Wednesday, December 31, 2014

In Theaters: THE GAMBLER (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Written by William Monahan. Cast: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Brie Larson, Michael Kenneth Williams, George Kennedy, Andre Braugher, Anthony Kelley, Emory Cohen, Alvin Ing, Domenick Lombardozzi, Richard Schiff, Simon Rhee. (R, 111 mins)

In remaking the Dostoevsky-inspired, James Toback-scripted, Karel Reisz-directed 1974 cult film THE GAMBLER, screenwriter William Monahan (THE DEPARTED) and director Rupert Wyatt (RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) initially make a sincere effort to stick to the gritty, character-driven ideals of the source. Many scenes in the early-going are almost defiant in the way they let dialogue-heavy interactions and conversations go on with little concern for audience restlessness and in no hurry at all to move at the quick-cut, short-attention-span pace of most of today's multiplex offerings. In many ways, it's part of a current throwback movement to the 1970s as seen in recent films like THE DROP and A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES. THE GAMBLER '74 had the rock-solid foundation of James Caan entering the post-GODFATHER pinnacle of his career, all cocksure swagger and Sonny Corleone rage as Ivy League-educated, NYU literature prof Axel Freed, who's in debt to loan sharks to the tune of $44,000. Toback's script was largely autobiographical and THE GAMBLER '14 lacks that personal touch and its '70s aesthetic has a certain artificiality to it as the film goes on (gifted prodigies acting out against suffocating family expectations would be a theme Toback explored further in his brilliant 1978 directorial debut FINGERS). While films like THE DROP and A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES have a '70s mindset in the present day, THE GAMBLER '14 strays from its source as it progresses, becoming more beholden to commercial expectations and predictable character arcs, and despite drastically higher stakes thanks to inflation, it never really feels like L.A.-based literature prof and one-and-done novelist Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is in any serious danger.

Hailed as a bold new voice in fiction in 2007, Bennett never got around to writing that second novel and instead berates his students for their lack of inspiration and effort and not possessing the talent to do so anyway. Amy (Brie Larson), his one student with potential, knows his secret life: she's a waitress at a seedy gambling den owned by Korean mobster Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), who staked over $100,000 to Jim, who promptly lost it all in one doomed spin of a roulette wheel. These early scenes establish the purely suicidal self-destruction of the character in the same way as the 1974 film, and both Axel Freed and Jim Bennett seem to be rebelling against their family wealth and privileged upbringing. Wyatt wrings considerable suspense out of intensely stomach-turning scenes of an addicted Jim at a blackjack table, $80,000 on the line, angrily demanding another card when he's already at 18. Of course he loses it all--Jim's only really satisfied when he loses it all, and he seeks out the most dangerously shady people imaginable for extra cash, whether it's powerful crime lord Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) or God-like loan shark Frank (John Goodman, who's terrific). The film opens with Jim visiting his dying grandfather (George Kennedy sighting!), the 17th-richest man in California, who refuses to leave him any money because he needs to build his character. Once Jim is $260,000 in debt to both Mr. Lee and Neville, and turns down a stake from Frank because he refuses to meet Frank's demand of admitting "I am a piece of shit gambler," and "I am not a man," he hits up his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange), who gives him the money, after which he drives to Vegas with Amy and almost immediately blows it all at a blackjack table.

The relationship that develops between Jim and Amy is one of the more problematic elements of Monahan's script. Monahan tries to draw a parallel between Jim and Amy's alcoholic mother by showing that she's inherently drawn to the addicted and the damaged, but at the same time, her actions and decisions never really feel plausible. She knows what kind of guy Jim is and the sorts of people with whom he's entangled--she even works at an illegal casino--but the character as shown is too level-headed and smart to so easily fall for a shit magnet like Jim. It doesn't help that the film loses track of her as it goes on, and Larson (robbed of an Oscar nomination for last year's SHORT TERM 12) is too good for such a muddled and sketchily-written role. Her attraction to Jim would make a lot more sense if Wahlberg was playing the part like Caan played Axel Freed. Where Axel publicly possessed a magnetic sense of indestructible, self-confident bravado no matter how much money he lost, Wahlberg's Jim is disheveled, glum and glowering, with a constant Joe Btfsplk dark cloud hovering over him from the moment he's introduced. Axel Freed tried to make it rain, it blew up in his face, and he defiantly asked for more, while Jim Bennett just shrugs and places another five-figure bet on one hand. Both are committing slow suicide, but Wahlberg's characterization doesn't have the same sense of consequences-be-damned kamikaze fervor, regardless of how good he is in the role. Caan's Axel Freed came off like a dumbass, but he was a dumbass with balls. Wahlberg's Jim Bennett just comes off like a dumbass.

The change in the main character's mindset probably has more to do with Wyatt and Monahan needing to do something different in order to avoid a straight scene-for-scene remake, but all the changes do is put a spotlight on what worked so well in 1974. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the climax, after which Jim has talked one of his students, a star basketball player and guaranteed NBA prospect (Anthony Kelley) to shave points in a game in order to settle his debt with Neville. Reisz and Toback had Axel Freed celebrate by going to the wrong side of town looking for a fight, getting one, and ending the film in an ambiguous, nihilistic fashion that shows there's no limit to his mad quest to take increasingly dangerous risks, essentially gambling himself to death. Wyatt and Monahan, in accordance with THE GAMBLER '14 being a major-studio movie released at Christmas, have to give Jim a crowd-pleasing happy ending. It doesn't gel with the tone of what came before, and Jim's done nothing to really make the audience care about his shot at redemption. On top of that, too much of the film feels like Scorsese-lite, from the DEPARTED-style soliloquizing of the characters to the classic rock soundtrack, with incongruous reggae covers of Pink Floyd's "Time," and "Money," a Billy Bragg version of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," and Scala & Kolacny Brothers' take on Radiohead's "Creep."

Whatever the extent of THE GAMBLER '14's problems, the performances aren't among them. A scrawny-looking and obviously committed Wahlberg reportedly dropped 60 lbs and does a solid job with an often unplayable role, and while Amy is a woefully underwritten character, the promising Larson still shines--Wyatt gives her a great and very odd little scene where she's doing this strange walk/dance in slo-mo while heading to class and the actress' goofy facial expressions are guaranteed to turn you into a Brie Larson fan; it's a throwaway moment that almost looks like it's edited together from a set of outtakes, but turns into her best moment in the film. THE GAMBLER '14's biggest strengths come from its supporting cast, with Lange getting a couple of devastating scenes as Jim's mother, torn between her disgust with her son and the hole into which he's dug himself, but also remorseful that maybe his upbringing, her shrewdness, and her obsession with wealth are what drove him to be the fuck-up that he is. Goodman sinks his teeth into his role, frequently seen holding court in a steamroom, telling Jim how to play it smart and get himself to a "Fuck you" position in life, and unable to comprehend Jim's story about how he was once up $2.5 million and lost it all on one hand. It's great seeing 89-year-old Kennedy, an Oscar-winner for 1967's COOL HAND LUKE, back on the big screen again, though his prominent billing and his one minute or so of screen time probably indicate he had a larger role at some point. It's also worth noting that veteran character actor Leland Orser's name turns up in the credits but he's never seen--he was cast as a rival lit professor in a subplot that appears to have been completely excised, along with most of Andre Braugher's scenes as the college dean (he has one brief bit talking to Jim in a hallway), all of which point to some eleventh-hour editing still going on shortly before the film's release (Orser is briefly seen in the trailer). As far as remakes go, you can do a lot worse. THE GAMBLER '14 has its strong points, but ultimately, it pales in comparison to THE GAMBLER '74, which still held up beautifully as of a revisit a month or so ago. The original GAMBLER came out 40 years ago and is still held in high regard today.  Will people even remember the remake of THE GAMBLER 40 days from now?

