Wednesday, August 30, 2017

In Theaters: GOOD TIME (2017)

(US/Luxembourg - 2017)

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie. Written by Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein. Cast: Robert Pattinson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Benny Safdie, Barkhad Abdi, Buddy Duress, Taliah Webster, Peter Verby, Necro, Rose Gregorio, Gladys Mathon, Saida Mansoor, Eric Paykert, Robert Clohessy, George Lee Miles. (R, 101 mins)

In the tradition of SPRING BREAKERS, THE ROVER, THE WITCH, IT COMES AT NIGHT, and A GHOST STORY, GOOD TIME is another love-it-or-hate-it A24 pickup that gets great reviews from critics but a toxic reception in wide release and almost immediately becomes a revered cult movie. A Palme d'Or contender at Cannes and the most high-profile film to date from sibling indie auteurs Josh and Benny Safdie, who earned significant acclaim for their 2014 heroin addiction drama HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT (Josh, the elder of the pair, got some indie buzz for his 2008 solo effort THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED), GOOD TIME is like nothing else you've seen in multiplexes this year. It's brash, ballsy, and out of its own time, and with its grainy look and a supporting cast of mostly amateur actors from Queens and Flushing, it resembles a 2017 interpretation of one of those really gritty NYC films of Abel Ferrara or Paul Morrissey, while owing a debt to the "No Wave" movement of no-budget DIY movies in the early 1980s that helped establish underground filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Eric Mitchell, Beth B, Susan Seidelman, Slava Tsukerman, and Amos Poe. The garish Argento colorgasms in Sean Price Williams' cinematography and propulsive, non-stop Tangerine Dream-ish score by Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin) give it an enervating, exhilarating aura that's hypnotic and surreal, like a nightmare from which its hapless shit show of a "hero," Constantine "Connie" Nikas can't wake. As played by Robert Pattinson, whose post-TWILIGHT career choices are proof positive that he's a serious actor who's made more money than he'll ever need and is drawn to challenging projects with very little mainstream appeal, Connie is a petty criminal and a total loser who doesn't realize he's a loser. He's got big ideas and seems to pull them off but they always lead to bigger problems and end up sucking more unfortunate bystanders into his toxic orbit. Nobody has a good time in GOOD TIME, which is one of these familiar "survive the night" scenarios, but pulled off with such imaginative panache that it ends up being one of the most stylish fusions of sight and sound this side of BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW.

After crashing a therapy session for his mentally-challenged, deaf younger brother Nick (co-director Benny Safdie), Connie talks his brother into accompanying him on a Flushing bank robbery that almost works. They wear very lifelike masks that don't attract attention from the other customers and the teller follows directions and doesn't hit the panic button. Of course it's too good to be true, since the dye packs explode in their getaway car. While fleeing the cops, Connie gets away but Nick is apprehended and taken to Rikers. Connie takes the stained money to a bail bondsman, who says he still needs another $10,000 to get Nick out. The rest of the film chronicles Connie's attempts to bail Nick out, running into one problem after another, starting with his older sometime-girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a hot mess in her 40s who seems to have stopped maturing at 17 and is so stupidly infatuated with Connie that she lets him badger her ("What the fuck's the problem? It's like a loan...you'll get it right back!") into unsuccessfully trying to use her mom's credit card for Nick's bail. That doesn't work, and Connie then finds out that Nick can't be bailed out anyway since he's been involved in a fight in jail and has been taken to a hospital in the city, prompting one of the least-plausible escape sequences you'll ever see, and eventually leading to the introduction of three other key characters: just-paroled Queens pusher Ray (Buddy Duress, star of HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT), 16-year-old delinquent Crystal (newcomer Taliah Webster), and security guard Dash (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS Oscar-nominee Barkhad Abdi), who runs afoul of Connie and Ray when they try to recover a drug stash at a dilapidated amusement park.

GOOD TIME always keeps you on edge, with the constant use of close-ups with handheld cameras, and the grainy, 16mm-looking imagery giving it a genuinely frazzled, scuzzy vibe. An absolutely magnetic, frenetic Pattinson has never been better, seemingly going full Method by the end, where it looks like he's been awake for a week even though the film takes place over a 24-hour period (there's a couple of time flubs that undermine the flow of the story, like one character mentioning it's "almost 9:00 pm," then a bit later, someone else saying it's 7:30 pm). GOOD TIME basks in the seedy underbelly of dangerous areas of working class Queens that you really don't see much of in movies anymore, giving it a distinctly 1970s mood but coming off like Nicolas Winding Refn, Gaspar Noe, and Larry Clark teaming up to make a Michael Mann movie. The Safdies take advantage of actual locations--some shots seem to have been captured on the fly, guerrilla-style--in places that don't appear to have changed much over the last few decades. It's only fitting that this film comes off like a welcome relic from another era, a late-summer shot of adrenaline that unfortunately will be loathed by the few mainstream moviegoers who don't ignore it in the first place. It's a powerfully off-kilter moviegoing experience where nothing plays out as you expect, from the opening credits taking place over 20 minutes into the movie to the way Ray ends up entering the story and briefly hijacking it (Duress gets a long speech and flashback sequence out of nowhere that's the most inspired non-sequitur aside for a character since Victor's trip through Europe in Roger Avary's THE RULES OF ATTRACTION). There isn't much here on a narrative or subtextual level--there's probably some parallels to be drawn from Connie, Nick, and Crystal all having absentee parents and being raised by their grandmothers--and it comes up a bit short on that front, but as a character study in lowlifes and for its colorful visuals and shot compositions and aural razzle-dazzle (goddamn, that score is incredible), GOOD TIME is a gem that sticks with you and is one of the audacious films of the summer.

Monday, August 28, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: CHUCK (2017) and KILL SWITCH (2017)

(US - 2017)

The kind of modest, uncomplicated programmer that just can't find a place in today's blockbuster-driven, franchise-focused business model, CHUCK is a film that should've been given a chance to be the sleeper hit it was obviously made to be. A long-in-the-works pet project of veteran actor Liev Schreiber, who also co-produced and co-wrote the script, CHUCK is a biopic of boxer Chuck Wepner, aka "The Bayonne Bleeder," the heavyweight champ of New Jersey. Wepner was never a major player in boxing outside of the Garden State but he made it far enough to get a shot at the title, almost going the distance at 36 years of age in a 1975 fight with Muhammad Ali, ultimately losing by TKO when the fight was stopped with 19 seconds left in the final round. Wepner's career fizzled for a few more years, when he would often be reduced to exhibition bouts with bears and, in one famous 1976 stunt, legendary wrestler Andre the Giant. Wepner retired from the ring in 1978, around the time he began benefiting from the notoriety of Sylvester Stallone and ROCKY when word started going around that Stallone's script was inspired by Wepner's bout with Ali. Stallone (played here by a surprisingly well-cast Morgan Spector) never confirmed it, but Wepner dined out on his tenuous connection to ROCKY for years, even getting an audition for a small part in ROCKY II and blowing it when he shows up late and coked-up and having not even taken a cursory glance at Stallone's script.

