Friday, October 31, 2014

In Theaters: NIGHTCRAWLER (2014)

(US - 2014)

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed, Kevin Rahm, Michael Hyatt, Price Carson, Ann Cusack, Chad Guerrero, Jamie McShane. (R, 117 mins)

When it was shown at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, the buzz on NIGHTCRAWLER was that it was a NETWORK and a TAXI DRIVER for today's media. While it does take place in the high-pressure world of TV news and the central character is twitchy and unstable loner who lives in a tiny apartment and just needs a little nudge to go over the edge, the comparisons were to the wrong films. NIGHTCRAWLER is more of an ACE IN THE HOLE for the TMZ and cable news generation.  And Jake Gyllenhaal's wiry, sociopathic Louis Bloom is cut from the same cloth as vintage Robert De Niro, but with his smug and endless recitation of self-help platitudes and self-aggrandizing salesman jargon, he's more akin to THE KING OF COMEDY's Rupert Pupkin than TAXI DRIVER's Travis Bickle. It's a committed performance--he lost 20 lbs for the role and just looks creepy and greasy--and the latest in a series of outside-the-box projects for Gyllenhaal, following his work in PRISONERS (where his detective character was more interesting and complex than Hugh Jackman's central one) and the Cronenberg-esque ENEMY.  For an actor who could just as easily keep doing franchise gigs like PRINCE OF PERSIA or romantic comedies like LOVE & OTHER DRUGS, Gyllenhaal seems to be deliberately avoiding formulaic commercial assignments. I'm not saying he's the most gifted actor of his generation, but over the last few years, he's certainly proving himself to be one of the most serious and most interested in challenging himself.

NIGHTCRAWLER opens with skeezy L.A. denizen Bloom stealing some chain-link fencing and copper wire from a railyard and helping himself to a security guard's expensive watch after knocking him out in a scuffle. Denied a job by the scrapyard owner after presenting himself in the most grating and pushy way imaginable ("I don't hire fuckin' thieves," says the guy buying stolen copper wire), Louis heads home but stops by a car accident on the freeway where he observes Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a freelance videographer, at work. Loder, a "Nightcrawler," arrives at accidents and crime scenes and sells the footage to the highest bidder. Seeing easy money, Louis steals an expensive bike and pawns it for a video camera and a police scanner, and after some initially fumbling attempts, starts honing his skills and eventually sells his first bit of footage--of a battered, bloodied car accident victim dying as paramedics work on him--to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the graveyard-shift news director at the lowest-rated station in L.A. Pressed by Nina's accolades over his work, Louis gets more ambitious, hiring an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), and earning enough to buy a new car and more expensive recording equipment. Before long, he's beating Loder at his own game and becomes the city's top Nightcrawler, providing Nina with the kind of sensationalistic footage that brings attention and ratings to the station. But that's not enough for Louis, who soon begins arriving at calls before the cops, with enough time to reposition bodies to make for a better visual presentation. When he arrives at a home invasion before the cops and sees the perps leaving, getting a clear shot of them and their license plate, Louis sits on the footage and starts following the men around. This was the latest in a series of similar incidents and Louis' plan is to catch them in the act and call the cops at the last possible moment so he can be both there to record the events as they unfold and be the hero helped nab the bad guys.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy (brother of MICHAEL CLAYTON writer/director Tony Gilroy) provides a sterling showcase for Gyllenhaal, who turns in a mannered yet never overdone performance as the reptilian Louis. It's tough to sell a film centered on someone so repulsive (even the way he laughs at Danny Kaye's THE COURT JESTER on TV is unsettling), but Gyllenhaal is outstanding. NIGHTCRAWLER is, at its core, a black comedy, but Gilroy doesn't do it any favors when he occasionally delves into self-serious statement-making. He seems to think he's blowing the doors off some earnestly antiquated notion that TV news isn't about sensationalism and ratings. "If it bleeds, it leads" is too old-fashioned for these vipers.  To Nina, the news is about white, suburban, well-off people. "Nobody cares what happens in poor neighborhoods," she says, adding that her ideal news image is of "a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut." Nina knows Louis is an unethical shitbag (even dismissing a news editor who points out that Louis got at least one piece of footage by entering someone's home without permission), but she wants the notoriety--she's washed-up, getting old, and TV news is a young person's game. If the film has any NETWORK analogies, it's in imagining Russo's portrayal of Nina as how things might've turned out for Faye Dunaway's Diana Christensen a few decades and several rungs down the ladder later. Nina is so desperate to keep her job that she even allows herself to essentially be sexually extorted when Louis demands more money and threatens to take his footage elsewhere ("My lowest price is what I want to be paid!" he demands after one negotiation, "and I want you to do the things I tell you to do when we're alone in your apartment together!"). The codependent interaction between a pair of pathetic bottom-feeders like Louis and Nina provides some of NIGHTCRAWLER's most interesting and uncomfortable scenes, and it's nice to see the semi-retired Russo (who's married to Gilroy) in her first substantial, non-THOR role in almost a decade.

A lot of NIGHTCRAWLER's points are obvious and the film isn't as substantive as it could or should be. ACE IN THE HOLE was a lot more hard-hitting 63 years ago because media oversaturation wasn't so ubiquitous. And NETWORK was a satire with entirely too many elements that have become alarmingly real over the last four decades. But today, unscrupulous media whores--many of whom are behind a news desk, using it as a pulpit--vie for around-the-clock viewer attention. In an era of partisan hackery and news-as-entertainment, it's hardly shocking to see a "news" figure manipulating a story to give himself an advantage or to suit a narrative, or to witness a desperate news director running with it, ethics-be-damned, so they stick out from the crowd. The world's a bit more cynical than it was when Billy Wilder made ACE IN THE HOLE in 1951 or when Paddy Chayefsky wrote NETWORK in 1976, and as outrageous as Louis' behavior is throughout NIGHTCRAWLER, none of it is very surprising. After an episodic first hour, Gilroy does settle into a groove and NIGHTCRAWLER becomes a solid, nail-biting thriller as Louis and an increasingly reluctant Rick start following the home-invasion perps. While it's uneven and not the media-condemning Truth Bomb that Gilroy probably imagines it to be and likely not something that mainstream multiplexers are going to embrace, the frequently-inspired NIGHTCRAWLER is powered by an intense Gyllenhaal. And it does earn one legitimate TAXI DRIVER comparison in the way cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) captures the foreboding essence of a big city at night. While 2014 Los Angeles after dark isn't quite as flavorful as 1976 NYC, it does have its own unique aura that other films (DRIVE being a great recent example) have presented just as effectively, but in an era with an increasing reliance of greenscreen and digital compositing, the utilization of actual location shooting does make a vital difference in the visual presentation and in establishing the living, breathing mood and feel of a film.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE PRINCE (2014); GOOD PEOPLE (2014); and LOCKED IN (2014)

(US/South Korea/UK - 2014)

There's been no shortage of ambitious, gifted, and intelligent artists-turned-working-stiff actors who put their game face on, punch a clock, and schlep their way through movies they'd rather not be doing, but few are worse at masking their utter contempt for a project they know is beneath them than Bruce Willis. The odd thing about Willis is that, unlike a journeyman mercenary who doesn't command an eight-figure salary, he's still an A-lister and doesn't need the work or the money. But here he is, in the grand tradition of unseen, streaming-ready duds like CATCH .44, SET-UP, FIRE WITH FIRE, LAY THE FAVORITE, and THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY, coasting through for another easy payday and doing as little work as possible. Willis isn't alone, as THE PRINCE is also the latest piece of evidence in the ongoing autopsy of John Cusack's career. Cusack, the once-iconic star of SAY ANYTHING, GROSSE POINTE BLANK, and HIGH FIDELITY, has spent the last couple of years on an relentless kamikaze mission to accept every role Val Kilmer probably turned down. But Willis and Cusack are just prominently-billed guest stars in THE PRINCE. The actual star is Jason Patric, hailed briefly in the early '90s (AFTER DARK, MY SWEET and RUSH) as the great actor of his generation, but now reduced to appearing in movies like THE PRINCE. Patric's place in popular culture is forever cemented by THE LOST BOYS and in tabloid history by being the guy Julia Roberts ran off with three days before she was supposed to marry his friend Kiefer Sutherland, but he hasn't appeared in a major movie since playing the villain in 2010's underrated THE LOSERS and, like Willis and Cusack, has often been cited as being mercurial and difficult on a movie set. Unlike Willis and Cusack, however, Patric has been spending most of his offscreen time fighting a legal battle with his ex-girlfriend and California lawmakers for sperm donor parental rights, and seems to be in THE PRINCE because he probably needs the money and it's the best gig he can get right now. It's also his second consecutive film (after this year's earlier THE OUTSIDER) with director Brian A. Miller, whose resume is littered with forgettable, mostly 50 Cent-produced cop movies. Miller and Willis have already completed something called VICE, coming to a Redbox kiosk near you in early 2015.

