Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Retro Review: THE BEGUILED (1971)

(US - 1971)

Directed by Donald Siegel. Written by John B. Sherry (Albert Maltz) and Grimes Grice (Irene Kamp). Cast: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman, Jo Ann Harris, Darleen Carr, Mae Mercer, Pamelyn Ferdin, Melody Thomas, Peggy Drier, Pattye Mattick, Matt Clark, Buddy Van Horn. (R, 105 mins)

With Sofia Coppola's upcoming Colin Farrell/Nicole Kidman remake of THE BEGUILED getting a ton of positive buzz at Cannes, there's likely to be some renewed interest in this original 1971 version.  An against-type departure and a box office flop for Clint Eastwood 46 years ago, THE BEGUILED isn't referenced much in discussions about Eastwood, but it's further proof that he was up for stretching as an actor two decades before critics finally took him seriously with UNFORGIVEN. Set during the Civil War, Eastwood is John McBurney, an injured Union soldier given refuge and medical treatment at a Confederate boarding school for girls run by Martha (Geraldine Page). It isn't long before the charming McBurney, to varying degrees, seduces and manipulates the sexually repressed older girls and basks in the obvious crush the younger ones have on him. His carousing around the house eventually costs him dearly, as THE BEGUILED turns into a sweat-soaked Southern Gothic and sits right alongside the supernatural-tinged HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER as the closest Eastwood got to starring in a horror movie.

Director Don Siegel (who already directed Eastwood in COOGAN'S BLUFF and TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA) lets the tension simmer throughout until it completely boils over in the third act, with a horrific amputation sequence and one confrontation after another allowing Eastwood to flex his acting muscles more than he ever had up to that point in his career. He's matched by a subtly powerful Page, whose Martha has all sorts of perverse emotions brought to the surface when she realizes how much McBurney reminds her of her dear brother, with whom she was a little too close. Universal had no idea how to sell THE BEGUILED, and Eastwood fans expecting another western or another COOGAN'S BLUFF or KELLY'S HEROES were left bewildered and bored. Scripted by the long-blacklisted Albert Maltz under the pseudonym "John B. Sherry" and Irene Kamp under the alias "Grimes Grice," and based on the 1966 novel A Painted Devil by Thomas Cullinan, THE BEGUILED gets pretty daring in spots, with some questionable comments McBurney throws at one of the younger girls ("13? Old enough to be kissed!") and a tawdry dream sequence where Martha fantasizes about a threesome with McBurney and Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman). An interesting precursor to Eastwood's later TIGHTROPE in that it shares the motif of the star having a large female supporting cast pretty much throwing themselves at him, THE BEGUILED was an unusual and offbeat project for Eastwood to tackle and deserved a better reception than it got in the spring of 1971. He rebounded quickly, as PLAY MISTY FOR ME (his directorial debut) and DIRTY HARRY (his fourth of five films directed by mentor Siegel) were both in theaters later the same year, but time has been kind to the dark and disturbing THE BEGUILED, and it'll be fascinating to see what Coppola has done with it.

THE BEGUILED opening in Toledo, OH on June 30, 1971

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Retro Review: THE TERROR WITHIN (1989) and THE TERROR WITHIN II (1991)

(US - 1989)

Directed by Thierry Notz. Written by Thomas M. Cleaver. Cast: George Kennedy, Andrew Stevens, Starr Andreeff, Terri Treas, John Lafayette, Tommy Hinckley, Yvonne Saa, Joseph Hardin, Al Guarino, Butch Stevens. (R, 88 mins)

It doesn't scale the glorious cult movie heights of New World classics like 1980's HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP or 1981's GALAXY OF TERROR, but by the lesser standards of late '80s, Concorde-era Roger Corman, THE TERROR WITHIN isn't bad. Owing a lot to both ALIEN and HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, the film is set in a post-apocalyptic America of an unspecified future--not too far in the future, if the presence of mullets are any indication--after a plague has wiped out a good chunk of mankind. A small group of military scientists have taken refuge in an underground lab in the Mojave Desert, occasionally scouting the land above for food and dodging "Gargoyles," hideous mutant creatures that run rampant. During one excursion to find the remains of two of their team killed by a Gargoyle, David (Andrew Stevens) and Sue (Starr Andreeff), along with David's dog Butch (played by Stevens' own dog, who gets onscreen credit), find a shell-shocked young woman named Karen (Yvonne Saa) and bring her back to the lab, much to the concern of the group's leader Hal (George Kennedy), after a Gargoyle discovers their secret entrance through a dilapidated shed and knocks out their main security camera to the outside. Head doc Linda (Terri Treas) runs some tests and finds that Karen is expecting, but the pregnancy is accelerating. During an attempted C-section, the baby claws its way out of Karen, the mutant result of a rape by a Gargoyle. The mutant spawn escapes into an air vent and grows at a rapid rate, occasionally emerging from a hiding place to pick off the survivors one by one in sequences that will in no way remind you of ALIEN.

The HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP-derived idea of the Gargoyles hunting women in order to propagate their species brings some exploitative tackiness to the proceedings, which elsewhere mimic ALIEN right down to the top-billed actor and biggest name in the cast being killed off halfway through, just like Tom Skerritt in Ridley Scott's 1979 classic. Both happen offscreen and are implied, but Skerritt's is handled in a much better fashion compared to the way TERROR WITHIN director Thierry Notz has a bellowing Kennedy foolishly charge the gargoyle and yell "Die, you miserable ugly fuck!" Elsewhere, John Lafayette as Andre and Tommy Hinckley as Neil are carbon copies of Yaphet Kotto's Parker and Harry Dean Stanton's Brett, respectively, with Brett's repeating of "Right!" echoed here with Neil's "Maybe," and David asking "Do you just repeat everything he says?" just like Sigourney Weaver's Ripley (elsewhere, STAR TREK gets invoked as a frustrated Linda barks "I'm a doctor, not an engineer!"). THE TERROR WITHIN suffers from chintzy makeup work, with the body of the Gargoyle an obvious rubber suit that looks like Corman borrowed it from a HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP cosplayer, and some serious lapses in logic, as a limited-power laser is tested on a fire extinguisher, not only draining the laser by 25% but also emptying out the fire extinguisher, almost certainly foreshadowing a raging inferno to come later (SPOILER: it does). But THE TERROR WITHIN is a fairly solid little B-movie, with Notz enthusiastically letting the blood splatter everywhere as well as establishing a convincing claustrophobic atmosphere in the underground lab. He even pulls off a couple of stylish, De Palma-esque split diopter shots. A native of France, Notz didn't spend much time working for Corman--his other directing assignment around this time was 1990's WATCHERS II and he served as second unit director on the same year's FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, Corman's one-off return to directing after a 20-year hiatus--before moving on. He directed a pair of obscure war dramas with 1994's FORTUNES OF WAR and 1997's GOODBYE AMERICA, and the latter remains his last credit on IMDb.

