Wednesday, February 21, 2018


(US - 2017)

Though THE FLORIDA PROJECT shares some surface similarities with the little-seen SUNLIGHT JR, it benefits from a loose, improvisational, verite feel with its effective location shooting in the seedy vicinity around Walt Disney World (whereas SUNLIGHT JR was filmed in economically-depressed areas of Clearwater). Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) lives at the Magic Castle motel in Kissimmee with her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), who redefines the concept of the irresponsible parent. While Moonee plays with downstairs neighbor Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a little girl who lives with her grandmother (Josie Olivo) at a nearby motel, Halley gets high, watches TV, and engages in various scams to get the necessary weekly rent money for Magic Castle manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). The kids are a handful, and certainly products of their environment and upbringing, with Moonee especially prone to being a foul-mouthed brat. Bobby's patience is always wearing thin (when they spit on someone's car, spill ice cream in the office, or sneak into the maintenance room and turn off the power to the entire motel), but he's very protective of the kids and realizes it's not their fault. Director/co-writer Sean Baker (TANGERINE) lets the story develop very slowly, instead focusing on the world in which these characters live in ways that recall the work of British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Vinaite's performance in particular is reminiscent of Katie Jarvis, a non-professional who won the lead in FISH TANK after Arnold happened to see her arguing with her boyfriend on a street corner, as well as Sasha Lane, who was cast in AMERICAN HONEY after Arnold saw her sunbathing on a beach. Likewise, Vinaite had no acting experience and ran a small marijuana-themed clothing line when Baker discovered her on Instagram. Her performance--Halley's attitude boiling with rage and desperation but doing what she does because she loves her child even if she still acts like one herself--is quite remarkable.

The same goes for young Prince, who's a natural (watch her give Jancey the tour of the motel and the rundown of the residents: "This guy gets arrested a lot and this lady thinks she's married to Jesus"), and both actresses work beautifully with an Oscar-nominated Dafoe, playing perhaps the warmest and most empathetic character in a career largely spent personifying creeps and weirdos. Baker delves into a little of Bobby's life too and the wrong turns that make him sympathize with Halley and Moonee, even when Halley doesn't really deserve it. We see Bobby's day-to-day job duties, which include fixing a broken ice machine, dealing with the removal of a mattress in a bedbug-infested room, chasing a pedophile off the property when he starts talking to the kids, plus he has a fractured relationship with his own son (Caleb Landry Jones), who he frequently calls to help him with stuff around the motel. Perhaps the most moving scene in the film is when Halley and Moonee take Jancey to an empty field to watch the Disney fireworks from a distance for her birthday, celebrated by blowing out a candle on a small cupcake the three of them share. As the fragments begin to cohere into a genuine story, the outcome isn't going to be good, but it does put you in the mindset of children forced to use their imagination to survive the grimmest of circumstances. (R, 112 mins)

(Japan/UK - 2017)

A lot of years have gone by, but it's easy to forget the impact that incredibly prolific Japanese auteur Takashi Miike had on connoisseurs of cult cinema when his films began hitting the US in the early '00s. That first wave of Miike films to hit the States--AUDITION, DEAD OR ALIVE, MPD PSYCHO, VISITOR Q, THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS, and even the much-maligned GOZU-were so gonzo and transgressive that even hardcore cult cinephiles were often left aghast at that they were seeing (after I described VISITOR Q to a friend, he screened it at a movie night at his place, pissing off half of his guests and gleefully describing it as "a total room-clearer"). Miike was known enough in horror circles by 2005 that he was invited to helm an episode of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR series. The result was "Imprint," which went into such dark and disturbing places that the cable network wouldn't even air it. Miike has been directing since 1991 and has dabbled in every conceivable genre (even retro spaghetti westerns and kids movies), hopping around from cinematic extremes to mainstream commercial fare (he also helmed the J-Horror hit ONE MISSED CALL) with remarkable ease, but while his notoriety in the US has diminished in recent years, his output hasn't slowed down at all. His latest effort, BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, is his first to get any US distribution beyond the festival circuit since 2015's YAKUZA APOCALYPSE. To give you an idea of how much and how fast Miike works, the last of his films I've seen is 2011's HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI, and between that and BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, he's made 13 feature films and had a hand in directing two different series for Japanese television, and since BLADE wrapped, he's already got another movie completed.

BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL was sold as Miike's 100th film. While the exact tally is a mystery and might even be to Miike himself, this is an odd choice to herald such a milestone. It's based on a popular manga by Hiroaki Samura, but Miike doesn't really bring much of a personal touch to it. As he pushes 60, it's entirely possible he's moved beyond the poking-people-with-sticks years that helped establish his legend (or he's just exhausted), and while he's done very well in this genre before (2010's 13 ASSASSINS was his best film in years), he really seems to be going through the motions with BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL. The convoluted story has disgraced samurai warrior Manji (Takuya Kimura) on the run after killing his corrupt lord and his six shogun constables, including his brother-in-law, whose death drove Manji's sister Machi (Hana Sugisaki) mad with grief. After Machi is killed by a bounty hunter and Manji massacres his small army, he nearly dies from his injuries until he's granted immortality by 800-year-old witch Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto). 50 years later, a depressed Manji wanders the countryside wishing he could die, but he finds a purpose when he's sought out by Rin Asani (also played by Sugisaki), who wants revenge on shogun warrior Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi) after he kills her parents and gives his associate Kuroi Sabato (Kazuka Kitamura) the severed head of her mother to mount on his shoulder. Manji feels sorry for the girl, who reminds him of his baby sister and may very well be her reincarnation (Rin even starts affectionately calling him "Big Brother"), so they embark on a journey to kill Anotsu and anyone who stands in their way. Of course, there's shifting alliances, double crosses, and various supernatural hijinks, but after a smashing start, the film rapidly devolves into repetitive set pieces and becomes a laborious slog. Even when it comes alive for an epic climactic showdown, it still feels like Miike's just recycling ideas and images from 13 ASSASSINS and other similar films. Manji is a sort of Wolverine/Logan crossed with a shogun HIGHLANDER, so no matter what happens to him or how many appendages get hacked off in battle, the "bloodworms" planted in him by Yaobikuni will heal him by reattaching the limb and he continues to live. There's plenty of spectacular action sequences and squishy sound effects as inventive weaponry guts through flesh, and KILL BILL fans will like seeing Chiaka Kuriyama--aka "Gogo Yubari"--in a supporting role, but at nearly two and a half hours, BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL is a good 35-40 minutes too long as Miike somehow manages to be both self-indulgent and disconnected from the material at the same time. (R, 141 mins)