Hideously shot, with garish lighting and a smeary, smudgy color palette and everyone looking waxy like a Blu-ray with too much DNR (moonlight coming through the blinds on a bedroom window looks like the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND mothership is parked outside), THE PRINCE has 33 credited producers and a plot that's virtually identical to THE OUTSIDER.  Patric had a supporting role in that film, but here he's the star and he brings more grit and gravitas than a going-through-the-motions TAKEN ripoff like this deserves. Patric is Paul Brennan, a hardworking Mississippi mechanic and widower whose daughter Beth (Gia Mantegna) has gotten hooked on heroin and gone missing from college in New Orleans. Brennan also happens to be an ex-criminal and a once-legendary Big Easy hit man known as "The Prince." He vanished without a trace 20 years back after a botched hit on New Orleans crime lord Omar Kaiser (Willis) resulted in Kaiser's wife and daughter getting killed instead. Brennan drags Beth's dramatically-sighing friend Angela (Jessica Lowndes) along to New Orleans with him, which results in much back-and-forth banter, as Angela can't even. They get to New Orleans and find Beth has hooked up with a ruthless drug kingpin known as "The Pharmacy" (50 Cent), and after numerous instances of Brennan walking into a club and asking about his daughter only to be promptly told to fuck off, he's amassed enough of a body count that word gets to Kaiser that his arch-enemy is back in town. This leads to the inevitable showdown at now-successful businessman Kaiser's company headquarters, which looks suspiciously like the hotel where Willis was likely staying during his 3-4 days on the set. Most of Willis' scenes have him seated at a desk surrounded by surveillance monitors and mumbling orders while his top flunky (South Korean pop star and NINJA ASSASSIN lead Rain) does the leg work. Fiddy and Jonathan Schaech (as a gun shop owner) have about three minutes of screen time and a tired-looking Cusack, barely conscious in a nothing supporting role, first appears 50 minutes in and has a few scenes as an ex-sidekick of Brennan's who briefly helps him take on Kaiser's goons before vanishing from the film. With his steely, intense persona, Patric is surprisingly effective here and seems much more comfortable in action mode now than he did in 1997's disastrous SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL. It's too bad his efforts are wasted in something so trifling and dumb. If Brennan had to change his name and his safety and the security of his future family depended on him never again setting foot in New Orleans, then perhaps he should've moved further than one state away when he went into self-imposed exile. Perhaps he should've attempted to talk his daughter into going to college anywhere other than in New Orleans. Perhaps he should've considered storing his stash of weapons somewhere other than in the back room of a gun shop in, yes, you guessed it, New Orleans. (R, 91 mins)

(US/Denmark/Sweden - 2014)

Another VOD dump-off by Cannon cover band Millennium, GOOD PEOPLE is a good example of the kind of commercial, popcorn suspense thriller that would've cleaned up at the box office in the mid-to-late '90s, but just doesn't get much distributor support today.  Based on a 2009 book by Chicago-based Marcus Sakey, a prolific mid-level crime novelist who specializes in the kind of brisk, well-crafted page-turners that people used to read on long flights, GOOD PEOPLE moves the setting of the novel from the Windy City to London for no particular reason, but other than that, retains the same basic plot. Financially-strapped American expat couple Tom (James Franco) and Anna Wright (Kate Hudson) have invested all of their money into renovating a dilapidated home left to them by Tom's British grandmother. Tom is a construction contractor and Anna is a schoolteacher, but there isn't enough money coming in, Anna desperately wants to start a family, and they've resorted to renting their basement to a tenant. Tom finds the tenant dead and discovers a duffel bag filled with £220,000 (approximately $350,000) stashed above the ceiling tiles. Rumpled detective Halden (Tom Wilkinson) comes snooping around and Tom is being followed and harassed by both vicious drug dealer Jack Witkowski (Sam Spruell) and French crime lord Genghis Khan (Omar Sy), each of whom claim the missing money belongs to them. Tom and Anna have stashed the money, but catch the attention of Halden when they start doing stupid things that people in movies who fall into dirty money usually do, namely Tom making large bank deposits and paying off long-gestating bills and Anna splurging on an expensive washer-dryer set for her single-mom best friend (Anna Friel) and paying for expensive tests at a fertility clinic. Before long, Tom and Anna are in the middle of a war between Witkowski and Khan, which leads to the inevitable showdown between all interested parties at the grandmother's abandoned house.

Sakey's book was a compelling and uncomplicated read, but GOOD PEOPLE is a bland and unexciting film. The script by BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD and SNOWPIERCER screenwriter Kelly Masterson, having a bit of an off-day here, and the direction by Danish TV vet Henrik Ruben Genz (FORBRYDELSEN, the original Danish version of the TV series THE KILLING) are exceedingly routine and by-the-numbers. Genz really drops the ball in the climax, which is very badly-staged, too dark, and confusingly executed. GOOD PEOPLE is watchable enough, but it never really tries to be anything more than that. Franco and Hudson do what's required of them, but only Wilkinson seems invested enough to try and create something a little deeper with his cynical and melancholy character, one of those "last honest cop" types wading through a department full of corruption and who lost his junkie daughter to drugs dealt by Witkowski. So yeah, this is...personal.  In the end, there's absolutely nothing here you haven't seen before, and even the actors seem to know it. (R, 90 mins)

(UK/US - 2014)

If you've seen the barely-released 2008 film PASSENGERS, you've got a good idea where LOCKED IN is headed. Both films share the same screenwriter (Ronnie Christensen) and both owe a tremendous debt to the heyday of M. Night Shyamalan. Josh (Ben Barnes), his wife Emma (Sarah Roemer), and young daughter Brooke (played by twins Abigail and Helen Steinman) are in a bizarre car accident that leaves Brooke comatose with "locked-in syndrome"--she's alive and her brain is active, but her body is in a state of total paralysis. It isn't long before Josh starts getting voice mails from Brooke and is certain she's attempting to communicate with him. He believes she's doing this to convince Josh and Emma to reconcile, as they've recently separated after he had a one-night fling with psycho ex Renee (Eliza Dushku). Josh even finds what he believes is evidence that Renee ran their car off the road and caused the accident. What's going on is a bit more spiritual, as Josh's older brother Nathan (Johnny Whitworth) directs him to sympathetic medium Frank (Clarke Peters), who insists that "time is a factor" and "it's not too late" to rescue Brooke from wherever she may be. There's a barrage of revelations in the closing minutes, followed by one final twist that doesn't make much sense.

But then, not much does in LOCKED IN, a troubled production that was shot in Boston in 2009 and shown at some film festivals in 2010. It was tied up in legal wrangles for several years and existed in various cuts on the bootleg circuit (the festival version ran 85 minutes), before indie distributor Wrekin Hill finally sent it straight-to-DVD with a running time of 78 minutes and three credited editors obviously on a doomed salvage mission. It doesn't seem like any of the editors looked at what the others did--whole chunks of story seem to be missing. Sometimes it seems like Josh lives at the house, sometimes it seems like he's living in a motel. There's no consistency to how some characters behave, especially Emma's mom, played by MY LEFT FOOT Oscar-winner Brenda Fricker. And why is John Carpenter favorite Peter Jason wearing a bear costume as a boozy mattress king shooting a TV commercial in one scene? He's listed rather high in the credits for such a throwaway bit part--surely he had more to do at one point than slur a couple of lines before declaring "I gotta take a shit." Maybe he just ad-libbed that last part and fled the set? Both Barnes and Roemer were almost Next Big Things five years ago (Barnes was Prince-then-King Caspian in the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA franchise, and Roemer was Shia LaBeouf's love interest in the surprise 2007 hit DISTURBIA), and Roemer had enough momentum going at the time to get a producer credit on this, but LOCKED IN is a catastrophe that isn't doing anything for anyone's career, especially the great Peters (THE WIRE, TREME), who's entirely too good an actor to play such a stock, cardboard "Magical Negro" stereotype. The end result can't possibly be what Christensen and veteran British TV director Suri Krishnamma had in mind when they went into this. LOCKED IN is one of those movies that wasn't finished--it was abandoned. (R, 78 mins).

