Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: Special "Most Likely Never Played At A Theater Near You" Edition: THE DOUBLE (2011); TEXAS KILLING FIELDS (2011)

(US/United Arab Emirates - 2011)

Formulaic spy thriller was barely released to theaters last fall despite the presence of the dependable Richard Gere.  It's not a bad movie, just a thoroughly generic one, and one that probably plays a lot better if you're camped out on your couch after a long day at work than it would as a night out at the movies.  It's really no better or worse than an episode of your average weekly CBS procedural.  Retired CIA agent Shepherdson (Gere) is brought back on the job by his former boss Highland (Martin Sheen) when new evidence suggests Cassius, a deadly Russian spy thought killed in 1988, is alive and well and attempting to restart the Cold War.  Shepherdson is teamed with wet-behind-the-ears FBI agent Geary (Topher Grace), a bureau expert on Cassius, which gives us plenty of scenes of Gere being annoyed with his inexperienced partner (which I'm sure wasn't exactly a stretch).  Twists and turns abound, a major one revealed a bit too early in the film (and the trailer gives it away), and things get increasingly silly as they progress, leading to a real howler near the end.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with THE DOUBLE, and it practically gets by just on the presence of pros like Gere and Sheen.  Grace, who still looks 12, is a bit less convincing, as are locales in Detroit and Ann Arbor, MI filling in for Washington DC.   Featuring Odette Yustman, TRUE BLOOD's Stephen Moyer, CASTLE's Stana Katic, and 50 Cent BFF Tamer Hassan, plus music contributions by Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson.  Gere's days as a box office draw are most likely in the past, but if nothing else, predictable comfort food fare like THE DOUBLE shows that he'd be a great candidate for a weekly CSI or NCIS-type network procedural. (PG-13, 98 mins)

(US - 2011)

Going nowhere and not in any particular hurry to get there, TEXAS KILLING FIELDS is one of those well-intentioned misfires where you can see a better film lurking somewhere deep in the mess that's on the screen. Danny Boyle was attached to the project early in pre-production, but reportedly felt the subject matter was too dark and left. Ami Canaan Mann, daughter of executive producer Michael Mann, ended up directing this "inspired by true events" story of a string of murders of underage prostitutes in the marshy outskirts of Texas City, TX. Mann and screenwriter Donald F. Ferrarone can't seem to find a focus here. There's too many extraneous, insignificant characters who get far too much screen time at the expense of developing the characters who do matter. The major players are a pair of detectives, played by a miscast Sam Worthington and the underrated Jeffrey Dean Morgan. British Worthington's mush-mouthed attempt at a Texas twang renders a lot of his dialogue unintelligible, but Morgan, a consistently engaging actor who can't seem to catch a break, is very good. There's also Chloe Grace Moretz (KICK-ASS, LET ME IN, HUGO) as a troubled teen with a trashy skank mom (Sheryl Lee sighting!) and Worthington's THE DEBT co-star Jessica Chastain, in approximately her 38th film of 2011, is his ex-wife, a cop in a nearby town. The film never really gets any momentum going, and there's some really choppy, sloppy editing. Watch the scene where Morgan interrogates a pimp. With no explanation, Morgan's already got a huge bruise on the left side of his face that he doesn't actually get until a couple scenes later when he's hit in the face with a shovel. At the time it was shot, the interrogation was obviously supposed to happen later. This isn't a film with a fractured time element. It's just a huge gaffe. Throughout, it seems like potentially important scenes were just left out of the finished film and plot points are introduced and dropped, with some scattered powerful moments that indicate what might've been. TEXAS KILLING FIELDS doesn't feel completed as much as it feels abandoned. At its widest release last fall, this was on a total of ten screens in the US, and it's easy to see why. Expectations come with a Mann at the helm (she also served as second unit director on her dad's classic HEAT), and this is a major disappointment. (R, 105 mins)

Monday, January 30, 2012

On DVD: Katarina's Nightmare Theater Double Feature: THE DEVIL'S MEN (1976)/TERROR (1978)

Scorpion Releasing's latest in the "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" line of exploitation/horror/cult titles is a double feature of previously available titles, though THE DEVIL'S MEN is the original uncut version of the censored LAND OF THE MINOTAUR.

(Greece/UK - 1976)

Released in the US in 1977 in a cut, PG-rated version titled LAND OF THE MINOTAUR, THE DEVIL'S MEN is a shoddy, low-budget Greek/British addition to the '70s Satanist subgenre, top-lined by a slumming Donald Pleasence and Peter Cushing (just before playing Grand Moff Tarkin in STAR WARS), both of whom were no doubt more interested in a paid Greek vacation than anything the script had to offer.  This marks the first time that director Costas Carayiannis' uncensored cut has been released in the US, restoring all the gore and nudity and excised from the MINOTAUR release.  Pleasence is possibly-Irish priest Father Roche (I say "possibly" because sometimes he sounds like Donald Pleasence, and sometimes he sounds like Lucky the Leprechaun), who calls upon his NYC-based private eye pal Milo (Costa Skouras) to take on a devil-worshipping cult that turns out to be led by obviously evil town elder Baron Corofax (Cushing).  Filled with cheap gore effects, bad dubbing of the Greek supporting cast, unintended laughs (like Roche and Milo's complete non-reaction to the zombified police chief), continuity errors (a right punch from Milo aimed at a dude's face immediately cuts to a left punch hitting the guy in the crotch), incompetent day-for-night shooting, and idiotic dialogue (when a woman is chased by some robed figures, Milo says "Maybe it was just a cow loose in the woods"), THE DEVIL'S MEN is given a bit of lift from some appropriately atmospheric Greek locales, the presence of two old pros like Pleasence and Cushing (though I doubt the sporadically-appearing Cushing spent more than a few days on the set), and a chilling electronic score by Brian Eno, of all people.  Hardly the most embarrassing picture Pleasence or Cushing ever made, but certainly in the "good Bad Movie" realm.  Scorpion's 1.78:1 transfer looks as good as it's probably ever looked, considering its budget-deprived origins.  And dig that funky jam over the closing credits!  (Unrated, 94 mins)