Monday, February 19, 2018

Retro Review: THE LAST HUNTER (1980)

(Italy - 1980; US release 1984)

Directed by Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti). Written by Dardano Sacchetti. Cast: David Warbeck, Tisa Farrow, John Steiner, Tony King, Bobby Rhodes, Margi Eveline Newton (Margie Newton), Massimo Vanni, Alan Collins (Luciano Pigozzi), Dino Conti, Gianfranco Moroni, Edoardo Margheriti. (Unrated, 96 mins)

Veteran Italian journeyman Antonio Margheriti became synonymous with jungle explosion movies in the 1980s with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK ripoffs like THE HUNTERS OF THE GOLDEN COBRA, THE ARK OF THE SUN GOD and JUNGLE RAIDERS, and a WILD GEESE-inspired commando trilogy with British TV star Lewis Collins (CODENAME: WILDGEESE, COMMANDO LEOPARD, THE COMMANDER), but it was his partnership with New Zealand-born David Warbeck that initially got the ball rolling. Shot in the Philippines on some of the same locations and abandoned sets from APOCALYPSE NOW, 1980's THE LAST HUNTER (belatedly released in the US in 1984 by World Northal) was the first teaming of the director and star and the first of countless Namspoitation actioners to come from Italy throughout the decade. Filmed under the title IL CACCIATORE 2 in response to the Oscar-winning THE DEER HUNTER being known there as IL CACCIATORE (from Lucio Fulci's ZOMBI 2 to Ciro Ippolito's ALIEN 2: ON EARTH, unofficial bogus sequels were a trend in Italian exploitation at the time), THE LAST HUNTER is more of gritty, down-to-the-basics riff on APOCALYPSE NOW. In January 1973, burned-out Capt. Henry Morris (Warbeck) is given a top secret assignment. Dropped in an area swarming with VietCong, he meets up with a small group of soldiers--Sgt. George Washington (Tony King), Carlos (Bobby Rhodes), and Stinker Smith (Edoardo Margheriti, the director's son and assistant)--who are accompanied by war correspondent Jane Foster (Tisa Farrow) as they make their way toward a destination known only by Morris, who's haunted by the recent suicide of his best friend. They're ambushed by VC along the way, and Stinker is ripped apart by a spiked booby trap, but they eventually find refuge at a rowdy outpost run by the very Kilgore-like Major Cash (John Steiner), who sends daredevil Phillips (Massimo Vanni) on dangerous coconut runs outside the camp's perimeter that are in no way meant to remind you of Lance's surfing during a bombing raid in APOCALYPSE NOW.

Morris' mission is to terminate (with extreme prejudice) a traitorous voice broadcasting anti-American, "Charlie" propaganda over the airwaves in Saigon. The voice is that of an American woman who turns out to be someone close to Morris (making this mission...wait for it...personal) and the embodiment of every enraged, right-wing "Hanoi Jane" caricature you've heard for the last 50 years. Cash complains that the voice is turning his officers against him with statements like "Don't obey your commander...he's only sending you out to die. Go home to your girl, American boy..." while the deeper into the jungle they go, the more Morris and the others start to question why they're even there. It all leads to one of the more downbeat finales in Italian Namsploitation, which was a common theme as these went on. More often than not (Margheriti's TORNADO, Fabrizio De Angelis' COBRA MISSION aka OPERATION NAM), the Italians avoided the revisionist, flag-waving "This time we're gonna win!" mythology of the American Namsploitation movies and went for full-on bleak hopelessness. Of course, in 1980, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris had yet to embark on one-man missions to bring the POWs back home and as such, THE LAST HUNTER is certainly more in line with the grim elements of APOCALYPSE NOW and THE DEER HUNTER, particularly Washington's memorable death scene and Morris' final decision at the end. It's also quite brutal and often incredibly gory, so much so that it earned a spot on the UK's infamous "Video Nasties" list. Margheriti wasn't one to indulge in the graphic gore of his contemporaries like Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi, but 1980 saw him going all in on the splatter. The same year, he directed CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE, his lone entry into the Italian cannibal cycle. Also known as CANNIBALS IN THE STREETS and INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS, the film fuses the cannibal subgenre with Namsploitation, as Vietnam vets John Saxon, Giovanni Lombardo Radice ("John Morghen") and THE LAST HUNTER's Tony King return home infected by a cannibal virus, their PTSD manifesting itself as an insatiable craving for human flesh that sends them on a rampage through Atlanta.

Typically, Margheriti would use gore sparingly to focus more on action, of which THE LAST HUNTER--written by frequent Fulci collaborator Dardano Sacchetti--has plenty. Displaying more explosions and firefights than perhaps the rest of Margheriti's filmography combined, THE LAST HUNTER is old-school and has a cut-the-bullshit attitude, especially in the way it shows off the kind of dangerous stunt work that would never fly today (there's one shot of an explosion going off near Warbeck and Farrow that's pretty ballsy on the part of both actors). You can feel the sweltering heat and humidity in the obviously unpleasant shooting conditions. Of course, this being an Antonio Margheriti film, there's also the usual display of Margheriti miniatures as well as some explosions in the opening sequence that's mostly recycled footage from 1978's THE SQUEEZE and 1979's KILLER FISH. But overall, THE LAST HUNTER is one of the great Namsploitation offerings and a masterpiece from the glory days of the Italian Ripoff. It helped set the course for Margheriti's output for the rest of the decade and established Warbeck as an action star in Italy. Known for some UK TV roles and small parts in British horror films like TROG, TWINS OF EVIL, and CRAZE, as James Coburn's doomed friend in Sergio Leone's DUCK, YOU SUCKER, and as the male lead in Russ Meyer's BLACK SNAKE, Warbeck's status as a Eurocult legend would be cemented thanks to his work with Margheriti and Lucio Fulci in the 1980s. Warbeck's star would dim as the Italian exploitation cycle declined in the late '80s, but he did land one major A-list gig with a supporting role in the 1984 Tom Selleck vehicle LASSITER. Code Red/Kino Lorber's new LAST HUNTER Blu-ray (boasting the obligatory Code Red packaging typos as producer Gianfranco Couyoumdjian becomes "Grand Franco Couyoumdjian"--honesty, isn't "Gianfranco" the easy part of that name?) also features an interview with the well-traveled Tony King, who retired from the NFL after one season with the Buffalo Bills in 1967 before drifting into modeling and acting in the early '70s. His standout performance in 1975's underrated REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER should've made him a star, but nothing happened, and by 1980, he was working in Italy, reteaming with Margheriti and Warbeck for 1982's TIGER JOE. He moved into social activism and upon changing his name to Malik Farrakhan in the late '80s, became well-known as the head of security for Public Enemy. King's life and career have gone down some unexpected paths, and he has some good stories about working in Italy, and fond memories of the cast and other films he's worked on, though the interview's most memorable moment is when someone starts banging on his door and shouting "Tony, open the motherfuckin' door!"

