Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Retro Review: MILLENNIUM (1989)

(US - 1989)

One of the chintziest-looking major-studio sci-fi movies of the 1980s, MILLENNIUM spent over a decade in development before it was finally made as sloppily and ambivalently as possible. Written by John Varley and based on his short story "Air Raid," MILLENNIUM is thus far the only screenplay by the author, whose short story "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" became a 1981 AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE episode that later ended up on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. MILLENNIUM was first put in pre-production as far back as 1979, with visual effects innovator Douglas Trumbull, best known for his work on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, set to direct and Paul Newman and Jane Fonda attached to star. That fell apart, putting it in turnaround and by the time it was ultimately made in 1989, the director was Michael Anderson (AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, LOGAN'S RUN, ORCA), with Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd starring. It's a time-jumping sci-fi would-be epic, opening with a mysterious plane crash in 1989 that's been engineered from 1000 years into the future, with the "victims" appearing to be burned to death even before the plane goes down in 1989 but actually transported to 2989 in a "timequake" for reasons that will become clear--relatively speaking--much later. Crash investigator Bill Smith (Kristofferson) finds a strange weapon--a "stunner"--amidst the wreckage, a piece of evidence left behind by Louise Baltimore (Ladd), a warrior from the future. Her mission is to stop Smith, who senses he's met Baltimore somewhere before (because, duh, he has), and Dr. Arnold Mayer (Daniel J. Travanti, his post-HILL STREET BLUES big screen career going nowhere), a nosy physicist investigating strange phenomena surrounding a series of plane crashes, from figuring out the purpose of the "stunner" and causing a paradox that will forever alter the future in a Butterfly Effect sort-of way.

MILLENNIUM has some interesting ideas along the lines of influential '80s sci-fi masterworks like THE TERMINATOR and TRANCERS, and prefigures later genre examples like 12 MONKEYS and SOURCE CODE, but the execution is somewhat lacking. The motivation for the whole "stealing people from 1000 years in the past" is never expressed very well and for a film released by 20th Century Fox, the visual effects look like something out of a corner-cutting 1970s TV show. The entire film would probably play better if it topped out at 80 minutes and came from Roger Corman's Concorde or better yet, Empire Pictures, and starred Tim Thomerson, Barbara Crampton, and Art LaFleur instead of Kristofferson, Ladd, and Travanti. Kristofferson isn't bad but he's miscast, especially if you consider that his character is, at most, a teenager in a 1963 plane crash flashback subplot, which would make Bill Smith 40 tops in 1989, with perpetually craggy 53-year-old Kristofferson not looking a day under 65. The ending is a wreck, but it's at least better than the laughable one used for the film's overseas release and included on Shout! Factory's new Blu-ray (where it's paired in a double feature set with the incredible R.O.T.O.R.), which has a nude Kristofferson and Ladd holding one another in a LIFEFORCE-style embrace as a timequake envelops them. MILLENNIUM is watchable but it could've been something more with a little care and some more money--it's hard to picture Newman and Fonda doing the movie MILLENNIUM ended up being. Shot in Toronto, it's populated by a who's who of Canadian Character Actor Hall of Famers in supporting roles, like Lloyd Bochner, Maury Chaykin, Robert Joy, Lawrence Dane, Peter Dvorsky, Gary Reineke, Michael J. Reynolds, Brent Carver, and Al Waxman. MILLENNIUM bombed in theaters, opening in the ass-end of summer on August 25, 1989 and landing in 12th place. (PG-13, 106 mins)

Monday, March 28, 2016


(US - 2016)

Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer. Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot McNairy, Tao Okamoto, Callan Mulvey, Harry Lennix, Christina Wren, Kevin Costner, Michael Shannon, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Lauren Cohan, Ralph Lister, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Michael Cassidy, voice of Patrick Wilson. (PG-13, 151 mins)

There's no getting around the fact that the awkwardly-titled BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE is a disjointed, bloated mess that still feels incomplete even at two and a half hours (a three-hour, R-rated version will be released on Blu-ray in July, though I can't imagine that being much help). The reviews have been devastating and the toxic response from critics would lead some to believe that the film is some kind of cinematic Ebola. I'm not especially keen to engage in a round of "reviewing the reviewers," and some of the vicious reviews make their points in a professional, even-handed manner but it's obvious that a lot of the critics had their reviews pretty much written before they even saw the film. As if workshopping jokes for a Comedy Central roast of director Zack Snyder, many no doubt jotted down their snarky comments and nit-picky complaints and pithy zingers and constructed their reviews around them to fit the narrative that was constructed the moment the project was announced.

This is a recurring issue with the films of the much-maligned Snyder, a guy nobody had a problem with when his surprisingly solid 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD got good reviews and 2007's influential--for better or worse--300 became a surprise blockbuster. Then around the time he directed 2009's WATCHMEN, critics and internet fanboys decided it was time for him to pay because that was a treasured property that frankly, nobody could've done in a way that would've satisfied its most obsessive fans. 2011's SUCKER PUNCH, one of the strangest and most original major-studio, big-budget movies of the last decade, got eviscerated and Superman fans took it as a personal attack that he was chosen to helm 2013's MAN OF STEEL. The response to BVS is indicative of a recurring problem in today's film criticism: the pile-on. A Hitfix article listing 20 "baffling questions" that BVS "refused to answer" gets several of the details completely wrong. Did the author of that article watch the movie or were they watching how the Rotten Tomatoes percentage was dropping? Does the author know that an unanswered question isn't necessarily a "plot hole"? Is BVS a good movie?  Eh, it has its moments, but it's OK at best. There's plenty of legitimate beefs with a lot of what's here. But is it as offensively godawful as you've been led to believe? Not even close. Nevertheless, the pile-on is the most intense since Ridley Scott's THE COUNSELOR, a film so unjustifiably lambasted ("Meet the worst movie ever made," crowed one particularly smug review) that its reputation improved and a cult following had formed before it even left theaters. So here's BVS, and like the villagers storming Castle Frankenstein, here's critics, fanboys, and message board mouth-breathers victoriously celebrating an imagined defeat--this had a $166 million opening, so it's not as if a movie like this depends on good reviews--with the tone being set by the "Sad Ben Affleck" viral sensation over the weekend.

Essentially a feature-length prologue to Warner Bros' DC Extended Universe franchise, BVS also functions as a reboot of the Christopher Nolan DARK KNIGHT trilogy and as a sequel to MAN OF STEEL (Nolan gets an exec producer credit here). It bites off more than it can chew taking on too many responsibilities, and it shows in the choppiness (Jena Malone was completely cut from this version of the film) and the frequently confusing developments. Opening with yet another replay of young Bruce Wayne witnessing the murder of his parents (Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan), the action cuts to MAN OF STEEL's climactic battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and Zod (Michael Shannon) and the destruction of Metropolis (played by Detroit, MI) witnessed on the street by Bruce Wayne (Affleck), who sees a Wayne Enterprise building collapse in yet more of the standard-issue 9/11 imagery. Blaming Superman for the mayhem, Wayne vows to bring down the Man of Steel with help from his faithful butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons). There's a lot of plot, usually involving a globe-trotting Lois Lane (Amy Adams) constantly getting into trouble and Superman bailing her out, and the evil plot of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, more on that shortly) to, well, get some Kryptonite from the bottom of the Indian Ocean and do something to revive Zod and take on Superman. It's never really clear why Luthor hates Superman, but he actually gets the edge on the Man of Steel when he kidnaps and threatens to kill Martha Kent (Diane Lane) if he doesn't kill Batman, which leads to the brief title showdown, followed by about 17 endings.