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

In Theaters: JOHN WICK (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Chad Stahelski. Written by Derek Kolstad. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynahan, Dean Winters, Lance Reddick, Clarke Peters, Daniel Bernhardt, David Patrick Kelly, Omer Barnea, Toby Moore, Bridget Regan, Kevin Nash, Randall Duk Kim, Keith Jardine. (R, 102 mins)

When retired hit man John Wick, pulled back into the game when his former, violent life intrudes on his present, peaceful one, ferociously declares "Yeah, I'm thinkin' I'm back!" it could also double as a boldly confident statement by Keanu Reeves, the star of JOHN WICK. It was 2008--an eternity by today's standards of fame and pop culture relevance--when Reeves last had anything resembling a hit movie (the forgettable remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL). Since then, he's done some small indies like HENRY'S CRIME (2011) and the unwatchable GENERATION UM... (2013), and directed and co-starred as the villain in the surprisingly entertaining but little-seen martial-arts saga MAN OF TAI CHI (2013), but most of his time was wasted on the disastrous mega-budget bomb 47 RONIN (2013). So yes, with the giddily entertaining JOHN WICK, 50-year-old Reeves is justified in thinkin' he's back. On the surface, it's little more than a standard-issue revenge saga of a guy single-handedly taking on the Russian mob, but in the hands of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, two veteran stuntmen making their directing debut (they worked as a team, though some DGA snafu only permitted Stahelski to be credited), JOHN WICK is a furiously-paced, dazzlingly-stylish and thoroughly inventive journey into a cinematic world that looks like an alternate-universe NYC, a sort-of reality-grounded SIN CITY minus the graphic novel conventions and various noir grotesqueries. It's the kind of city where hit men and mob assassins have a culture and a social circle all their own, with hotels, nightclubs, and even a gold-coin currency exclusive just to them. They have the cordial, surface respect of competitors in a business, each one willing to rub the other out if the price is right.

John Wick left this world five years earlier when he married Helen (Bridget Moynahan), who turned a violent, ruthless psychopath into a good, upstanding man. When Helen dies from cancer, John is lost and heartbroken but finds a way to get through his grief when a package arrives, its delivery arranged by Helen in the event of her death: a beagle puppy, she explains, "because you need someone to love." John and the puppy, named Daisy, become inseparable companions. When John is filling up at a gas station, his 1969 Mustang is spotted by a sniveling punk (GAME OF THRONES' Alfie Allen), who wants to buy it. "She's not for sale," John says. Undeterred, the kid and some Russian thugs show up at John's house in the middle of the night, hit him over the head, kill Daisy, and take the Mustang. The sniveling punk is Iosef Tasarov, the only son of powerful Russian mob boss Viggo Tasarov (Michael Nyqvist, from the original Swedish GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO trilogy). Viggo is furious with his spoiled brat of a son. "It was just a car and a dog!" Iosef explains, to which his enraged father replies "It's not what you did...it's who you did it to." John Wick used to work for Viggo, and Viggo agreed to grant John his freedom from the organization if he could complete an impossible task, figuring there was no way he could do it and John would remain in his employ. John pulled off the job ("The bodies we buried that day built the foundation of what we have now!" Viggo tells the useless Iosef), and has lived in quiet anonymity since.

Viggo knows John all too well. John Wick is known in assassin circles as "Baba Yaga," or "The Boogeyman." Viggo knows he's a relentless, unstoppable killing machine and he's coming to avenge his dog. But very much the way John has to do what he has to do, so must Viggo in his obligation to protect his son, no matter how worthless he may be. Viggo sends a 12-man crew to wipe out John and when all 12 are killed, Viggo puts out an open contract on John for $2 million as the top players in the assassination game converge on the luxurious Continental (played externally by the Flatiron Building-like 1 Wall Street Court), the hotel of choice for the city's most elite hired killers, to have a go at John Wick, including his old friend Marcus (Willem Dafoe), who spends most of the film acting as John's guardian angel, taking out competitors to ensure that he has his own shot at the $2 million. From then on, it's one brilliantly choreographed set piece after another as John is pursued through the hotel by the likes of scheming femme fatale Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) and through a garishly-decorated multi-level club by Tasarov bodyguards led by Kirill (Daniel Bernhardt), in a sequence that takes its rightful place beside NIGHTHAWKS and COLLATERAL in the pantheon of classic nightclub pursuits.

Considering Stahelski and Leitch's background in stunt coordination (Stahelski has been Reeves' longtime stunt double, doing heavy lifting for him in 1991's POINT BREAK and 1999's THE MATRIX, and elsewhere, Stahelski served as the Eric Draven double in reshoots for 1994's THE CROW after star Brandon Lee's tragic on-set death), there's an intense focus on making JOHN WICK's action sequences hard-hitting and actor-involved. The directors make great effort to shoot scenes in ways that show the actors as much as possible, be it a fight scene, a shootout (this has some of the best since the heyday of John Woo and the "gun-kata" histrionics of Kurt Wimmer's 2002 cult classic EQUILIBRIUM), or a car chase. Most of the blood is CGI, but when they use CGI, it's done in a way that doesn't draw attention to the artifice, which is another example of the way JOHN WICK goes about its mission statement in a way that's refreshingly lacking in self-conscious snark. It would've been very easy to turn this into a ridiculous, CGI-heavy shitshow, but Stahelski and Leitch are to be commended for taking on this project with a clear vision that's seen all the way through.  Yes, it is a ridiculous and over-the-top movie, but by not making the characters and their world a cartoon, they convey a brutal effectiveness throughout in addition to some precise and efficient storytelling. The directors and screenwriter Derek Kolstad (whose undistinguished past credits include the DTV actioner ONE IN THE CHAMBER) lay out the exposition in the most no-bullshit fashion imaginable. The entire story is set up and off and running in about 15 minutes, and we've learned everything we need to know about John Wick, his past life, his present life, and what the stakes are for Viggo and his empire.

JOHN WICK is one of the best films of the year though, yes, if you wanted to nitpick, you could question the plot hole of how it's possible that John and Iosef don't know each other. But, more importantly, something occurred to me while watching it: this isn't the kind of movie audiences are used to seeing on the big screen. In between their big Hollywood stunt gigs, Stahelski and Leitch have logged a lot of time working on low-budget actioners like the ones Kolstad usually scripts (he also wrote the 2012 Steve Austin vehicle THE PACKAGE), and that's the angle from which they approach JOHN WICK. You don't see action movies like this in theaters--you seem them on VOD and on Netflix. That's where the bold and innovative actioners are being done by the likes of Isaac Florentine (the UNDISPUTED sequels, NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR) and John Hyams (UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING) and flying completely under the mainstream radar. And with that, the magic of JOHN WICK is clear: it's a high-end DTV actioner that managed to sneak out of the Redbox gutter and somehow con its way into a national theatrical release.  Sub in Scott Adkins for Reeves, Rade Serbedzija for Nyqvist, Dolph Lundgren for Dafoe, and I guess Daniel Bernhardt for, uh, Bernhardt, and you've got essentially the same movie minus, of course, the added enjoyment of seeing Reeves in a career-rejuvenating comeback. With its non-stop and coherently-shot action, imaginative setting and colorful production design, sly and sometime subtle wit (during a phone call, Nyqvist's beautifully underplayed delivery of a simple "...oh," when he realizes he's dealing with John Wick, earns quiet chuckles that soon erupt into a wave of loud laughter throughout the theater), and showy supporting turns by vets like Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Dean Winters, Clarke Peters, Lance Reddick, and the great David Patrick Kelly as Charlie, an affable cleaner ("Dinner reservation for 12," John tells him over the phone when he needs the remains of Viggo's dozen assassins removed from his home), JOHN WICK gets everything right. It's the kind of inspired, immersive, and wholly entertaining experience that restores your faith in big-screen action movies and proves that it's sometimes still possible to be surprised.

