Saturday, March 23, 2019


(US/Canada/UK - 2019)

Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler. Cast: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles, Don Johnson, Thomas Kretschmann, Michael Jai White, Jennifer Carpenter, Laurie Holden, Fred Melamed, Udo Kier, Tattiawna Jones, Justine Warrington, Jordyn Ashley Olson, Myles Truitt, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Noel G, Primo Allon, Matthew Maccaull, Richard Newman, Liannet Borrego. (R, 158 mins)

"I'm a month away from my 60th. I'm still the same rank I was at 27. I don't politic and I don't change with the times and it turns out that shit's more important than good honest work." 

With his 2015 cannibal horror/western BONE TOMAHAWK and his 2017 grindhouse B-movie prison face-smasher BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, musician and author-turned-filmmaker S. Craig Zahler established himself as a bold new voice in cult cinema (presumably as a goof, he also scripted 2018's PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH). Can one appropriately follow up a film where Vince Vaughn tears a car to pieces with his bare hands? Well, the gritty and amazingly-titled cop thriller DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE is Zahler's most ambitious provocation yet, weaving complex characterizations, multiple storylines, bursts of truly shocking violence and splatter and several startling plot turns into a compelling crime saga that runs a sprawling 158 minutes. Zahler's cache in genre circles hasn't come without controversy, with detractors hurling accusations of racism and branding his films as right-wing fodder for the Trump crowd. Cop, and by association,  vigilante movies, have been labeled fascist fantasies for decades, going back decades to Clint Eastwood in DIRTY HARRY, Gene Hackman in THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH. Zahler's characters do and say despicable things I don't see him defending or excusing their actions. Understanding the mindset of a political viewpoint doesn't necessarily mean tacit endorsement or justification. Perhaps it complicates things by showing that these characters have a human side and might be doing very wrong things for what they perceive to be right reasons, but Zahler isn't being overtly political here. It's more likely a sign of the times and the cultural environment where the younger generation of film critics have focused less on writing about the films and more about "hot takes," expressing themselves, airing their own grievances, looking for things to be offended by, and making a huge production out of how woke they are. That's really no way to watch movies, people.

He's obviously aware of the criticisms of his work, and even before watching DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE, one has to marvel at how well Zahler has his trolling game down: how much sheer chutzpah and raw balls does it take to make a movie about corrupt, racist cops in 2019 and cast Mel Gibson in the leading role? Few things piss off woke pop culture publications more than Gibson finding gainful employment, and his presence here can be seen as a test of separating the art from the artist or at least exposing the film's pre-release detractors for doing exactly what they're doing: passive-aggressively rehashing and reviewing Gibson's past transgressions instead of reviewing the movie. Gibson has lost none of his power to command the screen, turning in his best work in years as Detective Brett Ridgeman, a veteran cop in Bulwark, a fictional, good-sized lower-to-middle class city that's seen better days. Partnered with the younger Anthony Lurasetti (Hollywood conservative Vaughn, in his second Zahler film), Ridgeman is hardened, cynical, embittered, and a ticking time bomb. He does his job and refuses to play nice, and while his and Lurasetti's arrest records are exemplary ("Two wings of the penitentiary are filled with our collars...maybe three"), they're suspended for six weeks without pay when someone records Ridgeman using excessive force during an arrest, dragging a suspect (Noel G) out of the window on a fire escape and forcefully pressing his boot down on his head. The cell phone footage makes the local news, and while Ridgeman blames it on a society gone soft (sounding like a Fox News host when he barks "We get suspended because it wasn't done politely...the entertainment industry, formerly known as the news, needs villains" like a talking point), his former partner and current boss Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson) uses the opportunity to remind him "There's a reason I'm behind this desk running things and you're still out there on the streets."

Neither Ridgeman nor Lurasetti are in positions to go six weeks without pay. Lurasetti is about to splurge on an engagement ring for his girlfriend Denise (Tattiawna Jones), and Ridgeman is feeling pressure from multiple directions. His wife Melanie (Laurie Holden) is a former cop who was forced into early retirement when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and with the reduced income, they had to move to a crummy neighborhood where their teenage daughter Sara (Jordyn Ashley Olson) is regularly menaced by a group of black kids ("I was never a racist until we lived in this neighborhood," Melanie laments). Pissed that he's got over 30 years on the force with nothing to show for it and refusing to take a temporary security gig, Ridgeman calls in a favor from posh clothier and connected criminal Friedrich (Udo Kier), who tells him about a vaguely-defined job being orchestrated by associate Lorentz Vogelman (Thomas Kretschmann). With a reluctant Lurasetti onboard ("This is bad...like lasagna in a can"), the pair stake out Vogelman's apartment building for several days before piecing together some semblance of what he might be up to. Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, just-paroled ex-con Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) arrives home to find his junkie mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway) working as a prostitute. Forced to grow up early after his closeted gay father abandoned the family ("Pops is a yesterday who ain't worth words") and wanting a better life for his mother and his wheelchair-bound little brother (Myles Truitt), Henry teams up with old buddy Biscuit (Michael Jai White), who gets wind of a job offer for a getaway driver.

Despite its gargantuan length, DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE is never dull and never crosses the line into self-indulgence. Like BONE TOMAHAWK and BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, it unfolds like a novel, drawing you in and letting the story and the characters breathe and take form and find their voice at its own leisurely pace. It's a good 100 or more minutes before all the plot lines converge (Jennifer Carpenter also figures in with a small but pivotal role as a nervous first-time mom having severe separation anxiety on her first day back to work after having a baby three months earlier), and Zahler is in no rush to get anywhere. Its twists, turns, and detours recall JACKIE BROWN-era Quentin Tarantino, and while Zahler may lack QT's signature pop culture, "Royale with cheese" pizazz, the novelist in him has a way with words that is uniquely his own and fits perfectly with the bleak, abrasive, nihilistic vision of DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE's world. Zahler stops short of rooting for Ridgeman and Lurasetti, but he manages to humanize them in the antihero cop tradition of DIRTY HARRY's Harry Callahan and THE FRENCH CONNECTION's Popeye Doyle (speaking of Doyle, there's a character who would never fly in woke 2019). DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE is an equal opportunity offender, whether Ridgeman and Lurasetti are pretending they can't understand a hearing-impaired female perp speaking clear English (Lurasetti: "Sounds like a dolphin voice") or one of Vogelman's goons needing to cut open a corpse (it's a long story) and being reminded "Careful you don't open the liver...it's the worst smell in the world, especially with a black guy," or the numerous bits of overt homophobia. DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE takes place in an ugly and dangerous world filled with ugly and dangerous people. Though it has its share of humor (watch Gibson's seething slow burn on the stakeout as Ridgeman clocks Lurasetti--it's also a vintage Vaughn moment--at 98 minutes to finish an egg salad sandwich, finally snapping "A single red ant could've eaten it faster"), it's a furious, ferocious, and fearlessly uncompromising gut punch of a film that isn't pretty, doesn't play nice, and isn't easily shaken.

Friday, March 22, 2019

In Theaters: US (2019)

(US - 2019)

Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Cast: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop, Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon, Madison Curry, Ashley McKoy, Alan Frazier. (R, 116 mins)

2017's GET OUT came along at the perfect moment in time to serve as zeitgeist-capturing, sociopolitical snapshot of American culture. It also earned a Best Screenplay Oscar for writer/director Jordan Peele, then best known for the sketch comedy stylings of KEY & PEELE and on nobody's radar to be named the next major player in the horror genre. But with GET OUT, Peele found his true calling and horror the most effective way to explore his concerns, and US, his follow-up effort, is even more conceptually ambitious if at times muddled in execution. Even before a late-film split-diopter shot, I was continually reminded of Brian De Palma while watching US--not because of its subject or its style, but in its methodical and precise construction. Every shot, every plot detail, and every visual element is there for a reason, so much so that it'll take multiple viewings to pick up everything. Peele is making much grander thematic overtures with US compared to GET OUT, and it gets away from him a bit in the home stretch in a way that shows his intentions are clear in his own head but they're maybe too unwieldy to communicate in the most succinct fashion. To that end, US is a film that works terrifically as a visceral horror experience, and its greater concerns give it some timely resonance and much for an attentive and engaged audience to discuss and debate when it's over.

