Saturday, June 15, 2019

Retro Review: ARABIAN ADVENTURE (1979)

(UK - 1979)

Directed by Kevin Connor. Written by Brian Hayles. Cast: Christopher Lee, Milo O'Shea, Oliver Tobias, Mickey Rooney, Peter Cushing, Capucine, Emma Samms, Puneet Sira, John Wyman, John Ratzenberger, Shane Rimmer, Suzanne Danielle, Elizabeth Welch, Hal Galili, Art Malik, Milton Reid, Jacob Witkin. (G, 98 mins)

Variety called it "STAR WARS with flying carpets," which should give you an idea of what ARABIAN ADVENTURE is all about. A huge Thanksgiving flop in 1979 for the doomed Associated Film Distributors (CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC, RAISE THE TITANIC!), ARABIAN ADVENTURE was the last of a quintet of British adventure sagas from the team of producer John Dark and director Kevin Connor. The initial four--a trio of Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations with 1975's THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT, 1976's AT THE EARTH'S CORE, and 1977's THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT, followed by 1978's WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS--all starred Doug McClure and were modest hits in theaters and drive-ins. Kicking off a busy holiday movie season that featured the likes of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, 1941, THE JERK, KRAMER VS. KRAMER, THE BLACK HOLE, and ALL THAT JAZZ, ARABIAN ADVENTURE didn't generate much interest, even with its family-friendly G-rating, and its visual effects could be charitably deemed "antiquated" in the post-STAR WARS era. Written by veteran DOCTOR WHO scribe Brian Hayles (who died unexpectedly during production in 1978 at just 48), ARABIAN ADVENTURE has the spirit of classic adventures of old, borrowing extensively from the Arabian Nights tales and likely conjured up on Blu-ray now from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead) to take advantage of the live-action ALADDIN with Will Smith.

Evil wizard Caliph Alquazar (Christopher Lee) will stop at nothing to obtain the magical Rose of Elil, a talisman that will grant him immortality and power over the entire world. That includes duping Prince Hasan (Oliver Tobias) by promising him his stepdaughter Princess Zuleira's (18-year-old Emma Samms in her debut, several years before breaking out on DYNASTY and its spinoff THE COLBYS) hand in marriage. Of course, he has no intention of following through, sending his cowardly flunky Khasim (Milo O'Shea) along as a "bodyguard" for the sole purpose of killing Hasan once the Rose is acquired. Khasim finds an unexpected obstacle when mischievous street urchin Majeed (future Bollywood producer Puneet Sira) and his capuchin monkey sidekick Chetti are drawn to Hasan's quest when they end up in the possession of a magical jewel gifted to them by the spirit of Vahishta (Capucine). Along the way and traveling on a magic carpet, they encounter mechanical fire-breathing dragons operated by the Wizard of Oz-like Daad Al-Shur (Mickey Rooney), an evil genie (perennial hulking manservant Milton Reid), and a crew of comic relief bandits led by Achmed (John Ratzenberger), who end up in the service of Alquazar.

It's generally enjoyable and silly fun, though there's a black hole at the center with THE STUD's Tobias making a dull hero (Connor/Dark regular McClure was in his 40s and two decades too old to play a young prince, but he at least would've brought some charm and personality to the part), but Lee is a blast, bringing all the pomposity in his arsenal as the sneering, bellowing, dastardly Alquazar. The special effects are definitely of the old-school sort even though this was the biggest-budgeted film of the Connor/Dark partnership, with the sometimes cheap-looking sets augmented by a copious use of matte paintings and rear-screen projection and even a couple of fleeting instances of Ray Harryhausen-inspired stop-motion. The optics of ARABIAN ADVENTURE's casting would probably launch a slew of AV Club and Vulture cancellation pieces if they ever got a review copy of it, with the largely white British and American actors sporting turbans and fezzes, and in the case of Ratzenberger (then an American expat working exclusively in the UK until landing his big break as Cliff on CHEERS) even wearing some smudgy brownface as "Achmed." That's nothing compared to Reid's appearance as the Genie, the India-born actor sporting near-full-on blackface and painted-on bulging eyes each looking left and right. Like a lot of 40-year-old films, certain elements of ARABIAN ADVENTURE haven't aged well, but from the perspective of 1979, it didn't deserve the miserable fate it found with audiences and perhaps could've done a bit better if it was released at a different time of the year (by the standards of today, this has "February" or "September" written all over it). Still, it's got a great cast of pros (there's also Lee BFF Peter Cushing in a small role as a long-imprisoned Alquazar enemy), and Christopher Lee as a de facto Jaffar is alone worth the price of admission. Lee, Samms, and Ratzenberger would reunite with director Connor on the 1981 syndicated miniseries GOLIATH AWAITS. Connor would go on to a busy journeyman career with the cult favorites MOTEL HELL (1980) and THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS (1982) before settling into countless TV assignments, including a long run in recent years as a go-to director for the Hallmark Channel.

