Friday, May 24, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: TRADING PAINT (2019) and TRIPLE THREAT (2019)

(Spain/US - 2019)

Neither as hilariously bad as GOTTI nor as aggressively awful as SPEED KILLS, the dirt racing drama TRADING PAINT is the "best" of John Travolta's recent VOD output simply by default. Oh, make no mistake, it's terrible, but it has a couple of supporting performances that save it from total Travoltablivion. Travolta (also one of 25 credited producers) is Sam "The Man" Munroe (that's the best nickname they could come up with?), a legend on the Alabama dirt racing circuit who's passed the torch on to his son Cam (Toby Sebastian, best known for his stint as Trystane Martell on GAME OF THRONES). Sam's racing team is plagued by minimal funds and Cam is tired of losing, so he causes a rift when he bails to race for his dad's longtime arch-nemesis Bob Linsky (Michael Madsen). Sam and Cam have always been there for each other, especially after Sam was behind the wheel in a car crash that killed his wife 20 years ago, and Sam is so incensed by his son's betrayal that he comes out of retirement and gets back on the track. This almost ends in tragedy after Sam wins a race and Linsky thinks Cam went easy on him, prompting him to have one of his other drivers (Chris Mullinax) try to knock Cam out of the next race, causing Sam to plow right into Cam's car, with the younger Munroe's car going up in flames as he barely makes it out alive with two broken legs. This leads to a reconciliation as Cam goes on a long road to recovery and rejoins his father's team to reclaim the crown from Linsky at the final race of the season.

Co-written by Gary Gerani (PUMPKINHEAD) and directed by Sweden-based Iraqi filmmaker Karzan Kader, TRADING PAINT is as perfunctory and formulaic as it gets. There's no excitement in the blandly-shot racing sequences, and the forced dramatic tension has no foundation or ultimate purpose. Why are Sam and Linsky such bitter rivals? And who thought present-day Michael Madsen, who's more or less morphed into KILL BILL's Budd, was credible casting as the top driver on the circuit? This is the kind of film where characters who already know each other speak in laborious exposition in order to clumsily get the audience up to speed. An early scene has Sam and new girlfriend Becca (Shania Twain, in her acting debut) out fishing, with Sam asking "Why'd you move down here?" as she goes into the whole backstory of her divorce and finding a new job. Wouldn't they have already covered this subject by this point in their relationship? The same goes for the track announcers when Sam rejoins the circuit, their racing analysis essentially serving as an in-movie summary in case you just stumbled on it or dozed off: "Sam 'The Man' Munroe, coming out of retirement and now he's mixed up in the crazy soap opera that has his son Cam driving for his old arch-rival Bob Linsky...hell, you can't write this any better!" Well, they could, but they didn't bother trying (Cam, embarking on his comeback: "Racing is in our blood!"). Twain has a charming screen presence as Becca and certainly deserves to be in a better film, and Kevin Dunn, as Sam's limping buddy Stumpy (that's original), gets a long monologue where he has to tell a really dumb story about how Sam once saved him from an alligator attack (hence, "Stumpy"), but Dunn is a total pro who uses all of his Character Actor Hall of Famer skills to convincingly sell it. The great Barry Corbin also turns up for a cameo as a folksy racing radio show host, and it's these little bits that periodically upgrade TRADING PAINT from "bad" to "inoffensively mediocre." (R, 87 mins)

(US/China/Thailand/Australia/UK - 2019)

An EXPENDABLES-type summit of today's top martial-arts and second-tier action stars, TRIPLE THREAT strands its packed cast in a story that's generic and uninspired even by the standards of VOD. Any one of these guys have made much more interesting films on their own or in pairs and while it seems they're enjoying themselves, this really should've been something special. In the fictional Maha Jayan jungle in southeast Asia, a team of mercenaries led by Devereaux (BLACK DYNAMITE's Michael Jai White) have infiltrated a prison camp with the help of local trackers Payu (ONG-BAK's Tony Jaa) and Long-Fei (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON stuntman-turned-actor Tiger Chen, one of 30 credited producers), who were enlisted under the guide of helping out with a humanitarian rescue mission. It's a rescue mission, but the mercenaries' true target is their boss Collins (Scott Adkins), a deadly international terrorist who's being held at the camp. A skirmish claims the life of the wife (Sile Zhang) of camp guard Jaka (THE RAID's Iko Uwais), and Collins' crew leaves Payu and Long-Fei for dead. As required by law in films of this sort, Jaka winds up in an illegal, underground fight tournament where he vows revenge on Payu and Long-Fei until they convince him that they were misled and that they're after Collins as well, thus forming the titular unholy alliance. Also mixed into the melee is wealthy heiress Xiao Xing (Celina Jade of WOLF WARRIOR 2 and the TV series ARROW), who's committed to wiping out an Asian crime syndicate headed by Su Feng (Monika Mok), who happens to be the chief benefactor of Collins' terrorist activities.

Director Jesse V. Johnson--who's worked with Adkins several times, most notably on the wildly entertaining ACCIDENT MAN--and veteran fight choreographer Tim Man (ONG BAK, BOYKA: UNDISPUTED) stage some expectedly brutal throwdowns, and there's a surprising amount of splatter, but TRIPLE THREAT still never really catches fire. It doesn't take advantage of having all of these people in the same movie (there's also retired UFC fighter Michael Bisping, CHOCOLATE's Jeeja Yanin, freestyle full combat champ Dominique Vandenberg, and jump kick world record holder Ron Smoorenburg), and Jaka going off on his own in mid-film to attempt an undercover infiltration of Collins' team seems like a decision made less for the narrative and more to accommodate Uwais' availability. The pace drags in that middle section when the focus is on Payu, Long-Fei, and Xing, and when Payu finally confronts Devereaux after realizing it was he who killed his wife, Jaa is actually forced to growl "This is personal." Adkins has some fun as the villain, even though the script (credited to six writers!) requires him to emphatically declare "This ends tonight!" when he realizes the Triple Threat is coming for him. TRIPLE THREAT leaves no cliche untouched, but while you could certainly do a lot worse in the world at Redbox, this is unfortunately among the most forgettable efforts of almost everyone in it. (R, 96 mins)