Schreiber worked on the script with Jerry Stahl (PERMANENT MIDNIGHT), Michael Cristofer (GIA), and Jeff Feuerzeig, a Wepner authority who directed the documentary THE REAL ROCKY for ESPN's 30 FOR 30 series. CHUCK doesn't sugarcoat its subject: he's obnoxious, self-absorbed, and a total bullshit artist. His wandering eye and his need to always be putting on a show drives his wife Phyliss (Elisabeth Moss) and daughter Kimberly (Sadie Sink) away. He's also all too eager to dive into the hedonistic, coke-fueled excess of the disco era '70s until he's eventually caught in an a drug sting and sent to prison in the 1980s. Schreiber is terrific as Wepner, and while nothing here is particularly fresh--Quebecois director Philippe Falardeau has obviously studied every move in the Martin Scorsese playbook--CHUCK works the biopic formula perfectly. Excellent performances all around give it a tremendous boost--Naomi Watts as a sassy bartender eyed by Chuck, Michael Rapaport as his estranged brother, Jim Gaffigan as his best buddy and chief enabler, and a scene-stealing Ron Perlman as his grouchy, Mickey-like trainer--and the period detail is convincing without being oversold. That's a pleasant surprise considering that it's produced by Cannon cover band Millennium/NuImage, and while much of it was shot in NYC, the involvement of Avi Lerner means there was some work at the Nu Boyana Studios in Bulgaria, and from the looks of it, they were probably the boxing sequences and the exhibition bouts set in the strip club run by Chuck's sleazy pal (former DAILY SHOW correspondent Jason Jones), which take place on a set that should look familiar to anyone who's seen an UNDISPUTED sequel. CHUCK isn't award-caliber filmmaking, but it's solid entertainment that's well-acted, unpretentious, and doesn't overstay its welcome. In a summer filled with underperforming "sure things," a movie like CHUCK might've caught on and been a minor hit. But hey, whatever...I guess we needed another TRANSFORMERS loitering on four screens at a theater near you. (R, 98 mins)

(US/Netherlands - 2017)

If you're a follower of gut instinct, you may be ready to dismiss KILL SWITCH before it even begins once you're aware that director Tim Smit stylizes his palindrome name as "TimSmiT." But even if you give TimSmiT a pass, there's still plenty of reason to not even bother with KILL SWITCH, a tedious and abrasively off-putting hard sci-fi outing that borrows tons of ideas from other movies and TV shows but can't weave any of them into a story that's even remotely coherent. Shot in 2014 as REDIVIDER and probably only released at all because of Dan Stevens' starring turn in the live-action Disney blockbuster BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, KILL SWITCH takes place in a near-future where the world has run out of all energy resources. Physicist and former astronaut Will Porter (Stevens) is summoned to Holland by Abigail Vos (SKYFALL'S Berenice Marlohe), a representative of Alterplex Energy, a mysterious corporation run by billionaire Reynard (Gijs Scholten van Aschat). They've built a massive tower in Amsterdam that's a portal to "The Echo," an alternate, mirror image Earth created by Alterplex to be used to pool endless resources and energy for the real Earth. Just after the Tower goes live, the screen fades to black and Porter wakes up inside The Echo in possession of the "Redivider," a box designed to destroy The Echo's mainframe. It seems miscalculations were made by Reynard, and now one of the worlds--Earth or The Echo--must be destroyed to save the other. Judging from what's on display here, maybe TimSmiT should've considered annihilating both to save audiences from KILL SWITCH.

Making his directing debut, TimSmiT, a veteran special effects designer on films on recent VOD/DTV titles like LAST PASSENGER and TIGER HOUSE, takes an almost Murphy's Law approach. Other than some decent visual effects--no surprise since that's his day job--whatever can go wrong does as TimSmiT makes one bad decision after another. His attempt to turn it into a first-person shooter POV video game might predate the already forgotten HARDCORE HENRY, but by cutting back and forth between timelines with the first-person POV in The Echo and scenes on Earth with Porter and his sister (Charity Wakefield, one of the most awesomely British names this side of Benedict Cumberbatch) and her special needs son (Kasper van Groesen), TimSmiT kills any momentum that he might be building. The time element is a completely incomprehensible jumble, the rules of The Echo are never really established, and a potentially interesting character like underground rebel leader Hugo (Mike Libanon) is killed off almost immediately after he's introduced. KILL SWITCH is a miserable experience of SKYLINE proportions that starts in a confusing fashion and never gets its act together, stumbling all the way to an unsatisfying finish. The dumbest thing TimSmiT does--aside from doing that with his name--is having a charismatic and intense actor like Stevens (who was so great in A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES and THE GUEST) at his disposal and leaving him offscreen for most of the movie. Stevens only worked on this for four days as TimSmiT cranked out his Earth scenes quickly and then used a stand-in to wear the GoPro for the first-person POV shots, then had Stevens revoice the stand-in a two-hour recording session after the rest of the film was finished. It's a level of commitment usually reserved for the likes of Bruce Willis or Steven Seagal, and it's kind of trifle that Stevens probably wishes he never made, with the end result being a sci-fi film so irritating that its only surprise is that Sharlto Copley isn't in it. (R, 92 mins)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

On Netflix: DEATH NOTE (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Adam Wingard. Written by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater. Cast: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Willem Dafoe, Paul Nakauchi, Masi Oka, Jason Liles, Jack Ettlinger, Artin John. (Unrated, 100 mins)

After nearly a decade in development and with a budget reportedly between $40 and $50 million, the American adaptation of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata's legendary Japanese manga series Death Note finally arrives as a Netflix Original movie with some controversial baggage in tow, facing accusations of "whitewashing" by having the story moved to the US with American characters. There's really no controversy here--there's already been several TV and movie adaptations of the series in Japan going back a decade, and moving the story to Seattle is no different than RINGU being remade as THE RING or SEVEN SAMURAI being remade as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. If one sets aside their hand-wringing outrage and bothers watching the movie, they'll find far more legitimate reasons to dislike it. DEATH NOTE is a total misfire from director Adam Wingard, who not very long ago was a genre golden boy with YOU'RE NEXT and THE GUEST but did some damage to his growing brand with last year's heavily-hyped and ill-advised reboot BLAIR WITCH. Any hopes that BLAIR WITCH was a minor bump in the road are dashed with DEATH NOTE, where Wingard demonstrates absolutely no feeling for or connection to the material. Screenwriters Charles & Vlas Parlapanides (IMMORTALS) and Jeremy Slater (the 2015 FANTASTIC FOUR reboot and the creator of the EXORCIST TV series) make the story's transition from Japan to Seattle cumbersome and clunky, and what worked on the page and in the previous adaptations simply doesn't translate (it's also worth noting the absence of Wingard's usual writer and creative partner Simon Barrett). This gives Wingard little to work with, as he instead opts to fall back on easy solutions that makes cult movie nerds giddy, like a synth-heavy throwback score by Atticus Ross, credits in the John Carpenter font, and pointless retro fetishism with '80s songs by INXS, Berlin, Chicago, and Air Supply. These things can be fun in and of themselves in the context of a compelling film, but when they're used as desperation moves as they are here, all they do is spotlight the deficiencies, as DEATH NOTE becomes less like an American interpretation of a revered manga and more like a decade-and-a-half too late ripoff of FINAL DESTINATION and DONNIE DARKO.

Brainy high school outcast Light Turner (Nat Wolff) has a lucrative business doing math homework for all the jocks, but soon finds himself with unlimited power when a tattered old book titled "Death Note" falls out of the sky and lands at his feet. Inside are pages of complicated instructions, but essentially, all the owner of the book needs to do is visualize an individual, write down their name and a cause or circumstance of death and it will be made so. Light's been given the book by a demonic figure called Ryuk, who looks like Groot's meth-addled cousin and is voiced and motion-captured by Willem Dafoe. Light's newfound power gets him the girl, cheerleader Mia (Margaret Qualley of THE LEFTOVERS) and together, they start using the Death Note to take out bad people, from high school bullies to the mob boss who got acquitted for killing Light's mother years earlier, to terrorists and drug cartel leaders. They create the persona "Lord Kira," which attracts the attention of L (Lakeith Stanfield of GET OUT), an enigmatic agent who wears a hoodie and covers the bottom half of his face. L arrives in Seattle and quickly figures out that Light is Kira, though he gets no cooperation from Light's cop dad (Shea Whigham). Light loses control of the Death Note when people whose names he didn't write down--like FBI agents working with L--start turning up dead, prompting him to suspect Ryuk is planning to kill him before passing the book on to someone else.

