Sunday, February 25, 2018

In Theaters: ANNIHILATION (2018)

(US/UK - 2018)

Written and directed by Alex Garland. Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi, Sonoya Mizuno. (R, 115 mins)

Though he initially made his name as an acclaimed author with his 1996 novel The Beach, Alex Garland has become much better-known in recent years for his contributions to sci-fi cinema. He didn't pen the screenplay adaptation for Danny Boyle's 2000 film of THE BEACH, but he did team with the TRAINSPOTTING director on two future projects, scripting 2003's zombie apocalypse trailblazer 28 DAYS LATER and 2007's underrated environmental sci-fi gem SUNSHINE. Garland also scripted Mark Romanek's 2010 future dystopia drama NEVER LET ME GO, based on Kazuo Ichiguro's 2005 novel, and Pete Travis' 2012 cult classic reboot DREDD. But it was with his 2015 directing debut EX MACHINA that Garland really gained some serious momentum, including an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. EX MACHINA brings us to his first major-studio filmmaking effort, the $40 million ANNIHILATION, an adaptation of the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. Garland uses the book for the core concept and the structure, but largely takes it in his own direction, and anyone who's seen EX MACHINA or the films he's scripted will see recurring themes and ideas. As shaped by Garland, ANNIHILATION is densely-packed and thought-provoking, and while the utilization of ideas from films that have come before--the 1982 version of THE THING, EVENT HORIZON, THE RELIC, THE DESCENT, various old-school Cronenberg-derived body horrors, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, ARRIVAL (which was hitting theaters when this was in production in 2016), and even a mutant bear on loan from 1979's PROPHECY--do give the story mechanics a too familiar feel at times that keeps it just shy of perfection, ANNIHILATION's real success lies not with the What, but with the Why, the How, the Who, and the When. Garland introduces some heady, hard-science ideas throughout, and it's refreshing to see a horror film trust and respect its audience enough to refuse to spell everything out for them. ANNIHILATION expects you to pay attention and keep up (multiple viewings are likely required). This trust and respect Garland placed in the audience caused friction with Skydance CEO and co-executive producer David Ellison, who was concerned about a disastrous test screening and complained that the film was "too intellectual." When Garland refused to make any changes and co-executive producer Scott Rudin remained supportive of the filmmaker's vision and backed him up (Rudin had final cut written into his deal, essentially pulling rank on Ellison), Skydance partner and distributor Paramount--perhaps out of spite or fearing they had another CLOVERFIELD PARADOX on their hands--sold the distribution rights to Netflix everywhere in the world but North America and China, then decreased the US theatrical screen count to around 2000.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is an Army vet and Johns Hopkins cellular biologist with a focus on cancer research. Other than her work, she's largely withdrawn from the world in the year since her career military husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) vanished along with other soldiers during a secret mission to a location he couldn't divulge. Out of nowhere, Kane returns home confused and distant and begins coughing up blood. A military convoy intercepts the ambulance and whisks Lena and Kane to a top-secret compound constructed at a location off the coast of the southern US termed "Area X." A comatose, quarantined Kane is on a ventilator and Lena is interrogated by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychiatrist stationed at Area X. Outside the compound is a translucent, floating mass called "The Shimmer." Described by Ventress as "a religious or an alien event," it first appeared three years earlier and has slowly been growing and expanding, even taking over a small town that was evacuated under the pretext of a chemical spill. No one who's gone into The Shimmer has emerged except Kane, and prior to his coma, he had no recollection of his time inside, what happened, or how long he was there. Ventress is planning an expedition into The Shimmer with a trio of contracted personnel--paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and geologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny)--that eventually includes Lena. Once inside The Shimmer, what feels like a few hours ends up being at least several days, as they've already gone through several meal rations and have no recollection eating or even setting up camp. The area is a vast forest filled with a mash-up of flora that don't exist in the same family. Josie is attacked by an alligator that's shot dead by Lena, and upon examination, has teeth that belong to the shark family and exhibits other signs of DNA that it shouldn't. As they venture deeper into The Shimmer, time blurs more and strange sights abound--deer with plants sprouting from their antlers, trees and plants growing in the shape of human bodies, Anya noticing her fingerprints fluidly moving on her fingertips, and the discovery of a memory card left behind by Kane's group at an abandoned Army base--as Josie theorizes that The Shimmer is prismically "refracting" everything contained in it, absorbing the DNA of whatever life forms have entered and creating an almost constantly-shifting change in them.

Things go much deeper--and get a lot worse--for the expedition, and Garland keeps the audience on its toes by the very gradual and subtle reveal of information, whether it's the framing device of Lena being debriefed by a mysterious, Hazmat-suited figure (Benedict Wong) in an observation room or the life choices made by the five women that led them on what's ultimately termed a "suicide mission" ("We're all damaged goods," Sheppard confides to Lena). Garland isn't afraid make Lena a very flawed character and even risks turning the audience against her, depending which way you read a key development. The film takes a downright trippy turn into Kubrick "2001 Stargate" territory in the last 20 or so minutes, leading to an ambiguous ending that's riddled with multiple interpretations and prompting reflection upon a number of small but very significant details parsed throughout (keep an eye on that ouroboros tattoo). While Garland goes for a couple of easy jump scares, where he really succeeds with ANNIHILATION beyond the implications of what The Shimmer is capable of doing, is by creating one of the most ominous and unsettling vibes that I've felt from a horror film in quite some time, probably since THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER, so much so that even the recurrent use of Crosby Stills & Nash's "Helplessly Hoping" starts to make you uneasy. This is an uncomfortable film whose images and soundscapes burrow under your skin and haunt you, with at least two nerve-shredding sequences of extended creepiness that aren't easily shaken. Whatever commercial potential Paramount thought ANNIHILATION might've had is irrelevant after the opening weekend. Mainstream audiences probably won't be very receptive to it, but Garland's film--pretty close to an instant genre classic--is a reminder that there was once a time when major studios welcomed creative artists with open arms and championed intelligent and challenging films that might stand the test of time rather than merely clean up at the box office for a week or two and quickly fade from memory. It will probably be out of theaters in two weeks, but ANNIHILATION is a film that's playing the long game, and it's one that fans will be discussing and debating for years to come. And coupled with EX MACHINA and his screenwriting resume before, it unquestionably establishes Alex Garland as a leading figure in sci-fi cinema today.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

On Netflix: MUTE (2018)

(UK/Germany - 2018)

Directed by Duncan Jones. Written by Michael Robert Johnson and Duncan Jones. Cast: Alexander Skarsgard, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Dominic Monaghan, Robert Sheehan, Gilbert Owuor, Jannis Niewohner, Rob Kazinsky, Noel Clarke, Mia-Sophie Bastin, Lea-Marie Bastin, Daniel Fathers, Andrzej Blumenfeld. (Unrated, 126 mins)

After establishing himself as a major new voice in intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi with 2009's MOON and 2011's SOURCE CODE, Duncan Jones jumped to the megabudget realm in 2016 with the $160 million WARCRAFT, an adaptation of the popular video game series. Met with a lukewarm response from the critics who loved his more brainy earlier films, WARCRAFT looks for now to be a franchise non-starter despite being a moneymaker everywhere but the US. After WARCRAFT and several tumultuous, emotional years of ups-and-downs in his personal life--his father David Bowie died in January 2016 and his beloved childhood nanny passed a year later, and he also became a father with a second child on the way after his wife emerged victorious in a battle with breast cancer--Jones decided it was time to make his long-gestating dream project MUTE, a script he wrote with Michael Robert Johnson (SHERLOCK HOLMES, POMPEII) way back in 2001 and was talking about as a potential second film nearly a decade ago when he was doing press for MOON. Jones was unable to generate any studio interest in MUTE at the time, but with Netflix agreeing to distribute pretty much anything, he finally found a way to get it done with little interference, allowing him to make exactly the film he wanted to make. A Guy Ritchie-esque crime saga in its earliest drafts, MUTE's screenplay went through numerous transformations over the years as Jones would periodically rework it before stuffing it back in the bottom desk drawer until he had more time.

