Friday, January 30, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: WILD CARD (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Simon West. Written by William Goldman. Cast: Jason Statham, Michael Angarano, Milo Ventimiglia, Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Stanley Tucci, Hope Davis, Anne Heche, Sofia Vergara, Jason Alexander, Max Casella, Francois Vincentelli, Chris Browning, Matthew Willig, Davenia McFadden. (R, 92 mins)

Jason Statham's peak days as a solo box-office draw appear to be hitting a valley with recent under-performers like KILLER ELITE (2011), SAFE (2012), PARKER (2013), and HOMEFRONT (2013). Even the third EXPENDABLES entry did significantly less business than its predecessors, and all of that has combined to damn WILD CARD to a limited release/VOD burial from Lionsgate, who've apparently lost faith in Statham's ability to open a movie. None of this means the 47-year-old action hero is done: he's still got his Liam Neeson action icon rebirth to look forward to in a decade or so, and in the immediate future, he's playing the villain in the upcoming FURIOUS 7, and teams up with Melissa McCarthy in the slapstick comedy SPY, due out this summer. WILD CARD is a remake of the forgotten 1987 Burt Reynolds box-office bomb HEAT, based on a novel by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, MARATHON MAN). If HEAT is remembered at all today, it's for being the movie where an irate Reynolds infamously punched director Dick Richards in the face after an on-set disagreement. Scripted by Goldman himself, HEAT was so plagued by production problems that Richards was actually the film's second director, a replacement for Robert Altman, who quit after one day of shooting. After the altercation with Reynolds, Richards quit and was then replaced by veteran journeyman Jerry Jameson (AIRPORT '77), who finished the movie without incident, with final credit going to a semi-pseudonymous "R.M. Richards."

HEAT was Reynolds' first film back from being sidelined for two years by a jaw injury sustained on the set of 1984's CITY HEAT, when he was shooting a fight scene and was hit in the face by a real chair instead of a breakaway prop chair. He had to have reconstructive jaw surgery and was on a liquid diet for months, leading to a drastic weight loss and rumors that he was dying of AIDS. Reynolds looked fit and healthy in HEAT, but by that point, audiences stopped caring. Just a few years earlier, he was the biggest movie star in the world, but by early 1987, HEAT was in and out of theaters in two weeks. The film itself is a noble failure, but it's better than its reputation, with a solid performance by Reynolds, and unlike most of his 1980s work, he's actually trying. HEAT was more a character study than an action thriller--probably why Altman was involved in the first place--and Reynolds took it seriously, but the few who saw it wanted an action movie.

Since so few people remember HEAT (and it's been slightly overshadowed by another, much more revered HEAT), it should be easy for audiences to take WILD CARD on its own terms. Goldman, now 83 and with his first screenplay credit in 12 years, essentially dusts off his HEAT script and adds a few modern touches, but it's largely the same film in terms of plot. However, its most unexpected element is that it only succeeds in making one appreciate HEAT. WILD CARD offers Statham in mostly serious mode (like the similarly dumped REDEMPTION) and while his acting chops are better than he's even given credit, he just looks bored here and can't enliven this bland, lifeless story. Statham is Nick Wild, a Las Vegas "security consultant" reduced to letting clients deck him to impress their girlfriends. He's trying to put together a $500K nest egg to pack up and move to Corsica, but even he knows he'll just be counting the days until he's back in Vegas. Like HEAT, WILD CARD gives Nick two stories that never really come together: his prostitute ex Holly (Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Andy Garcia's daughter) is brutally beaten and raped by sniveling brat mob scion Danny DeMarco (Milo Ventimiglia) and his two dudebro goons, prompting her to beg Nick to help her exact revenge; and Nick is also pestered by wealthy computer genius Cyrus Kinnick (Michael Angarano), a likable but spineless sort who wants lessons in standing up for himself and facing his fears.

And that's pretty much it. A number of familiar faces turn up in brief roles--Anne Heche as a waitress, Hope Davis as a blackjack dealer, Jason Alexander as Nick's lawyer/business partner Pynchus "Pinky" Zion (played by a scene-stealing Howard Hesseman in HEAT), Sofia Vergara as a woman impressed that her weakling beau handled Nick (she's gone before the opening credits), and Stanley Tucci as a flamboyant, god-like, mob-connected casino boss who tries to mediate the dispute between Nick and DeMarco while acting like a slightly toned-down version of Dean Stockwell's Ben in BLUE VELVET. Director Simon West (CON AIR, THE EXPENDABLES 2, and the Statham remake of THE MECHANIC) tries to keep things low-key, even attempting that sort of juxtaposed, jump-forward-then-backtracking with overlapping past/future dialogue editing style frequently (and much more successfully) used by Steven Soderbergh in films like THE LIMEY and OUT OF SIGHT, but coming from the School of Bruckheimer, he's utterly lacking in the nuance and the sense of fluidity required to make tricks like that work. Brian De Palma was signed on to direct this when it was announced but he quit the project during pre-production. One can only imagine how much differently WILD CARD might've turned out with the split-screens and the split-diopter shots and Statham really getting to show his range for one of cinema's all-time great filmmakers. The possibilities, even with De Palma not at the top of his game and in the self-parody phase of his career, are more exciting to ponder than anything that ended up in the finished product.

The worst part of WILD CARD is the distracting and clumsy insertion of elaborately-choreographed fight scenes overseen by veteran martial-arts coordinator Cory Yuen (director of THE TRANSPORTER). This is clearly intended to be a character-driven drama for Statham, but the occasional outbursts of quick-cut martial-arts mayhem as Nick breaks out the JOHN WICKstrionics are jarringly incongruous to the rest of the film and are obviously only there to prevent this from completely turning into the Statham equivalent of KILLING THEM SOFTLY, the kind of dialogue-heavy, misleadingly-advertised mood piece that would've sent die-hard action fans bolting for the exits. But WILD CARD's dramatic elements don't work either, the film ends with an almost anti-climactic shrug of surrender, and when it's all said and done, it's just a tonally confused DOA dud that can't reconcile giving its star a chance to stretch with the expectation that he be a one-man wrecking crew. It does nothing to correct the mistakes of HEAT--which were due more to its messy production than anything else--and instead just ends up making more of its own that are totally unique to this pointless remake of a film that absolutely no one was demanding. Statham's having a really off-day here, and while it's likely that the declining box office of his solo actioners in the last couple of years might've a hand in the stealth release of WILD CARD, there's also no way of getting around the fact that it's his worst film and that's the more likely reason why Lionsgate opted to sneak this into as few theaters as possible.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


(Japan - 2013; US release 2014)

Japanese auteur Sion Sono has several fascinating films in his back catalog--2001's SUICIDE CLUB, 2005's STRANGE CIRCUS, and 2010's COLD FISH to name three--but none on the level of his masterpiece, 2008's LOVE EXPOSURE, belatedly released in the US in 2012. A mammoth, four-hour epic about religion, forbidden love, and upskirt photos, LOVE EXPOSURE is a film like no other. Like the Takashi Miike of a decade and a half ago, the prolific Sono is always working on something, but WHY DON'T YOU PLAY IN HELL? is his first film to get a US release since LOVE EXPOSURE, and it's one where a little goes a long way. An absurdist satire that takes on the yakuza tradition and the state of Japanese filmmaking, HELL gets off to a funny start with the introduction of an enthusiastic but talentless filmmaking collective who call themselves "The Fuck Bombers." There's a long prologue set ten years ago before two parallel storylines kick off and finally converge around 80 minutes into the 130-minute film. Ten years ago, the wife (Tomochika) of yakuza boss Muto (Jun Kunimura) was sent to prison for going on a stabbing rampage that took out several flunkies of Muto's rival Ikegami (Shinichi Tsutsumi). This prompts a toothpaste company to take a popular series of commercials off the air that showcase a catchy jingle sung by Muto's young daughter Mitsuko (played as a child by Nanoka Hara), on whom Ikegami has an unusual and questionable fixation. Ten years later, Mrs. Muto is about to be released from prison and Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaido) is starring in a cheap yakuza thriller when she runs off the set with her hapless boyfriend Koji (Gen Hoshino). When Muto's men apprehend the couple, Mitsuko convinces her father that Koji is a filmmaker and was going to put her in a better movie to impress her mother. Forced to pretend he's a movie director, Koji recruits his childhood acquaintances in The Fuck Bombers, led by the delusional and oblivious Hirata (Hiroki Hasagawa), who sees this as his ticket to the big time and stages an epic, captured-on-film battle-to-the-death between Muto's and Ikegawa's perpetually-warring crews.

