Tuesday, November 13, 2018

In Theaters: OVERLORD (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Julius Avery. Written by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith. Cast: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Pilou Asbaek, Mathilde Ollivier, John Magaro, Bokeem Woodbine, Iain De Caestecker, Dominic Applewhite, Jacob Anderson, Gianny Taufer, Erich Redman, Meg Foster. (R, 110 mins)

Long-rumored to be another installment in executive producer J.J. Abrams' CLOVERFIELD universe, OVERLORD is not, perhaps thankfully so after the toxic reception given to the disastrous Netflix dumpjob THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX earlier this year. Set in 1944 in the hours leading up to "Operation Overlord," the D-Day invasion of Normandy, OVERLORD is a solid throwback to '80s-style horror that's equal parts BAND OF BROTHERS, THE DIRTY DOZEN, RE-ANIMATOR, THE KEEP, the WOLFENSTEIN video game series, and John Carpenter's THE THING. The Carpenter element is mainly in its third-act siege scenario, some periodic thumping synth beats, and the presence of Wyatt Russell, Kurt Russell's look-and-sound-alike son with Goldie Hawn. Young Russell's been plugging away for some years now, with showy supporting roles in COLD IN JULY, EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!, and INGRID GOES WEST, but this is the first time his casting is a deliberate homage to his legendary dad. The day before the planned Normandy invasion, a squadron of Army paratroopers is shot down over France en route to destroy a German radio tower atop a church in an occupied France village in order to shut down enemy communication prior to the operation. The plane goes down with a few survivors, but their commander, Sgt. Eldson (Bokeem Woodbine) is killed by German officers, leaving the rest to carry out the mission: second-in-command Cpl. Ford (Russell), quiet Boyce (Jovan Adepo of FENCES), loudmouth Noo Yawk smartass Tibbet (John Magaro as Leo Gorcey), photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker), and aspiring writer Dawson (Jacob Anderson), who doesn't last long thanks to a mine.

The remaining four end up taking refuge with Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who lives with her kid brother Paul (Gianny Taufer), and a gravely-ill aunt who's barely seen but whose guttural wheeze is heard throughout the house (the actress, very fleetingly seen and rendered unrecognizable under makeup, is credited as Meg Foster, but IMDb seems to think it's a different Meg Foster--one with only one other acting credit way back in 2009--than the veteran cult movie actress, though I'm inclined to think it's "the" Meg Foster until that's confirmed otherwise). Ford sends Tibbet and Chase to check their assigned rendezvous location and while he and Boyce are hiding in the attic, Chloe is visited by sadistic SS officer Wafner (Pilou Asbaek, best known as GAME OF THRONES' Euron Greyjoy), who routinely demands sexual favors. Boyce leaves to check on Tibbet and Chase and ends up discovering a secret lab under the church where Nazi scientists are conducting bizarre experiments on local villagers and captured POWs, including Rosenfeld (Dominic Applewhite), one of their squad who was presumed dead. He rescues Rosenfeld, but the labyrinthine lab is filled with disfigured creatures capable of superhuman strength, and Boyce realizes that Chloe's "sick" aunt is a botched casualty of the inhuman experimentation. Stealing a sample of a mysterious serum, Boyce makes it back to the house where they run afoul of Wafner, leading to a chain reaction of increasingly horrific events that necessitate overhauling the mission to destroy both the radio tower and the evil goings-on in the underground lab.

The plot hinges on Hitler's plan to create a Thousand Year Reich, which is only slightly more outlandish than, say, Quentin Tarantino's rewriting of history in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and while it doesn't really break any new ground, OVERLORD is an enjoyably goofy and gore-soaked spiritual '80s-style throwback. To put it more simply, if I saw OVERLORD when I was 12, I'd probably still consider it a classic today. Director Julius Avery (SON OF A GUN), working from a script by Billy Ray (SHATTERED GLASS) and Mark L. Smith (THE REVENANT), keeps the pace fast and intense and allows everyone in the ensemble a chance to shine, whether it's Magaro acting like a drafted Bowery Boy, Ollivier getting a badass moment with a flamethrower, or Russell coming off like R.J. MacReady (I'd love to watch Kurt Russell watching OVERLORD). The CGI sometimes disrupts the mood, but there's enough practical splatter mixed in that it's not a dealbreaker. OVERLORD is obviously the end result of a variety of influences, but it does a nice job of keeping its homage factor in check so it's not just a lazy checklist of references. It could be that seeing Nazis get their asses handed to them is just something we need right now, and despite the pre-release hype and that not-very-promising first trailer inexplicably showcasing AC/DC's "Back in Black," it's really not about Nazi zombies, which would be pointless to even attempt, because you can't top 1977's SHOCK WAVES. Is OVERLORD a classic or a "game-changer?" No, but it's two hours of enjoyable, cut-the-bullshit popcorn thrills for genre fans.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

On Netflix: OUTLAW KING (2018)

(UK/US - 2018)

Directed by David Mackenzie. Written by Bash Doran, David Mackenzie, James MacInnes, David Harrower and Mark Bomback. Cast: Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, Stephen Dillane, Billy Howle, Sam Spruell, Tony Curran, Callan Mulvey, James Cosmo, Steven Cree, Alastair Mackenzie, Chris Fulton, Lorne MacFadyen, Jack Greenlees, Josie O'Brien, Jonny Phillips, Tam Dean Burn. (R, 121 mins)

A longtime pet project of Scottish-born HELL OR HIGH WATER director David Mackenzie, OUTLAW KING tells the story of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots from 1306 until his death in 1329. The film takes place at the same time as the events depicted in Mel Gibson's BRAVEHEART (where Robert the Bruce was played by Angus MacFadyen). Sir William Wallace is invoked frequently, though his screen time is limited to a cameo by his severed arm following his execution. Like Wallace, Robert (played here by Chris Pine) took part in the rebellion against King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane), who was asked to help choose a successor to Scotland's throne when the king had no heirs and promptly ended up claiming the land for himself. As the film opens in 1303, Robert is among the rebels begrudgingly pledging fealty to King Edward at the request of his acquiescing father (the great James Cosmo, also in BRAVEHEART and whose appearance in these sorts of medieval period pieces is apparently required by law), who sees it as the best option, as the alternative is execution.