Judging from the end result, it looks like Jones didn't so much revise as he just found ways to cram in every idea he scribbled in the margins over the years. MUTE is a hot mess, but it's at least a great-looking mess. The biggest obvious inspiration is BLADE RUNNER, with MUTE taking place in a Berlin roughly 30 years from now, looking very much like the neon dystopian cityscapes of everything from Ridley Scott's influential classic to Luc Besson's THE FIFTH ELEMENT and it even seems indebted to the Wachowskis circa CLOUD ATLAS. Mute since a childhood accident that could've been remedied had his devout Amish mother not refused surgery, Leo Beiler (Alexander Skarsgard) lives a largely low-key life tending bar at a flashy club called Foreign Dreams, where his blue-haired girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) is a waitress. He's ultimately fired after too many run-ins with customers who get belligerent with Naadirah, but things get even worse for Ben when she turns up missing after vaguely confessing "You don't really know me." In a concurrent story, AWOL Army medic and single dad Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) works for Maksim (Gilbert Owuor), the Russian gangster who owns Foreign Dreams. Cactus is working off a debt by operating on Maksim's goons as needed (bullet extractions, etc), and in exchange, Maksim is supposed to be obtaining forged passport documents that will get Cactus and his young daughter Josie (played by twins Mia-Sophie and Lea-Marie Bastin) back into the US. As Luddite Leo (who can barely operate an outdated cell phone and is referred to by one character as a "tech tard") tears Berlin apart looking for Naadirah, following clues that involve Maksim and shady pimp Nicky Simsek (Jannis Niewohner), his story will eventually--and cumbersomely--intersect with Cactus Bill's attempts to get out of the city with the help of his cybernetic surgeon buddy Duck Teddington (Justin Theroux).

The nuts-and-bolts of the story--Leo's stoical rampage through the seedy underbelly of the city--is the stuff of any number of generic thrillers you've seen a thousand times. Dropping that story into the middle of a gloomy noir set in future Berlin makes for some nice visuals, but the BLADE RUNNER worship is enough for Ridley Scott to obtain a restraining order, from the neon to the Spinner-style hovercars, the advertisements on the sides of skyscrapers, and Clint Mansell's electronic score that's filled with endless Vangelis and Tangerine Dreamgasms. It's also a love letter to his father's much-loved "Berlin Trilogy," with "Moss Garden" from 1977's "Heroes" and the Bowie-derived Philip Glass composition "Symphony No. 4 (Heroes)" making soundtrack appearances. There's shout-outs to German expressionism with one character owning a poster of the 1930 Emil Jannings/Marlene Dietrich classic THE BLUE ANGEL, and a general sense of melancholia that brings to mind what might've happened in an alternate universe where Wim Wenders made BLADE RUNNER. Further showing off his love of even the most off-the-wall German cinema, Jones at one point has Rudd's Cactus--who also carries a large Bowie (wink wink) knife--wearing a gaudy coat that makes him look like Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Wolf Gremm's 1982 sci-fi cult oddity KAMIKAZE '89.

There's a lot of good intentions with MUTE, but as is often the case when a filmmaker is granted a large budget and a lot of leeway, it looks like Jones couldn't bear to part with anything he wrote or shot. The first hour is a ponderous dawdle, with Skarsgard absent for long stretches while Jones makes the peculiar decision to have Rudd and Theroux act and dress like Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland in M*A*S*H, right down to Rudd's admittedly amazing horseshoe mustache that gives Gould's '70s look a run for its money. There's a gross pedophilia subplot that seems to belong in another movie, and for some reason, Sam Rockwell has a brief cameo as his character from MOON. Things go completely off the rails in the third act, in good and bad ways, with one character's abrupt exit and an another's actions turning it into an unexpected variation of THE VANISHING, with the whole "future Berlin" element pretty much abandoned. MUTE looks like Jones had fragments of ideas for a half dozen movies and threw them together without really smoothing out the transitions and the rough edges. But it looks good, there's some really impressive production design and top-shelf CGI, and there is one really astonishingly mean-spirited bit with the way one character is forced to spend his last gasping moments watching his worst nightmare become reality and can do nothing but die with the realization that he's powerless to stop it. A horrifying, devastating moment like that is evidence that Jones isn't slacking here, but he's juggling too many half-baked ideas and trying to pay tribute to too many things, and when the credits finally roll, it looks like a bunch of pieces that don't really fit. In the end, MUTE is a misfire, but an occasionally intriguing one.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Retro Review: THE INCIDENT (1967)

(US - 1967)

Directed by Larry Peerce. Written by Nicholas E. Baehr. Cast: Tony Musante, Martin Sheen, Beau Bridges, Brock Peters, Ruby Dee, Jack Gilford, Thelma Ritter, Ed McMahon, Diana Van der Vlis, Mike Kellin, Jan Sterling, Gary Merrill, Robert Fields, Robert Bannard, Victor Arnold, Donna Mills, Kathleen Smith, Henry Proach, Marty Meyers. (Unrated, 100 mins)

Though it has a devoted cult following, THE INCIDENT is a film that's flown under the radar for a half-century, vividly remembered by the few who saw it during its 1967-68 theatrical run and those who caught it on late-night TV well into the 1980s. After a 1989 VHS release, it's been unrepresented on home video until Twilight Time's new "Limited Edition Series" Blu-ray release (in her essay in the package's accompanying booklet, Julie Kirgo writes "Where has this extraordinary movie been all our lives?"). Shot in black & white at a time when it was used very sparingly aside from the occasional IN COLD BLOOD, THE INCIDENT has been restored to all of its edgy, gritty glory and is long overdue for discovery. Even now, over 50 years after its release, THE INCIDENT is an artifact from a bygone era that remains a visceral, shocking gut-punch today. Though it came just before the introduction of the MPAA rating system and is devoid of F-bombs, the language used and situations depicted in the film (including one pretty clearly alluding to a sexual assault taking place just below the frame) induce such a level of tension and unease that it's still worthy of an R rating even now. THE INCIDENT is a film that leaves you exhausted, shattered, and physically drained when the closing credits roll. It's arguably the best American film of the 1960s that nobody knows about, and it's possibly more potent today that it was then. There's certainly elements here that couldn't fly in the present without being labeled "problematic" or "triggering" and leading to numerous outraged thinkpieces, including the use of homophobic and racist slurs. This is a troubling, uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and profoundly unsettling film that stays with you long after it's over. Even revisiting it after 20+ years, scenes and dialogue remained etched in my memory and even though I knew what was coming, I could still feel my heart racing, my stomach in knots with tension, and a palpable anger brewing as a bad situation gets uglier by the minute.

A feature-length expansion of the more luridly-titled "Ride With Terror," a 1963 episode of NBC's THE DUPONT SHOW OF THE WEEK, THE INCIDENT was written by Nicholas E. Baehr, who went on to a workmanlike career writing for TV shows like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, DAN AUGUST, and MCCLOUD. It was directed by Larry Peerce, who won significant acclaim for his 1964 debut ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO, but would gradually shift to mainstream assignments in the mid '70s like the Jill Kinmont biopic THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN (1975) and the sniper-in-a-football-stadium disaster movie TWO-MINUTE WARNING (1976). Peerce would drift into TV work later in his career after box-office duds like the 1984 Rick Springfield drama HARD TO HOLD and 1989's universally-maligned John Belushi chronicle WIRED, ultimately finishing his career (for now) with paycheck gigs directing episodes of TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL and a couple of Lifetime movies with Roma Downey. Now 87 and still very sharp on the Blu-ray commentary track with film historian Nick Redman, Peerce has been inactive since 2003 and THE INCIDENT remains his masterpiece that's also indicative of a time when he was still carving a niche for himself. On the commentary track, he mentions "rageful films intrigue me," and THE INCIDENT certainly qualifies as such. After a big hit with 1969's Philip Roth adaptation GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, Peerce turned down an offer to direct LOVE STORY and instead opted to make the theater-clearing, audience-alienating 1971 bomb THE SPORTING CLUB, which rendered him virtually unemployable. That, coupled with a divorce and needing the money, Peerce effectively abandoned his auteur aspirations and went the genre-hopping mercenary route with mixed results. He made a few decent theatrical and TV movies, but never again did Peerce direct anything like THE INCIDENT.