Monday, May 20, 2019

Retro Review: THE CHOSEN (1978)

aka HOLOCAUST 2000
(Italy/UK - 1977; US release 1978)

Directed by Alberto De Martino. Written by Sergio Donati, Alberto De Martino and Michael Robson. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Simon Ward, Agostina Belli, Anthony Quayle, Romolo Valli, Adolfo Celi, Virginia McKenna, Alexander Knox, Ivo Garrani, Spiros Focas, Massimo Foschi, Geoffrey Keen, Alan Hendricks, Peter Cellier, John Carlin, Penelope Horner, Caroline Horner, Vittorio Fanfoni, Teresa Rossi Passante, Andrea Esterhazy. (R, 102 mins)

The Italian ripoff is one of the most enjoyably rewarding aspects of being a fan of '70s and '80s exploitation and Eurocult cinema. If there was a game-changing American blockbuster (THE GODFATHER, THE EXORCIST, JAWS, STAR WARS), an immensely popular genre effort (DAWN OF THE DEAD, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II), or even an influential film that wasn't necessarily American-made but was a worldwide hit (THE ROAD WARRIOR), it was guaranteed that at least a dozen shameless Italian ripoffs would follow in its wake. These often starred slumming, past-their-prime American and sometimes British actors who weren't getting lead roles at home and often had to resort to TV guest spots, considered at the time to be a step down. By contrast, European producers were offering starring roles, top billing, treated them like royalty, gave them an all-expenses-paid Italian vacation, and all they had to do was put in the bare minimum for the biggest paycheck, or in many cases, a suitcase full of tax-free cash. In the annals of Italian ripoffs, the 1978 OMEN knockoff THE CHOSEN stands out from the crowd, not just because it's unusually ambitious, has a much bigger budget than most of its Eurotrash imitation brethren, and a distinguished supporting cast, but because it stars a surprisingly engaged Kirk Douglas. Already a Hollywood legend by this point and not exactly hurting for work (he had Brian De Palma's THE FURY in theaters at the same time), Douglas had enough clout and his name enough value that he could've gotten away with doing as little as possible, shot his close-ups, and gone sight-seeing while his stand-in did the heavy lifting and competent editors could create the illusion that he was there the whole time, but he approaches this with all the gravitas and teeth-clenched, lock-jawed intensity of SPARTACUS.

THE CHOSEN works largely because Kirk clearly believes in it. In an era when aging leading men who stayed in Hollywood were often begrudgingly starring in glossy, big-budget horror movies that they never would've made in their heyday--Gregory Peck wasn't that enthused about being in THE OMEN, and William Holden did DAMIEN: OMEN II because he turned THE OMEN down only to see it become a huge phenomenon--Douglas passionately brings his A-game to THE CHOSEN and busts his ass like his reputation and the future of his career depended on it. We're obviously not talking Henry Fonda literally phoning in his performance from his living room in the 1977 Italian JAWS ripoff TENTACLES or Richard Harris turning up, presumably at gunpoint, in Bruno Mattei's 1988 RAMBO knockoff STRIKE COMMANDO 2, but it's always fascinating to find someone of Douglas' stature in a movie like THE CHOSEN, and usually, it's for the wrong reasons, especially in those occasional instances where they don't even stick around to dub themselves. But THE CHOSEN isn't a run-of-the-mill, quickie Italian ripoff, and perhaps Douglas recognized that. It deals with the same core ideas as THE OMEN and has some very OMEN-esque cues in Ennio Morricone's score, but also has the political and corporate plot elements that would eventually turn up in subsequent OMEN sequels as well as other Italian ripoffs like the insane THE VISITOR. It's a rare case of an Italian ripoff inadvertently influencing the later sequels to the movie it was ripping off in the first place, including a disturbing sequence in a maternity ward that foreshadows the third OMEN film, 1981's THE FINAL CONFLICT.

Douglas stars as Robert Caine, a successful London-based American industrialist whose Caine Enterprises is about to break ground on a nuclear power plant in the Middle East. The first red flag appears when Caine's wife Eva (Virginia McKenna), who opposes the construction of the plant, is killed by a fanatical protester (Massimo Foschi) in a botched assassination attempt on Caine. Then the Prime Minister (Ivo Garrani) who approved the plant is defeated in an election by military hardliner Harbin (Spiros Focas) who sternly informs Caine that his project is too dangerous and will never come to pass. One by one, everyone who opposes the construction of the plant is killed in a variety of OMEN-inspired freak accidents (including a bisection that would be copied in a much gorier fashion in DAMIEN: OMEN II, which opened two months later) as Caine, over the objections of his son Angel (Simon Ward), starts to question whether the plant should be built. A chance meeting with a priest (Romolo Valli), who may as well be named Father Exposition, leads to Caine's realization that the design and layout of the power plant is an atomic-era recreation of a Biblical prophecy of the apocalypse brought about by the Antichrist (and to further hammer it home, Father Obvious emphatically declares "The dragon of the apocalypse...is your atomic plant!"). The priest tells him that the Antichrist is a mirror image of Jesus, and with the help of Caine Enterprises chief computer programmer Griffith (Anthony Quayle), Caine discovers that a nonsense mathematical equation is really the revelation that he has "generated something that is not human." This is just before Sara (Agostina Belli), the much-younger anti-nuke journalist with whom has been having a fling, announces that she's pregnant with his child.

