Thursday, August 16, 2018

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

(US/UK - 2018)

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

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

(US/UK/China - 2018)

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

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Retro Review: THE CHANGELING (1980)

(Canada - 1980)

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

Though a huge success in its native Canada, the tax shelter-era haunted house chiller THE CHANGELING was released to middling box office in the US in the spring of 1980, sandwiched between the previous year's megahit THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and the soon-to-be-released THE SHINING. While it didn't really find an audience in American theaters, it gained a strong cult following on cable and in video stores throughout the decade. Time has been kind to THE CHANGELING, and it's held in high regard today and belongs near the top of any short list of great haunted house horror movies, often mentioned in the same breath as 1963's THE HAUNTING and 1973's THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. In a year where the horror genre was dominated by the controversy and game-changing impact of FRIDAY THE 13TH and the explosion of the slasher film, THE CHANGELING, directed by versatile career journeyman Peter Medak (THE RULING CLASS), brought a level of class and respectability thanks to the presence of revered, award-winning actors like George C. Scott and Melvyn Douglas and a notable lack of gore, exploitation, or even gratuitous post-EXORCIST/OMEN demonic histrionics (though one minor supporting character dies an OMEN-esque death late in the film). Even in 1980, THE CHANGELING felt like a bit of a throwback that didn't quite go in the direction that horror was trending, which may have diminished its commercial appeal then but almost certainly helped contribute to its ability to stand the test of time and remain as chillingly effective nearly 30 years later. The film has never been ideally represented on home video until now, thanks to Severin's recent Blu-ray release, which finally gives this classic the loving presentation it so richly deserves.

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

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

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

Toledo, OH on April 25, 1980. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

In Theaters: THE MEG (2018)

(US/China - 2018)

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 13, 2018

In Theaters: BLACKkKLANSMAN (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee. Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Robert John Burke, Michael Buscemi, Frederick Weller, Ken Garito, Harry Belafonte, Alec Baldwin, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Paakkonen, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson, Nicholas Turturro, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Danny Hoch, Arthur Nascarella, Brian Tarantina, Ryan Preimesberger. (R, 135 mins)

As difficult as it may be to believe, Spike Lee's BLACKkKLANSMAN is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer hired by the Colorado Springs P.D. back in the 1970s, and the man who was instrumental in busting up a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. As a rookie hired mainly for show, Stallworth (BALLERS' John David Washington, son of frequent Lee star and close friend Denzel Washington) is immediately sent to the records department and generally dismissed and disrespected by his fellow officers. Looking for some meaningful police work, he jumps at the chance to go undercover at a rally hosted by Colorado College's black student union, welcoming civil rights leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), formerly known as the Black Panthers' Stokely Carmichael. Backed up by detectives Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi, Steve's look/soundalike younger brother), Ron doesn't see much more than rhetoric in Ture's call to arms, but he does make the acquaintance of Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the "pig"-hating president of the black student union, though he keeps his job a secret.

Shortly after, spotting an ad for the local chapter of the KKK in the newspaper on a slow day in the squad room, Ron calls the number and pretends to be a white racist, inquiring for information about joining and, in a bad rookie mistake, giving his real name. Police chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) and Sgt. Trapp (Ken Garito) assign Ron to lead an undercover infiltration of the KKK, with Jewish Flip posing as "Ron Stallworth" while the real Ron coaches him and backs him up from a nearby location. As "Ron," Flip gathers intel by ingratiating himself with local chapter president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) and his two chief underlings, hot-headed Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakkonen) and mouth-breathing moron Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser, who seems to be cornering the market on such characters between this and his role as the hapless Shawn Eckhardt in I, TONYA). The ruse can't last forever, especially with Felix's overwhelming suspicion that "Ron"/Flip looks "too Jewish" and when he looks up "Ron Stallworth" in the phone book and sees that a black man lives at the address. Ron and Flip always manage to cover themselves and explain away inconsistencies, whether it's Flip avoiding a Felix-administered lie detector test or the real Ron getting in the good graces of KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) over the phone. Tension soon escalates with Duke planning a visit to Colorado Springs for "Ron"'s initiation and Felix, Ivanhoe, and Felix's wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), who's desperate to be accepted as one of the guys, planning to bomb a civil rights demonstration organized by Patrice.

