Thursday, July 30, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: DANNY COLLINS (2015) and WHITE GOD (2015)

(US - 2015)

Al Pacino, or more specifically, the modern incarnation of Al Pacino, hasn't been known for nuance and sensitivity, but DANNY COLLINS provides the great actor with his best role in years. That DANNY COLLINS works as well as it does is a testament to Pacino's gifts as an actor, because upon a first glance, he seems laughably miscast as an aged '70s rock star on a decades-long greatest hits tour. Danny Collins began his career as a folk singer but soon went for big money, becoming an arena rocker singing songs written by others, songs that are now synonymous with him and the only things that his increasingly elderly audience wants to hear. He's still filthy rich and living the easy life with booze, recreational coke, and being a sugar daddy to a gold-digging plaything in her early 20s (Katarina Cas). But a surprise birthday gift from his best friend and career-long manager Frank (Christopher Plummer) has Danny re-evaluating his life and the choices he's made: it seems John Lennon read a 1971 interview with Danny and sent him a letter of encouragement, telling him that he liked his music and that he should call him if he should ever want to talk or write some songs. Lennon included his home phone number. The letter never got to Danny and somehow ended up in the hands of a collector, who sold it to Frank. It wasn't long after that interview that Danny gave up on his own songwriting and became the flashy, crowd-pleasing Danny Collins known to the world today. Canceling his tour and checking into a New Jersey Hilton, Danny is determined to become the man of integrity that John Lennon reached out to over 40 years ago, not just musically ("I haven't written a song in 30 years...I'm a court jester with a microphone"), but by connecting with Tom (Bobby Cannavale), the result of a one-nighter with a groupie back in the early '80s.

Inspired by an actual incident--British cult folk singer Steve Tilston was interviewed by ZigZag in 1971 and was sent a letter of support by Lennon that he never received until 2010--CARS, TANGLED, and LAST VEGAS screenwriter Dan Fogelman, making his directing debut, takes some liberties with where the protagonist ends up (Tilston has worked steadily to this day, but never came close to the mega-stardom of the fictional Danny Collins), and you're first instinct is to compare Danny to the pre-Rick Rubin critical rebirth of Neil Diamond. Fogelman also can't resist occasional forays into the mawkish--of course a potentially fatal illness comes into play--but it's very hard to dislike DANNY COLLINS. Pacino seems so wrong as a cheeseball Barry Manilow that you're convinced the film is sunk before the opening credits are even over, but fortunately, Fogelman keeps the focus on Collins' offstage life. Pacino imbues the character with the eccentricity he often brings to the screen, but does an admirable job of restraining himself and creating a living, breathing character as opposed to a cartoonish spectacle. Danny Collins is a guy who's let everyone close to him down, but as Frank attests "He has a good heart...it's just stuck up his ass sometimes." It's been a long time since Pacino was this charming in a movie, and his mischievous grin while flirting with uptight hotel manager Mary (Annette Bening) and his persistent, heartfelt attempts to bond with Tom and his wife (Jennifer Garner) and their daughter (Giselle Eisenberg) represent Pacino at the top of his game. It's hard not to see Danny as a commentary on Pacino himself, with so many hammy performances in the second half of his career that are so unlike the relatively reserved work of his younger self (though, really, even as far back s DOG DAY AFTERNOON, Pacino's been prone to indulging his hammy side). DANNY COLLINS is often maudlin and manipulative, and a third act downward spiral can be seen coming a mile away, but it works thanks to a restrained and engaged Pacino and a solid supporting cast. (R, 108 mins)

(Hungary/Germany/Sweden - 2014; US release 2015)

A heavy-handed societal allegory about oppression and class struggle, WHITE GOD is nonetheless an impressive achievement in that the filmmakers managed to depict an army of angry dogs taking over Budapest without using CGI. Over 250 dogs were brought in for the insane final half hour, which is largely a canine version of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, with director Kornel Mundruczo working with a large team of trainers to coordinate what amounts to a precision, military-like attack. Some of the dogs, particularly a pair of Arizona-born Rhodesian Ridgeback brothers named Luke and Bodie who play the lead dog, are naturals who deliver remarkably expressive performances. The film itself is rather silly, with the kind of metaphor-heavy plot one might concoct in a high-school creative writing class: 13-year-old Lili (Zsofia Psotta) is forced to spend the summer with her estranged father Daniel (Sandor Zsoter, who looks like the Hungarian Terry Kinney), and brings her dog Hagen (Luke and Bodie) along. Daniel isn't too keen on the street mutt-turned-beloved pet and refuses to pay a tax on unregistered dogs after a busybody neighbor reports him. Lili pleads with Daniel to not dump Hagen in a shelter, and in a fit of road rage, Daniel yanks Hagen out of the car and abandons him on the side of the road. Forced to fend for himself, Hagen explores the city, struggles to find food, befriends other stray mutts, and is eventually abducted into a dogfighting ring. As Lili grows rebellious and her relationship with her father deteriorates, she tries to find Hagen, who eventually ends up in a dog pound and leads a canine revolt against their captors before running wild through the streets, the pack of dogs becoming Hagan's army on his quest for vengeance against those who ruined his life and the lives of so many other dogs. The symbolism is obvious (especially when the dogs start attacking privileged, bourgeois shoppers), but on a technical level, Mundruczo's presentation of the dogs running rampant makes for some stunning moments--it's hard to imagine how much work went into getting 250 dogs to work together in unison. Veteran Hollywood animal trainer Teresa Ann Miller's team worked with a Hungarian crew to pull it off, using many strays and shelter dogs, all of whom found permanent homes after the shoot. Mundruczo presents the dogs in harrowing situations, whether it's dogfights or Hagen trying to cross a busy highway, and by abandoning any use of CGI, it makes the experience that much more immediate and intense. Even though we know the dogs were in good hands and none were harmed, it still makes for some nerve-wracking scenes simply wouldn't have worked with CGI dogs. (R, 121 mins)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

In Theaters: SOUTHPAW (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Kurt Sutter. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Naomie Harris, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Oona Laurence, Miguel Gomez, Skylan Brooks, Victor Ortiz, Beau Knapp, Dominic Colon. (R, 124 mins)

SOUTHPAW is the first big-screen project scripted by Kurt Sutter, who made a name for himself as a writer and producer on THE SHIELD and went on to become the mastermind behind SONS OF ANARCHY. As any viewer of those classic TV shows is aware, Sutter is drawn to strutting, tough-talking bro-huggers whose macho bravado masks a torrent of pain and anguish, men who play by their own rules and go outside the law if necessary if that's what it takes to get to another day because that's what they do. SOUTHPAW plays a lot like a whittled-down series that Sutter might've produced for FX, and as such, there's jumps in the narrative where things can be easily glossed over but there's no natural flow or feel for how one event leads to another. Plus, if you were to remove a few Eminem songs, the constantly spitting blood, and the plethora of F-bombs, and SOUTHPAW is every bit as hokey and melodramatic as any late 1930s/early 1940s Warner Bros. boxing programmer with James Cagney or Arthur Kennedy as a scrappy, wunderkind pugilist and Humphrey Bogart or Barton MacLane as his unscrupulous manager. SOUTHPAW is certainly watchable and has moments that are fine, but it hits every genre trope and cliche like it's bulldozing through a checklist, and yet it behaves as if it's somehow the first boxing movie with a down-and-out hero, once on top of the world, now kicked to the curb with something to prove, going the distance in the fight of his life.

Jake Gyllenhaal is light heavyweight world champion Billy Hope (Sutter never was one for subtlety), currently holding a 43-0 professional record but being urged to slow down by his Noo Yawk-talking wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). Billy and Maureen both "came up through the system," and met in a Hell's Kitchen orphanage when they were 12 years old. They've been blessed with fame and fortune and only want the best for their young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Maureen, or "Mo," wants Billy to call it a career, but with all of his homeboys on his payroll and his opportunistic manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent, cast radically against type as a piece of shit) always pushing him, Billy has to keep the money rolling in, with a $30 million offer from HBO already on the table for his next fight. All of that goes south when mouthy up-and-comer Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) keeps publicly calling him out to grant him a shot at the title. During one such encounter at a gala benefit for the orphanage, Miguel threatens to "take your title and your bitch," and a brawl ensues that results in Mo being shot and killed. Almost overnight, Billy's lawyer informs he's in serious debt and owes back taxes. When a drunk, depressed Billy crashes his car into a tree on the front lawn, the house goes into foreclosure and Child Protective Services take Leila into custody. Almost all of his friends abandon him and Mains dumps him in favor of Escobar (cue Fiddy with the mandatory "Nothin' personal...it's just business, baby"). Billy moves into a shithole apartment in the projects and when a grieving Leila refuses to see him during one of his supervised visits, he has nowhere to go but the ramshackle gym of Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), an old-school trainer, blind in one eye from his days in the ring, the kind of taskmaster who charges fifty push-ups for swearing and whose speed and heavy bags are barely held together with duct tape. Through Tick, will Billy learn back-to-the-basics boxing and earn the respect of the kids at the gym, thereby attaining respect for himself? Will he find the fire--the "eye of the tiger," if you will--that once propelled him into the upper echelons of the sport, win back the love of his embittered daughter and symbolically avenge his wife's death by regaining the belt that's has since been won by the ever-boasting Escobar?  If you've ever seen a movie before, you'll know where SOUTHPAW is going long before it gets there.