There's also Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, and it's hardly a spoiler at this point to mention she's Wonder Woman. First seen looking sleek and mysterious and crossing paths with Wayne at a Luthor fundraiser, Diana doesn't figure much into the story until Bruce figures out her long-buried secret and she ends up helping Batman and Superman take on a late-arriving, Luthor-generated villain in the climax. Gadot's first appearance as Wonder Woman doesn't take place until after the two-hour mark, but it's a highlight of the movie and she gets what's by far the biggest response from the audience, but the way she's shoehorned in is clunky. Speaking of clunky, Gadot is also integral to one of the film's clumsiest scenes, where she opens an e-mail with video files of future JUSTICE LEAGUE franchise players Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) in a five-minute sequence that stops the movie cold and cumbersomely plays like Gal Gadot watching movie trailers on her laptop. Cavill looks the part and doesn't really do anything wrong as Superman, Adams is too smart an actress to play someone so perpetually helpless, and Affleck is an ineffectual Bruce Wayne/Batman, speaking in a dour monotone and mumbling a good chunk of the time. He's trying to go for that Christian Bale intensity but he honestly just looks bored. Others appear throughout: Irons as the most cynical and tech-savvy incarnation of Alfred yet to be seen (he functions more like Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox from the Nolan trilogy), Laurence Fishburne as a blustering Perry White, and Holly Hunter as the head of a Senate panel investigating Superman (another underdeveloped subplot that doesn't make much sense) as well as standing in the way of Luthor's master plan, but they don't really get to make an impression. Oh, and for some reason, Jimmy Olsen (Michael Cassidy) is now a covert CIA agent posing as a Daily Planet photographer. He's killed off early when he's made by terrorists, the first tip-off probably being that he was still using a camera with film in the year 2016.

For all its flaws--the messy structure, the inconsistent performances, the frequently ugly and smudgy look of the whole thing (closeups look really bad)--BVS is never dull and there are some spectacular action sequences and somewhat better CGI than the destruction porn that dominated the botched second half of MAN OF STEEL. The film's biggest obstacle, and one thing about which critics have been completely right, is the truly mind-bogglingly awful performance by Eisenberg, who plays Lex Luthor as an obnoxious, insufferable trust-fund brat. Eisenberg's whole approach to Luthor seems to have been to study Heath Ledger's Joker and filter it through his Mark Zuckerberg repertoire. He flails his arms, twitches, smirks, preens, poses, and breaks up and punctuates his sentences with "hmm"s like Deltoid in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. It's a grating, appalling, Razzie-ready spaz attack of a performance, one of the most off-putting and abrasively unpleasant in recent memory. Eisenberg is never convincing and never threatening, never coming off like a feared megalomaniacal villain but rather, an attention-seeking, spoiled little shit in dire need of a time-out.

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, has been universally panned but everybody's still going to see it. The sizable crowd with whom I saw it didn't seem to hate it. They loved Wonder Woman. They laughed at the very few intentionally funny lines. There's the oft-mentioned disconnect between critics and audiences, and while it's got a surplus of flaws and dubious decision-making, it never succeeded in pissing me off at any point, and I can't say the same about MAN OF STEEL and its second-half implosion. Let's face it, whether it was the casting of Affleck or the decision to bring back Snyder or the various ways it deviates from the comic books (I've never been into comic books, so these filmmakers can do whatever they want with the material, I don't care), the trolls and the haters were never going to give this a chance. Going back to Tim Burton's BATMAN in 1989, has there ever been an initially positive response to any announcement of who's playing Batman? Do comic book fans ever not have a hissy fit and react to these kinds of things in a way that makes THE SIMPSONS' Comic Book Guy the most accurate. Representation. Ever?  Critics don't need to sink to that level. The trolls and the haters will always be there because what else do they have? But they shouldn't be the ones making a living as objective reviewers resorting to clickbait tactics in a dying field whose continued relevance is constantly being questioned. Maybe it's lowered expectations, but this movie isn't that fucking bad, and if film criticism is going to continue to be a thing, everyone--from career reviewers to hobbyist bloggers--needs to step up their game. Leave the irrational pile-on to the IMDb message board denizens. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Retro Review: R.O.T.O.R. (1988)

R.O.T. O.R.
(US - 1988)

The GETEVEN of ROBOCOP ripoffs, the deliriously awful R.O.T.O.R. was a video store staple back in the '80s and '90s and if physical media is dead, somebody forgot to tell Shout! Factory, who just released this on a double feature Blu-ray with the 1989 time travel dud MILLENNIUM. A regional sci-fi actioner shot in Dallas, R.O.T.O.R. was a one-and-done venture into movies by producer and star Richard Gesswein, who's such a terrible actor that his performance ended up being dubbed by special effects artist and sometime actor Loren Bivens, who actually receives an onscreen credit for his work. Conceived by screenwriter Budd Lewis and director Cullen Blaine, a pair of veteran industry storyboard artists and occasional animators, R.O.T.O.R. looks like a bad home movie that somehow got a distribution deal. It's amateur hour across the board in terms of acting and filmmaking, and if anything deserves to be the next ROOM/TROLL 2/MIAMI CONNECTION bad movie phenomenon, it's R.O.T.O.R. The only thing that might be holding it back is that those other films are utterly sincere in their misguided cluelessness, but there's enough weird, goofy shit in R.O.T.O.R. to suggest that it's fully cognizant of its own shittiness. Whether it's ludicrous dei ex machina, overripe dialogue ("It's like a chainsaw set on frappe!"), the hero making coffee for his horse, or an ultra-serious corporate board meeting where nearly every line of dialogue has a blatant Beach Boys reference (people from "The Brian Wilson Institute" and "Jardine University" asking "Is there some good vibration to its molecular tonality..." and "God only knows..." and "I get around, but I've never seen anything like this"), Allen and Blaine seem to be winking at the audience and saying "Yeah, this is supposed to be stupid," but as a sci-fi action movie, it's an abomination. Gesswein, an actor who makes Phil Pitzer look like Daniel Day-Lewis, is Barrett Coldyron (pronounced "Cold-iron"), a laconic Buckaroo Banzai who's a Dallas police captain and a renowned scientist who runs his division and a high-tech scientific research facility where he's developing robot cops for a project dubbed R.O.T.O.R. (Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Research). Referred to as "Captain" or "Dr" depending on which job he's working in any given scene, Coldyron is booted off the R.O.T.O.R. project by irate politician Earl Bugler ("introducing" Michael Hunter), but the carelessness of those left in charge results in a mustached R.O.T.O.R. unit called "222" (played by three different actors, including awesomely-named stuntman Brad Overturf) activating itself and going on a rampage, singling out a young woman named Sonya (Margaret Trigg), killing her fiance and relentlessly pursuing her through the outskirts of suburban Dallas. She calls the cops, and is instructed by Coldyron to just keep moving, as he and muscle-bound, femulleted robotics engineer Dr. Steele (Jayne Smith) try to figure out how to regain control of 222 and shut it down.

Barrett Coldyron doesn't bother taking off
his shades for important board meetings
R.O.T.O.R. is insanely terrible. It takes 45 interminable minutes for Allen and Blaine to even introduce 222. Until then, the focus is on the gruff, mumbling Coldyron, the kind of guy who wears sunglasses in a board meeting and whose idea of tough talk is sleepily telling Bugler "You fire me and I'll make more noise than two skeletons makin' love in a tin coffin, brother!" The film opens with hard-boiled narration from Coldyron that's ultimately revealed to be him babbling in the backseat of a car until a cop in the front seat says "Uh, what? Huh?" (more evidence that at least some of the humor here is intentional). An absurd amount of time is spent on padding the establishing shots, where you see a character park their car and then walk all the way into a building as slowly as possible. The entire second half of the film is centered on 222's pursuit of Sonya (the character's name is misspelled "Sony" in the credits), but in order to keep it going, the filmmakers suddenly give 222 the ability of "sensor recall," where it can see which direction she's headed by replaying events it wasn't even there to record. R.O.T.O.R. is also the kind of film that drops a major character midway through (Coldyron's girlfriend) and introduces a new major one (Dr. Steele) with 15 minutes left in the movie.

Insane Beach Boys board meeting starts at 5:35. 

Margaret Trigg (1964-2003)
Nobody in R.O.T.O.R. went on to anything of any significance, though Bastrup, TX-native Trigg did co-star in ABC's short-lived 1996 series ALIENS IN THE FAMILY, which was cancelled after eight episodes. She's the only star of R.O.T.O.R. who seemed like she might have some potential, but her life was tragically short: she died in 2003 at just 39, the cause of death listed as "heart attack resulting from prolonged amphetamine abuse." Smith appeared in one other movie, 1990's FLESH GORDON 2: FLESH GORDON MEETS THE COSMIC CHEERLEADERS. Lewis went on to script the 1990 Robert Z'dar/Michael Pare actioner DRAGONFIGHT and do some storyboard work before his death in 2014, while Blaine went back to storyboarding and was a co-director on 1998's straight-to-DVD Disney sequel BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: BELLE'S MAGICAL WORLD. R.O.T.O.R. ends with the promise of a R.O.T.O.R. II which, like Richard Gesswein's second acting role, has yet to materialize in the ensuing 28 years since the release of this groundbreaking sci-fi masterpiece. Where's the Criterion edition? (Unrated, 90 mins)

Dr. Steele!