In a bygone era of exploitation hucksterism, this could've easily been called THE STRANGERS 3, but the home invasion angle played up in the trailer and TV spots constitutes a surprisingly little amount of screen time. In an extended prologue set in 1986, a young girl (Madison Curry) is with her bickering parents at an amusement park on the Santa Cruz boardwalk. She wanders off into a funhouse with a hall of mirrors and encounters her exact double. Cut to the present day and the girl has grown up to be Adelaide Wilson (12 YEARS A SLAVE Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o), married to Gabe (Winston Duke), and with two children: teenager Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Even Alex). Still quietly traumatized by the 1986 funhouse incident though she's never told Gabe about it, Adelaide can barely hide her discomfort at the idea of spending a family vacation in Santa Cruz with everyone insisting they go to that very beach on the boardwalk. A very brief Jason disappearance when he wanders away to use a restroom is enough for a frazzled Adelaide to insist they go home, but that plan is put on the backburner with the sudden appearance of a family dressed in red jumpsuits appearing in the driveway of their beach house. This mystery family eventually gets into the house and are revealed to be haggard and almost feral doppelgangers of the Wilsons, all armed with large scissors and wearing one leather driving glove on their right hand: kids Umbrae (Zora) and Pluto (Jason), dad Abraham (Gabe) and mom Red (Adelaide), who speaks in a gasping, guttural wheeze and is the only one with any verbal communication skills. "It's us," Jason says. "We're Americans," Red replies.

That line from Red is a little too on-the-nose and on the heavy-handed side as far as being a somewhat cloddish harbinger of where Peele is about to take things. The home invasion soon leads to a subsequent escape and the film is only about 1/3 over as Peele steers things into a number of unexpected directions that won't be revealed here. It's probably no accident that Peele is hosting the upcoming CBS All Access reboot of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, as much of US plays like a feature-length episode of that very show. But there's a lot--maybe too much, even--to chew on here, not only with Peele wearing his influences on his sleeve, but with insightful, razor-sharp commentary on income inequality, the American underclass, and the good fortune to be blessed with health, success, and taking for granted the ability to attain the American Dream. The Wilsons don't appear to be rich, but they're very comfortable, though Gabe buys a cheap secondhand boat and is clearly a little jealous that it's not as nice as the one that his buddy Josh (Tim Heidecker) and his wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) have. The doppelgangers and the hall of mirrors are just the beginning when it comes to the recurring examples of duality (even the film's title can be read in two different ways), and it's likely the only film you'll ever see where the 1986 "Hands Across America" event takes on a completely sinister new incarnation. Peele is juggling a lot of ideas here and he can be forgiven if he doesn't quite follow through on all of them. There's a laborious exposition dump that slows down the third act and frankly, doesn't really hold up under any serious scrutiny (though I guess it doesn't really have to), and most people will see the final twist coming long before it occurs, but the film succeeds in establishing and maintaining a profound sense of unease and menace throughout and the performances by the cast, most of whom are required to play two distinctly different characters, are excellent across the board. That's particularly true of Nyong'o, who not only fashions Adelaide as a furious protector of her family but also creates a memorably terrifying figure in Red. With all its serious, heady ideas and effective jump scares (Peele is great at using every bit of the frame), US is also very funny at times, both with its snappy dialogue and a few inspired gags (like one character telling an Alexa knockoff called "Ophelia" to "call the police" only to have it play N.W.A.'s "Fuck tha Police" instead). You'll also never be able to hear The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" the same way again.

Friday, March 15, 2019

In Theaters: CAPTIVE STATE (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Written by Erica Beeney and Rupert Wyatt. Cast: John Goodman, Ashton Sanders, Vera Farmiga, Jonathan Majors, Kevin Dunn, James Ransone, Alan Ruck, Kevin J. O'Connor, Colson Baker, Madeline Brewer, Ben Daniels, D.B. Sweeney, Caitlin Ewald, KiKi Layne, Lawrence Grimm, Guy Van Swearingen, Rene Moreno, Michael Collins, Marc Grapey. (PG-13, 109 mins)

Sometimes, flawed films that don't quite knock it out of the park end up being more interesting and more worthy of study than those we deem "great." CAPTIVE STATE is the kind of film that--let's just be honest here--is gonna tank in theaters. It's gonna tank hard. It's not what the ads make it look like, it's messy, it's a little disorienting in the way it throws out a lot of exposition in the early going, and it bites off a lot more than it can chew. But there's something here--it's politically and sociologically-loaded with historical metaphors, and takes a unique approach to its subject matter that almost guarantee it'll be the kind of film that has a serious cult following before it even leaves multiplexes in, well, probably a week. Shot two years ago, CAPTIVE STATE's release date was shuffled around multiple times--originally due out in summer 2018--as distributor Focus Features clearly had no idea what to do with it (I mean, what is that poster selling? The other one isn't any better). As a result, they're taking the easiest route possible and pushing it as a rote, run-of-the-mill alien invasion sci-fi actioner like it's another SKYLINE, and that does it a major disservice. Given the state of distribution today, it's a small victory that something like this even got made at all, let alone dumped on 2500 screens to certain doom. It's directed and co-written by Rupert Wyatt, best known for 2011's terrific RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. He directed 2014's THE GAMBLER in the interim, and while it looks like he had to make a few compromises, one can sense that CAPTIVE STATE is a pet project and something he's been ruminating on for quite some time.

In a prologue set in 2019, Earth is the target of an alien invasion. All of the world's major cities are seized by what are initially termed "roaches," alien beings of fluctuating, shape-shifting structure with a porcupine-like exterior. A cop and his wife are killed trying to flee Chicago, making orphans of their two young sons Rafael and Gabriel. Cut to a decade later, and the world remains under control of the "roaches," now known as their preferred title, "The Legislators." All of the governments of the planet acquiesced and ceded control to The Legislators. Everyone is tracked via implant, their actions monitored. Crime has gone down and jobs have increased. Income inequality is greater than ever--the rich have never been richer and the living conditions of the poor are atrocious. Criminals and non-conformists are taken "off-planet," and forced into slave labor, never given any thought by a population that, overall, has it pretty good since the takeover. The Legislators have stuck around and remain underground in major cities beneath "Closed Zones" off limits to humans without special access, usually limited to high-ranking government or police officials who are periodically summoned by The Legislators to receive their marching orders.

Gabriel (Ashton Sanders of MOONLIGHT) lives in the slums of Pilsen and scrapes by working in a factory downloading and cataloging the SIM cards of confiscated cell phones and mobile devices for inspection by The Legislators. He lives in the shadow cast by his big brother Rafael, a legendary resistance leader who was killed a few years earlier when he helped orchestrate a failed uprising that resulted in the complete destruction of Wicker Park at the hands of the outraged Legislators. There's a new insurgent group calling themselves Phoenix, and Chicago cop William Mulligan (John Goodman, in his second teaming with Wyatt after THE GAMBLER) is convinced they're about to strike and further incur the wrath of their extraterrestrial rulers, who have established a near-totalitarian society but remain generally hands-off as long as the ostensible leaders do what they're told and the population behaves itself. He's also watchful of Gabriel, whose father was his old partner back in the day. Sensing that Gabriel has something to do with Phoenix, he monitors his activities and finds out shortly after Gabriel does that Rafael (Jonathan Majors  is alive in the ruins of Wicker Park, having successfully faked his death, removed his tracking device and gone completely off the grid to regroup and lead another revolt to take back the planet. There's a planned 10th anniversary "Unity Rally" celebration for The Legislators at Soldier Field, and Rafael and the members of Phoenix plot an elaborate infiltration of the event that could mean the end of Chicago--and other cities if The Legislators are angry enough--if they fail.

Wyatt and his wife/co-writer Erica Beeney (THE BATTLE OF SHAKER HEIGHTS) aren't really interested in a standard-issue alien invasion chronicle. We've seen INDEPENDENCE DAY and a hundred other movies of that sort, so they take it from a different angle, instead focusing on the insurgency and the dogged attempts of the weary Mulligan--who has conflicts of interest, to put it mildly--to stop it. The best stretch of CAPTIVE STATE is the riveting middle, which deals with Phoenix's planning and executing the Soldier Field "Unity Rally" plot. It's got an almost MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE quality to it, but taken as a whole, the entire film feels like DISTRICT 9 if written by John Le Carre. This is an alien invasion story told in the style of classic nuts-and-bolts espionage. Phoenix uses the personals of the newspaper to communicate to its members; a radio DJ relays coded messages over the air; resistance members have clandestine conversations on still-functioning pay phones; walls barricading Chicago neighborhoods from Closed Zones have a very distinct Cold War-era Berlin look to them; debriefing rooms at the Legislator compounds are filled with interpreters on headsets and look like the drab, chilly offices of the spymasters in TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY; and Goodman even gets to monitor some activities in what looks like a low-tech version of a Bourne crisis suite. There's other, more contemporary jabs at the world's uncomfortable willingness to cave to autocratic rule without question, and the Chicago P.D. engaging in what looks very similar to all manner of "enhanced interrogation" in the style of Gitmo.

