Thursday, July 9, 2020

Retro Review: DREAM DEMON (1988)

(UK - 1988; US release 1993)

Directed by Harley Cokliss. Written by Christopher Wicking, Harley Cokliss and Catherine de Pury. Cast: Kathleen Wilhoite, Jemma Redgrave, Timothy Spall, Jimmy Nail, Nickolas Grace, Susan Fleetwood, Mark Greenstreet, Annabelle Lanyon. (Unrated, director's cut: 88 mins; theatrical cut: 89 mins)

The British horror film DREAM DEMON got some pre-release hype in Fangoria and already established its genre bona fides with a script co-written by Christopher Wicking (SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB) before going on to do decent business in the UK in the fall of 1988. But it ran into one obstacle after another on its bumpy road to an American release. It was picked up by indie Spectrafilm but they went bankrupt before they could release it. Then it was acquired by a financially-strapped Vestron and they folded as well. It languished in legal limbo for some time until Warner Bros. bought it, sat on it for a while, and eventually gave it a stealth direct-to-video release in 1993, by which time the two franchises that obviously influenced it--A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and HELLRAISER--had already commercially peaked. On the basis of its title alone, much like 1988's BAD DREAMS, it's easy to dismiss DREAM DEMON as a blatant ELM STREET knockoff. It's not altogether successful, but it's got some interesting ideas of its own that go a little beyond simply cribbing from Wes Craven and Clive Barker. Some of those ideas are a little too British to really go over with American audiences, which was likely another factor in its long-delayed US release.

It's anchored by a pair of strong performances that give it a little more credibility than your standard-issue ELM STREET ripoff. In her film debut, Jemma Redgrave (of the legendary acting dynasty--she's Corin's daughter and the niece of Vanessa and Lynn) is Diana Markham, a repressed, virginal London schoolteacher and the daughter of wealthy parents who have just bought her a large house with multiple flats as an early wedding gift. She's engaged to Oliver (Mark Greenstreet), a career military man and beloved Falklands War hero, which makes her a regular target of sleazy tabloid reporter Paul (Jimmy Nail) and his repulsive photographer Peck (Timothy Spall). Diana has been plagued by disturbing nightmares in which she sees a little girl surrounded by fire and bleeding cracks in the wall that ooze flesh, imagines violent sexual assaults by Oliver, and senses some kind of presence drawing her to the basement. Her doctor (Susan Fleetwood, Mick's sister) tells her it's just pre-wedding jitters (the film's best moment is a nightmare nuptial sequence at the beginning), and an inattentive, unconcerned Oliver tells her to "just take a pill." But she knows it's something more, a feeling that's cemented by brash American visitor Jenny (Kathleen Wilhoite), who's just arrived from L.A. trying to sort out the identity of her deceased birth parents, a trail that's led her to Diana's house. Jenny was adopted as a child and knows she lived in the house, but has no memory of what happened to her parents or why she was sent to America. The two become fast friends, with Jenny sticking around to help her handle the persistent tabloid guys when Oliver is called away for the weekend. Even Jenny dismisses Diana's nightmares--in which she sees Peck metamorphosed into a disgusting pseudo-Mr. Creosote--until she herself starts seeing the same visions of the little girl and fire and finds herself lost in some alternate netherworld in the basement, with Diana somehow having an ability to pull Jenny into her dreams and into a world that she can't leave until Diana wakes up.

It's almost exactly the midpoint when DREAM DEMON switches gears from ELM STREET to HELLRAISER or, more specifically, becomes distinctly "Clive Barker-esque," with the basement grotesqueries involving Peck and Paul prefiguring some of the Midian imagery of 1990's NIGHTBREED. It tries to establish some serious character depth with the dual repressions of its female protagonists, but it loses the thread along the way and is ambiguous to a fault. Wicking and American director/co-writer Harley Cokeliss (BLACK MOON RISING, MALONE)--back when he was still going by "Harley Cokliss" and likely added the "e" later on to prevent the kind of childish giggling such as when 13-year-old me saw his name on the BLACK MOON RISING poster--never seem to settle on whether it's the house that's causing Diana's dreams or if it's her dreams that have opened a portal of some kind. It backs them into a corner to some extent, prompting a sudden shift in focus through the third act as the film becomes less about Diana and more about what happened to Jenny in the house when she was a child. Just out on an extras-packed Blu-ray from Arrow (because physical media is dead), DREAM DEMON is presented in a newly-restored, breathtakingly pristine transfer that marks the home video debut of Cokeliss' intended director's cut, which is actually one minute shorter than what got released decades ago. Both versions are on the Blu-ray, and the only difference is that the director's cut loses a final, almost comic relief scene involving Paul and Peck, probably put there in 1988 since Nail and a pre-Mike Leigh Spall were both well-known from the popular mid '80s British ITV comedy series AUF WIEDERSEHEN, PET.

Neither ending is very satisfying, and the early invocation of the Falklands War and the heavy-handed way the film has the tabloid guys hounding Diana as a way of satirizing the media's obsession with Princess Diana (isn't giving her the same name a little too on-the-nose?) is something that probably played better with British audiences but still doesn't really have much bearing on anything that follows. Still, there's enough good things in DREAM DEMON with the general mood and atmosphere (the house is a very effective location that gives the proceedings a nice Hammer/Amicus vibe) that you wish it turned out better than it does. It also gets a considerable boost from the excellent work by Redgrave, who bears a striking resemblance to her cousin Natasha Richardson, and Wilhoite, playing very much the "Kathleen Wilhoite" persona that she established as a potty-mouthed young criminal opposite Charles Bronson in MURPHY'S LAW and as the scene-stealing "just some more psychic humor!" clairvoyant Zarabeth in WITCHBOARD. She even gets to Wilhoite it up as Jenny scoffs at the doctor talking about astral projection as a way to explain Diana pulling her into her dreams, blurting "C'mon, I've only known her for two days! This astral body shit's for hippies!"

