Friday, March 30, 2012

In Theaters: WRATH OF THE TITANS (2012)

(Spain/US - 2012)

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman.  Written by Dan Mazeau & David Leslie Johnson.  Cast: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Rosamund Pike, Bill Nighy, Edgar Ramirez, Toby Kebbell, Danny Huston, Sinead Cusack, John Bell.  (PG-13, 100 mins)

This sequel to 2010's remake of the beloved 1981 classic is noteworthy only in how quickly it manages to completely evaporate from your memory by the time you exit the theater.  Walking to my car, I had a distinct Leonard Shelby moment when I realized "I'm in this parking garage.  Why?  Am I arriving somewhere?  Am I leaving?"  Fumbling through my pockets, I discovered a ticket stub that seemed to indicate that I'd used a gift card to be granted admission to something called WRATH OF THE TITANS approximately two hours earlier.  And yet...I had no memory of this experience.

"Wait...you mean when I'm done here,
I'm moving on to BATTLESHIP?"
Yeah, it's that kind of movie.  A perfectly harmless, inoffensive time-killer that has no real reason to be, other than easy paychecks for an overqualified cast.  Demigod hero Perseus (Sam Worthington), now living a quiet life as a widower with young son Helius (John Bell), gets pulled back into the gods and titans business when his father Zeus (Liam Neeson) is duped and held captive by his own scheming brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and other son, Perseus' half-brother Ares (Edgar Ramirez) as a plan to appease the enraged Kronos, Zeus' and Hades' father who was deposed by his sons long ago.  People have stopped praying to the gods, and as a result, they're losing their power to control Kronos and the other Titans imprisoned in Tartarus, the netherworld underneath Hades' realm.  Teaming up with Agenor the Navigator (Toby Kebbell), demigod son of Poseidon (Danny Huston), as well as Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike), cranky mapmaker Hephaestus (Bill Nighy), and of course, Pegasus, Perseus must...defeat evil.  Or whatever.  Along the way, the filmmakers hit all the required marks:  battle scenes straight out of 300, a shot of the heroes on their journey, walking single file along a mountain while the camera swirls around them and the music swells, and, of course, a character entering a battle from high in the sky, landing on one knee, then ominously looking up from that crouched position.

Ralph Fiennes, struggling to stay awake as Hades
I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the 2010 CLASH OF THE TITANS (I didn't bother seeing it in converted 3D, which reportedly looked awful; I didn't see this in 3D, either).  It was silly, but it was fast-moving, well-directed by Luc Besson protege Louis Leterrier, and filled with endlessly entertaining scenery-chewing by Neeson and Fiennes.  WRATH, on the other hand, just feels like everyone's punching a clock.  Leterrier is out, replaced by Michael Bay flunky Jonathan Liebesman, director of last year's BATTLE: LOS ANGELES and one of the Bay-produced TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE entries from a few years ago.  Leterrier knows how to stage an action sequence, while Liebesman is from the "point the camera and shake it around to look busy" school.  Liebesman and the writers (Dan Mazeau and David Leslie Johnson) are so disengaged that they can't even bother to think up a new iconic "Release the Kraken!"-esque catchphrase for Neeson.  Fiennes just looks bored, and really dials back his hissingly hammy Hades from the way he played the same role in CLASH.  Fiennes, like Neeson, Nighy, and briefly, Huston, are just doing the bare minimum to get the job done and instead letting the CGI technicians work their magic.

Sam Worthzzzzzzzz
It might work better if it had a more engaging hero.  How much longer is Hollywood going to try to convince us that Sam Worthington is a movie star?  Yeah, he was in AVATAR, but nobody went to see it because of him.  Nobody saw CLASH because of him. THE DEBT did well, but it was more of an ensemble piece.  And nobody saw TEXAS KILLING FIELDS or MAN ON A LEDGE period.  Worthington was pretty open in his disdain of CLASH, and it's obvious in his bland line readings and annoyed looks that he's in this out of a contractual obligation rather than any inherent desire to further the TITANS saga.  Except for the multitudes of visual effects teams, everyone associated with this feels like they're there because they can't get out of it.  The actors are almost an afterthought.  As uninterested as they all are, they should've just CGI'd them as well.  Neeson, Fiennes, and Nighy are great actors.  I don't blame them for wanting a fat payday, but can they at least pretend they give a shit?  Or did they save that for the press junket?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

New on DVD/Blu-ray: A DANGEROUS METHOD (2011), CORMAN'S WORLD (2011)

(Germany/Canada - 2011)

"Austere" and "erudite" are terms that frequently came up in reviews of David Cronenberg's Freud-Jung cage match A DANGEROUS METHOD.  I think Cronenberg deliberately fashioned the film to be as dry and restrained as it is as a reflection of its repressed characters, who spend their lives exploring the birth of psychoanalysis and the psychological study of sexuality while unable to face such desires and needs in themselves.  Most of this is reflected in the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and patient-turned-lover-turned-colleague Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley).  Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) figures in as a mentor-turned-colleague-turned-rival to Jung.  When Jung isn't spanking Sabine, he's discussing psychoanalysis with her, or writing to and receiving letters from Freud, read in voiceover by the actors.  It's all lovely to look at, with some beautiful locations (and some unfortunately shoddy greenscreen work when Freud and Jung travel to the U.S.), and a much-debated performance by Knightley that's nothing if not committed.  Many accused her of egregious overacting in her early scenes of frenzied, psychotic hysteria, but I highly doubt a filmmaker as intelligent and well-read as Cronenberg would direct someone to act in a way that didn't accurately reflect what it's trying to convey.  It's a jarring, difficult performance that might induce snickers at times, especially the way she juts out her chin, but I have no reason to doubt the veracity of its depiction, even though Knightley's Russian accent often veers from "faintly subtle" to "Boris & Natasha."  Fassbender and Mortensen are fine, as is Vincent Cassel in a brief role as a doctor/patient who more or less functions as Jung's id, razzing his inhibitions and goading him into his fling with Sabina behind the back of his (of course) repressed wife (Sarah Gadon).  A DANGEROUS METHOD is a sincere, ambitious, and intelligent effort with a lot to admire, and while I think it's by design, it's still just too dry, distant, and off-putting for its own good. (R, 99 mins)

(US - 2011)