Friday, March 25, 2016


(Italy/France - 1968; US release 1970)

A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY is a strange and impenetrable supernatural art/horror hybrid from Italian filmmaker Elio Petri that came between his pop Eurocult masterpiece THE 10TH VICTIM (1965) and the Oscar-winning INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION (1970). Petri and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY co-writer Luciano Vincenzoni are credited with the screenplay, which also had some input from frequent Michelangelo Antonioni collaborator Tonino Guerra, and the end result definitely has an Antonioni-gone-horror feel to it, along with some distinctly Mario Bava-esque set pieces and story tropes (cursed houses, buried secrets, etc) that also prefigure the coming rise of the giallo, particularly the more paranormally-charged ones like Dario Argento's DEEP RED (1975). The film was also a likely influence on Pupi Avati's THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS (1976), especially with its immersion in the art world. Unable to focus on his work in Milan, creatively-blocked artist Leonardo Ferri (Franco Nero) decides to get away to the titular location, a villa in a remote rural community that was found by his married lover and primary backer Flavia (Vanessa Redgrave). Already suffering from strange nightmares--the film opens with a psychosexual, S&M fever dream sequence where Flavia is teasing and taunting a restrained Leonardo, who's wearing nothing but a diaper--Leonardo finds the isolation of the villa does little to improve his mental state. He's losing his grip on reality and starts seeing the ghostly apparition of Wanda (Gabriella Grimaldi), a promiscuous 18-year-old local girl who died on the property under mysterious circumstances in 1944. The townspeople obviously know something they aren't revealing, Leonardo's already bizarre behavior grows more erratic by the minute, and it becomes quite clear that Wanda's spirit doesn't like it when Flavia is around.

That plot synopsis makes A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY sound a lot more consistently grounded than it is. Torn between his art film aesthetic and the genre gutter, Petri too often errs on the side of the pretentious cineaste. He seems particularly indebted to Antonioni and 1966's BLOW-UP, from the trippy psychedelia and the obsession of its lead character to the script input of Guerra and the presence of Redgrave who, despite her top billing, really has a supporting role (she and Nero met on the set of 1967's CAMELOT and were a couple at the time, and would eventually marry decades later in 2006). The film takes forever to get going and the tedious first hour is a real slog, but once Petri decides to focus on the horror elements, things improve significantly. The villa--a Cinecitta set seen in many Italian films--is incredibly atmospheric and filled with corners and hidden spaces that have you on edge (there's some terrific cinematography by Luigi Kuveiller and wonderfully fluid camera work by Ubaldo Terzano, Bava's favorite camera operator), and the film features a score by Ennio Morricone that finds the legendary composer in one of his free-jazz freakout moods, occasionally incongruously comedic-sounding, with moans, dissonant percussion, and randomly blaring trumpets. Until a surprisingly grisly finale, Petri keeps things pretty low-key though he does stage one of the more chillingly effective seances you'll ever see in this type of movie. There's a lot to appreciate about A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY, a rather obscure Eurocult curiosity that didn't turn up in US theaters until August 1970, just a couple of months before Petri's INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION opened. It infrequently appears on Turner Classic Movies in the vicinity of 3:30 am (with its gore and nudity, this is pretty strong stuff by TCM standards) and was given an manufactured-on-demand DVD release by MGM a few years ago, but it remains a little-remembered relic from its day. Its biggest problem is that Petri non-committally hovers around the line separating "important" and commercial cinema and throughout, he fights the obvious desire to slum it in genre fare. He handled that fusion a bit better with THE 10TH VICTIM, but ultimately, A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY is an intriguing, uneven mess that works best after snapping out of its Antonioni worship and begrudgingly admitting that it's a horror movie. (R, 106 mins)

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: MOONWALKERS (2016) and THE BENEFACTOR (2016)

(France/Belgium - 2016)

There's undoubtedly a smart and funny satirical comedy to be made based on the conspiracy theory that a post-2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY Stanley Kubrick helped NASA fake the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, but the atrocious MOONWALKERS cluelessly pisses away any potential that it had. Written by DEATH AT A FUNERAL scribe Dean Craig, who's having a really off day here, MOONWALKERS stars a visibly bored Ron Perlman as Kidman, a hard-nosed CIA agent already suffering from Vietnam-related PTSD when he's assigned to travel to London with a briefcase full of cash to secure the services of Kubrick in the event Apollo 11 can't land on the moon. Through convoluted and unlikely circumstances, he thinks he's in a meeting with Kubrick's agent but he's really talking to Jonny (Rupert Grint from the HARRY POTTER series), a broke-ass concert promoter who owes money to some gangsters led by Dawson (James Cosmo), all of whom appear to be on loan from a shitty Guy Ritchie movie. Jonny takes the money and passes his acid-dropping buddy Leon (Robert Sheehan) off as Kubrick, but the money ends up getting stolen by Dawson's goons. Kidman tracks Jonny and Leon down, forcing them to rely on a pretentious, would-be filmmaker acquaintance named Renatus (Tom Audenaert) to somehow make a fake moon landing movie.

Laboriously-paced and utterly juvenile, MOONWALKERS makes a couple of easy Kubrick references but doesn't seem to even know much about the legendary filmmaker beyond the idea that he's legendary. There's nothing in the way of industry or political satire or absurdist humor that's inherent in the very concept. Instead, Craig and director Antoine Bardou-Jacquet focus on endlessly repetitive stoner humor, various vulgarities, predictable soundtrack choices (oh wow, hippies tripping on LSD at a happening set to Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit"! Imagine that!), stale sub-AUSTIN POWERS gags where the punchline is pretty much "it's the late '60s, baby!" and over-the-top splatter humor that wouldn't be out of place in an early Peter Jackson movie. What any of this has to do with Kubrick and the fake moon landing conspiracy is anyone's guess. Perlman and Grint never click as a comedy team, with the usually reliable Perlman looking irritable and completely sleepwalking his way through this. MOONWALKERS is appallingly bad, and the only thing resembling any legitimate humor is provided by Stephen Campbell Moore in a too-brief supporting role as Jonny's cousin--Kubrick's agent--a coke-snorting sleazebag with vintage 1969 Michael Caine glasses. Painfully unfunny, loud, abrasively obnoxious, and feeling three hours long, MOONWALKERS is a missed opportunity and a complete waste of time and the emptiest '60s nostalgia piece since the unwatchable PIRATE RADIO. (R, 97 mins)

(US - 2016)

Did writer/director Andrew Renzi have any idea what his endgame was with THE BENEFACTOR? Feeling like it was decided to make a second, different movie midway through filming, it starts out like it's headed into commercial psychological thriller territory before abruptly turning into a turgid, overwrought addiction drama. And that's before everything falls into place for a pat, feelgood ending complete with a miscarriage scare and a premature birth that's used to symbolize the rebirth of the central character in the most facile, Intro to Creative Writing way imaginable. Over the last few years, Richard Gere has done fine work in some small, under-the-radar films like ARBITRAGE and TIME OUT OF MIND, but his performance in the Sundance-financed THE BENEFACTOR is self-indulgent, film festival awards baiting at its most transparent and shamelessly circle-jerking. Gere is Francis "Franny" Watts, an impossibly wealthy philanthropist who's fallen into total despair after his married best friends Bobby and Mia (Dylan Baker, Cheryl Hines) are killed in a car crash that happened when Franny was goofing off and distracting a behind-the-wheel Bobby. Five years later, the guilt-plagued Franny is largely a shut-in at his mansion except when he pops into to entertain the kids in the cancer ward at the hospital he owns. He finds a new mission in life when Bobby and Mia's daughter Olivia (Dakota Fanning) reconnects with him to announce she's pregnant and has just married young pediatric oncologist Luke (Theo Jones of the DIVERGENT series). Franny instantly ingratiates himself into the lives of Olivia, who he still refers to by her childhood nickname "Poodles," and Luke, who he keeps condescendingly calling "Lukey," by buying her childhood home and gifting it to them, getting Luke a cushy job at the hospital, and paying off all of his student loans. Franny seems vaguely sinister in the way he's always around and won't take no for an answer, and for a while, it's hard to tell if he's just trying to assuage the guilt he's assumed in Bobby and Mia's deaths or if he's a lunatic with a bizarre fixation on the young couple.