ARABIAN ADVENTURE opening in Toledo, OH on 11/21/1979

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Retro Review: THE SEDUCTION (1982)

(US - 1982)

Written and directed by David Schmoeller. Cast: Morgan Fairchild, Andrew Stevens, Michael Sarrazin, Vince Edwards, Colleen Camp, Joanne Linville, Kevin Brophy, Wendy Smith Howard, Woodrow Parfrey, Betty Kean, Marii Mak. (R, 103 mins)

Released by Avco Embassy in January 1982, THE SEDUCTION was supposed to be the big-screen breakout for Morgan Fairchild, who was having a bit of a moment throughout 1981 thanks to NBC's FLAMINGO ROAD, which began as a 1980 TV-movie before being spun off into a series in January 1981. It premiered just a week before ABC's DYNASTY, with both being respective network responses to the phenomenal success CBS was having with DALLAS (than at its peak following the "Who Shot J.R.?" season) and its spinoff KNOTS LANDING. The first season of FLAMINGO ROAD was a ratings hit, and in a cast that included familiar faces like Howard Duff, Stella Stevens, Kevin McCarthy, Cristina Raines, John Beck, and Mark Harmon, it was Fairchild who got all of the hype and attention with her portrayal of scheming, bitchy Constance Weldon Carlyle, essentially FLAMINGO ROAD's answer to J.R. Ewing, the character-you-love-to-hate--in this case, a serial adulteress and the cuckolding wife of aspiring politician Field Carlyle (Harmon). Born in 1950, Fairchild had been paying her dues for some time, starting with an uncredited gig as Faye Dunaway's double and stand-in on the 1967 classic BONNIE AND CLYDE. She first got attention during a 1973-1977 stretch on the daytime soap SEARCH FOR TOMORROW and picked up supporting roles in made-for-TV movies and had some TV guest spots along the way (most notably trying to seduce Mork on MORK & MINDY), but with FLAMINGO ROAD, Fairchild was suddenly everywhere. However, DALLAS, KNOTS LANDING, and DYNASTY proved to be too much competition. Viewers soon lost interest in FLAMINGO ROAD and NBC canceled it after its second season, at the same time that the much-hyped THE SEDUCTION was failing to make Fairchild a movie star.

At the risk of overselling it--and it's hard to just dismiss any movie that gives you a shotgun-toting Morgan Fairchild--THE SEDUCTION does a look a little ahead of its time in hindsight. While it owes a bit to Clint Eastwood's 1971 directing debut PLAY MISTY FOR ME, it also prefigures the post-FATAL ATTRACTION psycho-thriller craze as well as the Skinemax erotic thrillers that would be mainstays on late-night cable and in video stores in the 1990s. It also deals with the subject of obsessed fans while the murder of John Lennon by Mark David Chapman in December 1980 was still fresh in the public consciousness. And just six weeks after THE SEDUCTION's release, stalking became a subject of national awareness when actress Theresa Saldana barely survived being stabbed ten times in broad daylight by a crazed admirer who approached her outside her apartment. The assailant became obsessed with Saldana after seeing her in the 1980 films RAGING BULL and DEFIANCE, eventually getting the actress' address from her mother by posing as Martin Scorsese's assistant and claiming the director lost her contact info and needed her to replace another actress on his current film. THE SEDUCTION is never as grimly serious as those real-life examples, but it has one surprise up its sleeve with a legitimately creepy performance by Andrew Stevens as Derek, a photographer with a frightening fixation on his neighbor, popular L.A. news anchor Jamie Douglas (Fairchild). He pesters her with phone calls, flowers at the station, and even shows up in her dressing room with chocolates. Jamie writes him off as a harmless oddball, but her journalist boyfriend Brandon (Michael Sarrazin) isn't amused. Derek eventually forces his way into her house and gets his ass beat by Brandon, and even then, cynical detective Maxwell (Vince Edwards) insists there's nothing that can be done because Derek hasn't broken any laws, instead recommending Jamie and Brandon buy a gun and just blow the guy away the next time he shows up. It's advice that pretty much defines Plot Convenience Playhouse, as Derek has done almost nothing but break laws, and if Maxwell could be bothered to do his job instead of shuffling papers at his desk, ducking out to grab some breakfast at a greasy spoon, or using a Sharpie to write graffiti in a phone booth ("Cops do it better"), the movie would be over in 45 minutes.

There's no shortage of reasons why THE SEDUCTION is really impossible to take seriously (what high-end department store would hire Woodrow Parfrey as a salesman?), but that doesn't stop Stevens from giving a shit. He wisely never overplays Derek, and his relative calm and his generally upbeat and incredulous, "What are you talking about?" tone when confronted with his actions can be genuinely effective. The script by TOURIST TRAP and future Empire/Full Moon director David Schmoeller (CRAWLSPACE, PUPPET MASTER) initially portrays Derek not as slobbering slasher but rather, a functioning psychopath who blends right into society. He's a seemingly upstanding, professional guy with a career and an ability to afford a luxurious home, and he's even outwardly appealing enough to have a chance at a normal relationship, with his nice assistant Julie (Wendy Smith Howard) pining away for him with unrequited love. But he goes off the rails before long, thinking only of Jamie, staring at a Jamie shrine in his office, spending his free hours spying on her, sneaking into her house and hiding in her closet, and rejecting Julie's advances because he's "engaged to be married." But Schmoeller knows what THE SEDUCTION is and wastes no time delivering the goods with Fairchild skinny-dipping during the opening credits (accompanied by the theme song "In Love's Hiding Place" by Dionne Warwick). Edwards' character is ludicrous even by the standards of do-nothing movie cops, and is so preposterously useless that he probably could've been cut entirely with no damage being done to the narrative, and Derek sneaking into the TV station to put a secret message on Jamie's teleprompter causing her to have an on-air breakdown is a howler. The same goes for a scene where Jamie preps for her showdown with Derek by stripping nude and slinking into her bed by candlelight after luring Derek over (also, it's never really clear whether she knows Derek is her neighbor), only to have him enter her bedroom and pull back the sheets to reveal pillows, allowing her to sneak up on him from behind. Then why show her disrobing and getting into bed in the first place? I've seen plenty of pointless nudity throughout my movie-watching life but that's gotta be near the top. Again, Schmoeller knows what's important here.