Propelled by a killer electronic score by Rob Simonsen, CAPTIVE STATE balances a large number of characters and their locations and unfolds like a compelling page-turner of a novel. It's admirable in its ambition, but yeah, it's not perfect. It doesn't handle Vera Farmiga's character very well, barely utilizing her in what seems to be a nothing role, virtually guaranteeing to the seasoned moviegoer that she'll be the center of any any third act "surprise." And what is intended as a twist ending doesn't play out as well as Wyatt planned, with a reveal that ends up feeling like an unsatisfying deus ex machina that might negate much of what came before. It may not follow through 100%, and it wouldn't be incorrect to say that it collapses when it matters most, but there's a lot of good stuff here that's smart, densely-plotted, thoughtfully-constructed, politically-charged with historical and literary inspiration (Gabriel's oppressive workplace is positively Kafka-esque). You can nit-pick why so many pay phones still exist in 2029 or why The Legislators still allow newspapers, but goddamn, this thing aims for the fences and goes for broke, and there's something to be said for that. It succeeds a lot more often that it fails, and in an era of endless sequels, franchises, remakes, reboots, and soulless, assembly-line, focus-grouped product, something this brazenly original and ambitious deserves to be recognized even if, in the big picture with all things considered, it maybe only rates a "B" instead of an "A+." Shortcomings and stumbles be damned, if a fervent cult following forms around CAPTIVE STATE, count me in.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: LONDON FIELDS (2018), THE LAST MAN (2019) and TYREL (2018)

(US/UK - 2018)

Based on the acclaimed 1989 novel by Martin Amis, LONDON FIELDS' arduous journey to the screen has already taken its rightful place among cinema's most calamitous dumpster fires, while also confirming every suspicion that the book was unfilmable. David Cronenberg was originally attached to direct all the way back in 2001 before things fell apart in pre-production, with Michael Winterbottom (24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE) and David Mackenzie (HELL OR HIGH WATER) also in the mix over the next several years. It wasn't until 2013 that filming actually commenced, with music video vet Mathew Cullen at the helm, making his feature directing debut, from a script initially written by Amis (his first screenplay since 1980's SATURN 3) and reworked by Roberta Hanley (VERONIKA DECIDES TO DIE). After a private press screening at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, where the film was acquired by Lionsgate, the planned public festival screening was abruptly canceled due to various lawsuits being amidst a very public spat between Cullen and the producers. These included: several of the producers suing Cullen after he missed two deadlines for turning in the finished film and they found out he was off shooting a Katy Perry video instead of completing post-production; Cullen countersuing when producers took the film away from him and recut it themselves; the producers suing star Amber Heard for breach of contract after she refused to record some required voiceovers after production wrapped and badmouthed the film to the media; and Heard countersuing, claiming the producers violated her no-nudity clause by hiring a double to shoot explicit sex scenes involving her character after she left. Deciding they wanted no part of the rapidly escalating shitshow, Lionsgate dropped the film, which remained shelved until the fall of 2018 when settlements were reached with all parties and a compromised version--assembled by some of the producers and disowned by Cullen--was picked up by, of all distributors, GVN Releasing, a small company specializing in faith-based, evangelical, and conservative-leaning fare, which the very R-rated LONDON FIELDS is decidedly not.

A movie about the making of LONDON FIELDS would be more interesting than watching LONDON FIELDS, an incoherent mess that looks like it was desperately cobbled together using any available footage, with little sense of pacing or narrative flow. Seeking any spark of inspiration, blocked American writer Samson Young (Billy Bob Thornton) answers an ad to swap apartments with famed British crime novelist Mark Asprey (Jason Isaacs). While Asprey writes his latest bestseller in Young's shithole Hell's Kitchen hovel, Young works in Asprey's posh London pad and finds his muse in upstairs neighbor Nicola Six (Heard). A beguiling and clairvoyant femme fatale, Nicola wanders into the neighborhood pub wearing a black veil and mourning her own death, having a premonition of her inevitable murder--on her 30th birthday on the 5th of November, Guy Fawkes Day--at the hands of one of the three men she encounters: the dour and jaded Young; upwardly mobile investment broker Guy Clinch (Theo James, at the beginning of the apparently perpetual attempt to make Theo James happen); and skeezy, lowlife, would-be darts champ and Guy Ritchie caricature Keith Talent (Jim Sturgess), who owes a ton of money to scar-faced, bowler-hatted Cockney gangster and chief darts rival Chick Purchase (an uncredited Johnny Depp, long before his and Heard's very acrimonious split, which should give you an idea of how old this thing is). Observing near and from afar how Nicola manipulates the men in her life, the dying Young weaves a complex tale that becomes the great novel he's always had in him. It seems like there's some kind of twist near the end, but it's hard telling with what's here.

Cullen put together his own director's cut that got into a few theaters for some select special engagements. It runs 11 minutes longer and with many scenes in different order (for instance, Depp appears seven minutes into this version but not until 35 minutes into Cullen's cut), but the only version currently on home video is the shorter "producer's cut" that GVN released on 600 screens to the tune of just $433,000. It's doubtful, but there's perhaps a good--or at least better--film buried somewhere in the rubble, and there's some enjoyment to be had from the scenery-chewing contest going on between Depp and Sturgess, who gets a ridiculous scene where he's dancing in a torrential downpour to Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing." It's an amusingly silly sequence but therein lies the conundrum of LONDON FIELDS: it hasn't the slightest idea what it's doing or what it wants to be. Is it a romantic murder mystery? A drama about manipulation and obsession? A grotesque black comedy? The climactic tournament showdown with Keith and Chick gets perilously close to turning into a darts version of KINGPIN, with both Sturgess and Depp fighting over who gets to be Bill Murray's Big Ernie McCracken. It's easy to see why there were so many conflicting intentions on LONDON FIELDS: there's a ludicrous 12 production companies, 46 credited producers, four credited editors, and even three guys credited with doubling Thornton. Heard seems game to play a seductive and dangerous femme fatale in a twisty noir thriller, but LONDON FIELDS is not that movie. Or any kind of movie, for that matter. (R, 107 mins)

(Argentina/Canada - 2019)

The first narrative feature from Argentine documentary filmmaker Rodrigo H. Vila is a resounding failure on almost every front, save for some occasionally atmospheric location work in what appear to be some dangerous parts of Buenos Aires. A dreary, dipshit dystopian hodgepodge of THE MACHINIST, JACOB'S LADDER, and BLADE RUNNER, the long-shelved THE LAST MAN (shot in 2016 as NUMB, AT THE EDGE OF THE END, with a trailer under that title appearing online two years ago) is set in a constantly dark, rainy, and vaguely post-apocalyptic near-future in ruins from environmental disasters and global economic fallout. Combat vet Kurt Matheson (Hayden Christensen) is haunted by PTSD-related nightmares and hallucinations, usually in the form of a little boy who seems to know an awful lot about him, plus his dead war buddy Johnny (Justin Kelly) who may have been accidentally killed by Kurt in a friendly fire incident. Kurt also falls under the spell of messianic street preacher Noe (Harvey Keitel, looking like Vila caught him indulging in some C. Everett Koop cosplay), who tells his flock that "We are the cancer!" and that they must be prepared for a coming electrical storm that will bring about the end of civilization (or, on the bright side, the end of this movie). Kurt gets a job at a shady security firm in order to pay for the fortified bunker he becomes obsessed with building, and is framed for internal theft and targeted by his boss Antonio (LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE's Marco Leonardi as Almost Benicio Del Toro), while at the same time having a clandestine fling with the boss' ex-model daughter (Liz Solari).