Co-produced by the GET OUT team of Blumhouse and Jordan Peele, BLACKkKLANSMAN is Lee's best narrative film in at least a decade, maybe since 2006's INSIDE MAN. Alternately edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, funny (the great Isiah Whitlock Jr. stops by long enough to drop his signature catchphrase), satirical, and biliously enraged, the film balances its moods perfectly and satisfies on all fronts, serving as a 1970s-set police procedural and as a bitter polemic about the current state of Donald Trump's America. It's no coincidence that the film was released on the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville tragedy, and Trump is invoked both in archival news footage and in the platitudes of Grace's sinister yet folksy ("You're darn tootin'!") David Duke, both in his political aspirations and his use of "America first" and the KKK"s background chatter of "making America great again." Lee even opens the film with a faux-editorial by fictional white supremacy advocate Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin), whose disturbingly prophetic inflammatory hate speech sounds exactly like the Laura Ingraham diatribe that aired on Fox News just a couple of nights before the film's release. The riveting, kinetic third act balances the thwarting of an act of domestic terrorism along with a cross-cutting of "Ron"'s induction into the Klan and a celebratory viewing of D.W. Griffith's THE BIRTH OF A NATION and Patrice and her fellow black students listening to a lecture by elderly activist Mr. Turner (Harry Belafonte) as he recounts the horrifying 1916 lynching, mutilation, and burning of Jesse Washington, itself inspired by the renewed interest in the Klan following the box-office success of Griffith's film, which was praised by none other then President Woodrow Wilson.

Lee's output has been wildly inconsistent in recent years. Small, crowdfunded indies like 2012's RED HOOK SUMMER and his 2015 horror film DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS, a remake of the 1973 cult film GANJA AND HESS, were intermittently interesting curios at best, while his ill-advised 2013 remake of OLDBOY was a disaster that he disowned after the producers took it away from him in post-production (I haven't seen 2015's CHI-RAQ, which many praised as a return to form, or his barely-released, 2018 filmed play PASS OVER). But BLACKkKLANSMAN finds the 61-year-old auteur at a full fury on a level we haven't seen since DO THE RIGHT THING (or possibly BAMBOOZLED), a perfect mix of his commercial capabilities and his sociopolitical concerns. The cast is outstanding across the board, and over the course of its 135 minutes, a star is born with Washington, who turned to acting after his pro football career failed to pan out. His transformation into a leading man occurs with his character's growth over the film, and by the end, you'll absolutely see his dad in his performance. Dazzling from start to finish, and funny and frightening in equal measures, and with an utterly devastating final montage, BLACKkKLANSMAN immediately establishes itself as one of Lee's essential works and one of the best films of the year.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: REVENGE (2018), MARROWBONE (2018), and 2036: ORIGIN UNKNOWN (2018)

(France/Belgium - 2018)

