Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Retro Review: JUNGLE WARRIORS (1984)

(West Germany/Mexico - 1984)

Directed by Ernst R. von Theumer. Written by Robert Collector and Ernst R. von Theumer. Cast: Nina Van Pallandt, Paul L. Smith, John Vernon, Alex Cord, Sybil Danning, Marjoe Gortner, Woody Strode, Dana Elcar, Kai Wulff, Louisa Moritz, Suzi Horne, Mindy Iden, Kari Lloyd, Ava Cadell, Myra Chason, Angela Robinson, Isabel "Chichimeca" Vazquez. (R, 95 mins)

From the producers of 1983's legendary women-in-prison masterpiece CHAINED HEAT comes this similarly sleazy actioner packed with slumming big names, including returning co-stars John Vernon, Sybil Danning, and Louisa Moritz. The ludicrous plot involves a group of fashion models managed by coke-snorting asshole Larry (Marjoe Gortner) heading to a shoot in the Amazon and getting caught in the middle of a war between South American drug lord Cesar Santiago (Paul L. Smith) and gregarious mob kingpin Vittorio Mastranga (Vernon). Mastranga and a few of his goons, including his nephew/lawyer Nick Spilotro (Alex Cord), are trying to muscle in on Santiago's turf, but things get complicated when Santiago shoots down the models' plane and takes them prisoner. Of course, this leads to an extended and distasteful sequence where Santiago's slobbering underlings take turns raping all of the women before they revolt--one of them (Mindi Iden) is actually an undercover FBI agent, which begs the question "What would the point of her going undercover as a model be if the plane didn't get shot down?"--and become the titular ass-kickers. JUNGLE WARRIORS also provides ample space for Vernon to overact and for Smith to do his patented glowering stink-eye routine, but there's also some additional trashy enjoyment to be had from Cesar's obviously incestuous relationship with his sultry, psycho-bitch sister Angel (Danning), who instigates the models' gang rape and gets a nude oil rubdown from her brother, though the lighting of the scene suggests neither Danning nor Smith were directly involved with it.

Greatest grindhouse group shot ever? 
You also get Woody Strode as Luther, Santiago's top henchman, top-billed Nina Van Pallandt (a former model and one-time Robert Altman muse) as Joanna, the producer of the photo shoot, German actor Kai Wulff as a pilot and brief love interest for Joanna, and Dana Elcar (MACGYVER) as irate FBI agent D'Antoni, who seems to exist in another movie altogether (Elcar shares no scenes with any other main cast members and is always shown stewing and yelling in an office). The primary reason anyone remembers JUNGLE WARRIORS today is because of who wasn't in it: Dennis Hopper was originally set to co-star when the film went into production in early 1983, and he arrived at the remote Mexican location with his legendary drug and alcohol problems at their apex, working for a couple of days before fleeing the set when he was convinced people were trying to kill him. He was discovered in a small village 20 miles away, where he was picked up by local police after stripping nude and wandering around in a daze shouting "Kill me naked!" He was fired and put on the first flight to Los Angeles, where he had to be restrained when he tried to open the plane's emergency exit. Hopper would tell this story many times over the years, and the details only came from those who witnessed it--he had no memories of being in Mexico or even working on the movie before his dismissal. After years of escalating and ultimately out-of-control alcoholism (he was drinking over a case of beer and a nearly a gallon of rum a day) and substance abuse ("I'd do a few grams of coke to sober up"), Hopper hit bottom with his JUNGLE WARRIORS meltdown, and it proved to be the wake-up call that got him into rehab upon his return home, after which he remained clean and sober and within a few years, rebuilt his career with his triumphant comeback that began in 1986 with BLUE VELVET and an Oscar-nominated supporting turn in HOOSIERS. The common belief is that Hopper was cast as Larry and replaced by Gortner, which makes sense given some of Larry's behavior and Gortner's very Hopper-like performance. But an early trade ad in Variety that ran when the film started production (thanks to Video Junkie's William Wilson for that bit of history seen below) shows that both Hopper and Gortner were in the cast. That same trade ad makes no mention of Kai Wulff, so it's possible--and this is pure hypothesis on my part--that Hopper was cast as Larry and Gortner as the pilot/Joanna love interest, and when Hopper was canned, Gortner was shifted over to the more showy Larry role. It doesn't seem likely that Hopper would've played the heroic love interest to the main heroine, and since both Larry and the pilot are killed off before the midpoint (Larry by booby-trap impalement, the pilot by one of the least-convincing decapitations ever), Gortner wouldn't have had to stick around any longer in order to play Larry instead.

"and Marjoe Gortner as Larry"
Distributed in the US by 42nd Street mainstay Terry Levene's Aquarius Releasing in November 1984, JUNGLE WARRIORS is a mostly crummy grindhouse affair that's prime guilty pleasure material thanks to the bewildered-looking cast and some splattery shootouts, not to mention one killing involving the rotor blades of a chopper that probably sounded better in concept that it plays in execution. And you really haven't lived until you've experienced Marina Arcangeli's incredible JUNGLE WARRIORS theme, quite possibly the worst song ever recorded. In addition to the headaches involving Hopper, the film also switched directors early in the shoot, with veteran German producer Ernst R. von Theumer giving Billy Fine the axe and taking over direction himself. Fine was also a producer on CHAINED HEAT and 1982's THE CONCRETE JUNGLE, and JUNGLE WARRIORS was set to be his debut behind the camera. Von Theumer had been a journeyman in German B-movies going back to the late 1950s (he also directed the 1972 Roger Corman pick-up THE BIG BUST-OUT under the pseudonym "Richard Jackson") and carved a brief niche for himself in the 1980s women-in-prison/jungle action explosion: he would later produce and co-write (and do some uncredited directing) on 1985's RED HEAT, a CHAINED HEAT semi-sequel that reunited Danning and Linda Blair, and he'd direct 1986's HELL HUNTERS, a typically sleazy jungle exploitationer that brought together the seen-better-days likes of Maud Adams, George Lazenby, William Berger, and Stewart Granger as a former Nazi hiding in Paraguay and working on a spider venom-based mind control drug.

Friday, May 27, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: ZOOLANDER 2 (2016); RISEN (2016); and THE PROGRAM (2016)

(US - 2016)

You could probably count the number of good comedy sequels on one hand and it should come as no surprise that ZOOLANDER 2 wouldn't be one of them. Arriving 15 long years after the original was a minor hit on its way to becoming a cult movie on DVD and cable, ZOOLANDER 2 has nothing new to offer except more noise and more cameos, feeling the need to repeat or reference nearly every gag from the first film before its threadbare plot kicks into gear. In the years since the first film, the world's top male supermodel and total idiot Derek Zoolander (director and co-writer Ben Stiller) is a hermit (or, as he calls it, "a hermit crab") in isolation following the death of his wife (Stiller's wife Christine Taylor) in a freak accident involving the giant, book-shaped Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good falling on her because Zoolander had the building made from the same materials as books (that joke lands even worse in the movie than it does in synopsis form). After having his son Derek Jr taken away from him when a viral video leaks of Zoolander melting down as he tries to cook spaghetti in a toaster ("How did Mom make make the noodles soft?" he screams), Zoolander retreated from the world much like LITTLE FOCKERS' Ben Stiller has retreated from comedy. Unfortunately for everyone, Zoolander and sidekick Hansel (Owen Wilson) are pulled back onto the runway by hipster designer Don Atari (Kyle Mooney), who needs them for the "Old and Lame" (Zoolander pronounces it "Laa-may") part of his Rome show. Zoolander and Hansel are soon drawn into an investigation by Interpol agent Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz, who followed this triumph with THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY), which leads to the return of evil fashion megalomaniac Mugatu (Will Ferrell, who doesn't even appear until an hour in) and his plot to find and kidnap Derek Jr (Cyrus Arnold), who carries the Fountain of Youth bloodline of "Steve," humanity's first fashion model, booted out of the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, and subject him to a "ritual fattening" to make him an embarrassment to the Zoolander name.

