Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Cannon Files: BOLERO (1984)

(US - 1984)

Written and directed by John Derek. Cast: Bo Derek, George Kennedy, Andrea Occhipinti, Ana Obregon, Olivia d'Abo, Greg Bensen, Ian Cochrane, Mirta Miller, Mickey Knox. (Unrated, 105 mins)

One of Cannon's most controversial releases, BOLERO opened on Labor Day weekend 1984 riding a wave of publicity due to its troubled production and explicit sexual content involving iconic star Bo Derek. The actress had been offscreen since 1981's TARZAN THE APE MAN, a film that began a decade-long stretch where she was starring exclusively in films directed by her husband John Derek. John, born in 1926 and 30 years his wife's senior, was a former actor who once held his own with Humphrey Bogart in KNOCK ON ANY DOOR (1949) and an Oscar-winning Broderick Crawford in ALL THE KING'S MEN (also 1949) and had prominent roles in epic blockbusters like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) and EXODUS (1960). John was married to original Bond girl Ursula Andress when he quit acting in 1966 to focus on filmmaking and photography. After he and Andress divorced, John was married to Linda Evans until their divorce in 1974. The divorce came after John met 16-year-old Kathleen Collins a year earlier and whisked her away to Europe. Upon returning to the US after Kathleen turned 18, the pair married and he rechristened her "Bo Derek," managing every aspect of her career and even handling the photography for her numerous Playboy pictorials. She landed a supporting role in the 1977 JAWS ripoff ORCA and in 1979, skyrocketed to international stardom as the object of a midlife crisis-stricken Dudley Moore's obsession in Blake Edwards' zeitgeist-capturing megahit 10.

Bo followed 10 with a very similar role in 1980's A CHANGE OF SEASONS, which had Anthony Hopkins in the Dudley Moore midlife crisis part. By this point, the Dereks, with their age difference and John's Svengali-like management of her career--he resented the "Svengali" implications but trolled his detractors by naming his company "Svengali Productions"-- became a lightning rod for tabloid controversy. They had such a ubiquitous media presence and Bo-mania was such a pop culture phenomenon that Fleer even released a set of "Here's Bo" trading cards. 1981 saw the release of the incestuous love story FANTASIES, a film the Dereks shot in Greece in 1973 during their sojourn to Europe where John wouldn't be inconvenienced by California's 18-as-the-age-of-consent statutory rape laws (when they returned to the States and while Bo was shooting 10, John also found time to direct the 1979 hardcore porno LOVE YOU! with Annette Haven). But the Dereks made their biggest splash of 1981 with their sexed-up remake of TARZAN THE APE MAN, a film that veered so far from the source story that the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs tried to sue. Highly publicized thanks to Bo's barely-there Jane outfit and her numerous nude scenes, TARZAN saw Bo not using her 10 fame to further her own acting career but rather, the couple using her fame to get big-studio budgets for John's crummy movies. A director with an eye for beauty but no idea how to tell a story, John Derek's films during his marriage to Bo accomplish little aside from John Derek showing the world how hot his young wife is. TARZAN THE APE MAN generated enough interest--and enough people still wanted to see Bo naked--that it became a hit, but nobody liked it and it was immediately and rightly ridiculed by critics and audiences, earning multiple Razzie nominations and making John a major-studio pariah.

A set photo from early in BOLERO's shoot, as
evidenced by the presence of the soon-to-be-fired
Fabio Testi on the far left (thanks to
William Wilson for supplying this pic)
Undaunted--and still winning since, as he was quick to point out, his wife was incredibly hot--John set up a deal with Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus at Cannon for the couple's next film, BOLERO, its title a reference to the Ravel piece that was prominently featured in 10. Golan and Globus were in the middle of a lucrative distribution deal with MGM/UA, and that allowed them to supply John with an even bigger budget than he had with TARZAN, and to further stroke his ego as if that was even necessary, they also gave him final cut. Shooting began in the summer of 1983 and almost immediately ran into problems when Bo became alarmed over a cold sore on the lip of the male lead, Italian actor Fabio Testi. The two stars already weren't getting along, and there was a lot of chatter in the press that Testi had herpes and was forced to exit the movie. The official diagnosis was "atypical facial dermatitis," and an already-under-contract Testi was yanked off of BOLERO and sent by Golan to another Cannon production, J. Lee Thompson's THE AMBASSADOR. Testi was replaced by another Italian actor, the much-younger Andrea Occhipinti (Lamberto Bava's A BLADE IN THE DARK, Lucio Fulci's THE NEW YORK RIPPER), but John wasn't satisfied with his physical appearance and, according to a February 1984 article in People, tried to talk him into bulking up with steroids. Following the advice of his doctor, Occhipinti refused, but agreed to physically train with Scottish co-star Ian Cochrane, who had some bodybuilding experience. Shooting mostly in Spain, John's directing style alienated much of the local crew, but the real clashes came later when Golan screened the finished film for MGM/UA personnel, including studio head Frank Yablans, who was put in charge of the company in early 1983.

Yablans was already pissed off about the quality of product Cannon was bringing him with low-budget films like TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS and HERCULES and big-budget money-losers like the expensive Brooke Shields adventure SAHARA and the raunchy Faye Dunaway period piece THE WICKED LADY, both of which bombed. REVENGE OF THE NINJA and BREAKIN' were two of the very few hits under the MGM/UA-Cannon deal, and when Yablans attended the disastrous private screening of BOLERO, during which numerous MGM/UA brass started laughing out loud in all the wrong places, he'd reached his breaking point. Golan was just as upset about John Derek's finished cut as Yablans, but he got an even bigger surprise when an irate Yablans drew the line and flat-out refused to distribute BOLERO. The topic was brought up in Mark Hartley's 2015 Cannon documentary ELECTRIC BOOGALOO and Yablans, who was out at MGM/UA by 1985 and who died in 2014, appears on camera still stewing about Cannon, and over BOLERO in particular. After the teen comedy MAKING THE GRADE flopped later in the summer of 1984, Yablans had seen enough and pulled the plug on MGM/UA's relationship with Cannon. As a result of the falling out with Yablans, Golan and Globus were on their own and began self-distributing most of their films, starting with BOLERO (1985's LIFEFORCE, produced by Cannon and released by Tri-Star, was an exception, and several 1986-87 Cannon productions would be released by Warner Bros). While BOLERO barely made back its budget thanks to, once again, people wanting to see Bo Derek nude (it opened in third place that Labor Day holiday weekend, behind TIGHTROPE in its third week and GHOSTBUSTERS in its 13th, then plummeted to 8th place in its second weekend), the resulting film was so terrible that it did irreparable damage to what remained of the Dereks' credibility in Hollywood.

Make no mistake--BOLERO is an awful film. The only positive thing one can say about it is that the budget is up there on the screen. With lavish sets and location shooting in Spain, Morocco, and the UK, the only thing John gets right--other than Bo's gratuitous nude scenes--is a certain sense of spectacle. Set in the 1920s, the threadbare plot has 28-year-old Bo as Ayre "Mac" MacGillvary, a wealthy orphan just out of boarding school, armed with her inheritance and ready to search the world for the perfect man to whom she can gift her virginity. Accompanied by her best friend Catalina (Ana Obregon) and her chauffeur/guardian Cotton (a bewildered-looking George Kennedy), Mac travels to Morocco where she meets a London-educated, narcoleptic sheik (Greg Bensen, in his simultaneous acting debut and swan song) who seduces her and covers her in milk and honey but falls asleep before he can deflower her. Then it's on to Spain where she meets bullfighter Angel (Occhipinti). The two fall in love and Mac loses her virginity in an over-the-top sex scene that has John employing a wind machine as Mac reaches orgasm, in addition to zooming in as close to the actors' grinding and thrusting as he can to vividly show the friction of their pubic hair (in a later climactic sex scene, Derek gives us a clear shot of Occhipinti's nutbag). The couple's passion is threatened when Angel is gored by a bull (in a scene where John shows shocked onlookers, including a reaction shot from a barking dog) and is unable to perform sexually. Never fear, though--Mac gives him a thumbs up and promises "That thing is going to work! I guarantee you this!"

"Yep...the picture was called COOL HAND LUKE," sighs
 George Kennedy, adding "They gave me an Oscar for it!" 
From then on, Mac focuses on helping Angel heal in order for them to continue breaking barriers in sexual ecstasy (or "extasy," as she spells it). All the while, Mac is given strong support and encouragement by Cotton, Catalina, and 13-year-old local gypsy girl Paloma (debuting future WONDER YEARS co-star Olivia d'Abo who, in a move that would only happen in a John Derek film, was 14 at the time of filming and somehow does full frontal nudity), as well as Angel's housemaid, who has a brief fling with Cotton (yes, even George Kennedy gets laid in this movie). Never have so many people had to devote so much time and energy to an impossibly gorgeous woman getting some dick. While the numerous sex scenes are vigorous and explicit (give John Derek some credit--he knew how to shoot a fuck scene), and, in the case of Angel's triumphant return to potency, hilarious thanks to John breaking out some lightning effects and an '80s metal fog machine, they're spaced out enough that the rest of the film is a dead-on-arrival bore. John manages to create the illusion of class with the majestic locations (he also served as his own cinematographer), brief and quickly abandoned attempts at paying homage to silent cinema (the film opens with a photo of Rudolph Valentino and the sheik's seduction of Mac plays out with silent movie intertitles in place of dialogue) and the sex scenes scored in overwrought fashion by the legendary Elmer Bernstein, but BOLERO is just bad. Bo's performance is terrible (she won a Razzie for it), and you can barely understand anything Obregon and Occhipinti are saying (around 48 minutes in, Occhipinti audibly flubs a line and John just left it in). The sex scenes were graphic enough that the Dereks knew BOLERO would get an X rating, and since the couple was promised complete artistic control and final cut, the film went out unrated, though stories differ over whether Golan wanted it to be even more explicit. The Dereks said at the time that Golan was pushing for more graphic content, while Golan claimed he asked John to make some cuts. Over 30 years later, it's hard to ascertain the truth, and at this point, no one cares.

