Wednesday, November 30, 2016

In Theaters: RULES DON'T APPLY (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Warren Beatty. Cast: Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Annette Bening, Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin, Haley Bennett, Candice Bergen, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Ed Harris, Megan Hilty, Oliver Platt, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, Taissa Farmiga, Amy Madigan, Paul Schneider, Hart Bochner, Louise Linton, Graham Beckel, Chace Crawford, Ashley Hamilton, Marshall Bell, Patrick Fischler, Michael Badalucco, Joe Cortese. (PG-13, 126 mins)

As an actor, writer, director, and producer, Warren Beatty has been nominated for 14 Oscars in total, winning one for Best Director with 1981's REDS. He's a living legend, and as a producer and star, one who was instrumental in ushering in the "New Hollywood" era with 1967's landmark BONNIE AND CLYDE. Beatty was never prolific even in his heyday: starting with his big-screen debut in 1961's SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, he's acted in just 22 films in 55 years, the bulk of those being in the 1960s and 1970s. Offscreen since the expensive 2001 bomb TOWN & COUNTRY, Beatty returns with RULES DON'T APPLY, a pet project about Howard Hughes that he's had in various stages of development since 1973. Beatty also wrote and directed, and the whole thing was kept under wraps as shooting began in early 2014. Granted a Kubrickian level of freedom and secrecy that very few are afforded these days, Beatty made exactly the film he wanted to make, and if the end result is what he's had playing in his head for over 40 years, then you have to wonder what he was thinking and why he even bothered.

Set from 1959 to 1964, RULES DON'T APPLY takes its time getting to Beatty's Howard Hughes (79-year-old Beatty is about 25 years too old to play Hughes in this time period), instead focusing on Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins, daughter of Phil), a virginal, small-town beauty queen and bright-eyed songwriter from Virginia, who's been given a studio contract by Hughes and is flown out to Hollywood with her overprotective, devout Baptist mother Lucy (Annette Bening). They're picked up at the airport by Hughes employee Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a Methodist engaged to 7th grade sweetheart Sarah (Taissa Farmiga) back in Fresno and with big dreams about getting Hughes to back his real estate ventures. Hughes has over 25 starlets under contract, and despite stipulations that the drivers aren't to get involved with them, Lucy and Frank can't deny their attraction to one another, even though she feels he's essentially married since he's already had sex with Sarah.

So far, so good. The opening half hour of RULES DON'T APPLY isn't great, but it has a sort-of "second-tier Woody Allen" thing going on and plays a lot like Allen's similar CAFE SOCIETY from earlier this year. But once Hughes enters the picture, the focus shifts to Beatty going through the litany of every Hughes tic, compulsion, oddity, and stereotype in existence. Sometimes it's played for laughs, other times it turns strangely dark, such as an uncomfortable and frankly creepy scene where a drunk Marla gives her virginity to a befuddled, babbling Hughes. Very little in this story is based on fact, other than there was a Howard Hughes and he was a total weirdo billionaire, so it's a jarring tonal shift to have what was essentially a light, romantic comedy suddenly turn bleak, with Marla feeling used and ending up pregnant and considering an abortion. Frank can't decide if he wants to be with Sarah or Marla, and for the sake of the script, instead gets a quick promotion from anonymous driver to Hughes' right-hand man almost overnight. Beatty then spends an inordinate amount of time on Hughes' dealings with his TWA airline, various defense contracts with the US government, and trying to convince the government that his plane can fly, with his behavior growing increasingly erratic with each passing scene. Many big names joined the project, obviously for the chance to work with Beatty, but with the exception of Matthew Broderick as another top Hughes flunky, none of them are put to good use: Candice Bergen has a thankless role as Hughes' secretary; Martin Sheen has three or four brief appearances before we even get a hint of who he's supposed to be (he's either Hughes' lawyer or he runs the day-to-day operations of the Hughes empire), then his character is fired and replaced by another character played by Alec Baldwin, doing a quick "Hey, I'm here to hang with Warren" drop-by; Ed Harris and Amy Madigan have one scene as Sarah's parents; Steve Coogan plays a scared pilot riding shotgun after Hughes drops what he's doing and goes to London to fly a plane; Dabney Coleman shows up briefly as Hughes' doctor; and in a barely-there bit part, Paul Sorvino is seen chatting in the background of a couple shots, eventually getting one line of dialogue when his character is seen on a TV screen. Who is he? Why is he here? Who knows?

It's never a good sign when four editors share credit, and RULES DON'T APPLY looks like a hastily-assembled mess that wasn't so much finished as it was given up on. Characters appear and disappear with no explanation, and early scenes are presented in such a brisk and choppy fashion that you never ascertain who certain people are and what purpose they serve to the story. Beatty bum-rushes through the exposition to get to the parts he cares most about--hamming it up as Howard Hughes--and leaves a large cast mostly stranded. It just gets worse as it goes on, Hughes impulsively heading to London, Managua, and Acapulco, with Frank in tow, for reasons never really explained. Beatty assembled some cast and crew for some reshoots in early 2015 and then spent well over a year putting the movie together. He had nearly five decades to figure out what he wanted with this thing and the end result is a leaden, lifeless, self-indulgent fiasco. Collins and Ehrenreich do what they can with the material (and you have to respect future Han Solo Ehrenreich, who arrived a few years ago as an obvious Leonardo DiCaprio clone who's now getting the roles Leo has aged out of, but he's a young actor who knows his history and has jumped at the chance to work with movie legends like Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen), but they're completely defeated by the whims and indecisiveness of a director who's just maybe been away from the game for too long. Beatty hasn't directed a film since 1998's still-scathing BULWORTH (though he reportedly pulled rank on Peter Chelsom and backseat-directed most of TOWN & COUNTRY himself), and that was a movie that had things to say that remain relevant today. Whether as a director, producer, writer, or star, Beatty has historically had his finger on the pulse of current events and deftly capturing the zeitgeist, whether it's the political commentary and the hip-hop awakening of BULWORTH, the changing cinema trends exemplified by BONNIE AND CLYDE, the post-Nixon/Watergate paranoia of THE PARALLAX VIEW, or the sexually liberated '70s in SHAMPOO. RULES DON'T APPLY (you could make a drinking game out of how many times that phrase is shoehorned in via dialogue or song) is a tone-deaf vanity project that puts Beatty in with other influential auteurs--Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick, George Romero, Dario Argento, to name a few--whose final or most recent works are indicative of aging legends who just don't get out much anymore. How else do you explain an extended gag about a cum stain on Frank's pants? Did Beatty just now get around to seeing a Farrelly Brothers comedy? And why is that joke in this movie? Given his sporadic work habits and his age, this is likely the last thing we're going to see from Warren Beatty. And that's a damn shame.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

In Theaters: ALLIED (2016)

(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Steven Knight. Cast: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Simon McBurney, Lizzy Caplan, August Diehl, Matthew Goode, Daniel Betts, Camille Cottin, Charlotte Hope, Thierry Fremont, Anton Lesser. (R, 124 mins)

A defiantly old-fashioned throwback to glamorous star vehicles of yesteryear--except when it makes jarring modern concessions in terms of profanity and sexual content--ALLIED is an entertaining if occasionally implausible WWII espionage thriller that's equal parts wartime programmer and Alfred Hitchcock. In 1942, Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachutes into the French Moroccan desert for a covert mission in Casablanca, which gives you a good idea of what vibes ALLIED gives off in its early-going and throughout its superior first half. His assignment is to pose as a French phosphate engineer and team with Resistance leader Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), who fled France after she was the sole survivor of a massacre on a compromised outfit. Once she tutors him in making his Quebecois accent sound more Parisian, they're to go undercover as a married couple and blend in with other Nazi sympathizers, with the goal being the assassination of the German ambassador at an upcoming swanky dinner party. Their pretend marriage blossoming into real love during an afternoon desert sandstorm, Max and Marianne relocate to London and marry upon the completion of their mission, settling down into a domesticated existence with a newborn daughter, with family man Max taking a less dangerous office job at British military HQ.

That changes when his superior officer and friend Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) calls him in for a meeting with a high-ranking SOE official (the always sinister Simon McBurney). They have evidence that Marianne Beausejour was killed in 1941 and that the woman Max married is an impostor and a Nazi spy. He's to run a "blue-dye test" in which he gets a phone call, jots down some false intelligence info, then waits to see if decoders pick it up a few days later among their decryptions of German transmissions. If they do, then they know she's a spy and Max is to execute her immediately or be hanged for treason. Of course, Max refuses to believe their allegations and sets out to prove her innocence, even if it means disobeying direct orders and putting his own life at risk.