(UK - 1978)

Is Dario Argento a fan of British hack Norman J. Warren?  Warren is certainly a fan of Argento, and admits as much in a 40-minute (!) retrospective documentary on TERROR, a mildly diverting supernatural horror film with occasional nods to Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977).  But what I found interesting were a couple of shots that looked suspiciously similar to later Argento works:  one character's death from a pane of glass was probably intended as an OMEN knockoff but now looks a lot like Irene Miracle's fate in 1980's INFERNO, and another's death on a staircase brought to mind a demise from 1982's TENEBRE.  But Warren is nowhere near the stylist that Argento was back then (though, sadly to say for Argento, they're probably equals now, but that's another topic for another time), and TERROR isn't exactly some gem waiting to be dusted off for rediscovery.  The plot deals with a movie director (John Nolan, uncle of INCEPTION director Christopher) whose latest film is about a witch ancestor who swore vengeance after being burned at the stake.  Mysterious deaths start befalling everyone associated with the film.  Warren seems inspired more by THE OMEN than SUSPIRIA, but one delirious scene has a guy being attacked by unrolled film in a garishly-lit room that is clearly inspired by the barbed-wire room death in SUSPIRIA.  Aside from a few occasionally interesting bits--the unrolled film death; brief appearances by Peter "Chewbacca" Mayhew as a mechanic and the hulking Milton Reid as a sunglassed strip joint bouncer; and a frightening stripper who looks like Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty--TERROR is a pretty laborious slog, indifferently-acted and cheaply-made (a scene with a levitating car is undone by clearly visible ropes hoisting it in mid-air).  Not without some decent moments, but largely forgettable.  Warren went on to make the infamous ALIEN ripoff INSEMINOID, a much more entertaining film which had a long life on pay cable throughout the '80s under its US title HORROR PLANET.  TERROR has been on DVD before, but the making-of doc is a new addition, and I assume the fairly nice-looking 1.78:1 transfer is as well.  (R, 84 mins)

Both films are on one disc, with the option of playing them with or without the introduction by horror hostess and former WWE star Katarina Leigh Waters.  Trailers for past and future Scorpion titles are also included.


LETHAL LADIES COLLECTION 2 is the latest in Shout Factory's impressive "Roger Corman's Cult Classics" line, focusing on Corman's work as a producer/distributor with his New World Pictures in the 1970s and Concorde in the 1980s.  While Vol. 2 doesn't reach the delirious heights of LETHAL LADIES 1's TNT JACKSON ("She'll put you in traction!") and FIRECRACKER, there's still plenty of drive-in action and skin to keep any exploitation fan satisfied.

(Italy/US - 1974)

The first film in the set is easily the best.  THE ARENA (aka NAKED WARRIORS) is a sort of ancient Rome/feminist take on SPARTACUS with a bit of THE DEFIANT ONES as a band of sexy slave girls, led by Margaret Markov and Pam Grier, become female gladiators and lead a revolt against the asshole men in charge.  Corman co-financed THE ARENA with Rome-based American actor/producer Mark Damon, and supplied the stars (Markov and Grier both had a recent hit with 1973's BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA), the script, and director Steve Carver, and Damon supplied the Italian crew and Italian supporting cast.  So there's an interesting mix of talent in front of and behind the camera:  co-stars Paul Muller, Rosalba Neri, Lucretia Love, Salvatore Baccaro, and Vassili Karis, composer Francesco De Masi and cinematographer Aristide Massaccesi (aka Joe D'Amato) are no strangers to fans of Eurotrash cult movies, nor are the familiar voices dubbing the cast (Italian films of the time were shot without direct sound, requiring post-production dubbing, and the perpetually miserly Corman didn't want to pay to have Markov and Grier fly back to Rome to record their dialogue, so Grier and Markov are both dubbed).  Carver, a veteran second-unit director for Corman, was given his first shot at directing here, and when THE ARENA proved successful at grindhouses and drive-ins, Corman rewarded him by giving him the same year's BIG BAD MAMA, which was one of New World's biggest hits.  THE ARENA is presented in a nice 2.35:1 transfer and is filled with special features: Carver supplies a director's commentary, and is seen in a retrospective doc that also features Corman, and Damon & Markov, who met on the set on THE ARENA and have been married since. (R, 82 mins)

(US/Philippines - 1973)

Cirio H. Santiago's FLY ME is filled with the Filipino exploitation auteur's usual touches:  gratuitous T&A, terrible acting, inept action sequences, a near-total disregard for continuity, and US-shot inserts that are far more entertaining than the stuff he himself filmed.  In this case, Corman had a young Jonathan Demme shoot additional action sequences in L.A.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in a scene taking place in Tokyo...with the Hollywood sign visible in the distance.  The threadbare plot involves the escapades of three stewardesses (Pat Anderson, Lenore Kasdorf, Lyllah Torena) in the Far East.  A badly-jumbled mix of action, kung-fu, sexploitation, grim sex-trade drama, and broad comedy, FLY ME runs just 72 minutes but feels twice as long.  The worst element is Anderson's overprotective Italian-American mother (Naomi Stevens), who tags along on her daughter's flight and keeps cockblocking a doctor's (Richard Young) attempts to get in Anderson's pants, and shouting "Mamma mia!" at the slightest provocation.  Features Santiago fixtures Vic Diaz and Ken Metcalfe, as well as the venerable Dick Miller as a cabbie in one of the L.A.-shot scenes. The print is 1.78:1 and pretty beat up, but why would you want it any other way?  FLY ME is bad, but it's a fun bad, and no doubt served its purpose at drive-ins with the window speakers cranked in 1973:  something to drown out the noise of couples screwing in their cars. (R, 72 mins)

(US/Philippines - 1975)

