Friday, October 28, 2016


(US/Canada - 2016)

Written and directed by Osgood Perkins. Cast: Ruth Wilson, Paula Prentiss, Bob Balaban, Lucy Boynton, Erin Boyes, Brad Milne. (Unrated, 89 mins)

A cold, stark, slow-burning mood piece that received accolades at this year's Toronto Film Festival where it was acquired by Netflix, I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE is the first released film by actor-turned writer/director Osgood Perkins (his first film, THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER, has been tied up in distribution limbo since 2015 and is due to be released in early 2017). The film feels very personal for Perkins, the son of legendary PSYCHO star Anthony Perkins and photographer Berry Berenson, and named after his actor grandfather Osgood Perkins, best known as the doomed mob boss toppled by Paul Muni's title character in the original 1932 version of SCARFACE. It's a story of lingering ghosts, both supernatural and psychological, and it's something that almost certainly carries emotional weight for Perkins after the traumatic loss of both of his parents, his father (to whom the film is dedicated), who died of AIDS in 1992, and his mother, who was on one of the planes flown into the World Trade Center on 9/11 nine years later. This is an uncompromising film that's unquestionably a singular, unique vision by its creator, made with no commercial consideration whatsoever. Unfortunately, that's also its downfall. From a plot perspective, you'll figure out the Shyamalanian twist five minutes in, unless you've never seen a movie before. That may be by design: Perkins doesn't seem particularly interested in telling a story as much as creating a mood and atmosphere. He succeeds for a while, but it makes for a hard sit, with 89 minutes feeling like four hours. This would've made a fine, eerie short film. As it is, it feels like about 15 minutes worth of material stretched out to an hour and a half, and ultimately, the emphasis on mood and the pervasive sense of dread only feels like stylistic smoke and mirrors, absurdly prolonging the obvious direction in which the flimsy narrative is headed at the most laborious pace imaginable.

Ruth Wilson (LUTHER, THE AFFAIR) stars as Lily, a hospice nurse hired by attorney Mr. Waxcap (Bob Balaban) to care for a client, famed horror novelist Iris Blum (the long-retired Paula Prentiss, who hasn't headlined a movie in over 30 years), who's in the latter stages of dementia. Arriving at Blum's isolated, rural Massachusetts home, the quiet, spinsterish Lily narrates the story and sets the dark tone by stating "I am 28 years old. I will never be 29." Early on, she makes a phone call and the phone cord is yanked by an unseen presence. 11 months go by and Lily has little to do but explore the old house as Iris sleeps most of the time, and when she's awake, constantly refers to Lily as "Polly." Lily assumes Polly is a long-absent daughter or loved one, but Waxcap says Iris has no children, and that Polly was the main character in her most famous novel, The Lady in the Walls. It's around this same time that Lily notices mold expanding over a spot on one of the walls as she begins reading the book, noticing strong parallels between the mindset of Polly and her own mental state after nearly a year in total seclusion from the outside world.

Perkins gives up the ghost--no pun intended--early on, with Lily's narration (done in a very exact, literary, and overly affected style by Wilson) stating "A house with a death in it can never be bought or sold...it can only be borrowed from the ghosts that have stayed behind," and "It's a terrible thing to look at oneself, and all the while see nothing." The voiceover is so omnipresent and the shots so photograph-still that PRETTY THING often feels like an audio book with visual accompaniment. The minimalist score (by Perkins' younger brother Elvis) and sound design showcase subtle rumblings and barely audible whispers that may or may not exist in Lily's head, and by the time Iris, in a moment of clarity, tells Lily "See yourself as others see you...even the prettiest things rot," the endgame is pretty apparent. Lily herself seems like an odd misfit lost in time, prone to exclamations like "Heavens to Betsy, no!" and chirpily talking to inanimate objects, like "There you are!" when she finds an old TV, and "Well! There's no need to be rude!" when it doesn't work. There's no middle ground with I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE. The absolute slowest of the post-Ti West slow-burn horror films, people will either connect with its emphasis on establishing a distant chilliness with little to nothing happening or they'll quickly grow bored with its predictable story and exhausted with Lily's stilted, forced narration. I'm in the latter group, and while I appreciate what Perkins was doing and it's great to see Prentiss again after all these years (she and husband Richard Benjamin are longtime friends of the Perkins family), the approach is ultimately off-putting and the effect deadening after about 25 minutes.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Retro Review: CHOPPING MALL (1986)

(US - 1986)

Directed by Jim Wynorski. Written by Jim Wynorski and Steve Mitchell. Cast: Kelli Maroney, Tony O'Dell, John Terlesky, Russell Todd, Karrie Emerson, Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, Dick Miller, Gerrit Graham, Mel Welles, Barbara Crampton, Suzee Slater, Nick Segal, Paul Coufos, Angela Aames, Arthur Roberts, Ace Mask, Lenny Juliano, Lawrence Guy (Angus Scrimm), Toni Naples, Robert Greenberg. (R, 76 mins)

The premiere release of Lionsgate's new Vestron Video nostalgia line (along with Jackie Kong's inexplicably loved and absolutely unwatchable BLOOD DINER), the Roger Corman-produced CHOPPING MALL seemed primed to be a cult classic based solely on its goofy title. Corman's Concorde Pictures released the film in a few markets in early 1986 under its original title KILLBOTS, but it was quickly withdrawn and rechristened later in the year with the much more catchy CHOPPING MALL. It still didn't play anywhere for more than a week, but it was an attention-getting box on video store shelves several months later. Directed and co-written by Corman jack-of-all-trades Jim Wynorski, who started in the advertising department (SCREAMERS) and worked his way up to becoming one of Corman's go-to guys well into the '90s (DEATHSTALKER II, BIG BAD MAMA II, NOT OF THIS EARTH, BODY CHEMISTRY 3: POINT OF SEDUCTION), CHOPPING MALL puts a sci-fi slant on the shopworn slasher genre. Set at the Park Plaza Mall (played by the Sherman Oaks Galleria, memorably mentioned in the Frank and Moon Unit Zappa hit "Valley Girl"), the film finds a group of teenagers--played by actors in their early-to-mid-20s--partying in a furniture store after hours only to be killed off one-by-one by a newly-launched series of "Protector 101" robot security guards. "Absolutely nothing can go wrong," mall personnel is told by designer Dr. Simon (Paul Coufos). Of course something can go wrong, or there'd be no movie.

The Protector 101s are designed to incapacitate any intruders, but when a lightning strike hits the server on the mall's roof, the robots reprogram and reboot themselves as lethal killing machines. After locking down all the mall entrances and closing off the emergency exits, the robots slaughter the security technician on duty (Gerrit Graham!) and night janitor Walter Paisley (Dick Miller!), then start pursuing the six teenagers, offing them in a variety of gory ways. Leslie (Suzee Slater) gets one of the more memorable post-SCANNERS head explosions, and each kill is capped off with a robotic, monotone "Thank you. Have a nice day." That's about as complicated as CHOPPING MALL gets, with no time to slow down during its scant 76-minute running time, and with plenty of inside jokes for Corman fans and movie buffs. Nice final girl Alison (NIGHT OF THE COMET's Kelli Maroney) and Suzie (RE-ANIMATOR's Barbara Crampton) work in the mall's greasy spoon (run by LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS' Mel Welles!) which, like all of the stores at Park Plaza, inexplicably has posters for other '80s Corman movies all over the place (the furniture store revelers are also rocking out to the theme song from 1985's STREETWALKIN'); Miller reprises his BUCKET OF BLOOD Walter Paisley character for the umpteenth time; PHANTASM's Angus Scrimm (credited under his real name, Lawrence Guy) has a bit part in the opening scene, along with Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov dropping by as EATING RAOUL's Paul and Mary Bland.