The script by Steven Knight (EASTERN PROMISES, LOCKE, PEAKY BLINDERS) does a nice job of refusing to pull punches and go for predictable, implausible twists in the name of pleasing the crowd. It's uncompromising in ways that movies for adults used to be, and it's one of the more effective ways that director Robert Zemeckis (BACK TO THE FUTURE, FORREST GUMP) establishes a vividly old-school mindset throughout the film. Going back to the groundbreaking WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, Zemeckis has been a pioneer in the advancement of visual effects, As demonstrated in films like FORREST GUMP and THE WALK, and in his several motion-capture animated works like THE POLAR EXPRESS and BEOWULF, the one-time Steven Spielberg protege is obviously an advocate of digital filmmaking and CGI, and, for better or worse, they're used extensively throughout ALLIED. The recreations of Casablanca and London are generally well done on a visual level, though it rarely feels like anything but a greenscreen, which is a similar degree of artifice you'd see on a 1940's Hollywood set, but just lacks the organic feel (or maybe it's just me), and the CGI sandstorm leaves a lot to be desired. Cotillard is tasked with most of the dramatic heavy lifting even though Pitt gets more of a focus by way of Max's extensive investigating. But there's just something distractingly off about the appearance of the 52-year-old Pitt. Sporting some visible thick makeup under his eyes to wipe away the years required to play a character who's probably 20 years younger, his face almost seems airbrushed, like Milla Jovovich in the third RESIDENT EVIL movie. The resulting CGI sandblasting make him look waxy smooth and disturbingly artificial, almost like a CGI'd Brad Pitt being motion-captured by Andy Serkis. His closeups are enough to take you out of the movie, which is otherwise engrossing (the assassination sequence is top-notch) even if a bit silly at times, such as the perfect family picnic about 20 feet away from a downed German plane whose wreckage is still smoldering.

Monday, November 28, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: HANDS OF STONE (2016) and I.T. (2016)

(US/Panama - 2016)

There's no cliche untouched in this biopic of Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran, focusing primarily on his two 1980 bouts with Sugar Ray Leonard (the second was the infamous "No Mas" fight where Duran quit midway through the eighth round). Edgar Ramirez does a solid job of conveying the ego and arrogance of Duran, but it's hard to get a handle on Duran as a character in the context of this film, since we really only see him being a braying, insufferable jackass. On top of that, Venezuelan-born writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz (his first film since 2005's SECUESTRO EXPRESS) tries to include too many storylines, so much so that the film frequently feels like an eight-part HBO limited series randomly whittled down to just under two hours. There's flashbacks to Duran's youth, detours into Panamanian unrest and clashes with the US over the Panama Canal Zone, and in telling Duran's story, Jakubowicz must also tell the story of Duran's aging trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro). A revered figure in boxing, Arcel was run out of the sport in the 1950s by NYC mobster Frankie Carbo (John Turturro) after trying to expand it beyond the underworld, and while this may have a basis in fact (Arcel's life was spared if he agreed to never earn another dime from boxing; he trains Duran for free), here it just seems like an excuse to take a brief sojourn into GOODFELLAS/Scorsese territory simply because it's Robert De Niro, whose presence here is already a nod to RAGING BULL (Nicholas Colasanto's fictionalized mobster character in that film was based on Carbo). Jakubowicz rushes through everything--eight years flash by in an instant, and you never get a feel for Duran's fame; Duran and his wife Felicidad (Ana de Armas of KNOCK KNOCK) have five kids in a montage. Piled-on subplots either go nowhere or are completely abandoned: Arcel having an estranged, drug-addicted daughter serves no purpose other than giving one scene to De Niro's daughter Drena, and a long sequence where Chaflan (Oscar Jaenada), a doofus Duran toady, steals some food, leads people on a chase, and gets flattened by a truck doesn't advance the plot or seem to affect Duran in any way. Jakubowicz also shoehorns in an ersatz Howard Cosell (Robb Skyler) and Don King (Reg E. Cathey), both of whom get too much screen time but not enough to have any real purpose. The ring sequences are done with the now-standard quick cuts and whooshing pans and aren't shot in a particularly exciting fashion, though it gets a bit of a boost thanks to strong, A-game performances from De Niro and a magnetic Usher Raymond as Sugar Ray Leonard.

Shot in 2013 and unreleased for three years, HANDS OF STONE means well but feels compromised and lacks focus, with too many flashbacks, superfluous supporting turns (Ellen Barkin pops up a few times as Mrs. Arcel), dead-end detours, stalled subplots, lazy period detail (cue Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" during a montage of disco-era excess), two jarringly gratuitous, ass-thrusting sex scenes for both Duran and Sugar Ray with their respective wives, and an uplifting, feelgood ending that the Duran we just watched for 100 minutes simply doesn't earn. Despite a lot of pre-release publicity, this tanked hard at the box office, landing in 16th place its opening weekend and tumbling 86% by its third. Sure, that could be due to the movie simply not being very good, but the word of mouth was no doubt toxic as The Weinstein Company snuck what's essentially a foreign language film--whenever De Niro or Usher aren't onscreen, it's in Spanish with English subtitles--into wide release in multiplexes at the end of summer. (R, 111 mins)

(Ireland/France/Denmark - 2016)

A laughable thriller that simultaneously manages to be a ripoff of 2006's instantly forgotten FIREWALL and a '90s "(blank)-from-Hell" throwback, I.T. has star and producer Pierce Brosnan as Mike Regan, an aviation magnate whose D.C.-based business (the US capitol is badly played by an egregiously miscast Dublin, Ireland) is in a rough patch with an SEC investigation just as he's about to take the company public. The highly-publicized rollout of a new app is barely saved by I.T. temp Ed Porter (James Frecheville), whose quick thinking circumvents some embarrassing technical glitches at a press conference. A grateful Regan invites Porter over to the house for dinner and asks him to tweak and modernize his smarthome set-up. It isn't long before Porter starts inviting himself over, getting friendly with Regan's 17-year-old daughter Kaitlyn (Stefanie Scott) on social media, and showing up at her school to give her a ride home in his muscle car. Regan quickly grows frustrated and fires I.T. Guy-from-Hell Porter, not knowing that he's already rigged the massive Regan home and is able to spy on them and control everything from his high-tech stronghold, the type of decrepit loft that serves as a nerd command center with huge monitors all over the place like some homage to SLIVER. Psycho Porter terrorizes the Regan family by hacking their security system and blaring death metal through their house in the middle of the night; hacks into Regan's business and plants phony damning evidence for the SEC investigators to find; hacks into the database of Regan's wife Rose's (Anna Friel) doctor and sends her an e-mail saying her recent mammogram shows breast cancer; sends a video of Kaitlyn masturbating in the shower to everyone at her school; and almost kills Regan by hacking into his car's brake system and subjecting him to one of the least-convincing CGI car wrecks you'll ever see. Needless to say, Regan can't convince anyone that Porter is responsible for everything that's happening, so he fights fire with fire, hiring off-the-grid hacker and cyberspy Henrik (Michael Nyqvist as Gene Hackman in ENEMY OF THE STATE) to help rid him of Porter for good.

Aspiring to be the kind of zeitgeisty, hot-button thriller that Michael Douglas would've made in 1998, I.T. could've been reasonably entertaining and trashy fun in the right hands, but it glosses over all the details, assuming words like "hack" and "firewall" will sound smart enough if they're uttered as frequently as possible. Frecheville, an alleged actor who seemed to show some potential several years ago in the acclaimed ANIMAL KINGDOM, is becoming a go-to nutjob for the VOD/Redbox scene between this and 2014's unwatchable MALL, probably one of the ten worst films I've ever seen. He's probably supposed to be scary when he's lifting weights in the nude and spazzing out, or lip-syncing with wild abandon behind the wheel to Missing Persons' 1982 hit "Words," but the only result is unintended laughter. Using a bizarre, affected, exaggerated brogue that sounds like a drunk guy doing a bad Pierce Brosnan impression, Brosnan is uncharacteristically terrible here, continuing his post-007 slide (SALVATION BOULEVARD, THE LOVE PUNCH) that's been broken up recently only by the fairly entertaining THE NOVEMBER MAN. For what it's worth, the straight-to-VOD I.T. is marginally better than Brosnan's recent URGE, but then, so are things like identity theft and bedbugs. Directed by John Moore, somehow able to find employment after 2013's A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD. (Unrated, 96 mins)

Monday, November 21, 2016


(Italy - 1985; US release 1986)

Written and directed by Michele Soavi. (Unrated, 71 mins)