After her Razzie-nominated performance in THE SEDUCTION, Fairchild went back to TV and ended up as another scheming temptress on ABC's short-lived PAPER DOLLS and spent a season on CBS' FALCON CREST before settling into TV-movies, miniseries (both NORTH AND SOUTHs), late '80s B-movies (RED-HEADED STRANGER, DEADLY ILLUSION, PHANTOM OF THE MALL: ERIC'S REVENGE), and Eurotrash (MIDNIGHT COP), recurring roles on popular TV shows (FRIENDS, CHUCK), self-deprecating cameos as herself (THE NAKED GUN 33 1/3: THE FINAL INSULT, HOLY MAN, WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY) and the world of DTV, eventually reuniting with Stevens on 1993's BODY CHEMISTRY 3: POINT OF SEDUCTION. Initially turning down THE SEDUCTION because he wanted top billing, Stevens later became synonymous with the DTV erotic thriller in the early-to-mid '90s with the NIGHT EYES franchise and several other pairings with Shannon Tweed. While THE SEDUCTION was not a success in theaters, it found a minor cult following throughout the '80s thanks to Fairchild remaining a recognizable celebrity and the film's constant airings on cable. It's just been resurrected on an extras-packed Blu-ray by Scream Factory (because physical media is dead), with a commentary track from Schmoeller (whose short film PLEASE KILL MR. KINSKI, chronicling his horrific ordeal trying to direct Klaus Kinski in 1986's CRAWLSPACE, is a must-see), and producers Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis, along with new interviews with Fairchild and Stevens. THE SEDUCTION is enjoyable 1982 trash all the way, and in retrospect, a film that had some minuscule degree of cultural relevancy with its stalking theme, as well as having a hand in setting the template for the types of exploitation thrillers that would provide Stevens with an unexpected new career direction a decade later.

THE SEDUCTION opening in Toledo, OH on 2/26/1982

Sunday, June 9, 2019

On Netflix: I AM MOTHER (2019)

(Australia/US/Luxembourg/New Zealand - 2019)

Directed by Grant Sputore. Written by Michael Lloyd Green. Cast: Clara Rugaard, Hilary Swank, Luke Hawker, Tahlia Sturzaker, voice of Rose Byrne. (Unrated, 113 mins)

It's little wonder that the post apocalyptic sci-fi indie I AM MOTHER was acquired by Netflix after being screened at this year's Sundance Film Festival. With all the influences it wears on its sleeve and the twist-happy plot, it's another "Netflix Original" that sports the look and feel of a feature-length BLACK MIRROR episode. It's a film with more ideas than it can handle, and it perhaps errs on the side of overlength at nearly two hours. But in the end, it's an impressive debut for Australian filmmaker Grant Sputore, from a high-concept script by Michael Lloyd Green that spent several years on the "blacklist" of Hollywood's top unproduced screenplays. Sputore, with the help of production designer Hugh Bateup, whose credits include numerous Wachowski projects like the MATRIX series, CLOUD ATLAS, and JUPITER ASCENDING, gets a lot out of the film's relatively low budget, making I AM MOTHER look much more expensive than it is.

It opens at a heavily-fortified, underground "repopulation facility" one day after a planet-wide "extinction event," where a single android named "Mother" (Luke Hawker in a practical, WETA-designed costume, and voiced by Rose Byrne) oversees 63,000 human embyros stored on site in the event of such a global catastrophe. She incubates a female embryo in a 24-hour period, then raises her from infant to young woman (Clara Rugaard), and that's when the trouble starts. Daughter (as she's been named) is sheltered, to say the least, with her only permitted insight into humanity coming from old episodes of Johnny Carson's TONIGHT SHOW. She starts asking questions, especially about Mother's claim that the outside world is an uninhabitable wasteland, something that keeps gnawing at her when she spots a mouse in one of the rooms, prompting Mother to incinerate it with no emotion. Mother and Daughter's peaceful existence is shattered with the arrival of a Woman (Hilary Swank) who shows up at one of the facility's entry points while a dormant Mother is "recharging." The Woman has been shot--she claims by a droid who looks just like Mother--and insists there's other humans out there.

For a while, I AM MOTHER functions as an almost satirical allegory of the trials and tribulations of parenting, with Mother, introduced cradling infant Daughter and singing "Baby Mine" (the Mother design also gives her a way to smile) but later growing increasingly irritated by the bad influence that Woman is being on Daughter. But something is off with Mother (watch how that smile can be deployed in a sinister fashion), starting with a parenting style that lands somewhere between overprotective and Munchausen-by-proxy. The Woman doesn't even want to be in the same room with Mother and the feeling is mutual, but they're forced to put up with one another, especially once Daughter figures out that Mother hasn't been entirely truthful about everything. These are things that every parent/child dynamic experiences and utilizing that angst in such a bleak sci-fi setting is an intriguing angle for Sputore and Green to explore. But then the twists and turns start piling on, along with the influences and the shout-outs to everything from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, THE TERMINATOR, HARDWARE, SNOWPIERCER, EX MACHINA and probably a few others. I AM MOTHER plays its cards a little too early if you're so inclined to divide the number of days since the extinction event to figure out a key character's age, but while it can't quite get all of its ideas under control and it more or less collapses in the last half hour (incidentally, right about the time the story moves outside the repopulation facility), Sputore's ambition and what he manages to pull off with a not a very significant budget are admirable. It's almost as if he wasn't sure he'd ever get a shot again and wanted to get everything he had out there right now just in case. Flawed but endlessly thought-provoking, it's one of the more promising genre debuts of late, and there's enough here that Sputore could have a shot at being the next Alex Garland a film or two down the road. He gets a lot of help from a two-time Oscar-winning pro like Swank, and the almost eerie maternal calm in Byrne's voice that immediately gives one some HAL-9000 chills. But also keep an eye on Rugaard, who manages to steal the film from her two much more experienced co-stars.

