIAN GRAY was also a showcase for Helmut Berger in the title role, fresh off his star-making turn in Luchino Visconti's controversial, X-rated 1969 film THE DAMNED. Openly bisexual and known for his many conquests and indulgent playboy lifestyle, Berger was involved with the 35-years-older Visconti from 1964 until the director's death in 1976, and while he starred in several other Visconti films like 1973's LUDWIG and 1974's CONVERSATION PIECE, his influence was apparent and his presence felt even when he wasn't in one, such as 1971's DEATH IN VENICE, where Dirk Bogarde's aging composer grows obsessed with the "stunning beauty" of a 14-year-old boy. As he got older, Visconti's films exhibited a fixation on the beauty of youth and the inevitable decay brought by age. Like Visconti, DORIAN GRAY is obsessed with Berger, the camera lingering all over him, its infatuation with him rivaled only by the salivating attention paid to him by every character, female and male, throwing themselves at Dorian. Wilde's novel wasn't exactly subtle in its homoeroticism, and the subtext may have been there between the lines in 1945, but DORIAN GRAY, while not shying away from gratuitous female nudity, fully embraces the gay aspects of Wilde. Presumably, some of the more salacious material was toned down for AIP's US release, which was cut from 101 minutes to 93, but considering the time of its production, the homosexual element of DORIAN GRAY, even with more implied than actually shown, was unusual territory for Towers. The veteran producer obviously saw some of Berger's work with Visconti and, along with Dallamano, co-opted those recurring themes into a film that's still "exploitation" at the end of the day, but nevertheless a bit more classy than what Towers was making with Franco at the time.

Dorian starts out as just a good-looking, 21-year-old Londoner with a penchant for velvet scarves and tight jeans, introduced posing for a portrait painted by his artist friend Basil Hallward (Richard Todd), an older man clearly nursing an unspoken attraction.The finished work haunts Dorian, who says aloud that he'd sell his soul to maintain the perfect vision of beauty captured on the canvas. Dorian falls hard for virginal actress Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl, from Franco's EUGENIE: THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION), but is inspired to explore his wild side after a chance meeting where Basil introduces him to wealthy art enthusiast, nobleman, and all-around perv Sir Henry Wotton (Herbert Lom) and his nymphomaniac sister Gwendolyn (Margaret Lee). The hedonistic siblings are both instantly infatuated with Dorian, persistent in persuading him to ditch Sybil, even openly mocking her limited acting abilities when Dorian drags them all to see her performance of Romeo and Juliet at a tiny, sparsely-attended theater. Sir Henry convinces Dorian to indulge in every whim and desire while he's young, before time turns him into "an old and hideous puppet" reflecting on his long-gone days of carefree youth. Dorian takes Sir Henry's advice and runs with it, bedding both Gwendolyn and elderly society matron Mrs. Ruxton (Isa Miranda) before a fight with Sybil ends their relationship. He plans on reconciling until Sir Henry almost joyously informs him that Sybil was so distraught over Dorian leaving her that she committed suicide. Sir Henry consoles his grieving young friend with these comforting words of sympathy like a devil on his shoulder: "Everything is yours. Take it. Enjoy it."

And boy, does he. And with every debauched, perverse transgression--diving into S&M with Gwendolyn and sleeping with wealthy Esther Clouston (Eleonora Rossi Drago) before encouraging them to explore one another; a leering seduction by Sir Henry, who joins Dorian in the shower and lathers him up after helpfully picking up the young man's dropped bar of soap;  seducing the new bride (Towers' wife Maria Rohm) of his friend Alan (Renato Romano) and forcing her to fellate him; and cruising the marina for men and picking up a stranger (DEMONS' Bobby Rhodes!) in a public restroom--Basil's portrait of Dorian, hidden in Dorian's attic, ages and grows more grotesque, reflecting both the years and the moral corruption and self-absorbed decadence that he's adopted as a lifestyle. The years go by, and as Sir Henry, Basil, and everyone age, Dorian looks the same and hasn't changed. This ultimately leads to murder, blackmail, and revenge, as Sybil's brother James (Stewart Black) enters the picture, following Dorian on his nightly prowls of houses of ill repute in the red-light district (including a gay bar subtly named "The Black Cock," where Dorian's a regular known by the patrons as "Sir Galahad"), sworn to avenge his sister's suicide after she was cruelly dumped many years ago.

