Thursday, October 31, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: BYZANTIUM (2013) and FRIGHT NIGHT 2: NEW BLOOD (2013)

(Ireland/UK - 2013)

Many reviews of Neil Jordan's vampire film BYZANTIUM said it felt like the director was taking a second pass at his 1994 big-screen version of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.  Considering the film's past/present structure, that's a valid statement but it doesn't really represent the whole film.  BYZANTIUM, scripted by Moira Buffini and based on her play, is frequently derivative in the way it feels like it belongs in the same Anne Rice universe but also in its similarities to the Swedish vampire hit LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008).  It manages to become its own beast, so to speak, and despite the occasionally slow pacing, the overlength, and the sometimes confusing structure, it overcomes its obstacles and ends up an interesting if inconsistent work.  Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are a mother-daughter vampire pair passing themselves off as sisters in present-day London.  Clara works as a stripper, procuring her own victims among the drunk and belligerent men for whom she provides lap dances and, if the money's right, sexual services. Where Clara is ruthless and does what she needs to do for nourishment and money, the sympathetic Eleanor is quiet and withdrawn, feeding on humans but only those who are already about to die and who ask her to end their pain.  When a mystery man from their past turns up asking questions, Clara decapitates him and the two flee to a downtrodden seaside resort town that Eleanor senses they've visited before.  There, Clara latches on to lonely, schlubby Noel (Daniel Mays), who recently inherited a rundown hotel from his late mother.  She turns the hotel into a brothel called Byzantium as local men gradually start to vanish.  Fed up with her mother's lifestyle, Eleanor goes off to school and tries to live as normal a life as possible, befriending sickly Frank (the perpetually sickly-looking Caleb Landry Jones of ANTIVIRAL) and writing down her story for him.  Frank gives the memoir to their creative writing teacher (Tom Hollander) and soon, more men from Clara's past are on the scene.  In Eleanor's story, we learn that she and her mother are over 200 years old and that Clara was a prostitute servicing some Napoleonic-era soldiers who were part of a vampire order called the Pointed Nails of Justice.  Clara tricked her way into joining this He-Man Woman-Haters Club, and they've been after her and her daughter since.

BYZANTIUM has a great opening half hour, but then meanders a bit when it gets bogged down in the 200 years ago backstory and even more when one of the soldiers (Jonny Lee Miller) tells his own story within the flashback.  It picks up again in the home stretch, but the final scene between Clara and Eleanor feels rushed considering the emotional buildup to it, as one interpretation of the film could be as a metaphor for a concerned mother (it's not often you see vampires being concerned about money and keeping a roof over their head) learning to let go of her child.  Even with its problems (sorry, but "Pointed Nails of Justice" just sounds too goofy for a serious film), it's just nice to see a vampire film for adults that isn't populated with brooding hotties headed straight for the Teen Choice Awards.  A terrific Arterton has the showier role, attacking it with sometimes feverish gusto while avoiding the easy pitfall taking it over-the-top, but it's Ronan's Eleanor who's at the heart of BYZANTIUM, effectively conveying the human side of vampirism, showing no malice or desire to harm anyone and struggling with the anguished burden of eternal life.  With one foot in the arthouse and the other in the multiplex, BYZANTIUM sometimes takes on too much and becomes too unwieldy for its own good, but it's an interesting take on the vampire genre that will certainly find a cult following rather quickly.  (R, 118 mins)

(US - 2013)

Ostensibly a sequel to FRIGHT NIGHT (2011), which was a remake of FRIGHT NIGHT (1985), FRIGHT NIGHT 2: NEW BLOOD has nothing to do with FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) and is actually another remake of FRIGHT NIGHT (1985), with elements of that film's sequel FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2 (1989).  Does that make sense?  Just by breaking that down, I put more thought into FRIGHT NIGHT 2: NEW BLOOD than the filmmakers did.  Directed by Eduardo Rodriguez (STASH HOUSE) and written by Matt Venne, whose screenplays for WHITE NOISE 2 and MIRRORS 2 have apparently made him the go-to guy for in-name-only DTV sequels, this "sequel" has hero Charley Brewster (Will Payne) pining for his ex Amy (Sacha Parkinson) while they, and his buddy Evil Ed (Chris Waller) are on some group exchange student sojourn to Romania, where production services can be cheaply procured by budget-conscious Hollywood studios unwilling to spend any more coin on a Will "Who?" Payne-headlined movie than is absolutely necessary.  They're attending a seminar on European art history taught by the sexy Prof. Gerri Dandridge (Jaime Murray of HUSTLE and DEFIANCE), who, of course, is a vampire but Charley can't prove it to anyone. 

This mostly follows the template of Tom Holland's 1985 classic, with the twist of turning Jerry Dandridge (previously played by Chris Sarandon in 1985 and Colin Farrell in 2011) into "Gerri" Dandridge and utilizing both the legend of Elizabeth Bathory and riffing on Julie Carmen's "Regine Dandridge" (Jerry's vengeful vampire sister) from FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2 (1989).  It's all a rather slipshod affair with a mostly uninteresting cast (only British TV vet Murray seems above the material), and thoroughly unlikable characters.  Waller plays Evil Ed as a smirking douchebag until the plot requires him to be a horror geek, and Peter Vincent, so brilliantly played by Roddy McDowall as a has-been TV horror host in the 1985 film (in a performance that, believe it or not, briefly generated some Supporting Actor Oscar buzz) and acceptably by David Tennant as a Vegas magician in 2011, is here a cynical, hard-drinking, asshole reality-TV monster hunter played by Sean Power.  It's hard to imagine McDowall's Peter Vincent telling a vampirized Evil Ed to "Kiss the cross, bitch!" which is pretty much the level of this loud, stupid, and boring film.  The only real surprise FRIGHT NIGHT 2: NEW BLOOD offers is Evil Ed telling the Bathory story and having it play out onscreen in animated graphic novel form.  It doesn't really serve a purpose, but it's something, I guess.  Bland actors, dull performances (in their defense, they're all British or Irish and with the exception of Murray, using American accents), and the mandatory shitty CGI splatter.  What a forgettable, pointless waste of time. (Unrated, 99 mins)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

In Theaters: THE COUNSELOR (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Directed by Ridley Scott.  Written by Cormac McCarthy.  Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Sam Spruell, Dean Norris, John Leguizamo, Edgar Ramirez, Toby Kebbell, Goran Visnjic, Natalie Dormer, Richard Cabral, Richard Brake, Andrea Deck, Giannina Facio. (R, 117 mins)

Though it's destined to go down in history as the movie where Cameron Diaz fucks a car, THE COUNSELOR is the kind of film that will probably play better on repeat viewings, when it's not hindered by trailer-generated, commercial expectations and its odd rhythms and reams of dialogue can be more closely studied and pondered.  The film is directed by Ridley Scott, but like its protagonist, Scott is more of a middleman here in deference to Pulitzer Prize-winning literary icon Cormac McCarthy, penning his first original screenplay at the age of 80, though I suspect he's had this one lying around in outline form for a while.  Past McCarthy works like No Country for Old Men and The Road were made into acclaimed films, but the author didn't have a hand in their scripts.  McCarthy's prose is such that it doesn't translate well to the screen and needs a screenwriter to pare it down and make it more cinematic (Tommy Lee Jones' monologue at the end of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN being an exception).  McCarthy's COUNSELOR script lets his characters talk and philosophize about sex, greed, the nature of manhood, and other moral and ethical quandaries for what are probably pages on end.  It's frequently ponderous and pretentious, but with the camera fixated on the actors for long stretches while they speak McCarthy's prose, one can see the appeal for the A-list cast.  Never mind that most people generally don't talk the way McCarthy's script has them talking.  THE COUNSELOR has some rewards for the informed or for McCarthy disciples, but the impatient or those expecting a commercial action thriller will find it a frustrating couple of hours (I counted two walkouts at a weekday afternoon screening to an audience of about ten, both not long after the "Cameron Diaz fucks a car" scene at the midway point).  The reviews have been overwhelmingly negative and while I concede that McCarthy's script probably could've used a neutral editor or at least an uncredited rewrite, it's not the dumpster fire that many have made it out to be.  And like many misunderstood films, I'm convinced it will find some appreciation over time, probably sooner rather than later. 

