Friday, November 24, 2017

On Blu-ray/DVD: JUNGLE (2017) and THE SHOW (2017)

(Australia/US/UK - 2017)

This fact-based chronicle of future tech entrepreneur and ecological activist Yossi Ghinsberg's harrowing three weeks spent lost in the uncharted jungles of Bolivia in 1981 provides a chance for Daniel Radcliffe to give it everything he's got and he certainly runs with it. Looking to see the world after serving three years in the Israeli military, Tel Aviv-born Yossi upsets his parents by not going to university, but he's a wandering, curious soul who does what he must do. After venturing through Alaska and down into the States, with stops in NYC and Vegas, Yossi ends up in Bolivia where he meets Swedish tourist Marcus Stamm (Joel Jackson) and noted American hiker and photographer Kevin Gale (Alex Russell). A chance encounter with Austrian adventurer and treasure hunter Karl Ruprechter (Thomas Kretschmann) leads to the quartet venturing deep into uncharted territory in the foreboding Bolivian jungle on a trip they'll soon regret taking. An infection in Marcus' feet slows them down, but after building a raft and attempting to travel via river, increased tensions and the discovery that Karl may not be what he claims to be have them turning against each other as much as they're fighting the forces of nature. Hopelessly lost, Marcus and Karl decide to hike their way back to civilization while Kevin and Yossi proceed along the river on the raft. The raft is destroyed in a dangerous stretch of rapids and Kevin and Yossi are separated. So begins Yossi's three-week journey into the heart of darkness, with a useless map and delirium sending him in circles, battling the elements, fungal infections, a persistent parasite, red ants, and quicksand.

Sporting a convincing Israeli accent, Radcliffe looks like he went to hell and back shooting this thing, but director Greg McLean (WOLF CREEK, ROGUE, THE BELKO EXPERIMENT) keeps things moving at a detrimentally glacial pace, and by the third act, gets totally sidetracked with Yossi's flashbacks, hallucinations, and random Jesus Christ poses. Based on Ghinsberg's memoir, JUNGLE admirably doesn't sugarcoat its characters and their passive-aggressive treatment of Marcus, and is appropriately grueling and unflinching (though as icky as the parasite-extraction scene is, readers of the memoir may wonder why they left out the bit where Yossi lands ass-first on a sharp pole, penetrating and severely injuring his rectal area), but McLean meanders all over the place, torn between making a Werner Herzog homage and a standard survivalist adventure, and coming up short at both ends. Still, Radcliffe fans will definitely want to check it out, but they'll probably end up wishing his work was showcased in a better movie. (R, 115 mins)

(US/UK - 2017)

THE SHOW wants to be a blistering takedown of reality TV, but it has no idea how satire works, taking its place alongside AMERICAN VIOLENCE as the most embarrassingly heavy-handed film of 2017. After a rejected woman on a BACHELOR-like reality show kills the bride and groom and turns the gun on herself on live TV, smarmy host Adam Rogers (Josh Duhamel, sporting the douchiest haircut you'll ever see) pitches a new show to his boss (Famke Janssen as Faye Dunaway) called THIS IS YOUR DEATH (the film's original title when it played the festival circuit), where contestants come up with various elaborate ways to commit suicide in front of a live studio audience and millions watching on TV, with the winner's designated survivors getting a huge payday. Meanwhile, hard-working family man Mason (Giancarlo Esposito, who also directed) has fallen on hard times and works two jobs--one as a janitor and the other as a dishwasher at a posh restaurant--and ends up losing both of them in the same night (the dishwashing one because he sees Rogers sitting at the bar and criticizes THIS IS YOUR DEATH, prompting dickhead Rogers to complain to the manager). With his wife on his case, his disabled son needing new crutches, his bills mounting, no job prospects, and close to his breaking point thanks to the deck that the script has stacked against him, Mason decides to audition for the season finale promising $1 million to the winner, and of course, he makes the cut.

Approached with a sardonic, DEATH RACE 2000 or NETWORK attitude, THE SHOW could've been the bitter, bile-soaked screed that the subject deserves. But it comes off as obnoxiously pushy and utterly humorless wokesploitation, taking itself completely seriously, and Duhamel's impossibly smug caricature of a TV host is hard to take after a while (imagine how subversive this could've been simply by casting someone like Ryan Seacrest as Rogers). The only thing that saves THE SHOW from total oblivion is a genuinely effective performance by Sarah Wayne Callies (THE WALKING DEAD) as Rogers' sister, a nurse and recovering addict whose life takes a downward spiral thanks to her brother's notoriety as the man behind the most controversial show in America. THE SHOW gets more sanctimonious and full of itself as it goes along, pointing fingers at everyone, from Rogers' increasingly monstrous behavior to the ghoulish, rubbernecking audience that can't get enough (there's one guy holding a sign that says "Show Me the Bloody") and Mason on live TV shouting things like "WHY ARE YOU WATCHING THIS?" and "TURN IT OFF!!!" Considering Esposito is the director, that may be the most accidentally satirical thing THE SHOW has going for it. (R, 104 mins)

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

In Theaters: ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (2017)

(US/Canada/China/UAE - 2017)

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravatt, Amanda Warren, Hugo Armstrong, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, DeRon Horton, Amari Cheathom, Nazneen Contractor, Niles Fitch, Elisa Perry, Annie Sertich, Esperanza Spalding, Just N. Time. (PG-13, 122 mins)

Veteran journeyman screenwriter Dan Gilroy made his directing debut three years ago with the critically acclaimed NIGHTCRAWLER, and coaxed a career-best performance out of Jake Gyllenhaal in the process. It was a challenge to base a film around one of the most repulsive protagonists in recent memory--Louis Bloom, a petty thief specializing in copper wire and chain-link fencing who makes a name for himself selling accident and murder footage to a desperate, bottom-ranked L.A. news station--and Gilroy explores similar themes with the legal drama ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. Played by the great Denzel Washington, the titular character is ultimately just as morally and ethically challenged as Louis Bloom, but he's not a bad guy. He's just as much of a misfit, though where Bloom was an unrepentant sociopath, Los Angeles defense attorney Roman J. Israel is a savant who eats nothing but peanut butter sandwiches and has the entire California legal code memorized. He works behind the scenes as part of a two-man firm, and his elderly partner--the face of the practice and the guy who appears in court--has just gone into a coma after a massive heart attack, leaving the abrasive and socially awkward Roman--in no way a people person--to handle his cases in front of a series of increasingly exasperated judges. Roman is a career civil rights activist with a borderline Cornel West afro, unfashionable eyewear, and mismatched, ill-fitting, ragged suits that look like they've been worn for 30 years (Washington's also wearing some padding to add a little girth to his midsection). He has a brilliant legal mind, which is why his partnership with his aged colleague has worked, but with the old man out of the picture, the practice has been handed over, per his wishes, to slick, high-priced criminal lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student and protege of whom Roman was completely unaware. The practice has been losing money due to its taking on a large of pro bono, social activism cases that Roman lives for, so with the blessing of the ailing lawyer's family, Pierce shuts it down and reluctantly agrees to take Roman on as an attorney at his own hugely successful firm.

