Tuesday, December 31, 2013


(US - 1968)

Shout! Factory's second "Cult Movie Marathon" set gets off to an inauspicious start with ANGELS FROM HELL, a loose follow-up to 1967's essential HELL'S ANGELS ON WHEELS, and one of the dullest entries in the late '60s biker subgenre.  After supporting roles in films like THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965) and THE DEVIL'S BRIGADE (1968), Tom Stern was about to find a brief niche in these things with ANGELS FROM HELL and HELL'S ANGELS '69, but his time in the spotlight was over before it started.  Here, Stern plays Mike, the leader of the Madcaps of Bakersfield motorcycle club who returns from Vietnam to take his MC to the next level.  He hangs with a hippie commune, gets involved with a Hollywood producer and tangles with local sheriff Bingham (Jack Starrett), who, interestingly, is actually sympathetic to bikers and reminds his deputies that they have the same rights as everyone else.  Tensions keep flaring, but nothing really happens, Stern is a terrible actor, and the dialogue is atrocious (Mike, laying out his agenda to the rest of the club: "I'm gonna lay some jazz on your minds..."), though it does have a memorably nasty leg break and a gut-punch of a final shot that might make you think you saw a better film than you did.  But for 85 of its 86 minutes, ANGELS FROM HELL is a snore-inducing drag and Jerry Wish's script lays the verbiage of the era on so thickly that it starts to sound like it's trying entirely too hard.  Also with Ted Markland and Arlene Martel, and songs by The Peanut Butter Conspiracy.  Director Bruce Kessler only made a few features, most notably 1969's THE GAY DECEIVERS, a sort-of proto-I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY where two buddies pretend to be gay to avoid the draft, and the 1971 cult horror film SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES, and went on to become a busy TV director until the late '90s.  Most of these biker movies haven't aged very well, but this one especially feels like it was laughably dated the moment it was released.  (R, 86 mins)

(US - 1977)

Easily cinema's all-time greatest talking vagina film, CHATTERBOX! is mildly amusing at times and plays like an R-rated sitcom pilot.  Nice hairdresser Penelope Pittman ('70s drive-in icon Candice Rialson) finds her vagina (called "Virginia") is suddenly capable of talking, singing, and in the case of her overconfident boyfriend Ted (Perry Bullington), roasting ("You call that a fuck?" Virginia screeches after Penelope and Ted have sex).  Virginia initially causes all sorts of problems for Penelope, especially at her job (Rip Taylor plays her boss!), but the pair soon become a media sensation, going on the game show The Mating Game, appearing at the Rose Bowl parade, and performing such elaborate musical numbers as "Cock-a-Doodle Doo," and "Wang Dang Doodle."  CHATTERBOX! has quite a B-movie pedigree:  the screenwriters were involved in such films as THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE and SAVAGE STREETS, director Tom De Simone went on to make HELL NIGHT (1981), THE CONCRETE JUNGLE (1982), REFORM SCHOOL GIRLS (1986) and ANGEL III: THE FINAL CHAPTER (1988), and doubled as a gay porn director using the name "Lancer Brooks."  And of course, Rialson (1951-2006) logged time in several Roger Corman productions, like CANDY STRIPE NURSES (1974) and HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD (1976) before retiring from movies in 1979 to focus on raising her family.  CHATTERBOX! is pretty bad, but it has some entertainment value as a nice snapshot of late '70s softcore porn in the guise of a markedly less-sophisticated Mel Brooks-style smutty comedy.  It's nothing spectacular, but if you see only one talking vajayjay movie in your life, it should probably be CHATTERBOX!  Also with Larry Gelman (THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, MAUDE) as Penelope's doctor, Jane Kean as her mother, and Professor Irwin Corey as himself. 1.33:1  (R, 73 mins)

(US - 1986)

Three years after his legendary 1983 cult classic CHAINED HEAT, director Paul Nicholas, a pseudonym for German exploitation vet Lutz Schaarwachter, returned to the women-in-prison genre with this entertaining trash for Cannon.  Nice girl Michelle (Shari Shattuck) is in the wrong place at the wrong time when her ex (John Terlesky) and psycho bad girl Rita (Christina Whitaker) rob the bank where she works.  The ex is killed and the cops think Michelle was in on it, so like most WIP protagonists, she's a dewy-eyed innocent (and she has a horse!) who's about to get schooled.  And of course, it's a prison filled with rape by drooling male guards, drugs, racial conflicts, and the corrupt warden (Angel Tompkins) has lesbian hookups with inmates.  Not quite on the level of CHAINED HEAT, but really, what is?  This could probably use a slumming big name or two, but there's enough hilarious dialogue and nasty violence (one inmate is force-fed a large mirror shard) to make it required viewing for fans of such delightful sleaze.  Also with Lucinda Crosby, Aude Charles, the frightening Faith Minton (who looks like a roid-raging Mark Gregory), the inevitable Carole Ita White, and "Tuff Enuff" by the Fabulous Thunderbirds, thereby fulfilling THE NAKED CAGE's apparently ASCAP-mandated obligation that it be featured in every film released in 1986.  1.33:1  (R, 97 mins)

(US - 1985)

Empire Pictures and future Full Moon honcho Charles Band acquired two sleazy Italian/Spanish women-in-prison films from 1980--ESCAPE FROM HELL and ORINOCO: PRISON OF SEX--both shot back-to-back by Italian exploitation vet Edoardo Mulargia with much of the same cast (Anthony Steffen, Cristina Lai, and transsexual Eurotrash icon Ajita Wilson), and had them re-edited into one film.  The resulting cut-and-paste hack job, was then bookended with new footage shot five years later in Los Angeles with Linda Blair and HOGAN'S HEROES co-star Leon Askin, and released to drive-ins and grindhouses in 1985 as SAVAGE ISLAND--probably to cash in on Blair's 1984 drive-in hit SAVAGE STREETS.  It's as much of an incoherent mess as you can imagine, but bad-movie lovers will rejoice at such sights as night switching to day in the middle of the same action scene, constant back-and-forth wardrobe and hairstyle changes, the same actor playing two different characters, and one character getting killed only to have same actor turn up later and get killed again--all the inevitable results of carelessly trying to fuse two movies into one.  The credited director on SAVAGE ISLAND is Nicholas Beardsley, who has no other IMDb credits before or since, so it may very well be a pseudonym for someone in the Empire stock company.  Empire, or Beardsley, or whomever, obviously didn't even know who some of the actors were.  Wilson is credited as Maria and Lai as Muriel, when it's vice versa, the venerable Luciano Pigozzi is credited as "Paco," but plays the prison warden, and not the guy everyone calls "Paco."  Luciano Rossi also seems to be playing the warden in some scenes, because he was in ORINOCO and Pigozzi wasn't.

Blair and Askin worked one day on the wraparound scenes.  A slumming, career-in-the-toilet Blair, who claims she was "conned" into appearing in this and urged fans to stay away from it while happily starring in things like the wretched POLICE ACADEMY ripoff NIGHT PATROL, plays Daly, a former inmate in a South American prison who shows up at the office of emerald dealer Luker (Askin) after killing his security guard (Penn Jillette!).  She's there to explain that women forced into slave labor are procuring his precious jewels, and then the two haphazardly-assembled Mulargia films proceed, with intermittent voiceover from Blair in a hapless attempt to pull the plot together.  It's all for naught, and Beardsley eliminates most of the sleazier elements.  He does leave some nudity--Lai plays an entire action sequence with her breasts popped out of her top--but the focus is ultimately more on action, with some nice over-the-top gunshot splatter near the end.  Also with Stelio Candelli and WIP sleaze fixture Serafino Profumo, who looks like the Italian Sid Haig, and played similar sadistic guard roles in such dubious Nazisploitation gems as S.S. EXPERIMENT LOVE CAMP and S.S. CAMP: WOMEN'S HELL.  Barely watchable and feeling endless even at 79 minutes, but aficionados of truly awful cinema will have a strange appreciation for it.  1.33:1 (R, 79 mins)



(US - 1973)