Timothy Spall and director Harley Cokeliss on the set of DREAM DEMON

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Retro Review: AMERICAN RICKSHAW (1989)

(Italy - 1989; US release 1991)

Directed by Martin Dolman (Sergio Martino). Written by Sauro Scavolini, Roberto Leoni and Maria Perrone Capano. Cast: Mitch Gaylord, Daniel Greene, Victoria Prouty, Donald Pleasence, Michi Kobi, Roger Pretto, Regina Rodriguez, Darin De Paul, Judi Clayton, Glenn Maska, Carmen Lopez, Gregg Todd Davis, Sherrie Rose, Von B. Von Lindenberg. (Unrated, 96 mins)

Like me, if you saw the generic-looking AMERICAN TIGER VHS cover art to the left in the video store back in the early '90s, you probably didn't even give it a second glance. There was Mitch Gaylord, who led the gold medal-winning US gymnastics team at the 1984 Summer Olympics on his way to washing out as a leading man in the 1986 flop AMERICAN ANTHEM, slumming in what appeared to be a run-of-the-mill Italian-made actioner of some sort with the meaningless tag line "Miami just got hotter..." just in case the pastel color scheme didn't already vaguely remind you of MIAMI VICE. Oh, what a foolish mistake we made by dismissing this and putting this back on the shelf! Released in Europe in 1989 under its original title AMERICAN RICKSHAW, the film was retitled by Academy Entertainment for its 1991 straight-to-video release in the US, and you almost have to wonder if the marketing people at Academy ever bothered to watch it.

For about an hour, it's a somewhat slow-moving and barely-coherent hodgepodge of action, blackmail, sex, intrigue, religious cults, supernatural horror, and nonsensical Asian mysticism with some bonus inaccurate folklore that has about as much legitimacy as the old Calgon "Ancient Chinese Secret!" commercial. It seems as if director Sergio Martino (under his frequent '80s pseudonym "Martin Dolman") and co-writers Sauro Scavolini (YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY) and Roberto Leoni (THE FINAL EXECUTIONER, SANTA SANGRE) are riffing on BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, and it progresses in a weird enough way until the last half hour, when AMERICAN RICKSHAW goes so off-the-rails bonkers on a one-way trip to Crazytown that even attempting to explain it is an exercise in futility. The fact that there's almost no cult following around this thing has to be blamed on either that bland Academy Entertainment VHS cover (the Italian poster seen above at least appears to sell the supernatural angle) or on people who did rent it ejecting it halfway through out of boredom, while the select few who are aware of it have done a good job of keeping it to themselves. That finally seems to be changing, as AMERICAN RICKSHAW is one of the inaugural releases of the new Blu-ray company Cauldron Films, because physical media is dead. It probably ranks second on the list of 2020's insane Blu-ray resurrections, right after Arrow's WHITE FIRE (WHITE FI-YAAA!), and like that film, it warms my heart to know that there's still mind-blowing gems like this hiding out there, overlooked in their day and patiently waiting all these years to be unearthed.

Much like what happened with NYC and Atlanta in the late '70s and early '80s and with Fabrizio De Angelis' hostile takeover of Page, AZ in the mid '80s, AMERICAN RICKSHAW was produced during a time when Italian exploitation guys were a regular presence in Florida, particularly the Miami area, where Martino shot the boxing drama THE OPPONENT a year earlier. Gaylord stars as college kid Scott Edwards, studying engineering while working part-time at American Rickshaw, a rickshaw service that's big in the tourist areas and popular night spots. One night, his fare, a sultry stripper named Joanna (Victoria Prouty in her simultaneous debut and farewell from cinema) seduces him on a boat, where he discovers a perv hiding in the closet has videotaped the encounter. An enraged Scott beats the shit out of the perv--cutting his own foot on some broken glass in the process--and makes off with the videotape, but discovers when he gets home that it's the wrong one. He goes back to the boat to find the perv drowned in the toilet, and his blood, his fingerprints, and a missing sex tape putting him right there at the murder scene.

A fire ignites and destroys the boat, but the tape is in the possession of ruthless assassin Francis (FALCON CREST's Daniel Greene, who starred in several Martino films starting with 1986's HANDS OF STEEL). He's looking for a key that was on a necklace worn by the dead perv, who's revealed to be Jason Mortom (Gregg Todd Davis), the black sheep son of frothing, fire-and-brimstone megachurch televangelist Rev. Samuel Mortom (Donald Pleasence, chewing on a really hammy Southern accent). It seems--and yes, this gets complicated--Jason and Scott were born on the same day--June 6, 1966 in the Year of the Tiger, according to the Chinese calendar (note: 1966 is not a Year of the Tiger, but 1962 and 1976 are; 1966 is a Year of the Horse, so the movie doesn't even get it right)--and for their entire lives, they've been "linked" and watched over psychically from afar by elderly Chinese mystic Madame Luna (Michi Kobi). She was once in possession of a glowing talisman that holds the key to immortality, and it was stolen from her years ago by the evil Rev. Mortom, in actuality a cult leader who has assigned disciple Francis to retrieve it after Jason stashes it in a train station locker as part of an extortion plot against his father.

By the time one of the cops investigating Jason's death conveniently turns out to be a secret expert in Chinese folklore ("They were born on the same day! 6/6/1966 is the day of four sixes! The high point of the Year of the Tiger, the day of maximum power!" he breathlessly exclaims to his unimpressed partner) and characters start babbling about "celestial spheres," "The Stone of Evil," and "The Urn of Wisdom," things start to seem less like the Van Damme knockoff that the AMERICAN TIGER box art was selling and more like the lyrical outline to an abandoned Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe concept album. This sets up a string of events--including Scott threatening Joanna with a needle and warning "You scream, I swear to God I'm gonna stick you with this thing. I found it in the gutter, I'm sure you're familiar with AIDS!" and one of the greatest dummy deaths I've ever seen--culminating in a jawdropper of a climax that's equal parts VIDEODROME and SPIRITED AWAY, and certainly belongs in the Donald Pleasence career highlight reel.