A willing participant in the implosion of her once-promising career, Bo Derek was offscreen for six years after BOLERO. When she made another film, it was of course directed by her husband. 1990's GHOSTS CAN'T DO IT, produced by former Trans-World Entertainment partners Eduard Sarlui and Moshe Diamant, is John Derek's worst film by a wide margin, a self-indulgent travelogue/home movie that found Bo as a widowed wife trying to find a younger body to host the spirit of her robust, much-older, and recently deceased husband (Anthony Quinn). Also featuring veteran actors Don Murray and Julie Newmar, the alleged comedy GHOSTS CAN'T DO IT is obviously about an aging John Derek facing his own mortality but is so vapid and empty that it's somehow worse than either TARZAN THE APE MAN or BOLERO, with its only notoriety these days stemming from the presence of none other than Donald Trump in a small role as an asshole corporate raider (in other words, "Donald Trump") trying to take control of Quinn's business. BOLERO and GHOSTS CAN'T DO IT were recently released as a double feature Blu-ray by the fine folks at Shout! Factory, and the very fact that this product exists in the year 2016 should completely debunk once and for all the myth that physical media is dead.

John and Bo Derek at the height
of the early 1980s Bo-mania. 
Not long after GHOSTS CAN'T DO IT predictably bombed in theaters, John's health began to decline and Bo had to branch out and act in other movies. She found herself in several straight-to-video titles like 1992's HOT CHOCOLATE and a pair of 1994 post-BASIC INSTINCT erotic thrillers, SHATTERED IMAGE and WOMAN OF DESIRE. GHOSTS CAN'T DO IT proved to be John's final feature but he directed a pair of music videos for Shania Twain in 1995, the same year Bo had her most significant role in years as Chris Farley's scheming stepmother in TOMMY BOY. This led to some steady work on TV for Bo, which continued after John's death following emergency heart surgery in 1998 at the age of 71. In a relationship with SEX AND THE CITY and MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING co-star John Corbett since 2002, Bo hasn't appeared in a major theatrical feature since 2003's MALIBU'S MOST WANTED, though she's remained busy with a couple of Lifetime movies and guest spots on TV shows like CHUCK and CSI: MIAMI, as well as playing Tara Reid's mother in 2015's SHARKNADO 3: OH HELL NO! Bo Derek will turn 60 this year, and though she hasn't headlined a box office hit in over 30 years, she remains one of the world's most recognizable sex symbols, due mostly to one film: 10. No matter how peculiar or creepy the public perceived their relationship to be, there's no doubt she and John loved one another dearly, but after 10, she probably could've accomplished more than becoming a four-time Razzie winner in every movie she made with her husband--one for each film and then a special award for Worst Actress of the 1980s.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

In Theaters: THE BOY (2016)

(US/China - 2016)

Directed by William Brent Bell. Written by Stacey Menear. Cast: Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans, Jim Norton, Diana Hardcastle, James Russell, Ben Robson, Matthew Walker. (PG-13, 97 mins)

I'm a sucker for a good creepy doll movie, and after the unwatchable ANNABELLE, THE BOY appeared to be a welcome throwback that relied more on atmosphere and mood than jump scares and subpar CGI. Hope was deflated significantly upon learning THE BOY was directed by William Brent Bell, whose previous films include the idiotic gamers-killed-by-video-game dud STAY ALIVE (2006), featuring a legitimate contender for the most annoying snarky movie line ever ("Sweet Sebastian Bach, I wanna play!"), and the rock-bottom, found-footage EXORCIST knockoff THE DEVIL INSIDE (2012). STAY ALIVE was merely stupid, but THE DEVIL INSIDE was the cinematic equivalent of a Nigerian prince e-mail, a loathsome scam of a film whose boundless contempt for its audience was so off-the-charts that it just stopped abruptly with no ending, with a middle finger of an end crawl sending moviegoers to a web site "for more on the ongoing investigation." Despite toxic word-of-mouth, THE DEVIL INSIDE somehow managed to sucker audiences out of $53 million despite a 76% freefall in its second weekend. Still, both STAY ALIVE and THE DEVIL INSIDE probably scored well enough on the horror fanboy's overly generous "Everything is Awesome!" curve that Bell likely got himself a lifetime "Master of Horror" pass. Against all odds and any rational logic, William Brent Bell is still considered employable, and though I love a creepy doll movie as much as anyone, the biggest concern going in was "How badly is Bell going to fuck this up?"

To his credit, he does an alright job, as THE BOY is a pretty good horror movie until it turns into a pretty dumb horror movie. It's his most accomplished film yet as a director, though it would be hard to make something worse then THE DEVIL INSIDE. It's worth noting that Bell also wrote that film and STAY ALIVE but had nothing to do with THE BOY's script, which is a career path I advise him to keep following. Set in the kind of stately British manor that would've fit perfectly in a 1970s Hammer or Amicus film, THE BOY (actually shot in Canada) stars THE WALKING DEAD's Lauren Cohan as Greta, an American running from a requisite dark past, all the way to rural England, where she takes a job as a nanny at a large estate in the middle of nowhere. She's hired by the elderly Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire (Jim Norton, Diana Hardcastle) to watch over their eight-year-old son, Brahms. Brahms is revealed to be toddler-sized porcelain doll. The Heelshires are going on holiday and Greta has specific instructions to follow Brahms' itinerary to the letter, including poetry and music lessons, a bedtime story, a kiss goodnight, and to be with him at all times. Of course, Greta blows off her duties, but is essentially housebound with nothing much to do, no internet and no cell reception. Local bloke Malcolm (Rupert Evans) drops off groceries and dispenses the Heelshires' generous pay to Greta each week, and rightly senses that Greta is running away from something that she reveals to be a violent ex who's trying to track her down, and she fled overseas from Montana to get as far away from him as she could. Malcolm informs Greta that Brahms was the Heelshires' eight-year-old son, and he died 20 years earlier in a fire. They've never been able to cope with the loss, so they treat the doll as if it's the child Brahms. Greta starts taking her duties seriously when she begins witnessing strange occurrences that indicate "Brahms" is alive, or at the very least a spirit of some kind exists inside the doll.

THE BOY works fine for about 2/3 of the way, with Cohan an engaging, believable heroine, and she has a good rapport with Evans, who's very likable as Malcolm. Brahms, with the ever-so-slight changes in his facial expressions, is an eerie figure and the premise is bizarre enough that it keeps you intrigued over where it's going. Then it gets to where it's going and it stumbles to its unsatisfying conclusion. From the moment Greta's ex improbably shows up, the film never regains its footing before abandoning the "creepy doll" angle and turning into...well, it's hard to say what it turns into without spoiling it, but it's a 2014 import that got a lot of buzz in cult horror circles. THE BOY isn't a bad movie, but it's another example of the need for a bait-and-switch plot twist negating much of what took place before, with the focus going from telling the story to laying the foundation for a sequel. I wouldn't be surprised if what turns out to be "Brahms" becomes a DTV franchise, which I guess some producers find more important than making one good, strong, solid-from-front-to-back horror film.

Monday, January 25, 2016

In Theaters: ROOM (2015)

(Ireland/Canada - 2015)

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Written by Emma Donoghue. Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Sean Bridgers, Tom McCamus, Wendy Crewson, Amanda Brugel, Joe Pingue, Cas Anvar, Randal Edwards. (R, 118 mins)

Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her best-selling 2010 novel, ROOM is a harrowing, grueling, yet ultimately uplifting drama that's one of 2015's finest films. Cementing her place as one of the top actresses of today, Oscar-nominated Bree Larson is Joy, a 24-year-old woman who was abducted seven years earlier from her suburban Ohio neighborhood by a man she dubs "Old Nick" (Sean Bridgers, who had a somewhat similar abductor role in the Lucky McKee horror film THE WOMAN). Locked in a fortified backyard shed with only a skylight to show any trace of the outside world, Joy has a five-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), fathered by Old Nick, who still regularly forces her to submit to his sexual demands while Jack hides in a closet. "Room," as Joy and Jack call it, is their only world, as Jack has never been past the door and has no concept of people or society. Joy and Jack have a loving relationship, spending every waking moment together, and she's fiercely protective of him, standing her ground and refusing to let Old Nick near him. Joy learns Old Nick has been unemployed for six months, which explains why he's been increasingly frugal with the supplies he provides, and coupled with Jack's fifth birthday, she realizes it's time to start planning an escape.

