Thursday, November 29, 2012

New from Criterion: Eclipse Series 37: WHEN HORROR CAME TO SHOCHIKU

Criterion's Eclipse Series has been a great way for the company to release its various acquisitions in bulk/themed sets without all the extra features, as not everything under the Janus Films banner is worthy of its own super-deluxe edition.  Eclipse sets have made it possible to see long-buried treasures by the likes of Samuel Fuller and Roberto Rossellini, and the early works of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa, to name a few.  The latest Eclipse package is devoted to four sci-fi/horror films from the prestigious Shochiku Films, the highbrow Japanese production company that was home to the venerable likes of Kenji Mizoguchi (THE 47 RONIN) and Yasujiro Ozu (LATE SPRING).   While other major Japanese studios like Toho, Daiei, and Nikkatsu had their genre specialties, Shochiku waited for quite some time before belatedly going for commercial genre fare and abandoning it quite quickly.  Their sojourn into the world of sci-fi/horror lasted just four films over a two-year period, and they're all included in this new set, from gothic-tinged ghost stories to laughably cheap kaiju, almost as if they dabbled in a little of everything to see what worked.  As it turns out, none of them inspired the studio to continue, but at least a couple of these films have attained major cult status and are, for the first time ever, widely available on legit DVD.

(Japan - 1967)

Shochiku's attempt at a kaiju resulted in one of the cheesiest of the post-GODZILLA giant monster flicks.  A space mission to Mars led by Capt. Sano (Shunya Wazaki) encounters a UFO that comic relief crew member Miyamoto (Shinichi Yanagisawa) describes as "looking like a half-cooked omelet."  Sano and the rest of the crew--Dr. Shioda (Keisuke Sonoi) and biologist Lisa (Peggy Neal)--also inadvertantly bring back with them a radioactive alien life form that soon mutates and turns into a giant beaked monster called Guilala and commences the mandatory rampage across Japan.   Made at a time when Toho's kaiju were getting their budgets slashed as the films were in the process of becoming total kiddie fare, THE X FROM OUTER SPACE probably fits more in line with the cheapies of the 1970s rather than the relatively serious examples from the 1960s, even if it lacks an annoying kiddie protagonist (though the endlessly clowning Miyamoto comes close to sufficing).  Director/co-writer Kazui Nihonmatsu, a longtime Shochiku journeyman, clearly isn't interested in this assignment and the film is rather sloppily assembled:  he cuts away from Guilala's first rampage and goes immediately to the day after.  And unlike the detail-oriented suits crafted for Toho productions (at least until apathy and penny-pinching soon kicked in), Shochiku's rubber suited monster is clearly an extremely rubbery suit (watch the way Guilala's feet bounce whenever they hit the pavement).  But that's part of the whole package when it comes to most of these, even though they did begin as (and would occasionally return to being) largely serious films. Guilala is ultimately sent back into space but returned decades later as the star of the 2008 kaiju spoof MONSTER STRIKES BACK: ATTACK THE G8 SUMMIT.  One scene dealing with the early-stage Guilala bleeding through a table and the floor beneath it seems awfully close to a scene in Ridley Scott's ALIEN 12 years later.  Also featuring HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR star Eiji Okada, clearly slumming as the scientist in charge at mission control, plus an awesomely catchy theme song, THE X FROM OUTER SPACE was given an English dub but skipped US theaters and ended up as part of an AIP-TV syndication package, where it went into regular rotation on Saturday afternoon Creature Features and late-night TV. The Criterion Eclipse version is presented in Japanese with English subtitles, with a rarely-seen 2.24:1 aspect ratio. (Unrated, 88 mins)

(Japan - 1968)

The completely bonkers GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL has become a major Japanese cult title over the decades since its release.  The insane yet coherent story has the survivors of a plane crash dealing with a crazed hijacker (Hideo Ko) possessed by aliens and transformed into a vampire, killing them off one by one.  An alien race calling itself Gokemidoro has come to the conclusion that the people of Earth don't really deserve to live, what with all the death and destruction going back to the atomic bomb in 1945.  The Gokemidoro have pretty much had enough of our warmongering ways (there's a lot of timely yet heavy-handed references to Vietnam as well the alarming number of assassinations, presumably referring to JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr).  GOKE gets a little too snotty with its preaching at times, but it's an ambitious and furiously misanthropic piece of work with no shortage of startling, arresting imagery:  a gash splitting open Ko's forehead and the bridge of his nose, through with the gelatinous, blob-like Gokemidoro ooze into his body and take control; the hellish red sky of the opening scenes that conveys a clear Mario Bava influence; the glowing UFO; the Gokemidoro victims immediately turning to dust in the wind as they die; the reveal of one corpse that's an obvious nod to a famous shot near the end of Hitchcock's PSYCHO; and birds splattering against the plane's windows before the crash.  Unreleased in the US until 1979, when it was dubbed, had the "GOKE" dropped from its title, and was paired up with the 1965 Italian horror film BLOODY PIT OF HORROR for a grindhouse double bill.  The Criterion Eclipse version features the original Japanese dialogue with English subtitles, presented in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  (Unrated, 84 mins)

(Japan - 1968)
The vividly atmospheric THE LIVING SKELETON is, according to IMDb, not just the only film directed by Hiroshi Matsuno (credited here as "Koki Matsuno"), but his only movie credit at all, though critic Chuck Stephens' accompanying essay mentions Matsuno being a veteran assistant director who went on to a lot of TV work in subsequent years.  Shot in black & white in a very widescreen 2.50:1 aspect ratio, THE LIVING SKELETON is the most distinctly "horror" of this Eclipse set, owing a bit to old-fashioned ghost stories and gothic Italian horror of the 1960s, but with some modern amenities like fleeting profanity and brief topless nudity.  In a sparsely-populated fishing town, troubled Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka) is still coping with the death of her newlywed twin sister Yoriko (also Matsuoka) and her husband Nishizato (Ko Nishimura) on the ship Dragon King at the hands of modern-day pirates three years earlier.  Saeko was taken in by the kindly local priest (Masumi Okada) and does odd jobs around the church.  While out scuba diving with her fisherman boyfriend Mochizuki (Yasunori Irikawa), Saeko encounters the sunken ruins of the Dragon King surrounded by the chained-together skeletal remains of the other victims.  When the ship actually appears in the fog-shrouded harbor, she boards it and encounters what appears to be the ghost of Yoriko, who promptly possesses Saeko to carry out her vengeance on those responsible for her death.  THE LIVING SKELETON bogs down a bit in its second half after an improbable plot twist is revealed, coupled with further batshittery thrown about in the home stretch, but when it sticks to the eerie simplicity of a vengeful ghost story, it's often quite brilliant and certainly an obscure gem worthy of rediscovery.  Briefly released in US theaters in 1969 in its original Japanese with English subtitles, which is how Criterion Eclipse presents it here.  (Unrated, 80 mins)
(Japan - 1968)
For most of its duration, GENOCIDE is a pretty tepid, endlessly talky affair that focuses too much on the relationship of ne'er-do-well islander Joji (Yusuke Kawazu) who neglects his devoted, pregnant wife Yukari (Emi Shindo) while carrying on a clandestine affair with leggy American entomologist Annabelle (Kathy Horan, an expat American actress who was also in GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL).  The needlessly convoluted story involves Annabelle masterminding a plot to wipe out humanity via poisoned insects, and her efforts dovetail with some local buffoons involved in germ warfare.  When some American soldiers are killed after their plane, carrying a hydrogen bomb, was brought down by a swarm of insects, Dr. Nagumo (Keisuke Sonoi, from THE X FROM OUTER SPACE, also directed by this film's Kazui Nihonmatsu) and Dr. Komura (Reiko Hitomi) are the only ones who believe the account given by the crazed lone survivor Charly (Chico Roland).  This goes on and the pace drags badly, but tough it out because GENOCIDE gets a lot better once the atomically-enhanced bugs launch their attack, leading to one of the most astonishingly nihilistic finales you'll ever see in the disaster genre.  The post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki rage that propelled GODZILLA in its original, pre-Raymond Burr GOJIRA form and was a major element of GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL is absolutely off the charts here (likely the contribution of Susumu Takaku, who co-scripted both films).  America is represented by the bitchy femme fatale Annabelle, whose reasons for her misanthropy are handled rather heavy-handedly and tastelessly by Nihonmatsu, and the arrogant Colonel Gordon (Ralph Jesser), who has no problem nuking Japan again if need be.  But everybody's pretty much an asshole here except for Yukari and the two doctors:  despite his eventual redemption, Joji is a shameless, selfish philanderer, Yukari's sleazy boss tries to have his way with her on multiple occasions, and that same boss is a casual racist who refers to the black Charly as a "savage."  Given what transpires in the end, most of these characters have it coming.  The last 20 or so minutes of GENOCIDE are so great that it almost makes you think you saw a better film than you did.  Presented in Japanese with English subtitles (very distracting in the scenes with just American characters), at an unusual 2.47:1 aspect ratio.  A dubbed version was released in the US in 1969 as WAR OF THE INSECTS, which was the version skewered by Cinematic Titanic, the live mockery touring unit featuring MST3K vets Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl.  (Unrated, 84 mins)