Sunday, December 28, 2014


(US/New Zealand - 2014)

Directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro. Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Ian Holm, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Stephen Fry, Billy Connolly, Sylvester McCoy, James Nesbitt, Jed Brophy, Stephen Hunter, Ryan Gage, Manu Bennett, John Tui, Mikael Persbrandt. (PG-13, 143 mins)

"One Last Time" seems to be the resounding theme throughout this final chapter in the HOBBIT trilogy as well as in its advertising. The films in Peter Jackson's original 2001-2003 LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy stand--especially in their extended editions--among the most monumental achievements in all of cinema. But by splitting J.R.R. Tolkien's relatively light and quick-reading Hobbit into another colossal, epic trilogy and insisting on shooting them in the absurd 48 fps "high frame rate," a format that makes everything look like a live TV broadcast, really only works for expansive exterior shots and is preferred by no one with a name other than "Peter Jackson," Jackson seems guided more by hubris and self-indulgence than anything. The Hobbit isn't meant to be as huge as The Lord of the Rings. It's a smaller, more brisk story and by importing elements of Tolkien's The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, bringing Orlando Bloom back to play Legolas, a character not even present in Tolkien's novel, and even going so far as to invent his own entirely new character--the elf Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly--and granting her as much, if not more plot and screen time than the key principals, Jackson is only demonstrating that he doesn't know when or where to stop. It's great that Jackson loves Tolkien so much, but where his LOTR trilogy ranks with the original 1977-1983 STAR WARS trilogy, his bloated, three-part HOBBIT, while well-acted and enjoyable on its own terms, is his STAR WARS: EPISODE I-III, and like George Lucas, he's surrounded by yes-men and basically at the point where he's too rich and powerful for anyone to tell him "no." When Jackson made the original LOTR trilogy, he had an insane ambition and something to prove. Remove that and the HOBBIT trilogy feels like little more than an extended victory lap.

At least the third part of the HOBBIT trilogy, THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, is the shortest at a mere 143 minutes. Roughly half of the running time is devoted to the epic battle at Erebor, where Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) has reclaimed the Dwarven birthright following the dragon Smaug's (motion captured by Benedict Cumberbatch) rampage on Laketown and its subsequent death courtesy of the black arrow fired by Bard (Luke Evans). Thorin has been driven mad with power and is obsessively hunting for the Arkenstone, which has been stolen by Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who knows that it's dangerous for Thorin to possess. Meanwhile, Bard has led a large band of Laketown refugees to Dale, where he's formed a tentative alliance with elf king Thanduil (Lee Pace), who wants elven jewels being kept in Smaug's former stronghold. Legolas and Tauriel also turn up, with Tauriel still dealing with her forbidden love for the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) as Orcs launch an offensive and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) dispenses sage advice.

With FIVE ARMIES, Jackson attempts to send the trilogy off with multiple extended battle sequences that play like a bunch of Helm's Deeps strung together. There's some occasionally inspired bits of action and some dazzling visuals that look fine in standard, 24 fps 3D (though the waxy sheen and gauzy Barbara Walters soft focus on some of the actors, particularly Bloom, can be distracting), but after a while, it's hard for it not to become an exhausting, eye-glazing CGI blur, quite often looking more like a video game than a movie. FIVE ARMIES works best in its few small-scale and quieter moments, be it a smiling nod from Gandalf (again, McKellen has little to do here aside from "show up and be Ian McKellen," but he owns this role so thoroughly that even watching him phone it in is a pleasure) or Thorin coming to his senses and realizing that he's been treating his friends horribly. There's so many characters and intertwining subplots that Freeman's Bilbo more or less disappears into the ensemble until it's time for him to say goodbye to the dwarves and head back to his home at Bag End. Despite some good performances by Evans and Armitage, there's too little of the sense of emotional connection that worked so brilliantly in the LOTR trilogy, where its many scenes of friendship and camaraderie never fail to get the waterworks going for fans. It's not like the magic is gone, but the freshness definitely is, even with brief, shoehorned-in appearances by other LOTR alumni like Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman, and Hugo Weaving as Elrond (their bits were intended for THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG but cut from it and edited into this film instead), and in using more CGI than ever in this closing installment (the shot of Legolas running along a bridge as it collapses is dreadful), there's a very diminished sense of humanity compared to before.

In his LOTR trilogy, Jackson paid loving tribute to Tolkien and captured the writer's voice and spirit with nothing less than absolute perfection. But by stretching THE HOBBIT from a 300-page breeze of a read to three films totaling around eight hours--even longer once you factor in the DVD/Blu-ray extended editions--Jackson is only paying tribute to Peter Jackson, capturing the voice and spirit of a gifted visionary who can no longer do anything without completely overdoing it, like a three-hour-plus KING KONG. I probably sound like I hate the three HOBBIT films, but I don't. They're entertaining and demonstrate flashes of past LOTR greatness (Cumberbatch's Smaug in the second film is probably the highlight), but the overall feeling is one of shrugging ambivalence. The LOTR trilogy is one that vividly entertains and still richly rewards. The nice-enough-while-you're-watching-it but forgettable HOBBIT trilogy is just there. People still talk about LOTR in reverent tones, but do you know anyone who really loves the HOBBIT movies and speaks of them as highly as the LOTR films? Everybody's gone to see the HOBBIT movies but it seems like we've approached this new trilogy more out of a feeling of obligation than out of the feverish excitement we collectively had a decade ago. I'm actually sort-of glad that it's done.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: THE BABADOOK (2014)

(Australia - 2014)

Written and directed by Jennifer Kent. Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McEllhinney, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Ben Winspear, Cathy Adamek, Craig Behenna, Tim Purcell. (Unrated, 94 mins)

Even before the initial appearance of a sinister monster sprung from the pages of a childrens' pop-up book, THE BABADOOK is a extraordinarily unsettling film that constantly threatens to suffocate the audience with despair and dread. Making her feature debut, Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent has created an instant cult item that not only avoids genre trends, but utilizes relatively primitive, low-budget visual effects in a stylish and effective way and still manages to leave most modern horror films and the so-called "masters of horror" who made them in the dust. The film centers on Abigail (Essie Davis) and her six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). They live in a gray, dreary house with their dog Bugsy, and it doesn't take long to conclude that there are problems in this family. Abigail is raising Samuel on her own, as her husband Oskar (Ben Winspear) was killed in a car accident...driving her to the hospital to have Samuel. A former magazine journalist who settled for the 9-to-5 world after becoming a single mother, Abigail is barely hanging on to her nursing job at a retirement home, and Samuel is convinced there's a monster in the house and has started constructing homemade weapons to combat it and protect his mother. Things get worse when a pop-up book about a boogeyman called Mister Babadook suddenly appears, and the story's promise of "If it's in a word or it's in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook" traumatizes Samuel to the point he starts having seizures when he believes the Babadook is nearby and approaching him.

All of this does nothing to alleviate an already tense situation between mother and son. Davis turns in a fearless, Oscar-worthy performance in the kind of role that would be tough for most Hollywood A-listers to pull off. As the film works its way to the introduction of the Babadook, Abigail is shown to be a mom who really doesn't like being a mom. She also doesn't seem to like her kid all that much. The sound of his voice makes her wince and grind her teeth. Make no mistake, Samuel is one of the most irritating, helpless, and perpetually needy children that the movies have ever offered. Abigail is filled with such sorrow and resentment of her beloved husband's death and the current state of her life that, however unintentional it may be, she clearly blames Samuel for the direction things have taken. Samuel is always demanding her constant attention, and she can't even enjoy some downtime with her vibrator without the boy barging into her room, craving more attention. It's a bold move on Kent's part to almost openly encourage the audience to dislike Samuel, though it's all part of the design once the Babadook is "let in" and seems to take possession of Abigail. Yes, there's a possession element to THE BABADOOK, but this is not another EXORCIST knockoff.  In less capable hands, yes, it would be. But Kent is interested in more than just horror formula, though she does borrow another bit from THE EXORCIST in the way that the malevolent force is allowed into a tumultuous situation, in this case a household mired in co-dependence and dysfunction. The Babadook itself can be seen as a symbol of Abigail's rage and grief and the mental illness that has resulted from it or was there all along--we don't know. Note how Samuel has fits when the "Babadook" is near, almost like it's the paralyzing fear of the person his mother becomes during these episodes.  Is she bipolar? Schizophrenic? Or just unable to get over the death of her husband, a man she obviously cherishes more than the child he fathered, a constant reminder of the void in her life that cannot be filled?