With Roman's appearance and his dinosaur ways--he has a battered, ancient flip phone and hates computers, relying on index cards, countless Post-Its, and voluminous stacks of documents precariously clipped and rubber-banded together--Gilroy could've just as easily taken this situation and made it a mismatched, fish-out-of-water buddy comedy. Instead, it's a character piece and a morality play where Roman, who can't help but burn bridges at Pierce's office because that's what he does, snaps after nearly losing his job over his botched handling of client Derrell Ellerbee (DeRon Horton), a 17-year-old being charged as an accessory in the murder of an Armenian convenience store clerk. The shooter was Carter Johnson (Amari Cheathom), who's now a fugitive but Derrell secretly told Roman his whereabouts in exchange for the possibility of a reduced sentence. When Derrell turns up with throat slashed in the jailhouse shower the next day and Pierce informs him his termination is imminent since he angrily hung up on the prosecuting attorney and never conveyed her offer to Derrell, Roman decides he's had enough after nearly 40 years of "doing the impossible for the ungrateful." When an Armenian community center offers $100,000 for information leading to the arrest of the shooter, Roman anonymously provides the info and collects the reward money. He treats himself to a weekend vacation, buys some new suits, gets a new haircut and signs a lease at a posh apartment building. He plays ball and takes on some easy money cases at Pierce's practice and starts making friends, quickly seeing that playing the legal game and putting his hardball activist dedication aside--including an epic class action lawsuit he's been working on for seven years that he insists will redefine the nature of legal defenses and the concept of plea bargaining--means he can finally live the good life he's denied himself for decades ("My failures are self-inflicted," he tells Pierce). It should go without saying that Roman's impulsive actions will eventually blow up in his face, especially when a jailed Carter retains the services of Pierce, who hands the case off to...who else?

Washington is terrific as Roman, even if his actorly affectations indicate that the film can't seem to decide if Roman's spectrum-stretching issues are that he's Rain Man, an OCD case, a social anxiety sufferer, or if he has Asperger's (the film seems to conflate them all under one all-purpose special needs umbrella). He manages to alienate everyone he meets, with the exception of Maya (Carmen Ejogo), an earnest volunteer activist for a civil rights group who comes to appreciate Roman's dedication to the cause, and more or less serves as his conscience once he starts wearing expensive suits and dining at classy restaurants. Washington's performance is effective, but at the same time, it's pure Oscar bait, and Gilroy's story just doesn't have any real foundation at its base, especially once it veers into commercial thriller territory in the third act. Roman's character arc is obvious and simplistic, and Washington is required to go through several scenes where he looks in a mirror and regards his flashy new appearance and silently ponders What I've Become. If Maya is Roman's conscience, then Pierce is the Roman that might've been--a beloved protege to Roman's partner who had the interpersonal chops to be a successful lawyer both philosophically and financially. Pierce is a good lawyer as well as a good businessman. Ultimately, he's hardly the unscrupulous shark we expect him to be based on his high-priced suits and slicked-back hair, even though his demeanor changes from scene to scene, especially in his attitude toward Roman.

After ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ--filmed under the generic title INNER CITY--screened to a middling response at the Toronto Film Festival, Gilroy recut some scenes and excised approximately 15 minutes to get it to its present, 122-minute length (Gilroy said much of the changes dealt with Farrell's character, which may explain why Pierce's attitude is so hard to pin down). Even now, its structure still seems off, especially after an opening that sets up the story as a flashback beginning three weeks earlier, which seems like an awfully short amount of time for this entire story to go down. NIGHTCRAWLER was a film that probably would've been a lot more scathing and hard-hitting if it didn't take place in such a cynical era, but it has a mesmerizing performance to make you look past it. ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ doesn't even have the limited substance of NIGHTCRAWLER and even pilfers some of its ideas and observations, coming up just a bit short even though it gets a lot out of an expectedly outstanding performance from Washington.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Retro Review: INTO THE NIGHT (1985)

(US - 1985)

Directed by John Landis. Written by Ron Kosnow. Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Richard Farnsworth, Irene Papas, Kathryn Harrold, David Bowie, Paul Mazursky, Vera Miles, Roger Vadim, Clu Gulager, Dan Aykroyd, Bruce McGill, Carl Perkins, Stacey Pickren, Carmen Argenziano, David Cronenberg, Domingo Ambriz, Jake Steinfeld, Art Evans, Michael Zand, Beruce Gramian, Hadi Sadjadi, John Landis, Ali Madani, Houshang Touzie, Reid Smith. (R, 115 mins)

Just out on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, John Landis' INTO THE NIGHT has often been compared to Martin Scorsese's AFTER HOURS, another 1985 film with a similar concept of an ordinary guy finding himself in increasingly strange situations in the wee hours of the morning in unfamiliar and dangerous parts of the city. Where AFTER HOURS was set and shot in NYC, INTO THE NIGHT represents the west coast, taking place in and around Los Angeles (there's even a couple of chances to see some vintage TV commercials for legendary L.A. car dealer Cal Worthington). In hindsight, INTO THE NIGHT is often relegated to the sideline and viewed as a lesser AFTER HOURS knockoff, even though it opened seven months earlier. Landis had been on a hot streak going back to 1977's THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, with a string of huge hits that included 1978's ANIMAL HOUSE, 1980's THE BLUES BROTHERS, 1981's AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and 1983's TRADING PLACES, plus he was at the helm of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," the groundbreaking and probably the most famous music video of all time. INTO THE NIGHT grossed a very modest $7 million, not awful by 1985 standards but far below the box office Landis films generated in that period. While TRADING PLACES became a blockbuster thanks largely to Eddie Murphy, INTO THE NIGHT didn't have that kind of star power to headline it. This meant Landis' name was the main focus, and the deaths of Vic Morrow and two children on the set Landis' segment of 1983's TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE were still fresh in everyone's minds, particularly the director himself, as Landis was officially charged with involuntary manslaughter three weeks into filming INTO THE NIGHT, with a trial spread out over 1986 and 1987. Though Landis and three co-defendants were eventually acquitted, and he continued working in Hollywood (having hits with 1985's SPIES LIKE US, 1986's THREE AMIGOS, and 1988's COMING TO AMERICA), Landis' career never really recovered. His subsequent work in the '90s ranged from middling (1992's INNOCENT BLOOD) to quick paycheck (1994's BEVERLY HILLS COP III, six years after he and Murphy clashed on COMING TO AMERICA, prompting Murphy to quip "John Landis has a better chance of working with Vic Morrow than with me") to desperate (1998's BLUES BROTHERS 2000) to completely unwatchable (1996's THE STUPIDS). Landis has worked very sporadically over the last two decades, with a couple of acclaimed documentaries (2004's SLASHER and 2007's MR. WARMTH: THE DON RICKLES PROJECT), but that nearly 20-year stretch has only seen Landis directing one narrative feature with 2011's dismal, little-seen Simon Pegg horror comedy BURKE AND HARE. His last directing credit to date is a 2012 episode of the TNT series FRANKLIN & BASH.

Propelled by some bluesy B.B. King on the soundtrack, INTO THE NIGHT may not have made much of an impression in theaters, but it found an appreciative audience thanks to its incessant airplay on cable throughout the rest of the '80s. It also helps to look back at it now with star Jeff Goldblum's oddball persona firmly established. In 1985, the actor wasn't an unknown by any means, with numerous TV gigs and roles in 1978's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and 1983's THE BIG CHILL to his credit, but he hadn't yet established the quirky, eccentric "Jeff Goldblum" we know today from THE FLY, JURASSIC PARK, and INDEPENDENCE DAY. The recognizable Goldblum mannerisms are here but he plays it pretty straightforward as mild-mannered aerospace engineer Ed Okin, a quiet type who's suffering from extreme insomnia ("Summer of 1980," he replies when asked the last time he slept a full eight hours), is miserable at his job, and is coming to terms with the fact that his wife (Stacey Nelkin) is cheating on him. Wide awake, he decides to go on a late-night drive and finds himself in the parking garage at LAX, where he's as shocked as anyone when he ends up rescuing Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) from a quartet of bumbling Iranian assassins (one of them played by Landis). Once an aspiring starlet ("I'm not as young as I look," she says), Diana has fallen in with some shady characters and was returning from Zurich with priceless jewels that belonged to the deposed Shah of Iran. Her associate Hasi (Ali Madani) was killed at the airport just before she landed on the hood of Ed's car. Her contact is Hamid (Houshang Touzie), but in addition to the four assassins working for Hasi's double-crossing, vengeful aunt Shaheen (Irene Papas), she and unlikely new partner Ed are also targeted by Colin Morris (David Bowie), a dapper killer in the employ of French criminal Melville (Roger Vadim), in a madcap plot that also involves Diana's Elvis impersonator brother (Bruce McGill), her actress friend Christie (Kathryn Harrold), and her estranged, terminally ill sugar daddy Jack Caper (Richard Farnsworth).