It seems like every fall, we get a major nationwide release with a cleverly-assembled trailer to make it look a bit like something that it's not.  Last year, it was the criminally underappreciated KILLING THEM SOFTLY, a Brad Pitt vehicle where Pitt didn't even appear until a third of the way in (it's interesting to note that Pitt turns up in THE COUNSELOR in a supporting role).  A couple of years back, THE AMERICAN was sold as an action-packed thriller when it turned out to be a somber, meditative, and very European, Jean-Pierre Melville-inspired character study with long, silent stretches of George Clooney looking glum, prompting quite possibly the funniest bit of moviegoer rage I've ever witnessed when an elderly woman shouted "Hang the director!" as the closing credits started rolling.  Those are fine films that play even better once you know what to expect from them.  THE COUNSELOR is undoubtedly a flawed work, and it hits and misses in equal measure.  But it has its moments.  And car-fucking.

Michael Fassbender stars as a nameless El Paso attorney, referred to only as "Counselor."  He's got a fiancée, Laura (a miscast Penelope Cruz, about a decade or more too old for her role) and a promising legal practice, but he's also got bigger monetary ambitions.  He wants to be rich now and finds a chance with his pal Reiner (Javier Bardem), a flashy club owner who's also on the payroll of a Mexican cartel operating just over the border.  Reiner is the kind of guy who makes sure everyone knows he's a player, from his garish wardrobe to his two pet cheetahs to his sexed-up girlfriend Malkina (Diaz), a woman who knows what she wants and knows just how to get it.  The Counselor is seduced by this lifestyle and gets involved in a $20 million drug buy that goes predictably awry when a money mule known as "The Green Hornet" (Richard Cabral) is decapitated by a rival cartel and the merchandise, being transported in a septic truck full of human waste, keeps changing hands.  The mule happens to be the son of Ruth (Rosie Perez), an incarcerated woman whose court-appointed attorney is--you guessed it--the Counselor.  Westray (Pitt), another middleman, ominously tells the Counselor that the cartel "has heard of coincidences but doesn't believe in them," and they're convinced that the Counselor--the new guy brought in by Reiner and Westray--has cooked up a plan to screw them out of $20 million and now they all have a price on their heads.  Literally, as Reiner warns him early on to "not take decapitations personally...it's just business."

That sounds like the plot for a kickass thriller, and in some spots, THE COUNSELOR really gets some suspenseful momentum going, especially when the shit hits the fan and the justifiably paranoid Counselor, who foolishly thought he could enter a business arrangement with a drug cartel and emerge unscathed (as Westray tells him, "You're involved!"), starts freaking out and Westray wants nothing more to do with him.  The Counselor already has a spotty reputation as a lawyer (there's one scene where a bitter former client played by Toby Kebbell angrily confronts him and warns Laura that her fiance has a habit of throwing people under the bus), and can't handle it when he's the one being unfairly blamed and hung out to dry.  But McCarthy isn't so much interested in that as much as he wants to explore the psychological motivation of guys like The Counselor and Reiner, which can essentially be summed up by "pussy."  There's a lot of male insecurities being explored in THE COUNSELOR as well as some outright misogyny, particularly with the depiction of Malkina as a ruthless man-eater.  So, a lot of the long conversations between the Counselor and Reiner deal with this sort-of self-analytical inadequacy masked as male braggadocio, with Reiner calling women "an expensive habit." At times, it feels like a drug cartel thriller written by Neil LaBute.

While McCarthy's dialogue is frequently cumbersome--Diaz's final monologue is ramblingly incoherent and some of her femme fatale talk a bit too pulpy (Reiner: "Are you really that cold?" Malkina: "The truth has no temperature"), there are some tacky one-liners that get some big, if inappropriate laughs--when Ruth asks the Counselor to pay her son's $400 speeding ticket and offers a blowjob as compensation, the Counselor replies "Then you'd still owe me $380," and Westray tells a joke that goes "How do you know Jesus wasn't born in Mexico?  Because he couldn't find three wise men or a virgin."  And regardless of whether you laugh out loud or are utterly appalled, Reiner's recounting of Malkina removing her knickers and spread-eagle masturbating against the windshield of his convertible with him in the front seat ("it was like a catfish...one of those bottom-feeders sliding down the aquarium glass") is one of Bardem's finest career moments.

After PROMETHEUS, Scott's often personal, reflective revisit to the ALIEN universe that felt a bit too studio-compromised in its second half, it's interesting that the famed filmmaker would take a sort-of secondary role in something like THE COUNSELOR.  Sure, he brings a sense of style and composition to the look of the film, but this is ultimately more McCarthy than Scott.  At 75, Scott is still cranking movies out on an almost annual basis (he directed eight films from 2000-2009, and THE COUNSELOR is his third since 2010, with a fourth, the Showtime movie THE VATICAN, set to air by year's end), and THE COUNSELOR is one of the least predictable and most difficult to categorize works in Scott's storied career.  You could say THE COUNSELOR is a muddled mess and you wouldn't exactly be wrong.  But it's a film whose rewards perhaps aren't as apparent after one viewing.  Once the dust from the toxic reviews and the audience antipathy settles, this, like KILLING THEM SOFTLY, which is already enjoying an improved rep just a year after bombing in theaters, will find appreciation and respect on its own bizarre terms.  Either that, or maybe I'm giving it too much credit and Scott and McCarthy are just a couple of dirty old men.

Update: review of the 138-minute Unrated Extended Cut can be found here.