There's some ambiguity in that sense, at least until some clarity is provided in the final scenes. THE BABADOOK is so terrifying at times that you almost forget the titular figure (played in some shots by prop effects tech Tim Purcell) is barely in it. The Babadook will no doubt become the iconic Freddy and Pinhead of its generation, and rightly so, but the figure itself is seen only fleetingly. It doesn't need to be seen that much, really, especially once he's let into Abigail, in a possessive sense. Kent is thankfully uninterested in standard-issue jump scares and gross-out moments and more focused on character and story with sporadic shots that give you the willies. She lets the story build very deliberately, allowing us to get to know Abigail and Samuel, and it's a smart move, though it wouldn't work were it not for the stellar performances of Davis and young Wiseman. As terrific as Wiseman is--and he masters the extremely difficult move of winning back your sympathy after spending the first half of the film establishing Samuel in the unappealing ways possible--the success of THE BABADOOK rests mostly on Davis' shoulders. It's an astonishing performance, physically and emotionally draining, and in a just world, would be getting significant attention during the upcoming awards season, but it'll never happen because it's a horror movie with a silly title. And it's not just in her raging and her bitterness toward Samuel, but also in the little, fleeting moments of peace and happiness that seem almost heartbreaking, whether she's taking off work early to have some time alone and getting an ice cream cone at the mall, or watching her elderly neighbor (Barbara West) drink tea and laugh at a movie she's watching on TV, quiet moments of leisure that are completely alien to her. Richly-textured, gut-wrenching, often uncomfortable (if Mike Leigh ever made a horror movie, it would probably end up looking a lot like this), and scary as hell, THE BABADOOK is not just one of the top horror offerings to come along in some time, but it's also one of the very best films of 2014.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: THE INTERVIEW (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg. Written by Dan Sterling. Cast: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang, Timothy Simons, Reese Alexander, James Yi, Paul Bae. (R, 112 mins)

Looking beyond the Sony hack, the alleged involvement of North Korea and the awkwardly-worded threats of another "11th of September" from the so-called Guardians of Peace that led to the leading American multiplex chains going into full-on pants-shitting mode and opting to not show it, prompting Sony to cancel the release altogether only to give it a VOD and limited run in indie theaters on its original Christmas Day release date anyway as debate that the whole controversy resulting from the hack is nothing more than an elaborate hoax continues...is THE INTERVIEW worth all the hassle? Sadly, no. It's not. But now that seeing the movie has become a matter of "free speech" and "America! Fuck yeah!" what would've been a minor and mostly forgettable comedy is now a phenomenon, and once audiences get a chance to show their patriotism by watching it, the message will be received loud and clear: everyone involved knew this was a dud. And we all got scammed.  Merry Christmas!

With its plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, you'd think THE INTERVIEW would be an edgy, ballsy political satire, perhaps the present-day equivalent of Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR or Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE. It's not a thoughtful, intelligent takedown of global politics--instead, it's a thinly-veiled remake of ISHTAR, only with more LORD OF THE RINGS references and talk of sharting and "stinkdick." Vapid Dave Skylark (James Franco), host of the tabloid/entertainment news show Skylark Tonight, is happy doing celebrity puff pieces, but his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) has more ambition. An opportunity presents itself when the pair discover that North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is a Dave Skylark superfan. The North Korean government invites Skylark to Pyongyang for a sit-down interview with Kim in an effort to show the world that he's not the insane dictator that he's been portrayed as by the world media. The CIA has other plans for the pair's visit: Agents Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) and Botwin (Reese Alexander) want Skylark and Rapoport to "take out" Kim with a handshake dose of ricin that will absorb through his skin and kill him in 12 hours. But once Skylark meets Kim (Randall Park), he's won over by his gregarious side despite warnings from Lacey that he's a master manipulator.

There are a few laughs in THE INTERVIEW, mainly in the early going, with cameos by Eminem (outing himself as gay) and Rob Lowe (revealing he's been wearing a wig all these years), and things pick up for a while once Park first appears at around the mid-point. The actor's portrayal of the bashful, misunderstood Kim is very well-played, whether he's reluctantly admitting he loves margaritas and Katy Perry or dunking on Skylark while the pair shoot hoops. But that only works to the point where Kim inevitably turns into the monster the heroes have been sent to kill, as Rogen and his THIS IS THE END co-director Evan Goldberg resort to a CGI-filled, action extravaganza finale since Sony gave them $45 million to fuck around. The bulk of THE INTERVIEW is a self-indulgent misfire, with entirely too many jokes that just fizzle no matter how many times they're repeated, and even watching it on VOD, you can practically hear the crickets chirping in a theater packed with holiday moviegoers. Rogen does an okay job of playing the flustered, slow-burning straight man to Franco's spotlight-loving Skylark, but Franco's over-the-top performance is grating and mannered, and any characterization he might be after is completely squelched by his shameless mugging. Former DAILY SHOW and THE OFFICE producer Dan Sterling's script (based on a story idea by Rogen and Goldberg) wallows in toilet humor, which can be funny, but what's the point in approaching such an obviously hot-button issue if all you're going to do is have Rapoport shoving a dauntingly-wide metal container up his ass, Skylark obsessing that Kim "doesn't pee or poop," or resort to stereotypical standbys like "Me so solly!" and jokes about Asians eating dogs? There's a couple of legitimately scathing zingers (Kim's information minister, played by Diana Bang, asks Skylark "How many times can the US make the same mistake?" to which the Ugly American proudly and emphatically replies "As many times as it takes!") amidst the toothless attempts at satire and a climactic montage set to Scorpions' "Wind of Change," but THE INTERVIEW's biggest offense--aside from Franco's truly unbearable performance--is that it's a comedy that's simply not all that funny.

Friday, December 19, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR (2014) and THE DEVIL'S HAND (2014)

(US - 2014)

Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy's THE PACT (2012) was one of the most effective feature debuts in the horror genre in recent years. A terrific example of slow-burn done right, THE PACT was a genuine sleeper that's found a major cult following thanks to its streaming on Netflix Instant. McCarthy's follow-up effort, AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR (shot and shown at festivals under the title HOME), shares some common themes with THE PACT and again allows the director to indulge in his gift for establishing an ominous sense of dread that grows more stomach-turning and uneasy with each new sequence. But McCarthy tries to tackle too much here: too many characters and too many detours lead to too many cut corners and too many loose ends.  As in THE PACT, McCarthy's key concern is family: THE PACT had adult sisters whose memories of their dysfunctional upbringing manifest in unexpected ways in the present day. AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR has adult sisters who seem to have been orphaned at a relatively young age, with the older Leigh (MARIA FULL OF GRACE Oscar-nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno) seeing herself as the mother figure to the younger Vera (GLEE's Naya Rivera). But before we get to any of that, McCarthy's focus is on a teenager (Ashley Rickards) who falls hard for a boy (Nick Eversman) and ends up (I guess) inhabited by some kind of demonic spirit after playing a high-stakes shell game with the boy's creepy uncle (Michael Massee). Some initially unspecified amount of time passes as McCarthy then shifts to Leigh, a real estate agent tasked with selling the house where the girl used to live, and whom Leigh occasionally sees in the house only to flee when she tries to talk to her. Circumstances soon put Vera in the position of central character, when she's forced to take it upon herself to find the mystery girl and get to the bottom of assorted supernatural goings-on.

McCarthy plays his cards close to the vest in the early going, with some narrative time-jumping and a major reveal involving Rickards' character that probably should've landed better than it does. It's not unusual for a filmmaker to shift protagonists in the middle of the movie--PSYCHO is the granddaddy of that move--and Zack Parker's PROXY is probably the most recent example of one that does it successfully, but McCarthy has three alternating lead shifts before we get a real handle on any of them. Once he settles on Vera, it works somewhat because Rivera turns in the kind of strong, intense performance that THE PACT got from Caity Lotz, but Vera's story seems to gloss over important details and how she gets from one point to another. Throughout, the characters remain too enigmatic for us to be fully engrossed in the story. This is especially the case with Moreno's Leigh, who is saddled with the film's clumsiest exposition, whether McCarthy has her mentioning her immigrant status (younger Vera was born after their parents came to the US)--which seems to come about more from his unnecessary concern over explaining Moreno's accent than anything to do with advancing the narrative--or her inability to have children and her wish that Vera settle down and have some of her own. Like THE PACT, there's much focus on motherhood, children, and family, but it just doesn't seem as well-planned or fully-realized. If you'd never seen these films and watched them back-to-back, in either order, and were told both were made by the same guy, you'd swear AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR was the one made by a nervous first-timer throwing everything he's got at the wall and seeing what sticks because he might not get another chance, and THE PACT was the solid, sure-handed later effort of a filmmaker with confidence, discipline, and experience. On the basis of THE PACT alone (if you haven't seen it, you really should), McCarthy is one of the most promising horror prospects going today, and there are occasions where AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR works (there's one unnerving sequence with Rickards at a babysitting job that could almost function as its own short film, and the notion of a spirit taking over someone and "wearing them like a costume," is a uniquely creepy description), but it too often feels like he's just belaboring points made in THE PACT and stumbling over half-baked ideas about things like infertility and the immigrant experience that don't seem to belong here. Maybe this is the kind of film that improves on a repeat viewing, or would play better if you haven't already seen THE PACT, a simpler and much superior work. (Unrated, 93 mins)