Friday, February 16, 2018

In Theaters/On VOD: LOOKING GLASS (2018)

(US/UK - 2018)

Directed by Tim Hunter. Written by Jerry Rapp. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Robin Tunney, Marc Blucas, Ernie Lively, Kassia Conway, Jacque Gray, Kimberly Hittleman, Bill Boldender, Barry Minoff, Jason Wixom, Atticus Worman-Pope. (R, 103 mins)

We're a little over halfway through February and LOOKING GLASS is already Nicolas Cage's second VOD release of the year. Unlike January's excellent MOM AND DAD, LOOKING GLASS is the kind of bland, forgettable, perfunctory clock-punch that typifies the bulk of Redbox-era Cage. It's hard telling what drew him to the project other than its setting might've stirred memories of his cult classic desert noir RED ROCK WEST, John Dahl's terrific 1993 thriller that ended up premiering on cable only to become a big word-of-mouth hit in video stores. It could be the involvement of screenwriter Matthew Wilder*, who wrote Paul Schrader's DOG EAT DOG, one of Cage's better recent films, though at some point between LOOKING GLASS' announcement in the trades and its release, Wilder's shared writing credit with Jerry Rapp (GUTSHOT STRAIGHT) vanished and now he's one of about 30 credited producers, with Rapp getting sole credit for the screenplay (though Wilder is still credited on IMDb). Ray (Cage) and Maggie (Robin Tunney) are a married couple still grieving the loss of their young daughter in a vague accident that may have involved a fall, Maggie's substance abuse, and Ray's infidelity. They look to heal in the dumbest way possible: by packing up and driving across the country to a small Arizona town where Ray bought a motel he found for sale on Craigslist. The locals are odd but welcoming, including gregarious trucker Tommy (Ernie Lively), who always has a different young girl in tow and always requests room 10. The previous owner, Ben (Bill Bollender) abruptly left town and Ray has no way to contact him. He's got some questions, especially once he discovers a secret crawlspace in the pool maintenance room that leads a two-way mirror that looks right into room 10, which seems to be the most requested room for another guest, mysterious prostitute and professional dominatrix Cassie (Kassia Conway), who states "10's a peach...I'll take 10."

Things slowly take a sinister turn with the arrival of Sheriff Howard (Marc Blucas), who keeps showing up for coffee and to pester Ray about Ben's whereabouts. Someone dumps a pig carcass into the motel's pool with a note reading "Crissey" attached to it. Crissey was also the name of a dead woman found floating in the pool a month or so earlier, a guest in room 10 right around the time Ray first drove to the motel solo to meet with Ben about buying it. Another guest (Jacque Gray) is found dead in the desert.  Howard's visits with Ray grow increasingly hostile and even some of the locals start to cast suspicious glances at him like he's Roman Polanski in THE TENANT. This also ratchets up the tension between Ray and Maggie as Ray discovers the voyeur within and can't stop peeping on the action in Room 10. The biggest problem with LOOKING GLASS is that its central mystery isn't very compelling and never really goes anywhere. There's only a few characters and anyone who's seen a movie before can figure out the guilty party just by process of elimination (plus a shot of the boots of a third person in the room watching during one of Cassie's S&M sessions makes it even easier). The big reveal is both predictable and a shrug, leaving numerous loose ends, unresolved story threads, and pointless red herrings.

LOOKING GLASS is the first feature in 13 years for director Tim Hunter, best known for 1987's unrelentingly grim RIVER'S EDGE. While his big-screen career didn't pan out, Hunter's spent most of the last 25 years as one of TV's busiest hired guns, directing episodes of shows like HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, LAW & ORDER, CROSSING JORDAN, DEADWOOD, HOUSE, COLD CASE, CSI: NY, SONS OF ANARCHY, BREAKING BAD, MAD MEN, NIP/TUCK. GLEE, HANNIBAL, GOTHAM, THE BLACKLIST, and countless others. With more TV shows being produced than ever, the 70-year-old Hunter's never going to be unemployed unless he chooses to retire, but that same kind of journeyman, workmanlike "assignment" style he's obviously grown accustomed to doesn't do LOOKING GLASS any favors (Hunter took over either just before shooting began or very early in the production, following the departure of music video director Dori Oskowitz). The film plods along, never generating any momentum or suspense as it dawdles to nowhere, and it often resembling two things after starting with opening credits that rip off David Lynch's LOST HIGHWAY: 1) a tame version of the kind of erotic thriller that would've starred Craig Sheffer, Gil Bellows, or David Duchovny as Ray, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, or Lara Flynn Boyle as Maggie, and J.T. Walsh, J.T. Walsh, or J.T. Walsh as Sheriff Howard, and been released on VHS by Prism Entertainment in 1994, or 2) a desert motel-set early '90s indie noir like the aforementioned RED ROCK WEST, or other VHS-era standards like EYE OF THE STORM, DESIRE AND HELL AT SUNSET MOTEL, and BLACK DAY BLUE NIGHT. Everything about LOOKING GLASS feels thoroughly ordinary and peculiarly dated, like a tribute to the one-copy "Hot Singles" section of the new release wall at Blockbuster Video. Cage has a couple of "Cage" moments ("DID I DO WHAT?") but he's mostly low-key to the point of catatonia, while Tunney is given little do other than wait to play a victim. Blucas has some fun as the sheriff and ends up being the film's most interesting character, and there's a noticeable spark of wired energy when he first appears around 40 minutes in, but by the end, even he's defeated by the crushing mediocrity of it all. And then there's the So What? reveal that you already figured out, and then it just ends. Sorta like this review.

