Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Retro Review: SCREAM FOR HELP (1984)

(UK - 1984)

Directed by Michael Winner. Written by Tom Holland. Cast: Rachael Kelly, David Allen Brooks, Marie Masters, Rocco Sisto, Lolita Lorre, Sandra Clark, Corey Parker, Tony Sibbald, Stacey Hughes, David Baxt, Burnell Tucker, Bruce Boa. (R, 90 mins)

"I remember coming out of the screening at the old MGM building and standing there with the executives from Lorimar and nobody knew what to say to each other. Everybody was just standing there, dumbfounded." - SCREAM FOR HELP screenwriter Tom Holland

Though his place in horror history would soon be secured by writing and directing 1985's FRIGHT NIGHT and 1988's Chucky-spawning CHILD'S PLAY, Tom Holland already established his genre and cult movie bona fides by writing 1982's THE BEAST WITHIN, 1982's CLASS OF 1984, and 1983's PSYCHO II. Directed by Australian Hitchcock disciple Richard Franklin (PATRICK, ROAD GAMES), the excellent PSYCHO II surprised everyone, and the Franklin/Holland team reunited for 1984's generally well-received CLOAK AND DAGGER. Holland wanted Franklin to direct his script for SCREAM TO HELP, but it ended up in the hands of Michael Winner, the journeyman British director best known for his numerous collaborations with Charles Bronson, most notably 1974's landmark vigilante thriller DEATH WISH. Whether it's 1977's "gateway to Hell" horror film THE SENTINEL, with its use of circus freaks and a young Beverly D'Angelo introducing herself to heroine Cristina Raines by vigorously masturbating through her leotard, or 1982's DEATH WISH II, with an almost unbearably brutal gang-rape so over-the-top that some of the crew walked off the set in disgust when it was being filmed, Winner had a reputation as a button-pushing provocateur, though in the parlance of our times, one could also call him the directorial equivalent of an online troll. He was capable of making movies and behaving himself (1971's LAWMAN, 1972's THE MECHANIC, 1973's THE STONE KILLER), but the early '80s saw Winner going on a gonzo and often unbelievably nasty streak that more or less cemented his reputation through his retirement from filmmaking in the late '90s to begin a new career as the Sunday Times restaurant critic, to his death in 2013 at 77.

Just out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory (because physical media is dead), SCREAM FOR HELP was a fixture in every video store in America in the 1980s but never received much theatrical exposure aside from a few scattered test engagements in the summer of 1984. It was released by the prolific television production company Lorimar, who had a film division for a while but was just starting to branch out into distribution. After the test screenings tanked, they decided to make SCREAM FOR HELP one of the first releases under their Karl-Lorimar Home Video banner, a joint venture with Karl Home Video, the company behind the phenomenally successful Jane Fonda workout videos. After the VHS era, SCREAM FOR HELP fell into obscurity until a 2016 screening at the New Beverly in Los Angeles alerted cult movie scenesters and bad movie aficionados that a real doozy had fallen through the cracks. SCREAM FOR HELP certainly has its bad movie charms, but I don't find it nearly as bonkers as Winner's next film, 1985's  insane DEATH WISH 3, and it's certainly not as egregiously awful as other trendy bad movie staples, like TROLL 2,  MIAMI CONNECTION, or THE ROOM. Much of the laughs in SCREAM FOR HELP come from star Rachael Kelly's terrible line readings or Winner's sudden kamikaze dives into into shock value antics, whether it's an unexpected, explicit sex scene or Kelly forced to play an entire scene with her hand covered in blood from her virginal character's broken hymen. There's no need for the scene in question to go off on that tasteless tangent, but that's exactly why Winner did it.

The story, utilizing some of the clunkiest exposition imaginable, in many ways prefigures the 1987 sleeper hit THE STEPFATHER, as Christie Cromwell (Kelly),  a 17-year-old in New Rochelle, NY, is convinced that her new stepfather Paul Fox (David Allen Brooks) is plotting to kill her mother Karen (Marie Masters). Wealthy Karen owns the local car dealership, and she recently dumped Christie's nice father (we never see him) for the younger, hunky Paul, her top salesman. Christie's been so adamant in her accusations that she even missed a stretch of school after her mother forced her to see a shrink. Still, she persists, especially after a handyman is electrocuted in the basement in an "accident" that she's convinced was set-up for her mother. She follows Paul around and discovers he's having an affair with trashy Brenda Bohle (Lolita Lorre), and the two are in cahoots with Brenda's psycho brother Lacey (Rocco Sisto) to get Karen's fortune. Soon, Christie's best friend Janey (Sandra Clark) is run over by a car in an "accident" meant for Christie, and Christie and Janey's stud boyfriend Josh Dealey (Corey Parker) borrow Karen's car only to have the brakes go out. Unable to convince anyone--her mother, Josh, or his police commissioner father (Tony Sibbald)--that Paul is trying to murder both her and her mother, Christie takes drastic measures--a Polaroid of Paul and Brenda getting it on--which is enough to convince Karen to kick him out of the house. Bad idea, since that only leads to the bickering trio of Paul, Brenda, and Lacey (who's not Brenda's brother but her husband, and he's not very happy about her enjoying so much of her time with Paul) staging a DESPERATE HOURS home invasion to do away with Christie and her mom--who's already in a wheelchair after breaking her leg in yet another botched attempt on her life--once and for all...if they don't kill each other first!

SCREAM FOR HELP's tone is all over the place. It revels in sleaze and nastiness, but it's shot almost like a TV-movie with Kelly's Christie being a haughty, plucky, self-assured Nancy Drew-type. She constantly addresses all the males in the movie by their full name, which quickly turns into a running gag."I was right about Paul Fox!" she says to Janey and Josh, both of whom know who Paul is, thus negating the need for her to specify "Paul Fox." This quirk continues with other statements, like "I'm telling the truth, Josh Dealey!" and, of course, "Fuck you, Josh Dealey!," all emphatically delivered by young Kelly, who logged some time in the late '70s as an orphan on AS THE WORLD TURNS, which may explain her acting style. Kelly quit acting after SCREAM FOR HELP, as did one-and-done co-stars Lorre and Clark, and of the surviving main cast members (Sibbald died in 2011), only Sisto and Parker are still active. But daytime soaps did provide a long career for Masters, a vet of both ONE LIFE TO LIVE and ANOTHER WORLD, but who's best known for spending 35 years on AS THE WORLD TURNS, split over two lengthy stints from 1968-1979 and then later returning in 1986 and staying until the show's end in 2010 (Brooks starred in the 1987 cult horror film THE KINDRED and eventually ended up on THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS in the late '90s).

Michael Winner (1935-2013)
Though it wasn't what Holland had in mind, it's possible Winner was going for a overly melodramatic fusion of soap opera and sleazy slasher, so it's likely the humor is intentional and Winner is just having a laugh. The baffling, off-kilter aura extends to the strange soundtrack by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones (Winner was an apparent Zeppelin superfan, having had guitarist Jimmy Page do the music for DEATH WISH II and DEATH WISH 3), who contributes overwrought instrumental cues and a mix of programmed pop (the Jones-sung "Bad Child"), radio-ready rock (Jones teams with Page for "Crackback" and the pair are joined by Yes frontman Jon Anderson for "Silver Train"), and the schmaltzy ballad "Christie," sung by Anderson. The SCREAM FOR HELP soundtrack was released by Atlantic as Jones' debut solo album, but it ended up in cut-out bins as quickly as the movie was shipped off to video stores. The film's revival as a cult classic is a mystery to Holland, who was so perplexed by Winner's decisions and upset over how SCREAM FOR HELP turned out that he demanded to direct his FRIGHT NIGHT script himself.