DEATH NOTE is a jumbled mess. The longer it goes on, the more convoluted and less interesting it becomes, pulling arbitrary rules out of its ass when the story backs itself into a corner and needs to get to the next scene. The characters are completely unbelievable, even by fantasy genre standards, and Wingard's set-up is so rushed that the whole thing feels like a season of a TV show whittled down to 100 minutes. Light's initial reaction to the book's abilities is understandable dismay, but he accepts it pretty quickly, and Mia's blase response to his demonstration that he can kill people generates a look that shrugs "#whatever." No one seems to be on the same page with how to play this, and Wolff, while significantly less punchable here than he was in ASHBY, is still so devoid of charisma and screen presence that you'll long for the relative magnetism of someone like Dane DeHaan. Stanfield's performance as L has enough eccentricity that he at least gets your attention when he's onscreen, and he, along with Dafoe's taunting tone and inimitable cackle bringing Ryuk to life are the only positives about DEATH NOTE, and that's not nearly enough to salvage this from total oblivion.

Friday, August 25, 2017

In Theaters: WIND RIVER (2017)

(US/UK/France - 2017)

Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Jon Bernthal, Gil Birmingham, Julia Jones, Kelsey Asbille, James Jordan, Hugh Dillon, Martin Sensmeier, Teo Briones, Tantoo Cardinal, Apesanahkwat, Eric Lange, Tokala Clifford, Ian Bohen. (R, 108 mins)

After scripting 2015's acclaimed SICARIO and scoring an Oscar nomination for writing the next year's HELL OR HIGH WATER, actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (SONS OF ANARCHY) scores a trifecta with WIND RIVER, which he also directed. Sheridan spent much of this year's Sundance Film Festival calling WIND RIVER his "directorial debut," and well, it's not. He directed a tardy torture porn horror film called VILE in 2012 and has been going to great and borderline absurd lengths to distance himself from it and wish it away. As SICARIO began getting accolades a couple of years ago, VILE suddenly vanished from Sheridan's IMDb page, with it then becoming the sole entry on the IMDb page of a "Taylor Sheridan (IV)" as if another Taylor Sheridan directed it. VILE is a terrible film--the worst torture porn horror flick ever, honestly--but as I pointed out in my reviews of SICARIO and HELL OR HIGH WATER and as Film School Rejects' Joshua Coonrod detailed in his Sundance article "Why Is Taylor Sheridan Pretending Wind River Is His Directorial Debut?"  Sheridan's selective memory and his rewriting of history to keep this zombie lie alive are deceptive and blatantly dishonest. Everyone has to start somewhere and pay their dues, and sure, maybe VILE was just a job to get his feet wet, but if James Cameron can own up to PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING, Matthew McConaughey to TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION, and George Clooney to RETURN OF THE KILLER TOMATOES, Taylor Sheridan can admit he made VILE. To ignore VILE, no matter how wretchedly unwatchable it is, is insulting to the cast and crew who haven't achieved Sheridan's level of success in the years since--many of them are probably still waiting tables and working retail jobs between auditions if they haven't given up on acting altogether (an exception being Ian Bohen, a VILE co-star who has a small role here)--and it paints him as some kind of instant wunderkind that he's not. There's very few instances of a Quentin Tarantino coming out of nowhere with one game-changing classic after another. In short, WIND RIVER is a terrific film, Sheridan shows great promise behind the camera going forward and has every right to be proud of it. But no matter how many critics are unaware of VILE and write glowing reviews calling WIND RIVER his directorial debut because that's what they've been told, it's not and Sheridan needs to cut the shit. I mean, look at Pantera. They tried to make Metal Magic go away and did that work? No.

Set in the snowy environs of Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation, WIND RIVER opens with Fish & Wildlife agent and experienced hunter/tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) searching for a den of mountain lions and happening upon a corpse frozen in the snow. The dead girl is 18-year-old Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), the best friend of Lambert's daughter Emily, who died three years earlier. Since the body was found on federal land, police chief Ben (Graham Greene) is required to notify the FBI, who sends rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to determine if an investigation is necessary. Though the body shows a laceration on the forehead and obvious signs of sexual trauma, the medical examiner concludes that Natalie died from exposure and her lungs exploding in a pulmonary hemorrhage after running barefoot several miles in the subzero cold. He can't call it a homicide. With only six deputies covering thousands of miles of the reservation, Banner is determined to get to the bottom of why Natalie was running in the middle of snow-covered nowhere with no shoes or protective clothing and she asks Lambert to assist with his expert experience in tracking and the lay of the land. Lambert is well-regarded by the residents of the reservation, as his ex-wife (Julia Jones) is the daughter of tribal elders (Apesanahkwat, Tantoo Cardinal) and he knows the land as well as any Native American.

As a point A-to-point B exercise in storytelling, WIND RIVER is a fairly formulaic procedural, with two very different investigators teaming up and learning things that show them a different perspective. Lambert is still consumed by grief and it all comes back when his daughter's friend is killed and he has to console her devastated father (Gil Birmingham, who was so great as the object of Jeff Bridges' ballbusting in HELL OR HIGH WATER), while Vegas-stationed Banner tries to handle things in the blunt, big-city way she's been trained and quickly admits she's in over her head and needs to take a different approach. Sheridan really takes the time to explore the culture of the reservation and the way their youth have turned to crime and drugs, with the parents wondering where they went wrong. Like his earlier screenplays, WIND RIVER is very character-driven and Sheridan obviously studied the tricks of SICARIO director Denis Villeneuve and HELL OR HIGH WATER director David Mackenzie, with one heart-stopping standoff between the investigators, some deputies, and some oil drilling contractors in the area, a grim flashback sequence detailing the events leading to Natalie's death, and not one, but two vehicle caravan sequences straight out of SICARIO. And it's all propelled by a wonderfully haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, so you know things are gonna be downbeat and bleak. Renner and Olsen have rarely been better and the supporting cast, particularly Birmingham and Greene, with Ben's cynical humor generating much tension-easing laughter, makes WIND RIVER an accomplished ensemble piece. It's got a couple of overly melodramatic monologues for Renner, but it's a welcome bit of grown-up, end-of-summer counter-programming at the multiplex, and it further establishes Sheridan as one of Hollywood's top screenwriters. Now just admit you made VILE and everything will be cool.

Sheridan (center) with his WIND RIVER stars
at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

Sheridan (in gray t-shirt) on the set of VILE. Directing.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

In Theaters: THE HITMAN'S BODYGUARD (2017)

(US/China - 2017)

Directed by Patrick Hughes. Written by Tom O'Connor. Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Elodie Yung, Joaquim de Almeida, Richard E. Grant, Kirsty Mitchell, Sam Hazeldine, Rod Hallett, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Tine Joustra, Michael Gor, Barry Atsma, Tsuwayuke Saotome, Josephine De La Baume. (R, 118 mins)

THE HITMAN'S BODYGUARD tries to be a throwback to the ballbusting buddy/cop/action movies of the '80s, and its attempts to be 2017's answer to 48 HRS or MIDNIGHT RUN succeeds about 60% of the time. It's a film that gets by almost solely by riffing on the onscreen personas of its two stars, working from a script by Tom O'Connor (whose only previous writing credit is 2012's instantly forgotten Josh Duhamel/Bruce Willis VOD actioner FIRE WITH FIRE) that was floating around Hollywood for several years. That script has obviously been given some extensive polishing to refashion it for both a post-DEADPOOL Ryan Reynolds and the venerable Samuel L. Jackson, cast radically against type as motherfuckin' Samuel L. Jackson. The two stars aren't quite Nick Nolte & Eddie Murphy or Robert De Niro & Charles Grodin, but they might've been if in better hands. Despite A-list actors and location shooting all over Europe, this is still a Millennium/NuImage production, which means most of the money went to the cast and you're gonna get that same backlot at Avi Lerner's Nu Boyana Studios in Bulgaria that's been in countless DTV efforts by the Cannon cover band over the years, and that the Bulgarian clown crew at Worldwide FX will do their part by delivering the least convincing CGI explosions and greenscreen work that Lerner and 31 other credited producers can look at and shrug "Eh, fuck it...it's good enough." Many of the exterior shots that aren't marred by atrocious greenscreen are drenched in a gauzy, smudgy Barbara Walters lens filter. Lerner got a pair of box-office draws with Reynolds and Jackson, but from a filmmaking standpoint, he still approached THE HITMAN'S BODYGUARD as if it starred Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White being directed by Isaac Florentine (why isn't he directing this, by the way?). The film does the bare minimum to get by, and it's damn lucky that it's got Reynolds and Jackson to move it along, because without them, this would've gone straight to Redbox.