For a sleazy Harry Alan Towers production, DORIAN GRAY is well-made and surprisingly engrossing, though it does bungle the time element. If we're to assume 1970 as a starting or ending point, with the passing of 20 years being a key element, then the characters here were either wearing hip-hugging bell-bottoms in 1950 or were still wearing hilariously dated mod, shagadelic clothing in "the future" of 1990. There's also an interesting but under-explored layer added to the story with Liljedahl playing a different character later in the film, instantly reminding Dorian of the dead Sybil, a development that owes more to Italian horror than Oscar Wilde. Better handled is a framing device involving a bloody murder where the identity of the victim is initially unclear but gives the film somewhat of a giallo vibe, not surprising given Dallamano's interest in the subgenre. Its scenes of sexuality go far but are tastefully handled, though an insane montage of Dorian's conquests on a yacht excursion, accompanied by some Edda dell'Orso-esque "La-la-la-la-la..." Eurolounge vocals, is a gift that never stops giving. DORIAN GRAY played US grindhouses and drive-ins in the fall of 1970 and well into 1971, and was in regular rotation on late-night TV in a version that had to be cut to shreds. It was released on Blu-ray and DVD by Raro in 2011 but was quickly recalled due to some technical glitches and re-released even though the transfer left much to be desired. In late 2018, Raro quietly unveiled a brand-new Blu-ray edition of DORIAN GRAY (because physical media is dead) with a new and much-improved transfer, under its European title THE SECRET OF DORIAN GRAY, and it's unquestionably the best it's ever looked, helping make the case that this is a forgotten gem worthy of rediscovery.

DORIAN GRAY opening in Toledo, OH on 6/2/1971, on an unlikely
 drive-in double bill with AIP's G-rated WUTHERING HEIGHTS.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: BAYOU CAVIAR (2018) and THE SUPER (2018)

(US/China - 2018)

In the late '90s and into the early 2000s, movies like CHILL FACTOR, SNOW DOGS, BOAT TRIP, and RADIO managed to successfully squander any momentum Cuba Gooding Jr. had after winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1996's JERRY MAGUIRE. He floundered in the world of straight-to-DVD for the better part of the next decade and a half, generally regarded as a worst-case scenario of the myth of the "Oscar curse," though it's safe to say THE PIANIST's Adrien Brody has usurped the title from him by now. Gooding occasionally managed to nab supporting roles in A-list productions like AMERICAN GANGSTER and THE BUTLER, but he finally enjoyed a bit of a career resurgence with his acclaimed, Emmy-nominated turn as the defendant on FX's 2016 limited series AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON. With the sleazy New Orleans noir BAYOU CAVIAR, the 51-year-old Gooding not only stars but makes his writing and directing debut and, right on schedule, the momentum of his PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON comeback comes to a screeching halt. Over-plotted and unfocused, the absurd BAYOU CAVIAR has some potentially interesting ideas and intriguing twists, but Gooding and co-writer Eitan Gorlin just can't pull it together, the film tripping over itself with a surplus of extraneous characters and go-nowhere subplots that are abandoned as soon as they're introduced.

Gooding is Rodney Jones, a one-time Olympic silver-medalist boxer who's fallen on hard times and is now a bouncer at a New Orleans club. The club's douchebag manager Rafi (Sam Thakur) mouths off to the owner one too many times, and when that owner is powerful Russian crime boss Yuri (Richard Dreyfuss), it's inevitable that Rafi is killed and his body chopped up and fed to the 50 alligators kept in a giant pond at Yuri's compound. Now in the non-negotiable employ of Yuri, Rodney is given an assignment: stage some incriminating photos of Isaac (Gregg Bello), the lawyer son-in-law of Yuri's Jewish attorney Schlomo (Ken Lerner). The aging Schlomo wants to retire to Israel with his wife and has been preparing Isaac to take over his duties, but Yuri only trusts Schlomo and doesn't want to lose him. In the meantime, Rodney makes the acquaintance of Kat (Lia Marie Johnson, who has a strong resemblance to Miley Cyrus, which might've been inspired casting if she wasn't way out of this film's price range), a young woman who lives with her shut-in, bayou trash mother and green card-seeking Mexican stepdad and dreams of being the next Kardashian-esque reality TV/social media star. Brainstorming for a way to put Kat on the map, Rodney talks his photographer friend Nic (Famke Janssen), who has a history of being sexually inappropriate with her clients, into shooting a sex tape. They've got the perfect patsy with Isaac, who's introduced pouting when his pregnant wife doesn't want to have sex, and who happens to be Kat's mother's landlord. Kat ends up seducing Isaac and Nic, hiding in Kat's closet, captures it all on video, but no one involved--Rodney, Nic, or Isaac--is aware that Kat is only 16 years old.

Yuri wants the tape but all hell breaks loose with a series of double-crosses--including Kat's stepdad trying to blackmail Isaac (which requires him stealing Nic's laptop in one of the most laughably contrived scenes in recent memory)--and time-killing plot detours, like Katherine McPhee as a married woman having a torrid lesbian fling with Nic, which serves no purpose other than Gooding wanting to see McPhee and Janssen make out. BAYOU CAVIAR sounds like it should be trashy fun, but Gooding treats the material much too seriously and with a far too heavy hand (Nic, complaining about a client accusing her of harassment, grumbles "Welcome to Trump's America" for no reason whatsoever). If Rodney and Nic were affable ne'er-do-wells haplessly getting in over their heads, say in a BIG LEBOWSKI kind-of way, BAYOU CAVIAR could've been an enjoyably tacky B-movie, but only Dreyfuss seems to recognize the material as the swamp-dwelling junk that it is, hamming it up with a garbled Russian accent in his few brief appearances. Gooding doesn't even have the sense to exploit the completely bonkers idea--straight out of Tobe Hooper's EATEN ALIVE--of Yuri having 50 flesh-hungry alligators on his property. If you've got an gator-infested pond and Dreyfuss chewing on a dubious accent, ready and willing to gorge himself on the scenery like it's a pot full of steaming borscht and you don't take advantage of that, then what's the point? (Unrated, 111 mins)

