Friday, May 29, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: SURVIVOR (2015)

(US/Italy/UK - 2015)

Directed by James McTeigue. Written by Philip Shelby. Cast: Milla Jovovich, Pierce Brosnan, Dylan McDermott, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, James D'Arcy, Roger Rees, Benno Furmann, Frances de la Tour, Genevieve O'Reilly, Sonya Cassidy, Alex Beckett. (PG-13, 96 mins)

Ten years ago, SURVIVOR would've opened nationwide--probably in January, April, or early September--and likely been the #1 movie in America, at least for a week. Now, it's in "select theaters" (meaning, maybe ten) and on VOD, with US distributor Alchemy not even bothering to prepare a domestic trailer. Even with the relatively low budget of $20 million, SURVIVOR should look better than it does (obviously, the money went to the cast and little else). It's a brainless but fast-moving B-movie that Cannon cover band Millennium/NuImage didn't feel had the potential to be their next OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, despite corralling three of its cast members--Dylan McDermott, Angela Bassett, and Robert Forster--in supporting roles, which also begs the question "How is Morgan Freeman not in this?" Set mostly in London but primarily filmed in Bulgaria, SURVIVOR stars Milla Jovovich as Kate Abbott, a top-level security expert at the US Embassy (this is the kind of film that feels the need to accompany a shot of the Thames and the London Eye ferris wheel with the caption "London"). Driven in her job and haunted by memories of being in one of the WTC towers on 9/11, Kate has an almost Spidey Sense when it comes to terror threats and something seems off with Dr. Emil Balan (Roger Rees), who's trying to get a visa to visit the US to attend a pediatrics convention. Balan is really in the employ of wealthy and generically Eastern European terrorist Zafer Pavlou (Benno Furmann), who has a half-assed plot to launch an attack in Times Square on New Year's Eve in order to manipulate the global economy in his favor. Pavlou's found the perfect patsy in Balan, a grieving, vengeful man who blames the death of his ill wife on US customs' hemming and hawing about allowing her a visa to travel to the US for treatment. When Kate's persistent questioning of Balan threatens to derail the operation, Pavlou dispatches The Watchmaker (Pierce Brosnan), one of the world's deadliest and most elusive assassins ("He's had so much reconstructive surgery, nobody knows what he looks like anymore!" says one US Embassy official) to take her out.

The Watchmaker is introduced completing a complicated repair on an expensive watch to show how methodical and precise he is, but of course, he repeatedly fails at killing Kate or there wouldn't be a movie. His initial actions--which include pointlessly blowing up an entire city block where Kate and some co-workers are having dinner, when all he really had to do was sneak up on her and put a bullet in her head--end up inadvertently making Kate the prime suspect in the eyes of the US Ambassador (Bassett) and the angry M.I.5 official on the case (James D'Arcy), but her boss and vague love interest Sam Parker (McDermott) is the only person who believes that she's being set up. Directed by Wachowski protege James McTeigue (V FOR VENDETTA, NINJA ASSASSIN), SURVIVOR is a watchable if unspectacular actioner that seems ready-made for Netflix Instant. It wants to have that sort-of globetrotting BOURNE momentum to its cat-and-mouse, race-against-time plot, but it doesn't have the cash flow to pull it off.  Or, perhaps more accurately, it doesn't have the cash flowing to the right departments. Working with a significantly lower budget than he did in his days on the Wachowski payroll, McTeigue can't do much when he's saddled with the likes of the Bulgarian clown crew at Worldwide FX, whose cartoonish CGI histrionics here continue to make one appreciate the relative care and craft of the folks at The Asylum. On top of that, McTeigue and screenwriter Philip Shelby really dumb it down, not trusting their audience with anything. Needless captions are one thing ("Times Square," shown over a stock footage shot of the iconic Coca-Cola sign), but when Kate reflects on losing her friends in the World Trade Center on 9/11, was it necessary for McTeigue to cut to cable news stock footage of the second plane hitting the tower just in case anyone in the audience was unaware of what "9/11" means?

A classic case of "It is what it is," SURVIVOR is chintzy and aggressively dumb, but at least it's never boring. Jovovich is fine, but Brosnan doesn't really do much with the opportunity to dig in and play a ruthless, unstoppable killer. The Watchmaker almost seems like a distant relative to his KGB assassin in John Mackenzie's underrated and little-remembered 1987 espionage thriller THE FOURTH PROTOCOL. Granted an opportunity to play a bad guy right on the heels of his Liam Neeson "aging action guy" bid with last year's minor hit THE NOVEMBER MAN, a slumming Brosnan just looks annoyed. It doesn't help that Shelby's script introduces him as one of the most lethal assassins on the planet but has him continually presented as an incompetent fuck-up. There's some attempt at topical ISIS metaphors--almost certainly accidental--in the way that the US, in their efforts at thwarting terror, only succeeded in creating a terrorist, however hapless, in Dr. Balan. By the climax, which has The Watchmaker and Balan in Times Square trying to detonate a bomb set to go off in the ball as it drops at the stroke of midnight, all that's really left to do is marvel at SURVIVOR's almost adorable attempt to recreate New Year's Eve in Times Square on a Bulgarian backlot, with some stock footage shots inserted into the mix with maximum obviousness. And it gets better, as Kate encounters The Watchmaker on the roof of a nearby building, against a backdrop of what's supposed to be the NYC skyline. Instead, it looks like Jovovich and Brosnan fighting it out on a set against a large screen with the Troma intro on pause. Originally set to star Katharine Heigl and Clive Owen, SURVIVOR doesn't make the best use of its stars, all of whom seem above the Redbox-ready material that feels like a dusted-off and slightly updated script that executive producer Avi Lerner had sitting around from the days when Frank Zagarino was the biggest name he could afford. Even VOD seems too gala a premiere for something like this, and I recommend waiting until the right time and watching it the way it was really meant to be seen: when nothing else is on and you remember you grabbed it months earlier as an impulse buy in the $5 dump bin while waiting in a slow checkout line at Wal-Mart.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (2015) and CUT BANK (2015)

(US - 2015)

Though his influence is still felt in new films like Justin Simien's DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, in recent years, Spike Lee has done his best work on low-profile documentaries and really only makes mainstream news when he's pissed-off at a geriatric white director. After his remake of OLDBOY was taken away from him and recut by producers only to end up being one of the biggest bombs of 2013, Lee wanted to make a small film with total creative control and turned to Kickstarter to crowdfund his unlikely next narrative effort: a remake of Bill Gunn's 1973 cult horror oddity GANJA & HESS. DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS follows the 1973 film very closely--so closely, in fact, that Gunn, who died in 1989, shares a screenwriting credit with Lee. Like Lee, Gunn was a maverick with experience playing the Hollywood game--he was a veteran TV actor and wrote Hal Ashby's 1970 film THE LANDLORD. GANJA & HESS was supposed to be a low-budget blaxploitation vampire film but Gunn fashioned it as a gritty and challenging art film. It also existed in a more blaxploitative cut called BLOOD COUPLE that Gunn hated, but GANJA & HESS' cult following remains strong over 40 years later, and has even aired on Turner Classic Movies. Lee obviously loves the film, since DA SWEET BLOOD is an almost scene-for-scene tribute, shot in just 16 days and doing its damnedest to emulate the look and feel of Gunn's seminal contribution to African-American cinema. Wealthy anthropologist Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams, in a role played by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD's Duane Jones in the 1973 film) is studying the Ashanti Empire, an ancient African culture for whom the consumption of blood became an addiction. He's stabbed to death with a cursed Ashanti dagger by his suicidal research assistant Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco). Lafayette succeeds in killing himself and when Hess awakens from the dead the next morning, he not only hides the body but has an insatiable thirst for blood, first stealing packets from a blood donation center and eventually picking up a prostitute, slashing her throat, and consuming her blood (there's a brief AIDS scare for Hess in one of Lee's few attempts at updating the story). Eventually, Lafayette's British ex-wife Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) arrives at Hess' Martha's Vineyard summer home from Amsterdam, and the two quickly begin a passionate fling as Hess initially tries to keep his need for human blood a secret known only by his devoted, Renfield-like manservant Seneschal (Rami Malek). When Hess and Ganja marry, Hess "turns" her as the couple seek out victims--who always "return" much like they did--starting with Hess' bisexual ex-girlfriend Tangier (Nate Bova).