A throwback to both the French "extreme" horror movement of the mid-2000s as well as the vintage exploitation standby of the rape/revenge thriller, REVENGE hit international screens at just the moment that #MeToo and #TimesUp exploded in the global culture in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. As a result, many critics and bloggers seemed especially intent on making it a zeitgeist-capturing "issues" film when it really isn't. It's easy to see why molding it to fit a post-Weinstein narrative was easy: it's written and directed by Coralie Fargeat, working in a genre that's typically male-dominated from a behind-the-scenes standpoint. There's that, along with one of the main male villains spending the entire climax running around completely nude as he's being pursued by the vengeance-seeking Jen (a star-making performance by Matilda Lutz). Jen is the party-girl mistress of wealthy, married Richard (Kevin Janssens). He's got a weekend hunting trip planned at his posh desert getaway with two of his buddies, but he and Jen head out a day early to have the place to themselves. The buddies--Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimi (Guillaume Bouchede)--show up early and the quartet spend the evening drinking and having a good time. Jen and Stan do some playful slow dancing, and the next morning, while Richard is getting supplies for the hunt, Dimi is nursing a hangover, and Jen's packing so Richard's private chopper pilot can fly her home, Stan confronts her about "leading him on" and when she gets uncomfortable and tries to politely reject his advances, he rapes her as Dimi walks in, sees what's happening, closes the door, and turns up the volume on the living room TV to drown out the noise before blithely going for a swim. Richard returns and tries to calm Jen down, promising her a job with his company and wiring some money into her bank account to buy her silence. Furious that Richard's more concerned with protecting himself and his buddy than with her safety and well-being, she threatens to go to his wife, he belts her across the face, and she runs out of the house. The men chase her down, cornering her at a cliff as Richard pushes her off, impaling her on a tree branch and leaving her to die.

Of course, she survives, escaping with the branch still sticking out of her abdomen, and when Richard and the others return from their hunt assuming they'll dispose of her body, she's gone. After one of the more gruesome cauterization scenes in recent memory, Jen spends the rest of the film evading and eventually hunting down the trio, with results so violent and blood-soaked that it's really hard to believe this somehow managed to get an R rating. Even for the seasoned genre enthusiast, this is some pretty strong stuff, with one agonizing and painful scene with Stan rooting around inside his foot to remove a glass shard that goes on so absurdly long that a splatter newbie might very well throw up or pass out. Fargaet does a great job mining edge-of-your-seat suspense from Jen's pursuit of the men, often letting these scenes play out in long, real time takes. The final showdown between Jen and Richard is a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bloodbath. This is the kind of movie where a character has to Saran Wrap himself to keep his guts from spilling out. Lutz, previously seen in RINGS, which was hated by pretty much everyone, instantly establishes her genre bona fides in a ferocious performance that rivals Cristina Lindberg in Bo Arne Vibenius' THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE (1973) and Camille Keaton in Meir Zarchi's I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978). And with its gruesome revenge tropes and Richard's reprehensible victim-blaming ("You're so damn beautiful, it's hard to resist you," he says in an attempt to justify Stan's actions), those are the real antecedents here, albeit with a much diminished focus on the rape aspect (in another example of defying expectations, the rape mostly takes place offscreen, with Jen's cries for help drowned out by the TV), and some admittedly clunky, high school creative writing-level symbolic religious imagery, from a rotten apple to Jen's impalement on the tree being a sort-of crucifixion. Other than the novelty of being directed by a woman and exhibiting more male nudity than female, REVENGE isn't making any statement about empowerment that Vibenius and Zarchi didn't make over 40-plus years ago. But even as a present-day homage to those cult classics, REVENGE is a riveting, visceral experience, and a breakout not just for Lutz, who throws herself into this fearless abandon, but also Fargeat, who's obviously a filmmaker to watch. (R, 108 mins)

(Spain - 2017; US release 2018)

The Spanish-made, English-language thriller MARROWBONE is the feature directing debut of Sergio G. Sanchez, best known as the writing partner of Guillermo del Toro protege and JURASSIC PARK: FALLEN KINGDOM director J.A. Bayona on 2007's THE ORPHANAGE and 2012's THE IMPOSSIBLE. Bayona is onboard as an executive producer here, and THE ORPHANAGE's influence is felt throughout, along with shades of the 1977 cult classic THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE, at least until the twists and turns start becoming apparent. The story is structured as such that said twists and turns are calculated too far in advance to be as effective as they should be, and MARROWBONE is a film that feels like it should've been made a decade ago. Set in 1969, it begins with American expat Rose Fairbairn (Nicola Harrison) fleeing England with her four children--adult Jack (George Mackay), late teens Jane (Mia Goth) and Billy (Charlie Heaton), and young Sam (Matthew Stagg)--across the Atlantic all the way to Marrowbone, her family's namesake ancestral home in a remote area of Maine. The reasons are initially vague--something about an abusive father--and the journey prompts a precipitous decline in Rose's health. She dies not long after they settle in and shortly after that, their father (Tom Fisher) finds them, appearing out of the nearby forest and taking a shot at Jane through her bedroom window.