Affectionate documentary on legendary producer/director Roger Corman earned a lot of accolades in critical circles, but except for a couple of brief segments, it really isn't anything more than the kind of interview/bonus feature you'd find on one of Shout Factory's "Roger Corman's Cult Classics" DVDs.  Director Alex Stapleton does succeed in getting interviews with the likes of Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro, but too much of the film rehashes things that fans of Corman and cult cinema in general have already known for years.  A bit of time is spent on 1961's THE INTRUDER, Corman's personal favorite film and an early stab at serious cinema (and, as he's pointed out many times over the years and does so again here, it's the only Corman picture that lost money), and a couple of interview subjects question wonder aloud why Corman shepherded so much great talent over the decades, but never made it to the A-list himself.  But mostly, it's a Corman highlight reel (which is never not entertaining), with an intense focus on his AIP and New World years, and current Syfy Channel productions, but almost no time at all devoted to his Concorde/New Horizons films.  On one hand, 90 minutes really isn't enough time to cover all the bases of the man's career and his influence on what's come after, but at the same time, CORMAN'S WORLD too often comes off like an inflated puff piece.  And while the list of interviews here is impressive (Martin Scorsese, Peter Fonda, Pam Grier, William Shatner, Peter Bogdanovich, Bruce Dern, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, Dick Miller, Jonathan Haze, Mary Woronov, and several who have since passed on since their interviews were shot, like David Carradine, George Hickenlooper, Irvin Kershner, and Polly Platt), there's a longer list of interview subjects thanked in the closing credits that didn't make the final cut. And yet, Eli Roth still makes it into the film.  There's a bonus feature with extended interviews that runs just 13 minutes, and kicks off with...Eli Roth.  I guess if you've never read much on Corman or are just getting into his massive body of work, CORMAN'S WORLD is a great way to get your feet wet, but for those of us who've spent a good chunk of our lives enjoying and studying his work, both the good and the bad, there's unfortunately not much here you haven't heard before, regardless of how sincere and well-intentioned it may be.  The film's highlight (other than the clips) is provided by an uncharacteristically emotional Nicholson, who briefly loses his composure while reflecting upon just how much Corman has meant to his career.  It's a powerful, genuine, and almost overwhelming moment to see arguably the world's most famous actor drop his guard and be himself instead of "Jack."  (R, 90 mins)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: MAN ON FIRE (1987)

(France/Italy - 1987)

Directed by Elie Chouraqui.  Written by Elie Chouraqui and Sergio Donati.  Cast: Scott Glenn, Brooke Adams, Danny Aiello, Joe Pesci, Paul Shenar, Jonathan Pryce, Jade Malle, Laura Morante, Lou Castel, Giancarlo Prati, Alessandro Haber, Franco Trevisi, Piero Vida (R, 92 mins).

A.J. Quinnell's 1980 novel Man on Fire was adapted into a big-budget Denzel Washington-Tony Scott collaboration in 2004, but there was another version prior to that.  The 1987, European-made MAN ON FIRE was picked up for US distribution by Tri-Star, but they didn't do much with it, only releasing it in a handful of theaters where it grossed about $500,000 before instantly falling into obscurity.  It took two years to surface on US home video, uncommonly long even by 1980s standards, and has never been issued on DVD in the US.  These days, it's mainly stumbled upon by insomniacs during occasional 4:30 am HBO airings.  But it has acquired a bit of cult following, probably due to its interesting cast, and some consider it superior to the 2004 remake.  While the newer version has its problems, mainly Scott's hyperactive, crazed directing techniques, MAN ON FIRE '87 really isn't very good, and is hardly a neglected classic patiently awaiting discovery.

Creasy (Scott Glenn) is a burned out ex-CIA agent still haunted by memories of Vietnam and his government activities in Beirut.  His Italy-based CIA buddy David (Joe Pesci) gets Creasy a job as a bodyguard for 12-year-old Samantha (Jade Malle), the daughter of a rich Italian couple (Paul Shenar, Brooke Adams), concerned about the rash of Mafia-related kidnappings and extortions.  Initially reluctant and unenthused about spending all of his time with a little kid, Creasy eventually warms up to Sam, and the two become inseparable friends.  Sam accompanies Creasy to another CIA buddy's wedding and on the way home, they're carjacked, Creasy is shot, and Sam is kidnapped.  And of course, when the law can't help him, Creasy becomes a one-man vigilante wrecking crew, going after the gang and their leader, Conti (Danny Aiello).

The relationship between Creasy and Sam goes from zero to unconditional love so quickly that it never feels plausible, and sometimes, it feels downright creepy. But the biggest problem with MAN ON FIRE is that it's a genre thriller directed by an arthouse guy (French filmmaker Elie Chouraqui) who thinks he's making a serious film.  This kind of plot needs a no-holds-barred Italian action madman like an Enzo G. Castellari or a Fernando Di Leo to get the job done.  Guys like Franco Nero, Fabio Testi, and Maurizio Merli made tons of movies like this in Italy in the 1970s, and while he's a fine actor, Glenn is miscast, playing Creasy as a mopey, introverted sad sack.  It also doesn't help that the film is plodding, muddled, and hopelessly confusing, and clearly the victim of merciless post-production hacking. Creasy demonstrates perfect mimicry of Sam's voice at one point, explaining that it's a special talent, but it never comes into play. And where are this girl's parents?  Why do they let her go to a wedding reception as a date for her mysterious loner bodyguard?  Shenar and Adams have almost nothing to do and completely disappear from the film, as does Jonathan Pryce, wasted in a completely frivolous role as Shenar's lawyer.  Apparently, an entire subplot about Adams and Pryce having an affair was cut (Sam mentions it in passing to Creasy), which probably constituted most of their work on the film.  As it is in the released version, Pryce has three brief scenes and could've been completely cut with no effect on the film at all.  Aiello doesn't even appear until halfway through and has just a couple of scenes.  Of the big-name supporting cast, Pesci, fresh off the short-lived TV series HALF-NELSON and a few years before the career resurgence that began with his scene-stealing supporting turn in LETHAL WEAPON 2, gets the most screen time, giving us a preview of things to come with what appears to be a largely ad-libbed performance filled with F-bombs, outbursts, and one inexplicable, jawdroppingly insane rendition of "Johnny B. Goode."

Chouraqui does finally get things rolling for a while once Creasy starts tracking down the kidnappers (among them Eurocult vets Lou Castel, Franco Trevisi, and Piero Vida) and blowing them away.  But time and again, the director shows that he's just out of his element in trying to do an action thriller.  The climax is confusingly shot and over before you realize what's happened.  Interestingly, 17 years before helming the remake, Tony Scott was initially approached about directing, probably before TOP GUN exploded, but the producers opted to go with Chouraqui, who was coming a hit on the arthouse circuit with 1986's LOVE SONGS.  MAN ON FIRE is worth one watch for the curious (and for devotees of Joe Pesci flying off the handle), but it spite of its small cult following, it's an almost total misfire, and it's easy to see why Tri-Star had no idea what to do with it.  An assembling of a director's cut might show there's a case for re-evaluation, but at this point, 25 years later, I doubt anyone involved cares enough to put forth the effort.

Joe Pesci's hilarious, inexplicable meltdown from 4:22-5:20 in this clip

In Theaters: THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by Gary Ross.  Written by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray.  Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Liam Hemsworth, Toby Jones, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Amandla Stenberg, Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, Jack Quaid. (PG-13, 142 mins)

Suzanne Collins' monster bestselling teen novel has been adapted for the big screen by Collins, SHATTERED GLASS writer/director Billy Ray, and Gary Ross, who also directed.  Ross, with PLEASANTVILLE and SEABISCUIT to his name, seems an odd choice to direct and there are times when a more visually adept, action-oriented filmmaker might've kept the pace from lagging in the middle.  At 142 minutes, THE HUNGER GAMES goes on longer than is necessary for what's essentially the kind of 85-minute B-movie Roger Corman would've had in drive-ins back in 1978.  Indeed, the first hour, with its garish dystopian sets, wardrobes, and hairstyles, occasionally has a campy feel that kept reminding me of certain elements of DEATH RACE 2000 (1975).  Certainly that's an influence, along with elements of  THE RUNNING MAN (1987), the obscure DEATHROW GAMESHOW (1987), perhaps even Lucio Fulci's THE NEW GLADIATORS (1983), and, as internet cult movie snobs are quick to point out as frequently and as insufferably as their Twitter account will allow, Kinji Fukasaku's BATTLE ROYALE (2000).