Like Gunn, Lee uses the need for blood as a metaphor for addiction and the way it destroys the lives of the user and those close to them. But it's not enough for Lee to present vampirism (a word never used in either Gunn's or Lee's film) in a metaphorical sense--he actually has to have Hess say "This is like an addiction!" Lee does everything short of stop the film and break the fourth wall himself to say as much. Lee gets really heavy-handed when Hess reaches an existential breaking point late in the film and goes to a black church (where Thomas Jefferson Byrd and Stephen Henderson reprise their respective Bishop and Deacon roles from the endlessly self-referential Lee's 2012 film RED HOOK SUMMER), where a gospel group is singing a hymn with the not-very subtle lyrics "You've got to learn/To let it go/You've got to know/When it's all over." Lee throws in some lines that pay clumsy lip service to inner-city race and poverty issues, but they exist as ham-fisted bullet points and are quickly dropped. DA SWEET BLOOD is overlong and self-indulgent, but it offers a terrifically moody score by Bruce Hornsby (his opening credits piece is among the best things he's ever done), some impressive original songs by unsigned artists from numerous genres, and has its strong moments as Lee mixes the Brooklyn-based, indie-film aesthetic of his youth (it's hard to believe he's pushing 60) with a bizarre fusion of art film and grindhouse trash. Clearly trying to wash away the bitter aftertaste of OLDBOY, Lee made DA SWEET BLOOD for no one but himself. It's the strangest film of his career and one with absolutely zero commercial potential, but there's an overwhelming feeling of dread throughout and some legitimate poignancy amidst the arthouse posturing as Hess barrels down the road to ruin, dragging everyone along with him. For all its flaws, I still prefer DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS over RED HOOK SUMMER, Lee's last attempt at re-establishing his indie cred, a film that offered a great Clarke Peters performance but little else, starting with Lee himself as a graying, paunchy Mookie from DO THE RIGHT THING, still delivering pizzas for Sal's. (Unrated, 124 mins)

(US/Canada - 2015)

The Coen Bros. worship is laid on so thick with CUT BANK that it almost qualifies as fan fiction. Veteran TV director Matt Shakman makes his feature filmmaking debut here and among his many credits over the last decade or so were a few episodes from the first season of the FX series FARGO. CUT BANK features Oliver Platt from the FARGO series, plus other actors from past Coen Bros. films, like John Malkovich (BURN AFTER READING) and Michael Stuhlbarg (A SERIOUS MAN), and Billy Bob Thornton has both the FARGO series and a Coen film (THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE) to further cement the connection. CUT BANK centers on a Coen Bros. staple: the kind of stupidly pie-in-the-sky, ostensibly foolproof scheme that's half-assedly planned in maximum Jerry Lundegaard fashion and almost immediately collapses in on itself. In folksy Cut Bank, MT, former high school football star and current townie Dwayne McLaren (Liam Hemsworth) is sick of his dead-end mechanic job and just wants out. He's tired of being the caregiver to his distant and now-bedridden father, and he wants to run off to California with high-school sweetheart Cassandra (Teresa Palmer) and open a body shop. He's talked mute co-worker Match (David Burke) and disgruntled mailman Georgie Witts (Bruce Dern) into going in on a scam with him: while Dwayne is standing in a field filming Cassandra's Miss Cut Bank audition video, a disguised Match will shoot Georgie in the distant background, be captured on video by Dwayne, and the reporting of the murder of a federal employee will net them a $100,000 reward (it should tell you how doomed the plan is when Dwayne thinks $100,000 is "a lifetime sum" and none of them seem to know how to keep up the ruse of Georgie being dead). While Dwayne keeps Georgie in hiding and waits for his reward money from a postal inspector (Platt), soft-spoken Sheriff Vogel (Malkovich) investigates, and Cassandra's father/Dwayne's asshole boss Big Stan (Thornton) quickly figures out that Dwayne is up to something, local stuttering recluse and--red flag!--taxidermy enthusiast Derby Milton (an unrecognizable Stuhlbarg) eagerly awaits a priority mail package that Georgie was supposed to deliver the day of the murder. With the mail truck gone missing, Derby decides to launch his own obsessive investigation and pursuit of his parcel, and that's when the body count starts climbing.

As far as Coen Bros. ripoffs go, CUT BANK is one of the better examples, thanks largely to a great supporting cast comprised of some of the most solid pros in the business. There's quirky dialogue, shocking violence, dark comedy, and vicious twists of fate, but sometimes Shakman and screenwriter Roberto Patino (SONS OF ANARCHY) are a little shameless, not just in the plot but with some of the quirks. Any fan of the FARGO TV series will recognize Burke's Match as a slight resketching of Russell Harvard's deaf assassin Mr. Wrench. And as great as he is with his screen presence and quotable dialogue ("I just want my p-p-parcel" is this film's "Friendo"), Stuhlbarg's Derby is basically what would happen if NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN's Anton Chigurh was played by Milton from OFFICE SPACE. Make no mistake, Stuhlbarg owns CUT BANK and you almost wish he was the central character, even if Hemsworth is marginally less bland than usual. The wrap-up is a little too neat and clean, with Malkovich getting a speech somewhat similar to Tommy Lee Jones' at the end of NO COUNTRY, but as derivative as it is, it moves quickly and entertains. You're still better off watching BLOOD SIMPLE, FARGO, or NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN again, but you can do a lot worse than CUT BANK, and it's a must-see if you're a fan of Stuhlbarg. (R, 93 mins)

Saturday, May 23, 2015


(Netherlands - 2015)

Written and directed by Tom Six. Cast: Dieter Laser, Laurence R. Harvey, Eric Roberts, Robert LaSardo, Tommy "Tiny" Lister, Clayton Rohner, Bree Olson, Tom Six, Jay Tavare, Akihiro Kitamura, Bill Hutchens, Carlos Ramirez, Peter Blankenstein. (Unrated, 103 mins)

When it was released in 2010, Tom Six's "100% Medically Accurate" THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE became a legitimate pop culture phenomenon. The saga of a mad doctor (Dieter Laser, still one of the greatest names ever) surgically connecting three unfortunate victims mouth-to-anus to form a "human centipede" with one shared digestive tract was original, to say the least. Late night talk show hosts cracked jokes about it and it didn't even take long for it to be brilliantly parodied on SOUTH PARK. Taken on its own terms, it's a ridiculous yet reasonably effective film that's significantly less graphic than you think, with a genuinely creepy performance by Laser, who does go over the top on occasion, but deservedly enjoyed a very brief run as a horror icon. Six quickly followed it up with 2011's dismal THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 (FULL SEQUENCE), a grimy, ugly sequel, shot in black and white, where a socially inept, British HUMAN CENTIPEDE superfan (Laurence R. Harvey) kidnaps a dozen people to form a crude, surgically unskilled 12-person human centipede which includes one of the first film's stars, Ashlyn Yennie, playing herself, coerced into showing up in London after Harvey pretends to be Quentin Tarantino calling her to set up an audition. The sequel was Six's response to the first film's naysayers, many of whom condemned the film without even seeing it, based just on its concept and what they figured it depicted. With the sequel, Six went completely overboard, wallowing in the scatological and showing all of the shit, piss, puke, phlegm, and other bodily functions (plus the squashing of a baby's head) that were missing from the comparatively tactful first entry. Whatever sense of class Six brought to THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE was thoroughly obliterated by FULL SEQUENCE, which was essentially a feature-length tantrum. It's so bad that it retroactively worsens its predecessor.

So what then, does one make of THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3 (FINAL SEQUENCE), the conclusion of Six's coprophilic trilogy?  By the time the repugnant FULL SEQUENCE ended, the only thing that seemed to be left for Six to do was go door-to-door to shit in your mouth. There's nowhere for him to go except to crank up the shock and outrage factor, so now he's the equivalent of an online troll, throwing one offense after another at the audience to get a reaction from a film that boasts "100% Politically Incorrect." Set at the George H.W. Bush State Prison in Texas, FINAL SEQUENCE has sadistic warden Bill Boss (a chrome-domed Laser) and his hapless sidekick Dwight (Harvey with a Hitler mustache) under fire by the Governor (Academy Award nominee Eric Roberts) over the out-of-control prison population, the rampant violence, and the exorbitant costs as they run way over the state budget. Dwight, a fan of both HUMAN CENTIPEDE films, repeatedly fails to convince Boss that a "human-prison centipede" made out of the 500 inmates is the answer. Instead, Boss prefers going medieval, whether it's force-feeding raw pork to Jewish and Muslim inmates, waterboarding one with boiling water, breaking the limbs of another (Tommy "Tiny" Lister) or castrating yet another (Robert LaSardo) in loving close-up before having the testicles prepared medium-rare and brought to his office for lunch. Boss, who snacks on imported deep-fried African clitorises ("Thank God for Africa! Thank God for female circumcision!" he exclaims), forces his secretary/"cock socket" Daisy (former porn star Bree Olson) to sexually service him ("Tits, I need my ballsack emptied before lunch!"), and never holds back when it comes to the racism, finally agrees to the human-prison centipede after Dwight arranges a meeting with Six, appearing as himself. In this massive undertaking, with the forced help of the prison's unlicensed, unemployable doctor (Clayton Rohner), Boss sees his new grand design of inmate suffering via forced shit-eating: "A Jew behind a Muslim, a Muslim behind a Jew, a Crip behind a Blood, a Republican behind a Mexican..."