THE TERROR WITHIN opening in Toledo, OH on Feb 24, 1989

(US - 1991)

Written and directed by Andrew Stevens. Cast: Andrew Stevens, Stella Stevens, Chick Vennera, R. Lee Ermey, Burton Gilliam, Clare Hoak, Larry Gilman, Barbara A. Woods, Rene Jones, Lou Beatty Jr, Gordon Currie, Brad Blaisdell, Cindi Gossett, Brewster Gould, Pete Koch, Butch Stevens. (R, 85 mins)

Two years after THE TERROR WITHIN, Andrew Stevens and a noticeably older Butch returned to reprise their roles, wandering the post-apocalyptic wasteland for THE TERROR WITHIN II. The sequel provides some backstory that the first film didn't really address, namely that a nuclear disarmament treaty led to covert experiments in biological warfare, resulting in a plague that wiped out most of mankind, creating the creatures that were called "Gargoyles" in the first film, but are now referred to as "Lusus." David is eventually joined in his nomadic existence by a young woman named Ariel (Clare Hoak, from Concorde's MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH remake). The sole survivor of the first film (apparently, Terri Treas' Dr. Linda died in the desert after they got away), David is en route from the Mojave stronghold to a similar underground lab in the Rocky Mountains run by Von Demming (R. Lee Ermey, on the heels of a similar role in Juan Piquer Simon's ENDLESS DESCENT), with the intent of bringing along a Lusus vaccine derived from a cactus extract. David and Ariel fall in love and after one night of passionate desert lovemaking, she's convinced she's pregnant. They eventually run afoul of Aunty Entity-type despot Elaba (Cindi Gossett), which leads to Ariel being kidnapped and strapped to a rape stand as a Lusus has its way with her. David and Ariel eventually make their way to Von Demming's compound, where it's discovered that Ariel is indeed pregnant with David's child, though a mutant sperm from the Lusus has infiltrated the egg and caused yet another human/creature hybrid. Meanwhile, a finger severed from an earlier Lusus attack on the Rocky Mountain lab is regenerating an all-new Lusus as David, Von Demming and the rest--including Kyle (Chick Vennera), treacherous scientist Sharon (Barbara A. Woods), who's created just enough vaccine to hoard it for herself, and head doc Kara (Stella Stevens, Andrew's mom)--are hunted down one by one by Ariel's rapidly growing offspring, a half-human/half-Lusus monstrosity that looks a lot like Dr. Pretorious in Stuart Gordon's FROM BEYOND (1986).

Stevens was being groomed for stardom back in the late '70s with co-starring roles in a pair of 1978 films, THE BOYS IN COMPANY C and as Kirk Douglas' brainwashed psychic son unable to control his powers in Brian De Palma's THE FURY. He then headlined a pair of high-profile NBC miniseries with 1978's THE BASTARD and its 1979 sequel THE REBELS, as well as a 1979 made-for-TV remake of the 1938 classic TOPPER that paired him with then-wife Kate Jackson. He co-starred in two Charles Bronson movies (1981's DEATH HUNT and 1983's 10 TO MIDNIGHT) and played a psycho stalker obsessed with TV news anchor Morgan Fairchild in 1982's THE SEDUCTION, but big-screen stardom never panned out and Stevens spent most of the '80s on short-lived TV shows like CODE RED and EMERALD POINT N.A.S. He also had numerous guest spots on shows like THE LOVE BOAT and MURDER, SHE WROTE, as well as a recurring role as J.R. Ewing underling Casey Denault on DALLAS. It was during his time on DALLAS from 1987 to 1989 that Stevens first began dabbling in the world of low-budget B-movies, with 1987's SCARED STIFF and a pair of Spanish actioners with director Jose Antonio de la Loma, 1988's COUNTERFORCE and 1989's FINE GOLD. Stevens would ultimately find his niche as a leading man with the advent of the straight-to-video erotic thriller thanks to 1990's video store mainstay NIGHT EYES. Thus began a series of what could best be described as "Stevensploitation," leading to three sequels, with 1992's NIGHT EYES 2 and 1993's NIGHT EYES 3 pairing him frequent co-star Shannon Tweed, as the duo would also star in 1994's SCORNED, 1994's ILLICIT DREAMS, and 1995's BODY CHEMISTRY 4: FULL EXPOSURE, the Concorde franchise that Stevens inherited with 1993's BODY CHEMISTRY 3: POINT OF SEDUCTION. Stevens also starred in the Tweed-less 1997 sequel SCORNED 2, making him the DTV erotic thriller equivalent of compulsive franchise-joiner Jeremy Renner (THE AVENGERS, THE BOURNE LEGACY, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE).

Clare Hoak between takes of the human/Lusus-hybrid birth scene

While he paid the bills enduring endless unrated sex scenes with the likes of Tweed, Shari Shattuck, Tanya Roberts, and others, Stevens was also pursuing his interest in directing. THE TERROR WITHIN II marked his debut as a filmmaker, and it's only fitting that the opportunity came courtesy of Roger Corman. Corman was known for shepherding many young, aspiring filmmakers of the '60s and '70s, like Francis Ford Coppola (DEMENTIA 13), Peter Bogdanovich (VOYAGE TO THE PLANET OF PREHISTORIC WOMEN), Martin Scorsese (BOXCAR BERTHA), Jonathan Demme (CAGED HEAT), Joe Dante (PIRANHA), John Sayles (writer of PIRANHA and BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS), James Cameron (an art director and production designer on BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and GALAXY OF TERROR), and Ron Howard (GRAND THEFT AUTO) just to name a few. Corman didn't establish much in the way of bench strength during his '80s Concorde years, with only two directors having any notable degree of mainstream Hollywood success (Luis Llosa with SNIPER and THE SPECIALIST and Carl Franklin with ONE FALSE MOVE and the Denzel Washington thrillers DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, and OUT OF TIME). Corman letting Stevens earn his stripes with THE TERROR WITHIN II was an old-school move out of the 1970s New World playbook, and that extended to the involvement of Polish-born cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who shot THE TERROR WITHIN II and THE RAIN KILLER for Concorde before quickly graduating to the big leagues as Steven Spielberg's go-to cinematographer, winning Oscars for his work on 1993's SCHINDLER'S LIST and 1998's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (it's doubtful Kaminski mentioned THE TERROR WITHIN II in either acceptance speech), while also earning nominations for 1997's AMISTAD, 2011's WAR HORSE, and 2012's LINCOLN. The end result is somewhat less than its predecessor, though Stevens does what he can with the pocket change given to him by Corman (in an interview on Code Red's new TERROR WITHIN II Blu-ray, Ermey claims the budget was only $500,000, and judging from the finished film, that's probably accurate). Incredibly cheap-looking and raggedly-assembled, THE TERROR WITHIN II makes THE TERROR WITHIN look like a lavish sci-fi epic, with no money spent on even the most basic props, as evidenced by a great shot of Vennera--a Stevens BFF who appeared in several of his films, and this one just three years after starring in Robert Redford's acclaimed THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR--angrily firing an assault rifle but he's really just holding it and shaking it as sounds of firing ammo are put over it in post. The first hour of THE TERROR WITHIN II plays more like a Cirio Santiago post-nuke than a sequel to an ALIEN knockoff, and once David and Ariel arrive at the Rocky Mountain compound with 25 minutes to go, it morphs into a rushed, condensed version of the first film, with David apparently remembering absolutely nothing of what he endured since he faces the same situations and makes the same mistakes once again.

Complaining about plot holes and contrivances in something called THE TERROR WITHIN II is a waste of time. It's an enjoyable enough time killer, though Stevens' direction lacks even the most basic sense of style that Notz brought to the table two years earlier, and considering that he was just a couple of years away from becoming one of the most respected and sought-after D.P.'s in the movie industry, Kaminski's work here is functional at best. Stevens would continue directing throughout the '90s (NIGHT EYES 3, SCORNED, ILLICIT DREAMS) before launching a second career as a producer, forming Franchise Pictures with business partner Elie Samaha. Franchise had a hand in everything from low-budget action movies (STORM CATCHER, AGENT RED) to future cult classics (THE BOONDOCK SAINTS), and major studio fare with big name actors (THE WHOLE NINE YARDS, BATTLEFIELD EARTH, 3000 MILES TO GRACELAND, DRIVEN). Franchise would eventually crash and burn in a controversial court case involving allegations of scamming investors with inflated and fraudulent budget reports, leading to the company declaring bankruptcy in 2007. It was during this period that Stevens was accused of hiring private investigator and "wiretapper to the stars" Anthony Pellicano to tap the phones of one of the plaintiffs in the case. Pellicano became the subject of an extensive, years-long FBI investigation involving everything from racketeering to illegal possession of explosives and firearms, and Stevens was granted immunity for testifying against him in the same investigation that eventually led to the imprisonment of DIE HARD and HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER director John McTiernan after he allegedly lied to an FBI agent about hiring Pellicano. Now 61, Stevens has laid relatively low in recent years. He hasn't directed or appeared in a film since 2010, and his last credit as a producer was on Fred Olen Ray's 2013 DTV kids movie ABNER THE INVISIBLE DOG. In 2014, he published the book Foolproof Filmmaking: Make a Movie that Makes a Profit, and embarked on another career giving seminars and online tutorials covering the ins and outs of movie production.