As far as horror movies set in malls go, CHOPPING MALL is no DAWN OF THE DEAD, but it's better than, say, PHANTOM OF THE MALL: ERIC'S REVENGE. Wynorski dishes out the requisite amount of gore, humor, and T&A, and the cast is likable, a standout being the always-amusing John Terlesky as horndog stud Mike, the actor quickly becoming Corman and Wynorski's first choice when they needed someone to play a smirking douchebag. Slater's topless shots are amazing, and HEAD OF THE CLASS' Tony O'Dell sufficiently handles the requisite "uptight dweeb" character (named "Ferdy Meisel") and is actually allowed to be somewhat heroic and respected by his player buddies instead of existing as a punchline. Maroney is very appealing as the shy Alison, who quickly shows what she's made of, toughening up on her way to being the last woman standing and getting to use the robots' catchphrase against them in true Roy Scheider fashion. Lionsgate's new Blu-ray offers extensive bonus features, including three (!) commentary tracks and several interviews and featurettes. The company's "Vestron Collector's Series" combs through the library of '80s video store staple Vestron Video (though CHOPPING MALL was technically handled by Vestron offshoot Lightning Video), whose iconic logo kicked off many a trashy VHS discovery back in the day. Carving its own niche as a Criterion of B-movie trash, the Vestron line also includes the unrated RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3 (released by Vidmark, now owned by Lionsgate, but certainly "Vestron"-ian in spirit) and a double feature of Anthony Hickox's WAXWORK and WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME.  Future releases include the thoroughly unnecessary C.H.U.D II: BUD THE C.H.U.D., Bob Balaban's brilliant horror satire PARENTS, and Ken Russell's surreal THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Retro Review: MANHATTAN BABY (1982)

(Italy - 1982; US release 1984)

Directed by Lucio Fulci. Written by Elisa Livia Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti. Cast: Christopher Connelly, Martha Taylor (Laura Lenzi), Brigitta Boccoli, Giovanni Frezza, Cinzia de Ponti, Laurence Welles (Cosimo Cinieri), Andrea Bosic, Carlo De Mejo, Lucio Fulci, Martin Sorrentino. (R, 89 mins)

Released to US drive-ins and grindhouses in 1984 by 21st Century as EYE OF THE EVIL DEAD, this 1982 Lucio Fulci film is best known by its original and subsequent home video title, MANHATTAN BABY, and while it's far from the director's best effort, it's better than its reputation. Viewers of the much-maligned MANHATTAN BABY are usually disappointed that it's not as gory as most titles from Fulci's unstoppable 1979-1982 classic era, but it does have its charms. It's also noteworthy as the last collaboration between Fulci and producer Fabrizio De Angelis after several years of trailblazing gore classics like ZOMBIE (1979), THE BEYOND (1981), THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981), and THE NEW YORK RIPPER (1982), the duo having an irreparable falling out over some eleventh hour budget cuts on this film, which co-writer Dardano Sacchetti estimated to be in the neighborhood of 75%.  After this, De Angelis started calling himself "Larry Ludman" and concentrated on directing Italian ripoffs of popular American action films, and though he kept working with other producers throughout the '80s on films like CONQUEST, MURDER ROCK, and ZOMBI 3, Fulci never scaled the glorious heights of his De Angelis years, his prolific golden era effectively coming to a close by the time MANHATTAN BABY and THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY hit US theaters in 1984.

One big problem with MANHATTAN BABY is that Sacchetti, his co-writer and wife Elisa Livia Briganti, and Fulci can't seem to settle on what they're ripping off: there's elements of 1980's THE AWAKENING, a little of 1982's POLTERGEIST, plus a climax that seems like a tamer version of 1973's THE EXORCIST. Gore is minimal, confined mainly to a ridiculous bird attack near the end. Christopher Connelly (around the same time he played the hapless Hot Dog in Enzo G. Castellari's 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS) is archaeologist George Hacker, who uncovers a mysterious force in Egypt and is temporarily blinded, and his daughter Susie (Brigitta Boccoli) is given a strange medallion by a blind old crone who vanishes into thin air. Back in NYC, Susie is slowly possessed by the force, sand turns up in Susie's and little brother Tommy's (Giovanni Frezza, best known as THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY's "Bob") bedroom, colleagues start getting killed, and a pervasive Evil seems to be taking hold. This leads Hacker and his wife Emily (Laura Lenzi, credited as "Martha Taylor," for some reason) to consult mysterious antiques dealer Adrian Mercato (MURDER ROCK's Cosimo Cinieri, billed as "Laurence Welles") who seems to know something, and lucky for him the Hackers apparently never saw ROSEMARY'S BABY, since Mercato shares the name of the title hellspawn, for no particular reason.

US theatrical poster.  "George" Frezza?!

The pace is a little slow, there isn't the level of gore one usually associates with early '80s Fulci, and the title is terrible, but it's atmospheric, the NYC and Cairo locations are very well-shot by cinematographer Guglielmo Mancori (SPASMO), and though the bulk of the score is simply older Fabio Frizzi cues from the Fulci classics CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE BEYOND (thanks to the budget cuts), the composer's main theme ranks among the best of his career. MANHATTAN BABY is definitely not the place for aspiring Fulciphiles to begin their explorations, but time has been kind to it, and even its biggest longtime detractors are slowly coming around to admitting that it's not deserving of its bad rep. Blue Underground's new Blu-ray is a three-disc special edition that includes a cd of Frizzi's score, and should further make the case for MANHATTAN BABY's belated acceptance.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: 31 (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Rob Zombie. Cast: Sheri Moon Zombie, Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Meg Foster, Kevin Jackson, Jane Carr, Richard Brake, Lew Temple, Daniel Roebuck, Pancho Moler, David Ury, Torsten Voges, E.G. Daily, Esperanza America, Andrea Dora, Michael "Redbone" Alcott, Tracey Walter, Ginger Lynn Allen, Devin Sidell. (R, 103 mins)

Earlier this year, critic/blogger Jason Coffman wrote a fascinating piece about horror fandom that went viral and quite frankly deserves a Pulitzer. It was filled with things that needed to be said, such as, in no uncertain terms, that horror fans are the worst. Of course, that's a gross generalization on my part that wasn't exactly Coffman's central thesis, but he questioned why a very vocal contingent of horror fans--he called them the "gatekeepers"--had such vehemently negative reactions to thoughtful, serious horror films that received significant accolades from critics outside of horror circles. The piece was written specifically in response to audiences turning on THE WITCH, but it also referenced similarly acclaimed offerings like THE BABADOOK and IT FOLLOWS. To reject original, thought-provoking films that fall in the horror realm, to question their genre validity because they've been praised by those outside the insulated horror bubble, Coffman posited, is to "reinforce the image of the 'horror fan' as a slack-jawed dullard whose only interests are sex and gore."

Well, he's right. And you can thank the gatekeepers for 31, the latest film from horror/metal icon Rob Zombie. Financed in large part by crowdfunding, 31 is Zombie's gift to his fans, the gatekeepers who adore him. To criticize Zombie--to even question him--is verboten in horror gatekeeper circles. Zombie is a guy who knows and loves horror movies. It showed in his days fronting the band White Zombie, itself named after the 1932 Bela Lugosi classic. But after 16 years and with six feature films under his belt, shouldn't there be some kind of progress by now?  I'll give Zombie props where it's due: his second film, THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, is his masterpiece, a definitive mission statement that melded the '70s aesthetic of Tobe Hooper and hillbilly horror with the operatically bloody ferocity of Sam Peckinpah. It's foul, it's vile, it's difficult to watch--and it's incredibly powerful and an unforgettable experience. And Zombie's never come close to it since. His entire filmmaking career seems to be an endless, circle-jerking tribute to 1986's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. His 2007 remake of HALLOWEEN is a disjointed fusion of his usual hicksploitation horror before shifting gears to became a condensed, pointless remake of the 1978 original, while the less said about his 2009 HALLOWEEN II, the better. 2013's THE LORDS OF SALEM was ultimately a misfire that lost its way as it devolved into sub-Jodorowsky shock imagery, but it had a weird '70s Satanism vibe going on, like 1973's MESSIAH OF EVIL if directed by Stanley Kubrick. It wasn't a success, but Zombie was at least making a concerted effort to work outside of his comfort zone for the majority of the film.