Friday, June 7, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: CLIMAX (2019), THE KID (2019) and J.T. LEROY (2019)

(France/Switzerland/Belgium/US - 2018; US release 2019)

Or, Gasper Noe's WHO SPIKED THE SANGRIA? An enfant terrible and provocateur of the highest order, Noe's films are the definition of "acquired taste." With its end-to-beginning structure and an agonizingly long sequence where Monica Bellucci is raped, 2002's IRREVERSIBLE has, for better or worse, set the Noe template for fucking with and antagonizing audiences. CLIMAX splits the difference between IRREVERSIBLE and 2009's ENTER THE VOID, eventually pummeling the viewer with shocking imagery, sensory overload, and a sense of utter disorientation as society breaks down within the walls of an abandoned school where a dance troupe is having a party before embarking on a tour of Europe and the US. Set in 1996 and inspired by an actual event (though Noe takes some liberties and runs with it, to say the least), the story is pretty thin: at the party, the students gossip, talk about future plans ("America is heaven on Earth," one of the French students enthusiastically muses), hook up, and engage in some recreational drug use before they all seem to realize at once that someone spiked the sangria with LSD. Paranoia, suppressed grudges, and hallucinations give way to madness, like FAME and A CHORUS LINE going straight to hell, with the second half of the film relentlessly tripping balls as Noe goes overboard to bombard the viewer with one transgressive set piece after another.

It would all be rather puerile if he wasn't such a master stylist, expertly mimicking Kubrick with long takes down seemingly endless corridors, turning the camera sideways and upside-down (it's another stellar showcase for cinematographer Benoit Debie), bombarding you with sound and color and so much screaming and shrieking. He wears his love of cinema on his sleeve, and he gives some shout-outs early on with some visible VHS copies of Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE, Pier Paolo Pasolini's SALO, Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION, and Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA, with one character even referencing the 1981 German drug addiction drama CHRISTIANE F. All Noe films are an endurance test to some extent, and there's a certain Chuck Palahniuk vibe to his work in the sense that his fixation on shock value seems to be stuck in the same place it was when he was a younger man with his 1998 debut I STAND ALONE. But regardless of how off-putting he may be at times, he makes up for it with the presentation. There's two jaw-droppingly dazzling dance numbers here, one part of an uninterrupted 13-minute take (Noe shot the sequence 16 times and used the 15th take), and he tops himself later on with the acid kicks in and we watch the mayhem--assault, someone set on fire, someone pissing themselves, a pregnant woman stabbing herself in the stomach, a rage orgy, etc--unfold in one 42-minute (!) take that comprises nearly half of the running time. Noe also utilizes every attention-getting trick in his arsenal to throw you off balance, starting with the closing credits playing at the beginning, the production company logos rolling around ten minutes in, and the opening cast and crew credits at the 46-minute (!) mark. The cast--mostly dancers, models, and other artists with lead Sofia Boutella (THE MUMMY, ATOMIC BLONDE) being the only professional actor--acquits themselves well using mostly improvised dialogue. Decidedly not for everyone and so aggressive in its potential for audience alienation that it makes Darren Aronofsky's MOTHER! look like a pandering crowd-pleaser, CLIMAX is probably the ultimate A24 release, and even they knew not to roll this out nationwide. (R, 97 mins)

(US - 2019)

Almost half of the main cast of the 2016 remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN reconvenes in this earnest but unsuccessful retelling of the Billy the Kid saga. The title itself is a bit of misdirection, as the "kid" in question is not William Bonney, but rather, 14-year-old Rio Cutler (Jake Schur, son of Jordan Schur, one of a stagecoach full of producers). Rio is introduced killing his abusive, drunkard father, which sends him on the run with his older sister Sara (Leila George), with their vengeful, psychotic Uncle Grant (Chris Pratt) in hot pursuit. En route to Santa Fe, Rio and Sara stumble into a standoff between notorious celebrity outlaw Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan) and a posse led by Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke). Billy surrenders and is to be delivered to Santa Fe authorities, so the Cutler siblings hitch a ride with Garrett and his men. Billy and Rio bond along the way, especially after Uncle Grant catches up to them and abducts Sara with the intention of putting her to work in his whorehouse. Directed by Vincent D'Onofrio (who also has a small role as an incompetent lawman), THE KID is actually a cross between Billy the Kid fan fiction and an unofficial TRUE GRIT redux, especially once Billy the Kid exits before the third act and Rio begs grizzled Garrett to help him rescue Sara from Uncle Grant.