Saturday, October 25, 2014


(US - 2014)

Directed by Brad Anderson. Written by Joe Gangemi. Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Flemyng, Sinead Cusack, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Guillaume Delaunay, Edmund Kingsley. (PG-13, 112 mins)

With the release of his 1998 breakthrough NEXT STOP WONDERLAND, director Brad Anderson was the latest in a seemingly endless parade of Miramax's Next Big Thing wunderkinds in the '90s indie-film explosion. But the field got far too crowded to compete and since 2001's SESSION 9, Anderson has been known primarily as a suspense and/or horror filmmaker when he wasn't paying the bills by taking TV directing gigs on shows like THE WIRE, FRINGE, TREME, and BOARDWALK EMPIRE. THE MACHINIST (2004) and TRANSSIBERIAN (2008) earned Anderson significant acclaim if not mainstream success, and after misfiring with the terrible VANISHING ON 7TH STREET (2011), he rebounded with his first box office hit, the Halle Berry suspense thriller THE CALL (2013), which opened strong before falling apart and turning into a stupid revenge thriller. Anderson's latest film is the intriguing STONEHEARST ASYLUM, dumped in six US cities and on VOD by Cannon cover band Millennium with the opening credits still sporting--at least in the VOD edition--its original title, ELIZA GRAVES, which is a telling indication of how much support the film is getting from its distributor.

There's a generic "Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe" credit and STONEHEARST uses the writer's 1845 short story "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" as a starting point before venturing off on its own path. Poe's story, with its inmates-running-the-asylum twist, isn't enough to sustain a feature-length film, though there have been direct adaptations like Juan Lopez Moctezuma's THE MANSION OF MADNESS, aka DR. TARR'S TORTURE DUNGEON (1973) and Jan Svankmajer's LUNACY (2005), and the idea has turned up in various films over the years, such as the anthologies ASYLUM (1972) and TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973), not to mention a kickass 1976 jam by The Alan Parsons Project. Scripted by Joe Gangemi, who also wrote 2007's effective and little-seen WIND CHILL, Anderson's film takes place in the late 1890s, with Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arriving at the titular location in the middle of nowhere in rural England. He hopes to gain clinical, hands-on experience as an alienist--a specialist in asylum medication--and is to work under the facility's superintendent Dr. Silas Lamb (Anderson's TRANSSIBERIAN co-star Ben Kingsley). Almost all of Lamb's patients come from the aristocracy, dumped at the asylum by their prominent families and promptly forgotten as embarrassments and outcasts with such afflictions as epilepsy, "incurable homosexuality," and chronic masturbation ("I've never seen the harm in chronic masturbation," Lamb concedes in one of the film's numerous bits of dark humor). Lamb's unorthodox treatment of his patients allows them to basically roam free inside the facility, with close supervision by his strong-arm, Mickey Finn (David Thewlis). The sympathetic Newgate takes particular interest in the beautiful Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), committed to Stonehearst by her father after she attacked her abusive husband, gouging out an eye and biting off an ear. Eliza claims she's not insane and Newgate believes her, but he stumbles onto a bigger problem when he discovers filthy, malnourished prisoners being kept in a dungeon underneath Stonehearst. The leader of these prisoners identifies himself as Dr. Salt (Michael Caine), and claims to be the real superintendent of Stonehearst Asylum, explaining that Lamb led a revolt among the inmates and took over, imprisoning Salt and the staff in the secret dungeon.

And with that, STONEHEARST ASYLUM is about 1/3 over and it's done with what it's going to use from Poe's story. The rest is a mostly enjoyable, old-school, atmospheric gothic chiller that suffers from a muddled, draggy middle as it stretches to nearly two hours. In keeping with the flavor of the Poe adaptations from the 1960s, this could've easily lost 20-25 minutes and been a much more efficient and effective work. Once Newgate is convinced of what Salt is telling him, Anderson and Gangemi spend far too much time with Newgate dithering around with Eliza (despite her top billing, Beckinsale is really a supporting character here, which may not have been the original intention considering it was once called ELIZA GRAVES and technically still is) and trying to convince Lamb and Finn that he's not on to them. The story takes a few genuinely unpredictable turns, such as the rationale behind Lamb's overthrow of Salt and his staff, and a twist at the end that's very well-executed even though you can more or less see something coming, as there is one very familiar and busy character actor in the cast that you know must serve more of a purpose than his one brief scene at the very beginning. STONEHEARST ASYLUM makes very good use of its dark, foreboding sets, looking very much like an old-fashioned mid '60s or early '70s period horror where you can imagine any combination of gents like Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Herbert Lom or Patrick Magee in the roles played by Kingsley and Caine (how can you not love seeing those two working together?), with Patrick Troughton, Nigel Green, or Oliver Reed in Thewlis' role and Robert Powell, Ralph Bates, or Ian Ogilvy in place of Sturgess. Given the shoddy nature of most Millennium joints, STONEHEARST could've easily turned out like one of those numerous T&A-filled dueling Poe revivals that Roger Corman and Harry Alan Towers were cranking out in the late '80s. Surprisingly, despite shooting in Bulgaria and listing Avi Lerner as an executive producer (Mel Gibson also has a producer credit), it turned out looking quite classy for the most part. Even the visual effects and greenscreen work, done by the Swedish company Filmgate instead of Lerner's usual Bulgarian clown crew at Worldwide FX, are well above average for a Millennium production.

As evidenced by its scant distribution, there isn't much of a market for STONEHEARST ASYLUM in today's multiplexes. It's too restrained and low-key for the Halloween crowd and not serious enough for the arthouse, but a film like this is a welcome respite from the quick-cut, shaky-cam histrionics of today's horror scene. Sturgess and Beckinsale are good, and Caine is terrific in his few scenes as the harumphing head doc trapped in a prison of his own making, but it's Kingsley who steals the film, attacking his role with gusto but holding it at just the point where one step further would take him into hammy overacting. If only its midsection weren't so lethargic and plodding, Anderson might've had a really nifty little throwback gem here. It's not scary as much as it's ominous and moody, but as it is, it's well-acted, handsomely put together, and entertaining enough that die-hard devotees of Poe, AIP, 1960s Hammer (with touches of the opulent Italian castle horrors of the likes of Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti), and 1970s Amicus will probably get more out of it than the casual moviegoer in search of cheap jump scares.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: SEE NO EVIL 2 (2014); LIFE AFTER BETH (2014); and PERSECUTED (2014)

(US - 2014)

It's hard to name the bigger mystery: why we're getting a sequel to the completely forgettable 2006 torture porn slasher SEE NO EVIL in 2014 or why the acclaimed Jen & Sylvia Soska--the "Twisted Twins"--are directing it. The Canadian siblings and Eli Roth protegees earned significant acclaim even from outside the usual horror circles with last year's body modification film AMERICAN MARY. It was a colorful and stylish, but ultimately empty and overrated film that nevertheless has found a major cult following thanks to the Soskas and GINGER SNAPS star Katharine Isabelle. The Soskas probably viewed the Lionsgate/WWE production SEE NO EVIL 2 as a stepping stone into the majors, but other than one inspired death scene and an admittedly clever "Directed by" credit placed over the sisters playing corpses in a morgue, the film is completely and utterly ordinary in every way. It's dimly shot, it's not scary, and neither the protagonists nor the killer are the least bit interesting. Even the idea of subverting audience expectation over the "final girl" isn't exactly new, so what we're left with is yet another rote slasher movie with an unstoppable killing machine working his way through a cast of soon-to-be dead meat.