Friday, May 26, 2017

On Netflix: WAR MACHINE (2017)

(US - 2017)

Written and directed by David Michod. Cast: Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley, Tilda Swinton, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, John Magaro, Scoot McNairy, Will Poulter, Alan Ruck, Lakeith Stanfield, Meg Tilly, Emory Cohen, RJ Cyler, Anthony Hayes, Josh Stewart, Pico Alexander, Daniel Betts, Griffin Dunne, Aymen Hamdouchi, Nicholas Jones, Hopper Penn, Sian Thomas, Georgina Rylance. (Unrated, 122 mins)

Built around the most cartoonish and self-indulgent performance of Brad Pitt's career, the muddled WAR MACHINE, the most high-profile Netflix Original film yet, is another in a long line of absurdist political satires that try to poke fun at government and military institutions and end up coming off as irritatingly smug and self-satisfied. With rare exceptions like Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) and Barry Levinson's WAG THE DOG (1997)--films that found the right tone, stuck with it, and didn't get sidetracked by ham-fisted messaging--this subgenre is filled with the misbegotten likes of WRONG IS RIGHT (1982), WAR, INC (2008), and THE INTERVIEW (2014) to name a few, though in all fairness, WRONG IS RIGHT might actually be worth another look as some of its ludicrous plot has become reality much like entertainment-driven TV news has in the decades since NETWORK (1976). "Inspired" by the book The Operators, Michael Hastings' expansion of his 2010 Rolling Stone article "The Runaway General," WAR MACHINE stars Pitt as four-star Army Gen. Glen McMahon, a fictional stand-in for Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was appointed head of Coalition Forces in Afghanistan in 2009. McMahon doesn't feel the war is being won because "it's not being led," and despite orders from President Obama, along with reminders from the US ambassador to Afghanistan (Alan Ruck), and advisers who never actually served, McMahon ignores the plan to "assess" the situation and Obama's wish to wrap it up and "bring it on home," and instead plans to ask for 40,000 more troops and take control of Helmand Province and Qandahar, two areas that the coalition has already written off. McMahon's chief duty is counter-insurgency or, as narrator Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy), a fictionalized Hastings, puts it, "Try to convince the country you've invaded that you're actually here to help."

McMahon is accompanied by his close-knit team of generals and soldiers who all come across as fawning sycophants to this military legend--nicknamed "The Glenimal"--none more disturbingly devoted than anger management case Gen. Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall), a character based on future disgraced Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn/Pulver is portrayed here as a raging asshole with a dedication to McMahon that borders on a stalking man-crush. There's also de facto PR guys Staggart (John Magaro) and Little (Topher Grace, cast radically against type as "Topher Grace"), but all of them take a backseat to Pitt's scenery chewing. Pitt's McMahon is so far removed from the real McChrystal that changing his name was a no-brainer: he barks and grunts like the actor's Aldo Raine in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, gesticulates with his right hand balled up in a claw, walks around in a bow-legged strut, makes pained faces, and generally acts and moves like a combination of Popeye and Sterling Hayden's Gen. Jack D. Ripper from DR. STRANGELOVE if Ripper just had a stroke. It's an overly broad performance more fitting for an SNL guest-hosting gig, and it might've worked if writer/director David Michod could've settled on a tone.

The satirical elements work best in the early-going, with McMahon introduced taking a shit before chest-out strutting through the airport to the tune of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Confused," or McMahon meeting Afghan president Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley) and giving him a moment to finish praying until it's revealed that the president is not kneeling toward Mecca, but actually trying to set up his new Blu-ray player (Karzai is later seen sick in bed laughing hysterically at DUMB AND DUMBER). McMahon also gets off a few good zingers like walking into a command center and scoffing at what's on TV, saying "Let's lose the Fox News...we don't need a bunch of angry perverts yelling at us all day." But it doesn't take long for Michod to lose focus, as the satire is largely abandoned in favor of making a serious look at McMahon's ambitions blowing up in his face. His wife (Meg Tilly) spends their 30th anniversary lamenting that, by her calculations, they've spent an average of 30 days a year together for the previous eight years, and Cullen tags along on a trip to Europe to visit other coalition government officials, during which time McMahon and everyone else have a few too many drinks at a Paris bar and start openly trash-talking President Obama and VP Joe Biden (Hillary Clinton is also a character, played by Sian Thomas, though she's largely left alone and depicted as an image-conscious company woman). The resulting article ended McChrystal's military career, but even as the same fate befalls McMahon, the biggest question you might have is why is the story being told this way? As things get more serious and events start becoming less absurd and more centered on actual incidents, Pitt's mannered, over-the-top performance starts to resemble talk-show Robin Williams, a sure sign that Michod, the Australian auteur behind 2010's ANIMAL KINGDOM and 2014's underrated THE ROVER, simply deferred to the wishes of producer Brad Pitt regarding how star Brad Pitt should treat the material. Considering his degree of fame and tabloid notoriety, Pitt is an actor who relishes offbeat and decidedly non-mainstream projects (THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, KILLING THEM SOFTLY, THE COUNSELOR, BY THE SEA). In the end, WAR MACHINE is less a cutting, cynical, satirical look at the military and war and more a Brad Pitt vanity project where the actor is clearly off on his own in some other movie instead of the one his director and co-stars are working on.

The many faces of Brad Pitt in WAR MACHINE: 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Retro Review: HIGHPOINT (1984)

(Canada - 1984)

Directed by Peter Carter. Written by Richard Guttman and Ian Sutherland. Cast: Richard Harris, Christopher Plummer, Beverly D'Angelo, Kate Reid, Peter Donat, Robin Gammell, Saul Rubinek, Maury Chaykin, George Buza, David Calderisi, Ken James. (PG, 87 mins)