Sutter and director Antoine Fuqua (TRAINING DAY, THE EQUALIZER) leave no cliche untouched throughout SOUTHPAW. They also gloss over subplots that range from undeveloped (the home situation of a kid who hangs out at Tick's gym) to outright abandoned (Escobar's crack-addled wife and the investigation into who shot Maureen). The film seems to think that it can coast by solely on Gyllenhaal's startling physical transformation into the ripped Billy Hope. It's quite a contrast to last year's NIGHTCRAWLER, where the actor lost weight to appear wiry and gaunt as a sleazy, greasy tabloid videographer. Gyllenhaal's lack of an Oscar nomination for NIGHTCRAWLER remains one of the more outrageous Academy snubs in recent years, but his performance in SOUTHPAW reeks of transparent Oscar bait. The role was originally conceived with Eminem in mind, and that seems to be who Gyllenhaal is trying to emulate. As a result, his performance too often feels like mannered posturing and a collection of twitches and flinches. Billy Hope is a man who has a hard time articulating himself to the point where exploding in violence is all he can do, but Gyllenhaal's performance is too much of a performance. Compare his work to that of Channing Tatum in FOXCATCHER--a film I really didn't like, but Tatum is a revelation in it--and you see the difference. Gyllenhaal is simply trying too hard and it ends up backfiring on him. Whitaker makes some good moments out of a stock, cardboard character. Young Laurence does a good job of capturing the sass and fire demonstrated by McAdams in her brief screen time (she's gone by the 30-minute mark), enough that they're both quite believable as mother and daughter, while Naomie Harris can't do much with a superfluous supporting role as Leila's child services case worker (why is she at the final fight between Billy and Escobar?). Fuqua's staging of the fight sequences is mostly well-handled, but occasionally demonstrates an overuse of today's quick-cut, shaky-cam approach--not to the point where it's overwhelming, but enough that you miss the in-the-ring intensity of ROCKY or RAGING BULL.  Never boring but instantly forgettable, SOUTHPAW is one of Fuqua's weakest films and as far as recent boxing movies go, it isn't even as interesting as last year's DTV Dominic Purcell B-movie A FIGHTING MAN, with the film's sporadic positive elements negated by a thoroughly predictable and maddeningly formulaic presentation. Regardless of how much time Gyllenhaal spent getting physically prepped for the role, there isn't a single thing here that hasn't been recycled from a hundred other boxing movies before it.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2015); WILD HORSES (2015); and DER SAMURAI (2015)

(New Zealand - 2014; US release 2015)

FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS' Jemaine Clement and EAGLE VS. SHARK and THE INBETWEENERS director Taika Waititi wrote and directed this overrated but still affectionate and often quite amusing Christopher Guest-inspired vampire spoof, with a documentary crew following the nightly routine of four vampire flatmates prior to the annual Unholy Masquerade. Viago (Waititi) is the den mother of sorts, a worrisome bloodsucker who's always trying to manage the household and make sure the bills are paid and the chores are getting done.  That's the kind of absurdist humor that's on display throughout the film, and while it has moments that are very funny, it's a thin premise for a feature-length film (it seems like it should be one of those filmed SNL pieces that they call back to three or four times over the course of a show), with a really draggy middle that makes it feel longer than 86 minutes. There's also the perverse and jaded 800-year-old Vladislav the Poker (Clement), the younger--at just 183 years of age--and irresponsible Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who thinks it's "bullshit" that he has to do the dishes, and the ancient, Nosferatu-like Petyr (Ben Frasham), with a new flatmate brought in when Petyr bites Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer). WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS works best when it sardonically looks at the impracticalities of vampirism, like neat-freak Viago spreading newspaper over the floor around a female victim in preparation for any bleeding out that takes place (and a real mess ensues when he accidentally bites the main artery, sending gory arterial spray shooting everywhere and confessing "That didn't go as I expected"). Or, when a depressed Vladislav lets himself go and starts showing his true age and opting to stay in for the evening as Viago implores "You don't look that good, but if you eat someone on the way..." The vampires also have a hilarious, ballbusting back-and-forth with a pack of asshole werewolves, with a scene-stealing performance by Rhys Darby as their hectoring leader, who sounds like a scolding parent when he informs his fellow lycanthropes "It's transformation night! Where's your track suit pants! Your legs expand when you transform and you're gonna rip through those jeans completely!" There's a lot of clever, deadpan humor throughout the film, but it never really rises to the level of laugh-out-loud funny or to the point where it can carry an entire film. It's likable and if you're a horror fan, you'll enjoy it, but it's not the new SHAUN OF THE DEAD. It's more like the new TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL. (R, 86 mins)

(US - 2015)

Stepping behind the camera for the first time since 2003's middling ASSASSINATION TANGO, the great Robert Duvall stumbles badly with the awful WILD HORSES, a rambling, self-indulgent home movie with two purposes: to allow Duvall to yet again play--wait for it--an irascible, ornery old coot and to give a leading role to his much younger wife Luciana, who has a total of three acting credits, two being in films directed by her husband. Duvall has helmed five films since 1977's little-seen, self-released rodeo documentary WE'RE NOT THE JET SET, and his directing efforts are small, often self-financed passion projects, with 1983's ANGELO MY LOVE scoring some significant critical acclaim and 1997's THE APOSTLE breaking through to the mainstream and netting Duvall a Best Actor Oscar nomination. With the barely-released WILD HORSES however, Duvall is all over the place as a writer and director, with a meandering story that goes nowhere and entirely too many scenes brought down by the atrocious non-acting of Luciana Duvall and a supporting cast of non-professionals from the Salt Lake City and Magna, UT area where the film was shot. Duvall's wife--truly one of the worst actresses you'll ever see--has a monotone delivery that makes her sound hypnotized and she repeatedly trips over her dialogue.  Some of the local actors pause their readings like they momentarily forgot their line, find their bearings and keep going. Then there's the poor kid playing Duvall's grandson, obviously distracted by the crew and looking directly into the camera several times in one scene as a reassuring Josh Hartnett visibly tries to keep him focused. It actually looks like Hartnett and the child were still rehearsing the scene when Duvall decided it was good enough. Personal passion projects with a gritty, DIY feel are fine, but there's a big difference between "naturalistic acting" and "people who have no business being in front of a camera." The 84-year-old Duvall has been a working actor in film and television since 1960. He's a living legend, but with all due respect, that doesn't excuse his attempting to pass this amateur-night vanity project off as a real movie.

The film opens with crotchety, gun-toting, Bible-thumping Texas rancher Scott Briggs (Duvall) finding his youngest son Ben making out with his best friend Jimmy in the barn. 15 years later, Texas Ranger Samantha Payne (Mrs. Duvall) re-opens an investigation into the disappearance of Jimmy, who was never seen again after that night on the Briggs farm. Scott remains close to his two older sons, Johnny (Devon Abner) and KC (Hartnett), and extends an olive branch to the estranged, openly gay Ben (James Franco), who ran away to live with his mother (wives leaving them years earlier is a recurring motif for Duvall's grizzled old cowpokes) and hasn't seen his father since that fateful night. Scott wants his sons home so he can finalize his will and set things right, which also involves revealing that family friend Maria (Angie Cepeda, also in the recent Duvall-as-cantankerous-old-bastard dud A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO), who's "like a sister" to the Briggs boys, actually is their sister, thanks to a years-ago fling. When he isn't mending fences with Ben, Scott, who obviously knows the truth behind Jimmy's disappearance, is pressuring the local law, who gave him a pass 15 years ago, into "encouraging" Payne to give up her investigation and leave him alone, and after multiple attempts on her life by goons in the employ of the corrupt deputy sheriff, she's not about to ease off on old Scott. WILD HORSES has the makings of an intriguing mix of family skeletons drama and revenge thriller, but Duvall can't be bothered to focus on either of those potentials. He's more interested in local color and capturing the chattering, non-professional actors being "real," which doesn't really translate to watchable cinema when they can't hold their own with experienced vets like himself, Franco, Hartnett, and BABEL Oscar-nominee Adriana Barraza as Jimmy's still-devastated mother. At times, it seems like WILD HORSES is trying to go for a THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA-type vibe, but Duvall's aimless script, lax direction, and unconditional love for his wife prevent it from accomplishing anything at all. (Unrated, 104 mins)

(Germany/UK - 2014; US release 2015)