*(note: in the interest of full disclosure, I was once Facebook friends with Matthew Wilder, but a 2012 disagreement over Jean-Luc Godard's FILM SOCIALISME resulted in him unfriending and blocking me, followed by his immediate creation of the hashtag #attackfilmsocialismeanddie. I have had no contact with him since)

Thursday, February 15, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD, Special "OK, Seriously, Enough Already" Edition: HELLRAISER: JUDGMENT (2018) and DAY OF THE DEAD: BLOODLINE (2018)

(US - 2018)

Seven years ago, Dimension Films was planning a remake of HELLRAISER that was stalled in development for so long that they realized they were dangerously close to the deadline where they'd lose the rights to the entire franchise if they didn't get something released quickly. The result was the unwatchable sequel HELLRAISER: REVELATIONS, a legal obligation disguised as a movie, and produced under such cynical circumstances (less than two weeks to shoot with a budget of $300,000 on a set that looked like a crew member's barely-redressed garage) that franchise fixture Doug Bradley refused to reprise his iconic role as Pinhead. It's unanimously regarded as the worst film in the series, so bad that even the most forgiving, "Everything is awesome!" horror fanboys have yet to convince themselves that it's an unsung classic that just needs to be appreciated on its own terms. Well, it's 2018, the remake still hasn't happened, and the clock must've been ticking once again for Dimension to release something, because now we've got HELLRAISER: JUDGMENT, the tenth film in the series going back to Clive Barker's original trailblazer from 1987. Other than cashing a check and reportedly contributing to the story development of 2002's HELLRAISER: HELLSEEKER (the sixth entry), Barker hasn't taken an active involvement in these since 1992's HELLRAISER III: HELL ON EARTH. The franchise now seems to be in the hands of Gary J. Tunnicliffe, a veteran special effects guy who's been part of the series since HELLRAISER III and also worked on CANDYMAN and the Barker-directed LORD OF ILLUSIONS. He wrote the script for REVELATIONS and is now the writer and director of JUDGMENT, the promotion to shot-caller apparently his reward for publicly admitting his involvement in REVELATIONS.

Dimension kept the HELLRAISER franchise going in the '00s by essentially taking existing scripts and shoehorning Pinhead into them. With the Oklahoma-shot JUDGMENT, Tunnicliffe is basically going for a do-over, pretending REVELATIONS didn't happen and almost rebooting the series to a degree. That said, it feels just like every other straight-to-video HELLRAISER sequel where Pinhead seems like a post-production addition. After an introduction where Pinhead (now played by Paul T. Taylor, who's no Doug Bradley but he's a definite improvement over REVELATIONS' hapless Stephan Smith Collins) declares "Obsolete...irrelevant!" over the Cenobites' dwindling necessity in an increasingly perverse world but could just as easily be commenting on the current state of the HELLRAISER franchise, the story shifts to two detective brothers after a serial killer known as "The Preceptor." The killer is patterning his murders on the Ten Commandments and has killed 14 people so far, apparently unaware of both the meaning of "Thou shalt not kill," and how to count to ten. There's also a dilapidated house on Ludovico St, a sort-of inter-dimensional, Kafka-meets-William S. Burroughs halfway house where a demonic emissary known as The Auditor (played by Tunnicliffe, who must think he's M. Night Shyamalan) works as a go-between with Pinhead, luring the worst of society to the house to see if they're deserving of Cenobite judgment. But Pinhead is sidelined for most of the movie, with the focus on the boring procedural, with set design and murders straight out of SE7EN (one victim has her live dog--named "Baby"--sewn into her belly) and death traps on loan from SAW. The whole movie plays like a drab homage to '90s horror, starting with the SE7EN ripoff opening credits, somehow still being copied 23 years later. There's also pandering to the fanboys with cameos by FEAST director John Gulager and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET's Heather Langenkamp as a grouchy landlady (what, were Larry Fessenden and Maria Olson unavailable?). HELLRAISER: JUDGMENT pulls numerous dei ex machina out of its ass, like introducing a sultry, echoing angel near the end just so Pinhead can ignore her orders and have The Auditor declare "Did you forget? She's the angel who banished them from the Garden of Eden!" Yeah? And? And why is Pinhead suddenly in a position where he's answering to other figures? Tunnicliffe delivers the gore and the grim atmosphere, but in his quest to create an all-new mythos around the HELLRAISER concept and the figure of Pinhead, he just overwhelms himself and completely loses the plot. On one hand, with its bizarre, surrealistic imagery in the Ludovico house, JUDGMENT deserves a little credit for trying since that's more than REVELATIONS ever did, but you don't get a pass when that ingenuity is quickly jettisoned and the end result is a derivative, convoluted mess that plays like HELLRAISER fan fiction. Maybe Dimension should just let this franchise go, since they clearly have no idea what to do with it. (Unrated, 81 mins)

(US - 2018)