Sanchez then immediately jumps ahead six months, and that incident isn't mentioned again until much later, the first clear sign that vital info is being withheld from the audience and that there's an obvious twist with more to come after that. The longer Sanchez draws it out and throws in other subplots--the reveal of the real reason they left England and a scandal involving their father being dubbed "The Beast of Bampton" by the British press; Jack courting local librarian Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy) and vying for her affections with Porter, the smarmy lawyer (Kyle Soller) in charge of the Marrowbone estate; Jack's efforts to keep his mother's death a secret and deal with an attempted blackmailing by Porter; and Jack's insistence that only he go to town for errands while his siblings stay at the house--the more likely you are to figure out most of the third act developments that start flying fast and furious after an extremely slow buildup. There's some effective atmosphere throughout and some creepy moments here and there (little Sam's encounter with "the ghost" in their mother's room and the gradual realization that something is in the attic), but by the end, the twists and reveals are just deployed at an almost absurd rate, to the point where once everything is explained and rationally tied together, it becomes harder to swallow than what might've transpired otherwise. The performances are good, particularly Mackay, and Sanchez does a nice job at building some tension, but by the end, it just feels like the end result of recycling some leftover ORPHANAGE ideas after binge-watching some earlier M. Night Shyamalan. (R, 110 mins)

(UK - 2018)

A sci-fi thriller so bad that its only surprise is that Netflix failed to acquire it, 2036: ORIGIN UNKNOWN wastes a committed performance by BATTLESTAR GALACTICA's Katee Sackhoff in what's largely a one-woman show. After a failed mission to Mars in 2030 resulted in the deaths of the entire crew, all space missions became manned with an artificial intelligence working in conjunction with a human "supervisor" there to ensure AI functionality. In 2036, Mackenzie "Mack" Wilson (Sackhoff) is a supervisor on a return mission to Mars, but she's informed at launch--by her bureaucratic older sister Lena (Julie Cox), who runs mission control--that she's been demoted to second in command behind ARTi (voiced by Steven Cree), the sentient, British-accented AI system that was also part of the 2030 mission, whose victims included Mack's and Lena's father. The assignment is to investigate a mysterious cube-like structure that has suddenly appeared on Mars and is demonstrating an ability to teleport. Mack is hesitant to put all of her trust in ARTi, arguing that "We created AI to help us, not to lead us." If this sounds familiar, you're right: 2036: ORIGIN UNKNOWN is basically celebrating the 50th anniversary of a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece by offering up 95 minutes of  shamelessly derivative, nutsack-riding 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY fan fiction, at least until an infuriating finale where it sees fit to reference EX MACHINA Turing tests before wrapping things up as a blatant ripoff of MOON. The mission is eventually joined by Sterling (Ray Fearon), one of Mack's colleagues, and director Hasraf "Haz" Dulull even has the chutzpah to stage a scene where Mack and Sterling sneak away to have a private conversation and are spied on by HAL 9--...er, I mean, ARTi. Dulull has a lot of experience on the visual effects and pre-viz teams of numerous big-budget Hollywood movies like HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY, THE DARK KNIGHT, and PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME, in addition to the TV documentary series NOVA. The interior ship design is handsomely mounted and Dulull admirably makes 2036: ORIGIN UNKNOWN look much more expensive than it is, but even that falls on its face for a few scattered action bits that are badly rendered with laughably cheap effects more fitting for a 20-year-old sci-fi TV show. Devotees of Sackhoff will no doubt have to watch this, but know going in that she's better than the material and this is the maybe the dullest and dreariest sci-fi flick to come down the pike since 1987's NIGHTFLYERS. (Unrated, 95 mins)

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Retro Review: PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (1982)