Typical of the Eclipse sets, there's little in the way of bonus features:  nothing on the discs themselves, but each film, packaged in its own slim case, contains an informative essay written by film critic and Japanese cinema expert Chuck Stephens, who has contributed to previous Criterion releases like Masahiro Shinoda's PALE FLOWER (1964) and Nobuhiko Obayashi's insane HOUSE (1977), as well as the earlier Eclipse Series 28: THE WARPED WORLD OF KOREYOSHI KURAHARA.  Particularly with THE X FROM OUTER SPACE, Stephens doesn't sugarcoat it when the films aren't particularly "good," but he does his usual solid job of exploring the underlying themes of the more serious entries and where they fit into the big picture of Japanese cinema.  None of these films are perfect and a couple aren't even very good, but they all have their immense charms, making WHEN HORROR CAME TO SHOCHIKU a must-have for fans of Japanese cinema and cult movies in general.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE DAY (2012) and THE APPARITION (2012)

(US/Canada - 2012)

Though it lacks zombies, there's a major WALKING DEAD influence on this pointless apocalyptic horror film from WWE Studios.  In a desolate rural wasteland, a ragtag group of bickering survivors led by Dominic "Still Coasting on LORD OF THE RINGS" Monaghan (as Rick, oddly enough, also the name of Andrew Lincoln's character on THE WALKING DEAD) take refuge in an abandoned house, with much talk about it not being safe.  Turns out the world's been overrun by marauding cannibals for ten or so years and the house is a trap, set up to procure food.  When co-producer Monaghan is granted an early exit courtesy of one of cinema's least-convincing impalings, it's up to Shannyn Sossamon, Shawn Ashmore, Cory Hardrict and group outsider Ashley Bell to take on the flesh eaters. Soon, a cannibal family led by THE DIVIDE's Michael Eklund is outside as the film becomes your basic RIO BRAVO/NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD/John Carpenter siege scenario. 

Even a slumming Carpenter could've done more with this than HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME director Doug Aarniokoski, who utilizes the de rigeur jerky cam and quick edits, with a dreary, desaturated look that's practically black & white, which adds nothing atmospherically other than making it impossible to tell what's going on in some later scenes. Luke Passmore's script tries to make some points about the importance of family and how the heroes barricaded in the house aren't all that different from the cannibals outside, but they're obvious and ultimately abandoned. The cannibals aren't rampaging monsters or anything of the sort. They're quite civilized, despite eating their own if need be, and Eklund is even shown to be a doting father (and they're about to concede defeat until Eklund's son is killed by Sossamon). We never get an explanation for why most of the world has resorted to cannibalism or really why any of this is happening. And the heroes aren't particularly likable, though the promising Bell (THE LAST EXORCISM) makes a convincing badass of few words as Michonne, er, I mean, Mary. THE DAY might've worked as a harmless time-killing splatter flick if the visual effects weren't so godawful. We're talking really primitive CGI that wouldn't even pass on a video game. Some of the gore and fire effects are so terrible that they almost look unfinished, like temporary FX shots still in place when the film was screened for test audiences or potential distributors. I really can't stress enough how shitty they look. Even in today's cinema where the new generation of audiences has seemingly just accepted, and may even prefer, bad video-game-inspired CGI as a fact of moviegoing, the visual effects in THE DAY are flat-out pathetic. (R, 84 mins)

(US/Germany/France - 2012)

A decade and counting and the RINGU and JU-ON and other J-Horror-craze ripoffs are still coming.  Dumped in theaters by Warner Bros. at the tail end of summer with no fanfare after two years on the shelf, THE APPARITION isn't the worst horror film of 2012, but it could be the blandest and most uninspired.  TWILIGHT series co-star Ashley Greene gets her own headlining vehicle as Kelly, a veterinary assistant who moves into a parental-owned rental property in an upscale but mostly vacant, still-under-construction subdivision with her boyfriend Ben (Sebastian Stan).  Faster than you can say PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, strange things start happening (doors open themselves, furniture moves, scratches appear on a wall, a cactus and a neighbor's dog die, and extensive mold appears on the floors and ceiling).  It turns out that years earlier, Ben was involved in a research project headed by his buddy Patrick (Tom Felton, HARRY POTTER's Draco Malfoy), who was attempting to bring a spirit into the material world.  Ben has to fess up to what's happening, which leads to, well, mostly pouting from Kelly.  Patrick informs Ben that--wait for it--it's not the house that's haunted...it's him!  Writer-director Todd Lincoln never shifts this thing out of first, allowing it to amble along to feature length with not very much happening, and certainly nothing scary.  It drags badly despite a brief running time, with the closing credits starting at the 73-minute mark and moving extra slowly just to pad the film to 82 minutes.  When we finally get a glimpse of the "apparition," it's essentially the same grimacing, contorted, ghostly figure crawling across a room, which admittedly was a terrifying image the first or second of the 17 times Hideo Nakata or Takashi Shimizu presented it over the course of several Japanese RINGU or JU-ON films and the American remakes THE RING or THE GRUDGE and their sequels.  Of course there's a twist ending involving the apparition's real intentions, but this is just far too stale and too far past its sell-by date to have any relevance in 2012.  Warner Bros. apparently recognized that, not even bothering to give this much of a push with teenage audiences despite a PG-13 rating and the presence of Greene and Felton.  THE APPARITION isn't so much terrible as it's just...there, and even while you're watching, it seems to just completely and utterly evaporate from your mem      (PG-13, 82 mins)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: THE SQUEEZE (1977)

(UK - 1977)

Directed by Michael Apted.  Written by Leon Griffiths.  Cast: Stacy Keach, David Hemmings, Edward Fox, Stephen Boyd, Freddie Starr, Carol White, Hilary Gasson, Stewart Harwood, Alan Ford, Roy Marsden.  (Unrated, 107 mins)

This seedy, scuzzy British crime thriller has attained a small cult over the years but is still a largely forgotten obscurity. An early directorial effort by busy journeyman Michael Apted, then earning a name for himself with his UP documentaries, THE SQUEEZE was a late but no less effective entry in the post-GET CARTER (1971) subgenre of unrepentant UK criminal nastiness typified by the likes of VILLAIN (1971) and SITTING TARGET (1972), coated in sleazy grime, with an unusual cast, and a jarringly effective, synthy score by David Hentschel that wouldn't sound out of place in a giallo.