How long do Robert and James Dudelson plan on dining out on the legacy of George A. Romero? The heads of Taurus Entertainment secured the rights to a couple of Romero films via the company's formation in the late '80s, which resulted from a merger that involved what was left of United Film Distribution, the company that produced Romero's films CREEPSHOW (1982) and DAY OF THE DEAD (1985). Taurus hasn't done much in the last couple of decades other than shamelessly exploit their extremely tenuous connection to Romero's work with all the scrupulous pride of copper wire thieves: 2007's CREEPSHOW 3 was bad enough, but they've gone back for DAY OF THE DEAD scraps three times now, first with a crummy 2005 "sequel" DAY OF THE DEAD 2: CONTAGIUM, then a DAY OF THE DEAD remake in 2008, and now another remake titled DAY OF THE DEAD: BLOODLINE, which plays like a bad episode of THE WALKING DEAD. They co-produced both DAY remakes with Avi Lerner's Cannon cover band Millennium and managed to secure a few recognizable names for the 2008 travesty (a slumming Steve Miner directed, and the cast was headlined by Mena Suvari, Ving Rhames, and, for some reason, Nick Cannon). All DAY OF THE DEAD: BLOODLINE has in the way of star power is Johnathon Scheach in the "Bub" role. This time he goes by Max, and in a prologue, he's a creep with a rare abundance of antibodies in his blood, which is being regularly tested and studied by med school research team. Max is fixated on one student, Zoe (Sophie Skelton), and he's even carved her name into his right arm. He attempts to rape her after a blood draw but he's cock-blocked by a re-animated corpse, which kicks off cinema's umpteenth zombie apocalypse, this time on the unconvincing "normal American city" streets of the Nu Boyana backlot in Bulgaria.

Five years later, Zoe is a doctor at High Rock, a military installation and refugee camp where survivors live under the rule of commander Miguel (Jeff Gum, which may be a secret code word for "Almost Joe Pilato") while the zombie horde--aka "Rotters"--are kept outside behind a massive fence. When a young girl comes down with a new strain of bacterial pneumonia that threatens to infect the entire facility, Zoe and some of Miguel's soldiers--including his younger brother and her boyfriend Baca (Marcus Vanco)--take some Humvees to the abandoned med school for some vaccines and antiobiotics. Why they wouldn't have attempted this five years earlier remains a mystery, but a zombified Max is still at the hospital, and secretly hitches a ride under one of the Humvees. This allows him to easily infiltrate High Rock undetected, hiding in the vent shafts and plotting his pursuit of Zoe. That's right--he's a zombie, but he's still obsessed with Zoe. Once he's discovered, she recalls his rare blood condition and believes he could be useful in developing a Rotter vaccine. Max, meanwhile, just wants Zoe. With the exception of Schaech and Gum, the entire cast sounds dubbed, but aside from that, DAY OF THE DEAD: BLOODLINE is plenty gory and, from a tech standpoint, it's professionally put together by Spanish director Hector Hernandez Vicens, whose THE CORPSE OF ANNA FRITZ generated some festival buzz a few years ago. It would just be another dumb and forgettable zombie movie if was simply called BLOODLINE, but the invoking of Romero is cheap and lazy. And if that wasn't offensive enough, the original tag line for this was a LOVE STORY-inspired "Love means never having to say you're zombie," which is pretty tone-deaf considering the rapey nature of Max's obsession. He was a rapist before turning, and in the #MeToo and Time's Up era, maybe now's not the best time for zombies to be committing sexual assault. Of course, we lost George A. Romero in the period between this being shot in 2016 and its release in 2018, and yeah, Romero was more than willing to throw his name on dubious projects during his lifetime for quick and easy cash, as anyone who's seen the two GEORGE A. ROMERO PRESENTS DEADTIME STORIES horror anthologies can attest. That said, maybe now that Romero is gone, it should also be Time's Up for the Dudelsons and their cynical cash-ins on his name and his legend. Considering the Bulgarian locations and crew, Lerner's Millennium gang was probably more involved in the day-to-day operation of this shoot, but the Dudelsons are still getting paid. They own the remake rights. And if that wasn't bad enough, do you really want to know how little these guys care? The fucking name of their company is misspelled "Tauras" in the credits. No one involved in this movie gives a shit. Neither should you. (R, 91 mins)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

In Theaters: THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Dorothy Blyskal. Cast: Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, Tony Hale, Thomas Lennon, P.J. Byrne, Jaleel White, Ray Corasani, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, Paul-Mikel Williams, Vernon Dobtcheff, Steve Coulter, Mark Moogalian, Isabelle Moogalian, Chris Norman, Jeanne Goursaud, Alisa Allapach. (PG-13, 94 mins)

THE 15:17 TO PARIS, the last and easily the least of Clint Eastwood's unofficial American Heroes trilogy (following AMERICAN SNIPER and SULLY), tries to get by on the stunt casting of the real heroes involved in thwarting a terrorist attack aboard a Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris in 2015. US Air Force staff sergeant Spencer Stone, US Army National Guard soldier Alek Skarlatos, and their non-enlisted childhood buddy Anthony Sadler were aboard the train to their final stop on a European backpacking trip when Ayoub El-Khazzani (played here by Ray Corasani) opened fire, leading to Stone, then Skarlatos and Sadler leaping to action to subdue him and tend to passenger Mark Moogalian (also playing himself), who was shot in the back and the neck trying to stop El-Khazzani before he made it to the car with the three Americans. It's a riveting story of heroism, adrenaline, and making split-second decisions, but does it warrant a 90-minute movie? Eastwood ran into this situation with 2016's SULLY, which took a five-minute incident and padded it out to feature-length and even had to manufacture its own drama in the process by inventing a vengeful head of an investigatory panel who did everything short of twirl a non-existent mustache to show his seething contempt for Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and his obsessive desire to nail the heroic pilot's balls to the wall. That never happened, even by Sully's admission. The closest thing to a villain in the Sully Sullenberger story is a flock of birds in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Stone managed to overpower El-Khazzani fairly quickly thanks to terrorist's gun jamming. This takes up about a minute of screen time. To fill the remaining 90-odd minutes, Eastwood spends the bulk of the movie on Stone's and Sadler's selfie-filled trip to Italy before meeting up with Skarlatos in Germany and then going to Amsterdam. This allows the three friends to re-enact parts of a trip they took three years ago and makes THE 15:17 TO PARIS a de facto travelogue for much of its running time. Prior to that, the film goes into their childhood in Sacramento, with Spencer and Alek being regularly bulled and struggling with authority issues, which their Christian school condescendingly blames on them being raised by single moms (Judy Greer plays Spencer's mom, Jenna Fischer plays Alek's). The Euro travelogue stuff may be like watching boring, digitally-shot home movies (I wouldn't be surprised if Eastwood farmed the whole midsection of this film out to the second unit), but the opening section is embarrassingly heavy-handed and atrociously-acted, not just by the child actors but by Greer and Fischer, both experienced professionals who look completely defeated by the terrible dialogue in Dorothy Blyskal's script, which reads like a rough draft at best. When the moms are informed by a snotty teacher that Spencer and Alek might have ADD and should be medicated, it's hard to tell what's worse: the teacher saying "Statistics show that if you don't medicate them now, they'll only self-medicate later!," Greer responding "My God is bigger than your statistics!" or Fischer angrily reacting to the principal's (Thomas Lennon) ludicrous suggestion that "perhaps Alek should live with his father" with an outraged "The absurdity of it all!" followed immediately by a shot of her dutifully packing Alek and his belongings into his dad's minivan just like the principal told her to do. The stunt casting isn't limited to the three stars: almost every school authority figure--Lennon, P.J. Byrne as an asshole teacher, Tony Hale as a snide gym instructor, and Jaleel White as a kindly history teacher ("Those boys!" he chuckles to himself as they leave class)--is played by someone known for their comedic skills. It's nice to see Urkel getting a paycheck, but the sight of him and Buster Bluth in bit parts as teachers is even more distracting than the obvious discomfort of the non-actors in front the camera. At least they have an excuse for their stilted line deliveries and deer-in-the-headlights expressions, but when people like Fischer, Greer, Hale, and Lennon come off like amateurs, things are not going as planned.