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen
A plot recap seems superfluous, since everyone and even my mom knows what this is about by now.  Jennifer Lawrence (WINTER'S BONE) is a very appealing, believable Katniss Everdeen, one of two representatives from the impoverished District 12 of Panem, which holds an annual televised tournament known as the Hunger Games, where 24 children between the ages of 12-18 are chosen by lottery to fight to the death until one remains.  The upper-class Districts 1 & 2 always seem to produce the winners, but with the guidance of mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the only previous winner to ever hail from District 12, she and fellow District 12 representative Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson) learn how to work the crowd, as it were, and win sponsors that can mean the difference between life or death in the tournament.

Fashion guru Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Hunger Games
mentor/ex-champ Haymitch (Woody Harrelson),
and Distict 12 contestant Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson)
The large supporting cast all get moments to shine, particularly Harrelson as the drunken Haymitch, who sobers up and gets down to business when he sees what a contender he has in Katniss.  Stanley Tucci has a blast as smirking Hunger Games TV host Caesar Flickerman (definitely a lot of The Real Don Steele's Junior Bruce character from DEATH RACE 2000 in Flickerman), and Donald Sutherland is appropriately Donald Sutherlandy as the sneering Panem leader President Snow.  Another standout is Amandla Stenberg as Rue, the Games' youngest contestant, who briefly becomes an ally and surrogate little sister to Katniss, who only entered the games as a voluntary replacement for her own 12-year-old sister Primrose (Willow Shields).

Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket
Regarding the incessant BATTLE ROYALE comparisons, there's definitely some similarities once the contestants are turned loose in battle.  But BATTLE ROYALE was a disturbing film clearly aimed at adults.  Calling THE HUNGER GAMES a watered-down version of BATTLE ROYALE is unfairly dismissive and pedantic.  I can see where this is a--and I hate this term--zeitgeist kind-of film for teenagers today.  It's the same way older folks in 1977 probably found STAR WARS ridiculous and preferred FORBIDDEN PLANET or something.  Or the same way those of us who cut our teeth on the blood-splattered horror and slasher films of the 1980s revered those films while our elders thought they were tacky, offensive trash, preferring the classic horrors of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, or even Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Someone in their late 30s (like me) and beyond bitching about THE HUNGER GAMES is just being an old fart because it's not aimed at us anyway.  I enjoyed a lot of THE HUNGER GAMES, but I had some issues with it that aren't exclusive to just this film.  I'm tired of the video-gamey shaky cam and action scenes that are edited in a way that makes them largely blurry and imcomprehensible.  The cruddy CGI effects often did the film a disservice--the fire looked awful, and the greenscreen work was rudimentary at best (this is where someone with more genre experience than Ross might've handled things differently; it's also worth noting that Steven Soderbergh, of all people, handled some second-unit duties), but these are issues that I and many people of my generation will always have and they aren't going away.  The target audience for THE HUNGER GAMES has no problem with these kinds of visual effects.  Probably the same way we were stunned by the practical FX work of Tom Savini, Rick Baker, and Rob Bottin in the 1980s, while our parents and grandparents probably found all of that far too graphic and preferred stuff along the lines of the time-lapse werewolf transformations of Lon Chaney, Jr. in the 1940s.  It's clearly become a generational thing.  I've been waiting 15 years for the bad CGI backlash and it's obviously not happening.  I'm accepting it to the degree that every generation is required to hate the stuff that comes after.  It doesn't mean I like crummy CGI or that I'll stop bitching about it whenever I see it in films aimed at me and not at younger, more forgiving audiences who are more accustomed to it.

Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane

Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman

Amandla Stenberg as Rue

Donald Sutherland as President Snow
And to return to another topic, the BATTLE ROYALE people just need to shut up already. There's a lot of bad movies aimed at younger audiences that become huge hits, and teenage audiences could be turning out en masse to something a lot worse. It's not a ripoff of BATTLE ROYALE, and really, BATTLE ROYALE and its sequel ripped off several films themselves. I appreciated all the nods and shout-outs to similar films and I know that they were probably put there intentionally. It's like the adult humor in a Pixar flick. Kids love them just as much without getting those jokes, but they're there for the adults to appreciate as well.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Cannon Files: MERCENARY FIGHTERS (1988)

(US - 1988)

Directed by Riki Shelach.  Written by Bud Schaetzle, Dean Tschetter, Andrew Deutsch, Terry Asbury.  Cast: Peter Fonda, Reb Brown, Ron O'Neal, James Mitchum, Robert DoQui, Henry Cele, Joanna Weinberg.  (R, 93 mins)

Reckless stuntwork and dubious ethics aside, the barely-released MERCENARY FIGHTERS is an entertaining, explosion-filled exploitationer that has a serious message at its core, but doesn't do the greatest job of conveying it.  This was one of Cannon's several late '80s South African-shot films, made during the apartheid era when it was highly frowned-upon to be working there and Cannon repeatedly denied that they had a production facility in Johannesburg.  They certainly weren't the only company doing it, but they probably attracted the most attention, and were singled out by the L.A. Times and mentioned in an expose from the long-defunct magazine Premiere in a piece that focused on the troubled South African shoot of the Jack Abramoff-produced Dolph Lundgren actioner RED SCORPION.  It was a bad time to be shooting in that region, and while Cannon could attract A-list talent, you can bet none of them were willing to work in South Africa in the late '80s.

MERCENARY FIGHTERS deals with the titular crew, headed by the ruthless, Swisher Sweet-sucking Virelli (Peter Fonda, pretty much on the skids a decade before his ULEE'S GOLD comeback), hired to do the dirty work of wiping out rebels opposed to the building of a dam in the fictional Central African country of Shinkasa.  Top military man Kjemba (Robert DoQui, who's actually really good in this) is acting under the genocidal orders of the Shinkasa president, who doesn't want the heinous activity to be traced back to him or his office.  Virelli and his team--among them Cliff (Ron O'Neal), Wilson (James Mitchum), and new recruit T.J. Christian (Reb Brown!)--get the job done, but T.J. starts to have second thoughts after witnessing atrocities committed by Kjemba and his men, who are after in-hiding rebel leader Jaunde (SHAKA ZULU's Henry Cele).  Tensions mount as T.J., realizing he's been working for the wrong side, wants to do the right thing and stop the mission, while the openly racist Virelli only sees the money.  Also complicating matters is T.J.'s falling for an American nurse (Joanna Weinberg)--referred to by the endlessly charming Virelli as "the gash"--doing humanitarian work with the Shinkasa rebels.

Crazy Larry and Crunch Buttsteak are...
The script actually pays lip service to serious issues and director Riki Shelach does a nice job of incorporating local color, but all that gets tossed aside when the Shinkasa rebels have given up all hope and realize that only T.J....yes, Reb Brown...can lead them in their fight.  Those issues aside, MERCENARY FIGHTERS is a well-made actioner that's never dull, and with its endless explosions, some surprisingly hair-raising stunt sequences (including a shot of a little girl in the path of a speeding Jeep that's clearly not faked) and Reb Brown yelling, it actually feels more like one of the countless 1980s Philippines-shot Italian junglesploitation works of Antonio Margheriti or Bruno Mattei than a late '80s Cannon production.  Not a bad B movie at all, even though I'm sure most involved probably aren't proud of it.  I get the feeling that when Fonda's Virelli says "Fuck this. I'm gonna find out if this job's over.  I got a house payment to make," it's entirely possible that Fonda was talking to a co-star and didn't know the camera was rolling.  Working actors have to work, and iconic but past-their-prime figures like Fonda and O'Neal (a long way from SUPERFLY and with his name misspelled "O'Neil" in the credits) went where the work was.  Brown, right on the heels of Bruno Mattei's legendary STRIKE COMMANDO (1987), did a few more D-movies in South Africa, including the MST3K favorite SPACE MUTINY.  And yes, MERCENARY FIGHTERS does find an opportunity for Brown to do his signature battle cry.