Set roughly between 2:00 and 3:30 am on a Sunday night/Monday morning in the Bronx, THE INCIDENT opens with rowdy troublemakers Joe Ferrone (Tony Musante, the only cast member to reprise his role from "Ride With Terror") and Artie Connors (a debuting Martin Sheen) hassling a pool hall manager and a couple on the street before rolling a guy and beating him to a pulp (possibly to death) for $8. Deciding the night is young, they mention going to Times Square as the film cuts to various groups of people headed for the subway from different locations. There's Bill (Ed McMahon, of all people) and Helen Wilks (Diana Van der Vlis), finally extricating themselves from a family gathering and arguing about money problems and her wanting a second child while their four-year-old daughter sleeps; smooth-talking Tony Goya (Victor Arnold) trying to seduce his latest conquest, 18-year-old virgin Alice Keenan (Donna Mills in her debut); elderly, bickering Jewish couple Sam (Jack Gilford) and Bertha Beckerman (Thelma Ritter), with Sam unable to shut up about how "these kids today are a disgrace" and bent out of shape that their son won't loan him "a lousy $500 so I can get my teeth fixed"; Oklahoma native and Army private Felix Teflinger (Beau Bridges who would go on to be a frequent Peerce collaborator), on leave with a broken arm and visiting his NYC-born Army buddy Philip Carmatti (Robert Bannard); nebbishy history teacher Harry Purvis (Mike Kellin) and his shrewish wife Muriel (Jan Sterling), who never misses a chance to remind Harry that his friends are richer and more successful than he is; Kenneth Otis (Robert Fields), an awkward homosexual trying to make small talk and connect with anyone; recovering alcoholic Douglas McCann (Gary Merrill; a young, pre-fame Gene Hackman played the role in "Ride With Terror"), eight months on the wagon and desperately waiting for news about a job offer; and Arnold (Brock Peters) and Joan Robinson (Ruby Dee), a black couple on their way home from a civil rights group meeting deemed too peaceful by militant anger management case Arnold, who has a huge chip on his shoulder about "Whitey" and starts an argument with the ticket booth operator.

All of these characters--plus a sleeping homeless man (Henry Proach)--end up in the same subway car, eventually joined by Joe and Artie, who enter making a huge racket and a drunken spectacle of themselves. After Artie attempts to give the vagrant a hot foot, McCann is the first to speak up, unleashing a barrage of torment and terror from Joe and Artie. Artie jams the door with the vagrant's shoe, preventing anyone from getting on or off, and Joe, who's smarter than he appears, is quickly able to deduce the Achilles' heel of everyone aboard. He accosts them one by one, instantly figuring out their weaknesses and exploiting them for maximum humiliation as Artie cheers him on. Artie primarily functions as the Chester to Joe's Spike, but even he gets into the act, immediately figuring out that Kenneth is gay and slyly seducing him into earning his trust. "You gotta help me...this guy I'm with is real buggy," Artie deceptively confides before beating him, calling him a "rotten fag," forcing him to dance with him and Joe, and spending the rest of the film referring to him as "The Princess" and making him sit in the corner. Joe exposes tough-talking Tony as a coward by sidling up to Alice and, judging from her body language and the pained faces she's making, doing things out of frame that couldn't be explicitly shown in 1967 as Tony freezes and does nothing. And starting with a loaded "Sho 'nuff!," he then demolishes Arnold, who's only too happy to watch a train car full of "crackers" being verbally and physically assaulted ("I'm with you, Jack," he smiles at Joe), but has it thrown right back at him when Joe repeatedly calls him the N-word and insinuates that his "smell" is all over the train. Throughout all of this, no one speaks up or makes any serious attempt to deter them other than Teflinger, but even he backs off after suggesting they "settle down" and Joe grabs him by the neck.

The infamous Kitty Genovese case--where a woman was killed while neighbors heard it all and did nothing--comes to mind while watching THE INCIDENT, and likewise, Peerce doesn't make things as simple as black or white. Yes, Joe and Artie are two of the most loathsome, psychotic creeps you'll ever see--the tragically underrated Musante, who died in 2013, is unforgettable here, and absolutely, terrifyingly repulsive in a way that prefigures the kinds of roles David Hess would make a career of after THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and THE INCIDENT stands all the evidence anyone needs to conclude that he should've had a much bigger career than he did--but Peerce doesn't let the passengers off the hook, never hesitating to spotlight their cowardice and hypocrisy. As "The Princess" is agonizingly humiliated, dweeby Harry chuckles, Joan buries her face in a book, and tough guy Tony dismisses it as "Eh, they got a hold of some queer, so what?" No one stands up when Joe verbally assaults Arnold and Artie grabs Joan and threatens to break her arm. Everyone looks the other way while Joe's doing whatever he's doing to Alice while Tony sits there frozen (this is a really difficult scene to watch). No one intervenes when Muriel confronts Joe and he grabs the fascinator off of her head and uses it to caress her chest, asking "What do you want, lady? Maybe you want both of us," while Artie starts kissing her neck as hapless, helpless Harry stands there, utterly emasculated.

Photographed by the great Gerald Hirschfeld (YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN), THE INCIDENT is a film that could only work in black & white. Peerce indicates they did some color tests in pre-production and it was "a disaster," though he still had to fight to shoot it the way he wanted. It began as an independent production but ran out of money halfway through, salvaged by some major studio cash when two young junior execs at 20th Century Fox--Richard Zanuck (studio head Darryl F.'s son) and David Brown, both of whom went on to meet Steven Spielberg and produce JAWS at Universal--liked what they saw and agreed to back the film to completion, largely leaving Peerce alone to make the film he wanted to make. The only change they suggested, which Peerce said was a good idea, was to move the intro to Joe and Artie at the beginning instead of in the middle of the film, as their mugging of the guy for $8 takes place in the context of the story right before they get on the subway, even though they disappear for 40 minutes of screen time while the other characters are introduced. This also establishes an early prototype of an overlapping narrative time element that filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino would make commonplace in the 1990s. Every performance in THE INCIDENT is pitch-perfect, even McMahon, who's terrific as a blowhard, working class martyr in what Peerce describes as stunt casting that worked. The film brilliantly captures the scuzzy seediness of the big city after dark, fulfilling every warning you've ever heard about nothing good happening after 2:00 am. This was years before the blight and crime that became synonymous with Times Square and the Bronx of the '70s and '80s, but that aura is in its infancy here (I'm betting Martin Scorsese saw this, because much of MEAN STREETS has that same vibe in its locations), and even though the interiors were all constructed sets (Peerce and Hirschfeld caught some guerrilla-style exterior shots on the fly at real subway platforms, but the Transit Authority wouldn't authorize the use of a real subway car, insisting that crime on the subways wasn't an issue), THE INCIDENT looks like an image frozen in time. A master class in suspense, tension, and blistering social commentary (note the still-relevant bit at the end where the cops get on the train and, without a single word said and taking all of one second to assess the situation, immediately handcuff the black guy) that never feels "stagy" despite its close confines. THE INCIDENT isn't the only film of this type (the similar and equally obscure 1979 squirm-fest WHEN YOU COMIN' BACK, RED RYDER? is also worthy of unearthing), but it's a film not easily shaken, and an American classic that's patiently waited 50 years for some recognition. There's never been another movie quite like it.