Sono is aiming all over the place throughout the often tedious HELL, but it improves quite a bit once Hirata starts shooting his magnum opus as blood, limbs, heads and appendages fly across the screen with wild abandon. Hirata insists on using 35mm and his resulting masterwork, also titled WHY DON'T YOU PLAY IN HELL? ultimately represents the death of film for Japanese cinema (I'm sure Sono is being facetious in his overuse of CGI splatter) as it goes out in a blaze of glory, where even the two-person camera crew starts firing assault rifles while making sure they get their shots. There's a bit of a STUNT MAN method to Hirata's Eli Cross-like madness, but ultimately, the film just starts getting too meta for its own good, with a late-in-the-game Buddy Bizarre wall-breaker that takes it into BLAZING SADDLES territory. There's some clever and funny bits scattered throughout, from offbeat humor (this is a guy, after all, whose EXTE: HAIR EXTENSIONS was a film about killer hair extensions) to simple sight gags (a bunch of yakuza goons bracing themselves and scrambling to avoid an approaching assassin that turns out to be a cat) and the message about the death of film being the end of an era is a poignant and elegiac one. But a dawdling Sono lets the pace drag and takes too long to say what he has to say, spending entirely too much time on standard-issue yakuza cliches straight out of any Beat Takeshi joint, and general goofball silliness with the Fuck Bombers (it's surely by design, but Hasagawa's performance is grating) that only serve to pad the running time. LOVE EXPOSURE was a four-hour work of art that I would've happily spent another four hours watching. With HELL, however, Sono could've trimmed it by at least 30 minutes and ended up with a stronger film as a result. (Unrated, 130 mins)

(Spain/US - 2014)

In the years following the phenomenal success of the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, Elijah Wood has done voice work in the HAPPY FEET films but has generally laid low in indies and offbeat projects like the cult TV series WILFRED. He's also embarked on an unexpected side career in European-made thrillers like Alex de la Iglesia's THE OXFORD MURDERS and Franck Khalfoun's MANIAC, a remake of the 1980 horror classic. OPEN WINDOWS, the latest from TIMECRIMES director Nacho Vigalondo, puts Wood in a similar predicament his character encountered in another recent Spanish thriller, GRAND PIANO. In that film, Wood played a famous and reclusive concert pianist, returning from a very public nervous breakdown and being taunted and threatened via earpiece in mid-comeback performance by the voice of John Cusack as a sniper perched in the balcony, threatening to shoot him if he plays one wrong note. It was a high concept that didn't carry through to the end but had enough De Palma-esque visual flourishes to keep it giddily entertaining. Wood is harangued by an unseen voice yet again in OPEN WINDOWS, this time as Nick, a dweeby blogger and webmaster for a fan site devoted to B-movie actress Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey). Nick is in Austin, where Jill is premiering her latest cheesy horror film and he's won a contest to have dinner with her. He's contacted in his hotel room by Chord (Neil Maskell), who tells him that the dinner is off and that the bitchy Jill never had any intention of meeting up with him anyway. Chord has inside knowledge of Jill's activities and convinces Nick that he's part of her team and is just trying to let him down easy. He sends Nick some links that give him access to her phone and its contents, and even hacks into Nick's digital camera to provide an inside look into Jill's hotel room, where she's stepping out on her boyfriend with her agent. Nick's naivete has allowed Chord to completely take over his laptop and use it to remotely hack into every aspect of Jill's life, and only then does the slow-on-the-uptake Nick realize there never was any contest and that Chord is setting him up to take the fall for his plan to stalk and eventually kill Jill.

Around the time OPEN WINDOWS got a limited and VOD release in the US, celebrity cell phone hacks of Jennifer Lawrence, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and others were making headlines, followed sometime later by the Sony e-mail hacks over the controversial THE INTERVIEW. OPEN WINDOWS blows a chance to be a smart and unexpectedly prescient thriller by going off the deep end and not taking better advantage of its high concept--almost the entire film plays out as pop-up windows on Nick's laptop. Yes, we've gone from found-footage to feature-length Skyping, but the first 30 or so minutes are terrific and very well-orchestrated by the director. But then Vigalondo makes the fatal mistake that so many filmmakers do when dealing with something like this: he should've kept Nick in his hotel room, glued to his laptop. That's what cranks up the suspense--when he's helpless and has nowhere to go. Instead, Vigalondo can't wait to get Nick out of the hotel and into a car, where he ends up being chased by the cops, laptop open in his passenger seat as Chord continues to terrorize him. There's also a team of French hackers who dial in to help Nick, and then there's a whole subplot about them mistaking Nick for a criminal known as "Nevada," who might actually be Chord but maybe not. Vigalondo also introduces one nonsensical twist after another, involving identity theft, doubles, and masks and no one being who they say they are. While Nick is in his hotel room, OPEN WINDOWS is taut, plausible, and terrifying, but as soon as he's out, it collapses almost instantly as Vigalondo not only subscribes to the belief that computers can do what they do in CBS police procedurals, but he piles on one ludicrous twist after another, digging himself into such a hole that the resolution makes no sense whatsoever. It hardly matters, since you'll have stopped caring long before that. OPEN WINDOWS gets off to a killer start but implodes faster than any fright film this side of LEGION. (Unrated, 101 mins)

(Mexico/Spain - 2014)

Pantelion Films, an offshoot of Lionsgate and Mexico's Grupo Televisa, is a specialty distributor of films targeted toward Spanish-speaking audiences in the US. Pantelion had a breakout hit with 2013's INSTRUCTIONS NOT INCLUDED and recently released the biopic CANTINFLAS, which wasn't quite as successful. Released on 178 screens last fall, where it had a respectable $3000 per screen average to land in 17th place its opening weekend, the 3-D horror film MAS NEGRO QUE LA NOCHE was so geared toward a particular audience that it went out under its original title instead of the translated "Darker Than Night." Other than its release pattern, there's absolutely nothing special about NOCHE, a remake of a 1975 film of the same title that's somewhat revered by Mexican moviegoers, though it didn't make much of a dent in the States. Presumably working from a checklist provided by Lionsgate, NOCHE '14 is yet another rote "vengeful ghost" saga that you've seen countless times before, loaded with jump scares and loud music cues. When Greta (Zuria Vega) was orphaned as a child, she was raised by her rich Aunt Ofelia (Lucia Guilmain), a spinster who lived with her beloved cat Becker and fiercely devoted housekeeper Evangelina (Margarita Sanz). Years later, Aunt Ofelia has died and Greta inherits everything, with the caveat that she must care for the seemingly ageless Becker. Greta moves into Ofelia's mansion with her cheating, dirtbag fiance (producer Josemaria Torre Hutt) and her three hard-partying besties, much to the chagrin of Evangelina as well as Aunt Ofelia, whose enraged ghost still prowls the grounds. When Greta's coke-whore friend Vicky (Ona Casamiquela) finds that her ferret's been killed by Becker, she drowns the cat in the pool, which sets Ofelia's ghost on a rampage of vengeance that eventually results in the possession of Greta, who starts offing everyone in a variety of gruesome ways. NOCHE '14 is an abysmally dull failure that takes forever to get going and when it finally does, it simply goes through every modern horror cliche in the book: predictable jump scares and fake-outs, a creepy music box, constantly flickering lights and creaking doors accompanying Ofelia sightings, and endless running and screaming down long corridors like some botched tribute to the slamming-door farce. NOCHE '14 clearly has some money up on the screen with some effectively dank and ominous production design (THE OTHERS and THE ORPHANAGE are major stylistic influences here), but when it's finally and mercifully over, writer/director Henry Bedwell's film is nothing more than a tired, D-list Guillermo del Toro ripoff, with loathsome characters, a dearth of scares, and the pointless bonus of ending with Marilyn Manson's cover of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," for some reason. (R, 110 mins)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: BOARDING GATE (2008)

(France - 2007; US release 2008)

Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. Cast: Asia Argento, Michael Madsen, Kelly Lin, Carl Ng, Kim Gordon, Alex Descas, Joana Preiss, Raymond Tsang, Boss Mok. (R, 106 mins)

French filmmaker Olivier Assayas' sleek and glossy thriller BOARDING GATE was met with shrugs at best to outright hostility at worst when it opened in Europe in 2007 and then in the US in 2008. It shares certain similarities with Assayas' impenetrable corporate espionage thriller DEMONLOVER (2003), but is much more streamlined, straightforward work, even with all of its arthouse bells and whistles. Indeed, it wouldn't take much tweaking to turn BOARDING GATE into a commercial chase actioner, but that would be too easy for Assayas, the acclaimed auteur behind the deconstructionist filmmaking satire IRMA VEP (1996), the little seen addiction/recovery drama CLEAN (2004), the keenly insightful family saga SUMMER HOURS (2008), and the incredibly ambitious CARLOS (2010). BOARDING GATE was roundly criticized as Assayas feebly attempting to make a trashy erotic thriller, but such a labeling does it a huge disservice. Yes, it has tawdry and silly elements, but it's far too well-made and beautiful to look at to be so easily dismissed. It may be a tawdry and silly erotic thriller at its core, but BOARDING GATE does its damnedest to be the most hypnotic and compulsively watchable one you'll ever see.