There are a couple of genuinely funny moments here, and they're at the expense of Six: he seems to know it's patently absurd that he'd be given the fawning celebrity treatment that he gets here, and prior to his arrival, much is made of his "poop fetish." In the film's only really legitimately good joke, Six vomits and flees the prison in horror when he sees the human-prison centipede surgical procedure in progress ("What a pussy," Boss says). But everywhere else is just one missed opportunity after another. Six seems to have the right idea when it comes satirizing himself, but otherwise, he drops the ball. Why have Roberts (who was just in INHERENT VICE a few months ago and looks embarrassed to be in this) play the Governor as basically "Eric Roberts"?  Why not have him (or someone else who will do anything for money) play it as a riff on George W. Bush or Rick Perry or someone topical?  Six could've made some political jokes here but all the casting of Roberts says is "Eric Roberts said yes, and we could afford him." But without question, the biggest mistake Six makes is doing nothing to reign in Laser, who's been gifted with zero boundaries, engaging in a level of eye-popping, vein-bursting overacting that, with his thick German accent, brings to mind what might've happened if Robin Williams ever went on a talk show and decided to act like Klaus Kinski. Some of Laser's outrageously offensive dialogue might've even played a bit better if he wasn't screaming himself purple in every scene. As a result, his schtick gets old quickly, and the constant racial slurs, degradation of Daisy ("Swallow it, office slut!" he shouts after ejaculating in her mouth), and his endless screaming (often into a megaphone, as if he wasn't already loud enough) have absolutely no entertainment value. Among the many Bill Boss zingers, we have:

  • "Circumcised Jewish goat-fuckers!"
  • "Mother-fisting, baby-raping Mexican lowlifes!"
  • "Pubic-hair-bearded Islamic halal pigs!"
  • "Beaten-up women make me so horny!" (after Daisy is beaten during a prison riot)
  • "Even in a coma, I'll make you squirt!" (said as he has sex with a comatose, post-riot Daisy)

And that's not counting the copious N-words (or "monkey" in Boss' more reflective moments) or other puerile shock tactics, whether it's Boss ripping off one inmate's colostomy bag and shooting him in the colon only to cause an eruption of blood and liquid shit, or a nightmare sequence where LaSardo's furious inmate gets revenge for his castration by slicing open Boss' side and raping him in the kidney. Scenes like this go on and on, with Laser's acting abandoning all illusions of characterization and instead coming off as an all-consuming seizure. It's obvious Six fancies himself some provocateur, but he's really just a grosser, ass-to-mouth-fixated Uwe Boll, offering nothing satirical, with his attempts at going meta very sporadically amusing but mostly failing to live up to their potential. So what we're left with is a thoroughly pointless endeavor anchored by one of the most unbearable, headache-inducing lead performances in the history of cinema.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: CYMBELINE (2015) and HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 (2015)

(US - 2015)

Outside of Ralph Fiennes' powerful and little-seen 2011 directorial debut CORIOLANUS, I've never been a big fan of putting Shakespeare in a modern setting while keeping the actual text of the play. It almost always comes off as a gimmick whose novelty wears off by the 15-minute mark. Michael Almereyda's NYC-set HAMLET (2000) is usually cited as the best of its type, but other than Ethan Hawke doing the "To be or not to be..." soliloquy while browsing the aisles of a Blockbuster Video, do you remember anything about it? Almereyda and Hawke are back with a modern take on Cymbeline, a late Shakespeare romance first performed five years before Shakespeare's death. It's one of his least-known works, sporadically dragged out of storage but rarely studied and enjoyed by few other than the most ardent completists. There was a BBC television production of it in 1982, with Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, and Helen Mirren, but CYMBELINE marks the first big-screen take on the play, with Almereyda centering the action on the New York-based Briton Motorcycle Club, led by King Cymbeline (Ed Harris). Cymbeline has a lot on his plate with the Queen (Milla Jovovich), his power-crazed, status-obsessed second wife, who plans on shifting the balance of power in her favor by arranging the marriage of Cloten (Anton Yelchin), her son by her late first husband, to Imogen (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY's Dakota Johnson), Cymbeline's daughter. But Imogen is in love with another, the lower-class skateboarder Posthumus (Penn Badgley). After Posthumus is run out of the city by Cymbeline, he stays with his friend Philario (James Ransone), where he makes the acquaintance of the duplicitous Iachimo (Hawke). After listening to Posthumus talk of his love for the virginal Imogen and how she'll remain true to him until they can be together, Iachimo wagers that he can seduce her. When she rejects his advances, Iachimo hides in her room until she's asleep and falsifies evidence of a conquest that never took place. This sets off a chain reaction of misunderstandings and chaos involving the central players, along with Cymbeline's right-hand man Pisanio (John Leguizamo), banished nobleman Belarius (Delroy Lindo), the ghost of Posthumus' father Sicilius Leonatus (Bill Pullman), the Rome police force, led by the corrupt Caius Lucius (Vondie Curtis-Hall), plus a magical potion that makes its sleeping user appear dead, and Imogen disguising herself as a young man named "Fidele."

Even in its original form, with its scheming Queen, sleeping potion, Imogen disguised as a boy, and the appearance of a patriarchal poltergeist, Cymbeline probably felt like a stale, self-parodying retread from a coasting Bard in its day, and at no point does CYMBELINE work. Despite a detailed opening crawl that tries to explain what's going on, the film is almost impossible to follow and that isn't helped by the lugubrious pacing (this is one of the longest 98-minute movies you'll ever see). The Shakespeare-speech-in-a-modern-setting gets old in record time, especially with Johnson's absolutely dreadful performance as Imogen. She's terrible here, giving Shakespeare a Millennial, vocal-fry spin with a generous helping of can't even that was always sorely lacking in the cinematic takes of Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. Johnson and Badgley get the most screen time, with top-billed Hawke turning up in a handful of scenes that amount to little more than an extended cameo. Jovovich's role is even smaller and Harris, in an ostensibly nice nod to his early breakthrough in George Romero's 1981 classic KNIGHTRIDERS, never looks or sounds comfortable. The direct-from-Shakespeare dialogue aside, another reason CYMBELINE doesn't work as a Shakespearean biker movie is because it feels like too much of a retread of the TV series SONS OF ANARCHY. During its run on FX, SONS creator Kurt Sutter made no secret of the Shakespearean themes running through the show and its characters, particularly Charlie Hunnam's Hamlet-like Jax and Katey Sagal's very Gertrude-inspired Gemma. So, for Almereyda to take a Shakespeare play, regardless of how obscure it might be, and work in a criminal motorcycle gang has to make you wonder what he was thinking. Had he heard of the show? Does he have basic cable, Hulu, or Netflix? What was Lionsgate thinking when they retitled the film ANARCHY and unveiled a trailer for it before yanking it and changing it back to CYMBELINE? The problem here is that Almereyda updates the setting but that's all he does. Fiennes made CORIOLANUS work by making its themes relevant to today's global political climate. By contrast, Almereyda has nothing to say about anything with CYMBELINE, so we're left with hacky plot bits like Iachimo taking a selfie with a sleeping, scantily-clad Imogen or Cloten getting on his laptop to do a Google search. (R, 98 mins)

(US - 2015)