Oppressively dull, THE LAST MAN is an incoherent jumble of dystopia and apocalypse cliches, dragged down by Christensen, who still can't act (2003's terrific SHATTERED GLASS remains the only film where his limitations have worked in his favor), and is saddled with trite, sub-Rick Deckard narration on top of that (at one point, he's actually required to gravely mumble "If you look into darkness, the darkness looks into you"). Vila's idea of humor is to drop classic rock references into the dialogue, with Kurt admonishing "Johnny! Be good!" to the dead friend only he can see, and apparent Pink Floyd fan Johnny retorting with "Shine on, you crazy diamond!" and "You're trading your heroes for ghosts!" And just because a seriously slumming Keitel is in the cast, Vila throws in a RESERVOIR DOGS standoff near the end between Kurt, Antonio, and Antonio's duplicitous right-hand man Gomez (Rafael Spregelburd). The gloomy and foreboding atmosphere Vila achieves with the Buenos Aires cityscapes is really the only point of interest here and is a strong indicator that he should stick to documentaries, because THE LAST MAN is otherwise unwatchable. (R, 104 mins)

(US - 2018)

It's hard to not think of GET OUT while watching TYREL, and that's even before Caleb Landry Jones appears, once again cast radically against type as "Caleb Landry Jones." The latest from provocative Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva (NASTY BABY), TYREL is a slow-burning cringe comedy that takes a sometimes frustratingly ambiguous look at casual racism in today's society. With his girlfriend's family taking over their apartment for the weekend, Tyler (Jason Mitchell, best known from MUDBOUND and as Eazy-E in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON), who runs the kitchen in an upscale BBQ restaurant, accompanies his friend Johnny (Christopher Abbott) to a remote cabin for a reunion of Johnny's buddies, who are gathering to celebrate Pete's (Jones) birthday. The cabin is owned by Nico (Nicolas Arze), and it's an eclectic mix of rowdy dudebros that even includes openly gay Roddy (Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum). Tyler is already somewhat nervous as the outsider of the group and he's the only black man present, and things get off to a slightly awkward start when one of them thinks his name is "Tyrel," and Pete seemingly takes offense that Tyler doesn't remember meeting him on a prior occasion. The first night is mostly ballbusting (including casually throwing around the word "faggot" as a playful insult) and their usual drinking games that an uncomfortable Tyler doesn't feel like playing. He ducks out and pretends to go to sleep, which only earns Johnny's derision the next morning, so to put himself at ease, Tyler starts overdoing it, getting far too intoxicated over the course of the day, especially once a second group of guys, including rich, eccentric Alan (Michael Cera), show up.

Almost every comment is loaded with a potential misread, from questioning chef Tyler whether grits should be eaten with sugar or salt to someone asking "Is this a Rachel Dolezal thing...am I allowed to do this?" All of these guys are liberal and affluent to some degree, and TYREL speaks to how words and actions can be interpreted even if the intent isn't there, making the point that assumptions and belief systems are ingrained into one's psyche. No one says or does anything that's intended to be overtly offensive (Roddy brushes off the homophobic slur directed at another, because it's just guys being guys) or blatantly racist, but Tyler has been on the receiving end of it enough that his guard is always up. He frequently exacerbates the situation by overreacting in an irrational way, especially on the second day when he gets far more intoxicated than anyone else, even drunkenly helping himself to an expensive bottle of whiskey that was a gift for Pete, as Silva starts using subtly disorienting camera angles to convey Tyler's--and the audience's--increasing discomfort. TYREL is mainly about creating a mood of one unintentional microaggression after another, but Silva somewhat overstates the point by setting the getaway bash on the same weekend as President Trump's inauguration, a ham-fisted move that puts a challenging character piece squarely into "MESSAGE!" territory, especially when Alan breaks out a Trump pinata and smirks to Tyler, "Oh, you'll love this!" TYREL moves past that heavy-handed stumble, and ultimately, there's no big message to be had here, but while it seems slight on a first glance, much it will nevertheless stick with you. It's anchored by a perceptive performance by Mitchell, supported by an ensemble that's strong across the board, with a nice late-film turn by the late, great character actor Reg E. Cathey--in his last film before his February 2018 death from lung cancer--as one of Nico's neighbors. (Unrated, 87 mins)

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

On Netflix: TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by J.C. Chandor. Written by Mark Boal and J.C. Chandor. Cast: Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal, Adria Arjona, Rey Gallegos, Louis Jeovanny, Juan Camilo Castillo, Sheila Vand, Madeline "Maddy" Wary. (R, 125 mins)

In various stages of development since 2010, Netflix's drug cartel heist thriller TRIPLE FRONTIER was originally set to be director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's follow-up to their Oscar-winning THE HURT LOCKER, with stars like Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Will Smith, Channing Tatum, Tom Hardy, Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, and Mark Wahlberg all in talks or attached to make up the ensemble cast at different points along the way. By the time the film went into production in early 2018, only Ben Affleck remained as Bigelow and Boal were out, though both are listed as co-producers, and Boal shares screenwriting credit with eventual director J.C. Chandor, who established himself as a promising new filmmaker with the riveting financial crisis autopsy MARGIN CALL, the Robert Redford-starring ALL IS LOST, and the throwback Sidney Lumet-style NYC crime and corruption of A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. Chandor seems an odd choice for a big-budget actioner like this (and seeing the finished product, it's a little difficult to picture Tom Hanks starring), but it finds its bearings after a shaky opening act that, with dialogue like "That's the price of being a warrior" and needle-drops by Metallica and Pantera, seems dangerously close to venturing down the same path as the meat-headed, barbed-wire-tatted bicep brosploitation of 2014's mouth-breathing SABOTAGE, a fuckin' wicked sick fuckin' work-hard/play-hard fuckin' X-Treme energy drink disguised as an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

Pope (Oscar Isaac) is ex-Special Forces now earning a living as a military contractor. He's been after South American drug lord Lorea (Rey Gallegos) for several years and has an inside informant with his lover Yovanna (Adria Arjona), who handles Lorea's books. Pope wants to nail Lorea but he has other plans, namely getting his hands on his money, which Lorea keeps at his heavily-guarded Brazilian fortress. Hatching a plan that's dangerous and very off-the-books, Pope recruits four of his former Special Forces badass buddies to go along on a fact-finding recon mission to hopefully talk them into raiding the compound, wiping out Lorea and his army, and making off with his estimated $75 million fortune that's kept somewhere on the premises. There's Redfly (Ben Affleck), now a divorced dad and unsuccessful real estate agent; disgraced pilot Catfish (Pedro Pascal), who's been making ends meet as a coke trafficker; Ironhead (Charlie Hunnam), who's taken his PTSD anger-management issues and found work as a motivational speaker for the newly-enlisted; and Ironhead's nickname-less little brother Ben (Garrett Hedlund), now an MMA fighter with a losing record. None of these guys are happy with the current state of their lives and only feel at home in combat, so of course they'll hesitate at first but eventually agree. Before you know it, they're crossing the border into Brazil to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run Through the Jungle," without question the most overused classic rock song in commercial cinema today. I don't have scientific evidence, but I watch a shit-ton of movies and I see a lot of montages with a lot of familiar needle-drops, and I can say with certainty that I didn't hear the Fabulous Thunderbirds' "Tuff Enuff" in the mid-1980s as much as I've heard goddamn "Run Through the Jungle" in the latter half of the 2010s.

That's about 30 minutes in, and honestly, I was getting a little irritated with TRIPLE FRONTIER. Fortunately, it improves quite a bit, particularly with the botched escape from Lorea's fortress, where the money is hidden in the walls, and the eventual issues they have transporting it to their rendezvous point, which requires them to fly over the Andes in a military chopper that can't handle the weight of the cargo since the presumed $75 million is actually closer to $250 million. This forces them to resort to drastic measures--from ditching some of the money to finding alternate modes of transport--that turn TRIPLE FRONTIER into a sort-of FITZCARRALDO reimagined as a heist/survivalist adventure. The characters themselves are rather two-dimensional, though it does go for an unpredictable choice as to who the hair-trigger fuck-up among them will be that causes an already dangerous situation to get exponentially worse. Aside from a dodgy-looking CGI chopper crash, TRIPLE FRONTIER, shot on Oahu and in Colombia, is fairly suspenseful and solid entertainment that's certainly worth a stream, even if runs a tad longish at just past two hours.