Friday, October 25, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: DISCONNECT (2013); BLOOD (2013); and HAMMER OF THE GODS (2013)

(US - 2013)

DISCONNECT falls squarely into that post-CRASH "everything is connected" ensemble subgenre but stands out for being notably less pompous and sanctimonious than most.  It certainly deserved better treatment than getting dumped on just 180 screens at its widest release.  Directed by Henry-Alex Rubin (best known for the documentary MURDERBALL), the film offers the standard selection of disparate characters whose lives converge in unexpected and tragic ways:  in the most compelling storyline, troublemaking teens Jason (UNDER THE DOME's Colin Ford) and Frye (Aviad Bernstein) set up a fake Facebook profile for a "Jessica," striking up an online relationship with lonely, artistic outcast Ben (Jonah Bobo), eventually coercing him into sending a nude selfie, which they forward to everyone at school; Jason's widower father Mike (Frank Grillo) is a freelance cyber-security investigator who's hired by Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) and Cindy (Paula Patton), a married couple struggling with the death of their infant son, after their finances have been drained by an identity theft traced to Schumacher (Michael Nyqvist), a grief chatroom friend of Cindy's who recently lost his wife to cancer; Ben's father Rich (Jason Bateman) is a lawyer who becomes obsessed with finding who's responsible for harassing his son; and Rich briefly figures into the film's least interesting plotline, when he's hired by a TV station to represent Nina (Andrea Riseborough), an ambitious reporter who gets in over her head when she does a profile on an internet sex worker (Max Thieriot), who's inadvertently being used to lure minors into the profession.  All of the plot threads have an internet angle, and the idea that we're all too plugged in and--wait for it--disconnected is a notion that could've been hammered over our heads in the most unsubtle ways imaginable, but DISCONNECT does nice job of not screaming "MESSAGE!" and the performances, particularly Bateman's, are quite good.  It wraps up a little too neat and tidy by the end, and it's a bit beyond fashionably late as far as this type of film goes, which is probably why it wasn't given much of a chance, but DISCONNECT is better than a lot of its ilk.  (R, 116 mins)
(UK - 2013)
Veteran British TV producer/writer Bill Gallagher (LARK RISE TO CANDLEFORD) scripted this remake of his 2004 BBC series CONVICTION, taking a six-part story and a new cast and streamlining it down to 90 minutes.  Not having seen CONVICTION, BLOOD works fine on its own except for one questionable plot gimmick.  It obviously jettisons tons of character development but retains the core tenets of CONVICTION:  two sibling detective partners, Joe (Paul Bettany) and Chrissie Fairburn (Stephen Graham) are part of a team investigating the brutal stabbing death of a 15-year-old girl.  They immediately suspect local creep Jason Buleigh (Ben Crompton), who smirks his way through their questioning and all but admits his guilt but there isn't enough evidence to hold him.  After a few too many drinks at his wedding anniversary party, Joe sends his wife home and he and Chrissie pack their drunk, Alzheimer's-addled ex-cop dad Lenny (Brian Cox) into the car and pick up Jason.  While Lenny sleeps it off in the back seat, Joe makes Jason dig a hole on the shore while Chrissie watches.  Tempers flare and Joe hits Jason in the head with the shovel, killing him.  They bury the body and try to get on with their lives, hoping that everyone will think Jason just skipped town.  But then perceptive, loner detective Robert Seymoore (Mark Strong) uncovers evidence that implicates two teenage boys in the girl's death, and they confess, fully exonerating Jason.  Chrissie can't live with the guilt, while Joe does everything possible to keep their secret buried.  Meanwhile, with occasional flashes of reliable memory amidst his dementia, Lenny remembers bits and pieces of the incident, during which he was drifting in and out of sleep, and can't figure out why he has Jason's bus pass--with his picture on it--which Jason dropped in the back seat of Joe's car.  Noticing how strangely the brothers are acting, Seymoore slowly starts to put the whole story together.

Filmed in the gray, rainy areas of Wirral and Liverpool, BLOOD has a dreary, hopeless aura throughout.  Gallagher and director Nick Murphy (THE AWAKENING) generate much suspense out of the brothers' situation, with Bettany getting more crazed-looking and desperate with each new scene, to the point where his Joe frequently looks like a monster.  Graham, currently seen as Al Capone on BOARDWALK EMPIRE and sort-of the bulldoggish Bob Hoskins of his generation, is outstanding as Chrissie, so overcome with guilt that he can barely function and can't stop bursting into tears.  Bettany and Graham don't really look like brothers at all, but they're both good enough--Graham, in particular--that you can overlook it rather quickly.  BLOOD isn't necessarily a very creative film and you've seen its type many times before, but it's a well-acted and solidly-crafted suspense thriller that's weakened only by a needless plot device where Joe's guilt is represented by him imagining conversations with Jason.  It's apparently exclusive to the remake and was perhaps Gallagher's way of condensing material to build the Joe character, but it's the only element of BLOOD that comes off as hokey.  (Unrated, 92 mins)
(UK - 2013)

This Viking saga is appropriately brutal and bloody but isn't anywhere nearly as interesting as an average episode of similarly-styled cable TV series like GAME OF THRONES or VIKINGS.  In 871 A.D., the dying King Bagsecg (James Cosmo, THRONES' Jeor Mormont) finds his Viking kingdom threatened by the Saxons.  He sends his second son, the warrior Steinar (Charlie Bewley from the TWILIGHT series), in search of his banished eldest son Hakan (Elliot Cowan), so he can make his rightful claim to the throne and help rebuild the kingdom to its full glory.  Steinar, accompanied by his motley crew of sidekicks, including Hagan (Clive Standen, who co-stars in VIKINGS), makes his way through Saxon lands in search of his brother, facing various obstacles and recruiting other warriors along the way, such as the gregarious Ivar (Ivan Kaye, also on VIKINGS).  Eventually, Steinar is captured and brought to meet his estranged brother as the film becomes a Viking redux of APOCALYPSE NOW, with Hakan a now-insane despot, out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct.  All of this leads to a one-on-one, brotherly brawl with a bunch of biting and eye-gouging.  Busy and awesomely-named British TV director Farren Blackburn (THE FADES, LUTHER, DOCTOR WHO) stages some OK action scenes and there's plentiful gore if that's what you're after, but the pace is slack and none of Steinar's adventures are all that interesting. The contemporary score is intrusive and the script by Matthew Read (no stranger to Viking fare, as he co-wrote Nicolas Winding Refn's brilliant VALHALLA RISING) is awful, filled with anachronistic verbiage like "crap," "cuntfuck," and "Go fuck yourself."  The way the film ends makes it ultimately feel like a pilot for a TV series, and though I don't think it is, I wouldn't be surprised if that turned out to be the case.  At any rate, HAMMER OF THE GODS, which grossed a whopping $641 during its two-screen US theatrical run, is boring, uninspired, and out of ideas long before it starts ripping off Joseph Conrad and Francis Ford Coppola, and your plans for watching it should be terminated with extreme prejudice.  (R, 98 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

In Theaters: CARRIE (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Kimberly Peirce.  Written by Lawrence D. Cohen and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.  Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Judy Greer, Portia Doubleday, Gabriella Wilde, Alex Russell, Ansel Elgort, Barry Shabaka Henley, Hart Bochner, Zoe Belkin, Samantha Weinstein. (R, 98 mins)


The latest Hollywood horror remake is as unnecessary as you'd expect, despite the involvement of BOYS DON'T CRY and STOP-LOSS director Kimberly Peirce, helming just her third film in 14 years.  Considering how little she brings to the table here, one must be forced to assume that she simply needed the money.  This "re-imagining" of the 1974 Stephen King novel and 1976 Brian De Palma film (there was also a 2002 made-for-TV remake, and the less said about 1999's THE RAGE: CARRIE 2, the better) is about as perfunctory and go-through-the-motions as it gets, remaining watchable and never dull but also never justifying its existence.  It utilizes enough of the 1976 film that its screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen shares a presumably WGA-mandated credit with playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who must share the blame with Peirce for its complete collapse in the home stretch.

