Sunday, November 29, 2015

In Theaters: CREED (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Ryan Coogler. Written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington. Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Andre Ward, Anthony Bellew, Graham McTavish, Ritchie Coster, Wood Harris, Jacob "Stitch" Duran, Ricardo McGill, Malik Bazille, Gabriel Rosado, Frank Pesce. (PG-13, 133 mins)

"Time takes everybody out. It's undefeated."

When CREED was first announced a couple of years ago, with a plot focusing on the son of Apollo Creed being trained by Rocky Balboa, the immediate reaction of most was eye-rolling dismissal. It sounded like a desperate ploy by Sylvester Stallone to keep the ROCKY franchise going by remaking it with himself in Burgess Meredith's Mickey role. It sounded like the kind of cheap, cynical DTV spinoff along the lines of a CARLITO'S WAY: RISE TO POWER, an EASY RIDER: THE RIDE BACK, and the still-unreleased THE BRONX BULL, which was shot as RAGING BULL II prior to succumbing to various legal issues that have kept it on the self since 2012. Even if it's approached with lowered expectations, CREED is one of the biggest surprises of the year. In the hands of director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (2013's acclaimed FRUITVALE STATION), CREED is so much more than a Stallone nostalgia trip. It's a thoughtful and perceptive film about families, legacies, loss, and new beginnings. Ghosts of the past haunt nearly every scene. The legacy of the late Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), killed in the ring in ROCKY IV (1985), unites two men: his best friend and former foe Rocky (Stallone) and Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the son whose birth Apollo didn't live to see.

The result of an extramarital affair between his mother and Apollo Creed, Adonis Johnson was orphaned at a young age, had severe anger management issues, and seemed doomed to a life in juvenile detention when he wasn't bouncing around foster care and group homes until he was 13, when Apollo's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) found him, took him in, and adopted him. Keeping his mother's last name to both honor her and avoid getting a free ride on his father's legend, Adonis establishes himself as a capable fighter in illegal Tijuana boxing matches while maintaining a day job at a prestigious investment firm in Los Angeles, where he's just gotten a promotion before promptly quitting to pursue boxing full-time. This angers Mary Anne, who remembers what it was like taking care of Apollo after his fights ("Do you know how many times I had to help the Heavyweight Champion of the World up these stairs because he couldn't walk?  Do you know how many times I had to wipe his ass because he couldn't use his hands?"), but she's powerless to stop him. Adonis heads to Philadelphia to track down Rocky. He finds him, still running Adrian's, the small neighborhood Italian restaurant named in honor of his late wife, who died prior to the events of 2006's ROCKY BALBOA. Rocky is happy to tell Adonis stories about his dad but firmly states he has no interest in becoming his trainer, instead sending him to Mighty Mick's Gym, now being run by Pete Sporino (Ritchie Coster), who keeps trying to get Rocky's celebrity name attached to his own son Leo "The Lion" Sporino (Gabriel Rosado). Of course, it doesn't take long for lonely Rocky, who's once again estranged from Rocky, Jr and who also lost his brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) and Apollo's trainer Duke (Tony Burton) in the years since ROCKY BALBOA, to see Apollo's spirit in Adonis and take him up on the training offer, not having much in the way of book smarts to give the educated Adonis but dispensing the sage advice he's learned from experience over his lifetime ("See that guy in the mirror?  That's your biggest opponent. I believe that in the ring and I believe that in life"). Adonis, meanwhile, falls for his neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an aspiring singer who's suffering from progressive hearing loss.

The story structure of CREED--the first ROCKY film not written by Stallone--is largely formulaic in its point A-to-point B plot mechanics: Adonis establishes a name for himself, eventually accepting his lineage and going by Adonis Creed when Pete leaks his true identity to the media, and becomes a recognized fighter over the course of the film, eventually taking on the champion "Pretty Ricky" Conlan (Anthony Bellew) in a Liverpool bout hastily arranged by Conlan's manager (Graham McTavish) to pay the bills while Conlan serves a seven-year prison sentence on gun charges. Stallone directed four of the six previous ROCKY movies, with John G. Avildsen helming 1976's ROCKY and 1990's ROCKY V, and both men are the sort-of capable journeyman types whose skills can best be described as "workmanlike." Coogler, on the other hand, displays more confidence and skill at just 29 than Stallone and Avildsen could've brought to the table, the innovative Steadicam contributions of Garrett Brown in the 1976 film notwithstanding. Coogler and veteran cinematographer Maryse Alberti (WHEN WE WERE KINGS) have fashioned some of the best fight sequences you'll see in the boxing genre, especially in Adonis' bout with The Lion, where the entire first round is shot in real time without a cut, the camera snaking around the ring, between and above the fighters, with a dizzying array of sounds from each of their corners drifiting in and out as they move around the ring. It's a stunning sequence, and along with the film's many long, uninterrupted tracking shots that follow Adonis or Rocky, indicative of a gifted director at work. Stallone must have had absolute faith in Coogler's vision to allow his most personal, iconic character to be placed entirely in someone else's hands. Coogler responds by making Rocky even more multi-layered and complex than ever, a man who knows he's a legend but remains humble, preferring his quiet, low-profile life and lamenting that all of his loved ones are gone and he's alone. Even in the midst of the formula elements (why does every aspiring boxer live in a shithole apartment?), CREED remains unpredictable: we expect Rocky Jr, now living in Vancouver and calling himself "Robert Balboa," to show up at a certain point in the film when Rocky needs him most. He doesn't. He's referenced once and never mentioned again. In some films, this could be an oversight, but here it's by design. Adonis is the son Rocky's lost through estrangement, and Rocky is the father Adonis never had (Adonis immediately endears himself to Rocky by repeatedly referring to him as "Unc"). We also expect Bianca's hearing loss to factor in, but it's introduced and matter-of-factly accepted. She puts her hearing aids in like someone putting on their reading glasses. There's nothing Adonis can do in the ring to restore her fading hearing, so like every other setback these characters face--and a big obstacle surfaces in the second half--they adjust to it and keep on fighting.

It would've been easy to cave to hokey sentimentality and maudlin manipulation, but when the waterworks start (this immediately joins the pantheon of Hall of Fame man-weepies--you can actually feel a wave of emotion in the audience late in the film when Bill Conti's "Rocky Theme" fires up), it's earned. Jordan is absolutely magnetic as Adonis, who's simultaneously running away from and directly toward the long shadow cast by his father ("I just want to know I'm not a mistake!" he yells when Rocky asks what he's trying to prove), but it's Stallone's Rocky who's the emotional core of CREED. This is a beloved character we've known for nearly 40 years, so much so that it practically transcends an actor playing a role. Stallone's had so many ups and downs throughout his career that he perfectly embodies that underdog spirit. It's enough to make you forget the cartoonish depths of the Reagan-era flag-waving of ROCKY IV (nobody likes the much-maligned ROCKY V, but at least it's better than ROCKY IV), even though CREED's springboard is Apollo's death at the hands of Soviet superfighter killing machine Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a tragedy for which Rocky still feels tremendous guilt over not throwing in the towel to stop. Now that he knows Adonis, Rocky feels a responsibility for him. Stallone, who at 69 is the same age Burgess Meredith was in ROCKY, is so lived-in and naturally comfortable as Rocky that you almost forget he's acting. He's presented with a challenge by Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington's script and he rises to the occasion by delivering his most accomplished and invested performance in many years, probably going back to 1997's COP LAND. He's great in his big moments, but brilliant even in little ones, whether he's looking on with pride at Adonis or visiting the cemetery and talking to Adrian and Paulie ("It's gettin' harder to walk up that hill!" the arthritic Rocky says, catching his breath and pulling up a chair at Adrian's grave to tell her about his day). Filled with exhilarating boxing sequences, dazzling filmmaking (watch the way Coogler darkens the arena midway through the final fight as a way of illustrating the fighters' singular focus), gut-wrenching emotion, and honest, heartfelt performances, CREED is like nothing you'd expect a seventh film in the ROCKY series to be. More than a generic sequel-turned-reboot, CREED very much stands on it own as a terrific film and one of 2015's very best.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: RICKI AND THE FLASH (2015) and AMERICAN ULTRA (2015)

(US - 2015)

Over her legendary career, Meryl Streep has demonstrated that she's capable of pretty much everything, so while it may seem like a stretch to imagine her as an aging rocker, it doesn't take long to accept her in the role. Streep is Ricki Rendazzo, who's more or less a D-list Bonnie Raitt in the grand scheme of things: her classic rock cover band Ricki and the Flash have a loyal following as the house band at a Tarzana bar that draws the same crowd every night of the week, but after one unsuccessful album over 20 years ago, she never came close to hitting the big time. Ricki's pursuit of fame and fortune came at a price: in the late '80s, she walked away from her life as Indianapolis housewife Linda Brummel, and though she's made sporadic appearances in the lives of ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and their children, her job as a mother has been fulfilled by Pete's second wife Maureen (Audra McDonald). Now, Ricki has been summoned back to Indianapolis after her daughter Julie (Streep's daughter Mamie Gummer) attempts suicide when her husband leaves her for another woman. Had RICKI AND THE FLASH kept that dysfunctional family dynamic as its focus, it would've been a lot better than the film that screenwriter Diablo Cody (JUNO) and the great director Jonathan Demme (STOP MAKING SENSE, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) ended up making. For a while, it goes along similar lines as the Cody-scripted YOUNG ADULT, even resorting to some well-done scenes of squirming discomfort, as when Ricki and Pete confront Julie's estranged, dickhead husband at a bar. I also like the approach Cody takes with Kline's Pete, who's happier with Maureen, has made peace with the past and, surprisingly by Hollywood standards, has moved on with his life and honestly harbors no resentment toward his ex-wife. Even more against convention, he may still have feelings for her but stops himself from acting on them. And Ricki's presence--and her tentative reconnection with her daughter and her sons, one sympathetic and forgiving (Sebastian Stan), the other bitter and resentful (Nick Westrate)--does manage to pull Julie off the ledge and get her taking steps toward rebuilding her life.

