Saturday, February 28, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: MAPS TO THE STARS (2015)

(Canada/Germany - 2014; US release 2015)

Directed by David Cronenberg. Written by Bruce Wagner. Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, Evan Bird, Carrie Fisher, Kiara Glasco, Dawn Greenhalgh, Jonathan Watton, Niamh Wilson, Jennifer Gibson, Justin Kelly, Jayne Heitmeyer, Joe Pingue. (R, 112 mins)

As we've observed with the ongoing tragedy of Dario Argento, seeing a great and influential filmmaker skidding in his elder statesman years is never a pleasant sight, and David Cronenberg's MAPS TO THE STARS is, if nothing else, a slight step up from 2012's career-worst COSMOPOLIS. Other than one character having some significant body scarring that recalls his CRASH (1997), there's very little to here to suggest that the 71-year-old Cronenberg really has his heart in this one. It's written by Bruce Wagner, best known for the 1993 Oliver Stone-produced ABC miniseries WILD PALMS, but also a novelist (his so-called "cell phone trilogy" of I'm Losing YouI'll Let You Go and Still Holding), whose chief focus has always been the skewering of cliched L.A. and Hollywood types. Wagner also wrote Paul Bartel's 1989 satire SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN BEVERLY HILLS and in many ways, MAPS TO THE STARS plays like a grim spinoff of that film, one that was lambasted when it was released and only remembered today by the cult of Bartel (DEATH RACE 2000, EATING RAOUL) and the most devoted Jacqueline Bisset stalkers. MAPS TO THE STARS is yet another tiresome entry in the "Hollywood taking misanthropic shots at itself" subgenre, one that's brilliant when it's done right (SUNSET BOULEVARD, S.O.B., THE PLAYER, TROPIC THUNDER) and insufferable when it's not (almost everything else). Cronenberg has been trying to get MAPS TO THE STARS made for the last decade, and Wagner's script dates back further than that (in fact, when the project stalled three years ago and Cronenberg moved forward with COSMOPOLIS, Wagner turned his script into the 2012 novel Dead Stars), only with some added mentioning of Twitter and the name-dropping of some current stars to spruce it up. Considering how long MAPS TO THE STARS was gestating in development hell, it's alarming how utterly disconnected from it Cronenberg seems. It's not a David Cronenberg film--it's a Bruce Wagner script that Cronenberg happens to be directing. Unlike guys like Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, and Robert Altman, the Canadian Cronenberg's never been a Hollywood insider (indeed, MAPS is his first film to features scenes shot in the US), so MAPS' potshots at industry types seem especially cheap and hollow. And by this point, Wagner's scripts are all the same, stuffed with loathsome, decadent L.A. asswipes drowning in ennui and self-absorption who do shitty things and screw over anyone to get ahead. Wagner's covered these subjects ad nauseum in past screenplays and novels and at 60 years old, he's starting to sound less like a guy with keenly satirical insights into the Hollywood machine and more like a bitter curmudgeon who's having a hissy fit because he never quite made it to the A-list.

MAPS TO THE STARS is one of those "everyone is connected" ensemble pieces: washed-up, pill-popping actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) desperately wants a part in a remake of an old movie that starred her late mother Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), who died in a fire 30 years ago and frequently appears in ghost form to taunt Havana about, among other things, the state of her career, the smell of her vagina ("That hole smells worse than I do!"), and their incestuous past as mother-daughter lovers; Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a teenage movie star who combines the worst parts of Justin Bieber and Joffrey Baratheon, is just out of rehab and shooting the next entry in his BAD BABYSITTER franchise; his enabling mother Christina (Olivia Williams), and his father Stafford (John Cusack), a famous New Age TV therapist who counts Havana as a patient and is prone to declarations during massage sessions that go something like "I'm going to press on a personal history point--memories are stored in the thighs"; Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), an odd, burn-scarred young woman who arrives from Florida boasting of a Twitter friendship with Carrie Fisher (as herself), who gets her a job as Havana's personal assistant, or "chore whore"; and Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), a limo driver and would-be screenwriter who occasionally turns up as part of Agatha's character arc until the film forgets about him once more.

Wagner's script is so sloppily-constructed that things that should be big reveals and surprises land with a complete thud. Is it supposed to be a surprise that Agatha is Benjie's older sister and the disowned daughter of the Weisses? Because by mentioning her last name as soon as we see her, we've put that together. Wagner tries to demonstrate some complexity in the various parallels that manifest between characters involving ghosts, fire, and incest, with a particularly creepy focus on the latter, and he only succeeds in repetitious overkill, especially if you're one of the four people who can recall that ghosts reminding characters of their past misdeeds was also a major part of SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN BEVERLY HILLS. Elsewhere, Cronenberg props things up with the unfortunate crutch of shock value in ways that do nothing to further the story, whether it's bodily discharges with Agatha leaving a menstrual blood stain on Havana's $12K couch or a constipated Havana struggling to defecate and only loudly passing gas. Yes, David Cronenberg has been reduced to fart jokes and drags Moore down with him.

The best thing that can be said about MAPS TO THE STARS is that the actors commit. Moore overdoes it, but the character requires such, and one of the few satirical bits that actually has some scathing bite to it is when she loses the role in the movie to younger rival Azita (Jayne Heitmeyer), known for "letting producers put their dick in her ass and take a piss," only to win it back when Azita's six-year-old son Micah drowns in a swimming pool, prompting her to have a breakdown and drop out of the film. The role then goes to Havana, who reacts by joyously dancing through the house and outside by the pool, shouting Micah's name and singing "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." Moore won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her scenery-chewing work and prior to her eventual Oscar win for STILL ALICE, was generating some Academy buzz for MAPS until its US release got pushed to 2015 (it was out in Europe last summer), preceded by one of the most blatantly misleading trailers in quite some time, edited in a way to make it look like Wasikowska is the psycho in a SINGLE WHITE FEMALE-type thriller. Bird does a solid job at playing a spoiled and thoroughly despicable turd, and even Cusack, taking a break from his new career in D-grade action movies, has some good moments, though he's first seen vaping--apparently his go-to prop as DRIVE HARD and RECLAIM introduced him the exact same way. Some good performances aside (though Pattinson is wasted in a rather nothing role), MAPS TO THE STARS is all bark and no bite, filled with tired depictions of debauchery, transgression, and generally bad behavior, plus an act of self-immolation that features the worst CGI fire I've ever seen. Cronenberg needn't prove anything to anyone at this point, but he's still smarter than a de facto follow-up to a forgotten 25-year-old movie that almost nobody liked. One leaves MAPS TO THE STARS wishing its poster art's tag line "Eventually stars burn out" didn't seem so oddly prophetic for its director. And as far as Wagner is concerned, his only significant contribution to cinema remains sharing a story credit with Wes Craven on 1987's A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS.

Thursday, February 26, 2015


(US - 2014)

It's almost impossible to watch WHIPLASH and focus on anything other than the Oscar-winning work of J.K. Simmons. The veteran character actor gets the role of his career here and absolutely runs with it. As music conservatory instructor Terence Fletcher, Simmons time and again takes the character to just the point where one step more would be over-the-top, and he pulls it in. His words, his delivery, his mannerisms, his body language, and his facial expressions all come together with lightning-in-a-bottle perfection as Simmons creates one of the most indelible characters in recent years and certainly one of the best performances you'll ever see. He really is that great. He's so great, that it's easy to forget that he's not even the star of the film, and that lead Miles Teller also turns in an award-caliber performance that was doomed to be overshadowed by Simmons. Teller is Andrew Neimann, a jazz drumming student at the prestigious (and fictitious) Shaffer Conservatory in NYC. A loner, Andrew spends his free time obsessively practicing and watching movies with his high-school teacher dad (Paul Reiser), a single parent and failed writer whose wife walked out on them when Andrew was a baby. These are crucial bits of information that Andrew tells Fletcher after the abrasive instructor selects him for the school's featured studio band. It takes one minor mistake in tempo for Fletcher to take Andrew's family history and hurl it back at him as "motivation." Respected and feared by his students, Fletcher is intimidating, manipulative, unpredictable, volatile, sadistic, reassuring, seductive, and probably psychopathic. His criticisms target weaknesses, his insults degrading and frequently sexist and homophobic. These teaching methods, which make R. Lee Ermey's drill instructor in FULL METAL JACKET seem approachable by comparison, push the students, especially Andrew, who's willing to put everything aside--from his dad to his nice girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist)--to be everything Fletcher demands he be.