This ultra low-budget, partially Indiegogo crowd-funded fusion of cult genres deserves some special mention for never self-consciously winking at the audience, like it's a prefab, self-aware cult movie. The film began as writer/director Till Kleinert's senior thesis for the German Film & Television Academy (though he already has one feature, 2009's THE LONGEST NIGHT, under his belt), and while its allegorical implications are perhaps a little too obvious, DER SAMURAI has enough wit, style, and spirit (cue the now-mandatory John Carpenter-style synth score!) to work quite well, and at just 80 minutes, it doesn't have chance to wear out its welcome. In a small German town near the Polish border, young police officer Jakob (Michel Diercks) lives with his grandmother (Ulrike Hanke-Haensch) and gets zero respect from his colleagues or the townies. He's mocked by his boss for hanging bags of meat in the woods to attract a wolf that's been terrorizing neighborhoods, and gets an oddly-sized package sent to the station addressed to "The Lonely Wolf." A strange phone call sends him to a seemingly abandoned hovel where he finds a nameless, transvestite squatter (Pit Bukowski) who says the package is for him. It's a samurai sword, and the squatter--Der Samurai--goes on a rampage of violence and destruction across the town with Jakob in pursuit. Der Samurai's constant chatter about how he and Jakob are one and the same and Jakob's constant failed attempts at displaying any sense of manhood or masculinity certainly make gay panic one very likely subtext. For a while, it seems as if Kleinert might even be going into Chuck Palahniuk territory with the way he seemingly goes out of his way to avoid having Jakob and Der Samurai in the shot together when other characters are involved. Der Samurai is Jakob's repressed homosexuality run rampant, trying to goad him into a killing spree to assert his hetero manliness. There's a lot of potential to be offensive here--some overseas poster art comes dangerously close to Uwe Boll territory, with the tag line "The deadliest thing from Germany since 1945," which erroneously sends the message that it's a shock value-type of film--but Kleinert directs with much self-confidence, never letting things get too jokey or over-the-top, and the performance by Bukowski in the title role--he looks like a deranged DNA experiment that fused Klaus Kinski, Jake Busey, and Carrot Top--should establish the character as a minor-league cult icon. (Unrated, 80 mins)

Thursday, July 16, 2015


(US - 2015)

On the heels of JODOROWSKY'S DUNE comes another LOST IN LA MANCHA-style documentary about a film that never was, Richard Stanley's THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. Stanley, the eccentric visionary behind the cult classics HARDWARE (1990) and DUST DEVIL (1992), had a lifelong fascination with the H.G. Wells novel about an island of man-beasts created by the mad Dr. Moreau that had already been filmed as ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) and THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977), and got the greenlight from New Line Cinema as his MOREAU entered pre-production in 1994. Of course, the film was ultimately released in 1996, directed not by Stanley, who was fired less than a week into shooting, but by veteran journeyman John Frankenheimer, bombed with critics and audiences, and is universally considered one of cinema's all-time great camp classics. LOST SOUL isn't a particularly cinematic documentary in the hands of director David Gregory, the head of cult Blu-ray/DVD outfit Severin Films and an old hand in the world of DVD extras--LOST SOUL often feels less like a movie and more like a long bonus feature on a deluxe Blu-ray edition of MOREAU. While Gregory drops the ball in some areas--it's understandable that co-star David Thewlis probably didn't want to be interviewed, but his name never even comes up when he actually has the film's main role--the stories told are fascinating. Fairuza Balk and Marco Hofschneider are the only two stars who take part, though you also get Rob Morrow, who quit a few days into production and was replaced by Thewlis. Stanley envisioned DAS BOOT's Jurgen Prochnow as Dr. Moreau but when New Line executive Michael DeLuca got involved, the role suddenly went to Marlon Brando, which turned the modestly-budgeted $8 million film into something more expensive. Bruce Willis agreed to play the central character, Edward Douglas, a shipwreck victim trapped on Moreau's island of horrors, and James Woods signed on to play Montgomery, Moreau's psychotic assistant. Even in pre-production, chaos reigned: execs started demanding changes to the script. Brando almost dropped out when his daughter Cheyenne committed suicide, and when he finally committed, he wanted Roman Polanski brought in to direct. Then Willis bailed upon his split from Demi Moore, saying it wasn't a good time to head off to Australia for several months. Stanley went along with some uncredited script revisions by Walon Green (THE WILD BUNCH), had a meeting with Brando and managed to win him over, but cites his biggest strategic error as "meeting Val Kilmer."

Ousted MOREAU director Richard Stanley
The first half of LOST SOUL deals with Stanley and his vision, but Gregory knows you're watching for the much-talked-about Kilmer horror stories (the late Frankenheimer once said of Kilmer: "Will Rogers never met Val Kilmer") that begin with him burning a crew member's sideburns with a lit cigarette and escalate from there. Kilmer's behavior on the set of MOREAU has become the stuff of legend, and several lament that with him onboard and red-hot after BATMAN FOREVER, using his newfound A-list clout to upstage, second-guess, and overrule Stanley, the project was no longer about Stanley's serious, thoughtful $8 million Wells adaptation but rather, a $40 million commercial horror movie with Marlon Brando and blockbuster expectations thanks to the presence of Kilmer. Just before filming began, Kilmer announced that he was too busy to play Douglas and demanded 40% less shooting time while keeping his salary. He decided that he wanted to play Montgomery instead of Douglas (the Morrow role that ultimately went to Thewlis), which bounced Woods from the production. He then proceeded to slow down shooting by questioning every one of Stanley's directorial decisions and grill him about his editing choices ("Tell me how you're gonna do this, Richard," and "That's not gonna cut together...that won't work"). Hofschneider, who does a perfect Kilmer impression and obviously has no love for the actor, states that Kilmer's treatment of Stanley "wasn't about the shoot anymore. This was a power game."

Things were so bad less than a week into filming that Morrow called New Line head Robert Shaye personally and begged to be let out of his contract ("There's just a bad vibe...I just want to go home"), and when a hurricane struck the Cairns location on the Australian coast and caused a several-week production delay, New Line took the opportunity to make a change, firing Stanley and bringing in Frankenheimer, who only took the job to work with Brando. Frankenheimer barely managed to complete the film with both Brando's insane ideas (like playing one scene with an ice bucket on his head) and Kilmer being abrasive and uncooperative (Frankenheimer was once quoted as saying "If I was making THE LIFE OF VAL KILMER, I wouldn't cast Val Kilmer"). Stan Winston makeup assistant Paul Katte remarks that "Marlon showed his legendary contempt for what he did for a living, but he was at least nice and respectful of other people. Val Kilmer just acted like a classic prep school bully." Morbid curiosity about what was going on got the better of him, and Stanley (who still retained a co-writing credit on the released version of MOREAU) would eventually be snuck back on the set by a pair of rebellious production drivers, hiding under a dog mask--he's actually visible in some fleeting shots and production personnel heard rumors of Stanley returning to sabotage the shoot, one even noting in hindsight that "there was always one extra who wouldn't take his mask off during lunch." Stanley's done some documentaries and some short films, and co-wrote Nacho Cerda's THE ABANDONED (2006), but thus far, he has yet to make another feature film. With two mishandled masterpieces to his credit as the cult of HARDWARE and DUST DEVIL grew, Stanley is revered among genre fans as a bold visionary stifled by suits and in way over his head with the big money expectations of New Line Cinema, with Balk, Hofschneider, Morrow, and producer Edward R. Pressman speaking very highly of him. One wishes Gregory could've dug a little further (Kilmer is unsurprisingly absent, as are Thewlis, Ron Perlman, Temuera Morrison, and Mark Dacascos among the film's surviving stars), and while the extras and the production assistants are willing to talk about what they observed, Gregory seems a little too easily detoured by their reminiscing about the drugs, sex, and goofing off during all the down time. Still, LOST SOUL serves as a fascinating document of a tumultuous clusterfuck of a production, riddled with big egos, rotten behavior, and just plain bad luck combining to derail the career of a promising filmmaker who was perhaps too much of an oddball to be playing the Hollywood game anyway (Stanley credits his friend, a "warlock chappy" named Skip, with casting a spell to help him win over Brando). Still, there's no denying that footage of late Mini-Me inspiration Nelson de la Rosa tearing up the dance floor at a Cairns nightclub is absolutely priceless. (Unrated, 98 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

(France/Germany/Switzerland - 2014; US release 2015)

The latest film from French auteur Olivier Assayas (BOARDING GATE, CARLOS) is one of those smug "industry insider" pieces about movies and acting that critics usually trip over themselves to laud with praise and adulation. Yes, Assayas takes some cheap shots at the vapidity of Hollywood, but like his script, it's labored, heavy-handed, and obvious. Veteran European actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) wants to get back to her serious roots after selling out to Hollywood blockbusters for several years. After walking away from her recurring role in the X-MEN franchise, she heads to Europe with her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to speak at a ceremony honoring her mentor, a playwright from whom she got her first break two decades earlier. The playwright dies before the ceremony, and his widow (former Fassbinder regular Angela Winkler) and a stage director (Lars Eidinger) offer Maria a role in a new version of the play: The Maloja Snake, about the DEVIL WEARS PRADA relationship between middle-aged executive Helena and her young, naive assistant Sigrid. Maria became a star playing Sigrid 20 years ago, but now she's aged into the Helena role, with Sigrid to be played by American actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a talented but self-destructive, Lindsay Lohan-like trainwreck who's constant fodder for tabloids and paparazzi, and has even broken up the marriage of a famous writer (shades of Stewart's fling with her married SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN director?). As Maria comes to terms with aging in an industry where good roles dwindle with each passing year, she and Valentine role-play the script, which starts showing strange similarities between their relationship and the codependent one between Helena and Sigrid in the play.