That's only part of the film, which splits its story into roughly equal halves of one hour each. Once a series of circumstances results in Jack getting out and Old Nick being arrested, Joy must not only reintegrate herself into society after being locked in a shed for seven years, but Jack must quickly adjust to the existence of world he never had the ability to contemplate. Shell-shocked and terrified to leave his mother's side, Jack very slowly warms to life with Joy's mother Nancy (Joan Allen, terrific as always). Nancy and Joy's father Robert (William H. Macy) have divorced in the seven years since her abduction, with Nancy's significant other now Leo (Tom McCamus), who Joy remembers as being an old family friend. It takes time for Joy and Jack to adjust to the freedom, with Jack periodically missing the security he felt in "Room," the only place he's ever known.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (FRANK) takes a methodical and unflinching approach to both the day-to-day confinement and the ultimate liberation of Joy and Jack. He conveys the sense of claustrophobic dread and terror but admirably never goes for the exploitative in his depiction of Old Nick's repeated violations of Joy, only showing a cowering Jack in the closet and trusting the audience to understand what's happening. He also pulls no punches in the natural, human flaws of the characters, unafraid to show Joy as impatient and angry or Jack as occasionally unappreciative and bratty. Even once they're safe with Nancy and Leo, tensions flare but there's always a sense of love and perserverance. It's ultimately a feel-good story, but it earns it by never feeling forced or manipulative. No one is really sure how to react to anything, particularly Robert, whose cold reaction and refusal to even look at Jack doesn't necessarily make him a bad person, but certainly one who has no place in their lives now. The focus is the love between Joy and Jack but the bond that Jack separately develops with Nancy and especially with Leo, who steps up to be the father and grandfather Robert can't and won't be, is very touching (McCamus' warm and sympathetic performance may be ROOM's stealthiest secret weapon). Larson, a gifted young actress who should've been nominated for an Oscar a few years ago for her indie breakthrough turn in SHORT TERM 12, is unforgettable as Joy, and she's matched in every way by nine-year-old Tremblay, who turns in one of cinema's most remarkable performances by a child actor. With maybe the most perfect closing scene in any film of 2015, ROOM is a gut-wrenching, devastating ordeal about tragedies overcome and lives moving on. Don't miss it.

Friday, January 22, 2016

In Theaters: DIRTY GRANDPA (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Dan Mazer. Written by John Phillips. Cast: Robert De Niro, Zac Efron, Dermot Mulroney, Aubrey Plaza, Zoey Deutch, Julianne Hough, Jason Mantzoukas, Danny Glover, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Adam Pally, Brandon Mychal Smith, Jake Picking, Michael Hudson, Mo Collins, Henry Zebrowski. (R, 102 mins)

The worst thing to happen to Robert De Niro since prostate cancer, DIRTY GRANDPA is about as unwatchable as modern comedy can get, existing almost on the same plane of laziness, incompetence, and flat-out contempt as any atrocious Friedberg/Seltzer spoof. The film imagines itself some kind of edgy, "did they just go there?" envelope-pusher, but there's nothing here beyond the shock value of a living legend like De Niro working blue and saying some of the filthiest things ever heard in a mainstream movie. But "shock" doesn't mean "funny." Raunch humor can kill--in-their-prime Farrelly Brothers and Judd Apatow and AMERICAN PIE have shown that. And the great BAD SANTA (2003) expertly mixed raunchy shock with smart writing and funny performances. DIRTY GRANDPA skips the humor component, demonstrating absolutely no restraint as it guns it straight for the raunch and nothing but. As decreed in the Burgess Meredith Amendment set forth upon the release of 1993's GRUMPY OLD MEN, Hollywood seems to think there's nothing funnier than old people saying really nasty shit. After 102 minutes of watching De Niro--arguably the greatest actor of all time--jerk off; talk about donkey-punches, creampies, chugging horsecock, and Queen Latifah taking a shit in his mouth; call his grandson "Jack Dicklaus" and "Michelle Wies-in-my-mouth" while golfing; call his grandson's fiancee's pink car "a giant labia" and "a giant tampon"; stick his cock and balls in his grandson's face; make racist and homophobic cracks to a gay black man; harangue the same grandson for cockblocking him and calling him "Cocky McBlockerson"; and bellow ad nauseum that he wants to "fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck till my dick falls off!" while dropping more F-bombs than in all of his Scorsese films combined, you'll long for the tact and grace of Meredith cackling about "taking the skin boat to Tuna Town!" in GRUMPY OLD MEN. De Niro isn't so much a dirty grandpa as he is a geriatric 2 Live Crew.

Dick (De Niro) convinces his grandson to take him
 to Daytona Beach by making him an offer he can't
 refuse in DIRTY GRANDPA
It has a plot that's similar to the not-quite-as-godawful-but-close Robert Duvall vehicle A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO. The day after the funeral of his wife of 40 years, who succumbed to a long battle with cancer, grieving Dick Kelly (De Niro) convinces his uptight, straight-arrow lawyer grandson Jason (Zak Efron) to take him from Atlanta to his vacation home in Boca Raton where he and his wife spent their summers. When Jason picks Dick up and catches him jerking off to porn ("You caught me takin' a #3!"), it's a harbinger of things to come. After 40 years of being a faithful husband and 15 years of celibacy due to his wife's lengthy illness, Dick needs to blow off some steam. Jason really wants no part of it, as he's got a big case at his dad's (Dermot Mulroney) law firm and he's getting married to Jewish bridezilla Meredith (Julianne Hough) in a week, but Dick nevertheless cajoles his square grandson into taking him to Daytona for spring break. Dick keeps getting on Jason about why he abandoned his passion for photography to join his dad's law firm, and why he's marrying a control-freak shrew like Meredith, but his real focus is getting laid, and after they run into a trio of spring breakers, Dick sees the perfect opportunity to achieve his dream of unprotected sex with a college girl. Pretending to be a professor, Dick catches the attention of hard-partying Lenore (Aubrey Plaza), who has a fantasy about screwing an elderly prof, wooing Dick with come-ons like "How about you knock your balls in my vagina?" and "I want you to tsunami all over my face!" and "I want you to eat me out and blow your last breath in my pussy." Simply by default of nothing else in the film being even remotely amusing, Plaza is the sole source of anything resembling actual comedy in DIRTY GRANDPA, but her only funny lines (like "I want you to tell me you watch Fox News!") are probably ad-libbed and, perhaps most tellingly, are the ones that aren't X-rated.

Dick (De Niro) asks "You talkin' to me?"
after Lenore tells him to tsunami on her face and
 blow his last breath in her pussy in DIRTY GRANDPA
Elsewhere, DIRTY GRANDPA is absolute misery. In the right hands, Jason accidentally smoking crack and being busted for pedophilia and threatened with prison rape and putting on semen-encrusted pants and Facetiming his Jewish fiancee and her Rabbi while unknowingly sporting a swastika of penises drawn on his forehead and having De Niro's stunt junk resting on his face might've been funny. The same goes for De Niro doing rap poses doing a karaoke version of Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day." But in the hands of first-time screenwriter John Phillips (his next project is BAD SANTA 2, so scratch any hope for that one) and director Dan Mazer, a past Sacha Baron Cohen collaborator who helped write DA ALI G SHOW, BORAT, and BRUNO (after DIRTY GRANDPA, it's obvious who was carrying who in that partnership), nothing works and the entire purpose of the project seems to be how far down to the bottom De Niro will let them take him. Mazer's direction is an amateur-night abomination, lacking even a basic understanding of blocking and cutting, starting early on when Dick and Jason leave for their road trip and Dick cracks "Let's get in the giant labia you pulled up in." Mind you, Dick hasn't seen the car because he was too busy "taking a #3" in his man-cave when Jason walked in on him. And how does it make any sense that Jason, several years out of law school, would've been a photo lab partner of Lenore's friend Shadia (Zoey Deutch, daughter of Lea Thompson and a potentially charming actress if she can find the right movie) in college? And Shadia, Lenore, and their gay black friend Bradley (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) are graduating from college in a week, but they're on spring break now?  Does Phillips know the concept of semesters? His script tries to get all maudlin and sappy at various points, with a completely out-of-nowhere about-face by Dick, who spends the first half of the film derisively mocking the stereotypically flamboyant Bradley only to turn into a beacon of progressive acceptance later on. The filmmakers also awkwardly mix the sentimental and the tasteless, as in a heartfelt speech Dick has about how much his wife meant to him, while tossing in as an aside "We tried anal once every five years." There's no consistency and a lot of points are sloppily thrown in--Jason dreamed of being a photographer for Time, which isn't really known for its photos (was Phillips thinking of Life, perhaps? Did De Niro care enough to clarify? Does Efron know what a magazine is?), and Dick was secretly a Special Forces badass who spent his career fighting terrorism, which explains how he's able to take on a quintet of guys 50 years younger than him in a fight. Attempts to humanize Dick amidst his scatological and gynecological insults and one-liners that would make old-school Andrew Dice Clay blush come off as forced and phony. BAD SANTA turned its misanthropic anti-hero around, but that film provided Billy Bob Thornton with a real character to play, with a real progression and arc, and surrounded him with ringers like late greats Bernie Mac and John Ritter. De Niro gets Efron, who's frankly in over his head in pretty much anything, and even gets to mimic his co-star's familiar facial expressions at one point, which might've been funny had he not already done it for the De Niro party in NEIGHBORS.