There's a few sporadic shootouts and some suspense, and it works best when Hawke (in a very shouty and intense performance) and DeHaan are onscreen, but it's prone to post-UNFORGIVEN revisionist philosophizing like Garrett declaring "It doesn't matter what's true...it matters the story they tell when you're gone!" at the start of a gunfight, thinking it's PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID when it's barely even YOUNG GUNS II. Sporting a ridiculous fake beard, an over-the-top Pratt is an ineffective villain and acts like he prepped for his role by binge-watching DEADWOOD. THE KID was probably a fun gathering of friends and family--father-and-son Schurs; D'Onofrio and Hawke go way back; D'Onofrio and Pratt were also in JURASSIC WORLD; and George is D'Onofrio's daughter with ex-wife Greta Scacchi--and it's certainly an improvement over D'Onofrio's previous behind-the-camera efforts, like DON'T GO IN THE WOODS and the unwatchable MALL, which he scripted and produced, but it's a generally forgettable endeavor. Lionsgate must've felt the same way as it topped out at just 268 screens at its widest release. (R, 99 mins)

(US/Canada/UK - 2019)

Claiming to be from a broken upbringing with a prostitute mother working truck stops and in endless cycle of poverty, drugs, and sexual abuse, Jeremiah Terminator "J.T." LeRoy published three harrowing, semi-autobiographical novels and short story collections in the late '90s and early '00s that made him a literary sensation. It took several years, but "LeRoy" was revealed to be a character portrayed by two women: Laura Arnold, who actually wrote the novels, and her boyfriend Geoffrey Knoop's younger sister Savannah, who portrayed "LeRoy" in public for six years until the ruse was exposed. J.T. LEROY tells the story from SavannahKnoop's perspective, based on their memoir Girl Boy Girl. Knoop also co-wrote the script with director Justin Kelly (KING COBRA) and is one of 32 credited producers, and the more the film goes on, the more one senses there's some degree of score-settling going on. Albert's side was already told in the 2016 documentary AUTHOR: THE J.T. LEROY STORY, but here, Savannah (Kristen Stewart) is introduced arriving in San Francisco in 2001 to crash with her aspiring musician brother Geoff (Jim Sturgess) in the midst of the LeRoy phenomenon in literature circles. The mystique around LeRoy is reaching a boiling point, and two years since the release of his debut novel Sarah, he's still never made a public appearance, with Laura (Laura Dern) adopting a mumbled Southern drawl for phone interviews where she can pass herself off as a 20-year-old male writer. Under immense pressure from her publisher and the media to introduce LeRoy to the public, Laura convinces Savannah to don a wig and sunglasses and play the androgynous writer for photo shoots and interviews. It's harmless for a while, and Laura pays Savannah for her time, but the more she's required to be in public as LeRoy, the more she's forced to speak as LeRoy and make important statements and decisions. This relegates Laura to the sideline in another invented role as LeRoy's overbearing British publicist and handler "Speedie," and growing more resentful by the day that Savannah-as-"LeRoy" is getting all the attention and accolades.

It's hard to feel much sympathy for Laura, which is probably what Knoop is getting at in their script (Knoop now identifies as gender neutral and uses "they" and "their" pronouns). There also seems to be no love lost with Asia Argento, represented here by Diane Kruger as "Eva Avelin," a wild child European actress and filmmaker who's desperate to make a movie version of Sarah (in 2004, Argento starred in and directed THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS, based on LeRoy's 1999 short story collection, but the ruse was exposed by the time the film was released in 2006) and is not above seducing "LeRoy" to get it, causing confusion for the bisexual Savannah. Stewart and Dern are very good here, but the in medias res storytelling gives the opening act no breathing room. To tell the "LeRoy" story, Laura Albert's story must be told for the sake of context, but before we even know what's going on, Savannah's already in the J.T. LeRoy disguise and we're only ten minutes into the movie. Knoop is so concerned with their side that we never really get a handle of either Laura or Geoff, as Sturgess is given nothing to do but pout because Laura doesn't have the time to devote to their band. Even Knoop's motivations for going along are frustratingly vague ("I like performing"). Barely released by Universal before being shuffled off to iTunes and Blu-ray, J.T. LEROY has an fascinating story to tell, but it seems unsure how to tell it. The general absurdity of it could've been helped by a more satirical or darkly comedic approach, but it's so glum and serious that it's ultimately a superficial navel gaze. (R, 109 mins)

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Retro Review: THE UNCANNY (1977)

(Canada/UK - 1977; US release 1980)

Directed by Denis Heroux. Written by Michel Parry. Cast: Peter Cushing, Samantha Eggar, Ray Milland, Susan Penhaligon, Donald Pleasence, Alexandra Stewart, John Vernon, Joan Greenwood, Catherine Begin, Roland Culver, Chloe Franks, Renee Girard, Katrina Holden, Jean Leclerc, Sean McCann, Donald Pilon, Simon Williams. (Unrated, 89 mins)

Pioneered by 1945's DEAD OF NIGHT, the portmanteau horror anthology format became a durable subgenre in the 1960s with TV shows like ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and THRILLER, and on the big screen with Roger Corman's 1962 Poe entry TALES OF TERROR and Mario Bava's 1964 classic BLACK SABBATH. The UK's Amicus Productions went all-in on the trend with titles like 1965's DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, 1967's TORTURE GARDEN, 1970's THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, 1972's ASYLUM and TALES FROM THE CRYPT, 1973's VAULT OF HORROR, and 1974's FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE. Horror's game-changer came with the release of 1973's THE EXORCIST, and despite attempts to stay current by upping the gore and T&A factor, the anthology, as well as the other kinds of more classically-oriented fare from Amicus and its more renowned contemporary Hammer, began to fall out of favor with audiences. The 1973 anthology TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS--with one segment devoted to a man's sexual obsession with an erotically-shaped tree stump--is easily the worst of the British portmanteau offerings, and the subgenre more or less faded away. The work of Stephen King would help revive the movement in America with 1982's CREEPSHOW and 1985's CAT'S EYE, but in the meantime, Amicus closed up shop in 1977 but co-chair Milton Subotsky kept the faith with a couple of tangential, Amicus-style stragglers. The wave of British horror anthologies dating back to 1965 came to a quiet end with 1981's generally lighthearted, Vincent Price-headlined THE MONSTER CLUB, which featured an obnoxious movie producer character named "Lintom Busotsky." Made at a time when slasher movies and innovative special effects were dominating the genre, THE MONSTER CLUB didn't even hit US theaters, instead going straight to syndicated TV.