Like Abel Ferrara's somewhat similar and equally pretentious 1993 film DANGEROUS GAME (which at least had a palpable energy and handheld immediacy to it), the lines between life and art blur throughout, because of course they do. Assayas has made some terrific films, and there's fleeting moments of inspiration here that recall his brilliant 1996 breakthrough IRMA VEP, but he just gets lost up his own ass here, and by the end CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA is little more than Assayas jacking himself off in a one-man writer's workshop. It's too bad, because Binoche and Stewart have a very natural, unaffected chemistry together (Stewart is very good here) that deserves a better showcase than Assayas gives them. Binoche has worked with Assayas before (2008's SUMMER HOURS, and she first gained notice in Andre Techine's 1985 Assayas-scripted RENDEZ-VOUS) and this role was obviously created specifically for the Oscar-winning actress. There's nothing smart or edgy in the presentation of Moretz's tabloid bad girl, and while she's fine, the character is the kind of one-dimensional caricature we've seen before. Binoche is a great actress and Stewart is a revelation (she won the Cesar--the French Oscar--for Best Supporting Actress), but CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA is one of those relentlessly talky, self-indulgent, life-imitates-art looks at "the biz" that are apparently enjoyed only by film festival attendees. Why not just call it JULIETTE BINOCHE IS 50: THE MOVIE and be done with it? (R, 124 mins)

(UK/Ireland - 2014; US release 2015)

Do filmmakers think it's OK to rip off a terrible movie that nobody saw? Do they think no one will find out? LET US PREY is a convoluted slow-burner that borrows elements of the Stephen King-scripted TV miniseries STORM OF THE CENTURY and a Stuart Gordon-directed FEAR ITSELF episode titled "Eater." But for the bulk of its length, it shamelessly swipes from 2010's THE TRAVELER, a straight-to-DVD Canadian horror film with Val Kilmer--see where his ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU power-tripping got him?--as Mr. Nobody, a supernatural stranger who mysteriously appears at a small-town police station to exact ghostly, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER-style revenge on the squad of six cops who falsely accused him of a crime and tortured him to death. LET US PREY switches up some details but again, we have a supernatural mystery man, in this case Six (GAME OF THRONES' Liam Cunningham) who appears at a police station in the middle of nowhere in Ireland to exact--wait for it--vengeance on a squad of cops. Instead of being the victim, Six is a soul collector, his job to journey from beyond to collect the sinners, and there's plenty among these cops and criminals, including adulterers, drunk drivers, and a serial killer. The moral center is outcast Sgt. Rachel Heggie (Pollyanna McIntosh of OFFSPRING and THE WOMAN), a new transfer who doesn't get along with her co-workers and is a quiet loner with scars both emotional and physical after a traumatic childhood where she was subjected to horrible sexual abuse by her father. Director Brian O'Malley and screenwriters David Cairns and Fiona Watson also throw in a late-in-the-game ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 riff and there's a synthy, John Carpenter-like score, but this is another one of those new horror movies that gets all sorts of accolades from sycophantic publications and fanboys when all it really does is show up and make references. Cribbing most of the plot from a crummy Val Kilmer movie is one thing, but keeping the always-interesting Cunningham locked up and glowering in a jail cell for 90% of his screen time is an even bigger offense. I'll give it credit for some enthusiastically no-holds-barred splatter late in the game, but it's too little, too late. (Unrated, 92 mins)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Ripoffs of the Wasteland: THE NEW BARBARIANS (1983) and Trashtastic bonus film ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX (1983)

(Italy - 1983; US release 1984)

Directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Written by Tito Carpi and Enzo Girolami (Enzo G. Castellari). Cast: Timothy Brent (Giancarlo Prete), Fred Williamson, George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori), Anna Kanakis, Thomas Moore (Enio Girolami), Venantino Venantini, Massimo Vanni, Giovanni Frezza, Iris Peynado, Andrea Coppola, Zora Kerova, Fulvio Mingozzi, Stefania Girolami, Paul Costello. (R, 91 mins)

Affectionately but often mistakenly considered by fans and historians to be part of the non-existent "BRONX WARRIORS trilogy," Enzo G. Castellari's THE NEW BARBARIANS is also the only actual ROAD WARRIOR-inspired post-nuke of the three films in question and has no relation to the other films aside from being directed by Castellari. It was shot between 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS (1982) and ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX (1983), but rather than post-apocalyptic, the two BRONX films were closer in setting and tone to Walter Hill's THE WARRIORS (1979) and John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), with their then-futuristic setting (the sequel ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX takes place ten years after the events of 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS) perhaps misleading people into lumping it in with all the post-nukes being made at the time. THE NEW BARBARIANS was Castellari's only entry in the Italian post-nuke cycle, and while it features all the expected crazy cars and futuristic, rocket-launching dune buggies, post-nuke despots, nomadic heroes, and that same desert portraying the same scorched-earth wasteland, it also stands alone in its subgenre. Taking what others might use as a subtle subtext and bringing it to the forefront as a major plot point, THE NEW BARBARIANS is the CRUISING of Italian post-nuke ripoffs.

Set in 2019, several years after the nuclear holocaust, the world is a desert with scattered bands of survivors trying to rebuild and restart the human race. That doesn't work for One (Luigi Montefiori/George Eastman), the tyrannical leader of the Templars, the "high priests of death" and the "warriors of vengeance," a brutal, militarized squad of hilariously-coiffed psychos bent on making the living pay for the crime of being alive. It is One's goal that "the seed of man will be canceled forever from the face of the earth." It's telling that there's only men in the Templars, and that One's goal is zero population growth. Enter Scorpion (Giancarlo Prete, billed as "Timothy Brent" and looking like a post-apocalyptic Bert Convy), a nomadic warrior with a giant plastic bubble on top of his car. Scorpion tries to help a wandering group of survivors that includes Alma (Anna Kanakis of 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK), and gets help from two other post-nuke loner mercenaries, the tough-as-nails Nadir (Fred Williamson) and a fix-it-all kid mechanic (THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY's Giovanni Frezza) who also helps build a bullet-and-laser-proof body torso shield for Scorpion in his final battle against the Templars.

Action-wise, THE NEW BARBARIANS is pretty much business as usual: there's a ton of wrecked vehicles, car chases, explosions, smashed faces, heads are sliced and blown off, and there's no shortage of amusing dummy deaths and silly contraptions, like Scorpion's clear, illuminated, portable fuck-pad that comes in handy when he meets Alma. It looks like a portable, see-through bounce house, but Castellari intercutting the sex scene with Scorpion and Alma's prior discussion of their lives over a campfire is a less explicit homage to DON'T LOOK NOW and an interesting precursor to the similar and very praised George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez love scene in Steven Soderbergh's OUT OF SIGHT (1998). You get the feeling that there's some strong sexual undercurrent to THE NEW BARBARIANS with Castellari's abundance of weaponry protruding and extending from speeding vehicles like some kind of post-nuke Cialis commercial, but that's just a warm-up for what happens later. Where the film differentiates itself from overcrowded Italian post-nuke scene is its open depiction of the homosexual villains. One, clearly crushing on Scorpion, keeps trying to get him to join the Templars, but is only met with rejection. Their sexual preference--or at least the preference of One, who seems to rule his men by force and coercion--is not from innate desire for other men but to avoid the possibility of procreation and to have the world end. Late in the film, One gets so fed up with Scorpion that he has him strung up, and forcibly "initiates" him into the Templars via anal rape, a ceremony the rest of the Templars seem to know all too well. It's only after this humiliation and emasculation (along with some vaguely homophobic ballbusting from Nadir) that Scorpion rises like an avenging angel and decides to take out the Templars once and for all. It's here that THE NEW BARBARIANS vacillates between a post-apocalyptic spaghetti western with Scorpion, Nadir, and the kid mechanic forming the requisite unholy alliance, and a post-nuke DELIVERANCE as Nadir and the kid step aside and let Scorpion handle One on his own. Scorpion's final revenge on One is about as twistedly funny as this subgenre would ever get: a car chase with Scorpion barreling up on One, and an erect drill-like mechanism penetrating the back of One's ride and right through the lower part of the driver's seat, literally plowing through One's ass and ripping it apart.