The widower Robert, whose wife died several years earlier giving birth to their daughter Marjorie (Josie O'Brien), is also given King Edward's god-daughter Elizabeth Burgh (Florence Pugh) as part of the deal. The sense of peace and complacency doesn't last long: inheriting the title of the Earl of Carrack upon his father's death (their relationship is portrayed quite differently here than in BRAVEHEART), Robert is outraged to learn of the execution of Wallace and decides to reignite the rebellion against King Edward. Seeking an ally in rival John III Comyn (Callan Mulvey), Robert is denied and when Comyn threatens to turn him over to King Edward's forces, he impulsively murders him. He confesses his crime to the church, which agrees to give him absolution and pledge its fealty if he can defeat King Edward and reclaim Scotland. Crowned "King of Scots," Robert the Bruce and his loyal army are joined by displaced nobleman James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) as King Edward's forces, led by his sniveling, power-crazed son Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle) and the King's chief attack dog Aymer de Valance (Sam Spruell), proceed into Scotland, eventually capturing Elizabeth and Marjorie.

With its generous budget and epic battle scenes, OUTLAW KING probably would've benefited from a wide theatrical release instead of being relegated to the Netflix Original platform. While the script-- credited to five writers--is largely a spinoff of BRAVEHEART and doesn't really offer anything you haven't seen before (drink every time one of Robert's blood-soaked men yells), the film is technically ambitious and extremely well-made, with Mackenzie indulging in numerous long and complicated tracking shots (the opening sequence is almost nine uninterrupted minutes that establish numerous characters and conflicts in a rapid-fire fashion) and using natural lighting in some stunning and often breathtaking Scottish locations (he also cut it down from 137 minutes to 121 after a negative reception at the Toronto Film Fest). Anyone who's a fan of this sort of thing knows to expect a mud-caked bloodbath and on that end, especially with its climactic Battle of Loudoun Hill and its geysers of arterial spray, OUTLAW KING doesn't disappoint. Pine might initially seem miscast, but you get used to his mullet and he settles into the role nicely, especially in his scenes with LADY MACBETH star Pugh. She's terrific here as the supportive and fiercely outspoken Elizabeth and is quickly establishing herself as one of today's top young actresses from whom we'll be hearing a lot. Taylor-Johnson has a few standout moments as the almost-feral Douglas, while Dillane does a solid job of following in the footsteps of Patrick McGoohan, and gets off a couple of good jabs at his pathetic weasel of a son ("Well, you did manage to imprison a few women," he scoffs after the Prince's latest failed attempt to defeat Robert). Howle manages to create a villain you love to hate with his Prince of Wales, but it's a mostly cardboard display of bratty petulance that looks like he studied a highlight reel of Tim Roth in ROB ROY, Joffrey on GAME OF THRONES, and a few Donald Trump press conferences. There's apparently another Robert the Bruce film in the works for 2019, one that stars Angus MacFadyen in his most famous role, though it's hard telling if that's an actual film or just an IMDb page created by an "amacfadyenrulz69@hotmail.com." Rather formulaic in terms of its storytelling but entertaining and beautifully-made, OUTLAW KING is definitely above-average by the standards of Netflix Original films.

Friday, November 9, 2018

In Theaters: THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB (2018)

(US/Germany - 2018)

Directed by Fede Alvarez. Written by Jay Basu, Fede Alvarez and Steven Knight. Cast: Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Lakeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Stephen Merchant, Vicky Krieps, Claes Bang, Cameron Britton, Synnove Macody Lund, Mikael Persbrandt, Christopher Convery, Andreja Pejic, Hendrik Heutmann, Volker Bruch. (R, 115 mins)

It's been seven years since David Fincher's big-budget American version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, based on the first novel in Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy." It was generally faithful to the book, with Rooney Mara's Oscar-nominated interpretation of researcher/hacker/badass Lisbeth Salander more than holding its own against Noomi Rapace's career-making portrayal in a trilogy of Swedish adaptations. Larsson was only 50 when died of a heart attack in 2004, a year before the first of his three completed books in the series hit European bookstores en route to becoming a phenomenally popular bestseller in the US in 2008. Swedish writer David Lagercrantz was commissioned to continue the "Millennium" series, resurrecting Salander with 2015's The Girl in the Spider's Web and 2017's The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. Opting to nix the second and third books in Larsson's trilogy and start fresh with a sequel to/reboot to the 2011 film, THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB doesn't bring back any of DRAGON TATTOO's participants other than producer credits for Fincher and Scott Rudin. Mara has been replaced by a game Claire Foy, but she's fighting a losing battle. Director/co-writer Fede Alvarez, best known for his work in the horror genre with the EVIL DEAD remake and the overrated DON'T BREATHE, completely drops the ball on re-establishing Salander as a heroic figure for the #MeToo era. The film jettisons almost everything that made her such a fascinating and iconic heroine in the past and instead drops her in the middle of what looks like a mash-up of SPECTRE, Jason Bourne, and a FAST & FURIOUS sequel. DON'T BREATHE was an excellent thriller to a very specific point where Alvarez jumped the shark: THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB's turkey baster moment comes rather early, when Salander leads some cops on a motorcycle chase and eludes them by driving off a dock and speeding across a frozen lake. It's only the first of several instances where you can hum the 007 "da-da-DA-DAAA!" cue and it wouldn't be at all out of place.