SEE NO EVIL, directed by former porn auteur Gregory Dark (who previously made a slew of early '90s DTV erotic thrillers under variations of the name "Alexander Gregory Hippolyte" and a couple of action movies as "Gregory Brown"), had hulking murderer Jacob Goodnight (7 ft. tall WWE star Kane, real name Glenn Jacobs), aka "the God's Hand Killer," gouging out the eyes of a bunch of unlikable dickheads in an abandoned hotel as some obscure vengeance against his domineering, insane mother. He was killed at the end, and the Soskas' sequel opens with Goodnight (again played by Kane) being brought to the morgue during the graveyard shift, overseen by wheelchair-bound Holden (Michael Eklund) and his on-duty staff, Seth (Kaj-Erik Eriksen) and birthday girl Amy (convention circuit scream queen Danielle Harris). Holden lets Amy's friends in to party and things go south when the dead Goodnight inexplicably reanimates while serial-killer-obsessed Tamara (Isabelle) and Carter (Lee Majdoub) are screwing on a slab next to him. Soon enough, Kane slaughters the revelers one-by-one as they run through the endless corridors of the morgue, which starts to resemble Freddy Krueger's boiler room and has roughly the same square footage as a typical Costco, not to mention an alarming lack of exit doors. There is one well-executed kill that would get an audience wound up had this actually been released in theaters instead of VOD four days before its Blu-ray/DVD release, and it's more of a straightforward slasher film than its uglier and more SAW-inspired predecessor, but there's nothing here to get excited about. The fanboy/fangirl hype surrounding SEE NO EVIL 2 is more about the Soskas than anything in the film or any demand for the further slice-and-dice misadventures of Jacob Goodnight, and it's again indicative of the too sycophantic environment of horror fandom. Thanks to conventions and social media, horror filmmakers are without question the most accessible and fan-friendly of any genre. And they almost always seem like cool people who would be awesome to hang with and watch movies. That sometimes makes people maybe praise the movies more than they would if the people who worked on it weren't their "friends." The Soskas obviously have talent and the potential to be unique voices in cult horror cinema. They're smart, funny, and extremely charming in the "Twisted Twins" bonus feature. You'll totally want to hang out with them. I know I do. But AMERICAN MARY didn't work its magic on me and SEE NO EVIL 2, written not by the Soskas but by first-timers Nathan Brookes and Bobby Lee Darby, looks and plays like the director(s)-for-hire gig that it is, and if it didn't boast the novelty of the can't-miss selling point of hip, cool twin sisters behind the camera, there's a good chance nobody would give even give a shit about SEE NO EVIL 2. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2014)

Are we done with zombies yet? I HEART HUCKABEE'S co-writer Jeff Baena apparently doesn't think so, as he returns from a decade-long absence to make his directorial debut with the bland and mostly unfunny zom-com LIFE AFTER BETH. Grieving emo-kid Zach (Dane DeHaan) can't get over the snakebite death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza) and isn't getting much sympathy from his parents (Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines) or his asshole older brother (Matthew Gray Gubler). Things get worse when Beth's parents (John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon) seem to be avoiding him, but Zach soon finds out why: Beth has crawled out of her grave and returned home, completely unaware that she's dead. Her parents are overjoyed to have her back, and like Zach, they don't seem to mind that she's irrational, prone to banshee-howling, that she gradually starts physically deteriorating, and eventually develops a taste for human flesh, and perhaps most shockingly, smooth jazz. All the while, a zombie outbreak happens all over town, which leads to one of the film's few funny scenes when Zach's dead grandpa (Garry Marshall) returns home, along with the the zombified previous owners of Zach's parents' house. Most of LIFE AFTER BETH deals with Zach deluding himself into thinking a relationship with Zombie Beth is possible, and it's a one-joke premise that gets stretched entirely too thin before Baena just gives up, opting to go for cheap laughs with easy-listening tunes (Benny Mardones' "Into the Night" and Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good"), and offering nothing but generic zombie apocalypse mayhem. A good cast is wasted (Anna Kendrick plays a potential new--and alive--girlfriend for Zach, and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT's Alia Shawkat is still in the credits even though she was cut from the film), 30-year-old Plaza and 27-year-old DeHaan are too old for roles that seem like they were written with much younger actors in mind, and the film's tone veers around so wildly that it's hard to gauge exactly what Baena had in mind when he concocted this thing. Co-produced by Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope for some reason, LIFE AFTER BETH debuted on VOD in July before getting a 30-screen theatrical release in September, grossing just $88,000. (R, 89 mins)

(US - 2014)

From the annual Fox News hysteria over the "War on Christmas" to this year's earlier surprise hit GOD'S NOT DEAD, you'd think Christianity was under attack despite between 73-76% of Americans surveyed identifying themselves as Christians. The makers of PERSECUTED feed into that notion of victimization with a sort of faithsploitation version of THE FUGITIVE. Former alcoholic and drug addict and born-again family man John Luther (James Remar), the head of the hugely popular ministry Truth, steadfastly refuses to endorse the Faith and Fairness Act, a bill proposed by (presumably liberal, though the film pretends it's not playing politics) Sen. Donald Harrison (Bruce Davison) that would effectively force the inclusion and acceptance of all religions, equal across the board under the law. Harrison says it's "the most crucial piece of legislation since the Bill of Rights," but the influential Luther ("You reach more people than the evening news!" he's told at one point) refuses to get behind anything that would diminish Christianity. With Luther refusing to play ball, Harrison, working in cahoots with a vaguely Bill Clinton-esque president (James R. Higgins), dispatches a ruthless Secret Service assassin (Raoul Trujillo) to drug Luther and frame him for the murder of a scantily-clad young woman. Luther wakes up and goes on the run, giving proof of his innocence to his priest father (Fred Dalton Thompson), who's almost immediately killed by scary Secret Service hit men. Meanwhile, Luther's second-in-charge, Pastor Ryan Morris (conservative stand-up comic Brad Stine), is playing all sides in his quest to generate more revenue and tax breaks for Truth, and in the quest to clear his name, Luther realizes he's just a pawn in the game of politics and sets the record straight with top cable news host Diana Lucas, played in a real stretch by Fox News' Gretchen Carlson.

Unlike most "bus 'em in," preaching-to-the-converted evangelical titles, PERSECUTED is at least professionally-assembled and looks like a real movie (former Francis Ford Coppola associate Gray Frederickson is one of the producers). Other than being reduced to faithsploitation (where else will Remar get to play a big-screen lead these days?), the actors don't really embarrass themselves, but writer/director Daniel Lusko can't seem to figure out who the villains of the piece really are. As a result, the film more or less comes off as paranoid about everything, which is probably why your right-wing, talk-radio listening uncle will be recommending it to everyone at Thanksgiving. Even the board of directors for Luther's own ministry (including a frail-looking Dean Stockwell) are revealed to be a bunch of unscrupulous assholes quick to hang the heroic Luther out to dry, and when Harrison's true nefarious intentions are revealed and we learn just how unfathomably evil he is, he doesn't sound any different than any conservative politician you'd find if you turn on any random cable news show. And of course, the idea of a Clinton-like Commander-in-Chief dispatching hit men is just pure Viagra for the far-right conspiracy theorists to get their Vince Foster boner on. While PERSECUTED looks like a real movie, the script is laughable, with hilarious contrivances like a group of people hanging out in some bushes who just happen to film the frame-up of Luther, and the way Luther (who, if you recall, reaches more people than the evening news) can move about undetected--even blending in with the crowd at a major, televised Harrison speech--even though he's all over the news as the country's most wanted--and persecuted!--fugitive. Lusko demonstrates zero ability to lay out exposition in a remotely plausible way, as Luther's dad drops this humdinger while talking to his son about Harrison: "That's your friend...the Senator...the majority leader of the United States Senate." Really?  Who talks like that? Wouldn't Luther already know that Harrison is the majority leader? Couldn't Lusko have found a less cumbersome way to pass that info to the audience?  Critiques--like secular audiences--be damned, PERSECUTED's hysterical fantasies play to the most frothing Newsmax junkie but it at least gives some past-their-prime actors something to do while waiting for a LAW & ORDER: SVU guest spot. (PG-13, 91 mins)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

In Theaters: KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Michael Cuesta. Written by Peter Landesman. Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Pepper, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Paz Vega, Michael Kenneth Williams, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Robert Patrick, Richard Schiff, Gil Bellows, Yul Vazquez, Lucas Hedges, Dan Futterman, Josh Close, Steve Coulter, Susan Walters, Clay Kraski. (R, 112 mins)