Using the cutthroat financial sector wheeling-and-dealing as a backdrop, Assayas' focus on BOARDING GATE is Sandra (Asia Argento), a lone-wolf antihero with a mysterious past involving drug addiction and prostitution. She's currently working as a shipping and receiving supervisor at a Paris-based import/export shipyard run by Lester (Carl Ng) and Sue Wang (Kelly Lin). She's got a side business running off-the-manifest drug shipments, all part of a plan to ditch Paris and run off to Beijing to buy into a nightclub with Lester, with whom she's having a clandestine affair behind Sue's back. At the same time, Sandra is trying to find closure in her complicated, S&M-heavy relationship with American businessman Miles Rennberg (Michael Madsen), whose days as a power player in the world of global finance are behind him and now he's just looking to sell his stake in a French company to settle a debt with some shady Hong Kong investors. Years earlier, Rennberg was a major name in the business world, and Sandra was on his payroll as a corporate spy, seducing Rennberg's rich associates and investors and coaxing secrets out of them for her boss, who was less interested in the information than in what Sandra did to get the information. Rennberg's tendencies toward sexual sadism are at odds with his sensitive side, as he remains very much in love with Sandra even though he gets off on demeaning her ("I'm gonna handcuff you, and then I'm gonna fuck you"). Rennberg has his tender moments, but he's still the kind of guy who likes to play rough bondage games and have Sandra choke him with a belt while she straddles him and jerks him off. Out of nowhere, Sandra handcuffs Rennberg for what he thinks is a game but she instead shoots him in the back of the head, killing him. She flees his apartment and is picked up by Lester, who talked her into killing Rennberg and sends her and another employee, Lisa (Joana Preiss) to Hong Kong to lay low. Once there, Sandra has no idea who to trust, as she's faced with an embittered Sue--who's not all that oblivious about her husband's extramarital flings--as well as Kay (Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon), a shady American who oversees a sweatshop specializing in knockoff designer jeans and may have been part of the plot to eliminate Rennberg, which turns into a plot to eliminate Sandra.

A basic synopsis makes BOARDING GATE sound like a predictable suspense thriller, but Assayas isn't interesting in following that path. Much of the first hour is devoted to showing the layers of complexity in Sandra's relationship with Rennberg. It ended badly and both know they can't go back, but that pull is still there, and Assayas lets that play out in a long conversation between the two of them in Rennberg's office, and again in and even longer sequence that takes over 20 minutes of screen time, leading to Sandra's murder of Rennberg. Assayas probably could've got an entire film just out of the relationship between these two characters, and though Argento's reputation as a provocateur and enfant terrible seems to at least partially be a youthful attempt to establish herself beyond being Dario Argento's daughter (it's worth noting that she's fast-approaching 40 and has settled down quite a bit in recent years), it's also done her a disservice even this far into her nearly 30-year career by still eclipsing her acting talent. Away from the drawn-out and depressingly funereal decline of her father's films and his strange habit of putting his daughter in nude scenes that's always left a bit of an unpleasant aftertaste, not to mention her ill-advised attempts to break into Hollywood (Vin Diesel's XXX was a huge hit, but it did nothing for her in America), Argento probably has her career-best role in BOARDING GATE. Sure, the poster art plays on her hellraising, wild-child persona ("She's losing control again"), and Sandra at first seems like another variation on Argento's similar corporate seductress (named "Sandii") in Abel Ferrara's cyberpunk misfire NEW ROSE HOTEL (1999). But she has an alluring, edgy. and intense screen presence that Assayas uses for maximum effect, whether she's parading around in skimpy underwear, touching herself in Rennberg's office, glaring intensely while pulling a trigger, or letting emotion get the best of her in her final meeting with Rennberg.  Judging from her work in BOARDING GATE, somebody really missed the boat by not casting Argento as a cold, ruthless, badass Bond femme fatale of the Luciana Paluzzi variety during the Pierce Brosnan era.

Even if you hate BOARDING GATE, if nothing else, Assayas deserves some credit for being the last filmmaker (as of this writing) to cast the perpetually slumming Madsen in a serious, significant role. Though he exits at the midway point, Madsen's presence is felt throughout BOARDING GATE, and watching this now is both gratifying and depressing. Gratifying in the sense that it's a rare glimpse of the electrifying, early '90s Madsen that showed up for THELMA & LOUISE and RESERVOIR DOGS, and depressing in that today, he's lumped in with fellow promising actors-turned-mercenaries Val Kilmer, Christian Slater, Eric Roberts, Tom Sizemore, and John Savage, guys who simply can't turn down a gig, no matter how dubious it is, especially if they're on and off the set in a day or less. Other than SIN CITY and an occasional CSI or BLUE BLOODS guest spot, the last decade of Madsen's IMDb page is infested with the likes of NOT ANOTHER NOT ANOTHER MOVIE, FOREST OF THE LIVING DEAD, PIRANHACONDA, and tons of other instantly obscure and unreleased YouTube-quality titles that barely qualify as films. Watching BOARDING GATE again now, it's almost as if Assayas created Miles Rennberg as a sort-of intervention for Madsen about where his career was heading. The parallels between Rennberg and Madsen are impossible to ignore: a buzzed-about shooting star years earlier, now looking for quick cash and clinging to the fringes of his industry thanks to name recognition and past accomplishments, and with, as Sandra points out, "a body gone to seed." A pasty, schlubby-looking Madsen sells it perfectly with his slumped shoulders, his middle-aged paunch, and a lurching gait that makes him look like he's babying a chronically nagging back injury. The actor does appear in Quentin Tarantino's currently in-production western THE HATEFUL EIGHT, but until that's released, BOARDING GATE stands as the last documented example of Michael Madsen giving a shit onscreen.

BOARDING GATE's second half is where it splits off into its more commercial direction, but even then, there's enough ambiguity in the ending to completely eliminate it from "crowd-pleaser" contention. Assayas and cinematographer Yorick La Saux (SWIMMING POOL, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE) masterfully capture the dizzying, disorienting feel of overcrowded Hong Kong, whether in shopping centers, markets, or just in the busy streets. It's brilliantly abetted by the droning ambiance of selections from Brian Eno's back catalog, like "Lizard Point" and "Music for Airports 2/2," and "The Heavenly Music Corporation," by Eno and King Crimson's Robert Fripp. It all reaches a stunning crescendo in a finale that's heavy on the complicated camera moves and long tracking shots as Sandra follows Lester with the intent of exacting revenge for hanging her out to dry and cutting her out of their club deal. As Eno's music drones and throbs, Assayas comes up just a split-screen and a split-diopter shy of going into all-out Brian De Palma worship. Nevertheless, Sandra's tailing of Lester brings to mind fond memories of similar De Palma sequences like Angie Dickinson following her anonymous hook-up through the art museum in DRESSED TO KILL or Craig Wasson's lovestruck pursuit of his doomed neighbor through an L.A. shopping mall and to the beach in BODY DOUBLE.

Drenched in melancholy and yet alive with kinetic energy, BOARDING GATE seems to be held in higher regard now than it was seven years ago, and as a result, it's formed a minor cult following. By no means a secret masterpiece, it's still the kind of film that improves greatly on subsequent viewings, once you realize where the story is going and can further examine why Assayas has it play out the way it does. And in doing so, the viewer begins to unexpectedly empathize with Sandra and understand the devastation and resignation she feels in that deliberately open-ended final shot as a lifetime of self-destructive choices and terrible misdeeds hits her all at once. Most reviews of BOARDING GATE approach it from the viewpoint of Assayas offering a commentary on the state of global commerce and capitalism. That's all well and good, but it was also covered by the director in DEMONLOVER. Though it turns into a gripping thriller that's a tad esoteric and somehow manages to be convoluted and vague, BOARDING GATE is at its most intriguing in its first half, when it's a much more stripped-down and intimate film with devastating performances by Argento and Madsen...even if it does cleverly disguise itself as a tawdry and silly erotic thriller.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD (2014); JESSABELLE (2014); and VIKTOR (2014)

(France/US - 2014)