An almost identical fate befell 1977's THE UNCANNY, which would be unseen in the US until it premiered on CBS in 1980. It establishes its British anthology bona fides by being co-produced by Subotsky and starring the ubiquitous Peter Cushing, but it's actually more a part of the Canadian tax shelter craze of the period. Shot and set in Montreal, THE UNCANNY is a triptych of unsolved, feline-related mysteries told in a framing device by nervous, paranoid writer Wilbur Gray (Cushing) to incredulous publisher Frank Richards (Ray Milland), who's having a hard time buying Gray's thesis that cats have a supernatural hold on their human owners. "London 1912" has wealthy, elderly spinster Miss Malkin (Joan Greenwood) cutting off her family and deciding to leave her vast fortune to her horde of cats, much to the chagrin of her scheming nephew Michael (Simon Williams) and her greedy housekeeper Janet (Susan Penhaligon). Janet manages to distract Miss Malkin's attorney (Roland Culver) and swipe the original copy of the new will from his briefcase and must get the other copy from her wall safe...but the cats have other ideas.

"Quebec Province 1975" has nine-year-old orphan Lucy (Katrina Holden, who would become an orphan herself a few years later and be adopted by her mother's friends Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland) and her cat Wellington sent to live with her aunt (Alexandra Stewart) and uncle (Donald Pilon) after her parents are killed in a plane crash. Her aunt takes an instant dislike to Wellington, but that's nothing compared to the scorn heaped on Lucy by her bratty, bitchy older cousin Angela (Chloe Franks), who resents no longer being the sole center of attention and sets out to make Lucy's life hell. Unfortunately for Angela, it seems that Lucy has been studying up on books belonging to her witchcraft-enthusiast mother. And "Hollywood 1936" has ludicrously-toupeed ham actor Valentine De'ath (Donald Pleasence) orchestrating the "accidental" death of his more famous wife Madeleine (Catherine Begin) on the set of his latest film DUNGEON OF HORROR. After a grieving period of a few minutes, De'ath insists to the producer (John Vernon) that the show must go on and suggests his wife's role be recast with his younger mistress Edina (Samantha Eggar), a woefully untalented ingenue who immediately moves into the De'ath mansion, much to the disapproval of Madeleine's beloved cats.

Director Denis Heroux and Samantha Eggar on the set of THE UNCANNY.

Written by Michel Parry (XTRO) and directed by Denis Heroux (JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS), THE UNCANNY has a few trips and stumbles along the way--while the grisliest segment by far, "London 1912" drags on too long, and there's some really bad dubbing of some of the supporting cast for no apparent reason, particularly Holden and Franks--but looking at it now on Severin's new Blu-ray (because physical media is dead), it's somewhat of an unsung gem from the waning, life-support days of the British portmanteau. It's always great to see Cushing in these things, and it's fun watching him be regarded with the kind of sneering, pompous derision that was late-career Milland's bread-and-butter. Anthology horror fans will also get a kick out of seeing a teenage Franks getting her just desserts several years after her unforgettable turn as Christopher Lee's witchcraft-practicing young daughter in the "Sweets to the Sweet" segment of THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. Like any decent film of this sort should do, they save the best segment for last, with some absolutely terrific work by Pleasence and Eggar, both of whom get to show off rarely0-utilized comedic skills as, respectively, the hapless Valentine De'ath--known as "V.D." to industry insiders--and his unbelievably dim mistress. Seemingly patterning her performance on Judy Holliday in BORN YESTERDAY, Eggar's scream queen screech is even worse than that terrible actress at the beginning of Brian De Palma's BLOW OUT, and is prone to obliviously saying things like, "Oh, V.D., I love you!" Lost in the shuffle thanks to a drastically changing genre landscape following the demonic horrors of THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN, THE UNCANNY probably seemed hopelessly antiquated in 1977, and it's little wonder why it completely bypassed American theaters. But time has been kind to it, and looking at it now reveals a surprisingly enjoyable mix of horror and inspired humor that's deserving of some appreciation. And of course, it doesn't miss the opportunity to deploy "What's the matter...cat got your tongue?" as an EC Comics-worthy punchline.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

In Theaters: MA (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Tate Taylor. Written by Scotty Landes. Cast: Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers, Luke Evans, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Allison Janney, Missi Pyle, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Dominic Burgess, Tanyell Waivers, Tate Taylor, Heather Marie Pate, Margaret Eaton, Kyanna Simone Simpson, Matthew Welch, Skyler Joy, Nicole Carpenter. (R, 99 mins)

Octavia Spencer won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 2011's THE HELP and she reunites with that film's director Tate Taylor for MA, a wildly entertaining, hard-R horror outing from Blumhouse. It's refreshing that neither lets their prestigious resumes--Spencer has logged two Oscar nods since, and Taylor went on to direct GET ON UP and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN--keep them from going all-in on this, as MA does a commendable job of emulating the kind of crowd-pleasing, audience-participation genre offering that was commonplace in the '80s. Spencer has a blast here, bringing to mind Isabelle Huppert's performance in this year's earlier "(blank)-from-Hell" '90s throwback GRETA, as well as Kathy Bates' unforgettable turn as Annie Wilkes in MISERY. MA has a shocking and disturbing event at its core, one that has haunted the title character and influenced every decision she's made since, but it never loses sight that its primary function is being a solid summer horror flick. And a surprising one at that, as it gets unexpectedly darker and more deranged as it goes on.