It's really difficult to describe how astonishingly unfunny ZOOLANDER 2 is. The only reasonably big laugh comes from one line Mugatu has as he holds a black mass over a lava pit to sacrifice Derek Jr (dubbed "the fat little Chosen One") so the world's top fashion names--Anna Wintour, Tommy Hilfiger, Valentino, Mark Jacobs, and Alexander Wang appear as themselves--can bathe in his blood Bathory-style: "Check out Tommy Hilfiger's spring line, brought to you by white privilege!" Elsewhere, nothing works. Stiller and his co-writers (including co-star Justin Theroux) really overestimated the level of sentiment we feel for these characters. Was anyone demanding a ZOOLANDER sequel? With nothing new to add, Stiller's Hail Mary is to pile on endless cameos, where the recognition of a famous person is, in and of itself, supposed to be funny. It's like a long SNL skit or Jimmy Fallon bit where someone just unexpectedly pops up and we're supposed to be entertained by the mere sight of a celebrity. Some of them play characters (Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen have minor roles and Benedict Cumberbatch is an androgynously hermaphroditic supermodel named "All") or appear as distorted versions of themselves (Kiefer Sutherland plays himself as part of Hansel's dozen-person orgy collective; Sting plays Sting as an Obi-Wan Kenobi of the fashion world, who only speaks in Police or solo Sting-related song lyrics), but most just appear and that's supposed to be the joke: Justin Bieber, Billy Zane, Susan Boyle, Willie Nelson, Joe Jonas, Olivia Munn, Skrillex, Naomi Campbell, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Susan Sarandon, Christina Hendricks, M.C. Hammer, John Malkovich, Kate Moss, A$AP Rocky, and others. It also might set the record for cameos by TV news figures, including but not limited to Katie Couric, Jane Pauley, Joe Scarborough, Soledad O'Brien, Don Lemon, Matt Lauer, Dan Abrams, and, my God...et tu, Jim Lehrer? You get to see Tommy Hilfiger quipping "Tommy likey" as he watches Valentina and Mugatu henchwoman Katinka (Milla Jovovich) wrestling in a 69 position, and there's rimshot-worthy groaners like Derek going undercover and saying "Every bathhouse I've ever worked at had a rear entrance." ZOOLANDER 2 is appallingly bad. It's ANCHORMAN 2 bad and it's Adam Sandler lazy. It's Stiller and a bunch of his friends fucking around on Paramount's dime. Movies like this are a special kind of bad. It would be one thing if ZOOLANDER 2 tried and failed, but all it does is show up because it doesn't come from a place of inspiration. ZOOLANDER did. ANCHORMAN did. But their sequels came from a far more cynical place. No effort was put forth because none was necessary. And because the movie was shot at the legendary Cinecitta Studios in Rome, it seems that the primary motivation was paid vacations all around. No one involved in this thing gives the slightest shit about it. You shouldn't either. (Unrated, 102 mins)

(US - 2016)

One of the few offerings from the faithsploitation scene to stifle the preaching and attempt to reach out to secular audiences, RISEN treats the days following Christ's crucifixion as though it's LAW & ORDER: RESURRECTION. This isn't an original approach--Damiano Damiani's 1987 film THE INQUIRY starred Keith Carradine as a Roman soldier sent by Pontius Pilate (Harvey Keitel) to investigate a missing persons case where the missing person happens to be Jesus. THE INQUIRY was remade in 2006 as THE FINAL INQUIRY, an Italian film picked up for the US by Fox Faith and starring F. Murray Abraham, Max Von Sydow, and Dolph Lundgren. RISEN is more or less another de facto remake of THE INQUIRY, with cynical, agnostic tribune and war hero Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) assigned by Pilate (Peter Firth) to find the missing body of the prophet Yeshua (Cliff Curtis), who vanished from his sealed tomb three days after being crucified. Clavius and Lucius (HARRY POTTER's Tom Felton), the rookie tribune assigned to accompany him, tear Jerusalem apart searching for Yeshua's missing apostles and other accomplices (including Mary Magdelene, played by Maria Botto), until Clavius goes rogue and accompanies the remaining eleven apostles on a journey to meet the resurrected Yeshua. Of course, the film is ultimately all about making Clavius a believer, but director/co-writer Kevin Reynolds has plenty of real movies on his resume (ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, WATERWORLD, 187, and the acclaimed History Channel miniseries HATFIELDS & MCCOYS) to not let the sermonizing take precedence over the story. Shot on Spanish and Maltese locations, RISEN looks great, though some discount-rate CGI is an occasional distraction, most notably a boat ride that seems tragically reminiscent of the greenscreen work in IN THE HEART OF THE SEA. The biggest problem is the film's ponderous pacing and a one-note performance by Fiennes, whose voice barely rises above a mumble until he finally meets Yeshua, who's very charismatically played by veteran character actor Cliff Curtis. Fiennes (when's the last time you went to see a Joseph Fiennes movie?) just doesn't have the screen presence to carry this, and it really seems like he got the job because his asking price was the most Sony was willing to spend for their faith-based Affirm Films division. The sincere RISEN deserves some credit for being the one of the least sanctimonious examples of faithsploitation and it gets quite good once Curtis' Yeshua finally shows up, but it just misses the mark. (PG-13, 108 mins)

(France/UK - 2016)

Not to be confused with the 1993 James Caan college football drama that inspired dumb teenagers to lie in the middle of the road and get killed, THE PROGRAM is a well-acted but choppy chronicle of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. Based on the book Seven Deadly Sins by Sunday Times sports reporter David Walsh (played here by Chris O'Dowd) and scripted by frequent Danny Boyle collaborator John Hodge (SHALLOW GRAVE, TRAINSPOTTING), THE PROGRAM too frequently feels like an adaptation of a Wikipedia page, glossing over details and assuming you know enough to fill in the blanks (shot of Armstrong getting married, wife never seen again). It also can't decide whether to focus on Walsh, Armstrong (a terrific performance by Ben Foster), or Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons). Landis, a cyclist on Armstrong's team, enters the story midway through and quickly grows embittered over the way Armstrong gets all the glory, especially when trainer and chief Armstrong enabler Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet) has to sell a number of the team's bikes to pay for everyone's performance-enhancing drugs. They're all part of the "program" designed by dubiously sketchy Italian doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), and the film details all the ways Ferrari and Bruyneel pump the cyclists full of drugs and the elaborate methods employed to cheat mandatory drug testing. THE PROGRAM opens like a standard Armstrong biopic, then shifts to Walsh as he grows incredulous of Armstrong's seemingly superhuman abilities after a grueling battle with cancer. But it's the Landis subplot that more or less dominates the last third, with the perennially-sidelined cyclist busted in a random urine test while Armstrong smugly beats the system and uses his celebrity and his "cancer shield" to render himself untouchable.

For a while, it seems like Hodge and director Stephen Frears (once a great filmmaker, now a comfortably jobbing journeyman) might go in an ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN/SHATTERED GLASS/SPOTLIGHT direction as Walsh tries to expose the culture of doping, fighting his editors at the paper and everyone else seeking to protect Armstrong's heroic image, getting doors slammed in his face and getting the cold shoulder from his colleagues when Bruyneel bullies them and threatens to cut their access if they continue to associate with Walsh. But Hodge and Frears introduce him as basically a co-lead character, then almost instantly sideline him for much of the film. There's too much ground to cover, and it probably would've worked better as an HBO or FX miniseries, where characters and conflicts would've had time to build and be fleshed-out in a more organic way. The film's flaws don't negate the excellent work of Foster, who doesn't really look a lot like Armstrong (though he gets some help from minimal makeup and trimmed eyebrows), but disappears into the character to such an extent that he becomes Armstrong by the end, uncannily nailing his body language and speech patterns. THE PROGRAM doesn't shy away from presenting Armstrong as little else than an egomaniacal, narcissistic sociopath, but it also seems too rushed and lets the committed actors down (Dustin Hoffman also turns up for a couple of scenes as bridge champion and investor Bob Hamann, though he seems to have wandered in from another movie). Shot in 2013 and unreleased until early 2016, THE PROGRAM would seem like a talked-about, awards-season gimme but debuted on DirecTV before hitting VOD and a small handful of theaters, ensuring that Foster's award-worthy performance will be lost in an utterly average movie nobody's going to see. (R, 104 mins)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Retro Review: LOLLY-MADONNA XXX (1973)