This drive-in and late-night TV staple was previously released on DVD by MGM as part of the late, great "Midnite Movies" line but is back on DVD once more, kicking off a rather random four-film Shout! Factory "Cult Movie Collection."  A sci-fi satire on Women's Lib, INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS is a sterling example of early '70s exploitation trash as men in a college town are being screwed to death by a hot-and-heavy band of radiation-mutated hotties under the command of entomologist Dr. Susan Harris (Anitra Ford).  The government sends in State Department security agent Neil Agar (legendary B-movie badass William Smith) to investigate.  Teaming up with campus librarian Julie Zorn (Victoria Vetri, aka Angela Dorian, 1968's Playmate of the Year), and local cop Peters (Cliff Osmond), Agar is expectedly one step behind as one lecherous prof after another turns up dead.  BEE GIRLS was directed by Denis Sanders, whose credits include 1962's WAR HUNT (the film debut of Robert Redford) and the 1970 concert film ELVIS: THAT'S THE WAY IT IS, and written by Nicholas Meyer, who would go on to direct such highly-regarded films as TIME AFTER TIME (1979) and STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982).  It's silly and stupid, but it seems to know it's silly and stupid, which really helps. 1.78 anamorphic.  (R, 86 mins)

(US - 1969)

This low-budget DIRTY DOZEN ripoff from AIP is sort of a hybrid men-on-a-mission/moonshine actioner that's noteworthy for its cult-ready cast and behind-the-scenes personnel who would go on to much bigger things in the coming years.  Fresh off the ABC series THE RAT PATROL, Christopher George stars as Faulkner, a Federal agent undercover on a chain gang so he can stage an escape and round up a group of convicts for an elite mission: infiltrate and take out the operation of backwoods moonshine king Burl (Ralph Meeker).  Among the convicts are Fabian, Tom Nardini, Robert DoQui, Joe Turkel, Larry Bishop, and Ross Hagen as Frank, whose brother was killed by Burl, who's also taken up with Frank's girl (Leslie Parrish).  The clichés abound and the film, directed by Burt Topper, runs a bit long and would've been a lot tighter if it was cut down to 80 minutes or so, but what a fantastic cast.  Expanded from a story idea by future 48 HRS/PREDATOR/DIE HARD producer Lawrence Gordon, THE DEVIL's 8 was the screenwriting debut of a pair of recent USC graduates hired by AIP: Willard Huyck (MESSIAH OF EVIL, AMERICAN GRAFFITI,  INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, HOWARD THE DUCK) and John Milius, who would go on to write a ton of guy-movie classics like JEREMIAH JOHNSON, MAGNUM FORCE, APOCALYPSE NOW, and EXTREME PREJUDICE, as well as directing CONAN THE BARBARIAN and RED DAWN.  There's some vintage Milius tough-guy jawing throughout and some smartass one-liners.  When asked "How'd you get this job?" George's Faulkner growls "They had a popularity poll.  I lost."  Known mainly as a TV actor up to this point, George's big screen career never really took off outside of a friendship with John Wayne that kept him busy in late-period Duke films like EL DORADO, CHISUM, and THE TRAIN ROBBERS.  He starred in the surprise 1980 hit THE EXTERMINATOR and had one of the all-time great death scenes as the villain in 1981's ENTER THE NINJA, but primarily became an in-demand TV guest star, B-movie and exploitation fixture by the late '70s until his death from a heart attack in 1983 at either 52 or 54, depending on the source.  He's terrific here, more than adept at playing a gritty, cynical tough guy, especially when Meeker's Burl says "You're crazy" and a grinning, wide-eyed George simply replies "Yeah."  You can definitely see and hear Milius' style popping up in its infancy throughout THE DEVIL'S 8, and while the film leaves a bit to be desired with its really draggy middle and the corny, repetitive, TV-level shitkicker score, there's certainly some historical value for B-movie addicts and Milius completists.  Also with Cliff Osmond as Burl's dopey flunky, a young Ron Rifkin as a rookie agent helping Faulkner, and George's then-girlfriend and future wife and regular co-star Lynda Day (soon to become Lynda Day George) in an uncredited cameo. 1.78 anamorphic.  (M, re-rated PG-13, 98 mins)

(US - 1972)

Cranked out quickly to cash-in on MGM's Raquel Welch hit KANSAS CITY BOMBER, the Roger Corman production THE UNHOLY ROLLERS is a meaner, grittier look at the world of Roller Derby.  Chronicling the rise and inevitable fall of Karen (Claudia Jennings) as she quits her job at a cat food factory and aces a tryout for the L.A. Avengers, THE UNHOLY ROLLERS doesn't really break any new ground as far as these kinds of stories go, and gets off to a slow start, but director Vernon Zimmerman (best known for the 1980 cult horror film FADE TO BLACK) and veteran Corman screenwriter Howard R. Cohen eventually find their groove.  It's helped by a strong performance by Jennings, the troubled 1970 Playmate of the Year who would die in a tragic car accident in 1979 at just 29.  Zimmerman and Cohen take a risk in making Jennings' Karen a frankly unlikable, self-absorbed bitch from the start, and it makes a little too easy to see her downfall coming, especially when team owner Mr. Stern (Louis Quinn) makes obviously prophetic statements like "Every #1 started out as a #2."  So, just the way Karen toppled the team's star player Mickey (Betty Anne Rees), so shall happen to her with the introduction of Beverly (Charlene Jones).  Karen soon becomes an out-of-control liability as her success turns her into a monster and alienates her from her teammates.  Jennings does a great job playing a thoroughly despicable person, and Zimmerman handles the Roller Derby sequences very well, probably with some assistance from editor Martin Scorsese, who made BOXCAR BERTHA for Corman the same year and would soon hit the big time with 1973's MEAN STREETS.  Also with Roberta Collins, Alan Vint, Candice Roman, Victor Argo, and Kathleen Freeman as Karen's trailer-trash mother, who rejects a kiss from her estranged daughter and responds to her financial gift with "I got my cigarettes, I got my TV...what more do I need?" The packaging indicates full-frame, but it's actually 1.78 anamorphic.  (R, 88 mins)

(US - 1987)

The prolific Albert Pyun has made nearly 50 films over the last 31 years, and none of them were as good as his debut, the summer of 1982 sleeper hit THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER.  His productivity has tapered off in recent years as he's been focusing on what are basically home movie-level semi-sequels to his earlier hits (ABELAR: TALES OF AN ANCIENT EMPIRE was a SWORD follow-up and his latest, CYBORG NEMESIS, combines the titles of past Pyun films CYBORG and NEMESIS).  Another recent project, ROAD TO HELL, was a sort-of follow-up to Walter Hill's STREETS OF FIRE, a film which didn't even involve Pyun.  Whatever promise Pyun might've shown back in 1982 was long-gone by the time he made 1990's infamous CAPTAIN AMERICA, which ended up going straight to video, which is where Pyun's stayed since.  It hasn't been all bad:  he made a few films for Cannon that were OK (1986's DANGEROUSLY CLOSE, 1987's DOWN TWISTED, and their last hit, 1989's CYBORG), and a couple that weren't (1988's ALIEN FROM L.A. and 1989's JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH--credited to Rusty Lemorande--a botched grease fire where Pyun's footage for an ALIEN FROM L.A. sequel was spliced in with Lemorande's unfinished JOURNEY remake, though it solves the age-old question "How bad does a movie have to be for Albert Pyun to demand his name be taken off the credits?"), and his early '90s work like 1991's DOLLMAN and 1992's NEMESIS were very popular video store staples.  And the less said about his Bratislava-shot "Gangstas Wandering Around an Abandoned Warehouse" (© Nathan Rabin) trilogy, the better.