The now-familiar story of bullied, telekinetic Carrie White (played here by Chloe Grace Moretz), her religious-fanatic mother Margaret (Julianne Moore), and a prom prank that goes horribly awry was turned into such an iconic classic by De Palma that Peirce seems to throw in the towel from the start.  CARRIE '13 seems to be sprinting past the details, glossing over dramatic and character developments as if to say "Well, you've seen the original enough times, so you know what happens here."  It's almost like it's Cliffs Notes-ing its way through the proceedings.  As a result, there's no tension.  There's no suspense.  When bitchy Chris Hargenson (Portia Doubleday) and dirtbag boyfriend Billy Nolan (Alex Russell) dump the bucket of pig's blood on Carrie at the prom, De Palma's depiction was a stylish, elaborately-choreographed masterwork of stomach-knotting anticipation and dread.  Here...it just gets dumped.  It's a lose-lose for Peirce:  she can't mimic De Palma's split diopters and split-screens without getting shit for it, and his work was so good that it can't be topped, so she's forced to just dump it in the blandest way possible.  She tries to gussy it up by replaying it three times but it serves no purpose.  There's not even the "They're all gonna laugh at you!" refrain. This problem occurs time and again throughout CARRIE '13.  Everything effective under De Palma is neutered or outright absent here.  But could it have turned out any other way?

Peirce and Aguirre-Sacasa do include a few elements from King's novel that didn't make it into De Palma's version:  there's a brief shot of a court inquiry where Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) is being questioned, Chris' big-shot lawyer dad (Hart Bochner sighting!) unsuccessfully tries to throw his weight around with the principal (Barry Shabaka Henley) after his daughter is suspended from school, and gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer) gets her original name back and survives Carrie's prom rampage (Betty Buckley played her as "Miss Collins" and got killed), but they also make the curious decision to tone down the character of Margaret.  This could be because Piper Laurie played it just crazy enough without going over-the-top that Moore saw no way to improve on it from that angle.  Moore is fine in the role, but Margaret is really less of a menace here than she is in the 1976 film and in the book.  In King and De Palma, Margaret fears her daughter but also despises her and her burgeoning womanhood, "the blood," and "the boys who come sniffing like dogs, grinning and slobbering to find out where that smell is."  Laurie's interpretation of the character was intimidating and terrifying, where Moore plays Margaret as more overprotective and demonstrates far more affection than she shows in the book or in Laurie's Oscar-nominated performance.

There's no problems with Moretz in terms of her performance, but at the risk of simplifying things, she's too attractive to play Carrie, and slouching her shoulders, hiding behind her hair, and wearing frumpy garments isn't going to disguise that.  She's a terrific young actress, but she's just not right for this role.  Even Sissy Spacek--also Oscar-nominated--didn't fit King's description of a "chunky" Carrie, and while De Palma didn't cast someone overweight in the role, she was one of those actresses who thrived in the 1970s when unconventional looks were acceptable.  Spacek is not someone who's conventionally "hot" by a standard textbook Hollywood definition, either in the 1970s or now.  She has an unconventional beauty to her but she also had a plain, "odd" quality that was well-utilized by De Palma and other directors like Terrence Malick in 1973's BADLANDS and Robert Altman in 1977's 3 WOMEN (even MAY star and horror/cult figure Angela Bettis, in the 2002 version, has an unusual look to her to that made her a believable Carrie).  Moretz looks gorgeous even when she's trying not to be.  By the time we get to the prom rampage, Moretz's Carrie starts behaving like someone who's seen CARRIE.  Instead of slowly walking through the gym and wreaking her vengeance, Moretz has been directed to wildly contort and symphonically gesticulate with wild-eyed abandon, looking more like a villain in the climax of an X-MEN movie than Carrie.

It's the prom where the film really starts to fall apart, despite newcomer Elgort's surprisingly sensitive interpretation of Tommy Ross, though he may not have William Katt's legendary locks (perhaps one improvement this film makes is ensuring the audience knows Tommy has been killed by the bucket hitting his head; Tommy's fate always seemed vague in De Palma's film until it's mentioned in passing near the end).  In the book, nearly everyone was killed, and De Palma even killed off the sympathetic gym teacher after Carrie imagined her laughing at her.  Here, Carrie kills a few people and most seem to escape.  But Peirce and Aguirre-Sacasa save the worst for last, as they inexplicably have Sue show up at the White home after Carrie kills her mother.  They have a conversation and Carrie sees Sue wasn't involved in the prank, and tells her "You're going to have a girl."  Yes, Sue is now pregnant with Tommy's child (hinted at but never overtly stated by King, as Sue either gets her period or miscarries near the end of the novel) and Carrie has somehow developed psychic abilities.  Does this have anything to do with Carrie's ability to move things?  If so, then why wasn't she able to see the prank that was about to happen? 

CARRIE '13 is competently-made and there's nothing wrong with the actors.  The biggest issue is the same as with most other horror remakes:  it just doesn't need to exist.  With one exception (Tommy's death scene), it doesn't improve on anything, it isn't better-directed, the ending can't be anything but lame compared to De Palma's, the CGI visual effects are less convincing than the practical ones from 37 years ago, and the usually reliable Marco Beltrami offers a snoozer of a score in place of the unforgettable Pino Donaggio cues in the 1976 version. All it really adds are newer fashions, cell phones, Chris posting a video of the shower incident on YouTube, and one already-dated mention of Tim Tebow.  De Palma's film is one that's been talked about and revered for nearly 40 years.  Will anyone remember this remake 40 days from now?

Monday, October 21, 2013

In Theaters: ESCAPE PLAN (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Mikael Hafstrom.  Written by Miles Chapman and Arnell Jesko.  Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Vincent D'Onofrio, Amy Ryan, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Sam Neill, Vinnie Jones, Faran Tahir, Graham Beckel, Matt Gerald, Caitriona Balfe. (R, 115 mins)

Though THE EXPENDABLES and its sequel proved to be surprise hits, they failed to kickstart a geriatric action movement for aging warhorses like 67-year-old Sylvester Stallone and 66-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Their early 2013 solo releases--BULLET TO THE HEAD and THE LAST STAND, respectively--tanked at the box office as audiences stayed far away despite generally positive reviews for both.  The sad fact is that teenagers make up most of the theatrical audience, and kids today aren't really interested in what '80s action icons are doing.  Hell, they won't even go see Jason Statham movies at this point, and he's only 46.  Much like aging rock bands going out on four-band package tours, these dinosaur action fossils only seem to generate some box office when they're all together, hence, next summer's EXPENDABLES 3.  For fans of these guys in their prime, these things are a blast.  I can't think of a more giddy moment in a 2012 movie than Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis standing side-by-side with guns blazing in THE EXPENDABLES 2.  If you can't get behind that, then we don't have anything more to discuss.

Here, Stallone is Ray Breslin, who makes a lucrative living breaking out of prisons.  A legend in his field, Breslin literally wrote the book on correctional facility security measures.  His business partner Lester (Vincent D'Onofrio) presents him with an offer for double their usual fee:  incarceration at The Tomb (the film's original title), an off-the-grid, privately-funded, state-of-the-art facility that houses the worst of the worst.  Going in undercover as a South American terrorist named Porthos, Breslin immediately tangles with Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel) and his crew of masked security guards led by Drake (Vinnie Jones, cast radically against type as "Vinnie Jones").  But he finds an ally in Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), who's been dumped into The Tomb for his association with his boss, an international criminal named Mannheim.  After trading barbs and busting one another's balls, Breslin and Rottmayer concoct an elaborate escape plan (duh) when Breslin learns that someone has paid big money to keep him locked in The Tomb so he'll disappear for good.