(US - 1973)

Directed by Richard C. Sarafian. Written by Rodney Carr-Smith and Sue Grafton. Cast: Rod Steiger, Robert Ryan, Jeff Bridges, Scott Wilson, Season Hubley, Gary Busey, Joan Goodfellow, Tresa Hughes, Paul Koslo, Ed Lauter, Kiel Martin, Randy Quaid, Timothy Scott, Katherine Squire. (PG, 106 mins)

In the years before her career took off in 1982 with A is for Alibi, the first of her ongoing "alphabet mysteries" (the 24th, titled simply X, was released last year), novelist Sue Grafton worked primarily in television, writing numerous made-for-TV movies in addition to being a creative force behind Michael Learned's post-WALTONS CBS series NURSE. She made the move to TV in an effort to polish her plotting and character-building skills after her first two books tanked. Her second novel, The Lolly-Madonna War, was published overseas in 1969 with little fanfare, not even attracting interest from a US publisher. British writer/producer Rodney Carr-Smith (BARTLEBY) bought the movie rights and brought it to MGM in an attempt to establish himself in America (still unpublished in the US, The Lolly-Madonna War remains Grafton's most obscure novel, and used mass market paperback import copies currently range from $423 to $880 on Amazon). Carr-Smith collaborated with Grafton on the screenplay adaptation and the film version was rechristened as the ill-advised LOLLY-MADONNA XXX, which didn't do it any favors as many confused moviegoers and theater owners may have understandably mistaken it for a porno. The title refers to a signature on a postcard, with the "xxx" being "kisses," but it proved problematic enough that MGM pulled the film and relaunched it under its original book title as the more straightforward THE LOLLY-MADONNA WAR (and judging from the trailer, it was also titled FIRE IN THE MEADOW at some point prior to its release), though the LOLLY-MADONNA XXX title is what it's most commonly known as today. Under either title, the movie bombed and Carr-Smith's adventures in Hollywood, as well as his career in cinema, came to an abrupt end.

A then-contemporary take on the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, updated to rural backwoods Tennessee, LOLLY-MADONNA XXX opens with young Roonie Gill (Season Hubley) switching buses in a podunk town on her way to Nashville and being mistaken for Lolly-Madonna, the supposed fiancee of Ludie Gutshall (Kiel Martin). Roonie is abducted from the bus stop by Thrush (Scott Wilson) and Hawk Feather (a never-better Ed Lauter), two sons of Laban Feather (Rod Steiger), who's in a property dispute with former best friend and rival moonshiner Pap Gutshall (Robert Ryan, in one of his last films; he died less than five months after it was released). Correctly assuming Feather's dumb sons would take the bait and head to the bus stop, Ludie put a forged postcard from a non-existent "Lolly-Madonna" in the Feather mailbox (right next to the Gutshalls on the roadside), asking to be picked up, giving Ludie and two other Gutshall sons, Zeb (Gary Busey) and Villum (Paul Koslo), time to run up to the Feather still and vandalize it. This is just one in a series of escalating back-and-forth pranks that the Feather and Gutshall sons have been playing for the last couple of years, as the bond between the families has deteriorated to the point where star-crossed lovers Skyler Feather (Timothy Scott) and Sister E. Gutshall (Joan Goodfellow) are forced to carry on their relationship in secret. Things headed south after Gutshall's other daughter married Zack Feather (Jeff Bridges) and was killed in a horse-riding accident that Laban blamed on black sheep Thrush. Following Gutshall's purchase of a disputed piece of land that went up for auction when Feather owed back taxes on it, tensions have done nothing but flare and it's only made worse by the presence of Roonie, who is held captive by the Feathers and can't convince Laban or any of his sons--even Zack, with whom she falls in love in what may be a case of Stockholm Syndrome--that she's not Lolly-Madonna and has no idea who the Gutshalls are.

LOLLY-MADONNA XXX is a strange and often twisted film that somehow got a PG rating in 1973 despite some grim and disturbing developments as things take a decidedly dark turn. Ludie confronts Thrush and cracks his skull open with a rock, requiring stitches. Heading to the hills for a clandestine dalliance with Skyler, Sister E. is spotted by Thrush and Hawk (the latter with his face smeared in Roonie's makeup and wearing her bra and granny panties), who attack her and take turns raping her. Pap demands justice for his daughter's rape and wants Thrush and Hawk whipped, which only enrages Laban as the violence and lunacy intensifies and the Feather patriarch sets the disputed piece of land ablaze while leading his clan in a sing-along of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." Eventually, Pap and his sons--with the exception of pacifist Zeb, who goes behind his father's back and attempts to broker a truce with an unconvinced Zack, pack an arsenal of weapons to launch an assault on the Feather homestead.

Directed by journeyman Richard C. Sarafian (VANISHING POINT), LOLLY-MADONNA XXX is surprisingly strong stuff that would probably get an R rating even today with the mostly-implied but still unsettling rape scene (it's actually more effective that Sarafian cuts away just as it's about to get really unpleasant), the bloody violence, and fleeting nudity by both Hubley and Goodfellow. Though it prefigured oncoming hillbilly-centered films like GATOR BAIT by a couple of years and the great SOUTHERN COMFORT by eight, it feels a lot like a big-studio version of a really grimy drive-in hicksploitation flick, almost like THE WALTONS-meets-DELIVERANCE, definitely revealing an unexpected side to Sue Grafton's writing if you're only familiar with her very mainstream mystery novels. The climax--a long, protracted, Sam Peckinpah-meets-Walter Hill-style shootout where all hell breaks loose while a catatonic and insane Laban can do nothing other than silently stew at the kitchen table and angrily make himself a mayonnaise-and-ketchup sandwich--is the kind of batshit craziness that did little to win LOLLY-MADONNA XXX any fans then but makes it a terrific and bizarre curio item today (one of Hollywood's great overactors, Steiger is one of the very few people who can overdo the act of pouring ketchup). It's hard to believe there was once a time when a character played by a young and still-serious Gary Busey (in just his fourth film) would function as the most stable and level-headed voice of reason in a movie (speaking of crazy, a young Randy Quaid is also on hand as a mentally-challenged Feather son). Despite its more exploitative elements, there's certainly an anti-war Vietnam era metaphor to LOLLY-MADONNA XXX in the way Laban and Pap express concern over what's going on but do absolutely nothing to stop it, instead being complicit in its escalation and content to let their sons do the fighting and the dying. Vietnam is also directly invoked by Pap Gutshall having lost a son in combat and Zack Feather being established as a draft dodger. Even by the standards of the more adventurous, chance-taking cinema of the post-EASY RIDER, pre-summer blockbuster 1970s, LOLLY-MADONNA XXX is one of the weirder movies to come from a major studio in that era and is worth seeing on that basis alone, and even more so when you look at that fascinating mix of old-school Hollywood and up-and-coming youngsters. Shortly after completing this film, Ryan and Bridges would work together again on John Frankenheimer's THE ICEMAN COMETH, released several months after Ryan's death from lung cancer.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Retro Review: CANDY (1968)

(Italy/France - 1968)

Directed by Christian Marquand. Written by Buck Henry. Cast: Charles Aznavour, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, James Coburn, John Huston, Walter Matthau, Ringo Starr, Ewa Aulin, John Astin, Enrico Maria Salerno, Elsa Martinelli, Sugar Ray Robinson, Anita Pallenberg, Florinda Bolkan, Marilu Tolo, Nicoletta Machiavelli, Umberto Orsini, Joey Forman, Fabian Dean, Lea Padovani, Peter Dane, Enzo Fiermonte, Buck Henry. (R, 124 mins)

Based on the controversial 1958 "dirty book" of the same name by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, CANDY is the kind of movie that could only have been made in the late 1960s. Unevenly mixing slapstick sex farce with trippy psychedelia and counterculture satire in one bloated, overly indulgent, and almost instantly dated package, CANDY is a chaotic all-star mess of the 1967 CASINO ROYALE variety, but like that film, it's an endlessly fascinating one. Contrary to the myth that's stuck over the nearly 50 years since its release, it was not a box office disaster. Indeed, opening in December 1968, it made $16 million and was the 18th highest grossing film of the year in the US, sandwiched between THE BOSTON STRANGLER and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. Adjusted for inflation, that's $111 million in 2016 dollars. Can you imagine something as balls-out insane as CANDY making $111 million in theaters today?