31 finds Zombie back in his comfort zone and on total autopilot. His 2003 debut, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (shot in 2000 and left in distribution limbo for three years), is a terrible movie but it at least has the excuse of being a debut. What's his excuse for 31? It's like an "extreme" version of his already "extreme" schtick, but his abilities seem to be regressing. He's so reliant on in-your-face shaky-cam and garish lighting (including a strobe-lit sequence) that a good chunk of the film is visually incoherent. And the plot? The same shit. It's set on Halloween 1976 and a bunch of hard-partying carnival workers who say "fuck" a lot are lured into the middle of nowhere to take part in "31." It's a MOST DANGEROUS GAME-type contest overseen by a trio of foppish Brits, dressed as grotesque aristocrats in powdered wigs and pancake makeup like they're going to a midnight showing of BARRY LYNDON: Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell), Sister Dragon (Judy Geeson), and Sister Serpent (Jane Carr). The five carnies--headed by Zombie's usual star, wife Sheri Moon Zombie as Charly--have to overcome unbeatable odds to survive the night as they face off against their opponents hellbent on slaughtering them. The killers are an increasingly ludicrous collection of ROAD WARRIOR rejects in clown makeup: Sick-Head (Pancho Moler), a demented little person in a Hitler stache and with a swastika painted on his chest; Psycho-Head (Lew Temple) and Schizo-Head (David Ury), a pair of chainsaw-wielding brothers; and the cartoonishly Germanic Death-Head (Torsten Voges) and the fetishist Sex-Head (E.G. Daily). Not all of the carnies make it, but once that initial lineup is defeated, Father Murder calls in his ace closer Doom-Head, a maniac prone to pretentious, philosophical Quentin Tarantino-esque monologues and played in a grating, headache-inducing fashion by Richard Brake in what might be 2016's most unbearable performance that will nonetheless inspire countless insufferable cosplayers at horror cons for the next decade.

Like Tarantino, Zombie has favorite cult actors he likes to use repeatedly--McDowell, Geeson, Daily, Meg Foster, Daniel Roebuck, and former porn star Ginger Lynn Allen have been in past Zombie films (Geeson came out of a decade-long retirement to co-star in THE LORDS OF SALEM)--and here he even gives us a prominent role for Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, best known as Sweathog Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington on WELCOME BACK KOTTER 40 years ago, here playing Panda, one of the doomed carnies. It's nice to see Hilton-Jacobs again, but it's too bad he's using an overdone Jamaican accent that renders most of his dialogue unintelligible. You'll wish more of the dialogue was unintelligible when you see Foster (as carny Venus Virgo) gesticulating around her crotch and saying "fucky fucky fucky, juicy juicy juicy, money money money" and witness this enlightening conversation between carny Levon (Kevin Jackson) and a cackling Sick-Head (note: transcription double-checked for accuracy):

Levon: "Fuck you."
Sick-Head: "Fuck you!"
Levon: "Fuck you!"
Sick-Head: "FUCK YOU!"
Levon: "FUCK YOU!!"
Sick-Head: "FUCK YOU!!!"

A louder and somehow even more obnoxious HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES peppered with shout-outs to Tobe Hooper's THE FUNHOUSE, 31 is obviously intended for the Rob Zombie superfans and is more or less a greatest hits package, from the splattery violence to the endless vulgarity to resemblance of the "Heads" to Captain Spaulding and the Firefly clan to the ersatz Peckinpah WILD BUNCH freeze-frames and the opening credits featuring a Southern rock favorite (in this case, the James Gang's "Walk Away"). If you're one of the Rob Zombie gatekeepers, then you decided this "fuckin' ruled" before he even started filming. 31 is for you. Go enjoy yourself. You've seen it all before--and better--but hey, this is what you wanted.

Saturday, October 22, 2016


(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. Cast: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Robert Knepper, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Madalyn Horcher, Robert Catrini, Jessica Stroup, Austin Hebert. (PG-13, 118 mins)

Released at Christmas 2012, JACK REACHER was the first big-screen adaptation of the popular character from a series of books by Lee Child. Much was made of Tom Cruise not exactly being the 6' 5" wall depicted in the novels, but the movie was a smart and action-packed throwback with a refreshing 1970s approach that involved doing as much practical stunt work as possible, right down to an old-school car chase from the FRENCH CONNECTION school. It also performed under expectations at the American box office, and though it made $80 million against a $60 million budget, analysts still considered it somewhat of a flop compared to Cruise's track record, with the likes of his MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series. JACK REACHER proved to be a blockbuster hit overseas, particularly in Asia, which is probably the reason we're getting a sequel that American audiences really weren't demanding. Budgeted at just under $100 million for some reason, with a good chunk of the financing coming from China-based Huahua Film & Media Culture and the Shanghai Film Company, JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK is based on the 2013 novel Never Go Back, the 18th in the Jack Reacher series. It certainly doesn't look like something that cost nearly $100 million, and unlike most US/China co-productions, an incongruous and prominently-billed Asian pop star isn't on hand to play a character briefly and cumbersomely shoehorned into the story, though the version released in Asia is probably different.

Taking place a few years after the first film, NEVER GO BACK finds the loner Reacher doing freelance work for the military police and hitching rides from town to town, going where the road takes him like an ass-kicking David Banner sans the Hulk-outs. An ex-Army Major, Reacher has a flirtatious phone relationship with D.C.-based Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who's in his old office. He decides to pay her a visit when he makes his way to D.C., only to find she's been arrested and facing a court-martial for espionage. Of course, Reacher decides to meddle in the investigation and doesn't buy that Turner set up two soldiers under her command to be killed in Afghanistan when they uncovered an illegal weapons trade supposedly being run by Turner. Everyone in the Army seems eager to pin this crime on Turner and sweep her under the rug, starting with her replacement, the scheming Col. Morgan (Holt McCallany). The Army also lets Reacher know that he's got a paternity suit against him, even though he insists he has no children. When Turner's lawyer (Robert Catrini) is murdered, Reacher is arrested and thrown in an Army compound, where he of course stages a daring and improbable escape with Turner, the two going on the run and picking up Samantha (Danika Yarosh), the 15-year-old who may or may not be Reacher's daughter and is being targeted by the same killer-for-hire contractors out to silence them.

Of course Turner is innocent, the real culprits being a rogue contracting outfit called Parasource, who dispatch a ruthless assassin known simply as The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger) to make them all disappear. Parasource's contractors are hijacking US military weapons and selling them on the black market in the Middle East, a lucrative scheme overseen by the retired and constantly sneering General Harkness (Robert Knepper), whose villainy is obvious the moment you see that Robert Knepper is playing a sneering character named "General Harkness." Knepper, who seems to be getting all of the roles that once went to former actor James Woods before he decided to spend his emeritus years in daily Twitter meltdowns, can play this kind of part in his sleep and doesn't really get much to do other than behave like a smug prick as Harkness (of course, he's seen glowering at his desk, ominously reminding a group of paramilitary goons "No witnesses"). One thing working against NEVER GO BACK is that none of its villains--Harkness, Heusinger's The Hunter, or McCallany's Morgan--are as effective as the inspired casting of legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog as "The Zec" in the first film. This film cost nearly $40 million more than its predecessor and doesn't really go bigger in any way. There's no big names in this other than Cruise. Jobbing journeymen like Knepper and McCallany (the J.T. Walsh of his generation) are exemplary character actors but they don't command huge salaries. And Smulders has HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER and some Marvel movies to her credit, but she isn't a big-screen headliner making Jennifer Lawrence money, so where did the budget go? Sure, the explosions look a bit more convincing than the CGI norms of today, but there even a big car chase doesn't match the impressive one in the first film.