Though it has some flaws in its execution, particularly in its second half, it's a shame that the compelling KILL THE MESSENGER isn't finding an audience. That Focus only has it on 425 screens nationally isn't helping, but it's also indicative of the fact that smart films for adult audiences--films that used to be commonplace--are now largely relegated to art houses and limited/VOD releases. With just a $5 million budget and a sizable cast of well-known faces taking a pay cut to be onboard, KILL THE MESSENGER is obviously a project that the actors believed in and it'll find an audience eventually, but with its incendiary subject matter and a riveting performance by Jeremy Renner, it should be getting more attention than it's received thus far. Based on Gary Webb's 1998 book Dark Alliance and Nick Schou's 2006 book Kill the Messenger, the film tells the story of Webb (Renner), a small-time San Jose Mercury News reporter who stumbled onto a story that blew the doors off the CIA's involvement in cocaine trafficking and the crack epidemic in South Central L.A. that helped fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

KILL THE MESSENGER opens in 1996 with Webb following the money in the trial of drug dealer Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez) and sticking his nose into the story to the point where the irate prosecutor (Barry Pepper) drops the charges. Webb figures out that Blandon is both a drug dealer and a paid CIA informant who needs to be operational in order to supply the agency with the information it needs. Acting on a tip from incarcerated drug runner Ricky Ross (Michael Kenneth Williams), Webb's detective work leads him to Nicaragua where imprisoned cartel boss Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia) informs him of the CIA's involvement in the drug trade to fund the Contra rebels a decade earlier, which was the government's only way to secretly pay for a war that Congress wouldn't approve for President Reagan. As Webb's investigation deepens and ominous government officials strongly encourage him to back down, it only fuels the fire and when the story runs, Webb is the toast of the journalism world, much to the delight of his editors (Oliver Platt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead). His triumph is short-lived, however, as he soon realizes he's being followed, he spots a prowler in his driveway, and finds silent, sinister men in suits in his basement, rifling through his files. The CIA and other news outlets begin a smear campaign to discredit him, digging into everything in his past, including an affair he had while working at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which led to Webb moving his wife Susan (Rosemarie DeWitt) and kids to California to start over.

For its first hour or so, KILL THE MESSENGER is cut from the same cloth as ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976), SHATTERED GLASS (2003), and the Robert Graysmith investigative portions of ZODIAC (2007), the kind of newsroom nailbiter where the tension is cranked up and every conversation is an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Director Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.) and screenwriter Peter Landesman (the little-seen Kevin Kline drama TRADE) have studied the classics and the film is propelled by an excellent Renner, in maybe his best performance yet. But once Webb's bombshell of a story is published, the filmmakers keep the focus strictly on Webb, despite the explosive implications of the bigger picture. On one hand, I get that he's the central character and everyone--from his previously-adoring editors to jealous competitors to shady CIA operatives--is trying to throw him under the bus, but other than a Los Angeles Times editor (Dan Futterman) chewing out his staff for missing the boat on the story, we never get a grasp of just how much Webb's story has shaken things up. All we see is the effect on his job (he's busted down to the Cupertino office, which seems to be located in a strip mall) and the soap-opera subplots for his family, with his adoring teenage son (Lucas Hedges) sobbing "I'm disappointed in you," when he learns of the affair, and Webb telling his wife "I never stopped loving you" when they reunite after Cupertino. Though Webb's story should be told, the KILL THE MESSENGER story is bigger than just Gary Webb. Cuesta and Landesman (and probably Renner, for that matter) seem conflicted over lauding and paying tribute to Webb while trying to do the right thing and show him as a flawed human being. They wisely avoid the pitfall of devolving into grandstanding pontification and canonizing the protagonist (can you imagine if Oliver Stone directed this?). Webb has cheated on his wife and been forgiven, though Susan lets him know that she hasn't forgotten. His CIA/Contra story, while completely true and enough to have the top levels of the US government in a panic, isn't air-tight as far as sources go. If anything, KILL THE MESSENGER probably needed to be a longer film in order to include all facets of the story and not make the second half feel glossed-over and scaled-down, and the detours into Webb's personal life flow more smoothly.

Gary Webb (1955-2004)
Though Renner is front and center, he and the film get solid support from the fine ensemble, many of whom only have one scene but make it count. Garcia is terrific as Meneses (when he mentions an "Ollie," Webb asks "Ollie?  You mean Oliver North?" Meneses: "No, Oliver Hardy. Yes, Oliver North!"), Michael Sheen has a marvelous bit as a weary and disillusioned congressman who knows the story needs to be told but warns Webb that it will only ruin him ("They won't address the story...they'll just attack you"), and Ray Liotta has an odd scene that doesn't really go anywhere but allows him to serve as this film's Donald Sutherland-in-JFK. Until its midpoint, KILL THE MESSENGER is thoroughly engrossing, suspenseful filmmaking but it doesn't really follow through on its potential. Imagine ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN if it paused the Watergate digging and cut down the scenes with Jason Robards, Jack Warden, and Martin Balsam to introduce subplots about Woodward's and Bernstein's personal lives. That's not to say it isn't worthwhile--it's a very good film that, for a while, flirts with being almost great. Though the focus shifts to Webb the man, it doesn't follow him all the way to his tragic end as the CIA released a 400-page report later in 1998, admitting its complicity and completely vindicating Webb, though that story received almost no coverage because the media was focused on the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. In December 2004, Webb was found in his apartment with two bullet wounds in his head.  His death was ruled a suicide.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: RAW FORCE (1982)

(Philippines - 1982)

Written and directed by Edward Murphy. Cast: Cameron Mitchell, Geoff Binney, Hope Holiday, Jillian Kesner, John Dresden, Jennifer Holmes, Rey King, Carla Reynolds, Carl Anthony, John Locke, Mark Tanous, Ralph Lombardi, Vic Diaz, Camille Keaton, Jewel Shepard. (R, 86 mins)

Fans of early '80s grindhouse and late-night cable have largely kept RAW FORCE to themselves over the years, but that's likely to change with Vinegar Syndrome's release of the film in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. A revival of the MIAMI CONNECTION sort is likely, and while both are equally ridiculous, RAW FORCE at least knows it's ridiculous. Writer/director Edward Murphy is interviewed in the release's accompanying retrospective, and says "It was a movie for 17-year-old boys...and it probably still is." Probably the best Philippines-shot B-grade T&A actioner that Roger Corman never produced, RAW FORCE has a winking and very tongue-in-cheek attitude, mixing action, horror, comedy, and gratuitous nudity into a jawdropping plot that's equal parts kung-fu epic, DAWN OF THE DEAD, Nazisploitation, raunchy slob comedy, GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, and THE LOVE BOAT. Anyone taking this seriously is completely missing the point: RAW FORCE is the kind of sleazy exploitation gem that demands to be resurrected on the midnight movie circuit.

Members of the Burbank Karate Club--including Mike O'Malley (Geoff Binney), John Taylor (John Dresden), Go Chin (Rey King), and Los Angeles cop Cookie Winchell (Jillian Kesner)--are on a cruise organized by dotty Hazel (Hope Holiday) and captained by the disgruntled Harry Dodds (Cameron Mitchell), that runs afoul of the jade trading operation of nefarious, Hitler-mustached villain Speer (Ralph Lombardi). When Speer gets wind of the cruise stopping at Warrior's Island, he dispatches his incompetent underlings--who look like a Village People tribute act--to stop them, which only results in a bar fight where the kung-fu Love Boaters handle them with ease. Speer's jade operation is a cover for his lucrative sex trade, abducting and supplying girls for a sect of monks (led by Filipino exploitation fixture Vic Diaz) that live on the otherwise deserted island. But even that's a cover for what's really going on: the island was settled by this sect in 1779 as the burial ground for disgraced martial artists, and the monks are there to watch over the kung-fu zombies who require the flesh of young women to survive. Not even Speer's henchmen are aware of the truth behind his operation, and when they abduct cruise member Eileen (Carla Reynolds), the Burbank Karate Club and gun-toting Capt. Dodds take action.  Because they're...the RAW FORCE!