It's not every day that you see a movie with rockabilly legend Carl Perkins pulling a knife out of his chest and using it to attack David Bowie, and INTO THE NIGHT is filled with bizarre bits throughout that always keep you intrigued. Goldblum and Pfeiffer (then best known for GREASE 2 and SCARFACE) are a charming team, but the script by Ron Koslow (who went on to create the acclaimed late '80s Linda Hamilton/Ron Perlman TV series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) has uneven tonal shifts from goofy comedy to shocking violence, with one likable character and even a cute dog being ruthlessly killed off. One of the most notable elements of INTO THE NIGHT--similar to THE BLUES BROTHERS--is Landis packing it with a ton of cameos, from small roles for Bowie, Perkins as Hamid's henchman, and Dan Aykroyd as one of Ed's engineer colleagues to appearances by a small army of Landis' filmmaker friends: Vadim, Paul Mazursky as Christie's boyfriend, David Cronenberg as Ed's boss, Don Siegel as a lecherous old man with a hooker in a men's room stall, Paul Bartel as a hotel doorman, Waldo Salt as a homeless guy, Rick Baker as a drug dealer, Jim Henson as a guy forced off of a hotel lobby phone, Lawrence Kasdan as a detective, Jonathan Demme as an FBI agent, Amy Heckerling as a waitress, and others. Roger Ebert was very critical of the plethora of director cameos, saying they were a distraction from the real actors, but Landis is careful to not draw too much attention to them. A sight gag with an old rich guy emerging from a men's room stall followed close behind by a hooker is funny regardless of whether or not it's Don Siegel. Don Siegel isn't the joke. It's a fun, running inside joke for hardcore movie nerds, but it's not a distraction for the casual moviegoer. I don't understand Ebert's gripe, because other than when it came to guys like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Henson, and Landis, it's doubtful anyone but an obsessive film fanatic was able to recognize directors by sight in the primitive, pre-internet days of 1985. Did anyone other than a movie critic watch INTO THE NIGHT and say "Hey, look, it's FOUL PLAY director Colin Higgins!"? Ebert was distracted because he knew who the directors were and apparently was in a bad mood when he watched it, but did civilian moviegoers care? Cinephiles have an added layer of enjoyment with INTO THE NIGHT, but even without that insider knowledge, time's been kind to it. It's a funny and offbeat, if frequently uneven film that remains a sentimental favorite of mine from the 1980s.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


(US - 2017)

On the shelf so long that the prefix "the long-delayed" should just be tacked on to the title, the long-delayed AMITYVILLE: THE AWAKENING was shot was back in 2014 with a trailer hitting theaters that fall, ahead of its planned January 2, 2015 release. After being abruptly pulled from the schedule and sent back for reshoots, with at least six more release dates announced then bumped or canceled over the next two and a half years, the film finally debuted--for free and with disgraced co-executive producer Harvey Weinstein's name awkwardly erased from the opening credits--on Google Play in October 2017, ahead of a ten-screen theatrical release for a total gross of $742. It's hard telling what caused the delay, other than the Weinsteins' perpetual financial issues or that they just knew it was dog shit. A reboot of the AMITYVILLE franchise for the Blumhouse era of horror, THE AWAKENING has 17-year-old Belle (Bella Thorne) moving into the infamous house with her widowed mom Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh), little sister Juliet (McKenna Grace), and James (Cameron Monaghan), Belle's comatose twin brother, who hasn't moved or shown any brain activity since a horrible fall from a third story balcony when he go into a fight with a guy who posted nude pics of Belle all over the internet. Rebellious, sullen Belle doesn't fit in and gets bullied because of where she lives, but makes a couple of friends with nerdy Terrence (Thomas Mann) and goth Marissa (Taylor Spreitler), who inform her of the legend of the "Amityville Horror" by showing her the 1979 movie.

Now, what the hell kind of bullshit is writer/director and Alexandre Aja protege Franck Khalfoun (the 2013 remake of MANIAC) trying to pull here? Are we going the meta WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE and SCREAM route with an AMITYVILLE movie that takes place in a world where the movie franchise is a known thing? If so, then you have to try harder. Exactly how has Belle made it to 17 years of age without hearing of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR? I'm not even asking her to know the James Brolin version since it's like, so old and she probably can't even--but she doesn't even know the Ryan Reynolds remake, as evidenced when Terrence suggests it and Belle and Marissa roll their eyes and vocal fry "Remakes totally blow!" OK, so if you're a savvy enough movie watcher to conclude that remakes totally blow, then how are you unaware of any incarnation of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR?  At this point, James--unlike Khalfoun's script--starts showing signs of brain activity thanks to malevolent spirits in the basement's "Red Room," and Belle becomes convinced that the same evil that possessed Ronald DeFeo Jr to slaughter his family in 1974 is inhabiting James and risking all of their lives. A tired jumble of AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION and PATRICK with hints of last year's already forgotten SHUT IN, AMITYVILLE: THE AWAKENING stumbles to its tired conclusion, relying completely on predictable jump scares and hinging on Joan's thoroughly idiotic reasons for moving into a house she knew was home to a godless evil, all the while abandoning plot points and completely forgetting James' doctor (Kurtwood Smith cashing a paycheck), who has a swarm of bush-league CGI flies go down his throat before excusing himself and vanishing from the movie. That's about what Khalfoun does with the limp finale, which looks so much like a hastily tacked-on epilogue that if you analyze the audio and listen deep into the mix, you can probably hear Khalfoun saying "Let's just get this over with." (PG-13, 87 mins)

(US - 2017)

The latest from busy VOD/DTV action star Scott Adkins is a period adventure set in 1959 Indochina, which has become a safe haven for despots, warlords, Nazi war criminals and other undesirables. Fugitive Irish boxer Tillman (Adkins) is one of the top fighters in a tournament overseen by the camp's commander, former Nazi Steiner (Vladimir Kulich, looking like a dead ringer for '60s German bad guy Peter Van Eyck). Tillman is released from the compound and gets a job as a bouncer at a bar owned by American expat Valentine (Keith David). He finds love with Isabelle (Juju Chan), and is eventually drawn back into Steiner's tournaments since they provide easy money. Steiner and his overly enthusiastic henchman Rastignac (Marko Zaror), who humbly refers to himself as "The Executioner," inform Valentine that they'll be taking over his business, which results in a dispute leading to Rastignac losing his shit and blowing everyone away, with Tillman left for dead. Of course, he's not dead, and after recuperating with the help of a local tribal chieftain (Aki Aleong sighting!), he returns to Steiner's camp as a one-man killing machine, blowing shit up and shooting, slicing, and dicing his way through everyone, including another bad guy played by Cung Le, before his inevitable confrontation with The Executioner.