Director/co-writer Edward Zwick, a veteran journeyman whose career has been all over the place (he created THIRTYSOMETHING and directed films as varied as SPECIAL BULLETIN, GLORY, LEGENDS OF THE FALL, THE SIEGE, Cruise's THE LAST SAMURAI, and the DiCaprio bling-bang of BLOOD DIAMOND), gets the job done but doesn't bring the snappy wit that USUAL SUSPECTS writer Christopher McQuarrie brought to the first REACHER (McQuarrie is one of the committee of producers on NEVER GO BACK). Cruise is pretty much the whole show here and much of the film is in service to his ego, whether it's his name mentioned no less than three times in the opening credits or the now-obligatory scenes of the still-youthful-looking 54-year-old running. Smulders is a solid foil who handles herself well in the many action scenes, but NEVER GO BACK stumbles a bit with Yarosh's Samantha. The actress herself is fine but her character's main function--aside from being absolutely unable to even--is to do stupid shit that alerts The Hunter or Harkness to their whereabouts, whether it's sending a text on a phone she knows she shouldn't have, or using a stolen credit card to order room service while Reacher and Turner are out trying to clear their names. Samantha is also the source of the script's biggest plot hole, one that's glossed over by Zwick and co-writers Marshall Herskovitz and Richard Wenk in the hopes that the audience will just forget about it. JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK isn't trying to be an original piece of work--otherwise, it wouldn't include a brawl at a warehouse that looks like an abandoned set from a Nine Inch Nails video, and the final showdown between Reacher, Turner, and Harkness' Parasource assholes wouldn't take place at a wharf--but despite its many familiarities and predictable developments, it's always fun to see badass characters just plowing their way through bad guys (Reacher punching a guy in the face through a rolled-up driver's side window is a highlight), and Cruise and Smulders are a likable team. Bonus challenge for when this hits Netflix streaming: drink every time someone says "Reacher" and see if you make it to the halfway point before passing out.

Friday, October 21, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Ti West. Cast: Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Karen Gillan, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, Burn Gorman, Toby Huss, Larry Fessenden, Tommy Nohilly, K. Harrison Sweeney, Jumpy. (R, 103 mins)

IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE is a welcome departure for cult horror director Ti West, the perpetually overrated wunderkind so coddled by bloggers and fanboy scenesters that you'd swear the Make-a-Wish Foundation was bankrolling him. West's slow-burn aesthetic has resulted in exactly one good film--his 2009 retro '80s breakthrough THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL--and a lot of nothing else, regardless of how many accolades are bestowed upon 2011's inexplicably praised THE INNKEEPERS and 2014's pointless modern-day Jonestown Massacre redux THE SACRAMENT (he also contributed segments to V/H/S and THE ABCs OF DEATH). West branches out with the Blumhouse-produced IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, a western shot two years ago but only now getting a VOD dumping through Universal's Focus World division, which started out handling foreign and arthouse titles, but has since become their de facto on-demand division. That's a shame, because this is West's most enjoyable, accessible, and accomplished film to date. Like THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, it's heavy on homage, but in abandoning the slow burn technique that he frankly ran into the ground in his subsequent films, and choosing to tell a no-bullshit, meat-and-potatoes western revenge saga, he proves himself an exemplary genre craftsman instead of the one-trick-pony that his past films seemed to indicate.

From its opening credits that emulate the spaghetti westerns of the Sergios Leone and Corbucci to the music cues that recall the maestro Ennio Morricone, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE makes it clear from the start that it's wearing its heart on its sleeve and isn't interested in blazing new trails. That's OK, because a good revenge story well told is never not satisfying. In a convincing, committed performance, Ethan Hawke is Paul, a post-Civil War Army deserter trying to make his way to Mexico with his loyal canine companion Abby (played by border collie/blue heeler mix Jumpy in one of the most remarkable animal performances in recent memory). He makes the fateful decision of taking a shortcut through Denton, a once-thriving mining town that's fallen on hard times and is virtually abandoned except for a general store, a saloon, and a hotel with no guests. Stopping in the saloon to get some water for Abby and minding his own business, Paul is harassed by deputy marshal and alpha-male loudmouth Gilly Martin (Hawke's SINISTER co-star James Ransone), a sniveling bully who's putting on a tough-guy act for his trio of sycophantic buddies, Harris (Toby Huss), Tubby (Tommy Nohilly), and Roy (the inevitable Larry Fessenden). For no reason whatsoever, Gilly starts an argument with Paul and challenges him to a fight in the street, calling all the remaining townsfolk out to witness a beatdown. Additional cheerleading and egging-on is provided by his adoring fiancee Ellen (Karen Gillan), who runs the hotel with her 16-year-old sister Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga), the child-bride of a local who went off to find work and is clearly not coming back for her. Gilly talks (and talks and talks) a big game but promptly gets knocked on his ass with one punch by Paul, who just wants to stock up on necessities at the general store, take a bath at the hotel, and be on his way. He's met by Denton's one-legged marshal, Clyde Martin (John Travolta), who's just returned home and was informed by his deputy--his son--that there's a troublemaker in town. Clyde can tell from Paul's demeanor and his weapons that he's a military man and concludes that he's a deserter. Though he should turn him in, he doesn't want any trouble in Denton and doesn't doubt for a moment that the fight was started by his idiot son. Clyde lets Paul go under the condition that he never return to Denton and the situation between the two of them ends peacefully and amicably. Of course, Gilly isn't the type of man-child to let go of being humiliated in front of everyone, so he and his boys follow Paul and Abby into the desert that night and ambush them while they're asleep. Gilly kills Abby and the others throw Paul off a cliff and assume he's dead.

What follows is a classic western resurrection, with the presumed-dead Paul, already filled with regret over deserting both the Army and his familly, making his way back to town, seething with rage and obsessed with avenging Abby's senseless murder. It certainly sounds like JOHN WICK reimagined as a western, but West had this in production several months before that was released. Put in a position where he has to take on the town, Paul finds just one ally in Mary Anne and lets no one stand in his way, and even though he sympathizes with Paul and blames his son for causing the situation to escalate ("You think because you got a prick and a pistol that you can just go around killin' people?!" he yells), he feels an obligation to protect Denton and a fatherly duty to look out for his son, regardless of how stupid he may be. Hawke is a gritty hero and Ransone makes a loathsome villain you'll love to hate, but thanks to Jumpy (is it possible for a dog to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination?), Travolta can only be the second best scene-stealer here, having a blast channeling his inner Jeff Bridges and hobbling around on a wooden leg. Whether he'd dispensing sage advice or dropping his cane to beat some sense into Gilly, then telling someone "Gimme that cane!" and using it to beat Gilly some more, Travolta dives into this and turns in his best work in years. West also invests the film with generous helpings of dark and quirky humor, whether it's Tubby finally having enough of everyone's relentless fat-shaming or Marshal Clyde needing to keep his badge in his pocket since the pin broke off long ago, a sure indication of Denton's sorry financial condition. There's a trend in today's westerns to subvert genre expectations, as evidenced by S. Craig Zahler's brilliant western-turned-horror film BONE TOMAHAWK and Quentin Tarantino's western-as-drawing room mystery THE HATEFUL EIGHT, but IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE avoids the kind of snark and irony that are pitfalls for these sorts of movies, never pretending to be anything other than what it is--a fast-paced, straightforward revenge saga with strong characters, solid performances, and a riveting story. Why is this being relegated to VOD and just a few theaters? This could've been a hit. Look for this one to have a long, healthy word-of-mouth life on steaming and cable. It's the best action genre offering since the similarly VOD-dumped BLOOD FATHER.