Santiago again, and this is a bit more entertaining than FLY ME.  Three women again, this time models (Pat Anderson again, plus Lindsay Bloom and Tara Strohmeier) getting involved in espionage after a microfilm is sewn into one of their dresses while on a photo shoot in Hong Kong.  It's all an excuse for inept kung-fu and nudity, so on those terms, it's a success.  The plot is confusing as hell and I doubt Santiago or screenwriter Howard R. Cohen know (or care) what's going on.  The leads are lot more likable in this one (though Anderson was also appealing and maybe the best thing about FLY ME) and a lot of the humor is legitimately amusing.  Plus, this only feels about one and a half times longer than its 73-minute run time.  Features the ubiquitous Vic Diaz and Ken Metcalfe yet again.  The transfer is 1.78:1 and not as battered as FLY ME, but pretty close. (R, 73 mins)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

In Theaters: THE GREY (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by Joe Carnahan.  Written by Joe Carnahan and Ian McKenzie Jeffers.  Cast: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, James Badge Dale, Nonso Anozie, Joe Anderson, Ben Bray.  (R, 117 mins)

Liam Neeson vs. a pack of wolves.

That's the selling point of THE GREY and it's enough to get people in the theater.  Neeson's place in film history was already secured nearly two decades ago with SCHINDLER'S LIST, and as the years went on, he always stayed busy, starring in Oscar bait like KINSEY and appearing in the occasional blockbuster like STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE and BATMAN BEGINS.  But in 2009, at the age of 57, something unexpected happened:  Neeson suddenly became a major action star.

TAKEN was released in the US in February 2009, a full calendar year after it came out in its native France.  US distributor 20th Century Fox almost sent it straight-to-DVD before someone decided to put it in theaters on Super Bowl weekend, not really the best time to release an action movie.  No one expected TAKEN to become the blockbuster that it did, and Neeson is *the* reason it exploded.  It's an entertaining, if inherently ludicrous film that thrives on Neeson's gritty, driven, thoroughly believable performance.  Without Neeson, it would've been another DTV action thriller.  But with him, it's a modern action classic.

Neeson brings that same grit to THE GREY, though unlike TAKEN, it's a much more serious film.  And that's the unexpected element, considering it's directed and co-written by Joe Carnahan, a filmmaker not known for restraint or nuance.  Carnahan's NARC (2002) is a mean, top-notch cop thriller, but he also made the entertainingly trashy guilty pleasure SMOKIN' ACES (2007) and THE A-TEAM (2010).  Carnahan's films have a macho, over-the-top, boys-being-boys demeanor to them, but THE GREY finds him making a credible bid to be Taken Seriously.  Yes, there's the "Liam Neeson vs. a pack of wolves" element, but THE GREY is a film of surprising character depth and unexpected emotion.  Carnahan's manly-man instincts are on full display, but it's just on the exterior.  The men in THE GREY are "scared shitless" to quote one of them, and they're man enough to admit it.  These aren't action heroes.  They're normal people trying to survive and they really don't know what to do.

Neeson is Ottway, a suicidal loner who works as a sharpshooter for an Alaska drilling facility, picking off marauding wolves when they come too close to the workers.  A large group of oil company employees are on a flight to Anchorage when the plane goes down in one cinema's most terrifying plane crashes.  Seven survivors--Ottway, Talget (Dermot Mulroney), Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), Diaz (Frank Grillo), Burke (Nonso Anozie), Flannery (Joe Anderson), and Hernandez (Ben Bray).  An eighth man, Lewenden (James Badge Dale) dies just after the crash and is calmed and comforted by Ottway in a way that'll make you wish Liam Neeson could be there for all of us when it's our time to go.  The men build a fire and while they're deciding what to do, the wolves start appearing.  As part of his job, Ottway knows the ways and mindset of the wolfpack and quickly becomes the de facto alpha of the group as they try to survive the elements and the wolves.

As well-written (it's based on the short story Ghost Walker by co-screenwriter Ian McKenzie Jeffers) and directed as this is, THE GREY lives or dies on the strength of its protagonist, and fortunately, Liam Neeson is a guy that most of us would follow straight to hell if he was leading the way.  The word gravitas is frequently mentioned when describing Neeson's recent action persona, but even beyond that, he delivers one of his finest performances here.  I'm wondering if it's Neeson that brought out the best in Carnahan (the two previously worked together on THE A-TEAM).  I certainly get a sense that Neeson trusts Carnahan--it's slowly revealed in fragmented flashbacks throughout that there is deep sadness and an overwhelming tragedy in Ottway's past, and it's a sadness that Neeson knows only too well in his own life.  In these moments, I don't think Neeson is acting.  It's often conveyed without words or dialogue, just in brief flashes of an image.  It's a brave, frequently soul-baring performance by Neeson, and Carnahan clearly respects him. For a filmmaker as gregariously bombastic as Carnahan has been in the past, this is a huge step forward.  But it's not just Neeson--all of the actors are top-notch here, especially WARRIOR's Frank Grillo as Diaz, who tries to challenge Ottway's authority in an obvious comparison to the way the alpha wolf tries to put down a challenge to his own leadership.  It's Neeson's show, but all of the characters get their turn in the spotlight for the actors to shine.

It's not front-to-back perfection:  the CGI is a little distracting at times, usually in the form of fake breath (or no breath, which happens frequently), and I don't think filmmakers will ever realize that CGI fire looks like shit.  The CGI wolves (with animatronic work by KNB) are very nicely done and quite effective.

THE GREY is a grueling, intense experience.  Neeson proves again that he's the best at what he does, and Carnahan has shown us that he's finally grown up.  THE GREY is a great action film.