(US - 2014)

After two years on the shelf and no less than four title changes, THE DEVIL'S HAND received a cursory VOD dumping by Lionsgate sub-label Roadside Attractions in October, a full year after they took it off the Halloween 2013 release schedule when it was called WHERE THE DEVIL HIDES. That's rarely a good sign, but while THE DEVIL'S HAND isn't all that great, it does have some moments where it seems that a better, smarter film is trying to break out of the merely mediocre one that got released. Opening on June 6, 1994 in a cult-like, Amish-looking religious community called New Bethlehem, the film deals with a foretold prophecy that the sixth girl born on the sixth day of the sixth month will be the Drommelkind--"the Devil's Hand"--Satan reborn to wreak havoc on God's world, and it so happens that six women are giving birth this very night. One of the six newborn girls is suffocated by her own mother, and New Bethlehem leader Elder Beacon (Colm Meaney) is thwarted in his attempt to kill the other five by the progressive-minded Jacob (Rufus Sewell), who not only doesn't believe in Beacon's sternly fire-and-brimstone leadership style but also happens to be father of one of the other babies. 18 years later, the five surviving girls are best friends and barely-tolerated outcasts in the community, and starting with Hannah (Nicole Elliott), they're being offed one-by-one by a scythe-wielding maniac in a black-hooded robe. Jacob's seizure-and-visions-prone daughter Mary (Alycia Debnam Carey) starts to question the ideology of New Bethlehem, much to the disapproval of her bitter, bitchy stepmother Rebekah (an underused Jennifer Carpenter). As the body count rises--some of the girls' parents start dropping like flies, either by their own hand or by the scythe killer--Elder Beacon's tight grip on the community starts to slip, and with young, blossoming teenage girls ignoring his orders, that's all the evidence he needs to conclude that it's the Devil's work.

There's a thought-provoking film to be made about the terrifying, blind fervor of religious fanaticism, but only Meaney seems to be acting in that film. He's perfect as the unsympathetic, power-mad elder, overseeing his flock like a junkyard dog and prone to barking excuses like "As long as the Lord governs my actions, I can do no wrong!"  With its concealed scythe killer evoking memories of the post-SCREAM-and-I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER slashers of the late '90s, Mary's romance with the sheriff's sensitive dudebro son (Thomas McDonnell), and most of the cast coming from shows like THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, THE ORIGINALS, THE 100, and REIGN, too much of THE DEVIL'S HAND plays like The CW commissioned a remake of Wes Craven's DEADLY BLESSING. Other than Meaney, the relatively older vets like Sewell and Carpenter have little to do (both vanish from the movie by the end), but the performances of the younger actors are better than expected, especially Australian actress Carey, who was recently cast in the WALKING DEAD spinoff COBALT. Written by Karl Mueller, who co-wrote the reprehensible THE DIVIDE, and directed by one Christian E. Christiansen (if indeed that is your real name, sir), whose previous credits include the 2011 Leighton Meester/Minka Kelly SINGLE WHITE FEMALE ripoff THE ROOMMATE, THE DEVIL'S HAND also demonstrates sure signs of cutting to secure a PG-13 rating, and as we all know, horror fans want things as watered-down and PG-13 as possible. There's lots of splattery aftermaths to the mayhem, but little is shown during, and some of the murder scenes are rather choppy, no pun intended. THE DEVIL'S HAND is pretty mild and forgettable, but it's fast-paced and short enough that it gets the job done if you're just looking for a dumb movie to unwind to after a long day. There's just a lot here to back up the nagging feeling that it really could've been something more and that maybe it's just been hacked down to its most basic mainstream and safest, unchallenging elements, like some suggestions that Elder Beacon is molesting some of New Bethlehem's teenage girls--don't expect anything with a PG-13 rating to explore that plot thread. As it is, THE DEVIL'S HAND is little more than the intersecting union of a "CW viewers" and "Colm Meaney stalkers" Venn diagram. (PG-13, 86 mins)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited, Special "Once Upon a Poe Revival Dreary" Edition: MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1989) and the Poesploitation Remake Craze of 1989-91

(US - 1989)

Directed by Larry Brand. Written by Daryl Haney and Larry Brand. Cast: Patrick Macnee, Adrian Paul, Clare Hoak, Jeff Osterhage, Tracy Reiner, Kelly Ann Sabatasso, Maria Ford, Daryl Haney, George Derby. (R, 82 mins)

One of the strangest, most ill-conceived, and universally rejected fads in the history of horror cinema took place from 1989 to 1991. To honor the 140th anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), veteran exploitation producers Roger Corman and Harry Alan Towers separately initiated a competing series of Poe remakes and adaptations that were supposed to be released throughout 1989. This Poesploitation explosion probably seemed like a good idea, especially since some of Corman's best films as a director were his numerous 1960s Poe adaptations for AIP (THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, THE RAVEN, etc) that usually starred Vincent Price, and those were classic films still revered by critics and audiences. On the other hand, it was a fool's mission: there was little chance of these remakes doing anything but paling in comparison to respected adaptations that came before them and they were often beset by so much financial and behind-the-scenes turmoil that the majority of them never even made it to theaters. What was meant to celebrate the legacy of one of America's most influential writers ended up being the most ill-fated 1989 cinematic resurrection this side of EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS II: EDDIE LIVES. Corman produced some occasionally worthwhile films under his then-current Concorde banner (STRIPPED TO KILL, CRIME ZONE, EYE OF THE EAGLE 3) and had a few minor hits that stayed in theaters for two weeks instead of just one (BLOODFIST, TWICE DEAD, CARNOSAUR), but typically, Concorde product was shot fast and cheap and vacated multiplexes quickly on their way to America's video stores. Unlike his days running New World in the 1970s, Corman didn't have much in the way of breakout directors during the Concorde era. Corman's proteges at New World included the likes of Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, and James Cameron. At Concorde, Corman was focused more on turning a quick profit than shepherding talent, though guys like Carl Franklin (EYE OF THE EAGLE 2) and Luis Llosa (CRIME ZONE) would find some A-list success at the big studios (Franklin with the Denzel Washington vehicles DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS and OUT OF TIME, and Llosa with SNIPER and THE SPECIALIST), and both Franklin and Rodman Flender (IN THE HEAT OF PASSION) are still busy with steady TV directing gigs. Both Corman and Towers (who bankrolled many a Jess Franco film in the 1960s) were past the point of caring about quality, but they got movies made, knew how to turn a profit, and had been in the game long enough to woo recognizable names who were not exactly at their career pinnacle and were cool with whatever as long as the check cleared.

"Now...the magic of the master of horror and suspense 
is available on videocassette for $79.95..."

The first of the new Poe adaptations to hit theaters was MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, which opened on October 27, 1989 and moved around the country into January 1990 as Corman was still continuing his New World practice of striking a small number of prints and shipping them to different regions week by week. Corman's own THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) is regarded as one of his best films as a director and arguably the artistic pinnacle of his 1960s AIP Poe cycle. The remake again utilizes the same essential story of Prince Prospero (Adrian Paul) barricading himself in his castle along with the elite nobleman who suck up to him while a plague decimates the peasants in the surrounding countryside. All the while, a mysterious red-cloaked figure on horseback makes his way to the castle for the Masque, a grand ball where Prospero and his ilk finally get their comeuppance. Corman's 1960s Poe films were known for their sometimes campy elements and Vincent Price's hammy acting, but as the series went on, things generally got more serious, especially by the time of the 1964 MASQUE and the next year's THE TOMB OF LIGEIA. Price's Prospero was a smiling, gleeful sadist reveling in his power over those beneath him. As played by Paul, Prospero is gloomy and depressed, and the mood is much more bleak and funereal. Director/co-writer Larry Brand is hindered by an obviously low budget that causes some interiors to resemble a community theater production, but he uses that to his advantage: in the 1964 MASQUE, the opulent, brightly-colored look of Prospero's castle helped sell the Prince and his fellow debauched hedonists on the notion that they were immune from the Red Death and that they'd be safe among their wealth and privilege. In Brand's MASQUE, the flimsy sets and gray, decrepit decor only convey the idea that the sense of security is an illusion, and while the oblivious sycophants overindulge, a somber, morose Prospero knows that judgment day is coming.