Written and directed by DTV vet Jesse V. Johnson (THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT, GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS 2), SAVAGE DOG is pretty pedestrian stuff in the early going, with clumsy narration by David's Valentine (who continues narrating even after he's killed, actually saying "Well, there I was...killed by three slugs from my own gun"), and a drinking game-worthy amount of cliched dialogue (of course, Isabelle tells loner Tillman "Some animals are not meant to be caged," and "We build our own cages," and Steiner sucks on a cigar while smugly informing Tillman "You're not so dissimilar to us"). Once Tillman returns to the camp and starts killing everyone, SAVAGE DOG becomes a rowdy gorefest along the lines of Stallone's 2008 resurrection of RAMBO, culminating in an unexpected final blow to The Executioner that's pretty transgressive as far as by-the-numbers DTV actioners go. The copious splatter is a mix of practical and CGI, with an unfortunate emphasis on the latter. It's distractingly cheap-looking at times, but it almost goes hand-in-hand with the low-budget aesthetic of the whole project, with the jungles of Indochina being played by the Sanna Ranch in Santa Clarita, CA. With some more convincing gore and some better writing, SAVAGE DOG could've been a minor gem among the year's VOD releases. It's not bad and Adkins fans will definitely want to give it a look, but it's the kind of budget-deprived corner-cutter where a big action sequence shows the same extra, wearing three different outfits, getting killed three times in about five minutes of screen time. (Unrated, 95 mins)

Monday, November 13, 2017


(US - 2017)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Michael Green. Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Lucy Boynton, Olivia Colman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Marwan Kenzari, Sergei Polunin, Gerald Horan, Phil Dunster, Miranda Raison, Hayat Kamille. (PG-13, 114 mins)

The first big-screen Hercule Poirot mystery since Peter Ustinov starred in Cannon's little-seen APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH way back in 1988, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS gives a mustache attached to the face of Kenneth Branagh the opportunity to play Agatha Christie's legendary detective. David Suchet enjoyed much success as Poirot in a series of PBS productions, including an ORIENT EXPRESS in 2010. The novel was also turned into a 2001 CBS TV-movie with Alfred Molina as a present-day Poirot. Suchet is often cited as the best Poirot, but the standard--at least as far as cinema is concerned--remains Albert Finney's Oscar-nominated turn as the fussy Belgian sleuth in Sidney Lumet's classic 1974 film version. While Christie adaptations were frequent (Margaret Rutherford played Miss Marple in several 1960s films, TEN LITTLE INDIANS was a big hit in 1965, and Tony Randall portrayed Poirot in 1966's THE ALPHABET MURDERS), it was the all-star MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS that got the ball rolling on a star-studded, big-screen Christie renaissance that lasted into the 1980s, including a 1974 remake of TEN LITTLE INDIANS, rushed into production by Harry Alan Towers to compete with Lumet's film; Ustinov starring as Poirot in 1978's DEATH ON THE NILE, 1982's EVIL UNDER THE SUN, the aforementioned latecomer APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH; and Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple in 1980's THE MIRROR CRACK'D, giving the actress an old-school test run before her long-running TV series MURDER, SHE WROTE.

All of this leads to the inevitable question: why does this 2017 remake of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS exist? It brings nothing new to the table story-wise, with the mystery's solution being common knowledge to any older moviegoer who's seen the 1974 version and anyone who watched Suchet's run on PBS. Is it to give students something newer to stream when they want to skip the reading and have no idea who Albert Finney is and the quiz is tomorrow? Is that why Imagine Dragons' "Believer" was so prominently featured in the trailer? It's really just an excuse for director Kenneth Branagh to give star Kenneth Branagh some very wide latitude to ham it up. Boarding the Orient Express in Istanbul bound for Western Europe, Poirot makes the acquaintance of a diverse group of passengers: much-divorced, man-hunting Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer); secret lovers Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr); missionary Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz); Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman); Count Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his drug-addicted wife Countess Elena (Lucy Boynton); Nazi sympathizing Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe); Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a car salesman; Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a sinister American "businessman" in the art forgery game; Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), Ratchett's nervous, hard-drinking secretary; and Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Ratchett's long-suffering butler. Poirot turns down an offer to work as Ratchett's eyes and ears on the journey, as the corrupt entrepreneur has been receiving threatening letters and is aware that people are after him over his shady dealings. The second day of the journey, the train is stopped by an avalanche and left precariously stranded on a bridge in the mountains. But it gets worse when Ratchett's dead body is discovered in his compartment, with twelve random knife wounds over his torso and neck area.

Christie's novel and its adaptations thus far have arguably the most famous and well-known reveal of any whodunit. Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green (who's had a busy 2017 with LOGAN, ALIEN: COVENANT, and BLADE RUNNER 2049, plus his work on the Starz series AMERICAN GODS) don't change anything about the structure of the story or its final result, instead adding some ethnic diversity and some racial tension with Hardman not hesitating to air his true feelings about Arbuthnot, who fears that his being a black man instantly makes him a suspect (also the case for "Spaniard" Marquez). It's a lavishly-mounted production that allows Branagh to show off--perhaps too much--some directorial flair, with an overuse of overhead shots, Dutch angles, and beveled reflections. There's a CGI avalanche that looks like something out of an Asylum production, and one really badly-edited foot chase outside the derailed train. When we're shown the "how" part of the whodunit--one of the most memorable scenes in Lumet's 1974 version--Branagh bungles badly, staging the murder of Ratchett as a quick, shaky-cam, black & white cutaway that looks like something out of a cheap horror movie. And when he solves the mystery and confronts the passengers, the action is taken out of the tense, claustrophobic confines of the train car and moved to an improbably long table set up in a tunnel outside the train, with the suspects all seated Last Supper-style, out in the freezing cold with no visible breath. It's one thing to make a straight remake that gets a bunch of A-listers together to have a good time with a classic story, but the few changes that are offered are, if not worse, then at least dumber. Why do they have to go to the trouble of finding a long table and a bunch of chairs to sit outside? And if you're gonna do that, at least make it look cold.

Even with Pfeiffer, Depp, Dench, and Dafoe onboard, the whole point of something like this is the blinding shine of star power. In comparison to Lumet's film, Daisy Ridley is no Vanessa Redgrave, Leslie Odom Jr is no Sean Connery, Tom Bateman (as railroad official and Poirot pal Bouc, who assists in the investigation) is no Martin Balsam, and Josh Gad is no Anthony Perkins. In the end, ORIENT EXPRESS '17 is another in a long line of pointless remakes (2013's CARRIE, 2014's ROBOCOP, etc) that's not terrible but does nothing to justify its existence. It comes perilously close to being a Kenneth Branagh vanity project, with his Poirot making snide comments, laughing uproariously as he reads Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and often coming across like a Larry David version of the legendary detective, letting the mustache--presumably a spare MORTDECAI prop loaned to him by Depp or a tribute to Sam Elliott in THE BIG LEBOWSKI--do most of the acting for him. And of course, since everything has to be a franchise now, the film ends with Poirot being summoned to Egypt because, "there's been a death on the Nile!"

