Thursday, December 13, 2018

Retro Review: THE CHILDREN (1980)

(US - 1980)

Directed by Max Kalmanowicz. Written by Carlton J. Albright and Edward Terry. Cast: Martin Shakar, Gil Rogers, Gale Garnett, Shannon Bolin, Tracy Griswold, Joy Glaccum, Edward Terry, Peter Maloney, Michelle LeMothe, Suzanne Barnes, Rita Montone, John Codiglia, Clara Evans, Jeptha Evans, Julie Carrier, Sarah Albright, Nathanael Albright, Jessie Abrams, June Berry, Martin Brennan. (R, 93 mins)

In heavy cable rotation in the early '80s and its Vestron Video VHS a fixture in every video store back in the day, 1980's THE CHILDREN remains enjoyably goofy and, in retrospect, looks reasonably professional relative to most regional horror offerings of its era. Shot in Massachusetts on a shoestring budget, the film managed to nab some personnel that had past associations with real movies and other legit gigs: top-billed Martin Shakar, in his only big-screen lead, had a key supporting role in the 1977 smash hit SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER as John Travolta's sympathetic older brother, who usurps his black sheep role by leaving the priesthood and encouraging him, against the wishes of their parents, to pursue dancing; Gil Rogers was a visible presence as a kindly grandfather in a series of Grape-Nuts TV commercials during this period; Gale Garnett was a singer best known for her Grammy-winning 1964 hit "We'll Sing in the Sunshine;" and while Shannon Bolin never had much of a big-screen career, she did recreate her acclaimed Broadway role as Meg in the popular 1958 big-screen version of DAMN YANKEES, co-starring with Tab Hunter and Gwen Verdon. THE CHILDREN also been inextricably linked to the same year's earlier hit FRIDAY THE 13TH, mainly as a lesser-known, distant relative, as it shared a few crew members, including cinematographer Barry Abrams but most notably composer Harry Manfredini, whose score here virtually recycles nearly every cue from the influential slasher hit with the exception of the iconic "ki ki ki, ma ma ma."

The brainchild of producer Carlton J. Albright and his writing partner Edward Terry, who would later team on the grungy 1989 cult classic LUTHER THE GEEK (with Terry in the title role), THE CHILDREN was set to be directed by Terry, who was battling alcoholism issues at the time, prompting Albright to go with Max Kalmanowicz, who logged time as a production assistant and sound guy on several projects (like Larry Cohen's THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER). Kalmanowicz got the job largely because he had enough industry contacts to put together a professional behind-the-scenes crew faster than Albright could. The story, inspired by the then-current near-meltdown at Three Mile Island, is set in the tiny New England town of Ravensback, where a school bus drives through a cloud of green, radioactive mist after a leak at a nearby nuclear power plant (Umberto Lenzi's NIGHTMARE CITY did something similar around the same time, but with a plane). Sheriff Billy Hart (Rogers) happens upon the abandoned bus while on patrol and can't find the driver or any of the kids. They soon start appearing, with pale faces, blackened fingernails, and arms outstretched, turned into radioactive zombies whose lethal hugs incinerate beyond recognition. After being met with general apathy by most parents-turned-victims (including bizarre and unexplored bits like one kid's dazed, codeine-popping lesbian mom and her bitchy doctor lover, the latter aggressively hostile to Hart for no discernible reason at all, and another who lounges by the pool smoking weed while her oiled-up boy toy pumps iron), and finding his deputy (Tracy Griswold) one of the victims of the children's scorching hugging spree, Hart teams up with local resident John Freemont (Shakar), whose daughter was on the bus and has the day free anyway since his car keeps breaking down, his wife Cathy (Garnett) is about to give birth, and their son Clarkie (Jessie Abrams) stayed home from school sick.

Just out on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome (because physical media is dead), THE CHILDREN manages to conjure up a few decent creepy images, like a third-act John Carpenter-esque siege scenario accentuated by shots of the children roaming around the yard waiting them out and looking like a grade-school re-enactment of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (the children were played by the kids of Abrams, Albright, and other crew members, plus the son of one of Albright's neighbors, all helpful in circumventing union and child labor laws). But most of the film's enjoyment is of the unintentional yuks variety, whether it's the discovery that the only way to stop the children is by hacking off their hands, the numerous extraneous plot developments appear at random and are quickly abandoned, how thoroughly unlikable both Cathy (who smokes while pregnant) and John (who's always snapping at Cathy) are, and the amateur-night acting of most of the supporting cast, including Martin Brennan as an obnoxious asshole named "Sanford Butler-Jones," with Albright admitting in the Blu-ray bonus features that he's only in the movie because he was hanging around in an unofficial capacity as the production's coke dealer. Albright also says he and Terry took Kevin McCarthy to lunch at the Russian Tea Room in order to woo him into starring (presumably in what became Rogers' role), but were turned down, followed by a near-agreement from veteran character actor and Broadway Tony-winner John Cullum until he was talked out of it by his wife. As a result, Shakar, Garnett (who has a third-string Brooke Adams thing going on here), and Bolin (who plays the doomed owner of the local general store) were the closest THE CHILDREN got to having big names, but it gets the job done as terrific trash cinema without a Kevin McCarthy or a John Cullum having to come in and class it up.