There's some spirited and occasionally impressive fight choreography in RAW FORCE if it involves people actually schooled in martial arts, like Kesner (FIRECRACKER) or King. With most of the actors, however, it looks awkward and not-very-rehearsed, which of course only adds to the enjoyment. Like the filmmakers, most of the actors--particularly Lombardi as the evil Speer--seem to be in on the joke. RAW FORCE has such a pronounced sense of anything-goes giddiness that it's indicative of what might've happened if Filipino exploitation legend Cirio H. Santiago was clever enough to make a self-aware spoof of his own trash movies. In that sense, it almost belongs in the same category of self-conscious New World titles like HOLLYWOOD BLVD (1976) and PIRANHA (1978), but if anything, RAW FORCE is more ridiculous and cartoonishly over-the-top than almost anything Roger Corman was releasing in the early '80s, GALAXY OF TERROR worm-rape notwithstanding. It's not enough to have martial arts fight scenes and topless beauties throughout (including I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE's Camille Keaton and future DTV erotic thriller mainstay Jewel Shepard in tiny roles), but RAW FORCE take it several steps further by throwing in a Hitler surrogate as the primary villain along with evil, clapping, cackling monks and a kung-fu zombie army. And it ends with Dresden's Taylor breaking the fourth wall and winking at the audience as a title card promises "To Be Continued..." thereby essentially all but openly stating that yes, RAW FORCE is a comedy.

The cast is only as good as they have to be, though Lombardi, who obviously saw THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL and patterned his performance on Gregory Peck's Josef Mengele, chews the scenery with gusto, and the always-appealing Kesner is enjoyable as the tough-as-nails Cookie. Dresden is the nominal main hero, even though sporadically-employed 1970s TV actor Binney is more prominently-billed in what turned out to be his last role before retiring from acting at 37. It's great fun watching a grumbling Mitchell, who appears to be nowhere near the vicinity of sober, bitching his way through his role, endlessly griping about the lack of maintenance on the ship and the penny-pinching cheapness of Hazel's cruise operation--it's almost as if it's his own personal running commentary on being a once-promising 1950s leading man reduced to appearing in movies like RAW FORCE. With some of the film's financing coming from the Philippines' San Miguel Brewery, Mitchell (1918-1994) was the biggest name the producers could afford, and Holiday--Mitchell's girlfriend according to Murphy, even though she was married to character actor Frank Marth from 1967 until his death in 2014--presumably was part of his deal as they worked together on several D-list exploitation titles in the 1980s, including KILLPOINT (1984) and the MST3K favorite SPACE MUTINY (1988). Holiday had prominent supporting roles in the Billy Wilder films THE APARTMENT (1960) and IRMA LA DOUCE (1963) before she was relegated to TV and drive-in gigs.

Cameron Mitchell (1918-1994)
It was even worse for Mitchell by the early 1980s. He stayed busy but was a long way from Happy Loman in the big-screen version of DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1951), or playing the older brother of Marlon Brando's Napoleon in DESIREE (1954), or clashing with James Cagney over Doris Day in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955). Though he might still turn up in some all-star disaster movie like THE SWARM (1978), gigs for Mitchell in major-studio films dropped drastically by the late 1970s. Around the same time as RAW FORCE, Mitchell had a showy, cigar-chomping supporting turn with an Oscar-nominated Peter O'Toole in MY FAVORITE YEAR, which marked his last appearance in an A-list big-screen project. Mitchell continued making movies and was still guesting on TV shows like FANTASY ISLAND, MAGNUM P.I., KNIGHT RIDER, MURDER SHE WROTE, and SIMON & SIMON, and in miniseries like DREAM WEST (1986), but things like RAW FORCE and KILL SQUAD were pretty much the state of his career in the 1980s. In 1983, Mitchell even co-starred with John Leslie and Veronica Hart in the hard-boiled hardcore porno DIXIE RAY, HOLLYWOOD STAR, which was cut down into an R-rated softcore version retitled IT'S CALLED MURDER, BABY. Though Mitchell didn't partake in any sex scenes, it was very rare for a well-known, mainstream actor to appear in a XXX film (similarly-skidding '50s tough guy Aldo Ray co-starred with Carol Connors in the 1978 porno western SWEET SAVAGE), even if he would later claim he was unaware that it was going to be hardcore. No matter how many lowly, disreputable jobs he was offered, Mitchell never stopped working (eight credits in 1987 alone!) and while he was usually hired to overact and would often appear to be drunk, he would occasionally demonstrate that he still had that fire in his belly and would turn in an interesting and unexpectedly strong performance when no one was looking in something like THE OFFSPRING (1987). He died from lung cancer in 1994, never achieving a big comeback. Mitchell's final role came in Steve Latshaw's no-budget horror film JACK-O, released straight-to-video over a year after his death.

RAW FORCE marked Murphy's filmmaking debut, and he only made one other film, 1985's HEATED VENGEANCE, starring BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA's Richard Hatch. In the bonus features, the gregarious writer/director, who left movies to becoming a practicing attorney, talks about living as an expat in the Philippines after serving in Vietnam. He found work as a bit player in a slew of Filipino exploitation titles before stepping behind the camera. Like his cast, Murphy knows RAW FORCE is a stupid movie, but you can see the enthusiasm emanating from Murphy now and immediately see why RAW FORCE is so much fun. Murphy might be a bit too enthusiastic and reveling in the newfound attention that Vinegar Syndrome is bringing him. He talks about Holiday being Mitchell's girlfriend, but never mentioning her husband. Instead, he names Jonathan Winters as Holiday's ex-husband, and that was never the case. Winters was married once, to the same woman from 1949 until her death in 2009. Murphy claims to be good friends with Winters, even saying Winters was brought along by Holiday and Mitchell to a dinner meeting for a potential RAW FORCE II (it was never made, despite the joking promise at the end), yet he's surprised when offscreen interviewer Elijah Drenner informs him that Winters is dead (he died in 2013). I'm not saying Murphy is telling tales out of school--maybe Winters stepped out on his wife with Holiday, who knows?--or indulging in some full-of-shit revisionist history like Mark Damon claiming it was he, and not Roger Corman, who directed 1961's THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, but it's possible that he misspoke and is simply confusing Jonathan Winters with someone else. It's also hard to believe Winters would even entertain the notion of accepting an offer to co-star in RAW FORCE II, unless he was just tagging along to get a free dinner out of it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: KILLER FISH (1979)

(UK/Italy/Brazil/US - 1979)

Directed by Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti). Written by Michael Rogers. Cast: Lee Majors, Karen Black, Margaux Hemingway, Marisa Berenson, James Franciscus, Gary Collins, Anthony Steffen, Dan Pastorini, Roy Brocksmith, Frank Pesce, Charlie Guardino, Fabio Sabag, Chico Arago, Jorge Cherques. (PG, 101 mins)

A hybrid of heist thriller, disaster movie, and JAWS ripoff, KILLER FISH is a perfect example of the kind of international co-production insanity that only could've happened in the 1970s. Produced by the UK's Sir Lew Grade, Italy's Carlo Ponti, the Brazilian company Filmar do Brasil, and American TV power couple Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, the film was designed as a star vehicle for Lee Majors, whose successful five-season run on ABC's THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN had just come to a close in 1978. Majors, a veteran of several past TV hits like THE BIG VALLEY, THE VIRGINIAN, and OWEN MARSHALL, COUNSELOR AT LAW, was trying to parlay his television success into a big-screen career and from 1978 to 1981, starred in several B-movies of usually dubious quality, while at the same time turning down an offer from Paramount to co-star with Nick Nolte in NORTH DALLAS FORTY (1979). Majors' role--a hard-partying, good ol' boy star quarterback--went to Mac Davis and the film is now regarded by many as the definitive serious football film. While NORTH DALLAS FORTY was a box office hit and opened to almost universal acclaim, Majors was making KILLER FISH and other films like THE NORSEMAN (1978), STEEL (1980), AGENCY (1981), and THE LAST CHASE (1981), all of which were out of theaters in a week, and by the end of 1981, he was back on ABC for another series, THE FALL GUY, which ran until 1986.