And, just because this never gets old:

Saturday, January 28, 2012

On Blu-ray: FASCINATION (1979)

(France - 1979)

Written and directed by Jean Rollin.  Cast: Franka Mai, Brigitte Lahaie, Jean-Marie Lemaire. (Unrated, 82 mins)

I guess I should start by confessing that this is my first "real" exposure to Jean Rollin.  Of course, I've been aware of him for the last 20 years, but from everything I read, I always more or less wrote him off as a French Jess Franco, probably because of his involvement in the awful ZOMBIE LAKE (1981), which Franco wrote and Rollin directed under the name "J.A. Laser."  And outside of a few films, I've never understood the cult of Jess Franco.  When he had a budget, usually supplied by Harry Alan Towers in the late 1960s, Franco made some decent films.  I'd even say 1969's VENUS IN FURS is his masterpiece.  But other than that, and a few occasionally watchable films later on (1981's BLOODY MOON, 1987's FACELESS), I just don't get Franco's appeal to cult movie fans.  On his many DVD releases over the years, Franco seems like a nice guy and is a hell of a raconteur, but as a filmmaker, it's a triumph if he's got the camera pointed in the right direction and it's actually in focus.

Brigitte Lahaie and Franka Mai

But I digress.  My point is that because of his one-time association with Franco, I think I often disregarded the accolades Rollin received (plus, while Franco merely dabbled in porn in 1980s, most of Rollin's career was spent directing hardcore porn under a pseudonym, which supplied the money to make his more personal, serious horror films).  But there's been a strange turn of events recently:  a Rollin film (1973's THE IRON ROSE) actually played on Turner Classic Movies.  And the prestigious Kino Lorber acquired the rights to Rollin's horror films via Redemption and has just released the first batch in deluxe Blu-ray and DVD editions (in addition to FASCINATION and THE IRON ROSE,  the initial wave includes 1970's THE NUDE VAMPIRE, 1971's THE SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES, and 1975's LIPS OF BLOOD).  And just a few days ago, there was a story on the Rollin Blu-ray releases in the New York Times.  In short, it was time for me to stop being a dismissive dick and see what Rollin was all about.

1979's FASCINATION is generally regarded as the Rollin film to see if you're only going to watch one or want to get your feet wet.  It has the trademark Rollin touches--vampires, erotica, surreal, poetic imagery--with an added bonus of relative coherence, which wasn't always one of his primary concerns (Rollin died in 2010).  After opening with a scene of aristocrats drinking ox blood as a cure for anemia, the story settles on thief Marc (Jean-Marie Lemaire) making off with some gold coins as his cohorts chase him.  He hides in a desolate chateau nearby, where everyone is gone except for two bisexual chambermaids, Elisabeth (Franka Mai) and Eva (Brigitte Lahaie).  The chambermaids are waiting for the chateau's Marchioness and her servants.  Eva falls in love with Marc, much to the jealous disapproval of Elisabeth.  Eva tells Marc he has to leave before midnight when the Marchioness and the servants will arrive...

Marc (Jean-Marie Lemaire) has no idea what he's gotten himself into.

Watching this film--and I don't know if anyone has said this before, but I imagine they have--Rollin struck me as everything people say Franco is but isn't.  For starters, this is a much better-made, more polished and professional-looking film than anything Franco has ever done.  Rollin works wonders with a small budget, shooting in actual locations and using a lot of natural lighting.  Unforgettable imagery abounds:  the abbatoir in the opening scene, the path to the chateau, the eventual appearance of the Marchioness, and pretty much every scene involving Lahaie.  An actress who moved between legit films and hardcore porn under a variety of different names, Lahaie was a fixture in most of Rollin's films and a couple ones later on for Franco, but FASCINATION is her finest work.  The image of Lahaie and the scythe have become part of European horror iconography, and the whole sequence where Eva stalks and kills Marc's vengeful associates is unforgettable.  I mean, seriously, does imagery get any more effective than this?

Brigitte Lahaie cements her place in horror film history

Lahaie is hypnotically beautiful in this.  Stunning.  And Rollin knows it.  When she's on camera, you can't take your eyes off of her.  Short on standard scares but long on style and pure visual, cinematic artistry, FASCINATION, like all of Rollin's work, is a hard film to describe, which may be a reason I avoided it and Rollin for so long.  But this is an oversight that will be remedied soon.  Budget limitations and occasional clumsy editing aside, FASCINATION is, in its own way and with its dreamy, melancholy aura, a film as beautiful and spellbinding as Alain Resnais' LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD.   So believe the hype.  There's clearly a Rollin renaissance going on right now, and I wish I'd been onboard sooner.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Forgotten Films Revisited: WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART (1990)

(US - 1990)  

Directed by Clint Eastwood.  Written by Peter Viertel, James Bridges, and Burt Kennedy.  Cast: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Fahey, George Dzundza, Marisa Berenson, Alun Armstrong, Timothy Spall, Richard Vanstone. (PG, 112 mins)

This review was originally published on the Mobius Home Video Forum in a different form in July 2010.

It's hard to believe there was once a time when Clint Eastwood was considered washed-up and had to kiss ass to get pet projects made. It really wasn't until 1984's TIGHTROPE that critics bothered to notice Eastwood was a real actor and not just Dirty Harry. But by the late '80s, his star was fading (he even took time off to serve as mayor of Carmel, CA), and as he approached 60, Eastwood was determined to be Taken Seriously, if not as an actor then as a filmmaker.  But he had to play ball with the studio. In order to get his 1988 Charlie Parker biopic BIRD released, he had to give Warner Bros. another Dirty Harry outing with the same year's THE DEAD POOL (and his boredom is obvious throughout) and the 1989 comedy PINK CADILLAC, and for this adaptation of Peter Viertel's fictionalized account of John Huston's adventures while filming THE AFRICAN QUEEN, he had to provide a LETHAL WEAPON knockoff, teaming up with Charlie Sheen in 1990's THE ROOKIE.  It's easy to forget that UNFORGIVEN was a major comeback for Eastwood after several years of uninspired and increasingly unpopular star vehicles and ambitious serious efforts that met with critical acclaim but audience apathy. Shot mostly on location in Zimbabwe, the $24 million WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART grossed just $2 million in the US, making it one of the biggest box-office bombs of Eastwood's career (and, when adjusted for inflation, according to Box Office Mojo, it IS the biggest bomb of his career), and one that I found suffocatingly dull when I saw it as an 18-year-old.  It's still the closest he's come to making a stuffy, PBS-ready Merchant-Ivory film.  But, looking at it with fresh eyes after a couple of decades, and watching it with the knowledge of some of his later works after establishing his auteur credentials, it's much easier to appreciate WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART today than it was in 1990.