Opening with a flashback to Salander's childhood that doesn't really gel with her background in Larsson's books or in any of the movies, we're introduced to her sister Camilla, the favorite of their pedophile father (Mikael Persbrandt). Though Salander would grow up to be a righter of wrongs against women, she left her sister behind, escaping their abusive father by taking an improbably steep dive down a snowy hill off a balcony and never looking back. Cut to the present day as Salander--apparently known throughout Sweden as a hacker, vigilante, and media figure and somehow constantly out in public and living in what looks like a huge warehouse in a busy part of the city with its own closed-circuit security system and panic room--is hired for a job by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), who worked for the US government and designed a software program that would allow the US military to access and override the world's nuclear launch codes. Feeling he's created a monster with the serious potential for global destruction, Balder wants Salander to hack into the NSA's system in D.C. and steal it back so he can permanently delete its existence. This catches the attention of NSA analyst and former military and black-ops mercenary Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), who immediately flies to Stockholm with the intent of retrieving the program and eliminating Salander. With Swedish intelligence head Gabriella Grane (Synnove Macody Lund) putting Balder and his genius/autistic son August (Christopher Convery) in the least safe safe house imaginable, with a wide-open window you can see in from a great distance, it's only a matter of time before their lives are in danger. Of course, the danger arrives in the form of The Spiders, a collective of Russian bad guys in the employ of--who else?--Camilla Salander (Sylvia Hoeks), who took over their father's criminal empire and wants the launch codes as a global power play and, I presume, to get her sister's attention?

Does that even sound like something Stieg Larsson would've concocted? Foy could've made this role her own but not with that material she's been given, turning Salander into a rote, generic action hero. If this is indeed the start of a new action-driven franchise, then it already looks about two films away from putting Salander in space. Lisbeth Salander is an abuse survivor, troubled loner, and genius with incredible researching and computer skills. Why is she in car chases? Why is she in intricately-staged shootouts? Why is she dodging explosions? Why is her sister an albino-looking, Blofeld-like supervillain with a ridiculous wardrobe that makes her resemble the long-lost sister of Edgar and Johnny Winter? Why is Mikael Blomkvist (played here by BORG VS. MCENROE's Sverrir Gudnason) given virtually nothing to do? And why do Salander and Blomkvist seem to be the same age now? Wasn't his being quite a bit older a key component of their complicated relationship? Speaking of nothing to do, why is Vicky Krieps, who was so good opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in PHANTOM THREAD, squandered in a superfluous supporting role as Blomkvist's editor and sometime lover Erika Berger (played by Robin Wright in the 2011 film)? Salander's shut-in hacker pal Plague also returns in the form of MINDHUNTER co-star Cameron Britton, who more or less serves as a de facto Q to Salander's 007.

Only Stanfield (GET OUT, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU) manages to stand out, mainly because most of his scenes show him intensely glowering and walking through crowded places with steely purpose, almost as if he's trying to find the nearest way out of this movie. His character's shifting alliance seems more like plot convenience, and the long sequence where Salander assists him in escaping police custody in a Stockholm airport is thoroughly absurd (how can she coordinate that many things with such perfect precision timing?). THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB is filled with preposterous contrivances, eye-rolling coincidences, and lazy storytelling, glossing over plot details in a muddled fashion and leaving a capable cast stranded. Alvarez is obviously no Fincher, but while the film looks nice and has a couple of striking shots (one standout being Salander and Blomkvist facing each other from glass elevators in adjacent buildings), everything about it is a perfunctory clock-punch that feels like a Netflix Original that was accidentally released in theaters.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018


(France/Iran/US - 2018)

Directed by Orson Welles. Written by Orson Welles and Oja Kodar. Cast: John Huston, Oja Kodar, Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Lilli Palmer, Bob Random, Norman Foster, Edmond O'Brien, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, Dennis Hopper, Curtis Harrington, Claude Chabrol, George Jessel, Gregory Sierra, Tonio Selwart, Dan Tobin, John Carroll, Stafford Repp, Geoffrey Land, Joseph McBride, Cathy Lucas, Pat McMahon, Peter Jason, Angelo Rossitto, Stephane Audran, Rich Little, Gary Graver, Frank Marshall, Cassie Yates, William Katt, Cameron Crowe, Les Moonves. (R, 122 mins)

Orson Welles died in 1985, but 33 years later, his "last" film has finally been completed and released as a Netflix Original. One of the most famous of "lost" movies, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND has spent decades mired in various legal, personal, and political quagmires among numerous involved parties. As was usually the case in Welles' European exile years in the 1950s and 1960s (the exception being his last Hollywood studio work as a director, 1958's TOUCH OF EVIL), funding came from his lucrative actor-for-hire jobs and when that ran out, he would constantly find himself hustling for cash from various wealthy investors from all over the world, who were always more than happy to partner with a revered filmmaker of Welles' stature until they realized they probably weren't getting their money back. Notorious for doing things his own way and clashing with Hollywood execs as far back as 1942's THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, Welles would rarely enjoy a hassle-free project other than 1962's THE TRIAL, and while he did have to cut corners when future SUPERMAN producer Alexander Salkind ran out of money by the end of production, he remained grateful that Salkind trusted him and left him alone to make the film he wanted to make.