Of course, being that it was 1989 and an R-rated Roger Corman production, Brand was allowed to throw in some more modern elements. There's some sporadic gore and some nudity in a grueling and seemingly endless scene where some orgiastic noblemen make three servant girls (among them Corman regular Maria Ford) strip. Prospero is also involved in an incestuous relationship with his sister Lucrecia (Penny Marshall's daughter Tracy Reiner, who took her stepdad Rob's name), who grows jealous over his attraction to peasant girl Julietta (Clare Hoak). This triangle also existed in the 1964 film, with Prospero's lover Juliana (Hazel Court) and peasant villager Francesca (Jane Asher), but there was no sibling/incest element. The other major change is that the biggest name in the cast is playing the Red Death, in this case Patrick Macnee, best known as John Steed on the classic 1960s TV series THE AVENGERS. It's hardly a spoiler, as Macnee's distinctive voice is heard emanating from behind the Red Death's covered face throughout (in other words, it's not Macnee in these scenes). Sporting what resembles a clip-on mullet, Macnee is seen briefly in a dream/flashback to Prospero's childhood as his mentor Machiavel in the opening scene, and his face isn't seen again for another hour, when Machiavel arrives at Prospero's castle for the Masque and quickly reveals himself to be the embodiment of the plague that's sweeping the vicinity. Macnee provides enough of a credible headlining name for Corman, but he's really just a top-billed guest star.  MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH has acquired a minor cult following over the years due to the presence of soon-to-be HIGHLANDER: THE SERIES star Paul, who already logged time on ABC's DYNASTY spinoff THE COLBYS and was co-starring in the syndicated TV series WAR OF THE WORLDS at the time he got the lead role in MASQUE. Considering its low-budget origins, Brand's MASQUE has a bit more going on than most Corman productions of that era. Brand achieves several striking shots throughout, and the film makes creative and pragmatic use of its budgetary limitations. With its melancholy tone and glacially slow pace, it also does a very effective job of capturing a foreboding and very palpable sense of doom and despair. It has its scattered moments of ineptitude--the male actors' wigs, the padded leggings on Hoak's stunt double clearly visible during her roll down a hillside in the climax--but count Brand's MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH as one of the more intriguing and ambitious projects to emerge from the Corman/Concorde factory in the late '80s.

Scorpion has just released MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH on DVD (but not Blu-ray), in a very nice 1.78:1 transfer with an audio commentary track by Brand. The track is moderated by serial-one-man-commentary-wrecking crew Bill Olsen, the Code Red head who found some down time to fit this in between alienating his customer base with his constantly-vanishing web site, fighting with cult movie fans on message boards, and his various other daily social media meltdowns. Olsen has done some atrocious work in the past and this commentary gets off to a dubious start with the gaffe-prone emcee introducing the director as "Rally Brand," and Brand not even remembering shooting the opening credits sequence before admitting "It's been years since I've watched this." Olsen asks some expectedly dumb questions (though not as dumb as asking an incredulous Isabelle Mejias about her inspiration in the way she stirs Nestle Quik into a glass of milk on the commentary for 1983's JULIE DARLING), but once Brand gets comfortable, he has enough things to say that Olsen doesn't get much of a chance to indulge in his usual schtick, namely mocking the movie he's watching and mispronouncing actors' names on purpose in the least funny manner possible. Brand is a little delusional about how "beautiful" the sets look, but he has some interesting things to say about working on the Roger Corman assembly line and how Corman was generally hands-off as a producer and granted a director almost total freedom so long as they didn't go over budget and delivered the requisite amount of gore and/or nudity. Brand says that Macnee was their second choice for Machiavel after Michael York had a scheduling conflict, and calls himself a "prude," stating he wasn't really as interested in the exploitative elements as much as his Concorde colleagues, though he did have to tone down one torture scene where a restrained man is impaled in his skull when Corman feared it would get the film an X rating. MASQUE was Brand's second film for Corman, following 1988's THE DRIFTER, a FATAL ATTRACTION knockoff with Kim Delaney being stalked by psycho hitchhiker Miles O'Keeffe after a one-night stand at a cheap motel (the trailer declared "Love can be deadly, when the attraction is fatal!" just in case you weren't sure what blockbuster movie it was ripping off). Corman was pleased enough with the results of THE DRIFTER to offer Brand his choice between this or BLOODFIST (Brand on turning down BLOODFIST: "I wasn't really interested in kickboxing or working in the Philippines"), and he would go on to make the 1990 Catherine Oxenberg erotic thriller OVEREXPOSED before leaving the Corman stable, where he's generally worked in DTV thrillers except for scoring a co-writing credit on 2002's HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION.

Just as MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH finished making its rounds and playing to mostly empty theaters, the next Poe offering from Corman and Concorde arrived in the form of Jim Wynorski's THE HAUNTING OF MORELLA. MORELLA opened in February 1990 and traveled the same regional route for one-week stands across the US. It bore little resemblance to Poe or to the "Morella" segment in TALES OF TERROR as Wynorski took the core concept of the dead Morella taking over the soul of her grown daughter Lenora and added splatter, gratuitous nudity, and lesbian sex scenes to fashion the kind of T&A-filled romp that Brand showed little interest in making with MASQUE. A post-CHARLES IN CHARGE and pre-BAYWATCH Nicole Eggert (her last name misspelled on the poster) plays Morella/Lenora, with David McCallum, years before his NCIS-abetted resurgence, is Lenora's father/Morella's widower husband, with the main cast rounded out by the inevitable Maria Ford and BARBARIAN QUEEN's Lana Clarkson, a Corman veteran by this point, but tragically best known today for accepting an invitation back to Phil Spector's mansion one fateful night in 2003.

While Corman got the ball rolling on the Poe revival, the legendary producer quoth "Nevermore" and pulled the plug on future Poe-related endeavors, putting the onus on Towers to leave audiences nodding, nearly napping with the bulk of the other offerings. Towers had distribution deals with both Menahem Golan's short-lived 21st Century Film Corporation as well as a post-Golan Cannon led by Yoram Globus and Christopher Pearce. Towers was on a classics tear during this 1989-1991 period, producing not only Poe movies for 21st Century, but also the Robert Englund-headlined PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (also for 21st Century, and the doomed company's only nationwide release), yet another remake of TEN LITTLE INDIANS for Cannon, and the spectacularly sleazy Jekyll & Hyde/Jack the Ripper hybrid EDGE OF SANITY for Miramax offshoot Millimeter Films (a sort-of B-movie predecessor to the later, more successful Dimension Films) with Anthony Perkins as the high society Dr. Jekyll turning into a coke-addled, masturbating Mr. Hyde on a serial-killing spree of lascivious Whitechapel streetwalkers. While PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and EDGE OF SANITY were shot on the same sets in Budapest, Towers' other films of this period were shot in Apartheid-era South Africa at a time when it was cost-effective but politically and socially frowned upon to do so. While PHANTOM, SANITY, and TEN LITTLE INDIANS made it into theaters, 21st Century was in immediate financial trouble and after MACK THE KNIFE tanked in limited release and THE FORBIDDEN DANCE (aka "the other Lambada movie") had to be distributed by Columbia, the money was gone and all of the company's titles (including Albert Pyun's CAPTAIN AMERICA, which was supposed to be 21st Century's meal ticket) were left in limbo on the shelf, only to trickle out on VHS courtesy of RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video over the next few years.