Dick (De Niro) isn't afraid to take on
some younger troublemakers in DIRTY GRANDPA
De Niro's career took an unexpected turn into comedy the late '90s and into the '00s with ANALYZE THIS and MEET THE PARENTS and both of their sequels. But in those, he was essentially parodying his own serious image. It's not that De Niro can't do comedy--after all, 1988's buddy action comedy MIDNIGHT RUN is a classic--but he needs well-written comedy, or at least a comedically-gifted co-star to bounce off of, like he had with Charles Grodin in MIDNIGHT RUN. It goes without saying that Efron is no Grodin, and while De Niro has nothing to work with here, it's still no excuse for the revolting mess in which he's gotten himself. The two-time Oscar-winner has taken a lot of shit over the last decade and a half or so for taking easy gigs that were beneath him (FREELANCERS, THE BIG WEDDING, THE BAG MAN), with constant cries from fans that he's tarnishing his legacy. But there have been some excellent performances from this much-maligned period--the barely-seen STONE and BEING FLYNN and his Oscar-nominated turn in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK come to mind. I get that working actors have to work, and De Niro likes to stay busy. While I'm sure he enjoys the big paychecks as well, it's easy to see where he's coming from--how many 72-year-old actors are still getting leads in major movies these days?  We bag on De Niro but forget someone like Harrison Ford, who's been coasting and phoning it for years but that's all forgiven now that he's Han Solo again. Ford doesn't even mask his cynical disdain for what he does for a living, but you have to give De Niro some credit--he actually seems to be enjoying himself with DIRTY GRANDPA. He approaches the role with an enthusiastic gusto that gets increasingly desperate as the movie flop-sweats its way through one depressingly unfunny set piece after another. After some dubious career choices in recent years, De Niro has hit bottom and there's nowhere to go now but up, as DIRTY GRANDPA is an unequivocally soul-crushing endurance test of a comedy, easily the worst film he's done in a career now in its sixth decade. It's really hard to sufficiently convey just how incredibly devoid of laughs DIRTY GRANDPA is, but in the De Niro comedy canon, it's gotta rank dead last, with nothing in it nearly as hilarious as Travis Bickle's rescue of Iris in TAXI DRIVER or the Russian Roulette scenes in THE DEER HUNTER.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

On Netflix, Special "Universal/Blumhouse Dumpjob" Edition: THE VEIL (2016); VISIONS (2016); and CURVE (2016)

(US - 2016)

Blumhouse, the Jason Blum-led production company behind the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, INSIDIOUS, and PURGE films, has a serious backlog of delayed and shelved titles through various distributors. One such distributor is Universal, who released several Blumhouse titles directly to Netflix with no fanfare in late 2014. This week, the studio quietly released to Netflix another batch of Blumhouse product that's been sitting around for anywhere from one to three years. The best of the bunch is THE VEIL, written by Robert Ben Garant (JESSABELLE) and directed by the long-absent Phil Joanou (THREE O'CLOCK HIGH, STATE OF GRACE), helming his first feature film since 2006's GRIDIRON GANG. THE VEIL takes its cue from Ti West's relatively recent THE SACRAMENT in that it obviously references the 1978 Jonestown tragedy in Guyana, but goes in a different and more supernatural direction. In 1985, 47 members of the Heaven's Veil religious cult committed mass suicide by poisoning, including the cult's crazed leader, the shaggy-haired and shades-wearing Jim Jacobs (Thomas Jane). 30 years later, lone survivor Sarah Hope (Lily Rabe), who was only five years old at the time of the mass suicide, is contacted by a team of documentary filmmakers headed by Maggie Price (Jessica Alba). Maggie and her cameraman brother Chris (Jack De Sena) have also had their lives affected by the Heaven's Veil incident--their father was the lead FBI agent investigating Jacobs and the man who led the raid on the compound. It had a profound effect on him and he committed suicide three years later, his body found by young Maggie. Maggie has scoured her father's personal files on Heaven's Veil and in some photos never released to the public, there are visible movie cameras, though any film that was shot was never recovered. As desperate to confront her past as Maggie is to see what truths are to be uncovered on any lost films, Sarah accompanies the group to the ruins of the Heaven's Veil compound where they indeed discover reels of film that show Jacobs experimenting with a brain-death-inducing drug and an antidote that pulls one back from the edge of death with what he claims are newfound, otherworldly, spiritual abilities. It doesn't take long before some unlucky members of the group discover the hard way that Jacobs' spirit haunts the Heaven's Veil grounds, with the intent of procuring new vessels for his and his followers' spirits to carry on their work in the present day.

Admittedly, the early going isn't promising, starting with Jane's character being named "Jim Jacobs" (not a far leap from the real Rev. Jim Jones or Stuart Whitman's "Rev. Jim Johnson" in 1980's GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED) and wearing the signature dark sunglasses (do all suicide cult leaders go to the same Sunglass Hut kiosk at the mall?). But rather than go through the pointless, found-footage Jonestown re-enactment that West did with THE SACRAMENT, Joanou and Garant at least try to do something different with the idea, even if it seems a little reminiscent of EXORCIST III or PRINCE OF DARKNESS at times. Joanou also admirably avoids going full found-footage and instead shows Maggie and the others start watching the grainy, damaged films that seamlessly become flashback sequences. It's a rudimentary technique but it at least avoids the stale, shaky-cam, tilted-angle nonsense that permeates the found-footage subgenre. There's a tremendous sense of atmosphere and chilling imagery throughout, using old-school standbys like shadows, fog, and trees with ominous branches. Dead characters revived and inhabited by the spirits of long-gone Heaven's Veil members walk together and approach their next victims in scenes where Joanou invokes Mario Bava films like the "Wurdalak" segment of BLACK SABBATH and PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. THE VEIL doesn't break any new ground, but it's a good mix of predictable Blumhouse jump scares and a welcome throwback to horror tropes of old, with a legitimately dramatic climactic twist that leads to a downer ending that pulls no punches. The experienced Joanou (other credits include U2: RATTLE AND HUM and FINAL ANALYSIS) may seem like he's slumming in low-budget horror, but he's done his homework and knows what works, and in the end, it's really just a catchily repetitious synth score away from being a mid-level John Carpenter film. We're not talking about a new cult classic or anyone's new favorite horror flick by any stretch of the imagination, but for a movie buried by its studio and dumped straight to Netflix, THE VEIL is better than anyone would expect it to be. (R, 94 mins)

(US - 2016)

Completed in 2014 and hopefully the world's first and last oenosploitation horror film, VISIONS is a relentlessly dumb paranormal activity potboiler whose sole saving grace is that it isn't found-footage. A year after surviving a freak car accident that killed a baby in the other vehicle, Eveleigh Maddox (Isla Fisher) and her husband David (Anson Mount) have purchased a vineyard in Paso Robles where they plan to rebuild their lives now that Eveleigh is expecting. It's not long before she's plagued by (spoiler alert) visions, such as a bloody hand print on the wall, exploding wine bottles, an attack by a mannequin, and being stalked by a robed figure with an unseen face. A preoccupied David doesn't take Eveleigh's claims seriously and pushes hard to get her back on antidepressants with the help of her doctor (Jim Parsons--yes, that Jim Parsons), but against the advice of her new prenatal yoga pal Sadie (Gillian Jacobs). Eveleigh does some investigating and discovers that the house's previous owners abandoned it due to ghostly occurrences, and that the paranormal poppycock dates back to the late 1800s, when the home was owned by the great-grandparents of local vintner Napoli (John De Lancie), who conveniently said nothing about this early in the film when he hosted a housewarming party for the Maddoxes.

Written by Lucas Sussman, whose last screenplay credit was collaborating with Darren Aronofsky on David Twohy's impressive 2002 WWII submarine horror film BELOW with , and directed by SAW series vet Kevin Greutert, VISIONS can't decide what it wants to be and is ultimately all red herrings and no payoff. There's an entire subplot about Eveleigh thinking the neighbors are running a meth lab and it serves no purpose whatsoever. The supernatural silliness makes no sense once the twists and turns are abruptly laid out in the climax, which seems headed in a ROSEMARY'S BABY direction before it suddenly shifts gears and turns into a ripoff of the French "extreme horror" outing INSIDE, which may have been a better idea all along. It's never made clear why the paranormal activity is confined to the house or why it's doing what its doing (is it the ghost of Paul Masson, avenging the sale of a wine before its time?) and its ultimately all smoke and mirrors to cover up a really weak script that wastes an overqualified cast of TV vets and others who should have better things to do. Joanna Cassidy turns up as a wine distributor who also--gosh, wouldn't ya know it?--happens to be a medium when the plot requires one, and in easily the most frivolous role of her career, Eva Longoria in a pointless, two-scene bit part as Eveleigh's unattached and on-the-prowl friend. Being stuck on NBC's TELENOVELA is one thing, but what did the former DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES star do to get busted down to minor supporting roles in crummy horror movies where she plays the second best friend to the lead actress? Did she lose a bet with Jason Blum? (R, 83 mins)

(US - 2016)

Shot back in 2013, CURVE is essentially a two-character piece that starts out as a HITCHER ripoff that morphs into a survivalist thriller version of 127 HOURS before wrapping up as a grisly revenge outing. It gives singer and DANCING WITH THE STARS vet Julianne Hough a chance to get gritty as Mallory, a bride-to-be taking the deserted highway route from San Francisco to Denver, where her fiance is currently working. Of course she has engine trouble but that's remedied by a convenient hiker named Christian (Teddy Sears) who happens to stroll by. She offers him a ride to the next town and things go pleasantly enough until he openly ponders if she'd be able to "deep throat his cock," which Mallory correctly interprets as a major red flag that Christian is a depraved psycho. Unable to get him out of the vehicle, Mallory instead crashes through a guard rail on a road, sending them sailing into the woods below. Christian is thrown from the passenger seat  but Mallory's leg is trapped and she's unable to move, so after taunting her a little, Christian leaves. Days go by, with Christian periodically returning to the scene of the accident to hector her some more, because if he killed her, then there'd be no third act where she manages to free herself and track him down at a lodge where he's killed several other people and has a girl (Madalyn Horcher) strapped face-down on a bed.