Huston, Welles, and Bogdanovich apparently
coining the question "How 'bout a Fresca?"
As a result of his unconventional and often unreliable methods of finance, Welles probably had as many unfinished films as he did finished ones, none more talked about than THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. Filming began in 1970 and wasn't completed until 1976, as Welles would shoot what he could in bits and pieces when the money was there, scraping by with acting and TV commercial gigs (and shooting another movie, 1973's F FOR FAKE) in the interim. He managed to get a French production company to back the project and when that money ran out, he secured additional financing from the Shah of Iran's brother-in-law (the production dragged on for so long and so sporadically that star John Huston didn't even join the cast until 1974). Written by Welles and his girlfriend Oja Kodar, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND would remain unfinished in Welles' lifetime, the film caught up in his tax issues with the IRS; the alleged embezzlement of funds by a Spanish business associate Welles met while starring as Long John Silver in the 1972 Harry Alan Towers production of TREASURE ISLAND; the Ayatollah Khomeini-ordered seizure of the assets and property of the Shah and his entire extended family following the 1979 Iranian Revolution; and a seemingly never-ending conflict between Kodar and Welles' daughter Beatrice following his death, a battle that also involved Welles' protege and friend Peter Bogdanovich. The young director was then riding high on THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and PAPER MOON, and put $500,000 of his own money into Welles' vision in addition to letting his mentor crash at his Beverly Hills mansion from 1974 to 1976.

There was always talk of finishing the film, with Kodar attempting and failing to broker a deal with Showtime in the late '90s, but it was Bogdanovich who seriously got the ball rolling on the completion of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND back in 2004 (other parties included cinematographer Gary Graver, who died in 2006, and producer Frank Marshall, who worked on part of the original shoot as a production assistant). Once all legal squabbles were resolved, Netflix agreed to fund the final restoration, with Oscar-winning editor Bob Murawski (THE HURT LOCKER) brought in to oversee the completion based on Welles' archived notes, multiple versions of WIND's scripts (including one that totaled 360 pages), and by studying his editing techniques on all of his previous films. Welles shot nearly 100 hours of footage, and it's an incredible achievement in itself that Murawski was able to put this together at all. The end result, running just over two hours, is seemingly free-form mash-up of various film stocks, image qualities, and aspect ratios, often switching from color to black & white in the same scene, almost like an art-house version of the kind of Z-grade drive-in patchwork you'd expect from Al Adamson or Jess Franco (an assistant to Welles on 1966's CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT). John Huston's actor son Danny was summoned to revoice some of his late father's dialogue in a few instances where the audio was too deteriorated to salvage or just missing altogether. Many scenes have the telltale signs of piecemeal shooting, with an absent Huston doubled from behind and conversations between two or more actors edited together even though the actors never share the frame and were shot years apart. Or even on a different continent in Lilli Palmer's case, with the actress in scenes with Huston and other cast members in California and Arizona shot anywhere from 1971 to 1976 even though she's always shown alone and all of her footage was shot in Spain in 1973.

Set up in an ahead-of-its-time mockumentary style by present-day voiceover from 1970s wunderkind Brooks Otterlake (Bogdanovich), THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND deals with the last day in the life of famed Hollywood movie director Jake Hannaford (Huston). A surrogate for Welles himself, Hannaford has invited his closest friends, colleagues, journalists, film students, and other assorted hangers-on and sycophants to his 70th birthday party being thrown by his long-ago lover and retired actress Zarah Valeska (Palmer), with everyone given 8mm and 16mm cameras to document the event. Hannaford's got other pressing issues: his latest film--titled THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND and a desperate attempt to attract the counterculture market--is in trouble. His star is John Dale (Bob Random), a Hannaford discovery who has no acting experience and is nowhere to be found after walking off the set midway through production; young studio boss Max David (Geoffrey Land) has seen the dailies and isn't happy, especially after loyal Hannaford flunky Billy Boyle (Norman Foster) confesses the director has tossed the script and is just making it up as he goes along; and Hannaford himself is growing increasingly jealous over the success of Otterlake, his protege who just scored a critically-acclaimed blockbuster hit with his third film and is now the toast of Hollywood. Hannaford needs Otterlake's help, but the young director won't use his newfound clout to help bail him out with David, who's been invited to the party and is a no-show.

Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart, Mercedes
McCambridge, and Welles on the set. 

The party is a Who's Who of Hannaford's world, with tight-knit, ENTOURAGE-like acolytes like Boyle, retired actor friends Pat Mullins (an ill-looking Edmond O'Brien, who would retire from acting himself in 1974 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's), Lou Martin (John Carroll), and Al Denny (Stafford Repp); former business partner "The Baron" (Tonio Selwart); loyal secretary Maggie Noonan (Mercedes McCambridge); his manager Matt Costello (Paul Stewart); and longtime makeup man Zimmie Zimmer (Cameron Mitchell), who attends the party even though he's fired en route. There's also macho screenwriter Jack Simon (Gregory Sierra), who's no fan of Hannaford's, and film critic Juliet Rich (Susan Strasberg), who's notoriously critical of the work of both Hannaford and Otterlake. As everyone mingles, drinks to excess, and wonders about everything from Dale's absence to Hannaford possibly being a closeted homosexual, the director screens an unfinished workprint of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, an experimental, avant-garde, Euro-tinged, psychedelic art film starring Dale and a nameless actress (Kodar). The film-within-a-film (shot mostly in 1970) has some striking imagery, whether it's a sex scene in the passenger seat of a garishly lit car that looks like a Dario Argento cab ride (this sequence was shot in 1974), or Dale and "The Actress" spending most of the screened film wandering around nude on the MGM backlot with no dialogue. The power goes out, forcing the party to use generators that also fail, at which point the screening moves to a nearby drive-in. When The Baron informs the projectionist that he's showing the reels out of order as "The Actress"  happens upon a giant, erect cock in the desert, the response is "Does it matter?"