Monday, September 24, 2018


(US - 2018)

Directed by Eli Roth. Written by Eric Kripke. Cast: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Kyle MacLachlan, Owen Vaccaro, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Colleen Camp, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo, Braxton Bjerkin, Vanessa Anne Williams. (PG, 105 mins)

Based on the popular 1973 YA fantasy/mystery novel by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey, THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS makes its nostalgic intent clear from the start with an old-school Universal logo. Produced by Amblin Entertainment, HOUSE has the retro look, feel, and charm of any number of Steven Spielberg productions of the 1980s, so much so that it almost feels like you've gone back to 1985 to see the latest Joe Dante, Robert Zemekis, or Richard Donner movie. But the film is directed by Eli Roth, best known for his more extreme horrors of the first two HOSTEL films and the Italian cannibal homage THE GREEN INFERNO, and who just had the remake of DEATH WISH in theaters six months ago. The notion of splatter and grindhouse superfan Roth directing a kid-friendly, PG-rated Spielberg throwback might've seemed unthinkable at one point, but he creates an effectively foreboding atmosphere in its old, dark house setting and doesn't skimp on age-appropriate scares and some comical but still disturbing imagery. It got a good reaction from the few kids at a sparsely-attended matinee. I don't often see kids movies in the theater, but judging from the fact that they kept quiet, paid attention, laughed at things that were funny, said "Ew, gross!" at things that were gross, and applauded at the end, it seems Roth's efforts connected with the target audience, though it's also nostalgic fun for children of the '80s as well.

In 1955, orphaned misfit Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is sent to the fictional Michigan town of New Zebedee to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) following his parents' tragic death in a car accident. Jonathan wears a fez and a kimono, allows Lewis all manner of freedoms (no bedtime, he can come and go as he pleases, and he can have cookies for dinner if he so chooses) and lives in a mysterious mansion referred to as "the slaughterhouse" by the kids at school. The only rule: there's a locked room from which Lewis is forbidden. The house and everything in it seem to be "alive," which Uncle Jonathan can't keep from Lewis for very long. He soon reveals that he's a "good" warlock, with a platonic, mutually chops-busting friendship with his neighbor and purple-loving fellow witch Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), who feels a kinship to young Lewis as she also lost her family in a horrific way in Europe during WWII. Lewis expresses interest in learning his uncle's warlock ways, and in an effort to bond with his one friend, lets young jock Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic of THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER) into the forbidden room where he removes a book of demonic spells from a locked cabinet. This resurrects Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan under extensive makeup that makes him look like a zombie David McCallum), a master warlock and Jonathan's former mentor who died under mysterious circumstances a year earlier, after which Jonathan moved into his house. For the subsequent year, Izard has been tormenting Jonathan from the grave with a powerful clock hidden somewhere in the walls of the house that he intended to use for a diabolical plot to align the "magical world" with the real world, and the only thing keeping that from happening was Jonathan ensuring that Izard's book remained under lock and key.

From the Norman Rockwell-esque period detail of New Zebedee to the obligatory grouchy, busybody neighbor Mrs. Hanchett (Colleen Camp, riffing on Polly Holliday's Mrs. Deagle from GREMLINS) to a roomful of extremely living dolls to its elaborately detailed production design, THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is enjoyable fun from beginning to end, with Vaccaro, Black, and Blanchett making an immensely likable trio of evil-fighting oddballs. Blanchett in particular seems to be having a good time, and it's not every day that you see a two-time Oscar winner head-butting a vomiting, demonic pumpkin that's been brought to life by the diabolical Izard. The script by Eric Kripke (creator of SUPERNATURAL, which sits right alongside GREY'S ANATOMY as the TV series most likely to make you say "Huh? What? That's still on?!" whenever someone mentions it) goes for some cheap laughs on occasion--Jonathan's garden has a scene-stealing, living topiary griffin with a problem controlling its bowels, and when Izard casts a spell on Jonathan, the image of Jack Black's head on a peeing infant's body is one of 2018's most impossible to shake, and that's in the same year as things seen in ANNIHILATION and HEREDITARY--but it's a fun addition to what will certainly become a Halloween family favorite for years to come. The book was the first of a dozen Lewis Barnavelt novels so far, the first three written by Bellairs from 1973 to 1976, then by Brad Strickland, who rebooted the long-dormant series in 1993, two years after Bellairs' death.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Retro Review: BRAIN DEAD (1990)

(US - 1990)

Directed by Adam Simon. Written by Charles Beaumont and Adam Simon. Cast: Bill Pullman, Bill Paxton, George Kennedy, Bud Cort, Patricia Charbonneau, Nicholas Pryor, Brian Brophy, David Sinaiko, Andy Wood, Kyle Gass. (R, 84 mins)

One of the most ambitious and bizarre films to roll off of Roger Corman's Concorde Pictures assembly line, BRAIN DEAD began life as a Charles Beaumont script titled PARANOIA. Best known for his contributions to THE TWILIGHT ZONE (including classic episodes like "Perchance to Dream," and "Long Live Walter Jameson"), and his work scripting earlier Corman classics like THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963) and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964), Beaumont's life was cut tragically short when he died in 1967 at just 38 after being diagnosed with both early-onset Alzheimer's as well as Pick's Disease, the latter now known as frontotemporal dementia. Symptoms began appearing as early as 1963, but by 1965, his condition worsened to the point where he was no longer able to work. His decline was rapid, and friends and colleagues recalled him having the appearance of a frail, elderly man by the time he died. A cult following formed around Beaumont's work, both on the big screen (he also scripted the 1964 George Pal production 7 FACES OF DR. LAO) and on THE TWILIGHT ZONE and numerous other TV shows of the era. Beaumont's PARANOIA script dated back to around 1961 and was dusted off and assigned to writer/director Adam Simon, a Chicago native who arrived in Hollywood and started hanging around the famed Corman lumber yard headquarters.

Charles Beaumont (1929-1967)
Beaumont's core premise remained, but Simon largely rewrote the screenplay, updating it to the then-present 1990 and retitling it BRAIN DEAD. In a way, because it was shot very much in the late '80s/early '90s Concorde style and is clearly working with a low budget, BRAIN DEAD is, aesthetically speaking, very much a typical circa 1990 Corman product. But it's also immediately obvious that something's different about BRAIN DEAD. It's headlined by Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton, both of whom already past the point in their careers where they'd still be doing Roger Corman productions, and its plot is a jawdropping exercise in surreal, alternate-reality mindfuckery that's almost completely lacking the exploitation elements that Corman typically required from his directors. BRAIN DEAD isn't an undiscovered classic, but watching it almost 30 years on, it seems remarkably ahead of its time, and with some upgraded production design and a more stylish director at the helm, it could almost pass for an 84-minute BLACK MIRROR episode.

Dr. Rex Martin (Pullman) is an eccentric neurosurgeon conducting experimental brain tissue research. He's visited by Jim Reston (Paxton), an old college buddy who now works for a top-secret and vaguely sinister corporation called Eunice. Reston needs a favor: Dr. Jack Halsey (Bud Cort, who's really terrific here), a former mathematician and numbers cruncher for Eunice, has had a complete breakdown and is currently in a mental institution, accused of killing his wife, his children, and three research assistants, murders he blames on a mysterious "Man in White."  He knows vital financial and research intel and Reston believes Martin has the ability to surgically extract it from the specific section of the brain that stores such memory. Martin agrees to help, much to the satisfaction of Eunice CEO Vance (George Kennedy), but after the procedure, he begins suffering from the same paranoid delusions as Halsey, including several run-ins with the blood-splattered Man in White (Nicholas Pryor).