Monday, March 11, 2019


(UK/South Africa - 1991)

Directed by Sean Barton. Written by John Hunt and Sean Barton. Cast: Christopher Lee, Jenilee Harrison, Henry Cele, Andre Jacobs, Zoe Randall, Olivia Dyer, Gavin Hood, Jennifer Steyn, Dumi Shongwe. (R, 91 mins)

Based on H.P. Lovecraft's short story "The Colour Out of Space," the 1987 horror film THE CURSE was produced by Italian schlock king Ovidio G. Assonitis, best known as a purveyor of spaghetti knockoffs of THE EXORCIST (1974's BEYOND THE DOOR) and JAWS (1977's TENTACLES) as well as other general insanity along the lines of 1979's THE VISITOR and 1990's SONNY BOY. It was a minor hit in theaters and was popular enough on home video to warrant Assonitis taking another one of his productions, 1989's spectacularly gross THE BITE, and rechristening it CURSE II: THE BITE. Aside from featuring the admittedly unexpected sight of Jamie Farr getting laid in an Italian horror movie, CURSE II: THE BITE is arguably the finest man-turning-into-a-snake saga this side of 1973's SSSSSSS, though it has absolutely nothing to do with THE CURSE other than the involvement of Assonitis and distributor Trans World Entertainment. So began the one of the most dubious of horror franchises in the VHS era, and the chicanery dates back to BEYOND THE DOOR distributor Film Ventures International taking Mario Bava's 1977 swan song SHOCK and retitling it BEYOND THE DOOR II for its 1979 release, largely because both films shared the same creepy little boy (David Colin, Jr). The BEYOND THE DOOR brand was still strong enough with cult horror audiences that the 1989 Assonitis-produced haunted train outing AMOK TRAIN--which didn't involve David Colin, Jr. in any way--was retitled BEYOND THE DOOR III for its straight-to-video 1991 US release.

Assonitis had nothing to do with PANGA, a UK/South African co-production vaguely inspired by Wes Craven's 1988 hit THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW. The film was acquired by Epic Productions, a partnership between Eduard Sarlui and Trans World honcho Moshe Diamant, and, inspired by the video store success of CURSE II: THE BITE and claiming the "CURSE" moniker as their own, they decided to rebrand PANGA as the luridly exploitative CURSE III: BLOOD SACRIFICE when it hit American video stores in May of 1991. A period piece set in 1950 East Africa, CURSE III focuses an all manner of ritual mayhem taking place around a sugar cane plantation where American Elizabeth Armstrong (Jenilee Harrison, best known as the first of two Suzanne Somers replacements during THREE'S COMPANY's run a decade earlier) has moved to be with her wealthy husband Geoff (Andre Jacobs), whose family has owned the plantation for generations. To ease the culture shock and homesickness, pregnant Elizabeth has also brought along her free-spirited younger sister Cindy (Jennifer Steyn), who's quickly taken up with Geoff's friend Robert (Gavin Hood, the future director of TSOTSI, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, ENDER'S GAME, and EYE IN THE SKY). Ignoring the warnings of Geoff's chief foreman Mletch (SHAKA ZULU's Henry Cele), Cindy pisses off a feared area "inyanga" witch doctor (Dumi Shongwe) by intervening in a ceremonial goat sacrifice during which Elizabeth doesn't help matters by going full MAGA white privilege, shouting "America!: and "American!" to the scoffing derision of the inyanga, who directly threatens her unborn baby. Keeping the goat and taking it back to the plantation, Elizabeth almost immediately develops unbearable pain in her stomach, prompting Geoff to summon superstitious village physician Dr. Pearson (Christopher Lee), who remedies her malady but remains curiously distracted and evasive about his method of treatment. Of course, the outraged inyanga has unleashed a supernatural evil in response to the American interlopers, and before long, the body count rises as a good chunk of the cast if offed by a killer using a "panga," a sort-of ceremonial African machete.

Just out on Blu-ray from Scorpion (because physical media is dead), CURSE III: BLOOD SACRIFICE is watchable but ploddingly-paced, indifferently acted by most of the cast, and doesn't really come alive until the appearance of a Chris Walas-designed sea creature in the last ten minutes. Summoned from the depths of the ocean by and acting at the behest of the inyanga, the creature tracks down and panga-hacks those close to Elizabeth one by one, and with its gasping and gurgling, it looks and sounds like a cross between a more chaste Humanoid from the Deep and one of the creatures Walas crafted for the hastily-shot US inserts of Sergio Martino's SCREAMERS. It doesn't get nearly enough screen time, as much of the second half is spent on Harrison (who gets a brief topless shot if any THREE'S COMPANY superfans care) running around for a ludicrous amount of time in a sugar cane field and eventually taking refuge in the home of an elderly British woman (Zoe Randall) and her precocious young granddaughter (Olivia Dyer), who improbably seems to know more about East African mythology than the rest of the adults.

Lee pretty much does a walk-through in a fashion that was often too familiar and customary throughout his storied career: he shows up a few times in the first hour and then has a big scene near the end. His appearances are sporadic but he's in it enough to warrant his top billing even though he probably didn't spend more than three or four days working on this. He's mainly there for name recognition and to function as a suspicious red herring. He's also coughing, wheezing, and clearing his throat throughout, which establishes a potential link between him and the creature. There's a brief mention of his character having asthma, but Lee appears to be legitimately under the weather here, sounding hoarse and quite congested, almost like he arrived on the set in South Africa with a bad cold or some bronchial issues, and it was written into the script at the last minute. He's also visibly perspiring in scenes where the other actors aren't, and it would certainly explain why he looks like he really wanted to call in sick but probably had other commitments immediately following, and just plowed through and got it done. Often streaming and occasionally airing on Comet under its original PANGA title (which is what's on the print used for Scorpion's Blu-ray), CURSE III: BLOOD SACRIFICE was a one-and-done directing effort for veteran editor Sean Barton (EYE OF THE NEEDLE, RETURN OF THE JEDI, JAGGED EDGE), who quickly returned to his day job with Franc Roddam's mountain-climbing saga K2. The CURSE series carried on with another unrelated sequel in 1993's CURSE IV: THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE, which was actually a retitled CATACOMBS, a long-shelved and unbelievably dull 1988 casualty of the bankruptcy of Charles Band's Empire Pictures that's since been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Scream Factory under that original title.

Friday, March 8, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: THE VANISHING (2019) and VOX LUX (2018)

(US/UK - 2019)

After the perfectly acceptable HUNTER KILLER tanked in theaters last fall, I said to a friend "Other than the next entry in the HAS FALLEN series, Gerard Butler's probably headed to VOD going forward." Cut to a little over two months later, and not only was Butler's next movie bowing on VOD, but it was also given an ignominious first-weekend-of-January dumping on top of it. Shot in 2017 as KEEPERS, THE VANISHING (not to be confused with two previous George Sluizer thrillers with the same title) isn't one of Butler's formulaic action vehicles, but it does find the star (and one of 28 credited producers) in Serious Actor mode in the vein of the underseen MACHINE GUN PREACHER. Inspired by the 1900 "Flannan Isle Mystery," where three lighthouse keepers disappeared without a trace from a distant island off the coast of Scotland, THE VANISHING moves the setting to the 1930s and proceeds on pure speculation. The film could've gone in any number of directions--theories of the disappearance range from one of the three men going insane and killing the other two; a sea serpent; and an even an alien abduction--but it opts for a character-driven mash-up of THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and Danny Boyle's breakthrough SHALLOW GRAVE with a bit of a John Carpenter siege scenario for a little while.

Arriving on Flannan Isle for a six-week stint of running the lighthouse and other various maintenance duties, boss Thomas Marshall (Peter Mullan), James Ducat (Butler), and young apprentice/good-natured hazing target Donald McArthur (newcomer Connor Swindells, currently on Netflix's SEX EDUCATION) find their dull routine broken up one morning by the appearance a crashed boat and a body washed ashore on the rocks below. Donald is lowered down to check him and even though he says the man (Gary Kane) isn't breathing, he comes to and attacks Donald, who then bashes his head in with a rock in self-defense. In the crashed boat is a locked trunk that Thomas opens to discover it's filled with an untold fortune in gold bars. James and Donald think they've struck it rich, but Thomas urges caution, reminding them "Somebody's gonna come looking for this guy." Sure enough, two men, Locke (Soren Malling) and Boor (GAME OF THRONES' Olafur Darri Olafsson), show up on the island and start asking questions. It isn't long before there's two more dead bodies and increasing paranoia over more people coming and a growing mistrust of one another over concerns about making off with the gold and who'll keep their mouth shut about it. Given the speculation about what could've gone down on Flannan Isle in 1900--and to this day, no one knows for sure--THE VANISHING certainly takes an unexpected approach when it could've been just as easy to get a movie about a sea monster or aliens made. It benefits from three strong performances by its stars, particularly Mullan as the conflicted Thomas--considered the likely killer by historians who support the "one man went insane killed the other two" theory--still grieving over the deaths of his wife and daughters (and he won't say how they died). But in the context of the film, it's Butler's James who really cracks up and folds under pressure, which allows the actor to stretch a bit when he's usually the hero. THE VANISHING is worth a look for fans of Butler and the great character actor Mullan (SESSION 9), but the pace is a bit too slow (probably why Lionsgate relegated it to VOD), and it starts stumbling in the home stretch when it really matters most, leading to an abrupt and not-very-satisfying conclusion. (R, 107 mins)