One of the more obscure films in the Cannon canon, MERCENARY FIGHTERS was recently made available as part of MGM's manufactured-on-demand "Limited Edition Collection" (available via numerous online vendors as well as Warner Archive) in a surprisingly nice-looking 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cult Movie Trash: Special "Bad Boyz in Bratislava" Edition: URBAN MENACE (1999), CORRUPT (1999), THE WRECKING CREW (2000)

There are times when a story is so monumental that it takes a trilogy to tell it.  THE GODFATHER.  The original STAR WARS saga.  LORD OF THE RINGS.  Kieslowski's THREE COLORS.  To that, we must add Albert Pyun's landmark "Gangstas Wandering Around In An Abandoned Warehouse" trilogy (© The AV Club's Nathan Rabin), an epic achievement in the late '90s rapsploitation DTV explosion wherein Pyun somehow managed to get three films, all exhibiting the production values of a homemade sex tape, out of a three week trip to a decrepit, abandoned factory in Bratislava, Slovakia.  According to the occasionally reliable Pyun, who actually had a real career at one point (he directed THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER), Air France lost half of the footage on the trip back to the States.  But Pyun and producer/star Ice-T perservered, and cobbled together three of the most astonishingly inept, incomprehensible, unwatchable excuses for cinema that the world has ever witnessed.

These reviews originally appeared in slightly different form on the Mobius Home Video Forum in March 2011.

(US - 1999)

The trilogy kicks off with a horror film, where a bunch of Bronx thugs find themselves pursued--through an abandoned warehouse--by the vengeful ghost of Preacher Caleb (Snoop Dogg), who was killed along with his family in a fire started by gang warfare. As the Preacher (as he's ultimately called, even though the opening crawl mentions that he was merely a janitor, though at one point, he's referred to as an alderman) knocks off the gangstas one by one as they wander around the abandoned building, it becomes clear that his true target is crime boss Crow (Big Punisher, who died shortly after this hit video). Meanwhile, snitch King (T.J. Storm) is working with the cops against Crow and his top henchman Terror (Fat Joe) to secure a better life for his family.

URBAN MENACE is nightmarishly bad in every way. Visually, the film is nauseating, as Pyun uses a bunch of garish filters for a washed-out look that is simply unviewable. You can't even see people's faces most of the time. It's just a blurry white. Secondly, Snoop Dogg isn't in this nearly as much as his obvious stunt double is, and when Pyun needs a closeup, he repeatedly resorts to the same shot of a scowling Snoop. But the biggest--no "pun" intended--offender here is the acting of Big Pun, who turns in a "performance"--and I use the term loosely--that defies all description and comprehension. He's wheezing, mumbling, and making zero effort to hide that he's reading cue cards, and I'm actually not entirely convinced that he knew how to read. Not to speak ill of the dead, but man...Big Pun is unspeakably bad here. There's numerous pauses as he either a) tries to figure out what the next word is, or b) has to take a breath. You have to see it to believe it. It's a legit contender for the worst performance in the history of the moving image. Fat Joe is also reading cue cards, but he's at least a little more stealthy about it. It's also painfully obvious that neither Big Pun nor Fat Joe are even performing with the other actors thanks to some hilariously inept editing. Third-billed Ice-T introduces the film and functions as narrator. Also with future 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN co-star Romany Malco, shame of the Hudson family Ernie Hudson, Jr., Karen Dyer, Tahitia, Jahi J.J. Zuri, Rob Ladesich, and Vince Klyn from Pyun's CYBORG, back in another lifetime when Pyun made real movies. Almost all of these supporting actors turn up in the next two films. Storm went on to play the ridiculous Irish-Rastafarian gangster Maginty in PUNISHER: WAR ZONE. The best that can be said about URBAN MENACE is that it's only 72 minutes long, and about ten of that is credits. (R, 72 mins)

(US - 1999)

Ice-T takes a much bigger role here, as vicious crime lord Corrupt, who, in one of the funniest scenes ever, wipes out rival crime boss Yazu (Jahi J.J. Zuri) and his crew so he can take over. But he has to deal with ambitious gangsta MJ (Silkk the Shocker), who's threatening to undermine his authority. Plus, Corrupt wants MJ's older sister Jodi (Karen Dyer), who's dating Miles (Ernie Hudson, Jr.). Most of the action takes place at the diner Jodi runs. Well, I think it's a diner. It looks like a prop counter set up in front of a janitor's closet, and the only food items visible are half-gallon containers of Tropicana orange juice, a Coke dispenser, several bottles of ketchup, a single hanging bag of Chi-Chi's tortilla chips, and a big styrofoam cup full of straws. People come in and order pizza, chili dogs, falafel, and burgers, but there's no visible food prep/kitchen area. Amazing.

Corrupt promises to leave MJ alone if Jodi will let him hit dat azz, which angers Miles, which, of course, leads to a wild, continuity-be-damned shootout at, you guessed it, the abandoned warehouse. At the very least, this actually looks normal, minus the filters and all the goofy processing Pyun utilized on URBAN MENACE. It still looks like it was shot on a cell phone, but let's take what we can get. The actors are terrible, especially Ice-T, who can actually act. I swear you can see him laughing a couple times. Silkk the Shocker is awful, and obviously isn't in any of the locations at the same time as Ice-T, even when they're in the same scene together. It just looks like Pyun kept the supporting actors around and let the big ballers come in when they wanted. Pyun commits perhaps his most merciful act by having the closing credits start at the 59-minute mark. CORRUPT's running time: 66 minutes. Also with T.J. Storm as Corrupt's eye-patched flunky Cinque, Tahitia, Vince Klyn as "The Sayer," Romany Malco as an obnoxious diner customer, and Miss Jones, better known as Tarsha Nicole Jones, the former Hot 97 radio host who followed up her CORRUPT triumph with an insensitive parody song about the 2004 Asian tsunami. (R, 66 mins)

(US - 2000)

The trilogy reaches its thrilling conclusion with its most grandiose outing yet: a 75-minute epic with Ice-T as Menace, the leader of an elite squad of Detroit (still Bratislava) cops pitting rival gangs against one another. Second-billed Snoop Dogg is Dra-Man, a Chicago gang lord who is introduced via silent stock footage of a Snoop Dogg interview and a bunch of AP file photos of Snoop Dogg...then promptly exits the film after 20 seconds of stock footage from URBAN MENACE, most of which is his double. Two gangs, the Locs, led by Sly (David Askew, having the good luck to only be in one of these), and the 111's, led by Hakiem (the inevitable Ernie Hudson, Jr.), agree to a truce, which angers a third group, the Cartel, who corner the two gangs in...yes, an abandoned warehouse, as Menace's Wrecking Crew closes in to wipe them all out. There's actually some semblance of a coherent plot with THE WRECKING CREW, but it's ruined by Pyun's sloppiest filmmaking of the series: most of the dialogue is barely audible and largely unintelligible, and both of the major shootouts are stock footage of the climactic shootout from CORRUPT. That's right...Pyun plays the same shootout twice.  Three times if you count CORRUPT.  And there's a ten-minute stretch where Hakiem is doing nothing but frantically running from room to room, yelling, presumably for no reason other than to pad the running time. As the incoherence and foolishness reach a fever pitch, Pyun demonstrates his love for the hilarious fire effect in CORRUPT by repeating it in a similar, and equally hysterical, scene at the very end. Also with Vince Klyn, Miss Jones, Romany Malco, Rob Ladesich, and Jahi J.J. Zuri, turning in his finest work in the trilogy as Hakiem's twitchy top gun who repeatedly looks into the camera during the truce sequence.  (R, 75 mins)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

In Theaters/On VOD: 4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH (2012)

(Chile/France/US - 2012)

Written and directed by Abel Ferrara.  Cast: Willem Dafoe, Shanyn Leigh, Paul Hipp, Natasha Lyonne, Anita Pallenberg, Paz de la Huerta.  (Unrated, 82 mins).