ESCAPE PLAN obviously doesn't compare with the best from these fellas' heyday, but if you miss the feeling of old-school '80s action, it gets the job done.  It may be a tad longish at 115 minutes, and it could probably use a more appropriate director than Swedish journeyman Mikael Hafstrom (DERAILED, 1408, THE RITE), who does a workmanlike job but doesn't really bring a lot to the proceedings (why isn't Isaac Florentine getting a job like this?), but it's undeniable fun.  Hafstrom at least has the sense to somehow get the two stars dangling from a chopper for the climax.  Stallone and Schwarzenegger work so well together that you wish they'd teamed up two decades ago and spared Stallone from the likes of STOP! OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT.  Stallone glowers and grumbles his way through the film, surprisingly letting Schwarzenegger be the showy comic relief and the Governator runs with it, whether he's starting fights and insulting other inmates, getting thrown in lockdown and ranting in German, or telling Breslin "You hit like a vegetarian."  Schwarzenegger even gets the film's best moment, grabbing a machine gun (Hafstrom gives him a close up of his eyes squinting) and turning around in slo-mo as he starts blasting Hobbes' goonish guards.

The big guys are obviously the show here, but there's a sizable supporting cast of reliable pros, and 50 Cent.  Fiddy and Amy Ryan play Breslin's associates, and it's nice to see Sam Neill on the big screen again, even if it's in a thankless role as the prison doctor. As far as movie wardens go, Caviezel is an appropriately sneering, cartoonish bad guy, snapping his fingers at the guards in lieu of giving orders and introduced tending to his butterfly collection and prissily dusting lint from his perfectly-pressed suit.  D'Onofrio turns in yet another mannered, tic-heavy turn as Lester, sporting a goofy fedora, a grating "Da Bearsss!" accent, and constantly squirting hand sanitizer into his palm.  When's the last time D'Onofrio gave a real performance in anything?  The guy's done some great work (admittedly, when you start with FULL METAL JACKET, you set the bar pretty high), but since his divisive run on LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT (I thought he was terrific), it seems like everything he's done is filled with exaggerated accents, off-the-wall quirks, fidgeting, and a crutch-like reliance on props as a way of establishing a character.  D'Onofrio's the kind of actor who needs a strong director to rein him in, and he rarely gets it.  Some of his recent overdone turns in films like CHAINED and PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES make his work as noseless meth kingpin Pooh Bear in THE SALTON SEA look restrained and low-key by comparison.  When did he throw it all away to become the Nicolas Cage of supporting actors?

I dug ESCAPE PLAN, but I'm admittedly grading it on a curve.  It's nowhere near the level of the best work of either of its stars (and even they fall victim to trends with some janky CGI in the second half, but it's not a deal-breaker) and it gets by largely on their presence alone.  But it's just nice to see these guys still headlining action movies at their age.  There isn't much in the way of star power at the multiplex these days--sure, you've got the occasional George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, or Brad Pitt, but when's the last time you heard anyone say 'That new Chris Hemsworth movie ruled!"?  When's the last time you were standing in line at the concession stand and overheard someone declare "I never miss a Chris Pine movie!"?   Where are the big screen action stars?  There's only franchises and brands.  Like going to see a past-their-prime band at a small club instead of the arenas they once played, a new Stallone/Schwarzenegger flick is a nostalgia trip dismissed by many, but as long as they keep offering them, they can count me in.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: MANIAC (2013); THE COLONY (2013); and THE EAST (2013)

(France/US - 2013)

William Lustig's MANIAC (1980) is so representative of both '80s splatter and the grimy NYC sleaze of its era that a present-day remake seems like a hapless, watered-down proposition from the get-go.  Written and produced by Alexandre Aja and directed by Aja protégé Franck Khalfoun (P2), the 2013 version of MANIAC doesn't top Lustig's original, but it at least tries to be its own film and shows an obvious affinity for its source.  Moving the setting from NYC to some of the seedier parts of downtown Los Angeles doesn't really replicate that scuzzy feeling, but it sort-of suffices, as homicidal Frank (Elijah Wood in the iconic Joe Spinell role) slices and dices his way through a bevy of beautiful women he meets on dating sites, scalping them to adorn the mannequins in the fly-infested apartment behind his restoration shop.  Frank is dealing with unresolved mother issues, having endured a traumatic childhood that saw him witnessing Mom (America Olivo) abusing drugs and sleeping with numerous random men (the shot of her snorting coke while screwing two guys and catching young Frank watching her as she whispers "Mommy loves you" is undeniably haunting).  Frank meets French photographer Anna (Nora Arzeneder), whose specialty is, conveniently enough, mannequins (which seems like an easy way for her to overlook Frank's bizarre demeanor and his creepy collection; in a way, it's just as implausible as the schlubby, greasy Spinell attracting the attention of someone like Caroline Munro in the original), and, of course, becomes fixated on her.

The biggest change this new film makes is shooting it almost entirely from Frank's POV.  Wood primarily turns up as reflections in mirrors and windows, except for a few times when Khalfoun inexplicably bungles it and swings the camera around to show Frank actually killing people.  The POV is a nice touch, so it doesn't make sense and it's completely intrusive when Khalfoun breaks it, and it seems to have been done only to give Wood more screen time as he'd otherwise barely be visible.  Still, as far as remakes go, MANIAC '13 isn't bad, however unnecessary it may be.  The makeup effects by Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger are a nice mix of CGI and practical, with the blood looking appropriately wet and the flesh moist instead of completely cartoonish and badly-digitized.  When he sticks to the Frank POV, Khalfoun stages some nicely-done murder sequences, particularly the first one with the way the knife enters the frame.  Frank, who suffers from migraines, is also frequently sickened by his actions, which gives Khalfoun a good excuse for a suitably gross POV puking shot into a toilet.  I guess if MANIAC had to be remade, this turned out as good as it could've turned out, and the music score by "Rob" is a standout.  Face it, this could've just as easily been a neutered, PG-13, in-name-only revamp instead of the unrated gorefest that it is.  It's an admirable effort, better than anything with the name "Alexandre Aja" attached to it should be, and Wood gives it his all, but when I feel like watching MANIAC, I'm going with Joe Spinell.  (Unrated, 89 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(Canada - 2013)

Despite some occasionally effective location work at a decommissioned NORAD station, this tepid post-apocalyptic horror film is largely an uninspired coast that relies on clichés you've seen a hundred times in other, better movies.  In 2045, weather machines constructed to combat the sweltering effects of climate change malfunction and bring about an ice age, putting the entire planet in a deep freeze with never-ending snow.  Most of humanity has died off, but the few survivors find refuge in abandoned military facilities called "colonies," where food is scarce and illness rampant.  Even a common cold is enough to have someone banished to the elements or, if they choose, killed.  After receiving a distress call from nearby Colony 5, Colony 7 leader Briggs (Laurence Fishburne) takes Sam (Kevin Zegers) and Graydon (Atticus Mitchell) on an expedition to investigate.  They find a crazed, lone survivor (Julian Richings), who tells them that everyone has been killed.  The Colony 7 guys investigate and find what's left of Colony 5 overrun by a band of marauding, feral cannibals who have decided that human flesh is the answer to their food shortage.  Of course, the cannibals follow them back to Colony 7, where they also have to deal with Mason (Bill Paxton), a trigger-happy psycho who's taken over the leadership role in Briggs' absence and is only interested in thinning the herd so there's less mouths to feed.