(Italy/US - 1982)

Directed by James Cameron. Written by H.A. Milton (James Cameron, Charles H. Eglee and Ovidio G. Assonitis). Cast: Tricia O'Neil, Steve Marachuk, Lance Henriksen, Ted Richert, Ricky G. Paull (Ricky Paull Goldin), Leslie Graves, Carole Davis, Connie Lynn Hadden, Arnie Ross, Tracy Berg, Albert Sanders, Ward White, Aston S. Young. (R, 95 mins)

A tangentially-related sequel to Joe Dante's 1978 hit for Roger Corman's New World Pictures, PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING was instead produced by Egyptian-born Italian schlock king Ovidio G. Assonitis, best known for his 1974 EXORCIST ripoff BEYOND THE DOOR and his 1977 JAWS knockoff TENTACLES. Assonitis has a bizarre history of hiring rookie directors just to fire them during production so he can take over himself, and the most infamous example of this tactic is indeed PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING, which would likely be a forgotten footnote in drive-in exploitation history lost somewhere in your 1980s video store memories were it not the directing debut of one James Cameron. Though he logged time on the visual effects team of John Carpenter's 1981 classic ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, the 27-year-old Cameron was hired for PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING because of his association with Corman productions in various capacities as art director (1980's BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS) and production designer (1981's GALAXY OF TERROR), as well as his oft-expressed eagerness to start directing his own movies. He got his chance when Assonitis fired Miller Drake--a New World trailer editor who shot the US inserts for SCREAMERS, the 1981 re-edit of Sergio Martino's 1979 H.G. Wells-inspired ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN--during pre-production after a disagreement over the direction in which Drake wanted to take the story.

With his friend Drake's blessing, Cameron jumped at the opportunity, but clashed with Assonitis from the start. Working on location in Jamaica, with underwater sequences shot off Grand Cayman, and interiors done in Rome, and forced to use an Italian crew with whom he couldn't communicate, a miserable Cameron had to run every decision by Assonitis first and was almost always overruled. Cameron was fired at some point--exactly when depends on who's telling the story--but was at least around for some of post-production in Italy, as he was eventually locked out of the editing room and reportedly kept breaking in after hours to undo all of the changes Assonitis was making to the film. Cameron has frequently told this story over the years, sometimes standing by it, sometimes saying he was only kidding, but one thing is certain: his mercurial nature and uncompromising defiance in sticking to his vision was apparent even on a junky B-movie like PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING. Once Assonitis kicked him off the movie for good and finished it himself--hopefully after shouting "You're through! Finished! You hear me? I'll see that you never work in this town again!" while furiously chomping on a cigar--Cameron used his sudden downtime to begin outlining and fleshing out a script idea he had brewing in his head for a while, which of course became his 1984 breakthrough THE TERMINATOR. You were right, Ovidio--this kid's going nowhere. Well-played, sir. Well-played.

It shouldn't be a surprise that PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (shot as PIRANHA II: FLYING KILLERS and shown in some parts of the US as simply THE SPAWNING) isn't a good movie. It's professionally made, with some nice cinematography by Assonitis regular Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli and an effective score by Stelvio Cipriani, hiding behind the Americanized alias "Steve Powder." The script--the combined efforts of Assonitis, Cameron, and Cameron's buddy and fellow Corman gofer Charles H. Eglee, who would go on to a prolific career in TV--is credited to the pseudonymous "H.A. Milton," and while it references its predecessor in one throwaway line, it's largely a standalone work. At a Club Med-type resort called Club Elysium, two divers are devoured by a school of piranha while engaged in the act of deep-sea fucking. More divers are killed, and a nurse at the morgue is attacked by a flying piranha that burrows out of the remains of one of the victims. Local police chief Steve (Lance Henriksen) is irate about the body count, but he's more pissed off about the time his estranged wife and Club Elysium diving tour guide Anne (Tricia O'Neil) is spending with new hire Tyler (Steve Marachuk). Anne turns out to be a former marine biologist who gave up her career when she married Steve and gave birth to their now-16-year-old son Chris (future daytime soap regular Ricky Paull Goldin), so she knows something is in the water, and so does Tyler. He's a biochemist who worked on a secret government gene-splicing project that resulted in the creation of a piranha/grunion crossbreed that has the ability to fly and survive out of water. Tyler believes a container of flying piranha eggs was on a boat that sank off the coast of the Elysium resort. Of course, he's right, and they've hatched and bred and with nothing left to eat in the water, it's only a matter of time before they attack the resort at its busiest time of the year.