It doesn't really score any points for intelligence or originality, but CURVE is never dull and Hough is surprisingly credible in the lead. Her fans might be surprised to hear her dropping vulgarities, eating a rat, and drinking her own urine as she's trapped in her car for days on end, but director Iain Softley (HACKERS, THE SKELETON KEY) and first-time screenwriters Kimberly Lofstrom Johnson and Lee Patterson don't offer much in the way of logic or consistency. Why would Christian leave Mallory alive in the car? And why is the highway completely deserted early on, but when Mallory gets in a position to expose Christian, you can suddenly see several cars whizzing by, including a cop (Drew Rausch) who, right on cue, becomes Christian's next victim? Sears doesn't do much as the dull antagonist besides widen his eyes and smirk. It's nice that he doesn't overplay it, but since we know nothing about the character, and what little we do know is unreliable info, it's hard for both Sears and the audience to get a handle on the hows and whys of Christian. Has he left a trail of dead bodies in his wake? Is he from the area? Is anyone after him?  Who knows? For the most part, CURVE is a forgettable retread of other, better movies, but Hough does a surprisingly convincing job of stretching outside her comfort zone and really gives it everything she's got. (R, 85 mins)

Friday, January 15, 2016


(US - 2015)

On the heels of 2014's pleasant but decidedly minor MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT, Woody Allen turns in another inconsequential trifle with IRRATIONAL MAN, where he essentially recycles the Martin Landau half of 1989's infinitely superior CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and parts of 2005's MATCH POINT. The 80-year-old Allen cranks out so many movies that it's getting harder to keep track of the less significant ones, and while no one's expecting him to blaze new trails at this point in his career, it's not unreasonable to expect something a little more than the lukewarm leftovers served up with IRRATIONAL MAN. You know when a legendary rock band starts getting a little long in the tooth and instead of new albums, they just start releasing collections of unreleased tracks and outtakes that weren't good enough to make it on previous records?  That's where Allen's at now. It looks and sounds like a Woody Allen movie, but he doesn't even seem engaged with the material. It's a serious Allen film, one that involves murder and deception, but he makes no effort to generate any suspense or tension, and for perhaps the first time in his career, the only humor is unintentional in the absurd way he keeps repeatedly playing The Ramsey Lewis Trio's "The 'In' Crowd." It's almost like he used it as a temp track and forgot to put the intended music in the finished film. Regardless of the situation, the only music you'll hear is "The 'In' Crowd," and its inappropriateness becomes amusing until it grows so utterly grating that you'll never want to hear it again.

Woody's protagonist is Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a depressed, alcoholic philosophy prof doing a guest lecturer stint over the summer semester at the fictional Braylin College in Rhode Island. Burned out and creatively blocked, Abe ambles through his job in a drunken blur and shows little interest in the advances of married colleague Rita (Parker Posey). He strikes up a friendship with Jill (Emma Stone in her second straight Allen film), an intelligent student whose paper he legitimately admired, and her constant talk of Abe eventually drives a wedge between her and boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley), especially when it's obvious she has feelings for the troubled Abe. While at a diner, Abe and Jill eavesdrop on a conversation in the next booth, where a woman is in tears over an unsympathetic judge who she says is deliberately hassling her in court, siding with her husband and likely awarding him custody of their children after their divorce. It's at that moment that Abe feels the spark he needs to get his life back on track: with no motive and no connection to the woman or the judge or any of his cases, he's going to kill the judge, committing the perfect crime and completely getting away with it. There's lots of talk of moral quandaries and references to Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky and Crime and Punishment, but IRRATIONAL MAN never gets going and never seems like it's heading anywhere. Allen's dialogue is trite and repetitive. He used to really have a knack for human interaction and astute observation but he's reached that Stanley Kubrick/Terrence Malick/George Romero point where it's obvious he doesn't get out much anymore, demonstrating no feel or understanding for how universities in 2015 operate or how college students even talk (not even a charming actress like Stone can sell a line like "I enjoyed making love with you"--what young person says "making love"?), and one scene where Abe attends a college party is just embarrassing in its utter disconnect from reality. Phoenix is uncharacteristically dull here and Allen is just going through the motions in a way that recalls 2012's TO ROME WITH LOVE, one of his worst films. Though it's definitely bottom-five Allen, IRRATIONAL MAN isn't quite as bad as that or 2003's ANYTHING ELSE?, but even in those duds, his personality periodically made its presence known. IRRATIONAL MAN has none of that: it's a Woody Allen film that feels like someone else trying to make a Woody Allen film and not getting the job done. It's bland and listless and Allen doesn't imbue it with any of his signature wit or insight. He doesn't let his funny side show and he keeps his misanthropic side under wraps. There's just nothing here and no reason for him to make this film other than he thinks he has to make a new one annually. The last year without a new Woody Allen offering was 1981. Maybe taking a year or two off to regroup and recharge would do him some good. (R, 95 mins)

(US - 2015)

The latest, least, and hopefully last of the trendsetting found-footage franchise is the worst yet, the sixth film (seven if you count 2010's Japan spinoff PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: TOKYO NIGHT) in a series that ran out of gas halfway through the first sequel. In the hands of writer and eventual director Christopher Landon, the son of iconic TV star Michael Landon and a once-promising screenwriter (Larry Clark's ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE), the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies proceeded to create an increasingly convoluted mythology surrounding Katie, the heroine in the first film played by Katie Featherston. With the exception of the TOKYO NIGHT offshoot, which still hasn't been released in the US, Featherston has turned up in all of the sequels at some point, including the allegedly unrelated Latino-aimed spinoff PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES, which may as well have been titled PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 5. While Oren Peli started things off, he left after the first movie and the franchise pretty much became Landon's baby once he was hired to write PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2, then wrote and produced 3 and 4 (both directed by the CATFISH guys) before directing THE MARKED ONES himself. Landon did nothing but drag this series out past the point of anything resembling relevance (even though everyone's quick to point out that oscillating fan bit from 3 is pretty cool), and even he had the sense to jump ship for the latest, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION, which is directed by series editor and short-straw-drawing Gregory Plotkin. The series has seen diminishing box office with each successive entry, so as a last-ditch attempt to lure people back and make the franchise a thing again, they did the obvious: made it in 3-D. After a slow start, the almost-nonstop plethora of 3-D effects might've made this work a little bit better in theaters, but Paramount shot themselves in the foot by announcing a drastically-shortened 53-day VOD window (compared to the typical 90), infuriating the major cinema chains, who responded by refusing to show the movie. As a result, GHOST DIMENSION only made it to about 1600 screens compared to 3000-3500 it would've been on under normal circumstances. It still managed to gross $18 million, but the word of mouth was toxic, and this vacated indie-owned theaters pretty quickly.

Unless you have the capability of viewing this in 3-D at home, the standard DVD version is a complete fiasco, a blurry, globby mess as the spirit that's haunted everyone for the last five movies now manifests itself and hovers around the frame as "Tobi," an ectoplasm that looks like a shapeless version of the jungle camouflaging by the title creature in PREDATOR. Video-game designer Ryan (Chris J. Murray), his wife Emily (Brit Shaw), and young daugher Leila (Ivy George) move into the house once owned by Katie and sister Kristi's spirit-conjuring grandma (respected stage actress Hallie Foote). Ryan's comedy-relief hipster brother Mike (Dan Gill) and Emily's friend Skyler (Olivia Taylor Dudley, in her second terrible horror movie of 2015 after THE VATICAN TAPES) come to visit, and they find a box in the basement with an oversized 1980s camcorder and some VHS tapes. The camcorder still works, and when looking through its viewfinder, Ryan sees the gloopy, formless ghost surrounded by cosmic dust and debris, and after watching Katie and Kristi's childhood paranormal encounters on the VHS tapes, he concludes that this camcorder is rigged to record spectral matter (and even more incredibly, was somehow able to record in 16x9 HD in 1988). Of course, "Tobi" makes contact with Leila, and eventually she becomes possessed, which brings in a priest (Michael Krawic), who proclaims "This isn't an exorcism...it's an extermination!" Resorting to 3-D is bad enough, but trying to scrounge a few nibbles at the empty EXORCIST ripoff trough is just pathetic. And all the while, Ryan and Mike never stop filming. Even the easy jump scares come up weak this time around, and since Plotkin and the visual effects team "show" a lot of Tobi so they can maximize the 3-D, what's really here is a dull, found-footage version of POLTERGEIST, which we need about as much as that POLTERGEIST remake that came out earlier in 2015. Abysmal in every way save for one inspired moment when it becomes clear to Ryan that Katie and Kristi on the 1988 VHS tape are watching Mike and him watch them, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION should be the wheezing death rattle of this moribund franchise. The fact that it took four screenwriters (including two writers of the found-footage EXORCIST knockoff THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN) to come up with this should be an embarrassment to the entire Writer's Guild. (R, 88 mins)