Thursday, October 20, 2016


(France/UK - 2016)

Attempting to patch up their ten-year marriage after he has a fling with one of his students, poetry professor Perry (Ewan McGregor) and his barrister wife Gail (Naomie Harris) embark on a holiday in Morocco. When Gail is forced to take a work-related call while they're at a posh restaurant, Perry is offered a drink by Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), a loud and boisterous Russian who seems to be entertaining an entourage. Dima cajoles Perry into accompanying the group to a wild party where the mild-mannered prof snorts some blow and gets involved in a tussle with a tattooed Russian who's forcing himself on a young woman. Dima then confesses to Perry that he works as the chief money launderer for powerful Russian mobster Nicolas Petrov, aka "The Prince" (Grigory Dobrygin). He gives Perry a memory stick with information about The Prince's business activities. He has the names and account numbers of a large group of British politicians, bankers, and other assorted movers-and-shakers who have accepted payments from the Russian mob in exchanging for funneling money through British financial institutions and businesses. Arriving back in London, Perry is questioned at the airport by MI-6 agent Hector (Damian Lewis), and figures his involvement is over, but Dima wants to defect, doesn't trust Hector and will only agree to give over the information if Perry and Gail are present and the safety of his family is guaranteed. Hector is especially interested in what's in Dima's documents since his own off-the-books surveillance operation reveals The Prince is quite chummy with Adrian Longrigg (Jeremy Northam), a former MI-6 official and current rising figure in British politics. Hector knows Longrigg is corrupt but has never been able to prove it, and even after he's ordered to shut down the surveillance, he proceeds anyway, further dragging Perry and Gail into a complex and dangerous web of intrigue and espionage.

Based on a 2010 John le Carre novel, OUR KIND OF TRAITOR is cut from the same cloth as 2011's TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and 2014's A MOST WANTED MAN (which also featured Dobrygin in a supporting role), two superior adaptations that rank alongside 1965's THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD as the finest big-screen takes on le Carre. The author's specialty of old-school espionage in character-driven, dialogue-heavy stories seems better suited today to the TV miniseries format, where the story and its players have time and room to develop their many twists and turns. This was best exhibited by the BBC's landmark duo of 1979's TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and its 1982 sequel SMILEY'S PEOPLE, both with Alec Guinness as aging, weary, and rather ironically-named spy George Smiley. Le Carre's works specialize in the nuts-and-bolts of the spy business, but OUR KIND OF TRAITOR, adapted by veteran screenwriter Hossein Amini (DRIVE), and directed by TV veteran Susanna White, whose credits include BLEAK HOUSE and episodes of BOARDWALK EMPIRE and GENERATION KILL, suffers from a too-familiar feel and seems to be going through the motions. It's not a particularly interesting story, filled with the usual modern-day le Carre standbys like funneled money and safe houses, and with clunky dialogue like "My wife is a successful lawyer," it doesn't feel as if it's working from top-shelf le Carre. Now 85, le Carre stays current with modern technology but there's a rote, stale feeling to the whole thing. How many thrillers centered on the Russian Mafia do we need? And honestly, if you sub in "KGB" for the Russian mob and "microfilms" for the memory stick, it's nothing but another dry spy melodrama with an innocent man in over his head and a Russian bad guy who grows a conscience and wants to defect that could've easily been made and set in the 1960s or 1970s. Skarsgard cuts loose and hams it up, and he does manage to earn your sympathy as the film goes on. Additionally, frequent Danny Boyle and Lars von Trier collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography is a big asset as the story globetrots from Moscow to Marrakesh to London to Paris to Bern and other scenic locations throughout Europe. But in the end, this is about on the level of 1990's THE RUSSIA HOUSE, a perfectly watchable but unremarkable addition to the le Carre canon, nowhere near the heights of SMILEY'S PEOPLE or either adaptation of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, but not hitting the depths of the dreary 1970 misfire THE LOOKING GLASS WAR. (R, 108 mins)

(US - 2016)

For much of its duration, THE GOOD NEIGHBOR is about what you expect from today's standard-issue, Redbox-ready suspense thrillers. It's not found-footage, but uses a lot of the subgenre's tropes, as two teenagers who wouldn't be friends anywhere other than in a movie--snarky dudebro Ethan (Logan Miller of THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT and SCOUT'S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE) and techie dweeb Sean (Keir Gilchrist of IT FOLLOWS)--embark a documentary they call "The Haunting Project." Using equipment purchased by privileged Sean's wealthy dad, the two set up a surveillance operation in the home of elderly Harold Grainey (James Caan), who lives across the street from Ethan. Known as the neighborhood's "creepy psycho hermit," alcoholic Grainey lives alone, is abrasive to anyone who approaches his property, was apparently abandoned by his battered wife, and is rumored to have poisoned a neighbor's dog years earlier. While Grainey is out for his weekly grocery run, they rig his house with hidden cameras and wi-fi-enabled devices to provoke sonic disturbances and electronic interferences to convince the old man that his house is haunted. Brainy Sean, who's likely headed to MIT, questions the ethics, but is interested in the psychological angle, while Ethan is just happy to see Grainey tormented. While observing Grainey over six weeks--Ethan's distracted single mom (Anne Dudek) is barely a presence and has no idea what's going on in her son's room--they notice that he frequently makes trips to the padlocked basement, which last several hours at a time, leaving them convinced that Grainey is holding someone captive.

Yes, it sounds like a half-assed mash-up of DISTURBIA, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, DON'T BREATHE, and GRAN TORINO, but writers Mark Bianculli and Jeff Richards and director Kasra Farahani, a veteran art director and conceptual artist/illustrator (he worked on films like SPIDER-MAN 3, AVATAR, and STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, among many others) making his directing debut, pull a nifty and surprisingly poignant third-act bait-and-switch that completely changes your perception of everything. There's hints at this throughout in cutaways that may or may not be flashbacks and by the end, you realize that you've been just as manipulated as a certain character. It's hard to discuss the specifics of THE GOOD NEIGHBOR without going into spoiler territory, but it does suffer from an overly familiar first and second act, with a lot of obnoxious behavior from Ethan and Sean and too much time spent on them watching surveillance footage. This puts THE GOOD NEIGHBOR in the found-footage ballpark until it claws its way out and becomes its own film. It also shows its cards too quickly by flash-forwards that show various supporting characters testifying in court, which significantly undermines the suspense. It could also use more Caan, who's got his best role in years here as the angry, scary old guy that's a fixture in almost any long-established neighborhood, the object of all manner of rumors and innuendo. He dominates the third act but up to then, is mainly shown reacting to the faux-paranormal activity going on his house. I don't want to oversell THE GOOD NEIGHBOR--it stumbles at times and is not some under-the-radar classic or anything, but it's got word-of-mouth cult potential as one of the more ambitious straight-to-VOD titles to come down the pike in a while. It does something a lot of films in this genre don't--it tries. It subverts your expectations and it's certainly better than a lot of the paycheck junk that the legendary Caan's been doing for the last several years. (Unrated, 97 mins)

Monday, October 17, 2016


(Spain - 1973; US release 1974)

Directed by Javier Aguirre. Written by Jacinto Molina, Alberto S. Insua and Javier Aguirre. Cast: Paul Naschy (Jacinto Molina), Rosanna Yanni, Haydee Politoff, Mirta Miller, Vic Winner (Victor Alcazar), Ingrid Garbo, Jose Manuel Martin, Alvaro De Luna. (R, 83 mins)

Though he's best known for his "El Hombre Lobo" series of werewolf movies, Spanish horror legend Paul Naschy probably had his finest hour with 1973's COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE. Naschy (1934-2009) wrote most of his own films under his real name, Jacinto Molina, and was heavily influenced by the classic Universal horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. Starting with 1968's LA MARCA DEL HOMBRE LOBO, released in the US under the misleading title FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR, Naschy played werewolf Waldemar Daninsky in several stand-alone films over the next 35 years, including the monsters vs. aliens mash-up ASSIGNMENT: TERROR (1970), DR. JEKYLL AND THE WOLFMAN (1972), and the Daninsky-meets-Elizabeth Bathory outing THE NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF (1980), which actually played US theaters in 1985 under the title THE CRAVING. Naschy dabbled in various genres--action, espionage, western--but will always be associated with his run of horror films in the 1970s, like HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB (1972), HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE (1972), THE MUMMY'S REVENGE (1973), VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES (1974), the giallo-inspired THE BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL, aka HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN (1974), and the EXORCIST ripoff EXORCISM (1975). Naschy only played Dracula once, but COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE, co-written by the actor and directed by Javier Aguirre, is a minor masterpiece and considered by most Naschy fans as his crowning achievement.