Just as it seems poised to play out like a glossy "(blank)-from-Hell" '90s throwback thriller (which would've been dumb but at least entertaining), THE BENEFACTOR drops everything to focus on morphine-addicted Franny's quest to find someone, anyone, to fill his hydrocodone prescription. In denial that he's a junkie, Franny tries to guilt-trip any medical professional he can find into getting a refill, with no success. Gere is an underrated actor that Hollywood seems to have largely left behind, and the earlier scenes with him shoehorning his way into the lives of Olivia and Luke are moderately effective in their cringe-worthy discomfort, especially when Olivia or Luke lose their patience and Franny immediately blurts out the "Hey, come on, I'm just jokin' around!" excuses. But then it abruptly turns into a completely different movie and he's not even playing a character anymore--he's going through a checklist of "big moments" in a rambling, disjointed film that never comes together and never gives you a reason to care about Franny either as an antagonist or a protagonist. Jones just looks lost throughout, Baker and Hynes are gone before the opening credits, the great WIRE/TREME star Clarke Peters has a nothing supporting role as a doctor, and Fanning is completely wasted, spending the bulk of her screen time sitting on the couch, looking concerned and rubbing her prosthetic pregnant tummy until the script needs her to confront an endlessly self-pitying, withdrawal-shaking Franny and yell "You're not the only one who lost them!" By the end, it's 90 minutes of pointless nothing, and it's too bad there wasn't a benefactor at Sundance to bequeath to Renzi a reason for this confused mess of a film to exist. (Unrated, 93 mins)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Retro Review: LOOSE CANNONS (1990)

(US - 1990)

From its initial pitch meeting all the way to its tragic February 9. 1990 release in theaters, there had to be hundreds of opportunities for someone in a position of authority and influence to put their foot down and say "Enough! Stop! We're better than this!" and pull the plug on LOOSE CANNONS. Yet somehow, the film was scripted, given the greenlight, financed by a major studio, cast with real actors, filmed, edited, and actually exhibited in cinemas on a nationwide level. It's interesting to ponder that a comedy about the purported existence of a homemade Hitler porno might actually make you wish you were watching the Hitler porno instead. Shot in 1988 but shelved for nearly two years, LOOSE CANNONS was made during that pre-UNFORGIVEN period when past and future Academy Award-winner Gene Hackman was workaholically embracing his inner Michael Caine and turning absolutely nothing down. As a result, fine Hackman films like NO WAY OUT, ANOTHER WOMAN, BAT 21, THE PACKAGE, MISSISSIPPI BURNING, and NARROW MARGIN were mixed with forgotten trifles like SPLIT DECISIONS, FULL MOON IN BLUE WATER, CLASS ACTION, and COMPANY BUSINESS, and an outright disaster like SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE. But LOOSE CANNONS was something else entirely. It's a LETHAL WEAPON knockoff so ill-advised, so misbegotten, so utterly wrong-headed from the word go, and a comedy so excruciatingly unfunny that it easily ranks as the legendary actor's all-time worst movie. How bad is LOOSE CANNONS? So bad that it's also Dan Aykroyd's worst movie, and I'm not forgetting NOTHING BUT TROUBLE. Hell, director Bob Clark (BLACK CHRISTMAS, MURDER BY DECREE, PORKY'S, A CHRISTMAS STORY) also made BABY GENIUSES and SUPERBABIES: BABY GENIUSES 2 and LOOSE CANNONS might even be his worst movie. And how is it that legendary writer Richard Matheson (yes, that Richard Matheson!) was responsible for this script?

Sporting a Redskins jacket throughout, Hackman is D.C. vice cop Mac Stern, who finds himself partnered under duress on the pursuit of the Hitler stag film with forensics and investigative genius Ellis Fielding (Akyroyd), a schizophrenic who's just off sick leave and happens to be the nephew of Stern's captain (the venerable Dick O'Neill). Fielding is the real deal when it comes to detective skills, but there's a problem: when he's stressed out or in a tense situation, his multiple personalities emerge. Of course, LOOSE CANNONS is a comedy and it can't be held to the notion of realism in that a clearly deranged cop with multiple personality disorder would be allowed on the streets, but LOOSE CANNONS also can't even hold itself to the notion of being even remotely amusing. Scene after scene offers Mac and Fielding getting into a situation where Fielding goes into a sub-Curly Howard freakout before breaking out seemingly random impressions that are supposed to be funny just by simple recognition (is LOOSE CANNONS an early precursor to the Friedberg/Seltzer spoof movies?). Witness Mac and Fielding in an S&M bar brawl as Aykroyd busts out quick-succession riffs on the Cowardly Lion ("Put 'em up, put 'em up!") and Clint Eastwood ("You feel lucky, punk?") before spazzing around the bar karaokeing the LONE RANGER theme. During a car chase where he's behind the wheel, he starts babbling like a NASCAR announcer before running through impressions of every cast member on STAR TREK, right down to the inevitable "Warp speed!' and "Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor!" Aykroyd doesn't stop there: before it's all over, he'll do some Woody Woodpecker, The Road Runner, Popeye, croon the LOVE BOAT theme, quote BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, and sing CCR's "Proud Mary" when they jump into a river. Apropos of nothing, he'll yell Sylvester's "Sufferin' succotash!" and Tweety's "I tawt I taw a putty-tat!" He'll shout Desi Arnaz's "Luuucy!  You got some 'splainin' to do!" and The Church Lady's "Isn't that special?" He'll break out some Pee-Wee Herman and some "Oh no, Mr. Bill!" It's so not funny that it's actually uncomfortable watching Aykroyd flail around like he's on a delayed SNL-era coke jag, making a completely hyperventilating ass of himself as if he's been goaded into doing all of these ridiculous impressions by a group of asshole buddies laughing at him and not with him.

And then there's Hackman, whose Mac mainly just stands around wondering what kind of partner he's got, but if you look closely, there's a seething, palpable rage in the actor's eyes and in his line readings ("Are you bullshitting me?") that makes it very possible that an agent is about to get shitcanned. One of the worst buddy/cop movies ever made, LOOSE CANNONS strands a very capable supporting cast in a stifling miasma of aggressively awful anti-comedy: Dom DeLuise as a porn producer; Robert Prosky as an ex-Nazi who wants the Hitler smut film buried before he becomes the new German chancellor; Nancy Travis as a Mossad agent; Paul Koslo as a villainous henchman; David Alan Grier as Mac's vice partner; S. Epatha Merkerson as a cop; and Ronny Cox as a dickhead FBI agent trying to stonewall Mac and Fielding's investigation. About the only thing LOOSE CANNONS gets right is going ROBOCOP's "Dick Jones" one step further and giving Cox the role he was born to play: a glad-handing, asshole company man named "Bob Smiley." LOOSE CANNONS manages to go an entire 94 minutes without even the slightest hint of an oncoming chuckle, and its sappy, feelgood turn when Mac and Fielding start bonding is forced, unearned horseshit. People throw the term "trainwreck" around a little too liberally when it comes to bad movies like this, but this is a trainwreck--the longer it goes on, the more perversely fascinating it becomes, right down to the bombastic and bizarre closing credits tune performed by Aykroyd and Katey Sagal. Aykroyd always had his unfunny streaks (this followed CADDYSHACK II and MY STEPMOTHER IS AN ALIEN), not to mention the bad luck of having this turd get dropped in theaters just as he got a surprise Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as Jessica Tandy's son in DRIVING MISS DAISY--making LOOSE CANNONS the NORBIT to his DREAMGIRLS--but what in Popeye Doyle's name is Gene Hackman doing in this? How did he read this script and think "Yep, this is a winner! Count the Hack Man in!"? Did he read it? Or was he just saying yes to whatever fit in his schedule and paid the most? Retired from acting since 2004's WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT, a career move he may have first contemplated on or around February 9, 1990, Hackman had a reputation for being a prick even on the set of good movies. Can you imagine how surly he must've been behind the scenes here? Let's see that footage. LOOSE CANNONS vanished from theaters quickly and people seem to have granted Hackman the courtesy of never mentioning it. There has yet to be a revisionist cult revival of apologist VHS fanatics calling it a misunderstood masterpiece or a neglected classic. There is no one lamenting the void in their moviegoing soul that could only be filled with future Hackroyd buddy teamings. The film did briefly resurface in the news in 2013, when a strip of film found in a Calgary landfill appeared to show Aykroyd crouching near a dead body. Police thought it might've been evidence of a long-buried crime, and in a way it was: it was raw footage from LOOSE CANNONS. When reached for comment, Aykroyd issued a curt statement saying "The film should've been left in the landfill where it belongs." It's too bad he didn't say it using the voice of a random pop culture figure. (R, 94 mins)