Capitulating to the demands of no one, the painful HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 somehow arrived in the nation's multiplexes only to promptly tank, likely due to nobody even remembering the first one from way back in 2010. How did this even get in theaters in the first place?  Five years on, it seems like one of those belated sequels that would've gone straight-to-DVD, like all those later AMERICAN PIE spinoffs with only Eugene Levy still showing up to get paid and the spotlight given to a Seann William Scott lookalike as Stifler's cousin. Maybe it got into theaters because 3/4 of the original HOT TUB TIME MACHINE lineup is back, though it's not an understatement to say that John Cusack skipping out on this is the best career decision he's made in years (he apparently shot a cameo that didn't make the theatrical cut but turns up at the end of the unrated Blu-ray version). This time out, Lou (Rob Corddry), who's used the powers of time travel to become a rock god who invented the search engine "Lougle," gets shot in the balls by an unseen and vengeful assailant, prompting him, son Jacob (Clark Duke) and buddy Nick (Craig Robinson) to travel to an alternate timeline to find out who tries to kill him. In the future, they're also joined by Adam (Adam Scott), the son of Cusack's character. From the start, it's dick jokes, lazy '90s nostalgia, bodily functions, dick jokes, a grating Corddry mugging shamelessly, dick jokes, puking, gay sex jokes, dick jokes, a game show where Nick has to fuck Adam in the ass, dick jokes, a tired-looking Chevy Chase, dick jokes, Christian Slater as the game-show host, dick jokes, and dick jokes. None of the gags here are funny and maybe two even flirt with being semi-remotely amusing. HOT TUB TIME MACHINE  wasn't exactly on its way to the Criterion Collection, but it fell into the "dumb but fun" category. This, on the other hand, is as obnoxious and unfunny a comedy as you're likely to see. HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2--"Un Film de Steve Pink," according to the credits--mistakes being loud and yelling "fuck" a lot for comedy and gives its flop-sweating stars--who have been funny in other things, like the original HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, for example--nothing to work with, and it's somehow even less entertaining than MORTDECAI, presumed to be the standard-bearer for terrible comedy in 2015. At least MORTDECAI had one legitimate laugh. That's one more than HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 offers. (R, 93 mins)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


(France/West Germany - 1981)

Written and directed by Walerian Borowczyk. Cast: Udo Kier, Marina Pierro, Patrick Magee, Gerard Zalcberg, Howard Vernon, Clement Harari, Giselle Preville, Jean Mylonas, Eugene Braun Munk, Louis Michel Colla, Catherine Coste. (Unrated, 91 mins)

Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006) was a Polish filmmaker who worked primarily in France after settling there in 1959. Though generally lumped in with mavericks like Jess Franco and Jean Rollin, directors who constantly straddled the line between art and smut, Borowczyk was more of a renaissance man, an artist and filmmaker who dabbled in everything from lithograph art to short animated works to the avant garde as a young man, tallying up many film festival awards throughout the 1960s. He collaborated with famed LA JETEE director Chris Marker and, like Marker, was an influence on Terry Gilliam. Borowczyk moved into feature films in the 1970s, earning a Palme d'Or nomination at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival for THE STORY OF SIN, but for decades, he was best known for IMMORAL TALES (1974), with its famous Elizabeth Bathory segment, and THE BEAST (1975), films that mixed horror with softcore porn that became so popular in the wake of Just Jaeckin's EMMANUELLE (1974). Subsequent films like THE STREETWALKER (1976), with EMMANUELLE star Sylvia Kristel and the nunsploitation BEHIND CONVENT WALLS (1978) pretty much cemented his reputation as a purveyor of high-end Eurotrash. Like Rollin and Franco, Borowczyk was capable of making films of serious artistic value, but often let his love of naked women take precedence. Lured by producer Alain Siritzky to the ill-fated EMMANUELLE 5 in 1987, with American actress Monique Gabrielle stepping in for the absent Kristel, Borowczyk's cut was released in France, but he would see the film completely gutted for the US market when it was acquired years later by Roger Corman, who dumped a good chunk of Borowczyk's footage and had HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD II director and regular Concorde/New Horizons post-production supervisor Steve Barnett shoot new sex scenes and decidedly un-EMMANUELLE action sequences with Gabrielle. Barnett's Corman-mandated changes essentially turned Borowczyk's erotic European art film into an Andy Sidaris knockoff that went straight to VHS in 1992. True to form for these guys in the late '80s, Borowczyk contemporary Rollin ended up directing some of the equally doomed EMMANUELLE 6 in 1988 (also released by Corman in the US in 1992), with the franchise becoming so hopelessly lost that by the time Kristel returned in 1993, the next in the series was redundantly titled EMMANUELLE VI. Borowczyk finished his big screen career with 1987's LOVE RITES and from 1986 to 1991, helmed several episodes of the erotic French TV series SOFTLY FROM PARIS before retiring from directing.

Though he's best known for IMMORAL TALES and THE BEAST, one Borowczyk film that's gained significant traction over the years is his perversely transgressive 1981 masterpiece DR JEKYLL ET LES FEMMES, better known as DR. JEKYLL AND HIS WOMEN (and also BLOOD OF DR. JEKYLL and BLOODLUST). The FEMMES title was imposed on Borowczyk by the producers, but the film is just out on Blu-ray from Arrow under the director's preferred title THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE. Borowczyk's take on Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the most unusual horror films of the 1980s and certainly one of cinema's most misanthropic screeds, with an aggressive electronic score by Bernard Parmegiani that's genuinely unsettling. The set-up owes as much to Agatha Christie as it does to Stevenson, and after a slow and tense build, Borowczyk steers it into some incredibly dark places, offering sights that, once seen, can never be unseen. Set over the course of one doomed night, the film takes place at the mansion of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) during his engagement party to Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). While guests--among them renowned Dr. Lanyard (Franco regular Howard Vernon), the Reverend Donald Regan Guest (Clement Harari), and the eccentric military legend General William Danvers Carew (the great Patrick Magee in his last film before his death in 1982)--pretentiously pontificate and bloviate on proper Victorian matters of high society and self-aggrandizement, they're picked off one by one by a ranting, sexually voracious madman calling himself Mr. Hyde (Gerard Zalcberg).

Hyde usually violates his victims--both female and male--with his incredibly large organ ("The sex of the criminal was extremely long and pointed, wasn't it?" a guest asks after finding a victim penetrated so deeply that the abdomen was ripped apart), with Zalcberg's stunt cock given several close-ups by Borowczyk in a couple of scenes that dangerously flirt with crossing over into hardcore porn, and no one really pieces together that Hyde only appears after Jekyll excuses himself and goes into his laboratory. In the lab, he has a bath filled with a secret potion called Solicor, which allows him to shed his proper Victorian image and become the raging id that lurks beneath. Once transformed into Hyde, he obliterates the facade of Victorian societal decorum, dismantling it one horrifying assault at a time as he annihilates cherished institutions like the military, the clergy, medicine, and family. He ties up the tough-talking Carew (one of Magee's most insane performances in a career filled with them) and forces him to watch as he has his way with the General's rebellious, willing, and sexually adventurous daughter as she's bent over a table, fondling and stroking the world's most phallic sewing machine. He rapes one of the male guests after pursuing him through the darkened house. Eventually, he even rapes his own mother (Giselle Preville, the 1935 Miss France runner-up who inherited the crown when the winner gave it up after just two hours), shouting "I'm going to break you in two, decrepit hag!" Fanny finds out his secret, and rather than being terrified, she's intrigued and even turned on, jumping into the Solicor bath with him, transforming into her own Hyde as the two commandeer a coach and ride off in the night, their dead guests' bodies strewn about the mansion as Parmegiani's score drones and on and on and on.

The second-best profoundly unnerving 1981 French/West German horror film by a Polish emigre (after Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION), THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE was released in France and other parts of Europe in 1981 and had an unsuccessful one-week run in the UK in 1984. Critics had mixed reactions, and few moviegoers saw it, but those who did never forgot it. It never received a theatrical or video release in the US (it did appear in Canadian video stores under the BLOODLUST title), though it was a mainstay on the bootleg circuit and eventually, crummy (and usually edited) prints could easily be found on YouTube. Arrow's new Blu-ray/DVD combo set marks the first official, authorized release of the film on home video in the US, and it's a package that practically outdoes Criterion in terms of the superior digital restoration and the copious extras. After years of watching blurry, cropped versions of the film, fans will be surprised at what they see and hear on Arrow's set, which will undoubtedly stand as the definitive version of what's become Borowczyk's signature work. It's a film that encompasses all of the filmmaker's sexual, political, and social obsessions, and it's shot on ornate sets with an at-times BARRY LYNDON-like use of natural or very dim lighting that emphasizes the disorientation and terror of the proceedings. Borowczyk makes excellent use of shadows and mirrors, the latter being the perfect metaphor for the duality of Jekyll and Hyde, Fanny and her murderous alter ego, and the perfect Victorian exterior masking the ugly hypocrisy underneath.