After their coach crashes and the driver is killed, five passengers--Imre (Vic Winner), Marlene (Ingrid Garbo), Senta (Rosanna Yanni), Karen (Haydee Politoff), and Elke (Mirta Miller)--find refuge at an isolated sanitarium owned by Dr. Wendell Marlowe (Naschy). It's not long before we learn that Marlowe is really a new incarnation of Dracula, who can assume the form of whomever his spirit is possessing. While Dracula and an undead handyman put the bite on the guests, Dracula's goal is reviving his dead daughter with the blood of a virgin. However, he seems to be working at cross purposes when he seduces Senta, but soon realizes he loves the pure Karen, which makes Dracula question his entire existence. Atmospheric, stylish, creepy, and erotic (save for a shot of Naschy's hairy, thrusting ass), it's easy to write off COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE as trashy exploitation, which is probably how it played in its shortened US grindhouse version, accompanied by a poster featuring the tag line "She's the kind of girl you can sink your teeth into." But there's a legitimately artistic fever dream at work here, with haunting imagery and a disorienting, trance-like feel that brings to mind the best of Jean Rollin or Jess Franco in VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD mode, when he could keep the camera in focus and not fixate on constant unkempt crotch zooms. The appearances of Dracula's vampirized victims, sporting the creepiest contact lenses you'll ever see, are chilling in a way that prefigures the terrifying appearance of an undead Ralphie Glick at the window in SALEM'S LOT. Even the scenes where Dracula speaks--via a reverberating voice over, with his mouth never actually opening--are unnerving when they really shouldn't be anything but cheesy.

After being hacked down to 72 minutes for its 1974 US release, followed by years of public domain DVD editions and a Shout Factory edition of its inferior image quality "Elvira's Movie Macabre" TV airing (complete with the standard Elvira cut-ins), COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE has finally been given a proper presentation courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome's recent Blu-ray release. Running 83 minutes, it looks better than ever and contains a Naschy commentary intended for a shelved BCI/Eclipse DVD release from a decade ago. It's a surreal, melancholy work that's easy to lump in with other erotic and gory takes on classic horror that were popular at the time (Hammer's THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, Harry Kumel's DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, the Roger Corman-produced THE VELVET VAMPIRE, the Italian LADY FRANKENSTEIN, and the Andy Warhol productions FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN and BLOOD FOR DRACULA), and was never handled well by any distributor, including a 1979 drive-in re-release by the mob-connected Motion Picture Marketing as CEMETERY GIRLS ("Crazed women desperate for satisfaction"). However, COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE finally gets the respect it deserves from Vinegar Syndrome. It's a surreal experience (starting with the insane repeated stairway roll in the opening credits), melancholy and mournful in tone, that really stands on its own and remains one of the strangest and most unusual Dracula films of its time.

Friday, October 14, 2016

In Theaters: THE ACCOUNTANT (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Gavin O'Connor. Written by Bill Dubuque. Cast: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, John Lithgow, Jeffrey Tambor, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jean Smart, Alison Wright, Andy Umberger, Jason Davis, Robert C. Treveiler, Ron Yuan, Seth Lee, Gary Basaraba, Mary Kraft. (R, 128 mins)

An absurdly convoluted fusion of Jason Bourne, GOOD WILL HUNTING, and RAIN MAN, THE ACCOUNTANT is certain to be one of the most ludicrous movies of the year, but it works quite well as check-your-brain-at-the-door entertainment. Ben Affleck is Christian Wolff, a mild-mannered, standoffish accountant with a small practice in a strip mall. He's also amassed a fortune under various aliases, a genius mathematician cooking the books for some of the world's most dangerous terrorists, drug dealers, and all around bad guys. Oh, and he's a master of martial arts who's also a global super-assassin-for-hire. And he's autistic. Still with me?  He lives off the grid in a non-descript house in a normal neighborhood, going about his routine with absolute rigidity, periodically escaping to a storage unit that houses his trailer, which is filled with money, passports, guns, and priceless works of art. Soon-to-be-retired Treasury agent Raymond King (J.K. Simmons) wants to know the true identity of the man he calls "The Accountant," and blackmails low-level analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), who's great at her job but neglected to include a long-sealed assault conviction on her application, with the promise of prison if she doesn't deliver.

Wolff is hired by Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow), the CEO of a powerful robotics corporation, to investigate a $63 million discrepancy uncovered by Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), one of the company's internal auditors. Meanwhile, freelance assassin Braxton (Jon Bernthal) tallies a body count as he offs various people skimming from profitable businesses. One victim is Ed Chilton (Andy Umberger), Blackburn's diabetic second-in-command, who's given a choice between being murdered or intentionally overdosing on insulin. The person who hired Braxton also sends killers for Wolff who, of course, disposes of them but in the process discovers Dana is next on the hit list. Naturally, the two go on the run, Wolff gradually warms up to the idea of normal human interaction as the talkative and sometimes awkward Dana brings him out of his shell (and despite his inability to read social cues and relate to others, he occasionally connects with people the best way he can, as evidenced when he finds ways to help a strapped couple find additional tax deductions). King and Medina are in hot pursuit, and so is Braxton as all interested parties predictably converge in the final act.

It's not every day a major studio delivers a violent action thriller about a special needs assassin, and in no way is THE ACCOUNTANT meant to be taken seriously for a moment. That said, it doesn't demean its autistic subject or mine him for cheap, insensitive, "edgy" laughs, though there are a lot of funny moments throughout (none more so than an Affleck "..so, anyway" hand motion and shrug after folksy and shocked husband-and-wife tax clients observe him brutally slaughtering some bad guys). The script by Bill Dubuque (THE JUDGE) crescendos to a series of contrivances and coincidences in the late-going, starting with Simmons' King delivering one of the biggest and most labyrinthine info dumps this side of Donald Sutherland in JFK. There's also a series of flashbacks to Wolff's childhood, with his harried mother bolting, leaving his military dad (Robert C. Treveiler) and younger brother to deal with the autistic boy after stern Dad decides Christian needs tough love rather than coddling and therapy (Dad being stationed in Thailand leads to Christian and his brother being taught the art of Pencak Silat). You'll spot the true identity of one major character long before that major character does, and the film seems to forget about Kendrick for most of the third act, but director Gavin O'Connor (PRIDE AND GLORY, WARRIOR) keeps things moving briskly, getting solid performances from actors who play their parts at just the right tone to prevent THE ACCOUNTANT from boiling over into laugh-riot territory. Call it dumb fun or a guilty pleasure, but it's undeniably entertaining. Perhaps Lithgow's exasperated Blackburn sums it up best when he surveys the silliness unfolding around him and shouts "What is this?!"

Thursday, October 13, 2016

In Theaters: SHIN GODZILLA (2016)

(Japan - 2016)

Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi. Written by Hideaki Anno. Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, Ren Osugi, Akira Emoto, Kengo Kora, Mikako Ichikawa, Jun Kunimura, Pierre Taki, Mansai Nomura. (Unrated, 120 mins)

Toho reboots the legendary GODZILLA franchise after a 12-year hiatus with SHIN GODZILLA, the 29th entry in the official Japanese series and the first since 2004's much-maligned all-star monster mash GODZILLA: FINAL WARS. Already in development when Gareth Edwards' American GODZILLA bowed in 2014, SHIN GODZILLA ("Shin" meaning "true" or "new") is a total do-over--a shin reboot, if you will--that pretends none of its predecessors happened, including Ishiro Honda's 1954 landmark GOJIRA. Like GOJIRA--famously retooled for the US as 1956's GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, with Raymond Burr in added scenes--SHIN GODZILLA has a statement to make. Where the creature in GOJIRA was a symbol of Japanese anger over the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (those elements were left out of the Burr-ified version), the new Godzilla is a symbol of the triple catastrophes that hit Japan on March 11, 2011: the Tohoku earthquake, the tsunami, and the resulting meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Written by Hideaki Anno, best known for the hugely popular NEON GENESIS EVANGELION anime TV series, and co-directed by Anno and effects mastermind Shinji Higuchi, SHIN GODZILLA is an often scathing rebuke of ineffective Japanese politicians and the pass-the-buck bureaucrats, frequently exhibiting absurdist humor along the lines of DR. STRANGELOVE, so much so that you'd swear that THE THICK OF IT and VEEP creator Armando Iannucci helped out with the script. It's an interesting approach to take for a GODZILLA film, and one that's very much in tune with the world today, but it eventually belabors its points to a tedious degree, growing increasingly repetitive and overstaying its welcome.