I'm a sucker for a good cold, snowy, icy horror flick, but THE COLONY fails to take its place aside such iconic titles as THE SHINING or either version of THE THING.  It isn't even in the same league as WHITEOUT or the recent prequel THE THING.  At least WHITEOUT went to the trouble of CGI-ing some visible breath for the actors in the exterior scenes.  The interiors of the closed-up NORAD facility make a good location, but THE COLONY falls apart whenever anyone walks outside.  Everything is unconvincingly green-screened and cartoonishly CGI'd.  You never feel for one moment that these actors are out in the elements and not in a comfortable, climate-controlled studio standing in front of a screen.  The best kind of CGI is the kind that doesn't call attention to itself, and the CGI here is basically wearing a bright, flashing neon sign.  And once the cannibals make their way to the colony, the whole thing becomes yet another John Carpenter-styled siege scenario and a sort-of ASSAULT ON COLONY 7.  The film is directed by Jeff Renfroe, who primarily works in TV these days but previously made a pair of interesting and little-seen indies:  2004's Euro-dystopian PARANOIA 1.0 has Jeremy Sisto as a computer programmer who starts cracking up when mysterious packages keep appearing at his door, and 2007's CIVIC DUTY stars Peter Krause in an intense performance as a laid-off accountant with nothing but time on his hands, spending his days watching cable news and becoming increasingly obsessed with his new neighbor--a Muslim grad student--and convincing himself that the guy is a terrorist.  Both of these films have a powerful sense of paranoia and claustrophobia that would seem to be ideal for THE COLONY, but the artifice of the whole production design just keeps you at a distance.  While the film works best when it stays indoors, it has nothing unique or substantive to offer, doesn't even make any valid points on an environmental level, and exists only to provide easy paychecks for Fishburne and Paxton.  It took four screenwriters to come up with this?  (R, 94 mins)

(US - 2013)

Actress/screenwriter Brit Marling has made a name for herself on the indie and festival circuits over the last couple of years with 2011's ANOTHER EARTH (directed by Mike Cahill) and 2012's SOUND OF MY VOICE (directed by Zal Batmanglij).  Marling and Batmanglij team up again with THE EAST, which finds the creative pair getting a sizable budget boost courtesy of A-list producers Ridley Scott and Michael Costigan, and falling flat on their faces, with a story that travels a path that's too structurally similar to SOUND OF MY VOICE.  And where VOICE and ANOTHER EARTH were science fiction stories that could explain away some of the more outlandish plot elements, Marling seems to struggle when the plot is based in the real world and without a fantastic angle.  Marling stars as Sarah, a former FBI agent who lands a gig at a private company specializing in corporate espionage.  Her boss (Patricia Clarkson), hired by big money clients, assigns her to infiltrate The East, a domestic eco-terrorism outfit that's been targeting CEOs and various corporate big shots with such acts as flooding an oil honcho's house with crude after his company causes a massive oil spill.  In the first of many embarrassingly simplistic developments straight out of Plot Convenience Playhouse, it takes Sarah about a day to get into The East's inner circle, which she manages to accomplish via Craigslist and hanging out with some acoustic guitar-strumming hippies on the shore.  Of course she finds herself drawn to their charismatic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) and comes to agree with The East's philosophies and practices (at times, with their straitjacket dinners and off-kilter rounds of Spin the Bottle--"May I hug you for one minute?"--they seem more like a cult), taking part in their projects (called "jams"), and her happy life with her nice but boring boyfriend (Jason Ritter) falls apart as she ignores her boss' most vital piece of advice: "Do not get soft."

Marling seems to have gotten soft with THE EAST.  Even with the formulaic plotting, it still could've been a solid, entertaining thriller.  But with the soapboxing (Sarah becomes a dumpster-diving freegan simply because Marling did that for a while as well) and the fact that, as a writer, the proselytizing Marling stacks the deck in The East's favor, even when they're crossing lines and doing some very bad things (like poisoning the board of directors of a pharmaceutical company), it's hard to really accept a lot of what transpires.  Look, I hate the sociopathic, profit-above-all mentality of these companies as well, but two wrongs don't make a right, and The East aren't meant to be idealized.  This should be a film with no heroes.  Explore that.  Explore the inner conflict instead of having Sarah merrily abandon everything.  Or at least have her abandon everything in a realistic fashion. The idea that the driven, ambitious Sarah is willing to drop her promising career, devoted boyfriend, and happy life in general to fall in with The East as quickly as she does is a metamorphosis that serves the filmmakers' agenda rather than the story.  The character arc is never believable for a second, and the third-act twist with the reveal of The East's final "jam" is only a surprise if you've never seen a movie before.  There are a few good scenes--fanatical East member Izzy (Ellen Page) forcing her chemical company CEO dad (Jamey Sheridan) and a company spokesperson to jump in toxic, polluted water is a memorable moment--and the potential was there for a good thriller, but Marling and Batmanglij can't stop shouting "MESSAGE!" long enough to focus on what's important.  Much like SOUND OF MY VOICE, THE EAST deals with an outsider infiltrating a secret organization (in SOUND, Marling played a manipulative cult leader who claimed to be from the future), but a bigger budget doesn't mean a better movie.  ANOTHER EARTH and SOUND OF MY VOICE were both original, intricate, and thought-provoking puzzles that established Marling as a major new indie talent both as an actress and a writer.  The studio-backed THE EAST, on the other hand, is clichéd, trite, and just plain dumb.  Welcome to Hollywood.  This is a rare case where you wish the suits would've intervened and taken the movie away from its makers.  (PG-13, 116 mins)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

In Theaters: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Paul Greengrass.  Written by Billy Ray.  Cast: Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, David Warshofsky, Chris Mulkey, Corey Johnson, Yul Vazquez, Max Martini. (PG-13, 134 mins)

Paul Greengrass brings the harrowing immediacy of BLOODY SUNDAY and UNITED 93 and the relentless pace of THE BOURNE SUPREMACY and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM to this dramatization of the hostage ordeal of Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks).  Phillips was the captain of the American cargo ship Maersk Alabama when it was boarded by four Somali pirates while en route from Oman to Kenya in April 2009.  When his crew manages to capture pirate leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi), they get some leverage to convince his cohorts to let Phillips go, but the exchange is botched and the four pirates end up taking Phillips with them in the Alabama lifeboat, with the ship itself closely trailing them.  Eventually, Seal Team Six is dispatched and a full-scale military operation is launched to rescue Phillips from his captors before they can get him to Somalia.

Like any film "based on a true story," dramatic license is used and liberties taken.  Controversies erupted shortly before the film was released as Maersk Alabama crew members began strongly disputing the way the film presents the events and, specifically, Captain Phillips.  Hanks portrays the captain as a stickler--fair and just, and one of the team, but he's all business.  He takes e-mail warnings of piracy threats seriously and runs the crew through a drill just before a first failed attack by a larger crew accompanying Muse.  Not so, say some crew members, who paint a picture of Phillips as vain, arrogant, and even having a "death wish," intentionally steering them into dangerous waters known for pirate attacks.   They claim Phillips ignored the warnings and during the first of two attacks (as opposed to one presented in the film), insisted on finishing a lifeboat drill with the crew as the pirates approached the ship.  Eleven crew members of the Alabama are suing the Maersk line for Phillips' "willful, wanton, and conscious disregard" for their safety.