For horror fans who weren't around at the time and only know him now as a genre elder statesman at best or an aged has-been at worst, it's really difficult to convey just how revered Dario Argento was in the 1980s. It was a time of Jason, Freddy, slasher movies, Stephen King, and pre-CGI makeup and special effects wizardry by the likes of Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, and Tom Savini. There was no internet, no social media, and very little in the way of fan/creator interaction. Horror fans of the '80s were in the know thanks to books like Michael Weldon's The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, John Stanley's Creature Features Movie Guide, and Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies, publications like Fangoria, watching old and new favorites on late-night broadcast and cable TV, and taking blind chances at the video store on Friday and Saturday nights. But knowing the work of a director like Argento really separated the players from the pretenders in horror fandom. So lionized was the "Italian Hitchcock" that he earned the adoration of many fans just on his reputation alone, as most of his essential work was nearly impossible to see in the US at that time. A partial remedy was made available when the 1985 documentary DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR was given a straight-to-video release by Vidmark Entertainment in 1986. Like Paramount's fan favorite TOM SAVINI'S SCREAM GREATS, WORLD OF HORROR was a behind-the-scenes look at a horror master that became a video store staple when it wasn't exactly easy to see a lot of Argento's films and if they were available, they were usually the butchered US versions. 1970's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and 1975's DEEP RED were common sights in any reputable video store (PLUMAGE largely intact; DEEP RED missing around 20 minutes), and though it was released uncut, 1980's INFERNO didn't see an official US release until Key Video's VHS in 1985. 1982's TENEBRAE was drastically cut and barely released in the US in 1984 as UNSANE, and another three years would go by before Fox Hills released that edited version on video. And 1977's SUSPIRIA, generally regarded as Argento's masterpiece, wouldn't be granted a US home video release until 1989, courtesy of Magnum Entertainment.

Argento with a young Jennifer Connelly
on the set of PHENOMENA 
It wasn't exactly a surprise when Argento's 1985 film PHENOMENA was hacked down for the American market, its running time going from 110 to just 83 minutes. It was acquired by New Line Cinema, then riding high on the huge sleeper success of Wes Craven's 1984 hit A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. PHENOMENA was recut and retitled CREEPERS and New Line gave it a decent-sized rollout in major markets, making it Argento's most widely-seen-in-the-US film since SUSPIRIA eight years earlier. CREEPERS got extensive coverage in Fangoria and was already well known in horror circles by the time it hit video stores some months later. 1985-86 was arguably the height of Argento-mania as far as media exposure (including an awkward appearance plugging CREEPERS on THE JOE FRANKLIN SHOW) and the cult horror fan following were concerned. Around the same time, Argento also produced and was the guiding creative force behind Lamberto Bava's DEMONS, released in the US by New World in 1986. DARIO ARGENTO's WORLD OF HORROR spends a lot of time on the behind-the-scenes footage from PHENOMENA/CREEPERS and DEMONS, and while it may seem superfluous and dated now (it's a bonus feature on Synapse's new 3-disc special edition PHENOMENA Blu-ray), it vividly captures Argento at a pivotal moment in his career. He would churn out one more undisputed masterpiece with 1987's OPERA (which was picked up by Orion, who retitled it TERROR AT THE OPERA and prepared a trailer but abruptly shelved it, leaving it unseen in the US until Southgate Entertainment released it straight-to-video in 1991), and then his career began a slow-motion implosion that's ongoing to this day. There were a few small victories--1996's THE STENDHAL SYNDROME has some devoted fans but can't overcome the fatal miscasting of Argento's 21-year-old daughter Asia as a hard-bitten veteran cop, and even forgettable trifles like 1991's TWO EVIL EYES, 1993's TRAUMA, 2001's SLEEPLESS, and 2007's MOTHER OF TEARS have their moments--but there's little complimentary to say about the likes of 2004's absurd THE CARD PLAYER, 2009's GIALLO, and 2012's DRACULA, aside from the fact that they look like classics compared to 1999's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, an unwatchable clusterfuck that represented Argento hitting bottom. He's lost his mojo and, at 76 and last seen attempting to crowdfund a big-screen version of E.T.A. Hoffmann's THE SANDMAN with Iggy Pop, doesn't appear to be getting it back anytime soon. In that respect, DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR shows the auteur at the peak of his powers just before the decline, a time when there was zero doubt that he was a genius who lived up to the hype.

Michele Soavi
DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR was produced by Argento but doesn't come off like a self-aggrandizing, ego-stroking puff piece. He assigned the project to his top protege Michele Soavi, an assistant director and part-time actor (he's the guy in the car with Daniela Doria when she's puking her guts out in Lucio Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and he's the cross-dressing killer in Lamberto Bava's A BLADE IN THE DARK), making his directing debut. Soavi had been getting on-set experience doing some production assistant and second unit work for Argento, Fulci, and others for several years and would briefly leave the Argento stock company in 1987 to make his breakthrough, the Filmirage-produced STAGEFRIGHT, a late-period giallo slasher that would find an unlikely fan in Terry Gilliam. The legendary Monty Python alum caught STAGEFRIGHT at a European film festival and reached out to Soavi, hiring him to handle second unit chores on his big-budget 1989 spectacle THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN. Argento produced and co-wrote Soavi's next two films, 1989's THE CHURCH and 1991's THE SECT, aka THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER. Soavi branched out on his own to direct 1994's arthouse zombie film DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, released in the US in 1996 as CEMETERY MAN. A critical success and cult smash all over the world, CEMETERY MAN, combined with Argento's slide into mediocrity, cemented Soavi's position as the new leading voice of Italian horror and he was likely going on to much bigger things, but it never panned out. While Italian genre fare was in a serious downward spiral at the time he was being hailed as its savior, Soavi's decision to walk away as worldwide notoriety beckoned was a personal one: he put his career on hold to care for his gravely ill son, who was born with a rare liver disease. When the Italian film industry continued to crater over the next several years, Soavi quietly resurfaced as a journeyman TV director in the early 2000s (most notably the terrific 2001 Michael Mann-esque cop thriller miniseries UNO BIANCA) after his son made a triumphant recovery. Now 59, Soavi is content to make his living as a top-shelf hired gun for Italian television, though he did enjoy a brief return to the big screen when MUNCHAUSEN mentor Gilliam would call on him once more to handle second unit duties on his 2005 film THE BROTHERS GRIMM.

Argento overseeing the rigging of the
severed arm effect in TENEBRAE. 
It's easy to dismiss the significance of DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR now that we've had nearly two decades of uncut and uncensored Argento films on DVD and Blu-ray. For American Argento fans in the mid '80s, this documentary was the only way to see the complete versions of the legendary Louma crane shot and the "severed arm spray-painting the wall" murder in TENEBRAE. And it was the only way to see any footage at all from his obscure 1972 giallo FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, which wouldn't get a DVD release in the US until 2009. The bootleg market was a ways away, so for horror fans who voraciously devoured every Fangoria article on Argento, wondering if the day would ever come that they'd be able to watch SUSPIRIA, DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR was a pretty big deal. Narrated by dubbing luminaries Tony La Penna and Nick Alexander, it also showed Argento as a hands-on director involved in every aspect of the production, overseeing the studio work of Goblin and prog rock legend Keith Emerson on their respective SUSPIRIA and INFERNO scores, stressing over the special effects difficulties on PHENOMENA and expressing serious doubts that he'll be able to finish the movie, or being interviewed while seated on top of the crashed helicopter in the middle of the Metropol set during a break in shooting DEMONS. There's some priceless archival on-set footage from various Argento shoots, with a focus on PHENOMENA, where you can see a 14-year-old Jennifer Connelly smiling, laughing, and being a very good sport about swimming in a huge pool filled with water, wood shavings, yogurt, and chocolate all being employed to simulate rotting human remains and maggots.

Argento with William Friedkin
at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival

Thanks to all the DVD and Blu-ray interviews, additional documentaries (like Luigi Cozzi's DARIO ARGENTO: MASTER OF HORROR in 1991 and Leon Ferguson's DARIO ARGENTO: AN EYE FOR HORROR in 2001), and the articles and books written about Argento over the years, most notably Maitland McDonagh's absolutely essential Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, there's a plethora of information out there that those watching DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR for the first time will find redundant. They'll already know it's Argento's hands wearing the black gloves in the murder scenes, or that he isn't particularly fond of actors, especially Tony Musante, his BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE star with whom he didn't get along at all (though the mercurial and often difficult Musante, who died in 2013, mellowed significantly with age and would enthusiastically praise Argento years later), to the point where that one experience soured him on actors in general. And while it jumps around with little sense of narrative flow (for some reason, Soavi waits until near the end to reference Argento's earliest films, but he also includes a impressively-assembled montage of shots from various Argento movies that show recurring ideas and images that flow together beautifully), it's a time capsule work that vividly captures the state of Argento fandom at a specific time and place and for that reason, it remains significant, making its preservation on the new PHENOMENA Blu-ray release one of that set's unsung special features.