At a certain point, the reality of Dr. Martin collapses altogether. He's convinced Reston is making a play for his wife Dana (Patricia Charbonneau), based on the fact that they competed for her attention back in college. He watches the Man in White gouge out the eyes of Reston and Dana after Martin walks in on them having sex, only to be thrown in a mental institution when he's accused of their murders and subsequently mistaken for Halsey by the entire staff. BRAIN DEAD continues on this path, as people thought dead are suddenly alive or start changing identities, and Martin can no longer recognize what's real or imagined. The film even finds time to reference the Daoist "Butterfly Dream" story by Zhuangzi dating back to 300 B.C., not the kind of subtext you'd typically see being explored in other Roger Corman productions from 1990, such as BLOODFIST II, WATCHERS II, and SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III.

Just out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory (because physical media is dead), BRAIN DEAD was a video store staple in the 1990s but has become relatively obscure over time. It's probably been referenced for its movie trivia value more than it's actually been seen, thanks to it being the only time that Bills Pullman and Paxton--each confused for the other by many a '90s moviegoer--appeared in a movie together (additional trivia: production designer Catherine Hardwicke would go on to direct the first TWILIGHT; and future Tenacious D member Kyle Gass can be briefly spotted as an anesthesiologist). At the end of the day, it doesn't quite hang together and its ambitions and ideas are too far beyond what a 1990 Roger Corman budget could possibly accommodate, but along with Paul Mayersberg's NIGHTFALL, this remains one of the most unusual projects to be shepherded under the Corman/Concorde banner (Simon mentions on the commentary track that Corman disliked the finished film and wanted to drastically recut it, but ultimately didn't). BRAIN DEAD is a true oddity that manages to show proper respect and homage to Charles Beaumont and old-school TWILIGHT ZONE while simultaneously being ahead of its time in ways that would anticipate BLACK MIRROR as well as certain key elements of films like JACOB'S LADDER (which hit theaters ten months later), 12 MONKEYS and INCEPTION.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: BILLIONAIRE BOYS CLUB (2018) and SIBERIA (2018)

(US/China/UK - 2018)

Have I seen this color/font combo before?
A chronicle of the early 1980s L.A. Ponzi scheme that led to lost fortunes and two murders, BILLIONAIRE BOYS CLUB had already logged significant time on the shelf long before it found itself tangled in the downfall of co-star Kevin Spacey. Shot in late 2015 and early 2016, the film was quietly released on VOD and on ten screens in the summer of 2018, with news outlets latching on to the film's pitiful $126 opening day gross as if audiences were staying away in protest because of Spacey, when in fact it had no publicity and was getting only one to two screenings a day at those ten theaters, none of which were located in major cities. It got all the exposure of a stealth test screening. Other sites expressed outrage that Spacey was still "getting work" after the scandal, again distorting the big picture and conveniently leaving out the crucial detail that the film was on the shelf for over two years, long before Spacey's (for now) career-ending sexual assault allegations made headlines. It would be nice if all of these articles provided the proper context for the movie's dismal box office take, and as far as releasing it is concerned, let's judge it on what it is rather than on a problematic actor who happens to be in it. Not even factoring whether the movie is good or bad, there's an entire cast and crew who worked on it and shouldn't have to see their efforts get locked away forever just because Kevin Spacey is a fucking creep on his own time. Let's just be glad the next film he and Ansel Elgort both happened to be in, BABY DRIVER, managed to hit theaters before Spacey took his rightful place among Hollywood's post-Weinstein pariahs.

Ah...yes, there it is. 
But even factoring out the Spacey situation, BILLIONAIRE BOYS CLUB was probably going straight to VOD anyway. It's essentially a DTV-level WOLF OF WALL STREET, with director/co-writer James Cox (making only his second feature since 2003's Val Kilmer-as-John Holmes saga WONDERLAND...yeah, I forgot that movie existed, too) taking the easy Scorsese-worship route, right down to the sub-GOODFELLAS narration by Taron Egerton (the KINGSMAN movies) as Dean Karny. Dean is a fast-talking Beverly Hills mover and shaker who gets reacquainted with prep school buddy Joe Hunt (Elgort). Dean talks junior-level investment broker Joe, a kid from Van Nuys who got into prep school on a scholarship and never really fit in, into stepping up his game and before long, Joe is engineering an investment firm called BBC (which means nothing; they just like the initials but end up calling it "Billionaire Boys Club"), which is really an elaborate Ponzi scheme that allows them all to live large (cue montage of partying and coke, accompanied by Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" and David Bowie's "Let's Dance"), but they're paper rich and cash poor. Egocentric, gay Wall Street con man Ron Levin (Spacey) is eventually brought into their circle, which marks the beginning of the end and the bottom falling out, leading to the separate murders of both Levin and a wealthy Iranian businessman (Waleed Zuaiter), on the run from his country's government and who allegedly has a safety deposit box filled with priceless diamonds the BBC wants to cover their losses. This story was already told in a more thorough 1987 NBC miniseries with Judd Nelson as Joe (Nelson plays Joe's dad here) and the sole reason for this shallow and superficial redux to exist is to let some NextGen Leo DiCaprios have some fun in a WOLF OF WALL STREET scenario. There's others in the BBC but we barely get to meet any of them (along with brief appearances by Rosanna Arquette, Bokeem Woodbine, Suki Waterhouse, and Carrie Fisher's daughter Billie Lourd), and Joe's romance with aspiring artist Sydney (Emma Roberts) is strictly by-the-numbers, serving only to try to make Joe a sensitive nice guy while he's ruining the lives of his investors but feeling really conflicted about it. Elgort and Egerton are alright, and Cary Elwes has an amusing cameo as Andy Warhol, but as much as no one wants to admit it, Spacey is the best thing about BILLIONAIRE BOYS CLUB. The film loses pretty much all of its spark once he's whacked with about 40 minutes to go, but if this does prove to be his last film (his completed Netflix biopic about Gore Vidal has been shelved, probably permanently), he goes out with an especially flamboyant take on his usual condescending asshole routine which, let's be honest, is something at which he excels. (R, 108 mins)

(US/UK/Germany/Canada - 2018)

A film whose title may also be the only place in which it played theatrically, SIBERIA stars Keanu Reeves in a ponderous thriller that feels like JOHN WICK reimagined as a European art film. The closest comparison one can make in tone and intent might be 2010's THE AMERICAN, the austere Jean-Pierre Melville-inspired mood piece that found critical acclaim but failed to win over multiplex audiences who were misleadingly sold a George Clooney action thriller. SIBERIA was written by Scott B. Smith, who also scripted A SIMPLE PLAN and THE RUINS, both based on his own novels. Smith is having a really off day with SIBERIA, with Reeves as Lucas Hill, an American diamond smuggler summoned to Russia when his business partner Pyotr (Boris Gulyarin) vanishes along with some priceless diamonds they were supposed to deliver to Russian crime boss Boris Volkov (Pasha D. Lychnikoff). Hill's search for Pyotr leads him to a remote town in eastern Siberia where he falls into an intense fling with local bartender Katya (Ana Ularu, who was memorable as Almost Milla Jovovich in 2016's otherwise completely forgettable INFERNO), despite being generally content in his marriage to Gabby (a mostly Skyped-in appearance by Molly Ringwald). Volkov grows increasingly agitated about the diamonds, which leads to one well-handled bit of excruciating cringe tension a little past the one-hour mark, but nothing really works in SIBERIA, starting with a borderline somnambulant Reeves (one of 31 credited producers), who doesn't seem to fare well these days when he isn't playing John Wick. There's no reason to care about Hill, his situation, or his midlife-crisis acting out with Katya, regardless of how vigorously Reeves and Ularu dive into their numerous sex scenes. It seems odd for any movie to rip off THE AMERICAN at all, let alone eight years down the road, and it's not even a very well-done ripoff, blandly directed by Matthew Ross (FRANK & LOLA) from a script that's so uninspired that Smith couldn't even be engaged enough to come up with a better Russian bad guy name than "Boris Volkov." (R, 105 mins)