It's a sign of the times that WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD got publicity less for being the latest film by a genuine 1990s indie auteur who's never gone Hollywood and has happily remained on the fringes, and more for being the "Shailene Woodley gets naked" movie. Gregg Araki, who made his name during the '90s indie explosion with THE LIVING END (1992), TOTALLY F***ED UP (1993), THE DOOM GENERATION (1995), and NOWHERE (1997), isn't a young man anymore and at 55, he seems to have mellowed with age. Based on a novel by Laura Kasischke, WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD is a puzzling film from Araki--not in the sense of its content, but in its presentation. It's essentially a straightforward, commercial thriller filtered through the ethereally dreamy haze of Sofia Coppola's THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (2000). Taking place from 1988 to 1991, WHITE BIRD centers on Kat Connors (Woodley, of THE DESCENDANTS and the DIVERGENT series), a 17-year-old high school student with typical teenage ennui. School sucks, the town is a drag, and her parents--milquetoast father Brock (Christopher Meloni) and mentally unstable mother Eve (Eva Green)--are lame. The miserable Eve has steadily gone off the deep end as Kat has gotten older, become more independent, and likely to be out with her stoner boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) instead of hanging out at home with Mom. Eve feels life has passed her by and she takes turns blaming Kat, who has learned to ignore her, and Brock, who crawls inside of his shell or, if he's in the mood, hides in the basement to jerk off to his Hustler stash. One day, Kat returns home from school to find her father waiting for her. Eve has vanished. Kat isn't alarmed, as this apparently isn't the first time it's happened, but this time, Eve doesn't come back. Brock files a missing persons report with hunky local cop Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane), with whom Kat starts a casual fling when things cool off with Phil. Three years go by and there's no sign of Eve, but life has gone on. Kat is in college and Brock is dating May (Sheryl Lee), a co-worker at his office. Everyone's grown accustomed to Life After Eve, at least until a troubled Kat finally addresses the glaring absence of her mother in her life and faces a nagging suspicion that there's something being overlooked in her disappearance.

I haven't read the novel, but I do know that Araki drastically--and I mean drastically--changed the ending for the film in a way that makes you question everything that came beforehand. In that way, it's the kind of crazy and unexpected twist ending that's all too commonplace in most standard thrillers today. It works in the context of the film--and in being a Gregg Araki film--even if it totally alters the intent of whatever points Kasischke wanted to make with her novel. I did like the mood and the aura Araki establishes throughout, brilliantly abetted by a mix of '80s goth and alternative (Cocteau Twins' "Sea Swallow Me" perfectly kicks off the opening credits, and there's also songs by The Cure, Talk Talk, Depeche Mode, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, among others), and a dream pop-ish score by avant-garde musician Harold Budd and Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie. It's a thriller that disguises a coming-of-age drama when Kat, haunted by dreams where her mother cries out for her, finds she's unable to move on with her life until she knows what happened. It's not even that she necessarily misses her mother. No one seemed all that broken up about her vanishing. Even the police investigation seemed to go through the motions. Eve is a profoundly troubled woman prone to irrational tantrums and uncomfortable competitions with Kat, especially when it comes to getting Phil's attention (connoisseurs of cringe will have to look away during a flashback when Eve puts on a tight miniskirt and struts around the basement rec room where Kat and Phil are trying to do their homework). Eve is brought to vivid life by Green's patented crazy-eyes, psycho-bitch routine, seen in its full glory throughout her flashback sequences but never more haunting than when she looks at herself in a mirror and turns a dead stare into a wild-eyed, maniacal grin to the tune of Love and Rockets' "A Private Future". With her terrifying glare, Green's ability to throw herself into these kinds of characters has a history of single-handedly elevating mediocre trifles like DARK SHADOWS and 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE into must-see movies. Eva Greeniacs won't be disappointed with her work here, and she's in danger of typecasting even though this seems to be the niche she's chosen to carve for herself. The biggest surprise is Meloni, terrific in an unexpected role as a meek, slumped-shouldered doormat psychologically destroyed by his shrewish wife and quietly happy that she's decided to abandon them. There's some logic issues that pop up late in the game that beg the question of just how the cops did such a sloppy job with their investigation, but WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD is a low-key and very compelling film from a much less abrasive and in-your-face Araki, who doesn't work as frequently these days as he did in his '90s heyday--it's his first film since 2010's KABOOM, and the first I've seen since 2005's MYSTERIOUS SKIN--and gets fine performances from his cast, with a genuinely surprising finale, though serious fans of the book probably won't be as forgiving about the changes he's made. (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2014)

SAW VI and SAW 3-D director Kevin Greutert trades torture porn for jump scares in yet another JU-ON/THE GRUDGE-derived "vengeful ghost" saga that also serves as a Blumhouse Productions assembly-line revamp of the already-forgotten 2005 Kate Hudson chiller THE SKELETON KEY. A few weeks before JESSABELLE's release, distributor Lionsgate cancelled its nationwide rollout and instead went the limited release/VOD route, a good indication of how little faith they had in it. They've certainly made hits out of far worse films than JESSABELLE, but the story is dull despite an overstuffed plot courtesy of screenwriter Robert Ben Garant, whose past writing credits includes such horror classics as THE PACIFIER, HERBIE: FULLY LOADED, and BALLS OF FURY. Garant works in a wheelchair-bound woman in peril, voodoo, doom-filled tarot readings, messages from beyond the grave courtesy of some VHS tapes (points docked for blatant pandering to horror hipsters), and a couple of spectacular OMEN and FINAL DESTINATION-style deaths, but it does nothing to stand out from the crowd. Jessie (Sarah Snook) moves in with her estranged father (David Andrews) after a car crash claims the lives of her fiance and her unborn child and keeps her in a wheelchair while she undergoes physical therapy. She finds a box of VHS tapes left for her by her mother (JUSTIFIED's Joelle Carter), who died of cancer in 1988 when Jessie was a baby. In them, her mom gives her tarot readings that indicate a presence doesn't want her in the house. Soon, Jessie starts seeing apparitions of a screeching specter with long dark hair (Amber Stevens) and her father accidentally sets himself on fire in a tool shed that locks itself when he tries to burn the videotapes. Jessie reconnects with her now-married high-school boyfriend (Mark Webber) and they dig into the mystery of who this ghost is and why it's so adamantly against Jessie's presence in the house. Greutert goes for a bit of a slow-burn feel in JESSABELLE, and the bayou atmosphere is well-handled. It's a harmless and thoroughly average PG-13 fright flick that's by no means terrible, but you've seen it a hundred times before, you'll spot every jump scare several seconds before they happen, and it just evaporates from memory as soon as it's over. Australian actress Snook, so good in the recent PREDESTINATION, is a very appealing heroine and definitely a talent to watch. Hopefully she lands a breakout role soon and moves past these pay-your-dues gigs. (PG-13, 90 mins)

(UK/France/Russia - 2014)

Since Liam Neeson struck gold with TAKEN five years ago, aging leading men have been attempting to score hits by hitching a ride on the 60-ish Action Guy bandwagon. In the wake of Neeson's unexpected second career, we've had 59-year-old Kevin Costner in 3 DAYS TO KILL, 61-year-old Pierce Brosnan in THE NOVEMBER MAN, and 59-year-old Denzel Washington in THE EQUALIZER in 2014 alone, along with 68-year-old Sylvester Stallone, 67-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger, and 72-year-old Harrison Ford in THE EXPENDABLES 3. Everyone's getting in the game. But VIKTOR might feature the Geriatric Asskicker subgenre's most unlikely addition yet with 66-year-old Gerard Depardieu as Viktor Lambert, just paroled after serving seven years in a French prison and heading to Russia to tear Moscow apart in search of those responsible for the recent murder of his son. It seems Viktor's son got involved with drugs while working as a diamond runner for ruthless crime lord Belinski (Denis Karasov). Viktor teams up with his retired, out-of-the-game partner Suleiman (Eli Danker) and rekindles a romance with his old flame, posh club owner Alexandra (Elizabeth Hurley) in his obsessive quest to destroy Belinski's criminal empire and make everyone in his organization pay with their lives. Sample dialogue from Viktor to Belinski on the phone: "I just wanted you to hear the voice of the man who's going to kill you."  Then, Belinski to his goons: "Breeeng mee heeez hee-yed!"