Luis Bunuel was a major influence on Borowczyk when he turned to feature filmmaking, and it's been pointed out by others and bears mentioning here how much of a debt STRANGE CASE owes to the Bunuel classics THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962), with its guests physically unable to leave a dinner party, and THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977), with the female lead alternately played by two different actresses (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina), sometimes in the same scene. Taking on the role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has always been regarded as a tour-de-force for any actor who's essayed the role, like John Barrymore in 1920, Spencer Tracy in 1941, Christopher Lee as "Dr. Marlowe and Mr. Blake" in 1971's I, MONSTER, and even Anthony Perkins in 1989's tawdry EDGE OF SANITY, which worked in the Jack the Ripper mythos as a freebasing Jekyll became a serial-killing, compulsively-masturbating Mr. Hyde. Fredric March even won the Best Actor Oscar for MGM's 1932 take on the famous story. It wasn't often that you'd see guys like Barrymore, March and Tracy in a horror movie, and the whole point of a serious actor taking on the role was to show their range. Borowczyk goes in the opposite direction in an obvious nod to Bunuel, casting one actor to play Jekyll and another to play Hyde. This had been done before--out of necessity with Ralph Bates and Martine Beswicke in 1971's DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE--but in the context of Borowczyk's take on the story, the dual casting works perfectly, even if it deprives us of just how interesting Kier as Mr. Hyde might've been. With his shaved eyebrows and dead glare, Zalcberg, best known to Eurotrash fans as Helmut Berger's hulking, drill-killing henchman in Jess Franco's FACELESS, is terrifying as Hyde, even if he's saddled with some of Borowczyk's prose that's often more purple than Hyde's engorged penis. If Borowczyk makes one mistake with STRANGE CASE, it's overstating the message and not trusting the audience to put it together. Jekyll/Hyde's appalling offenses, his shredding of societal convention, his exposing of upper-class hypocrisy, and his unleashing the beast within are apparent enough without him haughtily sneering "Like a schoolboy shedding the tawdry rags of his dreary institution, I throw off pretense, and leap, wallowing in an ocean of freedom and pleasure!" in a dubbed voice that sounds like Bill Corbett's later version of Crow T. Robot on MST3K, undermining Hyde's horrific actions by making him sound like a verbose brat in desperate need of a time-out.

Going with the French audio probably gives the film a touch of class that's lacking in the rather clumsy English dub (which only has Magee voicing his own performance; Kier's actual voice isn't heard on either track), and like its themes, it only further illustrates the sense of duality that permeates THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE: it's an art film with one foot in the grindhouse, simultaneously serious and trashy, classy and graphic, legitimately erotic and then straight-up uncomfortable. Like Jekyll and Hyde, STRANGE CASE is constantly two things at once, with incredibly effective and often stunning visuals juxtaposed with vile sexual violence. It shares a kinship with the best of Jean Rollin and maybe, on his best day, Jess Franco, though Franco wouldn't have been able to resist the urge for constant crotch zooms and would've have paid attention to the particulars, like having the camera pointed in the right direction. It's a strange, bewildering, beautiful, and shocking piece of work with haunting images that stay with you long after it's over.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: TWO MEN IN TOWN (2015); EXTRATERRESTRIAL (2014); and MORTDECAI (2015)

(US/France/Algeria/Belgium - 2014; US release 2015)

A low-key, deliberately-paced character piece, TWO MEN IN TOWN is a remake of a 1973 French film by Jose Giovanni, with Alain Delon as an ex-con trying to stay straight with the help of an elderly social worker (the legendary Jean Gabin in one of his last films) and a new girlfriend (Mimsy Farmer). He finds this difficult thanks to a variety of obstacles, chief among them an angry cop (Michel Bouquet) with a serious grudge against him, and a former criminal associate (a young Gerard Depardieu) who keeps trying to pull him back into his old life. This new version, directed and co-written by French filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb (DAYS OF GLORY, OUTSIDE THE LAW), moves the story from France to the sparsely-populated southern-most area of New Mexico, right along the US/Mexico border. Paroled after serving 18 years of a 21-year sentence for killing a deputy sheriff, William Garnett (Forest Whitaker) has a dark past as a vicious criminal and a drug dealer, but has found peace while incarcerated. He's converted to Islam, is devoutly religious, he's taught himself to read and earned his GED, and worked as a tutor and counselor to his fellow inmates. A model prisoner who has fought his demons and wants nothing more than to start his life over and get it right, Garnett gets some support from his sympathetic parole officer Emily Smith (Brenda Blethyn), gets a minimum wage job at a cattle farm, and starts dating nice bank teller Teresa (Dolores Heredia). But flashes of the old Garnett occasionally pop up, whether he arrives home from work to find Emily inspecting his room at a local halfway house, or smashing his neighbor's TV when he won't turn the volume down. His temper is egged on by big-shot, five-term sheriff Bill Agati (Harvey Keitel), who shows legitimate concern over a local vigilante group's unlawful treatment of illegals crossing the border, but extends no such goodwill toward Garnett. It was Agati's deputy that Garnett murdered, and he has no intention of letting him off the hook. Agati follows Garnett, harasses him while he's having dinner at a restaurant, shows up at Teresa's house to embarrass him, has him held overnight for a speeding violation, and even goes so far as to bully Garnett's boss into firing him. On top of that, Garnett's old criminal cohort Terrance (Luis Guzman) keeps turning up, endlessly hounding and threatening him about picking up where they left off and, like Ben Kingsley in SEXY BEAST, refuses to take no for an answer. With no one but Teresa and his parole officer allowing him to lead the quiet life he wants to lead, it's only a matter of time before Garnett explodes.

Anchored by a Ry Cooder-esque score by Eric Neveux, TWO MEN IN TOWN often has a PARIS, TEXAS-era Wim Wenders feel to it. Like Wenders, Bouchareb is a European filmmaker who manages to convey a unique view of the American Southwest. The cinematography by Yves Cape (HOLY MOTORS) effectively captures the sun-drenched surroundings and the desert highways that Europeans seem to have a special knack for achieving, because as outsiders, Bouchareb and Cape see the unique things that Americans in their positions might miss. This environment is nothing new to Bouchareb, who has an affinity for the region, having shot 2012's JUST LIKE A WOMAN in New Mexico as well, plus he produced Bruno Dumont's 2003 cult film TWENTYNINE PALMS, a desert road trip slow-burner shot in the title city and in Joshua Tree. A lean and intense Whitaker, who's been dismayingly terrible in pretty much everything he's done for the last several years, turns in his best performance in a long while as the tightly-wound Garnett. Keitel does some fine work as Agati, who, despite his early concern for some illegals before turning them over to the border patrol, is every bit the asshole that you expect an apparent sheriff-for-life in a small town in the middle of nowhere to be. Ellen Burstyn turns up for one very well-played scene as Garnett's adoptive mother, who couldn't bring herself to visit him even once while he was in prison. Blethyn seems miscast, and her performance is uneven, as the folksy tone of her line delivery seems more to mask her British accent than to convey the down-home, tell-it-like-is sass of her character. The conclusion leaves a little to be desired, and Bouchareb has no idea what to do with Keitel's character, instead turning the primary antagonist role over to Guzman while Keitel basically disappears from the film. Still, it's an interesting drama that flopped in Europe and only managed a VOD and scant US theatrical release here over a year after it played the Berlin Film Festival. It's flawed, but worth seeing for fans of Keitel and Whitaker, who hasn't been this good since his Oscar-winning turn in 2006's THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND. (R, 117 mins)

(Canada - 2014)

Though the generically-titled EXTRATERRESTRIAL is not intended to be a remake of the 2011 Spanish film by Nacho Vigalondo, they do share the idea of a couple's relationship issues being put on the backburner by a sudden alien invasion. That wouldn't be the only derivative element of the latest film from the GRAVE ENCOUNTERS team of Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz, who work under the name The Vicious Brothers. Their EXTRATERRESTRIAL is more concerned with being a blatant ripoff of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, with five archetypes--brain, nice guy, dude-bro, stoner, and blonde ditz--only here, they encounter UFOs and not-very-friendly aliens. April (Brittany Allen) is planning on a weekend at her parents' cabin with boyfriend Kyle (Freddie Stroma), but it turns into a blowout party when he invites their friends Seth (Jesse Moss as the dude-bro), Melanie (Melanie Papalia as the stoner), and Lex (Anja Savcic as the blonde ditz). April's rejection of Kyle's sudden proposal sours the weekend, but things go from bad to worse when a UFO crash-lands in the woods. Grabbing her dad's shotgun, April blasts one of the E.T.s, which doesn't bode well with its alien friends.