(Italy - 1983/US release 1985)

Directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Written by Tito Carpi and Enzo G. Castellari. Cast: Mark Gregory, Henry Silva, Valeria D'Obici, Antonio Sabato, Paolo Malco, Timothy Brent (Giancarlo Prete), Thomas Moore (Enio Girolami), Massimo Vanni, Alessandro Prete, Romano Puppo, Eva Czenerys, Andrea Coppola, Moana Pozzi, Carla Brait, Thomas Felleghy, Martin Sorrentino, James Sampson, Paul Costello. (R, 90 mins)

THE NEW BARBARIANS opened in Italy in July 1983 and it would be picked up by a pre-NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET New Line Cinema, who rechristened it with the much snappier WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND for its January 1984 release in US theaters. ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX was released in Italy in August 1983, just a month after THE NEW BARBARIANS, and like that film, New Line would also acquire it for the US, rolling it out in January 1985, minus some of the more excessive gore to secure an R rating. ESCAPE is an an enjoyable follow-up to BRONX WARRIORS, though it's not quite as good. Set in the year 2000, it involves a plot by an evil corporation overseen by Clark (Castellari's brother Enio Girolami, billed as "Thomas Moore") to gentrify the Bronx and relocate its denizens to lovely, scenic New Mexico. In truth, he's ordered armed "disinfesters" led by renegade cop Floyd Wangler (Henry Silva, in a slightly reworked version of Vic Morrow's Hammer the Exterminator from BRONX WARRIORS), to corral and exterminate the remaining residents. After his parents are killed, Trash (a returning Mark Gregory), who's now a nomadic warrior thanks to his entire gang being wiped out in the previous film, teams up with mercenary Strike (Giancarlo Prete), his dutiful son Strike Jr (Prete's son Alessandro), affable gang leader Dablone (Antonio Sabato), and crusading reporter Moon (Valeria D'Obici) to take on Clark, his ambitious second-in-command Hoffman (Paolo Malco), and mad dog Wangler, who spits coffee, berates everyone, and acts insane, because he's played by Henry Silva. Like its predecessor, ESCAPE isn't really a post-nuke outing, but everyone seems OK with letting them into the club. With less location shooting in the Bronx and more set work done at Cinecitta, ESCAPE is able to have a more dystopian feel than the urban war-zone immediacy of BRONX WARRIORS. Gregory was only 17 when BRONX WARRIORS was shot, and though it's just a year later, he looks a bit older and seems much more composed and comfortable compared to his awkward presence in the first film. ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX was featured on MST3K under the title ESCAPE 2000 (not to be confused with the Brian Trenchard-Smith film) and indeed has no shortage of amusing elements, from unconvincing miniatures to constant explosions to Silva's overacting to Trash's parents having a huge Mark Gregory-as-Trash poster adorning their living room wall.

The so-called "BRONX WARRIORS trilogy" has just been released in Blu-ray/DVD combo sets by Blue Underground (to their credit, they don't use the "trilogy" moniker) in impressive new transfers and bonus features. Castellari previously recorded commentaries for the Media Blasters/Shriek Show DVD editions of 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS and THE NEW BARBARIANS from a decade ago, but has recorded new tracks for these editions. There's a lot of repeat info, but Castellari, even with his heavily-accented English (his son and former production assistant Andrea Girolami, completely fluent and with barely an accent, is on hand to occasionally help him find the right words), is such a likable presence and entertaining raconteur and has enough new material that they're worth hearing. This marks ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX's first appearance on DVD or Blu-ray in the US, and it's the uncensored version with all of the New Line-trimmed violence intact. All three titles feature an "In Conversation" featurette with Castellari and producer Fabrizio De Angelis in 2015, discussing the films and reminiscing about the productions, with plenty of interesting anecdotes for fans.

Friday, July 10, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE PACT II (2014) and INFINI (2015)

(US - 2014)

Nicholas McCarthy's THE PACT (2012) was given a completely under-the-radar VOD release and later quietly appeared on Netflix streaming where it became a legitimate word-of-mouth cult horror hit. One of the scariest films of the last decade and a reference point for slow-burn horror done right, THE PACT should've been huge, especially considering the junk that gets national theatrical exposure these days (what do you think will have a longer shelf life with fans, THE PACT or the POLTERGEIST remake?). Unfortunately, even low-budget, stand-alone horror films that become word-of-mouth Netflix sensations aren't immune from spawning superfluous sequels, and so we have THE PACT II. McCarthy is only onboard as a producer, with writing and directing tasks handed off to the team of Dallas Hallam & Patrick Horvath, the duo behind another impressive slow-burn horror gem, ENTRANCE (2012). THE PACT II centers on June (Camilla Luddington of GREY'S ANATOMY), an aspiring artist who works as a crime scene cleaner. June lives with her cop boyfriend Daniel (Scott Michael Foster) and is soon being hassled by Ballard (Patrick Fischler), an abrasive, dweeby FBI profiler who thinks she knows something about a spate of murders with an M.O. resembling that of the Judas Killer (Mark Steger), the serial killer offed at the end of THE PACT by heroine Annie (Caity Lotz). As with Annie, June starts getting paranormal warnings that danger is near, and soon, her recovering addict mother (Amy Pietz) is killed and Ballard informs her that she in fact has a very close connection to the Judas Killer, who may not be dead after all.

McCarthy left the door open for a sequel at the conclusion of THE PACT, but that didn't mean one was necessary or that he even planned on one. Though Hallam and Horvath utilize a lot of the style and ambient sounds of ENTRANCE for THE PACT II and briefly bring back Lotz (absolutely terrific in the first film) and Haley Hudson (as the oddball and now blind psychic Stevie) to establish bona fides for die-hard PACT fans, they still can't avoid the pitfalls of the most insidious paranormal activity fodder: just because it's a low-budget, navel-gazing, mumblecore slow-burner doesn't make the cliches of slamming doors, bodies being dragged down hallways by unseen spirits, and pointless jump scares accompanied by piercing music cues any less tiresome. Though lightning doesn't strike twice, THE PACT II is functional and perfectly watchable, and there's nothing really wrong with it (other than the twist ending being visible from pretty early on), but it doesn't build on anything in its predecessor and can't help but pale in comparison and exist in its shadow. Luddington is fine as the heroine, but when Lotz finally shows up around 50 minutes in for her "Charlton Heston-in-BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES" extended cameo, you just wish she was in it more. Of course, at the end, all signs point to THE PACT III. (Unrated, 96 mins)

(Australia - 2015)

To its credit, the Australian sci-fi thriller INFINI goes extremely light on the CGI and is boldly old school in its reliance on detailed sets, production design, and in-camera visual effects that provide its world with a much more organic and tangible feel than actors simply standing in front of an obvious greenscreen. As a result, INFINI's look is more impressive than films with several times the budget, and it really makes you want to like it. That's what might've caused some film festival attendees to oversell its worth, because once you look past the cosmetics, it's an incoherent disaster and the dullest space movie this side of 1987's NIGHTFLYERS. Writer/director Shane Abbess (GABRIEL) wears his influences on his sleeve, and there's so many of them that it's hard to gauge exactly what it is he's hoping to accomplish with INFINI. It's mostly a mix of OUTLAND, EVENT HORIZON, SUNSHINE, and PANDORUM (remember PANDORUM? How has that not spawned a DTV franchise by now?) set in a poverty-stricken 23rd century where those desperate for employment do grunt mining and repair work on the outer edges of the galaxy. Such travel is possible thanks to a technology known as "slipstreaming." This involves an "Apex device" being wired into someone's central nervous system, allowing flesh and matter to be converted into a digital file and essentially downloaded to its destination. It's not perfect--glitches in the transport system have been known to cause "file corruption," where people are converted back to flesh form during the slipstream home and emerge disintegrating and vomiting blood before dying. It's a risk the downtrodden and desperate are willing to take and it's a fascinating set-up that's far more interesting than the boring film that ultimately unfolds.