It doesn't take long for Godzilla to make its first appearance, though it's not immediately apparent that this is Godzilla. After an explosion in Tokyo Bay causes the Aqua-Line tunnel to flood with a combination of water and blood, the Japanese government, headed by Prime Minister Okachi (Ren Osugi), is quick to blame it on an underwater volcano. Mid-level pencil-pusher Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) thinks it could be some kind of undersea creature, and his suggestions are laughed off until viral video surfaces of a giant tail rising from the bay. As the Prime Minister and his myriad of underlings look for ways to shuffle responsibility around to countless other departments (one even suggests "Can't we just let it swim away?") by having constant meetings that don't ever seem to accomplish much, the creature works its way onto land. It's an awkward, shambling thing with poor coordination and googly eyes that crawls through the streets, destroying everything in its path. The Prime Minister has the military mobilize its forces to attack while citizens are quickly evacuated. But there's still people in the area and he refuses to authorize an assault on the creature, giving it ample time to crawl back into the bay unharmed. Life immediately goes back to normal for those not residing in the devastated areas, but the creature--dubbed "Godzilla" after Japanese-American envoy Kayoko Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), the daughter of a prominent US senator, reveals that the US government has known of the possibility of the creature's existence--returns a few weeks later, doubled in size and evolving to the point where it stands upright and has altered its appearance. It resembles the classic Godzilla look (motion-captured by Mansai Nomura), only significantly taller, uglier, and with an internal biology that's tantamount to a nuclear reactor. No longer the awkward, crawling infant Godzilla, the creature can now defend itself by breathing radioactive fire and emitting atomic rays from its fins and body.

The first hour of SHIN GODZILLA is really terrific. Despite the fact that some of the more Japan-centric elements like the political structure and a cast filled with celebrities who are obviously better-known in their native country might not translate, any knowledgeable moviegoer can relate to the tiresome, incompetent bureaucracy that prevents anything from getting done. The satirical jabs at useless government officials most concerned with saving their own asses and how they will all look to the rest of the world while making one wrong decision after another translates to any audience. Plus, nothing can beat that iconic roar and Akira Ifukube's "Godzilla March." But the razor-sharp wit stalls right around the time Godzilla depletes its energy and remains motionless in the heart of Tokyo for most of the second half of the film while everyone figures out how to get rid of it. The pushy US government works in conjunction with the United Nations on a plan to nuke Godzilla, which requires evacuating all of Tokyo, but Yaguchi and Patterson want to avoid the nuclear option in favor of a coagulating agent that will essentially freeze it to death. There's some understandably mixed feelings on the part of what's left of the government (the Prime Minister and most of his top officials are killed during an earlier evacuation), whose younger members know and understand what their elders went through at the end of WWII.

The dark humor comes to halt as scientific jargon takes command, with Godzilla a looming yet immobile presence. The scenes of a rampaging Godzilla are a bit too sporadic but they're among the most spectacular and disturbingly grim of any kaiju, especially once the evolved version emerges and discovers the extent of its radioactive retaliatory power as ammo and missiles do nothing to stop it (this is the scariest, meanest incarnation of Godzilla since 2001's GODZILLA, MOTHRA AND KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK). But after an electrifying and smart first hour, Anno and Higuchi just spend too much time in boardrooms and offices as the film becomes relentlessly talky the longer it lumbers on, running a good 20 minutes longer than is necessary. There's at least a hundred speaking parts and every character gets a caption intro, leading to subtitles on top of subtitles, which is amusing for a while but, like everything in SHIN GODZILLA, grows exhausting by the end. Anno and Higuchi have crafted an offbeat, ambitious, and intelligent kaiju for grown-up audiences (this is not one of those classic Godzilla smackdowns for kids), and much of it is quite good, but it just loses its momentum and grinds its gears when it really matters most.

Monday, October 10, 2016


(Canada - 2016)

The finale to Uwe Boll and Brendan Fletcher's RAMPAGE trilogy is the clumsiest and preachiest yet. On the positive side, Boll seems to be walking back his gushing admiration for Fletcher's insane lone-wolf domestic terrorist Bill Williamson. Where the first sequel RAMPAGE: CAPITAL PUNISHMENT felt like a love letter to mass shooters, PRESIDENT DOWN at least admits that words and actions have consequences and by the end, Bill is most certainly the villain with a lot of blood on his hands. But the road there is paved with some welcome bits of old-school Boll idiocy that's not helped by the director struggling with his lowest budget yet. His German tax shelter heyday of being able to afford the likes of Ben Kingsley, Jason Statham, and Burt Reynolds a fading memory, Boll can't even corral cheap labor on the level of past RAMPAGE co-stars like Matt Frewer or Lochlyn Munro. Boll unsuccessfully tried to crowdfund the film--originally titled RAMPAGE 3: NO MERCY--on Indiegogo and Kickstarter but failed to meet his goal, leading to an inevitable YouTube meltdown excoriating fans for giving their money to Hollywood studios while not helping out important artists like Dr. Uwe Boll. So with a lot less money at his disposal, Boll relies heavily on flashbacks and stock footage from the first two films, and mainly has Fletcher's Bill posting YouTube rants from his hiding place in the middle of nowhere, which may be the perfect metaphor for 2016 Uwe Boll.

Long thought dead after the events of the previous film, Bill emerges from hiding to assassinate the President, Vice President, and Secretary of Defense during a speech to Congress. Of course, how he manages to accomplish this is a mystery, since it happens offscreen. The FBI, vowing to get to the bottom of the assassinations, assigns two--yes, two--agents, Molokai (Steve Baran) and Jones (Ryan McDonnell) and a Bureau computer expert (Scott Patey) to run the investigation out of what looks like an underfunded police precinct. Bill manages to hack into their computer system with the help of a mole inside the FBI, and once Molokai and Jones (worst cop show title ever?) spot him on some surveillance footage outside the White House, he starts taunting them from his undisclosed location and threatening their families. Unfortunately, the agents are unable to convince their bosses that Bill is the culprit because a publicity-hogging ISIS claims responsibility for the assassinations, prompting the reactionary new Commander-in-Chief to round up all the Muslims and Syrian refugees in the US, close all the mosques, and nuke the Middle East "with the full support of Russia and China." The notion of an irrational, knee-jerk US President content with blowing up a good chunk of the world is an uncomfortably prescient notion that Boll completely sidesteps and never mentions again. There's no satire, no poking people with sticks--instead, the focus is on Molokai and Jones finding out where Bill is hiding and leading a raid where of course, Bill gets the edge on everyone, but Jones makes it easy by not even bothering to wear a bulletproof vest.