THE CHILDREN opening in
Toledo, OH on 8/15/1980

Proof that a double feature of THE CHILDREN
and THE VISITOR played at a mall. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Retro Review: NAKED VENGEANCE (1985) and VENDETTA (1986)

(US/Philippines - 1985)

Directed by Cirio H. Santiago. Written by Reilly Askew. Cast: Deborah Tranelli, Kaz Garas, Bill McLaughlin, Ed Crick, Terence O'Hara, Carmen Argenziano, Steve Roderick, David Light, Don Gordon Bell, Nick Nicholson, Phil Morrell, Joseph Zucchero, Helen McNeely, Doc McCoy, Henry Strzalkowski, Bill Kipp. (Unrated, 97 mins)

Filipino exploitation auteur Cirio H. Santiago took a break the '80s cycle of Namsploitation and post-nuke ripoffs to helm 1985's NAKED VENGEANCE, an I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE-inspired contribution to the rape/revenge subgenre. An early release of Roger Corman's Concorde Pictures, NAKED VENGEANCE's Lightning Video VHS was in every video store in America back in the '80s, but it was available in two vastly different editions: a 77-minute R-rated version, and a 97-minute (!) unrated version, the latter represented on Scream Factory's new Blu-ray double feature set with the women-in-prison thriller VENDETTA, because physical media is dead. Much of those 20 additional minutes are related to character development, but in its uncut form, NAKED VENGEANCE is maybe the most ridiculously violent movie Santiago ever made. Flash-in-the-pan actress and SoCal trophy wife Carla Harris (Deborah Tranelli, then in the middle of a decade-long run as Phyllis Wapner, Bobby Ewing's secretary, on DALLAS) finds her world shattered when her husband Mark (Terence O'Hara) is shot and killed while heroically intervening in a sexual assault in the parking lot of a swanky restaurant where they were celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary. When the detective (Carmen Argenziano, whose two brief appearances are likely Hollywood-shot inserts by someone at Corman's lumberyard headquarters) tells her there's no leads and the rape victim isn't cooperating, Carla decides to get away and visit her parents in her childhood town of Silver Lake. Once there, she's ogled, leered at, harassed, and hit on by every guy in town, some of whom knew her in high school and resent that she ran off to Hollywood. When she resists the forceful advances of seemingly affable supermarket--or the closest approximation of a California supermarket that Santiago can throw together in a what looks like a vacant Manila gas station--butcher Fletch (Kaz Garas), tensions explode and when Carla's parents take an overnight trip to visit relatives, Fletch and his sub-literate buddies barge into the house and gang-rape Carla. Of course, her parents decide to return early, and they're shotgunned to death as Fletch also kills Timmy (Steve Roderick), the town's "slow" kid who tagged along, framing him for the massacre.

A catatonic Carla is hospitalized, but escapes nightly to exact revenge on the men in a variety of horrific ways, from setting one ablaze to crushing another under a car to the old rape/revenge standby of castration. As the body count rises, useless sheriff (Bill McLaughlin)--who shruggingly told Carla to "just keep your curtains closed" and "relax a little" when she reported Timmy peeping through her window--takes an inordinate amount of time to realize that all of the victims are Fletch's asshole bros, and he has to keep Fletch from forming a posse to go after Carla. Similar to what he'd do with FUTURE HUNTERS, Santiago rips off multiple films over the course of NAKED VENGEANCE: it goes from I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE to a DEATH WISH-style vigilante thriller, then it turns into FIRST BLOOD when they pursue Carla through town and into the surrounding woods, and finally STRAW DOGS when she barricades herself in her parents' house as Fletch and what's left of his crew lay siege. As evidenced by the grocery store and an equally unconvincing gym, NAKED VENGEANCE is laughably cheap. Even the sheriff's office has a laminated "Sheriff's Office" sign taped to a door in what's obviously not a police station.

While a few early scenes were actually shot in California, the bulk of the film has Manila passing itself off as suburban L.A. with occasional bits that almost look convincing (there's also the presence of Santiago's usual Philippines-based stock company members like Nick Nicholson, Henry Strzalkowski, and Ed Crick). An epilogue with Carla back in L.A. cluelessly makes use of stock footage of NYC before Tranelli is back in L.A., made apparent by a cameo appearance from Walter Hill's favorite bar, Torchy's. Tranelli isn't a great actress, and her TV career went nowhere after DALLAS (she left the business after a 1995 guest spot on LAW & ORDER). While she's good enough for NAKED VENGEANCE, it says a lot about the opportunities she was getting outside of DALLAS that she'd resort to something this grimy and nasty to land a lead role in a feature film (she's also a singer, and Santiago letting her belt out the overplayed but undeniably catchy Laura Branigan-esque power ballad theme song "Still Got a Love" might've sweetened the deal). It's repugnant and graphically violent, but make no mistake: for those genre fans so inclined, the absolutely insane NAKED VENGEANCE is a buried treasure of VHS glory days trashsploitation just waiting to be rediscovered.

(US - 1986)

Directed by Bruce Logan. Written by L.J. Cavastani, Emil Farkas, Simon Maskell and John Adams. Cast: Karen Chase, Sandy Martin, Kin Shriner, Roberta Collins, Michelle Newkirk, Marshall Teague, Greg Bradford, Mark Von Zech, Hoke Howell, Eugene Robert Glazer, Marta Kober, Lisa Hullana, Durga McBroom, Will Hare, Jack Kosslyn, Bruce Logan. (R, 90 mins)

Paired with NAKED VENGEANCE on the new Scream Factory Blu-ray double feature set is VENDETTA, a Concorde pickup that made the regional rounds in the fall of 1986. Originally titled ANGELS BEHIND BARS, it joined Cannon's THE NAKED CAGE and New World's spoofy REFORM SCHOOL GIRLS as belated stragglers in the '80s women-in-prison revival that was highlighted by the likes of 1982's THE CONCRETE JUNGLE and 1983's CHAINED HEAT. VENDETTA was designed as a starring vehicle for stuntwoman Karen Chase, cast radically against type as Laurie Collins, a tough-as-nails Hollywood stuntwoman whose little sister Bonnie (Michelle Newkirk) is raped and gets tossed in prison on a manslaughter charge after shooting her attacker with his own gun. In the joint, Bonnie runs afoul of bitchy, ruthless cell block queen Kay (Sandy Martin), who has her crew beat the shit out of her, shoot her up with junk, and throw her over a railing in what corrupt prison officials and a shady coroner write off as a suicide. Laurie isn't convinced and devises a plan to get sent to the same prison--by stealing the judge's car and going on a drunken, reckless driving spree, and being sentenced by the same judge, which is in no way a conflict of interest--where she tries to figure out who killed her beloved baby sister.