Friday, November 18, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: ARMY OF ONE (2016); THE SEA OF TREES (2016); and ITHACA (2016)

(US - 2016)

The story of Gary Faulkner, the "Rocky Mountain Rambo" who took a series of trips to Pakistan armed with only a samurai sword after claiming God told him to capture Osama Bin Laden, has all the ingredients for an interesting film. It's a surprise then, that ARMY OF ONE--arriving on DVD/Blu-ray just a week and a half after debuting on VOD--fails so spectacularly. Directed by Larry Charles (BORAT, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM) and written by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, the duo who scripted the entertaining Kevin Costner football movie DRAFT DAY, ARMY OF ONE hits a brick wall the moment Nicolas Cage opens his mouth. Faulkner, a pony-tailed stoner and part-time handyman with bad kidneys, is an eccentric character who's right up Cage's alley, but the actor sabotages the entire film by playing Faulkner as a nasally, screechy-voiced kook, when the real man's various talk show appearances in the wake of his bonkers pursuit showed him to be an affable, amusing, and occasionally even peculiarly charming oddball nothing like the freakish Bizarro Faulkner that Cage is playing here. Cage's grating, mannered, fingernails-on-a-blackboard performance is arguably the worst of his career, one straight out of a trainwreck ten-to-1:00 sketch on SNL. As soon as he speaks, every subsequent moment of ARMY OF ONE is excruciating.

God (Russell Brand, cast radically against type as "Russell Brand") first appears to Faulkner in 2004, during one of his dialysis treatments, prompting Faulkner to ask his nephrologist (Matthew Modine) for a $1000 loan to buy a boat to sail to Pakistan. When that doesn't work (the small boat capsizes and he ends up in Mexico), he tries to hang-glide into Pakistan and falls off a cliff, breaking his leg. He eventually gets to Pakistan and in 2010, thinks he's found Bin Laden, facing off against him in a swordfight in a cave, but it's all a trippy hallucination since he's gone weeks without a dialysis treatment. All the while, Faulkner is given moral support by his new girlfriend Marci (Wendi McLendon-Covey), who still has the Bon Jovi "Livin' on a Prayer" tramp stamp she got in high school and is now raising the special needs daughter of her dead junkie sister. Marci has made some bad decisions in her life, but she seems sane and entirely too level-headed to be falling for a doofus like Faulkner, or at least the doofus cartoon version of Faulkner that Cage is playing. The actor seems less interested in Faulkner as a character and more concerned with shaping this as his own BIG LEBOWSKI, and it fails on every level, be it slapstick, satire, or biopic. Charles, perhaps accustomed to the off-the-chain magic of Sacha Baron Cohen in BORAT and BRUNO, is content to let Cage run amok, making no attempt to rein him in at all, and the result is less Lebowski and more like a manic, talk-show Robin Williams at his most over-the-top. It's virtually unwatchable and while LEFT BEHIND is an easy pick for Cage's worst film, this might sting a little more because it had the ingredients to be something, and instead it falls victim to its star being in a self-indulgent mood and a director who's completely derelict in his duty. It's a career low for all, including reliable ringers like Paul Scheer and Will Sasso as Faulkner's buddies, and Denis O'Hare and Rainn Wilson as CIA agents on Faulkner's trail, taking time-outs to discuss Michael Dudikoff movies and defend Timothy Dalton-era 007. Dalton's a tragically underappreciated Bond, but not even that sentiment can save ARMY OF ONE. (R, 93 mins)

(US - 2016)

Booed at Cannes and barely released by A24 on just 100 screens for a $20,000 box office take, Gus Van Sant's THE SEA OF TREES is the second 2016 movie (after the horror film THE FOREST) to be set in Japan's Aokigahara Forest. Located at the northwest base of Mount Fuji, Aokigahara is a place infamously known as "The Suicide Forest" and "The Sea of Trees," where an average of 100 people per year go to end their lives. The Japanese government forbids filming in the Aokigahara, so THE SEA OF TREES finds an acceptable substitute Suicide Forest in Massachusetts. Written by Chris Sparling (best known for writing high-concept enclosed-space thrillers like BURIED and ATM), THE SEA OF TREES is a maudlin and superficial drama that's completely schizophrenic in tone, a combination marital dysfunction story, a disease-of-the-week TV-movie, a survivalist adventure, and finally, a manipulative Nicholas Sparks-meets-Mitch Albom feelgood movie with a twist that any seasoned moviegoer will spot long before the main character does. Science professor Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) buys a one-way ticket to Tokyo with the intention of downing a handful of sleeping pills in the Suicide Forest. His plan to find a secluded spot and die peacefully is interrupted by the appearance of Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), a disheveled, confused man who says he's been lost in the forest for two days. As Arthur repeatedly tries and fails to get Takumi on a trail out of the forest, they're forced to survive the harsh elements and deal with injuries as they bond, Takumi selflessly listening to Arthur's long monologues about his failed marriage to Joan (Naomi Watts in flashbacks) and how her death led him to end his life in the the Sea of Trees. A slowly-paced character piece, THE SEA OF TREES gets good performances from the three stars, but it's a pretty tedious journey, especially once you figure out where this is headed with a big reveal that's a hoary cliche at this point, and even after that, when it just keeps getting more shamelessly manipulative by the moment. There had to be films more deserving of the booing this got at Cannes, as THE SEA OF TREES biggest crime is that it's plodding, simplistic, and obvious, but it's hardly the worst thing to come from the wildly erratic Van Sant. (PG-13, 111 mins)

(US - 2016)

After a seven-year absence from the big screen and without a big box office hit since 2001's KATE & LEOPOLD, Meg Ryan co-stars in and makes her directing debut with ITHACA, based on William Saroyen's 1943 novel The Human Comedy. That was the title of the original movie version, also released in 1943, which starred Mickey Rooney and was a contemporary, topical life-at-home WWII film of its time. Now, this new version is a dated nostalgia piece with no feeling for the time and place and absolutely nothing in the way of narrative drive whatsoever. However sincere and well-intentioned it may be, this is an astonishingly dull film that just never finds a spark or any sense of dramatic momentum on any level. With his older brother Marcus (Jack Quaid, Ryan's son with ex-husband Dennis Quaid) off at war and his father recently deceased, 14-year-old Homer (Alex Neuestaedter) is the man of the house, taking care of his little brother Ulysses (Spencer Howell) and getting a job as a telegram messenger to help out his still-grieving mom (Ryan). Mom still sees visions of Dad (executive producer Tom Hanks, a nice guy doing Ryan a kindness but opting to keep his name off the poster) hanging around the house, keeping an eye on the family he left behind. Homer gets a firsthand look at the war at home, with many of his telegram deliveries coming from the US government, informing parents, wives, and loved ones that their soldier has died in combat. Homer finds father figures in his bosses Tom (Hamish Linklater) and drunk old Willie (top-billed Sam Shepard), and, well, that's about it. Not much happens in ITHACA. Neuestaedter is certainly no Mickey Rooney, but it would be hard for any young actor to make something out of this. Ryan lets scenes linger long past the point of necessity, and it often feels like actors are uncomfortably sitting there waiting for her to say "Cut." There's no interesting arcs or even standard coming-of-age tropes in the script by Eric Jendresen, whose credits include writing a few episodes of the Hanks-produced BAND OF BROTHERS. ITHACA feels like Ryan and Hanks called in some favors from a bunch of old friends (the score was composed by John Mellencamp) and asked them to hang out with no clear endgame. Shepard has nothing to do but sit at his desk and look catatonic, and Hanks appears visibly lost in his few scenes, at one point just stopping and staring at Ryan in what I'm convinced is not character-based dismay. Running a brief 89 minutes but feeling like four hours, ITHACA, which went straight-to-VOD after two years on the shelf, misfires at every turn, a DOA adaptation of a beloved novel of its day, never connecting with the viewer on any emotional level and rendering it completely inert with its bargain-basement, would-be Norman Rockwell sense of forced homespun Americana. (PG, 89 mins)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

In Theaters: SHUT IN (2016)

(France/Canada - 2016)

Directed by Farren Blackburn. Written by Christina Hodson. Cast: Naomi Watts, Oliver Platt, Charlie Heaton, Jacob Tremblay, David Cubitt, Clementine Poidatz, Peter Outerbridge, Crystal Balint, Alex Braunstein. (PG-13, 91 mins)

Two-time Oscar nominee Naomi Watts gives this lazy and illogical thriller a lot more than it deserves, delivering a strong performance that makes you wish the people on the creative side gave as much of a shit as she does. Watts is Dr. Mary Portman, a child psychologist with a practice at her isolated rural Maine home, allowing her to be the full-time caregiver for her 18-year-old stepson Stephen (STRANGER THINGS' Charlie Heaton), who was left quadriplegic and brain-damaged after a car accident that took the life of his father (Peter Outerbridge) six months earlier. Expelled from school for reasons that the film never explains, Stephen was being taken to an institution for some tough love by his father when an argument and distracted driving led them left of center and head-on into a speeding semi. One of Mary's patients is Tom (ROOM's Jacob Tremblay), a deaf, nine-year-old orphan who's about to be sent to another facility after too many violent outbursts. That night, Tom appears at Mary's front door. She takes him in, but while she's waiting for the authorities to arrive to claim him, he vanishes. Soon after, Mary is plagued by nightmares in which she sees Tom in the house. That, along with footsteps and clanging noises in the middle of the night, convinces her that Tom is dead and his ghost is haunting the house. Her nerves already frazzled over making the difficult decision to move Stephen into a facility since he's becoming too much for her to handle solo, Mary begins to fear she's losing her mind. Then there's the big twist, because of course there is.