Still haunted by a botched job where a client was shot in the head on his watch, AAA-rated security contractor Michael Bryce (Reynolds) has hit bottom. He now takes easy gigs guarding London's low-level drug smugglers and assorted corporate scumbags, his car still smells like ass weeks after pellets of cocaine exploded in a client's rectum, and he's still pining for his French Interpol agent ex Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung). Amelia has just been assigned to lead the security detail taking incarcerated assassin Darius Kincaid (Jackson) from London to the International Court at the Hague, where he's set to testify against genocidal former Belarus dictator Vlasislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman), who hired Kincaid for some past jobs. Of course, Amelia's boss Jean Foucher (Joaquim de Almeida) is a mole secretly on Dukhovich's payroll--a non-spoiler that's obvious the moment you see the character is played by Joaquim de Almeida--and the dictator's minions ambush the transport convoy, killing everyone but Kincaid and Amelia. With no other options and with Kincaid needing to be in The Hague in 24 hours, Amelia heads to a safe house and calls Bryce, who knows Kincaid from the assassin's 28 attempts on his life while in the line of duty protecting a client. Of course, they're now on the run throughout Europe, with Dukhovich's goons in hot pursuit trying to eliminate the bickering bromancers, who now have to set aside their differences and work together to get to The Hague...if they don't kill each other first!

THE HITMAN'S BODYGUARD is so beholden to formula that at one point, Amelia actually tells the prosecutor "The only way Bryce and Kincaid don't make it is if they kill each other first." There's no shortage of car chases and shootouts and director Patrick Hughes (the lackluster THE EXPENDABLES 3) keeps things moving briskly even if the film is 20 minutes too long. Oldman is criminally underused as the villain and Salma Hayek has even less to do as Kincaid's equally foul-mouthed wife, who's in a Dutch prison and will be released if Kincaid testifies. You can definitely see the DEADPOOL influence in the incongruous use of '80s and '90s songs, like Lionel Richie's "Hello" during a flashback to a violent bar brawl where Kincaid met his wife, or another flashback to Bryce and Amelia's meet-cute at a funeral shootout set to Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is." Or Bryce drowning out Kincaid's blues singing with his own a cappella take on Ace of Base's "The Sign." Like DEADPOOL, there's no joke there other than "Hey, these were huge hit singles 25 or 30 years ago, so just recognizing them should be instantly hysterical." But Reynolds and Jackson (who's really having a blast here) are a terrific team and when they're busting chops and working off one another, THE HITMAN'S BODYGUARD really comes alive with more than its share of quotable dialogue ("This man has single-handedly ruined the word 'motherfucker'") and laugh-out-loud gags (a car chase montage coming to abrupt halt in seconds thanks to the airbags). In the hands of someone like Shane Black, THE HITMAN'S BODYGUARD could've been right up there with a next generation mismatched buddy/cop classic like KISS KISS BANG BANG. Obviously constrained by what he's been given to work with by his producers, Hughes resorts to quick-cut, shaky-cam action scenes and his attempt to pull off the illusion of a long, single-take fight scene is exposed by the first of several obvious cuts about four seconds into the sequence. This is an ugly cheap-looking film in need of some serious quality control on the tech side, but that doesn't mean it's not entertaining. It's a must-see for Reynolds and Jackson fans, and it'll be in constant rotation on cable and streaming until the end of time, but the presence of those two big names are probably the exact reason the producers were totally cool with cutting corners everywhere else.

Monday, August 21, 2017

In Theaters: LOGAN LUCKY (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Rebecca Blunt. Cast: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Hilary Swank, Seth MacFarlane, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid, Farrah McKenzie, David Denman, Macon Blair, Jon Eyez, Deneen Tyler, Ann Mahoney, Jim O'Heir. (PG-13, 118 mins)

Steven Soderbergh cried wolf on retiring from feature films a number of times before finally making it official after 2013's SIDE EFFECTS, but he never really went away. He directed HBO's Liberace biopic BEHIND THE CANDELABRA and all 20 episodes of Cinemax's two-season series THE KNICK. He didn't direct the MAGIC MIKE sequel MAGIC MIKE XXL but he served as its cinematographer under his D.P. pseudonym "Peter Andrews" and he edited it as "Mary Ann Bernard." He was also executive producer on other series like Amazon's RED OAKS, Starz's THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE (a spinoff of his experimental 2009 Sasha Gray vehicle), and Netflix's upcoming GODLESS, in addition to producing indies like WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN and Spike Lee's DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS. In short, Soderbergh is working more than ever, and with an arsenal of pseudonyms that's approaching Joe D'Amato and Jess Franco levels, his return to the big screen was only a matter of time. LOGAN LUCKY, shot by "Peter Andrews," edited by "Mary Ann Bernard," and written by the unknown "Rebecca Blunt," which is already assumed to be yet another Soderbergh alias, finds the filmmaker in familiar territory, insofar as it's a heist movie that puts it in the same wheelhouse as his OCEAN'S ELEVEN trilogy and OUT OF SIGHT, and like the OCEAN'S movies, it's played for laughs, but Soderbergh's feature film homecoming has some tricks up its sleeve that make it very much its own unique thing.

In his fourth Soderbergh film, Channing Tatum stars as Jimmy Logan, a West Virginia construction worker fired by his crew boss after failing to disclose the bum knee from a high school football injury that ended his once-plausible chances of making it to the NFL. His ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) lives just across the state line in North Carolina and is planning to move with their daughter Sadie (Farrah McKenzie) to Lynchburg, VA, where her wealthy second husband (David Denman) is opening a new car dealership. Jimmy receives little consolation from his younger brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a bartender with a prosthetic left arm in place of the one he lost in Iraq. Clyde reminds Jimmy of the "Logan Curse," which has affected generations of their family, prompting Jimmy to take drastic measures to reverse it. With the help of their baby sister Mellie (Riley Keough), the Logan siblings team up to rob the cash deposit vault of the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the final NASCAR race of the season by taking advantage of the pneumatic tube system that moves throughout and under the speedway via chutes, a system Jimmy discovered on his last job with the construction crew, remedying a series of sinkholes that formed beneath the speedway property. The Logans enlist the aid of appropriately-named explosives man Joe Bang ("introducing Daniel Craig"), and are not deterred by the problematic fact that he's still locked up ("I am in-car-cer-ra-ted!" Bang sounds out for the Logans) for another five months and the job needs to be pulled off before the construction crew completes their work in four weeks.

Other figures drift in and out of the story in inspired, Coen Bros.-like situations, from obnoxious British business mogul and NASCAR team owner Max Chilblain (Seth MacFarlane, looking like a cross between Mandy Patinkin and Avery Schreiber); Dayton White (Sebastian Stan), a Chilblain driver who suffers a bad reaction after being contractually obligated to drink a Chilblain-endorsed energy drink on camera; Joe Bang's lunkhead brothers Sam Bang (Brian Gleeson) and Fish Bang (Jack Quaid); and, much later, humorless, no-nonsense FBI agent Sarah Grayson (Hilary Swank). Soderbergh goes against your gut expectations by avoiding the easy trap of milking these characters for condescending laughs, instead opting for a Coen Bros. approach where he shows much empathy for the Logans, and even for Joe Bang's brothers, who are more the stereotypical hillbilly yokels to a certain degree (they're introduced toilet seat-pitching and bragging that they "know everything there is to know about computers," including "all the Twitters"). Jimmy's plan is ridiculous and damn near impossible but time and again, he, along with Clyde, Mellie, and Joe Bang, prove themselves quite resourceful and have clearly thought this whole thing through even as obstacles constantly threaten to halt the job. The often absurdist humor doesn't approach the lunacy of, say, RAISING ARIZONA, but rather, the more deadpan side of FARGO. Tatum and especially Driver really nail the tone here and are gifted with numerous bits of quotable dialogue. Sure, Clyde's prosthetic arm is played for some easy laughs, but they're great laughs, and one brief detour into a prison riot negotiation (the standoff arranged to get Joe Bang out of jail) between the exasperated warden (Dwight Yoakam) and inmates demanding the prison library stock the titles in the Game of Thrones series that George R.R. Martin has yet to publish is brilliantly funny, as they refuse to believe that the new books don't exist and the warden can't convince them that the TV series has moved past the novels. LOGAN LUCKY could maybe run 15 minutes shorter and it has a few too many characters than it has time to properly showcase (MacFarlane, Stan, and Katherine Waterston as a nurse in a mobile free clinic are barely in it, and Swank doesn't even appear until 95 minutes in), but it's a lot of fun and a reminder that "offbeat" and "quirky" can still be a good thing. Plus it's got one perfect scene involving Sadie and John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," that's maybe the sweetest thing Soderbergh's ever done.