Almost every character in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND is a stand-in for someone: Billy Boyle was reportedly based on Mickey Rooney, Max David on then-Paramount head Robert Evans, Zarah Valeska on Marlene Dietrich (Welles' original choice for the role, but she turned it down), Juliet Rich on famously combative film critic Pauline Kael, Jack Simon on John Milius, "The Baron" on John Houseman, and most importantly, Brooks Otterlake on Peter Bogdanovich himself, who skyrocketed to fame and fortune while Welles struggled to get any project off the ground (Otterlake's barely-legal date to the party, Mavis Henscher, played by Cathy Lucas, is based on Bogdanovich's then-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd). Bogdanovich's casting pretty much eliminates any mystery as to what Welles' feelings on their friendship were by that point, but it's interesting to note that Bogdanovich only ended up being cast after Welles' first choice--Rich Little, of all people--left the production just like John Dale left the film-within-a-film, partly because of other commitments but mostly because he had no idea what Welles was trying to accomplish. Little remains in the film as an unnamed party guest and has one scene with Lucas, and judging from his wardrobe and dialogue, it was clearly shot when Little was still playing Otterlake (and Otterlake's odd quirk of doing random celebrity impressions--not one of Bogdanovich's strengths--is something that was obviously conceived with Little in mind). Welles made no secret of his disdain for pretentious art cinema, with particular scorn reserved for Michelangelo Antonioni, whose ZABRISKIE POINT is being mocked in the film-within-a-film THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, and with Kodar's constant nudity and some scattered instances of explicit sex, it's very likely that this would've gotten an X rating if it was released in the 1970s. There's a dark-humored and misanthropic streak throughout the film, but the cheap shots--at European cinema (Billy on LAST TANGO IN PARIS director Bernardo Bertolucci: "He's-a-spicy-a-meatball!"), at new Hollywood, at film critics (how else do you explain a drunk Hannaford physically assaulting Juliet Rich near the end?), and at misfit, Hannaford-obsessed film students, especially with a pair of clingy dweebs in Marvin Pistor (Joseph McBride) and Marvin P. Fassbinder (Pat McMahon), who are invited to the party, ask inane questions, and follow him around like lost puppy dogs--start to feel like sour grapes after a while.

As the booze-swilling, cigar-sucking Hannaford, Huston is captivating every moment he's onscreen, channeling Welles through his own persona to create a fascinating hybrid characterization of two larger-than-life filmmakers. With the rapid-fire quick-cuts, constantly-changing film stocks, and the fact that some of their scenes may have been shot months or years apart, most of the cast doesn't get a chance to make that much of an impression, though Mitchell, by that point slumming in D-grade schlock, is an unexpectedly poignant standout as the melancholy Zimmie. Other then-contemporary filmmakers appear as themselves arguing about the state of cinema at Hannaford's party, including Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol, Curtis Harrington, Paul Mazursky, and Henry Jaglom, who directed Welles' final performance in SOMEONE TO LOVE, released in 1988, three years after his death. There's some scattered moments of Welles-ian mastery in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, and at times, it's a remarkably candid confessional, like it's Welles' own personal version of Luchino Visconti's THE LEOPARD, where Burt Lancaster's aging prince wanders from room to room at a grand ball, saying goodbye to his aristocratic life, recognizing his irrelevance in a world that's moving on and leaving him behind. But after all these years, the knee-jerk reaction will be to label this Welles' lost masterpiece or his "ultimate statement," or something to that effect. Five decades of cineaste mystique surrounding an ambitious and unfinished project will do that, but at the end of the day, this is the kind of self-indulgent home movie that's an historical curio at best, and directly responsible for the career of Henry Jaglom at worst. I'm glad it's out, I'm glad we're able to see it, and it's required viewing for anyone with a serious interest in film history up to the 1970s, but am I ever gonna watch this again? There's a legend surrounding THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, and the backstory--covered at length in Morgan Neville's simultaneously-released Netflix Original documentary THEY'LL LOVE ME WHEN I'M DEAD--is ultimately more fascinating than the film itself.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

In Theaters: SUSPIRIA (2018)

(US/Italy - 2018)

Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Written by David Kajganich. Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper, Angela Winkler, Sylvie Testud, Renee Soutendijk, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Doris Hick, Malgosia Bela, Vanda Capriolo, Fabrizia Sacchi, Alek Wek, Clementine Houdart, Jessica Batut, Brigitte Cuvelier, Christine Leboutte, Mikael Olssen, Fred Kelemen. (R, 152 mins)

In the annals of Italian horror, few titles are as instantly recognized as Dario Argento's 1977 classic SUSPIRIA. The first of the "Three Mothers" trilogy--it was followed by 1980's INFERNO and 2007's belated and significantly lesser MOTHER OF TEARS--SUSPIRIA was a loud, bloody, garishly colorful, and ultra-stylish assault on the senses that still terrifies, as American ballet student Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) arrives at the Tanz Academy in Freiburg to find all sorts of supernatural goings-on, all under the control of all-powerful witch Mater Suspiriorum, which is apparent even if Goblin's iconic score didn't include a proto-black metal hiss of "witch!" throughout. A remake has been in various stages of development for the last decade, with one-time indie wunderkind and HALLOWEEN 2018 director David Gordon Green attached for quite some time before he bailed and Italian producer/director Luca Guadagnino, an acclaimed filmmaker thanks to 2010's I AM LOVE and 2015's A BIGGER SPLASH, decided to make it himself. SUSPIRIA '18 was already in post-production when Guadagnino scored his commercial breakthough with 2017's Oscar-nominated CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, and whether you see it because of Guadagnino or because of your love for Argento and Italian horror, know up front that this is likely the most divisive film to hit multiplexes since Darron Aronofsky's MOTHER! pissed everyone off last year. And I'm not just talking about the response it's likely to get from the perpetually bitching gatekeepers (© Jason Coffman) of horror fandom. Guadagnino's SUSPIRIA uses Argento's film as a template before going off in multiple directions, and there's no argument that it bites off more than it can chew. The end result--all two and a half hours of it--is brilliant, frustrating, captivating, pretentious, ambitious, and self-indulgent in equal measures.