(US - 2018)

If Lars von Trier attempted to make his own warped version of A STAR IS BORN and was completely in over his head and absolutely terrible at his job, it would probably come out looking a lot like VOX LUX, the latest from actor-turned-filmmaker Brady Corbet. In his acting days, Corbet paid his dues with stints on 24 and with guest spots in the LAW & ORDER universe, but instead of going the mainstream route, he was driven to take roles in films by provocateurs like von Trier (MELANCHOLIA), Gregg Araki (MYSTERIOUS SKIN), Michael Haneke (the remake of FUNNY GAMES), and Olivier Assayas (CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA). I've not seen Corbet's 2016 directing debut THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER, but VOX LUX is a film that thinks it's deep and meaningful, but is really just shallow, exploitative, self-indulgent drivel that feels like the kind of nonsense that VELVET BUZZSAW was trying to lampoon. Corbet may have spent time observing and picking the brains of his auteur heroes, but he doesn't seem to have learned anything from them beyond surface imitation. You know you're in for an ordeal when the film opens with von Trier-esque title cards like "Prelude: 1999" followed by "Act I: Genesis (2000-01)." There's also wry and sardonic narration by frequent von Trier star Willem Dafoe, just like the kind John Hurt provided in von Trier's DOGVILLE and MANDERLAY. In an effectively harrowing opening sequence set in 1999, Staten Island teenager Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy of THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER) gets a bullet lodged in her spine when she's the sole survivor of a shooting rampage by troubled outcast and character-name-that-could-only-exist-in-a-shitty-movie-like-this, Cullen Active (Logan Riley Bruner), who mows down her entire classroom, and it's all downhill from there. During her long recovery, after which she's still able to walk as long as the bullet doesn't dislodge, she attends a candlelight vigil and performs a song written by her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin, who played the young Charlotte Gainsbourg in von Trier's NYMPHOMANIAC) that captures the nation's attention and draws interest from various record companies. She gets a manager (Jude Law), a publicist (Jennifer Ehle), and a choreographer, and soon enough, she's about to become teen pop sensation "Celeste," recording songs in NYC and Europe, and then the sisters are partying hard and hooking up with guys in L.A. in the early morning hours of 9/11, when narrator Dafoe gravely intones "Celeste's loss of innocence curiously mirrored that of the nation."

I would pay to see the look on Willem Dafoe's face when he was standing in the recording booth and was handed that line. It's impossible to take anything VOX LUX offers seriously after that, but at about the midway point, there's a 16-year time jump or, as Corbet (who probably now pronounces it "Cor-bay") puts it, "Act II: Regenesis 2017," where we're introduced to 31-year-old Celeste, and the film achieves the unthinkable and somehow gets even worse. Much of that is due to a career-worst performance by Natalie Portman, who takes over the role while Cassidy now plays her teenage daughter Albertine. Adult Celeste is now a Madonna/Lady Gaga-esque pop culture icon, constantly stalked by the tabloids and addled by booze, drugs, public meltdowns, and other scandals. As she prepares for a sold-out comeback concert at a Staten Island arena, her always-enabling manager (still played by Law, who's pretty much Alan Bates in THE ROSE) informs her that terrorists dressed as the dancers in the music video of one of her early hits have just committed a horrific mass shooting on a beach in Croatia. She has nothing but resentment and scorn for the long-suffering Ellie, who's done most of the heavy lifting both writing her songs for her and raising Albertine. It all culminates in a triumphant performance by Celeste in front of her hometown "angels" in an interminable finale featuring songs by Sia that sound like they came from the bottom of her slush pile. Corbet's ham-fisted, would-be commentary on everything from school shootings to 9/11 to the Price of Fame while feebly trying to emulate von Trier and others borders on outright poseurdom, and while Martin and Cassidy manage to emerge generally unscathed (though Cassidy's British accent slips through quite a bit in the first half), a shrill and over-the-top Portman, stuck playing one of the most grating, off-putting, and aggressively unlikable characters in any movie from last year, is just embarrassingly bad. Check out her overly-affected Noo Yawk screech when she's ranting at Ellie or at restaurant managers or at a journalist (Christopher Abbott), or waxing philosophic over society's ills and "ultra mega triple hi-def TVs" and "our intimate knowledge of the commitment to the lowest common denominator." Barely released by Neon and grossing just $730,000, VOX LUX isn't a serious artistic statement by a bold new voice in filmmaking. It's smug, self-impressed, vacuous bullshit. Can someone tell Brady Corbet that masturbation is usually something done in private? (R, 114 mins)

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Retro Review: NEXT OF KIN (1982)

(Australia - 1982; US release 1985)

Directed by Tony Williams. Written by Michael Heath and Tony Williams. Cast: Jackie Kerin, John Jarratt, Alex Scott, Gerda Nicolson, Charles McCallum, Bernadette Gibson, Robert Ratti, Vince Deltito, Tommy Dysart, Debra Lawrance, Matt Burns. (Unrated, 89 mins)

A genuinely unsettling gem from Australia that fans of cult horror and Ozploitation have largely kept to themselves, 1982's NEXT OF KIN is a textbook example of the "slow burn" approach that many indie horror films have taken in recent years. Of course, Quentin Tarantino has gone on the record as being one of its biggest fans, but it's almost certain that filmmakers like Ti West (THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, THE INNKEEPERS) and Oz Perkins (I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE, THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER) have seen it and studied it. Made during an era when the horror genre was dominated by both slasher movies and trailblazing special effects makeup and creature FX, NEXT OF KIN is almost a film out of its time, and one that spends its first 2/3 being deliberately coy about exactly what it's up to. In the end, its reveals don't offer much in the way of surprises and twists, but that's really not important. Throughout the film's duration, New Zealand-born director Tony Williams and his co-writer Michael Heath conduct such a master class in slowly-escalating dread and screw-tightening tension, pulling it off with such confidence, style, and panache that NEXT OF KIN's biggest mystery is ultimately why neither of their careers really went anywhere in the ensuing years.

Returning to her isolated rural Australian hometown after years away upon receiving word that her estranged mother has died, Linda (Jackie Kerin) isn't really enthused about being left in charge of Montclare, the family estate that now doubles as a nursing home. On the outskirts of a podunk town where nothing much goes on ("Well, there's a new public toilet!" boasts the gruff owner of the local greasy spoon), Montclare is in dire financial straits and has seen better days, and despite the hopes of administrative nurse Connie (Gerda Nicolson) and Dr. Barton (Alex Scott) that the facility be kept open, with Connie even admitting a new resident, Mrs. Ryan (Bernadette Gibson), against her wishes, Linda is exploring all of her options with what to do with the place and its dwindling number of residents. That number only keeps dwindling as a string of Montclare's elderly are found dead, with evasive Dr. Barton declaring one a drowning in a bathtub despite Linda seeing what appear to be deep bruises on the corpse's neck that would indicate strangulation. All the while, Linda is haunted by nightmares of a long-suppressed, traumatic incident that took place at Montclare when she was a child, eventually finding corroboration in her mother's hidden diaries that detail an extensive history of madness and murder at the house over 20 years earlier. The events taking place now and manifesting in Linda's nightmares seem to mirror those documented in the tattered pages of her mother's journals, with include a foreboding warning that "There is something evil in this house." Naturally, her concerns are mostly disregarded by Dr. Barton, Connie, and hunky local firefighter Barney (John Jarratt), with whom she cautiously rekindles a romance that began back when they were teenagers.