Pleasence probably only worked on this for a day or two (he was in nine movies in 1989, including another one for Martino, CASABLANCA EXPRESS), but he really immerses himself in his Southern drawl ("Aah shale keel yuuuuuu!"). Unlike most Italian productions of the time, AMERICAN RICKSHAW was shot with live sound aside from a couple of bit players who sound revoiced by veteran dubber Nick Alexander. There are no Italians in the cast, with the supporting roles filled by regional actors from the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas (Davis was also in THE OPPONENT and Umberto Lenzi's Miami-lensed NIGHTMARE BEACH around the same time, and Judy Clayton, as Rev. Mortom's wife, later had small roles in Florida-shot titles like COP AND A HALF, ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE, and BULLY). Mitch Gaylord's place as an Olympic hero is secure, but his big-screen aspirations never panned out. After AMERICAN RICKSHAW, he landed roles in two post-BASIC INSTINCT unrated DTV erotic thrillers--1992's ANIMAL INSTINCTS and 1994's SEXUAL OUTLAWS--and served as Chris O'Donnell's stunt double in BATMAN FOREVER. Aside from a one-off return with a supporting role in the 2005 indie comedy CONFESSIONS OF AN ACTION STAR, his acting career appears to be on permanent hold, though he remained active in the sports world, covering gymnastics for NBC Sports and Fox Sports, and found some success as a fitness guru and motivational speaker. It's doubtful AMERICAN RICKSHAW ever came up in his presentations. It needs to.

One of cinema's great unsung dummy deaths.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Retro Review: BODY AND SOUL (1981)

(US - 1981)

Directed by George Bowers. Written by Leon Isaac Kennedy. Cast: Leon Isaac Kennedy, Jayne Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, Peter Lawford, Michael V. Gazzo, Perry Lang, Kim Hamilton, Gilbert Lewis, Nikki Swasey, Danny Wells, Johnny Brown, Azizi Johari, Rosanne Katon, Chris Wallace, Al Denavo, Robbie Epps, J. B. Williamson, Mel Welles, DeForrest Covan, Eddie Mustafos, Ola Ray. (R, 105 mins)

"I just wish you were double-jointed so you could turn around and kiss your own ass!" 

A minor hit for Cannon in the fall of 1981 before being generally forgotten in the ensuing decades, BODY AND SOUL was a remake of the 1947 John Garfield boxing classic retooled for Leon Isaac Kennedy and Jayne Kennedy during the brief moment in time when they were a celebrity power couple. Leon was a DJ in Cleveland and Detroit who broke into movies in the early '70s with small roles in HAMMER and MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS before scoring a huge sleeper hit with Jamaa Fanaka's 1979 prison boxing saga PENITENTIARY. Jayne was a model, actress, and sportscaster who became the first African-American woman to co-host a Sunday NFL show when she replaced Phyllis George and joined Brent Musberger on CBS' NFL TODAY in 1978. Leon and Jayne were married in 1971 and appeared together in Cirio H. Santiago's 1978 Filipino actioner DEATH FORCE (aka FIGHTING MAD), but by 1981, between Leon's success with PENITENTIARY and Jayne's high-profile presence in sports broadcasting and on magazine covers, they had enough clout to get the green light on a dream project like BODY AND SOUL--written by Leon himself--even if it was with Cannon, still finding its niche in the early days of the Golan-Globus era.

Leon stars as Leon Johnson, a gifted boxer who doesn't really take the sport very seriously until his wheelchair-bound kid sister Kelly (Nikki Swasey, who had a recurring role on DIFF'RENT STROKES as Arnold's snobby nemesis, Lisa Hayes) needs expensive treatments to battle sickle cell disease. He drops out of med school to reinvent himself as Leon "The Lover" Johnson, a flashy showoff who even seeks out Muhammad Ali--as himself--as a trainer. Ali turns him down ("Look at you, you look like a mosquito!" the Champ quips), and instead gives him one of his own entourage, grizzled old Frankie (GODFATHER PART II Oscar-nominee Michael V. Gazzo, credited as "Mike Gazzo" in one of those short-lived, mid-career name changes that never stick unless you're Laurence Fishburne--just ask Charles Sheen, Chris Walken, Don Pleasence, Brad Dillman, or Jim Brolin), to function as the Mickey to his Rocky, along with Leon's usual trainer, his goofball buddy Charles (a really terrible performance by Perry Lang). All the while, Leon falls hard for sports reporter Julie Winters (Jayne), who's assigned to cover his quick ascent in the ring and ends up engaged to him over the course of a single montage set to "With You I'm Born Again" by Billy Preston and Syreeta.

Leon and director George Bowers (THE HEARSE, MY TUTOR) lean in on the montage as a way to cut through huge chunks of story, which soon relies on an extensive checklist of every rise-fall-redemption cliche in the playbook: Leon gets seduced by the glitz and glamour, starts sleeping around, Julie catches him in a foursome (!), he's offered a too-good-to-be-true-deal by sleazy, corrupt, mob-connected promoter "Big Man" (Peter Lawford, in one of his last films), and Charles falls under the spell of drugs after one of Big Man's flunkies (Gilbert Lewis) gives him some coke and immediately gets him hooked ("Hey, man...you ever heard of freebasing?" he asks Charles in the most Afterschool Special tone imaginable). Big Man then offers Leon $200,000 to bet against himself and throw a fight, forcing him to get his priorities together, win back Julie, get Charles off drugs after they have a huge falling-out ("Give your money to your dope man for your freebase and your angel dust!"), and finally get some workout time in with Ali, who takes part in a sparring sequence with the writer/star but you can tell The Champ--who would lose his final fight and retire from the ring a month after BODY AND SOUL hit theaters--is going a little easy on him.