The message is muddled: Bill says he wants a world without violence in a film that opens with him shooting a random pedestrian in cold blood and concludes with him killing about a hundred FBI agents. Nothing here makes sense: why does Bill suddenly have a girlfriend (Crystal Lowe) and a kid? And how can he be presumed dead when he's actively posting videos to his YouTube channel to his legion of supporters? And when news of the assassinations of the President, VP, and Defense Secretary hits the wire, watch the only two news anchors seen in the film exclaim "Oh my God! The President is dead!" as the camera pans down to her reading the info off of a second page, as if that news a) would come over a teletype in 2016, and b) would be relegated to the second page. And are we to believe that the only two guys investigating the murder of the President, VP and Defense Secretary would exit a building and be confronted by one reporter? And it's one of the two news anchors we just saw? Boll ineptly inserts talking points about gun control and police brutality, but then he and Fletcher (they co-wrote the script together) go off on tangents about Hollywood's richest celebrities. There's jabs at Tom Cruise and Jennifer Aniston, and the murders of Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and Mark Zuckerberg among others are announced over the course of the film. These bits sound less like legitimate grievances about tabloid culture and more like a case of sour grapes from Boll and Fletcher because they aren't in the club. Canadian actor Fletcher's been around since the late '90s and was in hits like AIR BUD and FREDDY VS. JASON, and some Canadian arthouse films. He's also made eight movies with Uwe Boll. Dude, maybe that's why you're not in the club. You were in THE REVENANT (notice that Leonardo DiCaprio doesn't make Bill's Hollywood shit list). Maybe take a break from Uwe and start hanging out with Leo or Alejandro Inarritu a little more. You'll have time: Boll was so angry about the lack of fan support for the funding of RAMPAGE: PRESIDENT DOWN that he announced it would be his final film. Indeed, a post-credits stinger finds a pensive Boll tipping his hat to the camera and walking into the sunset. If that's the case, let me just say that for all your many, many faults, you were certainly never boring, Dr. Boll. Thanks for everything. I guess. (Unrated, 100 mins)

(Italy/France - 2016)

The first English-language work by acclaimed Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino reunites the director with Tilda Swinton, the star of his 2009 art-house breakthough I AM LOVE. Where that film showcased the director's adoration of all things Stanley Kubrick and Alain Resnais before settling into a sort-of Luchino Visconti autopilot mode (faux-Visconti is something THE GREAT BEAUTY director Paolo Sorrentino does a lot better), A BIGGER SPLASH feels a lot like the 1990s Bernardo Bertolucci that made THE SHELTERING SKY and STEALING BEAUTY. A remake of Jacques Deray's 1969 film LA PISCINE (released in the US as THE SWIMMING POOL), A BIGGER SPLASH is essentially one of these European films where some wealthy bourgeois types get together and things escalate into a powderkeg of unresolved issues and psychosexual mind games. Aging glam rock legend Marianne Lane (Swinton) blows out her voice on tour and has to take a significant amount of time off to recover from vocal cord surgery. She can only speak at a whisper and is convalescing on Pantelleria, off the coast of Sicily with her younger lover, photographer/filmmaker Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts). Their days are spent lounging naked by the pool, getting massages, reading, and having a lot of sex until they get an unannounced visit from Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne's producer and ex-boyfriend, who's brought along Penelope (Dakota Johnson), the 22-year-old daughter he only recently found out he had. The boisterous, gregarious Harry brings a manic and disruptive presence to their quiet, idyllic getaway, even inviting a couple of other people--Mireille (Aurore Clement) and Sylvie (Lila McMenamy)--along, and it's clear that there's a past between these people that's still gnawing at both Harry and Paul. There's also numerous instances of Harry acting in a not-fatherly way with Penelope, and an uncomfortably close rendition of "Unforgettable" between the two at a karaoke bar creeps out Marianne enough that she confronts him, leading to Harry shouting "I'm not fucking my daughter!" in front of a bunch of people in the street. As Harry keeps professing his love for Marianne, Paul and Penelope go off exploring on their own, and anyone who's ever seen a movie before can see that things aren't going to end well.

Despite the serious subject matter, A BIGGER SPLASH is fairly lighthearted a lot of the time, right down to its slapsticky title that seems more fitting for a romantic comedy. It certainly doesn't portend the shift the story takes in the last 35 or 40 minutes, when an unexpected event occurs that gets the local police involved. A lot of this is due to a rambunctious performance by Fiennes, whose Harry is really a grating, insufferable asshole but the actor finds ways to make you like him and even feel sorry for him. Whether he's yammering on about his sexual exploits (it's suggested that Mireille and Sylvie, who may be mother and daughter, are among his conquests), humble-bragging about his uncredited contributions to the Rolling Stones' 1994 album Voodoo Lounge, or busting out the moves like Jagger while blasting their 1980 hit "Emotional Rescue" (a scene that must be seen to believed), Fiennes is the unabashed show-stealer here and even dominates the film when he's not onscreen. Working with screenwriter David Kajganich (whose credits include, of all things, the underrated 2009 horror movie BLOOD CREEK), Guadagnino leaves enough ambiguity to keep an audience discussing the events after the film is over, and manages to keep things focused even with the many changes in tone and some showboating filmmaking techniques in the early going, things that are mainly used when Fiennes is onscreen to accentuate what a loud jackass Harry can be. Guadagnino, Kajganich, Swinton, and Johnson are tentatively reuniting for the latest announced incarnation of the perpetually in-development remake of Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA. (R, 125 mins)

(US - 2016)

With 2005's WOLF CREEK, Australian filmmaker Greg McLean seemed to be a new voice in horror, but that voice has had nothing to say for several years running. His follow-up film, the outstanding killer crocodile flick ROGUE, was buried by the Weinsteins, and McLean has yet to bounce back, with another six years passing before he resurfaced with the belated and over-the-top WOLF CREEK 2. Working with horror factory Blumhouse, THE DARKNESS is McLean's first Hollywood production and it couldn't possibly be any more predictably generic and lazy. During a family trip to the Grand Canyon, autistic Mikey Taylor (David Mazouz) finds some rocks with strange symbols and takes them as souvenirs. It isn't long before paranormal activity manifests itself back home, with Mikey talking to an unseen entity called "Jenny," and sooty handprints turning up all over the house. Dad Peter (Kevin Bacon, visibly bored) and Mom Bronny (Radha Mitchell) are too preoccupied to notice the supernatural goings-on or that their angry older daughter Stephanie (Lucy Fry) is bulimic and saving containers of her purgings under her bed as a way of acting out her resentment toward Mikey. After more shenanigans, like a possessed Mikey starting a fire and trying to kill his grandmother's cat, and all manner of standard-issue Blumhouse jump scares, Bronny discovers that some Anasazi curse has latched itself to Mikey and starts to believe this is some kind of karmic retribution over her past alcoholism (she falls off the wagon) and Peter's past infidelity (and he's tempted again by young intern at work).

Taking a page from THE EXORCIST in the way the demon enters a world in disarray, making it easy to possess Regan, McLean and co-writers S.P. Krause and Shayne Armstrong (the latter two co-wrote the Australian "sharks-in-a-supermarket" opus BAIT) toy with the idea of the demonic invasion of the home being a response to the various unspoken dysfunctions in the family. But they don't really do anything with it and everything is resolved too easily to get to the rote horror histrionics. Keeping your vomit in bags and tupperware containers under your bed is pretty odd, but hey, one visit to a therapist and moody, abrasive Stephanie is healthy and chipper. Instead, the filmmakers follow a Blumhouse checklist right down to the last-15-minutes introduction of a pair of eccentric demonology experts who do a quick drive-by exposition drop before an impromptu exorcism of the house. The film's twists and turns come straight out of Plot Convenience Playhouse. Is Paul Reiser only in this for a few scenes as Peter's fist-bumping, asshole boss just because the boss has a wife (Ming-Na Wen) who happens to have recently started pursuing an interest in Hopi Indian mythology? Well, that immediately qualifies her as an expert to advise Bronny after she figures out they're being haunted by a pissed-off Anasazi spirit. What are the odds? It's that kind of movie. THE DARKNESS plays like a Blumhouse sampler platter with a dash of INSIDIOUS and a scoop of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, but topped off with a generous sprinkling of some old-fashioned POLTERGEIST to make a total shit sandwich of a horror movie. It's a film that doesn't even try, and it's almost perversely impressive how it manages to go an entire 90 minutes without pursuing a single original idea. Where did THE DARKNESS go wrong? Who cares? Blumhouse and Greg McLean certainly don't. (PG-13, 92 mins)