Whether it's the doomy prophecies of the 2012 Mayan calendar or just societal unease and malaise in general, the apocalypse film has definitely made a comeback.  Sure, we've seen a zombie horror resurgence in the last decade, but I'm talking "serious" examination of the end of the world.  In the last year, we've had ANOTHER EARTH and TAKE SHELTER touching on these themes in their own unique ways.  Lars von Trier's brilliant MELANCHOLIA dealt with the subject in a more direct fashion, and this summer, it gets a more comedic (?) take with the Steve Carell/Keira Knightley-starring SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD.  But now, legendary NYC-based indie wildman Abel Ferrara brings us his own vision of the world's end and it mostly looks like an Abel Ferrara home movie.  That is, when it doesn't look like an end-of-semester visual essay by the most annoying person in your Digital Multimedia class.  Ferrara has long been one of the most visceral, exciting voices in independent cinema.  Films like MS. 45, FEAR CITY, KING OF NEW YORK, BAD LIEUTENANT, and THE FUNERAL to name just a few, have forever cemented his significance to indie and cult cinema (and I even like DANGEROUS GAME!).  He's mainly been doing documentaries in recent years, like the sincere but rambling CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS.  His 2007 film GO-GO TALES got great word-of-mouth overseas but has yet to be really be seen in the US outside of festival showings.  Is there some reason GO-GO TALES still hasn't been released on DVD here?

But back to 4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH.  The depletion of the ozone layer has happened faster than experts anticipated, and the world is set to end at 4:44 am the next morning.  We don't know how long this has been known, but the characters in the film seem to have already accepted it.  Most of the film takes place in the Lower East Side loft of bohemian couple Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and Skye (Ferrara's longtime girlfriend Shanyn Leigh).  After an oddly tightly-shot sex scene where we get a close up shot of Leigh running her fingers through Dafoe's pubes, Skye smears paint on a canvas and listens to a Buddhist monk on TV while Cisco talks to a friend on the phone, journals, Skypes with another buddy having a jam session, dances a little, watches old footage of Al Gore being interviewed by Charlie Rose, walks out on the roof of his building to see a guy at a nearby building jump off the fire escape.  Cisco and Skye's loft is the kind of place where a nice HDTV sits on a milk crate (I wouldn't be surprised if this is actually Ferrara's and Leigh's residence).  They have Chinese takeout delivered and let the delivery guy Skype with his family back home in an undeniably poignant scene which nevertheless brings up one important question:  the world's got about eight hours left and you show up for work?

Cisco gets in touch with his teenage daughter, and their Skype chat is interrupted by his still-angry ex, and when Skye finds them talking, they have a huge fight and recovering addict Cisco goes to visit an old buddy Noah (Paul Hipp) in the hopes of scoring some heroin.  Cisco's two years clean, and Noah talks him out of it.  Cisco gets some anyway, and tries to shoot up back at home but Skye catches him.  They reconcile, Skye paints some more, Cisco walks outside to see strange green clouds swirling through the sky, the power goes out, they make love one last time ("Come inside me," Skye whispers).  As they hold each other, Ferrara cuts to stock news footage seemingly edited together at random, and as Cisco and Skye hold each other, the screen fades to white at 4:44 am.

KING OF NEW YORK, it's not.

Ferrara likes doing projects with these edgy, off-the-cuff, in-the-moment kinds of intense scenes with actors.  It's likely why his dalliances with major studios (like his unsuccessful but not-without-interest 1993 version of BODY SNATCHERS for Warner Bros) never led to anything.  Ferrara's not a studio guy, and that's great.  But he's the kind of filmmaker who has difficulty staying focused if left too much on his own.  His best films, like the ones I mentioned earlier, have that distinct Ferrara feel but they're complete stories.  4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH represents a Ferrara making it up as it goes along and letting the chips fall where they may.  It's a thoroughly self-indulgent film that feels like it exists because he wanted to put his significant other in a starring role.  Leigh is a terrible actress, and there may not be a more unintentionally funnier scene in 2012 than her batshit meltdown at finding Cisco Skyping with his ex.  It's the kind of hilarious scene that becomes a viral sensation once it hits YouTube.  Dafoe is OK here, I suppose.  He's worked with Ferrara several times (including GO-GO TALES and the 1999 misfire NEW ROSE HOTEL, which is probably Ferrara's worst film) and, despite his Hollywood notoriety, Dafoe is one of those bohemian types who probably feels more at home in risk-taking, far-from-the-mainstream fare like this and Lars von Trier's controversial ANTICHRIST, but I'm starting to think he does these kinds of edgy arthouse projects because they give him a chance to get naked onscreen with much younger women, like Asia Argento in NEW ROSE HOTEL and Charlotte Gainsbourg in ANTICHRIST.  Sure, that SPIDER-MAN and JOHN CARTER money is nice, but an actor has other needs.

You know, with all the TVs, monitors, laptops, and tablets displaying various media in Cisco & Skye's loft (and honestly, didn't you groan a little when you read the names "Cisco" and "Skye"?), it's too bad none of these devices was Netflix streaming Don McKellar's 1998 Canadian film LAST NIGHT, which seems to be the main inspiration for this new trend of character-driven apocalypse cinema, but no one seems eager to admit it.  LAST NIGHT is a great underseen film that was probably inspired more by the now-laughable, pants-shitting paranoia of pre-Y2K, but it still holds up today, with a final scene that gets me every time.  With 4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH, it's great to see that Ferrara can once again get a film distributed in the US, but I just wish he had something to say.

Streaming on Netflix.  Watch this film.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Cannon Files: ASSASSINATION (1987) and MESSENGER OF DEATH (1988)

(US - 1987)

Watchable but mostly forgettable Charles Bronson outing was a PG-13 change-of-pace for the actor and gave him a chance to work with wife and frequent co-star Jill Ireland one last time. Ireland was offscreen since 1982's DEATH WISH II and had been battling breast cancer since 1984. She was in good health again by the time of ASSASSINATION, and only appeared in one more film (a small role in the barely-released, Billy Graham-financed 1987 religious drama CAUGHT), before her cancer returned and she died in 1990.