Saturday, August 19, 2017


(France/US/Belgium - 2017)

Directed by Tommy Wirkola. Written by Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson. Cast: Noomi Rapace, Willem Dafoe, Glenn Close, Marwan Kenzari, Clara Read, Christian Rubeck, Pal Sverre Hagen, Tomiwa Edun, Cassie Clare, Cameron Jack. (Unrated, 124 mins)

Noomi Rapace's intensely committed performance was the only good thing about the recent sci-fi film RUPTURE, and if you were impressed by her work there, then you need to see the Netflix Original movie WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY, the latest from Norwegian cult director Tommy Wirkola. Wirkola, best known for his two DEAD SNOW zombie movies, is making his first English-language film since his one-off attempt at helming a Hollywood blockbuster with 2013's long-delayed, problem-plagued HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS. But seven Noomi Rapaces are pretty much the whole show with WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY, a high-concept dystopian sci-fi thriller set in a future society where overpopulation, climate change, and worldwide drought have destroyed the agricultural system. Genetically modified crops create enough food to keep people fed, but they've also led to a spike in multiple births and genetic defects. This prompts political activist Dr. Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close) to create the Child Allocation Act, with the slogan "One Child, One Earth." In this new Orwellian world of constant surveillance and social control, multiple births are so common that one child becomes the law of the land. The parents can keep the firstborn, but the others are placed in Cryo Sleep, a process that puts them in a state of hibernation until the world's climate, population, and food concerns are properly addressed and the world is a better and more healthy place. As stated by one TV talking head, it's not a perfect solution, but "It may give us some time."

Shortly after the CAA is passed in 2043, an unmarried, single woman named Karen Settman dies giving birth to septuplets. Her doctor is a friend and notifies her estranged father Terrence (Willem Dafoe), an intellectual who's opposed to Cayman's CAA law. Terrence names each of the girls after a day of the week--Monday through Sunday--and secretly takes them home with him, reconstructing his residence as a fortress-like bunker with a secret room for his granddaughters to hide should anyone show up unannounced. As the girls grow (the septuplets at elementary school age are played by Clara Read), Terrence instructs them that in public, they are be known as "Karen Settman," and that "Karen" is to be portrayed by a different one of them on the specific day of the week for which she's named. This requires nightly meetings to keep up the ruse, but it's the only way for Terrence to get the girls acclimated to the outside world without exposing them, though their developing personalities make things difficult, especially when rebellious Thursday sneaks out of the house on a Saturday and disappears for several hours, returning home after losing the tip of her right index finger in a skateboarding accident. Of course, in the increasingly insane context of WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY, this requires Terrence to slice off the right index fingertip of the other six girls in order to maintain the illusion of "Karen Settman."  Yes, it's that kind of movie.

Flash forward to 2073, and Terrence's absence at this point indicates he's passed on during the narrative jump. Karen Settman has a good job at a financial institution and the seven siblings still live together and still have nightly meetings going over every aspect of their day. After 30 years of this, bickering is common and resentment is setting in as each wants their own life outside of being "Karen Settman." Being the oldest, Monday is the de facto "leader" of the septuplets, and each one has, not surprisingly, developed their own distinct personalities--Saturday is the blonde party girl, Friday is the mousy, wallflower computer nerd, Thursday is a short-haired, masculine tough girl. Monday doesn't return home from work one Monday, and when Tuesday goes about "Karen"'s day on Tuesday, she's hauled into the Child Allocation Act headquarters, where agents have obviously been tipped off by someone that she's one of seven, also hinting that they've got Monday in custody. Before long, Wednesday through Sunday are evading government assassins, dealing with a secret Monday paramour (Marwan Kenzari), and uncovering evidence that one of them may have sold the others out to Cayman, who's about to launch a Presidential campaign based on her successful handling of the world's overpopulation, which itself leads to a labyrinthine conspiracy to bury some horrible secrets.

WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY gets a little too muddled for its own good as it goes on, especially when it comes to the exact intent of one of the main characters, but its imaginatively goofy premise, the seamless visual trickery of seven Rapaces interacting with one another, the effectively cold, dystopian, CHILDREN OF MEN atmosphere (this was shot in Romania), the hyperviolent  DREDD-level splatter of the shootouts, the BOURNE-esque intensity of the action sequences, and the way Rapace vividly brings all seven sisters to life in distinct ways makes this far more entertaining than you might expect. Ten years ago, this would've been a huge summer movie that probably would've been directed by Ridley or Tony Scott, but as it stands today, it's one of the better Netflix Originals to come down the pike in a while, even if the story sort-of loses itself near the end and it might leave you wanting more in terms of the scenes with Terrence. I don't know about you, but when Wirkola skips from Terrence looking at his newborn granddaughters to all of them being seven years old, I kinda wanted to see Grandpa Willem handling seven screaming babies or watching him navigate the Terrible Twos. It's a totalitarian society with cameras and scanners everywhere--didn't anyone notice him buying a lot of diapers? Did his neighbors not hear anything? WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY runs 124 minutes and yet it still feels like it's been cut down, especially when it comes to Dafoe's character, and if you're aware that Robert Wagner had his entire role cut from the finished film (he's still listed in the credits on IMDb, and there's also a publicity still of him with Close). It's got some hiccups in the second half and can't stand up under any serious scrutiny, but if you don't ask questions and just roll with the craziness, WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY is an engagingly batshit blast that's certain to become a word-of-mouth hit for Netflix viewers very soon.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Retro Review: COUNSELOR AT CRIME (1973)

(Spain/Italy - 1973; US release 1975)

Directed by Alberto De Martino. Written by Adriano Bolzoni, Vincenzo Flamini (Vincenzo Mannino), Leonardo Martin and Alberto De Martino. Cast: Martin Balsam, Tomas Milian, Francisco Rabal, John Anderson, Dagmar Lassander, Carlo Tamberlani, Manuel Zarzo, Eduardo Fajardo, George Rigaud, Franco Angrisano, Giovanni Carbone, Fortunato Arena, Carla Mancini, Lorenzo Piani, Sacheen Littlefeather, Nello Pazzafini. (R, 102 mins)

While most films in the polziotteschi subgenre of politically-charged Italian crime movies of the 1970s took place in Rome, Naples, and Sicily, COUNSELOR AT CRIME is a bit of an outlier in that it's set almost entirely in America. Journeyman director and co-writer Alberto De Martino (whose later credits included the EXORCIST ripoff THE ANTICHRIST, the OMEN ripoff HOLOCAUST 2000, and the MST3K favorite THE PUMAMAN) fashions COUNSELOR as a pretty blatant, albeit contemporary GODFATHER knockoff. Shot largely in San Francisco and Albuquerque in January and February of 1973, COUNSELOR AT CRIME (or, as it was known in Italy, IL CONSIGLIORI) hits everything on the GODFATHER checklist: Sonny-at-the-causeway-like ambushes; a treacherous, Sollozzo-like troublemaker trying to make a name for himself by eliminating a powerful Don; an unexpected sojourn to Sicily when things get too hot at home in the States; and someone is even handed the severed head of a fish, a clever way to knock two things off the checklist by combining "sleeps with the fishes" with the horse's head in the movie mogul's bed. IL CONSIGLIORI was released in Europe in the summer of 1973 but didn't make its way to the US until 1975, when low-grade exploitation outfit Joseph Green Pictures picked it up and retitled it COUNSELOR AT CRIME. It's a largely by-the-numbers gangster picture that goes out of its way to look as American as possible, spotlighting the San Francisco locations where De Martino valiantly attempts to keep the Golden Gate Bridge visible as often as possible (there's even a sequence taking place at the same exit ramp where a pimp is killed in the same year's Dirty Harry movie MAGNUM FORCE), with Riz Ortolani's score having a definite "'70s cop show" sound to it when the composer isn't straight-up borrowing a key theme from his VALACHI PAPERS score from the previous year.