Friday, November 10, 2017

On Blu-ray/DVD: VENGEANCE: A LOVE STORY (2017); THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM (2017); and GUN SHY (2017)

(US - 2017)

Though the title and the poster would indicate this is another by-the-numbers, Redbox-ready Nicolas Cage VOD actioner--and it gets off to a dubious start with video-burned opening credits straight out of a TV show-- VENGEANCE: A LOVE STORY is a peculiar outlier in Cage's filmography, at least for this stage of his career. Cage originally planned to direct, something he hasn't done since 2002's little-seen SONNY, but at some point before shooting began, he handed the job off to veteran stunt coordinator and second-unit helmer Johnny Martin. Given Martin's pedigree, VENGEANCE: A LOVE STORY is very light on action and stunts, which one might expect once you know it's based on Joyce Carol Oates' 2003 novel Rape: A Love Story (not hard to see why they went with a slightly more marketable title for the movie). For a while, after a shaky opening and the obvious budget deprivation on display, the Georgia-shot, Niagara Falls-set VENGEANCE does alright as a melancholy, low-key character piece until it gives way to overwrought, deck-stacking melodrama before the "vengeance" element kicks in. Taking a shortcut through the woods at night on their way home from a 4th of July barbecue, single mom Teena (Anna Hutchison of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS) and her 12-year-old daughter Bethie (Talitha Bateman) are attacked by four sub-literate, hillbilly yokels who physically assault Bethie and gang-rape Teena. Glum, burned-out (we know this because he moves pieces on a solitary chess board in his living room) cop and Gulf War PTSD case John Dromoor (Cage) catches the case and gets emotionally invested in it, still shell-shocked and trying to fill a void after the recent death of his partner during a botched arrest.

It looks to be an open-and-shut case, as the four rapists--all brothers--leave ample fingerprint and DNA evidence and are all identified by Bethie in a lineup, but their bitter, white trash mother (Charlene Tilton sighting!) makes her husband mortgage the house to hire slick, high-priced, Harley-riding defense attorney Jay Kirkpatrick (Don Johnson). At a preliminary hearing, Kirkpatrick tries to establish that Teena seduced the brothers, launching a town-wide smear campaign to slut-shame the victim, even questioning her competency as a parent. Kirkpatrick is also friends with the judge (Mike Pniewski), who overrules every objection from Teena's lawyer (Kara Flowers) and takes petty offense to grammatical errors in Dromoor's testimony ("It's 'my partner and I,' detective...not 'me and my partner'"). The brothers are released on bail and begin terrorizing Teena and Bethie, kill Teena's mother's (Deborah Kara Unger) cat, and intimidate witnesses, and then the judge moves the trial date up to give Teena's lawyer as little time to prep as possible. Seeing that Teena is getting a raw deal, Dromoor does what lone wolf cops in formulaic movies with the word "vengeance" in the title do. It takes about 75 of the film's 99 minutes for the vengeance to commence, but even after that, Cage turns in maybe the quietest performance of his career. He never even smiles. Johnson, who's become a great character actor in recent years (COLD IN JULY, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99), delivers another terrific performance in a movie seen by no one. Hutchison and young Bateman are very good, at least until the script by TV vet John Mankiewicz (a writer on MIAMI VICE, a producer on HOUSE M.D. and HOUSE OF CARDS, and creator of the short-lived 1990s Jeff Fahey series THE MARSHAL) starts asking the audience to buy too many implausibilities. There's no way a judge would behave like this one does, and there's no way a defense attorney would sit there and let his clients leer at and threaten someone who's accusing them of the crime for which he's defending them, right there in court. By the end, VENGEANCE: A LOVE STORY never lives up to its potential. It's too hokey and lacking in nuance and subtlety to be taken seriously, but it's too restrained and slow-moving to work as a dumb action thriller. It's earnest and well-meaning, but it can't reconcile its goals and decide what it wants to be. Cage and long-retired ONION FIELD and VISION QUEST director Harold Becker, who hasn't made a film since 2001's DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE, were among the producers. (Unrated, 99 mins)

(UK - 2017)

Based on Peter Ackroyd's 1994 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, the Jack the Ripper-inspired British mystery THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM falls victim to some tedious stretches in its first half, but it gets better as it goes on. Even during its slow spells, it's a pleasure to watch just for the opportunity to enjoy the great Bill Nighy in a rare lead, brought in as a last-minute replacement for Alan Rickman, who hoped to make the film despite his pancreatic cancer diagnosis but was forced to back out when his health began rapidly declining just before filming began in October 2015 (Rickman died in January 2016). Of course Rickman would've been perfect (the film is dedicated to him), but Nighy is superb as Inspector John Kildare, a weary Scotland Yard official in 1890 London who gets the case of a serial killer known as "The Limehouse Golem" dumped in his lap. At the same time Kildare inherits the case, he finds a link to another involving stage actress Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke), accused of poisoning her husband John (Sam Reid). Kildare finds a journal with insane rantings that may implicate John as the Limehouse Golem, though the investigation leads to other suspects, including real-life figures like music hall comedian Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), novelist George Gissing (Morgan Watkins), and even Karl Marx (Henry Goodman). Partnered with constable George Flood (Daniel Mays), Kildare up-ends the Limehouse district to find proof John Cree is the killer, hoping that if Elizabeth is convicted of poisoning him, she can be spared execution for putting an end to the Golem's reign of terror.

Low-key despite some occasional flashes of splatter, THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM almost plays like an R-rated PBS mystery. Director Juan Carlos Medina and screenwriter Jane Goldman (KICK-ASS, THE WOMAN IN BLACK, both KINGSMAN movies) spend a little too much time in the first half on Leno's theatrical troupe, often veering from a murder mystery into a redux of Mike Leigh's TOPSY-TURVY. But once all the pieces are in place and everything involving Elizabeth's hellish upbringing and John's insane jealousy over her friendship with Leno and that her career is taking off while he languishes as a failed playwright is established, THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM takes off and becomes a riveting suspense piece, anchored by terrific performances from Nighy and Cooke (THE QUIET ONES). The production design and period detail are big pluses, with London looking about as gray, bleak, and grimy as it did in the 1979 Sherlock Holmes classic MURDER BY DECREE. It's not quite on the same level, but Nighy's Kildare--a complex character whose closeted homosexuality makes him the object of hushed scorn and dismissal among his colleagues, even though there's a cryptic moment where a sympathetic Flood whispers "I'm on your side"-- is ample proof that the actor would make a great Holmes. (Unrated, 109 mins)


(US/UK - 2017)

You probably won't find a worse comedy in 2017 than GUN SHY, a staggeringly awful adaptation of Mark Haskell Smith's 2007 novel Salty, which garnered some acclaim at the time for its Carl Hiaasen-esque comic mystery crossed with an Irvine Welsh sense of the grotesque. Smith co-wrote the screenplay, but everything that book reviewers liked about Salty appears to have been neutered into oblivion for GUN SHY. This is a film where it's abundantly clear that the endgame was a mystery for all involved. The humor here isn't clever, it isn't sly, it isn't raunchy...it isn't anything. The film plods along, gasping and wheezing to its conclusion without a single laugh or even a remotely humorous moment. Gags fall flat, the story goes nowhere, and the actors look completely stranded. It's not like there's a lack of talent here: Antonio Banderas and Olga Kurylenko are fine actors, and Simon West isn't an auteur by any means, but he's directed some entertaining movies (CON AIR, THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER, THE EXPENDABLES 2, THE MECHANIC), but GUN SHY is one of those rare instances where, whatever the intent was going in, nothing works. It's painfully unfunny and miserable to endure, and the only thing saving it from complete ruin is that Banderas actually seems to be enjoying himself. Between recent VOD duds like BLACK BUTTERFLY, FINDING ALTAMIRA, SECURITY, and now this, Banderas is due for either a new agent or an intervention.