Of those five films Majors made before going back to TV, KILLER FISH has become a legitimate cult film, primarily for its loony plot and its unusual cast, and that it's directed by legendary Eurocult journeyman Antonio Margheriti, using his usual "Anthony M. Dawson" pseudonym.  Margheriti was just coming off his NYC-shot heist thriller THE SQUEEZE and brought that film's suddenly slumming co-star Karen Black along to Brazil for another heist plot. Shot entirely in some stunningly beautiful locations, it's very likely that it was the idea of a working vacation in Rio that lured much of KILLER FISH's cast, which had an unusually large number of American actors for such trashy European-ish fare. While the Italian/West German co-production THE SQUEEZE is probably Margheriti's most American-looking film thanks to some effective location work in some grimy parts of Manhattan and just over the river in New Jersey, KILLER FISH is right alongside the US/Spanish blaxploitation western TAKE A HARD RIDE (1975) and the rainforest-set Italian RAMBO ripoff INDIO (1989) as the most American-feeling of Margheriti's vast output. Much effort was made to package KILLER FISH like a typical Hollywood disaster movie, with only one Italian actor in the cast (former DJANGO Anthony Steffen, best known for 1971's THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE), several Americans, including model Margaux Hemingway, part-time actor and soon-to-be talk show and Miss America host Gary Collins and, as usual in these types of movies, an off-season football star--in this case, Houston Oilers QB Dan Pastorini.  KILLER FISH also sported its own Maureen McGovern-mandated disaster movie theme song, "Winner Takes All," performed by flash-in-the-pan disco queen Amii Stewart, who had a chart-topping, Grammy-nominated hit in early 1979 with "Knock on Wood."

KILLER FISH is great cheesy entertainment, but other than the outstanding location shooting by cinematographer Alberto Spagnoli, it can barely compete with the budget-conscious likes of Roger Corman, let alone the expensive product that Master of Disaster Irwin Allen was cranking out. The main reason is that Margheriti was too attached to his use of outdated miniatures, which he would be until the end of his career. Sloppy rearscreen projection work is one thing, but toy trains and model dams that look like Lionel factory irregulars aren't going to cut the mustard. Of course, now these laughable effects are part of KILLER FISH's charm, but Margheriti's continued insistence on using techniques that were antiquated in the 1960s would consistently undermine his work into the 1990s. Margheriti was adept at action scenes and shootouts and could stage an explosion as impressively as any director who ever stepped on to a movie set, but it's hard to get into the excitement of a car chase in something like CODENAME: WILDGEESE (1984) when you can clearly see in a few shots that it's a toy car with an immobile plastic action figure in the driver's seat. For all the big names involved in the financing, KILLER FISH often looks ridiculously cheap. It's more likely that most of money went to the actors, their hotel bills, their bar tabs, and their per diems than toward anything that ended up on the screen. KILLER FISH is so lacking in funds for special effects and spectacle that Ponti had Margheriti open it with a factory explosion lifted completely from THE SQUEEZE.

In Brazil, former mine executive and fanatical backgammon enthusiast Paul Diller (James Franciscus), pushed out of the company after a heart attack, has hired a team of professional thieves led by Lasky (Majors) to break into a secure part of the mine and make off with a large stash of diamonds and emeralds. Helping Lasky is Diller's girlfriend Kate (Black), and when the team stashes the diamonds in a weighed-down metal container at the bottom of a lake, tensions start to mount when Kate suggests they wait 60 days for the cops to give up looking for them or the loot. That doesn't sit well with Lasky, who's conspired with a pair of sibling mooks, Warren (Frank Pesce) and Lloyd (Charlie Guardino) to replace the container in the lake with another and make off with the goods. When Lloyd dives into the lake to retrieve the container, he's promptly devoured by something unseen, which Warren thinks is "a giant snake." Warren talks their getaway driver Hans (Pastorini) into diving into the lake to check things, and when he starts being eaten in a similar fashion, Warren falls in trying to rescue him and they're both dead. It seems that months before pulling off the heist, Diller introduced an especially vicious strain of piranha into the lake to breed ("There's probably tens of thousands of them by now," he sneers), completely altering the ecosystem of a major tourist destination just in case some criminal co-conspirators got greedy. When one of cinema's least convincing hurricanes hits and destroys a nearby dam, the piranha are let loose in the open water and almost everyone in the cast who hasn't been eaten ends up on a small, damaged, dead-in-the-water charter boat captained by rugged local sea salt Max (Steffen, dubbed by Ted Rusoff), who's acting as a guide for a fashion shoot for supermodel Gabrielle (Margaux Hemingway), her manager Ann (Marisa Berenson), and portly, flamboyant photographer Ollie (Roy Brocksmith). As an untold number of hungry piranha surround the boat, Diller--after a backgammon showdown with Lasky--is willing to kill everyone if it means getting away and keeping his diamonds, and it's up to playboy pilot Tom (Collins) to rescue the stranded boaters.

The climax is quite hilarious at times, with Majors' Lasky and Steffen's Max indulging in heroics so stupid that you might even think they deserve to be piranha chow. Franciscus is appropriately dastardly and Black has one very convincing scene where her character is having a convulsing panic attack as she's being pulled out of the water after nearly being eaten. There's also a strange sexual undercurrent to the film, with Kate growing intensely jealous over Lasky's pre-mayhem resort romance with Gabrielle, and Gabrielle subtly suggesting to Lasky that they have a threesome with the bisexual Ollie. In addition, Margheriti and screenwriter Michael Rogers (probably a pseudonym for a committee of Italian writers, as this is "Rogers"' only IMDb credit) spend far too much time on Tom trying to get in Ann's pants. There's too many characters in KILLER FISH, with Tom and Ann's flirting, Ollie functioning as dual stereotypes of the raging queen and comic-relief fat guy, and even more extraneous characters turning up on the boat with no purpose at all. When KILLER FISH focuses on the heist, the piranha, and the janky special effects--the piranha swimming shots are priceless--it's a lot of fun.

Arriving not long after the definitive piranha movie, Joe Dante's PIRANHA (1978), KILLER FISH opened in US theaters in December 1979 and promptly bombed. It played on NBC a few times starting in 1981, under the title DEADLY TREASURE OF THE PIRANHA, and was released on VHS in 1986 as KILLER FISH, but has only now been released on DVD and Blu-ray, courtesy of Scorpion Releasing/Kino Lorber. The 1.78 transfer is pristine as can be, and the sole bonus feature is a nearly-hour-long informal dinner discussion between Frank Pesce and cult filmmaker William Lustig (MANIAC, MANIAC COP), who's known Pesce for decades and worked as a production assistant on the American location shooting of Margheriti's THE SQUEEZE. Pesce found work as an extra in THE GODFATHER (1972) and THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) and was hanging around the set of ROCKY (1976), lucking into acting after winning $6 million in the New York state lottery in 1976. He's appeared in many movies and TV shows over the years, usually B or straight-to-video titles, but he's occasionally turned up in big movies--he's the bolting cigarette buyer at the beginning of BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984) and returned to further incur Axel Foley's wrath in BEVERLY HILLS COP II (1987), and he played gangsters in MIDNIGHT RUN (1988) and DONNIE BRASCO (1997). His story was chronicled in the 1991 film 29TH STREET, with Anthony LaPaglia as Pesce, and the film produced and based on a story by Pesce and Franciscus, who became good friends after working together on KILLER FISH (Franciscus retired from acting in 1985 and died of emphysema at just 57 in 1991, a few months before 29TH STREET's release). Pesce and Lustig get sidetracked, as old friends do, and don't start talking about KILLER FISH until midway through the segment, but Pesce's got some priceless stories about his and Lustig's late friend Joe Spinell, and about working as a stand-in for Robert De Niro on TAXI DRIVER (1976), and Roy Scheider on MARATHON MAN (1976) and in the NYC scenes in SORCERER (1977). He also talks about Black trying to convert him to Scientology and tells a great story about some KILLER FISH cast and crew members going to a popular Rio disco, where Pesce's working his magic on an attractive blonde and was about to make his move when a bat flew into his hair, startling him and prompting him to scream loudly. The blonde immediately lost interest and Pesce later saw her leaving with Majors, who was "with her" for the rest of the shoot. Regarding Majors and his then-wife Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Pesce recalls that it was during the filming of KILLER FISH that Majors got word that Fawcett was involved with Ryan O'Neal, or as Pesce eloquently puts it, "Lee found out that whatsisname, Ryan O'Neal, was bangin' Farrah."