Directed and co-written by Alberto De Martino, best known for the blasphemous, goat-rimming 1974 Italian EXORCIST ripoff THE ANTICHRIST (belatedly released in the US in the fall of 1978 as THE TEMPTER) and whose next film was the MST3K favorite THE PUMAMAN, THE CHOSEN is endlessly entertaining despite boasting the most awkwardly-cadenced protest chant you'll ever hear ("What do our children...want to be...when they grow up...ALIVE!") and its inability to play its cards close to the vest. This makes some of Belli's performance as Sara a little baffling, since by the time she's acting strange and refusing to enter a church, we already know who the Antichrist is thanks to De Martino using no subtlety in his direction of Ward, making him look sinister from his first moment onscreen (and he's named "Angel," for Christ's sake). The screenplay has some intriguing ideas that lead to arresting images, like Caine holding a meeting of his 12-member board of directors that's staged exactly like The Last Supper. The sight of the inscription "IESVS" carved into a cave wall near the plant site and the use of the equation "2√231" to illustrate the priest's assertion that the Antichrist is a mirror image of Jesus and Griffith reminding Caine that digital numbers can form words won't fool anyone who's ever looked at the Dio logo upside-down or keyed "80085" into a calculator when they were in third grade, but like the De Martino's THE ANTICHRIST using sexual frustration as the impetus for demonic possession, THE CHOSEN is film that tries harder than it needs to and has ambitions beyond presenting a rote (yet memorable) series of splattery kill scenes.

Originally titled HOLOCAUST 2000 for its European release in late 1977, the film was rechristened THE CHOSEN when it arrived in the US in the spring of 1978 in an altered version with a different ending. The HOLOCAUST 2000 ending is more open-ended and suggests that Caine and Sara's child is the Second Coming and will battle its evil, mirror image older brother. But the cobbled-together US ending features newly-shot footage of a bearded Douglas walking through an airport, intercut with Angel vowing to complete the nuclear power plant by his 33rd birthday in a meeting with the board of directors, which he's just increased from 12 to 21 members. This goes on while an unseen figure--Caine, played by a pair of hands probably not belonging to Douglas--blows up the Caine Enterprises headquarters to ensure Angel's evil plan never comes to fruition. It isn't known whether De Martino shot this new footage commissioned by US distributor American International (ABBY and FOOD OF THE GODS editor Corky Ehlers is credited with "additional editing" in the US credits), but that was the version I remember seeing when CBS aired this in prime time in summer 1983 under its HOLOCAUST 2000 title. The film has undergone a number of title changes over the years, which hasn't been easy to keep straight given the two different versions. Despite being retitled THE CHOSEN for the US, the title reverted back to HOLOCAUST 2000 for TV and on Vestron Video's 1985-issued VHS, even though it has the CHOSEN version's "Kirk blows shit up" ending, and when it finally appeared on DVD from Lionsgate in 2008, it was retitled RAIN OF FIRE, but was the original HOLOCAUST 2000 European version without the explosion. Confused yet?

Scream Factory's new Blu-ray (because physical media is dead) contains both the HOLOCAUST 2000 and THE CHOSEN cuts, albeit in different aspect ratios (HOLOCAUST 2000 is 2.35:1, while THE CHOSEN is 1.78:1). There are minor tweaks to both versions aside from their endings (the conclusion to an early confrontation in an asylum between Caine and his wife's killer plays a bit more smoothly in the US cut), with both clocking in at 102 minutes, THE CHOSEN running a few seconds longer. Oddly, a Douglas-Belli sex scene is slightly more explicit in the US version, with some additional Belli nudity and a few extra Kirk thrusts. In a display of Douglas' absolute commitment to the project, which includes doing his own stunts like being thrown off a hospital gurney and into the air by asylum inmates while strait-jacketed, both versions showcase full-frontal Kirk in an insane dream sequence where he envisions the end of the world while running and flailing around a desert in his birthday suit. Whether it's a sense of professional dedication or just Douglas showing off his still-sterling 61-year-old physique (which he would also be happy to do in 1980's ridiculous SATURN 3, possibly influencing the future exhibitionism of co-star Harvey Keitel), his willingness to throw himself into his role helps sell the hell out of THE CHOSEN, a gem among '70s Italian genre ripoffs that deserves to be better known.

THE CHOSEN airing on CBS as HOLOCAUST 2000 on 7/30/1983

Friday, May 17, 2019


(US - 2019)

Directed by Chad Stahelski. Written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Mark Abrams. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Barry, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, Anjelica Huston, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Tobias Segal, Said Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn, Jason Mantzoukas, Cecep Arif Rahman, Yayan Ruhian, Margaret Daly, Randall Duk Kim, Robin Lord Taylor, Boban Marjinovic, Susan Blommaert, Unity Phelan, Roger Yuan. (R, 131 mins)

An unexpected sleeper hit in theaters in 2014 after being given an 11th hour reprieve from VOD excommunicado, JOHN WICK provided Keanu Reeves with another iconic character that's single-handedly carried him through an otherwise rough career patch: a retired hit man who walked away from his old life to be with the woman he loved, unleashed as vengeance personified after the son of his former employer steals his car and kills his puppy Daisy, the final gift given to him by his wife before she succumbed to cancer. 2017's JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 was even better--a gonzo, comic-book-inspired actiongasm that cranked up the stakes, the inventive world-building, and ended with its hero embarking on a run for his life with seemingly the entire world in pursuit. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM (that title's a bit of a mouthful) opens just seconds after the ending of CHAPTER 2 as Wick, branded "excommunicado" by the High Table of the organization after killing double-crossing Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) on the consecrated grounds of the NYC branch of the hotel-for-assassins The Continental, is given a one-hour head start by Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane) before a $14 million mark is opened on Wick and offered to every professional assassin in the world.

Unable to get out of the city and dodging bullets, knives, and various other lethal weapons everywhere he goes, Wick calls in a favor and seeks safe passage from The Director (Anjelica Huston), a Russian ballet instructor and enigmatic figure from his past. Meanwhile, the High Table sends The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), an ice-cold problem-solver whose job is to enforce appropriate punishment to any of those who aided Wick in his escape, including Winston and The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), both of whom are given seven days to get their affairs in order before they're relieved of their duties. The Director gets Wick on a boat to Morocco, where he visits the Casablanca branch of the Continental, run by former colleague Sofia (Halle Berry). This leads to a meeting in the desert with a High Table elder (Said Taghmaoui), who offers Wick his freedom if he goes back to NYC and eliminates Winston, who's been deemed unreliable after failing to properly handle the D'Antonio debacle. Waiting in NYC is Zero (Mark Dacascos sighting!), a sushi chef and ambitious assassin ordered by The Adjudicator to kill Wick.