Adapted by Buck Henry, who had just been nominated for an Oscar for co-writing THE GRADUATE, and directed by Christian Marquand, the French actor who co-starred with Brigitte Bardot in the iconic AND GOD CREATED WOMAN (1956), CANDY's biggest draw was the spectacle of a huge cast of big names and a couple of Oscar winners starring in a smutty comedy based on a book that was widely considered pornography. Much less explicit than the book, the film nevertheless has a high raunch factor and a decent amount of nudity that still warrants the R rating it got 46 years ago. Opening with what looks like her arrival on Earth (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY special effects mastermind Douglas Trumbull designed some of the surreal visuals in the opening and closing sequences), CANDY centers on naive high-school student Candy Christian (18-year-old Ewa Aulin) and her wild sexual escapades with a increasingly deranged parade of pervy older men. What was played as comedy in 1968 would undoubtedly be labeled rape by today's trigger warning-obsessed thinkpiece writers, but the oblivious Candy just rolls with it, starting with drunken poet MacPhisto (Richard Burton), who has his way with her in the back of his glass-bottom limo, slurping spilled champagne off the floor while ranting and grunting about his "overpowering need!" Arriving at her house while her social sciences teacher father T.M. (John Astin) is still at school, Candy is attacked by Mexican gardener Emmanuel (Ringo Starr) who shouts "Viva Zapata!" as he ejaculates and MacPhisto dry-humps a Candy-lookalike doll on the floor. Enraged by her dalliance with Emmanuel, her uptight, conservative father tries to take her to NYC with his lecherous brother Jack (also Astin), and Jack's swinging wife Livia (Elsa Martinelli), but they're accosted on the airport runway by Emmanuel's domineering, revolutionary biker sisters (Florinda Bolkan, Marilu Tolo and Nicoletta Machiavelli). Hopping aboard a refueled military plane that's been transporting the squadron of Gen. Smight (Walter Matthau) around the globe for six years, T.M. suffers a head injury while sexually frustrated Smight tries to force Candy to bear his child. Landing in NYC, they rush T.M. to the hospital where he's the next production in the gala theater of superstar brain surgeon A.B. Krankheit (James Coburn), who hosts a wild post-surgery after-party/orgy where Uncle Jack has sex with Candy in her father's hospital bed, pushing his brother onto the floor when he gets in the way. Krankheit seduces Candy in another room while a partially lobotomized T.M. wanders the halls, and even enraged hospital head Dr. Dunlap (John Huston) tries to spread unconscious Candy's legs and look up her skirt. From there, Candy is separated from Uncle Jack and Livia, and crashes the set of sex-crazed filmmaker Jonathan J. John (Enrico Maria Salerno) and is soon pursued by a pair of horny cops (Joey Forman, Fabian Dean). Then she meets a hunchback (Charles Aznavour) in Central Park, who asks her for "rub dub dub" before taking her back to his mansion, where he can fly and climb walls. Candy's next escapade finds her in an Indian temple housed in the back of a big rig, where she's mentored in the ways of bullshit philosophy and tantric sex by fake guru Grindl (Marlon Brando).

Unless you're in the mood for it, CANDY can be downright unwatchable, but the once-in-a-lifetime cast makes it mandatory viewing at least once (there's also model and longtime Keith Richards girlfriend Anita Pallenberg as Krankheit's chief nurse and boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson as MacPhisto's chauffeur Zero). It gets more bewildering as it goes along, all the way to a fourth-wall breaking finale where a wandering Candy actually sees Marquand himself directing the movie that's imploding on itself. The good slightly outweighs the bad, and while some segments are tedious duds (the sequences with Matthau, Salerno, and Aznavour just land with a thud, and Starr's Mexican caricature is embarrassing even by 1968 standards), others are legitimately funny. Burton gets the best entrance of his career as MacPhisto, his hair and scarf constantly blown back by a seemingly supernatural wind that surrounds only him. Coburn is great as the demented Krankheit, with the notion of the rock star-like surgeon, years before Buckaroo Banzai, the height of the film's absurdist Southern influence (Southern also co-wrote DR. STRANGELOVE and would write 1969's star-studded and equally anarchic THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN, which also starred Starr). Brando is also quite amusing as the phony mystic, sheepishly trying to hide a footlong sub and a bottle of beer as Candy awakens after a marathon of Twister-like sex.

Of all the star power in the cast, the biggest surprise is Astin, who's a riot as the shameless horndog Uncle Jack, constantly leering and making suggestive, over-the-line comments as he tirelessly tries to get in his niece's pants. According to legend, Marquand's original choice for the T.M./Uncle Jack dual roles was Peter Sellers, and there's a lot of Sellers' style in Astin's performances, particularly the Clare Quilty skeeziness he brings to Uncle Jack's LOLITA-like designs on Candy. Probably because he was known as a TV actor, his spot in television history forever cemented by his Gomez Addams on THE ADDAMS FAMILY (he also briefly replaced Frank Gorshin as the Riddler in the second season of BATMAN), Astin isn't even granted the dignity of having his name above the title with the others--where, alphabetically, he would've been top-billed before legendary French singer Aznavour--even though between both of his roles, he's got the most screen time other than Aulin. Sellers would've been incredible but Astin's work in CANDY is rarely cited as one of its strong points and that's a shame. He manages to upstage his significantly higher-profile co-stars and gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie. Given an "introducing" credit even though it was her fourth film, Swedish actress Aulin's voice is dubbed but she certainly looks the part, and seems like a good sport considering she spends a good chunk of the film in various states of undress while being pawed by a bunch of overpaid and presumably highly intoxicated A-listers (quoted in the 2004 book The Candy Men by Terry Southern's son Nile, about the controversy surrounding the novel, Coburn claimed that inexperienced Aulin had a breakdown and needed several days off to decompress after dealing with Brando). CANDY's notoriety didn't really open any doors for Aulin, despite a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Female Newcomer (she lost to Olivia Hussey in ROMEO AND JULIET). She remained busy in Italian films, most notably the gialli DEATH LAID AN EGG (1968) and DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER (1971), with her most high-profile post-CANDY role being in the Gene Wilder-Donald Sutherland comedy START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME (1970). Tired of being offered the same kinds of sexpot roles, the now-66-year-old Aulin quit acting in 1974, enrolled in college, became a schoolteacher, and focused on raising her kids. She made a one-off comeback in a supporting role in the little-seen 1996 Italian comedy STELLA'S FAVOR and quickly returned to a life completely off the celebrity grid.

An unmistakable product of its time (featuring music by The Byrds and Steppenwolf), CANDY was hard to see after its theatrical run in 1968 (where it was in cinemas the same time as the similarly time-capsule-worthy SKIDOO), Outside of some occasional and highly-edited late-night TV airings, the film built a cult mystique as it essentially disappeared for a number of years. It was never released on home video until Anchor Bay's DVD and VHS editions in 2001. It recently debuted on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber, with a very good Buck Henry interview, where the 85-year-old comedy writing legend is pretty blunt about what works and what doesn't and shares a number of stories about the production.

Friday, May 20, 2016

In Theaters: THE NICE GUYS (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Shane Black. Written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagorazzi. Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Kim Basinger, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Gil Gerard, Jack Kilmer, Ty Simpkins, Murielle Telio, Daisy Tahan, Lance Valentine Butler, Hannibal Buress. (R, 115 mins)

It's one of the most egregious crimes of recent movie distribution that Shane Black's 2005 meta noir/private eye black comedy KISS KISS BANG BANG didn't get the exposure it deserved. Perhaps the most quotable movie of the last couple of decades after THE BIG LEBOWSKI, KISS KISS BANG BANG was the directorial debut of Shane Black, the screenwriter behind such wiseass, mismatched, "...if they don't kill each other first!" action/buddy classics as LETHAL WEAPON, THE LAST BOY SCOUT, and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT. KISS KISS BANG BANG was nothing if not a mission statement for Black, encompassing all of his ideas and influences in one smart, razor-sharp, brilliantly executed package that Warner Bros. had no idea how to market. Showcasing a mystery with the labyrinthine complexity of CHINATOWN fused with the big action set pieces of producer Joel Silver and one of the all-time classic bickering, forced-together partnerships with small-time criminal Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), gay private eye Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), and still-aspiring starlet-in-her-mid-30s Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), KISS KISS BANG BANG got rave reviews across the board but the studio still only gave it a limited release, topping out at just 226 screens. It became a bigger hit in Europe and eventually found a cult following on DVD/Blu-ray and cable, and it led to Downey getting Black a major directing gig with IRON MAN 3.