Just out on Blu-ray from Scorpion (because physical media is dead), BODY AND SOUL has enough overwrought elements that you almost wish it would go all-in on its heavy-handed histrionics, whether it's Charles' drug addiction ("We created monsters, Leon!") or the soap opera melodrama of Leon and Julie's up-and-down relationship. She has to put up with his ego, his female fan base who call themselves "Leon's Lovelies" and throw their panties in the ring during his fights, and then she bets it all when she mortgages her house and puts it all on him to win, forcing him to put integrity first ("I don't play with hearts the way you do!" she yells, reminding him "I bet every cent I have on my man to win!"), even though he's ostensibly only in it for his sister ("You bought into it! You became your biggest fan!"). The climactic bout, pitting Leon against Big Man's next big thing--raging psycho Ricardo "Madman" Santiago (Al Denavo), who's introduced violently hurling a baby to the ground when its diaper leaks on his lap--is one of the most ludicrously absurd boxing matches ever depicted onscreen. Santiago does about 25 things worthy of disqualification--including below-the-belt hits, a very late blow to the head after the bell, and an early version of Mike Tyson's infamous Evander Holyfield ear chomp--and yet the ref never stops the fight.

Sure, BODY AND SOUL is dumb, predictable, and formulaic as hell, but there's a scrappy energy to it amidst all the stupidity. It never goes all the way into full-on bad movie territory but takes itself just seriously enough to be sufficiently amusing in an unintentional way. Leon Isaac Kennedy--who, despite his striking resemblance to Sugar Ray Leonard and starring in several boxing movies, was not an actual boxer--would reteam with Jamaa Fanaka for 1982's PENITENTIARY II and 1987's insane PENITENTIARY III (the latter tragically MIA on DVD and Blu-ray), and would write and star in 1986's KNIGHTS OF THE CITY (featuring Smokey Robinson, an old friend from his Motown radio days and best man at his and Jayne's wedding), while staying busy in B movies like 1983's LONE WOLF MCQUADE, 1985's TOO SCARED TO SCREAM, and 1986's HOLLYWOOD VICE SQUAD. Both Leon and Jayne would retire from acting by the early '90s, with Leon becoming a minister and Jayne devoting much of her time to the charity organization Children's Miracle Network and raising awareness for endometriosis after being diagnosed with the condition in the late '80s. BODY AND SOUL didn't lead to further pairings for the celebrity couple, however: they divorced in 1982, not long after the film's release.

BODY AND SOUL opening in Toledo, OH on 11/20/1981

Sunday, July 5, 2020


(US - 2020)

Directed by Rod Lurie. Written by Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson. Cast: Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones, Orlando Bloom, Jack Kesy, Cory Hardrict, Milo Gibson, Jacob Scipio, Taylor John Smith, Jonathan Yunger, Alexander Arnold, George Arvidson, Will Attenborough, Chris Born, Ernest Cavazos, Scott Alda Coffey, Jack Devos, Sharif Dorani, Henry Hughes, James Jagger, Jack Kalian, Bobby Lockwood, Kwame Patterson, Daniel Rodriguez, Alfie Stewart, Trey Tucker, Brandon Wengryznek. (R, 123 mins)

THE OUTPOST is a harrowing chronicle of the Battle of Kamdesh, the bloodiest battle of the war in Afghanistan, taking place over a 12-hour period on October 3, 2009. In 2006, a series of outposts were created throughout the region to promote counterinsurgency, goodwill relations with locals, and to stop the flow of weapons and Taliban fighters coming in from Pakistan. PRT Kamdesh, which would eventually be renamed Camp Keating, was positioned in a cavernous area at the bottom of three peaks of the Hindu Kush Mountains, prompting one military analyst at the time to comment that it "might as well be called Camp Custer, because everyone at the outpost was going to die." Almost entirely surrounded by steep mountains with plenty of hiding places for the Taliban to mount an ambush, PRT Kamdesh is attacked in small bursts at least once a day, just to remind the Americans that they're constantly being observed. The outpost is run by CPT Keating (Orlando Bloom), who's respected by the men  and also takes his role as diplomat seriously. He establishes a good relationship with the Afghan locals, but it's a harbinger of doom to come when he's killed by a bomb blast on patrol, prompting the renaming of PRT Kamdesh to Camp Keating in his honor.

Much of the first half of THE OUTPOST is spent on establishing the atmosphere and getting to know the characters, which does get a bit dizzying and hard to follow at times. The primary soldiers on which the film focuses are outsider Sgt. Ty Carter (Caleb Landry Jones), a Marine washout and a bad attitude case who routinely mouths off to superior officers and is generally regarded as an unreliable pain in the ass by everyone, and Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha (Scott Eastwood), who's just been brought in with a new group as the film begins. There's a lot of ball-busting of the homophobic and racist variety to blow off steam ("You smell like a bag of dicks," says one, while another asks "If you had to fuck a guy, gun to your head, who would it be?" and the answer is "No gun necessary. Chuck Norris"), and one guy going off when he catches another jerking off to a stolen photo of his wife. Camp Keating goes through commanders in rapid succession: Keating's replacement, CPT Yllescas (Milo Gibson, one of Mel's sons), whose motto is "Embrace the suck," is, like his predecessor, killed by a bomb while on a routine patrol, and he's followed by the stern, standoffish CPT Broward (Kwame Patterson), who won't leave his quarters--even filling jars of piss for Carter to dispose--and there's soon whispers calling him "Broward the Coward." By the summer of 2009, Broward is relieved of duty and Keating is left in the temporary command of second-in-charge Lt. Bunderman (Taylor John Smith), with the outpost set to be closed by the Army by the first week of October. And at 5:58 am on October 3, 2009, over 300 Taliban and Afghan insurgents unleash hell from all sides of the surrounding mountains, the relentless attack coming from everywhere.