Bronson is veteran Secret Service agent Jay Killian, assigned to protect incoming First Lady Lara Craig (Ireland), codenamed "One Mama." One Mama proves to be a bit of a feisty bitch, and doesn't feel like listening to Killian even when it becomes clear that someone is trying to kill her. But why? Killian and One Mama end up spending the second half of the film on the run cross-country, stopping to buy motorcycles in Kokomo, IN, an area that's curiously filled with palm trees and mountains on the horizon (there's also some visible palm trees in a few DC shots), as they try to evade a team of assassins working for someone who ranks high in the government.

ASSASSINATION is a very plodding, slowly-paced film that feels much longer than its brief 88 minutes. My dad and I saw this when it opened in January 1987 and I recall both of us being disappointed. I hadn't seen it all the way through since then, and remembered almost nothing about it other than the terrible rug worn by Michael Ansara, playing a senator. ASSASSINATION looks and feels like a bland TV-movie.  Bronson gives it some life in his scenes with Ireland. No one ever accused Ireland of being a great actress, but Bronson loved her more than anything and he was clearly in good spirits being able to work with her. And Ireland has one legitimately hilarious bit where she's trying to dodge Bronson and disguises herself in a black wig and dances down the street. I think you can actually see her trying not to laugh. There's more (intentional) humor than usual here, especially with Bronson being aggressively pursued by his much younger partner Jan Gan Boyd, but it just never gets rolling despite a capable action director in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE's Peter Hunt, who previously directed Bronson in 1981's DEATH HUNT. Also with Stephen Elliott as Bronson's boss (who gets a "No way that would fly today" throwaway line where he refers to the Asian-American Boyd as "Charlie Chan"), William Prince, Erik Stern, Peter Lupus, Frank Zagarino, and, in the film's oddest casting, Billy Hayes as one of the hired killers. Yeah...the subject of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. THAT Billy Hayes. Harmless and not awful by any means, but probably the weakest film from the Cannon/Golan-Globus era of Bronson's career, despite some promising elements that just never quite come together.  (PG-13, 88 mins)

(US - 1988)

Charles Bronson's penultimate '80s Cannon outing is a mostly low-key mystery and another attempt by the actor to try something different.  Bronson is crusading Denver newspaper reporter Garrett Smith, who finds himself in the middle of a war between two feuding Mormon brothers (Jeff Corey, John Ireland), but it's really all part of a nefarious water company's plot to gain access to an artesian well on Ireland's property. MESSENGER OF DEATH ambles along and is rather slowly-paced and predictable (never trust a prominently-billed, recognizable actor who doesn't have much to do with the plot), but Bronson makes it enjoyable entertainment.

The star had remained busy throughout the decade (teaming up once again with his favorite '80s director J. Lee Thompson) but as the '80s came to a close, his films became less popular, especially in the wake of big-budget hits like LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD. Even an established icon like Clint Eastwood was losing his audience during this period and he was a decade younger than Bronson. Action movies had suddenly changed.  They got bigger and they got louder, and by the latter part of 1988, younger audiences weren't really interested in films with 67-year-old Bronson directed by a 74-year-old Thompson, just as older folks who might like a cozy Bronson mystery were likely turned off by all the violence and sleaze in most of his films. The R-rated MESSENGER tones much of that down (not as much as 1987's PG-13-rated ASSASSINATION), with a few bits of gunshot splatter and an occasional "bastard" and "son-of-a-bitch" and one late F-bomb from the bad guy, and feels a lot like the TV movies Bronson would do in the '90s that would represent his final work before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.  Bronson only fires a gun once in MESSENGER, and it's at an empty casket so he can prove no one's inside of it (I don't know why he couldn't just, you know, open it). All that, plus a cast filled with aging character actors (Corey, Ireland), and familiar TV faces (Laurence Luckinbill, Marilyn Hassett, Charles Dierkop, Don Kennedy, plus Daniel Benzali, Bronson's now-clothed 10 TO MIDNIGHT co-star Gene Davis, and a completely underutilized Trish Van Devere), meant that there wasn't much of a chance for MESSENGER OF DEATH in theaters, and it died a quick death. Bronson and Thompson had the much more typically trashy "vigilante cop vs. scumbag pimp" underage prostitution thriller KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS out in theaters five months later and when it fared just as poorly, Bronson was effectively done in theatrical features except for a small character role in Sean Penn's THE INDIAN RUNNER (1991) and a one-shot return to his vigilante schtick in 1994's DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH.

MESSENGER OF DEATH is hardly top-drawer Bronson, but looking it again 23 years later (I haven't seen it since renting the VHS when it came out) and far removed from the "Bronson just makes the same tired movie over and over again" criticisms, it's not all that bad. Slight and forgettable, yes...but even in B fare like this, Bronson was still The Man.  (R, 91 mins)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: Special "Abrupt Endings" Edition: CARNAGE (2011); MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011)

(France/Germany/Poland/Spain - 2011)

Roman Polanski's film version of Yasmina Reza's play Le Dieu du Carnage (adapted by Polanski and Reza) has four top-notch actors and is quite good for the bulk of its short running time.  Set in NYC but shot in Paris, CARNAGE has two married couples--the Longstreets (Jodie Foster as Penelope, John C. Reilly as Michael) and the Cowans (Kate Winslet as Nancy, Christoph Waltz as Peter)--trying to hash out a playground incident where the Cowans' son Zachary attacked the Longstreets' son Ethan.  The meeting, at the Longstreets' apartment, is initially pleasant, diplomatic, and conciliatory, but begins falling apart with each passing moment, comment, and perceived slight, be it Peter's constantly-vibrating phone, the way he snorts when he laughs, Nancy's outrage over the way Michael heartlessly discarded his daughter's hamster, Penelope's passive-aggressive snipping, Nancy incredulously questioning Penelope's decision to make a combination apple/pear cobbler, Nancy vomiting all over some of Penelope's rare books and Penelope insisting it couldn't have been the cobbler that made her ill, etc.  Words are parsed, alliances form and shift, and the Longstreets' apartment becomes a steel cage of resentments, insecurities, and pent-up rage.  And for a while, it's mean-spiritedly funny and a fine addition to the cinema of awkward discomfort.  That is, until Michael breaks out the scotch.  The four quickly get drunk, and I never thought actors as accomplished as Winslet, Reilly, and Foster could play drunk so badly. Waltz just acts more relaxed, but the other three actors seem to be in a contest to see who can most play to the back row.  Foster, in particular, is embarrassingly bad in the last portion of the film. Polanski does a great job of making a single-set play come off as cinematic, with fluid camera movement that ensures the film never feels stagy despite staying in the confines of the Longstreets' apartment (there are occasional trips down the hallway to the elevator--keep your eyes peeled for a Polanski cameo--but the Cowans keep getting pulled back into the apartment EXTERMINATING ANGEL-style), but it just gets increasingly shrill, pompous, and overacted as it reaches its abrupt conclusion.  In the end, it's ultimately minor Polanski.  (R, 80 mins)

(US - 2011)