Banderas is Turk Henry, former bassist/vocalist for the '80s hair metal band Metal Assassin, best known for their hit single "Teenage Ass Patrol." Kicked out of the band after his supermodel wife Sheila (Kurylenko) was deemed a "Yoko" by the other members, Turk's career and personal life are in the toilet. Now an emotionally needy, drunken recluse who still dresses like "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)"-era Steven Tyler, he hasn't left his Malibu mansion in two years, prompting Sheila to arrange a vacation to Turk's native Chile in an attempt to boost his spirits. Once there, she's kidnapped by a group of neophyte pirates who think they've struck gold and try to extort a huge ransom when they realize she's Turk Henry's wife. Turk's manager sends his assistant Marybeth (Aisling Loftus) and Clive Muggleton (Martin Dingle Wall), a Crocodile Dundee-like Aussie mercenary with impossibly white teeth and a serious shellfish allergy, to help Turk negotiate with pirate leader Juan Carlos (Ben Cura). US Homeland Security gets wind of the kidnapping and sends ambitious CIA agent Ben Harding (Mark Valley), who's quick to label it a terrorist act in order to boost his profile to his superiors. What follows is a lot of shameless mugging and dead air as entire sequences go by with nothing even remotely amusing, unless you count a vomiting llama, Turk getting bitten on the dick by a snake, Turk trying to dodge Harding by dressing in drag, a clueless Turk calling his GPS a "CGI," and mispronouncing easy words, like "tore-toys" for "tortoise." The novel had the vacation taking place in Thailand, with a hapless, shaggy dog Turk getting involved in busting a sex trafficking ring. Here, he's just a bumbling buffoon making an ass of himself in Santiago. There's no attempt at political satire, no attempts at physical comedy, and no attempt at any INHERENT VICE or BIG LEBOWSKI-style absurdist noir humor. No, the only thing the makers of GUN SHY had was "Antonio Banderas dressed up like a hair metal singer" and they just assumed everything would work itself out. GUN SHY is so lazy that it doesn't even have any insider, THIS IS SPINAL TAP-style jokes about the music industry. There's nothing here, though Banderas, not an actor known for his comedic skills, looks like he's having fun despite his helpless, idiotic character having absolutely nothing to do. As if GUN SHY wasn't oppressive enough, it pads out the running time by including four endings, two music videos during the closing credits, and three (!) post-credits stingers, as if anyone watching this would think "Wow, I had such a blast with these characters...just keep giving me more!" This is stunningly bad. (R, 92 mins)

Monday, November 6, 2017

Retro Review: SLAUGHTER HIGH (1986)

(UK - 1986)

Written and directed by George Dugdale, Mark Ezra and Peter Litten. Cast: Caroline Munro, Simon Scuddamore, Carmine Iannaccone, Donna Yaeger, Gary Martin, Billy Hartman, Michael Saffran, John Segal, Kelly Baker, Sally Cross, Josephine Scandi, Marc Smith, Jon Clark, Dick Randall. (Unrated, 90 mins)

Perhaps more than any other slasher movie of the '80s, SLAUGHTER HIGH's rabidly devoted cult following is rooted more in nostalgia for the era rather than any inherent greatness in the film. Because, frankly, SLAUGHTER HIGH is pretty terrible. It's able to get away with boasting "From the makers of FRIDAY THE 13TH" because co-producer Steve Minasian was one of the partners in Georgetown Productions, the company that helped finance the original FRIDAY THE 13TH, even though Minasian was never credited onscreen. Minasian ended up partnering with veteran schlockmeister Dick Randall on the Spanish-made 1983 chainsaw epic PIECES and the British-made 1984 killer Santa movie DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS, both of which are more in line with Randall's lowbrow oeuvre (CHALLENGE OF THE TIGER, FOR YOUR HEIGHT ONLY) than any groundbreaking, trailblazing slasher horrors in Sean S. Cunningham's classic. Among the first theatrical releases of Vestron Video offshoot Vestron Pictures, a studio that would fold just a couple of years later with DIRTY DANCING being their only big hit, SLAUGHTER HIGH isn't nearly as much fun as either PIECES or DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS, but it's nevertheless beloved by fans. This could be due to its overt and at least partially intentional silliness (it takes place at a high school that looks nothing like a 1986 high school and is in the middle of nowhere) and mockability as a Bad Movie, but it does manage to pull off a few fairly decent and splattery--at least in the unrated version--kill scenes. But throughout, SLAUGHTER HIGH is played so broadly, with grating, "wacky" music cues and terrible performances that it's never really scary because by 1986, audiences had seen nearly a decade of these things post-HALLOWEEN and were savvy enough to know when all the jolts were coming. It's more likely that SLAUGHTER HIGH is cherished not for what it is, but for the period in which it was created.

35-year-old Caroline Munro as the
world's least-convincing high school student. 
Shot as APRIL FOOL'S DAY but retitled when the producers learned Paramount had their own APRIL FOOL'S DAY slasher film in production, SLAUGHTER HIGH was filmed in the UK with a mostly British cast sporting American accents that range from "kinda sorta OK" to "completely embarrassing" (Carmine Iannaccone as jokester Skip is actually American, while Scottish-born Billy Hartman, seen that same year as Connor MacLeod's cousin Dougal in the classic HIGHLANDER, has what might be the worst American accent in movie history as Frank). In a nearly 20-minute prologue, all the cool kids play a cruel April Fool's Day prank on Marty Rantzen (Simon Scuddamore), "the dork of Doddsville High," a dweeby science nerd who's led into the girls' locker room under the pretense of being seduced by beauty queen Carol (genre vet Caroline Munro, 35 years old at the time and playing a teenager). Of course, Marty is humiliated and later given a laced joint that he lights up in the chemistry lab, which eventually leads to a nitric acid spill that causes an explosion setting him ablaze. Ten years later, the group of students behind the prank--including Carol, who's now a cokehead movie star--are invited back to the now-closed Doddsville High for a reunion. It's all a set-up as they're offed one by one in a variety of inventive ways by Marty, his disfigured face obscured by a grinning jester's mask. That creepy jester's mask is one of the few effective horror elements of SLAUGHTER HIGH (the killer's mask in DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS was also unexpectedly unnerving). There's a few memorable kills--the acid bath, the exploding stomach, the dual electrocution in mid-coitus--and when composer Harry Manfredini drops the wonky synth cues and goes for that frenzied, screeching sound he brought to the suspense sequences in FRIDAY THE 13TH, the film occasionally manages to vaguely look like the American slashers that it's emulating, but in the end, it's a lesser entry in the '80s subgenre that's further diminished by a stupid twist ending that leaves the door opened for a sequel that never happened.

The creative team of George Dugdale, Mark Ezra, and Peter Litten are credited with writing and directing, though on the commentary track of Lionsgate's just-released Vestron Collector's Series Blu-ray, Dugdale and Litten explain that Dugdale did most of the directing, Ezra did most of the writing, and Litten did the special effects, with each frequently contributing in other areas. There's some intermittently interesting information in the commentary--such as the occasional Dick Randall anecdote; the exteriors of the high school being an abandoned asylum, and the interiors (usually the same slightly redressed hallway) being the shuttered St. Marylebone Grammar School, a building constructed in 1791 and closed in 1981; and that Randall offered Telly Savalas $25,000 for one day's work as the gym teacher in the prologue, with Savalas slamming the phone down on Ezra when Randall wouldn't meet his demand of $50,000 (the role went to American expat Marc Smith, a voice actor best known as the guy who dubbed Franco Nero in ENTER THE NINJA and Lou Ferrigno in HERCULES)--but otherwise, the two filmmakers blather on endlessly about mostly uninteresting stuff (like what the weather was like when they shot a particular exterior). They don't even mention Caroline Munro's name until an hour into the commentary, which is bizarre considering 1) she's a beloved cult movie icon, 2) she's the biggest name in the cast, 3) was Dugdale's girlfriend at the time of filming, and 4) has been his wife since 1990 (why didn't she come along?). Even more egregious is barely even mentioning Simon Scuddamore, whose name finally comes up near the end when one of the directors mentions the actor is only playing Marty at the beginning and the end, and isn't the guy walking around in the jester's mask in the rest of the movie.

Simon Scuddamore (1956-1984)
Ezra, the only one of the three filmmakers who's gone on to a somewhat successful career in the industry (he wrote some British TV shows and was a producer on the later arthouse hit WAKING NED DEVINE), isn't on the commentary but is instead interviewed separately in a featurette, and he goes into much greater detail about the production in 15 minutes than Dugdale and Litten do in 90. Ezra actually provides some information about the enigmatic Scuddamore, who won the role after an open audition, had no acting experience, and requested weekends off during the shoot so he could continue his volunteer job at a facility for special needs children. Just days after SLAUGHTER HIGH wrapped production in November 1984, Scuddamore committed suicide in what was believed to be an intentional drug overdose. Ezra doesn't go into specific details, but he mentions Scuddamore's unexpected death and that it was under unfortunate circumstances, which is more than Dugdale and Litten say. How does the death of the movie's star just after filming not be a key talking point on a commentary? The fact that Scuddamore died in 1984 and the movie remained unreleased for two years might also be a topic to discuss, but it never comes up (nor is there even a dedication to Scuddamore in the closing credits). Neither do other potentially interesting tidbits, like 23-year-old future acclaimed author of the Thursday Next mystery series Jasper Fforde being a member of the camera crew. Even a junk movie like this deserves a thorough and informed commentary for fans. On the plus side, the Blu-ray looks good, and it's nice to see this properly framed after Lionsgate's janky DVD release from several years ago put forth zero effort and just used the full-frame VHS transfer. I've seen SLAUGHTER HIGH four or five times in 30 years and I still don't really like it--or, perhaps more accurately, I don't see why fans love it as much as they do--but even I'm guilty of being suckered in by the nostalgia element, and now I own the Blu-ray. I get it. I miss the '80s, too. Will I watch this unremarkable and thoroughly mediocre movie again? Of course I will.

Toledo, OH on February 13, 1987

Friday, November 3, 2017

Retro Review: THE AMBASSADOR (1985)

(US - 1985)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Written by Max Jack. Cast: Robert Mitchum, Ellen Burstyn, Rock Hudson, Fabio Testi, Donald Pleasence, Heli Goldenberg, Michal Bat-Adam, Ori Levy, Shmulik Kraus, Avi Kleinberger, Sasson Gabai. (R, 95 mins)

It was a box office flop at the time, but 1986's 52 PICK-UP has come to be regarded as a top crime thriller of its era and one of the best films to come off the Cannon assembly line in their heyday. Adapted from Elmore Leonard's 1974 novel and directed by the great John Frankenheimer, 52 PICK-UP stars Roy Scheider as Harry Mitchell, a successful L.A. businessman caught up in a web of blackmail and murder when a trio of porno industry dirtbags (the leader constantly condescendingly calling him "Sport") videotape him having sex with his young mistress, shaking him down for an exorbitant sum of money in exchange for not embarrassing his wife (Ann-Margret), the top aide to a popular mayoral candidate. When he refuses to pay, they kill the mistress and try to frame Mitchell, not understanding that he's a self-made man used to doing things his own way, bullheadedly determined to take on the blackmailers himself, manipulating them and beating them at their own game, of course inevitably leading to Scheider delivering one of his signature "Smile, you son of a bitch!" lines just as he takes out the chief shitbag ("So long, Sport!"). It's lean, mean, gritty piece of vintage '80s L.A. sleaze, not entirely faithful to Leonard--he wasn't happy that the setting was moved to L.A. from his native Detroit--but it stands today as one of the better adaptations of the author's work, which would enjoy a significant renaissance a decade later with films like GET SHORTY, OUT OF SIGHT, and JACKIE BROWN, the latter based on his novel Rum Punch.

52 PICK-UP was actually Cannon's second adaptation of Leonard's novel. Prior to the Frankenheimer film, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus produced THE AMBASSADOR, ostensibly based on 52 Pick-Up but veering so far from the source that any mention of Leonard and the "Based on the novel by" credit weren't even included in the finished version. It was obviously a subject important to Israeli-born cousins Golan and Globus, but we may never know what it was about a decade-old, neo-noir novel set in Detroit that inspired them to turn it into a preachy polemic about Israeli-PLO relations, but that's exactly what happened with THE AMBASSADOR. The only plot point from Leonard's book that it retains is the blackmail element, but it even changes that by making it the wife's infidelity that's captured on film. One of Cannon's periodic mid '80s attempts at highbrow respectability, THE AMBASSADOR was shot in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and wants to make serious political statements, but it also wants to be a Cannon genre picture. It wants a classy, Oscar-winning actress like Ellen Burstyn to give it awards season credibility, but it needs her topless and doing Skinemax back-arching in a couple of surprisingly revealing, sweaty sex scenes with Fabio Testi, who had just been fired from Cannon's BOLERO after clashing with Bo and John Derek and sent to Israel to have simulated sex with Ellen Burstyn instead. Burstyn is Alex Hacker, the bored, frustrated wife of Peter Hacker (Robert Mitchum, in a role that was probably pitched to Cannon regular Charles Bronson at some point), the US Ambassador to Israel. Hacker is so distracted trying to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine that he's completely oblivious to his wife's torrid affair with antiques dealer Mustapha Hashimi (Testi), a shady figure with lifelong ties to terrorism. After a bombing in Jerusalem, Hacker is summoned to an abandoned movie theater where he's shown a stag film of Alex and Hashimi having sex, and is promptly blackmailed in exchange for not airing the footage on TV and creating an international incident over the wife of the US Ambassador getting between the sheets with a terrorist. The blackmailers are presumed to be from the PLO, but it's actually a rogue faction of far-right Mossad agents determined to maintain the status quo. There's duplicity and double crosses, and numerous attempts on the Hackers' lives by a renegade KGB agent (Shmulik Kraus), which sends Hacker's security chief and bodyguard Stevenson (Rock Hudson in his final big-screen role) into ass-kicking Cannon action hero mode.

Dull, overly convoluted, and bearing no resemblance to the "He's through negotiating!" thriller the poster art indicated, the barely-released and justifiably obscure THE AMBASSADOR just hit Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber, though it's one of Cannon's worst films. It never finds the balance between serious drama and hard-hitting action, and the finale goes from laughably out-of-touch to appallingly tacky, with Hacker organizing Israeli and Palestinian youth for a candle-lit kumbaya "dialogue for young people" where he delivers a series of rambling talking points while the attendees chant "peace" before being interrupted by a machine-gunning terrorist attack with a Sam Peckinpah level of gore and splatter. It's another example of Cannon trying to have it both ways by taking what they think is a high-minded, serious film and turning it into a grindhouse action shoot-'em-up (outside of the same year's existential action classic RUNAWAY TRAIN, that kind of Cannon crossover move almost never worked). An aging Mitchum looks bleary-eyed and confused throughout, never once looking like he understands the Political Science 101 dialogue he's reciting. You could make a drinking game out of how many times he mumbles "I just want to start a dialogue for young people" and it's one he'd almost certainly be up for playing. Burstyn brings her A-game but the material is simply beneath her (surprisingly, she worked for Cannon again a few years later on the expensive Golan-directed prestige flop HANNA'S WAR), while Donald Pleasence gets to ham it up a bit as the irate Israeli defense minister.