Written and directed by DTV vet Philippe Martinez (WAKE OF DEATH), VIKTOR is surprisingly well-shot on location in Moscow and some outlying areas. But Martinez's script is as routine as it gets (Russian mobsters!  Again!) and the pacing is absolutely laborious. Other than Hurley, it's difficult to understand most of the cast due to the garbled accents of actors for whom English is a second language. Ten minutes are likely added to the running time just by the camera lingering on Karasov--who quite obviously is not fluent in English--valiantly struggling to say his lines phonetically. Hurley, appearing in just her second feature film in the last decade, still looks stunning, though she has a hard time selling Alexandra's insatiable lust for Viktor. Martinez spares us the explosive erotica of a Depardieu-Hurley sex scene but does offer Alexandra giving Viktor a post-coital shoulder-rub while kissing his neck. Despite his size being in the the ballpark of late-career Brando, Depardieu still has enough gravitas to convincingly to sell this character if he wanted to, but he just doesn't look like he cares. The film doesn't even get any dramatic mileage from the tragically poignant real-life parallel of Depardieu being a grieving father offscreen, having lost his 37-year-old son Guillaume in 2008. In several scenes, the French acting legend mumbles like Steven Seagal, his wandering eyes give away that he's reading cue cards or a teleprompter, and he doesn't even take part in the obligatory climactic showdown at an abandoned warehouse, instead having some guys crash into the warehouse and bring Belinski to him. It's here where Martinez completely drops the ball, as the entire film could've been redeemed had it been Depardieu crashing an SUV engulfed in CGI flames through the warehouse doors while hanging out of the window shooting at everyone. The $10 million VIKTOR didn't quite do for Depardieu what TAKEN did for Neeson: it opened on ten screens in the US with no publicity whatsoever last October and grossed just $623 in its first and only week of release. (Unrated, 98 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: AMUCK! (1972)

(Italy - 1972; US release 1978)

Written and directed by Silvio Amadio. Cast: Farley Granger, Barbara Bouchet, Rosalba Neri, Nino Segurini, Umberto Raho, Patrizia Viotti, Dino Mele, Petar Martinovic. (R, 78 mins/85 mins/98 mins)

Following the huge success of the early gialli of Dario Argento after 1970's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, the trailblazing Italian subgenre needed new ways to make the formula more appealing to audiences. Of course, the answer was to make them even more sensational by increasing the violence and sex at the expense of the craft and style that guys like Argento, Sergio Martino, and Mario Bava, whose 1964 classic BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was an early giallo prototype, brought to the more exemplary offerings. The giallo gets downright scuzzy by the time you get to 1975's STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER, but it was around 1971-72 that gialli began getting a little more daring with how much they were willing to show. Films like Martino's THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH and THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL (both 1972), and YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY (1972), Giuliano Carnimeo's THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS (1971), and Luciano Ercoli's FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION (1970) and DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS (1971) invariably involve the rich and decadent artistic types (writers, photographers, models) basking in a world of privilege and luxury in gorgeous villas as a body count rises because of some past event obscured in a byzantine plot. Silvio Amadio's 1972 giallo ALLA RICERCA DEL PIACERE--translated: IN SEARCH OF PLEASURE--is one of the more flagrantly lewd contributions to the genre. It took six years to find a US distributor, when exploitation outfit Group 1 acquired it and released it under the catchy moniker AMUCK! in the summer of 1978. Group 1 was a prolific supplier of drive-in favorites throughout the mid-to-late 1970s like THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION (1975), NAZI LOVE CAMP 27 (1977), Lucio Fulci's THE PSYCHIC (1977), and PARTS: THE CLONUS HORROR (1979). The company's biggest successes were ALLIGATOR (1980) and THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER (1982), which was one of the major sleeper hits of its year. SWORD was so successful that Group 1 honcho Brandon Chase cashed out while he was ahead and closed down the company, taking the money he made from distributing grindhouse trash and forming the hugely-successful watch company Chase-Durer.

Because of its hyperbolic poster art promising such things as "An Explosion of Sexual Frenzy!" (which I'm guessing attracted more attention than "In Blazing Color") and its vaguely silly and exclamatory title, AMUCK! proved to be a durable drive-in and grindhouse hit for Group 1, who kept it in near-constant circulation into the early 1980s. Chase would frequently pair it up with other Group 1 titles like DR. TARR'S TORTURE DUNGEON (1973, acquired by Group 1 in 1976) and MEATCLEAVER MASSACRE (1977). As late as 1982, AMUCK! was still being shown at American drive-ins on the bottom half of a double bill with a re-released ALLIGATOR. And when Chase felt AMUCK! was getting too much exposure, he'd simply slap a new title on it and send it out again. The 98-minute AMUCK! was also released in an 85-minute version called MANIAC MANSION, and it played some areas in an even more-condensed 78-minute cut meaninglessly titled LEATHER AND WHIPS (meanwhile, AMUCK!'s UK distributor opted to christen it HOT BED OF SEX). It's doubtful that people were upset about seeing the film again and again, considering that Eurocult goddesses Barbara Bouchet (DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING) and Rosalba Neri (LADY FRANKENSTEIN) have an extended, slow-motion sex scene and spend a good chunk of the remainder of the film either completely nude or strutting around in skimpy lingerie or see-through gowns. Sure, there's a story and some people get killed and there's a mystery to solve, but with the rampant sleaze, the nudity, the Euro-lounge music (one song played to a striptease just has the singer repeatedly gasping "Sexually!"), the nudity, the dubbing, the nudity, the way the opening credits awkwardly cut from Bouchet on a gondola in scenic Venice to a plain AMUCK! title card, and the nudity, AMUCK! comes pretty close to perfectly encapsulating what this kind drive-in or Times Square grindhouse experience should be.

AMUCK! opens with Greta (Bouchet) arriving in Venice for her new job as an assistant to novelist Richard Stuart (Farley Granger, dubbing himself) after her predecessor Sally (Patrizia Viotti) has gone missing. But Greta has a secret: Sally was her lover and she's there to find out what happened to her. It doesn't take long for Eleanora to drug Greta and seduce her, a gateway for the young woman into the decadent life of debauchery, perversion, and homemade stag films enjoyed by the swinging Stuarts. In flashbacks, we see how Sally was drawn deeper into their hedonistic world. Even mentally-challenged handyman Rocco (Petar Martinovic) gets in on the action. While Eleanora carries on with Rocco and young boy-toy Sandro (Dino Mele), Greta allows herself to be seduced into a night of wild sex with Richard, even after she was convinced Richard and Eleanora were trying to kill her. Things get complicated when Sally's badly-decomposed body surfaces in a nearby lagoon, and while useless detective Antonelli (Nino Segurini) tries to get to the bottom of what happened, everyone else--except hapless butler Giovanni (Umberto Raho)--just keeps getting laid.

Amadio's script centers on a mystery that isn't particularly difficult to solve, and the big reveal isn't much of a reveal. But the notion of a homicidal writer using his own novel to strategize and secretly confess his murders is a clever one that would be utilized to a somewhat similar degree by Dario Argento a decade later in 1982's TENEBRE. AMUCK! also has a fumbling insertion of a potential supernatural subplot regarding Eleanora suddenly falling into a trance and Richard announcing she has ESP, but it's soon dropped and never mentioned again. And don't miss Greta pleading with dedicated man-of-action Detective Antonelli--who just rescued her from quicksand, which she fell into fleeing the shotgun-toting Stuarts--to believe her when she says Richard and Eleanora are trying to kill her, which he responds to by promptly excusing himself, hopping on a rowboat back to the heart of Venice, and leaving her at the isolated mansion for another night. Whatever interesting ideas Amadio (who had a largely undistinguished journeyman career, primarily as a screenwriter) brings to the table are quickly cast aside to get to the next nude scene, and that's precisely the reason why AMUCK! is undeniably fun, sleazy, trashy entertainment. You know a movie's going all in with the T&A when even a veteran of Hollywood's Golden Age like Farley Granger gets a sex scene where he gets to tilt his neck back in response to Richard receiving a just out-of-frame BJ from Bouchet's Greta.

Granger in a late 1940s publicity shot
When AMUCK! was shot in 1972, Granger was at the height of the busy Eurotrash phase of his career. Born in 1925, Granger was a Samuel Goldwyn prodigy who made a big splash with his film debut at 18 in THE NORTH STAR (1943) and he headlined two Alfred Hitchcock classics with 1948's ROPE and 1951's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. He was among the first Hollywood stars to test the waters of the burgeoning Italian film industry with Luchino Visconti's SENSO (1954), cut down and released in the US in 1955 as THE WANTON CONTESSA. Granger's big-screen career began to fizzle in the late 1950s, and he found his services were much more in-demand on Broadway and in television. By the early 1970s, Granger was living in Rome and working almost exclusively as the American export value in Italian genre films like the popular Terence Hill/Bud Spencer spaghetti western THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970), but mostly in sordid gialli like AMUCK!, SOMETHING CREEPING IN THE DARK (1971), THE RED-HEADED CORPSE (1972), KILL ME, MY LOVE (1973), DEATH WILL HAVE YOUR EYES (1974), and WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? (1974). One such thriller, SO SWEET, SO DEAD (1972) was released in the US in 1974 by grindhouse outfit William Mishkin Motion Pictures as THE SLASHER IS THE SEX MANIAC. In 1976, Mishkin gutted and retro-fitted SLASHER with US-shot hardcore inserts featuring American porn stars Harry Reems and Tina Russell, and edited the new footage in a way that made it appear that Granger's character was voyeuristically watching them. Mishkin released this drastically altered version on the XXX circuit in 1976 as PENETRATION, with Granger's name prominently displayed in print ads and poster art, which boasted the charming tag line "Some women deserve it!" PENETRATION was quickly withdrawn from release after an outraged Granger threatened legal action. In his bluntly honest 2007 memoir Include Me Out, Granger more or less admits these films were mostly trash, but he was getting lead roles that Hollywood wasn't offering, they paid well, and they allowed him to live a very comfortable life of luxury in Rome. By the time Group 1 released AMUCK! in the US, Granger had moved back to the States and was keeping busy with guest spots on TV shows like THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and THE LOVE BOAT, and in made-for-TV movies like THE LIVES OF JENNY DOLAN (1975). After starring in a pair of post-FRIDAY THE 13TH slasher films (1981's THE PROWLER and 1984's DEATH MASK), Granger worked sparingly in forgettable films like the Michael Nouri-headlined political thriller THE IMAGEMAKER (1986), had an obligatory MURDER, SHE WROTE guest spot, and from 1986-1988, had a recurring role on the daytime soap AS THE WORLD TURNS (more on that below). He left the business around 1990 but was talked out of retirement for a supporting role in the 2002 indie comedy THE NEXT BIG THING, starring then-Hal Hartley and Noah Baumbach regular Chris Eigeman. The film was barely seen outside of the festival circuit before getting dumped in video stores, and once more, Granger retired from acting.