It's your classic JAWS scenario, with Anne in the Roy Scheider role once she can't convince anyone there's piranha in the water and decides to cancel her diving tours, only to promptly get fired by asshole resort manager Raoul (Ted Richert as Murray Hamilton). The first hour of PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING is spent with annoying, "wacky" characters at Club Elysium and player Tyler's tireless attempts to get in Anne's pants. The film has some unintended laughs and WTF? moments that are seemingly inherent with Italian trash movies (like the strange physical interaction when we're introduced to Anne and Chris, where it takes an unusually long time to finally conclude that they're mother and son and not, as it would initially seem, in a PRIVATE LESSONS scenario where a hot teacher has seduced a horny student), and the eventual flying piranha attack on Club Elysium is pretty entertainingly bonkers. It also certainly indulges in gratuitous gore (courtesy of the great Giannetto De Rossi) and plenty of T&A, knowing exactly what kind of movie it is. But whether it's the material or his lack of control over the whole project, there's absolutely nothing here to indicate that Cameron would go on to be the visionary trailblazer we know him as today, other than Goldin, in an interview on Shout! Factory's new Blu-ray (because physical media is dead), reminiscing about how "methodical" he was on set. It may not have established him in the way he'd hoped, but had he not been fired, he might not have been inspired to finally sit down and write THE TERMINATOR when he did. And it did establish his working relationship with Henriksen, who brings his usual intensity and gravitas to the film and puts forth far more effort than was really required. Henriksen previously worked with Assonitis on 1979's THE VISITOR, but became fast friends with Cameron, eventually appearing in both THE TERMINATOR and ALIENS. O'Neil never broke out despite a lot of TV guest spots in the '70s and '80s, but Cameron never forgot the star of his first movie and gave her a small role in TITANIC. Cameron also worked with Eglee further down the road, with the pair co-creating the Jessica Alba series DARK ANGEL for Fox, while Eglee carved himself a niche as a busy TV writer and producer on shows like ST. ELSEWHERE, MOONLIGHTING, NYPD BLUE, MURDER ONE, THE SHIELD, DEXTER, THE WALKING DEAD, and most recently, Netflix's HEMLOCK GROVE.  Everyone has to start somewhere, and to his credit, Cameron has never tried to pretend PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING doesn't exist and has always had a good sense of humor about it, even referring to it as "the very best flying piranha movie ever made" in a 2009 60 MINUTES interview with Morley Safer.

Friday, August 3, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND (2018); KINGS (2018); and THE CON IS ON (2018)

(Canada/France - 2018)