Aside from one good car chase and stunt legend Dar Robinson taking a dive off of Toronto's CN Tower, which at the time was the tallest free-standing structure in the world, the justifiably obscure Canadian tax shelter comedy-thriller HIGHPOINT is an absolute shit show. Filmed in 1979, subjected to reshoots in 1981, given a brief European release in 1982, and unseen in the US until 1984 in a drastically restructured version that was assembled following even more reshoots and post-production tweaking, HIGHPOINT was deemed a lost cause by anyone who came into contact with it. Director Peter Carter and co-writer Ian Sutherland had just made the Canadian survivalist horror film RITUALS, and intended HIGHPOINT to be a spoofy homage to NORTH BY NORTHWEST and other Hitchcockian "innocent man caught in a web of intrigue" tropes, even though Mel Brooks' HIGH ANXIETY did the job quite well in 1977. By the time HIGHPOINT was finally dumped in a handful of theaters on Labor Day weekend in 1984 (opening the same day as BOLERO and C.H.U.D.), the new regime at New World Pictures, which had just changed hands after being sold by Roger Corman, jettisoned the lighthearted score by Oscar-winner John Addison (TOM JONES) and replaced it with more bombastic, Jerry Goldsmith-style cues by Christopher Young, who would become an in-house New World composer on films like FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC and HELLRAISER before going on to a busy career with the major studios (he received a Golden Globe nomination for his work on Lasse Hallstrom's 2001 film THE SHIPPING NEWS). New World also excised as much of the comedy as they could, opting to retool it in the editing room as a relatively straight-faced, serious action-heavy thriller, with what appears to be half of the jobs in the credits being prefaced by the word "additional," and all without the involvement of Carter, who died of a heart attack at just 48 in June of 1982. As anyone who's seen Sam Peckinpah's THE KILLER ELITE can attest, taking a comedy and turning it into a serious movie in post-production is a terrible idea, and HIGHPOINT, which would be more accurately titled NORTH BY NORTHWORST, is such an ineptly-assembled dumpster fire of a movie that it's surprising it was ever released at all. And even after all the time, effort, and money (approximately $2 million) spent revamping HIGHPOINT as a thriller, New World's poster art sold it as a comedy anyway, further proof that no one at any point could reach an agreement on what they wanted from this project and that no one involved was on the same page. A new exposition-filled opening sequence was shot with co-stars Peter Donat and Robin Gammell after test audiences had no clue what was happening, and veteran Roger Corman associates Clark Henderson and Barry Zetlin are among the heavily-staffed behind-the-scenes triage unit credited with "additional editing," which is enough to seriously question whether HIGHPOINT was acquired by the Corman-owned New World prior to his selling the company in late 1983 and perhaps thrown in as a freebie for the new owners. Speaking purely hypothetically, if there was ever a wreckage so beyond salvaging that not even Roger Corman could get it in profitable shape, it's HIGHPOINT.

Unemployed accountant Lewis Kinney (Richard Harris, trying desperately to be Cary Grant) rescues a young woman from an attempted suicide by drowning and ends up getting involved in all manner of complex and incoherent machinations. The woman is Lise Hatcher (Beverly D'Angelo, who replaced a bailing Katharine Ross shortly before filming began), the adopted younger sister of noted playboy and con artist James Hatcher (Christopher Plummer), whose funeral she just left. But Hatcher is very much alive, faking his own death after absconding with $10 million of CIA cash that was loaned to the Mafia for a top secret money laundering scam code-named "Highpoint." When Hatcher's ailing mother (Kate Reid) hires Kinney to help locate her son, the nebbishy accountant finds himself targeted by government goons working at the behest of corrupt CIA agent Banner (Gammell), as well as incompetent, slapstick hit men Centino (Saul Rubinek) and Falco (Maury Chaykin), dim-witted flunkies working for mob boss Maronzella (Donat). The plot begins in Los Angeles before moving to NYC and eventually Quebec and Toronto, probably per the rules of the tax shelter incentive, but it's anyone's guess why anything happens in HIGHPOINT. One admittedly well-done car chase early on is still plagued by obvious post-production stitching, awkward cutting, and continuity issues that run rampant throughout, like two repeats of the same reaction shot of D'Angelo laughing. And while Robinson's jaw-dropping 700 ft free fall off the CN Tower in the climax (he's doubling Plummer in the scene) is the sole reason HIGHPOINT got any attention at all back in the day and probably why New World worked so hard to make this presentable, even it's handled in a way that ruins the moment, looking as if Carter and the crew didn't get enough coverage for the shot and had no way of cutting it together without asking Robinson to do it again. And to give you some perspective on just how incredible this HIGHPOINT stunt was, Robinson's famous free fall from the Peachtree Plaza at the end of SHARKY'S MACHINE, where he's doubling Henry Silva, was only 220 ft.

As this miserable film slogged on, the most interesting thought I had was wondering if, years later on the set of Clint Eastwood's 1992 classic UNFORGIVEN, Harris (as English Bob) and Rubinek (as bespectacled, tenderfoot biographer W.W. Beauchamp) reminisced about the trainwreck they appeared in together over a decade earlier. Harris and Plummer, both in the midst of a string of Canadian tax shelter gigs, walk through HIGHPOINT looking smug and punchable, delivering their lines with an annoyingly glib tone that might've been appropriate for a comedy but makes no sense now that these performances are in a thriller. The "comedy" cut is included in a 112-minute workprint version on Code Red's new Blu-ray, though I can't imagine anyone caring enough to do a comparison with New World's 87-minute US cut, which only came about because no one, from test audiences to the suits at New World, could follow the original version, even though executive producer William J. Immerman (TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT, SOUTHERN COMFORT) is on hand for an interview to defend the 112-minute cut as superior. Even in its restructured and streamlined incarnation, too much unfunny comedy remains, whether it's Harris breaking the fourth wall and winking at what I presume is a vacant theater where an audience was expected to be, or a long mid-film chase involving horse-drawn carriages, cars, and a portly guy chasing them all, with everything sped up Benny Hill-style complete with high-pitched voices, wacky music and zany sound effects. It sticks out like a sore thumb in what's supposed to be a thriller (imagine the Keystone Kops pulling up alongside Cary Grant while he's being chased by the crop dusting plane in NORTH BY NORTHWEST), but if that was an indication of what constituted "funny" in the original cut, then New World probably had the right idea, but just no way to make it better regardless of the tone. With today's constant crowing about the so-called death of physical media, I'm glad to see any obscure movie resurrected on Blu-ray, but does this film have any fans? Thanks--I guess--but special edition restorations don't get much more pointless than HIGHPOINT, currently the front-runner for my Buyer's Remorse Blu-ray of 2017.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Retro Review: WILLARD (1971) and BEN (1972)

(US - 1971)

Directed by Daniel Mann. Written by Gilbert A. Ralston. Cast: Bruce Davison, Ernest Borgnine, Sondra Locke, Elsa Lanchester, Michael Dante, Jody Gilbert, William Hansen, John Myhers, J. Pat O'Malley, Joan Shawlee, Alan Baxter, Sherry Presnell. (PG, 95 mins)

A surprise sleeper smash for Cinerama Releasing in the summer of 1971, WILLARD, from the masters of horror at Bing Crosby Productions, has been out of circulation for a number of years but has resurfaced, along with its sequel BEN, on Blu-ray courtesy of Shout! Factory. To those under 30, WILLARD has probably been supplanted by the minor cult following of its over-the-top 2003 remake, but for Gen Xers and older--those fortunate enough to have seen it theatrically or on one of its many TV airings as kids throughout the '70s and '80s--the original WILLARD remains one of the most beloved horror films of its day. It's creepy enough to make you squirm and give everyone the willies, but carries a PG (or GP at the time) rating that allowed it to have a huge impact on kids who were actually allowed to see it. It also helped that everyone at some point in their lives probably felt like Willard Stiles, the slumped-shouldered sad sack played by Bruce Davison in the role for which the veteran character actor is best known, even with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 1990's LONGTIME COMPANION. Endlessly picked on at work by his cruel, bullying boss Al Martin (an essential Ernest Borgnine performance) and never given a moment of peace at home by his needy, domineering mother Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester), Willard is a ticking time bomb looking for a way out. He has no friends and his birthday party is attended only by his mother's elderly friends who start in on him about how he needs to stand up to Martin, a conniving asshole who co-owned a foundry with Willard's late father only to muscle him out of the partnership and stress him into an early grave. Martin kept Willard on the payroll as a consolation prize for being screwed out of co-ownership, putting him in sales accounting, dumping everyone else's work on him and forcing him to come in on weekends in the hopes that he'll quit. Willard's only joy in life comes from a family of rats he finds in the backyard. He spends all of his free time with them, playing with them and teaching them tricks, eventually getting them to understand voice commands and perhaps even developing a kind of psychological connection with them. He bonds with two in particular: good-natured and playful white rat Socrates and clingy and vaguely sinister black rat Ben.