Granger in his later years
Granger didn't go public until rather later in life, discussing it in the context of the movie industry as an interview subject in the 1995 documentary THE CELLULOID CLOSET, but in Hollywood circles, his bisexuality was an open secret throughout his career. The star was romantically linked to ROPE screenwriter Arthur Laurents, Shelley Winters, Leonard Bernstein, and French actor Jean Marais, and was engaged to Janice Rule at one point in the late 1950s. He met National Repertory Theater production manager and future AS THE WORLD TURNS producer Robert Calhoun in 1963 and they remained together until Calhoun's death in 2008. It was around the time of his memoir and after Calhoun's passing that Granger, still sharp and with a wry sense of humor, dove into the Raconteur Emeritus phase of his life, regularly giving interviews and doing Q&As at Hitchcock retrospectives, and screenings of other classic films in which he appeared going back to his Samuel Goldwyn days in the 1940s. While his career peaked early and his time as an A-list box-office draw ended by the late 1950s, Granger was happy to see that fans of Hollywood's classic era still remembered him and held him in high regard. Granger died in 2011 at 85.

Barbara Bouchet and Rosalba Neri in a pivotal scene
vital to the advancement of the plot of AMUCK!
With the possible exception of Edwige Fenech, Bouchet and Neri are probably the most stunning B-movie Euro starlets of this time period (they also appeared together in the Italian thriller THE FRENCH SEX MURDERS the same year). Born in 1943, Bouchet started in Hollywood fare like CASINO ROYALE (1967) and SWEET CHARITY (1969) before becoming a fixture in gialli and polizia films in the 1970s. She quit acting in the late 1980s but emerged from retirement for a small role in Martin Scorsese's GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002) and has since stayed very busy on Italian television. She's given many interviews over the years and pulls no punches, even attending a Quentin Tarantino-hosted screening of Antonio Margheriti's DEATH RAGE (1976), and giving the audience her unfiltered opinion about how much she hated working on the film with a rude and abusive Yul Brynner. Neri, sometimes credited as "Sara Bay," was born in 1939 and got an earlier start, appearing in some post-HERCULES peplum titles in the early 1960s but really hitting her stride around the time of AMUCK!, with 1971's LADY FRANKENSTEIN and 1973's THE DEVIL'S WEDDING NIGHT being particular favorites of her fans. Neri quit acting in the late 1970s before she even hit 40 but, like Bouchet, she's done numerous interviews in recent years, discussing her films that remain cult favorites today.

AMUCK! was released on VHS in a horribly cropped print by Catalina Video in the '80s but has been very difficult to see in the years since. Something Weird released it on VHS in its correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but it was the severely-cut, 78-minute LEATHER AND WHIPS print. The bootleg outfit Eurovista released it in the complete 98-minute version but it was just the visually compromised Catalina VHS master. Code Red recently unveiled what's--for now, at least--the best way to see AMUCK!, an occasionally and appropriately battered but still very watchable 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of the 85-minute MANIAC MANSION cut (missing some exposition and dialogue, but the sexual content is intact), on the second half of a double feature "Spaghetti Cinema" DVD set with Alfonso Brescia's 1974 adventure comedy SUPER STOOGES VS. THE WONDER WOMEN, available exclusively through them. Since it's a crapshoot whether Code Red's web site--or company founder Bill Olsen, for that matter--will be functional on any given day, the fine folks at DiabolikDVD have purchased bulk quantities of Code Red product directly from Olsen to sell on their own site, subject to availability.

Monday, January 19, 2015

In Theaters: BLACKHAT (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Michael Mann. Written by Morgan Davis Foehl. Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Wang Leehom, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Ritchie Coster, Holt McCallany, Yorick Von Wageningen, John Ortiz, Andy On, William Mapother, Jason Butler Harner, Spencer Garrett, Christian Borle. (R, 133 mins)

Michael Mann is one of the dwindling number of American auteurs whose every new project is a legitimate event for serious film connoisseurs. BLACKHAT is his first film since 2009's PUBLIC ENEMIES, an uninspired John Dillinger biopic not helped in the least by dull performances from Johnny Depp and Christian Bale playing Prohibition-era dress-up. Prior to that, Mann's 2006 big-screen take on MIAMI VICE, the iconic TV series on which he served as producer and showrunner from 1984-1986, was another disappointment that never caught fire. Both MIAMI VICE and PUBLIC ENEMIES have been the subject of much debate, with die-hard Mann apologists insisting they're misunderstood masterpieces and worthy of mention in the same breath as Mann essentials like THIEF (1981), MANHUNTER (1986), and HEAT (1995). Mann's been focused on producing other projects over the last few years, such as the barely-released thriller TEXAS KILLING FIELDS (2011), directed by his daughter Ami Canaan Mann, and the ill-fated HBO racetrack-set series LUCK, canceled after one season due to multiple horse deaths on set. BLACKHAT finds the great filmmaker reclaiming his mojo for what's easily his best film since COLLATERAL (2004), though it's proven to be divisive with both critics and fans. In a controversial stance with the celluloid faithful, the 71-year-old Mann has openly and fully embraced digital filmmaking at a time when many younger directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino are fighting tooth-and-nail to keep 35mm alive. With BLACKHAT, Mann uses digital technology not for clarity, but to enhance an almost primitive grittiness to the film's general look and feel. He uses handheld cameras in chase scenes and fight sequences in a way that, yes, probably constitutes the dreaded "shaky cam" aesthetic, but by not editing the hell out of them, he allows a coherent and natural flow to the action. He's content to let it happen, even if it doesn't look pretty. Some of the best action bits in BLACKHAT look like what might happen during real fights and chases. They look awkward and unrehearsed. The choreography has a clumsiness to it, like these are people who don't get in fights and chases very often. The sound design is sometimes intentionally disorienting, putting the audience in sync with the characters, working in tandem with the look of the film to jarring, powerful effect.

Some scenes in BLACKHAT look like Mann could've shot them using his phone, and in the context of this film, it works. The Mann hallmarks are all here: the captivating, neon-drenched skylines and city streets; a propulsive, hypnotic synth/loop score courtesy of Harry Gregson-Williams and regular David Fincher/Trent Reznor collaborator Atticus Ross; and a compelling hero in Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth). An ace computer hacker four years into a 13-year stretch at a federal prison in Pennsylvania, Hathaway's skills are called upon by both the FBI and the Chinese government when a hacker--dubbed "Blackhat"-- uses a RAT (Remote Access Tool) to cause an explosion and a near-meltdown at a Chinese nuclear power plant, followed by a catastrophic manipulation of soy futures on the stock market. Chinese cybercrimes specialist Chen Dawai (Wing Leehom) recognizes the first half of the code used in the attack: he co-wrote it with Hathaway when they were roommates at MIT. Working in conjunction with FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), Dawai manages to get his old buddy furloughed to help track the elusive hacker, with the promise that if his assistance leads to a capture, Hathaway's sentence is commuted and he's a free man.  Also along for the ride are Chen's tech-savvy sister Lien (Tang Wei), who also functions as a love interest for Hathaway, Hong Kong cop Trang (Andy On), and US Marshal Jessup (Holt McCallany), tagging along to keep an eye on Hathaway, who's been outfitted with an ankle bracelet if he decides to flee.