Alcoholic, disgraced ex-Scotland Yard cop Naboth (Stacy Keach, pulling off a convincing British accent) has just gotten out of rehab and promptly goes to the nearest pub. Toying with his buddy Teddy's (British TV comic/singer Freddie Starr, currently embroiled in the BBC/Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal) idea of becoming a private eye, Naboth almost instantly finds a job when his ex-wife Jill (Carol White) and her daughter by her new husband Robert (Edward Fox)--she left Naboth and shows little interest in being a mother to their two sons--are kidnapped and Robert, who owns a successful armored car company, is expected to pay the ransom. Head kidnapper Keith (David Hemmings), who was once arrested by Naboth and is none too happy to hear news of him poking his nose into this matter, orders Robert to kill Naboth. Also involved is Keith's boss, Irish mob kingpin and pornographer Vic (Stephen Boyd), a thuggish sadist with a mean streak.

Other than the one-sheet above, there's little evidence of Warner Bros. releasing this in US theaters (it was issued on VHS in 1987 and aired in what had to be a drastically cut version on CBS in 1988), and the Warner Archive DVD issued in 2010 doesn't carry a rating, but THE SQUEEZE is a pretty hard R even by today's standards. Keach, in a strange phase of his career that saw his early 1970s critical acclaim in films like END OF THE ROAD (1970), BREWSTER MCCLOUD (1970), THE NEW CENTURIONS (1972), and FAT CITY (1972) give way to appearances in films as varied as the Cheech & Chong comedy UP IN SMOKE, the Italian cannibal gorefest MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (both in 1978), and William Peter Blatty's THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980), which should've gotten him an Oscar nomination had anyone seen the film, turns in a brave performance that's one of his best, looking like absolute hell and spending much of the film soaked in booze sweats when he isn't letting it all hang out Harvey Keitel-style, even going full frontal in a scene where Boyd makes him strip at gunpoint. There's also some copious bloodletting late in the film, and a skin-crawling bit where Hemmings forces White to do an uncomfortable, almost too-painful-to-watch striptease for him and his goons to the tune of The Stylistics' "You Make Me Feel Brand New." 

Keach is given strong support by Hemmings, Fox, Starr, and White, but Boyd in particular, is terrific. In a major career slump at the time, Boyd, best known as Messala in BEN-HUR (1959), could've had a serious comeback with THE SQUEEZE, but he died of a heart attack on a Northridge, CA golf course before it was released.  He was just 45 years old.    He did one more film after THE SQUEEZE wrapped, playing Dracula in LADY DRACULA, a German sexploitation spoof, which pretty much represents the type of work he was getting at the end of his career. Before his sudden passing, he was set to co-star with Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris, and Hardy Kruger in the action epic THE WILD GEESE, but was replaced by Jack Watson. It's best for Boyd if we just pretend THE SQUEEZE is his last film.

Apted, now 71, had his first big commercial hit three years later with 1980's COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER.  Best known for his ambitious and ongoing UP documentaries that began back in 1963 with SEVEN UP (Apted was a research assistant on the film, but eventually took over directing them), where the filmmakers catch up with a group of people every seven years throughout their life, beginning at age seven (56 UP is scheduled for an early 2013 US release), Apted has worked steadily over the last 30 years as a Hollywood journeyman with films as varied as the John Belushi romantic comedy CONTINENTAL DIVIDE (1981), the William Hurt-Lee Marvin thriller GORKY PARK (1983), GORILLAS IN THE MIST (1988), THUNDERHEART (1992), NELL (1994), the 007 outing THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999), the Jennifer Lopez thriller ENOUGH (2001), and co-directing the recent Gerard Butler surfing flop CHASING MAVERICKS (2012), which Apted took over when Curtis Hanson left the project for health reasons.

THE SQUEEZE lags a bit in the midsection before really driving it home for the intense final showdown between Naboth and the kidnappers, but it's a practically unknown gem that deserves some more recognition and is worth seeking out for fans of Keach, Boyd, and uncompromisingly nasty crime thrillers.

UK quad poster

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: EXCISION (2012) and BRINGING UP BOBBY (2012)

(US - 2012)

When you subject yourself to enough crappy straight-to-DVD titles (or titles that get released on five screens before being dumped on DVD), it's all made worthwhile when you're rewarded with a genuine overlooked sleeper that manages to sneak in when no one's looking.  EXCISION is an audacious and inventive teen horror film that seems destined for a DONNIE DARKO-like cult status.  In a bold, uninhibited, and often startling performance, 90210 star Annalynne McCord is 18-year-old Pauline, the kind of gawky, awkward, slouched, pimply, and just plain odd high school outcast who makes Carrie White look like the most popular girl in school.  She has vivid sexual fantasies about surgery and mutilation while trying to survive her domineering, religious mother (Traci Lords) and her spineless father (Roger Bart).  She does have an almost-normal relationship with her younger sister (Ariel Winter), who's suffering from cystic fibrosis.  As her mother tries to make her more "ladylike" by forcing her to go with a bunch of younger girls to a cotillion class, Pauline grows increasingly obsessed with death, disease, self-mutilation, and bodily functions ("I want to lose my virginity while I'm on my period"), while engaging in rebellious acts like guzzling ipecac to vomit on a bitchy classmate and blurting out anything to rile up her uptight mother ("I'm going to marry a black guy!"), until of course, the film takes a dark and horrifying turn. 

Written and directed by Richard Bates, Jr., EXCISION is surprisingly ambitious, with some hypnotically beautiful shot compositions, stunning use of color, and some dream sequences that are almost Jodorowsky-esque in their surrealism. The 25-year-old McCord has done a lot of TV work, but I've only seen her in a pair of terrible 50 Cent movies. She turns in a star-making performance here, and even Lords, never mistaken for a good actress, knocks it out of the park. There's a few recognizable faces in some small supporting roles, like Ray Wise as the principal and Marlee Matlin as the cotillion instructor, but if EXCISION has any problems, it's that it's a little distracting and disruptive to the film's mood to see Malcolm McDowell as a high school math teacher and, even more intrusive, John Waters as a minister (though I get his presence here, as a few of the film's more shocking transgressions--one involving a bloody tampon--wouldn't have been out of place in an old-school Waters film, but he still doesn't exactly disappear into a serious role). But overall, EXCISION is dark, disturbing, and frequently uncomfortable and gross, but it's also very funny (Pauline asking the health teacher if you can contract STDs from dead bodies, Matlin signing to an ASL-illiterate Lords that "seeing you and your daughter argue makes me grateful for my hearing loss"), and refreshingly devoid of snarky teen cliches. It's a smart and unique film that sometimes feels like MEAN GIRLS if remade by David Cronenberg, and one of 2012's biggest surprises. Highly recommended, but admittedly not for all tastes. (Unrated, 81 mins)

(US/UK/The Netherlands - 2012)