Willard soon devotes all of his time to the rats, especially after his mother dies. He moves the fertile rat pack, which has grown exponentially, into the basement, where he has a hard time corralling and controlling them. He ignores the attention given to him by shy, pretty co-worker Joan (Sondra Locke, several years before hooking up with Clint Eastwood) and begins using the rats to plot vengeance against his tormentors. Director Daniel Mann (THE ROSE TATTOO, BUTTERFIELD 8, OUR MAN FLINT) and veteran TV writer Gilbert A. Ralston (BEN CASEY), working from Stephen Gilbert's 1969 novel Ratman's Notebooks, play a little coy with the horror element for a good chunk of the film's running time, whether it's the lighthearted, cute antics of the rats or the completely, almost sarcastically inappropriate score, which sounds like it belongs in a cheerful, uplifting kids movie. Willard just seems shy, lonely, and unable to stand up for himself until his dark side takes over. First it's relatively harmless pranks like setting some rats loose at a swanky work party hosted by Martin that everyone was invited to except Willard, who was nevertheless put in charge of mailing the invitations. But before long, he's using the rats as a decoy to stage a theft of some cash at the home of Martin's sleazy new business partner (Alan Baxter) and eventually, after bringing Socrates and Ben to work with him only to have Martin kill Socrates after he's spotted in the supply closet, training them to attack under the newly-assumed leadership of Ben. It's about 2/3 of the way through WILLARD before its shift to outright horror, and the much talked-about scene where Willard finally exacts his revenge on Martin by bringing along a few thousand of his friends ("Tear him up!" a wild-eyed Willard commands) was the kind of cathartic, crowd-pleasing entertainment that helped make WILLARD such a huge word-of-mouth hit.

WILLARD's inspired willingness to go off the rails in the home stretch makes it especially endearing all these years later. With his mother gone and Martin no longer around to make his life miserable, Willard is finally free and doesn't need his rodent friends anymore. But Ben, feeling rejected on an almost-FATAL ATTRACTION level, won't be ignored, and the scene where Willard's romantic dinner with Joan is interrupted when he spots Ben on the mantle stink-eye squinting at him in a jealous, silent rage is absolute genius. WILLARD inspired one direct ripoff with 1972's STANLEY, about a PTSD-stricken Vietnam vet (Chris Robinson) who trains his pet rattlesnake to take out his enemies, but can be seen in retrospect as a loose precursor to two later 1970s trends: the "nature run amok" (JAWS, GRIZZLY, THE FOOD OF THE GODS, etc) and the "social outcast exacting telepathic revenge" subgenres (CARRIE and JENNIFER--the latter about a teenage girl with both CARRIE-like powers and an ability to control snakes, starring Lisa Pelikan, who was married to Davison for many years--as well as popular made-for-TV-movies like THE SPELL and THE INITIATION OF SARAH). What helps WILLARD a lot is the genuinely terrific performance by Davison, who sells the character much the way Anthony Perkins did with Norman Bates in PSYCHO. Sure, there's the similarities in that they're both sheltered mama's boys, but like Norman Bates, you sympathize with Willard until he starts crossing lines. Norman Bates got off easy by getting to spend two decades in an institution for his crimes. Willard Stiles wasn't so lucky: he made the mistake of fucking with Ben.

WILLARD opening in Toledo, OH on July 2, 1971

(US - 1972)

Directed by Phil Karlson. Written by Gilbert A. Ralston. Cast: Joseph Campanella, Arthur O'Connell, Meredith Baxter, Lee Harcourt Montgomery, Rosemary Murphy, Kaz Garas, Kenneth Tobey, Paul Carr, Richard Van Fleet, James Luisi, Norman Alden. (PG, 94 mins)

In theaters less than 12 months after WILLARD, the quickie sequel BEN looks and feels even more like a made-for-TV movie than its predecessor, a vibe enhanced by the presence of TV stalwarts like Joseph Campanella and a young Meredith Baxter in leading roles, both of whom accumulating only a small handful of big-screen credits over their long careers (unless I'm mistaken, BEN is the only time Campanella headlined a theatrical release). Stepping in for Daniel Mann was veteran journeyman Phil Karlson, whose directing career dated back to Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys programmers in the 1940s and included some westerns and film noir in the 1950s and Dean Martin's Matt Helm movies in the 1960s. Karlson's biggest success would come 30 years into his career with his next-to-last film when, right after BEN, he directed the surprise 1973 blockbuster WALKING TALL, with Joe Don Baker in his signature role as ass-kicking, hickory-clubbing Sheriff Buford Pusser. Karlson came from the "Let's just get it in the can and move on" school of no-nonsense efficiency, but things get off to a shaky start with an awkward and stilted opening with a bunch of people standing as silent and still as a freeze frame outside the home of Willard Stiles, with BEN picking up immediately after the events of WILLARD. Willard's body has been found in the attic following the Ben-orchestrated revenge attack on him. Dogged detectives Kirtland (Campanella) and Greer (Kaz Garas) find Willard's diary, where he details his training of an army of rats, but the incredulous cops are quick to dismiss it as the rantings of a kook since the rats are nowhere to be found. That's because Ben has directed them to hide in the walls undetected, and while the detectives bicker with cigar-chomping newshound Hatfield (Arthur O'Connell), Ben waits patiently to lead them to a safe place. The safe place turns out to be the sewer, from which Ben and a few other scouts emerge to befriend lonely Danny (Lee Harcourt Montgomery), a frail eight-year-old with a weak heart who lives in Willard's neighborhood. Like Willard, Danny has no friends and spends his time putting on marionette shows in the garage, converted into a workshop/playroom by his single mom Beth (Rosemary Murphy) and big sister Eve (Baxter). Danny and Ben bond immediately, with Ben doing for Danny exactly what he did for Willard when he leads a rat attack on a neighborhood bully who's picking on Danny. Meanwhile, Kirtland and Hatfield are scouring the city for the rat army, though who knows what they intend to do when they find it?

BEN wasn't as big of a hit was WILLARD, though it was just as ubiquitous on late-night TV in the '70s and '80s. With the killer rat angle already established, BEN is able to get right to the horror element and as such, it follows a template not unlike later slasher films like HALLOWEEN, with Ben and the rats terrorizing a small suburban town and going back into hiding, pursued by cops and the media, both of whom have little success in catching them as the body count escalates. Again scripted by Gilbert A. Ralston, BEN manages to be simultaneously more nasty and grisly and more maudlin and silly than WILLARD. There's some amusing scenes like rats invading a health spa and walking on treadmills and an absolutely ludicrous shot of Ben and a few other rats peeking out of the sewer with their eyes fixated on the display window of a nearby cheese shop, not to mention the fact that while Danny speaks and Ben squeaks, they're both able to understand each other perfectly ("Which way, Ben?  Left or right?" Danny asks, to which Ben replies with a series of short squeaks.  "OK, left!" Danny somehow concludes). But elsewhere, it goes bigger and grosser. There's several times the number of rats here than in WILLARD and Karlson really likes going for lingering shots of them swarming over a victim, putting several cast members in visibly unpleasant situations (Eve ends up looking for Danny in the sewer, and Baxter proves herself a real sport by crawling through all sorts of wet gunk and piles of live rats in the glory days of pre-CGI), or taking over a grocery store to the point where literally the entire floor is covered in large rats climbing all over one another. Young Montgomery, who would go on to be a regular presence in '70s horror cult classics like BURNT OFFERINGS (1976) and in the terrifying "Bobby" segment of the TV-movie DEAD OF NIGHT (1977), is pretty hard to take as the whiny Danny, but he's boldly fearless when it comes to working and physically interacting with his rodent co-stars. BEN could use more smartass banter between seasoned pros Campanella and O'Connell and less of Montgomery's Danny and his marionette song and dance productions, but kids ended up digging WILLARD, so they had to make BEN appeal to that audience. That appeal went so far as getting 13-year-old Michael Jackson to record the title song, a heartwarming ballad about a young boy and his best friend who happens to be a super intelligent, insanely possessive, serial-killing rodent. Titled "Ben" but generally known as "Ben's Song," Jackson's theme song ultimately ended up being more popular than the movie it was from, becoming his first chart-topping solo hit and scoring a Best Original Song Oscar nomination, losing to Maureen McGovern's "The Morning After" from THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Yes, BEN is an Oscar-nominated film.