Based on the 2012 non-fiction book The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor by CNN anchor Jake Tapper (also one of about two dozen producers, along with Medal of Honor recipient Ty Carter), THE OUTPOST is directed by Rod Lurie, a West Point grad and film critic-turned-filmmaker who hasn't helmed a feature since his badly-received 2011 remake of Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS. Lurie put himself in a no-win situation by remaking such an iconic film, but taken on its own terms, his version has its merits, especially with its sinister depiction of the underlying sense of menace in a small Southern town that doesn't take too kindly to outsiders. Of course, Lurie is best known for 2000's political drama THE CONTENDER, and while he's helmed other solid films (1999's DETERRENCE, 2001's THE LAST CASTLE, 2008's NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH), THE OUTPOST is his best work in the last 20 years. What's most surprising about THE OUTPOST is the fact that it's produced by Cannon cover band Millennium and was shot in their usual stomping grounds of Bulgaria. It speaks to Lurie's skill and dedication to the project--and perhaps everyone rallying around him when his 27-year-old son Hunter, to whom the film is dedicated, died unexpectedly during pre-production--that he manages to transcend Millennium's sometimes dubious budgetary constraints and quality-control issues and makes this film look like it came from a major studio. Even the clown crew at Bulgaria's Worldwide FX brings their A-game when it comes to the visual effects and CGI explosions.

With the B outfit Screen Media Films handling distribution, THE OUTPOST was likely doomed to a VOD release even before COVID-19 closed movie theaters indefinitely, but this is maybe the first new film I've seen since the advent of the pandemic that really should be seen on a big screen. Even at home, however, it succeeds as best it can in being an immersive experience, with Lurie presenting a seamlessly-edited, expertly-crafted 45-minute sequence in the second hour depicting the battle, with long takes and time spent establishing where everyone is in relation to others, creating coherence amidst the chaos, something many films of this sort don't really get a handle on. Jones does a terrific job of showing the arc of a character from screw-up to shattered hero without turning it into a cliche (and his acting in his final scene is reminiscent of Tom Hanks' breakdown in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS), while Eastwood, in a breakout performance, looks and sounds so much like his old man that it's actually eerie, especially when Broward chews out Romesha about returning fire on "suspicious activity" without authorization, and Eastwood seethes "Suspicious? So where were the bullets coming from, sir?" like Dirty Harry smarting off to a pencil-pushing boss. In addition to Eastwood and Gibson, other celebrity lineages are represented with Will Attenborough (grandson of Richard), Scott Alda Coffey (grandson of Alan Alda), and James Jagger (son of Mick), playing various soldiers at Camp Keating. A gritty, uncompromising look at the hell of war that's refreshingly lacking in tough guy posturing and jingoistic silliness typical of military actioners off the Millennium assembly line, THE OUTPOST is to the war in Afghanistan what BLACK HAWK DOWN was to the Battle of Mogadishu (fitting that Bloom is both movies), and it's one of the best films of the year so far.

Caleb Landry Jones, Rod Lurie (with pic of his late son Hunter),
and Scott Eastwood on the set of THE OUTPOST

Friday, July 3, 2020

Retro Review: CARAVANS (1978)

(US/Iran - 1978)

Directed by James Fargo. Written by Nancy Voyles Crawford, Thomas A. McMahon and Lorraine Williams. Cast: Anthony Quinn, Jennifer O'Neill, Michael Sarrazin, Behrooz Vosoughi, Joseph Cotten, Christopher Lee, Barry Sullivan, Mohammad Ali Keshavarz, Mohammad Taghi Kahnamooi, Jeremy Kemp, Duncan Quinn, Behrooz Gueramian, Parviz Gharib-Afshar, Parviz Jafari, Fahimeh Amouzandeh. (PG, 125 mins)

A costly flop for Universal in the fall of 1978, CARAVANS was based on a 1963 novel by James A. Michener and had been in development at various studios for well over a decade. Henri Verneuil, Richard Fleischer, and Herbert Ross were all attached to direct at different times, but the job ended up going to Clint Eastwood protege James Fargo, who had been part of the Malpaso inner circle for several years, serving as an assistant director on HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, BREEZY, THE EIGER SANCTION, and THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. Eastwood eventually promoted Fargo to director on 1976's THE ENFORCER and 1978's EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, and in between Eastwood gigs, Fargo also logged time as an assistant director and production manager for Steven Spielberg on DUEL, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, and JAWS. In short, two successful filmmakers could vouch for Fargo, which was probably the key to landing him the CARAVANS gig. But the film died instantly at the box office and Michener, whose novels were made into well-received films like THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI, SAYONARA, SOUTH PACIFIC, HAWAII, and the epic 1978 NBC miniseries CENTENNIAL, didn't hold back in expressing his dissatisfaction with the finished product.

Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), the almost completely obscure CARAVANS (there isn't even a trailer on YouTube) is beautifully shot by the great Douglas Slocombe (THE LION IN WINTER, THE ITALIAN JOB, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK), and as badly as it tanked, it still managed to nab one Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, losing to DEATH ON THE NILE. A US/Iranian co-production, it was shot on location in Iran during the waning days of the country being a friendly place for a movie shoot, just before the overthrow of the Shah and the takeover by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. In 1948 in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Zadestan, the US ambassador (Joseph Cotten) and a CIA official (Barry Sullivan) assign diplomat Mark Miller (Michael Sarrazin) to track down the whereabouts of Ellen Jasper (Jennifer O'Neill), the daughter of a powerful US senator. A free spirit, Ellen left her family and fled America, becoming one of the wives of feared Zadestan military figure Col. Nazrullah (famed Iranian star Behrooz Vosoughi), the nephew of the country's ruler Sardar Khan (Christopher Lee). Miller is granted permission by Khan to visit Nazrullah in his stronghold in the city of Bandahar, where the uncooperative colonel insists that Ellen is fine and that Miller will just have to take his word for it since she renounced her rights as an American and as her husband, he speaks for her. It turns out Ellen ran away from Nazrullah ten months earlier and he's been trying to find her as well. Following a lead on her possible location, Miller ends up crashing his Jeep in the middle of nowhere in the desert, where he's rescued by the Kochi, a nomadic tribe of gunrunners led by Zulffiqar (Anthony Quinn). Ellen has been hiding with the Kochi, who have welcomed her as one of their own and she has no intention of returning to either Nazrullah or her family in America. But Nazrullah, after learning Miller is traveling with the Kochi, correctly assumes Ellen is with them as well and leads his forces in hunting them down.