But then Demme abandons that, almost completely. Pete, Julie, and the rest disappear for a long stretch as Ricki returns to Tarzana and gets serious with her guitarist/boyfriend Greg (Rick Springfield) before heading back to Indianapolis for her son's wedding. It's here where Demme sees fit to turn the film into a less caustic version of his own RACHEL GETTING MARRIED before letting it careen into full-on feelgood bullshit with a cast sing-along as Ricki and the Flash boot the wedding band off stage as the uptight onlookers sneer their disapproval but are eventually won over, get up and start dancing. Yes, a blunt and honest film about fractured family dynamics and decades-old wounds turns into a movie that ends with everyone getting over hating Ricki (and her far-right politics, which are introduced and promptly forgotten) and joining her onstage for a big, triumphant jam session at her son's wedding reception. Streep, Springfield (who's quite good here) and the band playing the Flash (featuring guys like keyboardist Bernie Worrell and drummer Joe Vitale) are really playing the songs, and Demme seems more interested in letting Streep show off her rhythm guitar skills and her singing voice in full-length Tom Petty, U2, and Bruce Springsteen covers. RICKI AND THE FLASH just utterly collapses in its second half to the point where it's not out of the question to wonder if Ricki is imagining the whole thing. The first half is honest, smart, and occasionally scathingly funny (Julie to Ricki: "Do you have a gig or do you always dress like a hooker from NIGHT COURT?"), but it just skids to a halt in the second half with one endless song after another and that godawful finale. And why is the bartender from Tarzana dancing at the wedding in Indianapolis?  The band making the trip is silly enough, but the fucking Ricki superfan bartender? Was Demme shooting the movie and realized Cody only had 50 minutes of script, so he decided to wing it the rest of the way? (PG-13, 101 mins)

(US/Switzerland - 2015)

A one-joke comedy that plays like a mash-up of screenwriter Max Landis' DVD collection, AMERICAN ULTRA initially seems like one of those movies that's trying too hard to be an instant cult classic until you realize it isn't trying to be much of anything at all. A splattery, stoner take on THE BOURNE IDENTITY, AMERICAN ULTRA takes place in the fictional West Virginia town of Liman, where pot-addled slacker Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) works at a carryout and spends his free time getting baked with his live-in girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). But it turns out Mike is a CIA sleeper agent in the top-secret Ultra program and only becomes aware of his abilities as an unstoppable killing machine when he's activated by Agent Lasseter (Connie Britton), who's trying to save him from the machinations of Yates (Topher Grace), an ass-kissing agency douchebag hellbent on eliminating all traces of the Ultra program. As CIA agents and covert assassins converge on Liman, with the media being fed a story about the town being quarantined, Mike and Phoebe try to stay alive, with Mike instinctively--though he's too perpetually high to figure out how--using anything at his disposal to kill the assets sent to make him vanish.

I'm not sure anyone was demanding a BOURNE movie filtered through HALF-BAKED, but the results are neither as goofy as you'd expect nor as funny as Landis (son of John and writer of the overrated CHRONICLE) thinks. The weed angle is eventually abandoned altogether as ULTRA becomes a lot like a conventional thriller with only the cartoonish, PUNISHER; WAR ZONE-level splatter and would-be CRANK-style gonzo attitude to indicate that it's supposed to be played for laughs. Eisenberg and Stewart fared much better together in ADVENTURELAND, and director Nima Nourizadeh (the found-footage teen comedy PROJECT X) has a great supporting cast at his disposal but doesn't do much with them: Grace, not the most plausible casting for the head of a secret division of the CIA, can play this kind of unctuous turd in his sleep, Bill Pullman has a few scenes as a CIA big shot, John Leguizamo pops up as a strip club owner who's also Mike's dealer, Tony Hale does his umpteenth variation on Buster Bluth as a needy, nervous Lasseter underling, and only Walton Goggins makes a memorable impression as a constantly-laughing assassin named (wait for it) Laugher, whose comedic demeanor masks a depressed cognizance of his autonomy and individuality being stripped from him by his CIA brainwashers. That's as close as AMERICAN ULTRA comes to making a statement about anything. In the end, it's a lot of noise, a lot of CGI (even the exhaled pot smoke is CGI'd!), and not much funny. THE BOURNE LEBOWSKI, it ain't. (R, 96 mins)

Monday, November 23, 2015

In Theaters: SPOTLIGHT (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Tom McCarthy. Written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy. Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian D'Arcy James, Billy Crudup, Len Cariou, Jamey Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, Gene Amoroso, Neal Huff, Elena Wohl. (R, 128 mins)

"We've got two stories here: a story about degenerate clergy, and a story about a bunch of lawyers turning child abuse into a cottage industry. Which story do you want us to write? Because we're writing one of them."

As much a chronicle of the Boston Globe's breaking of a cover-up of systemic sexual abuse in the Catholic church as it is a document of a dying profession, SPOTLIGHT is a film that dives deep into the nitty gritty of newspaper reporting. What's refreshing is that it does so without the sense of heroism, martyrdom, and apologia that TRUTH, another recent journalism drama, rather shamelessly wallowed. In TRUTH, 60 MINUTES II producer Mary Mapes is crucified for rushed and sloppy work on a story about George W. Bush's days in the National Guard, but the film wants to make her a saint anyway, and an uncharacteristically grating Cate Blanchett's overwrought performance has her barreling through it doing everything short of wearing a "For Your Consideration" sandwich board to get awards attention. SPOTLIGHT goes in the opposite direction, immersing the audience in the daily grind of hardworking reporters. A lot of the film has them talking on phones, jotting down notes, and fumbling for a pen when theirs runs dry. They leave messages, check sources, meet interview subjects in coffee shops, sit outside offices waiting for an appointment, dig through files and old newspapers, and thumb through dog-eared reference books and directories chasing every tip, lead, and theory they get. They go where the story takes them as each new development opens up another Pandora's Box of paperwork and legal hurdles. A smart film that makes the boring minutiae of the job riveting, SPOTLIGHT may just be a notch below the great modern-era journalism films like Alan J. Pakula's ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976) or, to an extent, David Fincher's ZODIAC (2007), but it's easily the best film about investigative reporting since Billy Ray's SHATTERED GLASS (2003).

After a prologue set in 1976, where a molesting priest is quietly ushered out of a police station by Boston Archdiocese officials, the story moves to the summer of 2001 with Globe's hiring of new chief editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a man known for his bottom-line concerns during stints in New York and Miami. Baron thinks there might be a story in an alarming number of allegations against that 1976 priest, which got a brief mention in the Metro section some time back, but was never pursued with any vigor by the paper. Wanting to re-establish the Globe as the local paper of record with a focus on Boston concerns, Baron directs the Spotlight team--a four-person crew of reporters who work on months-long investigative pieces--to chronicle the paper trail of accusations against the priest.  Led by editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), the Spotlight team--Mike Rezendes (a jumpy Mark Ruffalo), Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D'Arcy James)--go to work, butting heads with lawyers, victims, church officials, rival papers, and concerned city big shots among others, not to mention the whole effort being jeopardized when Baron makes them put the story on the backburner for six weeks after September 11, 2001, during which time the Spotlight team is temporarily split up and assigned to other 9/11-related beats. Boston is a strongly Catholic community, and there's a concern that such talk may not rest well with the devout churchgoers. But when old Archdiocese guides show that many of the molesting priests--they eventually uncover 87 of them in Boston alone--were classified as "on sick leave" during times that coincide with the accusations, the Spotlight team correctly hypothesizes that it's a status given to priest reassigned to other parishes or sent away after an abuse incident that's settled privately and promptly buried by Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), the head of the Boston Archdiocese who's known of the plethora of incidents that have been going on for decades, with the cover-up trail leading all the way to the Vatican.

Directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy (THE STATION AGENT), who somehow made this and the career-worst Adam Sandler movie THE COBBLER in the same year, SPOTLIGHT boasts one of the year's strongest ensembles, headed by a resurgent Keaton on the heels of his triumphant BIRDMAN comeback. Keaton's been down this road before in Ron Howard's underrated THE PAPER (1994), and he's perfectly cast as the driven, quick-witted (when told by a lawyer friend that he read an article about Baron being the Globe's first Jewish editor, Robby replies "Really? Must've been a slow news day") Spotlight leader. McAdams and James are fine, but don't really stand out like Keaton or, for better or worse, Ruffalo, whose mannered performance takes some getting used to but is said to be an accurate portrayal of Rezendes. The actors also get sterling support from Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan as tight-lipped, big-shot attorneys behind a series of abuse case settlements, John Slattery as the Globe's managing editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (whose father was executive editor of The Washington Post when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate story), and Stanley Tucci as victims' advocate Mitchell Garabedian, an eccentric, crusading lawyer who's been representing a number of abuse victims in their cases against the Archdiocese. SPOTLIGHT is as no-nonsense as its characters, a methodical and matter-of-fact grinder that tells its story as effectively as the Spotlight team pursued theirs. It doesn't make Baron, Robinson, and the writers into glory-seeking heroes--they're just people doing their job and doing it with commitment and tireless determination. TRUTH was about glory, but SPOTLIGHT is about the guts.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

In Theaters: SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2015)

(Spain/US - 2015)

Written and directed by Billy Ray. Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Alfred Molina, Michael Kelly, Joe Cole, Zoe Graham, Don Harvey, Amir Malaklou, Niko Nicotera, Patrick Davis, Ross Partridge. (PG-13, 111 mins)

Juan Jose Campanella's 2009 Argentine thriller THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES dealt with the reopening of a 25-year-old murder case that was hindered in its initial stages by the tumultuous political upheaval of 1970s Argentina. It won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and is the source for the THE-less English-language remake SECRET IN THE EYES, written and directed by Billy Ray, who previously helmed SHATTERED GLASS and BREACH and whose CAPTAIN PHILLIPS screenplay earned him an Oscar nomination. SECRET '15 makes some major changes to the story (though Ray does restage the original's much-ballyhooed soccer stadium zoom at a Dodgers game) and works fine for a good chunk of the way. But then it starts collapsing under the weight of too many contrivances and coincidences, and a third-act twist that's just too ludicrous to accept, though it does give us a brief preview of how an Oscar-winning, A-list actress might handle a 1960s-inspired Bette Davis "horror hag" renaissance in another 25 or so years.

Alternating between 2015 and flashbacks to 2002, the film opens with former FBI agent Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor), now the head of security for the New York Mets, arriving in Los Angeles to visit district attorney Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman). Claire was an assistant D.A. in 2002 when Ray was on loan from the FBI in the months following 9/11, working a joint anti-terrorism task force with L.A. cops Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts), Bumpy Willis (Dean Norris), and bootlicking department company man Reg Siefert (Michael Kelly). They were part of a post-9/11 surveillance operation on a mosque believed to be housing a sleeper cell when a young woman's body was discovered in a dumpster adjacent to the building. The dead girl turned out to be single mom Jess' high-school senior daughter Carolyn (Zoe Graham). Devastated by Jess' inconsolable grief, Ray disregarded his own job and the orders of D.A. Morales (Alfred Molina) and conducted his own investigation after seeing a suspicious-looking young man (Joe Cole) staring at Carolyn in photos taken at a police department picnic. Nobody seemed to know who the kid was until Siefert confessed that his name was Marzin, and he was his snitch inside the mosque. With the department and Morales' office deciding that preventing another 9/11 trumps bringing Carolyn's killer to justice, the case against Marzin was buried and he was declared "untouchable" and set free, with Morales and Reg opting to instead railroad a mentally-incompetent Muslim (Amir Malaklou) for the murder.

But Marzin vanished shortly after, and Ray has spent 13 obsessive years tracking him down and he's finally found him, recently paroled, sporting a new nose and the name Beckwith. Claire is now the D.A. (Morales is now the governor) and is hesitant to reopen the investigation. Jess agrees, a broken shell of what she once was and having thrown herself into her job, concluding "I don't think I can stomach seeing him walk away again." Ray won't let it go and along with a hobbling Bumpy, now on desk duty and using a cane after suffering a serious knee injury in a 2002 pursuit of Marzin, and against the wishes of a sneering Reg ("Hey, Ray...the Mets just called and they need you...somebody stole second base!"), goes rogue in pursuit of "Beckwith."

When SECRET IN THEIR EYES focuses on the dual-timeline investigations in 2002 and 2015, with director Ray and editor Jim Page doing a fine job of handling the back-and-forth time element, it's a thoroughly engaging thriller with some potent observations about the post-9/11 War on Terror that ultimately get cast aside as the story progresses. It's got a sturdy foundation in the always-excellent Ejiofor's commanding performance as a man haunted by regrets--he was supposed to meet Carolyn at a bakery to pick out a cake for Jess' surprise birthday party, but he was swamped with work and blew her off, and two hours later, she was found dead in a dumpster. His obsessive pursuit of Marzin--spending several hours a night for 13 years in a needle-in-a-haystack search combing hundreds of thousands of mugshots in the parolee database hoping to find Marzin using an alias--is fueled more by guilt than a sense of legal justice. Ejiofor and Norris make a great team who deserve their own buddy-cop movie, but the romance angle between Ray and Claire is half-baked and eventually fizzles completely. It's not helped by Kidman's stilted, zombified performance--she's just not good here, aside from one terrific 2002-set scene where she just shreds Marzin, emasculating him in the most cutting ways imaginable. It's almost enough to redeem her otherwise weak performance, though it's a mystery why she does so well in that scene but almost seems under hypnosis in the rest of the film.

In what amounts to a supporting role, Roberts has a couple of Oscar-baiting breakdowns as the devastated Jess, but is solid throughout and keeps it real, looking like she hasn't slept in weeks and going without makeup and with unflattering bangs in her frumpiest and least-glamorous role this side of MARY REILLY ("You look a million years old," Ray tells her at one point).  It's decidedly not a standard "Julia Roberts" role and those expecting a Roberts starring vehicle will likely be as disappointed as everyone else who sees an otherwise entertaining--if more than slightly unbelievable--procedural careening off the rails with a ridiculous climax that seems more fitting for a horror movie. The finale of SECRET IN THEIR EYES may seem ludicrous, but it's really just the entire film's Plot Convenience Playhouse nature crescendoing into a symphony of silliness, commencing right around the time three different stops on the way down puts all of the principal parties (Ray, Claire, Jess, and Marzin) on an elevator together. SECRET IN THEIR EYES abandons any illusions of subtext and commentary and despite the powerhouse headliners (a Roberts/Kidman teaming seems like it should've happened at least a decade ago, doesn't it?), it won't be getting any Oscar consideration, but if you're looking for a reasonably entertaining time-killer, it's worth a glance when it hits Redbox and Netflix in about three months.

Saturday, November 21, 2015


(US - 2015)

Directed by Jackie Earle Haley. Written by Robert Lowell. Cast: Michael Pitt, Dan Stevens, John Travolta, Jackie Earle Haley, Christopher Abbott, Rob Brown, Edi Gathegi, Travis Aaron Wade, Alan B. Jones, Tyrone Jenkins, Chris Haley, Morgan Wolk. (Unrated, 93 mins)

Or, GET SHORTY III: THINGS FOR SUICIDE KINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE KEYSER SOZE FOR 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY. As generic as its title, the Cleveland-shot straight-to-VOD dumpjob CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES plays like any number of post-Tarantino/post-USUAL SUSPECTS-meets-Elmore Leonard knockoffs that cluttered the new release shelves of video stores in the latter half of the 1990s. Former Bad News Bear Kelly Leak-turned-LITTLE CHILDREN Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley, whose unexpected late '00s renaissance led to his being cast as Rorschach in WATCHMEN and as Freddy Krueger in the awful NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET reboot, makes his directorial debut here, and it's mostly by-the-numbers and undistinguished. The script is credited to Robert Lowell, who may or may not be the poet who died in 1977 (IMDb and several reviews seem to think it is, and that Haley extensively rewrote it) and has familiar situations and even more familiar dialogue from several noir thrillers of two decades ago. Less than five minutes in, and one of David Della Rocco's more memorable lines in THE BOONDOCK SAINTS is repeated almost word-for-word, and much later, a traumatized character proclaims "I'm pretty fuckin' far from OK," just like Ving Rhames' Marcellus Wallace did in PULP FICTION. But in CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES (shouldn't that be the title of a bad CBS police procedural?), it doesn't come off as a winking homage. It comes off as stale and lazy. Haley is a terrific character actor, but he doesn't come close to capturing the style and the flow of Tarantino. The script sounds like Haley cobbled it together after binge-watching a bunch of '90s Tarantino imitators and like most of those films (it really plays like a ripoff of a ripoff), CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES makes a lot of noise but it's all pretend and posturing, and seems a little too pleased with itself.