Eastwood delivers a very uncharacteristic and sometimes (especially in the early scenes) mannered performance as egocentric director John Wilson, based on the larger-than-life John Huston. He's about to head to Africa for a film shoot and insists his writer friend Pete Verrill (Jeff Fahey, who's absolutely terrific here and should've had a much bigger career ahead of him) join him on his quest to bag a great elephant. This hunt comes at the expense of the actual film shoot, much to the consternation of his producer (George Dzundza, slipping in and out of a Gert Frobe-ish accent) and his British backers, and the bewilderment of his stars Kay Hooper (Marisa Berenson, doing an impeccable Katherine Hepburn) and Phil Duncan (Richard Vanstone, only vaguely Bogart-like). There are some almost-typical Eastwood moments--a brawl with a racist hotel manager, and a lacerating verbal bitchslapping of an anti-Semitic society woman, but it's a very (for the time) atypical Eastwood venture, one that fans flat-out ignored.  It just took the general public a couple of years and the right Eastwood project to catch up.

WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART is rarely mentioned these days, and it isn't deserving of its black sheep status with his fan base.  He's made a few missteps here and there in his career--I'd probably rank FIREFOX and INVICTUS as the worst films he's directed, though I'm prepared to give FIREFOX another look--but in hindsight, WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART is a fine film.  In terms of style, pacing, and tone, the mostly low-key UNFORGIVEN really isn't really all that different from WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART.  But it took a western--familiar ground for Eastwood and his fans--for him to find a project that would finally provide both the artistic bona fides and the box office to put him back on top.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In Theaters: HAYWIRE

(US/Ireland - 2012)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Lem Dobbs.  Cast: Gina Carano, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum, Mathieu Kassovitz, Michael Angarano. (R, 93 mins)

Retired MMA star Gina Carano makes an impressive action movie debut in Steven Soderbergh's offbeat arthouse action thriller HAYWIRE.  It's already more or less bombed at the box office and the gap between critical raves and audience disapproval (scoring a D+ on Cinemascore) is among the widest in recent memory.  I think the best way to approach HAYWIRE is to accept it as a Soderbergh film first and an action flick second, as it has all the distinctive Soderbergh looks and rhythms, and is probably closest in spirit to his 1999 cult film THE LIMEY (both films were written by Lem Dobbs).  Like that film, HAYWIRE has a cold detachment to it that can be a little off-putting at first, and the story takes a good hour to really show all its cards and let you completely in on what's going on, but it grows on you.  It's got a great cast, exciting, brutal action sequences, a jarringly 1970s feel with the refreshing lack of CGI and shaky-cam and hyperactive editing, and a hypnotic score by David Holmes that kept reminding me of early '70s jazz fusion, almost like Chick Corea's keyboard sound in the heyday of Return to Forever.  It's a strange movie, there's no denying it, and I can see why Joe Multiplex is rejecting it if they aren't open to an B-grade action movie done through Soderbergh's vision.  Sure, Soderbergh could've made a standard, cookie-cutter, straight-to-DVD-style action flick.  But why would he?

Carano is Mallory Kane, a top operative for a black-ops outfit contracted by the government.  The film opens with Mallory in a diner in upstate New York, where she proceeds to get into a bonecrushing brawl with former associate Aaron (Channing Tatum).  She escapes and takes customer Scott (Michael Angarano) with her, telling him her story that plays out mostly in flashbacks.  It doesn't take long for Mallory to figure out she's being set up, but for what and by whom are the unknowns:  there's Aaron; Mallory's boss and ex-lover Kenneth (Ewan McGregor); MI-6 agent Paul (Michael Fassbender);  his associate Studer (Mathieu Kassovitz);  US government honcho Coblenz (Michael Douglas); and his contact Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas).

Carano is an engaging screen presence and holds her own with her impressive supporting cast.  There was an admission just prior to release that her voice was digitally lowered, but it wouldn't have been noticeable at all and, to me, is a complete non-issue.  The numerous fight scenes play out in long takes with little (if any) music and no sound effects.  Sometimes they aren't perfectly choreographed.  In short, they look, for the most part, like real fights.  Dobbs' script has numerous twists and turns and some occasionally witty dialogue (I love Douglas' deadpan delivery of the line "We got ourselves a real twizzler here," when he's on the phone trying to get to the bottom of things).  HAYWIRE was probably a hard sell, which could explain why it sat unreleased for almost two years before getting a January dumping (filming was completed well before Douglas' summer 2010 cancer diagnosis; and Soderbergh's next project was CONTAGION, which was released months ago).  It's an intriguing, enjoyable film that often seems like a lost relic from another bygone decade, and I mean that in a good way, and that's why I feel it makes a good companion piece to THE LIMEY, a film that's improved with age--the film's and my own.