With Reeves and director Chad Stahelski returning, there's certainly a nice, lived-in feeling of comfort with the increasingly complex world of JOHN WICK. But like almost all franchises on its third go-around, CHAPTER 3 does start feeling like it's spinning its wheels at times. Derek Kolstad, the screenwriter of the first two films, is also back, but there's three additional credited writers, a telling indicator of how cluttered and structurally chaotic this often seems. After an electrifying opening half hour, the repetition starts creeping in, and there's only so many ways Wick can blast a bad guy in the head at point blank range before it starts to become a blur (Stahelski seems particularly indebted to Gareth Evans' THE RAID 2, right down to the presence of Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian as two of Zero's chief flunkies). But just because it isn't as fresh and inspired as its predecessors doesn't mean there isn't a lot to enjoy: the knife fight is terrific; a long gun battle with Wick, Sofia and her two loyal, ass-kicking, crotch-biting dogs vs. the army of Casablanca crime boss Berrada (Jerome Flynn) could almost be its own stand-alone short film; an amusing shout-out to Andrei Tarkovsky; an eye-piercing that's right up there with Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE; Lance Reddick as the NYC Continental's unflappable concierge getting to blast shotguns as he helps Wick take on some of Zero's guys; and Dacascos has a lot of fun as Zero, who's assigned to kill Wick but can't stop being a gushing fanboy whenever he's in his presence (and he gets not one, but two opportunities to remind Wick "You see? We're the same!"). But after a pair of creative, inventive action sagas, CHAPTER 3 is still enjoyable but the fatigue is there. The stylish elements and the colorful look just feel recycled from CHAPTER 2, the whole Casablanca detour doesn't serve much of a narrative purpose other than bloating the running time (and Berry's role is little more than an extended cameo), and the increasingly epic nature of the action sequences necessitate using more noticeable and less convincing CGI as a crutch as the JOHN WICK franchise starts resorting to FAST & FURIOUS-esque silliness. The door is left open for an inevitable CHAPTER 4, so I'm predicting here and now that John Wick will be in space or at the very least battling a cyborg by CHAPTER 6.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: BACKDRAFT 2 (2019) and NEVER GROW OLD (2019)

(US/Belgium - 2019)

In addition to creating random franchises for its 1440 DTV division with sequels to TREMORS, THE SCORPION KING, DEATH RACE, DRAGONHEART, and JARHEAD, Universal has also decided to start raiding their back catalog for some really belated follow-ups like KINDERGARTEN COP 2 (27 years between films), HARD TARGET 2 (21 years after the first), COP AND A HALF: NEW RECRUIT (24 years), and THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE (a ludicrous 42 years after THE CAR). After 28 years, they've given us the sequel you never knew you didn't need with BACKDRAFT 2. Incredibly, they managed to get screenwriter Gregory Widen to cobble a script together, somehow convincing him to take a brief respite from cashing HIGHLANDER and THE PROPHECY royalty checks for the rest of his life. Also returning are William Baldwin as Brian McCaffrey, now a Chicago fire chief, and Donald Sutherland as the incarcerated Ronald Bartel, the Hannibal Lecter of Windy City arsonists. The story focuses on Chief McCaffrey's hothead nephew Sean (Joe Anderson as the son of Kurt Russell's late character from the 1991 original), a plays-by-his-own-rules arson whisperer prone to inner monologues that begin with statements like "We only come out at night..." when confronting a fire and "Stay out of my burn!" when higher-ranking fire department desk jockeys and pencil-pushers question his methods. Forced to take on rookie partner Maggie Rening (Alisha Bailey) and greeting her with "You know anything about this work?," Sean--who also says things like "I don't like fire...but I understand it"--is convinced he's dealing with a serial arsonist in a convoluted plot that ends up involving mercenary contractors selling missile production secrets to either the Russians or the Chinese. Or something. Who gives a shit?

Less a sequel to BACKDRAFT and more like a pilot for a bad spinoff series that got rejected by Crackle, BACKDRAFT 2 never gets around the insufferably grating performance of Anderson (who was a great Mason Verger when he replaced Michael Pitt on the third season of HANNIBAL), who comes off as one of the most off-putting heroes in quite some time. Much of that is due to the British actor seriously overcompensating with his American accent, a problem facing every cast member aside from Baldwin (who's really looking like Alec these days) and Sutherland, as this was shot mostly in Romania and Canada with an almost-entirely British cast (more than everyone else, the guy playing Sean's ATF nemesis is seriously struggling with his American accent). At least Baldwin emerges unscathed in his handful of scenes, but Sutherland, who couldn't have spent more than a day on the set, is a hammy embarrassment as the gleeful, cackling Bartel, who's consulted by Sean, correctly assuming that the arsonists have sought the advice of "the master." So terribly-written and cartoonishly cliched in almost every aspect that it practically qualifies as self-parody, BACKDRAFT 2, directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego (APOLLO 18, THE HOLLOW POINT), offers a hero who lives in an abandoned warehouse that's approximately the size of an airplane hangar, a potential drinking game every time someone gravely intones "It's a backdraft," a climactic showdown in a massive shipyard, a shitty theme song by what sounds like an Imagine Dragons cover band, and what might go down as the funniest bad guy demise of the year. It's one of the most cynical name-brand DTV cash-ins to come down the pike since, well, THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE, and that also goes for BACKDRAFT director Ron Howard, who gets a courtesy executive producer credit but I'm willing to bet he won't even know this exists until his accountant shows him his 2019 income tax return. As for Universal dusting off ancient catalog titles for really late Redbox sequels, what's next? May I suggest Scott Eastwood in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER 2? (R, 102 mins)

(Ireland/Luxembourg/Belgium/France - 2019)