VENDETTA is moderately entertaining trash that's pretty much par for the course as far as these kinds of movies go, except for a climax involving a Prince impersonator, which is admittedly not something you see every day. Chase's Laurie demonstrates some more fighting skills than the usual naive innocent protagonist you'd normally find, and it's of interest in retrospect to see Martin--later to find notoriety as Grandma in NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, as Mac's mom on IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA, and as disgraced deputy Sam Rockwell's mom in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI--letting it all hang out and acting like an unhinged psychopath as Kay. Fans of the post-Roger Waters era of Pink Floyd will be surprised to see the band's soon-to-be fan-favorite backing vocalist Durga McBroom as an ass-kicking inmate named "Willow." There's also '70s drive-in starlet Roberta Collins (DEATH RACE 2000's Matilda the Hun) in her final film appearance as the one sympathetic prison official (she retired from acting and died in 2008); longtime daytime soap vet Kin Shriner, who's spent most of the last 41 years as Scott Baldwin on GENERAL HOSPITAL, as a horndog guard ("C'mon, I've already serviced three girls today and my wife's waitin' for me...it's our anniversary!"); Marshall Teague (best known as ROAD HOUSE dipshit Jimmy Reno) as Laurie's boyfriend; and a brawl outside Pacino's, then a well-known Covina, CA restaurant owned by Sal Pacino, who unsurprisingly couldn't talk his son Al into stopping by to say hello. VENDETTA was the directing debut of Bruce Logan, a cinematographer on '70s Roger Corman productions like BIG BAD MAMA, CRAZY MAMA, and JACKSON COUNTY JAIL who also worked on the special effects crew of STAR WARS, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, and FIREFOX among others. He served as the cinematographer for the groundbreaking TRON before going into the world of music videos, where his biggest credit was producing the Mary Lambert-directed video for Madonna's hit "Borderline," from her self-titled 1983 debut.

VENDETTA opening in Toledo, OH on 12/12/1986 as a
"First Run Exclusive" at a nearly abandoned mall's
second-run two-screen that would be closed seven months later.
Note SONG OF THE SOUTH hitting another second-run
at the end of what would be its final--to date-- theatrical re-release. 

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Retro Review: THE BLACK WINDMILL (1974)

(US - 1974)

Directed by Don Siegel. Written by Leigh Vance. Cast: Michael Caine, Donald Pleasence, Delphine Seyrig, Clive Revill, Janet Suzman, John Vernon, Joss Ackland, Catherine Schell, Joseph O'Conor, Denis Quilley, Derek Newark, Edward Hardwicke, Maureen Pryor, Molly Urquhart, Hermione Baddeley, Paul Moss, John Rhys-Davies. (PG, 106 mins)

"If there are things about me that you hate, Alex...be grateful for them now." 

After setting up shop at Universal in the early 1970s, the producing team of Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown immediately knocked it out of the park by shepherding the Oscar-winning 1973 hit THE STING. The same year, they also produced the cult horror film SSSSSSS, and in 1974, gave the green light to Steven Spielberg's big-screen directing debut THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS. Impressed with the young director, they also produced his next film, JAWS, which set new standards for nationwide release strategies and defined the concept of the "summer blockbuster." In the midst of all this massive success for the Zanuck/Brown duo was 1974's THE BLACK WINDMILL, a kidnapping thriller that completely bombed with critics and audiences. Directed by the great Don Siegel (best known for the original 1956 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and 1971's DIRTY HARRY), THE BLACK WINDMILL was based on Clive Egleton's 1973 novel Seven Days to a Killing, and was adapted by Leigh Vance, a veteran TV writer and producer whose credits included THE SAINT, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, MANNIX, CANNON, BARETTA, FANTASY ISLAND, and HART TO HART.

An American production shot in the UK and France, THE BLACK WINDMILL stars Michael Caine in GET CARTER mode as John Tarrant, a British intelligence agent working undercover to nail a crew of arms smugglers selling weapons to the IRA. Led by McKee (John Vernon) and Ceil (Delphine Seyrig), the smugglers seem to be on to Tarrant, since they kidnap his young son David (Paul Moss) and hold him for a specific ransom of $500,000 in uncut diamonds, which just happens to be the exact amount procured by Tarrant's boss Cedric Harper (Donald Pleasence) to fund a different covert mercenary operation. Suspicious about the timing and the ransom amount, Harper orders around-the-clock surveillance on Tarrant, who's having some financial problems in the wake of a pending divorce from his estranged wife Alex (Janet Suzman), even having Scotland Yard inspector Alf Chestermann (Clive Revill) bug his apartment at the request of MI-6 head Sir Edward Julyan (Joseph O'Conor). Harper, convinced Tarrant is secretly working with the arms smugglers and staged his son's kidnapping, refuses to authorize the ransom, while Tarrant can clearly see someone among his colleagues is setting him up to take a fall for their own purposes. Of course, this can only mean one thing: Tarrant disobeys his bosses and goes rogue, stealing Harper's stash of diamonds and chasing McKee and Ceil to France in an effort find his son.

Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), the fairly obscure THE BLACK WINDMILL sets up the pieces for a crackerjack thriller that would seem upon a cursory glance to be a 1970s TAKEN (there's also a really good action sequence with a foot chase through the London Underground), and while it moves fairly briskly and has a fine cast in support of a quietly enraged Caine, it never quite comes together like it should. Perhaps Siegel is just out of his element with an international thriller (though he did find with 1977's TELEFON), but he can't seem to settle on a tone. Indeed, not all of the actors appear to be on the same page when it comes to exactly what kind of movie they're in. Caine is all steely gravitas, as one might expect (except in one inspired bit where he does an amazing impression of Pleasence that has to be seen to be believed), and while he loves his son, Tarrant displays a detached, matter-of-fact coldness with Alex over the very real possibility that David is already dead, which serves as a reminder about why she hates his job and how it's driven them apart. Likewise, Vernon plays it straight as the chief villain, but Pleasence seems to be acting like he's in a spy spoof, breaking out every nervous tic in his repertoire to play a clueless oaf of a boss who has no business overseeing secret government operations and heading something called "The Department of Subversive Warfare," which itself sounds like something out of DR. STRANGELOVE. Pleasence is an undeniable hoot throughout--whether his Harper is getting mocked by his superiors for mistakenly referring to an agent named "Sean Kelly" as "Sean Connery," dismissing Tarrant's story about his kidnapped son when he's giddily distracted by a Q-like gadget man demonstrating an exploding duffel bag, refusing to put a phone all the way up to his ear, or constantly tugging on his mustache--but he seems to have wandered in from a completely different movie.

I suppose it's feasible that Siegel is using Pleasence's character to make some kind of commentary on inept and unqualified idiots falling upwards in life (a common refrain in DIRTY HARRY and its sequels, where Clint Eastwood is constantly disgusted with his incompetent superiors and bureaucratic pencil-pushers), but Pleasence is playing it far too broadly. Revill, too, seems to think he's in something more comedic with the way he works a simmering slow burn as events unfold. There's a terrific ensemble here and they're all good, but their clashing approaches and wildly divergent acting styles, and the erratic tone in the context of the film make THE BLACK WINDMILL seem like a quirky JANUARY MAN of its day, and "quirky" is not a word you'd imagine using to describe an ostensibly gritty early 1970s kidnapping thriller directed by Don Siegel and starring Michael Caine. It's not difficult to see why it tanked and is largely forgotten today, and while it's a minor footnote in the storied careers of Siegel, Caine, and Zanuck/Brown, it has its moments and is worth seeing for completists. And if you're a Donald Pleasence fan, well, you've definitely been deprived of something special with his work here.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Retro Review: THE LAST MOVIE (1971)

(US - 1971)

Directed by Dennis Hopper. Written by Stewart Stern. Cast: Dennis Hopper, Julie Adams, Daniel Ades, Stella Garcia, Don Gordon, Tomas Milian, John Alderman, Michael Anderson, Jr., Donna Baccala, Toni Basil, Rod Cameron, Severn Darden, Roy Engel, Warren Finnerty, Peter Fonda, Fritz Ford, Samuel Fuller, Henry Jaglom, Clint Kimbrough, Kris Kristofferson, John Phillip Law, Ted Markland, Sylvia Miles, Jim Mitchum, Michelle Phillips, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, Chuck Bail, Tom Baker, Michael Greene, Toni Stern. (R, 108 mins)

The kind of film that can only result from everyone involved tripping balls, 1971's THE LAST MOVIE almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy for Dennis Hopper, completely quashing the momentum he had going from 1969's landmark EASY RIDER and effectively killing his career for the better part of the next decade and a half. Sure, there were high points during that time--Wim Wenders' THE AMERICAN FRIEND in 1977, Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW in 1979, and OUT OF THE BLUE in 1980, a low-budget film Hopper was co-starring in and took over directing early in production--but THE LAST MOVIE began a downward personal and professional spiral for Hopper, who would continue to be mired in alcoholism and substance abuse and would soon be working almost exclusively in low-budget European productions after being deemed an unemployable pariah in Hollywood. Hopper would occasionally find work in a bonkers cult movie like the 1976 Australian adventure saga MAD DOG MORGAN, or he'd temporarily behave himself enough to get a respectable gig like Coppola's RUMBLE FISH or Sam Peckinpah's final film THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND (both 1983), but much of his work from these lost years (BLOODBATH, REBORN, LET IT ROCK) has fallen into obscurity or was never even released in the US. He hit bottom when he was fired from the trashy 1984 West German/Mexican-produced fashion models-in-prison potboiler JUNGLE WARRIORS when, coked out of his mind in Mexico, he wandered naked into a village 20 miles from the set, ranting about people trying to kill him, and was promptly put by the producers on a flight back to Los Angeles, where he had to be restrained after freaking out and trying to open the plane's emergency exit. It was his meltdown on JUNGLE WARRIORS that finally served as a wake-up call to Hopper to get his shit together and get clean and sober, and within a couple of years, he was the Comeback Kid with the likes of BLUE VELVET and HOOSIERS, finally exorcising his demons and shaking the career self-immolation that began 15 years earlier with THE LAST MOVIE.

EASY RIDER was part of the post-BONNIE AND CLYDE "New Hollywood" movement, and Hopper found himself in the bizarre position of being both a counterculture hero and an unlikely toast of the town. As a result of the film's success, studios began giving the green light to artistic, auteur-driven projects to capture the youth market. Paramount backed Haskell Wexler's politically-charged, X-rated MEDIUM COOL and MGM brought trailblazing Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni to America for ZABRISKIE POINT, but Universal went all-in, giving a handful of notable independent filmmakers carte blanche to make whatever they wanted to make with no studio interference, most notably Monte Hellman with TWO-LANE BLACKTOP and John Cassavetes with MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ. THE LAST MOVIE was part of this push by Universal, and the primary reason why the studio's enthusiasm for the avant-garde indie craze ended almost immediately after it began. Hopper spent almost all of 1970 on location in Peru going over budget on THE LAST MOVIE, a project he conceived with screenwriter Stewart Stern, best known for scripting 1955's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, which was also Hopper's film debut. He brought an entourage of friends from the movie and music industry with him and shot over 40 hours of footage that he spent nearly a year in holed up in his New Mexico home trying to corral into a releasable, two-hour film. He even scrapped an initial, relatively mainstream-ish cut completely when he showed it to EL TOPO director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who derisively mocked it and advised Hopper to rearrange the story in a non-linear and more experimental fashion. THE LAST MOVIE found significant acclaim at the Venice Film Festival, where Hopper took home the Critics Prize, but Universal execs were much less impressed, especially since his final cut was several months overdue (they wanted it by the end of 1970 and he kept working until April 1971), and the end result was impenetrable and unsellable. It ended up opening in the fall of 1971 to largely blistering reviews from American critics, and it was soon yanked from distribution, never coming close to the zeitgeist-capturing success of EASY RIDER. Without Hopper's involvement, THE LAST MOVIE was re-released on the drive-in circuit a few years later in a shortened, recut version rechristened CHINCHERO (which was actually Hopper's original title), but beyond that, it was extremely difficult to see for many years, even with a 1989 VHS release from the exploitation outfit United American Video, likely to capitalize on Hopper's major career resurgence in the late '80s and into the 1990s.

Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)
Its relative obscurity did much to bolster its reputation as a "lost" classic, and Hopper would frequently do Q&As at screenings once he reacquired the rights to the film in 2006. But Hopper died in 2010, before he was ever able to oversee a DVD/Blu-ray release, though thanks to others, THE LAST MOVIE finally made the restoration rounds in 2017 and 2018. It's now out on Blu-ray and is widely accessible again after 47 years (because physical media is dead), but minus L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller's THE AMERICAN DREAMER, a 1971 documentary chronicling the making and editing of THE LAST MOVIE and serving as its own BURDEN OF DREAMS and HEARTS OF DARKNESS. When something is out of circulation as long as THE LAST MOVIE has been, there's always a tendency among cineastes to mythologize it, as if its long absence is a sign of neglect or unacknowledged greatness. It's interesting that its Blu-ray debut has virtually coincided with the Netflix release of Orson Welles' THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (in which a LAST MOVIE-era Hopper has a small role), another much-ballyhooed film whose legend stems primarily from it being unfinished and unseen for over 40 years. Like WIND, THE LAST MOVIE is now a curio at best, a disjointed, largely improvised, self-indulgent misfire in which Hopper doesn't capitalize on EASY RIDER as much as he buys into the hype surrounding him.

The nominal plot has Hopper, looking a lot like he would as a pre-Matt Damon incarnation of Tom Ripley six years later in THE AMERICAN FRIEND, as Kansas, a disillusioned stuntman and horse wrangler working on a Hollywood western being shot in a small Peruvian village outside of Chinchero. It appears to be a formulaic bit of moviemaking, with an old-school, cigar-chomping director (Samuel Fuller), and starring an aging, John Wayne-esque cowboy actor (Rod Cameron) as Pat Garrett and a young up-and-comer (Dean Stockwell) as Billy the Kid. Once shooting wraps (other cast members in the film-within-a-film include familiar faces and Hopper buddies like Peter Fonda, John Phillip Law, Kris Kristofferson, Henry Jaglom, Severn Darden, and Russ Tamblyn), and the cast and crew head back to Hollywood, Kansas stays behind and shacks up with Chinchero local Maria (Stella Garcia) and is in no hurry to return home. His idyllic getaway, where he spends his days lounging about and having waterfall sex with Maria, is interrupted by the village priest (Tomas Milian), who informs him that the locals, led by "director" Thomas (Daniel Ades), are re-enacting the production of the movie and imitating what they witnessed--even constructing film "equipment" like cameras and cranes out of wood and sticks--and are so taken with their Hollywood experience that they can no longer differentiate fantasy from reality. Kansas also gets involved in role-playing sex games with Mrs. Anderson (Julie Adams), the horny socialite wife of an Peru-based American businessman (Roy Engel), and goes off on a hunt for gold with skeezy American expat Neville Robey (Don Gordon). That's before he's coerced back on the still-standing movie set by Thomas and the villagers and forced to re-enact his stunt work all over again in what seems to be shaping up as a proto-WICKER MAN but, like the rest of THE LAST MOVIE, goes nowhere.

There's some shallow statements about the artifice of cinema and the way Hollywood cynicism poisons a heretofore peaceful village populated by largely isolated people--note the way they production just packs up and leaves, leaving its large set of old-west building facades behind for the locals to deal with--but it's all much too muddled and meandering. It's beautifully shot by the great Laszlo Kovacs, Hopper gets a surprising performance out of Adams (THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON), and the themes he explores have some merit, but THE LAST MOVIE is awfully pretentious and full of itself, from the random intentional placement of "Scene Missing" cards, to the credit "A Film by Dennis Hopper" appearing 11 minutes in and followed a full 15 (!) minutes later by the title card, to Hopper paying homage to himself with a climactic restaging of the EASY RIDER campfire scene with Kansas and Neville. As the film grows increasingly abstract in its off-the-rails last half hour, Hopper simply loses the thread and gets lost up his own ass, as a long sequence with a drunk Kansas in a bar brawl is interrupted by cutaways to Hopper in a makeup chair stating "I never jerked off a horse before, ya know?" and another shot of Hopper lying down and a close-up of a lactating breast squirting milk into his face. Its chaos continues as Hopper breaks the fourth wall by smiling at the camera near the end as a LAST MOVIE clapboard is left in the shot. I suppose it's something do to about the blurring of film vs. life or illusion vs. reality, but the whole meta deconstruction/destruction of cinema thing was done much more succinctly with the unforgettable last shot of TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (also of note is that both films feature Kris Kristofferson's own version of his oft-recorded "Me and Bobby McGee"). THE LAST MOVIE is an insufferable mess, though it does have historical value as a document of its era and perhaps as "New Hollywood" taking a wrong turn prior to the age of the blockbuster ushered in by JAWS in 1975. It's certainly required viewing for fans of Dennis Hopper, but mileage may vary. It's either a hellraising artist's ultimate masterpiece and a defiant "Fuck you!" to the industry or a textbook example of the dangers of being handed too much money and too much freedom when your ego's running amok and you're high AF. In the years after he was in rehab, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler often quipped that in their hedonistic heyday, the band "probably snorted up all of Peru." Well, yeah, perhaps...or at least whatever was left after Dennis Hopper and his cast and crew were finished with THE LAST MOVIE.