While some of the criticism of BLACKHAT has targeted its wild, labyrinthine plot (the script is credited to first-timer Morgan Davis Foehl but was significantly rewritten by Mann, who was ultimately denied a co-writing credit by the WGA), which really isn't that hard to follow, most of it has been aimed at Hemsworth's casting as a computer hacker with a six-pack. Sure, we probably have a stereotypical image of this sort of character being a pasty schlub chowing down on Funyuns and ramen and drinking Mountain Dew, but is the idea of a ripped hacker really a deal-breaker here?  It's an especially petty criticism when we see Hathaway tossed into solitary early on (after hacking into the prison computer system and adding $900 to the spending account of every inmate) and immediately doing push-ups to pass the time. He's been in a tough prison for four years with nothing to do and plenty of time to shred and learn how to defend himself. Couldn't the possibility exist that Hathaway turned into Thor while incarcerated? Why is this such a bone of contention? Hathaway is a guy cut from the same cloth as James Caan's Frank in THIEF and Robert De Niro's Neil McCauley in HEAT: career criminals with a sense of honor. Hathaway's crimes targeted banks, not people. And when he's pulled into Dawai's and Barrett's investigation, he uses his criminal expertise for a good cause and becomes an equal team player. Hathaway has numerous chances to bolt and become a fugitive, but his friendship with Dawai, his feelings for Lien, and his grudging respect for the agents and the mutual trust that forms among them--after starting out firmly in "...if they don't kill each other first!" territory--is the foundation of an eclectic and appealing ensemble essayed by a top-notch group of familiar character actors. Hathaway isn't a criminal looking for a shot at redemption. He's looking to get out of prison by helping an old friend. But even that becomes secondary after a game-changing plot development completely alters the stakes going into the inevitable confrontation with the enigmatic Blackhat.

Mann and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (THE PIANO) create the almost otherworldly real-world look that Mann fans know and love, with the skyline of Hong Kong and other locales--an extensive, HEAT-like shootout in the slums of Shek O in Hong Kong; a dried river bed in Malaysia that looks like a post-nuke wasteland; or the camera circling some actors standing in the exposed upper levels of a half-completed skyscraper in Jakarta--looking especially arresting. BLACKHAT is pretty loopy, but it moves at such a breakneck pace that you really don't have time to question the specifics of the jargon-heavy plot. Mann manages to make suspenseful set pieces out of scenes that consist of people staring at screens reading a jumble of letters and numbers until Hathaway exclaims "There! There's the code!" as they hustle to another far-off location. The $70 million BLACKHAT grossed a pitiful $4 million over its opening weekend, providing more proof that people just don't give a shit about the Hemsworth brothers outside of established franchise branding, and they especially don't care about the Hemsworth brothers if they're starring in tech-heavy cyber-espionage thrillers (lest we forget Chris' HUNGER GAMES-starring brother Liam in 2013's terrible PARANOIA). Though 2015 is young, it's possible that we already have this year's KILLING THEM SOFTLY or THE COUNSELOR, two badly-received box office failures that had a quick turnaround into open-armed acceptance in cult movie circles. The resounding rejection of BLACKHAT after a very aggressive promotional blitz throughout the holiday season doesn't bode well for revered likes of Michael Mann. Look, BLACKHAT is no THIEF. It's no MANHUNTER, and it's no HEAT. But it's still the best thing Mann's done in a decade--a perfect balance between pursuing his digital dreams and giving the audience the Mann film they came to see. It's mystifying that, after coming up with every excuse imaginable to defend utter mediocrities like MIAMI VICE and PUBLIC ENEMIES, BLACKHAT is where the Mann faithful decide to bail. If Michael Mann fans can't get behind an exhilarating and visually stunning return to form like BLACKHAT, then I really don't know exactly what it is they want.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: THE SKIN (1981)

(Italy/France - 1981)

Directed by Liliana Cavani. Written by Robert Katz and Liliana Cavani. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Ken Marshall, Alexandra King, Jacques Sernas, Carlo Giuffre, Yann Babilee, Jeanne Valerie, Liliana Tari, Giuseppe Barra, Cristina Donadio, Maria Rosario Della Fammina. (Unrated, 134 mins)

Described as "distastefully bitter" and "a disaster" in the Maltin Movie Guide, Liliana Cavani's 1981 WWII drama THE SKIN, aka LA PELLE, is a film that's fallen through the cracks over the years, at least with American audiences. A Palme d'Or contender at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival (Andrzej Wajda's MAN OF IRON won), THE SKIN caused some controversy with its fervently anti-American sentiments, prompting Warner Bros. to back out of its US distribution deal. The Italian-French co-production's only US exposure at the time came at the 1982 Chicago International Film Festival, and even with the presence of Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster, in the midst of a brief late-career renaissance thanks to his ATLANTIC CITY Oscar nomination, it found no takers. It was never commercially released in American cinemas, and it would be another 33 years before anyone got around to releasing it on US home video.

Cohen Media Group recently issued THE SKIN in deluxe Blu-ray and DVD editions as part of their "Classics of Italian Cinema" line, with a new transfer culled from a 2014 restoration that screened at the Seattle International Film Festival last summer. It's garnered a reputation among Cavani's US-based fans as a lost film of sorts, difficult to see outside of going the region-free or bootleg route, though battered, truncated, and barely watchable prints have occasionally surfaced on YouTube, usually without subtitles. Cohen's transfer is pristine (don't be put off by the terrible cover art), framed at the old-school aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (Cavani shot it that way to maximize the crowding and the claustrophobia, according to the commentary track by film critics Wade Major and Andy Klein), but the only language option is Italian with English subtitles, and in a situation like this, where many scenes involve Americans and Italians trying to communicate with one another through interpreters, it doesn't really play well when everyone is speaking Italian. This of course, is the result of the then-standard practice in Italian cinema of not shooting with direct sound and dubbing everything after the fact. Judging from how lip movements often match the subtitles, a good number of cast members are speaking English, as would be their American characters, it nevertheless takes a while to get over the distraction of seeing and hearing Lancaster and others playing American military personnel speaking in awkwardly-dubbed Italian. It's possible that an English track was either lost or never recorded in the first place, so Cohen was forced to make do with what they had. It's not a matter of being subtitle-phobic, but THE SKIN is a case where a mix of English and Italian would actually be beneficial in making the film work a little better, or at least as its story intended.

Set during the 1943 American liberation of Naples just after the German occupation, THE SKIN is based on the 1949 novel (more a loose collection of short stories and reportage) by Italian journalist Curzio Malaparte (played here by Marcello Mastroianni), a former fascist-turned-outspoken enemy of Mussolini, who had Malaparte imprisoned on more than one occasion. Malaparte served as a liaison between the Italian military and the Allied Forces in Naples, led by Gen. Mark Clark, represented in the film in the most unflattering manner possible by the rechristened Gen. Mark Cork (Lancaster). Much of the film is seen through Malaparte's eyes, but also through the vantage point of Capt. Jimmy Wren (Ken Marshall), an American communications official who spends almost all of his downtime frequenting the Neapolitan brothels with what looks like the entire US military, which is essentially painted as a mass gathering of Ugly Americans. The Americans are verbally and physically abusive. They address the Neapolitans using slurs like "wop" and "greaseball." They gang-rape Neapolitan women. Cork is presented as a self-aggrandizing egomaniac prone to referring to himself in third person, demonstrating little regard for the people of Naples or even his own allies. When the Moroccan army is felled by a major syphilis epidemic, Cork denies them treatment, instead hoarding all the venereal disease medication for the Americans. Cork has instituted a ban on fishing due to mines in the water, but angrily demands fresh fish for a posh, swanky dinner where he's forced over the phone by Eisenhower and then FDR himself to entertain Col. Deborah Wyatt (Alexandra King), a high-profile pilot and the wife of an important US senator.

It's this dinner scene that's one of THE SKIN's most notorious. Earlier in the film, there's repeated mention of the desperation of the Neapolitan people. They've lost everything, they have no money, and they're starving. Some parents sell their children into prostitution, and when Wren expresses his outrage, Malaparte shrugs "It's better than eating them." Later, Malaparte is shown finishing a meal, assembling the leftover bones into the shape of a human hand and only half-joking when he mentions the concept of cannibalism as a viable option. At Cork's dinner reception welcoming Col. Wyatt, the General brags about the quality of the fish, a rare type known as Sirena, only to have the entree be a boiled child, an unforgettably horrific, disturbing image that puts THE SKIN squarely into the realm of SALO and SALON KITTY transgression. Cavani and co-writer Robert Katz (with some uncredited contributions by future ROMANCE and FAT GIRL provocateur Catherine Breillat) don't stop there, as the bullheaded Cork dismisses Col. Wyatt's cries of "It's a baby!" with "Someone needs to assume command," as he declares it's a fish, and orders it to be served (Major and Klein suggest this was done by the presumably Neapolitan kitchen staff as "a gesture of utter contempt for the Americans"). Cavani shows some restraint and spares the audience the sight of the Americans consuming the "fish," but it hardly lessens the impact of one of the most stomach-turning sights in all of Italian cinema.