Getting drinks after the funeral of their buddy Matthew (Chris Haley, the director's son), who was run over by a bus, longtime friends Zach (Michael Pitt)--now a douchebag, coke-snorting investment broker with a trophy fiancee (Morgan Wolk) he suspects is cheating on him (foreshadowing alert!)--Bryce (Rob Brown), and recovering alcoholic Warren (Christopher Abbott) are joined by outcast and frequent bullying target Noah (Dan Stevens of THE GUEST). Noah is now a filthy rich real estate mogul, and in the course of their conversation, Bryce mentions he has a buddy who's got a hot tip on investing in a lucrative new pharmaceutical startup. After a month, the stock in the company is worthless following an SEC bust, and the four guys are out the $200,000 Noah borrowed from a benefactor who turns out to be Cleveland mob kingpin Eddie Lovato (John Travolta, wearing a shiny, helmet-like Big Boy wig). Lovato's got all of them on the hook for the investment plus interest, demanding $400,000 but offering them a clean slate if they kidnap Marques Flemmings (Edi Gathegi), whose brother is holding Lovato's niece for ransom and whose uncle is Demetrius Flemmings (Tyrone Jenkins), a top rival of Lovato's. Of course, putting four bickering incompetents in charge of an abduction never works out well, and of course the pragmatic Marques (Gathegi is the best thing in the movie) senses their weaknesses, manipulates them and attempts to turn them against one another, leading to twists, turns, buried secrets being revealed, and lots of dialogue that goes as follows:

  • Marques: "Shut the fuck up!"
  • Warren: "No, you shut the fuck up!"
  • Noah: "SHUT. THE FUCK. UP!"
  • Zach and Bryce: "SHUT THE FUCK UP!"

The major plot twists are telegraphed pretty hard throughout, to the point where it becomes painfully obvious who's not who he says is, though the big reveal of why this person has gone to the lengths he's gone has a surprising degree of chutzpah and an admirable "Whoa...what?" factor to it. The finale and Gathegi's performance give CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES a big boost, and Travolta and Haley (who plays Lovato's chief flunky) seem to be having a good time. Travolta coasts through in a supporting role, probably as a favor for his buddy Haley, and gets to resurrect some of his Vincent Vega and Chili Palmer schtick, holding court with long-winded speeches (everybody in this movie has multiple long-winded speeches) on everything from economics to Macbeth to how much he hates drinking kale shakes. It's all cut from the same cloth as "Royale with Cheese," and like most of its '90s influences, there's some unexpected, darkly-comedic accidental death (like Marvin getting shot in the face because of a bump in the road in PULP FICTION). CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES is shamelessly derivative at times, and you really don't care at all about the four main characters, especially Pitt's obnoxious Zach, who seems like nearly every other obnoxious Michael Pitt character (if you want to see Pitt in a better mob movie, check out the little-seen and much more entertaining ROB THE MOB) but Stevens' portrayal of nebbishy dweeb Noah seems to be channeling a young Woody Allen at times. Except for the finale where it tries far too late to find its own voice, CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES is a minor and mostly forgettable film for Travolta completists and people who can't get enough of dated Tarantino ripoffs that instantly play like relics found frozen in ice after 20 years and just now thawed for viewing.

Friday, November 20, 2015


(US/UK - 2015)

An arthouse sleeper hit for grownups released in summer 2015, MR. HOLMES is a low-key affair that many may dismiss as an "old people movie," but it's an engrossing and quietly effective little film that unfolds like a good book. Based on Mitch Cullen's 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, MR. HOLMES reunites star Ian McKellen and director Bill Condon, who last collaborated on 1998's GODS AND MONSTERS, which netted McKellen an Oscar nomination. The masterful actor is just as great here as a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes, 30 years removed from detective work and retired to the English countryside in the years after WWII. Holmes lives in a 1947 where he's also a noted pop culture figure, as his late friend Dr. John Watson's chronicles of their adventures have led to bestselling novels and popular movies. Holmes is fighting to stave off the early signs of dementia, just returning from Japan to procure some jelly made from a "prickly ash" plant that's reputed to help with issues of memory loss. He lives in a cottage with widowed housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), who lost her husband in the war, and her young son Roger (Milo Parker), who spends a lot of time with the elderly Holmes and comes to view him as a father/grandfather figure. Holmes is haunted by regrets and the memories of dead friends and loved ones--Dr. Watson, his brother Mycroft, loyal housekeeper Mrs. Hudson--as well as an unresolved final case involving the search for a missing wife who never got over two miscarriages and a cold husband who didn't understand why she couldn't just move on with her life--a case that carried so much emotional weight with everyone involved that Holmes no longer had it in him to continue his work and retreated completely from public life, preferring to let the genius legend overshadow the flawed man.

McKellen is just perfect as the elderly Holmes, whether he's letting a wry sense of mischief show in his bonding with young Roger or when he illustrates the changing moods that so often come with the onset of dementia. He never overplays it for dramatic effect and he remains steady and genuine throughout. He's matched by the promising Parker and the always-excellent Linney, but this is really Sir Ian's show. As adapted by screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, MR. HOLMES still allows Holmes to use his detective skills, but it's really a grounded, serious dramatic piece that bluntly and realistically approaches issues of aging, memories, mortality, and the acceptance that a long life is in its final act. It's a superb film that doesn't move along especially briskly, but slowly and surely draws you in, revealing layers of complexity in its story and themes and resonating with you ways you didn't expect. (PG, 104 mins)

(US - 2015)

Dr. Philip Zimbardo's infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment has inspired two films--the German DAS EXPERIMENT (2001) and its abysmal American remake THE EXPERIMENT (2010)--and returned to the spotlight after the revelations of the abuse taking place at Abu Ghraib in Iraq in 2003. But the harrowing indie THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT is the first narrative feature dealing specifically with it by name and place. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and screenwriter Tim Talbott (a former SOUTH PARK writer) stay faithful to the events as documented by Zimbardo (played here by Billy Crudup) and the participants, almost to a degree that some would consider a fault. During the summer when the campus is mostly empty, Zimbardo selects 24 out of 75 volunteers to be broken into groups of twelve guards and twelve prisoners (nine of each active, with three alternates on call if a replacement is needed). Zimbardo and his associates set up a mock prison in some empty offices in the basement of a campus building and let things play out as they happen for a planned duration of two weeks. By day two, the "guards" on the day shift were power-tripping and intimidating the "prisoners" to see how much abuse they would take. It starts with an agonizing roll call, with the prisoners being stripped of their names and known only by numbers and forced to repeat those numbers hundreds of times and in different ways ("I want you to sing it to me this time!"), escalating to forced push-ups, jumping jacks, denial of privileges (no cigarettes; the guards refuse to give one prisoner his glasses even though he can't see without them), and time in the hole. The day shift, led by an overzealous student (Michael Angarano) who fancies himself a John Wayne-type, even putting on an affected Southern accent, encourages the night shift to do the same, resulting in more forced exercise and some bonus sleep deprivation. When rebellious prisoner 8612 (Ezra Miller) snaps and grabs a guard by the throat, the guard clubs him across the face and it escalates from there. Prisoners are denied food and use of the toilets, instead given buckets that they aren't permitted to empty. Their beds are dismantled and they're forced to sleep on the floor. They're openly intimidated by the guards during visitation, and eventually emasculated and thoroughly dehumanized, with Angarano's guard even instigating some mock prison rape by forcing three prisoners to bend over while three others are ordered to grind against them from behind. All of this is observed by Zimbardo and his increasingly incredulous graduate assistants--some of whom abandon the experiment after a few days--but Zimbardo is so fascinated what's happened in so little time that he can't bring himself to terminate it, even as his colleague and girlfriend Dr. Christina Maslach (Olivia Thirlby) expresses her disgust at what he's allowing his subjects ("These aren't prisoners," she shouts. "These are boys!") to endure.