How much balls do you think it took to ask Gene Hackman for this autograph? 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Retro Review: AT CLOSE RANGE (1986)

(US - 1986)

Despite significant critical acclaim and spawning a huge radio and MTV hit with Madonna's "Live to Tell," AT CLOSE RANGE only made it to 83 screens at its widest release in the spring of 1986. Orion undoubtedly had a hard time figuring out how to sell this extremely dark, bleak, and depressing crime saga to a mainstream audience. Inspired by true events and set in rural Pennsylvania in 1978 (The Rolling Stones' "Miss You" and A Taste of Honey's "Boogie Oogie Oogie" make soundtrack appearances), the film follows delinquent Brad Whitewood, Jr (Sean Penn), who gets reacquainted with his white trash criminal father Brad Sr. (Christopher Walken), and is seduced into his dad's dangerous gang only to realize too late that he's in too deep and that not even bonds of family and blood mean a whole lot to Brad Sr if it gets in the way of his business. Brad Jr's situation is further complicated by his falling in love with farm girl Terri (Mary Stuart Masterson), with Brad Sr determined to stop them from running away together, especially after Brad Jr, his brother Tommy (Chris Penn)--who may or may not be Brad Sr's son--and their buddies (among them Crispin Glover and FRIGHT NIGHT's Stephen Geoffreys), are pinched committing their own half-assed burglary, get bailed out and promptly subpoenaed by the grand jury, with Brad Sr. stopping at absolutely nothing to keep the boys from telling what they know about his activities.

Though the similarities are on the surface, the presence of Glover arguably makes AT CLOSE RANGE a bit of a dry run for the even more hopeless, fucked-at-birth horrors of 1987's RIVER'S EDGE and, at least in terms of its presentation of lost youth and utterly worthless parenting, Larry Clark's Glover-less 2001 film BULLY. Brad Jr and Tommy drink, cause trouble, and deal weed, all out in the open as their mom (Millie Perkins, almost 30 years after THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK) and grandma (Eileen Ryan, Sean and Chris' mom) look the other way. The only person who attempts to instill some responsibility and discipline in Brad Jr. is his mom's blue-collar, working-man boyfriend (Alan Autry), who promptly gets dumped for his efforts. The opening hour is draggy and a bit meandering, but the more it goes on, the darker and more unsettling it gets, going from downbeat to suffocating as everyone feels the wrath of a housecleaning Brad Sr. Walken is unforgettable in one of his most powerful and surprisingly restrained performances, absolutely terrifying while significantly dialing down his eccentric Walkenisms and using them as sparingly as he ever would. His dead glare as you look in the eyes of a heartless sociopath who has zero hesitation about killing his own son is the stuff of nightmares. Make no mistake, Walken's Brad Sr is one the most chillingly diabolical monsters you've ever seen in this type of film, and that's saying something considering the same calendar year gave us Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET. He's matched by Penn, and their final confrontation is almost overwhelmingly intense, especially in a moment of genuine terror on Walken's face when Penn switched prop guns just before the cameras rolled--Walken was obsessive about checking the safety of prop guns used in his scenes--and stuck an unchecked one right in Walken's face to get the response needed ("Whoa! Don't!"). Penn and Madonna were married at the time (this was also the year of SHANGHAI SURPRISE), and the film's biggest flaw is the incessant instrumental invocation of "Live to Tell," which sounds too 1986 contemporary for the otherwise accurate period setting (it was originally intended for the Craig Sheffer/Virginia Madsen thriller FIRE WITH FIRE but was nixed at the last minute and used here instead). The film was written by Nicholas Kazan (son of the legendary Elia Kazan) and directed by James Foley, who would direct Madonna in the 1987 bomb WHO'S THAT GIRL? before going on to better things with 1990's AFTER DARK, MY SWEET and 1992's GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. Also with Candy Clark, Tracey Walter, David Strathairn, J.C. Quinn, R.D. Call, and a young Kiefer Sutherland as one of Tommy's buddies. AT CLOSE RANGE isn't mentioned a lot these days, but it stands the test of time as one of the most powerful films of the late '80s, and necessary viewing for Penn and Walken fans. (R, 111 mins)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Retro Review: COP (1988)

(US - 1988)

COP disappeared from theaters pretty quickly in the spring of 1988, but it's acquired a moderate cult following in the years since. Coming nearly a decade before Curtis Hanson's 1997 classic L.A. CONFIDENTIAL brought James Ellroy into the Hollywood mainsteam, COP was the first adaptation of an Ellroy work, in this case the 1984 novel Blood on the Moon. Written and directed by former Stanley Kubrick producing partner James B. Harris (THE KILLING, PATHS OF GLORY, LOLITA), COP is a retooling of Ellroy's novel (the first of a trilogy centered on L.A. cop Sgt. Lloyd Hopkins) to focus on the in-his-prime 1988 intensity of James Woods--two years after his SALVADOR Oscar nomination and a couple of decades before his discovery of Twitter and his metamorphosis into a frothing, conspiratorial loon--as obsessed, on-the-edge Hopkins, a man who has a habit of getting too into his work and pissing off everyone around him. Hopkins is convinced a string of brutal murders is the work of a serial killer, and of course, he's right, and of course, none of his superiors believe him. The killer seems to have an axe to grind against feminists, but it goes much deeper, involving, among other parties, a feminist poet bookstore owner (Lesley Ann Warren), a corrupt sheriff's deputy (HILL STREET BLUES' Charles Haid) who deals drugs and runs male prostitutes on the side, and a gang rape that took place at an area high school 14 years earlier.

Harris and Woods previously worked together on 1982's little-seen FAST-WALKING and produced COP together while working for scale for the soon-to-be-finished indie Atlantic, whose biggest hit was 1985's TEEN WOLF. A labor of love for both men, COP is really all about Woods at his most dynamic, electric, and fidgety, whether he's defying the orders of his buddy Dutch (Charles Durning) or the stick-up-his-ass captain (Raymond J. Barry), going way overboard with suspects, hot-dogging it on cases that aren't even in his jurisdiction, schtupping sexy witnesses, or telling inappropriate arrest stories to his impossibly cute young daughter. He leaves no cop cliche unchecked, whether he's wearing the same clothes for several days in a row, using an electric razor at his desk, or taking a swig out of a random coffee cup in the squad room. He's a classic conflicted Ellroy antihero all the way up to the unforgettable final shot, but not in the noir confines for which the author is best known (Blood on the Moon was one of Ellroy's early contemporary novels prior to his essential L.A. Noir quartet of The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz).  On Kino Lorber's recent Blu-ray release, the 87-year-old Harris, still sharp, chatty, and full of stories, is joined for a very enjoyable commentary track by cult film historian and documentary filmmaker Elijah Drenner. Recounting events like they just happened, Harris discusses the making of the film, working with the actors ("You didn't have to audition Charlie Durning"), the differences from Ellroy's novel and the reasons for those decisions, and the problems going on with Atlantic at the time. He also talks at length about his years with Kubrick, and has a great story about how wrong he was when he amicably parted ways with the legendary filmmaker during pre-production on 1964's DR. STRANGELOVE when Kubrick and co-writer Terry Southern decided to take the story in a satirical direction ("I said it was a terrible idea, and it ended up being my favorite Kubrick picture!" Harris says, laughing). Better known as a producer, Harris has only directed five films over his 60-year career, the most recent being the 1993 Wesley Snipes/Dennis Hopper crime drama BOILING POINT. (R, 111 mins)