Williams and Heath take an inordinate amount of time letting NEXT OF KIN simmer to a raging boil. It flirts with being everything from a then-trendy slasher film, a haunted house ghost story, and an Australian giallo (one brief shot on a TV screen at a diner has echoes of Dario Argento briefly flashing a huge reveal early in DEEP RED that no first-time viewer ever catches but is plain as day on subsequent watches) before it finally shows its cards in its audacious third act that culminates in an almost apocalyptic finale straight out of MAD MAX. But before that, the filmmakers establish a sense of unease with unnerving images like Linda repeatedly spotting a figure watching her from a distance or pulling into the long driveway at Montclare and catching a fleeting glimpse of someone in a red coat standing in her bedroom window. This almost glacial buildup lasts for an hour before it suddenly explodes, almost out of nowhere, when the killer pursues Linda through a mostly unoccupied wing of Montclare as she runs from room to room to hide as the pounding footsteps of the sprinting, hammer-wielding murderer could be coming from any direction. The long corridors of the home allow HARLEQUIN and WE OF THE NEVER NEVER cinematographer Gary Hansen (who would be tragically killed in a helicopter crash while filming a TV commercial later in 1982) and Steadicam operator Toby Phillips (a protege of Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown, who used it to much notoriety in ROCKY and THE SHINING, the latter a clear stylistic influence on NEXT OF KIN) to prowl the ominous halls of Montclare--which also showcases of the genre's great spiral staircases--and indulge in some breathtaking flourishes when the camera shifts and swings in unexpected directions, whether it's some overhead shots or the startling way Williams has one of the villains suddenly bolt into the frame like a wild animal about to pounce. Also greatly contributing to the atmosphere is a moody and effective score by German electronic music pioneer Klaus Schulze (an early member of Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel), which lends a bit of a SUSPIRIA vibe and really gets under your skin.

At the time, the cast was unknown outside of Australia, though Jarratt would find some notoriety among horror and cult movie fans many years later thanks to his dark-side-of-Crocodile Dundee performance as an affable Outback serial killer in the controversial WOLF CREEK and Jarratt superfan Tarantino giving him a brief role near the end of DJANGO UNCHAINED. The very appealing Kerin, who has a striking resemblance to Nastassja Kinski, had some TV credits to her name and appeared in a few episodes of PRISONER: CELL BLOCK H, a late '70s Australian women-in-prison series that aired in syndication in the States. NEXT OF KIN remains her only feature film to date, and while she acted sporadically on Australian TV over the next couple of decades, she's better known in her homeland these days as a children's book author and storyteller. Just out in an extras-packed Blu-ray from Severin (because physical media is dead), NEXT OF KIN didn't find any attention from American distributors at the time, taking three years to get a straight-to-video release in 1985 courtesy of Media Home Entertainment offshoot VCL Communications, and then getting relaunched again in 1988 through Virgin Vision. Heath went on to write the 1984 New Zealand-made video store fixture DEATH WARMED UP and the 1992 Al Lewis comedy MY GRANDPA IS A VAMPIRE. Born in 1944, Williams had the little-seen 1978 Australian drama SOLO under his belt, as well as a handful of gigs as an editor and a cinematographer, but he followed NEXT OF KIN with 31 years of off-the-radar silence. Since 2013, he's directed three documentaries that likely haven't been seen outside of either Australia or New Zealand. Looking at it now, NEXT OF KIN should've established Tony Williams as a major new figure in horror, but he seemingly walked away, leaving his legacy in the genre to stand with one small masterpiece of its kind.

Director/co-writer Tony Williams, star Jackie Kerin, and
cinematographer Gary Hansen on the set of NEXT OF KIN. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

In Theaters: GRETA (2019)

(US/South Korea/China/Ireland - 2019)

Directed by Neil Jordan. Written by Ray Wright and Neil Jordan. Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Chloe Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Stephen Rea, Colm Feore, Zawe Ashton, Jeff Hiller, Jessica Preddy, Thaddeus Daniels. (R, 98 mins)

Best known for 1986's MONA LISA, 1992's THE CRYING GAME, and 1994's INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan has all the cache that comes with being a respected, Oscar-nominated director, but his career as a whole has been pretty hit-or-miss. Sure, he's also made fine films like 1996's MICHAEL COLLINS, 1997's THE BUTCHER BOY, 2002's THE GOOD THIEF, and 2010's little-seen ONDINE, and he created the acclaimed 2011-2013 Showtime series THE BORGIAS, but he's also got plenty of clunkers taking up space on his IMDb page, among them 1988's HIGH SPIRITS, one of the worst comedies of its decade, 1989's WE'RE NO ANGELS, a justifiably forgotten exercise in shameless mugging for Robert De Niro and Sean Penn, 1999's IN DREAMS, and 2007's embarrassingly bad Jodie Foster vigilante thriller THE BRAVE ONE. The box office success of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE aside, Jordan typically doesn't fare well when he's in genre journeyman mode. With that in mind, one might approach GRETA, his first big-screen effort since his intermittently interesting 2013 vampire film BYZANTIUM, with some trepidation. A throwback to the sort of SINGLE WHITE FEMALE-esque, "(blank)-from-Hell" psycho-thrillers that were epidemic in the 1990s, GRETA is fun in a check-your-brain-at-the-door kind of way. To its credit, it isn't delusional enough to take itself too seriously, but at the same time, it can't just do some of the stupid shit it does and let Jordan off the hook just because he's a respected filmmaker slumming in a lurid B thriller that's significantly gussied-up by an overqualified star.

Frances McCullen (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a quiet old soul from Boston living in NYC with her bratty, spoiled friend Erica (Maika Monroe of IT FOLLOWS) in a spacious Tribeca loft given to Erica as a graduation gift by her wealthy father. A recent Smith College graduate working as a server in an upscale restaurant, Frances keeps her distance from her workaholic dad back home (Colm Feore) and is still processing her grief following her mom's death from cancer a year earlier. After work one evening, Frances spots an abandoned handbag on the subway and takes it home. Refusing to indulge Erica's suggestion that they keep the wad of cash that's inside and toss the bag, Frances checks an ID in the purse and the next morning, does the right thing and returns it to its owner in Brooklyn. That owner is Greta Hadig (Isabelle Huppert), a retired piano teacher. She's grateful for Frances' act of kindness, invites her in for coffee, and the pair quickly form a surrogate mother-daughter relationship when Frances, still missing her beloved mother, learns that Greta is a lonely widow whose estranged daughter is at a music conservatory in Greta's native France. Ditching a night of clubbing with an incredulous and seemingly insensitive Erica to have a quiet dinner with Greta, things come to a screeching halt when Greta has Frances grab some candles in the other room and she opens the wrong cabinet, finding over a dozen identical handbags with Post-It notes with the names of who found them, including one that reads "Frances McCullen."

Quickly realizing it's a sick scam and understandably creeped out, Frances feigns a sudden illness and leaves, immediately deciding that Greta is bad news. But Greta wants a friend and won't be ignored. She texts Frances hundreds of times, leaves a ton of messages on their home phone (call it nitpicking, but nothing says "directed and co-written by a 69-year-old" like a Tribeca twenty-something with a landline), and starts showing up at Frances' job, both inside and standing outside, motionless, intimidatingly staring at the restaurant for the entire duration of Frances' shift. She shows up outside the apartment, then texts Frances a series of pics that show she's following Erica and intending to harm her. Frances also discovers some secrets about Greta's family, starting with the fact that she's Hungarian and pretending to be French (which doesn't really have any bearing on anything). Of course, there isn't enough evidence for the cops to do anything, though Greta eventually causes a scene at the restaurant and gets arrested. She's promptly released, and the pair reach a tentative truce until Greta goes further off the deep end, hellbent on ensuring she has Frances all to herself.

The kind of film that probably would've been the #1 movie in America for three weeks if this was March of 1999 instead of 2019, GRETA is dumber than a box of rocks, but there's no denying that it's entertaining. Sure, one can complain about the rampant stupidity of the characters. Once Erica figures out Greta is stalking her and confronts her on a crowded bus, what does she then do? Of course, she gets off the bus packed to the gills with potential witnesses and heads straight down the nearest dark alley alone. And when a psycho is holding you captive in a hidden room in their house and you manage to briefly get the upper hand via an impromptu finger amputation-by-cookie cutter, where do you run? Where else? The dark, cobweb-filled basement with no exit! Moretz isn't really required to do much more than be distraught and frazzled, while Monroe doesn't have a whole lot to do but the arc of her character is probably the most legitimately unpredictable element (frequent Jordan star Stephen Rea also turns up in the third act as a private eye hired by Frances' father). But GRETA wouldn't be much without the heroic efforts of the great Huppert, the iconic French legend with a record 16 Cesar Award nominations over a career dating back to 1971, and who's no stranger to throwing herself into a character, as anyone who's seen Michael Haneke's THE PIANO TEACHER and her Oscar-nominated performance in Paul Verhoeven's ELLE can attest. Taking what's a spiritual successor to the kind of "horror hag" roles that gave a major second wind to the careers of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Olivia de Havilland and others in the 1960s when they began aging out of traditional leading lady gigs and running with it, Huppert is off the chain throughout GRETA. Initially coming off as vulnerable yet vaguely sinister (you know something's up when she's having coffee with Frances and they're interrupted by a pounding that she blames on "the neighbors"), Huppert goes from zero-to-batshit pretty quickly, refusing to take no for an answer ("Everybody needs a friend!"), poisoning an elderly dog, furiously spitting gum in Frances' hair, flipping tables over in a posh restaurant while ranting in Hungarian, and pirouetting around her house while she disposes of an unwanted intruder. It's a role that's mostly beneath someone of Huppert's esteemed caliber, but she doesn't treat it as such, knowing exactly what kind of movie she's in and classing it up simply by probably relishing the opportunity to go over-the-top as the villain in a commercial thriller. GRETA doesn't hold up under much scrutiny, but it moves briskly and has a game star carrying it on her shoulders. Who ever thought we'd get to see Isabelle Huppert headlining a wide release in 2019?