A muddy and bloody western of the post-PROPOSITION sort, NEVER GROW OLD is part of a recent trend of underseen revisionist European art westerns, similar in tone and style to SLOW WEST, THE SALVATION, and BRIMSTONE. Written and directed by Irish filmmaker Ivan Kavanagh (THE CANAL), the film is set in 1849 in a puritanical haven of Garlow, a town on the California Trail. Overzealous Preacher Pike (Danny Webb) effectively rules Garlow, having banished alcohol, gambling, and prostitution to its economic detriment. Most of the businesses have left, and the residents are following suit. Garlow's undertaker/carpenter, Irish immigrant Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch), doesn't have much work, but he does have a pregnant French-born wife, Audrey (Deborah Francois), son Thomas (Quinn Topper Marcus), and young daughter Emma (Molly McCann). Patrick tries to talk Audrey into leaving on the two-month journey to the promised land of California, but she hopes to build a good, Christian life in Garlow. That goes to hell on a dark and stormy night with the arrival of outlaw Dutch Albert (John Cusack, looking like cult filmmaker Richard Stanley) and his two cohorts, Sicily (Camille Pistone), and hulking mute Dumb-Dumb (Sam Louwyck), who carries his preserved severed tongue and uses it as a comedic prop. Albert is in pursuit of Bill Crabtree, an ex-partner who cheated him out of some money, and intimidates Patrick into taking him to see Crabtree's wife (Anne Coesens), who claims he left her and their teenage daughter a year ago. Disappointed that there's no booze, gambling, or women in Garlow, Albert decides to buy the decrepit hotel, reopening it as a saloon with gambling and whores, defying Preacher Pike and causing an escalating body count, which keeps Patrick busy but puts a strain on his family, especially when Dumb-Dumb decides he wants Audrey for himself and Patrick is too afraid to do anything about it.

NEVER GROW OLD opens with some thinly-veiled jabs at evangelicals and quickly takes a turn for the relentlessly downbeat, with Patrick constantly being prodded, bullied, and emasculated by the ruthless Albert, who doesn't get much resistance in his takeover of Garlow, either from the all-talk Preacher Pike or the useless sheriff (Tim Ahern), and you know this is the type of movie where a meek character like Patrick will only be pushed so far before he snaps. Albert's atrocities are endless, particularly when Crabtree's financially-strapped wife begs to be hired as a prostitute, and he'll only take her on if the teenage daughter is part of the package. Dutch Albert is a character who makes UNFORGIVEN's Little Bill Daggett look affable, and to NEVER GROW OLD's benefit, this is the John Cusack that even John Cusack seems to have forgotten about most of the time. He's absolutely terrifying as a western outlaw version of Frank Booth, and it's easily his best performance since 2014's LOVE & MERCY. NEVER GROW OLD doesn't blaze any new trails, but it makes an unsettling impression with its grim atmosphere, a climax as violent as Travis Bickle's rampage in TAXI DRIVER, and Cusack bringing to life a personification of pure evil that sticks with you. Look for this one to find a cult following pretty quickly. (R, 100 mins)

Monday, May 13, 2019

Retro Review: THE NIGHTCOMERS (1972)

(UK - 1972) 

Directed by Michael Winner. Written by Michael Hastings. Cast: Marlon Brando, Stephanie Beacham, Harry Andrews, Thora Hird, Verna Harvey, Christopher Ellis, Anna Palk. (R, 97 mins)

A prequel before the term was part of the moviegoing lexicon, 1972's THE NIGHTCOMERS details the events that took place prior to those depicted in THE INNOCENTS, the 1961 film based on Henry James' classic 1898 gothic horror novella The Turn of the Screw. In THE INNOCENTS, co-scripted by Truman Capote, Deborah Kerr starred as Miss Giddens, a governess in charge of Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), two orphaned young children essentially left on their own at a foreboding estate by their cold-hearted uncle (Michael Redgrave), who became their guardian and has never had any interest in raising them. The estate is haunted by the ghosts of their previous governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) and groundskeeper Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), and Miss Giddens comes to believe the ghosts are attempting to possess the children. Much changed as far as what could be shown in movies in the decade since THE INNOCENTS, and THE NIGHTCOMERS, directed by Michael Winner (THE MECHANIC, DEATH WISH) and just released on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber (because physical media is dead) takes full advantage of it. It delves with little restraint into the sordid backstory of Quint and Miss Jessel, buoyed by ability to explicitly depict things that could barely be hinted at in 1961, and given Winner's tendency to revel in being a provocateur, that really seems to be the only reason for THE NIGHTCOMERS' existence.

Winner and screenwriter Michael Hastings (THE ADVENTURERS) are hampered by the fact that the scares are limited because the horror elements--the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel haunting the estate--don't yet exist in context. They're just people here, and with little in the way of horror, the filmmakers have to go for unease and discomfort. Miles (Christopher Ellis) and Flora (Verna Harvey) are left in the care of Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham) and cranky but doting housekeeper Mrs. Grose, played here by Thora Hird (and by Megs Jenkins in THE INNOCENTS), with specific instructions by their absent uncle (Harry Andrews) to basically leave him alone unless there's a medical issue with one of the kids and he'll check in every six months or so. The kids, particularly Miles, idolize the eccentric, mischievous Quint (Marlon Brando, with long hair and an inconsistent Irish brogue that makes him look and sound like Richard Harris and serves a test run for his MISSOURI BREAKS histrionics), who seems to do little but clown around and indulge in drunken philosophical blather. This angers killjoy Mrs. Grose but falls right in line with Marlon Brando's love of tossing the script, ad-libbing, and doing whatever the hell he feels like doing while the cameras are rolling.

Quint and Miss Jessel's relationship begins with violence as he sexually assaults her in her room, but it soon gives way to consensual sadomasochism as the prim, proper governess finds she enjoys bondage, rough sex and being hog-tied by Quint in a couple of sweat-soaked sex scenes that prefigure the kind of explicit material in Brando's still-controversial turn in the next year's LAST TANGO IN PARIS. Miles spends a lot of time following Quint around, and after he spies on the pair's carnal games, he convinces Flora to role-play the same kind of S&M activities as they naively mimic intercourse, or as Miles calls it when they're caught by Mrs. Grose, "doing sex." There's enough "problematic" content in THE NIGHTCOMERS that Woke Twitter's Class of 2019 would have a field day cancelling Winner and Brando permanently, but the impact of Quint and Miss Jessel's relationship on the children was enough in 1972 to necessitate making Miles and Flora older than they were in THE INNOCENTS, simply due to the increased sexual element.