Friday, November 30, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018) and COLD SKIN (2018)

(UK/Ireland - 2018)

Buried at the end of summer and released with little publicity, the gothic ghost story THE LITTLE STRANGER was a huge flop, opening in 23rd place and grossing $713,000 on just under 500 screens. Based on the 2009 novel by Sarah Waters and adapted by Lucinda Coxon (THE DANISH GIRL), the film was a momentum-killer for Oscar-nominated ROOM director Lenny Abrahamson, and while it succeeds in atmosphere with impeccable production design and a memorably foreboding haunted house, it's ultimately a chiller too distant and stand-offish for its own good. The house in question is Hundreds Hall, the home of the once-prominent Ayres family. But it's the late 1940s and the mansion and the family have seen better days. Scion Roderick (Will Poulter) is severely burn-scarred, disabled, and shell-shocked following his WWII heroics in the RAF, his mother Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) still mourns the childhood death of her first-born daughter Susan, nicknamed "Suki," and other daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) is a spinster trying to hold what's left of her family together. Much of Hundreds Hall is closed off and they're down to one servant in clumsy teenager Betty (Liv Hill). It's Betty's bout with a cold that brings mild-mannered Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) into their lives and begins a series of events that Roderick believes is being caused by a malevolent spirit residing in the house. Caroline's docile dog suddenly mauls a little girl with no provocation, Mrs. Ayres finds scribbling on a closet wall that seems to spell out "Suki," and an increasingly agitated Roderick sets fire to his room in an attempted suicidal self-immolation and is promptly carted off to an insane asylum. All the while, the perpetually gloomy Faraday grows fond of Caroline and starts aggressively pushing the idea of marriage, and is also dealing with his own issues that stem from a traumatic childhood visit to Hundreds Hall with his mother, who was once part of the servant staff.

There's some intriguing elements to THE LITTLE STRANGER, but the pace is so oppressively glacial that even fans of slow-burn horror will find it to be a patience-tester (Wilson has experience with this style, having starred in I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE, the absolute slowest of all horror slow-burners). Abrahamson captures a mood of sustained dread, but he's so focused on that aspect that with the exception of one well-done sequence where Mrs. Ayers encounters something in an empty room, the scares never come and all you're left with is a frustratingly ambiguous final shot that's more likely to provoke dismissal than discussion. Well-intentioned and well-acted (Rampling is, as always, a treasure who elevates everything she's in), but this is a meandering, ponderous bore. (R, 112 mins)

(Spain/France - 2018)

Based on a novel by Albert Sanchez Pinol, the somewhat Lovecraftian COLD SKIN feels a lot like a throwback to those circa 2000-2003 Spanish-made Filmax/Fantastic Factory/Brian Yuzna productions. There's a definite DAGON influence here with its aquatic creatures and even some Stuart Gordon-like sexual transgression, and though French filmmaker Xavier Gens conveys it through sounds and implication, that artistic decision doesn't make it any less unsettling. Gens hasn't really lived up the promise of his 2007 feature debut FRONTIER(S), his contribution to the "New French Extreme" explosion from a decade and change ago. He had a miserable experience going Hollywood with HITMAN and while 2011's ultra-grim THE DIVIDE has some defenders, it's little more than an exploitative, post-apocalyptic SALO, or THE LAST BOMB SHELTER ON THE LEFT. He did some hired gun TV work before returning to the horror genre with 2017's barely-released and instantly-forgotten THE CRUCIFIXION, arguably the most pointless modern-era EXORCIST knockoff this side of THE VATICAN TAPES. Though not without its flaws and budgetary shortcomings, the ambitious and often surprisingly thoughtful COLD SKIN is Gens' best film since FRONTIER(S) simply by virtue of it not being awful. That said, things get off to a shaky start with that oft-used Nietzsche quote about gazing into the abyss and it gazing back at you, which at this point is pretty much the screenwriting equivalent of walking into a Guitar Center and showing off by playing the intro to "Stairway to Heaven."

Set in late 1914 just as the world is heading toward war, a nameless meteorologist (David Oakes) is set to spend a year in voluntary "solitude-like exile" by manning the weather outpost on an isolated island near the Antarctic Circle. It's a job no one really wants unless they want to be alone (even the boat captain dropping him off asks "What are you running from?"), and the island's only other inhabitant is Gruner (Ray Stevenson, who stepped in when Stellan Skarsgard bailed during pre-production), the drunken and grizzled-bordering-on-feral lighthouse keeper, who informs him that his predecessor died not long after arriving a year earlier. Hunkered down for a year of cataloging wind and weather patterns, the meteorologist, dubbed "Friend" by Gruner, is in for a rude awakening when his cabin is attacked on the first night by a horde of amphibious creatures--resembling a cross-breeding of Voldemort with the Crawlers from THE DESCENT--who emerge from the water and only attack at night. The cabin catches fire and burns down, forcing Friend to find refuge at the lighthouse--somewhat fortified by spikes and makeshift barriers that merely slow the creatures down rather than keep them out--with Gruner. Friend also finds another surprise: Gruner has captured one of the female creatures, Aneris (Aura Garrido), and uses her as a sex slave. Friend and Gruner tentatively agree to share the lighthouse, forced to team up every night to fight off the persistent creatures as Gruner goes increasingly off the rails, especially once Friend starts treating the frightened Aneris with dignity and compassion. Given his past work, Gens is surprisingly restrained here, especially considering a key plot point being the sexual abuse of Aneris by Gruner. The creatures are an inconsistent mix of practical makeup and CGI, and the greenscreen work is occasionally shoddy, sometimes taking you out of the scene with a sense of artifice that doesn't appear to be by design. The attacking creatures storm the lighthouse in a very WORLD WAR Z fashion that's a little wonky and cartoonish, but there's some creepily effective moments throughout, particularly when Friend finds the dead meteorologist's notebook filled with sketches of a violent and sexual nature, with random scribblings like "Darwin was wrong." Stevenson is very good in a performance that grows unexpectedly complex as the film goes on, and Gens pulls off a few nice effects-aided technical shots, like a slow pan across the beach that takes the story from summer to winter. COLD SKIN needed a bigger budget to realize its full potential, but after a decade of floundering, this is Gens' most accomplished work since FRONTIER(S). (Unrated, 107 mins)