VICIOUS LIPS is still early Pyun, and he's already in decline in his only film for Empire Pictures.  A sort-of companion piece to his 1986 film RADIOACTIVE DREAMS, VICIOUS LIPS centers on an all-girl new wave band called Vicious Lips, who've just hired a new singer, Judy Jetson (Dru-Anne Perry), rechristening her "Ace Lucas" before taking a lucrative gig on a distant planet.  On the way, they crash-land and they're chased around the ship by a crazed wolfman-type creature.  There's also a lot of fighting and yelling, and some extended rock montages.  The whole thing ends up being some weird fever dream about Judy being driven mad by her quest to be a star.  There's about ten minutes of plot stretched out to an interminable 81 minutes, though in all fairness, the songs are pretty good.  VICIOUS LIPS is pretty much an amateur-night endurance test across the board, and it's hard to believe that it's by the same Pyun who showed so much promise just five years earlier with SWORD AND THE SORCERER.  Like the similarly-derided Uwe Boll, Pyun can be a competent director-for-hire when he wants to be, but he seems to have self-deprecatingly embraced this whole "straight-to-video-era Ed Wood" niche he's carved for himself over the years.  With its '80s time capsule look, effects work by Empire mainstay John Buechler, with contributions from the Chiodo Brothers (who went on to direct the immortal KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE the next year), I suppose VICIOUS LIPS is campy enough to have attained a small cult, and the climactic production number features a club MC who looks like ALF's hard-drinking uncle, but other than some of the music, there's nothing here.   Still, Pyun's recent announcement that he's retiring from filmmaking due to health issues related to multiple sclerosis was sad to hear.  The guy's been such a regular fixture in bad movies for so long that it seems unthinkable that he won't be cranking out any more.  But he made one very good one and a small handful of decent ones, so we'll always have those, and fans of bad cinema will have...well, just peruse his IMDb page and pick something. VICIOUS LIPS may be terrible, but a part of me is glad that it exists.  1.78 anamorphic. (R, 81 mins)

The madness continues in CULT MOVIE MARATHON VOLUME TWO

Monday, December 30, 2013

In Theaters: GRUDGE MATCH (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Peter Segal.  Written by Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman.  Cast: Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin, Kim Basinger, Jon Bernthal, LL Cool J, Anthony Anderson, Paul Ben-Victor, Barry Primus, Camden Grey, Griff Furst, Jim Lampley, Michael Buffer. (PG-13, 114 mins)

GRUDGE MATCH caps off a busy 2013 for stars Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone, but it's too bad they couldn't have teamed up on a more inspired project.  They worked together before, on 1997's underappreciated COP LAND, a film that's just gotten better over the years, but this finds them squarely in a safe, predictable, "geriatrics behaving badly" comedy that gets bogged down with forced, feel-good blandness and a plethora of jokes that fall flat due to lack of humor or just bad timing on the part of the actors.  And, my God, the montages!  "What Makes a Good Man" and "How You Like Me Now?" by The Heavy?  Check.  "Boom Boom" by Big Head Todd and the Monsters?  Check.  "Here I Come," by The Roots?  Check.  And sorry, but there's no excuse for a boxing movie with De Niro and Stallone to contain a montage set to Phillip Phillips' "Gone Gone Gone."  None.  Well, I guess it could be worse.  They could've used "Home."

30 years ago, two rival light heavyweights, Billy "The Kid" McDonnen (De Niro) and Henry "Razor" Sharp (Stallone) were about to square off in their third fight when Razor abruptly backed out and disappeared from public view and The Kid retired from boxing to open a bar and car dealership. When an HBO documentary sparks renewed interest in their story, fast-talking promoter Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart), the son of the crooked manager who screwed the two fighters over back in the day, talks them into doing some motion capture work for a boxing video game.  Still bitter enemies, the pair get into a brawl in the studio and the resulting footage goes viral.  Before long, the long-postponed title fight--now called Grudgement Day--is back on as Razor recruits his old trainer Lightning (Alan Arkin) from the nursing home, and The Kid, after being turned down by his now-retired protégé (LL Cool J), teams up with B.J. (Jon Bernthal), the son he never knew, who's grown up to be a high-school football coach.  The Kid fathered B.J. with Sally (Kim Basinger), who was Razor's girlfriend, but had a brief fling with the Kid while Razor was away training.  That's the source of the animosity, and it's something Razor's never been able to put behind him.

Oh, but there's more drama:  The Kid and B.J. finally get a chance to bond as father and son after 30 years (De Niro seems to be in physical pain uttering the line "I need you in my corner," and just as B.J.'s about to bail on him, the Kid pulls out a scrapbook filled with old photos of B.J.'s high school and college football days, showing that he's been with him all along!), and The Kid finds out he's got a grandson, Trey (Camden Gray).  They've only now connected but the script by Tim Kelleher (FIRST KID) and Rodney Rothman (a former writer for THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN) is so lazy that there's one scene where B.J. makes an off-the-cuff remark about doing something "like you used to show me."  Wait a minute...didn't they just meet for the first time?  There are some genuinely funny bits in the early going, and some winking nods to the past that fans will find amusing (Stallone repeats the "drinking raw eggs" bit from ROCKY, but worries about the cholesterol), but then the laughs start to get cheap, repetitive, and too easy, like Arkin, cast radically against type as "Alan Arkin," talking about far-east hookers and ping-pong balls and telling Razor he should be "getting some snapper" and "doing the bone dance" with Sally, fulfilling the mandatory "old guy being pervy" requirement as set forth by the Burgess Meredith Amendment.  Stallone, whose Razor is the perpetual underdog against the boorish Kid, gets a chance to do some serious acting and handles it nicely despite the hackneyed lines he's forced to read.  He's trying his best, but the main problem is that he's played this part and a similar enough (on his end, at least) scenario before in 2006's surprisingly solid ROCKY BALBOA.  He does the sad sack loner bit effectively, but does the script have to make him so befuddled and out of touch?  There's a running gag about Lightning being angry that Razor doesn't have a TV, but for a guy who, sure, is a bit of a loner, but works in the everyday world and isn't a complete hermit, is there any reason other than a cheap laugh for how Razor possibly couldn't understand how caller ID works?  How has he never heard of it before 2013?  He understands video games and iPads, but caller ID is just way over his head?

There's also too much time spent on The Kid coming to the realization that he's been a total dick, which results in one of the most nonsensical sequences in any film this year.  Wishing to bond with Trey (I know it's wrong to pick on child actors, but this kid is unbearable), he asks B.J. if he can take him out to dinner and a movie.  Using a 12-pack of beer as a car seat, The Kid instead takes Trey to his bar, leaving him in the care of his bartender buddy Joey (Barry Primus) while he hooks up with a hot young fan.  Later, a tired Trey finds the 12-pack in The Kid's office and takes it outside to sit in the driver's seat of his grandfather's SUV, where he finds the keys, starts the SUV, and shifts it into gear.  Cue The Kid and the hottie popping up from the cargo space of the SUV as it rolls into the street and Trey can't reach the brake.  OK, I have several questions about this comedic set piece:  1) where's the humor?  2)  how did The Kid and the girl not hear him open the car door, plop the heavy 12-pack down, climb in, grab the jingling keys, put the keys in the ignition, start the SUV, and shift it into gear?  3) Why, before getting laid in the cargo space of the SUV, would The Kid feel the need to take the time to remove the 12-pack from the seat and walk it all the way into his office inside the bar when he would just need to bring it back out again to get Trey home?  It's not like it was obstructing the path to the cargo space. None of this scene makes any sense at all, and it's all crammed into place to get Trey in the driver's seat of the vehicle.  And the less said about the forced, labored, beat-to-death gag about B.J.'s initials, using the term "butterscotch jellybeans" as a euphemism for blowjobs, and The Kid advising his grandson that "not all girls like butterscotch jellybeans," the better.