In a lot of ways, THE NICE GUYS is Black's chance at do-over of KISS KISS BANG BANG. It's another Warner Bros. release of a Silver production, though the studio is giving this one a significantly bigger push, opening it nationwide in the summer movie season. It's a similarly busy, intricate, self-aware Hollywood mystery filled with lightning-fast, hard-boiled, profane dialogue and a story awash in sleaze and corruption, only this time in the period setting of 1977. Opportunistic and hapless (he cuts himself with an electric razor) private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a widower raising his wise-beyond-her-years 13-year-old daughter Holly (a terrific performance by Angourie Rice). He's also the kind of guy who takes money from a deranged old woman to find her missing husband whose urn is on the mantelpiece ("I haven't seen him since the funeral!" the woman tells him). Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a fixer-for-hire, a guy who doesn't care to get an investigator's license and makes a better living getting paid under the table by clients who want the shit beat out of someone. He's been paid by a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) to do just that to March, who's been working for her aunt (Lois Smith), who thinks she's gone missing. Amelia's situation dovetails into a car-crash suicide involving porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), prompting Healy and March to set aside their differences and work together (with a lot of help from Holly, who in many ways is the smartest of the trio) when the case balloons into a conspiracy involving Detroit's Big Three auto companies, a Justice Department honcho (Kim Basinger), a psychotic hit man known as "John-Boy" (Matt Bomer), a corrupt auto industry CEO (Gil Gerard sighting!), and a missing film canister containing the lone print of Misty Mountains' final work, a porno film titled HOW DO YOU LIKE MY CAR, BIG BOY?

A lot of this will sound very familiar to any fan of KISS KISS BANG BANG: the way the trio of protagonists essentially serve the same plot functions; the Hollywood setting; the mystery kicking off with a car crash suicide; a scene where a hero happens to look over his left shoulder to find a dead body right behind him; the way Black has his heroes--and a little kid ogling a nudie mag in the opening scene--respectfully cover exposed areas when they find a dead woman's body. Anyone accusing Black of repeating himself wouldn't be wrong. But it's a formula that once again works beautifully, with the work of Crowe and Gosling perhaps even more surprising than Downey and Kilmer since neither are particularly known for their comedic skills (Downey, as good as he was, was essentially playing a very "Robert Downey Jr" character, and Kilmer had some comedies under his belt). With his gut the biggest it's ever been, Crowe is a burly attack dog as Healy, and while he's basically Gosling's straight man, he's still never cut this loose onscreen before. That's a surprise given his dismal performance during his recent SNL hosting gig, where he appeared in only four sketches for what would be the season's worst show were it not for the Donald Trump episode. Gosling, on the other hand, demonstrates a versatile flair for the comedic throughout, whether it's fast-talking bullshit, slow-burn reactions, his tumbling, Clouseau-like pratfalls, and an incredible impression of Lou Costello from ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. A serious actor who's done some grim films in the past, Gosling is a revelation here, though it may not be a surprise if you saw his own SNL stint a few months ago, which was so infectiously fun that he couldn't stop completely breaking in nearly every sketch. While they're both funny as hell, there's a melancholy--and in March's case, tragic-- undercurrent to their characters and the ways they use their cynicism as a protective shield (if anything, the character development might be stronger here than it is in KISS KISS BANG BANG) as they make their living navigating the cesspool of Tinseltown depravity (one aspiring starlet to another as Healy walks by them at a party: "I told him if you want me to do that, fine...just don't eat asparagus first"). The leads are matched by a breakout performance from young Australian actress Rice, whose Holly is rebellious and fearless, getting herself into dangerous situations and using her wits to extricate herself. At the same time, she really grounds the mismatched detective team and keeps them on their toes. It's a huge accomplishment that she holds her own with guys like Crowe and Gosling and manages to steal scenes from dramatic actors of their caliber.

Though Paul Thomas Anderson handled it with a bit more obsessive attention to details with INHERENT VICE, Black gets the late '70s period look as right as he needs to, not overwhelming the audience with it but always cognizant of it, whether it's the cars; the chain-smoking in public places (around kids, even!); billboards for SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, AIRPORT '77, and JAWS 2; and songs like Earth Wind & Fire's "September," America's "A Horse with No Name," and Rupert Holmes "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)." It's easy to overrate THE NICE GUYS, simply because movies like it are such a rare commodity these days. It's noteworthy that eleven years after not knowing how to sell KISS KISS BANG BANG, a decade in which the power of word-of-mouth has diminished and everything is about breaking $150 million on the opening weekend, Warner Bros gives a nationwide release to something that could just as easily have been called KISS KISS BANG BANG II: THE NICE GUYS. A lot of this will be familiar if you've seen KISS KISS BANG BANG, but it's pulled off so well by Black and his actors that if you're a fan of that film, you won't mind seeing an equally enjoyable and just-as-quotable '70s pseudo-reimagining of it. Consistently laugh-out-loud funny, THE NICE GUYS is the best time I've had at a movie so far this year. If only Black had found a way to work in the name "Chook Chutney."

Thursday, May 19, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: KINDERGARTEN COP 2 (2016); SOUTHBOUND (2016); and DEMENTIA (2016)

(US - 2016)

Here to present its case as the most unnecessary sequel of 2016, KINDERGARTEN COP 2 would more accurately be termed a remake, and not a very funny one at that. No returning cast or characters from the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy are on hand here, with the star replaced by perennial DTV legend Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren is a better actor than he's usually required to be, but comedy isn't really his specialty, and KINDERGARTEN COP 2 does little to establish any genre bona fides for him.The tired plot has Seattle-based FBI agent Reed (Lundgren) going undercover as the new kindergarten teacher at the posh, expensive, and ultra-politically correct Hunt's Bay Academy. He's looking for a flash drive hidden somewhere in the school by his dead predecessor, whose loser brother worked for Albanian gangster Zogu (Aleks Paunovic), who's about to go on trial and the flash drive is needed to lock him away for life. Reed isn't prepared for what he has to deal with, namely oversensitive kids with names like Cowboy, Jett, and Patience who, along with their classmates, need constant reassurance of emotional safe spaces and boundaries, and the structure of a rigid schedule. Reed also finds he has to negotiate with the kids, who need their hands held through everything, eat tofu for lunch and lecture him about the dangers of gluten. Worst of all, Reed can't even have a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich in the classroom because of Cowboy's peanut allergy.