Infini is the most distant mining outpost in the galaxy, and one man, Whit Carmichael (Daniel MacPherson), has been left behind after a bacterial outbreak claimed his co-workers and the first rescue team sent after him. Another crew is sent and something seems off with Whit, prompting some concern that he's been exposed to the contagion. From then on, it's anyone's guess, as multiple plot lines ensue, there's dead bodies everywhere, dead skin masks hanging in what looks like space abattoir, and you're never sure what's "real" in the film and what isn't. Abbess goes for some Christopher Nolan mindfuckery but it seems like he's in over his head and never pulls the storylines together. Most of the film is Whit twitching, staring, and getting into grating, endless shouting matches with everyone. No one in the cast really stands out (Luke Hemsworth--Chris and Liam's older brother who stayed home in Australia and somehow hasn't been forced on the American moviegoing public--is third-billed in a supporting role as one of the rescue team, and he's as magnetic as you might expect), no one sounds Australian--most are using American accents but a couple are clearly dubbed. and MacPherson, a ubiquitous TV celebrity down under and best known as the host of Australia's version of DANCING WITH THE STARS, is a boring lead. A complete waste of an interesting set-up and the work of some obviously dedicated craftspeople on the crew, INFINI unfortunately belongs with STRANDED and THE LAST DAYS ON MARS on the recent outer space cinema scrap heap, banished to the outer reaches of your Netflix queue. (R, 111 mins)

Thursday, July 9, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: SLOW WEST (2015) and ABSOLUTION (2015)

(UK/New Zealand - 2015)

A quirky western that owes debts to Jim Jarmusch, the Coen Bros., and Robert Altman, SLOW WEST is a slow burner that's more interested in character than shootouts. Make no mistake, you get the shootout, and it's a great one that recalls both OPEN RANGE in the speed of its escalation and THE PROPOSITION in its blood-splattered ferocity. Up to then, it's a quiet, introverted character piece, with gangly, 16-year-old Scottish tenderfoot Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) venturing to America to find his true love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), who fled Scotland under mysterious circumstances with her father John (Rory McCann). Naive, hailing from a world of privilege, and woefully unprepared to deal with the harsh terrain and even harsher denizens of the barely settled west, Jay reluctantly forms an unholy alliance with wily, opportunistic outlaw Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who will function as his guide and mentor through the trip. What Silas doesn't tell Jay is that there's a bounty on the Ross duo's heads that has to do with why they left Scotland, and he has every intention of using Jay to get him to the $2000 reward for bringing them in "dead or dead." As Jay learns from each hardship and obstacle, Silas takes a liking to the sheltered boy, which helps since they're being pursued by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), the leader of a gang of psycho desperadoes that Silas left years ago. Every gunfighter and bounty hunter in the region is on the same trail, as all parties are destined to converge at the Ross homestead in the middle of nowhere.

Running a brief 84 minutes, the beautifully-photographed SLOW WEST lives up to its title in terms of pacing, as writer/director John Maclean is more concerned with character building and the occasional odd touch of humor. As tragic as the situation is, there's one bit involving salt and an open wound late in the film that's one of the most darkly funny gags of the year, with the kind of absurd visual punchline that would almost be at home in an AIRPLANE! spoof but somehow works here in a way that's brutally harsh and laugh-out-loud funny at the same time. SLOW WEST is mostly slight and a little pokey, but it looks great and has some fine performances by Fassbender and Smit-McPhee and the patient viewer will discover that it all comes together in the cruel, bitter, and yes, amusing end. Like Fassbender's divisive THE COUNSELOR, this is a film whose treasures don't all reveal themselves until subsequent repeat viewings. Look for a cult to be forming around this very soon. (R, 84 mins)

(US - 2015)

As far as Romania-shot Steven Seagal joints go, ABSOLUTION is almost sort-of OK. Sure the plot isn't interesting and Seagal's younger, thinner stunt double logs about as much screen time as the star, handling the action shots while the director cuts to a close-up of Seagal grimacing or waving his hands around as his adversaries pretty much just run into him, but he's made worse. ABSOLUTION reteams the perpetually coasting star with his favorite director/enabler, Keoni Waxman, and unlike their previous projects, ABSOLUTION actually made it into a few theaters simultaneous with its VOD release. It's still standard-issue DTV material, with Seagal as John Alexander, a Black Ops legend in the wrong place at the wrong time (not unlike a moviegoer watching a new Steven Seagal film) when some generic Eastern European flunkies chase Nadia (Adina Stetcu) into a swanky bar where Alexander and his affable buddy Chi (Byron Mann) are having a drink. Nadia falls right at his feet and of course, Alexander breaks several limbs in the process of showing these guys how to treat a lady. It turns out Nadia escaped the HOSTEL-like dungeon of The Boss (Vinnie Jones, an actor who has even less range than Seagal if that's possible, doing his usual wild-eyed, "fookin' 'ell, mate!" schtick), a syndicate overlord who has both ties to Alexander's US government contractor associate (Howard Dell), and a secret penchant for abducting pretty young women and torturing them to death. Wanting to do "something good" for a change and seeking a shot at absolution after mourning his wife's death from cancer, Alexander decides to help Nadia and take out The Boss.

For about 80 of its 96 minutes, ABSOLUTION is strictly standard, typically phoned-in Seagal, who's doubled even in shots when his character walks into a room, the double shot from behind with a quick cut to a Seagal close-up after he sits down. Seagal acts like it's an inconvenience to show up for his own movies and actually interact with his co-stars, and with his painted-on hair, glued-on goatee, and wide array of tinted eyewear, looks like he's in witness protection with disguises provided by Professor Balls. He moves awkwardly (seen that Russian karate demonstration video from a couple months ago?), mumbles incessantly, and often looks confused, unlike his surprisingly solid turn as a mob boss in the little-seen indie GUTSHOT STRAIGHT. ABSOLUTION never quite manages to get the dated torture-porn horror subplot to work but gets a tremendous lift from a spirited and fun performance by Mann. And for all the idiocy on display--Chi gets shot in the back at close range, and it's explained away with Alexander saying "You got shot.  You OK?" to which Chi replies "Yeah, I'm all good," as he resumes kicking ass like nothing ever happened--sticking around all the way through pays off. During the final showdown where Alexander and Chi--both of whom are proficient in walking away from explosions in slo-mo--take on The Boss and his goons in the Boss' nightclub with a backdrop of random screensaver designs, ABSOLUTION suddenly becomes self-aware. Instead of attempting to seamlessly edit, Waxman practically starts calling attention to Seagal's double, with the heroes' coordinated attack on The Boss approaching PUNISHER: WAR ZONE levels of over-the-top violence and silliness. Seagal's movies are so downbeat and self-serious these days--if the rest of the film was as goofy as the last 10-12 minutes, ABSOLUTION would be much more entertaining.  Seagal is still the laziest actor in Hollywood, but he showed in GUTSHOT STRAIGHT that he's able to cut loose and have fun if he wants to--why he continues to play his action films in such a dour and depressed fashion is a mystery. (R, 96 mins)

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Ripoffs of the Wasteland: Special Santiagothon Edition: WHEELS OF FIRE (1985); EQUALIZER 2000 (1987); and THE SISTERHOOD (1988)

(US/Philippines - 1985)

Directed by Cirio H. Santiago. Written by Frederick Bailey. Cast: Gary Watkins, Laura Banks, Lynda Wiesmeier, Linda Grovenor, Joseph Anderson (Joe Mari Avellana), Joseph Zucchero, Jack S. Daniels, Steve Parvin, Dennis Cole, Henry Strzalkowski, Gary Taylor. (R, 81 mins)

Following 1983's STRYKER, Filipino exploitation legend Cirio H. Santiago went back for a few more laps around the same rock quarry for some more post-nuke ROAD WARRIOR ripoffs, starting with 1985's WHEELS OF FIRE, which is about as no-bullshit as drive-in actioners get. Santiago and screenwriter Frederick Bailey obviously know what you're here for and keep the plot as simple as it can be. In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, nomadic Trace (Gary Watkins) ends up rescuing his sister Arlie's (July 1982 Playmate of the Month Lynda Wiesmeier) dirtbag boyfriend Bo (Steve Parvin) from a death match against a post-nuke Robert Goulet lookalike. From then on, it's pretty much one long chase sequence, with the army of evil despot Scourge (second-unit director Joe Mari Avellana, credited as "Joseph Anderson," a last-minute replacement for Fear leader Lee Ving, who abruptly checked out of his Manila hotel room several hours after arriving and went to Tokyo without telling anyone) relentlessly pursuing Trace in one car and Arlie and the incredibly ungrateful Bo in the other. Arlie is eventually abducted by Scourge's creeps and repeatedly raped, while Trace hooks up with bounty hunter Stinger (Laura Banks) and psychic Spike (Linda Grovenor, Robby Benson's love interest in 1980's DIE LAUGHING) as he attempts to rescue his sister and wipe out Scourge's gang.

Except for one Trace-Stinger sex scene that's shot like the cover of a shitty romance novel, WHEELS OF FIRE is virtually non-stop action from start to finish. It's got more explosions than an Antonio Margheriti flick, constant car chases, countless shots of guys from Scourge's gang engulfed in flames, an out-of-nowhere appearance by a bunch of albino cavemen, and other instances of some truly hair-raising and clearly dangerous stunt work. With no plot to get in the way of the mayhem, WHEELS OF FIRE stands as one of the very best of the low-budget ROAD WARRIOR clones, and Code Red's new Blu-ray (available exclusively through Screen Archives as part of the "Roger Corman Post-Nuke Collection") is as good as it's ever looked. There's short interview segments with Corman, Bailey, and second-unit director Clark Henderson. Among the interesting tidbits is that one Filipino stuntman spent more than a week in the hospital after a stunt gone awry, and Henderson recounting when the crew discovered that Wiesmeier was such a natural behind the wheel that she was allowed to do her own driving, upstaging all of the professional Filipino stunt drivers in the process. WHEELS OF FIRE was the only big-screen lead for Watkins, who was known around Hollywood less for his acting chops and more for being John Belushi's coke dealer. He also had a supporting role in the previous year's JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY and a very small handful of TV and movie gigs after, with IMDb showing nothing after 1998.