Martin Sheen, Larry Peerce, and Beau Bridges
at a 2017 TCM Festival screening of THE INCIDENT

THE INCIDENT opening in Toledo, OH on 3/29/1968, paired with
the Bette Davis "thrill hit" THE ANNIVERSARY, also a time
when someone thought a drive-in double bill of THE GOOD,
THE BAD AND THE UGLY and FITZWILLY was a good idea. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018


(Japan - 2017; US release 2018)

Directed by Fumihiko Sori. Written by Hiromu Arakawa. Cast: Ryosuke Yamada, Tsubasa Honda, Dean Fujioka, Atom Miziushi, Misako Renbutso, Kanata Hongo, Shinji Uchiyama, Jun Kunimura, Yo Oizumi, Ryuta Sato, Fumiyo Kohinata, Yasuko Matsuyuki, Natsuki Harada. (Unrated, 134 mins)

Based on Hiromu Arawaka's extremely popular, long-running manga that's already been adapted into two Japanese anime TV series and two anime films, FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST is the first live action version, which was released by Warner Bros. to mixed reviews and decent but below-expectation box office in Japan last December before landing in the US this week as a Netflix Original. Thanks to THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX, the term "Netflix Original" is quickly growing synonymous with "major studio dumpjob," and FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST does little to dispel that perception. Having creator Arakawa onboard to write the screenplay seems like a good idea in theory, but the end result is a jumbled mess that tries to accomplish more than a 2 1⁄4 hour movie can cover. If you aren't already up to speed with the characters, their relationship to one another, their motivations, or what alchemists, homonculi, chimeras, and "The Gate of Truth" are in Arakawa's extensive world building, then good luck making heads or tails of much of FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST.

Two child alchemists, siblings Edward and Alphonse Elric, watch their mother die suddenly and try to resurrect her using the alchemy powers taught to them by their absent father. The attempt fails spectacularly, resulting in Ed losing a leg and Al's soul being removed from his body, prompting Ed to sacrifice an arm to transmute his younger brother's soul into a tall suit of medieval armor. Years later, adult Ed (Ryosuke Yamada) is a "fullmetal alchemist" traveling with armor-suited Al (voiced and motion-captured by Atom Miziushi) to obtain the ultimate knowledge from "The Gate of Truth," and find the fabled "Philosopher's Stone" that will grant Ed the transmuting powers to put Al back in his original body (the much-discussed stone resembles a raspberry Tide Pod). Along the way, they're aided by Col. Mustang (Dean Fujioka), the ill-fated Col. Hughes (Ryuta Sato), and their childhood friend Winry (a scene-stealing Tsubasa Honda), who helps maintain Ed's prosthetic arm and leg and keeps Al in fighting condition. There's also an ethically bankrupt alchemist named Shou Tucker (Yo Oizumi), who's not above using his loved ones for chimera (a fusion of two distinct lifeforms) experimentation, the devious Hakuro (Fumiyo Kohinata), who's set up as the main villain until he abruptly exits to give way to three shape-shifting artificial humans--Homonculi--who exist on the fringes of the story until the third act: Lust (Yasuko Matsuyuki), Envy (Kanata Hongo), and Gluttony (Shinji Uchiyama), and it's all wrapped up in a labyrinthine political and military conspiracy. Along the way, the brothers will clash and bond, with Ed tortured by guilt over his inability to provide his brother with his human form.

Director Fumihiko Sori has an extensive background in visual effects and CGI (he worked on James Cameron's TITANIC, referenced here in an winking joke where Hakuro declares himself "King of the World") and for a film with a budget of $8 million US, FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST looks a lot more expensive than it is. Sori stages a few impressive action sequences but the biggest problems are its inconsistent tone (at times it plays like a kids movie and at times it's a maudlin male weepie with its brother issues, but then there's Gluttony chowing down on a dead guy's remains) and an overcrowded ensemble that seems to have arrived by clown car. Sometimes, you barely have a chance to figure out who someone is before they're either killed off or they vanish. Some of this is due to Arakawa's screenplay cramming in extensive exposition from early issues of the manga, plus the plot of the offshoot TV anime FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST: BROTHERHOOD, plus some new stuff written for the movie. The end result is not unlike the cluttered, chaotic feel of the disastrous THE DARK TOWER, a film that tried to pack nearly 5000 pages of text into a 90-minute movie and ended up looking like Stephen King fan fiction. I was only vaguely familiar with the plot line of the manga going into this, so admittedly, I'm not the target audience. But there's so much stuffed into this--and it still manages to be dull--that it's almost completely inaccessible to neophytes and it's possible even the most devoted fans who know the material inside and out might be left a little confused by it all.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


(US - 2017)

Though THE FLORIDA PROJECT shares some surface similarities with the little-seen SUNLIGHT JR, it benefits from a loose, improvisational, verite feel with its effective location shooting in the seedy vicinity around Walt Disney World (whereas SUNLIGHT JR was filmed in economically-depressed areas of Clearwater). Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) lives at the Magic Castle motel in Kissimmee with her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), who redefines the concept of the irresponsible parent. While Moonee plays with downstairs neighbor Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a little girl who lives with her grandmother (Josie Olivo) at a nearby motel, Halley gets high, watches TV, and engages in various scams to get the necessary weekly rent money for Magic Castle manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). The kids are a handful, and certainly products of their environment and upbringing, with Moonee especially prone to being a foul-mouthed brat. Bobby's patience is always wearing thin (when they spit on someone's car, spill ice cream in the office, or sneak into the maintenance room and turn off the power to the entire motel), but he's very protective of the kids and realizes it's not their fault. Director/co-writer Sean Baker (TANGERINE) lets the story develop very slowly, instead focusing on the world in which these characters live in ways that recall the work of British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Vinaite's performance in particular is reminiscent of Katie Jarvis, a non-professional who won the lead in FISH TANK after Arnold happened to see her arguing with her boyfriend on a street corner, as well as Sasha Lane, who was cast in AMERICAN HONEY after Arnold saw her sunbathing on a beach. Likewise, Vinaite had no acting experience and ran a small marijuana-themed clothing line when Baker discovered her on Instagram. Her performance--Halley's attitude boiling with rage and desperation but doing what she does because she loves her child even if she still acts like one herself--is quite remarkable.

The same goes for young Prince, who's a natural (watch her give Jancey the tour of the motel and the rundown of the residents: "This guy gets arrested a lot and this lady thinks she's married to Jesus"), and both actresses work beautifully with an Oscar-nominated Dafoe, playing perhaps the warmest and most empathetic character in a career largely spent personifying creeps and weirdos. Baker delves into a little of Bobby's life too and the wrong turns that make him sympathize with Halley and Moonee, even when Halley doesn't really deserve it. We see Bobby's day-to-day job duties, which include fixing a broken ice machine, dealing with the removal of a mattress in a bedbug-infested room, chasing a pedophile off the property when he starts talking to the kids, plus he has a fractured relationship with his own son (Caleb Landry Jones), who he frequently calls to help him with stuff around the motel. Perhaps the most moving scene in the film is when Halley and Moonee take Jancey to an empty field to watch the Disney fireworks from a distance for her birthday, celebrated by blowing out a candle on a small cupcake the three of them share. As the fragments begin to cohere into a genuine story, the outcome isn't going to be good, but it does put you in the mindset of children forced to use their imagination to survive the grimmest of circumstances. (R, 112 mins)

(Japan/UK - 2017)

A lot of years have gone by, but it's easy to forget the impact that incredibly prolific Japanese auteur Takashi Miike had on connoisseurs of cult cinema when his films began hitting the US in the early '00s. That first wave--AUDITION, DEAD OR ALIVE, MPD PSYCHO, VISITOR Q, ICHI THE KILLER, THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS, and even the much-maligned GOZU--were so gonzo and transgressive that even hardcore cult cinephiles were often left aghast at that they were seeing (after I described VISITOR Q to a friend, he screened it at a movie night at his place, pissing off half of his guests and gleefully describing it as "a total room-clearer"). Miike was known enough in horror circles by 2005 that he was invited to helm an episode of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR series. The result was "Imprint," which went into such dark and disturbing places that the cable network wouldn't even air it. Miike has been directing since 1991 and has dabbled in every conceivable genre (even retro spaghetti westerns and kids movies), hopping around from cinematic extremes to mainstream commercial fare (he also helmed the J-Horror hit ONE MISSED CALL) with remarkable ease, but while his notoriety in the US has diminished in recent years, his output hasn't slowed down at all. His latest effort, BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, is his first to get any US distribution beyond the festival circuit since 2015's YAKUZA APOCALYPSE. To give you an idea of how much and how fast Miike works, the last of his films I've seen is 2011's HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI, and between that and BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, he's made 13 feature films and had a hand in directing two different series for Japanese television, and since BLADE wrapped, he's already got another movie completed.

BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL was sold as Miike's 100th film. While the exact tally is a mystery and might even be to Miike himself, this is an odd choice to herald such a milestone. It's based on a popular manga by Hiroaki Samura, but Miike doesn't really bring much of a personal touch to it. As he pushes 60, it's entirely possible he's moved beyond the poking-people-with-sticks years that helped establish his legend (or he's just exhausted), and while he's done very well in this genre before (2010's 13 ASSASSINS was his best film in years), he really seems to be going through the motions with BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL. The convoluted story has disgraced samurai warrior Manji (Takuya Kimura) on the run after killing his corrupt lord and his six shogun constables, including his brother-in-law, whose death drove Manji's sister Machi (Hana Sugisaki) mad with grief. After Machi is killed by a bounty hunter and Manji massacres his small army, he nearly dies from his injuries until he's granted immortality by 800-year-old witch Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto). 50 years later, a depressed Manji wanders the countryside wishing he could die, but he finds a purpose when he's sought out by Rin Asani (also played by Sugisaki), who wants revenge on shogun warrior Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi) after he kills her parents and gives his associate Kuroi Sabato (Kazuka Kitamura) the severed head of her mother to mount on his shoulder. Manji feels sorry for the girl, who reminds him of his baby sister and may very well be her reincarnation (Rin even starts affectionately calling him "Big Brother"), so they embark on a journey to kill Anotsu and anyone who stands in their way. Of course, there's shifting alliances, double crosses, and various supernatural hijinks, but after a smashing start, the film rapidly devolves into repetitive set pieces and becomes a laborious slog. Even when it comes alive for an epic climactic showdown, it still feels like Miike's just recycling ideas and images from 13 ASSASSINS and other similar films. Manji is a sort of Wolverine/Logan crossed with a shogun HIGHLANDER, so no matter what happens to him or how many appendages get hacked off in battle, the "bloodworms" planted in him by Yaobikuni will heal him by reattaching the limb and he continues to live. There's plenty of spectacular action sequences and squishy sound effects as inventive weaponry guts through flesh, and KILL BILL fans will like seeing Chiaka Kuriyama--aka "Gogo Yubari"--in a supporting role, but at nearly two and a half hours, BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL is a good 35-40 minutes too long as Miike somehow manages to be both self-indulgent and disconnected from the material at the same time. (R, 141 mins)

Monday, February 19, 2018

Retro Review: THE LAST HUNTER (1980)

(Italy - 1980; US release 1984)

Directed by Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti). Written by Dardano Sacchetti. Cast: David Warbeck, Tisa Farrow, John Steiner, Tony King, Bobby Rhodes, Margi Eveline Newton (Margie Newton), Massimo Vanni, Alan Collins (Luciano Pigozzi), Dino Conti, Gianfranco Moroni, Edoardo Margheriti. (Unrated, 96 mins)

Veteran Italian journeyman Antonio Margheriti became synonymous with jungle explosion movies in the 1980s with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK ripoffs like THE HUNTERS OF THE GOLDEN COBRA, THE ARK OF THE SUN GOD and JUNGLE RAIDERS, and a WILD GEESE-inspired commando trilogy with British TV star Lewis Collins (CODENAME: WILDGEESE, COMMANDO LEOPARD, THE COMMANDER), but it was his partnership with New Zealand-born David Warbeck that initially got the ball rolling. Shot in the Philippines on some of the same locations and abandoned sets from APOCALYPSE NOW, 1980's THE LAST HUNTER (belatedly released in the US in 1984 by World Northal) was the first teaming of the director and star and the first of countless Namspoitation actioners to come from Italy throughout the decade. Filmed under the title IL CACCIATORE 2 in response to the Oscar-winning THE DEER HUNTER being known there as IL CACCIATORE (from Lucio Fulci's ZOMBI 2 to Ciro Ippolito's ALIEN 2: ON EARTH, unofficial bogus sequels were a trend in Italian exploitation at the time), THE LAST HUNTER is more of gritty, down-to-the-basics riff on APOCALYPSE NOW. In January 1973, burned-out Capt. Henry Morris (Warbeck) is given a top secret assignment. Dropped in an area swarming with VietCong, he meets up with a small group of soldiers--Sgt. George Washington (Tony King), Carlos (Bobby Rhodes), and Stinker Smith (Edoardo Margheriti, the director's son and assistant)--who are accompanied by war correspondent Jane Foster (Tisa Farrow) as they make their way toward a destination known only by Morris, who's haunted by the recent suicide of his best friend. They're ambushed by VC along the way, and Stinker is ripped apart by a spiked booby trap, but they eventually find refuge at a rowdy outpost run by the very Kilgore-like Major Cash (John Steiner), who sends daredevil Phillips (Massimo Vanni) on dangerous coconut runs outside the camp's perimeter that are in no way meant to remind you of Lance's surfing during a bombing raid in APOCALYPSE NOW.

Morris' mission is to terminate (with extreme prejudice) a traitorous voice broadcasting anti-American, "Charlie" propaganda over the airwaves in Saigon. The voice is that of an American woman who turns out to be someone close to Morris (making this mission...wait for it...personal) and the embodiment of every enraged, right-wing "Hanoi Jane" caricature you've heard for the last 50 years. Cash complains that the voice is turning his officers against him with statements like "Don't obey your commander...he's only sending you out to die. Go home to your girl, American boy..." while the deeper into the jungle they go, the more Morris and the others start to question why they're even there. It all leads to one of the more downbeat finales in Italian Namsploitation, which was a common theme as these went on. More often than not (Margheriti's TORNADO, Fabrizio De Angelis' COBRA MISSION aka OPERATION NAM), the Italians avoided the revisionist, flag-waving "This time we're gonna win!" mythology of the American Namsploitation movies and went for full-on bleak hopelessness. Of course, in 1980, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris had yet to embark on one-man missions to bring the POWs back home and as such, THE LAST HUNTER is certainly more in line with the grim elements of APOCALYPSE NOW and THE DEER HUNTER, particularly Washington's memorable death scene and Morris' final decision at the end. It's also quite brutal and often incredibly gory, so much so that it earned a spot on the UK's infamous "Video Nasties" list. Margheriti wasn't one to indulge in the graphic gore of his contemporaries like Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi, but 1980 saw him going all in on the splatter. The same year, he directed CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE, his lone entry into the Italian cannibal cycle. Also known as CANNIBALS IN THE STREETS and INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS, the film fuses the cannibal subgenre with Namsploitation, as Vietnam vets John Saxon, Giovanni Lombardo Radice ("John Morghen") and THE LAST HUNTER's Tony King return home infected by a cannibal virus, their PTSD manifesting itself as an insatiable craving for human flesh that sends them on a rampage through Atlanta.