One of the most talked-about films at Sundance 2014, WHIPLASH's buzz has been so centered on Simmons and his character that it's easy to overlook the work of Teller, who's almost as great in his own way (it helps that Teller is an experienced drummer who's played since he was a teenager). Andrew becomes so obsessed with nailing his parts, working until the blisters on his hands turn into open sores that bleed all over the drum kit, that he seems to have no love for the music. He's often irresponsible and as he spends more time with Fletcher, develops a sense of entitlement that alienates him from the other players in the band. Fletcher sees the talent in Andrew and pushes him to the brink of madness to bring it out of him. Expanding on a 2013 short film that also starred Simmons, writer/director Damien Chazelle, himself a former jazz drumming prodigy (he also wrote the goofy thriller GRAND PIANO and, improbably enough, THE LAST EXORCISM PART II), shoots these sequences in ways that maximize that tension, at times coming perilously close to provoking an anxiety attack in the viewer. It doesn't take long for your stomach to be in knots whenever Simmons purses his lips, shakes his head, and makes his hand gesture to cut the music and start over ("Not my tempo!"). The last third of the film heads in a rather unpredictable direction for an ending--keep thinking of that Charlie Parker anecdote that Fletcher keeps telling--that's open to interpretation (some dazzling camera work in that climax, too). Though it's filled with music and scenes where people practice music, WHIPLASH isn't really a film about music. It's a film about drive, ambition, obsession, abuse of power, and one that questions whether such abhorrent teaching tactics really work, and though some instructors like Fletcher exist, it's doubtful one that vicious would keep his job for very long. Other than one really boneheaded misstep (I think we can all agree that the movie almost shits the bed with that car accident and what happens immediately after), from which it somehow recovers, WHIPLASH is emotionally draining, exhausting, terrifying, traumatizing, superbly-acted, challenging, and unforgettable filmmaking that leaves you feeling almost shell-shocked when it's over. (R, 107 mins)

(UK - 2013; US release 2014)

The Elijah Wood-headlined GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS came and went with little notice in a 29-screen 2005 theatrical run, but when it hit DVD and cable, the British import about football hooliganism became a legitimate BOONDOCK SAINTS-level cult sensation with impressionable adolescent males. It's not a very good movie, but in subsequent years, it also generated interest thanks to SONS OF ANARCHY's Charlie Hunnam being the second lead, and it led to a straight-to-DVD 2009 sequel GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS 2: STAND YOUR GROUND, with only supporting actor Ross McCall returning from the first film. Now there's GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS: UNDERGROUND, an in-name-only third installment in a franchise that's been retooled as a vehicle for DTV martial arts star Scott Adkins, who's done some terrific work in several films by action maestro Isaac Florentine, most recently the outstanding NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR. Unfortunately, GSH: UNDERGROUND (titled GREEN STREET 3: NEVER BACK DOWN in the UK) won't go down as one of Adkins' better efforts. Cliches reign supreme as Danny (Adkins), a one-time leader of West Ham's Green Street Elite (GSE) football firm who left the neighborhood and never looked back, is pulled back into his old life when his obnoxious, hooligan little brother Joey (Billy Cook) is killed in an epic hooligan brawl. Hooliganism has gone underground, and the secret, BLOODSPORT-esque fights have gotten much more violent than in Danny's heyday. Working with hands-tied detective Hunter (fight coordinator Joey Ansah), Danny puts his aged and out-of-shape old crew back together for several montages as they prepare to enter what's basically the Hooligan Kumite to find the firm responsible for killing Joey.

With a rudimentary plot that plays more like Van Damme's KICKBOXER set in the world of soccer hooligans, GSH: UNDERGROUND is a straight 90 minutes of formulaic predictability, from the character arcs to the big reveals to the tournament inevitably in montage form set to a score that sounds like the result of Survivor hooking up with the keyboard opening to Journey's "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)" while West Ham climbs the tournament standings, shown superimposed over the montage action. The fight scenes are boring, the direction by James Nunn (TOWER BLOCK) pedestrian, and the kitschy throwback soundtrack too overbearingly '80s sounding for its own good (check out the Asia-sounding closing credits tune and you'll see what I mean). Even the usually reliable Adkins is dull, begging the question, who is this movie for?  Adkins' audience isn't going to like it, and GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS dudebros will probably react that same way HALLOWEEN fans did when HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH came out, the difference being, there likely won't be a critical and fan reassessment of GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS: UNDERGROUND years down the road. (R, 94 mins)

(US - 2014)

Or, KILLING THEM BLANDLY. Shot in 2012 as GOD ONLY KNOWS (and still sporting that title at the end of the closing credits), this Boston-based character piece from TRUCKER director James Mottern is one of the dullest mob movies ever, awash in cliches and getting nothing from the black hole in the center of the film that is Ben Barnes. The hapless British actor, fast becoming the patron saint of long-shelved trifles (THE BIG WEDDING, LOCKED IN, SEVENTH SON) is one that Hollywood keeps trying to make happen, with no success after playing Prince Caspian in the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA films. Here, Barnes is in way over his head, failing to rock a Baaahston accent as Nick Tortano, a soldier in the Vitaglia organization. A low-level fuck-up, Nick is credited with whacking a guy--it was actually pulled off by his buddy George (Boston-based rapper and crime movie fixture Slaine, previously seen in GONE BABY GONE, THE TOWN, and KILLING THEM SOFTLY)--and gets made by boss Sal Vitaglia (a comatose Harvey Keitel) as a result. Meanwhile, Nick finds himself in a star-crossed, secret romance with Ali Matazano (Leighton Meester), the daughter of Vitaglia rival Tony Matazano (an embarrassingly hammy Ritchie Coster), which threatens to erupt into an all-out mob war.

BY THE GUN wants to be one of those MEAN STREETS and FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE-type films focused on the nickel-and-dime elements of mob life rather than the glitz and glamour of THE GODFATHER, but instead of being gritty, it just comes off as forced and utterly phony, as if Mottern had the actors study Richard Pryor's "Mafia Club" bit for inspiration. Perhaps with a better actor in the lead and some more engaged or even appropriate supporting actors, things could've turned out differently (who thought it was a good idea to cast Toby Jones as a mob enforcer who calls himself "Daylight"?), but Mottern and screenwriter Emilio Mauro--neither of whom are likely to be mistaken for Martin Scorsese anytime soon--never get any momentum going. BY THE GUN gets off to the most sluggish start imaginable as roughly 35 minutes are devoted to Nick going around and apologizing to the Matazano family after his younger brother Vito (Kenny Wormald) insults Ali. Nick is shown as a punk and a fuck-up, so it's hard to buy that he'd be made so quickly (in a ceremony where Keitel mispronounces "Omerta"), but nothing in BY THE GUN makes much sense. Scene after scene depicts a bunch of hot-tempered mob guys getting in each others' faces about "this thing of ours" and yelling variations of  "FUCK YOU!" and "SUCK MY DICK!" and an argument between Nick and his bitter, blue-collar father (Paul Ben-Victor) has such insightful nuggets as "You come around here, tough guy?  Huh, big shot?" as he throws his son's money back at him, barking (wait for it) "This smells like blood!" and "I'm glad your mother isn't here to see what you've become!" Really, all that's missing is someone saying "Hey, bada-bing!" Former New England Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain has a supporting role as a Matazano strongarm, and Slaine manages to rise above the rest and deliver an actual performance, but it's not nearly enough to save this tired, monotonous, lethargically-paced dud that you've seen a thousand times before, but rarely quite this bad. (R, 110 mins)

Friday, February 20, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE HOMESMAN (2014); V/H/S: VIRAL (2014); and BAD TURN WORSE (2014)

(France/US - 2014)

In the small frontier town of Loup in the Nebraska Territory in the 1850s, three women have gone insane: Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) suffers a breakdown after being unable to conceive a child and watching her husband (David Dencik) throw her just-deceased mother's corpse out in a heavy snowstorm before it starts stinking; Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto), a mother of three, tosses her newborn baby into an outhouse pit; and 19-year-old Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) loses her three children over three days to diphtheria. Rev. Dowd (John Lithgow) has decided to send them away to receive special care and treatment at a hospital in Iowa run by Altha Carter (Meryl Streep), the wife of a prominent Methodist minister. The trip is at least five weeks away and the women's husbands (there's also William Fichtner as Theoline's, and Jesse Plemons as Arabella's) are either unable or unwilling to make the journey, so Loup spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers. Cuddy moved to the area from New York, owns a large piece of land, and contributes to the welfare of Loup but is still gossiped about as she's been unable to land a husband. Now resorting to proposing marriage to men strictly as a business deal, the lonely Cuddy is repeatedly turned down for being "too bossy and too plain-looking." Looking for purpose in a life that's left her "uncommonly alone," Cuddy agrees to transport the three women across the Missouri River into Iowa, and finds an unwilling partner in a man calling himself George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones). A scheming claim jumper, Briggs made some enemies and Cuddy finds him strung up in a noose and left for dead, kept alive only by sheer luck as he's managed to keep the horse holding him there from bolting. Cuddy cuts him down and offers him $300 and a jug of whiskey to help with the journey and provide protection from various threats and obstacles that may arise.

Based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, THE HOMESMAN was directed and co-written by Jones, and it turns into an interesting companion piece with his 2005 feature directing debut THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA (also, like THE HOMESMAN, co-produced by unlikely Jones pal Luc Besson). Both films--and tangentially, Jones' 2011 HBO film THE SUNSET LIMITED--share the common themes of death, honor, and redemption, but THE HOMESMAN is another beast altogether. Stunningly shot by Rodrigo Prieto, it finds Jones in auteur mode, with nearly every shot intricately staged and precisely framed as exquisite works of art. There's a Clint Eastwood aesthetic in his depiction of the west that recalls UNFORGIVEN (1992), and Jones not only takes time to build the characters but also, like Kelly Reichardt's minimalist MEEK'S CUTOFF (2011), is a stickler for harsh realism. THE HOMESMAN dives into the arduous obstacles and unpleasant realities of frontier life, the very realities--disease, isolation, environment--that turns three women into "cuckoo clocks" and the five-week journey into a months-long ordeal. This is an offbeat and thoroughly unique western, anchored by two terrific performances from Jones and Swank, and it's a film that would seem to have been a natural hit with audiences until you actually see it. Between this and THREE BURIALS, Jones has proven himself to be a gifted storyteller and a challenging filmmaker unconcerned with commercial appeal, and a lot of THE HOMESMAN is just too weird to play on 3000 screens and be the next OPEN RANGE or APPALOOSA sleeper hit (it's probably the best western since John Hillcoat's brutal 2006 western THE PROPOSITION). Lionsgate didn't seem to have any idea what to do with this, releasing it under its arthouse Roadside Attractions banner and only rolling it out on 220 screens. From the situations that arise--namely a whopper of an unexpected plot turn that completely shifts gears about 2/3 of the way in, and Briggs' ultimately surreal and nightmarish run-in with an erudite and dismissive hotelier (James Spader)--and the sly way Marco Beltrami's score vacillates between the grand, sweeping accompaniment you'd expect to hear in a John Ford western to the eerie and unsettlingly discordant piano and percussion sounds during the darker moments, THE HOMESMAN is a western that consistently defies genre expectations while utilizing standard tropes like Briggs' eventual redemption still not altering his status as an outsider--think of the way John Wayne's Ethan Edwards stands outside that door at the end of THE SEARCHERS, an unsympathetic and violent man who finds salvation in bringing his family back together but still remains distanced from that family, always and forever an outcast no matter how heroic he may be. Jones' George Briggs remains an enigma--it's clearly not his real name and we never learn about his obvious outlaw past, but he does what he's been paid to do and the journey, with all its ugly brutality and outright horror, is his redemption. Therein lies Jones' niche in the western genre: he's a John Ford purist at heart in a nihilistic Sam Peckinpah world. Also with Barry Corbin, Tim Blake Nelson, and Hailee Steinfeld (TRUE GRIT), THE HOMESMAN is bold and uncompromising, quirky and unpredictable, and one of the great undiscovered films of 2014. (R, 123 mins)

(US - 2014)

The third entry in the horror anthology franchise is not only the worst, but it also might be the worst portmanteau since that pair of slapped-together GEORGE A. ROMERO PRESENTS DEADTIME STORIES releases from a few years ago. Making its predecessors look like DEAD OF NIGHT and CREEPSHOW by comparison, V/H/S: VIRAL is a sloppy, incoherent, unwatchable disaster, with a wraparound story that has nothing to do with the events we see in the stories that unfold. DEADGIRL director Marcel Sarmiento handled the wraparound, "Vicious Circles," which deals with a would-be viral video dickbag who's fighting with his girlfriend but splits to follow a car chase on TV that speeds by his house. "Dante the Great," directed by Gregg Bishop (DANCE OF THE DEAD), is about an egomaniacal, murderous magician (Justin Welborn), whose magic is powered by his haunted cloak, and is notable for the land-speed record it sets in ditching its faux-doc concept to go for straight narrative. TIMECRIMES director Nacho Vigalondo helms "Parallel Monsters," where a guy (Gustavo Salmerin) encounters his doppelganger, at which time they agree to swap universes for 15 minutes but it's hardly a harmless visit. Justin Benson and Aaron Morehead direct "Bonestorm," where a bunch of skaters head to Tijuana and run afoul of a south-of-the-border death cult, with the entire segment shot almost exclusively with helmet-cams with occasional switches to first-person shooter POV shots. A fifth segment, "Gorgeous Vortex," was cut from the film just before release, with the explanation being that it slowed down the pace and changed the tone of the project, but it's included on the DVD and Blu-ray as a bonus segment at the conclusion of the actual film. Directed by Todd Lincoln (the completely forgettable THE APPARITION), it's an impenetrable, bizarre, dialogue-free fever dream that's completely pretentious bullshit that doesn't get a pass simply because it seems to be a little more high-minded than the idiocy that made the final cut. A photo-finish with RAZE as 2014's worst film and the absolute nadir of the hipster horror movement, which is pretty much that last thing I have to say about V/H/S: VIRAL. You win, fanboys. I'm out. (R, 81 mins)

(US - 2014)

An intermittently interesting Texas noir, BAD TURN WORSE has moments where it looks like it'll be another twisty BLUE RUIN, but it doesn't know when to shut up and can't avoid belaboring its points. For example, when you've got a main character handing a copy of Jim Thompson's South of Heaven to another character and telling them "You've gotta read this!" at the five-minute mark, you might be trying a little too hard. A thriller with teenage protagonists that too often feels like it was written by teenagers--which is a shame because who doesn't want to love a bleak, cynical noir written by someone named Dutch Southern?--BAD TURN WORSE works in a love triangle, a haphazardly-planned heist, money-laundering, and $20,000 belonging to a Corpus Christi gangster but still ends up with the inevitable showdown at an abandoned cotton gin where the chief villain spends an inordinate amount of time dropping snide bon mots on the hapless protagonists as he spells out his master plan instead of just dealing with the issue at hand. In a small and mostly dead Texas town, Bobby (Jeremy Allen White) and his bookworm friend Sue (Mackenzie Davis)--she's the Jim Thompson superfan--can't wait to go to college, much to the disappointment of Sue's boyfriend BJ (Logan Huffman), who's bummed about losing his friends and acting out in the worst way possible. Like, stealing $20K from the safe of small-time criminal Giff (Mark Pellegrino), who runs a cotton gin owned by ruthless, big-city crime lord Big Red (William Devane). BJ blows the whole $20K on going to the city for the weekend and making it rain, showing Bobby and Sue a good time before they leave. But when they return on Monday, Giff wants to know who took the money, and to protect BJ, Bobby takes the blame. Giff wants his money back and forces the trio to steal another $20,000 from a money-laundering drop used by Big Red's guys. Needless to say, there's one double-cross after another, especially once BJ discovers that Bobby and Sue have been carrying on a clandestine fling behind his back.

Writer Southern and sibling directors Zeke & Simon Hawkins do a commendable job of establishing the downbeat atmosphere of this hellhole of a town (the film played the festival circuit a year before its eventual release, under its original title, WE GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS PLACE). It's the kind of place where all the businesses are boarded up, everyone works at Giff's cotton gin, and there's little business opportunities except very small-time crime (one suspects the copper wire business is booming). Even the sheriff (Jon Gries) is on Giff's payroll. Sue and Bobby are often chided by the townies for "goin' off to college," and even Bobby's mom dismisses his newfound educational aspirations with "You're not a college kid...you're a cotton kid," almost like she knows he's only going so he can be close to Sue (that's also why BJ thinks he's going). Sue is obviously too smart for BJ (and Bobby, for that matter), but unlike BJ, she never intended them to be forever. It's a depressing, dead-end town where dreams died at least a generation back, and it's the perfect setting for such a story. It's good for about 2/3 of the way, but in the final act, everything collapses as the filmmakers resort to piling on the double-crosses and have Pellegrino's Giff stop just short of donning a monocle and twirling a mustache to show how nefarious he is. Pellegrino has some great moments where he gets to spit out some memorable dialogue ("You sure like to gamble for someone with such a shit pokerface," he tells Bobby, and when he gives Bobby an ultimatum after threatening to have his goons rape Sue, he promises "I'm gonna do more to your sweet pea than hollow out her heinie-hole") but Southern has the character behave too inconsistently, careening wildly from criminal mastermind to none-too-bright doofus depending on what the story needs him to be in any given scene. Devane makes an impression with his too-brief screen time, showing up to deal with Giff and lay down the law in a bathrobe and slippers. BAD TURN WORSE is OK, but it could've easily been something a little more if the filmmakers didn't feel the need to oversell, overplot, and overexplain, like they didn't trust their audience to process the ambiguities or connect the dots. Certainly, any fan of Thompson's brand of hard-boiled pulp fiction could've made the homage-to-Thompson connection without having it stated by the characters time and again throughout. Well-intentioned and occasionally quite good, BAD TURN WORSE is more like Target Just Missed. (Unrated, 92 mins)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: COUNT DRACULA (1970)

(Italy/Spain/West Germany - 1970)

Directed by Jess Franco. Written by Augusto Finocchi. Cast: Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, Herbert Lom, Maria Rohm, Fred Williams, Soledad Miranda, Jack Taylor, Paul Muller, Franco Castellani, Jesus Puente, Jeannine Mestre, Emma Cohen, Jess Franco, Colette Giacobine. (Unrated, 97 mins)

He seems more at peace with it now, but for many years, Sir Christopher Lee openly despised his reputation as a horror icon, specifically his inextricable link with Dracula. Right on the heels of playing Frankenstein's monster in Hammer Films' THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1957, 36-year-old Lee had his breakout role in the studio's HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), and while Dracula films only make up a tiny percentage of the now 92-year-old actor's nearly 300 credits over a storied and versatile career that's still trucking along in its eighth decade, it's indeed Dracula that will always be the first thing that comes to mind upon hearing the name "Christopher Lee." After HORROR OF DRACULA established Lee as a bona fide horror star, it didn't take long for him to spoof that image in the 1959 Italian comedy UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE, but he didn't actually reprise his Dracula role in Hammer's official series until 1965's DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS. That was followed by 1968's DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE and two films in 1970: TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and SCARS OF DRACULA. Lee was growing disillusioned with Hammer's Dracula films and the writers' refusal to stick to Bram Stoker's novel, instead concocting what Lee thought were absurd ideas that had nothing to do with Stoker's vision of the character. After resurrecting Dracula in mod, swinging London with 1972's DRACULA A.D. 1972 and 1973's THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, which had Dracula masquerading as a wealthy real estate mogul attempting to unleash a deadly virus upon the world, Lee reached his breaking point. By this time, he was openly bashing Hammer and the DRACULA films to the press and when Hammer announced a co-production deal with Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers for THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, which would pit Dracula against a team of Bruce Lee-inspired kung-fu fighters, Lee refused to have anything to do with it and was replaced by a bland and ineffective John Forbes-Robertson. The film was eventually released in the US as THE 7 BROTHERS MEET DRACULA, and marked the end of Hammer's DRACULA series.

Before his frustration reached critical mass, Lee did enjoy spoofing his Dracula image in cameos in the Peter Sellers-Ringo Starr film THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (1969) and in the Sammy Davis Jr-Peter Lawford post-Rat Pack comedy ONE MORE TIME (1970), the latter at the personal request of horror aficionado and Lee superfan Davis. Even after his acrimonious departure from Hammer's series, Lee would play Dracula one last time in the 1976 French comedy DRACULA AND SON, directed by Eduardo Molinaro, who would go on to make the 1978 smash LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. In addition to appearing in two Hammer DRACULAs in 1970, Lee also made a Dracula film outside of the studio, almost as an open act of rebellion. Lee had done several films with producer Harry Alan Towers and Spanish exploitation legend Jess Franco in the preceding few years, including five FU MANCHU films (Franco directed the final two) as well as the softcore porn outing EUGENIE: THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION (1970), a film in which Lee has maintained the racier elements were added after his scenes were shot. Lee was upset with Franco and Towers, but when they offered him a chance to star in a Dracula adaptation with the promise to remain faithful to Stoker's novel, the disgruntled actor couldn't resist.

To put it in era-appropriate terms, Lee making COUNT DRACULA in 1970 is akin to Sean Connery making a 007 film for a rival studio while still starring in the official Bond series. Shot in Barcelona, COUNT DRACULA is a low-key affair with a script (credited to Augusto Finocchi in the print on Dark Sky's DVD, though Franco and Towers worked on it, and the US ads gave sole writing credit to Towers, under his screenwriting pseudonym "Peter Welbeck") that takes whole chunks of dialogue directly from Stoker's novel. Dracula is even introduced as an old man who gets progressively younger as the film proceeds and he gets a fresh supply of new blood from his victims. Intending to sell his decaying residence, an aged Dracula is visited at his castle by young lawyer Jonathan Harker (German actor Fred Williams). Dracula promptly puts the bite on Harker, who escapes from the castle and is transported back to a sanitarium in London, where he's treated by Dr. Seward (Paul Muller). His situation attracts the attention of clinic head Dr. Van Helsing (Herbert Lom) as a spry and younger-looking Dracula has followed Harker back to London to buy a neighboring castle so he can stalk and vampirize his fiancee Mina (Towers' wife Maria Rohm) and her friend Lucy (Franco muse Soledad Miranda). Dracula has also established a psychic hold on crazed asylum inmate Renfield (Klaus Kinski), who lost his mind after his family had a fateful encounter with the vampire years earlier.

While staying generally faithful to Stoker in spirit, COUNT DRACULA takes some liberties in its execution, especially in the way it takes elements of the book's Van Helsing's backstory and transfers them over to Renfield. The film is very slowly-paced and, like most Franco efforts, budget-deprived. Many of the sets look like they belong in a high school play, with some interiors appearing ready to topple over at any second. At times, the cheap, sparse look of Dracula's castle adds to the sense of gloomy despair looming over the elderly vampire (a happy accident I'm sure, given Franco's track record). Elsewhere, dangling rubber bats are laughably phony-looking, the camera occasionally doesn't seem to be pointed in the right direction, and the day-for-night work is atrocious, with one scene taking place at night when it's obvious it was shot in the middle of a bright, sunny day. Lee underplays it for the most part, but you can see his commitment, especially in one epic monologue to Harker early on that's delivered directly into the camera in a way that only Lee can. Lee absolutely nails this long sequence ("This was a Dracula indeed!") and it ranks with the finest acting of his career.

Franco did some of his most professional work during his years with Towers, a veteran exploitation huckster who was great at corralling money to lure name actors who maybe weren't at their pinnacle of their career (like a visibly drunk Jack Palance in Franco's 1969 De Sade chronicle JUSTINE) or were just cool with whatever as long as the check cleared (Lee and Lom, the latter having just appeared in Franco's sleazy 1969 women-in-prison classic 99 WOMEN and would continue slumming in Eurotrash until Blake Edwards rescued him to reprise his role as the perpetually-flustered Dreyfus when he restarted the PINK PANTHER franchise in 1975). Towers managed to get Lee, Lom, and Kinski together for COUNT DRACULA, but the three headliners are never seen together and were never on the set with one another. Franco leaves a lot of the plot's heavy lifting to Harker and Lucy's fiance Quincy Morris (played by American expat and Franco regular Jack Taylor), while Lee, Lom, and Kinski only worked on the film for a few days each. Dracula and Van Helsing's sole scene together is shot in a way that makes it quite apparent Lee and Lom were not there at the same time. It's worth noting that there is the possibility that Dracula and Van Helsing were meant to interact more than they do--Lom was a last-minute replacement after Vincent Price backed out just before shooting began. Perhaps his hasty casting and limited availability necessitated changes, which may explain why Van Helsing doesn't even take part in the final ambush of Dracula, instead sending Harker and Morris to deal with it after suffering a stroke from which he's apparently recovered two scenes later. Kinski's Renfield never leaves his asylum cell, where he makes funny noises, smears food on the walls, and eats flies, which may have just been Franco filming Kinski's lunch break. As an actor, Kinski only interacts with Muller, Franco Castellani (as an abusive guard) and, for one scene, Rohm, who's said that Kinski initially refused to appear in a Dracula movie and Towers had to convince him that his scenes were for another project. According to legend (and Rohm, who perhaps embellishes somewhat but it's still amusing and, considering Kinski's volatile personality, quite plausible) when Renfield attempts to choke Mina, Kinski had his hands around her neck and whispered "Maria, I think that husband of yours has me in a fucking Dracula film." Interestingly, Kinski would star in two Dracula adaptation years later, with Werner Herzog's NOSFERATU: THE VAMPYRE (1979) and its unofficial sequel, NOSFERATU IN VENICE (1988).

Even with its flaws and cut corners, COUNT DRACULA is an unusually ambitious project for Franco and Towers, and one that makes a good pairing with the same year's THE BLOODY JUDGE, released in the US in 1972 as the misleading NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER (it would be 1973 before COUNT DRACULA managed to find a US distributor). THE BLOODY JUDGE is obviously inspired by Michael Reeves' WITCHFINDER GENERAL, itself ripped off in 1969 with the West German tongue-ripper MARK OF THE DEVIL, starring (wait for it) Herbert Lom, but like COUNT DRACULA, it features one of Lee's best performances as puritanical Judge Jeffreys, yet another in a long line of impotent, sexually-frustrated witchfinders taking their penile inadequacy issues out on accused witches and assorted wenches, harlots, and other undesirables of dubious moral standing. Both films catch Franco just before 27-year-old Soledad Miranda's tragic death in a car accident would, for better or worse, completely alter the course of his career. Franco could hold his own as a journeyman gun-for-hire, but he was starting to explore his auteur impulses, which usually meant plotless fever dreams and constant crotch-zooms, an artistic shift that would reach its apex when he met his next muse and eventual life partner Lina Romay. There's a fine line between auteur and perv, and as Franco aged into the emeritus raconteur phase of his career in the years before his death in 2013, his work was reconsidered as that of a legitimate trail-blazer and cinematic genius. I'm not entirely onboard with that--there's some interesting films there in his post-Towers dive into horror erotica, but a large chunk of it is clearly the work of an often sloppy filmmaker who just had a fond appreciation for naked women.  Not that there's anything wrong with that...

Monday, February 16, 2015


(US/UK - 2015)

Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn. Cast: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton, Sofia Boutella, Sophie Cookson, Mark Hamill, Jack Davenport, Samantha Womack, Hanna Alstrom, Bjorn Floberg, Geoff Bell, Ralph Ineson, Richard Brake. (R, 129 mins)

Like 2010's KICK-ASS, director Matthew Vaughn's last adaptation of a Mark Millar comic book series, KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (which Millar co-created with Dave Gibbons) takes unbridled joy in pushing the envelope and poking people with sticks. Without a little girl dropping countless F-and-C-bombs, KINGSMAN isn't going to attract quite the same level of controversy. Nevertheless, some are taking umbrage with the hilarious final shot, essentially a very hard-R riff on all of those quips and double entendres that would close out a James Bond movie as 007 wraps up the adventure and canoodles with the Bond girl while M or Q or Moneypenny listen or observe with their disapproving "Really, 007!" facial expressions. The entire film is an homage to the more lighthearted spy films of old, particularly Roger Moore's tenure as 007, while also functioning as a meta commentary on spy movies in general, with characters lamenting that today's genre items are much too serious and downbeat. That's an especially amusing aside, considering two of this film's stars--Colin Firth and Mark Strong--appeared in 2011's low-key and magnificently somber TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. The connection to spy films past extends to the presence of the legendary Michael Caine, who played British agent Harry Palmer in a series of five films from 1965 to 1996. Vaughn and regular co-writer Jane Goldman play these meta elements just enough that they remain amusing, wisely resisting the urge to make it too self-consciously cute. For the most part, KINGSMAN is bit on the longish side and, like so many of its present-day counterparts, suffers from some blasts of dubious CGI that's distracting in its cartoonish artifice, though I tend to be a little more lenient on that when it's a comic book adaptation.  Overall, KINGSMEN is generally witty and wildly entertaining, deftly mixing thrilling action, big laughs, and shocking violence, aided by a fine cast of serious actors obviously enjoying themselves and having a good time.

Unemployed London troublemaker Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) gets into a row at a pub and retaliates by taking the guy's car for a joyride. Arrested, Eggsy resorts to an emergency number on the back of a medal given to him 17 years earlier by Harry Hart (Firth), a co-worker of his late father, who died on the job. He was told to call that number if he ever needed anything, and 17 years later, he calls in that favor and is sprung from jail by Hart with all charges dropped. Hart tells Eggsy that he's a Kingsman--like his father--an agent in a top-secret government intelligence agency. Hart, codename Galahad, feels responsible for Eggsy, as Eggsy's father saved the lives of Galahad and other Kingsman agents by diving on top of an Iraqi suicide bomber, sacrificing himself for the greater good of the team. It so happens that there's a vacancy in the Kingsman agency--which Galahad would like filled by Eggsy-- after Lancelot (Jack Davenport) is killed by Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), a legless assassin with prosthetic, sharpened Oscar Pistorius-like running blades. Gazelle is the chief henchman to eccentric, billionaire internet mogul Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a philanthropist whose supposed concern with climate change is a cover for a far more nefarious master plan. Valentine orchestrates a global giveaway of SIM cards that provide free phone and internet service for everyone, for life. As evidenced during a trial run at a Kentucky church, whose congregation is filled with hatemongering racists, gun nuts, and homophobes, the internet signal received by those with Valentine's SIM cards causes its users to behave in uncontrollably violent, destructive fashion. The SIM card is a mind and impulse control/manipulation signal, and Valentine has been meeting with and occasionally kidnapping the world's more important dignitaries and luminaries--including prominent climate change expert Prof. Arnold (Mark Hamill in some in-joke casting, playing a character who was originally named "Mark Hamill" in the comic book)--and implanting a chip behind their ears to make them immune from the signal, thereby giving an overcrowded, global warming-damaged world a much-needed do-over, where the lesser, more gullible people of society remove themselves from the equation and the rich and privileged one-percenters reign supreme.  As Eggsy and others are trained in the ways of the Kingsman by their mentor Merlin (Strong), Galahad conducts an investigation of Valentine at the behest of the agency's leader Arthur (Caine), one that will put the entire organization to a test in order to save the planet from the megalomaniacal madman.

As goofy as KINGSMAN is, its plot isn't any more ludicrous than something like MOONRAKER (some of the climax even takes place in space!). From the various Kingsman gadgets to Valentine's insane plot and his lethal right-hand (wo)man with some kind of gimmicky physical attribute to Jackson's loud and hammy performance, KINGSMAN frequently resembles a lighthearted 007 entry if Bond was paired up with a street-smart soccer hooligan for a sidekick. Egerton does a fine job as Eggsy, with his cocky exterior masking smarts and sensitivity on which Galahad is willing to stake his reputation. The relationship that forms between the two men--one who never knew his father and the other who blames himself for it--is portrayed very nicely by Egerton and Firth. But it's really Jackson, acting like a mash-up between Spike Lee, Mark Cuban, and Auric Goldfinger, who steals the show. KINGSMAN also offers a lot in the way of ballsy, subversive jabs, not only at the massacre of a bunch of brainless Kentucky yokels who gather at the very Westboro Baptist-esque church to spread their hate and intolerance, but in the corrupt politicians in Valentine's pocket--there's digs at the left and the right here--and the way they sell everyone out to save their own asses, not to mention what Sweden's Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) is willing to do if the world is saved. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE takes the PUNISHER: WAR ZONE approach to older spy movies, but is a bit like a more refined KICK-ASS. It's still got something to offend everyone, but does so in the classiest way possible. It's a film that sets out to entertain while occasionally making your jaw drop and wondering "Did it really go there?" Yes, it does, and that's exactly why it's such great fun, and it's Vaughn's best film since his directing debut with 2004's LAYER CAKE.

Friday, February 13, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: FORCE MAJEURE (2014); THE DARK VALLEY (2015); and ANNABELLE (2014)

(Sweden/France/Norway/Germany/Denmark - 2014)

Remember that SEINFELD episode where George was attending a kid's birthday party and a small fire broke out in the kitchen? Remember how he yelled "FIRE!" and ran out screaming, pushing old ladies and little kids out of the way to get himself to safety? Change the fire to an avalanche and change the tone to a dour mix of uncomfortable Michael Haneke and serious Woody Allen in one of his Ingmar Bergman moods and stretch it out to two endless hours and you've got a good idea what FORCE MAJEURE is like. Critically-adored the world over (the film currently holds a 93% at Rotten Tomatoes), hyped as a guaranteed Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee (it didn't make the cut), and frequently described as a "comedy," for some reason (and the US trailer below sure makes it look like one), FORCE MAJEURE opens with a seemingly happy Swedish family--dad Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), mom Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and kids Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren)--on vacation in the French Alps. All goes well until one of the ski resort's periodic "controlled avalanches"--a metaphor that will repeatedly slap the viewer upside the head--gets a little bigger than intended. A brief panic ensues among diners at a restaurant, and as Ebba grabs the kids and takes shelter under the table, Tomas impulsively grabs his phone and gloves and runs off. When he returns maybe 30 seconds later after calm is restored, the mood of the family and their vacation is never the same. Tomas won't admit what he did, and Ebba is soon taking any opportunity to humiliate him in front of others, even roping in his divorced, 40-ish friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju, best known as Tormund Giantsbane on GAME OF THRONES) and his 20-year-old girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius). Of course, old marital grudges come into play as we learn more about Tomas and Ebba and why she's so high-strung and offended by one vacationer's comfort with having an open marriage and why Tomas' split-second cowardice might be a last straw for her. All the while, the constant invocation of "controlled avalanches" as a symbol of the give-and-take and the ups-and-downs of marriage is heavy-handed, obvious, and tiresome. The film wants to be raw and honest, but ends up with approximately the same entertainment value as observing the worst fight your parents ever had, with the two main characters becoming so overbearing and Kuhnke's performance so overwrought, that it's easy to stop caring and tune all of it out. Ultimately, writer/director Ruben Ostlund gets the strongest performances from the Wettergren siblings, who come off as total naturals and manage to create wholly believable characters with only a little dialogue, a lot of perceptive, knowing glances, and telling body language. They're the only great things about the stupefyingly overrated FORCE MAJEURE. (R, 120 mins)

(Austria/Germany - 2014; US release 2015)

Downbeat, brutal, and vividly atmospheric, the Austrian-German co-production THE DARK VALLEY is an unusual western in that it takes place in Europe and is presented almost entirely in German with English subtitles. Even the film's British star, Sam Riley (CONTROL, ON THE ROAD, MALEFICENT) quite convincingly delivers his performance in the film's native language. Riley is Greider, an American stranger who arrives in an isolated town in the Alps. He claims to be a photographer and decides to stay for the winter, renting a room at the home of widowed Gaderin (Carmen Bratl) and her headstrong daughter Luzi (Paula Beer). It doesn't take long for Greider to learn the hard way that the town is under the strict control of the Brenner clan: the aged, sickly Old Brenner (Hans-Michael Rehberg) and his six loathsome, power-crazed sons (imagine GAME OF THRONES with six Joffreys and you'll get an idea of how despicable the Brenner boys are). As winter comes, two of the Brenner sons are found dead in ways that look like accidents until Old Brenner concludes that the American stranger--it never occurs to this family of psychos to ask how he's fluent in German--is somehow involved. Meanwhile, Luzi is engaged to be married to Lukas (Thomas Schubert) but the mood of the young couple is oddly lacking in celebration as their big day approaches. To say anything more would involve spoilers about the true depths of the depravity to which the Brenners have plummeted for too long. Needless to say, Greider is on a mission of personal vengeance, for reasons that will be explained only after he's forced to stage a daring rescue of Luzi when she's abducted by the Brenners. After that, he'll face the remaining brothers only to find out that the town has it share of Stockholm Syndromed citizens who defend welcome the ruthless rule--and all the perverse "laws" that accompany it--of Old Brenner.

Only when director/co-writer Andreas Prochaska, working from the 2010 novel Das finstere Tal by Thomas Willmann, resorts to some jumpy cutting and shaky-cam in Greider's showdown with the Brenner brothers--accompanied by a completely incongruous German alt-rock tune--does the film start a chain reaction of stumbling from which it never really recovers, resulting in a Big Reveal that you'll see coming a mile away. Until then, Prochaska's direction is deliberate, disciplined, and controlled, focusing on gritty little details that most westerns ignore, like dealing with the inclement weather and the constant cold. Breath is visible indoors at all times, and Greider is forced to shave cold, as a thin layer of ice forms over his water bowl overnight. The cold, barren and perpetually gray-skied look of the film recalls westerns as diverse as Clint Eastwood's PALE RIDER (1985) and Sergio Corbucci's THE GREAT SILENCE (1968), with Prochaska filming in some stunning locations in the mountainous Trentino-Alto Adige area of northern Italy, at the Austrian border. There's also nods to Andre De Toth's cult western DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959), not just in its snow-blanketed setting but in the ugly and disturbing Luzi-Lukas wedding ceremony and reception, crashed by the Brenners, who take turns forcing Luzi to dance with them in front of the stone-faced attendees in way that owes a tremendous debt to a similar scene in the De Toth film. Riley is excellent as the revenge-obsessed Greider, and completely natural and comfortable acting in German (a cursory glance at the English-dubbed track reveals that it's not only terrible but that Riley doesn't dub himself--the film is meant to be seen in German, as Luzi point-blank asks him early "How do you know how to speak German?"). The filmmakers wisely choose to not make him some superhuman killing machine. Instead, he's flawed, often falling victim his own impulsiveness and even oversleeping the morning of his showdown with the Brenners, which almost allows them to get the edge on him. Given a straight-to-DVD release in the US, THE DARK VALLEY is so good for so much of its running time (it was Austria's Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film, but didn't make the final cut of nominees) that its third-act slip-ups are especially disappointing. Still, late stumbles and all, it's well worth seeing as a solid western and also one that takes full advantage of its unique setting. (Unrated, 115 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

(US - 2014)

A prequel spinoff of THE CONJURING, ANNABELLE goes into the origin story of the creepy doll kept in a glass case in the home of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in the 2013 hit. Wilson's voice makes an uncredited guest appearance in a prologue that would seem to be the first half of wraparound sequence that the film proceeds to completely forget about and never return to, but that's just the kind of slipshod carelessness that defines ANNABELLE. There's so little story here that writer Gary Dauberman (BLOOD MONKEY) and director John F. Leonetti (THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT 2) often appear to have forgotten which James Wan film they're prequelling, as a lot of it seems to owe more to INSIDIOUS than THE CONJURING (Wan remains onboard ANNABELLE as a producer). Set in 1969, as evidenced by a reference to Charles Manson being in the news, ANNABELLE opens with young marrieds and expectant parents Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (daytime soap vet Ward Horton, waiting patiently for the lead in THE JAMES MARSDEN STORY) being attacked in their home by the neighbors' crazed daughter Annabelle (Tree O'Toole), who ran off to join a hippie cult. Annabelle commits suicide while clutching the creepy new addition John bought for Mia's doll collection, and of course, the doll is now a vessel for whatever evil spirit took hold of Annabelle. Ghostly occurrences and apparitions keep happening, and neither parish priest Father Perez (Tony Amendola as F. Murray Abraham) nor neighbor/book shop proprietor/exposition dispenser Evelyn (past Oscar-nominee Alfre Woodard in the most egregious wasting of an overqualified African-American actress in a stupid horror movie since Cicely Tyson turned up in the amazingly-titled THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT 2: GHOSTS OF GEORGIA), are able to offer much assistance other than Father Lopez ominously intoning "Demons sometimes use objects as conduits" and Evelyn, who's an expert in all things pertaining to the spirit world because of course she is, informing them that the spirit inside the doll demands a sacrifice. That sacrifice is initially believed to be Mia's newborn daughter until Mia decides that she must sacrifice herself to save her child.  And SPOILER ALERT--all of that is for naught because Evelyn, who lost her own daughter, apparently has nothing to live for except sacrificing herself for this wholesome, church-going, conservative white couple who long for an America where you should be able to leave your doors unlocked at night.

Setting aside the appalling way it has the de facto "Magical Negro" become the sacrificial lamb, ANNABELLE is just a terrible and inexcusably lazy film. Sure, Leonetti, a cinematographer going back to the '80s (he also shot DEAD SILENCE, DEATH SENTENCE, INSIDIOUS, and THE CONJURING for Wan), pulls off a few decent bits where he lets the camera snake around or in the way he offers some nicely-executed widescreen shot compositions, but they never lead anywhere. He's a solid technician with no idea how to deliver a scare. Scenes with a record player playing itself or the stove turning itself on and eventually engulfing the kitchen in flames (Mia, sewing in the next room, somehow fails to notice choking smoke throughout the house) are old-fashioned to a fault. In Leonetti's fumbling hands, these aren't classic-style chills as much as they're hoary cliches, and it doesn't get any better when the filmmakers start straight-up ripping off scenes wholesale from other, better movies. Remember in THE EXORCIST III when George C. Scott called his wife to warn her not to let a possessed killer nurse in the house, but only got a busy signal while evil forces at play caused the wife to hear him saying "There's a nurse delivering a package" on her end of the line? That's replayed here when John calls Mia to warn her not to let a possessed Father Perez in, but all Mia hears is static. They even rip off that classic "kid running down the hallway" jolt in Mario Bava's 1977 film SHOCK (aka BEYOND THE DOOR II), but it's restaged in bumbling fashion with shitty CGI assistance, almost as if they looked at that scene in SHOCK, which involved nothing but good timing and perfect camera placement that's so effective that it's hard to believe how simple it really is, and said "Wow, that's great...so, what do we have to do to render it completely amateurish and flat and make sure it lands with a dead thud?" A complete embarrassment, ANNABELLE somehow grossed $84 million in theaters despite being exactly the kind of quickie, D-grade, straight-to-DVD follow-up along the lines of the TREMORS, DARKMAN, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, or the later HELLRAISER sequels, just to name a few examples of things you'd see during the video store heyday. While it's nice that they made an ostensibly old-school horror movie that's very light on trendy blood and gore, you kinda have to hold up your end of the bargain and remember to bring the atmosphere and the scares, preferably ones you didn't swipe from those who came before you and who put forth a lot more effort and innovation than you did. ANNABELLE is the worst kind of bad movie: one that actively makes you angry with its utter contempt for its audience. (R, 99 mins)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

In Theaters: SEVENTH SON (2015)

(US/China - 2015)

Directed by Sergei Bodrov. Written by Charles Leavitt and Steven Knight. Cast: Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Ben Barnes, Djimon Hounsou, Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Olivia Williams, Antje Traue, Jason Scott Lee, John DeSantis, Gerard Plunkett, Kandyce McClure, Luc Roderique, Zahf Paroo. (PG-13, 102 mins)

Filmed way back in 2012 and bounced around the schedule since its first announced release date of February 2013, the $100 million SEVENTH SON has finally arrived with some of the lowest expectations this side of 47 RONIN. The original release date was postponed after one of the film's primary companies in charge of the visual effects went bankrupt. After that was sorted out, the first official trailer appeared in theaters in July 2013, followed by numerous release date shuffles pushing the movie into 2014. Some time later, Legendary Pictures ended their partnership with distributor Warner Bros., setting up a new deal with Universal, who bumped SEVENTH SON to February 2015, likely to afford it a reasonable opportunity to distance itself from the 47 RONIN debacle of Christmas 2013. The train-wreck potential on this one is pretty high, but its primary offenses are shoddy visuals, sloppy writing, and a strict adherence to a stale formula. Despite the buckets of money thrown on the screen, SEVENTH SON doesn't look any better than one of Uwe Boll's straight-to-DVD IN THE NAME OF THE KING sequels, with some alarmingly unimpressive greenscreen backdrops and the daytime exteriors given the same kind of blurry, smeary soft focus that ABC News uses on Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer.

Based on Joseph Delaney's 2004 novel The Spook's Apprentice (retitled The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch in the US), the first part of the "Wardstone Chronicles" (UK)/"Last Apprentice" (US) medieval fantasy series (now up to 13 books, plus several spinoff novels), SEVENTH SON deals with Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges), a wise old warrior fighting the supernatural. Known as a "spook," he's the last of his kind, the sole survivor of a legion of warriors defeated by evil. Now a mercenary witch hunter, Gregory is called back into action when Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), a nefarious spellcaster he imprisoned in a mountain dungeon decades earlier, escapes and kills his apprentice Bradley (Kit Harington). Mother Malkin, who frequently shapeshifts into a dragon, is set to reclaim her throne and unleash her evil over the world upon the rise of the Blood Moon, a once-per-century lunar event that happens to be a week away. Gregory needs a new apprentice, a seventh son of a seventh son, which leads him to earnest farm boy Tom Ward (Ben Barnes). Tom leaves his family to join Gregory in his quest, falling in love with Alice (Alicia Vikander), the half-witch niece of Mother Malkin. As Gregory trains Tom in the ways of being a spook--of course they initially butt heads but come to a mutual respect--they're joined by Gregory's faithful servant Tusk (John DeSantis) and prepare for battle against Mother Malkin, who's assembling her army of fellow shapeshifting witches and warlocks in order for evil to reign supreme at the coming of the Blood Moon.

No stranger to planned franchises that stall after one film, director Sergei Bodrov--well-respected in Russian and, since the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakh cinema--is best known to arthouse audiences for his Genghis Khan epic MONGOL (2008), the first installment of an announced trilogy whose second chapter has yet to materialize. It's hard to say what drew the 64-year-old Bodrov to a mega-budget Hollywood blockbuster-type project 40 years into his filmmaking career (he also directed PRISONER OF THE MOUNTAINS, a 1996 Oscar-nominee for Best Foreign Language Film), but the look and feel of SEVENTH SON is purely that of a B-grade LORD OF THE RINGS knockoff, from the inevitable swooping, circular aerial shots of the heroes walking along hills and mountaintops to the sage old mentor instructing a naive, impulsive pupil. The bland Barnes, who's seen whatever momentum he had going from being THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA's Prince Caspian derailed by films shelved for anywhere from two (THE BIG WEDDING) to three (this) to even five years (LOCKED IN), was 31 at the time of filming and looks a good decade too old for his role. Barnes, currently the British guy you go to after Andrew Garfield, Jim Sturgess, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Alex Pettyfer turn you down, is largely indistinguishable from his CGI surroundings, and in many scenes, he and the supporting cast appear to be looped in a way that's just ever-so-slightly off, giving a certain slapdash feel to the proceedings. It's especially noticeable with Swedish Vikander and German Antje Traue (as Mother Malkin's witch sister), who are clearly dubbed with different voices in some scenes, and speak with their own audible accents in others. This, along with some later scenes where Barnes' hairstyle and Bridges' hair color have changed, are obvious indicators of hasty reshoots.

Even Moore flubs it at times, using a comically regal tone most of the time and occasionally slipping into her normal way of speaking. She goes through rants and raves with a look on her face that indicates she's well aware of how dumb all of it sounds, but she trudges through like a pro, as does the great two-time Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou, who deserves better than a stock henchman role as one of Mother Malkin's supernatural cohorts. It's hard telling what's up with Bridges, who really seems to have stopped trying after his CRAZY HEART Oscar. Bodrov obviously just let Bridges do whatever he wanted to do, which apparently involved playing Master Gregory as a some sort of bizarre mash-up between Gandalf and Karl Childers. Enunciating oddly through a jutted-out lower jaw, Bridges is mannered and hammy, much like he's been since his Oscar-nominated turn as Rooster Cogburn in TRUE GRIT. That was a fine and fun performance in 2010, but a coasting Bridges has just kept delivering it over and over again since. Jeff Bridges is one of the greats and while we all love The Dude, maybe it's time for him to start giving a shit again.

Earlier Warner poster art reflecting just
one of the film's many bumped release dates.
Bridges does get a couple of funny one-liners, but the script--credited to BLOOD DIAMOND screenwriter Charles Leavitt and LOCKE writer/director Steven Knight, who separately rewrote an earlier draft by Matt Greenberg (REIGN OF FIRE)--is all over the place, often feeling like we're watching the sequel to something that doesn't exist, arbitrarily pulling new rules and stipulations out of its ass when it gets backed into a corner, and not even following its own logic: why does Master Gregory even need an apprentice?  He has Tusk, a more than formidable sidekick. And the only time Tom comes to Gregory's rescue is after the pupil's stupidity causes the mentor to be captured in the first place. If Gregory has a week to stop Mother Malkin's Blood Moon-abetted reign of terror, he and Tusk seem more than up to the task--why take all the time to train Tom, who's obviously dead weight until the script needs him to be the hero? Ultimately, all of this "seventh son of a seventh son" malarkey does nothing other than make you wish Iron Maiden was handling the soundtrack duties. On the plus side, SEVENTH SON moves quickly, Bodrov deserves some credit for getting Jason Scott Lee (DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY) back on the big screen again even if it's a brief role as a warlock who shapeshifts into a giant bear, and I'm sure Bridges and Moore had a great time between takes reminiscing about THE BIG LEBOWSKI. It's just too bad that SEVENTH SON doesn't end NEWHART-style with The Dude waking up from a hazy dream and trying to explain it to an incredulous Maude Lebowski.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: STARRY EYES (2014); EXISTS (2014); and HORNS (2014)

(US/Belgium - 2014)

In horror circles, STARRY EYES was hailed as an instant cult classic almost immediately after it played the festival circuit and hit the VOD rounds last fall. I always get a little skeptical when today's horror fans latch on to something, because that's when you get conned by things like The Legend of Ti West and the absurd notion that THE INNKEEPERS is a good movie, or that Alexandre Aja's PIRANHA is "like, totally old-school exploitation!" Mind you, there's a great idea at the heart of STARRY EYES, and there's some cutting observations about the culture of Hollywood, the pretentiousness and the catty one-upmanship and those would-be stars working mundane day jobs when they aren't trying to catch a break at an audition. It also sports a supporting cast filled with minor cult figures like SOMEONE'S KNOCKING AT THE DOOR and DEADGIRL's Noah Segan, RED, WHITE & BLUE stars Amanda Fuller and Marc Senter, COMPLIANCE prank caller Pat Healy, and a KISS Kameo by professional wealthy offspring Nick Simmons.  But in its execution, STARRY EYES is impossibly heavy-handed, making its points in the most suffocatingly ham-fisted and overly literal ways imaginable, and it just gets dumb and dumber as it goes along. In an undeniably strong and demanding performance that hints at deeper issues haunting the character, Alexandra Essoe is Sarah Walker, a Big Taters waitress struggling to make it as an actress. She gets an audition for a horror film called THE SILVER SCREAM, produced by Astraeus Pictures, a once-notable studio now sort-of on the skids. It's an unusual audition held by a pair of eccentrics, but she gets a callback that consists of a lot of flash photos in a dark room. She's then called to meet with the producer (Louis Dezseran), an aging Roger Corman-type who unsubtly tries to get her on the casting couch. Initially rejecting but having a change of heart after she quits her job and sees her roommates and friends going nowhere in their own acting and filmmaking pursuits, she caves to the producer's demands that she "show" how dedicated she is and that she make the appropriate "sacrifice."

Of course, there's something more sinister afoot, as the writing/directing team of Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer have shown the producer with a pentagram burned into his hand and his assistant (Maria Olsen, fast becoming the Michael Berryman of today's DIY hipster horror scene) wearing a pentagram necklace. Yes, they're all Satanists, and their cult is fame, the central conceit of STARRY EYES being a literal death and rebirth as your old self dies--the sacrifice--and a star is born. After fellating the producer, Sarah's body starts breaking down in Cronenbergian fashion, and also in ways very similar to the awful slut-shaming body-horror film CONTRACTED. There's a cynical message here that all Hollywood success stories are rooted in evil, soulless vanity, but that shouldn't surprise anyone after ALL ABOUT EVE. By the time Sarah vomits maggots and starts offing her friends in ways that will even have the most seen-it-all gorehounds flinching, the filmmakers have her literally stabbing one in the back in order to make sure you're getting the message that she's not the same old Sarah. It's all rather obvious and while Kolsch and Widmyer take the L.A. scenester-types to task early on, the notion of "breaking through the gate" and achieving fame and fortune by selling your soul to Satan isn't exactly a high concept if you've ever heard of Faust. This has its moments, augmented by a very John Carpenter-esque synth score by Jonathan Snipes, but I'm really at a loss as to what movie everyone saw when they got on the STARRY EYES love train and declared it a modern horror classic. (Unrated, 96 mins)

(US - 2014)

After co-directing the 1999 phenomenon THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, Eduardo Sanchez has stayed busy with DTV or limited theatrical release horror titles like ALTERED (2006), SEVENTH MOON (2009), and the critically-acclaimed LOVELY MOLLY (2012). Sanchez has never had the accolades nor the success that BLAIR WITCH brought him, so now, 15 years later, he's back sucking from the faux-doc/found footage teet with EXISTS, just as the subgenre he helped make mainstream is falling out of favor with fans. Obviously, Sanchez is an old pro at this kind of thing, and EXISTS has a handful of well-done set pieces, but you have to wade through an hour of dudebro dialogue, idiotic characters, several long sequences in night-vision or almost total darkness, and plenty of time to ponder the age-old question in this type of horror film: why are you still filming? Five dumbasses (two couples and the obligatory comic-relief fifth wheel who does all the filming) head to a remote cabin in the woods (owned by the uncle of two of the dudes, who actually are bros) for a weekend of beer, weed, and doing generally EXTREME! shit, all to be documented in its entirety on their GoPro cameras. Their SUV hits something, and only a blurred figure is seen on the playback, but once they're at the cabin, a howling in the woods convinces the goof of the group (Chris Osborn) that they're dealing with Bigfoot. Even if EXISTS wasn't rendered moot arriving so soon after Bobcat Goldthwait's Bigfoot-themed WILLOW CREEK, one of the better recent found-footage offerings, it can't overcome a deadly first half with some of the most irritating characters the subgenre has ever offered. Most of the dialogue is along the lines of "What the fuck was that, bro?" or "What the fuck's goin' on here, bro," and "You killed my friend, motherfucker!" as one fires a shotgun blindly in the dark, which of course attracts the creature and promptly gets the trigger-happy bro's head bashed in. To his credit, Sanchez does get some serious momentum going as the five get whittled down to three and they try to venture through the woods to find the highway. Naturally, one's surefire shortcut results in them getting lost, but Sanchez knows how to do this right. He gets that climactic BLAIR WITCH vibe going in the last 20 or so minutes with the sprinting creature's relentless pursuit (one sudden appearance through a cloud of fireworks smoke is a good example of a jump scare done right), but it's still not enough to counter the damage caused by such a shitty script, penned by Sanchez's usual post-BLAIR WITCH writing partner Jamie Nash. It's maybe worth a Netflix stream on a really slow night if you're still a found-footage completist, but in returning to the woods to recapture some of his dwindling mojo, Sanchez remains doomed to spend the rest of his career in BLAIR WITCH's shadow. (R, 81 mins)

(US - 2014)

Anything would be a step up for French horror director Alexandre Aja after his smug and miserable fakesploitation 2010 remake of PIRANHA, and while it's not always successful, HORNS is certainly ambitious. Based on Joe Hill's novel, the very busy HORNS crams a lot of story into two hours and even though plot points are rushed through or not fully fleshed-out, it still feels overlong, like it either needed to lose 20 or so minutes or just be extended to a cable miniseries. Letting the story breathe might've done a lot to smooth over the rough tonal shifts as HORNS careens from love story to murder mystery to dark satire to CGI-heavy supernatural horror in ways that probably read a lot better on the page than they play on the screen. That doesn't mean there aren't pleasures to be had in HORNS, which has its moments before collapsing into contrivance, convenience, and stupidity in its third act. Radio station DJ Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) is besieged by media and outraged citizens of his small town when his longtime girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple) is found brutally murdered in the woods. Nobody believes he's innocent except his older brother Terry (Joe Anderson) and his lawyer best friend Lee (Max Minghella). The town thinks Ig is the devil, and it doesn't help his case that he sprouts a pair of horns out of his forehead overnight--horns that not everyone can see, but when they do, they feel compelled to confess their deepest secrets and their most bluntly honest thoughts. It's this portion of HORNS that works best, as Aja wrings much dark humor out of a mom openly admitting she hates her screaming child, a bartender crowing about his dogfighting ring and how his dream is to torch his bar and collect the insurance money, or Ig being hassled by two bullying cops who casually admit they'd rather be sucking each other off. It also generates some well-handled drama as Ig's mom (Kathleen Quinlan) and dad (James Remar) admit they think he's guilty and would rather never see him again ("I don't want you to be my son anymore, sweetheart," his mother explains). People of genuinely good character--like Lee and Merrin's grieving father (David Morse)--can't see the horns, and over time, Ig learns to use their power to his advantage, with a highlight being one hilarious sequence where he's followed by a small army of reporters and uses the horns to convince them to beat the living shit out of one another, with the winner getting an exclusive, tell-all interview (there's a great callback to this scene much later, as reporters are all outside a courthouse with cuts, bruises, and bandages). Flashbacks to their childhood fill in the blanks of how Ig and Merrin got together, the effect it had on Ig's relationship with his buddies, and what exactly led to his being accused of her murder.

Admirably gory and going all-in with hard-R glee, HORNS works best in its periodic black comedy phases. No matter how silly a film's premise, it can always work if it follows its own rules, which HORNS doesn't always do. The more it goes on, the more uneven it becomes, as Aja and screenwriter Keith Bunin (the HBO series IN TREATMENT) juggle elements of DONNIE DARKO, TWIN PEAKS, HELLBOY, GHOST RIDER, early Peter Jackson splatter comedy and, in a possible shout-out to Joe Hill's dad Stephen King, STAND BY ME and THE DEAD ZONE until they just drop the balls and let them scatter. It's entirely too easy to figure out who the real killer is and once it's revealed, there's still over 40 minutes to go as Aja embarks on a Peter Jackson climax spree and can't seem to decide where the movie should end. Even with all the plot, it still loses track of several major characters (Kelli Garner as the no-self-esteem, self-described "town whore" who's carried a torch for Ig since childhood, seems especially shortchanged), and Merrin's dad's eventual sympathizing with Ig feels rushed and unconvincing. It's definitely worth seeing once, as Radcliffe is quite good and the film is really firing on all cylinders when it's being funny--Heather Graham has a great bit as a diner waitress giving false info about Ig to the police in the hopes that it makes her the star witness at the eventual trial ("I'm gonna release my own sex tape and have a reality show and be on the cover of Us Magazine!" she squeals with wild-eyed glee)--but the more it goes on, the more of a unwieldy, undisciplined mess it becomes. (R, 120 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)