Diverting but not nearly as clever as it thinks it is, EXTRATERRESTRIAL doesn't really get the whole "meta" thing down like CABIN IN THE WOODS did. Like CABIN, it also has unseen puppet masters secretly calling the shots, in this case it's exposition supplied by Travis (Michael Ironside), a pot-growing, conspiracy-theorist Vietnam vet who lives in a nearby cabin. He knows what's the alien visitors have been up to in the woods and tells April and the others of a secret treaty between the US government and the aliens that dates back to Roswell: the government agrees to leave the aliens to go about their business of abducting yokels if they do so quietly and in limited numbers so as not to draw attention. In exchange, as Travis puts it, "We get to keep acting like we're running things down here." It's an interesting concept that gets a lot of mileage out of a terrific performance by Ironside, but the Vicious Brothers err in taking him out of the film far too early. Gil Bellows is also very well cast in a haggard, beaten-down-by-life way as the beer-gutted sheriff who hasn't been able to get past his wife's disappearance a decade earlier, and when these kids start talking about UFOs and aliens, coupled with a shell-shocked local mom (GINGER SNAPS' Emily Perkins) telling the same story where her husband and son were taken away, he starts seeing an explanation for what happened to her. EXTRATERRESTRIAL opens strong and for a while, it has the feel of an old-school '80s crowd-pleaser, but with its two major assets--Ironside and Bellows--not getting enough screen time, we're left with mostly uninteresting leads (Allen is a strong, appealing heroine, but the rest range from forgettable to, in Moss' case, excruciating). Connoisseurs of alien invasion films may enjoy what's easily cinema's nastiest anal probe scene, but there's little consistency: if the aliens can establish a psychic link strong enough to force one character to blow his own head off, then why can't they find Perkins' character, who's hiding in plain sight? And if the aliens are supposed to be keeping things on the down-low, why are they spending so much time and abducting so many people in this neck of the woods? The film really stumbles with an overdone, maudlin finale that leads to a downbeat NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD ending that it doesn't earn, instead coming off as unnecessarily mean-spirited. Though it's rather unrestrained in its CABIN IN THE WOODS worship, there's a good film desperately trying to break out of the merely average EXTRATERRESTRIAL. As far as recent alien invasion pics go, it's at least preferable to the Milla Jovovich con job THE FOURTH KIND and the unwatchable SKYLINE, one of the worst major-studio releases in years. (Unrated, 101 mins)

(US - 2015)

After a string of misfires that saw former actor Johnny Depp's stock plummet with fans (THE RUM DIARY, DARK SHADOWS, THE LONE RANGER, TRANSCENDENCE, and his incognito supporting role in Kevin Smith's pathetic TUSK), it seems as if the world put its foot down with MORTDECAI.  After at least two months of the most relentlessly pushy ad campaign in recent memory, moviegoers actively revolted and let it bomb hard in theaters. On its own terms, it could've been an amusing throwback to double entendre-filled '60s comedies, like something Peter Sellers might've made around the time of THE PINK PANTHER, WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT? or AFTER THE FOX. But the world made it known that it's clearly sick of Depp's constant crutches of pancake makeup and whimsical vocal affectations, and seeing him in the MORTDECAI trailers with a waxed mustache and a forced British accent trading randy and sassy quips with Goop publisher and vagina-steaming advocate Gwyneth Paltrow was where everyone drew the line, took a stand, and emphatically declared "No more!" The $60 million MORTDECAI, based on a series of 1970s comic adventure novels by Kyril Bonfiglioli, grossed just $8 million in the US and took a beating from critics, making it a safe bet that this won't become another PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise for Depp. The wasteful budgets of today's movies often border on criminal, but it seems especially offensive here. Other than paying a bunch of big names to jerk themselves off (Depp got paid $10 million), nothing here warrants pissing away $60 million. Think what $60 million could've done for people in need. Who the fuck needed MORTDECAI?

An appalling, obnoxious vanity project for star/producer Depp, MORTDECAI is every bit as awful as you've heard, which is tragic because there's a surplus of squandered talent. This is a film with an alarming contempt for its audience. It's obvious the actors are having a much better time than the viewer and you soon realize you're paying to attend a party where you're deliberately being excluded from the fun. Eccentric, jet-setting--and broke--British art dealer Lord Charlie Mortdecai (Depp) gets roped into a plot by his friend and M.I.5 agent Martland (Ewan McGregor) to recover a rare stolen Goya painting. So begins a globetrotting adventure that finds Mortdecai and his faithful, hulking manservant Jock (Paul Bettany) tangling with Russian mobsters, vacuous Californians, and the nympho daughter (Olivia Munn) of a shady L.A. art figure (Jeff Goldblum, cast radically against type as "Jeff Goldblum"). Meanwhile, Mortdecai's wife Johanna (Paltrow) also gets pulled into the pursuit of the Goya, providing Martland with an opportunity to steal her away from Mortdecai, which he's been trying to do since their college days. There's very little in the way of comedy in the script by Eric Aronson, whose lone previous writing credit is the 2001 Lance Bass/Joey Fatone vehicle ON THE LINE. It's too bad director David Koepp, a veteran screenwriter whose credits include JURASSIC PARK, CARLITO'S WAY, and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, didn't write it as well--perhaps he could've brought something to the table other than Aronson, whose approach seems to have been scribbling "Johnny Depp, British accent, mustache" on a piece of scrap paper, crossing his fingers, and hoping everything would work itself out. As it is, MORTDECAI's idea of comedy is Depp's overdone accent and the fact that he has a mustache and his character is a pompous dolt who still calls America "The Colonies." That's it. Every joke is based on one or a combination of those things. There's one legitimate AUSTIN POWERS-style laugh--Mortdecai at a men's room urinal as a Russian gangster grabs him from behind, injecting a sedative into his neck as Mortdecai quips "Oh! I've read about this!"--and that's it. There's nothing here. One of the emptiest films of the year, MORTDECAI is what happens when a movie star is too rich and out of touch for anyone to tell him no. Depp hasn't tried in years because he doesn't have to, so he enjoys another fat payday, amusing himself by mugging shamelessly with a wacky accent and a fake mustache. Well, I guess that means at least one person found MORTDECAI amusing. (R, 107 mins)

Friday, May 15, 2015

In Theaters: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

(US/Australia - 2015)

Directed by George Miller. Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris. Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Nathan Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Josh Helman, John Howard, Richard Carter, Megan Gale, Melissa Jaffer, Angus Sampson, Richard Norton,  iOTA. (R, 120 mins)

Australian auteur George Miller has worked only sporadically in the 30 years since 1985's MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME, but when he does reappear, he makes it count. He produced the beloved BABE in 1995 and directed 1998's BABE: PIG IN THE CITY, a dark and bizarre curveball of a sequel that baffled everyone but has become a major cult film. In the years since, he's become synonymous with the hugely popular HAPPY FEET films, but MAD MAX: FURY ROAD marks his triumphant return to the franchise he started in 1979 with MAD MAX, one that made Mel Gibson a star and spawned an entire subgenre of post-nuke action films after its sequel THE ROAD WARRIOR opened in the US in the legendary summer of 1982. THE ROAD WARRIOR (released a year earlier in its native Australia as MAD MAX 2) remains one of the most influential action films ever made and one that BEYOND THUNDERDOME probably couldn't have topped even if Miller's mind wasn't elsewhere following the 1983 death of his friend and producing partner Byron Kennedy in a helicopter crash while location-scouting (his name remains on their production company Kennedy Miller Mitchell to this day), prompting a grieving Miller to delegate enough of the film to Australian TV vet George Ogilvie that both Georges shared directing credit. For 30 years, the disappointing-but-OK-on-its-own-terms BEYOND THUNDERDOME, despite such memorable characters as Master Blaster and Tina Turner's Aunty Entity, has remained a lesser conclusion to an otherwise exemplary trilogy.