KINDERGARTEN COP 2 really could've taken some shots at helicopter parenting and the delicate-snowflake coddling of today's kids, but the kids barely factor into the story. Instead, Reed and his partner Sanders (Bill Bellamy) bust each others' chops in cliched buddy comedy fashion when they aren't being chewed out by their shouty, Frank McRae-like boss Giardello (Danny Wattley), and Reed dates pretty kindergarten teacher Olivia (Darla Taylor). She seems to be the only other educator in the school (and Reed's class the only students) other than uptight principal Miss Sinclaire (Sarah Strange) and oafish computer teacher Hal (Michael P. Northey), who's never shown teaching a computer class and gets angry when Reed and Olivia become an item in a subplot that goes nowhere. There's not really anything funny in KINDERGARTEN COP 2, with an early reference to Grey Poupon more or less setting the tone. There's a running gag about the Asian kid in the class having his perfectly understandable dialogue accompanied by English subtitles, but it's not funny the first time they do it, let alone the 20th. Screenwriter David H. Steinberg (AMERICAN PIE PRESENTS THE BOOK OF LOVE) shares script credit with Herschel Weingrod, Timothy Simon, and Murray Salem, the trio who wrote the 1990 original, but their inclusion here seems to be for legal, WGA reasons, especially considering Salem died in 1998. KINDERGARTEN COP 2 was directed by Don Michael Paul (HALF PAST DEAD, WHO'S YOUR CADDY?), apparently the go-to guy for forgettable DTV sequels to movies that you had no idea spawned a franchise that was somehow still a thing, with LAKE PLACID: THE FINAL CHAPTER, JARHEAD 2: FIELD OF FIRE, SNIPER: LEGACY, TREMORS 5: BLOODLINE, and the upcoming SNIPER: GHOST SHOOTER to his credit. Sure, there's worse things out there than KINDERGARTEN COP 2, but who wants an uninspired carbon copy of the first movie, and one that seems more focused on constant Twix product placements and doesn't even bother to supply a game Lundgren with his own "It's not a toooo-maaah!" quotable? (PG-13, 100 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US - 2016)

Much of the creative personnel behind the wildly overrated V/H/S franchise reconvenes for another hipster-approved Horror Insta-Classic (© William Wilson) of its week. As far as this generation of horror anthologies go, SOUTHBOUND is no CREEPSHOW--hell, it's not even NIGHTMARES--and while it's marginally better than most of its ilk, it still isn't worthy of all the slobbering knobshines it got from the scenesters. With an overarching Purgatory metaphor running through all of the stories--all in some way are connected, and the ending of one blends with the beginning of the next--the themes are rather obvious and there's little narrative drive, even once everything starts to clumsily coalesce. Revelations land not with a "Whoa!" but with a "Huh? Uh, that's it?" On an endless desert highway that seems to go in circles with all road signs indicating South (METAPHOR!), two men (Chad Villella and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin) covered in splattered blood try to flee strange, hovering, insect-like creatures in "The Way Out," directed by the collective Radio Silence, of which Villella and Bettinelli-Olpin are two of the four members. That leads to "Siren," from debuting director Roxanne Benjamin (a V/H/S producer), where a female punk trio--a quartet until one band member was recently killed--are stranded on that same endless highway and picked up by a strange couple who are part of a cult (led by comedian Dana Gould, of all people) planning their next sacrifice. Next is "The Accident," from THE SIGNAL co-director David Bruckner, where a distracted driver (Mather Zickel) on that same endless highway plows over someone from "Siren" and is given a series of increasingly strange directions by EMT personnel who are too far away to assist. The segues into "Jailbreak," by ENTRANCE and THE PACT II director Patrick Horvath, in which a vengeance-crazed man (Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow) takes on some dangerous dudes at a middle-of-nowhere bar in an attempt to rescue his kidnapped sister. Finally, Radio Silence return with the closer, "The Way In," a rote home-invasion story where a bunch of guys in creepy masks--two of which will obviously be the guys in "The Way Out"--converge on a seemingly nice family (mom Kate Beahan and dad Gerald Downey) spending a final weekend together before their daughter (Hassie Harrison) goes off to college.

If general weirdness is your thing, then you might get more out of SOUTHBOUND than I did. We're eventually shown the source of the hovering creatures from the first segment who also periodically appear in other segments, but that still doesn't mean their eventually-explained presence makes any sense. Because the filmmakers have the stories flow together in a not very smooth fashion, they tend to end in abrupt and confusing ways. Nothing makes sense in "The Way Out," and by the time you get to the big reveal of "The Way In," you'll still have more questions than answers. "The Accident" and "Jailbreak" have some committed performances by Zickel and Yow respectively, and both go above and beyond the gore quota. The standout story is easily "Siren," which is the only one to make concerted efforts to develop its characters and establish a legitimately unsettling vibe. It almost feels like a tribute to those really unnerving occult movies of the '70s and has a real MESSIAH OF EVIL thing going on. Elsewhere, there's synth cues and John Carpenter homages all over the place, which was affectionate fun for a while but has become so prevalent and obligatory in today's horror movies that it's really time for the genre's current standard-bearers to find a new crutch. Also, I'm sure they're nice people and it's nothing personal, but when Larry Fessenden and Maria Olsen--an unusual-looking actress who's found an indie horror niche as essentially the female Michael Berryman--turn up in the opening credits, I'm already annoyed. I don't know--I'm pretty much a curmudgeon when it comes to most new horror offerings these days, especially these fawned-over indies where the film's most vocal supporters are all Facebook friends of the directors. The accessibility of fans to the artists has undoubtedly clouded the judgment of critics and bloggers when an unwatchable piece of shit like V/H/S: VIRAL gets good reviews. SOUTHBOUND isn't bad for this new breed of horror in the social media age, but there's still very little about it that's noteworthy. (R, 89 mins)

(US - 2015)

A thriller that would fit right into the late 1990s with its "caregiver-from-Hell" plot, DEMENTIA is a reasonably suspenseful and well-acted film with a twist that's perhaps a little too easy to see coming, but the script by Meredith Berg does some alliance-shifting bait-and-switches that keep you on your toes. After a mild stroke, elderly retiree George Lockhart (Gene Jones from Ti West's THE SACRAMENT and best-known as the gas station clerk on the receiving end of the "Call it, Friendo" coin-flip in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) is tended to by his estranged son Jerry (Peter Cilella) and 18-year-old granddaughter Shelby (Jennifer Lawrence lookalike Hassie Harrison, also seen in SOUTHBOUND), neither of whom he's seen for many years. The recovery goes slow when moody George has difficulty focusing and periodically forgets who Shelby is ("This bitch broke into my house!"), so Jerry and Shelby decide to hire a temporary live-in caregiver to assist him until he's well again. The caregiver is Michelle (Kristina Klebe), who says her specialty is post-stroke therapy and insists Jerry and Shelby check into a hotel in order for her to focus on George's recovery, but it doesn't take long before George gets a bad vibe from her. When he begins showing signs of improvement, she pumps him full of unnecessary medication that makes him worse, then starts playing tricks on him, which escalates to Michelle beheading George's beloved cat and covering him with its blood while he's sedated to convince him he did it. George insists he's a victim of elder abuse, but a preoccupied Jerry doesn't buy it, choosing to go back home to his job while a summer vacationing Shelby decides to stay behind at the hotel and keep visiting with her grandfather, an idea constantly thwarted by an increasingly irrational Michelle.

While Michelle is the clear antagonist of the story and obviously isn't what she claims to be, George isn't exactly an innocent victim. A man deeply traumatized by his experiences in Vietnam (Eric Senter plays George in flashbacks), George returned home and became a violent, alcoholic wife-beater and child-abuser, the source of Jerry's alienation from his father. George has made efforts to change: he's been sober for over 20 years and tells Jerry he's proud of how he raised Shelby since he had such a terrible role model. His sorrow is sincere, and while an understanding but apprehensive Jerry warns her not to get to close to him, Shelby can't help but feel sympathy for her ailing grandpa, even if she steals jewelry out of a drawer and helps herself to some of his more powerful meds when nobody's looking. But George is a man with secrets, and he's been specifically targeted by Michelle, whose rage grows so strong the she forces whiskey down his throat and starts torturing him in ways he endured during his days as a POW. Berg and director Mike Testin do a good job of making the audience reconsider its loyalties throughout: is Michelle batshit crazy? Does she have her reasons for putting George through hell? And sure, George is contrite and has sincerely attempted to right his wrongs as a husband and father, but is he a monster beyond redemption? DEMENTIA provides no easy answers, and it's the kind of movie that would be a talked-about, hot-button, big-studio thriller if it was made 20 years ago. Jones, Klebe, and young Harrison turn in convincing performances, and 90% of DEMENTIA is a nicely-done sleeper that's sure to find a cult following on Netflix Instant. But then something inexplicable happens in the climax that has nothing to do with the script or story but still manages to very nearly drive the movie off a cliff. Just as the big reveal comes along of what George did and why Michelle has gone to such extreme lengths to make his life hell, the sound mix gets all bungled and wonky, with the score cranked up really loud and the dialogue drowned-out and almost completely unintelligible. I had to turn the subtitles on to find out what was being said. There's a whole thread about this on the movie's IMDb page, and several reviews from the film's December 2015 VOD release also mention the dialogue being muffled and barely audible when it matters most. Was this an artistic decision on Testin's or the producers' part? If so, it's one of the dumbest I've ever seen. It must be by design, or else it would've been remixed between December and now. I don't get it. It's baffling why the filmmakers drown out the dialogue just in time for the big reveal. I mean, seriously. What the fuck? (Unrated, 90 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

***UPDATE*** (June 16, 2016)

Regarding DEMENTIA's sound issues, star Kristina Klebe recently posted an update in the comments section of the film's IMDb page.