(US - 2011)

THE WOMAN earned some internet notoriety a year ago at Sundance when a member of the audience totally lost his shit and freaked out over what was happening onscreen (it's on YouTube if you care).  This was dismissed by most as a publicity stunt, but after seeing the film, if the guy was legit, I'm pretty much on his side.  Not because the content is offensive, but because the film is terrible.  The only thing I have left to ponder is whether it's a terrible horror movie or a terrible comedy.  Directed by the once-promising and now ironically-named Lucky McKee (best known for 2003's cult classic MAY), and based on a novel by McKee and extreme horror author Jack Ketchum (both co-wrote the screenplay), THE WOMAN is a semi-sequel to 2009's OFFSPRING, an adaptation of a Ketchum novel that didn't involve McKee (though McKee has a history with Ketchum: he started directing 2008's little-seen and worthwhile RED, based on a much more restrained Ketchum novel, but was relieved of his duties midway through production).  A feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh), raised by wolves and living in the wild, is captured by small-town lawyer Sean Bridgers.  Bridgers chains McIntosh in a cellar under the barn with the intent of "civilizing" her, and his family (wife Angela Bettis, and three children)...well, they just kinda go along with it.  Nobody ever really reacts to anything in THE WOMAN.  Indeed, the film does contain the most nonchalant reaction to a finger being bitten off that you're likely to see.  The more time we spend with Bridgers and the family, the more we see what an unconscionable asshole this guy really is--a bitter misogynist and control-freak psychopath, almost cartoonishly so.  But hey, whatever.  Dad brings a wild woman home, chains her up under the barn, cleans her up, loses a finger.  Everybody just kinda pulls a "Whatev's" and goes about their dysfunctional business. 

To McKee's credit, THE WOMAN does finally gets its act together for a few minutes in the climax, but it's far too late to contain the damage, and then things just go too far over-the-top.  Until then, McKee endlessly dicks around with montage after montage with completely incongruous alt-rock tunes that border on parody.  Are he and Ketchum being funny?  Is this satire?  It's hard to tell.  Bridgers' (formerly of HBO's DEADWOOD) smirking, rage-boiling-to-the-surface performance kept reminding me of Will Ferrell, which further confuses the issue as to whether or not McKee is playing this straight.  And as for The Woman herself, McIntosh gives it her all, but the film abandons her for long stretches.  Of course, it's her presence that causes the family to implode and their disturbing secrets to be revealed, but until the finale, she curiously remains a background character.  Gorehounds and fans of transgressive cinema may find something to latch on to here, but it's all so heavy-handed, tone-deaf, and utterly pointless that it's impossible to care.  (R, 103 mins)

(UK - 2011)

If transgression is what you're looking for, then the three-part British horror anthology LITTLE DEATHS is a better bet than THE WOMAN.  The first segment, "House and Home," written and directed by Sean Hogan, has an upper-class couple inviting a homeless woman to their posh residence for dinner, ostensibly out of generosity and Christian goodwill.  They clearly have something far more sinister in mind and, as you might expect, so does their guest.  The second segment, "Mutant Tool," written and directed by Andrew Parkinson, is the dead weight of the film, a grotesque, incoherent mess involving an ex-prostitute being given an experimental drug by a quack doctor that gives her a "third eye" psychic link to a man held captive in a grungy research lab, where he's intravenously fed blender-liquified human organs as two of the doc's assistants harvest psychedelic semen from his elephant trunk-sized penis.  I don't even know what I just wrote.  As should be the norm in anthology horror films, the best is saved for last, with Simon Rumley's "Bitch."  Rumley, whose RED, WHITE & BLUE was perhaps the most punch-in-the-gut shocking film I saw in 2011, is a bold, fearless filmmaker who is not afraid to take viewers into some dark, disturbing places.  We're going to hear more from this guy.  "Bitch" has a doormat boyfriend who's had just about enough of the constant head games of his manipulative, cuckolding girlfriend, who, among other indignities, brings other men home for sex when she isn't making the boyfriend wear a dog mask while she sodomizes him with a strap-on.  "Bitch" concludes with a long, brilliant sequence with the most sardonically inappropriate music imaginable, and, unlike Lucky McKee, Rumley finds the right balance between horror and sick humor.  For the adventurous viewer not easily offended, LITTLE DEATHS is 2/3 of a solid flick, but the middle segment is completely skippable.  And RED, WHITE & BLUE is still streaming on Netflix as of this writing.  It's well worth checking out, but word of warning:  like LITTLE DEATHS, it's most certainly not for everyone.  (Unrated, 95 mins)

(Spain/Mexico - 2011)

There's not much left to do with the "found footage" horror subgenre, and the makers of ATROCIOUS would seem to be setting themselves up for easy abuse by calling their movie ATROCIOUS.  So, props to writer/director Fernando Barreda Luna for making one that still manages to induce some occasional goosebumps and knows not to overstay its welcome.  At just 74 minutes, ATROCIOUS wastes no time and the twist ending is genuinely surprising and chilling.

A vacationing family--Mom, Dad, three kids aged 8 to 18, and the dog--stay at a secluded, long-abandoned Sitges home that's been in Mom's family for years.  At the edge of the property is labyrinth/hedge maze where, legend has it, years and years ago a girl named Melinda was lost in the labyrinth and never found, and now, she supposedly turns up to guide those who find themselves lost in the maze.  The locals avoid the labyrinth, but the two oldest children, Cristian (Cristian Valencia) and July (Clara Moraleda) take their digital video cameras and investigate.  They get lost and, briefly, think they see a figure standing at a distance with its back to them.  Dad gets called back home on business.  Then...things start happening.  The film purports to be the whittled-down, police evidence version of the 37 hours of footage found on Cristian's cameras.  There's a lot of shaky-cam night vision and a lot of characters yelling "Mama!" and "Cristian!" and "July!" which is to be expected in this kind of film.  But ATROCIOUS knows it's not an innovative piece of work, and Luna never lets the characters grow tiresome (another pitfall of "found footage").  And there's that ending. Not a great film, but for a largely spent subgenre, it's a pretty good one, streaming on Netflix and worth a look. (R, 74 mins)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Cult Movie Trash/Margheriti Madness: SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE (1973)

(Italy/France/Germany - 1973)

Directed by Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti).  Written by Antonio Margheriti and Giovanni Simonelli.  Cast: Jane Birkin, Hiram Keller, Francoise Christophe, Serge Gainsbourg, Venantino Venantini, Doris Kunstmann, Anton Diffring, Dana Ghia, George Korrade, Alan Collins (Luciano Pigozzi).  (Unrated, 95 mins)

Cover art for 2005 DVD release

Often labeled a giallo, probably due to its very Dario Argento-inspired title, Antonio Margheriti's SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE is more in line with his gothic Euro-horrors of the 1960s, like THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG and CASTLE OF BLOOD.  There is a very giallo sense of sleazy perversity running through SEVEN DEATHS, but the film itself is ultimately a misfire that never gets out of first gear and is often too silly for its own good.  It is redeemed by a terrific twist ending that might have you thinking you just saw a better film than you did.  I remember thinking that after the first time I saw it six years ago, and I imagine in another half decade or so, I'll forget and once again think "Hey, I should revisit that one," and I can be disappointed all over again.