Pascal Laugier's 2008 film MARTYRS was pretty much the last word in France's "extreme horror" craze that gave us Alexandre Aja's HIGH TENSION, Xavier Gens' FRONTIER(S), and Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury's INSIDE, among others. It was an impossible film to top, so Laugier didn't even try, instead following it up with the creepy and comparatively restrained 2012 Jessica Biel thriller THE TALL MAN. For his first film in six years, Laugier revisits some less extreme but still quite disturbing MARTYRS-esque themes with INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND. Upon a cursory glance, it's easy to dismiss GHOSTLAND as a torture porn throwback, but it's got more on its mind, and weaves its story in such an intricately constructed way that you'll never see how it's planning to pull the rug out from under you. In an extended flashback, single mom Pauline (legendary French singer Mylene Farmer) is traveling with her two teenage daughters--elder and bratty Vera (Taylor Hickson) and younger and bookish Beth (Emilia Jones)--to the rural Canadian home of a late aunt who left her middle-of-nowhere home to them. They're passed on a deserted country road by an ominous, barreling ice cream truck en route, which means it won't surprise any seasoned horror fan to learn that the two people in the truck are the ones behind a home invasion later that night. Despite being brutally terrorized and beaten, Pauline manages to get the upper hand and kills both of the attackers. Cut to 16 years later, and Beth (now played by Crystal Reed) has followed her dream of becoming a writer and is now a bestselling horror novelist with a husband and young son. Her latest book Incident in a Ghostland is earning rave reviews with its semi-autobiographical depiction of what happened to her family that night. After an hysterical phone call from Vera (Anastasia Phillips), Beth returns to her mother's home to find a volatile situation: Pauline drinks too much and she's forced to keep the dangerously unstable Vera in the basement with padded walls, still haunted by the events of the past, prone to meltdowns and lunatic rants about how "they're still here."

Indeed, the nightmare is not over, and to say any more would involve significant spoilers, but rest assured, INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND isn't going where that synopsis would lead you to believe. What transpires is alternately intense, terrifying, and often upsetting, not on the "next level of existence" where MARTYRS went, but certainly just as bleak and harrowing in its own way. Laugier's depictions of the horrors his characters endure is unflinching and fearlessly acted by his stars, and as a result, like MARTYRS, GHOSTLAND isn't going to be for everyone. It's an unsettling examination of abuse, trauma, and coping mechanisms that isn't afraid to go to some very dark places. This is Laugier's fourth feature film, and all have been excellent, and even though INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND will inevitably acquire a cult following, it'll likely be overshadowed by an on-set accident involving Hickson. Laugier was directing her to pound her fists on a glass door and he kept telling her to pound harder when the glass shattered and she fell forward. A piece of glass caught her cheek as she fell and opened a huge gash on the left side of her face that required 70 stitches, leaving her permanently scarred. She subsequently sued the producers for negligence and failure to provide a safe working environment, and the case is still pending at this time. That aside--and no movie is worth what Hickson has gone through--INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND is an excellent horror film that's worth a look. (Unrated, 91 mins)


(China/US/France/Belgium - 2018)

Shot in Los Angeles, KINGS is the first English-language work from Turkish-born, France-based filmmaker Deniz Gamze Erguven, and it's the kind of misguided, laughably contrived, embarrassingly tone-deaf disaster that almost always sends an acclaimed foreign auteur on the first flight back home, never to try their luck with the US market again. Erguven won a significant amount of acclaim with her debut, 2015's MUSTANG, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. With KINGS, Erguven takes a look at the 1992 L.A. riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, trying to go for a hard-hitting immediacy by mixing in archival footage from the time but also never settling on a tone. The film is an impossibly awkward mishmash of social commentary, arthouse pretension, and slapstick comedy, culminating in a climax that cuts back and forth between the tragedy of a supporting character bleeding to death in the backseat of a car while two others engage in Three Stooges-style antics to free themselves from the parking lot light post to which they've been handcuffed. Who is this film's intended audience?