Guadagnino and his BIGGER SPLASH screenwriter David Kajganich (whose writing credits also include 2009's BLOOD CREEK, a little-seen horror film that deserved a bigger audience) fashion their SUSPIRIA with the very Lars von Trier-esque subtitle "Six Chapters and an Epilogue Set in a Divided Berlin." Specifically, 1977 West Berlin, with the omnipresent Berlin Wall and the city in turmoil with bombings and recurring invocations of Baader-Meinhof, the far-left militant Red Army Faction, and the October hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 by the PFLP. In the midst of this is Markos Dance Academy student and Red Army supporter Patricia Hingle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who befriends elderly psychotherapist Dr. Josef Klemperer ("Lutz Ebersdorf"--more on him shortly) and frantically spells out the details of a wild story that the place is run by a coven of witches. When Patricia disappears--those close to her believe she went underground with a terrorist outfit--her spot at Markos becomes available and is given to Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), who's also running away, fleeing a domineering, terminally ill mother and a repressive Mennonite upbringing in rural Ohio.

A rebellious outcast in both her congregation and her own family going back to her childhood--whether she was constantly daydreaming about dancing, obsessed with learning all she could about Berlin, or being caught masturbating in her closet--Susie feels destined for Markos, and more specifically, its renowned choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who soon takes the naive, sheltered American under her wing as her protegee for sinister reasons that have to do with more than dancing. Meanwhile, Dr. Klemperer (in the worst-kept secret of 2018, "Lutz Ebersdorf," initially described by the filmmakers as a practicing doctor and non-professional actor making his debut, is really Swinton under extensive prosthetics), haunted by the disappearance of his wife during the Holocaust 35 years earlier, is disturbed enough by Patricia's story and the notes scribbled in her left-behind journals that he begins his own investigation into her claims about the Markos Academy, one that dovetails with Markos dancer Sara (Mia Goth), who bonds with Susie but remains troubled by Patricia's vanishing.

That plot synopsis is really just scratching the surface of everything Guadagnino and Kajganich are up to here. SUSPIRIA '18 does a masterful job of capturing late '70s Berlin, with the gray, dreary atmosphere, the constant rain, the political tumult (bombs and commotion are frequently heard outside the walls of the Markos), the nods to Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the casting of Volker Schlondorff regular Angela Winkler (THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM, THE TIN DRUM) as Miss Tanner, the right-hand to Madame Blanc. The film takes place in a Berlin that's literally divided by a wall, but also by politics and history, particularly the still-open wounds of WWII, as represented by the mournful Klemperer. That extends to the scheming and machinations going on in the academy, with the staff divided over whether to give control to Madame Blanc or the aging and unseen founder Helena Markos. The score by Radiohead's Thom Yorke is moodily effective--a complete contrast to the progasmic bombast of Goblin--but doesn't really signify "Berlin" in a musical sense.

Rest assured, Guadagnino doesn't forget that he's making an Italian horror film, whether it's numerous instances of stomach-turning gore, a truly nightmarish climax that goes completely off the rails, a Yorke piano cue that sounds directly lifted from Fabio Frizzi's score for Lucio Fulci's THE BEYOND, or a late-film cameo by Jessica Harper. There's also Argento-specific callbacks, from the friendship between Patricia and Klemperer reminiscent of Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasance in PHENOMENA, and Swinton's disguised second performance recalling Adrien Brody's ridiculous "Byron Deidra" act in the dreadful latter-day Argento dud GIALLO. In a physically demanding performance, Johnson is an effective Susie, whose character arc goes in a vastly different direction than Harper's did in Argento's film, allowing Goth's Sara to resonate more for the audience in a way that wasn't required of Stefania Casini, her predecessor in the role. The dance instructors who make up the coven are well-cast, particularly Winkler, Paul Verhoeven vet Renee Soutendijk, and Sylvie Testud, who's made up in way that looks like a tribute to Jane March's "Richie" in COLOR OF NIGHT. Swinton is a terrific Madame Blanc, whose mentoring of Susie echoes Klemperer's belief that "love and manipulation...they share houses very often." Guadagnino perhaps overindulges his friend and frequent star Swinton, who actually has a third role by the end of the film, coming perilously close to making this her own personal DR. STRANGELOVE (her work as Klemperer is a triumph of old-age prosthetic makeup  that the Oscars should recognize, but she doesn't do enough with her voice to totally sell the "Lutz Ebersdorf" illusion).  While an over-the-top, arthouse deep dive into late 1970s West German politics, history, sociology, and culture seems like a strange approach to remaking a legendary and beloved Italian horror film, it's too lofty in its ambitions and too unpredictably gonzo to simply dismiss, regardless of how much of a daunting horse pill it can be at times.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Retro Review: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990)

(US - 1990)

Directed by Tom Savini. Written by George A. Romero. Cast: Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles, McKee Anderson, William Butler, Kate Finneran, Bill Moseley, Heather Mazur, Bill "Chilly Billy" Cardille. (R, 88 mins)