Friday, March 18, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: STEVE JOBS (2015); TRUMBO (2015); and FORSAKEN (2016)

(US - 2015)

Just two years after the already forgotten Ashton Kutcher-starring biopic JOBS, Danny Boyle's STEVE JOBS arrived to tell the Steve Jobs story once again. Based on the book by Walter Isaacson and adapted by Aaron Sorkin in a very Sorkin-esque fashion, STEVE JOBS takes a more experimental approach than most films of this sort. Boyle's film is essentially three long scenes, all taking place before major Jobs product launches in 1984, 1988, and 1998, each shot in, respectively, grainy 16mm, cinematic 35mm, and digital. The opening segment works the best and could almost function as a standalone short film, 40 minutes of dialogue-driven intensity as Jobs (an Oscar-nominated Michael Fassbender) prepares to introduce the world to the doomed Macintosh. He's furious about the "Hello" greeting not working and berates designer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) in front of everyone; he barely makes time for his old buddy Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who just wants a shout-out to the Apple IIE that he designed; and he's incredibly cold and cruel to his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and five-year-old Lisa (played by Makenzie Moss in the first segment), the daughter that Jobs adamantly refuses to accept is his, even doing everything he can to avoid paying more child support even though Chrisann is going on welfare and he's worth $440 million. All the while, Jobs' long-suffering marketing manager and confidant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, also Oscar-nominated) valiantly tries to hold everything together.

The first segment works so well that Boyle and Sorkin essentially repeat it twice more. But as it goes, the dialogue becomes more forced and the Sorkinese more insufferable. The rapid fire delivery of the first segment turns into endless speechifying and pontificating and starts representing all of Sorkin's most grating tendencies. It's no secret that Jobs was kind of an asshole and that comes through loud and clear here, at least until the feelgood ending when he finally accepts Lisa as his daughter (played in the last segment by Perla Haley-Jardine, best known as young B.B. from KILL BILL, VOL 2) just as he's about to unveil iMac as he receives a standing ovation while a cloying, Coldplay-like song by the Maccabees plays on the soundtrack. Boyle should be above such manipulative horseshit. Why are tears streaming down Winslet's face in this scene? The 1984 and 1988 launches were total failures--Rogen's jealous Wozniak keeps wanting to know why Jobs gets all the glory, and frankly, you will too. STEVE JOBS is a film that keeps an impenetrable man at a distance and it's cold by design--the shift into crowd-pleaser territory doesn't mesh with what came before, and by the end, you realize the film is little more than a stagy THIS IS YOUR LIFE with echoes of THE GODFATHER in that Jobs is constantly pestered on the days of product launches by past associates coming to him like he's Vito Corleone doling out favors on his daughter's wedding day. Fassbender nails the "driven intensity" element even though he doesn't really look or sound like Jobs, and Winslet works some occasional magic with what's really a thankless role, but STEVE JOBS just fizzles after the dynamite opening 40 minutes, falling into a comfort zone and riding it out on autopilot. Not bad, but pretty overrated. (R, 122 mins)

(US - 2015)

A much more traditional biopic than the repetitious STEVE JOBS, TRUMBO is a very entertaining--though undeniably softened and sanitized to varying degrees--chronicle of the Blacklist and the face of the "Hollywood 10," communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976). Trumbo (Bryan Cranston, Oscar-nominated in a magnificent performance), respected Hollywood writer (KITTY FOYLE, THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO) joins the CPUSA in 1943 and in the ensuing years, earns a reputation as a pro-working man troublemaker along with such Hollywood luminaries as Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and screenwriter pal Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), a character invented for the film and a composite of five members of the Hollywood 10, the group of writers who were the first to be blacklisted and turned into industry pariahs at the dawn of the Cold War. Leading the charge against them before HUAC even calls them to testify are director Sam Wood (John Getz), Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow), John Wayne (David James Elliott), and the film's nominal villain, bitter, muckraking gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). Cut to 1951, and needing to work after serving a year in prison for contempt of Congress, Trumbo offers his services to B and C studios and uses a variety of pseudonyms, often working on five scripts at once and popping amphetamines to keep going around the clock. Of course, it takes a toll on his family as devoted wife Cleo (Diane Lane) struggles to hold everything together until rumors abound that Trumbo was actually the uncredited screenwriter of the Oscar-winning ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953) and THE BRAVE ONE (1956), eventually leading to Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) breaking the blacklist by hiring Trumbo for SPARTACUS and EXODUS, respectively, and defiantly giving him credit under his actual name.

Trumbo's daughter Nikola (played in the film by Elle Fanning) served as a technical consultant, so of course, Trumbo's hardline communist stance is toned-down significantly for the film, and while it may tap dance around certain issues, Cranston is so good here that it's easy to overlook it. Adapting Bruce Cook's book Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter John McNamara and director Jay Roach (the AUSTIN POWERS trilogy, MEET THE PARENTS, GAME CHANGE) keep things moving briskly and get superb work out of their ensemble cast, particularly John Goodman, who makes every scene count as a bombastic B-movie producer who secretly hires Trumbo. It may take a somewhat simplistic view of a complicated subject, but as popcorn entertainment, it succeeds and never seems to revel in a sense of self-importance like STEVE JOBS. One wishes it didn't treat its subject with such kid gloves, but Cranston inhabits the role to such a degree that he wins over any doubts you might have. (R, 125 mins)

(Canada - 2016)

Though they appeared in the same films on a couple of past occasions (1983's MAX DUGAN RETURNS and 1996's A TIME TO KILL), the Canadian western FORSAKEN marks the first co-starring pairing of Kiefer Sutherland with his dad Donald. A labor of love for the Sutherlands, with Kiefer bringing along his buddy Brad Mirman to script (he also wrote Kiefer's 1998 directing effort TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M.) and regular 24 director Jon Cassar to call the shots, FORSAKEN is an OK if undemanding western that almost plays like an old-fashioned '50s B oater with some modern F-bombs and a few enthusiastic blood squibs. Kiefer is John Henry Clayton, a Civil War vet, feared killer, and all-around bad guy who's put away his guns and is on his way back to his family home for the first time in ten years. Arriving to find his mother has since passed and his embittered reverend father (Donald) still resents him and everything he represents, Clayton tries to lay low, determined to live a peaceful life and prove that he's a changed man. Of course, that won't happen in a town where greedy robber baron McCurdy (Brian Cox, doing his best Al Swearengen impression) is forcibly buying up everyone's land so he can sell it to the inevitable railroad for a ridiculous profit. McCurdy's men, led by the weaselly Tillman (Aaron Poole), routinely bully and terrorize the landowners, much to the disapproval of the classy and sartorial Gentleman Dave (Michael Wincott), a more refined regulator who respects his adversaries, thinks reasoning can accomplish more and sends a better message than threats and cold-blooded murder, and only resorts to violence as an absolute last resort. Tillman and his mouth-breathing sidekicks never miss an opportunity to see how far they can push Clayton, despite Gentleman Dave's warnings that "You kick a dog enough, he's gonna bite."