Towers' Poe projects were shot over 1988 and 1989 but didn't start turning up in video stores until late 1990 and into 1991 (shot in 1989, CAPTAIN AMERICA was unseen in the US until its VHS release in 1992). Despite some interesting casts, Towers' Poe titles are a pretty sorry lot. Unlike Corman, who chose to keep the MASQUE remake and THE HAUNTING OF MORELLA as period pieces, Towers' Poe titles are updated to the present day, but the modernization brings no new perspective to Poe or the themes in his work. BURIED ALIVE, shot in the fall of 1988 and released straight to video two years later, borrows the central conceit of The Cask of Amontillado by having the killer wall his living victims into a tomb, but it's mostly a bland slasher movie with minor supernatural elements and occasional shots of a black cat roaming around. Set at a school for troubled girls run by an ascot-sporting Robert Vaughn in prime "smug asshole" mode, BURIED ALIVE offers a few bits of spirited gore and some nudity and sleaze courtesy of French hardcore porn director Gerard Kikoine, who also helmed EDGE OF SANITY for Towers, but is a pretty tired affair, with Donald Pleasence hamming it up as a toupeed, German-accented doctor, a young Arnold Vosloo (THE MUMMY) as a sheriff's deputy who keeps trying to hook up with the heroine (Karen Witter), and an 18-year-old Nia Long in her first film, a couple of years before co-starring in BOYZ N THE HOOD. If BURIED ALIVE is remembered at all, it's because it was the last film of the legendary John Carradine, fourth-billed in what amounts to a bit part, with two brief appearances for a total screen time of less than a minute. 82-year-old Carradine died just days after his scenes were shot. He decided to treat himself to a brief European vacation after leaving South Africa, but he died suddenly while in Rome and never made it home to the States from his BURIED ALIVE gig.

THE HOUSE OF USHER, also shot in 1988 and unseen until its belated arrival in video stores in 1991, is one of the most boring horror films ever made, despite a hilariously surreal wedding sequence, a discreetly-shot scene of rat-on-genital torture, and a crazed Donald Pleasence going on a power-drill killing spree in the last third. Lots of secret passageways and long corridors in this updating, but director Alan Birkinshaw keeps this moving at a snail's pace, and it only briefly comes to life very late once Pleasence and Oliver Reed share the screen and engage in a full-throttle ham-off that's ruined by a total cop-out ending, and the chief music cue is a blatant recycling of Gary Chang's 52 PICK-UP score. Towers also had his own THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH remake to butt heads with Corman's MASQUE, this one directed by the busy Birkinshaw, with Herbert Lom (a replacement for Jack Palance, who bailed at the last minute) as a dying millionaire hosting a "Red Death"-themed party where the attendees are offed one-by-one in what amounts to another slasher movie disguised as a Poe adaptation. Lom and MASQUE co-stars Frank Stallone and Brenda Vaccaro were also in Towers' and Birkinshaw's TEN LITTLE INDIANS, and presumably shot their scenes during the same ethically-challenged trip to South Africa in 1989.

While Corman and Towers were the primary purveyors of the stunningly unsuccessful Poe revival, there were contributions from others to commemorate the anniversary of the great writer's passing. The most high-profile was the two-story George A. Romero/Dario Argento collaboration TWO EVIL EYES, an Italian production shot in Pittsburgh in 1989 but unreleased in the US until late 1991. Romero's "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar" was a remake of the concluding story in Corman's TALES OF TERROR (1962), where the dying, comatose Valdemar (Vincent Price) is under the influence of a conniving hypnotist (Basil Rathbone) who's after his fortune and his wife (Debra Paget). In Romero's version, the hypnotist (Ramy Zada) and the wife (Adrienne Barbeau) are in cahoots in their plot to get Valdemar's (Bingo O'Malley) money. Argento's "The Black Cat" is a mash-up of Poe stories with crime-scene photographer Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel), his girlfriend Annabel Lee (Madeliene Potter), their black cat, their neighbors the Pyms (Martin Balsam, Kim Hunter), a sultry bartender named Eleonora (Sally Kirkland), and a body walled-up Amontillado-style. Despite its pedigree, neither director is at the top of their game with TWO EVIL EYES, and though this catches Argento in the infant stages of a several-decade career nosedive that shows no signs of stopping, he does manage a couple of memorable sequences and a committed, if a bit mannered, performance by Keitel, and while Romero's more or less resembles an R-rated episode of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, it's fairly entertaining and slightly better than its reputation.

With the possible exception of Brand's MASQUE, RE-ANIMATOR director Stuart Gordon's THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1991) is probably the best film from the Poesploitation movement. It has the same dark, dour mood as MASQUE but benefits from a bigger budget, much better production design, and an absolutely riveting performance by Lance Henriksen. Released by Full Moon in the wake of the collapse of Empire Pictures, Gordon's PIT doesn't really follow Poe or Corman's 1961 film, instead telling a WITCHFINDER GENERAL-type story with witch-hunting inquisitor Torquemada (Henriksen) and his rabid, self-loathing sexual obsession with an accused spellcaster (Rona De Ricci). Shot in Italy, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM has a distinct European flavor to it and, despite its requisite amounts of gore and T&A, has a certain element of class to it, with Henriksen, in one of his best roles, bringing much legitimacy to the film's more lurid elements. Gordon was planning this PIT remake since the late '80s and actually had Peter O'Toole signed on to play Torquemada at one point until the project fell apart. Also featuring cult actors Jeffrey Combs, Tom Towles, Stephen Lee, and Mark Margolis, and a cameo by Oliver Reed in a nice nod to Ken Russell's THE DEVILS (1971), THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is one of the best and most serious films to come from the studio best known for its PUPPET MASTER and DOLLMAN franchises. Even Troma got into the act with Fred Olen Ray's HAUNTING FEAR (1991), an alleged adaptation of The Premature Burial (previously made into a 1962 film by Corman, with Ray Milland stepping in for the director's lone '60s Poe movie without Vincent Price) with a cast of straight-to-video erotic thriller regulars like Brinke Stevens and Delia Sheppard mixing it up with fallen A-listers Jan-Michael Vincent and Karen Black as well as cult figures like Michael Berryman (THE HILLS HAVE EYES) and Robert Quarry (COUNT YORGA: VAMPIRE).

As if the Poe revival wasn't already going badly enough, two other completely unrelated films were pulled in to help absorb some of the flop sweat. Cannon's SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS (1990) began life in 1986 as a miniseries for Italian TV starring Lou Ferrigno and directed by Luigi Cozzi. Cannon fired Cozzi during pre-production and replaced him with Enzo G. Castellari. The project was shelved after Cannon deemed Castellari's six hours of footage unusable, but three years later, the cash-strapped company rehired Cozzi to piece together 80 minutes of salvageable footage from the rubble and shoot new wraparound sequences with Daria Nicolodi as a mom reading a bedtime story to her daughter, played by Cozzi's daughter Giada. The bedtime story was Poe's Arabian Nights parody "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade," which of course had little, if anything to do with the movie other than give Cannon an excuse to open the film with a crawl about Poe. SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS is a dumpster fire of a movie that's still worth seeing for an incredibly entertaining performance by John Steiner as the evil wizard Jaffar, but the whole thing is a badly stitched-together disaster, perfectly summed up by an amazing moment where Ferrigno's clean-shaven Sinbad dives into the sea and either Castellari or Cozzi cuts to a stock footage underwater shot of a bearded Ferrigno swimming, clumsily cribbed from 1983's HERCULES. Around the time he was trying to piece together something resembling a watchable SINBAD, Cozzi also found time to direct DE PROFUNDIS, featuring cult actors such as Caroline Munro and Brett Halsey, a film intended to be an unofficial third chapter to Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy, which to that point consisted of SUSPIRIA (1977) and INFERNO (1980). Argento eventually officially completed that trilogy himself with 2008's MOTHER OF TEARS, while Cozzi's DE PROFUNDIS was attempting--and failing--to be meta before meta was cool. It's largely nonsense, with a director played by Urbano Barberini planning a sequel to SUSPIRIA about a witch named Levana, who keeps appearing as an apparition to vomit green goo on everyone. 21st Century acquired the film for the US and retitled it THE BLACK CAT with the cynical intention of selling it as another Poe title. Of course, it was shelved like all the others, debuting in the US on the Sci-Fi Channel (as it was then known) at some point in the early 1990s, and promptly vanishing shortly after without even getting a VHS release. It was available to stream on Netflix Instant for a while and can easily be found online, but despite some nice Argento-inspired color schemes and approximately 17 opportunities to hear Bang Tango's lone hit "Someone Like You," it's a mind-boggling, incoherent mess that's really only for the most devout Italian horror obsessives, and certainly not for anyone looking for anything even remotely related to Edgar Allan Poe.