Typically, Margheriti would use gore sparingly to focus more on action, of which THE LAST HUNTER--written by frequent Fulci collaborator Dardano Sacchetti--has plenty. Displaying more explosions and firefights than perhaps the rest of Margheriti's filmography combined, THE LAST HUNTER is old-school and has a cut-the-bullshit attitude, especially in the way it shows off the kind of dangerous stunt work that would never fly today (there's one shot of an explosion going off near Warbeck and Farrow that's pretty ballsy on the part of both actors). You can feel the sweltering heat and humidity in the obviously unpleasant shooting conditions. Of course, this being an Antonio Margheriti film, there's also the usual display of Margheriti miniatures as well as some explosions in the opening sequence that's mostly recycled footage from 1978's THE SQUEEZE and 1979's KILLER FISH. But overall, THE LAST HUNTER is one of the great Namsploitation offerings and a masterpiece from the glory days of the Italian Ripoff. It helped set the course for Margheriti's output for the rest of the decade and established Warbeck as an action star in Italy. Known for some UK TV roles and small parts in British horror films like TROG, TWINS OF EVIL, and CRAZE, as James Coburn's doomed friend in Sergio Leone's DUCK, YOU SUCKER, and as the male lead in Russ Meyer's BLACK SNAKE, Warbeck's status as a Eurocult legend would be cemented thanks to his work with Margheriti and Lucio Fulci in the 1980s. Warbeck's star would dim as the Italian exploitation cycle declined in the late '80s, but he did land one major A-list gig with a supporting role in the 1984 Tom Selleck vehicle LASSITER. Code Red/Kino Lorber's new LAST HUNTER Blu-ray (boasting the obligatory Code Red packaging typos as producer Gianfranco Couyoumdjian becomes "Grand Franco Couyoumdjian"--honesty, isn't "Gianfranco" the easy part of that name?) also features an interview with the well-traveled Tony King, who retired from the NFL after one season with the Buffalo Bills in 1967 before drifting into modeling and acting in the early '70s. His standout performance in 1975's underrated REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER should've made him a star, but nothing happened, and by 1980, he was working in Italy, reteaming with Margheriti and Warbeck for 1982's TIGER JOE. He moved into social activism and upon changing his name to Malik Farrakhan in the late '80s, became well-known as the head of security for Public Enemy. King's life and career have gone down some unexpected paths, and he has some good stories about working in Italy, and fond memories of the cast and other films he's worked on, though the interview's most memorable moment is when someone starts banging on his door and shouting "Tony, open the motherfuckin' door!"

Friday, February 16, 2018

In Theaters/On VOD: LOOKING GLASS (2018)

(US/UK - 2018)

Directed by Tim Hunter. Written by Jerry Rapp. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Robin Tunney, Marc Blucas, Ernie Lively, Kassia Conway, Jacque Gray, Kimberly Hittleman, Bill Boldender, Barry Minoff, Jason Wixom, Atticus Worman-Pope. (R, 103 mins)

We're a little over halfway through February and LOOKING GLASS is already Nicolas Cage's second VOD release of the year. Unlike January's excellent MOM AND DAD, LOOKING GLASS is the kind of bland, forgettable, perfunctory clock-punch that typifies the bulk of Redbox-era Cage. It's hard telling what drew him to the project other than its setting might've stirred memories of his cult classic desert noir RED ROCK WEST, John Dahl's terrific 1993 thriller that ended up premiering on cable only to become a big word-of-mouth hit in video stores. It could be the involvement of screenwriter Matthew Wilder*, who wrote Paul Schrader's DOG EAT DOG, one of Cage's better recent films, though at some point between LOOKING GLASS' announcement in the trades and its release, Wilder's shared writing credit with Jerry Rapp (GUTSHOT STRAIGHT) vanished and now he's one of about 30 credited producers, with Rapp getting sole credit for the screenplay (though Wilder is still credited on IMDb). Ray (Cage) and Maggie (Robin Tunney) are a married couple still grieving the loss of their young daughter in a vague accident that may have involved a fall, Maggie's substance abuse, and Ray's infidelity. They look to heal in the dumbest way possible: by packing up and driving across the country to a small Arizona town where Ray bought a motel he found for sale on Craigslist. The locals are odd but welcoming, including gregarious trucker Tommy (Ernie Lively), who always has a different young girl in tow and always requests room 10. The previous owner, Ben (Bill Bollender) abruptly left town and Ray has no way to contact him. He's got some questions, especially once he discovers a secret crawlspace in the pool maintenance room that leads a two-way mirror that looks right into room 10, which seems to be the most requested room for another guest, mysterious prostitute and professional dominatrix Cassie (Kassia Conway), who states "10's a peach...I'll take 10."

Things slowly take a sinister turn with the arrival of Sheriff Howard (Marc Blucas), who keeps showing up for coffee and to pester Ray about Ben's whereabouts. Someone dumps a pig carcass into the motel's pool with a note reading "Crissey" attached to it. Crissey was also the name of a dead woman found floating in the pool a month or so earlier, a guest in room 10 right around the time Ray first drove to the motel solo to meet with Ben about buying it. Another guest (Jacque Gray) is found dead in the desert.  Howard's visits with Ray grow increasingly hostile and even some of the locals start to cast suspicious glances at him like he's Roman Polanski in THE TENANT. This also ratchets up the tension between Ray and Maggie as Ray discovers the voyeur within and can't stop peeping on the action in Room 10. The biggest problem with LOOKING GLASS is that its central mystery isn't very compelling and never really goes anywhere. There's only a few characters and anyone who's seen a movie before can figure out the guilty party just by process of elimination (plus a shot of the boots of a third person in the room watching during one of Cassie's S&M sessions makes it even easier). The big reveal is both predictable and a shrug, leaving numerous loose ends, unresolved story threads, and pointless red herrings.

LOOKING GLASS is the first feature in 13 years for director Tim Hunter, best known for 1987's unrelentingly grim RIVER'S EDGE. While his big-screen career didn't pan out, Hunter's spent most of the last 25 years as one of TV's busiest hired guns, directing episodes of shows like HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, LAW & ORDER, CROSSING JORDAN, DEADWOOD, HOUSE, COLD CASE, CSI: NY, SONS OF ANARCHY, BREAKING BAD, MAD MEN, NIP/TUCK. GLEE, HANNIBAL, GOTHAM, THE BLACKLIST, and countless others. With more TV shows being produced than ever, the 70-year-old Hunter's never going to be unemployed unless he chooses to retire, but that same kind of journeyman, workmanlike "assignment" style he's obviously grown accustomed to doesn't do LOOKING GLASS any favors (Hunter took over either just before shooting began or very early in the production, following the departure of music video director Dori Oskowitz). The film plods along, never generating any momentum or suspense as it dawdles to nowhere, and it often resembling two things after starting with opening credits that rip off David Lynch's LOST HIGHWAY: 1) a tame version of the kind of erotic thriller that would've starred Craig Sheffer, Gil Bellows, or David Duchovny as Ray, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, or Lara Flynn Boyle as Maggie, and J.T. Walsh, J.T. Walsh, or J.T. Walsh as Sheriff Howard, and been released on VHS by Prism Entertainment in 1994, or 2) a desert motel-set early '90s indie noir like the aforementioned RED ROCK WEST, or other VHS-era standards like EYE OF THE STORM, DESIRE AND HELL AT SUNSET MOTEL, and BLACK DAY BLUE NIGHT. Everything about LOOKING GLASS feels thoroughly ordinary and peculiarly dated, like a tribute to the one-copy "Hot Singles" section of the new release wall at Blockbuster Video. Cage has a couple of "Cage" moments ("DID I DO WHAT?") but he's mostly low-key to the point of catatonia, while Tunney is given little do other than wait to play a victim. Blucas has some fun as the sheriff and ends up being the film's most interesting character, and there's a noticeable spark of wired energy when he first appears around 40 minutes in, but by the end, even he's defeated by the crushing mediocrity of it all. And then there's the So What? reveal that you already figured out, and then it just ends. Sorta like this review.