16-year-old Maggie Thompson (BOOKSMART's Diana Silvers, who looks like the Leelee Sobieski to Anne Hathaway's Helen Hunt) has just moved from San Diego to her mom Erica's (Juliette Lewis) podunk hometown in Ohio after her parents' bitter divorce (the specifics are never mentioned, but the fact that they went across the country and Maggie is starting at a new school in February are indicators that they're getting as far away from her father as quickly as possible). Shy Maggie becomes fast friends with an unlikely clique consisting of snarky troublemaker Haley (McKaley Miller), nice guy Andy Hawkins (Corey Fogelmanis), dudebro Chaz (Gianni Paolo), and affable sidekick Darrell (Dante Brown). With nothing to do except get drunk and high at the rock quarry, they hang out in the parking lot of a carryout and manage to convince lonely, middle-aged veterinary assistant Sue Ann Ellington (Spencer) to buy beer and liquor for them. This becomes a regular thing to the point where Sue Ann, nicknamed "Ma" by the crew, offers her basement to them as a safe place to hang out and party. Maggie immediately gets a strange vibe from Ma but goes along to get along and soon, word gets around the school that Ma's is the place to be. But everyone has to follow Ma's rules, the most strict being that the rest of the house is off-limits.

Of course, Ma is a lunatic who's barely hanging on by a thread. She's always dropping the ball at her job, unable to focus, and pissing off her boss (Allison Janney, another Oscar-winner in a strangely minor supporting role). Ma spends her free time stalking Diana and the others on social media and texting them and sending videos at all hours ("Don't make me drink alone!"). She even manipulates them by fabricating a story about having pancreatic cancer when they decide to ditch her following a violent outburst after Maggie and Haley have to use the upstairs bathroom when the basement one is occupied. There's a method to Ma's madness, and it all stems from a traumatic event from her past, when an awkward, teenage Sue Ann (Kyanna Simone Simpson) was the victim of an unspeakably cruel prank pulled off by Andy's dad Ben (Luke Evans in the present, Matthew Welch in flashbacks) and his friends--which included a young Erica (Skyler Joy)--that made her the laughingstock of the high school.

Obligatory De Palma split diopter shot, as required by law

This connection between the adult characters is established fairly early on, and doing it that soon is really the only major flaw of the film. The fate of one of them, Mercedes (Missi Pyle), a bitchy mean girl who grew up into a bitchy mean alcoholic who still blows Ben in a parked truck on his lunch break, seems like something's missing, or that it should have some additional resolution, considering how small the town is and how the local sheriff (director Taylor) already seems to have Ma on his radar. Logic lapses and minor quibbles in the big picture, but by fumbling these sorts of small details, it makes MA seem like a film that could've benefited from being maybe 10-15 minutes longer. It's small enough that it doesn't really detract from the effectiveness of MA, which counters its subject matter with some big laughs, whether it's a hard-partying Ma doing The Robot to Lipps Inc's "Funkytown," or flooring it and mowing someone down with her truck and muttering "Fuckin' cunt" into the rearview mirror while Earth Wind & Fire's "September" blares on her radio, a priceless Octavia Spencer moment that's undoubtedly going viral soon. There probably isn't much room for MA among the summer product rolling off the CGI assembly line, but it's one that will unquestionably enjoy a long life on streaming and cable.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

In Theaters/On VOD: DOMINO (2019)

UK/France/Spain - 2019)

Directed by Brian De Palma. Written by Petter Skavlan. Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Carice van Houten, Guy Pearce, Eriq Ebouaney, Mohammed Azaay, Soren Malling, Paprika Steen, Thomas W. Gabrielsson, Emrin Dalgic, Illias Adabb, Helena Kaittani. (R, 89 mins)

As anyone who saw George A. Romero's final film SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, or John Carpenter's last film to date, THE WARD, or Warren Beatty's RULES DON'T APPLY, or nearly everything Dario Argento's done for the last 25 or so years, or observed the multi-decade downfall of Tobe Hooper can attest, great filmmakers often lose their way as time goes on. It can be due to a variety of reasons--from getting stuck with journeymen gigs, to an inability to get the financing they need to do the projects they want, or simply losing their mojo and coasting on their reputation and name value (or, in Beatty's specific case, being away from the game for too many years). With the exception of 2007's REDACTED, his unsuccessful attempt to replicate CASUALTIES OF WAR in an Iraq War setting, the legendary Brian De Palma has been bankrolled almost entirely by foreign backers since 2002's French-produced FEMME FATALE. There was a time in the early '80s--that incredible streak of DRESSED TO KILL, BLOW OUT, SCARFACE, and BODY DOUBLE--when De Palma, one of the most visionary and stylish American filmmakers of his generation, was absolutely on fire. His dazzling, hypnotic set pieces, the split-screens, and the intricate timing and choreography were uniquely his own even as he constantly paid tribute to Hitchcock. He also demonstrated an ability to handle commercial hits like THE UNTOUCHABLES and the first installment of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise. Now 78, De Palma works sporadically enough these days that each new film still qualifies as legitimate event for those disciples who've followed his career dating back to the late '60s (and if you haven't seen Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's 2016 documentary DE PALMA, you must). DOMINO, a seven-country co-production and De Palma's first film since 2013's PASSION, was shot back in 2017 and is only now getting a stealth VOD burial from US distributor Lionsgate. This comes a couple months after the trailer went online, prompting De Palma to disown the released version, which he claims was taken from him by the film's Danish financiers--the primary backers of the project--who cut it from 148 minutes down to a bare-bones 89. De Palma's name is still on the film, though other than a few scattered deployments of his signature split diopter shots--which everyone does now in homage to him--the severely-compromised DOMINO never feels like a De Palma film until the climax, and even that is so gutted and badly-assembled that it plays more like someone trying to rip off De Palma and blowing it.