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

In Theaters: WHITE BOY RICK (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Yann Demange. Written by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Piper Laurie, Bruce Dern, Brian Tyree Henry, Rory Cochrane, RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, Eddie Marsan, Taylour Paige, Raekwon Haynes, YG, Kyanna Simone Simpson. (R, 111 mins)

The story of teenage street hustler Ricky Wershe, Jr., aka "White Boy Rick," is known by anyone who lived in Detroit in the 1980s, but in bringing that story to the screen, WHITE BOY RICK comes up short. Part of the problem is that the film feels rushed at best and incomplete at worst as it tries to tell too much in under two hours. There's obviously pieces of the story either cut out for time or never shot at all, but the bigger issue is its insistence on shaping the events to engineer the maximum amount of sympathy for both Ricky Jr and his "broke-ass" criminal dad Richard. This is particularly egregious when it comes to the depiction of Richard, played here by Matthew McConaughey in a fine performance when judged solely on what the screenplay is asking him to do. It's not McConaughey's fault that Richard Wershe was, according to Detroit reporters and cops who worked the case, an unrepentant shitbag that the film feels the need to present as some pie-in-the-sky dreamer and single dad selling modified AK-47s out of the trunk of his car because he just wants a better life for his kids by using the profits to open his own video store, which we see exactly one time and where he never seems to be after that.

That's the kind of checklist storytelling WHITE BOY RICK devolves into in its messy second half after a reasonably compelling first hour. 17-year-old newcomer Richie Merritt brings a sort of mush-mouthed, streetwise grittiness to his portrayal of Ricky Jr, who's 14 as the film opens in 1984, unloading some modified guns and homemade silencers on a gang run by Johnny "Lil Man" Curry (Jonathan Majors), who's an underling to his older brother, high-powered Detroit crime lord Leo "Big Man" Curry (rapper YG). Dubbed "White Boy Rick," he ingratiates himself into Lil Man's all-black crew, where he manages to stick out like a sore thumb and immediately captures the attention of FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane), and Detroit vice detective Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry). They're looking to bust up Lil Man's operation, which is being shepherded by corrupt cops and has tangential ties to Mayor Coleman Young, thanks to Lil Man being engaged to Young's niece Cathy (Taylour Paige). Deciding to use a little fish to catch a bigger one, they badger Ricky Jr into working as a paid informant by threatening to nail Richard on gun charges. White Boy Rick starts with small drug buys that escalate, and finally has to start dealing when Jackson and the Feds want him to get closer. It isn't long before Lil Man realizes there's a snitch in his crew, with White Boy Rick obviously drawing the most suspicion.

So far, so good. But director Yann Demange ('71) tries to juggle too much in the second half: Richard valiantly trying to keep his family together; White Boy Rick's crackhead older sister Dawn (Bel Powley); falling in love and having a baby with Brenda (Kyanna Simone Simpson); recovering from an attempt on his life; hooking up with Cathy, etc. Broke after barely surviving a gunshot wound to the gut, White Boy Rick voluntarily gets back in the crack dealing business, bringing in tons of cash and getting cocky and stupid, still living with his dad in the city's dangerous east-side with a Mercedes parked outside sporting a vanity plate that reads "SNOW MAN." WHITE BOY RICK makes a point of mentioning how the Feds' interest in him was a way of exposing a ring of police and municipal corruption in the city (there's a few passing mentions of famed Detroit homicide inspector Gil Hill, best known to moviegoers as Eddie Murphy's ass-chewing boss in BEVERLY HILLS COP, but he never figures into the narrative beyond that), but this is all glossed over, more or less an afterthought. Rushing through the story leaves several characters abandoned, such as Art Derrick (Eddie Marsan), a flashy Motor City drug kingpin, and Richard's crotchety parents (Bruce Dern and Detroit native Piper Laurie), who disapprove of all the crime shenanigans but passively enable whatever their son and grandson are up to. The period detail is hit or miss and not much attention is paid to pop culture timelines (Dawn is watching the legendary Luke and Laura wedding on GENERAL HOSPITAL in a scene set in 1986, five years after the episode aired), though some more rundown areas of Cleveland do a suitable job of playing mid '80s Detroit.

The things that work in WHITE BOY RICK do so largely because the actors are up to the task (and, for DAZED AND CONFUSED superfans, a 25th anniversary reunion of McConaughey and Cochrane). There isn't a weak performance to be found here, with Powley being a real standout, but the film seems hellbent on bending over backwards to make the Wershes as likable as possible. White Boy Rick got back into dealing on his own volition before being busted and was ultimately sentenced to life in prison without parole, even after being promised by the FBI that his sentence would be reduced if he cooperated. He did, and got the life sentence anyway. There's an injustice there, especially considering the cops and the other criminals (including Lil Man) nabbed in the resulting investigation have been out of prison for years (the real Lil Man actually attended the film's Detroit-area premiere). If the filmmakers wanted to make a statement about mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders, that's fine, but by this point, WHITE BOY RICK is just bum-rushing through plot points. None of this ever resonates because it never bothers to really explore how White Boy Rick's case tied to the police corruption scandal, other than a few comments about Cathy being the Mayor's niece. We never even see the corrupt cops in the context of the story. But the worst part of WHITE BOY RICK's fast and loose historical contortions comes at the end, when onscreen text says White Boy Rick was ultimately paroled in 2017. Yeah, for the drug dealing charges. There's even a recording played of the real Ricky Wershe Jr talking about how great it is to finally be released after all these years. But the film doesn't mention that he was paroled and immediately transferred to a Florida prison for his involvement in a stolen car ring while behind bars, instead giving WHITE BOY RICK the Hollywood happy ending that Detroit's Ricky Wershe, Jr didn't get. He's scheduled to be released from his current prison stay in 2021, but you'd never know that by watching the consistently misleading, cherry-picked WHITE BOY RICK.

The real Ricky Wershe, Jr upon entering prison in 1988. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: FILMWORKER (2018), GHOST STORIES (2018), and DISTORTED (2018)

(US - 2018)

Since his death in 1999, Stanley Kubrick's legend has only grown, especially with some once-verboten looks into his filmmaking methodology, which was largely shrouded in secrecy during his lifetime. Such projects include the documentary STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES, by his producer and brother-in-law Jan Harlan, the archival making-of doc by Kubrick's daughter Vivian that's on the SHINING Blu-ray, and Matthew Modine's essential Full Metal Jacket Diary, a coffee table book compiling the actor's bluntly candid journal entries and behind-the-scenes photos he took from the audition process through the completion of 1987's FULL METAL JACKET. Kubrick's dual nature--a genius artist with a demonstrable capacity for warmth and humor and the mercurial, 100-plus-take perfectionist who thought nothing of mercilessly haranguing actors and colleagues to the point of tears and even nervous breakdowns in the pursuit of his art--is on display in all of these. But Tony Zierra's documentary FILMWORKER gets inside the head of a man who walked away from his acting career just as it was taking off to essentially serve at Kubrick's beck-and-call to this day, even though the director has been gone for nearly 20 years. Born in 1947, Leon Vitali was a jobbing young British actor in the late '60s and early '70s, landing gigs on stage, TV, and in a few movies, never really breaking out but never out of work. His big break came when he landed the pivotal supporting role of Lord Bullington in Kubrick's 1975 film BARRY LYNDON and immediately bonded with the director, who wrote additional scenes for Vitali, expanding his role to keep him on the production. Vitali was fascinated by Kubrick's attention to detail and intensive, obsessive management of every aspect of the gargantuan production and expressed an interest in working behind the scenes. After finishing BARRY LYNDON, Vitali had the title role in the 1977 Swedish/Irish co-production VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN and asked director Calvin Floyd if he could stick around after filming wrapped and observe him putting the movie together in the editing room. He reconnected with Kubrick, who gave him an assignment to read Stephen King's The Shining and before long, Vitali was pressed into service as the director's chief assistant and trusted confidante, abandoning his promising acting career and heading to America to both oversee auditions for the crucial role of Danny Torrance in THE SHINING as well as taking extensive photographs of lodges and hotel interiors across America in order to help Kubrick design the perfect Overlook Hotel interior to be constructed on sets at Elstree Studios in London.