"The sound design was a major oversight and has recently been fixed. It will hopefully be up on all platforms by end of this week. I would encourage everyone to watch the end again at least so you can feel you saw and understood the whole film. You, as an audience, deserve that."

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Retro Review: CLAY PIGEON (1971)

(US - 1971)

Directed by Tom Stern and Lane Slate. Written by Ronald Buck, Buddy Ruskin and Jack Gross Jr. Cast: Telly Savalas, Robert Vaughn, John Marley, Burgess Meredith, Ivan Dixon, Tom Stern, Jeff Corey, Peter Lawford, Marilyn Akin, Marlene Clark, Belinda Palmer, Mario Alcalde. (R, 92 mins)

A laughable hippie revenge saga that had to look like a dated relic the day it was released, 1971's CLAY PIGEON was co-written by MOD SQUAD creator Buddy Ruskin but is otherwise an amateurish, heavy-handed vanity project for producer/co-director/star Tom Stern. Born in 1940, Stern was an up-and-coming young actor who had small roles in major films like THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965), THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL (1965), and THE DEVIL'S BRIGADE (1968) before briefly finding a niche in biker movies. ANGELS FROM HELL (1968) and HELL'S ANGELS '69 (1969) did good business on the drive-in circuit, but CLAY PIGEON was a DOA flop that would pretty much kill any momentum the actor and budding auteur had going. Financed independently but distributed by MGM, who no doubt regretted the acquisition and relegated the film to the bottom half of drive-in double bills well into 1972, CLAY PIGEON's only accomplishment was convincing the rest of Hollywood that there was nothing to gain by getting into the Tom Stern game, which had to be a hard lesson learned by the lineup of big-name actors Stern somehow cajoled into appearing in it.

Filmed and edited with all the competence and precision of a classic Al Adamson joint, CLAY PIGEON is embarrassingly bad, and not even in a "so bad, it's entertaining" way. The demand for hippie/biker movies was so heavy at the time that MGM probably didn't care that the film was largely unwatchable. Looking like a cross between painter Bob Ross and MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE's Torgo, Stern is Joe Ryan, an ex-cop and Vietnam vet who's now a homeless, cart-pushing hippie living on the streets of Hollywood. In one of his many random acts of sticking it to The Man, Joe steals a cop's motorcycle and takes it on a joyride before getting tossed in jail, where he's made an offer by rogue FBI agent Redford (Telly Savalas): go undercover and infiltrate the heroin smuggling operation of L.A. drug lord Neilson (Robert Vaughn). When Joe refuses, Redford sets him up to be mistaken for Neilson in some nonsensical attempt to draw Neilson out of hiding. All parties converge for an impressively bloody shootout at the Hollywood Bowl, filled with all that great '70s blood that looks like bright red paint. Stern (who has never directed another movie) and co-director Lane Slate (who would go on to write numerous TV movies, but also a few theatrical releases like 1972's THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS and 1977's THE CAR) even throw in an over-the-top, gory axe murder in the wild climax, but it's too little, way too late, especially with a hackneyed groaner of a surprise ending.

Other than the splattery finale, nothing works in CLAY PIGEON. If Uwe Boll time traveled back to 1971 to make a counterculture revenge thriller, it would turn out a lot like CLAY PIGEON. Redford's plan makes no sense (and why is Savalas, for no reason, shown in one scene shirtless and staggering around a fleabag hotel room with his hands in restraints? In the next scene, he's wearing a suit and whatever was going on in the hotel room is never referenced again). There's entirely too many meandering asides that provide some nice time-capsule location shooting around the skeezier parts of Hollywood, but it's mainly just Stern walking around or going to strip joints, or hanging out with some free-lovin' lady friends who can't help but throw themselves at a smelly homeless guy. Stern gives himself a couple of nude scenes, including one where he and two full-frontal hotties in all their '70s bush glory are frolicking in a swimming pool threesome, a scene that producer Tom Stern, in conjunction with co-director Tom Stern, no doubt felt was a necessary component to the development of the character played by star Tom Stern. Action scenes (including a slow motion shot of a highway patrol truck repeatedly flipping over that takes up two minutes of screen time) are jarringly accompanied by mellow and laid-back country, folk, and/or protest tunes by the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Arlo Guthrie. John Marley has a few scenes as a grumbly police captain constantly arguing with Redford, while Peter Lawford appears briefly as Redford's boss. But where else will you see Burgess Meredith as a geriatric hippie scrap metal junkyard owner named Freedom Lovelace?

Looking hippie but often sounding like a square, Stern tries to make some big social statements throughout, usually in the most ham-fisted, AFTERSCHOOL SPECIAL way imaginable. He stops to give a finger-pointing lecture to Redford--calling him "Supercop"-- about hard drugs, complaining that the dealers get off because they can afford to bribe judges, but kids "get five-to-ten years for possession of a roach, which in case you don't know it, is a marijuana cannabis joint!" Even Savalas is weighed down by attempts to make his character sound hip to the lingo ("I wanna arise the conscience of this freakout," Redford says of Joe), though there is one good exchange where he tells Joe "Your slang is a little dated," to which Joe replies "Is 'fuck off' dated?" Vaughn's bizarre performance is the only reason to watch CLAY PIGEON. Apparently given carte blanche to improvise and do whatever was necessary to keep himself amused, Vaughn is obviously making it up as he goes along, appearing in a series of increasingly ridiculous hats that Judge Smails wouldn't even try on. In one scene, he gives a rambling, spiritual monologue while wearing a Gilligan hat and a gold chain with a Volkswagen hood ornament attached to it, along with a scene-stealing parrot resting on his shoulder. No matter how insane Vaughn's scenes become or how silly of a hat he's wearing (it's surprising he isn't wearing a propeller beanie for the big shootout), he somehow manages to keep a straight face. The same can't be said for Ivan Dixon, who plays Neilson's chief enforcer, and in several scenes with Vaughn (the bumper pool scene, in particular), Dixon is visibly breaking like they're in an off-the-rails SNL skit. Of course, the home-movie-quality CLAY PIGEON is so badly-made that Stern just left the mistakes as they were. There's a reason this obscurity was never released on VHS or DVD and didn't even get much play on late-night TV back in the day. It's been hard to see for several decades, though Turner Classic Movies recently aired a 1.33 print on their "TCM Underground" series. After this film's failure, Stern sporadically appeared in TV guest spots and occasional B-movies, his last credit being Zalman King's 1998 drama IN GOD'S HANDS. A film more suited to the likes of Independent-International than MGM, CLAY PIGEON, despite how crazy it sounds, has little entertainment value for anyone other than Robert Vaughn completists. If someone put all of his scenes in a YouTube video, you'd have all you need to see of it.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Retro Review: THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND (1983)

(US - 1983)

Directed by Sam Peckinpah. Written by Alan Sharp and Ian Masters. Cast: Rutger Hauer, John Hurt, Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper, Burt Lancaster, Chris Sarandon, Meg Foster, Helen Shaver, Cassie Yates, Sandy McPeak, Christopher Starr, Jan Triska, Merete Van Kamp, Tim Thomerson, Buddy Joe Hooker. (R, 103 mins)

The legendary Sam Peckinpah's final film was a typically troubled production that saw him clashing with producers and having the film recut without his involvement. A very loose adaptation of Robert Ludlum's 1972 novel, THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND stars John Hurt as Lawrence Fassett, an embittered CIA agent whose obsessive investigation into his wife's murder leads him to uncover evidence that three men--TV writer Bernard Osterman (Craig T. Nelson), plastic surgeon Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper), and hotheaded stockbroker Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon)--are really Soviet agents who have been operating in the US since their college days. Fassett convinces their old college buddy John Tanner (Rutger Hauer), now a successful liberal pundit in the political talk show arena, to host a weekend reunion with the guys and their wives. With Tanner's home filled with hidden surveillance cameras and Fassett in regular communication, it's the perfect set-up to expose the alleged KGB agents and in exchange for helping out the US government, Tanner gets an exclusive, one-on-one interview with controversial CIA chief Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster), infamous for his extensive authorization of all manner of high-tech surveillance.