Miller's had the basic concept of FURY ROAD churning in his head since the late '90s, and tried to get it off the ground in the early 2000s with Gibson returning to his iconic role. But it never materialized into anything more than the idea stage until Miller finally got all the pieces in place with Tom Hardy taking over the Mad Max role from Gibson, who by then was either too old or too much of a tabloid distraction or both. FURY ROAD isn't a reboot, it's not a prequel, and it's not an origin story.  It's not even necessarily a sequel as much as it's another Mad Max adventure. It functions as a stand-alone, self-contained piece, much like the old James Bond movies used to do. There's references to things from the earlier films, mainly winking nods to longtime fans (the music box given to The Feral Kid in THE ROAD WARRIOR; a near-subliminal shot of bulging eyeballs from MAD MAX), and 67-year-old Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played MAD MAX's chief villain Toecutter 36 years ago, is onboard as a different villain this time. Much the way THE ROAD WARRIOR blazed trails in the action genre, so does FURY ROAD, with the now-70-year-old Miller unveiling what's likely the best action movie in a generation, effectively showing an entire demographic weaned on CGI and video games and hyper, incoherent, shaky-cam editing how it should be done. Much was made of FURY ROAD's reliance on practical effects and old-school stunt work, though it obviously utilizes CGI to a certain degree. Yes, a couple of shots look a little on the cartoony side, but the other 98% of the time, Miller uses CGI how it should be used:  as an enhancement as opposed to a crutch. Even by the standards he set 34 years ago with THE ROAD WARRIOR, the veteran filmmaker outdoes himself with MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, proof positive that underneath his soft-spoken, milquetoast exterior, George Miller is a fucking madman perpetually straddling the fine line between genius and insanity.

Hardy's Max Rockatansky is introduced being abducted by the War Boys, the albino-like minions of wasteland despot Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne), who sports a plastic casing over his boil-ravaged body and a breathing apparatus permanently attached to his face. Max is kept prisoner as the human blood bag of Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a sickly War Boy who needs frequent transfusions. Immortan Joe is viewed as a deity by his followers, who are kept in line by a very conservatively doled-out water supply and promises of being carried into Valhalla. Not everyone is happy under his rule, particularly one-armed War Rig driver Imperator Furiosa (a terrific Charlize Theron), a buzz-cut, battle-scarred warrior in charge of getting a supply of "guzzoline" from nearby Gastown. Instead, she's stowed away Immortan Joe's five young wives--the very pregnant Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee), and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton), all enslaved and kept under lock and key for breeding and sexual purposes--with the intent of taking them to their freedom to a mythical promised land known as "The Green Place." Once Immortan Joe realizes they've gone off the road to Gastown, he and his hulking son Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones) unleash an army of warriors and War Boys for what's essentially a feature-length, extended chase sequence with a couple of breaks for character development. Max begins the pursuit chained to the front of Nux's car, intravenously connected to him until an epic dust storm separates them from the rest of Immortan Joe's forces and Max forms an unholy alliance with Furiosa. Dialogue is relatively minimal, often with nods or facial expressions often speaking volumes (note Max's only smile--a half-hearted one at that--and the exhausted thumbs-up he gives The Splendid Angharad when she steps up and disposes of a War Boy), and there's little in the way of subtlety: when Max asks Furiosa what she's after, the answer is "Redemption." Well, duh.

But that's not the main concern with FURY ROAD. Miller has fashioned this as a jawdropping epic, with himself the conductor of a batshit symphony of destruction. With a $150 million budget, Warner Bros. has given Miller an astounding amount of leeway in the creation of his latest masterpiece. Filmed in the summer and fall of 2012 in the Namib Desert and Namibia, with other shooting in South Africa and Australia, with some additional reshoots and second-unit work in November 2013, Miller took a Kubrickian amount of time getting FURY ROAD just right, from the action choreography to the vehicles and the costumes to the locations and the production design. I've never seen a film with so many credited assistant directors, assistant editors, and stunt personnel. From the car wrecks to the stunt professionals being hurled through the air or pole-vaulting onto big rigs barreling through the Namib Desert at high speeds, or the flashy Doof Warrior (iOTA), who heads into battle perched atop a War Rig with a flamethrowing double-necked guitar backed by a wall of amps and eight drummers on the trailer behind, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD presents bombastic, skullcrushing action as a work of lunatic art. Describing it not only risks spoiling it, but it in no way does it justice. You've seen films like this before--you just haven't seen them done this way before. Miller, his co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale, and all the technical personnel have achieved a new benchmark in action cinema, and a blistering example of just how placated we've become with what passes for such in most of today's big movies. Miller has bestowed MAD MAX: FURY ROAD on the moviegoing public to remind us of the possibilities and to save the Big Summer Movie from itself. It can be done, because Miller and his cast and crew did it. People still remember the formative experience of seeing THE ROAD WARRIOR for the first time. That's how you'll feel leaving the theater after MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. Can you remember the last time you felt that way? The term "game-changer" gets tossed around a little too liberally these days, but believe the hype. This is the new standard-bearer.

Note: standard, 2D version reviewed

Friday, May 8, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: MAGGIE (2015)

(US/Switzerland - 2015)

Directed by Henry Hobson. Written by John Scott 3. Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, J.D. Evermore, Douglas M. Griffin, Jodie Moore, Bryce Romero, Raeden Greer. (PG-13, 95 mins)

Once upon a time, the idea of Arnold Schwarzenegger starring in a zombie movie would mean plenty of action, horror, and the expected shouting of "Aim fah da head!" In his bumpy transition back to full-time acting since a decade in politics, Schwarzenegger hasn't enjoyed the box office blockbusters he had in his heyday, with only THE EXPENDABLES 2 and THE EXPENDABLES 3 being big moneymakers, though ESCAPE PLAN was a modest hit, but those were group efforts done with Sylvester Stallone and others. Elsewhere, the enjoyable THE LAST STAND and the dismal SABOTAGE were met with utter disinterest and absolutely tanked, and served as further proof that the geriatric action guys don't do well solo anymore (witness Stallone's fun BULLET TO THE HEAD bombing as well). Perhaps that's why Schwarzenegger chose now, at the age of 67, to take on the most unusual role of his career in MAGGIE, a moving, character-driven drama that happens to take place during a zombie apocalypse.

Shot in Louisiana two years ago, from a script by first-time screenwriter John Scott 3 that's been bouncing around Hollywood for several years, the low-budget MAGGIE opens in the midst of a viral outbreak that's rendered the major cities deserted wastelands. The government has turned the inner cities into quarantine zones for the infected, who have an average of eight weeks from the point of infection before they fully "turn" into flesh-eating zombies. Maggie Vogel (Abigail Breslin) left her home for the city after becoming infected from a bite on the arm, but as the film opens, her father Wade (Schwarzenegger) has spent two weeks trying to find her before locating her in a barely-staffed hospital. Wade's intent is to take her home but the doctor advises him to return her to the quarantine zone when she enters the final stages before her turn. A proud, self-reliant farmer and Christian family man, Wade will not hear of letting Maggie die alone, surrounded by strangers and other infected, instead insisting on having her live out her final weeks at home with him and her stepmother Caroline (Joely Richardson), who sends the couple's two younger children off to stay with her sister while Maggie undergoes her turning.

The grieving process already underway, Maggie is relatively normal for the first few weeks, but as her body slowly decomposes and rots, and her increased sense of smell draws her to human and animal flesh, she has moments where she can still be a normal teenager. She laughs and reminisces with her dad, usually about her late mother. She hangs out with friends, some of whom are infected and in the early stages of turning. Through it all, Wade does his best to keep a stiff upper lip and be the rock that he's always been for his little girl, but it often proves too much to bear. He's already lost his wife (her death predates the outbreak, so while it's never specified and doesn't need to be, she likely died of cancer) and since he refuses to turn Maggie over to the medical teams in quarantine--which gets him into hot water with the local sheriff--he's burdened with the task of killing what was once his daughter when her transformation is complete.

MAGGIE is an extremely dour, downbeat film, shot in dark, muted tones with a grim, funereal mood throughout. The "turning" is a powerful metaphor that will resonate with anyone who's seen a family member or friend face the last stages of a terminal illness. They'll recognize the overwhelming helplessness felt by Wade, who's always been there to protect his family but seems lost facing the realization that there is absolutely nothing he can do to make Maggie better. With his craggy face and his shoulders slumped with age (which didn't work to his advantage in SABOTAGE), the stunt casting of Schwarzenegger is inspired and spot-on. We've always taken leaps and allowed a generous amount of wiggle room when it comes to his acting. Even when he's playing US military guys or Texas sheriffs, his appeal and his screen presence have helped audiences overlook the often cumbersome Austrian accent and his occasionally awkward line deliveries that fans often endearingly quote (think "Get to da choppah!" or "It's not a too-mah!"). Schwarzenegger delivers a low-key performance that's unlike anything he's done before, and the fact that he's playing an Austrian-accented rural farmer never once becomes a distraction. His scenes with an excellent Breslin are often very touching, especially when he tells her how much of her mother's spirit she has in her, or when, on the ride back after an unpleasant checkup with the doctor midway through her turning, he makes her smile by playing a tape of Oscar Brown, Jr's "Maggie," and the shared look between the two conveys the kind of warmth and fond memories that words don't need to express.