Milla Jovovich has an engaging screen presence and some legit acting chops, but she hasn't had a lot of luck recently outside of the RESIDENT EVIL franchise.  She turned in an Oscar-caliber performance in 2010's barely-released STONE, managing to steal the film from both Robert De Niro and Edward Norton, but nobody saw it or several other disappointing films she's done that got shuffled off to the DVD scrapheap.  The appallingly bad BRINGING UP BOBBY is a near-total disaster that marks the writing/directing debut of veteran character actress Famke Janssen.  Sure, as far as reliable character actors debuting behind the camera in 2012 go, this isn't nearly as horrid as Vincent D'Onofrio's DON'T GO IN THE WOODS, but there's still nothing to recommend about it.  Jovovich is Olive, a Ukrainian con artist in Oklahoma with her 11-year-old son Bobby (Spencer List).  Together, the pair steal used cars, shoplift, and try to scam insurance companies.  It all catches up to Olive, who gets arrested and loses Bobby to Kent (Bill Pullman) and Mary (Marcia Cross), a rich couple they met after Kent accidentally hit Bobby with his car.  Kent and Mary have never recovered from the death of their own son, and grow to genuinely love Bobby and even welcome Olive to be a part of his life after she gets out of jail.  But her presence proves disruptive when Bobby starts acting out and Olive faces temptation to restart her old criminal life as numerous heart-tugging montages ensue, set to the likes of Cat Stevens and Jorma Kaukonen.

Everything about BRINGING UP BOBBY comes off as forced and phony, starting with its sitcom-worthy title, the grating performances of Jovovich, List, and Rory Cochrane (incredibly annoying as Olive's not-so-bright partner in crime) and the transparent stabs at precious indie quirk (Olive's retro wardrobe, Bobby's ridiculous habit of wearing two different-colored socks with one pulled all the way up to his knee).  The mother's a criminal and the kid is a completely obnoxious, thoroughly unlikable little shit, and Janssen gives us little reason to care about either of them.  It starts off like it might be wacky and "fun," but soon turns maudlin and manipulative, and it just doesn't work.  The abrupt ending is one of the laziest examples of a quick, convenient wrap-up in recent memory.  After "irresponsible mom" roles in two terrible films (this and the equally unseen DIRTY GIRL), it's time for the completely capable Jovovich to start finding better projects to explore her serious side.  Janssen based this film on her own childhood experiences as a Dutch immigrant, but I don't see the film having anything at all to do with the immigrant experience other than making Olive from Ukraine and allowing Jovovich to use a hammy accent that's more fitting for Natasha Fatale. Any statement or observation Janssen intended on making got lost somewhere along the way to being a Lifetime movie with intermittent profanity.  BRINGING UP BOBBY was shot in 2010 and opened in September 2012 on one screen, ultimately opening wider to...three screens, for a total theatrical take of $4600.  (PG-13, 95 mins)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: DARK HORSE (2012) and [REC] 3: GENESIS (2012)

(US/UK - 2012)

Easily the least confrontational film yet from WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE and HAPPINESS misery auteur Todd Solondz, DARK HORSE still has some of the expected excruciatingly uncomfortable moments, but shows signs of its maker perhaps mellowing with age.  Jordan Gelber (who looks like he could be the younger brother of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM's Jeff Garlin) is Abe, an overweight, obnoxious, self-deluded 35-year-old suburban New Jersey man-child who lives with his parents (morose dad Christopher Walken, sporting a hilarious wig, and enabling, coddling mom Mia Farrow), collects toys and action figures,"works" at his dad's real estate company (meaning, he sits in his office all day perusing eBay, not getting his work done, and coasting on the fact that he's the boss' kid), drives a garish bright yellow Hummer, and angrily lives in the shadow of his younger, successful doctor brother (Justin Bartha).  Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair) at a wedding and makes awkward conversation.  She also lives with her parents, suffers from crippling depression and is overmedicated to the point of near-catatonia, but she somehow doesn't run when Abe pursues her, and even accepts a marriage proposal after one evening of hanging out at her house.  Solondz repeatedly blurs the line between reality and fantasy and maybe for the first time since Heather Matarazzo's Dawn Weiner in WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, actually feels some empathy for his central character.  Sure, Abe is kind of a dick, talks a lot of shit, and brings much of his troubles on himself, and while Solondz refuses to allow him a happy ending, he also seems intent on showing us that deep down, Abe's really not a bad guy and still could be a winner--a dark horse (all underscored by uplifting and gratingly cheesy pop songs).  Solondz has had some ups and downs in the years following his masterpiece HAPPINESS.  DARK HORSE feels like a minor and forgettable film, but all things considered, it's one of his better recent works, certainly a step up from the dismal HAPPINESS sequel LIFE DURING WARTIME.  Over his last few films, it seemed like Solondz's misanthropic, poking-people-with-sticks act was running out of gas, and DARK HORSE at least finds him trying something a little different, almost like he took some kind of reflective, self-imposed time out.  Who knows?  Maybe there's an uplifting crowd pleaser somewhere in Solondz's future.  One point of interest is the closing credits listing Blair as "Miranda (formerly 'Vi')," Vi being the character she played in Solondz's 2002 film STORYTELLING, and if they are the same character, the events of STORYTELLING would certainly explain some of Miranda's current mental state.  (R, 86 mins)

(Spain - 2012)

Pointless third entry in the Spanish found-footage horror franchise about a viral demonic possession outbreak in an apartment building. Directors Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza had a hard enough time stretching the film out to the disappointing first sequel--now Balaguero sits this one out and lets Plaza fly solo, and he doesn't even seem interested in making a [REC] film. Set at a wedding reception for Clara (Leticia Dolera) and Koldo (Diego Martin) that's ultimately revealed to be taking place at the same time as the events of the first film, [REC] 3 opens with a 22-minute pre-credits sequence of standard-issue found-footage shaky-cam courtesy of a professional wedding photographer (Sr. B) and his steadicam unit and Koldo's teenage cousin (Alex Monner) and his handheld. All hell breaks loose when Koldo's uncle (Emilio Mencheta) turns out to be infected from a dog bite, spreading the demonic virus among the partygoers. Plaza abandons the found-footage element altogether after 25 minutes or so, which sort of renders the whole [REC] element meaningless and the film becomes standard issue zombie fare (owing a little to Lamberto Bava's DEMONS and Michele Soavi's THE CHURCH), and only a semi-serious one at that. The first [REC] (remade in the US as QUARANTINE) still stands as one of the best in the recent endless string of found-footage films, but Plaza approaches this entry using a vastly different tone. Sure, some of the humor works, like the comical sight of Koldo spending half the film in medieval armor that he finds in a nearby church, and a childrens entertainer with a cheap sponge costume calling himself "SpongeJohn" to avoid copyright violations is funny a couple of times until he completely wears out his welcome. By the time Clara finds a chainsaw, slices off part of her wedding dress and repeatedly shouts "This is my day!" as she slices through the skulls of demonic ghouls, turning into a Spanish Milla Jovovich by way of Bruce Campbell, Plaza has effectively jettisoned any semblance of straight-faced horror and it plays out like a tired EVIL DEAD knockoff.  Was this even supposed to be a [REC] film? For all its faults, it's still a marginally more entertaining film than the previous entry (which lost its way midway through and never recovered), though it has just as little reason to exist.  And yes...Balaguero is apparently returning to direct [REC] 4.  For some reason.  (R, 80 mins)