(US/Philippines - 1987)

Directed by Cirio H. Santiago. Written by Frederick Bailey. Cast: Richard Norton, Corinne Wahl, William Steis, Robert Patrick, Frederick Bailey, Rex Cutter, Warren McLean, Peter Shilton, Vic Diaz, Ramon D'Salva, Henry Strzalkowski, Bobbie Greenwood, Nick Nicholson, Eric Hahn. (R, 88 mins)

Despite some attempts at interjecting some story elements that only serve to slow it down, EQUALIZER 2000 follows the same template as WHEELS OF FIRE, right down to a mid-film appearance by an out-of-nowhere group of post-nuke freaks, in this case, a crew of ululating buffoons who look like Manila's most hopeless faction of the KISS Army. Set in northern Alaska 100 years after the nuclear holocaust has rendered it a scorched-earth wasteland, EQUALIZER 2000 centers on nomadic warrior Slade (Richard Norton) taking on The Ownership, a fanatical militia group that's hoarding water and supplies (just like in STRYKER) and generally making life even more miserable for everyone. When Slade makes off with The Equalizer, a high-tech (at least by Santiago's standards) automatic weapon that also functions as a high-powered bazooka (it's sort-of like a gun nut's version of a Cheap Trick five-necked guitar), psychotic Ownership commander Lawton (William Steis) leads the inevitable pursuit on the way to a solid 30 minutes of gunfire and explosions to cap off the film.

EQUALIZER 2000 is fun, but it's not quite as good as WHEELS OF FIRE. Norton could be a little more engaging, while Steis does a pretty good job as the chief villain. Female lead Corinne Wahl, married to actor Ken Wahl at the time, is better known as Corinne Alphen, 1982 Penthouse Pet of the Year. She plays a character similar to WHEELS' Stinger, and she and Slade get their obligatory tame sex scene. While the usual Santiago and Filipino exploitation regulars appear--Vic Diaz, Henry Strzalkowski, Nick Nicholson, Eric Hahn--the film's most interesting bit of casting is then-rookie Robert Patrick as a secondary bad guy. Patrick was just starting out and knew someone who worked at Roger Corman's office. According to Clark Henderson on the WHEELS Blu-ray, Patrick came in to read for another Corman production (WARLORDS FROM HELL) and it was instantly clear to them that he was a better actor than everyone else in the room. Patrick gained his earliest experience being farmed out by Corman to Santiago, who took an instant liking to the young actor and cast him in both Corman productions (EQUALIZER 2000 and 1987's EYE OF THE EAGLE) and his own solo joints (1986's FUTURE HUNTERS, 1988's BEHIND ENEMY LINES). Patrick also met his wife Barbara, then going by Barbara Hooper, another American on loan to Santiago (they worked together on Santiago's BEHIND ENEMY LINES), and they eventually headed back to Hollywood when he landed a small role in DIE HARD 2 (1990) before his breakthrough as the T-1000 in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991).

(US/Philippines - 1988)

Directed by Cirio H. Santiago. Written by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver. Cast: Rebecca Holden, Chuck Wagner, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Barbara Hooper, Robert Dryer, Henry Strzalkowski, David Light, Jim Moss, Anthony East, Tom McNeeley, Warren MacLean, Peter Shilton. (R, 92 mins)

WHEELS OF FIRE and EQUALIZER 2000 were not big-budget productions but they were professionally-constructed and made with flair and style, putting forth the effort to make it look good in spite of what little money they had. THE SISTERHOOD, on the other hand, shows some concrete evidence of Corman and Santiago beginning to cut corners. Oddly, of the three initial entries in Code Red's Corman Post-Nuke collection, THE SISTERHOOD has the most plot, but the film is so unbelievably cheap, badly-written, poorly-acted, and straight-up dull that it's easily the least of the trio. Still, it's not without its bad movie charms, set in 2021, several years after "The Final War," as the world is once again a desolate wasteland represented by the same stretch of Filipino desert seen in STRYKER, WHEELS, and EQUALIZER. It's a world dominated by men, where women have been relegated to a commodity, but a group of female warriors called The Sisterhood roams "The Outlands," fulfilling their mission to protect the disenfranchised and the marginalized, and rebel against the brutal patriarchal society. There's some potentially interesting ideas in Thomas McKelvey Cleaver's script, but Santiago is just content to break the same old post-nuke junkers out of storage and drive them around the desert while Jun Latonio's terrible synth score squonks endlessly, sounding like random notes farting out of a defective Casio. Branded as witches by the despotic male rulers, The Sisterhood is led by Alee (KNIGHT RIDER's Rebecca Holden), who teams up with Marya (champion figure skater Lynn-Holly Johnson, a long way from ICE CASTLES and FOR YOUR EYES ONLY), who has a strange psychic connection to a falcon, to rescue captured Sister Vera (Barbara Hooper), who's been abducted by Mikal (AMERICA 3000's Chuck Wagner) for leverage with the post-nuke overlords. Or something to that effect.

Santiago's post-nuke formula is here, right down to the mid-film appearance of a crew of freaks, in this case a bunch of robed mutants chasing Alee and Marya through a "radiation zone." A gust of wind causes the hoods to blow off a couple of the mutants, revealing them to be some normal-looking extras just making idiotic grunting noises. Performances are terrible across the board, though Wagner at least seems to realize he's in a shitty movie and tries to enjoy himself with some vaguely Shatnerian over-emoting (one interesting thing about Wagner that probably helps in his current career in touring Broadway productions is that his actual speaking voice sounds like a dubbed bellowing voice in a 1960s HERCULES movie). SAVAGE STREETS villain Robert Dryer overacts shamelessly as the fey, sneering Lord Barak, a sort-of post-nuke Billy Idol. A strange mix of sword & sorcery, post-nuke, and the supernatural (Alee has telepathic abilities and can shoot lasers from her eyes, but Santiago seems to forget about it until the end of the movie), THE SISTERHOOD is one of the most obscure titles from Corman's Concorde era and isn't nearly as fun as it should be. It's strongly indicative of the difference between '70s Corman and '80s Corman: a '70s Corman production (think of his women-in-prison titles like THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and CAGED HEAT) would've done something with the potential social commentary inherent in the concept. It's also a real slog at an interminable 92 minutes, which is epic by 1988 Corman standards. The Blu-ray contains the overseas version, where the US theatrical and VHS cut ran 75 minutes--the absolute last thing THE SISTERHOOD needs is 17 minutes of additional footage. It may be good for some laughs (watch the sloppy closing credits, where the cast listing changes format midway through), but is really only for die-hard Santiago completists and the most fanatical Henry Strzalkowski stalkers.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: HARD TO BE A GOD (2015); LAST KNIGHTS (2015); and WHILE WE'RE YOUNG (2015)

(Russia - 2014; US release 2015)

The final work of Russian auteur Aleksey German (credited here as Alexey Jurievich German), HARD TO BE A GOD was also the maverick filmmaker's career-long obsession. German first conceived the notion of adapting the 1964 sci-fi novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatski shortly after its publication. While other projects came and went, German remained determined to bring Hard to Be a God to the screen, even after a somewhat commercial Germany/USSR co-production directed by Peter Fleischmann and featuring Werner Herzog in a supporting role was released in 1989. He was known for his infamously meticulous nature, drawing obvious comparisons to Stanley Kubrick but probably more akin to Orson Welles with his doggedly stubborn nature and refusal to compromise. German, who only directed six films over his 45-year career, began shooting HARD TO BE A GOD in 2000 and didn't wrap until 2006. He then spent an additional seven years on post-production, endlessly tinkering with the editing and the sound mix until his death from heart failure in February 2013 at the age of 74, leaving his wife and son to finally complete the film. While it's tragic that German didn't live long enough to see his life's work through to its ultimate completion, one can't help but wonder how much longer it would've taken the film to be finished had he lived. Shot in black & white and running three hours, HARD TO BE A GOD is a cinematic endurance test to end all cinematic endurance tests, existing purely on its own terms and made for no one other than Aleksey German.