The Stanford Prison Experiment, like the 1961 Milgram Experiment, says a lot about people's blind obedience to authority and the kind of authoritative potential within otherwise normal, well-adjusted people if that level of power is allowed to be wielded without boundaries. The film doesn't shy away from making Zimbardo look bad, whether it's his refusal to let the troubled 8612 leave even though he's clearly approaching a psychotic break after just two days, or in the way he pretty much joins the guards in his psychological abuse of the prisoners, even donning the style of sunglasses he has the guards constantly wear to maximize intimidation and minimize any kind of emotional connection between guard and prisoner. Yes, he sees the error of his ways and went on to become a sympathetic authority in the study of the psychology of abuse, but he's shown to be an insensitive and unwavering prick for most of the film, even in the petty way he corrects the mother of prisoner 819 (Tye Sheridan), who refers to him as "Mr. Zimbardo" ("It's Doctor," he huffs). This is a grueling and intense film, with the clinical and almost relentless portrayal of the systematic breakdown of the prisoners' humanity making it a tough sit of almost SALO unpleasantness. Angarano creates one of the year's most despicable characters, though one weakness of the film is that it doesn't delve into the post-experiment analysis to a significant degree. Zimbardo pulled the plug on the experiment after just six days, and Alvarez shows recreated documentary footage of Miller as 8612 and Angarano's guard discussing the after-effects of the experiment. Here's where the actual footage would've been more interesting to see. Or perhaps the first meeting of these opponents after the termination of the experiment. Did they ever see one another on campus? Also with Nelsan Ellis (TRUE BLOOD) as one of Zimbardo's colleagues, Keir Gilchrist (IT FOLLOWS), Moises Arias (HANNAH MONTANA) and James Frecheville (ANIMAL KINGDOM) as guards, and Logan Miller, Thomas Mann, Johnny Simmons, and Jack Kilmer (Val's son) as prisoners.  (R, 122 mins)

(US/Mexico - 2015)

Shot as REVERSAL but christened with the more exploitative BOUND TO VENGEANCE after it was completed, this is an occasionally suspenseful but ultimately empty revenge thriller that leaves too many dangling plot threads to be successful. It gets a lot from a strong performance by Tina Ivlev as Eve, and as the film opens, she's a kidnap victim bashing her captor over the head with a brick. The captor is Phil (Richard Tyson of THREE O'CLOCK HIGH and TWO MOON JUNCTION fame, looking and sounding like a stockier Tom Berenger as he's gotten older), and he's got her chained to a mattress in the basement of a house in the middle of nowhere off a California desert highway. Eve turns the tables on Phil, but she has no idea where she is, the phone doesn't work, and she can't find his car keys, so so fashions a dog catcher's pole out of some pipes and barbed wire and has him completely restrained, forcing him to drive to a series of destinations when he confesses he's got other girls hidden all over Los Angeles, and if she kills him, she'll share responsibility for killing them. It's an intriguing set-up, even though I'd still go for "driving to the nearest police station" as opposed to putting any kind of faith in whatever's up his sleeve. Things go badly when the first girl Eve finds and frees freaks out, trips, and impales herself on a fence post, and the next, a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, puts Eve in a position where she has to kill her in self defense.

Director Jose Manuel Cravioto, making his English language debut, and writers Keith Kjornes (who died in 2013) and Rock Shaink are obviously inspired by the horrific Ariel Castro case in Cleveland, but use it as a springboard to a bigger conspiracy story that never really makes sense. Phil is just a cog in an extensive human trafficking network, and the film blows its big plot twist early on when he keeps mentioning Eve's boyfriend Ronnie (Kris Kjornes). It also doesn't help that they try to humanize Phil by giving him a nice house in the suburbs and a wife and impossibly cute young daughter. Who is this guy? How does he get away with disappearing for long stretches to feed an untold number of kidnapped girls on a rotating basis around the greater Los Angeles area? Who are the people with whom he's complicit?  How big is this operation? How long did Ronnie have to court Eve in order to establish a relationship with her just to arrange her abduction? These questions are never answered, though Ivlev, who might have a future as a second-string Jennifer Lawrence, gives it everything she's got and is thoroughly convincing in that rage-filled I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE/MS. 45 way. There's bits and pieces of a better movie infrequently revealing itself throughout BOUND TO VENGEANCE (and there's a very effective '80s-style score by genre vet Simon Boswell), but it never ends up coalescing into something noteworthy. Keep an eye on Ivlev, though. (Unrated, 79 mins, also available on Netflix Instant)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: ROAR (1981)

(US - 1981)

Directed by Noel Marshall. Written by Noel Marshall and Ted Cassidy. Cast: Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffith, Noel Marshall, John Marshall, Jerry Marshall, Kyalo Mativo, Frank Tom, Steve Miller, Rick Glassey, Will Hutchins, Zakes Mokae. (Unrated, 94 mins)

Films with the most noble of intentions sometimes turn out to be misbegotten train wrecks, but even by the standards of misbegotten train wrecks, few movies went as far off the rails as 1981's ROAR. Several years in the making, ROAR was a $17 million home movie/vanity project from one-time Hitchcock muse Tippi Hedren (THE BIRDS, MARNIE) and her second husband, agent and producer Noel Marshall. After working on two films back-to-back in South Africa--1970's SATAN'S HARVEST and 1971's MISTER KINGSTREET'S WAR--Hedren become a passionate advocate for wildlife preservation, founding the Acton, CA-based Shambala Preserve animal sanctuary with Marshall in 1972. As the couple's fascination with wildlife grew, they came up with an idea they were convinced was a game-changer: make a movie showing these wondrous creatures--lions, tigers, and other big cats, plus elephants and other animals--interacting with humans in a peaceful co-existence. Studios balked at the idea, telling Hedren and Marshall that pulling it off with convincing special effects and camera trickery would be impossible and the notion of professionally training real wild animals to work with actors would be insane. Undeterred, they opted to take the insane route.

Hedren and Marshall and their children from previous marriages--Hedren's teenage daughter Melanie Griffith and Marshall's teenage sons John and Jerry; another Marshall son, Joel, worked on the crew but isn't in the movie--decided to welcome wild animals into their Sherman Oaks home to domesticate them (their unusual living situation was the subject of a 1971 Life pictorial), eventually moving to a desert ranch when the pack of big cats got to be too much to handle and probably didn't win them any points with their neighbors. Marshall's logic was that if the cats got used to living with them, they'd be able to function on camera, working with humans in a narrative feature that also doubled as a heartfelt public service announcement for wildlife preservation. With first-time writer/director Marshall at the helm, with additional script contributions by THE ADDAMS FAMILY's Lurch and Marshall family friend Ted Cassidy, who died in 1979, ROAR began shooting on the Shambala Preserve in 1974 and wasn't completed until 1980. Funded independently, with a good chunk of the proceeds coming from Marshall's huge payday as the executive producer of THE EXORCIST, ROAR would eventually require Marshall and Hedren pouring almost all of their personal finances and selling off a good chunk of their possessions (including a house in Beverly Hills) to see it through to completion. The end result was such a doomed disaster that no Hollywood studio would touch it and it only got a sporadic release in Europe and the rest of the world in 1981 and into 1982 before disappearing, becoming one of those lost films that you heard things about but concluded "That has to be bullshit." No, it's not bullshit. ROAR, resurrected in spring 2015 by Drafthouse Films, is real. And it has to be seen to be believed.

Noel Marshall: Filmmaker. Dreamer. Dumbass.
Marshall and Hedren thought they'd be able to take somewhere in the vicinity of 150 lions, tigers, cheetahs, cougars, jaguars and a few elephants and turn them into trained actors. Needless to say, the animals didn't really care what was in the script and more or less improvised in the most ferocious manner imaginable and establishing themselves as cinema's most violent and terrifying scene-stealers. ROAR's ostensible plot deals wildlife researcher Hank (Marshall, an unbearably bad actor who looks like Sammy Hagar, sounds like a screechy Mitch Hedberg and is prone to breaking out into pop standards in his more reflective moments) living with nearly 150 big cats on a Kenyan reservation to prove they can exist peacefully with man. Hank is waiting for his family--wife Madalaine (Hedren), daughter Melanie (Griffith) and sons John and Jerry (John and Jerry Marshall)--to arrive from the States when he's pulled into a neighboring region to argue with some local council members (among them '60s TV actor Will Hutchins--presumably another family friend--and future veteran character actor Zakes Mokae) about the danger of his decision to live with wild animals. This is all a ploy to keep Marshall offscreen for large chunks of time so he can devote his energies to "directing" the actors, where he must focus less on the story and more on trying to contain a massacre. When the family arrives to find Hank nowhere in sight, they're immediately beset by an onslaught of wild animals for pretty much the rest of the film, which Marshall is forced to make the main plot because he has no trainers on the set and no way to control his animal cast. The cats force their way through doors and walls and chase them through the house as Hedren, Griffith, and the Marshall sons run around screaming, obviously in fear for their lives and in complete denial that their experiment is backfiring. What's supposed to be a pleasant, family-friendly movie about humans and wildlife living in harmony almost instantly devolves into something that resembles a Disney home invasion horror film with animals run amok. Hedren and the kids start looking less like actors and more like prisoners being held against their will, with Griffith being mauled by a lion on camera at one point, crying real tears and screaming "Mom! Help!" as Hedren yanks on the lion's tail (!) in an attempt to get it off of her daughter. And yes, Marshall left it in the movie. One suspects Griffith and the Marshall sons used their real first names for their characters to make it easier for Hedren (who's just "Mom") during the many times she's freaking out and screaming for their assistance.