Friday, November 16, 2012

In Theaters: LINCOLN (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by Steven Spielberg.  Written by Tony Kushner.  Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Jackie Earle Haley, Gloria Reuben, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter McRobbie, Walton Goggins,  David Costabile, Gulliver McGrath, Joseph Cross, Jeremy Strong, S. Epatha Merkerson, Stephen Spinella, David Oyelowo, Lukas Haas, Dane DeHaan, David Warshofsky, Elizabeth Marvel, Bill Camp, Raynor Scheine.  (PG-13, 150 mins)

Last year's excellent WAR HORSE was an unabashedly sentimental, defiantly old-fashioned epic that Steven Spielberg intended to be his "John Ford movie."  The biopic LINCOLN, written by Tony Kushner (ANGELS IN AMERICA) and based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, finds the legendary Spielberg in that same old-fashioned John Ford mode, which is fitting considering the 1940 classic YOUNG MR. LINCOLN is one of Ford's best-known non-westerns.  From the moment the great Daniel Day-Lewis was cast as Abraham Lincoln, expectations were high and statements like "Just give him the Oscar now" were rampant.  Day-Lewis is one of cinema's greatest actors, and one who works infrequently enough that it's an event every time he's back on the screen.  Not surprisingly, the famously committed actor is a terrific choice for Lincoln, particularly in the physical aspect with body language and the way he looks increasingly gaunt and fatigued as the film goes on. 

Set in the last three and a half months of Lincoln's life, LINCOLN gets off to a rocky start and takes quite some time to find its groove.  The film focuses on both ending the Civil War and passing the Republican-backed 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.  Much of the time is spent on the backroom wheeling and dealing:  Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) hiring a trio of pushy lobbyists (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a scene-stealing James Spader) to strongarm some Democratic opponents into joining the Republicans;  the noble efforts of wily and snide Republican House Ways and Means chairman and vocal Lincoln critic Thaddeus Stevens (a grand, magnificent performance by Tommy Lee Jones) to not just abolish slavery but to grant freed slaves full and equal citizenship; and Lincoln himself working political friends and foes in order to get the Amendment passed. 

The first half or so of LINCOLN is filled with a large number of frequently cumbersome grandstanding speeches and assorted pontifications, fitting for the politicians of the time but not exactly cinematic in nature.  There's a near drinking-game level frequency to the number of times everyone in a crowded room drops what they're doing to listen to another cornpone anecdote from Honest Abe as Spielberg slowly pulls the camera in towards Day-Lewis while John Williams' predictably reverent, swelling score tells us that there's a Profound Message.  It gets to the point where you'll nod in agreement during one such scene where Secretary of War Stanton (Bruce McGill) throws his arms up in frustration and storms out, bellowing "I cannot listen to another one of your stories!"  Sure, some of them are funny (the one about George Washington's picture in the bathroom is great), but let's get on with it.  Day-Lewis gives his all to the role, but the film rarely lets us see Lincoln the man.  The scenes with Mary Todd Lincoln (an occasionally hammy Sally Field) seem rote and predictable and a subplot about their son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) leaving college to enlist feels cut down.  There are some very good moments between Day-Lewis and Gulliver McGrath as youngest son Tad, so we get some attempts at showing us that side of Lincoln, but primarily, it's Lincoln the historical figure.  For a director who's always worn his emotions on his sleeve in his films, Spielberg's LINCOLN is frequently cold, distant, and off-putting and it's not until the second half when the vote on the Amendment becomes the focus that the film finally warms up and the senses of humanity and drama kick in, though honestly, the film never really fully catches fire.

What's odd is that, considering how you'd think Day-Lewis' performance should be the emotional core of the film, it's Jones' Thaddeus Stevens that leaves the bigger impression.  Too often, it feels like too many cast members are just playing Civil War dress-up (even Day-Lewis at times), but Jones disappears into his role from his first scene all the way to his last, when we see just how important the passage of the 13th Amendment really was to him.  This is the best work Jones has done in years and it has to make him frontrunner for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

The film looks absolutely superb (Janusz Kaminski has been the cinematographer of every Spielberg film since SCHINDLER'S LIST nearly 20 years ago) from the muddy, bloody opening on a battlefield to the dusty, shadowy interiors of the White House and various Washington offices.  Let's be honest here:  Spielberg is decades past the point of needing to prove himself to anyone, and merely OK Spielberg is still better than the A-games of most filmmakers.  Though it gets markedly better as it progresses, LINCOLN doesn't play like a film with much repeat viewing value, and feels like second-string, inessential Spielberg.  And not in the way of a rare frivolous, forgettable Spielberg film like, say, THE TERMINAL or INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, but in a way that something that has this much going for it should just be...better?  It probably has a long life ahead of it in junior high and high school history classes, but really, it's a "pretty good" film with expectations of being a "great" one. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING (1977)

(US/West Germany - 1977)

Directed by Robert Aldrich. Written by Ronald M. Cohen and Edward Huebsch.  Cast: Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Charles Durning, Roscoe Lee Browne, Joseph Cotten, Melvyn Douglas, Richard Jaeckel, William Marshall, Gerald S. O'Loughlin, Paul Winfield, Burt Young, Charles McGraw, Leif Erickson, William Smith, Morgan Paull, Charles Aidman, Shane Rimmer, Simon Scott, William Hootkins, John Ratzenberger. (R, 144 mins).

SPOILERS discussed throughout

Robert Aldrich's intense post-Vietnam/Cold War/conspiracy nail-biter TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING was a box office flop in 1977 and was quickly shuffled off to a couple of heavily-edited prime-time airings on CBS then ventured into the netherworld of night-owl airings in syndication and a token VHS release in the '80s before largely disappearing altogether.  But it's amassed a sizable cult following over the last 35 years and has just been released by Olive Films on Blu-ray and DVD in a new restoration supervised by Bavaria Film Studio, the film's German co-producer.  Aldrich (1918-1983), the legendary director of KISS ME DEADLY (1955), WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962),  HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964), THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), and THE LONGEST YARD (1974) among many others, succeeds not just in making an edge-of-your-seat thriller, but also, amidst some occasionally blustery histrionics of a few cast members, one of the angriest and most cynical films of a decade full of angry and cynical films.  And, it's worth mentioning, the strangely fascinating experience of witnessing a few Hollywood old-timers dropping F-bombs.

Set in "the future" of 1981 and filmed completely in Munich, the film opens to the tune of Billy Preston's 1971 version of "My Country Tis of Thee" and has disgraced General Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) escaping from a Montana military prison with three convicts, Willis (Paul Winfield), Augie (Burt Young), and Hoxey (William Smith), and gaining control of Silo 3 at an ICBM facility.  Despite Dell's orders to keep it under control, Hoxey starts shooting the few military personnel on duty and is promptly shot by Dell for his trouble.  Dell, who helped design the installation and the launch systems and knows them inside and out, contacts General Mackenzie (Richard Widmark) and demands to speak to recently-elected President David Stevens (Charles Durning).  Dell gives Stevens his demands:  he's going to launch nine nuclear missiles unless he and his associates get $10 million, Air Force One transport to a country of their choosing, and the President going on national television and reading a classified memo that details the true reasons the US got involved in the Vietnam War.  The patriotic, socially-conscious Dell is disgusted that so many on both sides died for a war that he insists never had to be fought and was completely fabricated by the US government just to make a point to the Soviet Union that, as one person puts it, "we were capable of inhuman acts" in the name of stopping communism.   Dell repeatedly tried to make his views public, but was considered too much of a loose cannon by high-ranking military officials who tried to buy his silence with promotions.  When a drunken Dell got involved in a bar fight with a guy who had a weak heart, Mackenzie and others, including Stevens' chief advisor General O'Rourke (Gerald S. O'Loughlin) trumped up a bogus first-degree murder charge and railroaded Dell into a 30-year prison sentence.  As Dell explains to Mackenzie, "You sent my memos to the shredder, and when I wouldn't trade what I believed in for a star, you sent me to the shredder."