A tedious slog that feels twice as long as it is, CARAVANS ambles along with no momentum or sense of pacing whatsoever. An uncharacteristically blank Sarrazin is an unbelievably dull hero, and he's required to carry much of the film since Quinn and O'Neill don't even appear until 45 minutes in. Elsewhere, the other big names and familiar faces--Lee, Cotten, Sullivan, Jeremy Kemp--are relegated to cameos, but at least Lee gets to stroll around the visually stunning Shah Abbas Hotel, which was such a memorable location in the 1974 version of TEN LITTLE INDIANS and functions here as Sardar Khan's palace (this would also be the first of three big-budget international duds for Quinn and Lee in a short period of time, the pair also appearing together in 1979's THE PASSAGE and 1981's THE SALAMANDER). A loving father eager to help his kids, Quinn also scored a prominent supporting role for his son Duncan Quinn as Zulfiqqar's ambitious son, though Duncan didn't inherit his dad's talent or onscreen charisma and his acting career stalled after small roles in just four films. It doesn't get any better when Fargo tries to shoehorn in some comic relief in the form of an oafish Kochi tribesman fighting with a stubborn camel, complete with wacky music and a punchline shot of the camel eating the tribesman's pants. And that's before the film deploys a feel-good montage set to the overwrought CARAVANS theme song "Caravan Song" performed by Scottish singer Barbara Dickson, which became a hit single in the UK. CARAVANS made a hasty retreat from theaters and was enough of a bomb that Fargo's Dipshit David Lean aspirations only resulted in the stalling of his directing career. EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE was already in the can and about to be released, but Eastwood effectively played the "James Fargo? Never heard of him!" card after that and never utilized his services again, and amidst TV gigs (including episodes of SCARECROW AND MRS. KING, THE A-TEAM, HUNTER, and BEVERLY HILLS 90210), forgettable B-movies (his last credit to date is the 2011 Casper Van Dien DTV biker movie BORN TO RIDE), and uncredited reshoots on the 1981 hit PRIVATE LESSONS, the only noteworthy film Fargo subsequently directed was the 1982 Chuck Norris actioner FORCED VENGEANCE.

Anthony Quinn, Behrooz Vosoughi, and Michael Sarrazin
can barely contain their enthusiasm on the set of CARAVANS. 

Thursday, July 2, 2020

On Blu-ray/DVD/VOD: FORCE OF NATURE (2020) and THE LEGION (2020)

(US - 2020)

There'll no doubt be a knee-jerk, cancel-culture reaction among some to trash FORCE OF NATURE sight unseen just because they object to Mel Gibson being employed. But if you take the time to actually watch it, you'll find so many more valid reasons to hate it. An utterly, depressingly perfunctory Lionsgate/Grindstone DTV time-waster, FORCE OF NATURE is directed by Michael Polish who, with his twin brother Mark, formed the once-promising Polish Brothers team behind the 1999 cult indie hit TWIN FALLS IDAHO. That's a generation ago at this point, and after 2003's higher-profile NORTHFORK flopped, the brothers never really regained their momentum. Michael is flying solo here in hired-gun mode for this Puerto Rico-shot high-rise mayhem/disaster movie hybrid set during a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on San Juan (think THE RAID: REDEMPTION meets THE HURRICANE HEIST). Burned-out, suicidal cop Cardillo (Emile Hirsch) and rookie partner Pena (Stephanie Cayo) are sent to an apartment complex to force two stubborn residents to evacuate: aging German Bergkamp (Jorge Luis Ramos) and terminally ill retired cop Ray (Gibson), whose doctor daughter Troy (Kate Bosworth, Polish's wife) is desperately trying to get him to the hospital so he doesn't miss a dialysis treatment. Ray is a surly pain in the ass suffering from kidney and lung issues with some bonus colitis, and fears that if he goes in the hospital, he won't come out. But there's a bigger issue at hand: psycho criminal John the Baptist (David Zayas) and his crew are made aware of a Van Gogh painting worth $55 million that's in one of the units of the building, and with everyone presumably evacuated, all they need to do is go through each unit to find it. But they need to get rid of the unexpected witnesses, and thus begins a "survive the night" scenario as two separated groups--one with Cardillo, Troy, Bergkamp and tenant Griffin (Will Catlett) and the other Ray and Pena--are forced to take on a ruthless, trigger-happy John the Baptist as the hurricane rages around them.

This is serviceable B-movie material handled in the dumbest and least-inspired, DIPSHIT KEY LARGO way possible. Polish never really establishes the layout of the apartment complex, so it's hard to tell where anyone is in relation to others. Introduced taking an epic, gun-pointed-at-his-own-head Decompression Shower (© David James Keaton), Cardillo's baggage involves his accidentally shooting his ex-girlfriend and fellow cop back in NYC, which sent him on a downward spiral that landed him in San Juan, and somehow, the whole city knows about it ("How do you know about that?" he asks John the Baptist, who replies "I'm John the Baptist...I know everything!"). Griffin has a cop-hating black panther (!) locked up in a room in his apartment (!!), so you know there's no way that won't come into play at some point, and rest assured, Cory Miller's script makes it happen in the most idiotic way possible. Third-billed Gibson is on total Bruce Willis duty and really isn't in it all that much--in fact, Willis was set to play Ray until he backed out and Gibson replaced him. Imagine if you can an installment of Lionsgate/Grindstone's landmark "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series that Willis deemed unworthy of his time. Cancellation-era Gibson has done some fine work in under-the-radar gems like BLOOD FATHER and DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE, but he's just phoning it in here, playing Ray as an older, near-death variation of the plays-by-his-own rules Riggs from LETHAL WEAPON. I can deal with Gibson being an asshole anger management case offscreen while still respecting his work onscreen. But he's gotta try harder than FORCE OF NATURE. (R, 91 mins)