An unsettling and deeply disturbing drama anchored by a star-making performance from Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the Olsen Twins and currently in the horror film SILENT HOUSE.  MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE generated a lot of buzz at Sundance in 2011 and rightly so.  When we first see Olsen, she's known as Marcy May and is escaping a farmhouse compound in the Catskills where she belonged to an abusive cult led by the sinister Patrick (John Hawkes).  She manages to get to a diner, where cult member Watts (Brady Corbet) finds her and tries to lure her back, but without success.  Marcy May, whose real name is Martha, calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who drives three hours to pick her up.  Having been gone for two years, Martha is evasive about where she's been, only saying that she had a boyfriend in the Catskills.  As she tries to adjust to life with Lucy and her new husband Tom (Hugh Dancy), writer/director Sean Durkin cuts back and forth between the present and the past to show what happened to Martha during her time brainwashed as "Marcy May."  Durkin leaves a lot open for interpretation and debate, with often vague dialogue that implies much more (when holding one of Patrick's many babies by his female cult members, a new recruit asks why the infants are all boys, and Marcy May replies "He only has boys") and while many groused that the ending was anticlimactic, I found it ambiguously terrifying.  I think a lot of comparisons could be drawn between this and WINTER'S BONE--and not just because Hawkes is in both films--but I had a difficult time connecting with WINTER'S BONE and found it disappointing and overrated.  MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, on the other hand, really gets under your skin and leaves you shaken by the end.  Durkin's surehanded direction (the back-and-forth time element is handled extremely well) and Olsen's powerful performance help make this dark, haunting film memorable.  I wasn't really wowed by SILENT HOUSE, but Olsen was terrific in it, and coupled with her breakthrough role here, this is clearly an actress to watch in the future.  (R, 102 mins)

In Theaters: 21 JUMP STREET (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller.  Written by Michael Bacall.  Cast:  Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle, DeRay Davis, Ellie Kemper, Chris Parnell, Lindsay Broad, Dax Flame, Nick Offerman, Holly Robinson-Peete.  (R, 109 mins)

Sporting a one-sheet with one of the more risque tag lines in recent memory, this film version of the 1987-1991 TV series doesn't try to replicate its source material and instead goes strictly for laughs, and as initial reviews indicated, it's surprisingly entertaining.  After screwing up their first arrest, hapless cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), enemies in high school in 2005 but best buds in 2012 at the police academy, get chewed out by their captain (Nick Offerman), who busts them down to 21 Jump Street.  The captain describes it as an undercover unit they tried out in the 1980s, but it's being resurrected now since no one can come up with any good ideas anymore.  That's the first of many amusing self-critiquing jabs 21 JUMP STREET takes at itself.  Now undercover as sibling high school students, and constantly being questioned about why they look almost 30, Schmidt and Jenko are ordered by Jump Street's constantly angry, always-yelling boss Capt Dickson (Ice Cube) to find the supplier of the new synthetic drug HFS (short for "Holy Fucking Shit") that's being distributed through the high school.  Dickson is feeling the heat after a rich kid named Billiam Willingham (Johnny Simmons) OD's on HFS, and tells the undercover duo, "This kid's white, so people actually give a shit."

Jenko and Schmidt in high school

And undercover seven years later

Capt. Dickson doing what he does best: yelling.
When 21 JUMP STREET sticks to smartly-conceived self-referential jokes and "He said what?" moments like Dickson's line about Billiam Willingham, it's often hysterically funny.  Another great bit is Jenko's John Woo-esque insistence that "everything looks cooler with doves," so you know there will be a shot with the two of them walking in slo-mo, surrounded by flying doves.  But the joke is that Schmidt is releasing the doves himself while they walk.  There's also an interesting running commentary about dumb jock Jenko's utter disbelief that his type no longer rules the school, and that past outcasts like environmentalists, vegans, hipsters, and anime kids are now the in-crowd ("I blame this on GLEE!" he pouts).  It's that kind of humor for a good chunk of the film, but as often happens in situations like this, the film eventually becomes the very thing it's lampooning, with car chases and shootouts, and I guess that's to be expected.  But the first half or even 2/3 of the film has an edge that the back end lacks, especially with a tired subplot about geeky Schmidt finally being accepted by the cool crowd and, of course, forgetting that he's a cop first.  Naturally, he and Jenko will have a falling out and patch things up in time to take down the bad guys.  But there's a lot of big laughs throughout, and the leads are a good team, plus there's a few cameos from the original 21 JUMP STREET crew, one in particular being one of the film's major highlights. 

Written by SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD co-scripter Michael Bacall and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the team behind CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS, 21 JUMP STREET managed to get some overwhelmingly positive reviews this past weekend, and it is quite a bit better than the dismal trailer and TV ads made it look.  I wouldn't put it on the level of 2010's THE OTHER GUYS (one of the best comedies of the last several years) as far as recent cop cliche spoofs go, but it's a pleasant surprise all the same.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


(Italy/France - 1974)

Directed by Luchino Visconti.  Written by Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Enrico Medioli, Luchino Visconti.  Cast: Burt Lancaster, Helmut Berger, Silvana Mangano, Romolo Valli,  Dominique Sanda, Claudia Cardinale, Claudia Marsani, Stefano Patrizi, Elvira Cortese, Guy Trejan, Umberto Raho, Enzo Fiermonte.  (Unrated, 121 mins)

The penultimate film by legendary Italian director Luchino Visconti (1906-1976) has been derided as one of his worst and most pretentious works for nearly 40 years.  It was shot in English, with much of the Italian supporting cast dubbed, and despite acclaim in Italy, film festival screenings abroad resulted in such bad word-of-mouth that it took three years to find a US distributor.  When then-fledgling New Line Cinema released it in the US in 1977, a year after Visconti's death (his final film, 1976's THE INNOCENT, wasn't released in the US until 1979), they released a version dubbed in Italian with English subtitles, which most agreed played a little better.  Raro USA's new DVD release only has the original English-language audio, and that was the way Visconti intended it to be shown (Raro's Blu-ray, due out in April, will have both audio options).  CONVERSATION PIECE has remained relatively obscure in comparison to Visconti classics like THE LEOPARD (1963), but its reputation has improved since its original release, and the essay in the package's accompanying booklet by film historian Mark Rappaport makes a pretty strong case for it being considered essential Visconti.

1974 Italian poster
Watching the film and with the benefit of perspective, CONVERSATION PIECE is, in hindsight,  a hauntingly personal, elegiac baring of Visconti's soul.  Visconti suffered a debilitating stroke shortly after completing 1973's LUDWIG and was partially paralyzed from then on.  CONVERSATION PIECE was his next film, and it's clearly the work of a man who knows he's facing the end, and it's all there on the screen.  Rappaport even goes so far as to write that the film itself is Visconti's Last Will and Testament.   Admittedly, it's uneven at times, the English dubbing of the supporting cast is an ill fit, and there's some pointless shoehorning of Italy's then-volatile political situation into the crucial final sequences, but, with the passage of time, and years of film students studying Visconti and others of the Italian neo-realist movement, perhaps it's easier to focus on what does work in CONVERSATION PIECE, which is most of the film.  It's not without flaws and problems, but what it gets right is too powerful to simply dismiss.

Poster for the film's 1977 US release
A retired American science professor (Burt Lancaster) lives alone in a grand, opulent Rome palazzo filled with the books, music, and art he's collected over a lifetime.  He has a maid and his only acquaintances seem to be art dealers with whom he occasionally does business, collecting "conversation piece" portraits of informal family or group gatherings.  The professor's solitary existance is disrupted by the Marchesa Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano), a pushy, demanding woman of high social stature, who wants to rent the upper level of the palazzo for her daughter Lietta (Claudia Marsani) and her fiance Stefano (Stefano Patrizi).  The professor repeatedly explains that the upstairs is not for rent and that he planned on moving his library up there at some point in the future.  The Marchesa refuses to take no for an answer and before he even realizes what's going on, the Professor has signed a one-year lease for Lietta, Stefano, and a third boarder, the Marchesa's flamboyant, much-younger boy-toy and drug-dealing gigolo Konrad (Helmut Berger).  The three tenants invade the Professor's life in a variety of ways, including knocking down walls and causing a water leak, loud music at all hours, barging in unannounced, and not to mention the Professor walking in on them in a threesome (Berger and Patrizi do frontal nudity in this scene, but Visconti is careful with how he films 1973 Miss Teen Italy winner Marsani, who was only 15 at the time), but their presence gives an unexpected spark to the Professor's lonely life.  He surprises himself by bonding with Konrad, who loathes being the Marchesa's kept man and demonstrates intelligence and refined musical and literary tastes the Professor didn't think possible.  The Professor begins to lament all the lost years spent alone and is soon "adopted" by this bizarre trio as the father in their makeshift dysfunctional "family."