It's not exactly the most ringing endorsement to say that as far as dumb thrillers go, SHUT IN is almost a halfway decent Netflix & Chill pick if you don't want to run the risk of the movie actually being good, thereby expediting you to the Chill part of the evening. The plot twist is completely ludicrous and requires multiple doctors and other medical professionals to fall asleep on the job in gross negligence, but that's OK when Christina Hodson's script gives Mary a throwaway line to explain it all away. SHUT IN is a film that can't even do the bare minimum, whether it's somehow failing to create any chilly suspense out of an isolated, blizzard-like snowy setting, the cops not even pursuing the possibility that the missing Tom is still in the house, or the big Plot Convenience Playhouse corner-cutter that comes from an EXORCIST III-inspired jump scare witnessed by Mary's colleague/shrink Dr. Wilson (Oliver Platt, Facetiming most of his performance in from what appears to be his agent's office), a profoundly stupid moment that shows neither Hodson nor British TV vet Farren Blackburn, the director with a name most likely to belong to a GAME OF THRONES villain, have any idea how Skype works. The film hints at the paranormal, but ends up at the completely ordinary, turning into another rote home invasion/psycho-thriller, with a hammer-and-axe-wielding madman chasing victims through the house like a dimmer SHINING, complete with a potential rescuer who makes a long, arduous journey in a dangerous snow-and-ice storm only to get immediately impaled by a claw hammer for his trouble. Platt almost literally phones it in, Heaton is stuck with an unplayable character, young Tremblay, so terrific in ROOM, has nothing to do, and Watts single-handedly elevates the entire project, bringing her A-game because she's a pro who should be getting better starring vehicles than this. SHUT IN is a mess, a possible sign of trouble being a large section of the closing credits devoted to "Reshoots Montreal," but it does get some bonus points because "Farren Blackburn" is a fucking great name.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

In Theaters: ARRIVAL (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Eric Heisserer. Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O'Brien, Russell Yuen. (PG-13, 116 mins)

It's easy to see the trailers and the advertising for ARRIVAL and write it off as another alien invasion sci-fi movie, but it has bigger goals in mind and is ultimately about something else entirely. Having said that, the path it takes to get to where it's going borrows from a variety of sources. You'll easily spot ideas from other movies--CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and CONTACT immediately spring to mind, and the imagery of spacecrafts hovering over cities invokes INDEPENDENCE DAY and DISTRICT 9 among others, while its somber mood and its focus on the deconstruction and composition of language and communication takes things into an alien invasion PONTYPOOL realm. Though it's all a primer for a surprise third-act revelation that packs a wallop and shows ARRIVAL's true intent, even that has distinct echoes of both a no-budget cult classic from a decade or so ago as well as a certain '90s sci-fi mindbender, albeit with less apocalyptic implications.

Twelve shell-like spacecrafts appear at various points around the world, with one of them in Montana. Linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought in by the US Army's Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) as a consultant to attempt to establish communication with the visitors and decipher their language. Largely withdrawn from the world following her 12-year-old daughter's death from a rare form of cancer, Louise immerses herself in her work and still has military security clearance from some translation work she did for a counterterrorism operation a few years earlier. She's joined by theoritical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as they enter a gravity-free portal at the base of the "Shell" and very slowly open a line of communication from behind a giant glass divider in the ship with a pair of large, heptapod beings that they dub "Abbott & Costello." It's a slow process--too slow for Weber and irate CIA agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose main goal is to ascertain the threat level and who demonstrate little patience for the curiosity of linguistics, physics, and the wonder of scientific discovery, even though Abbott & Costello have done nothing aggressive. A growing sense of paranoia and too much of an Alex Jones-type right-wing TV pundit gets the better of a few renegade soldiers who try to blow up the shell while Louise and Ian are in it, their lives spared when Abbott & Costello use their gravitational powers to force them down the portal after unsuccessfully trying to warn them about the explosive device. They clearly mean no harm, but neither Louise nor Ian can convince Weber and Halpern of that, and the global operation goes south when paranoid Chinese military leader Gen. Shang (Tzi Ma) issues an ultimatum to the Shell over China, threatening to blow it up if they don't retreat. Various countries, working together, soon go off the grid and stop sharing information with one another as talks break down, humanity grows impatient and violent, and Louise is haunted by recurring dreams and visions of her dead daughter.

Quebecois INCENDIES director Denis Villeneuve, who crossed over into the mainstream with 2013's PRISONERS and 2015's SICARIO, isn't as commercial this time out, with one shot in particular a winking nod to his bizarre 2014 Cronenbergian indie ENEMY. With its chilly, cerebral tone, ARRIVAL occasionally has a Cronenberg feel to it, or at least looks a lot like what might've happened if an in-his-prime Atom Egoyan made an alien invasion movie. It's a film that's not particularly interested in accommodating those looking for action and special effects, but it's still accessible enough for the multiplex. Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (LIGHTS OUT), who adapted Ted Chiang's short story "Story of Your Life," don't seem to bother pretending to camouflage ARRIVAL's obvious influences, but it finds its own voice quite unexpectedly, and what initially appear to be plot holes, contrivances, and corner-cutting actually make sense once all is revealed. Whether that makes ARRIVAL legitimately clever or very smooth at pulling off some bullshit dei ex machina may be one of the many post-viewing discussion topics. Even with its unexpected late-film developments, ARRIVAL isn't quite the instant classic that many reviewers are making it out to be, but it manages to accomplish a lot more than most genre films that opt to travel down a road paved with the ideas of so many movies that preceded it.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: DOG EAT DOG (2016)

(US/UK - 2016)

Directed by Paul Schrader. Written by Matthew Wilder. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Matthew Cook, Paul Schrader, Omar Dorsey, Louisa Krause, Melissa Bolona, Rey Gallegos, Nicky Whelan, Chelcie Melton, Ali Wasdovich, Louis Anthony Perez, Magi Avila, Robert Maples. (Unrated, 93 mins)

After a pair of misfires with the crowd-funded THE CANYONS and the disowned DYING OF THE LIGHT, Paul Schrader returns with the crime drama DOG EAT DOG. The now-70-year-old Schrader, best known for his numerous collaborations with Martin Scorsese (he wrote TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL, among others) and directing his own films like BLUE COLLAR, AMERICAN GIGOLO, and AFFLICTION, is a filmmaker who seems to seek out conflict, with his head-butting with the producers of DYING OF THE LIGHT a virtual replay of his battles over his EXORCIST prequel DOMINION a decade earlier. Still bitter over having DYING OF THE LIGHT taken away from him in post, Schrader had final cut worked into his deal on DOG EAT DOG, and for a while, it's his most inspired work in years. Working from a novel by ex-con Edward Bunker (who co-wrote RUNAWAY TRAIN and played Mr. Blue in RESERVOIR DOGS), adapted by Matthew Wilder, Schrader is unapologetically making the movie he wants to make with DOG EAT DOG, jettisoning the faux indie pretensions of THE CANYONS but really showing a lack of discipline and focus at times. It jumps all over the place stylistically, playing with color and black & white, framing shots in odd ways, and displaying a fair degree of surrealism. Its tics and flourishes at times recall Oliver Stone's NATURAL BORN KILLERS, but there's no real reason for it. He's trying to gussy up a talky, character-driven crime story, but in doing so, he undermines his actors. There's some terrific stuff in DOG EAT DOG, but it mostly comes off like a coked-up and frequently grotesque KILLING THEM SOFTLY.