BARRY LYNDON stars Ryan O'Neal and
Leon Vitali, reunited over 40 years later.
With his dark glasses, long hair, and hoarse voice ravaged by decades of chain smoking, the present-day Vitali looks like the kind of aging rocker that Bill Nighy played in STILL CRAZY. It was Vitali who discovered Danny Lloyd for THE SHINING and functioned as his guardian and protector through the shoot. It was Vitali who worked closely with R. Lee Ermey on FULL METAL JACKET and had to break the news to an already-cast Tim Colceri that Kubrick decided to replace him with Ermey in the key role of the merciless drill instructor. Colceri, who was given a consolation prize of playing a crazed door gunner ("Get some!") is interviewed, and still seems haunted by losing the role, and though he was kept in the movie, he remains resentful that Kubrick demoted him via a typewritten letter (Colceri still has the letter) and tasked Vitali with delivering it to him. Numerous talking heads appear with memories of Kubrick and the heavy workload dumped on Vitali: Modine, Colceri, the late Ermey, a grown-up Lloyd, BARRY LYNDON star Ryan O'Neal (Zierra arranges an affectionate reunion for Vitali and O'Neal), EYES WIDE SHUT's Marie Richardson, past Warner Bros. execs, film historian Nick Redman, and Vitali's adult children. In addition to his duties on Kubrick's films, Vitali was also responsible for cataloging negatives, color timing, lab and restoration work, cutting trailers for countries all over the world, overseeing and approving DVD and Blu-ray transfers according to Kubrick's strict specifications, and even, as shown by one handwritten note ("Leon, billiard room!"), tidying up rooms and offices at Kubrick's estate.

Vitali at the far left, with Joe Turkel, Stanley Kubrick,
and Jack Nicholson on the set of THE SHINING

Vitali with Kubrick on the 
A look back at Vitali's childhood reveals his stern, domineering father died when he was eight years old, and it's more or less inferred by three of his siblings that his need give over everything to Kubrick was a way of filling a paternal void that's existed since Vitali was a child (one Modine diary entry in his book reads "I feel sorry for Leon, but he's chosen this life," and in FILMWORKER, he calls Vitali's servile sacrifice "a crucifixion of himself for Kubrick"). Over old home movie footage of Vitali's young children playing around stacks of film cans in a cluttered office while Vitali slaves away at a desk, his now-grown son describes his dad's 24/7 work schedule for Kubrick as "Kafka-esque," recalling a childhood memory of Vitali working late one Christmas Eve, long after everyone else left the office. Kubrick gave him some gifts and wished him a Merry Christmas, but then, "Sure enough, around 1:00 in the afternoon on Christmas Day, the phone started ringing. It was Stanley." When Kubrick died just after finishing EYES WIDE SHUT, Vitali took it upon himself to act as the keeper of all things Kubrick, nearly wrecking his health with countless sleepless nights at the Warner offices in L.A. supervising a frame by frame restoration of all of the director's films, approaching it with his mentor's same obsessive quest for perfection, so much so that he proceeded to alienate the execs overseeing the project (this is the only point in the film where an upset Vitali cuts off Zierra and says "I don't want to talk about this anymore"). Vitali recognizes the dysfunction that existed in his relationship with Kubrick (he says his tirades were similar to those by chef Gordon Ramsey), but accepts it as his calling, has no regrets, and misses him dearly. FILMWORKER is a fascinating glimpse into one of the most enigmatic and unsung figures in the Kubrick universe, a man whose selfless devotion to the filmmaker and preserving the integrity of the presentation of his work almost seems to take precedence over every other aspect of his own life. (Unrated, 94 mins)

(UK - 2018)

An earnest British horror film that plays like an old-school Amicus portmanteau for the BLACK MIRROR crowd, GHOST STORIES was written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and star Andy Nyman, based on their popular play that debuted in 2010. The change in medium doesn't always work in the film adaptation's favor in terms of telegraphing its plot turns on its way to a reveal that isn't as clever or as original as it thinks it is, but there's some nicely atmospheric chills along the way. Nyman stars as professional skeptic and paranormal debunker Prof. Philip Goodman, the host of a reality TV show called PSYCHIC CHEATS. He's contacted by Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), another celebrity debunker who went off the grid in the late '70s. An embittered Cameron is aged and sickly, and confesses that he feels like an arrogant fraud and excoriates Goodman likewise. Cameron now believes the supernatural is real, and with one directive ("Tell me I'm wrong...I need to know") hands Goodman a file with three cases that he's been unable to debunk. "Case 1" is Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a widower who encountered something evil as a nightwatchman at an abandoned asylum. "Case 2" is Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther of Netflix's THE END OF THE F***ING WORLD and the great "Shut Up and Dance" episode of BLACK MIRROR), a teenager with cold, impossible-to-please parents who had an up-close-and-personal encounter with a goat-like creature that believes is the Devil when he hit it with his dad's car on a dark and lonely road. "Case 3" is Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), a self-absorbed, asshole businessman who believes he was being targeted by a poltergeist while his wife was in the hospital about to deliver a baby that may or may not be human.

Dyson and Nyman utilize the anthology element as each case is shown as a flashback as they tell Goodman their tales, but it's Goodman's wraparound story that ultimately becomes the central focus. There's references throughout to his own miserable upbringing with a psychologically abusive, devoutly religious father and a mother who remained quiet and looked the other way. He was also bulled by other kids for being Jewish, and as Cameron suggests, his present career as a sarcastic debunker is his way of getting back at the world. Where GHOST STORIES--both the ghosts in the cases and the ghosts of Goodman's past--eventually goes won't really be surprising by the end, but it's an enjoyable ride for the most part. The filmmakers stage numerous shots where it looks like an ominous figure might be lurking in the background, the dysfunction in young Simon's house is suffocatingly uncomfortable (he has multiple locks on his bedroom door to keep his parents out, telling Goodman "They don't like me"), and Matthews wandering the long, underground corridors of of the abandoned asylum and encountering a roomful of mannequins is an unnerving enough image that it'll take you a few moments to question exactly why mannequins are being stored in an asylum. The inconsistencies (if Cameron is off-the-grid, how are people still sending him cases?) are such that it becomes clear that there's at least one unreliable narrator among these characters, the directors can't resist going for one hackneyed, INSIDIOUS-style jump scare (no doubt a necessary concession in the transition from stage to screen) and the payoff isn't quite worthy of the elaborate buildup (it's ripped off from a certain acclaimed TV drama from the 1980s), but GHOST STORIES has its heart in the right place. Not essential viewing, but worth a stream for sure. (Unrated, 98 mins)

(Canada/US - 2018)

Right on the heels of his HUMANITY BUREAU triumph, Canadian director Rob King is back with the equally dismal techno-paranoia thriller DISTORTED. Lauren (Christina Ricci) and Russell (Brendan Fletcher of Uwe Boll's RAMPAGE trilogy) are a financially well-off but emotionally troubled couple who move into The Pinnacle, a high-tech, state-of-the-art "smart" building with around-the-clock security and surveillance. Prior to the move, Lauren is plagued by disturbing dreams and visions of a figure in their apartment, and despite The Pinnacle's sense of security, the nightmares increase in frequency and intensity. Lauren starts seeing subliminal words and images flash across their TV, is constantly being stared at by neighbors scratching the left side of their neck and humming "Beautiful Dreamer," and even watches one Pinnacle resident take a dive off the top of the building. After a cursory browse through a chat room and a conversation with a neighbor (Vicellous Shannon) whose father just so happens to be a pioneer in the world of subliminal advertising, Lauren becomes convinced that the building's owners are conducting secret experiments involving binaural sound waves and message transmissions on a higher-frequency level than the conscious brain--or Rob King--can process. She learns a lot of this from underground journalist and dark web hacker Vernon Sarsfield (John Cusack), who informs her of covert government projects to brainwash the public via subliminal transmissions in "smart" buildings.