Generally dismissed by horror fans in the fall of 1990, the remake of George A. Romero's landmark 1968 zombie masterpiece NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was in and out of theaters and pretty much forgotten in a couple of weeks. It was also another flop for 21st Century Film Corporation, Menahem Golan's short-lived, post-Cannon company. 21st Century was hemorrhaging money so quickly that Golan only managed to get a few of its films in theaters solely under its banner--the 1989 Robert Englund take on PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the Golan-directed MACK THE KNIFE, and the women-in-prison grinder CAGED FURY--before Columbia had to assume distribution responsibilities. Along with THE FORBIDDEN DANCE, a film Golan rushed into production to duke it out with Cannon's LAMBADA  because he sincerely believed the world needed two competing lambada movies, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was one of the last to get a theatrical release before Columbia decided they'd seen enough and sent the rest of 21st Century's completed projects and other acquisitions straight to video or directly to cable. Made in part because Romero and his creative partners John A. Russo and Russell Streiner never properly secured a copyright for NOTLD '68 and weren't seeing any revenue or royalties from it thanks to its public domain status, NOTLD '90 was scripted by Romero himself, rewriting much of the original script he co-wrote with Russo. Directing duties were handed off to beloved makeup effects maestro Tom Savini, whose work was vital to the success of Romero films like MARTIN, DAWN OF THE DEAD, CREEPSHOW, and DAY OF THE DEAD, in addition to other '80s horror essentials like FRIDAY THE 13TH, MANIAC, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. To date, NOTLD '90 is Savini's only feature-length directing effort, and he's been open over the years about his creative disagreements with 21st Century, the under-the-gun shooting schedule (filming began in April 1990 and it was in theaters six months later), and how the end result was a compromised one that forced him to make numerous cuts to secure an R rating. He also didn't get much backup from Romero, whose involvement ended with the script and a courtesy producer credit, as he was instead off prepping the Stephen King adaptation THE DARK HALF, which would begin shooting in the fall of 1990 but wouldn't be released until the spring of 1993 due to Orion's financial woes.

Despite the rushed and troubled production, and faced with an initial fan reaction that ranged from ambivalent at best to hostile at worst, NOTLD '90 has built a sturdy fan base over the last three decades, enough that it's become a legitimate cult classic in its own right. Given a proper amount of time and space, it's been re-evaluated by many horror fans, and while no one's posited the absurd notion that it's better than Romero's film, it certainly stands as one of the better horror remakes of the modern era. It tells the same essential story, with a small group of people taking refuge in a rural farmhouse and fighting off an increasing horde of the living dead, but it isn't just a scene-for-scene carbon copy. The initial differences--beyond being in color--are slight: instead of just one, there's now three zombies in the cemetery where Barbara (Patricia Tallman) and her obnoxious brother Johnny (Bill Moseley) are attacked; it's their mother who's buried there instead of their father; Barbara seems to have some serious underlying psych issues stemming from a mother that Johnny clearly doesn't miss; and their initial bickering has a notably increased hostility ("When's the last time you had a date?" Johnny asks his prim, uptight sister). Like the original, Johnny is killed (in a much nastier fashion here), and Barbara escapes on foot, ending up at the farmhouse. There's already a few living dead dragging ass around the house before Ben (future CANDYMAN star Tony Todd in Duane Jones' iconic role) arrives and starts taking charge.

It's here where Savini's version starts differentiating itself from its source film. As played by Judith O'Dea in 1968, Barbara is so shell-shocked by the cemetery encounter that she's largely catatonic and helpless for the rest of the film. Tallman's Barbara starts out that way, but she quickly snaps out of it, becoming an equal with Ben when it comes to handling the situation, sometimes even more so once the other players emerge from hiding in the basement. There's the loudmouthed coward Harry Cooper (Tom Towles of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER), his fed-up wife Helen (McKee Anderson), and their bitten daughter Sarah (Heather Mazur), along with young couple Tom (William Butler) and Judy Rose (Kate Finneran). Ben and Cooper spend so much time arguing in a back-and-forth alpha male pissing contest that it takes Barbara and Judy Rose to put a stop to it, with Judy Rose even threatening to kick everyone out since the house belongs to Tom's uncle, who they've already seen come back to life as a zombie.

Many of the plot elements remain the same, whether it's the disastrous attempt to unlock the gas tank out by the barn or the endless argument about whether they'll all be safer in the cellar. But while Savini and Romero know there's no need to reinvent the wheel, they tweak things enough that NOTLD '90 feels almost like an alternate universe take on Romero's original. Ben and Cooper are such hotheads here that they don't get much of a chance to get any news updates from the outside world, since they get into a scuffle that results in the TV taking a smashing tumble down the basement stairs. They also introduce a previously unexplored hiding space with one character ending up in the attic, which leads to a finale that's equal parts downbeat like NOTLD '68 while still giving the audience a crowd-pleasing payoff that's just one example of NOTLD '90's dark and morbid streak (watch out for that junkie zombie with a needle still sticking out of its arm). From start to finish, Savini's NOTLD is familiar yet so much about it is completely different, including the fates of key characters. It ends on a powerful note and is anchored by a strong performance by Tallman that's never really been given its due. Sony has very quietly re-released this on Blu-ray, six years after the justifiably-maligned limited edition Twilight Time release where cinematographer Frank Prinzi supervised a transfer that bathed the film in an unsightly dark blue that no one liked except for Prinzi and apparently Savini, who somehow gave it his approval. The new Sony Blu-ray corrects Prinzi's ill-advised makeover and the film now looks like it's supposed to, and if you're not one of the converted, it's a perfect opportunity to take another look at an unfairly neglected gem that a lot of us didn't give a fair shake back in 1990.

in Toledo, OH on 10/19/1990

Saturday, October 27, 2018

In Theaters/On VOD: AIR STRIKE (2018)

(China - 2018)

Directed by Xiao Feng. Written by Chen Ping, Yang Hsin-Yu, Zhang Hongyi, Yushi Wu, Xiaoqi Li and Qiao Wa. Cast: Bruce Willis, Ye Liu, Rumer Willis, Seung-Heon Song, William Chan, Wei Fan, Nicholas Tse, Bingbing Fan, Chen Daoming, Adrien Brody, Lei Jia, Gang Wu, Su Ma, Yongli Che, Yuanzheng Feng, Le Geng, Ning Chang, Simon Yam. (R, 96 mins)