There's two sides to every story and the fact is, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is not a documentary.  It's Hollywood entertainment first and foremost and if Phillips isn't the heroic figure that Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (SHATTERED GLASS, BREACH) depict, it would hardly be the first time that a real-life event was fictionalized for entertainment purposes.    In the film, the Maersk crew respect Phillips, and he only raises his voice when confronted with irate crew members who "didn't sign on for this" (but they quickly pull together and rally behind him), and prior to the attack, when he passive-aggressively informs some union guys that they're taking too long on a coffee break.  Regardless of any alleged liberties taken, the film is a grueling nail-biter of the highest order, with Hanks turning in one of the most subtly powerful performances of his career.  It's one that really crescendos into an emotionally draining finale when Hanks displays what might be the best ten minutes he's ever had onscreen.  Even knowing the controversies going in, and trying not to compare the possibly very flawed real-life Captain Phillips with the idealized, American everyman "Captain Phillips" being played by Hanks, it's impossible to not get sucked in by the actor's stunning work in this scene.  It's the kind of scene--like Jessica Chastain's outburst to her boss in ZERO DARK THIRTY--that guarantees an Oscar nomination.

The Alabama crew features some veteran character actors like Chris Mulkey and David Warshofsky, but other than Hanks, the focus is on the four novice actors who play the pirates:  Abdi as Muse, Barkhad Abdirahman as the teenaged Bilal, Mahat M. Ali as Elmi, and Faysal Ahmed as Najee.  Recruited in concentrated Somali immigrant enclaves in Minnesota, these four newcomers hold their own with the two-time Oscar-winner.  Muse is a reluctant pirate, only doing it because of the lack of opportunities and a need to impress their powerful warlord.  He just wants money and goods and has no real desire to harm anyone, which contrasts sharply with the bloodthirsty Najee.  You know how every cinematic hostage situation has the one guy with a bad temper and an itchy trigger finger who fucks it up for everyone else when things are going smoothly?  That's Najee's function here. 

Given the current legal proceedings against the Maersk line and the allegations against Phillips, it's clear that the Captain Phillips story is far from over, but as its own Hollywood suspense thriller, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, after some strangely clunky, ham-fisted foreshadowing in an opening scene with Phillips being dropped off at the airport by his wife (Catherine Keener), is one of the year's most intense and ultimately emotional films.  By the time the Somalis attack the Alabama--both the failed first attempt and the successful second--in a pair of heart-pounding, drawn-out sequences where no detail is left unaddressed, you'll be hooked.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: THE MONSTER CLUB (1981)

(UK - 1981)

Directed by Roy Ward Baker.  Written by Edward and Valerie Abraham.  Cast: Vincent Price, Donald Pleasence, John Carradine, Stuart Whitman, Richard Johnson, Barbara Kellermann, Britt Ekland, Simon Ward, Anthony Valentine, Patrick Magee, Anthony Steel, James Laurenson, Geoffrey Bayldon, Warren Saire, Lesley Dunlop, Fran Fullenwider, The Viewers, B.A. Robertson, Night, The Pretty Things. (Unrated, 98 mins)

Anthology, or portmanteau horror films weren't a new concept when they became hugely popular in the 1960s.  1945's DEAD OF NIGHT, anchored by the classic ventriloquist dummy segment with Michael Redgrave, established the template, Roger Corman's Poe anthology TALES OF TERROR (1962) was a big hit, and TV series such as ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, THRILLER, THE OUTER LIMITS, and THE TWILIGHT ZONE got fans accustomed to compact, 30-minute stories.  But when the British company Amicus, led by Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, produced 1965's DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, the style really took off, generating many similar, frequently star-studded anthology outings with titles like TORTURE GARDEN (1967), THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970), ASYLUM (1972), TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) and THE VAULT OF HORROR (1973).  By the mid-1970s, the subgenre's popularity began to fade, with lesser titles like TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973) and FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974) paling in comparison to the anthology's heyday.  With shocking horror films like THE EXORCIST (1973) and THE OMEN (1976) rendering classic horror passé with 1970s moviegoers, the omnibus film of the Amicus sort quietly faded away, much like Amicus itself as Subotsky (1921-1991) and Rosenberg (1914-2004) parted ways in the mid-1970s.  Similar to the in-name-only resurrection of the legendary British horror house Hammer, the Amicus name would be revived in the 2000s, but we haven't heard much from it other than Stuart Gordon's STUCK (2008) and the atrocious 2009 remake of Larry Cohen's 1974 cult classic IT'S ALIVE.  As far as the British anthologies go, a few stragglers wandered in, like 1977's Canadian/British feline-centric collection THE UNCANNY, but by this time, audiences moved on.

Made during a period when theaters were filled with gory, post-HALLOWEEN/FRIDAY THE 13TH slasher films and the groundbreaking special effects of ALIEN, THE HOWLING, and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and featuring a cast of geriatric and/or past-their-prime actors, it's little wonder that the tardy anthology THE MONSTER CLUB failed to attract a US distributor, going straight to syndicated TV and appearing on VHS a few years later.  An Amicus production in every way except by name, THE MONSTER CLUB, recently released in a beautiful transfer on Blu-ray and DVD by Scorpion, was an adaptation of three stories in British horror writer R. Chetwynd-Hayes' 1975 collection of the same name.  Directed by Amicus and Hammer vet Roy Ward Baker, the film stars John Carradine as Chetwynd-Hayes, who's bitten by an affable vampire named Eramus (Vincent Price) and taken to the secret Monster Club, a hangout for ghouls, monsters, and new-wave bands, where Eramus tells him three horrific stories to inspire his writing.  In the first, Simon Ward is a scheming shitbag who badgers his girlfriend (Barbara Kellermann) into answering a newspaper ad seeking someone to help catalog a library, figuring there's expensive goodies to steal and fence.  The homeowner (James Laurenson), a sensitive, lonely shut-in, turns out to be a "shadmock," a supernatural creature who emits a lethal whistling sound when angered.  In the more comedic second tale, Richard Johnson is a vampire quietly going about his nocturnal routine as his loving wife (Britt Ekland) keeps his secret even from their bullied son (Warren Saire).  The son has been befriended by a concerned priest (Donald Pleasence), who's really the leader of a squad of vampire hunters from the government's "Blood Crimes" unit.  The final story has a frustrated movie director (Stuart Whitman) location-scouting for a gothic horror film and stumbling on a creepy village populated by grave-desecrating, cannibalistic ghouls led by Patrick Magee (in one of his last roles) and figuring out too late that he's their next intended feast.

Occasionally eerie but never taking itself very seriously, THE MONSTER CLUB certainly won't go down as an essential British anthology horror flick, but even with some cheesy humor and some dated songs, time has been surprisingly kind to it.  While there might not have been a place for it in American movie theaters in 1981, TV audiences were much more welcoming with it, likely because young horror fans were already watching movies with Price and Carradine (and Karloff, Lugosi, Lee, Cushing, etc) on Saturday afternoon and late-night "Creature Features."  There's nothing in the way of gore other than one rather icky result of a shadmocking, and even some near-nudity gets obscured and turned into an animated joke.  In those respects, it's quaintly old-fashioned, but also nothing that 1981 audiences wanted to see on the big screen.  The biggest concession THE MONSTER CLUB makes to "the kids" is the inclusion of some extended musical interludes featuring songs by UB40 and onscreen appearances by the short-lived Night, and The Pretty Things, who had just reunited and contributed the title track as Price and Carradine can be seen busting moves on the Monster Club's dance floor (with Price almost grinding on a large actress named Fran Fullenwider).  Carradine seems a bit miscast and more than a little bewildered (Peter Cushing would've been perfect; Christopher Lee was approached for the role and reportedly declined when he heard the title), but Price is clearly having fun with his sole big-screen appearance as a vampire.