(US - 2018)

Like Cuba Gooding Jr., Val Kilmer had it pretty good in the 1990s. His iconic performance as Doc Holliday in 1993's TOMBSTONE even gave him a catchphrase in "I'm your Huckleberry" that was quoted almost as much as Gooding's "Show me the money!" from JERRY MAGUIRE. And like Gooding, Kilmer's career precipitously nosedived with a series of box-office flops like AT FIRST SIGHT, RED PLANET, THE SALTON SEA, WONDERLAND, and SPARTAN. But unlike Gooding, who seems like a genuinely good guy and remained well-liked by his peers even as his star dimmed, the abrasive Kilmer torched almost every bridge on his way down, with his mercurial, bullying behavior on the set of 1996's THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU the stuff of Hollywood legend, and so beyond the pale that even Marlon Brando--no stranger to causing all sorts of calamity and hostility on a movie set--had to step up and tell his younger co-star to take it down a notch. Like Gooding, Kilmer has spent the bulk of the 2000s and onward lost in the world of straight-to-DVD paycheck gigs, their paths inevitably crossing in 2009's HARDWIRED. Luck didn't seem to be on Kilmer's side when he did manage to land a major-studio job--he proved surprisingly adept at comedy in Shane Black's 2005 masterpiece KISS KISS BANG BANG, and he was fun as megalomaniacal supervillain Dieter Von Cunth in 2010's MACGRUBER, but Warner Bros barely released KISS KISS and nobody went to see MACGRUBER. Around 2006, Kilmer began appearing in some truly awful films (PLAYED, MOSCOW ZERO, THE CHAOS EXPERIMENT, AMERICAN COWSLIP, and several ill-advised collaborations with one-time BFF 50 Cent) and was as relentlessly busy as Nicolas Cage is today. But his appearances at your nearest Redbox kiosk tapered off around 2014 and speculation about his health became a popular tabloid subject after he was repeatedly seen in public with large, bulky scarves covering his neck. In 2017, after repeatedly denying rumors that he was gravely ill, Kilmer finally fessed up and revealed that he'd been battling throat cancer for two years. His voice reduced to a raspy whisper, Kilmer returned to acting with a small role in the 2017 bomb THE SNOWMAN, unconvincingly and distractingly dubbed by someone who sounded nothing like him.

Given the condition of his voice, it's likely that the now-59-year-old Kilmer will be dubbed in all future projects going forward (he's in the TOP GUN sequel currently in production), much like the beloved British actor Jack Hawkins in the last decade of his career, when throat cancer robbed him of his voice and actors Charles Gray and Robert Rietty were called upon to expertly mimic him until his death in 1973. As in THE SNOWMAN, the person dubbing Kilmer in THE SUPER makes no effort to sound like him, giving him a thick Ukrainian accent as a voodoo-practicing building super in a Manhattan high-rise. Notable as a rare big-screen (or, least VOD) project for producer and LAW & ORDER creator Dick Wolf, THE SUPER stars Patrick John Flueger (of Wolf's NBC series CHICAGO P.D.) as Phil, a widower ex-cop who quit the force following his wife's death in a fire so he could take care of their daughters, Violet (Taylor Richardson), now 14 and rebelling, and Rose (Mattea Marie Conforti), now 7 and a daddy's girl. Phil gets a job as a super at the building, working with weirdo Walter (Kilmer), who spends a lot of time chanting in the basement and creeping around Rose, and ladies man Julio (Yul Vazquez), whose services go above and beyond the janitorial for some of the more attractive female residents.

Building manager Mr. Johnson (Paul Ben-Victor) is doing his best to ignore the string of disappearances from the high-rise, and the cop in Phil is sure that Walter is behind it, even framing him by planting evidence--the handle of a cane belonging to an elderly tenant who's gone missing--in his apartment. But there's clearly something more going on than a mere serial killer, including Phil suffering from horrific dreams of the victims, Rose repeatedly wandering off in a trance and staring at the boiler, and the possibility that obvious red herring Walter's chants and spells are being deployed to ward off something supernatural. Written by John L. McLaughlin (BLACK SWAN) and directed by German filmmaker Stephan Rick, THE SUPER opens big with a very nicely-done 13-minute prologue that could function as a stand-alone short film, and after establishing Kilmer's Walter as a total creep in what's shaping up to be a throwback to a '90s "(blank) from Hell" thriller, it pulls the rug out from under you, especially with a third-act twist so ridiculous in its Shyamalanian chutzpah that you can't help but shrug and roll with it. It's not necessarily a very good movie, and the ending lands on the side of unsatisfying, but it has enough good moments to qualify it as decent guilty pleasure material, and it's twisty enough that it probably would've been a huge hit in theaters 15-20 years ago. (R, 89 mins)