Thursday, February 28, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: BETWEEN WORLDS (2018) and A PRIVATE WAR (2018)

(US/Spain - 2018)

By now, it's pointless to find any rhyme or reason when it comes to Nicolas Cage's career choices. These days, his only A-list gigs come from voice work in animated films like SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, and every once in a while, he'll luck into a FROZEN GROUND, JOE, THE TRUST, or MOM AND DAD among his plethora of VOD clunkers. But 2018 was the year of MANDY, Panos Cosmatos' gonzo mindfuck of a midnight movie that got a lot of festival buzz and was an instant, legit cult classic right out of the gate. It immediately became an essential entry in the Cage canon and got him the most acclaim and attention he'd received in years. But any hopes that MANDY would herald a Cageassaince are dashed with BETWEEN WORLDS, a moronic and amateurish supernatural thriller that hit VOD at the tail end of last year. With enough strange ideas and Cage once again cast as a blue collar loner who finds himself caught up in all sorts of inexplicable mayhem, BETWEEN WORLDS could almost pass itself off as a distant cousin to MANDY, but it's filmed in such a basic, rudimentary fashion so devoid of style and a sense of professionalism that it actually looks, at best, like a student film that accidentally got a distribution deal. It seems the only trick that co-producer/writer/director Maria Pulera has in her arsenal--aside from somehow cajoling the great Angelo Badalamenti into composing the main theme, which I guess is there to give the film a Dipshit David Lynch vibe--is the repetitious and pointlessly wanky reliance on low-angle close-ups of everything from a coffee carafe to a bottle of beer to the hairy ass crack of an overweight convenience store clerk. That, and the ability to get real and long-established actors like Cage and Franka Potente (RUN LOLA RUN, THE BOURNE IDENTITY) to embarrass themselves in a project that's far beneath them.

In an opening filled with one of the most laboriously clumsy exposition dumps I've ever seen, Alabama trucker Joe Majors (Cage, wearing what looks like the tattered remains of his CON AIR mullet), still grieving the loss of his wife and young daughter in a recent house fire, is using the men's room at a gas station when he walks in on a burly guy strangling a woman. The woman is Julie (Potente), and Joe thinks he saved her life, but it's something else entirely: since a near-drowning experience as a child, she's had the ability to cross "between worlds," with a psychic ability to rescue those near death. She uses it sparingly, but needs it now because her grown daughter Billie (Penelope Mitchell) is in a coma after a motorcycle accident that morning. In order to go between worlds, she has to be taken to the brink of death herself, with strangling being the most convenient way, and she paid the guy to choke her. Since he ruined the connection, Joe feels obligated to choke Julie himself in order for her to save a non-responsive Billie at the hospital, and it works. Before long, Joe and Julie are a thing but something isn't right with Billie. She's soon leering at Joe, tempting him in various states of undress when Julie isn't around, and giving him under-the-blanket handjobs on the couch while they watch TV and Julie's in the kitchen making dinner. Yep, you guessed it: when Julie went between worlds, Billie's soul was switched out with that of Joe's late wife, who's now inside Billie's body, ready for action, and not at all pleased that he's hooked up with Julie.

BETWEEN WORLDS doesn't even follow its own barely-there logic, and its primary justification is simply for Cage to channel his inner Talk Show Robin Williams, with Pulera apparently so grateful that he said yes that she does nothing to rein him in. In a performance that makes his work in the long-forgotten early '90s erotic potboiler ZANDALEE seem disciplined, Cage has several absurdly over-the-top sex scenes with both Potente and Mitchell, sometimes amusing himself while thrusting away by randomly quoting and pantomiming the crucifix masturbation scene in THE EXORCIST or reading aloud from a book of erotic poetry with a cover that reads "Memories by Nicolas Cage." He ad-libs endlessly (Potente: "Want a beer?" Cage: "Does the Tin Man have a sheet-metal cock?"), and totally loses it in the finale, which has him sobbing uncontrollably and cradling his dead daughter's Jack-in-the-Box while pouring gasoline on himself to the tune of The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack." Mind you, as on-brand as this is for Nic Cage--who wouldn't wanna see the movie I just described?--none of it is ever as entertaining as it sounds. Similar to his disastrous performance in the unwatchable ARMY OF ONE, Cage's histrionics come off as exhausted and overly affected, because there's no movie here--it's just him goofing off for 90 minutes. Something more polished and professional might've made Cage's antics more palatable, but BETWEEN WORLDS is a film that displays all the production value of a high-end sex tape or hostage video, magnifying the fact that Cage has nothing to work with and really begging the question of what even attracted him and Potente to this thing in the first place. (R, 91 mins)

(US/UK/Germany - 2018)

One of the most overlooked films of the 2018 awards season, at least by the general moviegoing public, A PRIVATE WAR is a harrowing chronicle of Marie Colvin, an American expat and war correspondent who spent nearly 30 years covering the most dangerous areas of the world for the UK's Sunday Times. The film covers the post-9/11 era, where Colvin, portrayed here in a remarkable performance by Rosamund Pike, spent most of her time embedded in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, venturing into places and situations that most journalists would consider too dangerous (when asked if she's afraid, she replies "You're never gonna get to where you're going if you acknowledge fear...fear comes later"). She lost the sight in her left eye after catching shrapnel in a bomb blast in Sri Lanka in 2001--with an eye-patch subsequently providing her signature look--and after two miscarriages, two failed marriages to journalist/novelist David Irens (Greg Wise), and now too old to have children, she threw herself into her work and grew even more ambitious and addicted to the danger. After befriending photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) in Iraq, she convinces him to tag along with her and a translator, breaking the rules and moving ahead of US troops to corroborate rumors of a Saddam Hussein-ordered mass grave in Fallujah. Her actions both earn the respect and test the patience of everyone in her life, from Conley to her editor (Tom Hollander), her best friend (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and a sympathetic potential love interest (Stanley Tucci). Colvin extensively covered the Syrian civil war, and her life came to an end in the city of Homs, where she, Conroy, and journalist Remi Ochlik (Jeremie Laheurte) would be trapped in a building receiving heavy artillery fire trying to evacuate residents from the area. Only a seriously-injured Conroy survived, with Colvin and Ochlik succumbing to injuries sustained from a bomb blast. Only hours before her death, Colvin was interviewed by Anderson Cooper in prime time on CNN.

Originally intended as a project for Charlize Theron (who remained onboard as one of 34 credited producers), A PRIVATE WAR marks the narrative directing debut of acclaimed documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman (CARTEL LAND, CITY OF GHOSTS), who really nails the details when it comes to embedded journalists covering war zones. He stages one nerve-wracking sequence after another where a determined Colvin might be killed at any moment. Years of witnessing atrocities and death have taken their toll--she drinks too much, she grows more abrasive, she's diagnosed with PTSD and is briefly committed to a hospital--but it's all she knows and she can't cover the mundane assignments her editor half-heartedly suggests as alternatives ("the gardening section?"). It would've been easy to lapse into cliched melodrama and there are some times during the boozy, chain-smoking sections where it almost does, but Pike fearlessly inhabits Marie Colvin, warts and all. She keeps A PRIVATE WAR from turning into the cliched hagiography that might've resulted had a more "Hollywood" director than Heineman been handed the screenplay written by Arash Amel, whose credits include the instantly-forgotten Aaron Eckhart TAKEN knockoff ERASED and the little-loved Nicole Kidman dud GRACE OF MONACO. The last of three Pike political thrillers that bombed in theaters in 2018 (after the inexplicably dance-crazed 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE and the solid throwback BEIRUT), A PRIVATE WAR is further evidence of the actress becoming a top Flop Indicator (© Bob Cashill), but like BEIRUT, this one deserved a better reception than it got, and in a perfect world, Pike would've been nominated for an Oscar along with the similarly snubbed Toni Collette for HEREDITARY. (R, 110 mins)