DOG EAT DOG centers on three ex-cons and low-level bottom-feeders in the Cleveland underworld: Troy (Nicolas Cage, reteaming with his DYING OF THE LIGHT director) has ambitions beyond Cleveland, but feels indebted to the deranged Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe, whose numerous teamings with Schrader include LIGHT SLEEPER and AUTO-FOCUS), who once saved him from an attack in the joint. The trio is rounded out by the hulking Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), who's loyal to Troy but can only take so much of Mad Dog. Bad-tempered junkie Mad Dog has just killed his girlfriend and her teenage daughter and is eager to nab a big score with Troy. They get it from mob middleman and fixer El Greco (Schrader, in some extremely ill-advised and self-indulgent stunt casting) when they're instructed to rob the stash house of one of his rivals, Moon Man (Omar Dorsey). That goes relatively smoothly and they get a nice payday that they immediately piss away on drugs and prostitutes, but Troy is bored with the Cleveland scene and wants something bigger. El Greco calls on them again when an associate, Chepe (Rey Gallegos) wants $4 million owed to him by white collar criminal Mike Brennan (Louis Anthony Perez). When Brennan won't pay up, Chepe proposes kidnapping Brennan's one-year-old son in exchange for a nice percentage of the ransom. Like almost any cinematic One Last Job, this completely goes to shit, thanks mostly to the impulsive, trigger-happy Mad Dog.

Somewhat free-flowing in its structure, DOG EAT DOG isn't paced like a typical film of this sort. Schrader is initially more interested in characters, their interactions, and their quirks, at least until he gets bored with it and completely loses his way. The whole opening act with Moon Man takes an interesting approach in that it lets us get to know the Troy/Mad Dog/Diesel dynamic but is really just an extended vignette that has nothing to do with the main Chepe plot. Likewise with the opening, a ten-minute sequence showing what leads Mad Dog to kill his girlfriend and her teenage daughter (in short, she won't give him her Chevron card after he leaves a porn site up on her laptop). There's some very dark humor throughout, some of it boldly offensive and inappropriate, and almost all of it supplied by Dafoe. He has one ad-libbed line involving the baby, delivered in total seriousness, that's just wrong on every level, and it's great fun watching him lose his shit over things like an Asian prostitute answering a text while giving him a handjob. Some of the humor is practically slapsticky, like El Greco supplying them with the world's least-convincing fake police car. But it's a manic Dafoe who commands all the attention in DOG EAT DOG, making potential throwaway lines come off as laugh-out-loud funny ("Taylor Swift? Who the fuck is that bitch?" asks a just-paroled and out-of-touch with pop culture Mad Dog), so much so that when he makes an abrupt exit, it just puts a spotlight on how little else is here. Even taking Dafoe's foaming-at-the-mouth performance into consideration, Cage is rather subdued here, his character a man out of time who adores old movies, dreams of running off to Nice and fancies himself an old-school 1940s gangster but really comes off like a film noir cosplayer who's really not that interesting. By the time the climax rolls around, Schrader's just making it up as he goes along, with a foggy, garishly lit, dream-like police chase and Cage's Troy suddenly talking and behaving like he's Humphrey Bogart. DOG EAT DOG works best when it's not being gimmicky and filling the screen with smoke & mirrors to hide how little is there. There's no denying it's entertaining to a point, with a permeating weirdness that almost guarantees at least minor cult status. But after about an hour, it just starts to feel like everyone, from Schrader on down, is just goofing off.

Note: in the interest of full disclosure, I was once Facebook friends with DOG EAT DOG screenwriter Matthew Wilder, until he unfriended and blocked me over my dislike of Jean-Luc Godard's FILM SOCIALISME, creating the hashtag #attackfilmsocialismeanddie. I have had no contact with him since. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

In Theaters: HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)

(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Mel Gibson. Written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight. Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Richard Roxburgh, Nathaniel Buzolic, Matt Nable, Firass Dirani, Luke Pegler, Ben Mingay, Nico Cortez, Goran D. Kleut, Milo Gibson, Robert Morgan. (R, 139 mins)

Directing his first film since 2006's APOCALYPTO, Mel Gibson shapes this biographical account of WWII hero Desmond Doss (1919-2006) into an unflinching, graphically violent look at one man taking a personal stand amidst the horrors of war. Co-written by Robert Schenkkan, who scripted several episodes of the HBO mini-series THE PACIFIC, HACKSAW RIDGE is also filled with the kind of epic suffering endured by Gibson protagonists, whether it's BRAVEHEART's William Wallace or THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST's Jesus, right down to some crucifixion and baptismal imagery in the climax, almost depicted as a resurrection of sorts. The first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, Desmond (Andrew Garfield) grew up in the hills of Lynchburg, VA, the son of drunken, bitter WWI vet Thomas (Hugo Weaving), who's still shell-shocked by his experiences and wracked with survivor's guilt after he was the only one of his friends to return home alive. A family of Seventh-Day Adventists, Thomas has instilled in Desmond and the rest of the family--wife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and their other son Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic)--a deep belief in non-violence and the idea there is no circumstance in which even touching a gun is justified. Thomas is enraged when Hal enlists, and despite his protests, Desmond enlists as well, feeling a sense of duty but vowing to stick to his anti-gun beliefs by volunteering to be a medic ("Instead of taking lives, I'll be saving them," he tells his father). Promising to marry his nurse girlfriend Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) during his first furlough, Desmond joins the Army and all goes well until he refuses to handle a weapon.

Of course, he's immediately branded as a coward by everyone from bullying fellow recruit and all-around alpha-male Smitty (Luke Bracey) to drill sergeant Howell (a miscast Vince Vaughn), and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington). It also doesn't help that his religion's Sabbath is on Saturday, a day in which Desmond refuses to train. Glover orders a psych evaluation for an easy Section 8 discharge, but when Desmond is deemed of sound mind, Howell is instructed to make his life hell. Desmond is routinely singled out for non-existent infractions, for which Howell punishes the entire group with 20-mile hikes and having their weekend passes revoked. Desmond is beaten by his fellow recruits and refuses to back down. He's eventually court-martialed, and it's decided--with some input from a high-ranking General who fought with Thomas--that Desmond can serve his country as a medic and do so without the protection of a weapon if he so desires. After marrying Dorothy, Desmond is shipped off with the others to Okinawa to take the Maeda Escarpment (recreated on location in Australia, where the entire film was shot), known as "Hacksaw Ridge." Many men are killed in seemingly endless battles with Japanese soldiers, and after Glover orders a retreat, Desmond remains atop Hacksaw Ridge, dragging surviving soldiers to the cliff and rappelling them down one by one. Working himself to the point of mental and physical exhaustion after seemingly answering a call from God, his hands raw and bleeding profusely from rope burns, Desmond single-handedly saved the lives of 75 men at Hacksaw Ridge.

It takes a little over an hour before the story gets to Hacksaw Ridge, and the carnage starts with an extremely effective jump scare more suited to horror movie. Dumping untold gallons of blood and hurling around more innards than an Italian cannibal movie, Gibson doesn't shy away from making combat look as raw and realistic as possible (naturally, some conservatively-used CGI splatter takes you out of the moment, but it's mostly practical effects). Bullets rip through flesh and skulls in ways that put this on par with the opening of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and the endless suffering of Jesus in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. While he'll always be a pariah to a certain degree, Gibson is clearly a complex and troubled man beset by frequently public demons. His efforts as a filmmaker have a shared vision, even his 1993 directing debut THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE, thus far Gibson's only directorial effort that didn't involve graphically gory feats of human endurance. Gibson's heroes are outsiders and rebels, either by choice or by fate. They are men who stick to their beliefs in the face of any and all adversity and are willing to endure whatever physical and psychological suffering to demonstrate that belief and prove their conviction. And when you see the frayed tensions in the Doss family and the things that led Desmond to take his stand, particularly in his relationship with his father, a man who loves his family but too often treats them horribly because he can't forgive himself for being the only one of his friends to come home from The Great War alive, one can't help but wonder how much of that applies to Desmond Doss and Mel Gibson. There's an argument that Gibson's complicated relationship with his own father, an on-the-record Holocaust denier who--and this is not to excuse Gibson's tabloid transgressions--undoubtedly planted the seeds for some of the beliefs that have led to so much turmoil in Gibson's life. On and off the battlefield--the graphic gore aside--it's easy to dismiss HACKSAW RIDGE as corny Americana and Garfield's performance as overly earnest. Of course, Desmond gets not one but two "I was wrong about you" mea culpas, one from Smitty and one from Glover, and Vaughn's Howell scaling the cliff and uttering "We're not in Kansas anymore" is a line that should've been axed at the first read-through.  But it was a simpler era and a time of different values and Desmond Doss, who died in 2006 and is shown in an interview snippet at the very end, was a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. To that end, HACKSAW RIDGE is a powerful film that both honors Desmond Doss and functions as another intensely personal look into the abyss for Mel Gibson.