(US/Spain - 2020)

After a half-dozen production company logos, you're barely a minute into THE LEGION when you hear Oscar-nominated actor Mickey Rourke mispronounce "Caligula" as "Ca-lig-lee-uh" and you know you're in for something special. Rourke seems hellbent on squandering whatever reputation he has remaining with his one-day-on-the-set clockpunch of an appearance in this laughably cheap, incompetently-made melodrama set in 62 AD. As a disgruntled general named Corbulo, Rourke--with an eye patch, highlighted hair, Lee Press-On Nails, and enough mascara on his visible eye to make him the next face of L'Oreal (because he's worth it)--spends almost all of his screen time alone, against an obvious greenscreen, mumbling and ranting at a bust of Nero using curiously present-day vernacular, whether it's dropping F-bombs or complaining about a rival's "grubby little hands." Corbulo is peeved that Nero chose another general, Paetus (Joaquim de Almeida), to lead Roman troops into Parthia, where they've been surrounded on all sides by enemy forces and will likely die of starvation and exposure if they aren't killed first. Paetus and his adviser Marcus (Vladimir Kulich) decide to send soldier Noreno (Lee Partridge) on a foreboding mission across treacherous terrain to get to Corbulo and beg him to marshal his troops to rescue the Roman forces.

If that sounds a little like 1917 by way of ancient Rome, you're not far off, aside from the fact that THE LEGION makes Uwe Boll look like Cecil B. DeMille, is saddled with a pitifully low budget, and can almost muster a cast of tens despite having 41 credited producers. Most of the film is dedicated to Noreno running, running, and running some more, periodically stopping to battle a Parthian soldier he might encounter or rescue a young woman (Marta Castellvi) from being raped (she repays the favor by firing an arrow into the chest of a Parthian soldier who's attacking Noreno). He does some soul searching with an aging hermit named Saul (Bosco Hogan) and finally makes it to Corbulo's stronghold, where his arrival is announced and is met with Mickey Rourke mumbling, in the parlance of 62 AD, "A messenger? Where the fuck is he?" The big climax is a long, meandering discussion between Corbulo and his mistress Amiriah (Bai Ling), who has to talk him off the ledge and set him straight after the diva general refuses to help Paetus. Delivering performances that'll make you appreciate the dedication and pride that Steven Seagal takes in his craft, Rourke and Ling audibly flub lines and mispronounce words to the point that they might just be deliberately fucking with director Jose Magan, a veteran Spanish producer making his debut behind the camera (represented by the gaffe-afflicted credit "Directed Jose Magan"). Other than Xavier Gens' Lovecraftian COLD SKIN, Magan is hardly a producer of repute, having bankrolled the entirety of the unwatchable 2001-2006 output of Spanish non-auteur Maria Lidon, aka "Luna" (STRANDED, THE LIFE, MOSCOW ZERO). THE LEGION is bad enough that it almost feels like another craptacular Luna project, but Magan seems awfully proud of it: he's also credited with the story, producer, executive producer, line producer, casting director, post-production coordinator, and "financial services." So I guess there's only 38 producers if you count the three times Magan credits himself. (R, 96 mins)

Tuesday, June 30, 2020


(Cyprus/UK - 2020)

Peter Sellers (1925-1980) was renowned as a gifted comedic genius, but it was also no secret that he was notoriously difficult on a movie set. His behavior during the making of the 17th century pirate comedy GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN in 1973 nearly destroyed the career of promising director Peter Medak, who at the time was riding high on the worldwide critical acclaim of 1972's THE RULING CLASS. The nightmare production of NOONDAY SUN haunted Medak so much over the years that he made the documentary THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS as a sort-of therapeutic, closure-seeking exorcism. From 2016 to 2018, the now-82-year-old Medak and screenwriter friend Simon van der Borgh (IN TRANZIT) traveled across the US, Europe, and to the still-standing locations on Cyprus, interviewing some of the very few surviving actors and various others with connections--Sellers' personal assistant, co-writer/co-star Spike Milligan's agent, co-star Anthony Franciosa's widow, among others--to share their memories of a project that began with such promise and enthusiasm and quickly devolved into a miserable catastrophe thanks to Sellers' erratic and unpredictable behavior. Sellers pursued Medak for the project, and even though Sellers was in a major slump at the time prior to the PINK PANTHER series starting up again in 1975, the director jumped at the opportunity since "he was the greatest comic actor in the world." It was a big-budget production backed by Columbia and was being shot on location on Cyprus, but Medak sensed something was wrong before shooting even began. He met with Sellers to go over the script and it quickly became apparent that the star still hadn't even read it, and he was later distracted on the phone by an argument with girlfriend Liza Minnelli. Sellers then arrived on Cyprus "catatonically depressed" after breaking up with Minnelli the day before. Within a few days, Sellers somehow fired the producers and tried to talk Medak into quitting. Shortly after that, a long, complex exterior tracking shot was ruined when Sellers, already living with chronic cardiac issues after several mild heart attacks dating back to 1964, collapsed, screaming in agony, suffering another apparent heart attack. He was airlifted to a hospital as production was briefly halted while they waited for word on the star's condition. A few days later, Medak opened a Cyprus newspaper and saw a paparazzi shot of Sellers in London, out on the town with Princess Margaret. "Who fakes a heart attack when they already have a heart condition?" Medak wondered. "And how did he even get off the island?"