Naturally, director Peter Segal (TOMMY BOY, 50 FIRST DATES) tries to turn it into a feel-good man-weepie by the end, but the emotion and the character arcs are so perfunctory that it doesn't feel earned.  Pitting RAGING BULL against ROCKY could've been some late-career comedy gold for these two screen legends, but aside from some effort put forth by Stallone, who's written enough solid screenplays to know how shitty this one is, no one really cares.  De Niro coasts by on the expected De Niro schtick and mannerisms, though on a couple of occasions, he tries so hard to sell a gag that it's actually uncomfortable to watch (there's one excruciating bit where he's emphatically and repeatedly listing three options in a different order and it lands with such a thud that I'm shocked it made the final cut).  Arkin is a national treasure, but even his patented grouchy curmudgeon act is feeling pretty spent.  He gets some laughs and his banter with Hart isn't bad, but you've seen it all before.  GRUDGE MATCH is hardly the worst film for either of its iconic headliners (it's not even the worst De Niro film of 2013--that would be THE BIG WEDDING), and there's enough laughs that it's not a complete waste of time for completists, but it's among their most instantly forgettable, especially with the run Stallone's been on lately with the hugely entertaining EXPENDABLES franchise, BULLET TO THE HEAD, and ESCAPE PLAN.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: Special "Late Summer Box-Office Bombs" Edition: GETAWAY (2013) and PARANOIA (2013)

(US/UK/Switzerland/China - 2013)

It took four countries, location work in a fifth, and 25 credited producers to shit out this borderline-unwatchable car crash porno that leaves no stale cliché unutilized while wasting some death-defying work by an apparently insane Bulgarian stunt crew.  Director Courtney Solomon (DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, AN AMERICAN HAUNTING) hyped the film's "real" car chases and crashes and the absence of CGI.  I'm calling bullshit on the "no CGI," but yeah, most of the crash stuff is real.  The problem is that it's shot and edited in the most anti-entertaining, headache-inducing way imaginable, using multiple cameras with varying image quality (don't worry, that's written into the plot), and it's such a garbled, noisy blur that it's impossible to get a feel for any of it.  Solomon wanted the crash and stunt work to be real, but I suggest he take a look at John Frankenheimer's RONIN.  I've seen John Frankenheimer films.  I've studied John Frankenheimer films.  Courtney Solomon--you're no John Frankenheimer.

Acting as if he arrived on set and never shook the jetlag, Ethan Hawke is the improbably-named Brent Magna, a former racing wunderkind who bombed out on the circuit and fled to Europe to become a wheelman-for-hire.  He's looking to settle down with his Bulgarian wife Leanne (Rebecca Budig), but he arrives home to find she's been...taken.  Faster than you can say "Liam Neeson," Magna is being harangued on his cell phone by a mystery man (a mostly-unseen but heard-too-much Jon Voight, who sounds like he's doing an Armin Mueller-Stahl impression), who orders him to steal a tricked-out Shelby Super Snake and go around Sofia following his instructions (leading cops on chases, driving the car through crowded parks, etc) or Leanne will be killed, all the while taunting Magna and boring the audience with such hackneyed bad-guy zingers as "We're just getting started, my boy," and "You're running out of time...tick tock, tick tock."  Magna is soon joined by The Kid (Selena Gomez), who actually owns the car and is the key to the mystery man's plot:  Magna and The Kid are pawns in his plan to steal computer files from an investment bank whose CEO is The Kid's dad.  With a dozen cameras in and out of the Shelby, the mystery man is constantly watching them, but The Kid manages to hack into the mystery man's server through her tablet and fool him with the old "same footage looped" trick, crossing her fingers and hoping he's never seen SPEED.  In a truly magical happenstance, The Kid is whatever the story needs her to be at any given moment:  whiny rich kid, gearhead, ace hacker, and expert in international investment law.  Bravo, screenwriters!  I guess if you like crashes, shattering glass, screeching tires, a complete void of logic and suspense, and zoom-ins to Ethan Hawke making constipated faces as he pretends to drive a car, GETAWAY might be entertaining.  But for everyone else, it's an incoherent jumble with a dumb twist ending, and for all the work that went into the car chases, you can't make heads or tails of what's going on.  Also with Paul Freeman and PASSENGER 57 villain Bruce Payne in tiny roles, GETAWAY opened Labor Day Weekend and tanked in ninth place.  Offering nothing worthwhile and looking cheaper than any Bulgaria-shot DTV NuImage production, it's amazing that this actually made it to theaters at all.  (PG-13, 90 mins)

(US/France - 2013)

Can we just admit that no one gives a shit about the Hemsworth brothers despite Hollywood doing its damnedest to make them happen?  Sure, Chris is a decent-enough actor who lucked into THOR and THE AVENGERS and got to co-star in THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (made long before THOR, but released after), but elsewhere, audiences haven't really warmed up to him:  no one cared about the RED DAWN remake and Ron Howard's racing drama RUSH flopped.  But Chris is a mega-star next to little brother Liam, who's in the HUNGER GAMES franchise, co-starred in a Miley Cyrus vehicle, and got killed early in THE EXPENDABLES 2--all films that don't depend on him--but has been met with crickets and tumbleweed everywhere else:  LOVE AND HONOR and EMPIRE STATE barely got released, and his big summer headlining splash with PARANOIA fizzled badly, opening in 13th place to become one of the biggest DOA duds of the summer.  The franchise gigs are good for them now, but does anybody really care otherwise?  When's the last time you heard anyone say "Man, I gotta see that new Chris Hemsworth flick!"?  PARANOIA is bad, but it's not all Liam's fault.  Sure, he's got no presence as a leading man and is really out of his league sharing scenes with three legends in the "just pay me and I'll ham" phase of their careers, but it's just a dumb, predictable, clichéd thriller that's so bored with itself that it never really tries to be anything more than a time-killer.  If ever a movie was made to fold laundry and balance your checkbook by, it's PARANOIA, and as such, it fits right in with auteur Robert "Still coasting on LEGALLY BLONDE" Luketic's other triumphs, like 21 and two Katherine Heigl rom-coms (THE UGLY TRUTH and KILLERS).

Hemsworth is Adam Cassidy, an ambitious cubicle drone at tech giant WyattCorp.  Driven for success and saddled with medical bills that insurance won't cover for his sick father (Richard Dreyfuss), Adam is convinced he's designed the next big thing in social networking.  When he bombs the presentation to sneering CEO Nicholas Wyatt (Gary Oldman) and he and his team lose their jobs, Adam treats them all to a $16,000 night at the club on his still-active corporate credit card.  An irate Wyatt then threatens to press charges unless Adam agrees to partake in some corporate espionage and infiltrate Eikon, another tech megapower owned by Wyatt's rival and former mentor Jock Goddard (Harrison Ford), to steal trade secrets so Wyatt can run Goddard out of business for good.  You know you're in for some cutting insight when Adam and Wyatt are shown playing chess (SYMBOLISM!) and Wyatt snottily declares "Checkmate!" (See! Adam's a pawn!  Get it?).  Of course, Adam becomes pupil to the master Goddard and falls for his top marketing exec Emma (Amber Heard), and they have no idea he's Wyatt's plant.  Or do they?   Hemsworth is bland enough on his own, but he and Heard are one of the most chemistry-impaired screen couples you'll ever see.  The film only really comes alive in the two instances where Oldman and Ford are onscreen together, but it's hardly the highlight of either actor's career.  If anything, it may well prompt you to watch AIR FORCE ONE again.  Oldman plays the pompous ass to the hilt in a performance that sounds like a tribute to Vinnie Jones ("Yaw ay-out when oy sigh yaw ay-out!  Oy eewn you!"), while Ford is indifferent and seems vaguely annoyed that he was talked into being in this.  For all the shit Robert De Niro takes about phoning in his performances and coasting on his past accomplishments, it seems we've let Ford off the hook.  There's a younger generation of moviegoers who see Ford as the guy who used to play Han Solo and Indiana Jones but is now just a grumpy old fart with an earring on talk shows.  Ford hasn't challenged himself in years (and this is his second bad tech flick, after 2006's absurd FIREWALL), though he does seem to relish the moment when he tells Hemsworth's Adam "Shut up...you're nothing but a convenient tool, an empty vessel."  Scripted line or Ford ad-lib?  Discuss.  (PG-13, 106 mins)

Friday, December 27, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix Streaming: CAESAR MUST DIE (2013); BLACKFISH (2013); and SHEPARD AND DARK (2013)

(Italy - 2012/US release: 2013)

The latest from revered Italian filmmaking brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (1977's PADRE PADRONE) is an improvement over their last effort, 2007's LARK FARM (released straight-to-DVD in the US in 2010), a misfired look at the 1915 Armenian Genocide and a multi-country co-production that asked us to buy German actor Moritz Bleibtreu (RUN LOLA RUN) dubbed into Italian and playing a Turkish officer named "Youseff."  Mired in near telenovela-level histrionics and tacky splatter effects, LARK FARM was so appallingly tone-deaf that it seemed the aging siblings--Paolo is now 82, Vittorio 84--had completely lost it.  CAESAR MUST DIE is an OK rebound and won the Golden Bear at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival, but it's really not that good.  The Tavianis indulge in a little smoke & mirrors what what they're doing here, setting up CAESAR MUST DIE as a documentary, only to reveal itself as a mock documentary that becomes a meta commentary on itself.  With rare exception (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and THE CABIN IN THE WOODS are two examples), these meta movies usually end up being exercises in pretension and directorial wankery.  But the mostly black-and-white CAESAR MUST DIE is deceptively simple in its premise and execution, which makes you wonder why they chose to go with the ruse in the first place?  A straight documentary on the same subject would've been fascinating:  inmates in the high-security wing of Rome's Rebibbia Prison take part in a therapeutic theater workshop putting on a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.  The inmates are not actors (except for Salvatore Striano as Brutus; Striano was in Matteo Garrone's GOMORRAH and served time in Rebibbia but was released and pardoned), but the action is staged.  We're not watching a documentary of rehearsals--we're watching a staged re-enactment of rehearsals in the guise of a documentary.  Comparisons to Abbas Kiarostami's CLOSE-UP were numerous, and I don't really see what the Tavianis are trying to accomplish by staging the film in this fashion.  The inmates rehearse around the prison, so at times it resembles Julius Caesar re-imagined as a gritty prison drama, and again, that strikes you as another concept that would've been more intriguing than another meta venture.