Tippi Hedren trying to intervene in
the mauling of her daughter Melanie Griffith
The mauling required 50 stitches and reconstructive surgery on young Griffith's face, and that was only one of 70 (!) cast and crew injuries over the six-year production. Marshall, who enthusiastically jumps into the middle of a multi-lion fight and seems blithely unaware that his and a film crew's presence in confined quarters might be what's agitating them, is bitten on his left hand and bleeds profusely after thinking he can reason with an enraged lion. He also had wounds so extensive near the end of shooting that he developed gangrene in his leg. Hedren was trampled by lions and broke her leg after being thrown by an elephant. The worst injury was reserved for cinematographer Jan De Bont, later the director of SPEED (1994) and TWISTER (1996), who was attacked by a lion and had the back of his scalp ripped off, requiring over 200 stitches. Although a snuff remake of BORN FREE seems ready to break out at any given moment, there were no fatalities on the set, unless you count Hedren and Marshall's marriage, which ended in divorce in 1984.

Future SPEED director Jan De Bont
after having his scalp
stitched back on.
Like any movie shot over a period of several years, the stitches--no pun intended--are bound to show. Griffith looks noticeably older at times, often in the same scene (such as the ending shots of her mauling once the lion is off of her, which were obviously shot much later than the rest of the sequence). Marshall's beard changes length and his hair is grayer from scene to scene. When someone is injured, the scene ends with a clumsy insert shot of them that's obviously months, if not years later. There's tone-deaf attempts at humor, clearly assembled in post, as when the terrified cast huddles in a corner of the house away from the lions, who bring in a carcass to tear apart and devour as an off-camera Hedren's voice quips "Look what the cat dragged in!" And it all culminates in a ridiculous happy ending, with the horrific, incessant animal attack brought to an abrupt end as everyone who spent the last 90 minutes (or six years) fearing for their lives now laughs and frolics with the cats in a feel-good montage, completely oblivious to the fact that 95% of the movie proves their thesis completely wrong. The American Humane Society may have been keeping an eye on the safety of the animals, but was anyone concerned about the actors? Made with the kind of myopic, self-delusional, and misguided tunnelvision that defies any sense of storytelling logic or basic regard for human safety, ROAR is one of the most irresponsible films this side of an Italian cannibal epic, with Marshall (who died of brain cancer in 2010) looking like a hapless buffoon early on and an unethical sadist by the end. Hedren and Griffith have distanced themselves from ROAR, whose dubious legacy is now being shepherded by John Marshall, perhaps more out of love for his late father than any fond remembrances of the years spent making it. The 85-year-old Hedren remains a passionate figure in the world of wildlife preservation and still runs the Shambala Preserve, her work there far more noble than the woefully ill-advised--albeit incredibly fascinating--grease fire that is ROAR.

Friday, November 13, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: HEIST (2015)

(US/UK - 2015)

Directed by Scott Mann. Written by Stephen Cyrus Sepher and Max S. Adams. Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Robert De Niro, Kate Bosworth, Dave Bautista, Morris Chestnut, Gina Carano, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, D.B. Sweeney, Lydia Hull, Tyler J. Olson, Summer Altice, Rosie Fellner, Lance E. Nichols, Stephen Cyrus Sepher, Tyson Sullivan, Han Soto. (R, 92 mins)

Let's be clear: HEIST is an absolutely idiotic thriller that hopes you'll fill in the blanks as it glosses over important details in between incongruous bouts of maudlin heartstring-tugging on its way to one of 2015's most asinine third-act plot twists. It's the rare violent, foul-mouthed, hard-R film with a schmaltzy sentimental streak. It's silly and dumb, but it has some good lines and a strange assembling of actors that range from an A-list Oscar-winner to the regulars at your local Redbox. Ten years ago, the $22 million HEIST would've opened nationwide in theaters and probably been the top movie for at least a couple of weeks (it also would've been confused for the 2001 David Mamet film with the same title), but today, it's being rolled out on VOD and a few scattered theaters. Director Scott Mann (whose 2009 film THE TOURNAMENT was a fun DTV actioner) and screenwriters Stephen Cyrus Sepher and Max S. Adams have created the unlikely offspring of OCEAN'S ELEVEN, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, SPEED, and THE GAUNTLET with this casino heist-turned-hostages-on-a-bus thriller that entertains in spite of its rampant stupidity. What can I say?  Check your brain at the door and roll with it, and you'll probably like it. It's always dopey but it's never boring. Sometimes you just need a movie like this.

Vaughn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a blackjack dealer at the Swan Riverboat Casino, owned by a powerful crime figure known as The Pope (Robert De Niro, on the heels of his RED LIGHTS, FREELANCERS, KILLING SEASON and THE BAG MAN triumphs). Vaughn's daughter suffers from a rare illness and needs an expensive surgery that insurance won't cover, so he asks The Pope for a $300,000 loan. Vaughn and The Pope go back many years: Vaughn used to be the boss' strongarm until he met a good woman who steered him away from crime, prompting him to step back and just work as a table dealer instead (?!). Still hurting from the rejection, The Pope rejects Vaughn's request and has his replacement flunky, trigger-happy, raging psycho Derek (Morris Chestnut) throw him out. Casino security officer Cox (Dave Bautista) then lures Vaughn into a hastily-drawn plot to rob the Swan's vault of $3 million that gets laundered through the casino once a week by some of The Pope's Chinese Triad partners. Desperate to get the money for his daughter and pissed off at The Pope, Vaughn agrees but of course, the heist goes south when Derek and some goons pursue them through the casino as the fleeing thieves hijack a city bus that's surprisingly full for 4:00 am. With a busload of hostages and the police--headed by Bajos (Gina Carano) and corrupt Marconi (Mark-Paul Gosselaar)--in hot pursuit, it's a race against time for Vaughn to get the money to the hospital while dealing with the volatile Cox (who just wants to kill all the passengers), Derek (who just wants to impress his boss), and The Pope (who just wants to make sure $3 million of Triad money doesn't go missing).

Oh, the absurdity! Of course, the hostages recognize Vaughn as a weary, bad-luck guy with a heart of gold, so they're quickly on his side. And the filmmakers aren't the most subtle foreshadowers in the way they have The Pope announce his retirement from the casino business, immediately followed by the introduction of a nagging cough as he desperately tries to phone his estranged daughter (third-billed Kate Bosworth has one scene) to set things right. This draws an obvious parallel where The Pope, a rigid, ruthless hardass, identifies with Vaughn's desperation to do whatever he needs to do to save his daughter, even if it means stealing from the most powerful criminal he knows. The underrated Morgan is a constantly busy actor who turns up all over the place and it's surprising that he isn't a bigger star. He makes Vaughn an engaging enough hero that you root for him even though you know there's no way he won't win. Carano gets one fight scene with Bautista, but she basically exists to say "Copy that" to Marconi's orders and to be a sympathetic accomplice to Vaughn. The characters are mostly stock and predictable, like the requisite pregnant woman on the bus who's one pothole away from her water spontaneously breaking, but oddball elements like a runaway little kid, a hipster in a beaver costime, and an Asian guy who unsuccessfully pretends he doesn't understand English, all of whom, again, somehow find themselves on a packed bus at 4:00 am (prior to the hijacking of the bus, does no one--starting with the driver played by D.B. Sweeney--question why a five-year-old boy is on a bus alone at 4:00 am?), indicate that there's an even goofier film trying to break out.

De Niro, in what must be an homage to the VOD accomplishments of John Cusack, is introduced vaping and bitching about how e-cigarettes just lack the feeling of real smokes. He's not in HEIST a lot but he's in it enough to keep himself amused (try to picture how Bruce Willis would sleepwalk through the same role; De Niro at least leaves his desk), sort of like his gangster character from THE BAG MAN but minus the silly wig and a propensity for long-winded monologues about FULL HOUSE. Pulling out all the beloved De Niro moves in his arsenal, he could've played The Pope in his sleep but actually seems to be having fun with it when he isn't forced to shout banalities like "Get me my money back!" and "Where's the money?!" and using cliched gambling verbiage when he's on the phone with Vaughn ("You need to fold your hand and walk away from the table or I'm takin' your whole stack!"). When Derek tells The Pope that Vaughn got away with $3 million, De Niro's delivery of the line, "Hold on...now, maybe I had a stroke or something on my way over here, but..." while making a classic De Niro face is expertly-timed and laugh-out-loud funny. HEIST's big twist opens a gaping plot hole, but overall, the film is a fast-paced and diverting time-killer and will probably be a hugely popular Netflix stream in a couple of months. HEIST can't possibly be taken seriously, so if it embraced the sense of lunacy it occasionally hints at and gone a little more in that offbeat and potentially over-the-top direction, it might've made a bigger impression. Instead, it flirts with those ideas on its way to being something as predictable and generic as its title suggests. Still, there's a lot worse things in theaters right now.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: THE EXECUTIONER PART II (1984)