Sellers and Medak on the chaotic set of
Sellers returned to Cyprus two days after that with a fake doctor's note saying he couldn't work, and it became obvious to Medak that Sellers was deliberately trying to get out of the movie and was willing to sabotage it to do so. Columbia execs and producer John Heyman started sending telegrams to Medak threatening to fire him if he couldn't get his act together (Medak: "Tell fucking Heyman to get down here and try to control Peter!"). Sellers had a heated confrontation with Franciosa and refused to be in the same shots with him going forward (cue a scene with the two of them from NOONDAY SUN and it's glaringly obvious they weren't there at the same time). Shooting fell weeks behind schedule (Medak's handwritten notes: "Sellers pissed off," "Sellers refused to work," "Sellers being impossible again," and typed production notes documenting Sellers' numerous absences or needing to leave the set early because he was "seasick"). Sellers tried to organize a rebellion among the crew and called for a "no confidence" vote in Medak in an attempt to get him fired, then he threatened to quit unless Medak allowed his longtime friend Milligan to completely rewrite the script. In doing so, Milligan also gave himself a prominent and shamelessly mugging supporting role, but because so much time was lost, entire key scenes were never shot and when Columbia saw what Medak was barely able to cobble together, they refused to release the movie and shelved it. It's both darkly humorous and heartbreaking watching Medak relive these memories--the time and distance make him able to see the sheer absurdity in the way the film crashed and burned, but at the same time, it clearly had a profound effect on him. He gets quite emotional at times (Milligan's agent grabs him by the hand and tells him "You are more than this...you need to let it go"), though you see him finding some catharsis and much-needed closure during the process. And with his still-pronounced Hungarian accent, Medak's narration and observations bring to mind Werner Herzog, and THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS has numerous similarities to Herzog's 1999 documentary MY BEST FIEND, about his tumultuous collaborations with the maniacal Klaus Kinski.

There's also some priceless home movie footage of Milligan cracking himself up reading his own script (it's interesting that not one clip of GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN shown here is even remotely funny in or out of context), or Medak having a sitdown with Sellers' CASINO ROYALE and THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN director Joseph McGrath and his FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU director Piers Haggard as they share some Peter Sellers horror stories (McGrath: "It was never fun working with him"). Medak never became the auteur that THE RULING CLASS hinted he might be, but he went on to a busy journeyman career in film and TV, with projects ranging from excellent (1980's THE CHANGELING) to not (1986's THE MEN'S CLUB and 1998's SPECIES II), and he enjoyed a brief resurgence in the early '90s with a trio of acclaimed crime thrillers: 1990's THE KRAYS, 1991's LET HIM HAVE IT, and 1994's ROMEO IS BLEEDING. GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN remained unreleased for years before it surfaced in Canada in 1984 as THE PINK PIRATE (!) and eventually turning up on home video and syndicated TV in the US not long after. Medak gets a little meandering and veers off course at times, particularly during a long segue where Sellers talked him into directing a Benson & Hedges commercial during production. But it's a must for Sellers fans and a worthy addition to the "nightmare clusterfuck movie shoots" documentary subgenre along with the likes of BURDEN OF DREAMS, HEARTS OF DARKNESS, and LOST IN LA MANCHA. It's a fascinating look at a production gone horribly awry and a filmmaker who's been haunted by the traumatic experience for decades. As an emotional, teary-eyed Medak states at the end when he thinks of Sellers: "He was a fucking genius. And it was a great to be there for just a second, whatever pain it caused." (Unrated, 93 mins)

(France - 2019)

One of last year's most acclaimed arthouse titles, French filmmaker Celine Sciamma's slow-burning period piece PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE got a brief Oscar qualifying run in NYC and L.A. in December 2019, but the COVID-19 coronavirus ended up shutting down its early 2020 rollout and relegating it to VOD. In late 17th century France, artist Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is hired by a Countess (Valeria Golino) to journey to an isolated island off the coast of Brittany. She is to paint a portrait of the Countess' daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel), who was recently whisked away from a convent to fulfill an arranged matrimonial contract with the son of a prominent Milanese family after the death of her older sister. "Did disease take her?" Marianne asks servant girl Sophie (Luana Bajrami), who replies with a curt, loaded "No." A previous painter was unable to complete a portrait of Heloise because she refused to sit for him. "She refuses this marriage," the Countess explains. Tasked with painting Heloise without her knowing it, Marianne agrees to the cover story of being hired as a companion for her walks, committing the details of her face to memory for the painting and serving as a deterrent should Heloise impulsively decide to commit suicide like her sister. The standoffish Heloise eventually opens up and the pair bond to the point where Marianne feels she must explain her true purpose for being there. Heloise sees the resulting portrait and dislikes it, prompting Marianne to destroy it. The Countess is about to dismiss Marianne until Heloise agrees to sit, with her mother announcing that she's going away for five days and she expects the work to be finished upon her return.

That Marianne and Heloise will fall into a forbidden romance is a given, but PORTRAIT has a lot to say about patriarchal society and the role of women within it, while drawing extensively from the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Both Heloise and Sophie have a difficult time grasping the relative freedom Marianne enjoys. She has no plans of being married and is set to take over her father's business upon his retirement or death. In a world where women like Sophie exist to serve others and Heloise is forced into an arranged marriage as a replacement for her dead sister because, well, a deal's a deal (in her last letter to Heloise, her sister gave a vague apology, the meaning of which became unfortunately clear to her in the aftermath), Marianne's independence is an anomaly. With its ornate production design and some BARRY LYNDON-style natural lighting in its early sequences, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE is exquisitely detailed almost to the point of Kubrickian detachment for a while, but around the time of the bonfire sequence, you realize just how much it's pulled you in and it really becomes an emotional wrecking ball in its closing minutes (and while there are fleeting erotic elements, we're not talking BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR here). The camera adores Haenel and her haunting, expressive eyes--she and Sciamma were a couple in the years prior to making this though they remain friends and professional collaborators--and this probably would've been a hit on the arthouse circuit had a pandemic not occurred. (R, 121 mins)