For not being professional performers, some of the inmates are surprisingly credible actors with undeniable screen presence (Giovanni Arcuri as Caesar and Cosimo Rega as Cassius are standouts).  Regardless of what acts they've committed--ranging from drug trafficking to, in Rega's case, murder--putting on this play gives the men purpose and a chance to immerse themselves in art.  It's a point brought home in the final scenes as they return to their cells after their performance and it's a powerful image that the Tavianis ruin by having Rega look into the camera and make the heavy-handed proclamation "Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison."  Really, guys...we would've gotten the message.  CAESAR MUST DIE is a mixed-bag and a bit of a missed opportunity, but it has its moments.  (Unrated, 77 mins)

(US - 2013)

Produced by CNN, BLACKFISH is a harsh condemnation of the practices of SeaWorld.  Focused primarily on Tilikum, a six-ton orca at the Orlando SeaWorld, the film follows the killer whale from his 1983 capture to the present day.  Tilikum has killed three people and has shown signs of aggression since his early days at the Canadian water park Sealand, a decrepit facility where part of his training involved being bullied by the other whales. It was there that he killed a trainer in 1991 and the park closed shortly after.  He was moved to SeaWorld despite his record of aggression, primarily because the park was in need of a breeder.  We see interviews with numerous former trainers juxtaposed with old camcorder footage of these same trainers during their SeaWorld days.  All reiterate a consistent pattern of SeaWorld sweeping Tilikum's violent history under the rug.  An unauthorized visitor was found dead in Tilikum's tank in 1999, after having snuck into the park in an apparent attempt to swim with the whale.  Tilikum's most infamous act came in February 2010 when he attacked and ate trainer Karen Brancheau just after a performance (the film opens with a 911 call to an incredulous operator who responds with "A whale...ate one of the trainers?").  The former trainers, often holding back tears, tell of a systematic, calculated burying of information by SeaWorld executives who they felt had an obligation to inform them of the past incidents involving Tilikum, who still performs at the Orlando SeaWorld today.  SeaWorld representatives declined to be interviewed for the film, but of course dispute its findings.  Cowperthwaite clearly has an agenda, but she keeps the vitriol even-keeled and matter-of-fact, often letting archival footage and court records tell the story.  Footage of baby whales being captured and the anguished cries of their mothers are absolutely gut-wrenching to witness, as is the notion of these great, majestic beasts being confined to tanks, psychologically defeated, their fins turning down (SeaWorld claims this is natural but the film asserts it only happens to 1% of whales not in captivity), and, in Tilikum's case, used essentially as a sperm donor.  The film also notes that a few of Tilikum's 21 known offspring have been involved in other acts of captive aggression, indicating that the whale has a genetic predisposition to such behavior.  Emotional, enraging, and often terrifying (the footage of a trainer being yanked by his foot and remaining calm as he's held underwater by one whale is one of the most frightening sequences in any movie this year), BLACKFISH is a must-see.  (PG-13, 83 mins)

(US - 2013)

Actor/writer Sam Shepard has been friends with Johnny Dark since 1963.  Even as their lives drifted in different directions and they'd go a year or more without seeing one another, their bond remained.  Shepard, of course, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and busy Hollywood character actor.  Dark lives a quiet life in Deming, New Mexico, working at a supermarket, content to live among his books, smoke a little weed, and write stories and essays on his ancient PC.  In 2010, Shepard was asked to donate his personal papers to the University of Texas and takes the opportunity to go through some letters he received from Dark over the decades.  Dark, meanwhile, saves and archives everything and has his life meticulously mapped out in scrapbooks and photo albums.  Shepard reaches out to Dark to share the letters sent to him and put their decades of correspondence in a book.  Shepard tells Dark that he set up the book deal because he's got no money coming in (Shepard doesn't appear to live extravagantly, but it's doubtful that needs the money), but part of it is that he wants to help his old friend out and build him a bit of a financial cushion.  As the two men reconnect and reminisce, it's great fun watching them laugh at decades-old inside jokes as they sift through letters in a corner booth at Denny's (there's also some footage at Shepard's 67th birthday dinner, where he's joined by pals Harry Dean Stanton and T-Bone Burnett).  But as they get deeper into the project, director Treva Wurmfeld gradually reveals vital details to the audience:  Dark's late wife Scarlett was the mother of Shepard's first wife, actress O-Lan Jones.  The four lived together for years and they all took care of Scarlett after she survived a brain aneurysm.  By 1983, Shepard's acting career was taking off and he met Jessica Lange, eventually deciding to leave his family and run off with her.  It was a decision he agonized over, especially since he was hesitant to leave his and Jones' 13-year-old son Jesse, but he did it anyway, leaving Dark to be a surrogate father to the boy.  Shepard and Lange were together until 2009, and the breakup is still heavy on Shepard's mind at the time of this book project.  Dark surmises that this project was really just Shepard's way of dealing with it and being able to put it away and move on.  Shepard is clearly haunted by his decisions, he's critical of his selfishness ("I've hurt people," he says, shaking his head) and going through the letters rips open old wounds and takes him back to a place he wasn't ready to go (not just with Lange, but with his alcoholic father), or at least isn't ready to share with Wurmfeld. 

What starts out as two friends jovially reconnecting after some time apart turns into a devastating self-examination for Shepard.  It's hard watching him reflect on the choices he's made and the guilt he still feels over leaving his wife and son.  There's a line in a Shepard play that Wurmfeld spotlights about "how unprepared we are to face the truth," and Dark illustrates just how much of Shepard's life--his father, the guilt over leaving his family, the recurring "responsible brother" figure (meaning, Dark)--is in his work (think of Stanton leaving his son in the care of brother Dean Stockwell in Wim Wenders' Shepard-penned 1984 film PARIS, TEXAS).  Dark is content with his life and never had the restlessness or the need to wander like Shepard has, though he does confess that he frequently feels more like Shepard's sidekick than his best friend.  Wurmfeld very cleverly and deliberately lets the story build as it goes places no one--Shepard, Dark, the viewer--expects it to go, and she doesn't sugarcoat things to make Shepard look better.  A frequently remarkable gem, and one of the best films of this year that you've heard nothing about.  (Unrated, 88 mins)

Monday, December 23, 2013

In Theaters: AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by David O. Russell.  Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell.  Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm, Paul Herman, Colleen Camp, Anthony Zerbe, Barry Primus, Said Taghmaoui.  (R, 138 mins)

In his "fictionalized" chronicle of the late 1970s ABSCAM scandal, director David O. Russell wears his love of Martin Scorsese on his sleeve, shooting much of the film in that same propulsive, electrifying style that's made GOODFELLAS one of the great American movies.  Imitating Scorsese is nothing new, but the trick is to not let the hero worship trump everything else.  Paul Thomas Anderson got that with BOOGIE NIGHTS and Russell accomplishes it here.  Working with screenwriter Eric Warren Singer (who wrote Tom Tykwer's underrated THE INTERNATIONAL), Russell reassembles most of the main actors from his last two films (2010's THE FIGHTER and 2012's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK), changes the names of the principles involved in the scandal, and creates one of the most vividly compelling films of 2013:  it's suspenseful, hilarious, brilliantly-acted, filled with rich characters, bad fashions and horrible hair, and mostly succeeds in capturing the period, except for one major gaffe where a character mentions reading Wayne Dyer's The Power of Intention, which wasn't published until 2004.  Oops.