While some of THE MONSTER CLUB's humor is corny by design (especially in the second story, though the predicament Pleasence ultimately finds himself in is a rather ingenious development that's legitimately laugh-out-loud funny), some of it is surprisingly witty, with Price's vampire complaining that his kind find it hard to do their thing because of so many horror movies ruining things for them ("Everybody knows about garlic and stakes through the heart!"), and when Anthony Steel appears as a producer of vampire films named "Lintom Busotsky," Carradine exclaims "A vampire film producer?" to which Price quips "Aren't they all?"  There's also some unexpectedly sharp and cynical social commentary near the end when Price's Eramus nominates Chetwynd-Hayes to become the Monster Club's newest member, explaining that humans, with their guns, their wars, their anger, and their endless bloodlust and propensity for murder, are perhaps the biggest monsters of all.  None of this is to say that THE MONSTER CLUB is filled with deep insight, but it is better than its reputation as the last gasp of a dying subgenre.  Anthology films didn't go away--they just changed shape:  George A. Romero's CREEPSHOW was in theaters the next year, Price would similarly appear in the wraparound segments of the much more grisly 1987 horror omnibus THE OFFSPRING (aka FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM), and more recently, the two V/H/S films and THE ABCs OF DEATH have found an audience with newer and apparently more lenient horror fans.  But THE MONSTER CLUB was the last of its kind: the British portmanteau rooted in classic horror.  Fittingly, it was also the last feature film directed by Baker (1916-2010), whose career began with Hollywood fare like the Marilyn Monroe thriller DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952).  He's best known among serious cineastes for the Titanic classic A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958), but not long after that, he became a go-to horror guy for Hammer and Amicus, helming such genre favorites as FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1967) and THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970), among many others.  After THE MONSTER CLUB, Baker moved into British television until retiring in the early 1990s.  Late in his life and still sharp and full of stories, he contributed several commentary tracks on DVD releases of some of his classic horror films.

Scorpion's Blu-ray, framed at 1.78, really is the best this film has ever looked (despite their usual packaging typos, like "R. Chetwood-Hayes" and "Milton Dubotsky"), and it features two outstanding extras courtesy of journalist/historian/close Price friend David Del Valle, including an audio interview and an hour-long, career-spanning 1987 interview for Del Valle's public access show THE SINISTER IMAGE. Price, taking a little time to plug Lindsay Anderson's just-released THE WHALES OF AUGUST, is very much the elegant raconteur here, candidly talking about his classic films and his old and, in some cases, departed Hollywood friends.  This same interview, previously released as its own DVD by Image, is featured on Shout Factory's upcoming Price box set from his AIP/Poe days.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

In Theaters: MACHETE KILLS (2013)

(US/Russia - 2013)

Directed by Robert Rodriguez.  Written by Kyle Ward.  Cast: Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Mel Gibson, Demian Bichir, Sofia Vergara, Amber Heard, Antonio Banderas, Lady Gaga, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Walton Goggins, Vanessa Hudgens, Jessica Alba, Alexa Vega, William Sadler, Tom Savini, Julio Oscar Mechoso, Marko Zaror, Electra Avellan, Elise Avellan, Marci Madison, and introducing Carlos Estevez. (R, 107 mins)

Originating as one of the fake trailers in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's GRINDHOUSE (2007), MACHETE was spun off into its own film in 2010, finally giving the great Danny Trejo the spotlight in his own project.  The resulting film, parodying the same grindhouse aura of GRINDHOUSE, was gleefully over-the-top trash with everyone from Steven Seagal, Jeff Fahey, Lindsay Lohan, and Robert De Niro on hand to make fun of themselves.  MACHETE KILLS is more of the same, only sillier, if that's even possible.  Rodriguez isn't so much emulating '70s grindhouse trash anymore as much as he's just making a ludicrous parody of action movies.  There's a good amount of laughs and some even more self-deprecating casting, but it's all just too much.  Running a gaseous 107 minutes, Rodriguez gets pretty self-indulgent with MACHETE KILLS, and it probably would've been better if it had been 20-30 minutes shorter, making it more in line with what it's supposed to be riffing.

After seeing his partner and lover Sartana (Jessica Alba) killed while on a covert government mission, Machete is summoned to the White House and assigned by President Rathcock ("introducing Carlos Estevez") to go into Mexico and kill Mendez (Demian Bichir), a revolutionary with a split personality who has a nuclear missle aimed at Washington, DC that's wired to his heart and will launch if his heart stops beating.  During their confrontation, Mendez's evil personality pulls the pin on the heart device, giving Machete 24 hours to dismantle it, which requires the two of them crossing the border into the US (as the film briefly turns into an "...if they don't kill each other first! mismatched-buddy movie) to find the only man who can do it:  megalomaniacal multi-billionaire weapons manufacturer and global terrorist Luther Voz (Mel Gibson).  Voz designed the detonator and has even bigger plans beyond nuking Washington:  he's got a space station hovering above the planet and will be populating it with the richest of the rich after starting a series of global catastrophes.  With crazed, gun-barrel-breasted madam Desdemona (a scenery-chewing Sofia Vergara) and elusive assassin La Chamaleon (alternately played by Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr, Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas) in hot pursuit, Machete gets help from sexy undercover agent Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard), and his old cohort Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) to thwart Voz's nefarious plan of taking over the galaxy.

Filled with intentionally dubious-looking CGI and ridiculous levels of violence and gore, MACHETE KILLS is dumb fun, which is the whole point.  But there's no denying that it starts to drag after a while and you wonder if maybe this should've been left as a trailer.  A lot of it is repetitious and could've been trimmed down, like the whole subplot with William Sadler as a racist sheriff on the Arizona border, who keeps calling Machete "Taco."  The character of "La Chamaleon" is funny, but Rodriguez and screenwriter Kyle Ward don't do much with it other than put increasingly unlikely actors in the role for a scene before they disappear.  Only Trejo appears throughout the film, and it's obvious that everyone else dropped by as their schedule allowed ("Carlos Estevez" never interacts with any other cast members--he and Trejo are never in the same shot together--and he actually looks CGI'd in his final scene).   Stone-faced Trejo is still a badass Machete and his emotionless delivery of lines like "Machete don't Tweet" are never not funny.  Between this and his role as the main villain in the upcoming THE EXPENDABLES 3, it's clear that the far-beyond-damage control Gibson is throwing in the towel and diving right into the self-parody phase of his career, probably because there's no other offers coming his way, but still, it's amusing seeing him on a huge set straight out of MOONRAKER and wearing a Darth Vader-like space cape.  Thanks to Trejo and some stars checking their egos at the door, MACHETE KILLS is enjoyable and the actors are having a blast, but there's just too much of it.  It overstays its welcome and simply doesn't know when to quit.  Hopefully, Rodriguez can rein it in a little and keep it to more sensible 85-90 minutes if and when he gets around to the promised third entry whose trailer is featured at the beginning of the film:  MACHETE KILLS AGAIN...IN SPACE!