A low-level, syphilitic gangster loses his shit in a bowling alley, setting in motion a chain of events that sees underboss Garofalo (played by a backup Michael Ansara toupee planted on the head of Francisco Rabal) make a ballsy power play to take over the San Francisco organization ruled by Don Antonio Magadino (Martin Balsam). Magadino's mind is elsewhere since his godson and consigliere Thomas Accardo (Tomas Milian) is being paroled after serving a stretch for jury tampering in Santa Fe State Prison in New Mexico, the same joint that houses incarcerated Boss of Bosses Don Vito Albanese (American character actor John Anderson, dubbed by Robert Spafford). Accardo is welcomed back to the organization by Don Antonio, who raised him as his own son after he was orphaned as a child (a character trait in no way influenced by Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen in THE GODFATHER), but Accardo has other plans. He continued his legal studies while in prison, and fell in love with Laura Murchison (Dagmar Lassander), a professor at the University of New Mexico. He wants to leave the Family, marry Laura, and live a normal life away from the Mafia. Don Antonio grants him his wish, despite the ironclad rule that no one leaves, which enrages Garofalo, who then plots to whack Accardo so he doesn't talk, and Don Antonio over his flagrant disregard of their sacred Mafia oath.

COUNSELOR AT CRIME offers one bit of interesting trivia that tangentially connects it to THE GODFATHER: it's one of the very few movie appearances of Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather, best known for taking the stage at the 1973 Oscars to refuse Marlon Brando's GODFATHER Oscar for him, and seen here in a brief bit as a hooker. Beyond that, it also offers one of the most low-key performances of Milian's career, a real surprise considering his string of flamboyantly over-the-top psycho characters in Umberto Lenzi classics like ALMOST HUMAN (1974) and ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH (1976). Rabal is dubbed by the gruff Ed Mannix but definitely looks the part as the arrogant, untrustworthy Garofalo, and Balsam is a solid pro as the stern and paternal Don Antonio, and while he may not ooze the charismatic charm of Brando's Vito Corleone, it's superb casting, and De Martino even lets him take part in some action sequences and shootouts. Balsam was in the early years of a relentlessly busy decade that found the Oscar-winning actor (1965's A THOUSAND CLOWNS) alternating between supporting roles in A-list Hollywood projects (SUMMER WISHES WINTER DREAMS, THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN) and starring roles in Italian crime films (CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN, CHRONICLE OF A HOMICIDE, MEET HIM AND DIE, DEATH RAGE), and his presence here definitely helps sell the idea of making it look like an American gangster movie, and he fares much better than the miscast Anderson, whose two scenes were actually shot inside Santa Fe State Prison, complete with several inmates in the chow line turning to look straight into the camera.

It's a mostly routine post-GODFATHER mob movie until a surprisingly strong finale where both Balsam and Milian really get to show some chops without saying much at all. And it's in the finale where COUNSELOR AT CRIME makes its only real attempt to branch off from THE GODFATHER with the notion that it's not the aging mob bosses who hand off the power to the next generation, but rather, it's the older generation that's still around to pick up the pieces when their dealings and grudges end up sacrificing that next, doomed generation. It's an interesting perspective that should've been explored in a more in-depth fashion by the script, which was written by De Martino with three other writers (including frequent collaborator Vincenzo Mannino) before being translated into English and reworked by an uncredited Michael V. Gazzo, the raspy-voiced playwright and sometime actor who would get an Oscar nomination for his performance as bitter mob informant Frankie Pentangeli in 1974's THE GODFATHER PART II.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Retro Review: THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC! (1972)

(Italy - 1972; US release 1974)

Directed by Roberto Montero. Written by Luigi Angelo, Italo Fasan and Roberto Montero. Cast: Farley Granger, Sylva Koscina, Susan Scott (Nieves Navarro), Silvano Tranquilli, Annabella Incontrera, Chris Avram, Femi Benussi, Krista Nell, Philippe Hersent, Paul Oxon, Jessica Dublin, Angela Covello, Fabrizio Moresco, Andrea Scotti, Irene Pollmer, Luciano Rossi, Ivano Staccioli, Nino Foti, Sandro Pizzoro, Benito Stefanelli. (Unrated, 101 mins)

Known under a variety of titles and initially released in the US as THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC!, this obscure thriller is an enjoyably lurid second-tier giallo from Italian journeyman Roberto Bianchi Montero. Montero (1907-1986), a career second and third-stringer, dabbled in everything--post-HERCULES peplum, MONDO CANE knockoffs, spaghetti westerns, macaroni combat adventures, and even some porno in the late '70s-- but other than THE SLASHER, he's probably best known to genre fans for 1954's misleadingly-titled THE ISLAND MONSTER, a boring Italian drug smuggling drama sold as a horror movie and starring a dubbed Boris Karloff, presumably for no other reason than it provided the actor with a free Italian vacation. Shot under an Italian title that translated to the incredibly cumbersome REVELATIONS OF A SEX MANIAC TO THE HEAD OF THE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION DIVISION, THE SLASHER was known as SO SWEET, SO DEAD when released in Europe in 1972, but when it was picked up by veteran exploitation distributor William Mishkin, it was rebranded THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC! for its 1974 grindhouse and drive-in release. Just out on Blu-ray in a restored HD transfer from Code Red in its most complete version yet at 101 minutes (other versions range from 83 to 97 minutes), THE SLASHER isn't a long-buried masterpiece waiting to be discovered, but it's sufficiently nasty and sleazy enough to be of interest to giallo fans, though its rampant, unapologetic misogyny makes it a bit of a dated relic from a bygone era.

THE SLASHER stars STRANGERS ON A TRAIN's Farley Granger--right around the same time he headlined the similarly exclamatory Italian giallo trash classic AMUCK!--dubbed by someone else as Inspector Capuana, the chief of the homicide division in a wealthy enclave of Rome. He's baffled by a string of murders committed by a serial killer who preys on adulterous wives of rich and successful men. The trench-coated, black-gloved killer, who wears a fedora and a sheer nylon face mask like a BLOOD AND BLACK LACE cosplayer, considers himself "the moral avenger of the city's upper class," stalking cheating wives, slashing their throats and breasts, and leaving scattered photos of them in flagrante with their lovers, simultaneously slut-shaming his mutilated victims and exposing their husbands as hapless cuckolds. Red herrings abound--the creepy morgue attendant (Luciano Rossi), the smirking district attorney (Silvano Tranquilli), the medical examiner (Chris Avram), and various older lovers and younger boy toys. Even Capuana himself, a conservative type who's appalled by the moral rot and bourgeois decadence he encounters in his investigation, isn't free from suspicion, with many of the victims being in the same social circle as his wife Barbara (Sylva Koscina, who isn't given much to do), who spends a lot of time with her younger "friend" Roberto (Sandro Pizzoro) while the rumpled Capuana tirelessly pursues the murderer.