(US - 2015)

Another Paramount release that fell victim to their ill-advised shortened VOD-window botch and was banished from major cinema chains, SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE was directed and co-written by Christopher Landon, and while it isn't anything spectacular, it's at least an improvement on anything Landon accomplished while running the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise into the ground. There isn't a whole lot left to be done with anything related to zombies at this point, and SCOUTS isn't giving SHAUN OF THE DEAD any competition as the world's best comedic zombie homage. It's about on the level of the intermittently amusing but forgettable ZOMBIELAND, only with grosser and raunchier hard-R gags that usually involve genitalia. Three high-school sophomores--sensitive nice guy Ben (Tye Sheridan), horndog Carter (Logan Miller), and overweight dweeb Augie (Joey Morgan)--are the only three childhood holdovers still actively involved in their Boy Scouts program. Carter insists it's time to grow up since, as he puts it, "all girls turn into sluts junior year." Carter talks Ben into ditching Augie and going to a senior rave instead of their final Scout campout, and when their badly-toupeed, Dolly Parton-obsessed scoutmaster Rogers (an underused David Koechner) is turned into a zombie, they find the entire city infected as they make their way to the rave so Ben can rescue his lifelong crush, Carter's older sister Kendall (Halston Sage), who's dating total douchebag Jeff (Patrick Schwarzenegger--yes, his son). Along the way, they meet tough strip-club waitress Denise (Sarah Dumont), who teaches them how to man up. SCOUTS is harmless enough and it moves fast and has a few funny moments amidst the expectedly juvenile toilet humor. But it almost always goes for easy gags like having the three scouts, armed to the teeth with makeshift weapons they assembled after raiding a hardware store, taking out a rave full of zombies to the tune of Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane." Where's the joke there, other than teen audiences recognizing a familiar '80s hair metal staple? At least BORDELLO OF BLOOD's use of Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz" as former comedian Dennis Miller took out a bunch of vampires with a holy water-filled Super Soaker was set in something that looked like a ballroom. Instead, SCOUTS is a film that gives you the spectacle of 89-year-old Academy Award-winner Cloris Leachman as a zombified crazy cat lady neighbor, pulling Miller's pants down and trying to take a bite out of his bare ass. Is this really the best Hollywood has to offer Ms. Leachman in her eighth decade in show business? (R, 93 mins)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Cult Classics Revisited: WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? (1972)

(Italy/West Germany - 1972)

Directed by Massimo Dallamano. Written by Bruno Di Geronimo and Massimo Dallamano. Cast: Fabio Testi, Karin Baal, Joachim Fuchsberger, Christine Galbo, Camille Keaton, Gunther W. Stoll, Claudia Botenuth, Maria Monti, Pilar Castel, Giovanna Di Bernardo, Rainer Penkert, Marco Mariani, Antonio Casale, Giancarlo Badessi, Aristide Massaccesi. (Unrated, 107 mins)

After the international success of Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), the Italian horror/mystery subgenre known as giallo was a legitimate phenomenon. Argento is generally credited with starting the craze, but the style can be seen in its early stages as far back as Mario Bava's THE EVIL EYE (1963) and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964) and other giallo prototypes like Antonio Margheriti's THE YOUNG, THE EVIL AND THE SAVAGE (1968), Romolo Guerrieri's THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH (1968) and Massimo Dallamano's A BLACK VEIL FOR LISA (1968). Following the breakout success of BIRD, Argento quickly followed with THE CAT O'NINE TAILS (1971) and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1972), and the giallo floodgates were opened. Strange, poetic, verbose titles that often incorporated colors, numbers, letters, animals, a woman's name, or questions were hallmarks of the giallo movement, and Argento's films paved the way for Luciano Ercoli's THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION (1970) and DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS (1971), Paolo Cavara's THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA (1971), Lucio Fulci's A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN (1971) and DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING (1972), Riccardo Freda's THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE (1971), Duccio Tessari's THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERFLY (1971), Emilio P. Miraglia's THE RED QUEEN KILLS 7 TIMES (1972), Giuliano Carnimeo's THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS (1972), aka WHAT ARE THOSE STRANGE DROPS OF BLOOD DOING ON JENNIFER'S BODY?, Aldo Lado's SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS (1971) and WHO SAW HER DIE? (1972), Carlos Aured's Spanish-made BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL (1974), and several from Sergio Martino: THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL (1971), YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY (1972), and ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (1972), aka THEY'RE COMING TO GET YOU, among countless others.

The gialli were also inspired by the work of prolific British mystery novelist, playwright, short-story writer, and screenwriter Edgar Wallace (1875-1932), who died while in the early stages of scripting the 1933 classic KING KONG. Wallace's works had been adapted to the big screen as far back as 1915, but the late 1950s saw a massive resurgence in Wallace's popularity in West Germany roughly 25 years after his death. In 1959, the German production company Rialto Film acquired the rights to a good chunk of the Wallace catalog and produced dozens of films based on his writings throughout the 1960s. Known as krimi, most of these were directed by Harald Reinl or Alfred Vohrer and made their way to the US as part of syndication packages aired on late-night TV and afternoon Creature Features, and like their future gialli brethren, boasted memorable titles like THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG (1959), THE DEVIL'S DAFFODIL (1961), SECRETS OF THE RED ORCHID (1962), THE CURSE OF THE HIDDEN VAULT (1964), THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS (1967), and CREATURE WITH THE BLUE HAND (1967). The Rialto Wallace programmers featured a stock company of West Germany-based actors like Klaus Kinski, Karin Dor, Joachim Fuchsberger, Harald Leipnitz, Eddi Arent, Heinz Drache, Werner Peters, and Aidy Berber, but would occasionally import an international star like Christopher Lee. The films were so popular in West Germany that Rialto's rival studio CCC Film bought the rights to several books by Wallace's son Bryan Edgar Wallace, which were turned into a competing series of "B. Edgar Wallace" adaptations like THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE (1962), THE PHANTOM OF SOHO (1964), and THE MONSTER OF LONDON CITY (1964).

In 1972, for their final Wallace-inspired production and more or less a passing of the torch to Italian thrillers, Rialto teamed up with Clodio Cinematografica and Italian International Film to produce the Italian/West German giallo/krimi hybrid WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?, a film that attempted to balance the sleaze and the graphic violence of the gialli with the old-school, Edgar Wallace-inspired mystery of the krimi. For the most part, it succeeded, though it certainly leans more toward the giallo side of things, with the primary influence of the krimi coming from the presence of genre vets Karen Baal and Joachim Fuchsberger. If there's a poster boy for all things krimi, it's Fuchsberger (1927-2014), a busy character actor who became a beloved celebrity (nicknamed "Blacky" by friends and fans) and TV talk and game show fixture in his homeland, even serving as the stadium announcer at the opening and closing ceremonies at the ill-fated 1972 Olympics in Munich. Fuchsberger made a career playing detectives and inspectors in seemingly every krimi ever made, and of course, he's the lead detective in SOLANGE, which centers on philandering Enrico Rossini (Fabio Testi), a married gym teacher at a British girls' school who's having an affair with one of his students, Elizabeth (Christine Galbo). While the two are carrying on in a rowboat by the riverside, Elizabeth catches a flash of a blade coming from a nearby wooded area and the next day, a body is found near their canoodling spot, the woman stabbed and the knife still sticking out of her vagina. Initially dismissing Elizabeth's claims that she saw a knife, a concerned Rossini goes to the murder scene to find it swarming with police, arrives late for work and lies about having car trouble to wife and fellow teacher Herta (Baal), which blows up in his face when he's visible among the onlookers in a newspaper photograph of the murder scene on the front page of the next day's paper. This brings him into the sights of Inspector Barth (Fuchsberger), who thinks he has his prime suspect, which puts more strain on Rossini's already-fracturing relationship with the cold and brittle Herta. Elizabeth is plagued by nightmares about the murder, and more victims are found, all girls at the school and stabbed in the vagina, and though Rossini is eventually cleared as a suspect, he follows the rules of the giallo by conducting his own investigation. This ultimately leads him to the mysterious Solange (Camille Keaton, later to cement her place in exploitation history in the infamous 1978 grindhouse rape/revenge cult classic I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE), a traumatized, mentally-disturbed young woman with a dark tragedy in her past that has a direct correlation to the horrific serial killings that also claim the life of Elizabeth.