Monday, May 22, 2017


(US - 2017)

Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by Sam Levinson, John Burnham Schwartz and Samuel Baum. Cast: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Alessandro Nivola, Hank Azaria, Nathan Darrow, Kristen Connolly, Lily Rabe, Kelly AuCoin, Geoffrey Cantor, Steve Coulter, Neil Brooks Cunningham, Michael Goorjian, Diana B. Henriques, Michael Kostroff, Kathrine Narducci, Amanda Warren, Gary Wilmes, David Lipman, Sophie Von Haselberg, Clem Cheung. (Unrated, 132 mins)

As far as HBO prestige biopics go, THE WIZARD OF LIES is on the lesser end--not as good as YOU DON'T KNOW JACK but nowhere near the depths of the slobbering apologia of David Mamet's loathsome PHIL SPECTOR. A chronicle of disgraced financier, stockbroker, and former NASDAQ chairman Bernie Madoff, who was arrested in late 2008 for perpetrating the biggest Ponzi scheme in US history, a massive fraud to the tune of $65 billion. The fortunes of famous people (Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, John Malkovich, and, as if he hadn't endured enough in his life, Elie Wiesel), the life savings of Madoff's millionaire friends and some ordinary average people, as well as the funds of numerous Jewish-based charity organizations were lost in what ended up being a 16-year scam where all the stocks, trades, reports, statements, paper trails, everything was made up by Madoff, who was eventually crushed under the weight of it and couldn't find a way out, especially after the housing market crash of 2008. It was after that event that nervous investors began withdrawing their money, prompting him to lure in others to cover the cash that wasn't there, seduced by Madoff's bogus financial reports that showed his investments were still making money despite the severe downturn in the market.

Anyone familiar with the Madoff scandal knows what happened and that most of the money was never recovered, but THE WIZARD OF LIES doesn't really have anything to add. It does offer Robert De Niro as Madoff, in a slouchy and slightly nasally performance that's accurate as far as the Madoff we've seen in news footage, but director Barry Levinson (DINER, RAIN MAN) and the three credited screenwriters, among them Levinson's son Sam, never really let the viewer into Madoff's head to know what makes him tick or what drove him to do what he did. They're working from book by New York Times financial writer Diana B. Henriques (who appears throughout as herself in a hokey framing device that has her interviewing De Niro as Madoff), but from what's presented here, we don't see the charismatic guy that roped so many people into his scheme and somehow convinced them to put their entire fortunes in his hands. Just because he's got De Niro in the lead, Levinson (who previously directed the actor in SLEEPERS, WAG THE DOG, and WHAT JUST HAPPENED) instead tries to make a low-energy Martin Scorsese movie, complete what what sounds like a Scorsese mix cd (The Platters' "The Great Pretender" and the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun"--how did the Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter" not make the cut during a "Madoff scrambling for investors" paranoia montage?) playing at a swanky anniversary party for Madoff and his wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer). At this same party, an obsessive-compulsive Madoff goes around inspecting each and every plate to make sure they're spotless while shattering the ones that aren't in a scene that lets De Niro riff on his Ace Rothstein hissy fit over blueberry muffins in Scorsese's CASINO (this bit was also referenced in EQUITY, another recent financial dud). THE WIZARD OF LIES plays like a listless Scorsese knockoff, bullet-pointing its way through the story to such a degree that Wikipedia should've been credited as a fourth screenwriter.

De Niro certainly looks the part as Madoff, and while he's not exactly busting his ass, he seems to be coasting somewhat simply because he isn't really given a character to play. It's as if Levinson and HBO figured "Well, De Niro's gonna look just like Madoff, so everything should just fall into place." Pfeiffer is a great American actress who works too infrequently to re-emerge for inconsequential movies like this (she's been offscreen since co-starring with De Niro in Luc Besson's 2013 mob comedy THE FAMILY). Though she spent time with Ruth Madoff to help prepare her performance and looks a lot like her, Pfeiffer comes off less like Ruth Madoff and more like a tribute to Edie Falco's work as Carmela Soprano. On top of that, she's miscast, as the 58-year-old actress looks several years younger, making it a pretty tough sell to buy that she's playing a 70-year-old who's been married for 50 years. Alessandro Nivola and Nathan Darrow are fine as Madoff's sons Mark and Andrew, who worked for their father and claimed, along with Ruth, to be unaware of the scheme. Some of the film's high points come from the effect of the scandal on their lives, afraid to leave their homes for fear of being accosted by friends, former co-workers, and random strangers, and their arcs are all the more tragic considering Mark would hang himself in 2010 and Andrew, after distancing himself from his father and trying to salvage his own reputation, would succumb to cancer in 2014 at just 48. Despite working in fits and starts (Ruth's hurtful reaction to her favorite hairdresser firing her as a customer is well-played by Pfeiffer), THE WIZARD OF LIES' chief priority is making sure De Niro looked like a dead ringer for Madoff. It doesn't have much else to say and actually seems so bored with itself that it completely forgets about Hank Azaria, cast as Frank DiPascali, the top Madoff associate who ran the inaccessible 17th floor where all of the books were being cooked--a vital figure in the Ponzi scheme, he disappears from the film around 75 minutes in and is never seen or mentioned again. The more THE WIZARD OF LIES goes on, the more you realize that perhaps the better approach, especially since ABC just aired the Richard Dreyfuss/Blythe Danner miniseries MADOFF a year ago, would've been to examine this story from the perspective of anyone involved with it other than Bernie Madoff.

Friday, May 19, 2017

In Theaters: ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by John Logan and Dante Harper. Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Guy Pearce, James Franco, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Goran D. Kleut. (R, 120 mins)

Despite the pre-release tap-dancing around the issue, it was obvious that 2012's PROMETHEUS was Ridley Scott's return to the universe he created with the 1979 classic ALIEN. After PROMETHEUS' ultimate reveal as a prequel, Scott has returned with no illusions about what's going on with ALIEN: COVENANT. Picking up ten years after the events of PROMETHEUS, COVENANT centers on a colonization mission on the space vessel Covenant, with a crew of 15 carrying 2000 colonists and 1000 embryos on a seven-year, hypersleep mission to an oxygenated planet known as Origae-6. They're under the watchful eye of "Mother," the ship's computer, as well as Walter (Michael Fassbender), a synthetic in charge of maintaining the ship. A "neutrino burst" causes significant damage to the ship, killing some sleeping colonists and forcing Walter to bring the crew out of stasis. Second-in-charge Oram (Billy Crudup) is forced to assume command when mission leader Branson (a barely-seen and uncredited James Franco) is killed in a freak explosion when his pod won't open. They're still seven years from Origae-6, and Branson's wife Daniels (Katherine Waterston, Sam's lookalike daughter), who's also on the crew, voices her objection when Oram decides to investigate a signal (someone singing John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," in a garbled audio transmission that's effectively creepy in an EVENT HORIZON way) from a previously unseen planet just a few weeks away that's showing even better habitability figures than their intended destination.