Hudson is solid as the tough-as-nails Stevenson, working well with Mitchum even though they reportedly didn't get along well at all. Hudson was under the weather throughout the shoot and he looked slimmer than he had in the years prior to his 1981 heart attack and subsequent quintuple bypass surgery, but not in an ill way that would indicate the HIV diagnosis he would receive a few months after THE AMBASSADOR wrapped production in early 1984 (the film wasn't released until January 1985; Hudson starred with an unknown Sharon Stone in the 1984 TV-movie THE VEGAS STRIP WAR and appeared on the fifth season of DYNASTY before succumbing to AIDS in October 1985). Leadenly directed by the veteran J. Lee Thompson, who would become of the top in-house Cannon guys throughout the decade (10 TO MIDNIGHT, KING SOLOMON'S MINES, FIREWALKER, DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN) and simplistically written by Max Jack and an uncredited Ronald M. Cohen (both vets of the short-lived 1981 ABC series AMERICAN DREAM), THE AMBASSADOR does offer one clever bit of caustic repartee between the Hackers (when she uses horseback riding as a cover story for some afternoon delight with Hashimi, Peter asks "English or western?" and she snidely replies "Bareback") but little else, jettisoning any connection to Elmore Leonard and wasting an overqualified cast in the process. At least with 52 PICK-UP, Cannon got it right the second time.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Retro Review: THE SALAMANDER (1981)

(UK - 1981; US release 1983)

Directed by Peter Zinner. Written by Robert Katz and Rod Serling. Cast: Franco Nero, Anthony Quinn, Eli Wallach, Martin Balsam, Claudia Cardinale, Sybil Danning, Christopher Lee, Cleavon Little, Paul Smith, John Steiner, Renzo Palmer, Anita Strindberg, Jacques Herlin, Marino Mase, Fortunato Arena, John Stacy, Andre Esterhazy, Nello Pazzafini, Tom Felleghy, Gitte Lee. (R, 101 mins)

Based on the 1973 novel by Morris West, the long-in-the-works conspiracy thriller THE SALAMANDER began life as a screenplay adaptation by TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHT GALLERY creator Rod Serling, left unfinished following his death in 1975. It languished for several years until Robert Katz (THE CASSANDRA CROSSING, THE SKIN) reworked and completed it. The film finally went into production in 1980, with veteran editor Peter Zinner making his directing debut at 62, fresh off his Oscar win for editing 1978's THE DEER HUNTER. Zinner was a late-blooming hot commodity at the time, as his other credits included 1967's IN COLD BLOOD, 1972's THE GODFATHER and 1974's THE GODFATHER PART II, but he really was a hired gun at heart, as his work on THE DEER HUNTER was sandwiched between esteemed prestige projects like 1977's TINTORERA and 1979's THE FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH. Shot entirely in scenic locations throughout Italy and featuring an all-star cast, THE SALAMANDER should've been a hit but was a DOA dud worldwide. It was another in a string of flops from Sir Lew Grade's ITC Entertainment, the British company that produced THE MUPPET SHOW and had some hits like THE MUPPET MOVIE, ON GOLDEN POND, and THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER, but lost a ton of money over 1980-81 on expensive bombs like the Village People's CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC, the Farrah Fawcett-pursued-by-horny-robot-in-space sci-fi dud SATURN 3, the Clive Cussler adaptation RAISE THE TITANIC!, and the ill-fated THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER. ITC had distribution through various means, whether it was their own Associated Film Distribution or major studios like Universal and 20th Century Fox, but after being released in Europe in 1981, THE SALAMANDER remained unseen in the US until it turned up in one theater in NYC in May 1983 before being bum-rushed off to television and a belated VHS release in 1986. Pathfinder released it on DVD with no fanfare in 2002 but otherwise, it's spent 30 years in relative obscurity despite a cast packed with cult icons and big-screen legends and it's just been resurrected on Blu-ray courtesy of Scorpion Releasing. It's nice that it's available again and in a quality presentation, but it should come as no surprise that THE SALAMANDER isn't exactly an unsung classic waiting for its day in the sun.

The film opens in Rome with the assassination of beloved Gen. Panteleone (Fortunato Arena), a beloved statesman, WWII hero, and champion of democracy in his younger, post-war years. The truth behind his murder is buried and "natural causes" is the reason given to the public. Carabinieri officer Col. Dante Matucci (Franco Nero) is assigned to investigate, along with his big brotherly mentor Capt. Stefanelli (Martin Balsam). Both are stonewalled by everyone, from Panteleone's heir apparent Gen. Leporello (Eli Wallach) to Italy's counterintelligence chief Prince Baldasar (Christopher Lee), and the body count rises as anyone Matucci questions or is about to question turns up dead. After tying Panteleone's death to a decades-long string of assassinations of war criminals staged to look like suicides--pulled off by a hit man known as "The Salamander," the long-retired alter ego of billionaire industrialist Bruno Manzini (Anthony Quinn)--Matucci uncovers a plot to orchestrate a coup d'etat by a renegade group of military officials and high-powered politicos attempting a Make Italy Great Again move by taking the country back to the Mussolini glory days.

Matucci's investigation also involves a momentum-killing romance with Polish spy Lili Anders (Sybil Danning, who had just co-starred with Nero in Enzo G. Castellari's THE DAY OF THE COBRA), some ballbusting with his NATO-based USMC buddy Malinowski (Cleavon Little), and a sadistic and profusely sweaty torturer known as "The Surgeon" (Paul Smith, doing his usual MIDNIGHT EXPRESS stink-eye side-glancing act). Even with the cast and the potentially intriguing story, THE SALAMANDER just never catches fire despite the heroic efforts of a typically excellent score by Jerry Goldsmith that belongs in a more exciting movie. It gets bogged down in sequence after sequence of Matucci going to see someone, interviewing them, and then moving on to the next person. Zinner offers one low-energy car chase in which both cars crash through oddly-placed fruit stands right on cue. Intermittently-deployed voiceover narration by Nero is a clear indication of Zinner scrambling to cover gaps in the narrative, and most of the big names--Quinn, Lee, Little, Wallach, Claudia Cardinale (as Leporello's wife)--have little more than extended cameos. Balsam has one great bit where the camera slowly moves in on his aging face as he delivers a devastating monologue about how he, as a young man during WWII, stepped out for cigars and returned home to find his entire family massacred, but then Zinner ruins it, breaking the spell by inexplicably cutting to a reaction shot from a cat. There's a little oomph offered by some third-act sleaze, with Mrs. Leporello having a torrid affair with her husband's aide-de-camp Roditi (John Steiner, dubbed by Larry Dolgin) and the discovery that Gen. Leporello has a thing for very young girls, plus some unintended hilarity with a torture scene leading to a Franco Nero/Paul Smith brawl, with a hirsute Nero sporting nothing but a jockstrap with his bare ass flailing all over the place and nearly giving Smith a faceful of his taint. THE SALAMANDER is an interesting curio if for no other reason than that cast, all of whom are fine and do what's expected of them (Lee's smug, sinister Baldasur allows him to pull out almost every move in his "pompous prick" arsenal), but it proved to be one-and-done for Zinner as a director. After the film's failure, he returned to his regular job, earning an Oscar nomination for editing 1982's AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and several Emmy nominations for various TV gigs, including the epic 1983 ABC miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR and its 1988 sequel WAR AND REMEMBRANCE, winning for the latter. Zinner died in 2007 at 88.