Cavani goes to extremes throughout THE SKIN. Malaparte takes Col. Wyatt to a wild, decadent party where she's appalled to see the guests crowd around a bed to watch and cheer as a gay man penetrates himself with a massive dildo. The guts of an American soldier who steps on a mine spill out of his belly. The film ends with the trucks and tanks of Cork's Fifth Battalion triumphantly entering Rome after alienating the populace of Naples and leaving a trail of resentment and ill will behind. The citizens of Rome celebrate their arrival, and in the film's most infamous scene, it takes just long enough for one poor Roman bastard to cheer "Hooray for the Americans!" before a tank is carelessly driven over him, flattening him like a pancake under the tread as blood, brains, skin, and organs explode out of him. Cork and his battalion blithely drive on by the pile of mangled human flesh on the pavement, with more destruction, degradation, and tragedy sure to follow. It's intentionally over-the-top and Cavani repeatedly cuts back to the aftermath as THE SKIN is often more about using shock value to hammer home a point. A recent revisit to Cavani's most famous film, 1974's THE NIGHT PORTER, where former Nazi officer Dirk Bogarde unexpectedly encounters his former concentration camp sexual plaything (Charlotte Rampling) and the two rekindle their S&M dysfunction in 1957 Vienna, showed it to be far more tame than memory and legend served. THE NIGHT PORTER has a reputation among groundbreaking taboo-shatterers of the early 1970s that's rivaled only by Bernardo Bertolucci's LAST TANGO IN PARIS, but it's really quite reserved. The ideas in THE NIGHT PORTER are certainly transgressive but the sexual imagery is sparse and not particularly explicit or boundary-pushing when held up against the publicity that butter got from the Bertolucci masterpiece.

The spectacularly misanthropic THE SKIN is a far more transgressive and disturbing film, one that gets under your own skin and almost certainly would've needed some cuts to avoid an X rating if anyone was serious about distributing it in America. In the world of THE SKIN, flesh is a commodity to be bought, sold, eaten, and fucked, sometimes all together. To Cavani, the people of Naples do it out of necessity and survival, while the Americans just indulge out of their arrogance and entitlement. The now-82-year-old Cavani is interviewed on the Blu-ray, and she claims to not understand where critics see the anti-American sentiment. America takes a beating here and Cavani is delusional or having a senior moment if she thinks that isn't the case, but really, nobody comes out of THE SKIN looking very good--not the Americans, not the people of Naples, and especially not the Moroccans, with their entire army stricken with various untreated venereal diseases but still so desperate for "something to stick it into" that they go about procuring the services of underage Neapolitan boys and girls, whored out to them by their strapped, widowed mothers. Nothing is off limits in the efforts of desperate people to scrape by. It's the feel-good movie of 1981.

One really can't fault Cavani for her relentlessly grim approach to the story and her crafting it as a nightmarish freakshow, but around the midway point, when you can't unsee Burt Lancaster ordering a bunch of gluttonous Americans to eat what's obviously a boiled child, you can't help but wonder if her points might've hit harder with a more even tone, if the satirical elements weren't played against the vile ugliness of rape and the complete disregard for human life. Lancaster's Gen. Mark Cork's delusions of self-grandeur and his stubborn arrogance put him in the same wing of military madmen as Sterling Hayden's Gen. Jack D. Ripper in DR. STRANGELOVE. Cavani's stone-faced seriousness and her decision to wallow in misery and degradation for over two hours has its place, but she has an obvious ax to grind, and doing so in a sardonic and satirical way would've had more of a lasting sting than the easy shock bits involving rape, bodily functions, and the over-the-top cannibalism metaphor. THE SKIN has observations that remain pertinent today, namely the festering resentment of a "liberated" country that's freed from the control of one only to remain occupied by another, one that doesn't understand them and only seems interested in imposing their will and rule.

Cavani and Mastroianni on the set of THE SKIN
Cavani and Lina Wertmuller were the trailblazers when it came to a woman's perspective in Italian cinema of the '70s and '80s, but it was always Wertmuller who received the bigger accolades and box office success. Cavani has her place in the movement and a staunch fan base, but commercially, she never topped or even equaled the fame and notoriety brought to her by the international success of THE NIGHT PORTER. Following THE SKIN, she directed the tawdry BEYOND OBSESSION (1982), which reunited her with Mastroianni, playing a diplomat in a Moroccan prison for murdering his wife, passing the time with conjugal visits from his sultry stepdaughter (Eleonora Giorgi), who's also involved with an American oil company engineer played by a young Tom Berenger. Cavani's next two films flopped. She had her obligatory Cannon experience with Golan & Globus on 1985's THE BERLIN AFFAIR. 1989's FRANCESCO, a biopic of Francis of Assisi starring an unlikely Mickey Rourke, was cut by nearly an hour before its straight-to-video US release by Hemdale. Cavani's credits become very sporadic after this, with 1993's unreleased-in-the-US WHERE ARE YOU? I'M HERE being her only film of that decade. Cavani has spent her recent years doing movies for Italian television, including yet another take on FRANCESCO, this time as a mini-series in 2014, starring Polish actor Mateusz Kosciukiewicz as Francis and Rutger Hauer as his father (she also made FRANCIS OF ASSISI for Italian TV in 1966, with Lou Castel in the title role). Cavani's last feature film to date has been the unfortunately doomed RIPLEY'S GAME, which was shelved for over a year by New Line before debuting on cable in 2003. Based on Patricia Highsmith's novel, previously filmed by Wim Wenders as THE AMERICAN FRIEND (1977), RIPLEY'S GAME, a semi-sequel of sorts to 1999's THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, is easily Cavani's most accessible, commercial film, a solid thriller anchored by one of John Malkovich's best performances as the sociopathic Tom Ripley. Malkovich's Ripley is an older and more flamboyant interpretation of the character than Matt Damon's in THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, goading a terminally ill picture-framer (Dougray Scott) into becoming a hit man in order to leave money behind for his family. Considering the popularity of THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY just a few years earlier, it's surprising that RIPLEY'S GAME was given such an unceremonious dumping in the US.

Lancaster and Mastroianni would continue working throughout the '80s and into the '90s, with Lancaster settling into character roles and TV-movies and Mastroianni getting his third and final Oscar nomination for 1987's DARK EYES.  Both were cinematic legends by the time of their passing (Lancaster died in 1994 at 80; Mastroianni in 1996 at 72), and remain beloved, iconic figures to cineastes the world over. That kind of big-screen fame eluded THE SKIN's young American stars. Marshall, who left medical school to pursue acting at Juilliard, made his film debut two years earlier, co-starring with Brooke Shields in the 1979 pinball comedy TILT. After THE SKIN, Marshall had the title role in the epic 1982 NBC mini-series MARCO POLO (also featuring Lancaster) and made his biggest splash the next year, starring in the big-budget 1983 sci-fi fantasy KRULL. Supported by numerous product tie-ins (arcade game, Atari 2600 game, Parker Brothers board game), but opening the same weekend as NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION in a summer dominated by RETURN OF THE JEDI, KRULL was an expensive box-office dud, though it has a sizable cult following today. And with that, Marshall's career as a Hollywood leading man was over. It would be five years before he appeared in another film, with the instantly forgotten 1988 Rebecca DeMornay/Mary Gross buddy comedy FEDS (IMDb's page lists other credits, but they have him confused with a South African actor also named Ken Marshall). For the next decade and a half, Marshall's career was mostly limited to guest spots on TV shows like BAYWATCH, HUNTER, and QUANTUM LEAP, though he enjoyed a brief resurgence in the mid '90s, by that time balding and looking like his roles were going to Kurtwood Smith instead, with a stint as the treacherous Lt. Cmdr. Michael Eddington on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE. One in a never-ending line of Next Big Things who just never happened (KRULL was a flop, but it was hardly career-killer caliber), the now-64-year-old Marshall has apparently retired from acting, with his last credit to date being a guest spot on a 2003 episode of the CBS series THE DISTRICT. THE SKIN was a one-and-done journey into acting for King, a model who would soon go on to marry 1970s tennis great Ilie Nastase. She devoted her time to raising their two children and her last time in the spotlight came when she was interviewed in People in 1996 when Nastase announced his intention to run for mayor of his native Bucharest, Romania (he lost). The couple divorced in the early 2000s and she's been out of the public eye in the years since. THE SKIN remains the sole entry on her IMDb page.

Cavani surrounded by producer Renzo Rossellini, and stars
Marcello Mastroianni, Ken Marshall, and Liliana Tari
at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival.