Tuesday, April 28, 2015

In Theaters: EX MACHINA (2015)

(UK - 2015)

Written and directed by Alex Garland. Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, Corey Johnson. (R, 107 mins)

It's easy to make surface comparisons to Caradog James' 2014 sci-fi film THE MACHINE, but Alex Garland's EX MACHINA, while sharing some similar ideas and, unfortunately, a focus on female android protagonists named Ava, goes in an otherwise completely different direction. A twisty, often philosophical mindbender, EX MACHINA marks the directing debut of novelist Garland, who's been a frequent Danny Boyle collaborator (he scripted 28 DAYS LATER and SUNSHINE, and his novel The Beach was adapted into a 2000 Boyle film by TRAINSPOTTING screenwriter John Hodge), and also wrote Pete Travis' instant cult classic DREDD (2012). Garland lays on the Kubrick worship a little thick, especially in the back end of the film, but he does it right, and the film's cold, clinical look, its long hallways, its recurring use of mirrors, and its limited number of protagonists in an isolated, claustrophobic location make it particularly indebted to THE SHINING. In conjunction with a throbbing electronic score co-written by Portishead's Geoff Barrow and the cinematography of Rob Hardy, EX MACHINA is one of those hypnotic films whose visual intoxication works on you quickly, but unlike many such instances, it's got the story to back up the style.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a code writer for Bluebook, a Google-meets-Facebook-like behemoth and the internet's most utilized search engine. He wins a company-wide contest to spend a week with reclusive CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a billionaire several times over who lives in a distant, subterranean fortress that doubles as his secret research facility. Nervous Caleb wonders why he's there and why he has to sign a confidentiality agreement, but Nathan soon reveals that he wants Nathan to administer the Turing Test--whether an artificial intelligence can engage in human behavior and make human decisions on its own--on an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). After several interview and observational sessions with Ava, an odd mutual attraction forms, and during periodic power blackouts that Nathan claims were caused by faulty installation but now has too much top-secret research to allow the electricians back in--during which time Nathan loses security camera access to what Ava and Caleb are talking about--Ava secretly warns Caleb "Do not trust Nathan. You can't believe anything he tells you."

Roles eventually shift in unpredictable ways, but as heavy-drinking Nathan becomes more erratic, Caleb grows more paranoid about his host's intentions, and Ava begins to exhibit more signs of intelligence and independent thought, the film definitely starts to resemble THE SHINING, with evil Nathan subbing in for Jack Torrance and Caleb and Ava functioning as Wendy and Danny. There's a fourth major character in Nathan's mute Japanese servant and sexual outlet Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who doesn't understand English but clearly has secrets of her own and knows much more than she lets on. But little is at it seems in EX MACHINA, which doles out its plot twists in a restrained, organic fashion rather than ridiculous reveals that negate what's happened prior. Garland engages in some clever misdirection designed to make you think you've got things figured out in a "maybe Caleb isn't the one conducting the Turing Test" sort-of way, but ultimately, he isn't interested in going down that road. It's a near-flawless fusion of intelligent, hard sci-fi and rich, vivid atmosphere that just gets better and more intense as it goes along, though if it ended one scene before it did, it would've been flirting with perfection. All four stars are superb, with Isaac turning in another dynamic performance right on the heels of A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. Shot at the Juvet Landscape Hotel in Valldalen, Norway, with the long hallway shots done at Pinewood Studios in London, EX MACHINA is a remarkable film, intelligently written, visually stunning, and with top-notch android CGI on Vikander, proving that CGI can look good, and doing so on just a $16 million budget.  It belongs on that short list of almost trance-inducing modern sci-fi cult classics like BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, UNDER THE SKIN, and the little-seen THE MACHINE, which also deals with AI and a female android named Ava but in an entirely different, post-apocalyptic setting and, it should be noted, lacking an amazing Isaac-Mizuno dance scene.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: The Stranger Collection: A STRANGER IN TOWN (1967); THE STRANGER RETURNS (1968); and THE SILENT STRANGER (1975)

While Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns were game-changers in Europe and made Clint Eastwood a star, the US releases of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965), and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966) were delayed for a few years (the first two hit US theaters in 1967 and UGLY was released in 1968). By that time, the spaghetti western explosion in Italy was completely out of control, with literally hundreds being made in the years following, with every handsome Italian and ambitious young (or coasting old) American actor heading to Europe to achieve the kind of fame that Eastwood was enjoying. By 1967, Eastwood was the biggest star in Europe but back home, he was still best known for his stint on TV's RAWHIDE as few were even aware of the massive popularity of the films he'd been making in Europe. That all changed when FISTFUL finally opened in America, marking the belated arrival of a phenomenon that had already been raging in Italy and the rest of Europe for three years. American westerns were now trying to emulate the Italian ones--even Eastwood's debut as a Hollywood headliner, 1968's HANG 'EM HIGH, is heavily indebted to the spaghetti westerns--in a rare reversal of the trend pattern that usually saw Italian genre offerings blatantly copycatting what was big in America (like the later Italian EXORCIST ripoffs and post-DAWN OF THE DEAD zombie movies). The spaghetti craze reached its artistic apex with Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969), an elegiac examination of the American west that drew the iconic Henry Fonda into Italian westerns, completely shattering his Tom Joad image by playing one of the most evil figures in all of cinema, one who's introduced shooting a small child point blank in the face.

The list of American actors hopping on the spaghetti western bandwagon is endless--even a young Burt Reynolds got into the act with Sergio Corbucci's 1966 film NAVAJO JOE, and William Shatner starred in the Spanish WHITE COMANCHE (1968) during a break between the first and second seasons of STAR TREK. One such actor was Tony Anthony, a New Jersey native whose background was covered at length on this blog in a piece on his 1983 film TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS. Born in 1937, Anthony had made a few independent productions and by 1967, through his producing partner Saul Swimmer, he had fallen in with Abkco Records head Allen Klein, the Rolling Stones manager who would also end up overseeing the Beatles after the death of their manager, Brian Epstein. It could be argued that Anthony's career is a classic case of smart networking, knowing the right people, and plain old dumb luck, as over the next few years, he and Swimmer would become tangential members of the Beatles' inner circle, with Swimmer directing George Harrison's CONCERT FOR BANGLADESH and Anthony working on a couple of projects with Ringo Starr. With Klein's help and a distribution deal with MGM, Anthony starred in three STRANGER films, the first two of which became surprise hits in the US in 1968. There were four STRANGER entries altogether, but MGM only released the first three, and as a result, Warner Archive's just-released STRANGER COLLECTION only includes those initial three, all directed by Luigi Vanzi under the Americanized pseudonym "Vance Lewis." Generally well-regarded by fans in their day, the films have fallen into obscurity over time, with Anthony better known today for his hand in the early '80s 3-D revival, but they're available once again, in decent if not spectacular widescreen transfers. And one of the films in particular, is a cult classic that's waited decades for rediscovery.

(Italy - 1967; US release 1968)

Anthony's Stranger arrives in a Mexican ghost town and watches psychotic bandit Aguilar (Frank Wolff) mow down a group of military officers. The Stranger concocts a gold heist with Aguilar with the full intention of ripping him off and turning him and his gang in for the reward money, but numerous double crosses ensue, with both the Stranger and Aguilar alternately getting the upper hand. This first entry in the series looks and sounds like any other spaghetti western of the era, but like most, it lacks artistic majesty of Leone and isn't quite up to the level of Corbucci,  the other standard-bearer of the genre. A STRANGER IN TOWN is very laboriously-paced, with long stretches where not much happens, and the bland story lacks the kind of imagination and character of Leone's films and doesn't attempt any of the political subtext that was creeping into spaghetti westerns around this time, in films like Damiano Damiani's A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1968). In its defense though, it finally gets cooking in the last 15 minutes when the Stranger starts killing Aguilar's gang one by one, usually by sneaking up on them and blasting a shotgun into their face at point-blank range. The climax is so good that it almost makes you forgive the middling mediocrity of the first 70 minutes. Anthony is much more appealing here than he was in his comparitively bland '80s action star incarnation, and American expat actor Wolff, a fixture in Italian cinema and best known for his role as the doomed Brett McBain in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, is appropriately dastardly as the ruthless Aguilar. Between Anthony's looks, Wolff's curly hair, and Benedetto Ghiglia's very Morricone-esque score, if 1968 moviegoers left their glasses at home, they might be tricked into believing that it was Clint Eastwood and Gian Maria Volonte up on the screen. The killer finale gives it a nice boost, but A STRANGER IN TOWN is really only for spaghetti western completists and Tony Anthony stalkers. (R, 86 mins)

(Italy - 1968)

Released in Italy in January 1967, A STRANGER IN TOWN proved to be a surprise hit for MGM when they released it in the US in April 1968 to appreciative American audiences for whom the spaghetti western was still relatively new. By that time, Anthony and Vanzi had already made the sequel THE STRANGER RETURNS, which appeared in US theaters just four months after A STRANGER IN TOWN. The sequel is an improvement over the first film, though it also suffers from a flabby midsection that could use some serious tightening. But it opens and closes strong, and Anthony imbues the Stranger with even more quirky characterization, including a Roy Rogers & Trigger-type relationship with his faithful horse Pussy (yes, Pussy), and a sometimes whimsical attitude that almost looks like a prototype for the slapstick antics of Terence Hill in the TRINITY films and MY NAME IS NOBODY. Without ever crossing the line into outright comedy, Anthony plays the Stranger here in a decidedly offbeat way--he's not quite as sharp as the Man with No Name, and often gets himself into situations where he's unquestionably the intellectually inferior party. But there's a very amusing sequence early on that Vanzi lets play out to a comically absurd length, where two bad guys force the Stranger to dig his own grave at gunpoint, and he keeps digging and digging until the grave is twice the size it should be. One of the guys asks if the hole is too big, to which the Stranger smiles and says "No," as the two villains remain blissfully and cluelessly unaware that they're going to be sharing the double-wide grave in matter of moments. Here, the Stranger runs afoul of a gang led by El Plein (Dan Vadis), who kills a postal inspector who was their inside man on the heist of a gold shipment being transported by stagecoach. The Stranger ends up impersonating the postal inspector, again with a half-assed plan to keep the gold for himself while turning El Plein and his men in for the reward money.

It's almost the same plot as A STRANGER IN TOWN, and like that film, there's a lot of walking around and noisy mayhem that never leads anywhere until late in the film when, once again, the Stranger is pursued by an outlaw gang and does the "sneak up on them and blow them away with a shotgun" act, which is just as illogically silly and crowd-pleasing here as it was in the first film. The occasionally light tone doesn't always gel with the film's hard-hitting violence, still worth an R rating today, with Vadis' El Plein being as nihilistic a bad guy that's been in any spaghetti western. In addition to Pussy the Horse, the Stranger gets another sidekick in the form of a drunken, crazed old street preacher (Marco Guglielmi) looking for one last shot at redemption. There's also one returning character, Army Lt. George Stafford, played here by an uncredited Ettore Manni (Lars Bloch played Stafford in the first film), though he and the Stranger don't seem to know each other like they did in A STRANGER IN TOWN. THE STRANGER RETURNS suffers from a meandering middle that drags badly, but Anthony conceived the story and he was clearly attempting to take things in a different direction and make the Stranger not so much the Man with No Name/Django clone that we saw in the first film. (R, 95 mins)

(US - 1975)

After the success of A STRANGER IN TOWN and THE STRANGER RETURNS, MGM decided they wanted a STRANGER trilogy and went all in on THE SILENT STRANGER. This third film in the series took Anthony's Stranger (and Pussy the Horse) to Japan to deliver an ancient scroll to its rightful owner. Of course, being that this is a western, the Stranger ends up in the middle of a longstanding battle between two rival samurai clans--exacerbated by the meddling of an Ugly American (Lloyd Battista, a Cleveland native who would become an integral part of Anthony's stock company starting with this film), who introduces modern gatling gun technology to the samurai--in what's essentially the earliest example of an "east-meets-western" offshoot that finds the way of the samurai clashing with the American west (and naturally, the Stranger sneaks up on various samurai to blow them away with a bizarre front-loading sawed-off cannon). This would be popularized by the likes of Terence Young's RED SUN (1971), which paired outlaw Charles Bronson with samurai Toshiro Mifune, and later, during the post ENTER THE DRAGON craze, when gunslinger Lee Van Cleef teamed up with kung-fu warrior Lo Lieh in Antonio Margheriti's THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER (1976). In addition, samurai and elements of Japanese culture made it into other pre-RED SUN spaghetti westerns like Tonino Cervi's TODAY IT'S ME...TOMORROW YOU! (1968), co-written by Dario Argento, which had Brett Halsey and Bud Spencer assembling a posse to avenge the rape and murder of Halsey's wife by a sadistic Japanese outlaw chillingly played by Akira Kurosawa regular Tatsuya Nakadai, and Don Taylor's THE FIVE MAN ARMY (1970), which counted samurai Tetsuro Tamba among its titular band of heroes.

However, THE SILENT STRANGER is the forgotten film of the east-meets-western fad, though it was the earliest to actually take its hero east as opposed to bringing the east to the west. MGM was so pleased with the success of the first two films that they fully backed THE SILENT STRANGER with a big Hollywood budget and even let Anthony, who was taking a more creative role in the series and took over as producer with Klein, keep his same core group of partners, including director Vanzi (from Vanzi and Battista here to Ferdinando Baldi and Gene Quintano later, Anthony preferred to work with a close-knit circle of collaborators). Filmed on location in Japan, THE SILENT STRANGER boasts production values that are leaps and bounds ahead of the same old Almeria, Spain sets seen in the first two films and every other spaghetti western. The battle scenes between the samurai clans are staged with the enthusiastic fervor of any Kurosawa throwdown. THE SILENT STRANGER was a troubled production that used its problems to its advantage: filmed in the fall of 1968, the shoot was hit by no less than 13 typhoons in a horrifically awful weather season, but they worked it into the story and whole sequences play out in a jawdroppingly torrential downpour very reminiscent of the final battle in Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). And when it's not raining in sheets, the whole area is muddy from the rain that just fell, which adds significant atmosphere and gritty, harsh realism to the proceedings. The cast and crew are battling the elements and as a result, THE SILENT STRANGER almost comes off like it's Tony Anthony's FITZCARRALDO.

So why then, was the film not released until 1975?  A management shake-up at MGM ended with the ousting of studio president Robert O'Brien--a strong supporter of Anthony and a big fan of the STRANGER films--and Klein aggressively taking his side, which didn't endear him or Anthony to the new people in charge. They responded to Klein's support of O'Brien by abandoning THE SILENT STRANGER and shelving it for seven years. It's a tragedy of sorts, because THE SILENT STRANGER is so good, and coupled with the momentum generated by the first two films--which aren't nearly as good-- it likely could've led to Anthony being a much bigger mainstream star than he ever would be, and the film might be cited as a great example of a Hollywood spaghetti western. Instead, by the time it opened in the summer of 1975, with new, MGM-ordered voiceover narration recorded under duress by Anthony that makes Harrison Ford's in BLADE RUNNER sound enthusiastic, the Stranger's time had passed. The buzz around Anthony had already died and the film was greeted with shrugs and dismissed as a RED SUN ripoff, when in fact, it was shot three years before that film.

After the shelving of THE SILENT STRANGER, Anthony moved on to BLINDMAN (1971), his first film with Italian director Ferdinando Baldi, who would eventually become his go-to director for his brief early '80 renaissance with COMIN' AT YA! and TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS. BLINDMAN, thanks largely to the presence of Ringo Starr as one of the villains (Battista was the other), would become Anthony's biggest hit in America up to that time, but again, he marched to the beat of his own drum and made a seemingly deliberate effort to avoid the mainstream machine. His next film was the departure gangster drama 1931: ONCE UPON A TIME IN NEW YORK (1972), which reteamed him with Vanzi. In 1975, he decided to revisit The Stranger, this time with Baldi directing, as Anthony and his co-writer, co-star, and buddy Battista took the offbeat and increasingly surreal touches of the Stranger films and steered them straight into all-out insanity with GET MEAN, which pitted the Stranger against Vikings, barbarians, and the supernatural in what might be a dry run for TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS.  After the big Hollywood-backed SILENT STRANGER, GET MEAN was released in the US on the grindhouse circuit in 1976 by the small-time Cee Note Films. Never a prolific actor and not one to take hired gun jobs, Anthony stayed offscreen for five years until he returned with sleeper hit COMIN' AT YA!, and it's the early '80s return of 3-D for which Anthony is best known. But with these STRANGER films returning from obscurity courtesy of Warner Archive, and Blue Underground set to release GET MEAN on Blu-ray later this year, 2015 seems to be the year of the Tony Anthony renaissance, a time to re-examine a genuinely uncompromising and strangely endearing maverick who never seemed very interested in playing Hollywood games. If nothing else, it's time to discover the minor masterpiece that is THE SILENT STRANGER. (PG, 90 mins)

Thursday, April 23, 2015


(US - 2015)

Writer/director David O. Russell has been on a hot streak with THE FIGHTER (2010), SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), and that's probably what finally got his long-shelved NAILED released as ACCIDENTAL LOVE. NAILED was shot in South Carolina during the summer of 2008 and co-written by, among others, Russell and former Vice Presidential daughter Kristin Gore, based on Gore's 2004 novel Sammy's Hill.  The film's primary backer was the financially-strapped Capitol Films, who ran out of money on this and several other films shot at the same time, including Taylor Hackford's LOVE RANCH (ultimately released in 2010) and AMERICAN HISTORY X director Tony Kaye's BLACK WATER TRANSIT (still unreleased). NAILED shut down production on at least eight occasions over that tumultuous summer, despite an initial budget alleged to be in the area of $25 million. One shutdown was caused when the crew revolted over not being paid, and another occurred when stars Jessica Biel and Jake Gyllenhaal followed suit and walked off the set over similar money issues. Production was halted permanently by the end of 2008 with all of the post-work still needing to be done and at least one major scene--one that all parties agreed was completely essential--still unfilmed. By early 2010, Russell ran out of patience and washed his hands of it. He publicly distanced himself from NAILED, moved on to THE FIGHTER, and never looked back. In 2013, co-producer Kia Jam corralled enough funds to cobble as much of the missing scene together as possible and complete post-production, but Russell wanted no part of it. Now carrying the generic title ACCIDENTAL LOVE, the film was acquired by Millennium and given a VOD dumping in February 2015, with the non-existent "Stephen Greene" shouldering the blame after Russell successfully petitioned to have his name removed as both director and co-writer.

It's hardly praise, but as far as abandoned clusterfucks go, ACCIDENTAL LOVE isn't as bad as Alec Baldwin's doomed directorial debut THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, shot in 2001 and ultimately aired on Starz in 2007 as SHORTCUT TO HAPPINESS, with director credit going to one "Harry Kirkpatrick." Biel stars as Alice, a small-town Indiana roller-skating carhop who gets shot in the head with a nail gun at a restaurant just after her cop boyfriend Scott (James Marsden) proposes. Uninsured Alice can't afford the brain surgery required to extract the nail, and it's deemed a pre-existing condition when she tries to get on Scott's insurance. Concerned about future medical issues, Scott bails and Alice goes to Washington to meet with her district representative, freshman Congressional newbie Howard Birdwell (a mannered, bug-eyed Gyllenhaal), to bring attention to her plight and plead the case for health care reform. Birdwell is a nebbishy type with great political ambition but he's kept under the thumb of lobbyists and powerful Rep. Pam Hendrickson (Catherine Keener, cast radically against type as a cold, brittle bitch-on-wheels), a former astronaut whose primary goal is getting the government to fund a military base on the moon. ACCIDENTAL LOVE vacillates between screwball comedy, with Alice's condition frequently causing spontaneous outbursts, speaking in a foreign language, or demonstrating insatiable lust, and political satire, which comes across as forced and rather toothless. It shouldn't come as a surprise or edgy insight to see that politicians are frequently corrupt, self-serving, and beholden to special interest groups.

"Stephen Greene"'s ACCIDENTAL LOVE obviously isn't as polished as David O. Russell's NAILED would've been, but what's here is almost all Russell's work, and it wouldn't have been his finest hour any way you cut it. There's some amusing bits here and there, and Kurt Fuller does a nice job as a priest with Viagra issues, but the more it goes on, the more shrill and heavy-handed it becomes. It's the kind of movie that ends with the whole cast gathered for a feelgood dance number, with the added bonus of closing credits bloopers, as if anyone had a good time making this thing (given the chaotic production, wouldn't footage of the Capitol money men telling a pissed-off crew they aren't being paid make for a much more entertaining blooper reel?). Other familiar faces lost in the quagmire include James Brolin as the Speaker of the House (a last-minute replacement when James Caan quit over "script disagreements," probably the film's liberal bent being at odds with the far-right Caan's politics); Tracy Morgan as Alice's friend Keyshawn, but he's essentially playing himself; Paul Reubens as Hendrickson's aide; Bill Hader as the snide ER doc who shuts down the surgery and grabs a burger when he's told Alice is uninsured; Beverly D'Angelo as Alice's mom (D'Angelo, in what must've been a frustrating summer in 2008, was also in BLACK WATER TRANSIT); and Kirstie Alley (her name misspelled "Kirstey" in the closing credits) as Alice's aunt. Perhaps NAILED could've been a sharp and prescient satire on pre-Obamacare politics, but ACCIDENTAL LOVE is a dated misfire best forgotten by all concerned. (PG-13, 101 mins)

(US - 2015)

The idea of Salma Hayek spending an entire movie slicing, dicing, and blowing away a crew of yakuza goons in an apartment building sounds a lot more fun than EVERLY turns out to be. A reverse RAID of sorts, EVERLY has Hayek as the title heroine, a prostitute holed up on the sixth floor of a yakuza-owned slum where other women are pimped out to wealthy Japanese clients and other assorted perverts and sadists. Everly has secretly been working with the cops to bring down crime boss Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe), who owns the building and the women who live in it. Taiko knows what she's been up to and has a price on Everly's head as other prostitutes, Taiko flunkies, and her neighbors try to get into Everly's apartment and take her out while she frantically tries to reunite with her estranged mother (Laura Cepeda) and young daughter (Aisha Ayamah). Director Joe Lynch (CHILLERAMA, KNIGHTS OF BADASSDOM) manages to pull off a couple of fairly well-executed sequences involving long tracking shots and uninterrupted takes, but for the most part, EVERLY just never finds its groove and feels significantly longer than 90 minutes. When it was screened at the 2014 Fantastic Fest in Austin, it got an overwhelmingly positive reaction from participation medal-awarding scenesters who no doubt have Lynch among their Facebook friends, but what's here is in many ways reminiscent of Alexandre Aja's atrocious PIRANHA remake, another lazy grindhouse poseur of an exploitation flick that thinks showing up and making the references are good enough. There's a lot of Takashi Miike in the over-the-top bloodshed and a bit of Tarantino, not just in the adoring shots of Hayek's feet as Everly constantly goes from high heels to barefoot, but also in one Japanese john (Akie Kotabe) spending his entire screen time bleeding out from a gunshot wound on Everly's couch, just like Tim Roth in RESERVOIR DOGS right down to his wardrobe. As she demonstrated 20 years ago in DESPERADO (has it been that long?), Hayek, still stunning at 48, is more than game as a kick-ass action heroine, but EVERLY just isn't up to her level. It's an endless fanboy circle jerk that exists in an insulated, prefab cult movie echo chamber. Hayek could use a hit, and in better hands, EVERLY could've easily been her JOHN WICK. Instead, it's her HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN and nobody needs that. (R, 92 mins)

(US - 2014)

There's a strong early-Jim Jarmusch vibe to this hypnotic vampire film from writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour, perhaps the most inventive of its kind since LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. Co-produced by Elijah Wood and shot in black & white in and around Bakersfield, CA, GIRL is set in the fictional Bad City, Iran and is in Persian with English subtitles. Amirpour and cinematographer Lyle Vincent do a tremendously effective job with the widescreen framing and using things like smokestacks and pumpjacks to present Bad City as a depressing industrial wasteland where drugs and crime rule above all. Nice-guy Arash (Arash Marandi) is forced into settling the debts of his junkie father Hossein (Marshall Manesh) to ruthless drug lord Saeed (Dominic Rains) when Saeed decides to take the only thing that matters to Arash--his pristine '57 T-Bird--as repayment. Saeed is soon slaughtered by a strange, silent woman (Sheila Vand) who turns out to be a vampire. The remarkably expressive, sad-eyed Vand is one of the most memorable vampires to hit the screens in some time. Portraying The Girl as one those melancholy sorts doomed to a life of loneliness, Vand doesn't even utter a word until nearly 40 minutes in, and almost like a holdover from the silent era, lets her face do much of her acting. When she tells prostitute Atti (Mozhan Marno) "You're sad, you don't remember wanting, and nothing ever changes," she's really talking about herself. GIRL is largely a triumph of style over substance, but there are numerous parallels and dualities at work throughout, like flip sides of a coin--between The Girl and Atti, Arash and Saeed, and The Girl and Hossein, perhaps the biggest monster of all when he shoots Atti full of heroin and prompts The Girl to take on the role of avenger. The Girl longs for love and humanity--watch the small, subtle smile she allows herself in really great scene the first time she's alone with Arash and plays White Lies' "Death"--in a world where empathy and feeling simply have no place with the likes of Saeed and Hossein around. A fascinating thematic companion piece to Jarmusch's recent ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT has its tedious bits that scream "art house pretension," especially with a long scene of Reza Sixo Safai's Rockabilly dancing with a balloon, but overall, it's a unique and visually arresting addition to vampire cinema. (Unrated, 101 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Ripoffs of the Wasteland: 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS (1983)

(Italy - 1983; US release 1984)

Directed by Kevin Mancuso (Aristide Massaccesi and Luigi Montefiori). Written by Alex Carver (Luigi Montefiori). Cast: Harrison Muller, Al Cliver, Daniel Stephen, Peter Hooten, Al Yamanouchi, Sabrina Siani, Donald O'Brien, Geretta Geretta. (Unrated, 86 mins)

The credits of the Italian post-nuke ROAD WARRIOR ripoff 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS take great pains to make the movie look American. All of the technical credits are pseudonymous, starting with score composer Carlo Maria Cordio going by "Francis Taylor" and production manager Donatella Donati as "Helen Handris," all the way to the end with assistant director and future Italian horror auteur Michele Soavi (CEMETERY MAN) hiding incognito as "Mike Soft." But all of that effort is for naught early on with the repeated sightings of signs reading "DANGER: EXSPLOSIVE," the tell-tale, "Do Not Entry" sign from THE BEYOND that, despite the Herculean efforts of everyone involved, the ruse collapses thanks to the Italian prop guy. And if you watch enough of these, you'll start recognizing not only the same actors being dubbed by the same voices, but also the same Italian locations, as 2020's action mostly has the actors running around the same abandoned factory and the stunt drivers careening around the same gravel pit and dirt mounds that can be spotted in most entries in the subgenre.

Set in the ruins of Texas several years after "the Atomic Wars," 2020 focuses on the Rangers, a group of mercenaries led by Nisus (Al Cliver). The Rangers battle the jack-booted forces of The Black One (Donald O'Brien), a nefarious dictator-type who's trying to conquer the community so he can have access to a refurbished refinery that now produces clean drinking water. After an early Rangers expedition results in Nisus banishing Catch Dog (Daniel Stephen) after he tries to rape single mother Maida (Sabrina Siani, in one of her few appearances outside of an Italian CONAN ripoff), Catch Dog immediately switches sides and joins the Black One, using his knowledge of the Rangers to get back at his former cohorts. When Nisus (the character is listed as "Nisus" in the credits, but it sounds like the dubbing team is saying "Nexus," which sounds cooler) is killed in a raid by the Black One's goons and Maida is sold into prostitution, the rest of the Rangers--Halakron (Peter Hooten), Jab (Harrison Muller), and Red Wolfe (Al Yamanouchi)--rescue her and avenge Nisus by taking on The Black One and Catch Dog. Filled with the usual goofy-looking cars, mutant goons, wild stunt work, gun battles, "exsplosions," completely inconsistent beard continuity for Hooten and Muller, over-the-top violence, and a pretty impressive body count, 2020 is total guilty pleasure stupidity, right from the start with the Rangers killing about 50 bad guys before the opening credits are even finished. There's no shortage of bloodshed and the near-constant action keeps things moving briskly, but 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS doesn't really try to take advantage of its setting. Other than a hand-painted "Texas" sign, and Halakron challenging Maida's cowboy pimp to some DEER HUNTER-inspired Russian Roulette in an old west saloon, no effort is made to create the illusion of "Texas," unlike the many post-nukes set in NYC, like 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK, where even a half-melted model of the Statue of Liberty went a little way toward creating some NYC atmosphere. 2020 does an OK job of being a post-nuke western of sorts--an idea more successfully explored in Giuliano Carnimeo's EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000--but it mainly resorts to cliches and cringe-worthy stereotypes that would've been antiquated in the 1940s, like the late-film introduction of some constantly war-whooping "Indians" who stop just short of saying "How!" and "We smokum peace pipe" when they reach a tentative truce with Halakron and the Rangers and join their fight against The Black One.

Aristide Massaccesi (1936-1999),
 aka "Joe D'Amato," "David Hills,"
and at least 50 other pseudonyms
Released in the US in 1984 by short-lived grindhouse outfit Megastar Films and shown on TNT's MONSTERVISION with Joe Bob Briggs in 1999, 2020 was directed mostly by Aristide Massaccesi, who used countless pseudonyms over the course of his career, the most frequent and familiar being "Joe D'Amato." Massaccesi dabbled in everything, starting as a camera operator on Mario Bava's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961) before graduating to cinematographer by the late '60s and moving on to directing in the '70s, with everything from Laura Gemser's BLACK EMANUELLE films to the gore classics BEYOND THE DARKNESS, aka BURIED ALIVE (1979), and ANTROPOPHAGUS, aka THE GRIM REAPER (1981). As "David Hills," he directed several ATOR films during the post-CONAN craze, and under the name "Steven Benson," he would gather most of the cast and crew of 2020 for the same year's Italian post-nuke favorite ENDGAME. The workaholic Massaccesi also used the D'Amato name on several old-school Skinemax favorites like ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS (1986) and TOP MODEL (1988). By the early 1990s, Massaccesi was working exclusively in hardcore porn, where he would finish his career prior to his death in 1999. 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS' direction is credited to "Kevin Mancuso," which is actually a shared pseudonym for Massaccesi and familiar Italian cult actor Luigi Montefiori, better known as "George Eastman."

Luigi Montefiori, aka "George Eastman"
Montefiori first gained notice as The Minotaur in 1969's FELLINI SATYRICON, and, as "Eastman," would later co-star in the Charlton Heston version of THE CALL OF THE WILD (1972) and with Kirk Douglas in SCALAWAG (1973), as well as one of the kidnappers in Mario Bava's RABID DOGS (1974), but that's about as classy as his resume got. As "George Eastman," he was a regular fixture in Eurotrash cinema, usually appearing in "Joe D'Amato" films. He starred as the cannibalistic killer in THE GRIM REAPER and in the D'Amato horror/porno crossovers EROTIC NIGHTS OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) and PORNO HOLOCAUST (1981), the latter known more for its close-ups of porn actor Mark Shanon's genital warts than anything else. "Eastman" is perhaps best known by post-nuke fans for his performance as Big Ape in 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983). In addition to acting under his "Eastman" moniker, Montefiori scripted numerous films, either under his own name (1976's KEOMA) or under a variety of pseudonyms (as "Lew Cooper," he co-wrote Michele Soavi's 1987 breakthrough STAGEFRIGHT). Montefiori scripted 2020 under the name "Alex Carver," and wanted to try his hand at directing some of it as well. It's been rumored that Massaccesi handled the action scenes, which would mean he directed most of the movie. Considering they remained friends and worked together several more times over the years, it's doubtful that this was a situation where Massaccesi stepped in and took over for Montefiori. More likely, Montefiori wanted to get his feet wet behind the camera and Massaccesi delegated some scenes to the neophyte director. Cult actress Geretta Geretta--aka Rosemary in Lamberto Bava's DEMONS--had a small role in 2020 and when asked who directed what, she responded "All I remember is that the director was tall and handsome," which would probably indicate that the few scenes she was in were handled by the the 6' 9" Montefiori. If Montefiori wanted to branch out into filmmaking, it didn't really pan out after partnering with Massaccesi on 2020: to date, he's only stepped behind the camera on one other occasion, the Norfolk, VA-shot horror film METAMORPHOSIS (1990)--memorable to back-in-the-day video store denizens for having one of those great, gimmicky Imperial Entertainment VHS boxes--where he's credited as "G.L. Eastman." Now 72, Montefiori hasn't acted since 2004 and has spent recent years writing for Italian TV.

Despite being fourth billed in the credits, Hooten is the real star of 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS, at least after second-billed Lucio Fulci regular Cliver gets Janet Leigh'd out of the film by the 30-minute mark. A native of Florida, Hooten worked steadily on TV in the early '70s with guest appearances on shows like THE MOD SQUAD, MANNIX, and THE WALTONS. Over 1977 and 1978, with a co-starring role in ORCA and the title role in the CBS/Marvel pilot movie DR. STRANGE, it appeared as if he was about to break out, but DR. STRANGE wasn't picked up for series and Hooten quickly became a Next Big Thing instantly forgotten. By the end of 1978, he made his way to Europe where he would work almost exclusively starting with Enzo G. Castellari's THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS. Already showing signs of disinterest in the projects he was being offered--his only Hollywood gig during this time came in a supporting role as one of Ken Wahl's commando unit in James Glickenhaus' 1982 actioner THE SOLDIER, and he didn't even stick around to dub himself for 2020, leaving it to voice actor Frank von Kuegelgen--Hooten only worked sporadically as the '80s went on. He eventually retired from acting in 1990 after starring in TROLL 2 director Claudio Fragasso's completely obscure NIGHT KILLER. It was shortly after shooting 2020 that the openly gay Hooten met Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill, and the two were together until Merrill's 1995 death from AIDS. Now 64, Hooten currently lives in Florida and came out of retirement in 2013 to appear in a pair of extremely low-budget Sarasota-shot regional horror movies, HOUSE OF BLOOD and SOULEATER.

2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS is a fun film, but between young Montefiori working with Fellini and Hooten almost becoming a Marvel superhero, it's also a film that those with once-promising careers settled for when they just needed the work. French-born Irish actor O'Brien was no exception. He got his start with supporting roles in big-budget films like John Frankenheimer's THE TRAIN (1964) and GRAND PRIX (1966) before finding his niche as villains and miscreants in a slew of Italian spaghetti westerns throughout the 1970s, going back to Sergio Sollima's RUN MAN RUN (1967), all the way up to era-enders such as Lucio Fulci's FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE (1975), Enzo G. Castellari's KEOMA (1976), and Sergio Martino's MANNAJA (1977). He also played a Nazi general in THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS and an exorcist in Massaccesi's sleazy nunsploitation classic IMAGES IN A CONVENT (1979). O'Brien is best known to Eurotrash audiences for Marino Girolami's ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST (1980), where his zombie-creating mad doctor was granted the title role when the film was rechristened DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. for its 1982 American release. Vacationing in Paris in 1980, shortly after completing his work on ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST, O'Brien suffered a serious head injury when he slipped and fell in the bathroom of his hotel room. After spending several days in a coma, he awoke to find he was partially paralyzed. 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS was his first film after the accident and its effects are obvious: he has a halting limp and is often dragging his left leg, and the right side of his face demonstrates frequent, involuntary twitching very similar to that of Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano/Beat Takeshi in the aftermath of his 1994 motorcycle accident. Still, the veteran actor, while dubbed, manages to create a vivid impression with his shaved head, hammy overacting (check out his overdone Dr. Evil cackle at a not-very-funny joke that Catch Dog makes), and memorable death scene. O'Brien continued to act in films, but his paralysis took its toll. He required a cane and as the years went on, in later films like HANDS OF STEEL (1986) and THE NAME OF THE ROSE (1986), he's usually seated or leaning against something. O'Brien would go on to appear in Massaccesi's final ATOR film QUEST FOR THE MIGHTY SWORD (1990) and Michele Soavi's THE SECT, aka THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER (1991), before retiring from acting in 1994 after severely injuring his hip in another fall. He died in 2003 at the age of 73.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS 2 (2015); [REC] 4 (2015); and KIDNAPPING MR. HEINEKEN (2015)

(US - 2015)

The RZA's ragged and likely compromised (his original cut was rumored to run a self-indulgent four hours) kung-fu homage THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS wasn't really a hit when it was released in theaters in the fall of 2012. Grossing close to $16 million, it made just enough to recoup its $15 million budget, thus justifying a DTV sequel. Minus the cosmetic "Quentin Tarantino Presents" banner, RZA returns in the title role and co-wrote the script with ROMEO MUST DIE screenwriter John Jarrell (whose last writing credit was the 2002 Bruce Campbell vehicle TERMINAL INVASION), but hands directing chores off to straight-to-DVD action sequel specialist Roel Reine (THE MARINE 2, DEATH RACE 2, DEATH RACE 3: INFERNO, THE SCORPION KING 3, 12 ROUNDS 2: RELOADED). As far as these things go, IRON FISTS 2 is dumb but reasonably entertaining, has some better-than-expected CGI, humor in the form of some intentionally anachronistic verbiage and delivery and, like many of Reine's movies, looks a lot more expensive than it really is. The film opens with RZA's Blacksmith leaving Jungle Village on a journey of peace to find his chi, but instead being attacked by the brother of the dead Silver Lion, his chief adversary in the first entry. The Blacksmith, named Thaddeus, is injured in the melee and is eventually nursed back to health by the family of Li Kung (21 JUMP STREET's Dustin Nguyen), the leader of a village of oppressed, slave-laboring miners ruled by tyrannical warlord Master Ho (Carl Ng), whose ruthless quest for power and "The Golden Nectar" has rendered the paraplegic, wheelchair-bound Mayor Zhang (the great Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) a helpless figurehead.

Of course, Thaddeus the Blacksmith will aid Li Kung and the miners in their fight to take back their village from Master Ho in what essentially amounts to a martial-arts redux of SHANE and PALE RIDER. Where RZA paid homage to '70s kung fu in the first film, here he sets his sights on things like Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH and Sergio Leone's THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, right down the final showdown between the miners and Master Ho's feared Beetle Clan being set to a sampled remix of Ennio Morricone's "The Ecstasy of Gold." Rivers of blood flow, and there's one very well done and exceptionally splattery and chunky full-body explosion, plus a visual shout-out to CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST with Master Ho having some miners impaled on wooden poles going in one end and exiting through the mouth. While it's lacking the first film's flamboyant performance by RZA buddy Russell Crowe playing vulgar mercenary Jack Knife as a fusion of Richard Burton and Oliver Reed, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS 2 isn't bad for what it is. While RZA's heart was in the right place when he took on directing duties in the previous film, Reine is much more solid and polished with action sequences and ensuring that its Thailand location-shooting has a near-epic scope that you wouldn't expect considering its low budget and straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix Instant release (it actually looks better than its much bigger-budgeted predecessor). You could almost see this turning into a franchise or a cable series with RZA's Blacksmith functioning as some sort of wandering, 19th century David Banner, drifting from village to village helping those in need. And I don't know about you, but Ng's Master Ho declaring "You just walked into a windstorm of flying elephant shit!" is pure poetry. (Unrated, 90 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

[REC] 4
(Spain - 2014; US release 2015)

The fourth and allegedly final installment in a franchise that was already superfluously padding an 85-minute running time as early as [REC] 2, [REC] 4 marks the return of Manuela Velasco as reporter Angela Vidal, the central character of the first two films, as well as director Jaume Balaguero, who co-directed the first two entries with Paco Plaza before Plaza flew solo on the third while Balaguero went off to direct SLEEP TIGHT. Balaguero is back and Plaza is out, but it hardly matters. After a very well-done first film, the [REC] series has been running on fumes since about 40 minutes into [REC] 2. [REC] 3: GENESIS was the odd-man-out, HALLOWEEN III/THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT of the franchise, instead focusing on a different cast at a wedding reception where the demonic virus outbreak spreads at the same time as the events of the first two films, a concept that allowed Plaza to rip off Lamberto Bava's DEMONS and Michele Soavi's THE CHURCH. One survivor of that reception (Maria Alfonsa Rosso) turns up here, but Velasco's Vidal is again front and center, rescued from the apartment building from the first two films and quarantined with others on a ship in the middle of the ocean. The ship's been commandeered by secretive medical researcher Dr. Ricarte (Hector Colome), who's working on a retrovirus to counter the outbreak and is convinced that Angela is the key to finding a breakthrough. That is, until all hell breaks loose when the ship's infected cook contaminates all of the food, and everyone's trapped onboard since Ricarte cut off communication and disabled the lifeboats to eliminate the chance of any infected making it back to the mainland. If nothing else, [REC] 4 deserves some credit for completely jettisoning the exhaustingly overplayed found-footage element, even if that's what gives the [REC] title its meaning. It's also telling that the [REC] movies have overstayed their welcome to the point that they've outlasted the very craze the original had a hand in popularizing ([REC] was remade in America as QUARANTINE). There's nothing really exciting here: those infected by the virus crave human flesh and sprint and banshee-howl through the ship when attacking. It's pretty much a fast-zombie apocalypse on a boat, though there is a nice nod to the great DOCTOR BUTCHER, M.D. with one of the infected being on the receiving end of an outboard motor head-shredding. There's nothing more than can be done with this story, and while Balaguero has insisted that this is the final film in the series, the door is of course left open for a fifth (or even worse, a reboot), even if he may be the only one who still cares: Magnolia released this on VOD and five screens in the US for a total theatrical gross of $837. (R, 95 mins)

(US/UK/Netherlands/Belgium/Canada - 2015)

At the time it took place in 1983, the kidnapping of Amsterdam-based Heineken Brewery CEO Freddy Heineken led to the biggest ransom ever paid for an individual, the equivalent of roughly $17 million. Heineken and his driver Ab Doderer were abducted outside of Heineken's office on November 9, 1983 and held for three weeks before an anonymous tip led police to suspect a small group of friends and failed businessmen led by Cor van Heut and Willem Holleeder, who split the money five ways and fled. All were eventually apprehended and served prison time. It's a fascinating story, and it was just made into the 2011 Dutch-language film THE HEINEKEN KIDNAPPING, with Rutger Hauer as Heineken. In this English-language telling--made with the input of famed Dutch true crime journalist Peter R. de Vries, author of the 1987 chronicle The Kidnapping of Alfred Heineken--Anthony Hopkins pulls out all of his Hannibal Lecter tics and mannerisms (in other words, "Anthony Hopkins") for a perfunctory performance as Heineken, making schmoozing small-talk and attempting to manipulate his kidnappers. Even going through the motions, Hopkins effortlessly walks away with the film, which isn't hard since it's also a gathering of the hottest new talent that 2008 had to offer, with Jim Sturgess as van Hout and Sam Worthington as Holleeder. Other than Hopkins and a couple of well-acted bits by David Dencik as Doderer--knowing he's expendable and that if the kidnappers want to show how serious they are, he'll be the example--nobody makes much of an impression.  There's a reason Sturgess never became a big star after ACROSS THE UNIVERSE and 21 and Worthington's career never took off after AVATAR, the highest-grossing film of all time: they just aren't very interesting actors. Competent, yes, but guys like Sturgess and Worthington (and, I guess, Ryan Kwanten, who plays kidnapper Cat Boellard but, like the other two actors who make up the quintet, more or less just blends in with the background) are a dime a dozen and never stand out when given headlining roles. And judging from this film's almost non-existent theatrical release, the Sturgess star vehicle ELECTRIC SLIDE getting dumped on VOD two weeks ago after celebrating its fourth anniversary on the shelf, and that Worthington's most recent major gig being a supporting role in SABOTAGE--one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's worst movies--Hollywood has apparently finally given up trying to make them happen.

It doesn't help that KIDNAPPING MR. HEINEKEN rushes through the set-up and never establishes a clear time element (van Hout and the others spent two years planning their abduction of Heineken), but it's also packed with every kidnapping thriller trope and cliche imaginable. You can predict with almost clockwork accuracy at what point the Amsterdumbasses will turn on one another and question their loyalty, or how fugitive, homesick van Hout's insistence on calling his girlfriend back home in Amsterdam will eventually lead the cops right to their door. It almost takes a special effort to make a story this inherently interesting so utterly bland and instantly forgettable. Lifelessly directed by Daniel Alfredson, who helmed the second and third inferior entries in the original Swedish GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO trilogy, KIDNAPPING MR. HEINEKEN doesn't even work hard enough to earn the participation medal of being deemed a harmless time-killer, or to justify its existence just four years after another film told the exact same story. (R, 95 mins)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: LOST RIVER (2015)

(US - 2015)

Written and directed by Ryan Gosling. Cast: Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Iain De Caestecker, Ben Mendelsohn, Eva Mendes, Matt Smith, Barbara Steele, Reda Kateb, Rob Zabrecky, Torrey Wigfield, Landyn Stewart. (R, 95 mins)

When it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival a year ago, LOST RIVER, the writing/directing debut of actor Ryan Gosling, was booed and jeered and declared a pretentious, unreleasable disaster. It seems Cannes audiences had their knives sharpened for Gosling, with LOST RIVER coming a year after the actor starred in Nicolas Winding Refn's ONLY GOD FORGIVES, which got a similar reaction but has already secured a sizable cult following (ONLY GOD FORGIVES is quite brilliant), and that seems to be the path that LOST RIVER will take as well. Recut by Gosling after Cannes and trimmed from 105 to 95 minutes, LOST RIVER isn't any more commercially viable, which is certainly why Warner Bros, who quickly snatched it up at Cannes only to immediately and unsuccessfully try selling it off after the toxic response, shelved it before opting to release it on just three screens and VOD in a stealth burial the likes of which the studio hasn't pulled off since Sondra Locke's RATBOY (1986) or Emir Kusturica's ARIZONA DREAM (1994). That's too bad, because LOST RIVER would probably look stunning on a big screen.

I wonder if anyone from Warners actually bothered watching LOST RIVER before acquiring it or if they saw the words "A Film by Ryan Gosling" and offered a deal on his name recognition alone. While he does appear in major Hollywood movies that pay well (THE NOTEBOOK, CRAZY STUPID LOVE), Gosling is typically drawn to smaller films of the offbeat (LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, DRIVE) or challenging (HALF NELSON, BLUE VALENTINE) sort, and one thing is certain: Gosling made the film he wanted to make with absolutely no concern for commercial appeal or mainstream acceptance. A surreal, one-of-a-kind hybrid of David Lynch, Dario Argento, Stanley Kubrick, Harmony Korine, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Terrence Malick, Michael Mann and quite a bit of Gosling's buddy Refn, with a haunting score by Johnny Jewel (another Refn collaborator) that recalls Goblin, John Carpenter, and Tangerine Dream, LOST RIVER is a triumph of style over substance. Filmed in Detroit, MI, it's also an essential entry in the ongoing cinematic chronicle of the urban blight of the once-mighty Motor City. In recent years, Detroit has taken on the aura of the Bronx in the late '70s and early '80s, providing some starkly effective locations in arthouse horror films by people who typically don't work in the horror genre, like Jim Jarmusch's ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE and David Robert Mitchell's IT FOLLOWS. While Gosling's script leaves a bit to be desired, his eye for shot composition (he definitely has a Kubrickian thing going with center placement and framing), colors, camera movement, and his use of standing ruins in and around the Detroit area are remarkable, with LOST RIVER being perhaps the most visionary fusion of sight and sound since Panos Cosmatos' BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2012) and Jonathan Glazer's UNDER THE SKIN (2014). Filled with one striking image after another, it's so compulsively, hypnotically watchable that's zero doubt that the more adventurous, fringe audiences out there will lovingly embrace it.

The plot deals with the last denizens of a dying suburb called Lost River. Billy (MAD MEN's Christina Hendricks) is desperately trying to hang on to her family home in a mostly condemned area where houses are being torn down around her. Three months behind on her mortgage and with two sons--teenage Bones (AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Iain De Caestecker) and young Franky (Landyn Stewart)--she takes a job at a bizarre torture cabaret at the suggestion of sleazy, partially deaf bank manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn, currently earning raves for the Netflix series BLOODLINE). Bones, meanwhile, tries to help out by raiding the ruins of buildings for copper, only to run afoul of Bully (former DOCTOR WHO star Matt Smith), a terrifying, self-described Lost River crime boss who claims ownership on all the copper in the city. Bones also spends time with the family's only remaining neighbor, Rat (Saoirse Ronan), who lives with her catatonic grandmother (Barbara Steele sighting!), who spends her days in her hoarder's nightmare of a home, dressed in her best and watching footage of her wedding decades earlier. Grandma's husband was killed many years ago in an accident when several towns were purposely flooded to make a reservoir at the edge of Lost River. The towns remain intact underwater, and local legend claims that Lost River's bad fortunes will turn around if someone can bring any kind of artifact from the flooded city to the surface.

The plot doesn't really hang together all that well (and most of what was cut from the Cannes version is said to involve some egregious overacting by Smith), but Gosling and cinematographer Benoit Debie (IRREVERSIBLE, ENTER THE VOID, SPRING BREAKERS) dare you to turn away. LOST RIVER is cult movie fan's wet dream, from the small-town oddness of Lynch, the cold and clinical staging of Kubrick, Bones and Rat's date filled with a neon glow and a Tangerine Dream-ish cue that recalls both Michael Mann's THIEF and Caleb and Mae getting ice cream in Kathryn Bigelow's NEAR DARK, and the endless Argento homages. Apparent Argento superfan Gosling's got a ubiquitous Fulvio Mingozzi-like SUSPIRIA/INFERNO cabbie played by Reda Kateb (at the risk of sounding like of a lecturing, condescending dick, if you get the reference to Mingozzi and cabs in SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, it's a good indication that LOST RIVER could work for you); a blatantly SUSPIRIA-like music cue plays throughout; there's some underwater shots that remind you of the secret flooded room under Mater Tenebrarum's stronghold in INFERNO; and the outside of the club where Billy works looks very similar to the Via de Bagni No. 49 library that Eleonora Giorgi enters in INFERNO (again, if that makes sense, LOST RIVER is for you), as well as the poster art for the Canadian horror film CURTAINS, oddly enough. And if all that isn't enough to get your Eurocult boner on, how can you not be won over by the casting of '60s genre icon Steele (BLACK SUNDAY, THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK) in a small but important role? Say what you will about the movie--true, it's little more than a series of fun and stylish references for the nerdiest of cult movie obsessives and a filmmaker's loving tribute to his Blu-ray and DVD collection--but the presence of Steele really sells Gosling's sincerity. I don't think he had a good idea of what he wanted to say with LOST RIVER, but he sure knew what he wanted it to look and sound like and once in a while, that's enough. What you get out of LOST RIVER depends on how much you bring to it from your own cult cinema experience. Many people will hate this hot mess of a film and you can't really blame them, but Gosling made it for himself first and foremost. However, if you're among those who "get" it, LOST RIVER might be 2015's most fascinating flawed masterpiece so far.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE VOICES (2015); PRESERVATION (2015); and LATE PHASES (2014)

(US/Germany - 2015)

A hired-gun gig for PERSEPOLIS graphic novelist and director Marjane Satrapi, THE VOICES is a dark splatter comedy with Ryan Reynolds as Jerry, a socially-awkward but generally nice and eager-to-please guy who works at a small-town bathtub and sink factory. Jerry has a history of mental illness and was institutionalized when he was a teenager and may have had a hand in his schizophrenic mother's death. Jerry lies to his psychiatrist Dr. Warren (Jacki Weaver), telling her that he dutifully takes his meds every day, but he's not. As a result, his home life is a fantasy world where he spends his evenings in his apartment above a vacant bowling alley, carrying on conversations with his cat Mr. Whiskers and his dog Bosco (Reynolds voices both animals--a sarcastic, foul-mouthed Scottish brogue for Mr. Whiskers and an aw-shucks, Cecil Turtle voice for Bosco). He has a crush on Fiona (Gemma Arterton) in accounting and through a convoluted chain of events, ends up accidentally killing her. He dismembers the body and stores her head in the fridge, where she whines that she's lonely and wants a friend. Lisa (Anna Kendrick) also works in accounting and likes Jerry, even sleeping with him before making the mistake of dropping by his place uninvited just as Jerry is most vulnerable to caving to the horrible suggestions made by Bosco and Mr. Whiskers.

When Jerry is off his meds and happily conversing with his cat, dog, and Fiona's head, we see his apartment through his eyes: clean, colorful and pleasant. When he tries going back on his meds, the pets are silent, Fiona's head is rotting, he has no one to talk to and is confronted with the reality that his home resembles an abattoir, with blood-splattered walls and floors and Fiona's body parts and entrails stacked in countless Tupperware containers. Satrapi and screenwriter Michael R. Perry (a veteran of TV shows like THE PRACTICE, MILLENNIUM, and LAW & ORDER: SVU) dutifully keep the film on track when it could easily fly off the rails and become a high-end Herschell Gordon Lewis film. Satrapi wisely has Reynolds underplay it, even when he's having imaginary conversations with a severed head, and they succeed in actually generating sympathy for an obviously sick person who feels tremendous guilt over his actions but can't stop himself, is too hesitant to make new friends because he's concerned his mental problems will scare them off, and is terrified to take his meds because then the voices go away and he has nothing to keep him company. It's a difficult performance that could've veered toward Jim Carrey in maximum "Allllrighty then!" mode, but even amidst the black humor and the buckets of gore being spilled, Reynolds--an underrated actor who can't seem to shake his VAN WILDER image with critics and audiences alike--is grounded and believable. It's too bad that Satrapi lets things bog down in the home stretch, the film runs about 15 minutes too long and it probably could've done without ending with a musical number. But THE VOICES is a quirky and interesting comedy/drama/horror mash-up that was an undeniably tough sell (shot in Berlin in 2013, it played at Sundance in January 2014 and only got a small theatrical release in February 2015), but has "future cult movie" written all over it...in blood. (R, 104 mins)

(US - 2015)

A sort-of YOU'RE NEXT GOES CAMPING, this survivalist horror film has a few moments of credible suspense (the creepiest being one character taking a selfie at night, with the flash revealing a split-second glimpse of a masked figure in the trees behind him), but it too often falls victim to contrivances and outright stupidity. On no less than four separate occasions, characters carelessly turn their backs on someone they thought was dead only to turn around and find them either gone or very much alive and ready for the kill. Anesthesiologist Wit (Wrenn Schmidt of BOARDWALK EMPIRE) and her stockbroker husband Mike (Aaron Staton of MAD MEN) were supposed to have a romantic camping getaway but Mike invited his war vet brother Sean (Pablo Schreiber, best known for his recurring role as a serial rapist on LAW & ORDER: SVU) along. Right from the start, things seem off: Mike keeps fondly reminiscing of sadistic childhood pranks, Wit seems distracted, and Sean, still psychologically scarred from his time serving in Afghanistan, obviously has feelings for Wit. They illegally enter a closed state park to go deer hunting and after one drunken night, they awake to find their guns, gear, food, water, shoes, Sean's dog, and Mike's cell phone gone and "X"'s Sharpie'd on their foreheads. Irrational, braying jackass Mike immediately accuses Sean of having a PTSD breakdown and wanting to sleep with Wit, and as the parties split up--Wit and Mike go off to the find their SUV while Sean looks for his dog--it soon dawns on them that they're being stalked by three masked murderers--actually teenage boys--intent on slaughtering them.

Actor Christopher Denham (ARGO, SOUND OF MY VOICE) wrote and directed PRESERVATION, and while there's intermittent instances of directorial skill, his script is really dumb. It's not just the way the characters constantly turn their backs on lethal threats, but in the predictable way everything plays out. Of course, hot-headed bro-type Mike is going to blame his brother for what's going on, and of course he's too preoccupied with taking calls from work to have time to talk to Wit, who secretly buys a home pregnancy test at a convenience store on their way to the state park. Of course, the old-school trap Mike sets in the woods will ultimately trap (wait for it) Mike, and the way Mike (notice what a dick this guy is?) carelessly leaves the necks of broken beer bottles near a rest area park will come into play much later. And how does Wit have time to set off a bunch of flares and decorate the ranger station with paraphernalia to taunt the killers in a way that references something that happened between the killers and Mike and that Wit, separated from the dead Mike (oh yeah, spoiler alert) couldn't possibly know about?  It doesn't get much dumber than Mike (this guy again) hiding in a Port-a-John while one of the killers is trying to kick the door in. Mike kicks the top off the Port-a-John and climbs out, kicking and grunting the whole way, then sneaks from the back around to the front to find the killer still looking at the door of the Port-a-John to figure out a way in, as if he could somehow miss all the noise Mike was making while climbing out of the top. Denham also tries to say something about technology and interpersonal disconnect in the way Mike and Wit can't find time to talk and in the way the killers take a break on the edge of a lake and don't talk, but rather, sit down and text one another in silence. Oh...because people don't communicate! Get it?  These kids today with the texting and the video games and the stalking and the murder. Do yourself a favor and stick with RITUALS instead. (Unrated, 88 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant).

(US/Mexico - 2014)

An unusual if not altogether successful werewolf movie, LATE PHASES distinguishes itself from the CGI crowd by relying on practical effects that recall the nearly 35-year-old transformation work of Rick Baker on AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and Rob Bottin on THE HOWLING. There's only one big transformation sequence, and Spanish filmmaker Adrian Garcia Bogliano (HERE COMES THE DEVIL) errs in showing too much of the werewolf in the attack scenes, as it looks as if the producers scoured eBay for the cheapest, rattiest werewolf costume they could find. LATE PHASES really gets a boost from an excellent performance by cult actor Nick Damici (STAKE LAND, COLD IN JULY), playing about 20 years older than his age as Ambrose McKinley, a blind, widowed Vietnam vet being taken to a retirement community by his son Will (Ethan Embry). On his first night in his new residence, Ambrose's dog Shadow and his neighbor Dolores (SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER's Karen Lynn Gorney) are killed by what's thought to be a giant dog. The useless local cops dismiss it ("This kind of thing happens all the time...old people can't defend themselves") but Ambrose, his other senses heightened with the loss of his sight, rightly feels something is off here, and not just because he dislikes the concept of retirement communities in general ("People don't come here to live...they come here to die," he tells Will's wife). Still a crack shot even without sight, Ambrose quickly alienates his chatty neighbors who want nothing to do with him (among them are GILLIGAN'S ISLAND's Tina Louise, AMITYVILLE II's Rutanya Alda, and HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE's Caitlin O'Heaney), but finds a mutual understanding in his philosophical conversations with local priest Father Roger (Tom Noonan), who has enough sympathy for old Ambrose that he arranges for church employee Griffin (THE LAST STARFIGHTER's Lance Guest) to transport him on outings when the other residents refuse to ride the bus with him.

With the coughing, wheezing werewolf having a distinct smell that Ambrose picks up on when he talks to two different coughing, wheezing characters, it doesn't take long to figure out who the werewolf is (and much like THE HOWLING's "The Colony," the werewolf situation seems to be an open secret, at least with the cops and the community staffers), but LATE PHASES is less about werewolfery and more a character study about an old man trying to find purpose and dignity in a bad situation (LATE PHASES referring to both the lunar cycle and Ambrose's life). It's an odd mix--imagine GRAN TORINO if Clint Eastwood's neighbors were werewolves instead of Hmong immigrants--that stays mostly interesting thanks to the outstanding work of Damici, who brilliantly channeled William Smith in STAKE LAND and here seems like a somber and even more stoical Charles Bronson. Only when Bogliano goes full throttle horror near the end does the film start falling apart, starting with a confusingly-shot sequence where the werewolf (one of them, at least) makes its presence known and explains itself as it transforms. Moody and character-driven, LATE PHASES has a few generous gore scenes but isn't really scary or particularly suspenseful, but when Damici is onscreen, he commands your attention. Plus, that supporting cast (Tina Louise and Karen Lynn Gorney sightings?!) is pretty fascinating. (Unrated, 96 mins)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Ripoffs of the Wasteland: 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983)

(Italy/France - 1983; US release 1984)

Directed by Martin Dolman (Sergio Martino). Written by Julian Berry (Ernesto Gastaldi), Martin Dolman (Sergio Martino) and Gabriel Rossini. Cast: Michael Sopkiw, Valentine Monnier, George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori), Anna Kanakis, Roman Geer (Romano Puppo), Edmund Purdom, Vincent Scalondro, Louis Ecclesia, Serge Feuillard, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Jacques Stany, Tiziana Fibi, Siriana Hernandez, James Sampson, Angelo Ragusa, Giovanni Cianfriglia. (R, 96 mins)