Marlon Brando and Michael Winner on the set of THE NIGHTCOMERS

The casting doesn't really work, as Flora should be about nine years old if this is purported to take place before THE INNOCENTS, yet Harvey is 19 and looks it, plus Flora is supposed to be the younger sibling but Harvey is clearly older than Ellis, who was only 14 at the time of filming (it's interesting that Winner felt the need to address the more overt sexuality of the story by casting an adult female as the younger sibling, but determined the material was acceptable enough for a 14-year-old boy to be shown hog-tying his sister and engaging in clothed play-thrusting on his of-age co-star). Feeling like a lesser Hammer or Amicus production of the period, THE NIGHTCOMERS is a slow-burner that never really ignites until an admittedly unsettling climax, and while it's developed a cult following over the years, it's really only notable as Brando's sole foray into horror until 1996's THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. Though a few prominent critics were fond of it, THE NIGHTCOMERS was a box office flop upon its release by Avco Embassy in February 1972. It did, however, mark the last film in Brando's free-falling "lost years" phase that dated back to the mid-1960s, as THE GODFATHER would be in theaters a month later, giving the notoriously difficult actor a triumphant comeback for the ages and a second Oscar.

Saturday, May 11, 2019


(Ireland/France/Iceland - 2019)

Directed by P.B. Shemran (Farhad Safinia). Written by Todd Komarnicki and P.B. Shemran (Farhad Safinia). Cast: Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Natalie Dormer, Steve Coogan, Stephen Dillane, Ioan Gruffudd, Eddie Marsan, Jennifer Ehle, Jeremy Irvine, David O'Hara, Anthony Andrews, Laurence Fox, Lars Brygmann, Bryan Murray, Sean Duggan, Olivia McKevitt, Brendan Patricks, Shane Noone. (Unrated, 124 mins)

A longtime dream project that Mel Gibson's had on the backburner since purchasing the movie rights to Simon Winchester's book when it was released in 1998, THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN ultimately became a nightmare of behind-the-scenes clashes and multiple lawsuits. Gibson began developing it as far back as 2001, when the great John Boorman (DELIVERANCE, EXCALIBUR) was set to write and direct. That fell apart and Boorman's script was reworked in 2007 by Todd Komarnicki (SULLY), with Luc Besson attached to direct, but that was right around the time that Gibson's traffic stop and other offscreen problems essentially made him persona non grata in Hollywood for at least the next decade. Nine years later, with numerous international financiers, Gibson finally got THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN going with a new script by his friend and APOCALYPTO collaborator Farhad Safinia, who would also be making his directing debut. It was near the end of filming in Ireland in 2016 that disagreements began to develop between Gibson/Safinia and Voltage Pictures head Nicolas Chartier, when the pair asked for an additional $2.5 million for five additional days to shoot some scenes that they insisted had to be done on location at Oxford University (Trinity College was filling in for Oxford until then). Chartier rejected the request, telling them that they were already behind schedule and over the $25 million budget, so Trinity in Dublin would have to suffice.

Believing the film wouldn't be complete without these Oxford-shot scenes, Gibson told Chartier that Safinia wasn't being permitted to sufficiently finish the film. Gibson sued Voltage Pictures for breach of contract, claiming the film wasn't completed and he was guaranteed final cut, with Safinia also suing, claiming copyright infringement, accusing Voltage of never finalizing his contract, thus "his" script (which still contained some of Boorman's and Komarnicki's work) was never officially handed over to them. When Voltage released a statement accusing Gibson and Safinia of trying to "hijack the movie," Safinia sued for defamation. A judge ruled in favor of Voltage all around, and when Safinia's planned 160-minute film was whittled down to 124 minutes with neither Gibson nor Safinia's input, Gibson unsuccessfully tried to prevent it from being screened for potential distributors. These lawsuits kept the film on the shelf over 2017 and 2018 until a settlement was reached in early 2019, with Gibson removing his producer credit and any mention of his Icon Productions company. Safinia also successfully petitioned to have his name removed as director and co-writer, with credit now going to the non-existent "P.B. Shemran." Also absent is any mention of Boorman, still credited as a co-writer in initial press releases, in festival reviews, and on IMDb, but whose name is nowhere to be found on the released film. A troubled production, for sure, but there was a time when a prestige period piece starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn would've been one of the most anticipated films of its year instead of one that gets a buried on VOD like a state secret by lowly, Redbox-ready Vertical Entertainment, with seemingly everyone involved actively distancing themselves from what sounds less like a battle of artistic differences and more like an alpha-male pissing contest.

With that kind of chaotic backstage melodrama, you'd think THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN would be a folly of category five shitstorm proportions along the lines of LONDON FIELDS, another recent film left unreleased for several years due to endless litigation. It's a handsomely-produced period piece with meticulous production design that's often beautiful to look at and undeniably sincere in its approach, and while this Gibson-disowned version has some all-too-obvious red flags for post-production discord, it has other problems for which Gibson and Safinia should probably be held accountable. An account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN focuses on Prof. James Murray (Gibson), a Scottish autodidact and linguist and self-taught expert in over a dozen languages, who successfully lobbies the powers that be at Oxford to entrust him with the task of compiling every word in the English language and its origin into a comprehensive, epic volume ("We are about to embark on the greatest adventure our language has ever known!" he declares). He estimates it'll take five years, but the project soon becomes too daunting, even with research assistants Henry Bradley (Ioan Gruffudd) and Charles Hall (Jeremy Irvine). It also places a strain on his family, with wife Ada (Jennifer Ehle) dutifully supporting him but truthfully not very enthused about moving their large family to a smaller home as Murray obsesses over his all-consuming project. The OED hits a brick wall, not helped by sneering publisher Philip Lyttleton Gell (Laurence Fox, conveying the erudite pomposity that his dad James and uncle Edward have projected so masterfully throughout their long careers) and supercilious Oxford board member Benjamin Jowett (Anthony Andrews), both of whom deem Murray's self-education dubious and a dishonor to the university ("I wonder if it's time to ease our gentle Scotsman off his little perch," Jowett harumphs).