Sporting a gut and an unsightly combover, Christian Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a small-timer who owns a dry-cleaning chain, mainly as a front for his con jobs, primarily in art forgery and the bilking of gullible investors.  His partner-in-crime is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who puts on a flawless British accent to pose as one Lady Edith Greensly, a supposed tangential member of the Royal Family.  The pair met at a party years earlier and bonded over a shared love of Duke Ellington, with a romance blossoming even though Irving is married to the unstable, needy Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and is a devoted father to their young son.  Irving and Sydney fall into the web of ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who busts Sydney for embezzlement but offers both of them a way out if they agree to set up a sting involving Camden, NJ mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, looking a lot like Steve Lawrence), a politician fiercely devoted to the people of his city and one who understands that palms need to be greased and under-the-table deals need to be made and if his corruption is for the greater good, then so be it.  Along with a Hispanic FBI agent (Michael Pena) posing as a sheik, Richie, Irving, and "Lady Edith" try to get Polito to coordinate a business deal between some rich Arabs and an Atlantic City casino, which gets complicated when aging Florida mobster Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro) wants in on the action and tells them that the Sheik has to be a US citizen for any casino deal to happen.  This leads to the increasingly edgy, reckless Richie and his bosses (Louis C.K., Alessandro Nivola) launching a larger operation to bust Tellegio, a top capo to Meyer Lansky, along with the bribing of several Congressmen under the guise of getting US citizenship for the Sheik.  And if that wasn't enough, Rosalyn is enraged about her husband's involvement with Sydney and starts seeing one of Tellegio's underlings (Jack Huston) and, as is the norm with the manipulative Rosalyn, starts talking way too much about the things she knows and even more about the things she doesn't

Russell's use of music, narration, and long tracking shots are pure Scorsese, and the editing team of Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, and Crispin Struthers do a spot-on imitation of the rhythms and momentum established by Scorsese and his regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker.  It doesn't have the continuity errors that plague even the undisputed Scorsese masterpieces (because he and Schoonmaker go for the takes that "feel" the best and he isn't overly concerned with continuity), but the film has the loose, improvisational feel of vintage Scorsese while also exhibiting the discipline and vision of the master filmmaker.  In lesser hands, this could've turned into a pale imitation, but Russell very credibly brings it to life with a cast that's at the top of their game.  Few of today's actors can disappear into a role like Bale (an Oscar-winner for THE FIGHTER), whose Irving has layers of humanity and a conscience beneath his dodgy, fast-talking exterior, and Cooper, who just a few years ago had "rom-com lightweight" written all over him, continues to show impressive range under the guidance of Russell, who directed him to an Oscar nomination in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.  Adams (nominated for THE FIGHTER), Renner, and Lawrence (a winner for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK) are expectedly top-notch, as is De Niro in his one scene (he's both a Russell vet and the very embodiment of Scorsese's films), but another standout is C.K. as Richie's exasperated, bottom-line-watching direct supervisor, who gets a running gag about not finishing an ice-fishing story (also keep an eye out for Cooper's dead-on impression of C.K., which feels like an ad-libbed moment and it works beautifully).  Though he doesn't go as far as to include Scorsese's favorite song, the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" (and he mercifully excludes Blondie's "Heart of Glass," which is a seemingly mandatory inclusion for any film set in the late 1970s), Russell's song selection is impeccable:  America's "A Horse With No Name," Chicago's "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" Steely Dan's "Dirty Work," Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," Tom Jones' "Delilah," ELO's "10538 Overture," and "Long Black Road," a new song from ELO leader Jeff Lynne, plus Lawrence shrieking Wings' "Live and Let Die" while cleaning the house in a blind rage. AMERICAN HUSTLE, which was conceived under the title AMERICAN BULLSHIT, is hypnotically, relentlessly fast-paced entertainment that hooks you in from the first grainy shot of the 1970s Columbia Pictures logo and never lets go.  One of 2013's very best films.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

New on DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix Streaming: DEVIL'S PASS (2013); ALIEN UPRISING (2013); and SIGHTSEERS (2013)

(US/Russia - 2013)

As found-footage continues its status as the horror subgenre that refuses to die, largely because it's cheap to produce and it's a way for young filmmakers to get their feet wet, it can also function as a last-ditch place for long-established filmmakers to run when they find themselves in a career rut.  It worked surprisingly well for Barry Levinson with THE BAY, and now DIE HARD 2 and CLIFFHANGER director Renny Harlin, who hasn't had a hit since 1999's DEEP BLUE SEA, as he belatedly hops on the bandwagon with the barely-released DEVIL'S PASS.  Written by reality TV vet Vikram Weet (whose production associate credits include THE REAL WORLD and KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS), the film ostensibly tries to get to the truth behind the mysterious Dyatlov Pass Incident, which took place in the mountains of northern Russia in 1959.  Nine mountain climbers were found frozen to death, many displaying inexplicable injuries like severed tongues and crushed chest cavities with no exterior bruising, and one had an exceedingly high amount of radiation.  The official word from the Russian government was hypothermia, but there's long been conspiracy theories about everything from UFOs to nuclear testing to a yeti attack.  University of Oregon psych student Holly (Holly Goss) has been obsessed with the case for much of her life, and gets a grant to shoot a documentary where she attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery.  Joining her on the project are her platonic friend and cameraman/conspiracy theorist Jensen (Matt Stokoe), sound operator Denise (Gemma Atkinson), and experienced guides JP (Luke Albright) and Andy (Ryan Hawley).

For about 2/3 of its running time, DEVIL'S PASS is on the high end of the found-footage genre.  The characters aren't too irritating, Harlin stays fairly consistent with the camera work, and the frozen, desolate surroundings are always effective for horror films.  There's a couple of brief glimpses of figures lingering in the snowy background, and strange footprints start appearing near their camp.  JP and Andy think Holly is playing games, but of course she isn't.  The film only starts stumbling when it busts out the night-vision and the requisite "running around screaming with a shaky cam," gets sloppy with the consistency of the camera operation, the dialogue starts to sound a little too scripted, and Harlin and Weet start piling on everything from alien abductions, psychic and paranormal phenomena, wormholes and teleportation, time travel, the Philadelphia Experiment, and even the Mothman.  It's not for nothing that JP is seen reading Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five at one point.  It almost threatens to turn itself into a found-footage take on THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, but Harlin eventually buckles down for a twist ending that's goofy but mostly works.  Just don't expect any serious examination of the Dyatlov Pass Incident and you'll be reasonably entertained.  There are some undeniably chilling moments throughout, but it's getting difficult at this point to get excited about anything related to found-footage. (R, 100 mins)

(UK - 2012/2013 US release)

Originally titled U.F.O., this British alien invasion sci-fi outing combines elements of INDEPENDENCE DAY and ATTACK THE BLOCK into something a bit too derivative for its own good.  After a night of clubbing, a group of Derby friends--Michael (Sean Brosnan, Pierce's look/sound-alike son), Robin (Simon Phillips), Robin's fiancée Dana (Maya Grant), Vincent (Jazz Lintott), plus Carrie (Bianca Bree), a vacationing American who hooks up with Michael, wake up to find the power's out, the clocks are stopped, and phones and radios are dead.  Soon enough, a giant spacecraft is hovering in the sky above and all hell breaks loose as the quintet tries to make their way to the isolated compound of Michael's ex-Black Ops/survivalist uncle George (Jean-Claude Van Damme).  Writer/director Dominic Burns relies far too much on handheld, jittery shaky-cam and he's got a bad poker face, showing his hand way too early for his twist ending to work.  When Carrie is quoting Roy Batty's "All those moments..." speech from BLADE RUNNER and says she's "not a 'phone home' type of girl," I think Burns intends for it to be winking fun but it comes off as insulting to consider that he might think the target audience isn't savvy enough to figure out where he's heading with it.  He also tries to shoehorn in some shallow, heavy-handed social commentary in the form of a grizzled old gas station attendant played by the great Julian Glover ("Survival of the fittest," he mutters, "...maybe they'll just sit back and watch us all turn on each other"), and chooses the dumbest possible time for the immature Vincent to reveal his secret feelings for Dana.  Still, Burns' enthusiasm buys him some wiggle room, he gives Sean Pertwee a couple of scenes to ham it up as a homeless guy, and he does offer one legitimately surprising fate for one of the leads in addition to staging a few decent action sequences and one epic fight in the vein of Isaac Florentine. 