Friday, November 23, 2018

In Theaters: CREED II (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Steven Caple Jr. Written by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone. Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Phylicia Rashad, Wood Harris, Russell Hornsby, Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nielsen, Milo Ventimiglia, Ivo Nandi, Jacob "Stitch" Duran. (PG-13, 130 mins)

2015's CREED surprised everyone. The idea of a ROCKY spinoff featuring Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, being trained by his father's rival-turned-best friend Rocky Balboa seemed like a desperate attempt by Sylvester Stallone to keep the ROCKY saga going. But it was a project conceived by others, most notably director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, who brought an electrifying energy to the story and a deep-rooted empathy and understanding of its characters, particularly Rocky, portrayed in a gut-wrenching performance by Stallone that earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination (he lost to Mark Rylance in BRIDGE OF SPIES). It also put FRUITVALE STATION director Coogler and its star Jordan on the map, leading to their reteaming for 2018's phenomenally successful BLACK PANTHER, where Jordan played the villainous N'Jadaka/Erik Killmonger. Coogler remains onboard as a producer on CREED II, but directing duties have been handed off to Steven Caple Jr., who helmed the acclaimed 2016 indie THE LAND. More importantly, the script is co-written by Stallone, given a more active behind-the-scenes role this time out. That proves to be both a blessing and a curse: yes, he's lived and breathed Rocky Balboa for over 40 years, but as evidenced by the increased absurdity of every franchise in which Stallone has been involved in a creative capacity, he doesn't know when enough is enough (the long-in-development fifth RAMBO film was rumored to have him battling a PREDATOR-type alien creature until cooler heads prevailed). There seems to be little need for a CREED II, which serves as not just a sequel to CREED but also 1985's ROCKY IV.

Depending on your tolerance for the jingoistic, flag-waving Cold War histrionics of the Reagan era, continuing the storyline of ROCKY IV may or may not seem like the right direction for CREED II to go. As the film opens, Adonis has just won the heavyweight title from aging Danny "Stuntman" Wheeler (Andre Ward). He's proposed to hearing-impaired musician girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and he's on top of the world. That all comes crashing down with the reappearance of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring in ROCKY IV and was defeated by Rocky in a revenge match in the Soviet Union, where even the most hardline communists--including a Mikhail Gorbachev lookalike president--stood up and cheered for Rocky as he was draped in the American flag. Drago's life in the ensuing 30 years has found him alienated and shamed in his homeland. He now lives in a gloomy Kiev, Ukraine apartment block with his hulking son Viktor (Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu), both of them abandoned by Drago's wife Ludmilla (Stallone's ex-wife Brigitte Nielsen also returns). An embittered, seething Drago wants vengeance--on Rocky, on Russia, on his ex-wife, on the Creed legacy, and on everyone--and he's spent Viktor's entire life training him to reclaim the glory of the Drago name, an opportunity that arises when unscrupulous fight promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) teams up with them to issue a challenge to the new world champ Adonis. Rocky wants nothing to do with it, leading to a falling out that results in Adonis recruiting Little Duke (Wood Harris), the son of his father's trainer. Bianca also has her reservations, considering she just found out she's expecting and fears that history will repeat itself and Adonis won't be around for her and the baby.

The fight is a disaster: Viktor beats the shit out of Adonis, the fight virtually over in the second round but resulting in a disqualification for an out-of-control Viktor when he lands a huge blow to Adonis' head while he was already down. You know what comes next: Adonis on a long road to recovery, doubting his ability, turning his back on Rocky, feeling sorry for himself, patching things up with Rocky, and answering the challenge for rematch in--where else?--Moscow, this time with Rocky in his corner. CREED II gets by almost entirely on emotional manipulation and audience familiarity with Rocky. There's some deep and thoughtful themes running through this film, with parallels to both other characters and previous ROCKY films. And time and again, whenever it seems poised to go further down that road, it hesitates and reverts to the familiar. Stallone is again great as an aged and weary but always positive Rocky, and he makes magic with little moments and asides, like the way he visits Adrian's grave and talks about how cold it is and after a pause, mumbles a barely audible "Miss you." It's a real and heartfelt moment, as is Adonis, hurt and furious over being told he's battling Viktor on his own, lashing out at Rocky about his estranged relationship with his own son (Rocky's feeling of not belonging is constantly conveyed in shots that show him standing alone outside a perimeter like John Wayne at the end of THE SEARCHERS, away from a group of people, whether it's the ring, the delivery room, or his son's house). Those words sting only because of the degree to which these two characters have come to love one another, and it's in those moments that CREED II manages to achieve the honesty and gut-punch emotion of its predecessor.