Jane Birkin and Hiram Keller

In a small Scottish village, Corringa (BLOW-UP's Jane Birkin) is visiting relatives at the Castle MacGrieff, overseen by her aunt Lady Mary MacGrieff (Francoise Christophe) and her eccentric, possibly insane son, Corringa's cousin Lord James (FELLINI SATYRICON's Hiram Keller).  Also hanging around the castle, for various reasons, are Corringa's mother (Dana Ghia);  bisexual tutor Suzanne (Doris Kunstmann), essentially hired by Lady Mary to seduce her son; groundskeeper Angus (Luciano Pigozzi); family advisor Father Robertson (Venantino Venantini); and lecherous family doctor Franz (Anton Diffring, dubbed by Ted Rusoff, who supervised the English script translation and dubbing), who's sleeping with both Lady Mary and Suzanne.  Soon, someone starts offing the unlikable cast one by one, with all the murders witnessed by the ever-observant family cat who constantly roams the castle grounds.  Before long, an eccentric detective who may as well be named Almost Hercule Poirot (Birkin's then-husband, French singer Serge Gainsbourg), starts investigating.

A ghostly vision in one of Corringa's nightmares.

It's a very Agatha Christie set-up, complete with a mysterious location, secret passageways, creepy crypts, sidelong glances, and scheming assholes, plus rats, bats, cobwebs, vampire superstitions, and Lord James' secret pet gorilla (!), who periodically frees himself from his cage and wanders the castle or peeps out of windows only to disappear a moment later.

Lord James MacGrieff's secret pet gorilla.  Whatever.

Margheriti and "director of photographye" (as the credits label him) Carlo Carlini establish a admirably creepy and very colorful atmosphere, but SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE is pretty dull stuff.  There's a lot of padding and boring talk of inheritances and what not, with an occasional gory murder or sex scene to liven things up (Kunstmann supplies most of the nudity, but Margheriti gets dangerously close to showing Anton's Diffring at one point), plus an almost comical over-reliance of "DUN, DUN, DUNNNN!"  at even the most insignificant plot development.

Eurocult regular Venantino Venantini and some of the film's garishly colorful lighting.

Old-school Prism VHS box

It's interesting to see Birkin and Gainsbourg acting together, and to see how much a 27-year-old Birkin reminds you of their daughter, actress Charlotte Gainsbourg.  The performances are a little hard to judge since even the English-speaking actors are dubbed.  Blue Underground's DVD, issued in 2005, has some rough spots but looks very nice overall, and at the proper 2.35:1 framing, is obviously a huge improvement over the reportedly hideous Prism Entertainment pan & scan VHS edition that used to be a video store mainstay back in the day.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Cult Movie Trash/Margheriti Madness: TAKE A HARD RIDE (1975)

(US/Spain - 1975) 

Directed by Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti).  Written by Eric Bercovici and Jerry Ludwig.  Cast: Jim Brown, Lee Van Cleef, Fred Williamson, Catherine Spaak, Jim Kelly, Barry Sullivan, Dana Andrews, Harry Carey Jr, Robert Donner, Ricardo Palacios, Buddy Joe Hooker, Paul Costello. (PG, 103 mins)

For this US/Spanish co-production, though for all intents and purposes a major studio American film, Italian journeyman Antonio Margheriti somehow found himself at the helm of a blaxploitation/spaghetti western hybrid that reunited the stars (Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly), screenwriters (Eric Bercovici and Jerry Ludwig) and producer (Harry Bernsen) of the 1974 hit THREE THE HARD WAY, which might be my all-time favorite blaxploitation flick.  TAKE A HARD RIDE is a more serious film, and as a result, it's not nearly as much fun, but it's not deserving of the harsh words it's gotten over the years.

Jim Brown as Pike

When his employer Morgan (Dana Andrews) drops dead from a heart attack, trail boss Pike (Brown) has to get Morgan's $86,000 fortune down to Mexico, where Morgan's wife and their new business await.  It doesn't take long for word to spread throughout the region that a black man is traveling with $86,000, and every gunslinger and bandit in the vicinity tries to ambush the honorable Pike.  Foremost among them is ruthless bounty hunter Kiefer (Lee Van Cleef), but Pike gets some help when he's joined by fast-talking card cheat Tyree (Williamson), and later, by widowed ex-prostitute Catherine (Catherine Spaak) and mute martial-arts zen dude Kashtok (Kelly).

Fred Williamson as Tyree

TAKE A HARD RIDE is entertaining but unexceptional.  It never really takes advantage of the blaxploitation element, and it never feels like a spaghetti western, despite being directed by an Italian.  Margheriti brought along Riccardo Pallotini, his favorite cinematographer, but even with beautiful locations in Spain and the Canary Islands, the film is made in the bland, TV-movie style that many 1970s American studio films exhibited.  That's not to say it's badly-directed.  There's some nicely-done action sequences, which were always a Margheriti specialty particularly in his later jungle action pictures of the 1980s, but the film just has the workmanlike, personality-free sense of clock-punching, hired-gun professionalism that an Andrew V. McLaglen or a Burt Kennedy would've brought to the table.  Take out the African-American stars, the PG-level profanity, and a thoroughly unnecessary Harry Carey, Jr. ass shot, and this could've been made 20 years earlier with Randolph Scott and Dan Duryea with no discernible difference.  In an era of blaxploitation, Sergio Leone, and Sam Peckinpah, TAKE A HARD RIDE probably seemed like a dated relic the moment it was released.  With the exception of an unsettlingly ominous, synthy Morricone-styled cue for Van Cleef, even Jerry Goldsmith's score sounds like it belongs in a 1950s western.