(US - 1984)

Directed by James Bryan. Written by Renee Harmon. Cast: Chris Mitchum, Aldo Ray, Antoine John Mottet, Renee Harmon, Dan Bradley, Frank Albert, Bianca Phillipi, Frisco Estes, Ricco Mancini, Bruce Barrington. (R, 86 mins)

Not picking up where THE EXECUTIONER left off because there was no EXECUTIONER, THE EXECUTIONER PART II joined the T&A comedy SURF II in the very short-lived fake sequel craze of 1984. Oh, there was a movie called THE EXECUTIONER: a largely forgettable 1970 British spy thriller with George Peppard and Joan Collins. And THE EXECUTIONER was also an alternate title for Duke Mitchell's 1974 gangster opus MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE, and the US title for both the 1978 release of a 1974 Sonny Chiba martial arts movie and the British-made 1975 Dirk Bogarde spy thriller PERMISSION TO KILL. THE EXECUTIONER PART II has nothing to do with any of those films and its intent seems to be fooling less-savvy grindhouse denizens into thinking it's a sequel to 1980's THE EXTERMINATOR, beating the actual EXTERMINATOR 2 into release by three months in the summer of 1984. Directed by James Bryan, who also made the 1981 slasher film DON'T GO IN THE WOODS, THE EXECUTIONER PART II was made for $20,000 and it still looks like none of that money made it to the screen. Exhibiting a level of production values ranking somewhere between an industrial training short and a snuff film, it's only slightly more polished than, say, MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE. To his credit, a realistic Bryan, interviewed on Vinegar Syndrome's new DVD (where it's paired on a drive-in double feature with 1975's FROZEN SCREAM, as both films share producer/co-star Renee Harmon), openly admits it's terrible, and that he did what he could do with $20K and a crew basically consisting of himself (he's also the cinematographer). Shot in the summer of 1983 (JAWS 3-D is visible on a theater marquee) and almost certainly without permits throughout Los Angeles, the film doesn't use live sound and was dubbed in post with all the care and precision of the cheapest GODZILLA movie. The words don't match the lip movements on American (or at least English-speaking) actors speaking English, and a lot of the sound and foley effects are either way out of sync or simply not there (car doors are slammed and shotguns pumped with no accompanying sound). Shots are cut together but often don't match, or Bryan will cut away from a dialogue scene, show something completely unrelated, then cut back to the dialogue scene, apparently still in progress. Then there's the bellowing and profusely-sweating Aldo Ray, who couldn't have been on the set for more than an hour and maybe even left his car running in a fire lane while Bryan got the footage of him that he needed, and is always shot in extreme close-up on his own, sharing the frame with no one and inserted into scenes so awkwardly that it's laughably obvious he's not there with any other actors. This happens a lot in movies due to the availability of people and conflicting shooting schedules, but a good editor makes it smooth and seamless. Rarely has such a reality of the movie business been handled so badly. How badly?  Ray isn't wearing glasses but his over-the-shoulder double is. In short, right on the heels of the stunning NIGHTMARE WEEKEND, Vinegar Syndrome has resurrected an '80s obscurity that deserves to be the next Bad Movie sensation. The classic MST3K line about MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE where "every frame of this movie looks like someone's last known photograph" certainly applies here.

He's your judge, your jury, and
your executioner.  Part II!
Like the "best" of the likes of Jess Franco and Al Adamson, THE EXECUTIONER PART II is so random and disjointed that it often feels like the scraps of several abandoned movies carelessly stitched together: dogged, rumpled cop Lt. Roger O'Malley (Chris Mitchum) is a widower Vietnam vet on the trail of "The Executioner," a hooded vigilante who's taking it upon himself to take out the city's trash, finishing off scumbags by stuffing a grenade down their pants as Bryan always goes full Toonces and cuts to the same stock footage shot of the same generic explosion. The cops can't catch The Executioner but the public, cheered on by thickly German-accented celebrity TV news reporter Celia Amherst (Harmon), loves him. The local Mafiosi, represented by smug mobster Casallas (Frisco Estes), aka "The Tattoo Man," even though he only has three small tattoos, wants The Executioner dead because he's disrupting business. O'Malley's teenage daughter Laura (Bianca Phillipi) is a drug addict who turns to hooking for Hawaiian-shirted pimp Pete Vance (Frank Albert) to support her habit. The police commissioner (Ray) is breathing down O'Malley's neck--never in the same shot, mind you--about catching The Executioner. And O'Malley's mechanic best buddy Mike (Antoine John Mottet) is suffering from Nam flashbacks, prompting O'Malley to think the man who saved his life in Vietnam might be The Executioner. SPOILER ALERT: he is.

Hardly a scene goes by without some hilarious gaffe or WTF? moment. Every scene with Harmon has to be seen to be believed. A German war bride who married an American soldier and came to the US after WWII, Harmon kept busy by forming a local theater group with some other officers' wives, and eventually found her way into the extreme fringe of the DIY exploitation industry. This is one of three films she made with director Bryan, including the same year's HELL RIDERS, which saw name stars Adam West (BATMAN) and Tina Louise (GILLIGAN'S ISLAND) getting the Aldo Ray treatment by being shot in extreme close-up and never actually interacting with their co-stars. Harmon (1927-2006) may have been a nice lady but she's a horrible actress and an even worse screenwriter. In her late 50s and playing half her age while wearing gaudy dresses and garish makeup and looking and acting nothing like a TV personality, she's also a love interest for O'Malley, but that goes nowhere. Chris Mitchum was Hollywood royalty thanks to his legendary father Robert, but he never came close to having the same success. He had some early co-starring gigs in late-period John Wayne movies like RIO LOBO (1970), CHISUM (1970), and BIG JAKE (1971) before he found steady work in Eurotrash fare like SUMMERTIME KILLER (1972) and RICCO THE MEAN MACHINE (1973). He bounced between the US, Europe, and the Far East, rarely distinguishing himself but occasionally turning up in something like Alejandro Jodorowsky's TUSK (1980) and the Emmy-nominated miniseries A RUMOR OF WAR (1980). But generally, he was confined to things like the Frank Stallone-starring DEATH FEUD (1987), Jess Franco's FACELESS (1988) and some schlocky but stunt-crazed Indonesian martial arts movies like LETHAL HUNTER (1989), where he'd get to display what can best be described as his unique "Lanky White Guy kung-foolery" (© me), which also gets an inevitable showcase in THE EXECUTIONER PART II. In recent years, the 72-year-old Mitchum--who's extremely likable and a great raconteur in interviews but has blamed his lack of Hollywood stardom not on his limited acting abilities but on being a staunch conservative associated with Vietnam War supporter Wayne--has had unsuccessful 2012 and 2014 Congressional bids as the Tea Party-backed House candidate from California's 24th district.

A typical extreme close-up of Aldo Ray 
In his prime, Aldo Ray (1926-1991) was a very popular tough guy in 1950s war movies like BATTLE CRY and MEN IN WAR (it's no coincidence that Brad Pitt's character in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is named "Aldo Raine"), but he also had a gift for comedy, as evidenced in the Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn favorite PAT AND MIKE (1952), and with Humphrey Bogart and Peter Ustinov as a trio of dim-witted Devil's Island escapees in WE'RE NO ANGELS (1955), and as a romantic lead paired with Judy Holliday in THE MARRYING KIND (1952). Ray's stardom waned but he stayed busy in supporting roles in mostly reputable productions and guest spots on TV into the early 1970s, but his career completely derailed by the end of the decade when he was appearing in things like Al Adamson's DEATH DIMENSION (1978) and in a straight role in the 1979 hardcore porno SWEET SAVAGE with Carol Connors. In the 1980s, Ray managed a couple of roles in some major projects: he voiced a character in the animated film THE SECRET OF NIMH (1982) and had a small part in Michael Cimino's bomb THE SICILIAN (1987), but THE EXECUTIONER PART II was typical of the work Ray was getting at this point in his career, along with garbage like Mardi Rustam's EVILS OF THE NIGHT (1985), and Fred Olen Ray joints like BIOHAZARD (1985) and the outer space women-in-prison actioner STAR SLAMMER: THE ESCAPE (1986). He was diagnosed with throat cancer at some point in the 1980s and was so indiscriminate about the jobs he accepted that he would infamously have his SAG membership revoked for working in non-union productions. Ray would eventually succumb to cancer in 1991, his last film appearance coming in the Traci Lords horror movie SHOCK 'EM DEAD that same year. Largely forgotten these days except by hardcore Turner Classic Movies viewers, Ray's crashing and burning from the 1950s A-list to some of the worst of the worst in no-budget 1980s schlock remains one of the saddest downfalls in Hollywood history. Sure, the way he's half-assedly spliced into random scenes in THE EXECUTIONER PART II is funny, but it's incredibly depressing at the same time, considering the guy once very capably held his own with the likes of Tracy, Hepburn, and Bogart.