Cpl. Desmond Doss receiving his Medal of Honor
from President Harry Truman in 1945

Monday, November 7, 2016

Retro Review: BURIAL GROUND (1980)

(Italy - 1980; US release 1985)

Directed by Andrea Bianchi. Written by Piero Regnoli. Cast: Karin Well, Gian Luigi Chirizzi, Maria Angela Giordan (Mariangela Giordano), Simone Mattioli, Antoinetta Antinori, Roberto Caporali, Peter Bark (Pietro Barzocchini), Claudio Zuchett, Anna Valente, Renato Barbieri. (Unrated, 85 mins)

The success of George Romero's 1979 masterpiece DAWN OF THE DEAD led to an explosion of zombie knockoffs from Italy, where it was released as ZOMBI. This flood of the undead essentially helped establish the iconic status of Lucio Fulci, whose ZOMBI 2, aka ZOMBIE (1979), CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), and THE BEYOND (1981) are arguably the greatest of all post-DAWN Italian zombie movies. Almost every journeyman Italian genre vet got a chance to crank out a cannibal zombie gutmuncher: Umberto Lenzi's NIGHTMARE CITY, aka CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD (1980); Marino Girolami's ZOMBI HOLOCAUST (1980), and its retooled 1982 American variant DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D.; and Bruno Mattei's HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD, aka NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES (1980) are just a few examples. BURIAL GROUND, one of the most memorable films from the early '80s Italian zombie craze, came from veteran sleaze merchant Andrea Bianchi, whose credits include the trashy 1975 giallo STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER, the grim western-themed 1976 polizia CRY OF A PROSTITUTE, and the softcore (or hardcore, depending which version you see) 1979 possession sexploitationer MALABIMBA, aka THE MALICIOUS WHORE. Anyone even remotely familiar with Bianchi's work knows to expect trash, but BURIAL GROUND is in another dimension altogether, hitting the ground running, introducing one nonsensical element after another. It settles into more familiar zombie territory in the middle, but then the third act comes along and just takes everything into total jawdropper territory, collapsing into all-out insanity by the climax, where you see exactly why a diminutive man in his 20s had to be cast as a little boy. There's no shortage of reasons BURIAL GROUND has become a cult classic, but young Michael is at the top of the list. Ask anyone who's seen BURIAL GROUND and they'll know exactly who and what you're talking about.

Filmed in 1979 but belatedly released in the US in the fall of 1985 by the short-lived Film Concept Group, a company co-owned by mobster-turned-Christian motivational speaker Michael Franzese, BURIAL GROUND has group of mostly unlikable assholes converging on a remote villa in the country. They're the guests of Professor Ayres (Renato Barbieri), a madman-bearded idiot who ventures into a crypt on the property and is promptly killed by some really decrepit-looking zombies. This happens despite his pleading with them "I'm your friend!" Even by walking dead standards, these zombies are a pretty sorry lot, looking like Blind Dead cosplayers and shambling about in subpar makeup and tattered clothing. But they're nevertheless resourceful, proving adept with makeshift weapons and having the wherewithal to find other entrances into the villa when the hapless heroes barricade themselves inside. Ayres' guests are a rather interchangeable lot, largely unconcerned with Ayres' mysterious absence and opting to get busy between the sheets. That's especially the case for MILF-y Evelyn (Mariangela Giordano) and her new husband George (Roberto Caporali), who are interrupted as soon as they're alone by Angela's son Michael, a creepy kid with his pants pulled up entirely too high and played by one Pietro Barzocchini, who will forever be immortalized under his Anglicized pseudonym "Peter Bark." Michael doesn't like George. In fact, he doesn't like any man around his mother. So in the midst of the undead carnage, Bianchi and screenwriter Piero Regnoli give us a skincrawling Oedipal nightmare scenario where impending doom at the hands of flesh-eating zombies means Michael may only have a short window to seduce his sultry mom. Bianchi's handling of the zombie mayhem has some intermittently effective moments, but it's mostly pretty standard and eventually repetitious, until the last five minutes which, once seen, can never be unseen. Frankly, as much as I love BURIAL GROUND, there's a much more interesting film that could've been made had the focus been on Evelyn and Michael. That's a backstory that needs telling.

BURIAL GROUND opening at a first-run theater
during a slow weekend in Toledo, OH on September 6, 1985

Bianchi gets some mileage out of his effective use of the ornate Villa Parisi, a frequently seen house in Italian genre fare, most notably 1974's BLOOD FOR DRACULA. He also has a game heroine in 42-year-old Giordano, a veteran C-lister with a career going back to the mid-1950s before she found a niche in post-HERCULES peplum of the early 1960s. Giordano was romantically involved with BURIAL GROUND producer Gabriele Crisanti at the time, and starred in several of his productions during their relationship. These included numerous sexually explicit horror outings like the aforementioned MALABIMBA (in which Giordano plays a nun who decides the best way to exorcise the demon possessing her niece to have some hot lesbian sex with her), 1979's GIALLO A VENEZIA, 1980's PATRICK STILL LIVES (where she was on the receiving end of a vile death-by-fireplace-poker), and 1982's SATAN'S BABY DOLL. Giordano and Crisanti would part ways soon after, and her most prominent post-BURIAL GROUND roles were in Michele Soavi's THE SECT, aka THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER (1991) and as a resurrected Bathory-like countess after the titular Spanish punk rock group in Jess Franco's KILLER BARBYS (1996). Bark's film career went nowhere and he fell into obscurity not long after BURIAL GROUND (there's a great YouTube clip of Bark as a backup dancer for singer Gena Gas on Italian TV in 1979), though he has been making some European festival appearances in recent years thanks to his Michael infamy. There's footage from one on Severin's new deluxe Blu-ray release of BURIAL GROUND, which is easily the best this shoddy film has ever looked. One of the greatest bad movies of all time, BURIAL GROUND is must-see Eurotrash of the highest order, with Michael and his ludicrous transgressions, the over-the-top gore, the gratuitous T&A, the careless continuity errors, the blipping and blooping synth score, the bad dubbing, the awkward dialogue ("Mother! This cloth...smells of death!"), and the misspelled on-screen text at the conclusion, a "profecy" warning of the "nigths" of terror.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Retro Review: THE EXORCIST III (1990)

(US - 1990)

Written and directed by William Peter Blatty. Cast: George C. Scott, Ed Flanders, Brad Dourif, Jason Miller, Scott Wilson, Nicol Williamson, George DiCenzo, Don Gordon, Lee Richardson, Grand L. Bush, Nancy Fish, Viveca Lindfors, Zohra Lampert, Barbara Baxley, Harry Carey Jr, Ken Lerner, Mary Jackson, Sherrie Wills, Tracy Thorne, Tyra Ferrell, Lois Foraker, Kevin Corrigan, Patrick Ewing, Samuel L. Jackson. (R, 110 mins)

(US - 1990/2016)

Same credits minus Jason Miller and Nicol Williamson. (Unrated, 105 mins)

Released in August of 1990 after a tumultuous production, THE EXORCIST III is tops among threequels that completely disregard the Part II's that preceded them, instead functioning as a direct sequel to the first film (see also HIGHLANDER: THE FINAL DIMENSION and the recent BLAIR WITCH, to name just two). William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist who adapted his 1971 novel for William Friedkin's landmark 1973 classic, had nothing to do with John Boorman's insane box office bomb EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977) and opted to write his own sequel, publishing the novel Legion in 1983. When it came time to make Legion into a film, Blatty adapted and directed it himself, but made the first of many compromises with Morgan Creek bosses James G. Robinson and Joe Roth when he agreed to include the word "Exorcist" in the title. Throughout production, no one could settle on a name: on-set footage of the clapboard shows it as EXORCIST 1990, and it was also called EXORCIST: LEGION and EXORCIST: 15 YEARS LATER at various points. Even before shooting wrapped, the signs of disconnect and a communication breakdown between Blatty and his backers were already glaringly apparent.

The focus here is on Lt. Bill Kinderman, the Georgetown detective who investigated the death of the movie director thrown out of possessed Regan MacNeil's bedroom window in the 1973 original. Kinderman had a much larger role in the novel but was mostly relegated to the sideline in Friedkin's film, where he's played by the great Lee J. Cobb. Cobb died in 1976, so Kinderman is played in THE EXORCIST III by George C. Scott, whose interpretation is much more sarcastic and blustery than Cobb's more soft-spoken and easygoing portrayal. The film also features the minor character of Father Dyer, played in Friedkin's film by church technical advisor Rev. William J. O'Malley, and here by Ed Flanders. The character of Father Damien Karras, the troubled priest who sacrifices himself by jumping out of Regan MacNeil's bedroom window and tumbling down the famous steps to his death, makes an improbable return in THE EXORCIST III. It was Blatty's initial wish to have his old friend Jason Miller, who received an Oscar nomination for his work in THE EXORCIST, reprise the role but for various reasons (more on that below), Miller was replaced by Brad Dourif. The plot has Kinderman investigating a string of brutal killings where the victims all have at least tenuous ties to the original exorcism of Linda Blair's Regan MacNeil. The methodology follows that of James Venamun, aka "The Gemini Killer," a Zodiac-like serial killer who was executed in the electric chair 15 years earlier, the same night of the MacNeil exorcism. Kinderman's investigation leads him to the locked-down psych ward of a local hospital, where he sees a patient who looks exactly like the long-dead Father Karras. The priest is possessed by the spirit of the Gemini Killer. Karras' soul was taken from his body at the moment of death by what Venamun describes as "The Master," who was angry about being exorcised from Regan MacNeil and decided to put the Gemini Killer's spirit into the body of Karras. After a decade and a half of rebuilding his strength inside Karras' body, the Gemini has been leaving Karras and possessing elderly folks in the dementia ward, who are then able to escape the hospital and continue his killing spree 15 years after his presumed death.