I guess Daniels is the only one who's ever seen an ALIEN movie or an ALIEN ripoff, since this is obviously a decision worthy of a Bad Idea Jeans commercial. While the Covenant and pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) stay in orbit with two other crew members, a smaller vessel piloted by Tennessee's wife Faris (Amy Seimetz) takes Oram and the rest of the crew to the surface. They split up, with Oram's biologist wife Karine (Carmen Ejogo) collecting samples with soldier Ledward (Benjamin Rigby), who unknowingly stirs some alien spores that enter his ear and go undetected, taking root in his brain. Meanwhile, Oram and the others discover the wreckage of the spacecraft in which Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and synthetic David (also Fassbender) escaped at the end of PROMETHEUS. When a soldier in that group, Hallett (Nathaniel Dean), also gets infected by spores, they head back to the docked vessel where a creature has already burst out of Ledward's back and killed Karine, eventually leading to an explosion that kills Faris. A creature erupts out of Hallett's mouth and soon, others similar to the franchise's signature xenomorphs start attacking until the whole group is rescued by David (also Fassbender), who's been living alone in what appears to be the ruins of a Pompeii-like civilization. Dr. Shaw was killed in a crash landing ten years earlier, and when David isn't weeping at a shrine he's set up in her memory, he's been surviving on his own. He clearly has other intentions, as evidenced by his barely-contained enthusiasm upon being told that there's 2000 hibernating colonists and 1000 embryos aboard the still-orbiting Covenant.

ALIEN: COVENANT is consistently interesting, but it's still a hot mess. The biggest obstacle that it can't overcome--and it didn't seem apparent to me until I considered it and PROMETHEUS as a whole piece--is that knowing the backstory to the events of ALIEN and the whole Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) saga is completely unnecessary. When the actual H.R. Giger-designed xenomorphs finally appear in the last half hour or so, we see entirely too much of them, and in their sleek new CGI incarnation, pinballing all over the screen like sprinting zombies in 28 DAYS LATER, they lack the sense of tangible menace like the aliens in ALIEN and its equally great 1986 sequel ALIENS. This whole saga of PROMETHEUS and COVENANT ultimately feels like little more than ALIEN fan fiction that does nothing to enhance the movies we've been watching for going on 40 years now. Scott throws in enough bizarre and unexpected elements that COVENANT has always got your attention even when it's stumbling--the whole midsection of the film, showing David's routine around the ruins of the society he's adopted as his home, is another example of the director's occasionally insane side making its presence known. But in the end, it doesn't go far enough, like a lobotomized Ray Liotta eating his own sauteed brain in HANNIBAL or Cameron Diaz fucking a car in THE COUNSELOR. Before long, we once again start getting that PROMETHEUS feeling that Scott realizes he needs to appease the studio and abandons the project's unique ideas in favor of rushing through the last 30 or so minutes because he seems to suddenly remember he's making an ALIEN movie. In other words, almost right down to the minute, the same flaws in PROMETHEUS are repeated in COVENANT, with the added detriment of a laughably predictable twist ending and an attempt to turn David into a quipping, synthetic android Freddy Krueger.

Fassbender is fine in both roles, especially as David, with his gentlemanly sinister demeanor and erudite line delivery recalling Peter Cushing not just in his performance, but also in the echoes of Cushing's Nazi mad scientist living on a deserted island among his aquatic zombie creations in 1977's SHOCK WAVES (instead of CGI-ing Grand Moff Tarken in ROGUE ONE, they should've just hired Fassbender to do his Cushing impression). ALIEN: COVENANT feels like three movies in one, all of them tonally different (a late shower kill with gratuitous T&A as an apparently pervy xenomorph peeps in on a cavorting couple feels like it belongs in an '80s slasher movie or, at best, a Roger Corman ALIEN ripoff like GALAXY OF TERROR). Waterston makes a tough, gritty heroine, but elsewhere, there's too much distracting stunt casting, whether it's McBride coming off as "Kenny Powers in space" and not selling lines like "That's one hell of an ionosphere!" or Franco turning in his finest performance in years as a burnt corpse (Guy Pearce also appears as evil CEO Peter Weyland in a prologue). It's intriguing that the crew is almost entirely made up of married couples, with some sociopolitical commentary in Oram being established as conservative and bitching that his faith has held him back in his career, or that Hallett and badass security head Lope (Demian Bichir) are a gay couple, but it's never really explored other than as transparent thinkpiece-bait. Ridley Scott owes no explanations to anyone, and it's great that the 79-year-old legend is still full of piss and vinegar and able to work so much in his emeritus years, but like others in his age bracket such as Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, his average of a new film every year or year-and-a-half is an indication that maybe a break and a recharging wouldn't be a bad thing. Scott is just spinning his wheels here, and so is the ALIEN franchise.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


(US - 2017)

Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Eric Bana, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillan, Mikael Persbrandt, Neil Maskell, Freddie Fox, Greg McGinlay, Tom Wu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Peter Ferdinando, Bleu Landau, Annabelle Wallis, Geoff Bell, Poppy Delevingne, Jacqui Ainsley. (PG-13, 125 mins)

Already a costly flop and the first bomb of the summer, Guy Ritchie's extremely revisionist, $175 million KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD is reasonably entertaining if taken strictly--and I do mean strictly--on its own terms. It's an approach not unlike his excellent, steampunkish take on SHERLOCK HOLMES, though not as consistently solid as that or his underrated THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. a couple years back (but it's better than that second SHERLOCK HOLMES movie, which was pretty terrible). Ritchie throws everything but the kitchen sink into his Arthurian world, which is bound to not go over well with purists--indeed, the Three Stooges short SQUAREHEADS OF THE ROUND TABLE might be more faithful to the legend--but it's perfectly acceptable escapism that probably would've done better if released in March or September. John Boorman's EXCALIBUR remains the last word on this subject as far as big screen adaptations go, and I really feel sorry for any corner-cutting junior high and high school students who watch this instead of doing their assigned reading, because giant elephants, snakes, rats, and bats and an Asian martial arts master named "Kung Fu George" are certainly not elements discarded from rough drafts of T.H. White's The Once and Future King or Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.

Equal parts early Ritchie crime movies, LORD OF THE RINGS, and GAME OF THRONES, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD has King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) and Queen Igraine (Poppy Delevingne) being killed in a supernatural, Mordred-abetted uprising instigated by Uther's treacherous younger brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Their toddler son Arthur is put on a small boat and sails into the night, where he's found by the denizens of a brothel and raised in the red light district of Londinium, where he grows into adulthood and is played by SONS OF ANARCHY's Charlie Hunnam. Arthur is unaware of his heritage and lives as a disreputable but affable con man and peacekeeper at the brothel, making sure the prostitutes who raised him aren't abused by the clientele. One such abusive customer is sinister Viking warrior Greybeard (Mikael Persbrandt) who's humiliated by Arthur, the future hero unaware that Greybeard and his soldiers are under the protection of King Vortigern. Vortigern has been rounding up age-appropriate young men all over England and having them herded to his castle to attempt to pull Uther's sword Excalibur from the stone so he can find his nephew. Once Arthur's true nature is discovered, Vortigern tries to have him executed, but he's rescued by a band of rebels led by Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and Goosefat Bill (GAME OF THRONES' Aidan Gillan), who have enlisted the help of a nameless mage and protegee of Merlin (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) to defeat the tyrannical and despised Vortigern and enable Arthur to assume his rightful place on the throne.