Given its prescient subject matter--cable news pundits, high-tech spy games, government overreach, etc--THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND was a bit ahead of its time and seems ripe for an updated remake today. This version is entertaining, often for the wrong reasons.  It's incredibly convoluted, crossing over into the incoherent on occasion, and it's often very sloppily edited, with a few repeated shots and no one watching the continuity when it comes to Nelson's epic fake mustache, which almost never looks the same in two consecutive shots. Peckinpah reportedly tried to make this into an espionage satire, similar to his initial cut of 1975's THE KILLER ELITE which, by the time the producers finished recutting it, was left with only a visibly drunk and unsteady Gig Young slurring his words and struggling to stand and James Caan and Burt Young battling ninjas to keep it interesting. As with that film, the producers removed all the comedy, so maybe OSTERMAN's inconsistent editing and the varying mustache lengths were all part of unsung satirist Peckinpah's master plan. There's some effective bits, especially once Peckinpah lets the film fly off the rails in the last third. Peckinpah uses a peculiar technique in his action scenes here, with a lot of slow-motion and drawn-out, quick-cut editing that, in context, works well, especially in the late-going with the exploding RV, plus he gets a genuinely terrific performance out of Hurt. There's a lot to like here--irate Lancaster at his most assholish (is there any way a guy named "Maxwell Danforth" won't be a complete prick?); gratuitous nudity; Meg Foster decking Helen Shaver; and a hilarious bit involving a dog's head in the fridge--but at the same time, it feels like a missed opportunity. There's a pronounced lack of focus and the disconnect between the director and his producers is apparent.  It's a mess, but a consistently intriguing one.

Speaking of messes, Anchor Bay's Blu-ray, released last year, is a splotchy, ugly disaster. And unlike their special edition DVD from 2004, it doesn't include the 116-minute Peckinpah rough cut that led to his dismissal from the project. THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND was Peckinpah's first film since 1978's CONVOY, much of which was directed without credit by his friend James Coburn. Coburn was interested in stepping behind the camera for some future projects and was serving as second unit director to get his DGA card. The veteran actor ended up directing significant portions of the movie while Peckinpah was holed up in his trailer on an extended coke binge. After doing uncredited second unit work without incident for old friend Don Siegel on the 1982 Bette Midler bomb JINXED!, Peckinpah was given THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND as a comeback project and while things initially ran smoothly, disagreements took over and by the end of shooting, there was no communication between him and the producers. When Peckinpah refused to make the changes demanded after a disastrous test screening in May 1983, he was handed his walking papers and the producers re-edited the film themselves. After directing a pair of Julian Lennon music videos, including one for his breakout hit "Too Late for Goodbyes." Peckinpah died of heart failure at just 59 in December 1984, a little over a year after THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND's November 1983 release.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: HIGH-RISE (2016)

(UK/Ireland/Belgium - 2016)

Directed by Ben Wheatley. Written by Amy Jump. Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Bill Paterson, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Stacy Martin, Augustus Prew, Tony Way, Enzo Cilenti, Dan Skinner, Louis Suc, Neil Maskell. (R, 119 mins)

Producer Jeremy Thomas has tried to put together an adaptation of J.G. Ballard's novel High-Rise since it was first published in 1975. Though regarded as unfilmable, it nearly came to be in the late '70s with director Nicolas Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg intending it to be their next film after 1976's THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. That never happened, nor did any other attempt, and the closest anyone got prior to now was when CUBE director Vincenzo Natali nearly got the greenlight in the early 2000s. It took 40 years, but Thomas finally got HIGH-RISE made, with acclaimed British cult filmmaker Ben Wheatley at the helm, working from a script by his wife and writing partner Amy Jump. Wheatley has acquired a cult following with the overrated WICKER MAN knockoff KILL LIST, the dark comedy SIGHTSEERS, and the unnerving A FIELD IN ENGLAND, but HIGH-RISE is his most ambitious project yet, working with his biggest budget and largest, most prestigious ensemble cast yet.

Combining the coldness of David Cronenberg (whose controversial 1996 film CRASH was based on the Ballard novel of the same name) with the absurdist black comedy of Terry Gilliam, HIGH-RISE is ultimately done in by a too-lengthy delay between the publication of its source novel and its eventual big-screen adaptation. Had Roeg and Mayersberg made this in 1977, it likely would've been prophetically visionary and as highly regarded as THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH  But now, in 2016, it's exhaustingly heavy-handed, hammering its points over the audience's head again and again, and even ending with a Margaret Thatcher soundbite just in case the themes of class struggle and the haves ruling the have-nots wasn't quite hammered home for the preceding two hours trip into the hellhole of dystopia and capitalism run amok. Med school instructor Robert Laine (Tom Hiddleston, in a role that would've been perfect for David Bowie had Roeg had his shot at this way back when) moves into the 25th floor of a Jenga-esque 40-story high-rise tower block. The swingin' 70s are here in all their glory, as Laine quickly hops into bed with sexually liberated single mom Charlotte (Sienna Miller), and the residents of the high-rise form a very insulated community with every convenience--a gym, pool, 15th floor grocery store--readily available. The not-very-subtly-named Royal (Jeremy Irons), the building's architect, lives in the top floor penthouse, and when problems start arising--priorities for supply deliveries going to the wealthy one-percenters on the top floors and the lower class near the bottom being plagued by frequent power outages--he dismisses it as "teething" and "the building settling in." Disgruntled, philandering TV documentarian Wilder (Luke Evans) lives on one of the lower floors with his very pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and several kids, and eventually leads a revolt against the rich and powerful in the high-rise. Soon, all sense of order disintegrates as the high-rise becomes both the entire world of its occupants and a microcosm (SYMBOLISM!) of societal inequality and injustice: garbage piles up, food molds, and it's kill or be killed as life metamorphoses into a visceral orgy of rage, violence, hate-fucking, and all manner of degradation, debauchery, and destruction.

This feels a lot like SNOWPIERCER in a skyscraper, from the class struggle motif to Wilder's making his way to the top of the building, all the way to one character admonishing Laine to "know your place." Sure, in retrospect, it looks like SNOWPIERCER--and other movies--co-opted a lot of Ballard's ideas, and that's not the fault of the filmmakers here, but it doesn't do this belated adaptation any favors. It's also reminiscent of a somewhat less abrasive BLINDNESS, though Wheatley and Jump do keep the unpleasantness to a minimum, mostly implying it except for a few examples of shock value shots and dialogue (Royal to Laine, during a game of squash: "By the way, I hear you're fucking 374...she has a tight cunt as I recall"). Laine is the relative "everyman" audience surrogate, a successful career man who lives in the middle of the building and is comfortable screwing third-floor Charlotte and hobnobbing with penthouse Royal and other near-the-top residents, like sneering, asshole gynecologist Pangbourne (James Purefoy). Royal, the Trump of the high-rise if you want a present-day analogy, speaks of the building as both a living, breathing entity and as a symbol of society. It's all rather facile and obvious, though again, it could've been the angry FIGHT CLUB of its day had it been made 40 years ago. Whatever ham-fisted conclusions there are to draw from the events in HIGH-RISE have already been made decades ago. Wheatley scores some points for the film's retro-future look that ties in perfectly with Laine's observation that it "looks like a future that had already happened," and trippy, early '70s prog tunes by Amon Duul and Can, and a Portishead cover of ABBA's "S.O.S." provide a lot of atmosphere, but HIGH-RISE is repetitive, dated, and eventually oppressive. The filmmakers swing for the fences and get a few hits, but it goes on forever and you'll be ready for it to end long before it finally does.