Aldrich lets the film unfold at a deliberate, methodical pace, rarely rushing or glossing over details.  It takes nearly the first hour just to get Silo 3 under the control of Dell and his cohorts and to get the President involved in the matter.  Most of the second hour focuses on the President hashing out the situation with his cabinet members and other national security officials.  It's here where the film gets interesting.  Stevens is an honest, decent man who is revealed to be clearly in over his head as President.  Many of his cabinet members--effectively embodied by a number of geriatric actors--represent the old guard politicians of which Stevens is too naive to understand.  Durning is guilty of some shameless scenery-chewing on several occasions throughout this film, but he's at his best when he's just glaring in disgust at some of the things he's hearing from smug Secretary of State Renfrew (Joseph Cotten) or the glad-handing CIA chief (Leif Erickson), who shrugs his shoulders and callously explains that "it's a game," and "This is just how it's been since 1945, Mr. President."  President Stevens is determined to read this memo on television in order to "open up" to the American people in attempt to heal the still-open wounds of the Vietnam War.  But these old men at the table--protectors of "the way it's always been"--can't allow this to happen.  They can't allow the American people to know that the Vietnam War was for nothing.  Stevens is too earnest, idealistic, trusting, and frankly, not quite ready for prime time to realize what's really going on when it's suggested by the smirking Renfrew--and quickly agreed upon by everyone at the table--that the public cannot be made aware of what's happening at Silo 3 and that he--the President--must go there and talk face-to-face with Dell.  Secretary of Defense Guthrie (Melvyn Douglas), the one man at the table who doesn't come off like a callous, out-of-touch asshole, half-heartedly offers to go in the President's place, but instead, Stevens entrusts him to read the memo on television in two weeks if anything happens to him in Montana.  Also advising the President is General Crane (Charles McGraw), who first gives Mackenzie the go-ahead to send in a four-man team (which includes John Ratzenberger!) to stop Dell by detonating a small atomic device inside Silo 3, and after that fails, Mackenzie positions snipers outside the base to take out Dell and the escaped cons when they exit with the President.

The film is played completely serious, but some of these old men advising Stevens come off a lot like the inhabitants of DR. STRANGELOVE's War Room 20 or so years later.  Both Stevens and Dell are too blinded by ideals and morals to see how the world they're in really operates.   Stevens doesn't even recognize the corruption around him.  Dell is at least aware of it, but thinks Stevens can help him defeat it.  Even after he's been buried by the country he spent his life serving, Dell still thinks a visit from Stevens legitimizes his actions and means the world will finally hear his message.  And Stevens is so outraged by a political pissing match taking priority over people that he actually comes to admire Dell's convictions.  Willis sees through the plan to send Stevens ("They ain't givin' up that gig!  And the President is expendable!") and takes no sides, having only gotten involved for the $10 million ("Grow up, General.  Nobody honors nothin', but that's no reason to blow up the whole world").  The rage is hammered home by a closing credits reprise of the Preston tune that takes on an entirely new significance after the President learns too late that a man's word of honor doesn't mean much anymore.  Aldrich really cranks the tension by letting large sections of the film play out in anywhere from two to four split screens, watching all of the involved parties for extended periods of time.   Aldrich would make a few more movies before his death in 1983, but as his daughter Adell explains in the accompanying 70-minute documentary ALDRICH OVER MUNICH, this was the last of his films that he considered personal and important, the last of his films that made a statement.  And what a statement it is.  Like many films of the 1970s, TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING probably couldn't be made today, at least not without an incredible amount of controversy.  Can you imagine a current film where members of a whistleblowing President's cabinet essentially send him to his own execution?  Maybe 1977 audiences weren't ready for it either, although its commercial failure is probably due more to lackluster handling by a soon-to-be-defunct Allied Artists.  But in a time of great turmoil from the years of American involvement in Vietnam, films like TAXI DRIVER, COMING HOME, and THE DEER HUNTER addressed that pain and trauma in ways that have made them classics that stand the test of time.  TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING raged just as loudly as those other films, and what set it apart was its unique cast of actors more suited for a WWII drama. 

Durning's performance probably could've been a little more controlled (he's much better in the President's more reflective moments), though there's certainly an argument to be made that his outbursts and tantrums are indicative of the character's inability to handle what's happening.  But almost everyone is top-notch here.  Lancaster is great, and the film gives the venerable Cotten, by that time largely reduced to cameos in disreputable Euroschlock, his best late-career role.  Widmark delivers some vintage grumpy Widmark, making his entrance in the back of a limo where the driver is listening to the news on the radio and asks "Do you care about the news, General?" to which Widmark's Mackenzie grumbles "Never between wars."  A couple of minor gripes:  a shot of the President shaving by a bathroom window doesn't really ring true from a security standpoint.  And several exterior shots of the installation housing Silo 3 are obvious miniatures that would barely pass in a GODZILLA movie.

Olive's Blu-ray presents the film in a spiffy new HD transfer in its 1.85:1 aspect ratio that looks very nice.  The lone extra is the 70-minute retrospective ALDRICH OVER MUNICH, which features interviews with numerous behind the scenes personnel (with much input by German assistant director Wolfgang Glattes), and Aldrich's daughter Adell.  O'Loughlin, now 84, is the only cast member present.  There's plenty of anecdotes and vintage on-set photos and it's a must-see for any fan of the film.  TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING is one of those films that's remembered vividly by everyone who's seen it, with its primary obstacle being that nobody's seen it.  This new Blu-ray/DVD release should go far in rescuing this unsung classic of 1970s cinema from years of obscurity.

Slightly hyperbolic UK quad poster

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In Theaters: SKYFALL (2012)

(US/UK - 2012)

Directed by Sam Mendes.  Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan. Cast: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Judi Dench, Albert Finney, Naomie Harris, Berenice Lim Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Ola Rapace, Helen McCrory. (PG-13, 143 mins)

The James Bond franchise celebrates its 50th anniversary with an exceptional entry in the series.  Perhaps not quite the "Best Bond Ever!" but it's up there, with richly complex characterizations and themes that demonstrate an unusual depth for these films, which have always been great fun but usually on a spectacle level.  There's no shortage of that spectacle in SKYFALL, which kicks off with one of the best pre-credits sequences of the series, but it expands upon the psychological side of 007 that was explored to some degree in Daniel Craig's Bond debut CASINO ROYALE (2006), and it gets things back on course after the OK but disappointing QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008).

A mission in Turkey to recover a hard drive with the names of British agents working undercover with terrorist organizations goes bad when Bond gets in the way of a bullet meant for an enemy agent (Ola Rapace) and is presumed dead.  He resurfaces after a terrorist attack on MI-6 headquarters in London, and is put back to work by M (Judi Dench), whose judgment and effectiveness are being questioned by bureucratic intel official Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) after several outed MI-6 agents are executed.  Bond fails the physical and psychological testing to be reinstated, but M buries the test results because she knows he'll get the job done.  The villain is Silva (Javier Bardem), a rogue ex-MI-6 agent with a personal score to settle with M:  he was a brilliant agent but too much of a loose cannon, and M sold him out to China shortly before the Hong Kong handover in 1997.