Directed by Italian journeyman Massimo Dallamano, of the aforementioned A BLACK VEIL FOR LISA and the cinematographer on Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965), SOLANGE is very much a giallo, right down to its sordid story, and the haunting score by Ennio Morricone, with dreamy, wordless vocals by the ubiquitous Edda Dell'Orso. It's one of the great "schoolgirls in peril" slasher thrillers, a tangent of the giallo movement that began with Margheriti's THE YOUNG, THE EVIL AND THE SAVAGE, aka NAKED YOU DIE, and popularized by the likes of Narciso Ibanez Serrador's THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (1969), Sergio Martino's masterpiece TORSO (1973), and even Bob Clark's Canadian-made classic BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), and Juan Piquer Simon's insane chainsaw massacre epic PIECES (1983). Even the schoolgirls-in-peril films had their own supernatural spinoffs, like Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977) and PHENOMENA (1985). SOLANGE adheres to many tropes of its giallo contemporaries beyond its disturbing violence and its dark, bleak twist. Elizabeth is a murder witness haunted by a barely-glimpsed clue that's just one piece of a complicated puzzle. Rossini's wife Herta is introduced in somewhat of a misogynistic fashion as a shrewish and vaguely androgynous tight-ass, not unlike Mimsy Farmer's similarly blonde, angry, and cheated-on wife in Argento's FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, with Herta only letting her tightly-bunned hair down after it's revealed that Elizabeth was a virgin and Rossini's escapades stopped at going down on her, which apparently is enough to forgive him and go full-on "Stand by Your Man." Additionally, a potential murder suspect in the school's priest Father Webber (Marco Mariani) and the possibility of the killer posing as a priest are two plot strands very much in line with the giallo's inherent distrust of religious and church figures, also a key element of DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING, WHO SAW HER DIE? and Antonio Bido's THE BLOODSTAINED SHADOW (1978), to name a few.

Photographed by Aristide Massaccesi, the Italian exploitation legend later known as "Joe D'Amato," WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? was released in the US by Newport in 1975 as the more lurid, drive-in-ready THE SCHOOL THAT COULDN'T SCREAM. SOLANGE was the first of a very loose trilogy of Dallamano schoolgirl outings that was followed in 1974 by the giallo/polizia hybrid WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?, with Claudio Cassinelli and Giovanna Ralli (released in the US in 1977 under its original title and later reissued as THE COED MURDERS), and in 1978 by ENIGMA ROSSO (released on US home video in 1985 as TRAUMA), starring Testi in a different role than he played in SOLANGE. Dallamano was set to direct ROSSO but only has a co-writing credit--it was ultimately helmed by Alberto Negrin after Dallamano's tragic death in a car accident in Rome in November 1976.  WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?'s cult has endured over the years for a variety of reasons--giallo superfans, hardcore krimi buffs, and the devoted horror-con fan base of the iconic Keaton, who doesn't appear until very late in the film but makes a powerful impression, starting with her memorable introduction--and was just released in a Criterion-level special edition from Arrow Video, complete with a booklet of essays, various interviews (including Baal, who really hates this movie), and a commentary track with film critics Kim Newman and Alan Jones. Firmly planted in the giallo but exhibiting a noticeable outside krimi influence, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? is a bit of a slow-burner but is stylishly made, more emotionally-driven than most of its type, and with the devastating reveal of its still-controversial subject matter, it remains one of the most downbeat and heartbreaking of the entire Italian giallo movement.

Friday, January 8, 2016

In Theaters: THE REVENANT (2015)

(US/Hong Kong/Taiwan - 2015)

Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu. Written by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro G. Inarritu. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Lukas Haas, Kristoffer Joner, Joshua Burge, Arthur Redcloud, Duane Edward, Brendan Fletcher, Melaw Nakehk'o, Fabrice Adde, Grace Dove. (R, 156 mins)

Following his Oscar-winning BIRDMAN, Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Inarritu (AMORES PERROS) goes full Werner Herzog-meets-Terrence Malick with the unflinchingly brutal and extremely visceral revenge saga THE REVENANT. Based in part on a 2002 novel by Michael Punke, a fictionalized chronicle of famed 19th century trapper/explorer Hugh Glass, THE REVENANT is a semi-remake of the 1971 film MAN IN THE WILDERNESS, where "Zach Bass" was portrayed by Richard Harris during his post-MAN CALLED HORSE period of rugged, violent outdoor adventures. Inarritu constructs THE REVENANT as an homage chiefly to Herzog--with its location shooting in distant and difficult terrains of Canada and Argentina, relying on natural lighting and benefiting from the director's refusal to use greenscreen--but also to Malick, with its long takes of vast wilderness and nature shots with voiceover as Glass, played here by Leonardo DiCaprio, reflects and drifts in and out of consciousness. Exposed to the elements and turning in the most physically demanding performance of his career, DiCaprio is up to the challenges of what's essentially Inarritu's period-setting take on a muddy, bloody, snowy, and slushy survivalist thriller, and while there's a lot of contemplative, dreamlike artistry to establish cineaste cred and to draw comparisons to Malick's THE NEW WORLD, it's also get plenty of harrowing action and a strong narrative to make it accessible to mainstream audiences.

According to legend, Glass was hired as a guide for a group of trappers and frontiersman exploring the vast Louisiana Purchase area in 1823, and after being mauled by a bear, two men in the expedition were left behind to bury Glass when he died. The two men left him to die, taking his guns and equipment with them. Glass survived and traveled 200 miles with serious injuries and on a broken leg, crawling almost the entire way, to find the men and retrieve his belongings. Inarritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith (who's scripted mostly horror movies like VACANCY, Joe Dante's THE HOLE, and the upcoming American remake of MARTYRS) stick to that same basic story, but add a human element to Glass' quest for vengeance in the form of Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), his half-Indian teenage son with his late Pawnee wife. Glass is hired as a guide by a military exploration outfit headed by Capt. Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), who's brought along various mercenary frontiersman and fur trappers who make their living selling pelts. Over 30 of the 40 men in the expedition are killed in a battle with a ferocious Ree tribe, which forces the survivors to send their boat downriver as a decoy and travel the long journey back to the camp on foot if they have any chance of survival. Henry places his trust in Glass, who brought Hawk along, the two knowing the area better than anyone else. That doesn't settle well with Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), an unscrupulous trapper and scalping survivor more concerned with his take on the pelt sales than with everyone's safety. The bigoted Fitzgerald also doesn't like having "half-breed" Hawk along and openly taunts Glass about his dead wife and questions his loyalty to white men. After Glass is viciously mauled by a bear and clings to life, Henry takes all but two of the men back to camp, leaving Fitzgerald and young, inexperienced Bridger (Will Poulter) behind with Hawk to bury Glass when he eventually dies, with orders to bring Hawk back with them to the camp. While Bridger is getting water from the river and Hawk is elsewhere, Fitzgerald convinces Glass to allow him to put him out of his misery, and as he's suffocating him, Hawk returns and attacks Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald barely tries to explain the circumstances, instead quickly opting to stab the boy to death as an immobile Glass watches helplessly. Disposing of the body and lying to the returning Bridger about the Ree tribe being nearby, Fitzgerald half-buries Glass alive and intimidates Bridger into going along with it.

Of course, Glass survives, a revenant returning from the "dead," so to speak. With open, festering wounds covering his body, he slowly regains his strength on his arduous journey back to Henry's camp to make Fitzgerald pay, facing the incredibly harsh elements, a group of French trappers who have abducted a young Ree woman (Melaw Nakahk'o), and the enraged Ree tribe led by Hikuc (Arthur Redcloud), the young woman's Chief father who will stop at nothing to find her. Inarritu channels Herzog's AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD and FITZCARRALDO in his depiction of Glass' single-minded pursuit (also, to an extent, Nicolas Winding Refn's brilliant 2011 minimalist Viking saga VALHALLA RISING). Glass' obsessive quest for revenge gives him strength and is as blood-soaked as any splatter film, with hacked off limbs, bleeding wounds, bitten-off appendages, scalpings, castration, and Glass using gun powder to cauterize a neck wound. The stunning cinematography by frequent Malick collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki (often utilizing the kind of long takes reminiscent of his work on Alfonso Cuaron's CHILDREN OF MEN), Ryuichi Sakamoto's score, and the intricately detailed production design by the great Jack Fisk (an Oscar-nominee for Paul Thomas Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD and another go-to guy for Malick) combine with Inarritu's vision to create an incredibly rough and unforgiving landscape that vividly captures the merciless nature and the arduous toil of frontier life. Glass' contemplations of his late wife and his thoughts as he traverses the land of the living and the dead in fittingly mythic death-and-rebirth fashion often play as voiceover (and sometimes subtitled, as he speaks Pawnee) and are pretty blatant in their Malick worship, but THE REVENANT is a perfectly-balanced fusion of the arthouse and the commercial. A constantly grunting, wheezing DiCaprio, aided by some gruesomely realistic wound makeup, throws himself into the role with such a committed fervor that it's easy to overlook how great Hardy is here as well, playing one of the most despicably self-serving bastards to come down the pike in some time. In the end, it's little more than a high-end revenge story, but done with artistry and ambition by a genuine auteur at the top of his game.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: CLOSE RANGE (2015); SHANGHAI (2015); and ASHBY (2015)

(US - 2015)

The latest teaming of B-movie action icons Scott Adkins and director Isaac Florentine has about as straightforward an action movie set-up as you can get. Adkins is Colton MacReady, an on-the-run Iraq War deserter who turns up in Mexico and takes out a good chunk of the soldiers working for drug lord Fernando Garcia (Tony Perez). Among the dead are Garcia's nephew (Ray Diaz), who kidnapped MacReady's teenage niece Hailey (Madison Lawlor), after her lowlife stepfather Walt (Jake La Botz), the go-between for Garcia's operation north of the border in Arizona, stole a hefty sum of money belonging to the cartel. MacReady brings Hailey home to her mother, his sister Angela (Caitlin Keats), with what's left of Garcia's army in hot pursuit. The bad guys have some help from corrupt sheriff Calloway (Nick Chinlund), who's morally conflicted over his duty to the law and the money that being on the Garcia payroll brings him. In addition to periodic attempts to show Calloway's decent side, there's also some brief overtures at characterization in the way MacReady scolds his widowed sister for settling on a shitbag like Walt for a second husband, but Florentine wisely keeps the focus on action, with MacReady, Angela, and Hailey holed up inside the family farmhouse while Garcia keeps sending his guys in only to get roundhouse-kicked, stabbed repeatedly, or just shot in the head point-blank by MacReady.