"OK, if you have to look directly into the camera,
try not to do it more than five or six times in the
ten seconds you're onscreen."
THE EXECUTIONER PART II is mind-bogglingly incompetent on every level. It's filled with clumsy action, terrible dubbing, and the most inept and choppy editing you'll ever see. The opening Vietnam flashback looks like it was filmed in a park. Characters frequent a bar where a woman in tight pants busts spastic, David Brent-like moves. Casallas makes a special trip to Mike's shop, his driver opening the door for him and Casallas getting out of the backseat of the car for the sole purpose of telling Mike he's not paying his $64 bill (he had to be driven all the way there just to say that?). In one scene, Laura is walking with a friend played by an actress who repeatedly looks directly into the camera while carrying schoolbooks and flowers that look like a clump of pulled weeds. When Mike is giving Casallas a beatdown in the climax, the mobster issues the least effective offer-you-can't-refuse ever: "We can make a deal!  I can write you a check!" There's simply too many things hilariously wrong with THE EXECUTIONER PART II to pick up on a single viewing, but one bit of genius could be sufficient evidence to prove the whole thing is an intentional goof: witness the absurd brilliance of Celia stabbing a Casallas goon with a samurai sword (that happens to be chained to wall?) and impaling him on a couch as he then gets up and tries to chase her...with the couch still attached to him. Working micro-budget is one thing, but it hardly explains how nothing seems natural and everything is so stilted and awkward. One can excuse Ray seeming like he's in another movie because he's certainly not in this one, but Mitchum is the only cast member who looks like he's been in front of a camera before, and even he appears completely flummoxed. Whatever conditions he was forced to work under due to time and budget constraints, it a safe bet that "Take two" was decidedly not in James Bryan's vocabulary. In other words, THE EXECUTIONER PART II is a must-see, but if all 86 minutes of it seem too daunting, the folks at Everything is Terrible did a nice job of condensing the highlights.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

In Theaters: SPECTRE (2015)

(US/UK - 2015)

Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth. Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona, Stephanie Sigman. (PG-13, 148 mins)

2012's SKYFALL was the best 007 adventure in decades--maybe since 1969's ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE--so SPECTRE, the 24th film in the 53-year-old franchise, wisely doesn't try to top it. Instead, it's a pastiche of the 23 that preceded it, with a wink and nod to just about every one of them, mixed with a continuation of what's become a four-film James Bond origin story since Daniel Craig took over the role with 2006's CASINO ROYALE. With Craig's quartet of films, the Bond series has demonstrated a strong influence by both the BOURNE franchise and Christoper Nolan's DARK KNIGHT trilogy, with Craig's Bond a brooding, damaged man driven by rage, revenge, and grief. With CASINO ROYALE and SKYFALL (and to an extent, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, generally regarded as the weakest of Craig's Bonds), the continuing storyline (other than some recurring characters and a couple of later references to Bond being a widower after his brief marriage at the end of MAJESTY'S, the Bond films are typically stand-alone entries rather than direct sequels) has been an attempt to add depth and maturation to the character and to play him more like the hard-edged killer in Ian Fleming's books. It's mostly worked, brilliantly so in SKYFALL (which played more stand-alone at the time but that changes here), but it grows a little stale in SPECTRE, primarily because the payoff isn't worth the elaborate buildup. Four writers are credited with the script--there were almost certainly more who remain uncredited--and the story was said to change course during production. It shows--the first half of SPECTRE is a big, globetrotting adventure of the classic 007 variety, but the second half stumbles, first with a complex backstory for its primary villain that doesn't really serve a purpose, and then with a shift to a secondary villain whose plans just aren't that interesting. Christoph Waltz was born to play a Bond villain, but his Franz Oberhauser is little more than an extended cameo: he has two brief bits in the opening hour--once seen from behind and then again in shadow--then doesn't turn up again until the hour-and-45-minute mark. Why bring this unique, versatile, two-time Oscar-winner onboard and use him so frugally? With the possible exception of Joseph Wiseman in DR. NO,  I can't recall a lead Bond villain having this little screen time. I didn't stopwatch it, but there's no way Waltz is in this for more than 20 total minutes.

As the film opens with a lengthy and quite impressive tracking shot, Bond has gone rogue, tailing and killing a mystery man named Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) to Mexico during the Day of the Dead festival. He's suspended by M (Ralph Fiennes) and injected with a tracking chip by Q (Ben Whishaw) so MI-6 has constant knowledge of his whereabouts. Undeterred, Bond informs Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) that the late, previous M send him a cryptic video message before her death (Judi Dench has an unbilled bit) to follow Sciarra, kill him, and attend his funeral. Bond seduces Sciarra's widow Lucia (Monica Bellucci), who informs him of her husband's involvement with a global criminal organization called Spectre. Bond infiltrates a Spectre meeting by wearing the outfit's distinctive ring (he took it from Sciarra before killing him) and is outed by its leader Oberhauser. Bond knows Oberhauser, who has been the secret puppet master behind the events of the three previous films, and after escaping from the Spectre headquarters, heads to Austria to protect Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux)--the daughter of Quantum operative Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), last seen in QUANTUM OF SOLACE--when he realizes Spectre agents, led by hulking henchman Hinx (Dave Bautista) are after her for what she knows about their global operation.

There's a secondary plot about a weaselly government operative known as C (Andrew Scott) and his attempt to banish M and the entire MI-6 division in order to rely on global surveillance and drones, deeming agents of 007's sort obsolete. Of course, British government officials have been deeming Bond obsolete since the Sean Connery era, and of course they're always proven wrong. SPECTRE wants to be a big, classic 007 adventure and for about an hour or so, it is. But what was initially an interesting exploration into the more serious side of Bond and his tortured psyche (it's interesting that Craig's grim and largely humorless portrayal of Bond has been praised for the same reasons Timothy Dalton was criticized during his underrated, two-film run back in the late '80s) just fizzles when it resurfaces in the film's second half. There's two twists involving Oberhauser and one serves no purpose whatsoever, at least in the sense of raising the stakes for Bond. It's a reveal for the sake of a big reveal, then it falls flat when the film does nothing with it. In other words, not a single thing about the outcome would've been different had that first big twist not been used. It doesn't help that Waltz's screen time is so paltry. Sure, Javier Bardem didn't appear until about 70 minutes into SKYFALL but he was at least given plenty of opportunities to strut his stuff and be an unforgettable villain. Waltz--and what the script does with Oberhauser--had the potential to be the ultimate Bond villain but instead, he's about as memorable as Michael Lonsdale's Hugo Drax in MOONRAKER and Toby Stephens' Gustav Graves in DIE ANOTHER DAY. Waltz isn't the only one ill-used in SPECTRE: the always gorgeous Bellucci, the oldest Bond girl at 51, has an even smaller role, and Bautista's silent (but for one word) hulk Hinx is gone well before the end and isn't around long enough to be more than a predictable retread of Robert Shaw's Red Grant in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, Harold Sakata's Oddjob in GOLDFINGER, and Richard Kiel's Jaws in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME.

The Craig era gives the recurring characters of M, Q, Moneypenny, and M's Chief of Staff Bill Tanner (a character who's appeared sporadically in the series going back to 1974's THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN and played in the Craig films by Rory Kinnear) a lot more to do than they did with the previous 007s (can you imagine Bernard Lee's M taking part in action sequences?), but it's at the expense of the some of the things that make the Bond movies what they are: the villains, the girls, and the gadgets. After the serious, DARK KNIGHT-ization of the character in the last three films, it's time to get over this JAMES BOND: ORIGINS mindset, and that's what SPECTRE thankfully does in its first half. It starts to have that welcome sense of fun, thrilling escapism that the Bond films had back in the day with the formulaic, workmanlike efficiency of a Guy Hamilton or a John Glen at the helm. SKYFALL director Sam Mendes returns here but can't resist the urge to go Serious with the second half, which really implodes in the home stretch (there's also no reason for this thing to be two-and-a-half hours). The action is great, the references are fun (the mountain-top health institute is a dead ringer for the Piz Gloria stronghold in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, and a really hardcore 007 nerd will smile at Q staying at a hotel called "the Pevsner," named after former series associate producer Tom Pevsner, who died in 2014), and Craig still makes a great Bond and even has a few more lighter moments than usual when he isn't still brooding about Vesper Lynd, but SPECTRE is a wildly inconsistent entry that eventually works at cross purposes. It's far from being in the basement with MOONRAKER and DIE ANOTHER DAY, but when the dust settles, it's got a home somewhere in the range of lesser 007s like YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, OCTOPUSSY, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, and yes, QUANTUM OF SOLACE.  Oh, and Sam Smith's "Writing's on the Wall" is now the worst Bond theme ever, which is great news for Lulu's "The Man with the Golden Gun."