Friday, December 12, 2014

In Theaters: EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014)

(US/Spain - 2014)

Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian. Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Hiam Abbass, Ewen Bremner, Isaac Andrews, Indira Varma, Golshifteh Farahani, Ghassan Massoud, Tara Fitzgerald, Dar Salim, Andrew Tarbet, Ken Bones, Hal Hewetson, Kevork Malikyan, Giannina Facio. (PG-13, 150 mins)

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, Ridley Scott's epic, gargantuan retelling of the saga of Moses and Ramses, arrives on a wave of controversy so large that it could riding the parted Red Sea. Yes, the lead actors have an overwhelmingly white shade to them, no matter how much bronzing makeup they're wearing, and such casting is as antiquated a notion as massive, bloated Biblical epics of the Cecil B. DeMille variety. On one hand, it's nice to see something like this getting made today, but on the other, whether it's the legitimate issues of casting or addressing concerns of religious audiences, attempting a film of this sort in 2014 just seems to be asking for trouble, as evidenced by the myriad of theological hissy-fits surrounding the release of Darron Aronofsky's NOAH earlier this year.

Scott doesn't go as far off the rails here as Aronofsky did, and if there's any director who could pull something like this off today, it's the seemingly ageless BLADE RUNNER director. 77 years old and showing no signs of slowing down (though, like Clint Eastwood, he cranks his movies out so quickly that you have to question how much work he's delegating to the second unit, overseen by his son Luke), Scott is to be commended for making his CGI spectacles look as organic and practical as possible.  He's come a long way from the blurry, unconvincing Coliseum crowd shots of GLADIATOR in the primitive days of 2000.  With EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, Scott goes old-school to a certain extent: the CGI and VFX teams handle the bulk of the heavy lifting, but there's an unusual number of actual sets in Spain and the Canary Islands, with real, costumed people milling about on them, and it makes a difference. It brings a living, breathing vitality to these scenes. Of course, digital takes over when it has to, but even then, Scott and the technicians go the extra mile to make it look convincing. As it is, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS isn't one of Scott's essential films, but it's one of his best-looking.

The core story remains the same: in Memphis in 1300 BCE, Moses (Christian Bale) is a general in the army of Egyptian pharoah Seti (John Turturro as Mark Strong). Seti trusts Moses and views him as just as much of a son as his actual offspring, the vain Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Seti even privately confesses to Moses that he feels he would make a better leader than Ramses. Moses goes on an official mission to Pitham to check in on Seti's Viceroy (Ben Mendelson) overseeing the Hebrew slaves and concludes that the Viceroy is living too much like royalty, wasting too much money, and blatantly mistreating the slaves. While there, Moses is informed by aged slave Nun (Ben Kingsley) that he was born a Hebrew and raised an Egyptian. Moses refuses to believe Nun's story but when the Viceroy gets wind of it, he reports the news to Ramses, who has just succeeded his late father. Ramses is conflicted, but exiles Moses out of Memphis. Nine years pass and Moses is now a shepherd married to Zipporah (Maria Valverde) and with a son, Gershom (Hal Hewetson). When Moses is hit on the head during a mudslide, he has a vision of God, personified as a young boy (Isaac Andrews), who tasks him with freeing his people. Once back in Memphis, where Ramses has become every bit the cruel tyrant Seti predicted, Moses' efforts are slow and ineffective, prompting God to take matters into His own hands and unleash the ten plagues on Egypt. Ramses, perhaps one of civilization's earliest one-percenters, refuses to free the Hebrew slaves, citing the economic impossibility, though after the plague of the first-born claims his own son, the devastated Pharoah tells Moses and the slaves to leave. He quickly has a change of heart, swearing vengeance on Moses and leading his army into the mountains to kill Moses and the slaves, who had a four-day head start but are stopped by the Red Sea.

Scott and the committee of screenwriters (among them SCHINDLER'S LIST Oscar-winner Steven Zaillian) borrow a little of Scott's GLADIATOR with the recurring theme of a king father expressing doubts about his son's ability to rule (think of Richard Harris' Marcus Aurelius' concerns about Joaquin Phoenix's petulant Commodus). There's other interesting elements, like some present-day political parallels and the vengeful, Old Testament God being a little kid. Bale is a suitably driven, intense Moses and there's some ambiguity whether this could all be in his head. Though he doesn't take a strictly secular approach, Scott attempts to rationalize some of the more spiritual elements, such as the parting of the Red Sea being a catastrophic weather event complete with storms and swirling funnel clouds. The visual effects in the last third of the film, particularly the show-stopping parting of the Red Sea and Ramses' army's chariots trying to navigate narrow mountain roads, are jawdropping in 3D. But there's some negatives: as Ramses, Edgerton has little to do but scoff and scowl after a while, and the rest of the cast is really left adrift by some choppy editing and what would seem to be a contractual stipulation that Scott keep the film at 150 minutes, which it clocks in at exactly. Scott is one of the chief proponents of director's cuts and extended versions for DVD and Blu-ray (the director's cut of his 2005 epic KINGDOM OF HEAVEN being a textbook case held in especially high regard), and it's often painfully obvious that there's a longer EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS that will be surface at some point in the future (maybe doing this as a high-profile HBO or Netflix miniseries where characters and conflicts could be adequately established and built upon would've been a better idea). After a strong start, details start getting glossed over on the way to Moses' exile and then again during his return and the plagues, and Scott starts filling in the blanks with montages. Kingsley is in the whole film and is the focus of a few scenes, but mainly he's just hanging around in the background. At least he gets the spotlight once in a while, which is more than you can say for Aaron Paul as Joshua and Sigourney Weaver as Seti's wife Tuya, both of whom have almost no dialogue and whose entire roles consist of little beyond nodding or looking concerned about something someone else has said (Ramses is reluctant to banish Moses, and it's implied that Tuya is actually behind his forced exile, but it's hard to tell, since all she does is glare at him when it's brought up). Weaver had more screen time with her cameo in THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, and she and Paul are nothing more than prominently-billed extras here. Like KINGDOM OF HEAVEN's theatrical cut, it's a safe assumption that what's here is a compromised, incomplete version, and it's likely that a longer cut will expand on the themes and give its supporting cast something to do. As it is, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is a visually stunning piece of filmmaking, but unfortunately, it feels like you're only getting about 75% of it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


(Belgium/France/Luxembourg - 2014)

With 2010's AMER, the French filmmaking team of Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet wore their love of the Italian giallo on their sleeves, fashioning an extremely stylish film whose visual intoxication was largely smoke & mirrors obscuring the fact that they didn't have much to say other than "We really love early Dario Argento movies." Though it contained obvious homages to Argento and Mario Bava, and eventually featured the belated appearance of a black-gloved killer, AMER wasn't so much a giallo as it was a filmmaking experiment that co-opted the style of the giallo, much like Peter Strickland's frustrating BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2013).  Forzani and Cattet have returned with THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS, and it's an altogether more satisfying experience, even if they let their story unfold with little regard for narrative flow or a coherent plot. STRANGE COLOUR is the kind of trippy descent into madness where everything might be imaginary and almost nothing makes sense, but it doesn't matter. It's a triumph of style over substance, and it would seem that since AMER, the filmmakers are at least attempting to pay lip service to the idea of plot mechanics and committed themselves to utilizing the giallo style for something that could be mostly deemed a giallo. Of course, there's the endless visual references and the appropriation of the era's score cues by the likes of Bruno Nicolai, Ennio Morricone, Franco Micalizzi, Nico Fidenco, and Alessandro Alessandroni, but every scene and every shot is a small masterpiece of dazzling artistry. Whether the filmmakers are using a Brian De Palma split screen, conveying the claustophobic, walls-closing-in psychological terror of Roman Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy" (REPULSION, ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE TENANT), staging an innovative and highly-choreographed Argento-style murder (hearing noises in the apartment above, a man drills a small hole in the ceiling and sneaks into said apartment while his wife listens with a stethoscope and hears the killer's steps approaching her husband as she witnesses the murder through the hole in the ceiling), or simply granting us the sight of a few Lucio Fulci maggots, their love of that era of Italian thrillers bleeds as profusely as the victims onscreen. THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS is probably a love-it-or-hate-it proposition and those unfamiliar with gialli may scoff at the perceived pretentiousness of it all, but even if you're not a fan, it's awfully difficult to not be seduced by the virtuosi filmmaking on constant display.

Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange, who has a striking resemblance to Willem Dafoe) returns from a business trip to his lush, ornate building and has to break his door in when it's chain-locked from the inside and his wife Edwige (Ursula Bedena) is nowhere to be found in the apartment. None of the neighbors have seen her and instead, they complain to the building manager (Sam Louwyck) about Dan. Incredulous detective Vincentelli (Jean-Michel Vovk) finds Dan's story increasingly difficult to believe, and doesn't buy his claims of a mysterious bearded man (Joe Koener) sneaking into his apartment when none of the other neighbors have seen him. As Edwige's absence goes on and all manner of psychosexual imagery abounds, Dan's grip on reality and sanity slips as he, Vincentelli, and the building manager all have their own neuroses exposed, all involving an alluring mystery woman known as "Laura," while a mad killer makes their way through secret corridors behind the walls, emerging from hiding to stab people in the head. Argento is the chief influence here, especially with the production design of Dan's apartment building evoking Mater Tenebrarum's NYC stronghold in INFERNO (1980), and Dan's discovery of a dark secret behind a false wall and his misreading of a vital clue being callbacks to DEEP RED (1975). But there's more: certain portions recall the fashion gialli of Sergio Martino, whose THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH (1971) and YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY (1972), along with Giuliano Carnimeo's WHAT ARE THOSE STRANGE DROPS OF BLOOD ON JENNIFER'S BODY? aka THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS (1971) helped coin the film's awkwardly verbose title. Dreamy, slo-mo shots of beautiful women with long, Medusa-like hair draped over pillows are straight from Fulci's A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN (1971). THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS does get too obfuscating for its own good on occasion, especially the long, circular sequence where an hallucinating Dan keeps buzzing himself into the building, and there's a few instances where Forzani and Cattet hit a wall and the film has to get itself back on track. They don't break any new ground here, instead mining decades-old material and presenting it in a way that's fresh, alive, and fascinating. It makes little sense in terms of linear plot, but it doesn't matter. Let THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS wash over you and cast its spell. It's an enigmatic, nightmarish, and stunningly beautiful film. (Unrated, 102 mins; also streaming on Netflix Instant)

(Norway/Denmark/UK/US/Iceland - 2014)

After licking the wounds incurred from 2013's HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS, his disastrous attempt to break into Hollywood, Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola goes back to his roots with an English-language sequel to his 2009 cult zombie hit DEAD SNOW. Intermittently amusing but not nearly as much as it thought it was, DEAD SNOW nevertheless got a lot of love from the horror community with a style that attempted to emulate early Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson as a group of vacationing skiers encountered an army of resurrected Nazi undead. The last thing the world needs is one more zombie movie, but Wirkola surpasses all expectations with bigger-budgeted and wildly inspired follow-up that's got something to offend everyone. Beginning moments after the events of the first film, sole survivor Martin (Vegar Hoel, promoted to co-writer with Wirkola and co-star Stig Frode Henriksen) manages to get away from the horde of flesh-eaters led by zombified Nazi Gen. Herzog (Orjan Gamst) and winds up in a hospital, where he's accused of killing all of his friends and can't convince the cops that the zombies did it. Doctors have also surgically attached what they think is Martin's right arm, which he chainsawed off immediately after he was bitten. The reattached arm actually belongs to Herzog, and now Martin's right arm has immeasurable strength and the ability to reanimate the dead by touch. He escapes from the hospital and makes his way to a nearby town, which is exactly where Herzog's army is heading, still following Hitler's orders to invade and destroy. With the cops on his trail, Martin befriends barely-closeted local museum employee Glenn Kenneth (Henriksen) and adopts an affable and helpful zombie sidekick (Kristoffer Joner) that he can keep putting in dangerous situations and revive if necessary. They're soon joined by a trio of nerdy American siblings calling themselves The Zombie Squad--Daniel (Martin Starr of FREAKS AND GEEKS, PARTY DOWN, and SILICON VALLEY), STAR WARS-obsessed Monica (Jocelyn DeBoer), and brainy Blake (Ingrid Haas)--and they get additional help from a reanimated--and still pissed-off--Russian platoon for a BRAVEHEART-style throwdown where nothing is too over-the-top.

DEAD SNOW: RED VS. DEAD is one of the few zombie comedies that comes close to replicating the anarchic, anything-goes, fuck-you-if-can't-take-a-joke spirit of Peter Jackson's DEAD ALIVE: anyone can be killed in any number of hilariously horrifying yet slapsticky ways, whether they're infants in strollers or geriatrics in scooters; resourceful zombies yank out some guy's intestines so they can siphon gasoline from a bus to a tank; Martin spends the entire film covered in blood and there's no shortage of inventive ways Wirkola has him forgetting to realize his own strength with Herzog's supercharged arm, with a disastrous attempt at CPR on a little kid being particularly memorable and gross; endless impalings, smashed heads, and creative and incredibly gory zombie kills, and in one truly off-the-rails segment, a female zombie coming back to life and screwing her still-grieving boyfriend, all to the tune of Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart." I didn't really get all the love DEAD SNOW received from fans, but DEAD SNOW: RED VS. DEAD is an improvement across-the-board, in every aspect. It's the PUNISHER: WAR ZONE to DEAD SNOW's THE PUNISHER. Fun performances all around, and it gets a lot of mileage from its visiting American cast members, who help make this the most oddly-appealing zombie-battling ensemble this side of SHAUN OF THE DEAD.  Back home after an ill-fated Hollywood sojourn, Wirkola gets it right and delivers the gonzo line-crosser that the first film should've been. (R, 100 mins)

(UK/Ireland/US - 2014)

Inspired by Welsh journalist Jon Ronson's brief late '80s tenure as the keyboardist in Frank Sidebottom's band, FRANK updates the setting to the present day and gained some film festival notoriety as the indie where Michael Fassbender spends 95% of the film wearing an oversized papier-mache head. The head is almost identical to the one sported by "Frank Sidebottom," a character played by British comedian/performance artist/musician Chris Sievey (1955-2010) from the '70s well into the '90s. The film, co-written by Ronson (who also wrote the book The Men Who Stare at Goats, and was played by Ewan McGregor in the 2009 film version), centers on Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a would-be songwriter who lucks into a gig filling in with an experimental, avant-garde band called The Soronprfbs when their keyboardist has a breakdown. Fronted by the eccentric Frank (Fassbender), whose own bandmates have never seen him without his mask, the Soronprfbs take off to a seaside cottage in Ireland to work on a new album with manager/producer Don (Scoot McNairy). The rest of the band--theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), bassist Baraque (Francois Civil), and drummer Nana (Carla Azar)--have little use for Jon and his mainstream, pop aspirations, and even though Jon offers them his life savings to work on the album after they run out of money, they allow him no creative input.  Eleven months of isolated living go by before Frank is comfortable enough to begin recording, and Jon, who has been secretly posting their sessions to social media and building the band's brand, has endeared himself to Frank and convinces him to take the band to SXSW. Arriving in Austin on a wave of underground hype thanks to Frank's unique stage presence, the Soronprfbs promptly implode over Jon's increased influence on their sound. This turns the band into the unplugged duo of Frank and Jon as Jon is forced to function as caretaker for the delicate and damaged frontman, who has his reasons for adopting his unusual persona.

Director Lenny Abrahamson keeps FRANK quirky to a fault for most of its running time, and the humor in the defiantly uncommercial, inaccessible, Captain Beefheart-inspired songs quickly runs out of steam. It does gain some significant traction in its late stages once things turn serious as Jon gets to the root of why Frank is the way he is, and Fassbender is such a gifted actor that he can turn nothing into something and create a fully-developed character with his face concealed for most of the film, just on the basis of body language and his muffled vocal inflections. Fassbender is very good and McNairy gets some laughs as the dour, depressed manager with an unusual sexual fetish for mannequins, and while it gets better as it goes along, FRANK is just too aggressive in its bid for prefab cult appeal and too blatantly pandering in its need for the loving embrace of the hipster crowd. (R, 95 mins)