Cliched dialogue like that abounds (Tillman when he first spots Clayton in the saloon: "Well, well, well...if it isn't John Henry Clayton!"), and the longer it goes on, the more FORSAKEN takes its cues from the likes of UNFORGIVEN and OPEN RANGE, and it can't help but feel like a lesser retread of both. Plus, it's extremely predictable and even by the standards of dumb underlings, the actions of McCurdy's men defy any kind of logic and reason, so much so that you wonder why McCurdy never dumps these clowns and lets Gentleman Dave do his dirty work for him in a much more diplomatic fashion. Still, it's a comfort-food kind-of western that goes down easy and doesn't aim for much more than straightforward entertainment. That may seem a little overly quaint coming on the heels of a revisionist genre assaults like BONE TOMAHAWK and THE HATEFUL EIGHT, but FORSAKEN seems content being what it is: a chance for a famous father-and-son to work together. Naturally, the scenes with Donald and Kiefer are what play best, and it's hard not to be sucked in when a distraught Clayton breaks down and his hard, stern father takes him in his arms, or when, later on, that hard, stern father tearfully admits "I was wrong about you." You see the scenes coming, but they carry some extra emotional resonance when you see a real-life father and son acting them out. They get some solid support from a supporting cast of friends like Cox, Wincott (who's very good here, playing an intriguing character who isn't a cardboard cutout and should've been given more to do), and Demi Moore as Clayton's one-time love who married another when he disappeared. Filmed in 2013 but only given a VOD and scant theatrical release in early 2016, FORSAKEN isn't even close to being the next great western, but it looks very nice and it's good to finally see the Sutherlands working together, and hopefully not for the last time. (R, 90 mins)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

In Theaters: THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY (2016)

(US/UK - 2016)

Directed by Louis Leterrier. Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston and Peter Baynham. Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Penelope Cruz, Isla Fisher, Rebel Wilson, Gabourey Sidibe, Ian McShane, Barkhad Abdi, Scott Adkins, Tamsin Egerton, Sam Hazeldine, Nick Boraine, Annabelle Wallis, Ricky Tomlinson, David Harewood, Yusuf Hafri. (R, 83 mins)

With his mockumentaries BORAT (2006) and BRUNO (2009), Sacha Baron Cohen displayed a razor sharp wit in his holding up a funhouse mirror to America seen through the eyes of outsiders. He continued in a similar vein with the narrative comedy THE DICTATOR (2012). But with THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY, his latest scripting and starring effort, Baron Cohen pretty much abandons any kind of social/political commentary and goes straight for the grossout/raunch crowd, displaying a positively Sandlerian level of crude laziness with gags that play like he stole them from the dumpster outside the Farrelly Brothers' office. Baron Cohen is too smart to confuse any of this for bold transgression. The sole saving grace is the seething slow burn of veteran character actor Mark Strong, who manages to maintain his dignity to a point--that point being when Baron Cohen's script has him drenched in elephant cum. Twice. In what must set a new standard in damning with faint praise, the best thing one can say about THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY is that it's marginally better than DIRTY GRANDPA.

28 years after being left an orphan and separated from his beloved little brother, Nobby (Baron Cohen) is a soccer-obsessed father of 11 (with names like Skeletor, Tsunami, and Gangnam Style) and grandfather of one (Django Unchained), with his nympho wife Dawn (Rebel Wilson) and living in the depressing industrial five-nuclear-reactor town of Grimsby, the "twin city to Chernobyl." He gets word that his little brother will be at a London reception (yes, the establishing shot of London, with the London Eye ferris wheel and the Thames is accompanied by the caption "London, England") to honor young, wheelchair-bound AIDS activist Schlomo Khashidi (Yusuf Hafri), hosted by actress and humanitarian Rhonda George (Penelope Cruz). The long-lost little brother turns out to be Sebastian Graves (Strong), a lethal superspy working for a covert division of MI-6, there to take out international assassin Pavel Lukashenko (Scott Adkins). Nobby surprises Sebastian, who compromises the shot and ends up shooting young Schlomo, whose AIDS-tainted blood lands in the open-sore-filled mouth of celebrity attendee Daniel Radcliffe (played by an impersonator), while Lukashenko's remote controlled gun takes out the head of the World Health Organization. With the mayhem pinned on him and MI-6 deeming him a traitor, Sebastian is forced to go on the run with the hapless Nobby and follow the trail all the way to South Africa and ultimately to the FIFA finals in Chile to find Lukashenko and clear his name.

Along the way, it's endless toilet humor--literally in some cases. Nobby is forced to pretend to be Sebastian after the secret agent accidentally injects himself with heroin Nobby bought from a Cape Town dealer (Barkhad Abdi, obviously unable to parlay that CAPTAIN PHILLIPS Oscar nod into anything resembling a career bump). Nobby is sent to seduce the wife (Annabelle Wallis) of an arms dealer, but confuses her with hotel maid Banu (PRECIOUS' Gabourey Sidibe, in a humiliating role), who's wearing a similar dress, which leads to an extended shot of Baron Cohen with his face buried between Sidibe's ass cheeks, with an insert shot of what's supposed to be the Oscar-nominated actress' extremely unkempt crotch area. Sebastian is shot in the scrotum with a poisoned dart, forcing Nobby to suck the poison out of his brother's ballsack, Baron Cohen wrapping his mouth around Strong's stunt sack as Sebastian teabags Nobby ("You came on my face!" Nobby yells, with Sebastian replying "It was a tiny amount of pre-ejaculate at most. Grow up!"). Horny Dawn goes commando and pulls a BASIC INSTINCT on Nobby, opening her thighs and queefing in his face ("That wasn't me bum!" she says), and then ripping a loud fart ("That was me bum!"). At a health spa, Nobby falls face first into some wax and then lands on a guy's crotch, emerging with a curly goatee except for where the guy's dick entered his mouth. A weakened, AIDS-stricken "Daniel Radcliffe" is later shot at the FIFA finals, with his tainted blood going into the mouth of attendee Donald Trump. But the biggest set piece, and the one where Baron Cohen's career may very well end, has Nobby and Sebastian fleeing psychotic MI-6 mad dog Chilcott (Sam Hazeldine) and hiding inside the spacious confines of a female elephant's vagina. Just as Chilcott and his men leave, Nobby starts crawling out only to be stopped by an aroused male elephant who mounts the female, with Nobby and Sebastian sharing the vagina with a giant elephant cock. "You stroke him and I'll cradle the balls!" Nobby advises, as Sebastian is soon drenched in gallons of elephant jizz. When they try to exit, they're again thwarted by a second male elephant about to have his way with the female, followed by a line of elephants forming for what Nobby deems "an elephant bukkake fuck party." And then Sebastian is covered in elephant cum again, while Nobby is anally violated by another male elephant.

It's worth mentioning that Baron Cohen and co-writer Peter Baynham got Oscar nominations for writing BORAT, and that their other co-writer here (Phil Johnston), co-scripted WRECK-IT-RALPH and the current hit ZOOTOPIA. The director is former Luc Besson protege Louis Leterrier (TRANSPORTER 2, THE INCREDIBLE HULK), and the second-unit action duties were handled by JOHN WICK director Chad Stahelski. There is some genuine talent here and the end result is so utterly embarrassing that as the credits rolled, the exiting audience members (both of us) didn't even want to make eye contact. It's lazy, it's beyond juvenile, and it's simply not funny, whether it's the recurrent anal fixation, the pointless AIDS jokes, and consistently unfunny grossout humor at the expense of plus-sized women. "Shock" doesn't necessarily equal "funny," and Baron Cohen is a smart enough writer and performer to know the difference (the only sign of vintage Baron Cohen that shows is when Nobby discovers the rush of firing a weapon, concluding "I can see why people love guns!  It completely distances you from the guilt of your actions!"). THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY is a draggy slog even at just 83 minutes, and the fact that there are seven credited editors is indicative of compromised product with which no one really knew what to do (half the shots and lines in the trailer aren't even in the finished movie, and the set-up is so rushed and truncated that it's never really explained how Nobby finds out Sebastian will be in London). Baron Cohen is all about poking people with sticks to get a response, but what exactly was the endgame here? Whatever went wrong, let's just hope that he got it out of his system and can go back to being the bold provocateur he's capable of being, because THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY would be damn near unwatchable were it not for the heroic efforts of Mark Strong.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Retro Review, Special Fongsploitation Edition: KILLPOINT (1984) and LOW BLOW (1986)

(US - 1984)

Born in 1928, Chinese-born American actor Leo Fong was a late bloomer when he joined the post-Bruce Lee martial-arts parade, already in the vicinity of 50 when he starred in the first of a trio of Filipino actioners with 1976's ENFORCER FROM DEATH ROW. This was followed by 1978's BLIND RAGE (pushed as a Fred Williamson movie even though The Hammer only had a cameo) and 1980's THE LAST REUNION. All three films got drive-in and grindhouse play, but Fong was 56 by the time he tried to carve out a niche for himself in the US action market with 1984's KILLPOINT, the first of two failed attempts by longtime B-movie stalwarts Crown International to make Fongsploitation (© Marty McKee) happen with mainstream moviegoers. KILLPOINT didn't get a very wide release, but it managed to play in first-run multiplexes in major cities before hitting video stores (of course, courtesy of Vestron Video) and eventually reaching its intended audience on cable, where undemanding, channel-surfing insomniacs stumbled upon it at 2:30 am. Around since 1959, Crown knew how to play the game, and Fong was likely intended to be their version of two stoical Cannon stars in Charles Bronson and Sho Kosugi, However, Fong's inanimate, stonefaced screen presence was so wooden that he made Bronson look like talk-show Robin Williams by comparison.