Shot in 2015 and initially known as both the prophetically self-fulfilling THE BOMBING and later as the more inspirational UNBREAKABLE SPIRIT, with a price tag reported to be anywhere between $65-$90 million, this mega-budget Chinese government-funded epic has been hacked down by about 25 minutes for its straight-to-VOD US release under the generic, Redbox-ready title AIR STRIKE. Embarrassingly cheap-looking despite being the most expensive Chinese film ever made at the time it went into production (it was also shot in 3-D, but that was scrapped during post), with aerial dogfight sequences and visual effects that recall the kinds of computer animation that looked dated in the 1990s, AIR STRIKE looks like INCHON if remade by The Asylum. The making of the film seems far more interesting than anything that ended up onscreen, a jumbled hodgepodge of characters and events taking place in 1939 during the Second Sino-Japanese War, where Japan launched near-constant bombing raids that decimated Chongqing. There's three different storylines, with characters sometimes intersecting and ending up in places and you have no idea how they got there (the Chinese characters are badly dubbed in English, while the Japanese villains get subtitles). There's former pilot Xue Gangtou (Ye Liu), injured on a mission and reassigned to military intelligence, where he's to ensure that a truck with a secret McGuffin cargo must gets to Chongqing, complete with a half-assed WAGES OF FEAR crossing over a precarious bridge. There's a team of fighter pilots overseen by constipated-looking US military adviser Col. Jack Johnson (top-billed export value Bruce Willis), who barks orders and has to whip them into shape. And there's tons of gratuitous mahjong at a local bar.

The fact that Lionsgate is AIR STRIKE's US distributor might make it a backdoor installment in the studio's landmark "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series, but he's onscreen quite a bit here and actually takes part in some of the--albeit mostly greenscreen--action sequences. But he finds other ways to make his participation something special and display his utter contempt for what he does for a living, whether it's vacillating between several-day stubble and being clean-shaven in a single scene with no regard for continuity (this happens several times, and what kind of by-the-book US military honcho in 1939 sported trendy stubble?) or, in one scene that has to be seen to be believed, breaking out an anachronistic, open-mic-night-level Christopher Walken impression when the Chinese pilots throw him a surprise birthday party, going off on an obviously improvised monologue about a watch his father gave him. Did Chinese director Xiao Feng even realize his star was amusing himself by dropping a PULP FICTION reference into the middle of a scene? Willis is even visibly smirking while he's doing it. His daughter Rumer gets third billing for a 20-second bit part as a nurse, and she's been unconvincingly dubbed over with a British accent. Oscar-winner Adrien Brody turns up for two brief scenes in the not-even-remotely-pivotal role of "Steve," an American volunteering at a Chongqing orphanage and getting blown up before we even figure out who he is (an entire subplot with his character has been cut for the US release, perhaps as a bizarre tribute to the actor's mostly scrapped work in Terrence Malick's THE THIN RED LINE). Bingbing Fan, the hugely popular actress, model, and pop singer and China's highest-paid superstar, also puts in a few sporadic appearances. Her summer 2018 disappearance and subsequent re-emergence and tax evasion scandal (she's reportedly been fined the equivalent of $130 million by the Chinese government), combined with one-time producer Zhi Jianxiang being a fugitive on the country's most wanted list after fleeing China when he was hit with fraud and money laundering charges related to this project and 2015's IP MAN 3, resulted in the cancellation of the long-shelved film's belated Chinese release just a week before its American debut.

It's worth pointing out that the shots of Bruce Willis
above AND below come from the SAME scene.

Adrian Brody pleading with his
agent to get him in a better movie.
It's hard to imagine AIR STRIKE being good in any incarnation. The original Chinese version reportedly ran 120 minutes, but given its legal issues at home, the truncated, 96-minute American cut, supervised by veteran editor Robert A. Ferretti (TANGO & CASH, DIE HARD 2, UNDER SIEGE) might be the only one available for the foreseeable future. Prior to taking on this massive epic, director Xiao Feng only had one other film to his credit, the 2012 war drama HUSHED ROAR, which was unreleased outside of China. Helping out under the credited guise of "consultant" and creative adviser is the unlikely Mel Gibson, then in one of his periodic Hollywood pariah periods prior to his Oscar-nominated resurgence as a filmmaker with 2016's HACKSAW RIDGE. Ostensibly brought aboard because of his experience in hard-hitting battle scenes, it's possible Gibson had a hand in directing Willis and Brody, as almost all of the combat and action sequences are just a blurred blizzard of atrocious and aggressively unconvincing CGI. Other experienced Hollywood pros were hired by the Chinese producers in an advisory capacity, including cinematographer Conrad W. Hall (PANIC ROOM, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN), credited as "special effects consultant," and the late, great Vilmos Zsigmond as a "cinematography consultant" to the film's own D.P. Shu Yang. An Academy Award-winner for his work on 1977's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and also the renowned cinematographer of MCCABE & MRS. MILLER, DELIVERANCE, and THE DEER HUNTER among many others, Zsigmond was a legend in his field when he died in 2016 at the age of 85. Sadly, AIR STRIKE will go down as his final work, though there's nothing here to indicate that he, Hall, or Gibson were able to help in any way. The kind of movie where six screenwriters are credited and the best any of them can come up with is the one man who knows the contents of the truck's secret cargo's last, dying words being "The truck...is carrying...aaaaggghh..." as he keels over, AIR STRIKE is one of the most bewilderingly awful films of the year. I mean, seriously. What the fuck happened here? What can you say about a movie that's such a garbage fire that 2018 Bruce Willis is one of its positives?

AIR STRIKE director Xiao Feng on the set with "consultant" Mel Gibson.