*(note: in the interest of full disclosure, I was once Facebook friends with Matthew Wilder, but a 2012 disagreement over Jean-Luc Godard's FILM SOCIALISME resulted in him unfriending and blocking me, followed by his immediate creation of the hashtag #attackfilmsocialismeanddie. I have had no contact with him since)

Thursday, February 15, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD, Special "OK, Seriously, Enough Already" Edition: HELLRAISER: JUDGMENT (2018) and DAY OF THE DEAD: BLOODLINE (2018)

(US - 2018)

Seven years ago, Dimension Films was planning a remake of HELLRAISER that was stalled in development for so long that they realized they were dangerously close to the deadline where they'd lose the rights to the entire franchise if they didn't get something released quickly. The result was the unwatchable sequel HELLRAISER: REVELATIONS, a legal obligation disguised as a movie, and produced under such cynical circumstances (less than two weeks to shoot with a budget of $300,000 on a set that looked like a crew member's barely-redressed garage) that franchise fixture Doug Bradley refused to reprise his iconic role as Pinhead. It's unanimously regarded as the worst film in the series, so bad that even the most forgiving, "Everything is awesome!" horror fanboys have yet to convince themselves that it's an unsung classic that just needs to be appreciated on its own terms. Well, it's 2018, the remake still hasn't happened, and the clock must've been ticking once again for Dimension to release something, because now we've got HELLRAISER: JUDGMENT, the tenth film in the series going back to Clive Barker's original trailblazer from 1987. Other than cashing a check and reportedly contributing to the story development of 2002's HELLRAISER: HELLSEEKER (the sixth entry), Barker hasn't taken an active involvement in these since 1992's HELLRAISER III: HELL ON EARTH. The franchise now seems to be in the hands of Gary J. Tunnicliffe, a veteran special effects guy who's been part of the series since HELLRAISER III and also worked on CANDYMAN and the Barker-directed LORD OF ILLUSIONS. He wrote the script for REVELATIONS and is now the writer and director of JUDGMENT, the promotion to shot-caller apparently his reward for publicly admitting his involvement in REVELATIONS.

Dimension kept the HELLRAISER franchise going in the '00s by essentially taking existing scripts and shoehorning Pinhead into them. With the Oklahoma-shot JUDGMENT, Tunnicliffe is basically going for a do-over, pretending REVELATIONS didn't happen and almost rebooting the series to a degree. That said, it feels just like every other straight-to-video HELLRAISER sequel where Pinhead seems like a post-production addition. After an introduction where Pinhead (now played by Paul T. Taylor, who's no Doug Bradley but he's a definite improvement over REVELATIONS' hapless Stephan Smith Collins) declares "Obsolete...irrelevant!" over the Cenobites' dwindling necessity in an increasingly perverse world but could just as easily be commenting on the current state of the HELLRAISER franchise, the story shifts to two detective brothers after a serial killer known as "The Preceptor." The killer is patterning his murders on the Ten Commandments and has killed 14 people so far, apparently unaware of both the meaning of "Thou shalt not kill," and how to count to ten. There's also a dilapidated house on Ludovico St, a sort-of inter-dimensional, Kafka-meets-William S. Burroughs halfway house where a demonic emissary known as The Auditor (played by Tunnicliffe, who must think he's M. Night Shyamalan) works as a go-between with Pinhead, luring the worst of society to the house to see if they're deserving of Cenobite judgment. But Pinhead is sidelined for most of the movie, with the focus on the boring procedural, with set design and murders straight out of SE7EN (one victim has her live dog--named "Baby"--sewn into her belly) and death traps on loan from SAW. The whole movie plays like a drab homage to '90s horror, starting with the SE7EN ripoff opening credits, somehow still being copied 23 years later. There's also pandering to the fanboys with cameos by FEAST director John Gulager and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET's Heather Langenkamp as a grouchy landlady (what, were Larry Fessenden and Maria Olson unavailable?). HELLRAISER: JUDGMENT pulls numerous dei ex machina out of its ass, like introducing a sultry, echoing angel near the end just so Pinhead can ignore her orders and have The Auditor declare "Did you forget? She's the angel who banished them from the Garden of Eden!" Yeah? And? And why is Pinhead suddenly in a position where he's answering to other figures? Tunnicliffe delivers the gore and the grim atmosphere, but in his quest to create an all-new mythos around the HELLRAISER concept and the figure of Pinhead, he just overwhelms himself and completely loses the plot. On one hand, with its bizarre, surrealistic imagery in the Ludovico house, JUDGMENT deserves a little credit for trying since that's more than REVELATIONS ever did, but you don't get a pass when that ingenuity is quickly jettisoned and the end result is a derivative, convoluted mess that plays like HELLRAISER fan fiction. Maybe Dimension should just let this franchise go, since they clearly have no idea what to do with it. (Unrated, 81 mins)

(US - 2018)

How long do Robert and James Dudelson plan on dining out on the legacy of George A. Romero? The heads of Taurus Entertainment secured the rights to a couple of Romero films via the company's formation in the late '80s, which resulted from a merger that involved what was left of United Film Distribution, the company that produced Romero's films CREEPSHOW (1982) and DAY OF THE DEAD (1985). Taurus hasn't done much in the last couple of decades other than shamelessly exploit their extremely tenuous connection to Romero's work with all the scrupulous pride of copper wire thieves: 2007's CREEPSHOW 3 was bad enough, but they've gone back for DAY OF THE DEAD scraps three times now, first with a crummy 2005 "sequel" DAY OF THE DEAD 2: CONTAGIUM, then a DAY OF THE DEAD remake in 2008, and now another remake titled DAY OF THE DEAD: BLOODLINE, which plays like a bad episode of THE WALKING DEAD. They co-produced both DAY remakes with Avi Lerner's Cannon cover band Millennium and managed to secure a few recognizable names for the 2008 travesty (a slumming Steve Miner directed, and the cast was headlined by Mena Suvari, Ving Rhames, and, for some reason, Nick Cannon). All DAY OF THE DEAD: BLOODLINE has in the way of star power is Johnathon Scheach in the "Bub" role. This time he goes by Max, and in a prologue, he's a creep with a rare abundance of antibodies in his blood, which is being regularly tested and studied by med school research team. Max is fixated on one student, Zoe (Sophie Skelton), and he's even carved her name into his right arm. He attempts to rape her after a blood draw but he's cock-blocked by a re-animated corpse, which kicks off cinema's umpteenth zombie apocalypse, this time on the unconvincing "normal American city" streets of the Nu Boyana backlot in Bulgaria.

Five years later, Zoe is a doctor at High Rock, a military installation and refugee camp where survivors live under the rule of commander Miguel (Jeff Gum, which may be a secret code word for "Almost Joe Pilato") while the zombie horde--aka "Rotters"--are kept outside behind a massive fence. When a young girl comes down with a new strain of bacterial pneumonia that threatens to infect the entire facility, Zoe and some of Miguel's soldiers--including his younger brother and her boyfriend Baca (Marcus Vanco)--take some Humvees to the abandoned med school for some vaccines and antiobiotics. Why they wouldn't have attempted this five years earlier remains a mystery, but a zombified Max is still at the hospital, and secretly hitches a ride under one of the Humvees. This allows him to easily infiltrate High Rock undetected, hiding in the vent shafts and plotting his pursuit of Zoe. That's right--he's a zombie, but he's still obsessed with Zoe. Once he's discovered, she recalls his rare blood condition and believes he could be useful in developing a Rotter vaccine. Max, meanwhile, just wants Zoe. With the exception of Schaech and Gum, the entire cast sounds dubbed, but aside from that, DAY OF THE DEAD: BLOODLINE is plenty gory and, from a tech standpoint, it's professionally put together by Spanish director Hector Hernandez Vicens, whose THE CORPSE OF ANNA FRITZ generated some festival buzz a few years ago. It would just be another dumb and forgettable zombie movie if was simply called BLOODLINE, but the invoking of Romero is cheap and lazy. And if that wasn't offensive enough, the original tag line for this was a LOVE STORY-inspired "Love means never having to say you're zombie," which is pretty tone-deaf considering the rapey nature of Max's obsession. He was a rapist before turning, and in the #MeToo and Time's Up era, maybe now's not the best time for zombies to be committing sexual assault. Of course, we lost George A. Romero in the period between this being shot in 2016 and its release in 2018, and yeah, Romero was more than willing to throw his name on dubious projects during his lifetime for quick and easy cash, as anyone who's seen the two GEORGE A. ROMERO PRESENTS DEADTIME STORIES horror anthologies can attest. That said, maybe now that Romero is gone, it should also be Time's Up for the Dudelsons and their cynical cash-ins on his name and his legend. Considering the Bulgarian locations and crew, Lerner's Millennium gang was probably more involved in the day-to-day operation of this shoot, but the Dudelsons are still getting paid. They own the remake rights. And if that wasn't bad enough, do you really want to know how little these guys care? The fucking name of their company is misspelled "Tauras" in the credits. No one involved in this movie gives a shit. Neither should you. (R, 91 mins)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