Montero does a mostly workmanlike job with THE SLASHER, but there's some noteworthy elements throughout: though derivative of Mario Bava, the killer's appearance is strikingly effective; there's no shortage of beautiful Euro starlets with zero hesitation about getting naked (Koscina, Susan Scott, Femi Benussi, and Krista Nell, whose life was cut tragically short when she succumbed to leukemia in 1975 at just 29); the nature of the murders hints at the increasingly violent and tawdry direction that gialli would soon be heading with likes of 1975's subtly-titled STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER; and Montero manages one legitimately classic giallo sequence with the beach murder of Benussi's character. There's other giallo tropes present as well, such as the Eurolounge score by Giorgio Gaslini, accompanied by the instantly recognizable wordless vocals of Edda Dell'Orso; a tarot card reader (Jessica Dublin) whose warnings to her soon-to-be-victim daughter (Nell) go unheeded and prefigure the psychic element of both Dario Argento's DEEP RED (1975) and Lucio Fulci's THE PSYCHIC (1977); and a variation on the idea of a second party using a killer for their own purposes, a concept key to AMUCK! as well as Argento's TENEBRE (1982). Mishkin kept THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC! in circulation for a while, even re-releasing it as BAD GIRLS with the tag line "...sensuous swingers all," as if THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC! wasn't already exploitative enough. That still didn't satisfy Mishkin, who released an alternate version of the film on the XXX circuit in 1976 under the title PENETRATION, featuring newly-shot hardcore footage with American porn stars Harry Reems, Tina Russell, Kim Pope, and Marc Stevens, with the poster proudly advertising that one-time Samuel Goldwyn prodigy and former Hitchcock leading man Farley Granger was starring in a porno flick with the charming tag line "Some women deserve it!" An outraged Granger, who was edited into the hardcore scenes as if his character was a voyeur peeping all the XXX action, threatened a lawsuit and Mishkin quickly withdrew PENETRATION from release in the US, where it hasn't been seen since, though Granger's litigious power play didn't prevent that variant from being seen in Europe.

Toledo, OH on September 20, 1974

Monday, August 14, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE HUNTER'S PRAYER (2017) and THE EXCEPTION (2017)

(US/Spain - 2017)

A somewhat low-key take on THE PROFESSIONAL and THE TRANSPORTER, THE HUNTER'S PRAYER only managed a stealth VOD burial in June 2017 after over two years on the shelf. There's nothing original or inventive about it, but it's a perfectly acceptable time-killing chase thriller that's executed reasonably well in the capable hands of the long-absent Jonathan Mostow (BREAKDOWN, U-571), directing his first film since the 2009 Bruce Willis sci-fi dud SURROGATES. Mostow stepped in after journeyman Philip Noyce (PATRIOT GAMES, THE BONE COLLECTOR) bailed during pre-production, and had his TERMINATOR 3 and SURROGATES writing team of John Brancato & Michael Ferris (THE GAME) rework the script after Paul Leydon (THE FACTORY) and Oren Moverman (THE MESSENGER) took cracks at adapting Kevin Wignall's 2004 novel For the Dogs. Sam Worthington (also one of 24 credited producers) is Lucas, a junkie hit man in the employ of shady UK financial titan Addison (DOWNTON ABBEY's Allen Leech). Another assassin, Metzger (RED ROAD's Martin Compston) has been sent to New York to whack the family of Martin Hatto (Eben Young), an associate who embezzled funds from Addison's company and is about to expose his illegal dealings to the FBI and Interpol. Lucas' assignment is to kill Hatto's teenage daughter Ella (THE GIVER's Odeya Rush), who's enrolled in posh boarding school in Switzerland. Haunted by PTSD from his military days in Fallujah, and now a hopeless drug addict with a young daughter he's never met, Lucas has a change of heart and decides to become Ella's protector as Addison sends Metzger and corrupt FBI flunky Banks (TRANSPARENT's Amy Landecker) to pursue the pair through Europe.

There's also a less technological BOURNE element (sorry, no "crisis suites" or Addison flunkies staring at a row of monitors and shouting "There he is! It's Lucas!") to the tireless pursuit of Lucas and Ella, and while it's not exactly a high-energy action thriller, Mostow keeps THE HUNTER'S PRAYER reasonably well-paced and entertaining. Almost everything is telegraphed in advance and easy to see coming unless you've never seen a movie before: the moment Lucas says he's never met his daughter, we know he's meeting her by the end. Likewise, the moment Lucas shows Ella how to load and fire a gun, we know she'll be the one to ultimately take out Addison during the inevitable showdown in the murky catacombs underneath his castle-like fortress. And of course, the moment Lucas and Ella begin to bond, we know he'll realize he has a reason to live and she'll care for him when he quits the needle cold turkey and goes through his FRENCH CONNECTION II-inspired withdrawal. Worthington, who's been taking on more character roles in films like EVEREST and HACKSAW RIDGE after years of Hollywood trying to make him a thing following AVATAR and CLASH OF THE TITANS (where Liam Neeson managed to upstage him and the entire cast with one perfect line), does a credible job in a role that feels like it was written with Jason Statham in mind. There's nothing here to get really excited about it--it is what it is, but if you're looking for a fairly diverting chase thriller with no thinking required, you can do a lot worse than THE HUNTER'S PRAYER. (R, 91 mins)

(Germany/US/Switzerland/Belgium - 2017)

The kind of prestige period drama that probably would've starred Keira Knightley and James McAvoy a decade ago and gotten at least seven Oscar nominations, THE EXCEPTION instead was given a limited release and a DirecTV dumping by A24 and will be a complete non-factor come awards season. Based on the 2003 novel The Kaiser's Last Kiss by Alan Judd, THE EXCEPTION is a fictionalized look at events in the last year of the life of Germany's abdicated Kaiser Wilhelm II, played here by the always magnificent Christopher Plummer. Set in 1940 at Wilhelm's palace in Utrecht, where he's been in exile since 1918, the film centers on Nazi Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), a disgraced officer given the duty of heading to the Netherlands to lead security for the Kaiser, who serves no current political purpose but is still viewed as a figure of great symbolic importance to Hitler's Germany. Brandt's real assignment--and his shot at redemption after standing up to a brutal senior officer who took way too much joy in mowing down some Jewish children--is to determine if the Dutch Resistance has planted a spy among the Kaiser's housekeeping staff. Of course, Brandt makes the job difficult by having a torrid, borderline NIGHT PORTER-ish fling with Mieke (BABY DRIVER's Lily James), one of the Kaiser's maids and a secret Jew. Brandt is a Nazi with a conscience, and Mieke being Jewish doesn't really bother him, but what he doesn't know and what any seasoned moviegoer will immediately figure out is that Mieke is the spy. She's working for Winston Churchill and the British government, there to observe any possible interaction between the Kaiser and high-ranking Nazi officials. Of course, it gets personal once she has a chance to avenge the murder of her Jewish parents when the Kaiser is visited by Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan). A conflicted Brandt is torn between his duty to Germany and his love for Mieke, and their forbidden affair is encouraged by the Kaiser who, in the context of this film, is shown demonstrating some mildly anti-Semitic sentiments but nothing of the level of the monstrous Himmler, which isn't really historically accurate--in real life, the Kaiser's papers written as late as 1940 reveal a still very virulent anti-Semite. In the fictionalized, romance novel world of THE EXCEPTION, the Kaiser is reduced to playing a wizened, wily matchmaker who inspires these two crazy kids to set aside the whole "Germans hate the Jews" thing and maybe they can make it after all. And we know they will, because Brandt ultimately chooses good over evil when he embraces Mieke, looks her in the eye, and proclaims "I've found something else to fight for." Maybe they should've fought for a better script.