Scott 3 and debuting director Henry Hobson (who designed the opening credits for THE WALKING DEAD) never let things get maudlin or sappy. Maggie's decline is treated matter-of-factly and comes as no surprise to anyone, as the outbreak's been ongoing and they've seen it all before (recognizing Wade's staunch refusal to quarantine Maggie, her doctor's last bit of advice to him is "Make it quick"). We see a couple of shambling zombies but the apocalypse has already taken place, with big city highways deserted and fields in the outlying areas seemingly constantly ablaze. MAGGIE turns the focus on an element of zombie lore that's been largely unexplored outside of the slow turning of Scott H. Reiniger's hot-dogging Roger in George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979): the time between infection and transformation. But even then, Roger didn't have time to get sentimental ("You got a hell of a lot more to do before you can afford to lose me") and despite the same certain inevitability that Maggie faces, promised "I'm gonna try not to come back." Wade and Maggie face her fate with bravery and her final act demonstrates a level of compassion not usually found in the genre, proof that no matter how sick you become and how much your body degrades and turns against itself before it finally dies, you're still you and that sense of who you are can never be completely taken away. MAGGIE isn't a typical summer horror movie, and it's surprising that everyone involved on the business end didn't force Hobson to turn it into one (Schwarzenegger was one of 21 credited producers, so he obviously believed in the project). It's a small film that Lionsgate recognized wouldn't be a commercial hit, which is likely why they relegated it to their arthouse Roadside Attractions division and released it on VOD. And that's fine, because a thoughtful, offbeat film like MAGGIE will cultivate an audience over time and remain relevant and effective much longer than a by-the-numbers zombie shoot 'em up with a quipping Ah-nuld and shitty Bulgarian CGI ever would.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: MR. TURNER (2014) and WINTER SLEEP (2014)

(UK/France/Germany - 2014)

Since his 1988 breakthrough HIGH HOPES, Mike Leigh has become one of the most distinctive voices in British cinema. In the years since, his credits read like a list of essential British films of the last quarter century: LIFE IS SWEET (1990), the shockingly misanthropic NAKED (1993), SECRETS & LIES (1996), TOPSY-TURVY (1999), VERA DRAKE (2004), HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (2008), and ANOTHER YEAR (2010) are generally considered great films to varying degrees, and even comparatively minor Leigh works like CAREER GIRLS (1997) and ALL OR NOTHING (2002) are very much worthwhile. I guess every great filmmaker has to have an off day, and with MR. TURNER, Leigh has delivered his first genuine misfire, though considering its current 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I'm clearly in the minority with that sentiment. A lethargic, coma-inducing biopic that focuses on the last 25 years in the life of famed British painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and feels like it's being told in real time, MR. TURNER offers the great character actor and Leigh regular Timothy Spall the opportunity for the role of a lifetime, but after 30 or so minutes, his endless grunting, snorting, and harumphing in lieu of actual sentences--and when he does talk, you can barely understand him--gets old and there's still two tedious hours to go. Leigh has a method to his filmmaking that works for his small, intimate character studies: he brings his cast together for weeks or even months of improvisation and workshopping, collaborating as a team to develop the characters, their backstories, and their arcs, and from that, Leigh constructs a script and then the film is made. It's a system that has always worked but utterly fails him here. All Spall has is the tics and the mannerisms and they become a crutch because there's no narrative drive to MR. TURNER whatsoever.

It opens in the middle of the action and it's a good 45 minutes before you've worked out who's who and where they fit in Turner's world. It's all for naught because all Leigh presents is a series of vignettes and snapshots, jumping around the last two decades of Turner's life as characters drift in and out of view. It should be a perfect showcase for Spall, but it always ends up with Turner finding some inspiration for a landscape painting, then treating people like garbage--he has two children he doesn't acknowledge with a former mistress (Ruth Sheen) he ignores, and that mistress' psoriasis-stricken niece (Dorothy Atkinson) works as Turner's housekeeper and is routinely mounted from behind by her grunting, slobbering boss when he feels the urge. Turner has fleeting moments where he's a sensitive, caring individual in his own peculiar, grunty way, whether in his close relationship with his father (Paul Jesson is very good) or later, when he falls in love with his widowed landlady (Marion Bailey), but generally, he's a bastard, and maybe Leigh wants to make a point about the divide between the beauty of his art and the darkness of his soul. Unfortunately, it's lost amidst a guttural cacophony of snorts and gurgles that turn Spall's performance into a hammy and constipated embarrassment, regardless of how accurate the portrayal may be, and once Turner's father dies around an hour in, the film loses Jesson and its biggest source of warmth and humanity. Turner may be a great artist, but there's little here to suggest--at least in Leigh's unbearably monotonous presentation--that he's an interesting subject for a two-and-a-half hour film. By contrast, Turner's clashes with rival painter Benjamin Robert Haydon--and Martin Savage's performance in the role--bring a too-infrequent spark to the proceedings and definitely lead one to conclude that perhaps Haydon would've been a more interesting and cinematic subject for Leigh to pursue. Despite the beautiful, Oscar-nominated cinematography by Dick Pope--Academy Awards president Cheryl Boone Isaacs mispronouncing his name "Dick Poop" at the announcing of the nominees is more memorable than anything in the actual film--MR. TURNER is a shockingly empty and unfocused work from a great filmmaker, a tortuously, frustratingly dawdling 150-minute endurance test whose maddeningly molasses pacing is slower than any Merchant-Ivory film. (R, running time: endless)

(Turkey/France/Germany - 2014)

WINTER SLEEP is 45 minutes longer than MR. TURNER, and while it actually feels shorter than Leigh's film, it's still too much by at least an hour. The Palme d'Or winner at last year's Cannes Film Festival--a decision that suggests the Jane Campion-led jury was possibly suffering from Stockholm Syndrome--WINTER SLEEP, loosely based on the Chekhov short story "The Wife," is the latest from Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan and demonstrates very much the same visual aesthetic of his 2011 masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA. It's also more self-indulgently bloated than it has any reason to be, with significant stretches of time devoted to escalating arguments between characters who make their point and keep circling back and restating those points for no other reason than to pad the film's absurd length, coming in at just under 200 minutes. In a performance with a demeanor and mannerisms that frequently recall Robert De Niro, Haluk Bilginer is Aydin, a one-time actor and now de facto town leader, landlord, and owner of the Hotel Othello, an unusual hotel carved into the side of a mountain. He fancies himself a benevolent and important figure but his arrogance is alienating everyone, including his much younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen). He owns all the property and writes a newspaper column that nobody reads, and tries to horn his way into Nihal's charity work for a local school, which she resents, accusing him of ignoring her requests to help improve the school for the last year and then swooping in to take all the credit at the end. He also claims to be busy working on a book about the history of Turkish theater, even though there's no demand and his blunt sister Necla (Demet Akbag) says he's only writing because he pontificates and loves the sound of his own voice. It's essentially a three-plus-hour horse pill that follows a not very likable person with an inflated sense of self-importance, both subtly and overtly denigrating everyone, and while there are some undeniably strong moments, both visually and with the work of the actors, it's just an exhausting experience. Riding high on the acclaim bestowed upon ANATOLIA, Ceylan just lets WINTER SLEEP go on and on and on to the point where he's like Michael Douglas' Grady Tripp in WONDER BOYS--he just doesn't know where to stop. You can probably zone out for several stretches of the film and still not miss anything in the way of plot development. By the interminable last hour, where Aydin leaves and Nihal tries to make amends with a local drunkard (Nejat Isler) who clashed with Aydin and his employee Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) early on, I have to admit that I was pretty much over it. WINTER SLEEP is well-made, beautifully shot, powerfully acted, and Ceylan is obviously a major international talent, but maybe he shouldn't read so much of his own press next time. (Unrated, 197 mins)