KINGS got a toxic response at last year's Toronto Film Festival and only made it to 215 screens in the US, despite having a pair of A-listers heading its cast. Oscar-winner Halle Berry pulls her wig from THE CALL out of storage to play Millie, a single South Central woman with eight foster kids, while Daniel Craig has arguably the most ill-advised role of his career as Obie, her cranky and improbably British neighbor who seems to have wandered in from the set of an early Guy Ritchie movie. Frankly, I'd like to know how Obie ended up living in this neighborhood. I'd also appreciate an explanation for his behavior. He hangs out by his window naked, goes to the liquor store in his bathrobe, drives a nice SUV, listens to opera at full blast, throws his furniture off his balcony, and randomly fires a shotgun out of his bathroom window when he's feeling really irritable. He yells at Millie's younger kids one moment, then he's got them in his apartment, ordering pizza and dancing with them to his Motown records the next. Craig is saddled with an absolutely unplayable, incomprehensible character, while Berry valiantly tries to give it her best and most sincere shot. Both are offscreen for long stretches as Erguven focuses on Jesse (Lamar Johnson), one of Millie's older foster kids. As an impressionable and level-headed young man entering adulthood, it would make sense for the events that unfold to be seen through Jesse's eyes. Instead, Erguven has him distracted by and smitten with Nicole (Rachel Hilson), because apparently she thought KINGS needed its own Manic Pixie Dream Girl (© Nathan Rabin) to mouth off to cops and gang members and sleep with William (Kalaan "KR" Walker), another Millie foster kid. Indeed, Jesse's indignation that sets him on a third act path to violence isn't because he's caught up in the outrage over the cops being acquitted in the beating of King but rather, walking on in Nicole and William having sex. Because yeah, that's what the L.A. riots need to be boiled down to. With its art film flourishes and character arcs that range from simplistic to nonsensical, KINGS feels like a bizarro interpretation of 1992 South Central. The minimalist score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is out of place, the ludicrous dream scene where Millie erotically fantasizes about being seduced by Obie looks like a dated Fellini parody, and one scene where a Burger King manager desperately tries to negotiate with some rioters and talk them out of burning down the restaurant has a darkly comedic, sketch comedy absurdism to it. It's funny, but why is it in this movie?  (R, 87 mins)

(US/Canada - 2018)

A legitimate contender for the worst film of 2018, THE CON IS ON is a would-be screwball comedy put through a '90s post-Tarantino filter complete with QT vets Uma Thurman and Tim Roth heading the cast. Dumped on VOD by Lionsgate after three years on the shelf, THE CON IS ON (shot as THE BRITS ARE COMING) manages to go its entire miserable 95 minute duration without anything even resembling humor, leaving an overqualified cast mugging shamelessly as they feebly try to make something out of nothing. Married British con artists Harriet (Thurman) and Peter Fox (Roth) have made off with a fortune belonging to lethal international assassin Irina (Maggie Q). They make their way to L.A. and stage an accident to get a free room at the Chateau Marmont, where they get the idea to swipe a priceless ring from Peter's ex-wife Jackie (Alice Eve), whose pretentious film director husband Gabriel (Crispin Glover) is having affairs with both his clingy personal assistant Gina (Parker Posey) and terrible actress Vivien (Sofia Vergara), the sultry star of his latest film LE ROUGE ET LE NOIR. Throw in a subplot with Harriet posing as a "dog whisperer" and Stephen Fry as a pedophile priest and opium smuggler and you get...well, nothing.

Directed and co-written by James Haslam, whose previous film THE DEVIL YOU KNOW was shelved for eight (!) years before its 2013 release and only resurfaced because it featured an unknown-in-2005 Jennifer Lawrence in a supporting role (also, should it have been a premonition that he's the stepson of Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the perpetually hapless Cleveland Browns?), THE CON IS ON abandons its stars in one unfunny situation after another, leaving them little to do but fall back on various vulgarities or, in Posey's case, flail around and generally embarrass herself. It's apparently supposed to be funny that Harriet and Peter are such unrepentant misanthropes, but isn't it key to any kind of screwball comedy that the central characters have some element of charm? Thurman is glamorous enough but Roth looks genuinely defeated by the futility of the whole endeavor, and it's the kind of film that thinks an establishing shot of an Asian dry cleaning establishment should be accompanied by the sound of a gong, a punchline that was past its sell-by date roughly around the time of THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU. Considering the quality of its cast, THE CON IS ON is shockingly bad. The only reason this is going to get any attention at all once it hits streaming services is for a brief and largely-implied but admittedly surprising sex scene that features a topless Thurman and a salad-tossing Maggie Q, but it's hardly worth enduring the entire film. There's also a brief Melissa Sue Anderson sighting, if any LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE or HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME superfans give a shit. (R, 95 mins)