Realizing it will take much longer than five years to complete the dictionary, Murray comes up with the idea of having a "dictionary by democracy," asking the general public to contribute words and origins, with Murray and his assistants determining the validity of the info provided (a pre-Wikipedia of sorts). Their largest selection of entries comes from an unexpected source: Dr. William Chester Minor (Penn, in his first feature film since 2015's THE GUNMAN), an American expat, paranoid schizophrenic and PTSD-afflicted Civil War vet being held at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane after killing a married father of six that he mistook for a wartime enemy. Minor is also a gifted surgeon and intellectual who earned reading privileges in the asylum after saving the life of an injured guard. He also feels remorse for what he's done and offers his military pension to his victim's widow Eliza (Natalie Dormer), who reluctantly accepts after briefly turning to prostitution to support her children. She begins to visit Minor in the asylum, he teaches her to read, and she slowly comes around to forgiving him after witnessing the extent of his mental illness. Dr. Murray visits and befriends Minor as well, which causes friction with the Oxford board when he insists that a known murderer be lauded as a major OED contributor.

Frequently heavy-handed and filled with barely-concealed allusions to Gibson's own personal quest for redemption, THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN benefits from his solid, committed performance, but almost everything else is miscalculated to varying degrees. As in Komarnicki's script for SULLY, the film needs a villain where there really isn't one, so Gell and Jowett are there to undermine Murray and stonewall the OED at every turn for no legitimate reason at all aside from manufactured drama. Likewise at the asylum, the kindly and benevolent Dr. Richard Brayne (Stephen Dillane) suddenly does everything short of twirl a mustache while maniacally cackling to make Minor's life a living hell, starting with cutting off visits from Murray and Eliza and eventually barbaric forms of "therapy" like violently-induced vomiting that he blames on "catalepsy." Maybe some of this was explained in the excised 40-odd minutes of footage, but as presented here, Minor's deteriorating condition (starting with a self-castration) lacks a proper buildup. Not helping matters is a wildly overacting Penn, who's been given carte blanche to gorge on a buffet of scenery by Safinia and Gibson, who also seriously bungle the time element. There is one major instance where the blame can obviously be laid on some sloppy editing in post, as evidenced when Eliza's daughter slaps a white-bearded Minor, who's next seen in his room shouting "Look what you've done!" and his beard is suddenly dark brown, making it almost certain that the scene doesn't belong where Voltage's editors have placed it. But elsewhere, it becomes a huge distraction when Penn's Minor seems to be the only person who ages over the course of the film, set from 1872 to 1910. With a big, bushy salt-and-pepper beard, Gibson looks exactly the same from start to finish, as does everyone else and, save for the final shot at a Murray family gathering, neither Murray's nor Eliza's kids ever grow up as the story progresses and the decades pass. There's also some extensive Minor voiceover in letters he sends to Murray and it's clearly not Penn's voice reciting it. These goofs and haphazard stitches aside, what's here is a compelling story. Penn seems to keep himself in check in his initial scenes with Gibson (who is really good here), and the film also offers nice supporting turns from Eddie Marsan as a sympathetic asylum guard and Steve Coogan as Murray's biggest supporter on the Oxford board. But this is a compromised work that represents the vision of an executive producer doing damage control, and not that of the producer-star who spent a decade-and-a-half trying to get it made and was perhaps too close to it for his--and the film's--own good.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Retro Review: IRON WARRIOR (1987)

(Italy - 1987)

Directed by Al Bradley (Alfonso Brescia). Written by Steven Luotto and Al Bradley (Alfonso Brescia). Cast: Miles O'Keeffe, Savina Gersak, Elisabeth Kaza, Iris Peynado, Tim Lane, Tiziana Altieri, Frank Daddi, Josie Coppini, Malcolm Borg, Conrad Borg, Jon Rosser. (R, 87 mins)

One of the countless Italian ripoffs of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, 1983's ATOR THE FIGHTING EAGLE helped keep Miles O'Keeffe employed following his career-killing Hollywood debut opposite Bo Derek in her husband John's 1981 fiasco TARZAN THE APE MAN. Directed by the venerable Italo sleaze king Aristide Massaccesi (aka "Joe D'Amato") under his "David Hills" pseudonym, ATOR led to the 1984 sequel THE BLADE MASTER, better known today by its MST3K incarnation CAVE DWELLERS. The third in the franchise, IRON WARRIOR, is an odd in-series reboot of sorts that almost feels like it wasn't intended to be part of the ATOR universe. Made not by Massaccesi and his Filmirage outfit but by producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (BEYOND THE DOOR, THE VISITOR, PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING), IRON WARRIOR gives Ator a completely different origin story and puts him in decidedly different, R-rated surroundings with gore and T&A that doesn't gel with its two PG-rated predecessors. Assonitis farmed out directing duties to Alfonso Brescia as a consolation prize after removing him from 1986's CHOKE CANYON during pre-production when he decided the action-and-stunt-heavy film was too much for Brescia to handle. Better-known by his Americanized pseudonym "Al Bradley," and a perennial Italian D-lister, Brescia (1930-2001) cut his teeth on low-grade peplum (1964's THE MAGNIFICENT GLADIATOR), spaghetti westerns (1968's CRY OF DEATH) and men-on-a-mission WWII movies (1969's KILL ROMMEL!), never distinguishing himself in any conceivable way as his filmography ranked several notches below mediocre. As his career went on, he made the 1974 action comedy SUPER STOOGES VS. THE WONDER WOMEN and even managed to get Jack Palance to star in the 1976 GODFATHER knockoff BLOOD AND BULLETS, but it wasn't until his quartet of oppressively dull post-STAR WARS space operas (and the sexually explicit 1980 offshoot THE BEAST IN SPACE, which featured hardcore footage) that Brescia cemented his place in Eurocult history, even if it was for all the wrong reasons.