Deciding three's already a crowd, the Professor (Burt
Lancaster) declines an invitation from the
free-spirited Lietta (Claudia Marsani,
who's probably doubled in this shot)
Lancaster's Professor (he's never given a name) is a character cut from the same cloth as the aging prince the actor portrayed 11 years earlier for Visconti in THE LEOPARD.  Both are old men nearing the end, both filled with regret over roads not taken and societal changes they can't control, and both feel like relics in their own worlds.  But Visconti's declining health adds a different level of poignancy to CONVERSATION PIECE.   The Professor essentially is Visconti, and it's no coincidence that Konrad is played by Helmut Berger.  No one else could've played this role.  Berger became Visconti's lover and protege after working together on 1969's THE DAMNED.  So much of their reportedly rocky relationship is incorporated into CONVERSATION PIECE, and though a romantic angle is never consummated, it is mentioned when the Marchesa accuses the Professor of having designs on Konrad.  It's possible that the Professor feels a romantic desire for Konrad.  He walks into the bathroom while Konrad is showering and seems to be in no rush to leave, only excusing himself when someone knocks at the main door.  We know the Professor was married once upon a time (Claudia Cardinale plays his wife in a brief flashback), but all he says is "It didn't work."  For what reasons, we never know.  Visconti was bisexual, so perhaps the Professor is as well.

Burt Lancaster and Helmut Berger
But beyond any possible romantic scenarios, the Professor and Konrad first and foremost demonstrate a father-son relationship more than anything, which probably has parallels to Visconti and Berger's instructor-protege working relationship.  Rappaport's essay cites Berger's memoirs and other information to paint a picture of Visconti as someone who preferred a quiet evening at home and who was often frustrated with the much-younger Berger's hard-partying, stay-out-until-dawn ways, which is what happens with the Professor and Konrad.  What keeps CONVERSATION PIECE from reaching the level of Visconti masterpiece is the bizarre political tangent that gets introduced in the last part of the film, almost as if Visconti was obliged to say something simply because he came from the school of neo-realism and there was a lot of political tumult in Italy at the time.  It doesn't really gel, and in fact, it's a bit of a momentum killer.  But it's something that can be overlooked, and while CONVERSATION PIECE isn't on the level of THE LEOPARD, I think Rappaport's arguments are convincing enough to elevate it to the status of essential Visconti.  It's also a very beautiful film (the DVD is remastered, 2.35:1 anamorphic), taking place almost entirely inside the Professor's stunningly-decorated, colorful palazzo, a DePaolis interior that looks like it could've been (and probably was) used for several gialli of the period.  And while bleak and mournful most of the way, it also has a lot of dark humor, be it an occasional bit of inspired overacting from Berger or the three tenants giving the Professor a parrot that only says "They're killing me!" with Lietta explaining "It'll remind you of us."  With Raro USA's release of CONVERSATION PIECE, the time seems right for a reconsideration of this neglected and very deeply personal late-period Visconti work.

Somewhat misleading artwork for the film's
1980s VHS release in the US.

Friday, March 16, 2012

In Theaters: A SEPARATION (2011)

(Iran/France - 2011)

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi.  Cast: Leila Hatami, Peyman Moadi, Sareh Bayet, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Kimia Hosseini, Babak Kirimi. (PG-13, 123 mins)

This year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner is deserving of all accolades, a powerful, gut-wrenching examination of a situation that spirals beyond what any of the participants thought possible (when reminded he said the predicament wasn't serious, all one character can say is "It got serious").  Writer/director Asghar Farhadi's film takes place in an Islamic world run by religious law, but it's not a critique, it never panders, it never politicizes, and it never takes a side.  No one in the film is completely right and no one is completely wrong.  It's a compassionate film with characters doing what they believe is right.  It's a complex film of many ambiguities and gray areas that will have you thinking about it and debating it long after viewing.  It's a great film, and a very moving, very human drama.

Leila Hatami as Simin
After 14 years of marriage, largely secular Iranian couple Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) have elected to divorce.  They still love each other and want to remain married, but Simin wants to move their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter) to the west, away from the relentlessly strict Islamic culture of Iran.  Nader wants to move as well, but the only thing keeping him in Iran is his elderly, Alzheimer's-stricken father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who lives with them and needs constant care.  Simin goes to live with her mother, while Termeh stays with Nader.  Needing someone to care for his father while he's at work and Termeh is at school, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayet), who doesn't really want the job, but her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) is unemployed and has spent time in jail for money owed to creditors.  Razieh needs the job, but has to hide it from Hodjat, a devout Muslim who could never allow his wife, even accompanied by their young daughter Someyah (Kimia Hosseini), to be in a house with a man whose wife is not present.  Problems arise on the first day of the job when Nader's father soils himself, and Razieh needs to call a religious advisor to ensure that removing his pants and cleaning him won't constitute a sin ("I won't tell Daddy," whispers Someyah, who already shows wisdom beyond her years).  The second day, the old man manages to wander down the street, and on the third day, Nader and Termeh arrive home to find Razieh and Someyah gone and the old man tied to his bed.  Razieh explains that an emergency required her to leave.  Nader insists that some money is missing from a drawer.  Razieh demands to be paid.  An argument ensues and Nader pushes her out the door.  Razieh ends up hospitalized, claiming Nader pushed her hard enough to cause her to fall down some steps, resulting in a miscarriage.  Nader didn't know she was pregnant.  An enraged Hodjat finds out his wife has been working for Nader, then has Nader charged with murder in the death of the unborn child.

Nader (Peyman Moadi) and his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi)
What makes A SEPARATION so fascinating is the way that every event, no matter how seemingly trivial and inconsequential, comes into play later on.  You marvel at the intricate construction of Farhadi's script.  These actors are unfamiliar to most western audiences (Hatami is a major star and a popular, award-winning actress in Iranian cinema), which, from the perspective of an American audience, makes them even more believable.  Everyone is excellent in this, and most impressive are the two younger co-stars, particularly little Kimia Hosseini as Someyah. Sarina Farhadi, whose Termeh is really the emotional center of the story, delivers a strong performance, and the casting works most of the time.  I say "most of the time," because I kept thinking "She looks a little older than 11."   She was 18 (!) at the time of filming.  She doesn't look 18, but she definitely looks older than 11 (I was guessing 14) and while it's not quite Martin Short in CLIFFORD, it is an occasional distraction.  Other than that very minor issue, A SEPARATION is a brilliant film that will stay with you long after it's over.

Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) and Razieh (Sareh Bayet)

18-year-old Sarina Farhadi as 11-year-old Termeh.  11?!

Kimia Hosseini as Someyah