Set for no reason whatsoever in "June of 2020" and headlined by two GAME OF THRONES stars (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Carice van Houten), DOMINO was intended to be a topical thriller addressing issues in the war on terror and government surveillance, but in its current state, it's just another run-of-the-mill VOD thriller that's completely devoid of suspense and almost all sense of its maker's style. Coster-Waldau is Christian Toft, a Copenhagen detective and recovering alcoholic whose absent-mindedness (he left his gun at home) leads to his partner Lars Hansen (Soren Malling) having his throat slashed by a suspect during a botched arrest and falling into a coma. The suspect is Libyan immigrant Ezra Tarzi (Eriq Ebouaney, memorable as "Black Tie" in FEMME FATALE), who was trying to escape an apartment building where he just tortured and killed Farooq Hares (Emrin Dalgic), a member of ISIS who was stockpiling guns and military-grade explosives. After a strangely unexciting chase along steep rooftops with loose clay shingles (during which Toft loses the gun Hansen let him borrow) that finds both men falling into a convenient vegetable cart on the street below, Tarzi is whisked away by a crew of CIA mystery men led by smirking agent Joe Martin (Guy Pearce). Martin is after ISIS leader Salah Al-din (Mohammed Azaay), who's also the man who executed Tarzi's father. This prompts the CIA to form an unholy alliance with Tarzi as Martin gives him a new identity as a Jordanian diplomat with instructions to terminate Al-din. Meanwhile, Toft is assigned a new partner in Alex Boe (van Houten) as the two hunt down Tarzi and end up on a globe-trotting trek throughout Europe, as the search for Tarzi and Al-din dovetails, leading all parties to Spain where ISIS is hiding in plain sight under the auspices of a tomato distribution company, with a team of suicide bombers plotting to take out an Almeria arena during a bullfighting event.

Even with the closing credits rolling at the 82-minute mark (and misspelling Coster-Waldau's co-producer credit as "Nicolaj Coster-Waldau" after spelling his acting credit correctly), DOMINO is a laborious, convoluted slog that never manages to catch fire. Some of this is obviously due to it losing an hour of its running time and the effect that had on its storytelling rhythms and any kind of characterization or nuance, essentially reducing it to something that could pass as a lesser Jean-Claude Van Damme outing. But even taking that into consideration, this has the look and feel of the kind of cheap, made-for-cable TV series that you'd see in late-night syndication in the '90s. De Palma's bravura style is instantly recognizable even in his hired-gun gigs, but for all he brings to this, it may as well have been directed by Keoni Waxman or Brian A. Miller. PASSION was inessential De Palma but it was at least unmistakably the work of Brian De Palma. Only during the impending Almeria arena suicide bombing does that old magic finally make an appearance. Initially, it's such a relief and comfort to see something definitively "De Palma" that fans will feel giddy at the prospect of a classic De Palma set piece about to happen, but it's so truncated and sloppily pieced together that you're almost instantly back to crushing disappointment.

De Palma claims this wasn't his project and that it was given to him by the Danish producers who never had enough money and were constantly cutting corners, even calling it the most miserable experience he's ever had on a movie, and that's from the guy who made THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. For all the different sources of finance that went into getting this made, it looks incredibly cheap and shoddy. The CGI is total amateur hour, whether it s a bit of splatter just freezing and pausing in the air as a victim flails backwards (and no, it's not a "De Palma thing"), or an ISIS decapitation that looks like something out of an Asylum joint. A terrorist attack on a Netherlands film festival, seen via a split-screen livestream on the internet, is absolutely atrocious in both its bungled execution and in how it reveals that De Palma has no idea how livestreaming works. De Palma can't get anything right here, especially with one of Pino Donaggio's most uninspired scores that's not only distractingly intrusive but also generously cribs from Ravel's "Bolero" for the finale, which only serves to reiterate that FEMME FATALE will likely go down as De Palma's last great film. Yes, it's clear that DOMINO had a troubled production but what's here is a depressing reminder of so many great filmmakers before him who have just lost a step and aren't what they used to be. It's insulting that someone of De Palma's stature and influence has to schlep this far beneath his standards to land a gig. There's no shame in bowing out gracefully and going the elder statesman/lecture circuit route in one's emeritus years, but at the same time, a lot of people wrote off Paul Schrader after a long string of misfires and problem-plagued shoots and he came back hard with 2018's FIRST REFORMED. Here's to hoping De Palma has one more great movie in him, because DOMINO is a total embarrassment.

Brian De Palma and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau on the set of DOMINO