The Bond films have never been a director's showcase.  In the initial 1962-1989 era, the films were directed by a rotating group of reliably efficient pros starting with Terence Young, Guy Hamilton, and Lewis Gilbert, with occasional promotions from within like editor Peter Hunt or second-unit director John Glen, who ended up helming all of the Bond films in the 1980s.  When the series restarted in 1995 after a six-year break, the job fell to journeymen like Martin Campbell (THE MASK OF ZORRO), Roger Spottiswoode (TURNER & HOOCH), Michael Apted (the UP documentary series, COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER), and Lee Tamahori (THE EDGE), brought in for some new perspective, but who primarily replicated the look and feel of the earlier Bond films.  Campbell was brought back for CASINO ROYALE and Marc Forster (MONSTER'S BALL) apparently thought he was hired for a BOURNE sequel when he directed QUANTUM OF SOLACE.  That brings us to the surprising choice of Sam Mendes to helm SKYFALL.  The Oscar-winning director of AMERICAN BEAUTY, ROAD TO PERDITION, and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD seems like an unlikely pick, but it's an important element in establishing some credible seriousness to the film.  Partnering with Oscar-nominated cinematographer and Coen Bros. favorite Roger Deakins, Mendes fashions one of the best-looking of all Bond films, and not just with its breathtaking action sequences.  A neon-drenched showdown in a Shanghai skyscraper and a shot of M standing aside a row of Union Jack-draped caskets provide particularly arresting images.

It's also one of the best-written of the Bonds.  Series veterans Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, plus Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan (GLADIATOR, RANGO, CORIOLANUS, HUGO) offer, in addition to a study in duality in that Bond and Silva are essentially two sides of the same coin, both with an axe to grind with M, but handling it in vastly different ways--an unprecedented look into Bond's childhood and how it shaped the man he's become during an unexpected third-act detour when Bond goes off the grid and on the run with M after an attempt on her life by Silva's goons.  There's also a recurrent theme throughout of dealing with age and change:  M butting heads with Mallory, Bond spending a good part of the film sporting white stubble, the MI-6 operation being called into question for its relevancy and usefulness.  Mendes and the screenwriters succeed in creating a Bond film that manages to re-establish new rules while simultaneously utilizing the established template.  The character of Q is re-introduced here, in the form of a techno-geek in his late 20s (Ben Whishaw), which reverses the roles in the Bond-Q relationship:  now it's cranky old 007 busting the young kid's balls, but they immediately take a liking to each other much like Bond and the perpetually-annoyed but fatherly Q did in the older films.

From the opening scenes of CASINO ROYALE, it was obvious that Craig would be a terrific Bond, but he really hits his stride with SKYFALL.  He's matched by an inspired Bardem, who doesn't even appear until 70 minutes in but quickly makes an unforgettable impression as Silva, creating one of the great Bond villains.  Watch the entrance Mendes gives him, delivering a long monologue while walking from a distance toward the stationary camera, all in one take.  It's a bold and unusual shot that, with all due respect, a John Glen or a Lee Tamahori wouldn't have done.  Dench gets by far her biggest role as M yet, and she's essentially a central character along with Bond.  The Bond girls are represented by rookie MI-6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and doomed Severine (Berenice Lim Marlohe), who works for Silva, and we know how that always turns out.  There's also some fine work from Fiennes (who gets one of the best lines in the film, during M's court testimony) and a burly-looking Albert Finney, who turns up in a showy supporting role late in the film with quite a bit more to do here--even hoisting a sawed-off shotgun--than his prominently-billed 12-second YouTube cameo in THE BOURNE LEGACY. 

The James Bond series has never been beholden to any strict sense of continuity, understandable given the length of its duration.  Other than recurring characters like M, Q, Miss Moneypenny, Blofeld, and Bond's CIA buddy Felix Leiter, the films generally exist as stand-alone stories.  23 films in and there's only been one official "direct" sequel (QUANTUM OF SOLACE picks up right where CASINO ROYALE leaves off), though there have been similar instances of a continued character or story element through the decades, most notably three that stem from the stunningly downbeat finale of 1969's ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, which found George Lazenby's Bond getting married to Tracy (Diana Rigg) only to see her immediately murdered as they drive off on their honeymoon:  Sean Connery returned as Bond in the next film, 1971's DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, and is seeking revenge on Blofeld, though it's never specified that Tracy's murder is the reason; and the beginning of 1981's FOR YOUR EYES ONLY has Roger Moore's Bond visiting Tracy's grave, while 1989's LICENCE TO KILL has Timothy Dalton's Bond somberly mentioning that he was married once, but declines to elaborate. Richard Kiel made a huge impression as the henchman Jaws in 1977's THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and was brought back--as a lovestruck good guy, no less--for 1979's unfortunate MOONRAKER.  Joe Don Baker's CIA agent Jack Wade appeared in 1995's GOLDENEYE and 1997's TOMORROW NEVER DIES (and Baker played a completely different military character in 1987's THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS).  Early Bond girl Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) turns up briefly in 1962's DR. NO and 1963's FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE.  And the less said about good old boy Louisiana sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) in 1973's LIVE AND LET DIE inexplicably test-driving an AMC Matador while vacationing in Bangkok in 1974's THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, the better. 

It's hard to say where SKYFALL fits into the continuity in general, especially since Dench was also M to Pierce Brosnan's Bond in the '90s, well before she kept the role in the Craig-led reboot.  SKYFALL exists on its own terms (no references to Craig's two prior turns), but it ends on a bittersweet "circle of life" note that seems to set things back to the beginning--as in, 1962--in a way that will put a smile on the face of any 007 fan.  50 years in, with undeniable ups and downs, but SKYFALL displays a franchise that's changed and adapted effectively and is certainly as vital and as promising as it's ever been.  A terrific film, one of 2012's best.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

New on Netflix Streaming: THE PACT (2012) and THE ROAD (2012)

(US - 2012)

Bearing some thematic similitary to (and significantly better than) the recent LOVELY MOLLY, this frightening ghost story does the trendy slow-burn thing just right and rewards the viewer with several legitimately well-done jolts throughout. Motorcycle-riding loner Annie (a strong performance by Caity Lotz) wants nothing to do with her dysfunctional family, but is drawn back to her childhood home--the location of unspecified abuse--after her mother dies and her ex-junkie sister Nicole (Agnes Bruckner) mysteriously vanishes before the funeral.  Once back at the house, it doesn't take long for a ghostly presence to make itself apparent to Annie and her visiting cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins), who was taking care of Nicole's daughter Eva (Dakota Bright).  A figure appears and drags Liz into a closet that leads nowhere and Annie flees with Eva.  Annie finds a skeptical ally in local deputy Bill (a weathered-looking Casper Van Dien), who doesn't really buy her story but agrees to help her out of curiosity and fatherly concern because the troubled young woman reminds him of his estranged daughter ("She's a fucking bitch, too," he jokes).  Annie also touches base with Stevie (Haley Hudson), the weird girl from back in high school who claimed to be able to see ghosts...and it turns out she can.  One seems to be communicating with Annie via electronic devices--cell phone, laptop, etc...but this is one that's best approached knowing as little as possible.

Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy expanded his 11-minute short from 2011 (and replaced the lead actress) and has fashioned a genuinely scary horror sleeper that's refreshingly old-fashioned with its lack of shaky-cam, found-footage cliches and cardboard-cutout characters. Annie is one of the strongest horror heroines in a long time, and it's a star-making turn by Lotz, who plays Annie as someone who constantly shields herself from everything and has learned to live on her own and to not rely on or trust anyone. And Lotz plays her very unglamorously and very "average." No makeup and she looks a bit rough. The script is very character-driven and it just makes the situation that much more unsettlingly terrifying. People who liked THE INNKEEPERS should check out THE PACT for a ghost story where something actually happens. (R, 89 mins, also out this week on DVD/Blu-ray)
(Philippines - 2011; 2012 US release)
Not to be confused with John Hillcoat's 2009 film of Cormac McCarthy's novel, this ROAD is the latest from writer/director Yam Laranas, who's sort-of the leading figure in present-day Filipino horror cinema (he's already tried to make the jump to the US with 2009's little-seen THE ECHO, a remake of his 2004 Filipino film SIGAW).  THE ROAD shows Laranas (who also functions as his own cinematographer) has a gift for shot composition and striking visuals, but man, what a stale script!  This feels like an excessively tardy Filipino take on the JU-ON/J-Horror explosion from at least a decade ago.  And the longer it goes on, the more you think "OK, they're setting it up for this twist ending, but it would be way too obvious if it played out that way, so they must be trying to cleverly mislead us.  There's no way that can be the big reveal."  But yes.  That is the big reveal.  The twist ending you dismissed at the halfway point for being too incredibly obvious?  That's the twist ending.
Laranas starts with a suicide in a parked car and a young, ambitious cop (TJ Trinidad) being made aware of a decade-old disappearance of two teenage girls.  Then the story unfolds in three sections:  in 2008, three teens go for a joyride on a gated-off, long-closed, and seemingly endless road in the middle of the night.  With no intersections or exits, they keep going in circles, passing the same tree and being passed by a driverless car.  Then ghosts start appearing on the road.  In 1998, Laranas tells the story of the two missing girls, driving down the same road, running out of gas, and meeting a strange teenage boy who takes them back to his house and they're never seen again.  In 1988, a little boy lives in that same house with his abusive mother (Carmina Villaroel) and his spineless minister father (Marvin Agustin).  The mother doesn't let the boy go outside and keeps him locked in a cabinet during her dalliances with a much-younger lover.  How these three stories tie into one another is calculated about 1/3 of the way in, and ridiculously obvious by the halfway mark.   There's almost an "everything but the kitchen sink" mentality to the plot elements, with ghosts and the supernatural, murder, child abuse, and even possession, which Laranas clumsily shoehorns in just for the "reveal" that we already see coming.  Laranas does a terrific job at establishing an eerie, dread-filled vibe, especially in the 2008 section, and the climax features some of the most beautiful cinematic rainfall this side of BLADE RUNNER, but once you see where the story's going, its holes, logic lapses, and plot conveniences are just too much to take seriously.  Laranas is an obviously gifted stylist and makes this low-budget film look frequently stunning--he just needs to let someone else do the scripting.  (R, 110 mins)

Friday, November 9, 2012


(US - 2012)

This idiotic 50 Cent-produced thriller skipped theaters altogether despite a $20 million budget, most of which appears to have gone toward paying a large cast of slumming actors.  Fiddy has a small role and was one of 36 (!) credited producers, but the focus is on Josh Duhamel as a Long Beach firefighter who's in a carry-out when the owner and his son are killed by white supremacist crime lord Vincent D'Onofrio, who wants to run out the Crips who control the area.  At the urging of cynical narcotics detective Bruce Willis, who's obsessed with putting D'Onofrio behind bars, Duhamel agrees to testify but has to enter the federal witness protection program and goes into hiding in New Orleans.  Of course, D'Onofrio finds out where Duhamel is--largely because this film's version of witness protection bears no resemblance to reality--and sends hapless assassins Julian McMahon and Arie Verveen after him.  Duhamel, meanwhile, has been secretly dating the federal agent (Rosario Dawson) in charge of his case (and it seems as if her boss Kevin Dunn doesn't have a problem with it), and of course, she's now in danger as well, narrowly missing a bullet to the head that was meant for Duhamel.  Duhamel makes his way back to Long Beach and tries to start a war between D'Onofrio and the Crips, but ends up abandoning that idea and opting for the One Man Wrecking Crew approach, which means all involved parties--actors' availabilities permitting--will eventually meet for a showdown at an abandoned warehouse. 

Directed by TV veteran David Barrett (THE MENTALIST, CASTLE), FIRE WITH FIRE is bland, dull, and completely witless, filled with unconvincingly cheap CGI fire (they even CGI'd a speeding SUV in one hilarious shot that's visible in the above trailer) and bored performances by the cast:  Fiddy shows up for one scene as a gun dealer, Richard Schiff plays D'Onofrio's attorney, Bonnie Somerville is the district attorney, UFC champ Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha are a couple of Crips, Eric Winter and James Lesure are Duhamel's firefighter buddies, and Vinnie Jones is in full-on blustery fookin' 'ell, mate! mode as one of D'Onofrio's flunkies and just your typical Long Beach white power soccer hooligan.  Willis, in his third 50 Cent production since fall 2011, probably put in two or three days' work, mostly sitting at a desk looking concerned and/or constipated.  He has a scene where he's on the phone yelling at Dunn that constitutes some of the worst acting of his career, or at least his worst acting since CATCH .44.  (R, 97 mins)

(US/Canada/Luxembourg - 2012)

Perhaps miffed at not being invited to the party, Steven Seagal attempts to headline his own straight-to-DVD version of THE EXPENDABLES, just minus action, humor, pacing, recognizable names, acceptable acting, chemistry, and inspiration.  MAXIMUM CONVICTION pairs the aging action star with pro wrestling legend Steve Austin (who was actually one of the bad guys in the first EXPENDABLES) as, respectively, Cross and Manning, the leaders of "Storm," a mercenary security contracting crew of former black ops badasses.  They're hired to decommission a decrepit prison that's being shut down, but trouble comes in the form of a team of rogue US marshals led by Blake (Michael Pare).  They're after a pair of females who are temporarily being held at the prison, one of whom (Steph Song) has a chip implanted under her skin with damaging top-secret government intel.  In addition to that, some of the prison's more dangerous inmates manage to get free, causing further headaches for Seagal and Austin.  Pare actually appears to be trying here (even though he's forced to utter that old standby "We've got a lot in common, you and I," when he and Seagal finally meet face-to-face), but it's hard to get excited about these Storm guys.  The only other one anyone might recognize is British Tae Kwon Do champ Bren Foster, who comes off like a second-string Scott Adkins.  There's a reason Austin hasn't moved beyond the world of DTV:  he just has no screen presence or charisma whatsoever.  The one thing working in his favor is that he's awake, which is more than you can say for Seagal.  I had somewhat elevated hopes for MAXIMUM CONVICTION being a solid DTV actioner since it was directed by Keoni Waxman, who's handled two of Seagal's better DTV efforts (the 2009 releases THE KEEPER and A DANGEROUS MAN, the latter of which easily measures up to much of the stuff from Seagal's big-screen heyday) and clearly has the potential to move on to bigger things. Seagal must've recognized this on their previous collaborations, because he actually seems to give a shit when Waxman is directing.  That's not the case here.  He's in total coast mode, maybe not relying on his stunt double as much as in other films, but he's still using his ridiculously affected Memphis Cajun accent, and much of his dialogue is completely unintelligible. Seagal is frequently looking down or off to the side in scenes where he's talking to other people, obviously reading his lines from cue cards or a crib sheet just out of camera range.  And the whole idea of Seagal and Stone Cold teaming up is a moot point since they're separated for most of the film and obviously not even on the set at the same time in their final scene "together."  Pretty far from Seagal's worst, but there's still no reason at all to watch this.  (R, 98 mins)