To be fair, the attack aboard the train is very well-done and this is where Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler really come alive. They lived it, they know exactly how it went down, and Eastwood wisely let them do their thing. But that's a few minutes of an otherwise misbegotten misfire. Eastwood's worked with non-professional actors before on GRAN TORINO, and the results were still occasionally awkward but the entire film didn't rest on the shoulders of Bee Vang and Ahney Her. Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler are true heroes, but they're not actors, and prior to the thwarted attack on the train, they aren't even remotely convincing as buddies even though they've known each other since childhood. This is hardly their fault. Eastwood is a laid-back director, but he's notoriously impatient even with professional actors, and it's well-known that he gets annoyed if he has to do more than two takes. This is how he always comes in under budget and ahead of schedule. I'm sure he extended some leeway to the trio of stars, but a lot of this film looks like first or second takes, and the semi-improv travel bits don't even look like they're the work of Eastwood. THE 15:17 TO PARIS keeps coming back to Spencer's feeling that he's destined for something of great purpose (which is more than you can say for THE 15:17 TO PARIS), and it's a premonition reiterated by Alek's mother. But the way it's presented here, it's just a hackneyed plot device clumsily foreshadowing their heroism. It's hard telling what Eastwood wanted to accomplish here. He could've made a documentary short subject if he found the story that interesting. But at feature-length, he's scrambling for things to pad the running time but can't even be bothered to show the three guys reuniting after years apart: Spencer and Anthony are in Italy about to head to Germany to meet with Alek, and in the very next shot, they're dancing in a club packed with wall-to-wall people, and Anthony's buying Alek a drink. Wait...they're in Germany? And they already reunited with Alek? Wouldn't that be worth showing instead of Anthony taking a pic with his selfie stick for the 37th time?

He works at the speed of Woody Allen, but Eastwood hasn't made a memorable film in ten years (be honest--when's the last time you thought of INVICTUS, HEREAFTER, or J. EDGAR?). He's been on this hagiographical course since JERSEY BOYS, and whether it's getting facts right or even something simple like establishing where characters are, he just doesn't seem concerned. Mark Moogalian, an American who long ago relocated to France and is a professor at the Sorbonne, was one of the first to confront El-Khazzani, getting shot and almost bleeding out on the train, but he's not even an afterthought here, not even worthy of the end-of-film "Where are they now?" captions that the three Americans get. Is it because he doesn't fit the profile of the "America! Fuck Yeah!" narrative of Eastwood's American Heroes trilogy? British businessman Chris Norman was also on the train, helped disarm El-Khazzani, and plays himself in a few fleeting shots, but we never even get his name.There's no way UNFORGIVEN-era Eastwood would've made a film this shruggingly indifferent. It's insensitive and incorrect to chalk this up to his mental faculties (though talking to an empty chair in support of Mitt Romney a few years ago wasn't a good look) or a declining ability to handle the workload. He's almost 88 but I don't believe that's the case. I do, however, believe his being almost 88 is a reason he simply doesn't give a shit like he used to. His films are getting sloppier and he's more concerned with getting them done than getting them right (remember that baby in AMERICAN SNIPER?). Maybe he's earned that privilege after seven decades in the business, and maybe he continues working because it keeps him going and maybe he feels he can keep time at bay for a little while longer if he stays busy. But if THE 15:17 TO PARIS is any indication, he'd need to put forth more effort to even reach "coasting." It's because Eastwood is such an iconic legend of cinema that watching him half-ass it in his emeritus years is so distressing.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

On Netflix: THE RITUAL (2018)

(UK - 2017; US release 2018)

Directed by David Bruckner. Written by Joe Barton. Cast: Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Matthew Needham, Jacob James Beswick, Maria Erwolter, Hilary Reeves, Peter Liddell, Francesca Mula. (Unrated, 94 mins)

You can count on zero fingers the number of times "Let's just take the shortcut" ends well in a horror movie, and therein lies the primary dilemma with the Netflix Original film THE RITUAL: you've seen all of it before. Based on a 2011 novel of the same name by Adam Nevill and adapted by Joe Barton (iBOY), the British-made THE RITUAL is the first feature-length film by American director David Bruckner, best known for his contributions to the indie anthologies THE SIGNAL (2007), V/H/S (2012), and SOUTHBOUND (2016). Six months after their buddy Robert (Paul Reid) was killed after walking into a liquor store robbery, four old college friends--Luke (Rafe Spall), Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), and Dom (Sam Troughton)--decide to follow-through on Robert's idea for their annual trip by going hiking through the wilderness of Sweden (played here by Romania). It's the usual male-bonding and ballbusting until Dom twists his ankle and they decide to veer from the mapped mountain path and take a shortcut through a dense forest. They quickly stumble on an abandoned VW ("Odd place to park," one of them quips), then trees with strange symbols carved into them, and finally a disemboweled elk carcass perched in the trees. Deciding they've gone too far to turn back and with Dom's ankle getting more difficult to walk on, they forge ahead. Of course, they get lost and a short trip turns into two nights of strange sounds, ominous visions, the discovery of a cabin with items strongly hinting at witchcraft, and other assorted tropes from the BLAIR WITCH manual. Hutch wakes up soaked in his own piss, Phil wanders off and can't remember why, and Luke finds the tree symbols painted on his chest. He's also haunted by a debilitating case of survivor's guilt: he's the one who wanted to buy more booze when the others wanted to call it a night, and he's the one who dragged Robert into the liquor store and then scurried to hide behind a display fixture while his friend was getting his head bashed in.