One of the dumbest thrillers of 2018, DISTORTED could've been fun in a batshit way, but its story is so muddled and its twist ending so confusing that nothing in it makes much sense. Ricci freaks out a lot, but never really sells you on what Lauren is going through, and a past trauma from which the couple still hasn't recovered is so obviously and repetitively telegraphed from the get-go that when it's finally revealed, it's not even a surprise. The exterior shots of The Pinnacle are laughable--the building is a completely computer-generated visual effect, looking like something out of a shitty Pixar knockoff, and a typically sweaty, disheveled-looking Cusack turns up midway through for a few scenes and disappears from the movie during the climax. He's wearing his usual black ball cap (as seen in RECLAIM and DRIVE HARD) with an added hoodie, a cleverly-deployed accoutrement that frequently obscures Cusack's face and allows him to further embrace Cusackalypse Now by fully committing to the groundbreaking methods pioneered by Dr. Bruce Willis and Prof. Steven Seagal, whose collaborative tutorial "Fake Shemping in the Age of Redbox" takes what was once an unfortunate necessity in the event of an actor's unexpected death and has co-opted it to vigorously prepare any once-relevant and now-visibly inconvenienced actor in the fine art of just sticking around long enough for the close-ups and a quick raid of the craft services table before letting a stand-in handle the rest. (R, 86 mins)

Saturday, September 15, 2018

In Theaters/On VOD: MANDY (2018)

(US/UK/Belgium - 2018)

Directed by Panos Cosmatos. Written by Panos Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Bill Duke, Richard Brake, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouere, Lane Pillet, Clement Baronnet, Alexis Julemont, Stephan Fraser. (Unrated, 121 mins)

It's been six years since Panos Cosmatos' debut feature, the instant cult classic BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, a surreal mindfuck of a waking nightmare that felt like Stanley Kubrick, Dario Argento, David Cronenberg, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Andrei Tarkovsky secretly collaborated on a sci-fi film that aired once at 3:30 am on Civic TV in an alternate universe 1983 and no one who watched it lived to tell about it. My reaction to BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW was intense. It haunted me for days, even weeks after watching it. I kept going back to it, drawn to it. It still has this weird hold on me, like it was made for me. As bizarre as it sounds, I had an almost dizzying sense of deja vu the first time watching it--not in the sense that it reminded me of other movies, but rather, that I dreamt some of its striking imagery before. Cosmatos, the son of the late journeyman director George P. Cosmatos (THE CASSANDRA CROSSING, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, COBRA, TOMBSTONE), said that his inspiration for BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW came from browsing the horror sections of video stores as a kid and imagining how the movies--which his dad wouldn't let him watch at that point--would look based simply on the cover box art. BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW was met with significant acclaim, but even those who weren't captivated by it still generally conceded that Cosmatos was a promising filmmaker worth watching.

And then, his cult fan base waited. And waited. Six long years later (eight if you consider that BLACK RAINBOW was shot in 2010 but unreleased until 2012), Cosmatos has finally returned with the eagerly-anticipated MANDY. The hype has been building since it was screened at Sundance to almost unanimous accolades in January 2018. It also gives Cosmatos a chance to work with a name actor, in this case the one and only Nicolas Cage, in one of his periodic excursions into real filmmaking where he actually gives a shit and shows he's still got an A-game if the situation is warranted. If there's any concern that Cage's presence is making Cosmatos go mainstream, then let's dispel it here and now. If anything, MANDY--the title doesn't even appear onscreen until 75 minutes in--is somehow even more impenetrable than BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, even once it settles into a somewhat conventional, revenge saga groove in its second half. MANDY has notions of duality running throughout, from the way two of its main characters strongly resemble one another to the film being more or less split into two distinct halves that last roughly an hour each. Though he appears throughout, Cage is largely relegated to the sideline through much of MANDY's more defiantly audacious first hour. Like BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, it's set in 1983, but in the "Shadow Mountains" of a surrealistic, otherworldly, drenched-in-red Pacific Northwest, opening to the haunting strains of King Crimson's "Starless" as lumberjack Red Miller (Cage) lives a quiet life with his bookish, heavy-metal loving artist girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough). Mandy catches the eye of Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), a failed, one-and-done 1970s folk rocker-turned-hippie cult leader, who commands his Children of the New Dawn disciples to bring her to him. This involves conjuring the Black Skulls, a gang of LSD-addled demon bikers who appear in Red's house in a sequence that plays out as an episode of sleep paralysis and take Mandy away. As Jeremiah and his acolytes attempt to brainwash Mandy, things take a horrific turn. Red is left for dead and, after picking up some weapons from his buddy Caruthers (always a treat to see the great Bill Duke), goes on a nonstop, visceral, insanely bloody rampage of vengeance against the Black Skulls and Sand's cult. And yes...this leads to a chainsaw fight that takes its rightful place alongside standard-bearers like DARK OF THE SUN and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2.

MANDY may eventually have the plot of a standard revenge saga, but it never plays like one, instead opting for THE EXTERMINATOR rebooted in some distant, drug-soaked netherworld. Red and Mandy are real people in a Pacific Northwest as otherworldly stylized as the settings of the fantasy and horror paperbacks that Mandy reads so voraciously. Where BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW was born of a young Panos Cosmatos' imagination of what horror movies he couldn't see might look like, MANDY feels like it comes from deep inside the artwork of '70s and '80s album covers. Indeed, imagery and sounds (this gets a lot from SICARIO and ARRIVAL composer Johann Johannsson, who died last February; this was his final work) accompany events that could almost be the story behind a shelved concept album conceived in 1983 by a secret supergroup comprised of members of Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Rush, Pentagram, Venom, and the 1970s incarnation of King Crimson. The world of MANDY looks like it was designed by Roger Dean and Storm Thorgerson while in the throes of demonic possession. If BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW was a waking nightmare, MANDY is tripping balls in Hell. It's Cage's best work in years, even with an extremely Cage-esque bathroom freakout in tighty-whiteys that's certain to make his YouTube highlight reel. This is a bold, daring film that's like nothing else you're going to see in 2018, but having said that, its hold on me wasn't quite as strong as BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW's Its pace is much more languid and even glacial in the first hour, and at 121 minutes, it runs a little long and has a few tedious stretches. It's also worth mentioning that there are moments in this that seem a little reminiscent of what Rob Zombie was trying to do with his ambitious 2013 misfire THE LORDS OF SALEM. Still, all things considered, in a world where "cult classic" is now synonymous with Tommy Wiseau or SHARKNADO, Panos Cosmatos is the real deal, and he's making midnight movies that will stand the test of time. Given its limited multiplex appeal, MANDY is premiering on VOD with only a small theatrical rollout. I watched it on VOD, but I'm planning on making a trip out of town to see it in a theater in the coming days. It's probably the best way to experience the immersive intent of Cosmatos' vision.