It opens in mid-story, with a team of scientists having spent an undisclosed amount of time (probably several years) on Arkanar, an Earth-like planet that's about 800 years behind in terms of thought and technological advancement, and still in what's tantamount to the medieval Dark Ages. Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) is one of several Earth scientists who have infiltrated the Arkanar society and are aghast at what they see, but are expressly forbidden from taking a proactive role in it, lest they influence the course of its future. They're strictly there as observers but smart enough to be considered gods by the unwashed, brutish masses. That's a summary of the Strugatski novel and indicative of things only vaguely hinted at in the finished film. German's HARD TO BE A GOD is adamantly against any kind of narrative drive or momentum whatsoever. The director's primary focus is capturing the medieval look and feel of Arkanar on sets constructed in the Czech Republic, and on that level, the film is an achievement both monumental and monotonous. HARD TO BE A GOD is one of the grossest films ever made, loaded with filthy, slobbering Dark Agers with endlessly streaming snot, shooting boogers out of their nose, vomiting, defecating, and pissing, rolling around in bodily waste, smearing feces everywhere, always looking like they're breaking the fourth wall as they look into German's handheld camera. There's a lot of nonsensical, stream of consciousness babbling by the denizens of Arkanar, almost like German is offering us what might happen if Terrence Malick lost his mind and directed a long-lost Chaucer adaptation written by Pasolini. Drenched in rain, fog, and mud, HARD TO BE A GOD looks like no other film ever made, and to that end, as well as German's endless devotion to the project, it's something that can't be easily dismissed. When someone puts that much into a project, are the accolades for the content of the work or for the obsession that drove it? There's a fine line between genius and insanity and though it may come off as cold, no one wants to say that perhaps German wasted the last 13 years of his life. It's a Stalinist allegory that took so long to complete from German's first inclinations of interest in 1964 to his death in 2013 that it inadvertently became a Putin critique, which may say something along the lines of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss," but it's lost here. There's incredible ambition in the end result, with fleeting moments that recall the likes of Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Bela Tarr and Terry Gilliam (Rumata even compares himself to Baron Munchausen on one occasion), but what's here is far beyond the bounds of reasonable self-indulgence. The bodily waste never stops flowing and, like the endlessly hanging gobs of snot, HARD TO BE GOD just goes on and on and on, which is part of German's master plan. He set out to make something as anti-entertaining as possible. While going against convention is admirable, you'll just feel numb around the 90-minute point, especially when you realize you're only halfway through this thing. HARD TO BE A GOD took 13 years to complete, and that's about how long it feels watching it. (Unrated, 177 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

(US/South Korea/Japan - 2015)

With the financial backing of three countries and carrying 37 credited producers, it's clear that a lot of money went into the medieval adventure saga LAST KNIGHTS, but that still didn't keep it from spending three years on the shelf before getting an unceremonious VOD release. While the film is formulaic and a little too reliant on cliches, it's nevertheless surprisingly solid, grand in its presentation, and would've looked terrific on a big screen. There's a couple of instances where the CGI scenery gets a little dodgy, but for the most part, it's blended seamlessly and with care and precision, which is more than you can say for most mega-budget movies that get 3000 screen releases. Directed by Kaz I. Kiriya (2004's compromised but visually stunning CASSHERN), LAST KNIGHTS is set in a feudal society in medieval times, with the revered Lord Bartok (Morgan Freeman) outraged by a tax increase imposed on him by Geza Mott (HEADHUNTERS' Aksel Hennie), the sniveling minister to the Emperor (A SEPARATION's Payman Maadi), with the ulterior motive being to take over the Bartok lands for himself. Knowing a shakedown when he sees one, Bartok and his chief army commander Raiden (Clive Owen) venture to Geza Mott's palace for a meeting, where Bartok intentionally insults the greedy minister with a cheap gift in a wooden box ("You can keep the box, too," he snarks). Geza Mott later provokes Bartok into a physical confrontation, and when Bartok draws his sword in self-defense, he's nevertheless ordered by the Emperor to pay for his offense against Geza Mott with his life, and also cruelly orders Raiden to be his executioner. The Bartok lands are claimed by Geza Mott, who casts out Bartok's widow (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and forces his daughter (Si-Yeon Park) into prostitution. The paranoid minister lives in constant fear of Raiden's vengeance, unaware that Raiden has become a hopeless drunkard who sold his cherished sword and is so overcome by grief and guilt over killing his beloved master that he has little will to live. Unknown to Geza Mott, the rest of Raiden's army, led by Cortez (Cliff Curtis) has a spy inside their former stronghold and a plan for revenge is on, eventually joined and taken over by Raiden when he finally rises out of his sulking stupor and decides to take back the Bartok lands and restore his master's good name.

Loosely inspired by the legend of the 47 Ronin, and much better than the recent botched Hollywood take on the subject, LAST KNIGHTS could easily be written off as a GAME OF THRONES knockoff, but it's miles ahead of a lot of recent films of this type (HAMMER OF THE GODS, OUTCAST, SWORD OF VENGEANCE, and the terrible IRONCLAD sequel). though with its rousing battle scenes and committed performances, it's more akin to the original IRONCLAD and like that film, should have a long life on Netflix streaming and cable. There's one great shot of a guy getting his head sliced off and taking several more steps before stumbling into a pool, and one very well-choreographed, OLDBOY-inspired scene where Raiden works his way down a hallway, slicing and dicing about 20 of Geza Mott's soldiers without Kiriya employing a single cut. No, LAST KNIGHTS doesn't break any new ground (it opens with--spoiler alert--narration by Freeman), its momentum depends on the villains stupidly underestimating Raiden, and you just know that the most eager and ambitious young soldier in Raiden's army will be the first one to die ("Did I do well?" he gasps in his dying breath, tears welling up in the eyes of the weathered, seen-it-all dogs of war comforting him in his final moments), but it's an almost defiantly old-fashioned adventure nicely blended with the violent and downbeat nature of a GAME OF THRONES or a VIKINGS. Freeman, sporting some interesting facial hair, exits about 30 minutes in but does what he's required to do (basically, be Morgan Freeman). While Owen stars in the acclaimed period drama THE KNICK, Cinemax's "We're not just Skinemax, so put the Kleenex away, fellas!" bid at respectability, Hollywood has seemingly lost all faith in his ability to open a movie. Owen glowers and grimaces and is excellent as the battle-hardened, heartbroken Raiden, exhibiting the kind of dour, steel-edged gravitas that will come in handy in about eight years or so when his career gets a second wind after it inevitably enters its "Liam Neeson Geriatric Asskicker" phase. Very well-made and epic in scope, with every dollar up on the screen, LAST KNIGHTS was abandoned by its distributors--when's the last time you saw a Clive Owen movie in a theater?--and reviled by the few critics who saw it. It's not to be mistaken for a great movie, but it's a fine adventure and didn't deserve the shitty reception it got. (R, 115 mins)

(US - 2015)

Ben Stiller has always seemed like he was born ready for midlife crisis roles and now that he's nearly 50, he's got a prime one in WHILE WE'RE YOUNG, which reunites him with his GREENBERG writer/director Noah Baumbach. Baumbach, an occasional Wes Anderson collaborator (he co-wrote THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU and FANTASTIC MR. FOX), a voice of Gen-X malaise with his 1995 debut KICKING AND SCREAMING, and a master of cinematic discomfort with THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005) and the brilliant and underrated MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (2007), seems to be mellowing with age. WHILE WE'RE YOUNG isn't as caustic as some of his mid '00s work, and gives Stiller a chance to basically use his "Ben Stiller" persona as Josh, a 44-year-old documentary filmmaker who's gone full Aleksey German and has been working on the same project for nearly a decade, a coma-inducing series of interviews with left-wing theorist Ira Mandelstram (Peter Yarrow) that comprise so many hours that he's actually lost track of what the film is even about (when asked, he's quick to desperately blurt "It's about America, really"). His wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a producer for her legendary documentary filmmaker father (Charles Grodin), is constantly being hounded by her friends about why she and Josh are still childless. They seem happy and content with their careers and each other, but something's missing. That void is temporarily filled by Jamie (Adam Driver--and can someone explain the whole "Adam Driver is hot" thing to me?) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a pair of mid-20s, newlywed bohemian hipsters who make their own furniture, churn their own ice cream, watch old movies on VHS, and embrace CITIZEN KANE and Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" with equal passion. Soon, Cornelia is joining Darby for hip-hop dance classes, Josh is wearing a porkpie hat, and they're drifting away from friends their own age. Tensions rise when Josh and Jamie collaborate on a documentary about a high-school classmate of Jamie's (Brady Corbet), which leads to a Jamie side project that starts getting him everything evading Josh: money from investors, critical acclaim, and the approval of his father-in-law.

Many pointed out that WHILE WE'RE YOUNG seems like an art-house version of the Seth Rogen/Zac Efron comedy NEIGHBORS. It's very low-key and never really cuts loose, instead focusing on character, where a more mainstream film would have Josh embarrassing himself beyond going out in a public in a porkpie hat. The film's one attempt at overt slapstick is also its weakest sequence--a tedious and overlong visit to a drug-tripping ayahuasca ceremony where everyone vomits into a bucket. As the film goes on and Jamie's and Darby's intentions and true nature come into question, Baumbach never paints them as villains and still treats everyone with sympathy, whether it's Josh and Cornelia trying to find themselves at a crossroads in their life together, and forgiving Jamie and Darby's trespasses because of their youth and inexperience at life.  "They're not evil," Josh realizes. "They're just young." (R, 97 mins)