THE EXCEPTION looks lavish enough but is hokey and insultingly simplistic throughout, with Brandt's cliched character (he's not the rule, he's "the exception," get it?) never registering thanks to the utterly blank Courtney (A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD, TERMINATOR: GENISYS, SUICIDE SQUAD), who's never going to be a star no matter how many times the movie industry tries to make him happen. He's completely miscast and entirely too present-day, Magic Mike buff to be a Nazi captain in 1940 (I'd suggest picturing Channing Tatum in this role, but Tatum is smart enough to know his limitations). Courtney sucks the energy out of scene after scene with his monotone delivery and blank stare, barely able to hold his own in scenes with James and Janet McTeer as the Kaiser's wife. Tony Award-winning stage director David Leveaux, making his big-screen directing debut, does Courtney a further disservice by giving Brandt a bunch of scenes with the Kaiser. And rest assured, nothing spotlights a mediocre leading man's shortcomings like having him spend significant chunks of screen time opposite Christopher Plummer, an 87-year-old living legend who's got more star power in his bowel movements than Courtney's been capable of mustering over his entire career. Some hyped actors that Hollywood insists on making a thing end up maturing into first-rate actors--Matthew McConaughey and Colin Farrell come to mind--so there's a chance Courtney might get better as he gets older. I don't mean to be a dick and dog Courtney so hard. He's probably a nice guy. But he's just...not good. And neither is THE EXCEPTION. (R, 107 mins)

Friday, August 11, 2017


(UK/US - 2017)

Currently sporting an impressive 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, THE DEVIL'S CANDY, written and directed by Sean Byrne (THE LOVED ONES) made the festival rounds in 2015, two years before it was released by IFC in a slightly tweaked version that cut the running time from 90 to 80 minutes. It was lauded by critics and horror bloggers as yet another Horror Insta-Classic (© William Wilson), with many of the reviews citing as "a heavy metal horror movie" and "a totally metal horror movie" and even "metal as fuck." The metal element is perfunctory at best and pandering at worst, serving little purpose other than to get Slayer and Metallica on the soundtrack and score some hipster horror scenester points by being set and shot in Austin and having the credits in the Iron Maiden font. Today's horror fans are notoriously easy lays when it comes to hyping new product, but is that really all it takes to seduce them into declaring it a modern classic? As a metal horror movie, it's no TRICK OR TREAT. Hell, it's barely even BLACK ROSES. As an occult movie, it pales compared to Oz Perkins' THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER. And as an instant cult classic, it's basically a Rob Zombie hicksploitation romp camouflaged in hipster garb. To be fair, it's not a bad movie--there's some unexpectedly deep character development in the early going and some undeniable atmosphere, with a droning, downtuned ambient score by Sunn O))), and a stained glass window bathing people in shades of Argento red--but in the end, it's yet another generic indie horror slow burner that gets its leg frantically humped by breathlessly panting fanboys but delivers nothing you haven't seen before. Some good performances give it some extra credibility, but come on, guys. What's so special about this?

Artist Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), his wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby), and their teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) move into a farmhouse in the rural outskirts of Austin after closing on it at a really low price. Of course, it's because two people died in the house, which is never good sign in the horror genre. Astrid works full-time and metalhead Jesse makes ends meet by painting murals of butterflies and pretty scenery for local businesses. They're a loving family--Jesse's passed his love of metal on to Zooey, and it's cute watching father and daughter bond by headbanging to some death metal ("Can you play something lighter?" Astrid asks, to which Zooey smirks "Like what? Metallica?"). Once in the farmhouse, strange things begin happening, starting with random appearances by Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the son of the elderly couple who died in the house. Smilie has spent a significant chunk of his life in mental hospitals and likely killed both of his parents. He hears voices and plays doomy riffs on a Flying V as if being directed by an outside force. He abducts and kills children, following the instructions of the voices, and the visions of those dead kids are revealed in Jesse's paintings. The paintings take on an increasingly Satanic bent, though when they're done, Jesse awakens from a trance and has no recollection of painting them, which disturbs him even more when Astrid sees that he's painted Zooey's screaming face into a mural of hellfire and murdered children ("They're inside me," he says, "begging to be let out"). Much of the muddled plot unfolds in total darkness, and though the Hellmans (real subtle) are a happy family, the film almost wants you to be surprised that pot-smoking metalheads can be loving, nurturing parents. The much-acclaimed metal angle has no real purpose, though it's awfully convenient that a serial child killer whose instructions from the devil come to him in the form of a riff on a Flying V would happen to have a family of Slayer fans to pursue. THE DEVIL'S CANDY is an OK horror flick to stream on a slow night, and the four stars give this a lot more than they get in return (Appleby and Glasco are great screamers), but it's all rather silly and dull, even with the closing credits rolling at 74 minutes. (Unrated, 80 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US/UK/China - 2017)

Inspired by the 1997 "Phoenix Lights" incident, the faux-doc/found footage horror film PHOENIX FORGOTTEN wants to be the UFO version of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT but it lacks the ingenuity and originality. It tries to pass itself off as something with a low-budget, DIY aesthetic but it's really a three-country co-production with 29 credited producers, including After Dark Films chief Courtney Solomon, MAZE RUNNER screenwriter T.S. Nowlin and director Wes Ball, 300 producer Mark Canton, and, for some reason, Ridley Scott, all of whom must've cleaned out the change in their car's cupholders to get this thing made. Nowlin co-wrote the script with first-time feature film director Justin Barber, and for a while, PHOENIX FORGOTTEN is actually pretty good. Haunted by the disappearance of older brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) 20 years earlier, Sophie Bishop (Florence Hartigan) begins work on a documentary to find the truth about what happened to her then-17-year-old brother and his friends Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark (Justin Matthews). They vanished in the weeks following the appearance of the Phoenix Lights, two different events on March 13, 1997 where massive light formations in the sky--most likely flares from jets on a training exercise at a nearby military base--were witnessed by many and presumed to be UFOs (even then-Arizona governor Fife Symington laughed it off at the time but would later admit he believed them to be UFOs). Sophie interviews all of the parents, school officials, retired cops, and local astronomers, but the investigation hits the same dead end it did 20 years ago. She's even given the brush off by a former Symington aid after showing up at his house. Josh documented their trip with his own video camera, but when another camera with a school "property of" label on it, battered and damaged after being discovered in the desert and sent back to the school, is discovered in a long-unused storage unit rented by the school, Sophie finds a tape left inside.

Obviously, the other tape holds the answers to the mystery, and Barber does a nice job cutting from Sophie's discovery of it immediately to her shaken reaction after watching it. Then we see it, and what was an interesting and well-constructed faux doc turns into yet another rote, tired BLAIR WITCH ripoff, right down to the final tilted shot from the POV of a Dutch-angled video camera that's been dropped. It's too bad the inspiration flamed out at the midway-point, because even though found footage is as played out as can be, PHOENIX FORGOTTEN was shaping up as a decent little sleeper. Sophie's documentary unfolds like a riveting episode of DATELINE, and the mix of fiction with actual footage from the period is handled quite effectively. Another plus is that the actors deliver believable, "real" performances--at least until the second half, when all they're doing is bitching at each other and screaming "Mark!" when he vanishes into pitch black darkness. The big revelation here is the charming Lopez, who's got such a natural screen presence about her that when she's onscreen, it's easy to forget you're watching a fictional horror movie (and her impression of Jodie Foster in CONTACT--a small example of how this film gets the 1997 period detail right--is a clip that deserves to go viral). It's easy to dismiss films of this sort, especially this late in the game when there's really nothing new to do with them. Once in a while, a good one will break through and surprise you (like Bobcat Goldthwait's WILLOW CREEK), but these days, they're mostly like last year's hyped and crushingly disappointing BLAIR WITCH. PHOENIX FORGOTTEN falls somewhere in between, buoyed considerably by its cast's efforts and an opening half that's better than it has any right to be (and with a creepily effective use of Paul Revere & the Raiders frontman Mark Lindsay's 1969 solo hit "Arizona") but ultimately fizzling out when the filmmakers appear to simply give up when it mattered most. Maybe a different approach would've been to follow Sophie's efforts to expose the truth, especially after she meets with an official on a military base who tells her "don't let the public see that tape." Why not go the conspiracy route instead of checking out and coasting the rest of the way with an alien abduction remake of the first BLAIR WITCH? (PG-13, 87 mins)