ALIEN UPRISING isn't very good, but it would be a bit better if Burns had a more competent star than Bree, a beautiful but astonishingly inept actress whose presence is likely a contractual demand to secure the guest-star participation of her father: Jean-Claude Van Damme.  JCVD has put his daughter and son Kristopher Van Varenberg in most of his own recent films (Kristopher sits this one out), but Bree has never had this much screen time before.  But this isn't really a Van Damme vehicle: he appears in a couple of two-second cutaways early on and isn't properly introduced until around 75 minutes in, exiting approximately 12 minutes later.  He's sleepwalking through his one day on the set and is just here for distribution value and to get his daughter a leading role, and while I'm sure he loves his little girl like any dad would, Bree is just absolutely god-awful.  Brosnan, on the other hand, has enough of his old man's screen presence that he could probably have a future in DTV actioners.  If Burns can nix the shaky-cam and deliver a sci-fi action flick that pairs up JCVD and young Brosnan, he might have something.  (R, 101 mins)

(France/UK - 2012/2013 US release)

The third effort by British filmmaker Ben Wheatley (DOWN TERRACE, KILL LIST) is a misanthropic, absurdist road movie/black comedy that almost plays like Mike Leigh remaking NATURAL BORN KILLERS.  The humor is of the darkest sort and most of the laughs come from discomfort as awkward, sheltered, mom-jeans-wearing Tina (Alice Lowe) is 34 and lives with her controlling mum (Eileen Davies), who won't let her forget about a freak knitting accident that resulted in the death of her beloved dog ("It was an accident!" Tina pleads.  "So were you," Mum replies).  Tina has just started dating affable caravanner Chris (Steve Oram), an alleged writer who wants to take his "muse" on an "erotic journey" as they hit the road for inspiration for his latest book. On a tour bus, Chris gets irate with a litterer and later, accidentally backs over the guy, killing him.  Tina is horrified and Chris tries to shield her eyes from the gory sight, but the grin of satisfaction on his face tells us there might be more in store than an erotic journey.  Yes, Chris is a serial killer who mainly takes out people who piss him off, like a successful writer he pushes off a cliff (and steals his dog to give to Tina), or a guy who yells at Tina in a park after the dog defecates and she has nothing with which to pick it up.  Tina finds the killing a turn-on, but when she tries it herself, it puts a strain on the relationship, as does Chris' man-crush on a bicyclist (Richard Glover) they meet on the road.  Executive produced by Edgar Wright and written by Lowe and Oram, along with Wheatley's KILL LIST co-writer Amy Jump, SIGHTSEERS is decidedly not for all tastes with its morbid, deadpan humor and moments of comically over-the-top gore, but if you appreciate this sort of thing, it's a worthwhile film, an often subtly, grimly hilarious study of two lonely, murderous souls lucky enough to find one another.  It also shows Wheatley coming into his own after the inexplicable acclaim bestowed on KILL LIST, which was very well-made but had a plot that was stale and predictable, a WICKER MAN retread with the filmmaker telegraphing the twists far too early.  SIGHTSEERS is a major improvement.  (Unrated, 88 mins)

Friday, December 20, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS (2013) and THE HUNT (2013)

(US - 2013)

There's some serious Terrence Malick/Robert Altman hero worship on the part of writer/director David Lowery with AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS, an artfully-shot but dreary and dull '70s-set mood piece.  Young lovers Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are wrapping up a crime spree when they're cornered by police, an accomplice is killed, and Ruth fires a shot that injures young cop Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster).  Ruth is pregnant, and for the sake of her and their baby, Bob surrenders to the police, takes the blame for the shooting, and says he acted alone.  Four years later, Ruth has stayed out of trouble and is a single mother looked after by Skerritt (Keith Carradine), the father of their dead friend and a dangerous man with criminal ties.  Patrick and Ruth have a tentative friendship that's leaning towards a relationship when he gets word that Bob has busted out of the joint and with the authorities and three killers hired by Skerritt on his tail, is headed straight back to town to pick up Ruth and their daughter and live life on the lam. 

On paper, AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS sounds like a solid drama.  But Lowery is more interested in the aesthetic element, which would be fine if the film wasn't so dark and drably shot.  Sure, there's some shots that have an almost still photo quality and Lowery's obviously a disciple of Malick's every stylistic move (I'm talking early, BADLANDS-era Malick when he still bothered with trivialities like narrative construction), but shouldn't there be more than that?  Lowery also seems to paying special tribute to Altman's 1974 film THIEVES LIKE US, which had a similar "young couple on the run and she's pregnant" element and starred Carradine and featured Tom Skerritt in a supporting role, very likely the source of Carradine's character name.  SAINTS boasts a strong and internalized performance by Foster and an excellent one by Carradine, in what's probably his best role in years and the film's most interesting character (Lowery even lets him sing the closing credits song and his voice hasn't lost a bit of that "I'm Easy" magic), but the film can't overcome its stale plot, sluggish pacing, and a pair of ineffectual performances by Affleck and Mara.  Affleck's naturally mumbly delivery has worked in his favor before, particularly in his Oscar-nominated turn in 2007's THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and the recent OUT OF THE FURNACE, but here he underplays to the point of catatonia.  He and Mara both sound like they might doze off in mid-sentence every time they open their mouth.  By the time it's over, you may find that the film's high points are the performances of Foster and especially Carradine, who obviously has a huge fan in Lowery.  Now that he's got a fake Malick film out of his system, maybe next time Lowery should write a script specifically tailored for Carradine.  That sounds like a winner.  (R, 96 mins)

(Denmark/Sweden/Belgium - 2012/2013 US release)

Ghost-produced by Lars von Trier, THE HUNT is one of the top feel-bad movies of the year.  Directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg (THE CELEBRATION), the film stars Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas, a mild-mannered nice guy who's divorced and has a teenage son who's thinking about moving in with him permanently.  A teacher by profession, Lucas was laid off after the school closed, but now he's helping out at a pre-school in the small town where he lives.  He works, hangs out with his buddies, and leads a generally quiet life, and things are starting to progress romantically with co-worker Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport).  All that goes to shit when he's accused of sexually abusing young Klara (a remarkable performance by Annika Wedderkopp in a very difficult role).  Klara is the daughter of Lucas' best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) and trusted family friend Lucas frequently walks her to school.  Klara develops a harmless crush on Lucas and in one of those awkward moments where kids imitate adults, kisses him on the lips when he's horsing around in the school playroom with some of the boys.  Lucas handles the issue in a way that's sensitive to Klara, but she's embarrassed and makes up a story using verbiage she overheard her older brother and his friend using when they were looking at a porno mag.  Lucas' boss Grethe (Susse Wold) handles the matter in the most overzealous manner possible, properly notifying the police but then immediately telling all the parents and even calling Lucas' ex-wife, who lives out of town with their son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom).  The cops questioning little Klara practically put the words in her mouth and before he even realizes what's happening, Lucas is the town pariah, ostracized by everyone, banned from all business establishments, and Theo and his wife Agnes (Anne Louise Hassing) want nothing more to do with him, even after Klara confesses that nothing happened and she made it up.  The damage is done and a mob mentality forms throughout the town, with more parents coming forward with allegations that Lucas molested their children as well. 