KILLPOINT is very much a junk movie, but it's not without points of interest. Fong stars as Lt. James Long, a widower Riverside cop assigned to partner with ATF agent Bryant (Richard Roundtree) to investigate a series of mass shootings that have been traced to an military armory depot heist engineered by lunatic crime boss Joe Marks (Cameron Mitchell) and ruthless arms dealer Nighthawk (Stack Pierce). The story itself is pretty standard-issue and there's plenty of ineptitude on display, starting with clumsy dialogue like "Long? Isn't he the cop whose wife and child were raped and killed?" and too much screen time given to non-actors--and this is how they're billed--Captain Michael Farrell (as Long's captain) and Special Agent Larry Lunsford (as Bryant's supervisor), both mumbling their lines and looking like a deer in the headlights, and presumably brought on by the Riverside P.D., who served as technical advisors. But writer/director Frank Harris brings an admirably rough aesthetic to the proceedings. The extensive location shooting throughout Riverside in places like Chinese restaurants, neighborhood grocery stores, pawn shops, low-rent gyms, dive bars, and skeezy strip clubs, and the plethora of non-professional actors (a bunch of Riverside cops have small bits as well) bring an effectively--if accidentally--seedy, DIY, KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE-esque milieu to the proceedings, and the scenes of street criminals buying guns from Nighthawk and promptly mowing down innocent people offers chilling, disturbing imagery that remains prescient with today's level of gun violence. I'm not implying that Harris is some kind of unsung auteur, but if a really slumming John Cassavetes made a crummy '80s action movie with an aging and borderline immobile kung-fu D-lister, it might've ended up looking a lot like KILLPOINT.

All hints at nihilistic artistry aside, KILLPOINT is first and foremost a scuzzy exploitation movie, and for that, look no further than Mitchell's insane performance as Marks: mumbling incessantly, yammering on about his poodle Sparky (and trying to get it to smoke), and quite possibly intoxicated, Mitchell's relentless scenery-chewing needs to be seen to be believed. Some of the cold, humorless Nighthawk's reactions to Marks' antics seem to be less character and more Pierce reacting to Mitchell's overacting (Pierce also has a great and possibly improvised bit where he's told to make a drink for Hope Holiday's screeching madam and forgoes the tongs to angrily put the ice and a lemon in the glass with his hands). SHAFT fans may be disappointed that second-billed Roundtree has little to do and exits the film about an hour in, but rest assured, it all ends up with a showdown at an abandoned factory (complete with a military guy rappelling down the side of the building for no reason whatsoever), and it's all propelled by an exceedingly mid '80s synthesizer/drum machine score and a catchy closing credits tune ("Too long! Livin' on the inside!"). KILLPOINT is unabashed trash, brutal and unrelentingly violent, but it's essential viewing for Cameron Mitchell fans and students of Fongsploitation. (R, 89 mins)

KILLPOINT newspaper ad making it look like a Richard Roundtree movie

(US - 1986)

A good chunk of KILLPOINT's cast and creative personnel--Leo Fong, Frank Harris, Harris' wife Diane Stevenett, Cameron Mitchell, Stack Pierce, and Hope Holiday--reunited for 1986's Fong-scripted LOW BLOW. Moving even less swiftly than he did in KILLPOINT, 58-year-old Fong at least had the good sense to make a number of LOW BLOW's laughs intentional, whether it's his character's beat-up '70s clunker or acquiescing to stereotypes about Chinese food and Asian drivers. Fong is Joe Wong, a ex-cop and broke-ass private eye with mounting bills who lucks into a job when rich industrialist John Templeton (early '60s heartthrob Troy Donahue, barely masking his contempt for the entire project) hires him to track down his missing daughter Karen (Patti Bowling). Karen has joined a religious cult run by Yarakunda (Mitchell), a blind, Jim Jones-type loon who wears a monk's robe and has a tiny Star of David tattoo on his face as well as a bindi on his forehead. Yarakunda is somewhat sincere in his beliefs, but the drugs and illegalities side of his operation is actually run by his "wife," a sadistic, manipulative ex-con named Karma (THE COLOR PURPLE's Akosua Busia). Unable to take on Yarakunda and Karma on his own, Wong and his perky secretary (Stevenett) demonstrate some of that old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland "Let's put on a show!" moxie and hold a Toughman contest to assemble a worthy team of ass-kickers to raid the cult's compound and rescue Karen.

Threatening to break out into an actual comedy at any given moment, LOW BLOW is decidedly more lighthearted that the grim and ugly KILLPOINT, with set pieces so ridiculous that the humor has to be by design. That's really the only way to explain the scene where three bad guys barricade themselves in a Mercedes while Wong puts on some safety goggles and saws off the roof of the car to get to them. Or the opening scene, where Wong hears a robbery taking place at a diner down the block while he's in his second story office, then goes in SUDDEN IMPACT-style and blurts "Hey, is my ham sandwich ready?" before blowing the three scumbags away and declaring "Hey, forget the sandwich!" (which, needless to say, didn't become Leo Fong's "Go ahead, make my day"). Fong still can't act, but he's at least a lot more loose here than he was in KILLPOINT--he's at least trying to be a likable hero, and his effort is endearing. Mitchell looks like he's still nursing a KILLPOINT hangover, a glowering Donahue seems pissed off that he's even in it (was John Saxon out of their price range?), while Pierce plays a good guy who helps Wong assemble the team for the raid, and is rewarded with the character name "Corky," which doesn't send the same message as "Nighthawk." The standout in LOW BLOW however, is the gorgeous Busia, whose demented performance as Karma actually steals the ham honors from Mitchell, who's goofy but rather subdued throughout. Though she has no IMDb credits after 2007, Busia would stay busy in supporting roles and TV through the '90s. Born in 1966, she was briefly married to BOYZ N THE HOOD director John Singleton around the time she appeared in his 1997 film ROSEWOOD and she'd also co-write the script for Jonathan Demme's 1998 Toni Morrison adaptation BELOVED. Things didn't really pan out for Busia, for some reason. She never really got a career bump from her performance as Nettie in THE COLOR PURPLE despite making a big impression in one of its most memorable scenes, and though LOW BLOW was shot first but released second, it still had to be difficult for the young actress to wrap her head around exactly why her COLOR PURPLE co-stars Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey were going on to acclaim and fame after working with Steven Spielberg while she was stuck cackling and munching on circus peanuts and straddling Cameron Mitchell in a Leo Fong movie produced by Crown International.

Also featuring a brief appearance by future Tae Bo guru Billy Blanks as a Yarakunda guard, LOW BLOW was the last of Crown's attempts to get mainstream America on the Fongsploitation bandwagon. He appeared in a few straight-to-video productions of dubious quality, usually directing himself (he reprised his Joe Wong character in LOW BLOW's 1990 semi-sequel BLOOD STREET and also resurrected his KILLPOINT character for 1993's SHOWDOWN). He had a supporting role in 1994's barely-released CAGE II, the sequel to the little-remembered Lou Ferrigno/Reb Brown cage-fighting non-hit, but he's really done nothing of note cinematically since LOW BLOW. Now 87, Fong is still active in martial-arts instruction and, at least according to IMDb, has two more Joe Wong movies with 2016 release dates, which I wouldn't anticipate seeing anytime soon, especially since one of them (HARD WAY HEROES) has a trailer that was posted to YouTube in 2010 and appears to have the production values of a homemade porno. (R, 85 mins)