While THE ROAD WARRIOR provided the chief template for the early '80s Italian post-nuke cycle, the influence of John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK weaved its way in from time to time. This was certainly the case with Sergio Martino's 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK, which may very well be the best that the Italian post-apocalypse subgenre had to offer, not counting Enzo G. Castellari's 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS, which isn't really a post-nuke but is almost always cited as one. Released in Italy in the summer of 1983 and in the US by Almi in December 1984 minus the "2019" portion of the title, 2019 is a case study in making the most of budgetary limitations. Even a major cue in the "Oliver Onions" (Guido & Maurizio De Angelis) score is recycled from their soundtrack for Antonio Margheriti's YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983). What Martino's film lacks in gonzo car stunts and the ability to recreate a convincing NYC (even Carpenter had to let a declining East St. Louis, IL stand in for the ruins of the Big Apple), it makes up in imagination, perseverance, and old-school special effects techniques. Sure, the matte paintings, the miniatures of a bombed-out, radioactive Manhattan, and what looks like a half-melted souvenir model of the Statue of Liberty that appear to be set up on a workbench in Martino's basement will probably evoke derisive snickering upon a first glance, but after the opening skyline shot, he makes their appearances sparse enough that they're eerily effective when you do get fleeing glimpses of them later on. Martino's got very little to work with from a visual effects standpoint and knows just how much of it to show to keep the film from collapsing in on itself.

In 1999, the evil Eurac Monarchy ("the powerful Euro-Afro-Asian unity") initiated a nuclear holocaust that left the world a radioactive wasteland. Most of America is a desert, with only torched shells of skyscrapers remaining in major cities. It's been 15 years since a human child was born, and the US government, now called the Pan-American Confederacy, based in northernmost Alaska, and run by a sickly President (Edmund Purdom), gets word that one fertile female remains in the ruins of NYC. He orders nomadic warrior and former Pan-Am soldier Parsifal (Michael Sopkiw) to venture in with the help of two mercenaries, eye-patched strongman Ratchet (Romano Puppo) and Bronx (Vincent Scalondro), find the woman, and in exchange, they get three seats on the next shuttle to Alpha Centauri, where the Pan-American Confederacy is looking to rebuild itself beyond the boundaries of Earth.

If Parsifal reminds you of Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken and the President's offer vaguely recalls one presented to Plissken by Lee Van Cleef's Hauk, then you picked up on the not-very-subtle borrowing of elements from ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. Parsifal, Ratchet, and Bronx eventually encounter a group of survivors, where they pick up Giada (Valentine Monnier) and dwarf Shorty (Louis Ecclesia) while being pursued by coldly ambitious Eurac soldier Ania (Anna Kanakis). Bronx takes an early exit in the form of a bullet to the head but not before he gouges out the eyes of the nefarious Eurac commander (Serge Feuillard). Eventually, the motley crew cross paths with a band of mutants led by the hirsute Big Ape (George Eastman)--or, as he was known in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, "The Duke" (you can also conclude that Shorty is this film's "Cabbie")--who ends up tagging along just because he wants to be the one to plant his seed in the fertile woman, Melissa (Tiziana Fibi), when they find her.

The more "Michael Sopkiw is almost
Kurt Russell" poster design.
2019 is consistently engrossing but really takes off with a wild climax that has its ragtag group of heroes and a hibernating Melissa packed into a steel-reinforced station wagon and driving through mined, obstacle course tunnels under NYC, during which Big Ape hurls his sword and decapitates about ten Eurac soldiers at once in one of the finest moments in all of Italian post-nuke. Again, Martino doesn't have the luxury of shooting a big action sequence in NYC, so he circumvents that hassle by taking the ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK 69th Street Bridge sequence underground in the same tunnel sets used in virtually all of the Italian post-nukes. Martino does have a couple of scenes early on that were shot in Arizona, prior to Parsifal being taken to Alaska (which looks almost exactly like the futuristic Mount Olympus set in Luigi Cozzi's HERCULES), but virtually the entire film was shot at De Paolis Studios in Rome. Martino (using his occasional "Martin Dolman" pseudonym) co-wrote the script with veteran screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (credited as "Julian Berry") and Gabriel Rossini, and they spend a bit more time on characterization than you usually see in ripoffs of this sort. Much like the team of oddballs helping Plissken on his mission, the crew surrounding Parsifal exhibit much in the way of character and personality, even when their actions (why would they leave Giada and Melissa alone with Big Ape?) don't make much sense. The writers don't play favorites with who lives or who dies and there's a genuine unpredictability and ambition to the way the plot builds and unfolds. It's been brought up online before (by Video Junkie's William Wilson and EUROCRIME co-producer Michael Martinez to name two) but it's worth repeating again: there's some interesting coincidences between 2019 and if not P.D. James' 1992 novel Children of Men, then at least Alfonso Cuaron's loosely adapted 2006 film version.  Both are set in a dystopian, barren future where one fertile woman has been found (in James' novel, the men are infertile); both have a lone wolf hero being charged with finding her and getting her to where she needs to go to keep the human race from dying out; and both have upper-class characters (Feuillard's commander in 2019 and Danny Huston's Nigel in CHILDREN OF MEN) with Picasso's Guernica displayed on their wall. It's entirely possible that both Martino & Gastaldi and Cuaron came up with the notion of using Guernica, since it's regarded as a symbol of humanity's suffering in war. Just like it's entirely possible that Cuaron or one of CHILDREN OF MEN's four other screenwriters caught AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK on VHS or during one of its late-night cable airings in the '80s and it stuck with them enough to work it into another, much more higher-profile movie with a similar central conceit, albeit with different circumstances and metaphors.

Greatest credit ever?

2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK marked the debut of Sopkiw, an American model whose acting career lasted three years and four films. Born in Connecticut in 1954, Sopkiw was a wandering sort in his youth, with stints in merchant sailing and the maritime shipping industry, during which time he served a year in prison for transporting marijuana. He briefly studied acting in NYC and fell into modeling in Europe, which got him the 2019 gig (he's still dubbed by someone else--this was one of the few Italian genre films of the era not handled by the usual crew of American and British dubbers working in Rome, but by SPEED RACER voice actor Peter Fernandez's crew in NYC). In 1984, Sopkiw made two films with director Lamberto Bava: the entertaining DELIVERANCE/FIRST BLOOD hybrid BLASTFIGHTER, which reteamed him with Eastman, and the future MST3K-favorite DEVIL FISH, which again paired him with Monnier. In 1985, he starred in Michele Massimo Tarantini's MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY, a belated entry in the post-CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST gut-muncher craze, and that was it. Sopkiw went back into modeling in NYC before pursuing his interest in medicinal plant science, and went on to run the Los Angeles-based American importing office of the Dutch glass company Miron Violettglas. As 2019's cult grew over the years, so did the interest in the elusive Sopkiw, who emerged from obscurity to be more or less a bystander on a controversial, kamikaze commentary by a "post-nuke expert" on Shriek Show's 2003 DVD release of the film. The DVD was quickly withdrawn and re-released without the commentary, which found the moderator in question more or less using the opportunity to take cheap shots and settle scores with various figures and discussion forums in Eurocult's online community. The DVD's anamorphic transfer holds up well, but with the re-released version out of print for several years now, the film is long overdue for a Blu-ray upgrade. In recent years, Sopkiw has maintained a low profile but periodically appears at fan conventions, usually when there's a panel on '80s Italian cult movies.

The veteran journeyman Martino's only direct contribution to the Italian post-nuke movement (though you could argue that 1986's HANDS OF STEEL, with its arm-wrestling cyborg hero and John Saxon hoisting an over-the-shoulder laser bazooka, belongs under the umbrella as well), 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK featured several Eurocult mainstays in its cast, such as Eastman, Puppo (billed as "Roman Geer"), Purdom, Jacques Stany as a Eurac flunky, and Hal Yamanouchi in a small role as the leader of a band of radiated mutant goons who gets his head split open in a memorable shot. The other noteworthy cast member was 20-year-old Kanakis as the ambitious Ania. Kanakis made headlines five years earlier when she was named Miss Italy 1977 only to be disqualified from the eventual Miss World competition when the organization discovered that she was only 15 years old. She claimed that the Miss Italy people never told her that the minimum age requirement was 17 (1977's Miss Malta, also 15, was given the boot as well), but she soon ended up with an acting career, with 2019 her second post-nuke in quick succession, following Enzo G. Castellari's THE NEW BARBARIANS (1983), released in the US in early 1984 as WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND. Kanakis, who was married to Goblin leader Claudio Simonetti from 1981-1984, remained sporadically busy over the next 20 years, primarily on Italian television. Her last acting appearance to date was a starring role in the 2007 Italian TV mini-series LA TERZA VERITA.