THE HUNT mellows out as it goes along, but for a while, it's a harrowing experience.  The tension mounts as Lucas grows increasingly panicked over the situation and can't get a straight answer out of anyone, and it's hard not getting angry at the "villages storming Castle Frankenstein" reaction of his friends and acquaintances as the situation quickly and plausibly spirals out of control. The resolution probably wouldn't work if this got an American remake, which seems likely.  A mainstream take on this would've turned Lucas' plight into a STRAW DOGS-style siege situation leading to a vengeance saga.  There is an element of that here, and in the fate of one individual, but Vinterberg doesn't proceed in that direction, instead going for that arthouse ambiguity in an ending that doesn't provide closure, which is probably the whole point.  THE HUNT is a top-notch suspense drama with an outstanding performance by Mikkelsen, who took home the Best Actor prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for his brilliant work here.  (R, 116 mins)

Thursday, December 19, 2013


(US - 2013)

Directed by Adam McKay.  Written by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.  Cast: Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Christina Applegate, Kristen Wiig, James Marsden, Dylan Baker, Meagan Good, Harrison Ford, Greg Kinnear, Josh Lawson, Judah Nelson,  Fred Willard, Chris Parnell, June Diane Raphael. (PG-13, 120 mins)

Back in 2004, the $25 million ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY made more than triple its budget but never topped the box office and dropped out of the top five after two weeks.  The film became a modern comedy classic on DVD and cable, where it amassed a devoted cult following when people discovered how consistently hilarious and quotable it is.  Star/co-writer Will Ferrell left SNL two years earlier and had the hits OLD SCHOOL and ELF, but it was ANCHORMAN that would become the defining work of his big-screen career and his partnership with director/co-writer Adam McKay, though I contend that 2010's THE OTHER GUYS is their masterpiece.   It's nearly a decade later, and after what must be the longest, most aggressive, and all-encompassing marketing campaigns in cinema history, ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES arrives just before Ferrell resorted to going door-to-door across America in his Ron Burgundy wardrobe.  With double the budget, probably to accommodate the increased star power and salary requirements of Ferrell and Steve Carell, it's obviously a bigger movie.  And a louder movie.  It's also bombastically self-indulgent as Ferrell and McKay seem to be making it up as they go along.  Nine years ago, they had enough outtakes and abandoned subplots from the first film to assemble the straight-to-DVD spinoff film WAKE UP, RON BURGUNDY.  There's no such restraint here.  Running nearly 30 minutes longer than the first film, Ferrell and McKay gather up seemingly every discarded comedy idea they concocted since the first entry and throw everything against the wall to see what sticks.  Its rapid fire assault of gags might sound ambitious but it comes off as sloppy and desperate, almost like they could be working on a higher level than we're expecting but more likely they're just punking us with an almost Sandlerian level of audience contempt.  There's no doubt the coming weeks will find passionate defenses of the film and you'll see terms like "anarchic," "absurdist," "subversive," "Dadaist", and maybe even, and I can't believe I'm writing this, "Bunuel-ian" tossed about with wild, pretentious abandon as if there's some deeper shit going on, but even as a fan of Ferrell, the first film, and absurdist humor, I found ANCHORMAN 2 to be jaw-droppingly unfunny and a dumpster fire of a movie, the kind of catastrophically awful train wreck where it's not hyperbolic to suggest that it's Ferrell and McKay's GIGLI or THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH. 

Opening in 1980 to the sounds of Christopher Cross' "Ride Like the Wind," the first of countless soft-rock tunes used where simply hearing them is supposed to be the joke, ANCHORMAN 2 finds news anchor Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) and wife/co-anchor Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) relocated to NYC from San Diego, with their six-year-old son Walter (Judah Nelson).  When Veronica is called up to the network by boss Mack Harken (Harrison Ford), who subsequently fires Ron, their marriage falls apart.  After a botched suicide attempt, Ron is contacted by Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker), who's scouting for news personalities for Global News Network, a new 24-hour cable news network bankrolled by Australian billionaire Kench Allenby (Josh Lawson).  Lured by the promise of stardom and seeing it as another chance to do what he was born to do, Ron decides to reassemble his news team: reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), weatherman Brick Tamland (Carell), and sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner).  Saddled with the 2:00-5:00 am graveyard slot, Ron finds a rival in prime-time anchor Jack Lime (James Marsden), and comes up with an idea to give the audience the news they want instead of the news they need.  With his focus on vacuous entertainment stories, cute animals, high-speed chases, debates devolving into shouting matches, and smoking crack on-air, Ron becomes the country's biggest news star and inadvertently brings about the downfall of television news standards.

Those digs at today's cable news--which are obvious and don't really threaten to erase memories of Paddy Chayefsky and NETWORK--are about as thoughtful as ANCHORMAN 2 gets.  Aside from the use of early '80s radio staples, the film constantly utilizes future debacles and scandals as a source of easy, lazy humor ("Sponsored by BP:  Nature's Best Friend," and Brian cites O.J. Simpson, Phil Spector, and Robert Blake as his posse who call themselves "The Ladykillers"), and it's funny once or twice, but by the 20th time, it's a little stale.  There's a certain expectation of callbacks and references when you're dealing with a comedy as revered as ANCHORMAN, and that film's first invocations of "Great Odin's Raven!" or "By the beard of Zeus!" were hilarious.  Not so much here, when Ferrell is bellowing nonsense like "By the hymen of Olivia Newton-John!"  What?  And I haven't even gotten into an extended subplot where Ron goes blind after a head injury and spends his days in seclusion at a lighthouse and bottle-feeding a shark before freeing it into the open water.  Ron Burgundy was always a pompous chauvinist, but here's he's just a bleating, tone-deaf asshole.  Sometimes, it's as if he's not even playing the same Ron Burgundy from the first film, but rather, an even more cartoonish parody of Ron Burgundy.  Indeed, ANCHORMAN 2 is so scattershot, random, and over-the-top that it makes the comparatively sophisticated ANCHORMAN look like BROADCAST NEWS.  When Ron gets involved with African-American, female boss Linda Jackson (Meagan Good)--this is after he first meets her and can't stop the Tourette's-styled barking of "Black!" at her--he has dinner with her family, where he steers the conversation to the level of her "stank" during sex and throwing out a "Say what?" to her mother.  Has Ferrell even seen the first ANCHORMAN recently?  Does he remember making it?

But that's nothing compared to what's happened to Carell's Brick Tamland.  Carell wasn't a star back in 2004 and was primarily known as a DAILY SHOW correspondent.  In the ensuing decade, he's had considerable success with THE OFFICE and several movies. Brick was a minor character with some funny bits in ANCHORMAN, but now that Carell is arguably as big a star as Ferrell, they probably had to give Brick stuff to do to entice Carell back.  What transpires is nightmarish.  Carell plays Brick not as a low-IQ, amiably naive man-child, but instead like a thousand-yard-staring psychopath prone to shrieking and screaming for no reason.  He gets an endurance test of a subplot where he falls in love with an eccentric, incompetent GNN secretary named Chani (Kristen Wiig), and their endless, laughless scenes play out like bad improv or an exceptionally awful 12:55 am SNL skit where you can almost hear crickets chirping in Studio 8H.  No one's having a good day here--it doesn't help that Rudd and Koechner have almost nothing to do, so they at least emerge from the wreckage largely unscathed--but there's simply too much of this reconceived Brick Tamland in this and Carell turns in what may very well be the worst performance you'll see in a major movie in 2013.

Even by the standards of a Judd Apatow production, there's too much of everything here--except comedy.  I get the "anarchic" spirit the filmmakers might be going for, but when I hear that term, I think of the action in BLAZING SADDLES crashing over into Buddy Bizarre's musical at the end.  Every rambling, overlong sequence in ANCHORMAN 2 plays like something that only the actors think is funny.  You can actually see Carell and Wiig almost breaking during some of their conversations, and I'm sure there's plenty of bloopers with the two of them losing it.  But what's onscreen is just not funny.  It's not even "weird" or "offbeat" funny.  Joke after joke after joke lands with a dead thud.  Did anyone at Paramount actually watch this, or did they just figure they'll get the $50 million back before the toxic word-of-mouth spreads?   Even the expected rival news crews Battle Royale--one of the original film's best scenes--is restaged here with a ridiculous amount of cameos and other out-of-nowhere additions (Brick hoisting a sci-fi ray gun?), but that's it.  Once you see the famous faces and all of Ferrell's buddies who showed up to hang out, there's not really anything else there.  So why not have John C. Reilly play the soul-sucking ghost of Stonewall Jackson or Harrison Ford sprouting fur and turning into a "were-hyena" for no reason?  Sure, it's insane but is it funny?  Ranking somewhere between CADDYSHACK II and SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT PART 3 on the comedy sequel scale, ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES is an excruciating Will Ferrell home movie where the legend of Ron Burgundy has gone to die.