Though it's based on a relatively recent novel, there's no denying the initial surface similarities, starting with the title, to the 1978 Canadian survivalist cult classic RITUALS, where five doctor friends (led by Hal Holbrook and Lawrence Dane) go on an annual hiking excursion only to be stalked and killed one-by-one by a feral mountain man. Like RITUALS, THE RITUAL has the predicament bringing up long-festering resentments among the old friends, with Luke facing the gradual realization that the others more or less blame him for Robert's death (Dom does so outright). They also fulfill basic archetypes, among them Luke being--at least until Robert's tragic end--the party animal who never really grew up and Dom now the uptight family man who keeps whining that they should've gone to Vegas and is probably exaggerating his ankle injury. But THE RITUAL ultimately takes a more supernatural bent than RITUALS, with the men being stalked by some kind of demonic, horned creature (Bruckner stages a couple of creepily effective bits where the guys are walking through the forest and the creature is camouflaged at the edge of the frame or very deep into the shot) that's worshiped by some deep woods pagans who look like members of a Bucharest community theater troupe that just finished a re-enactment of SOUTHERN COMFORT and are beginning rehearsals for their interpretation of THE WITCH. There's also some WICKER MAN sacrificesploitation that was done to death long before Ben Wheatley ripped it off for KILL LIST. The actors aren't required to do much more than fill stock character roles, though Spall (PROMETHEUS), who resembles a worrisome Ryan Reynolds, seems convincingly anguished and guilt-ridden. Bruckner does a decent job establishing a foreboding sense of dread, but the familiarity, the plodding pacing and the predictable developments all lead to a blandly ho-hum conclusion.

Friday, February 9, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: ACCIDENT MAN (2018); 24 HOURS TO LIVE (2017); and STRATTON (2018)

(US/UK - 2018)

Comparisons to JOHN WICK are inevitable, but ACCIDENT MAN's origins lie in a short-lived comic strip by Pat Mills that ran in the UK publication Toxic! in 1991, with Dark Horse Comics running another series of stories in 1993. All these years later, the film adaptation is a pet project of DTV action star Scott Adkins, who also produced and co-wrote the script with his buddy Stu Small. 41-year-old Adkins is a guy who's been paying his dues for years, building up a fan base the old-fashioned way by working his ass off as one of the most prolific actors around, whether it's in his own low-budget B-movies (the UNDISPUTED sequels, two NINJAs, HARD TARGET 2) or by taking smaller supporting roles in A-list fare like ZERO DARK THIRTY, DOCTOR STRANGE, and AMERICAN ASSASSIN. Adkins is long overdue for break, and in a perfect world, ACCIDENT MAN would be the #1 movie in the country for at least a week and Scott Adkins the next major action star. There's no denying it's got a JOHN WICK-if-directed-by-Matthew Vaughn (KICK-ASS, KINGSMAN) thing going on, and its irreverent humor recalls DEADPOOL (one can imagine a Hollywood studio getting this and relegating Adkins to a supporting role while Ryan Reynolds or maybe Chris Pratt get the lead) and the kind of vintage style and attitude of Vaughn's one-time creative partner Guy Ritchie, a point brought home by the presence of LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS star Nick Moran as a scheming lawyer. ACCIDENT MAN is a mash-up of numerous styles and influences, and though it's been relegated to the world of straight-to-DVD, an audience would have a blast with it in a packed theater.

Adkins is Mike Fallon, a deadly assassin known to his colleagues as the "Accident Man," as he stages all of his kills to look like accidents or suicides. He hangs out with fellow killers at a secret assassin bar in London called The Oasis (shades of JOHN WICK's luxury hotel-for-killers The Continental), run by their boss and retired "death merchant" Big Ray (Ray Stevenson). Among the Oasis' regulars are Special Forces badasses Mick (Michael Jai White) and Mac (Ray Park); unhinged Jane the Ripper (Amy Johnston); Finicky Fred (Perry Benson), who's always experimenting with new methods of death; axe-murderer Carnage Cliff (Ross O'Hennessey); and the nearly-feral Poison Pete (Stephen Donald), described by Fallon as so hated by his parents that "his only bath-time toy was a toaster." Fallon's still bitter over his environmental activist ex Beth (Brooke Johnston) leaving him for Charlie, who turned out to be a woman (Ashley Greene), but when Charlie reaches out to him after Beth is raped and murdered by a pair of crackhead burglars, he correctly concludes that things aren't adding up. He uncovers a labyrinthine conspiracy involving a powerful oil company whose illegal dealings Beth was about to expose, prompting the company's attorney (Moran) to reach out to Milton (David Paymer), the contractor for Fallon and his fellow death merchants. When Fallon realizes that Beth was killed by someone close to him, both he and Charlie's lives are in danger as Milton and Big Ray are forced to put out a hit on Fallon because, as it's often said among those at The Oasis, "it's just business." Directed by DTV vet Jesse V. Johnson (who worked with Adkins on the recent SAVAGE DOG), ACCIDENT MAN is filled with quotable dialogue, over-the-top violence (having Stevenson here is a nice nod to PUNISHER: WAR ZONE), and some incredible fight sequences. It looks like a big-budget Hollywood movie and its only real misstep is a long flashback to Fallon's bullied teen years when he first encountered mentor Big Ray that's dropped right in the middle of the film and really kills the momentum. It takes a little time to recover from that stumble, but it finishes big and despite its after-the-fact similarities to JOHN WICK that don't do it any favors, it's a really fun movie and one of the best and most-polished DTV titles to come down the pike in some time. When the time comes, dare I suggest Scott Adkins as the next 007? (R, 105 mins)