Friday, September 14, 2018

In Theaters: THE PREDATOR (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Shane Black. Written by Fred Dekker and Shane Black. Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, Yvonne Strahovski, Brian Prince, Mike Dopud, Lochlyn Munro, Garry Chalk, Duncan Fraser, Francoise Yip. (R, 107 mins)

1987's classic PREDATOR hasn't had a lot of luck with sequels. 1990's PREDATOR 2 has its fans but it's always felt like a script for a post-LETHAL WEAPON/DIE HARD Joel Silver project that had the Predator shoehorned into it, and 2010's PREDATORS (headlined by action icons Adrien Brody and Topher Grace) was instantly and justly forgotten (and if we're counting offshoots, there's 2004's terrible ALIEN VS. PREDATOR and 2007's improved ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM, which isn't a great movie but I'm reasonably certain I'm the only person who didn't hate it). When it was announced that veteran screenwriter (LETHAL WEAPON, THE LAST BOY SCOUT, and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT) and smartass auteur (KISS KISS, BANG BANG and THE NICE GUYS) Shane Black had a PREDATOR project in the works, hopes were high for what came to be rather unimaginatively titled THE PREDATOR. Principal photography wrapped well over a year ago, with a planned March 2018 release, but 20th Century Fox delayed it due to poor test screenings. Black was ordered to scrap the entire third act, with reshoots taking place in March, followed by another delay with still more reshoots being done in July, just two months before the new release date. The reshoots were extensive enough that a character played by Edward James Olmos ended up being eliminated completely, but even going in without that knowledge, you'll be able to spot the exact moment that THE PREDATOR stops being a Shane Black film and starts being a rushed, compromised franchise product with the requisite bush-league CGI (the CGI in the new finale is really bad and doesn't even look finished, because it probably isn't). At least when his buddy Robert Downey Jr got him his IRON MAN 3 comeback gig, Black was still able to make the film he wanted to make.

It's a shame because for about 2/3 of the way, THE PREDATOR is a blast, and a distinctly "Shane Black" throwback to the kinds of '80s and '90s action movies we don't see much of anymore. Co-written with Black's old buddy Fred Dekker (they wrote 1987's Dekker-directed cult classic THE MONSTER SQUAD), it's pretty much a feature-length trigger warning: it's profane and vulgar, filled with quippy banter, tasteless jokes with sexist and/or racially insensitive punchlines ("What's the difference between a joke and five black guys? Your mother can't take a joke"), politically incorrect insults ("Hey, Twitchy," one guy says to another with Tourette's), an autistic kid dropping F-bombs, gratuitous gore, graphic decapitations and disembowelings, and a callous, wanton disregard for human life. It's got everything that was great about big action movies of the era of the original PREDATOR (itself a troubled shoot that really didn't come together until very late in production), and of course, it's neutered by the reliance on focus groups and an unnecessary concern with setting up a new franchise. One can't really judge Black's original third act until we see it, presumably on the Blu-ray bonus features, but there's no denying that what's here doesn't really work either. But the first 2/3 is ridiculously enjoyable, filled with typically quotable Black dialogue, some inspired callbacks to earlier PREDATOR films ("Lawrence Gordon Middle School," Jake Busey as the son of his dad Gary's doomed PREDATOR 2 character, someone spotting a bunch of motorcycles and yelling "Get to the choppers!"), and some hilarious sight gags, sometimes buried in the background, sometimes front and center, including one involving a severed arm that had the entire audience rolling.

Military sniper Quinn McKenna (LOGAN's Boyd Holbrook) is on a covert mission to take out members of a Mexican drug cartel when the operation is botched by the appearance of spacecraft that crash lands in the jungle. A camouflaged Predator slaughters the rest of his team, but McKenna, realizing he's made contact with an alien life form, manages to get away with its protective helmet and arm gear and mails it to a PO box back home. The box ends up on the doorstep of McKenna's estranged wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski), where their autistic, genius son Rory (ROOM's Jacob Tremblay) figures out how it operates, inadvertently sending a signal revealing its location to another, larger Predator (this one featuring a modified design that looks more like a Rastafarian Rawhead Rex), with two dreadlocked Predator tracking dogs (an interesting addition) in pursuit. Meanwhile, McKenna is being railroaded by his military superiors and a black-ops government outfit run by the snarling Traeger (a gum-and-scenery-chewing Sterling K. Brown of THIS IS US) and dumped on a military prison transport to keep quiet. Traeger's goons grab biologist Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) and take her to a secret installation where the crash-landing Predator is being kept under sedation. Of course, it escapes, and, with Traeger and dueling Predators in pursuit of young Rory, she eventually teams up with McKenna and "The Loonies," a Dirty Half-Dozen group of military malcontents who've taken over the prison transport: Nebraska Williams (MOONLIGHT's Trevante Rhodes), who shot his commanding officer because "he was an asshole;" joke-cracking troublemaker Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key); chatty Jesus freak Nettles (Augusta Aguilera); British card trickster Lynch (Alfie Allen); and Baxley (Thomas Jane), whose Tourette's leads to his blurting things like "F-f-f-fuck me in the face with an a-a-a-a-aardvark!" and "Eat your pussy!" the moment he makes eye contact with Bracket.

With the kind of one-liners that recall Bruce Willis barking "She's so fat, I had to roll her in flour and look for the wet spot" in THE LAST BOY SCOUT and its over-the-top splatter, THE PREDATOR wears its hard-R status with beaming pride, and those looking for something that's as much a PREDATOR sequel as it is a Shane Black joint won't be disappointed...for a while, at least. However, it's hard to imagine anyone being really satisfied with either of the film's endings, whether it's a shoddy-looking greenscreen battle atop a spaceship or an awkward, tension-deflating coda (complete with Holbrook's hair being a completely different color than it was in the rest of the movie) that seems more suited for a post-credits stinger that should've been cut. THE PREDATOR does a good job of juggling its many characters until the final act, when the film loses Black's style and becomes another rote, quick-cut blur of action and explosions that's completely at odds with the late '80s/early '90s aesthetic that dominated the preceding 75 or so minutes. Whether it's sloppy editing or a disgruntled Black reshaping the ending of the film with a gun pointed at his head, the film loses the thread, loses track of some its characters, and starts collapsing in the home stretch. Despite this, THE PREDATOR is 2/3 of a really fun movie with affectionate nods to PREDATOR and PREDATOR 2 (love that Alan Silvestri cue), and the bygone days of 30 years ago that feel akin to something an in-his-prime Joe Dante would've made if he was a misanthropic, sarcastic wiseass. In the end, the best comparison to make with this film is that it's the EXORCIST III of the PREDATOR franchise, a film where studio-mandated, third-act reshoots done by the director under duress are completely at odds with the tone and style of the rest of the movie, yet enough of its creator's voice remains in the first 2/3 that it's still worthwhile. Now that we've seen William Peter Blatty's intended ending of EXORCIST III, it's easy to see why the studio intervened. The end result is not a washout by any means, but time will tell if we ever get to see Black's initial cut of THE PREDATOR. As it is now and as a whole, it's a mild recommendation, but with some caveats.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Retro Review: STRAIGHT TO HELL (1987)

(US/UK - 1987)

Directed by Alex Cox. Written by Dick Rude and Alex Cox. Cast: Sy Richardson, Joe Strummer, Dick Rude, Courtney Love, The Pogues, Elvis Costello, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, Edward Tudor-Pole, Jim Jarmusch, Juan Torres, Biff Yeager, Zander Schloss, Sara Sugarman, Miguel Sandoval, Jennifer Balgobin, Xander Berkeley, Kathy Burke, Michele Winstanley, Sue Kiel, Ed Pansullo, Graham Fletcher-Cook, Luis Contreras, Del Zamora, Fox Harris, Cait O'Riordan, Martin Turner, Jem Finer. (R, 91 mins)

Born in 1954, Alex Cox established himself as a major new talent with 1984's cult hit REPO MAN and 1986's critically-acclaimed SID AND NANCY, and as a result, the British wunderkind immediately found himself being courted by the major studios for a variety of commercial, big-budget projects. He turned down offers to direct THREE AMIGOS (eventually made by John Landis), ROBOCOP (Paul Verhoeven), and Arnold Schwarzenegger's Stephen King adaptation THE RUNNING MAN (Paul Michael Glaser), and instead chose to make the low-budget, spaghetti western-inspired STRAIGHT TO HELL for the prestige indie Island Pictures. A critical and commercial bomb in the summer of 1987, STRAIGHT TO HELL only made it into a handful of theaters on the same day as DRAGNET and SPACEBALLS, and topped out with a final box office tally of $210,000. The script was written over the course of three days by Cox and co-star Dick Rude, and only came about because the far-left Cox had organized a benefit concert in Nicaragua to be headlined by Elvis Costello, The Clash (shortly before they disbanded), and The Pogues with the intention of filming a documentary before the political tumult in the country led to everyone involved concluding that it wasn't a good idea. Still wishing to work with the musicians in some capacity, Cox came up with STRAIGHT TO HELL, which ultimately plays less like a real film and more like a self-indulgent home movie with Cox and a bunch of cult rocker buddies dicking off in Almeria, Spain.