Lee Van Cleef as Lee Van Cleef

As a follow-up to the insane THREE THE HARD WAY, TAKE A HARD RIDE is a disappointment.  But taken on its own terms, it's a decent-enough western that could've been a lot better but is still enjoyable nonetheless.  Brown and Van Cleef would reunite in 1977 for KID VENGEANCE, which was also released as TAKE ANOTHER HARD RIDE.  Van Cleef had already worked with Margheriti on 1974's kung-fu/spaghetti hybrid THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER (released in the US in 1976), and would reteam on several European films throughout the rest of the 1970s and the 1980s, most notably the superb 1978 NYC-shot heist thriller THE SQUEEZE.

Cult Movie Trash/Margheriti Madness: CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE (1980)

(Italy/Spain - 1980; 1982 US release) 

Directed by Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti).  Written by Jimmy Gould (Dardano Sacchetti) and Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti).  Cast: John Saxon, Elizabeth Turner, John Morghen (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), Cindy Hamilton (Cinzia de Carolis), Tony King, Wallace Wilkinson, Ray Williams (Ramiro Oliveros), May Heatherly, Joan Riordan, Luca Venantini, Venantino Venantini, Paul Costello.  (Unrated, 96 mins)

Throughout his long career, journeyman Italian genre master Antonio Margheriti dabbled in everything from sword & sandal epics, sci-fi, gothic horror, giallo, spaghetti westerns, action flicks, family comedies, to whatever YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE is.  1980's CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE was his only stab at the graphically gory, extreme Italian horror made famous by the likes of Lucio Fulci in the wake of George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).  He didn't really care for that style of horror, and CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE reflects that by trying to go for something a little different than the post-DAWN zombie flicks and the flesh-munching jungle cannibal films of Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi.

Released to US grindhouses and drive-ins in 1982 by Almi Pictures under two different, equally lurid titles (CANNIBALS IN THE STREETS and INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS), and cut by several minutes, losing a lot of the really gory bits, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE has Vietnam PTSD manifesting itself in the form of a cannibal virus infecting a trio of Atlanta-based Vietnam vets:  Capt. Norman Hopper (John Saxon), and crazed sergeants Tom Thompson (Tony King) and the improbably-named Charlie Bukowski (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, dubbed by Larry Dolgin) can no longer resist the urge to eat raw human flesh, and Hopper comes to Bukowski's rescue after the latter bites a young woman in a movie theater (showing Umberto Lenzi's FROM HELL TO VICTORY, from the same producer as this, conveniently enough) and instigates a police standoff in a flea market.  When Bukowski is arrested, Hopper, who's already put the bite (and probably more, offscreen) on the aggressively flirty, underage girl next door (Cinzia de Carolis) in a scene that can best be described as "sleazily uncomfortable" even though little is shown (some of Margheriti's crasser contemporaries would've left nothing to the imagination), busts Bukowski and Thompson out of the mental ward, taking an infected nurse (May Heatherly) with them on a cannibal rampage through Atlanta.  In pursuit are Hopper's wife Jane (Elizabeth Turner) and her doctor friend (Ramiro Oliveros, dubbed by Ted Rusoff) who makes no secret of his love for Jane and is constantly trying to goad her into ditching Norman.  Plus, an irate, foul-mouthed, trenchcoat-wearing detective (local Atlanta actor Wallace Wilkinson) who barks orders at everyone and, upon hearing Bukowski singing "Yankee Doodle Boy," says things like "He'll be singing out of his asshole when I'm through with him!"

Despite the horrific elements and the obvious zombie/cannibal influence, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE actually fits more in the post-TAXI DRIVER, "crazed Vietnam vet" subgenre popularized by ROLLING THUNDER, THE EXTERMINATOR, and FIRST BLOOD, and any number of lesser B-movie actioners.  Like those other films, we have soldiers returning from combat, unable to re-adjust to civilian life, cast aside, and, for varying reasons, going on a rampage.  Cannibalism is a rather extreme metaphor for the turmoil felt by shattered combat vets, but it shows some more thematic ambition than is generally seen in such exploitation films of the time.  But, as Roger Corman and others have noted for decades, exploitation films are where filmmakers can sneak in the hardest-hitting messages, because nobody's looking for it amidst the blood & guts and the T & A. 

But CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE doesn't disappoint if you're just looking for gore.  From flesh-munching to tongues being ripped out to eyes being gouged out to one hapless victim's limbs being buzzsawed off to the scene filmed through the gaping hole in one character's shotgunned belly, Margheriti, however reluctantly, delivers the goods.  On the uncut Image DVD (which still looks quite nice and held up very well for being a decade old), Saxon mentions that he was going through a very rough period in his life while shooting CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE.  He was in the midst of a divorce and wasn't aware (or so he claims) of just how gory the film was going to be, and was ignorant of the whole Italian cannibal subgenre (and in his defense, the original Italian title was APOCALYPSE DOMANI, which translates "Apocalypse Tomorrow."  I can't imagine what influenced that title).  Between his divorce and being stuck in a film he didn't want to do, Saxon's performance is surprisingly believable and very effective.  He's always been a better actor than some of his career choices would indicate, and whatever pain he was going through in his personal life had a profound impact on his work here.  It's one of his best performances, buried in something that drive-in audiences saw as INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS.

John Saxon and Giovanni Lombardo Radice in an Atlanta flea market in 1980...

...and reunited at a 2008 horror convention!
(photo from Pauraprod.com)