Fast-moving and frequently amusing, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD looks terrific most of the way, with some eye-popping 3-D visuals and the kind of hyperkinetic, flash-forward/flash-back structure that Ritchie used in LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS and SNATCH. He's more or less a big-budget journeyman at this point, but this is the first of Ritchie's hired-gun assignments that actually has significant stretches that, for better or worse depending on whether you're a fan, feel like vintage Ritchie. While mileage may vary as far as one's acceptance of a King Arthur being given snake venom to enhance his vision and perception, or stranded on a de facto Skull Island where he's forced to battle giant snakes and bats to prove his mettle after being trained in combat by the aforementioned Kung Fu George (Tom Wu), the film works as mindless fun most of the way. That is, until Ritchie lets the blurry, quick-cutting shaky-cam take over for the mess of a climactic battle where Arthur finally takes on Vortigern, who's transformed into a demon knight and starts sounding like Dr. Claw from INSPECTOR GADGET. Law is enjoying himself as an appropriately hissable villain, while Hunnam doesn't really have to stretch much outside of his Jax Teller persona, getting to use his natural British accent but faring much better in James Gray's recent THE LOST CITY OF Z. The mage, an obvious reinterpretation of the sorceress Morgan Le Fay (Morgana in EXCALIBUR), functions as a stand-in for the barely-seen Merlin, who here is credited with the forging of Excalibur. Spanish-French actress Berges-Frisbey (ANGELS OF SEX) has an intriguing presence that's reminiscent of a young Isabelle Adjani, while two-time Oscar nominee Hounsou, once again cast in a thankless sidekick role, continues to be arguably the most insufficiently-utilized great actor in Hollywood. The origin story (the Round Table is seen under construction at the end) in what was planned as a six-film series in a Warner Bros. King Arthurverse that's most likely now joined the ranks of THE GOLDEN COMPASS in being whittled down to a series of one, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD will exit theaters very quickly but should play well on streaming and on cable for the next decade or more. It's enjoyable and filled with rousing action, but it can't stop itself from stumbling when it matters most. And as entertaining as it is most of the time, the $175 million price tag does seem a tad excessive.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

On Netflix: MINDHORN (2017)

(UK - 2017)

Directed by Sean Foley. Written by Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby. Cast: Julian Barratt, Andrea Riseborough, Essie Davis, Steve Coogan, Russell Tovey, Simon Farnaby, Richard McCabe, David Schofield, Nicholas Farrell, Harriet Walter, Kenneth Branagh, Simon Callow, Jessica Barden, Robin Morrissey, Jordan Long. (Unrated, 88 mins)

It succumbs to predictability when the comedy gives way to formulaic action in the third act, but the British-made Netflix acquisition MINDHORN, starring and co-written by THE MIGHTY BOOSH's Julian Barratt, gets its share of big laughs from an inspired premise. Barratt is Richard Thorncroft, a washed-up Isle of Man-born actor best known for a late '80s/early '90s TV series called MINDHORN, In it, Thorncroft starred as Bruce Mindhorn, an MI-5 agent who was captured and held prisoner at a secret compound in the outer regions of Siberia, where Soviet scientists replaced his left eye with a cybernetic optical lie detector, "allowing him to literally see the truth!" according to the show's dead-on INCREDIBLE HULK-type voiceover intro ("It's Truth Time!" Mindhorn declares when he nabs a perp). MINDHORN was a big hit for a few years but Thorncroft did a poor job of handling his fame. After releasing an album with the minor hit single "You Can't Handcuff the Wind" (sample lyric: "It's like tryin' to put thunder in jail!"), the show's popularity waned, ratings plummeted, his relationship with leading lady Patricia Deville (Essie Davis of THE BABADOOK) fell apart, and he had a very public meltdown when he appeared falling-down drunk on a live talk show, trash-talking co-star Peter Easterman (Steve Coogan), who played Mindhorn's sidekick Windjammer. Upon MINDHORN's cancellation, Easterman became a bigger star than Thorncroft ever was thanks to the spinoff WINDJAMMER, currently in its 16th season and still the most-watched show on British TV. Thorncroft's fall from grace continued when he ditched his loyal agent Geoffrey Moncrief (Richard McCabe) and went off to Hollywood when a megabudget producer promised to make him the next Burt Reynolds. The movie bombed and Thorncroft crashed and burned, and he's been scrounging for work and licking his wounds in London in the 20 years since. He's still trying to stage a comeback, still sucking in his gut and throwing on a Mindhorn toupee to cover his now-bald head, with his latest agent (Harriet Walter) unable to find any publisher interest in his autobiography (Easterman has just published his third memoir), while his most prominent recent gigs have found him coasting on what little MINDHORN notoriety he still has in TV commercials endorsing man-girdles and orthopedic socks.

After a disastrous audition with Kenneth Branagh where he humiliates himself pretending he and Branagh go back decades ("Kenny B!"), Thorncroft is about to throw in the towel, but he gets an unexpected offer from an Isle of Man police precinct: escaped lunatic Paul Melly (Russell Tovey), who makes squawking sounds and calls himself "The Kestral," is the prime suspect in a recent murder, but he refuses to speak with Baines (Andrea Riseborough), the detective on the case. Instead, MINDHORN superfan Melly, who thinks the character is real, will only talk to Agent Mindhorn, which leads the cops to hire Thorncroft to once again essay his signature role to help capture "The Kestral." Of course, at-an-all-time-low Thorncroft can't help but become a braying jackass and all-around egomaniac now that he thinks he's in-demand once more, and he very nearly screws up the entire investigation before accidentally helping apprehend Melly. But after reconnecting with Patricia, now a crusading reporter, and learning she ran off with his old stunt double Clive Parnevik (co-writer Simon Farnaby), Thorncroft is once more despondent until evidence surfaces that Melly has been framed for the murder, with Geoffrey having the proof on a VHS tape. When Geoffrey turns up dead and Thorncroft is implicated, he and Melly escape and set out to clear both of their names. Thorncroft's bigger concern seems to be his career, which, after a brief resurgence of interest thanks to his role in capturing Melly, immediately goes back into the shitter following an escalating confrontation with the gloating Easterman that goes viral when Thorncroft takes a swing at his former co-star and instead punches an innocent female bystander.

It should come as no surprise as MINDHORN (which counts Ridley Scott among its producers) reaches its conclusion that getting to the bottom of the case is key to Thorncroft's personal and professional redemption, as are rekindling his romance with Patricia and getting the idiotic Clive out of the picture. MINDHORN is consistently amusing but works best in its early scenes, especially its establishment of the current sad state of Thorncroft's life and career. There's a definite sense of Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant-style cringe comedy that gives way to a more HOT FUZZ-esque genre parody, and the styles don't always mesh. Also, the identity of the real villain is a bit of a letdown, since the individual doesn't have much to do with the plot and just seems arbitrarily tossed in. Barratt is appropriately self-deprecating in a role that would've had Kevin Kline written all over it 25 years ago, though he and debuting director Sean Foley could've just as easily gone in either direction the whole way through, be it a squirming discomfort about a washed-up actor or as an outright parody with a feature-length MINDHORN episode in the vein of  an AUSTIN POWERS or a MACGRUBER. There's some very funny inside jokes for fans of British cinema, whether it's Branagh's deadpan cameo as himself ("No fucking clue who that was," he tells his assistant when Thorncroft finally leaves), or Thorncroft dealing with the ballbusting of actor/author Simon Callow, another of his agent's clients ("Fuck off, Callow!"). There's also some big laughs coming from his diva-like attitude when he arrives to help with the investigation, stopping a cop and ordering a coffee or requesting his tea with two teabags and name-dropping Sean Bean in the process ("Picked that up from Sean Bean...'Double-Bag' Bean, we called him."). MINDHORN doesn't maintain that same level of absurdist inspiration all the way through, but as far as Netflix Originals go, it's a better British comedy than DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD and a much better cop comedy than the dismal HANDSOME: A NETFLIX MYSTERY MOVIE.