But as the film goes on, Stallone's influence becomes the driving force, and right around the time they're going back to Moscow, it essentially switches to autopilot, becoming pretty much a remake of ROCKY IV, minus the patriot porn and Paulie's robot, but with the addition of a singing and dancing Bianca as his hype man. The biggest missed opportunity of CREED II is the way it only scratches the surface of the Ivan Drago story. He's granted moments of genuine drama that almost generate sympathy for him and his son, but it takes the easy way out and turns them into stock Russian bad guys by the final act (perhaps Coogler would've explored the psychological complexity of Drago by having him show some remorse for killing Apollo, but Stallone definitely does not). There's a story to be told about Drago's humiliating downfall and the way he's obsessively molded his son into a single-minded vessel for revenge to restore honor to the family name. There's even some signs in his mannerisms--perhaps brought to the table by Lundgren, whose aged, craggy face speaks volumes that his minimal amount of dialogue cannot--that Drago regrets not letting his son be his own man. And there's some hints in Munteanu's performance that boxing isn't even what Viktor wants, but it's all he's been taught to do. It's always nice seeing Rocky back onscreen, and Stallone, Jordan, and all the returning CREED cast members (there's also Phylicia Rashad as Apollo's widow) are excellent across the board, but CREED II never gets by the fact that the Adonis Creed story didn't need to be continued, and what we've got is really just another generic ROCKY sequel that Coogler's CREED managed to successfully transcend. It's a testament to CREED II's adherence to a tried-and-true formula and cookie-cutter storytelling that the most interesting character arc belongs to Ivan Drago, and that Dolph Lundgren's performance had me wishing they'd made a hypothetical DRAGO spinoff instead.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018


(US - 2018)

Written and directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen. Cast: Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Jonjo O'Neill, Chelcie Ross, Saul Rubinek, Tom Waits, Clancy Brown, Jefferson Mays, Stephen Root, Willie Watson, David Krumholtz, Ralph Ineson, Jesse Luken, Sam Dillon. (R, 133 mins)

There's a loose, shaggy dog vibe to THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, a six-part western anthology from the Coen Bros. Erroneously reported to be a planned Netflix series retooled as a Netflix Original film, it still feels like a feature-length pilot for a potential series that could be hosted by Buster Scruggs, the protagonist of the first segment, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a singing cowboy of the Roy Rogers/Gene Autry sort, but with a ruthless streak that's incongruous with his affable, folksy demeanor. He rides into the town of Frenchman's Gulch and crosses paths with the fearsome Çurly Joe (Clancy Brown), which starts the first in a series of showdowns. It's an amusing piece that's short enough to not overstay its welcome, and is a fine display of the kind of absurdist humor that defines the Coen Bros' funniest work. That same tone is apparent in "Near Algodones," with James Franco as an outlaw who messes with the wrong teller (Stephen Root) in a bank in the middle-of-nowhere desert town of Tucumcari, sending his day on a quick journey from bad to worse.

The Coens have been sitting on some of these ideas for years, and indeed, first two stories are briskly-paced and funny, almost like short sketch concepts that wouldn't have had a place in any of their other projects. BALLAD takes a much darker and almost macabre, SANTA SANGRE-like turn with "Meal Ticket," with Liam Neeson as a grubby, hard-drinking impresario traveling from town to town with Harrison (Harry Melling), an armless, legless "artist" who recites pieces of Biblical verses, poetry, and the Gettysburg Address into a sort of still-life performance art that plays to decreasing attendance as they venture to more distant areas until the impresario finds a new act and has to make a decision about what to do with his old one. "All Gold Canyon," based on a Jack London story, stars Tom Waits as a grizzled old prospector who finds a gold deposit (which he names "Mr. Pocket"). It's mostly a one-man show to a certain point, but while Waits is entertaining, this is probably the least interesting of the stories.

The fifth segment, "The Gal Who Got Rattled," based on a story by Stewart Edward White, is the longest and most substantive, with a devastating gut-punch of a wrap-up. On the arduous Oregon Trail, Alice (Zoe Kazan) is left to fend for herself when her older brother Gilbert (Jefferson Mays) dies unexpectedly. Trail boss Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines) and his right-hand man Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) offer their condolences and bury Gilbert but they're a day away before Alice realizes their money was on his person and is now buried with him. Potential Indian attacks make it too dangerous to go back, but as they continue on the trail, a bond forms between Alice, who has no money and no one else in the world, and Billy, who wants to settle down with a family and not grow old and alone like Mr. Walker. "Gal" meanders and takes its time and doesn't seem to be headed anywhere in particular, but it sneaks up on you, and it gets a lot from a trio of outstanding performances by Kazan, Heck, and especially Hines, a guy who's been around in bit parts (he's credited as "Emergency Room Aid" in ROCKY II) and minor supporting roles for decades but has never before gotten a chance to shine like he does here.

The final segment, "The Mortal Remains," could almost pass for an old-west version of DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, with five stagecoach passengers barely tolerating one another: Irishman Clarence (Brendan Gleeson), Englishman Thigpen (Jonjo O'Neill), Frenchman Rene (Saul Rubinek), society matron Mrs. Betjeman (Tyne Daly), and a scurvy, unkempt, and extremely talkative trapper (Chelcie Ross). Disagreements abound and barbs are traded, and Mrs. Betjeman is worked into a state of apoplexy, but as its pointed out, the driver never stops. Like "Gal," "The Mortal Remains" engages in some clever misdirection by seemingly going nowhere, especially in the hilariously rambling monologue delivered by the trapper, which gives veteran character actor Ross more dialogue than he's ever had in a movie. But then Clarence calms down Mrs. Betjeman by singing an Irish ballad and the story becomes something else entirely. Its final destination may not come as a surprise, especially once O'Neill starts acting like he's auditioning for a Vincent Price biopic, but in spite of that, it becomes oddly moving.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS feels too cobbled together and scattershot to be top-tier Coen Bros., and despite their claims that this was its intended format all along, it really does play like the two-hour premiere of a TV series. But even in a weaker segment like "All Gold Canyon," there's joys to be had. Shot digitally by Bruno Delbonnel, the film has some stunning shots of desert and canyon vistas along with some--perhaps intentionally--dubious CGI visuals. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS has too many positives to say it's only for Coen completists, but when their bio is written, this will be one of the peculiar outliers in their filmography. It's by no means the place for newbies stumbling upon this on Netflix and impulsively deciding to begin their Coen studies, but having said that, it's a good sampler appetizer for their unique style and the themes that have run through their work over the last four decades.