(China/US - 2017)

A fusion of JOHN WICK, a globetrotting BOURNE thriller, SAFE HOUSE, and the old noir classic D.O.A. with a hint of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, 24 HOURS TO LIVE takes 30 minutes to get to the crux of its premise but then never really exploits it to its goofy potential. Travis Conrad (Ethan Hawke) is an assassin for a shadowy contracting outfit called Red Mountain, which handles all of the government's dirty work around the world. He's been "on hiatus" for a year following the deaths of his wife and son, but he's pulled back in by colleague and old buddy Jim (Paul Anderson). Red Mountain needs Conrad to kill Keith Zera (Tyrone Keogh), an ex-operative-turned-whistleblower who's about to give a deposition to a UN panel investigating the true purpose of Red Mountain. Zera's in the protective custody of Interpol agent Lin (Xu Qing), who's ambushed in Namibia and plants Zera in a safe house in Cape Town. Conrad's assignment is to get to Lin in order to find Zera. He does so by staging a meet-cute in an airport bar and somehow using his smartphone to hack into the airport computer system to make her believe her flight's canceled. They spend the night together, and while she's in the shower, he searches through her belongings and finds where she's got Zera, but opts to leave without killing her. She chases him outside, a shootout ensues, and Conrad is killed instantly when she fires point blank in his chest.

But not so fast. Conrad wakes up in an undisclosed location in South Africa. It seems Red Mountain has been working on an experimental and classified procedure to bring its operatives back from the dead and Conrad, killed before he was able to divulge Zera's whereabouts, is the perfect guinea pig. Once Jim and Red Mountain CEO Wetzler (a harumphing Liam Cunningham) get what they need, they order the plug pulled on Conrad (of course, they simply leave the room and just assume everything went according to plan). Conrad manages to escape, but is informed by a doctor that the procedure has a fail-safe and if his body and faculties don't decline fast enough, they'll shut down and he'll be permanently dead in 24 hours. Missing his wife and son and feeling guilty about all the people he's killed, Conrad decides use his remaining time to take on Red Mountain when they go after Lin and her ten-year-old son. Director Brian Smrz is a veteran stuntman and there's no shortage of well-choreographed JOHN WICK-ish action scenes, but a lot of 24 HOURS TO KILL is a slog. Conrad will be dead in 24 hours, but what's the point of such a procedure? Do enough Red Mountain assassins get killed just before delivering vital info that they'd need to spend billions developing this capability? And why did they take the time to surgically implant a Snake Plissken countdown timer in his arm if they were going to re-kill him instantly anyway once they got the info they needed? Is it there just in case he manages to kill the medical staff and escape and know just how much time he has to exact his revenge on his employers? At least the deadlines in D.O.A. and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK have some logical foundation. In the end, it's more or less JOHN WICK meets a less-horror-centric DEAD HEAT, the '80s cult movie where Treat Williams played a cop brought back from the dead. 24 HOURS TO KILL wisely doesn't turn Hawke--whose character may as well be named Wick Plissken--into a zombie assassin, but still, the four-time Oscar nominee is in total coast mode here as he usually is when he stars in a junky action movie (like the terrible 2013 car chase thriller GETAWAY), and was probably more intrigued by a paid vacation to exotic locations in South Africa and Australia. Rutger Hauer has a small role as a fatherly buddy of Conrad's and while he's underused and barely in it, Smrz at least has the sense to let him shotgun some bad guys near the end. (R, 94 mins)

(UK/Germany - 2017; US release 2018)

Filmed in 2015, the first big-screen adaptation of British author Duncan Falconer's Stratton novels was a flop in the UK after two years on the shelf and only managed a straight-to-VOD release in the US in the first weekend of 2018. Falconer, a retired veteran of the UK's Special Boat Service, has written eight novels centered on heroic SBS badass John Stratton, but STRATTON looks like the beginning and end of the movie franchise. Henry Cavill dropped out less than a week before filming began, with his last-minute replacement being the elfin Dominic Cooper, one of those actors who stays busy and turns up in a lot of things but just doesn't have the charisma or screen presence to carry a movie on his own (though he did get some praise for the little seen THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE several years ago). STRATTON is watchable but about as generic and forgettable as they come, as Stratton and the rest of his SBS team are compromised on a botched mission to wipe out a terrorist cell in Iran, resulting in the death of their US Navy colleague Marty (Tyler Hoechlin). The culprit is rogue Russian FSB agent and international terrorist Gregor Barofsky (Thomas Kretschmann), who's resurfaced 20 years after his supposed death. Barofsky's master plan is to detonate a dirty bomb and unleash a deadly chemical gas called "Satan's Snow" throughout London. As expected, Stratton is on the case, with new American recruit Hank (Austin Stowell) joining the team, which also consists of Aggy (Gemma Chan), Spinks (Jack Fairbrother), and MI-6 point man Cummings (Tom Felton), with Stratton's boss Cummings (Connie Nielsen) usually watching with other tech personnel on the requisite rows of monitors in the obligatory Jason Bourne crisis suite.

Director Simon West still seems to be coasting on the recognition of his past Hollywood hits like CON AIR, THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER, and LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER, and while he did helm the decent Jason Statham remake of THE MECHANIC and the best EXPENDABLES movie (the second one), he's in total clock-punch mode here. It's fast-moving and never dull but it evaporates from your memory while you're watching it, and it relies on every cliche imaginable. Of course, there's a traitorous mole in Stratton's unit, and the actor in question has a terrible poker face, introduced shiftily darting his eyes around and instantly looking suspicious. And of course, being a lone wolf hero, Stratton lives on a messy houseboat with what looks like one chair and a lamp with a low-wattage bulb, and it's littered with half-empty liquor bottles. Derek Jacobi's effortless charm provides a couple of nice scenes as Stratton's fatherly neighbor and drinking buddy, but STRATTON does nothing to elevate itself from the utterly average. (R, 95 mins)