Shot on the same sets with most of the same supporting cast and looking like inept community theater versions of Antonio Margheriti's GAMMA 1 quartet over a decade earlier, 1977's COSMOS: WAR OF THE PLANETS, 1978's BATTLE OF THE STARS, 1978's WAR OF THE ROBOTS, and 1979's STAR ODYSSEY are virtually interchangeable and are differentiated only by their leading men (John Richardson in the first two, followed by Antonio Sabato in ROBOTS and Gianni Garko in ODYSSEY) and rank among the ultimate feats of cine-masochistic endurance. COSMOS: WAR OF THE PLANETS actually made it into some US theaters in 1979 but the other three went straight to syndicated TV and later surfaced on any number of public domain DVD sets, though I wouldn't be surprised if someone put them out on Blu-ray box set if the elements are able to be tracked down (nor would I be surprised when I clicked on "pre-order" when that hypothetical listing turns up on Amazon). With Scorpion's release of IRON WARRIOR, we're forced to confront what was once unthinkable: the stunning realization that an "Al Bradley" joint is on Blu-ray which, depending on your tolerance for bad movies, is either cause for celebration or the cracking of one of the seven seals that will open the gates of Hell.

IRON WARRIOR isn't exactly an expensive epic, but it's obviously got the biggest budget that the perpetually hapless Brescia was ever granted. It's his most polished and professional-looking film, shot on some stunning locales on Malta, where the production also took full advantage of some still-standing sets left over from Robert Altman's POPEYE seven years earlier. Brescia also had the added bonus of having veteran optical effects technician Wally Gentleman as a cinematographer. A real person despite his name sounding like a hastily-blurted alias, Gentleman worked on the effects crew of Assonitis' BEYOND THE DOOR and scored a visual effects gig with Francis Ford Coppola on 1982's ONE FROM THE HEART. Gentleman also worked on Douglas Trumbull's effects team for Stanley Kubrick's 1968 landmark 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and how he went from that to serving as Alfonso Brescia's cinematographer on the third movie in the ATOR series is a story that demands to be told. Watching IRON WARRIOR in a pristine HD transfer is quite a different experience than seeing it on VHS back in the late '80s. It's less of an ATOR movie and more like a companion piece to Lucio Fulci's hallucinatory 1983 sword-and-sorcery saga CONQUEST. It's trippy and surreal, like if an Italian CONAN ripoff was directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

The script, credited to "Al Bradley" and veteran voice actor Steven Luotto (who can be heard dubbing Mark Gregory in 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS), is a hot mess of curses, hexes, and mysticism, with Brescia shamelessly stealing iconic imagery from SUPERMAN, STAR WARS, and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Believing in a prophecy that she would be destroyed by twin brothers, evil old witch Phoedra (Elisabeth Kaza) spies on eight-year-old siblings Ator and Trogar and kidnaps Trogar as part of a revenge plot against Deeva (Iris Peynado), who freed Phoedra's enslaved people. 18 years later, Phoedra summons the Iron Warrior (Frank Daddi) to kill the King (Tim Lane), who sends his princess daughter Janna (Assonitis' girlfriend Savina Gersak) away for her own safety. Deeva puts Janna in the care of lone warrior Ator (O'Keeffe), but not before he's seduced by Phoedra in the form of a nude young temptress (Tiziana Altieri). Prophesied to protect the King's daughter ("She for who you are fated needs you now!" Deeva gravely intones), Ator leads Janna on a treacherous journey where they're constantly thwarted by the supernatural shenanigans of Phoedra, who pits brother against brother as the deadly Iron Warrior is--you guessed it--the grown Trogar, whose body and soul have been taken over by the spell of Phoedra.

Or something like that. IRON WARRIOR makes absolutely no sense and there's no chemistry between O'Keeffe and Gersak, reunited from Ruggero Deodato's 1986 Indiana Jones ripoff THE LONE RUNNER (released in the US in 1988 by Trans World Entertainment, who also got IRON WARRIOR on a whopping 17 screens in January 1987), but it's so hypnotic and strange from beginning to end that it ultimately doesn't matter. It's disorienting by design, especially a scene where Ator and Janna cross a precarious suspension bridge that's genuinely dizzying to watch. It's an ATOR movie on shrooms, something that Red and Mandy would watch while eating TV dinners, and the only reason it hasn't been embraced by the stoner crowd is because they just aren't aware of it. There's enough craziness here that I'm willing to bet Assonitis--known for firing directors and finishing movies himself--had more to do with the creative direction of this than Brescia, especially when you consider the bizarre imagery in something like THE VISITOR. But for all its visual flair, it's still tough to take it seriously when Deeva's trial of Phoedra employs the same type of "Council of Elders" faces on a giant screen behind the accused, who stands there shackled by rotating hula hoops on loan from Jor-El. Or the Iron Warrior's resemblance to Darth Vader. Or a long action sequence where Ator and Janna are in a cavern being chased by giant RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK rolling boulders. O'Keeffe's catatonic performance actually enhances the hazy, stoned vibe, though he wouldn't be back for the fourth and final ATOR installment, 1990's QUEST FOR THE MIGHTY SWORD. That marked the return of Massaccesi and the introduction of a new Ator in the form of Grand Rapids, MI native Eric Allan Kramer, who presumably got the job after playing Thor in the 1988 TV-movie THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS (Kramer is probably best known as Little John in Mel Brooks' ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS, and he's currently co-starring on the critically-acclaimed AMC series LODGE 49). As far as IRON WARRIOR is concerned, Scorpion's Blu-ray certainly makes the case that there's some artistic merit to it, even if the method to its madness gets lost along the way. Nevertheless, it takes a lesser-ranked place among other threequels--HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH or THE EXORCIST III, for example--that either break from established formula or serve as outliers or stealth secret weapons in their respective franchises, an ATOR: TOKYO DRIFT, if you will.