In Theaters: THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Dorothy Blyskal. Cast: Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, Tony Hale, Thomas Lennon, P.J. Byrne, Jaleel White, Ray Corasani, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, Paul-Mikel Williams, Vernon Dobtcheff, Steve Coulter, Mark Moogalian, Isabelle Moogalian, Chris Norman, Jeanne Goursaud, Alisa Allapach. (PG-13, 94 mins)

THE 15:17 TO PARIS, the last and easily the least of Clint Eastwood's unofficial American Heroes trilogy (following AMERICAN SNIPER and SULLY), tries to get by on the stunt casting of the real heroes involved in thwarting a terrorist attack aboard a Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris in 2015. US Air Force staff sergeant Spencer Stone, US Army National Guard soldier Alek Skarlatos, and their non-enlisted childhood buddy Anthony Sadler were aboard the train to their final stop on a European backpacking trip when Ayoub El-Khazzani (played here by Ray Corasani) opened fire, leading to Stone, then Skarlatos and Sadler leaping to action to subdue him and tend to passenger Mark Moogalian (also playing himself), who was shot in the back and the neck trying to stop El-Khazzani before he made it to the car with the three Americans. It's a riveting story of heroism, adrenaline, and making split-second decisions, but does it warrant a 90-minute movie? Eastwood ran into this situation with 2016's SULLY, which took a five-minute incident and padded it out to feature-length and even had to manufacture its own drama in the process by inventing a vengeful head of an investigatory panel who did everything short of twirl a non-existent mustache to show his seething contempt for Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and his obsessive desire to nail the heroic pilot's balls to the wall. That never happened, even by Sully's admission. The closest thing to a villain in the Sully Sullenberger story is a flock of birds in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Stone managed to overpower El-Khazzani fairly quickly thanks to terrorist's gun jamming. This takes up about a minute of screen time. To fill the remaining 90-odd minutes, Eastwood spends the bulk of the movie on Stone's and Sadler's selfie-filled trip to Italy before meeting up with Skarlatos in Germany and then going to Amsterdam. This allows the three friends to re-enact parts of a trip they took three years ago and makes THE 15:17 TO PARIS a de facto travelogue for much of its running time. Prior to that, the film goes into their childhood in Sacramento, with Spencer and Alek being regularly bulled and struggling with authority issues, which their Christian school condescendingly blames on them being raised by single moms (Judy Greer plays Spencer's mom, Jenna Fischer plays Alek's). The Euro travelogue stuff may be like watching boring, digitally-shot home movies (I wouldn't be surprised if Eastwood farmed the whole midsection of this film out to the second unit), but the opening section is embarrassingly heavy-handed and atrociously-acted, not just by the child actors but by Greer and Fischer, both experienced professionals who look completely defeated by the terrible dialogue in Dorothy Blyskal's script, which reads like a rough draft at best. When the moms are informed by a snotty teacher that Spencer and Alek might have ADD and should be medicated, it's hard to tell what's worse: the teacher saying "Statistics show that if you don't medicate them now, they'll only self-medicate later!," Greer responding "My God is bigger than your statistics!" or Fischer angrily reacting to the principal's (Thomas Lennon) ludicrous suggestion that "perhaps Alek should live with his father" with an outraged "The absurdity of it all!" followed immediately by a shot of her dutifully packing Alek and his belongings into his dad's minivan just like the principal told her to do. The stunt casting isn't limited to the three stars: almost every school authority figure--Lennon, P.J. Byrne as an asshole teacher, Tony Hale as a snide gym instructor, and Jaleel White as a kindly history teacher ("Those boys!" he chuckles to himself as they leave class)--is played by someone known for their comedic skills. It's nice to see Urkel getting a paycheck, but the sight of him and Buster Bluth in bit parts as teachers is even more distracting than the obvious discomfort of the non-actors in front the camera. At least they have an excuse for their stilted line deliveries and deer-in-the-headlights expressions, but when people like Fischer, Greer, Hale, and Lennon come off like amateurs, things are not going as planned.

To be fair, the attack aboard the train is very well-done and this is where Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler really come alive. They lived it, they know exactly how it went down, and Eastwood wisely let them do their thing. But that's a few minutes of an otherwise misbegotten misfire. Eastwood's worked with non-professional actors before on GRAN TORINO, and the results were still occasionally awkward but the entire film didn't rest on the shoulders of Bee Vang and Ahney Her. Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler are true heroes, but they're not actors, and prior to the thwarted attack on the train, they aren't even remotely convincing as buddies even though they've known each other since childhood. This is hardly their fault. Eastwood is a laid-back director, but he's notoriously impatient even with professional actors, and it's well-known that he gets annoyed if he has to do more than two takes. This is how he always comes in under budget and ahead of schedule. I'm sure he extended some leeway to the trio of stars, but a lot of this film looks like first or second takes, and the semi-improv travel bits don't even look like they're the work of Eastwood. THE 15:17 TO PARIS keeps coming back to Spencer's feeling that he's destined for something of great purpose (which is more than you can say for THE 15:17 TO PARIS), and it's a premonition reiterated by Alek's mother. But the way it's presented here, it's just a hackneyed plot device clumsily foreshadowing their heroism. It's hard telling what Eastwood wanted to accomplish here. He could've made a documentary short subject if he found the story that interesting. But at feature-length, he's scrambling for things to pad the running time but can't even be bothered to show the three guys reuniting after years apart: Spencer and Anthony are in Italy about to head to Germany to meet with Alek, and in the very next shot, they're dancing in a club packed with wall-to-wall people, and Anthony's buying Alek a drink. Wait...they're in Germany? And they already reunited with Alek? Wouldn't that be worth showing instead of Anthony taking a pic with his selfie stick for the 37th time?

He works at the speed of Woody Allen, but Eastwood hasn't made a memorable film in ten years (be honest--when's the last time you thought of INVICTUS, HEREAFTER, or J. EDGAR?). He's been on this hagiographical course since JERSEY BOYS, and whether it's getting facts right or even something simple like establishing where characters are, he just doesn't seem concerned. Mark Moogalian, an American who long ago relocated to France and is a professor at the Sorbonne, was one of the first to confront El-Khazzani, getting shot and almost bleeding out on the train, but he's not even an afterthought here, not even worthy of the end-of-film "Where are they now?" captions that the three Americans get. Is it because he doesn't fit the profile of the "America! Fuck Yeah!" narrative of Eastwood's American Heroes trilogy? British businessman Chris Norman was also on the train, helped disarm El-Khazzani, and plays himself in a few fleeting shots, but we never even get his name.There's no way UNFORGIVEN-era Eastwood would've made a film this shruggingly indifferent. It's insensitive and incorrect to chalk this up to his mental faculties (though talking to an empty chair in support of Mitt Romney a few years ago wasn't a good look) or a declining ability to handle the workload. He's almost 88 but I don't believe that's the case. I do, however, believe his being almost 88 is a reason he simply doesn't give a shit like he used to. His films are getting sloppier and he's more concerned with getting them done than getting them right (remember that baby in AMERICAN SNIPER?). Maybe he's earned that privilege after seven decades in the business, and maybe he continues working because it keeps him going and maybe he feels he can keep time at bay for a little while longer if he stays busy. But if THE 15:17 TO PARIS is any indication, he'd need to put forth more effort to even reach "coasting." It's because Eastwood is such an iconic legend of cinema that watching him half-ass it in his emeritus years is so distressing.