It's an admittedly hokey story that works because of the unique elements Blatty brings to the table. It plays like a supernatural police procedural, with plenty of Blatty's trademark eccentricity, dark humor, and verbose repartee, particularly in the spirited and sometimes oddball conversations ("The carp...") between Kinderman and Dyer (Cobb and Miller were able to bring a little of that to THE EXORCIST, but there's much more of it here) and the bizarre character quirks, like twitchy, chain-smoking Dr. Temple (Scott Wilson) having stacks of newspapers ("I like to read the science articles") and nudie mag pics plastered on his office wall. THE EXORCIST III is very dialogue-heavy and at times feels like more of a companion piece to Blatty's only other directing effort, the 1980 cult film THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, which also featured Miller, Flanders, Wilson, and George DiCenzo from this film. But when Blatty turned in his cut of LEGION (or whatever it was called at the time), the studio wasn't happy. Their biggest concern was that there was no exorcism, but they also didn't like the idea of Dourif in the role of Karras and insisted Miller be summoned to reshoot all scenes involving the character. That was Blatty's original intention, but as Dourif explains on Shout! Factory's new two-disc Blu-ray set, Miller was suffering from severe alcoholism at the time, with everyone agreeing that he wasn't up to the demands of the role. The idea of replacing Miller with Dourif wasn't too hard to fathom, especially since they already had Scott replacing Cobb and Flanders in place of O'Malley. Morgan Creek didn't budge. They wanted someone from the original EXORCIST, so Miller was brought in and Dourif was informed by Blatty that his entire performance was being scrapped. But, as Blatty feared, Miller started showing signs of not being up to the task, so a decision was made to reduce his workload by having Dourif return to essay the role of just the Gemini Killer, instead of both Karras and the Gemini-possessed Karras. So in what was ultimately released as THE EXORCIST III, when Kinderman sees Karras, the priest is played by Miller, but when Karras is overtaken by the talkative, ranting Gemini Killer, the audience sees Dourif, who returned to reshoot half of his scenes, meeting the demand of the producers that Miller play Father Karras and satisfying Blatty's wish that Dourif still be in the film. It's an initially jarring effect, but it works for the most part. Nicol Williamson was cast as Father Morning, a character exclusive to the reshoots, who arrives for a climactic exorcism that comes out of nowhere and looks like a hastily tacked-on afterthought even to those not in the know about the film's troubled production. For starters, Karras is suddenly possessed by the devil for the climax (the uncredited voice provided by Scott's two-time ex-wife Colleen Dewhurst), which is filled with loud, gory special effects (Morning's skin peeling off as he unsticks himself from the ceiling) that are completely at odds with the serious, understated tone of the first 95 minutes of the film.

THE EXORCIST III opened to middling reviews but its reputation has improved over time. It remains a flawed mess but has so many effective moments throughout that the good far outweighs the not-as-good. The long, static hallway shot of the nurses' station culminates in one of the greatest jump scares in horror movie history. The nature of the Gemini Killer's murders and Kinderman's investigation ("the victim had an ingot driven into each of his eyes, then the killer cut off his head and crucified him on a pair of rowing oars") are profoundly disturbing and get under your skin in ways that prefigure the likes of David Fincher's SE7EN and help make this film as terrifying as THE EXORCIST in its own way. It's worth noting that all of these creepy scenes and the incredible hallway jump scare were in the LEGION cut, which built up a mystique over the years, with rumors always swirling that Blatty wanted to assemble a director's cut. But extensive searches yielded little and the footage was never found, leaving LEGION a title regularly mentioned with other Holy Grails of lost films, like the never-to-be-assembled original cuts of Erich von Stroheim's GREED (1924) or Orson Welles' THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942). The original prints of LEGION have been lost to time for now, but we've got the next best thing on Shout!'s Blu-ray: in addition to the theatrical version, there's a composite assembling of Blatty's original vision using VHS dailies combined with footage from THE EXORCIST III that remained from the original cut of LEGION. Because they were part of the studio-mandated reshoots, neither Miller nor Williamson are in LEGION, so other than incidental bits (like shots of photographs) reinstated to indicate that Dourif was indeed playing Father Karras, most of the big differences start around 50 minutes in when Kinderman first visits Karras' cell and Karras is only being played by Dourif. The cell is different in LEGION, which was shot at the DEG Studios in Wilmington, NC, while the reshoots were done in Los Angeles on a different set, which necessitated Dourif filming his scenes a second time. It's easy to see why Robinson and Roth were unhappy with LEGION. As brilliant as it is at times, it's got one of the most abrupt and anti-climactic endings you'll ever see. Dourif's memorable performance is more hammy and his voice electronically altered a bit in THE EXORCIST III, but the actor prefers his slightly more restrained LEGION interpretation and remains dissatisfied with the released version.

As incongruous as the exorcism is in a film called THE EXORCIST III, it's the best of two imperfect ways to end the movie, and it's the only cut that includes Scott's incredible "I believe!" speech, which wasn't in LEGION. Even with Blatty's original version now newly-assembled for fans to finally see, it still doesn't explain the inconsistencies with the 1973 film. The biggest of these is Scott's Kinderman repeatedly referring to Karras as his "best friend," when, going by their relationship in the first film, they had one testy but generally good-natured conversation before Karras' death. When did they have a chance to pose for a happy photo on what looks like a fishing trip? Kinderman's friendship with Father Dyer makes sense, especially considering the reinstated ending on the 2000 "Version You've Never Seen," where Cobb's Kinderman and O'Malley's Dyer walk away from the MacNeil house with Kinderman quoting CASABLANCA's "beautiful friendship" line (faithful to Blatty's novel, but unnecessary in the film). And it's still hard to accept that a detective as observant as Kinderman, even in a state of concern over his friend Father Dyer being hospitalized, would fail to notice a headless statue right in front of him by the elevator. Also, in LEGION, Dourif's possessed Karras has an ability to mimic sounds, like roars and train whistles, a concept that was wisely dropped for THE EXORCIST III. Another key difference is that the closing scene of THE EXORCIST III--Kinderman and cop Atkins (Grand L. Bush) standing over the grave of Father Karras--actually comes much earlier in LEGION, when they're exhuming Karras and discover the remains of Brother Fain, an elderly Jesuit who vanished in 1975. In LEGION, the Gemini Killer reveals that Fain was tending to the burial of Karras when the possessed-by-the-Gemini Killer priest awoke and crawled out of his coffin, inducing a heart attack and scaring Fain to death. The explanation is also in THE EXORCIST III, but it makes little sense without Fain's backstory and the exhuming of Karras' remains.

While not adhering to the tone or style of Friedkin's 1973 classic, LEGION is a film that still gets under your skin, demonstrating some distinct similarities to MR. FROST, a little-seen and now-forgotten 1990 supernatural thriller that was also released not long after THE EXORCIST III, with Alan Bates as a cop dealing with chatty serial killer Jeff Goldblum, who claims to be Satan. EXORCIST sequels seem to be a doomed lot, as shown again 14 years later when Paul Schrader's EXORCIST prequel DOMINION was shelved entirely for EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, a completely reshot version directed by Renny Harlin, with both starring Stellan Skarsgard as a young Father Merrin, Max von Sydow's character from the original. Similar to LEGION in that it was a thoughtful look at the nature of evil rather than a conventional, head-spinning and green-barfing possession movie, DOMINION eventually got a limited release before appearing on DVD. but was further evidence that no one was sure what they really wanted out of an EXORCIST movie. Still, even with its problems, THE EXORCIST III is easily the best of the bunch after Friedkin's original trailblazer. Shout!'s Blu-ray is packed with extensive vintage and new supplemental material, including an audio interview--played over the LEGION cut as a commentary track--with the now-88-year-old Blatty who, not surprisingly, hasn't directed a film since.