If you've ever seen a Florentine/Adkins collaboration, you know that over-the-top action is the main focus, and CLOSE RANGE delivers to almost absurd levels. Florentine fluidly moves the camera around to keep as much of the expertly-choreographed confrontations going with as few cuts as possible. Things get a little sped up at times, as is the norm, but he makes an effort to avoid going for the quick-cut, shaky-cam approach, which showcases exactly how much work went into these sequences by the actors and the stunt crew. Story-wise, CLOSE RANGE is pretty standard and predictable--of course, MacReady deserted for the right reasons, as he was defying incompetent orders that would've disgraced his unit and led to certain death--and Florentine gets a little too winking at times with the fun but repetitive spaghetti western homages. But it steps up where it matters, and again, you're forced to wonder why Adkins isn't headlining bigger movies (Florentine likely prefers the autonomy of low-budget cinema). It's not quite on the level of their UNDISPUTED sequels or the outstanding NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR. but it's more entertaining and satisfying than a lot of what passes for major action movies these days. Short, simple, and to the point (except for a drawn-out title card intro for each minor villain, which only seems to be there in order to pad the brief run time), CLOSE RANGE's only goal is to have Scott Adkins glower and kick ass for an hour and a half, and on that end, it achieves everything it sets out to do. (R, 85 mins)

(US/China - 2015)

Filmed in Bangkok in the summer of 2008 and released in Asia and other parts of the world over 2010-2011, this lavishly-mounted, $50 million US/Chinese co-production was shelved stateside for seven years by Harvey Weinstein before getting a stealth release on 100 screens in the fall of 2015. SHANGHAI fancies itself a Far East, historical noir CASABLANCA, set in the title city that's doing its best to stave off the encroaching Japanese occupation in October 1941, but the lugubrious pacing, lackluster direction by Mikael Hafstrom (who made the Anthony Hopkins demonic possession film THE RITE and the Stallone/Schwarzenegger pairing ESCAPE PLAN in ensuing years before this finally came out) shoddy CGI, and a hopelessly muddled script by Hossein Amini (DRIVE) prove to be flaws too fatal to overcome. US Naval Intelligence spy Paul Soames (John Cusack) arrives in Shanghai, posing as a Nazi-sympathizing journalist but drawn into a murder investigation when his Navy buddy and fellow agent Conner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is found dead with his throat slashed. Soames is at the center of an incredibly convoluted story that involves Triad crime lord Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-Fat) and his mysterious wife Anna (Gong Li), with whom Soames will of course have a clandestine fling. There's also Japanese Intelligence officer Capt. Tanaka (Ken Watanabe), who's suspicious of Soames' true intentions, plus Soames also seduces Leni (an underused Franka Potente), in order to get intel on her husband, a German engineer (Christopher Buchholz), who may have Nazi business to conduct with the Japanese.

A couple of months go by in what feels like real time, and all of these parties converge for a boring climax that takes place on a certain date which will live in infamy--by which I mean the bombing of Pearl Harbor and not the date that Harvey Weinstein greenlit SHANGHAI--with the exception of Leni and her husband, who are completely forgotten by the filmmakers. Rinko Kikuchi (then a recent Oscar nominee for BABEL) turns up as Conner's opium-addicted Japanese girlfriend, and David Morse has a few inconsequential scenes as Soames' contact at the US consulate in Shanghai, warning Soames to not get involved and forced to utter trite dialogue like "This isn't black or white...we're caught in the middle!" SHANGHAI is a tedious, plodding mess that never gets going and never gels together. There's no consistency to the characterizations and everyone wanders in and out of the story with the kind of clunky randomness that suggests this was a much a longer film at some point. Made when Cusack was still getting A-list work but fitting in perfectly with his current string of unseen, Cusackalypse Now paycheck gigs, SHANGHAI reunites the star with Hafstrom, who directed him in the decent 2007 Stephen King adaptation 1408. Cusack is completely unengaging as the hero here and has no chemistry with either Gong or Potente. Beyond that, a fine cast is completely stranded in this incredibly dull misfire that bombed everywhere, grossing just $46,000 in the US. (R, 104 mins)

(US/UK/UAE - 2015)

Mickey Rourke has squandered so many opportunities and burned so many bridges over the last 30 years that it's hard to feel sorry for the present state of his career. But Rourke isn't the problem with the indie comedy-drama ASHBY, an appallingly tone-deaf and wildly inconsistent quirkfest that won raves on the festival circuit because of course it did. The film gives the veteran actor his best role since his Oscar-nominated turn in THE WRESTLER, but ASHBY is an otherwise total failure that's simplistic, insulting, and absolutely insufferable whenever he's not onscreen. In one of the most loathsome performances in recent memory, Nat Wolff, the former NAKED BROTHERS BAND star and current third-string Michael Cera, plays Ed, a 17-year-old who's probably supposed to be a snarky wiseass but comes off as a smug, smirking prick. Ed lives with his divorced mom June (Sarah Silverman) and is put on the backburner by his always-too-busy dad, who traded his old family in for a new one. Ed hates jocks but inexplicably wants to be one anyway, making the football team while befriending quiet neighbor Ashby Holt (Rourke), a withdrawn man who claims to be a retired napkin salesman. Ashby has two secrets he's keeping from Ed: he was recently diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and has three months to live, and he's really a decommissioned CIA assassin, Ed discovering the latter while snooping in Ashby's basement and promising to keep it a secret. Ashby takes Ed under his wing, teaching him how to be a better man than his self-absorbed father (though after spending 100 minutes with Ed, you'll probably at least somewhat see the deadbeat dad's side of things), and Ed improbably becomes the star of the football team while pretending he isn't falling for bespectacled, quirky, and all-around adorkable Eloise (Emma Roberts), the kind of Manic Pixie Dream Girl (© Nathan Rabin) who only exists in movies like ASHBY, and whose neurologist dad has an MRI machine in their house, just in case Ashby will need to use it to prove to Ed that he's indeed terminally ill.

Writer/director Tony McNamara can't seem to decide what he wanted ASHBY to be. It's like the worst parts of Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson got jumbled in with a RUDY ripoff, a little GRAN TORINO, and a discarded draft of the Kevin Costner-as-a-terminally-ill-assassin movie 3 DAYS TO KILL. When Ashby finds out that one of his assigned contracts was not a threat to the country, but an innocent guy who got in the way of some old associates making a profit on a business deal, he starts taking those associates out--and having an oblivious Ed chauffeur him around--in order to right a wrong while he's still able. Ashby is an anguished man plagued by guilt and regret--he's already lost his wife and daughter and wants nothing more than to be absolved of his countless sins (he estimates he killed 93 people over his career) in order to be permitted into Heaven to be with them. It's a great role for Rourke, but McNamara would rather focus on Wolff's Ed, who's presented as the only smart kid in his class, and the only one with a vague notion of history but who has somehow never seen a cassette tape and, in his clueless fascination, unspools the tape on one of Ashby's Peter Frampton cassettes and smirks "I don't think I can get this back in there." Mind you, it's the entire tape. All of it. How much of the tape do you unspool before you ascertain that it's probably not a good thing?  And why would he unspool it in the first place? Is that how he found it? How can a jaded millennial douchebag like Ed not know what a goddamn cassette looks like?  Can he possibly be that stupid? And if the scene is played for laughs, then it's even worse, because now Ed is a complete dick for fucking with Ashby's Frampton tape. Wolff goes through the film with a cocky "Aren't I just a stinker?" look that renders his the most punchable face this side of Justin Bieber or the Affluenza kid. It's a wonder why Ashby would even dispense life lessons to this little turd. McNamara's characters are unreal, from Roberts' stock quirky girl who serves as whatever the story needs her to be at any given moment, to Kevin Dunn's bombastic football coach who still uses terms like "the Japs" when referencing WWII,  to Zachary Knighton's improbably hipster cool-guy priest with alt-rocker hair who says "fuck" and eats hot wings. The situations are inane, like Ed commandeering the coach's pregame speech--what coach would allow a player to rally the team with "Fuck the coaches!"? ASHBY doesn't exist on any level of reality, and speaking of which, do you know anyone Sarah Silverman's age named June?  I don't. Does she have younger sisters named Edith and Myrtle? And there's even stabs at raunch humor with Ed walking in his mom blowing a guy. Rourke brought his A-game to ASHBY, but his efforts were wasted. Rarely has such an excellent performance been stuck in a movie this bad. Paramount picked this up for distribution but the buyer's remorse must've hit quickly: they only released it on 15 screens and VOD for a total gross of $4600. (R, 103 mins)