A textbook example of a film where it's obvious everyone had a blast during filming but the end result leaves the audience feeling like they're deliberately being excluded from the joke, STRAIGHT TO HELL opens with a quartet of incompetent bank robbers barely getting away with a suitcase full of cash in Spain: irate leader Norwood (Sy Richardson), cynical Simms (Clash frontman Joe Strummer), hyper Willy (Rude), and Norwood's abrasive, screeching girlfriend Velma (22-year-old Courtney Love, during her brief early acting career prior to fronting Hole and meeting Kurt Cobain). Their car dies after Simms stupidly fills the gas tank with diesel, stranding them in a middle of nowhere desert. They bury the money and happen upon a small town straight out of an old western, run by the large, coffee-addicted McMahon family, led by Frank (Biff Yeager), with most of the others, excluding Preacher McMahon (Xander Berkeley) and Stupid McMahon (Martin Turner, who's also credited as "sex and cruelty consultant," which is maybe the film's only funny joke), played by members of The Pogues. After intervening in a conflict between two McMahons and deranged rival Rusty Zimmerman (Edward Tudor-Pole) that sees Norwood, Simms, and Willy blowing away Rusty, the outsiders earn the trust of Frank McMahon. All that goes straight to hell when Frank's doddering old father (Jem Finer) is killed by his niece (Kathy Burke), a murder that's pinned on Whitey (Graham Fletcher-Cook), a flunky sent to search for Norwood and his cohorts by their employer, feared crime boss Amos Dade (Jim Jarmusch). This sets in motion a chain of double crosses and unholy alliances, complicated by the arrival of obscenely wealthy American gas station/convenience store magnate I.G. Farben (Dennis Hopper) and his wife Sonya (Grace Jones), who supply Norwood, Simms, and Willy with a Gatling gun and other weapons to start a war with the McMahons, the clan standing in Farben's way of redeveloping the desert town into an expensive housing development.

Cox having Hopper's Farben supply the fugitive bank robbers with weapons draws obvious parallels to the soon-to-explode Iran-Contra scandal, which the director would explore with more muddled results in 1987's WALKER, released six months after STRAIGHT TO HELL. An intentionally anachronistic, revisionist "biography" of William Walker (played in the film by Ed Harris), an American mercenary who declared himself president of Nicaragua in 1856 (Marlon Brando played Walker in Gillo Pontecorvo's BURN! in 1969), WALKER was Cox's most ambitious film to date, a bonkers left-wing polemic with helicopters and cars in 1856 Nicaragua and featuring a good chunk of STRAIGHT TO HELL's cast along with Marlee Matlin in her first role after winning an Oscar for CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD. Barely released at the height of the holiday awards season as if it had a chance of winning anything, WALKER was somehow bankrolled by Universal, who had no idea what to do with it, and it grossed only slightly more than STRAIGHT TO HELL, effectively ending Cox's career in Hollywood. Like any terrible bomb that loses a lot of money, it's developed a cult following over the years, most notably from the Criterion Collection, who have taken it upon themselves to serve as WALKER's chief apologists.

Despite Criterion's insistence that it's a misunderstood masterpiece of gonzo cinema, WALKER is all kinds of terrible, as is STRAIGHT TO HELL, which is in some ways a more freewheeling, improvisatory test run for WALKER, both in terms of Hopper's weapons-selling Farben as well as the borderline slapstick antics of the three stars. The underrated Richardson, who provided REPO MAN with some of its funniest moments, displays some comedic chops both physically and in his facial expressions and tough guy act, but almost nothing in STRAIGHT TO HELL is even remotely amusing. It's laborious, slowly-paced, filled with obnoxious characters and a diverse cast that's just goofing off while Cox gets enough footage to piece a movie together. Why do the rough-and-tumble McMahons have a perpetually befuddled, properly-attired butler named Hives, and why is he played by Elvis Costello? Costello seems to be patterning his performance on both Rowan Atkinson and Donald Sutherland's "clumsy waiter" in THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, but like everything else, there's no rhyme or reason to it. Cox and Rude made this up as they went along and got Costello, Strummer, the Pogues, and pals like Richardson, Del Zamora, Fox Harris, and Miguel Sandoval, and called in some favors from Hopper (then in the midst of a major career resurgence following BLUE VELVET and HOOSIERS) and Jarmusch and just hoped the eclectic ensemble could somehow make something happen. It doesn't really work as a spaghetti western satire or spoof because Cox has nothing to say about the genre and only creates some sense of purpose once he introduces the heavy-handed Iran-Contra parallels. Even then, with the potential of some topical political commentary along the lines of the late '60s "Zapata" westerns, Cox can't get his shit together because he's too busy buying his own hype. It's an aimless mess where no one's in charge and there's no endgame. The Nicaragua concert got cancelled but everyone still wanted to hang out. That's the only reason STRAIGHT TO HELL exists.

Cox revisited STRAIGHT TO HELL in 2010, adding a five minutes of cut scenes and sprucing other shots up with visual effects and CGI splatter (including the obligatory "blood hitting the camera lens" schtick) and it got a brief release on the arthouse circuit as STRAIGHT TO HELL RETURNS. That's the version on Kino's new Blu-ray, now rechristened STRAIGHT TO HELL: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT. In any incarnation, it represents the beginning of the end for Cox, who has almost completely regressed like a directorial Benjamin Button in the decades since, helming a series of increasingly amateurish projects with decreasing budgets and very little exposure. His last behind-the-scenes association with anything resembling a real movie was when he scored a co-writing credit on Terry Gilliam's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. He's also acted in several films, most notably Alex de la Iglesia's PERDITA DURANGO (aka DANCE WITH THE DEVIL). Cox has long believed that WALKER got him blackballed in Hollywood, but as his standing as a filmmaker has cratered in the last 30 years, he has become a reputable spaghetti western historian, appearing on several DVD commentaries and writing a book about the subject titled 10,000 Ways to Die. He's also written other non-fiction books on a variety of topics--including a memoir, a book about JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald, and an analysis of the cult TV series THE PRISONER--and he's directed TV documentaries on Akira Kurosawa and the 1970s EMMANUELLE films. As a narrative filmmaker, Cox's place in movie history is secure thanks to REPO MAN and SID AND NANCY, but the combined, quick-succession tanking of STRAIGHT TO HELL and WALKER proved too toxic to overcome, with Cox imploding hard and hitting his nadir with 2011's ill-advised, desperate, and all-greenscreen semi-sequel REPO CHICK. Cox's most recent film is a crowd-funded time travel western with unknown actors called TOMBSTONE RASHOMON, which was screened as a work in progress at some film festivals in 2017 but has yet to be officially released. You'll likely never see it, and that's probably for the best.