Friday, November 30, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018) and COLD SKIN (2018)

(UK/Ireland - 2018)

Buried at the end of summer and released with little publicity, the gothic ghost story THE LITTLE STRANGER was a huge flop, opening in 23rd place and grossing $713,000 on just under 500 screens. Based on the 2009 novel by Sarah Waters and adapted by Lucinda Coxon (THE DANISH GIRL), the film was a momentum-killer for Oscar-nominated ROOM director Lenny Abrahamson, and while it succeeds in atmosphere with impeccable production design and a memorably foreboding haunted house, it's ultimately a chiller too distant and stand-offish for its own good. The house in question is Hundreds Hall, the home of the once-prominent Ayres family. But it's the late 1940s and the mansion and the family have seen better days. Scion Roderick (Will Poulter) is severely burn-scarred, disabled, and shell-shocked following his WWII heroics in the RAF, his mother Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) still mourns the childhood death of her first-born daughter Susan, nicknamed "Suki," and other daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) is a spinster trying to hold what's left of her family together. Much of Hundreds Hall is closed off and they're down to one servant in clumsy teenager Betty (Liv Hill). It's Betty's bout with a cold that brings mild-mannered Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) into their lives and begins a series of events that Roderick believes is being caused by a malevolent spirit residing in the house. Caroline's docile dog suddenly mauls a little girl with no provocation, Mrs. Ayres finds scribbling on a closet wall that seems to spell out "Suki," and an increasingly agitated Roderick sets fire to his room in an attempted suicidal self-immolation and is promptly carted off to an insane asylum. All the while, the perpetually gloomy Faraday grows fond of Caroline and starts aggressively pushing the idea of marriage, and is also dealing with his own issues that stem from a traumatic childhood visit to Hundreds Hall with his mother, who was once part of the servant staff.

There's some intriguing elements to THE LITTLE STRANGER, but the pace is so oppressively glacial that even fans of slow-burn horror will find it to be a patience-tester (Wilson has experience with this style, having starred in I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE, the absolute slowest of all horror slow-burners). Abrahamson captures a mood of sustained dread, but he's so focused on that aspect that with the exception of one well-done sequence where Mrs. Ayers encounters something in an empty room, the scares never come and all you're left with is a frustratingly ambiguous final shot that's more likely to provoke dismissal than discussion. Well-intentioned and well-acted (Rampling is, as always, a treasure who elevates everything she's in), but this is a meandering, ponderous bore. (R, 112 mins)

(Spain/France - 2018)

Based on a novel by Albert Sanchez Pinol, the somewhat Lovecraftian COLD SKIN feels a lot like a throwback to those circa 2000-2003 Spanish-made Filmax/Fantastic Factory/Brian Yuzna productions. There's a definite DAGON influence here with its aquatic creatures and even some Stuart Gordon-like sexual transgression, and though French filmmaker Xavier Gens conveys it through sounds and implication, that artistic decision doesn't make it any less unsettling. Gens hasn't really lived up the promise of his 2007 feature debut FRONTIER(S), his contribution to the "New French Extreme" explosion from a decade and change ago. He had a miserable experience going Hollywood with HITMAN and while 2011's ultra-grim THE DIVIDE has some defenders, it's little more than an exploitative, post-apocalyptic SALO, or THE LAST BOMB SHELTER ON THE LEFT. He did some hired gun TV work before returning to the horror genre with 2017's barely-released and instantly-forgotten THE CRUCIFIXION, arguably the most pointless modern-era EXORCIST knockoff this side of THE VATICAN TAPES. Though not without its flaws and budgetary shortcomings, the ambitious and often surprisingly thoughtful COLD SKIN is Gens' best film since FRONTIER(S) simply by virtue of it not being awful. That said, things get off to a shaky start with that oft-used Nietzsche quote about gazing into the abyss and it gazing back at you, which at this point is pretty much the screenwriting equivalent of walking into a Guitar Center and showing off by playing the intro to "Stairway to Heaven."

Set in late 1914 just as the world is heading toward war, a nameless meteorologist (David Oakes) is set to spend a year in voluntary "solitude-like exile" by manning the weather outpost on an isolated island near the Antarctic Circle. It's a job no one really wants unless they want to be alone (even the boat captain dropping him off asks "What are you running from?"), and the island's only other inhabitant is Gruner (Ray Stevenson, who stepped in when Stellan Skarsgard bailed during pre-production), the drunken and grizzled-bordering-on-feral lighthouse keeper, who informs him that his predecessor died not long after arriving a year earlier. Hunkered down for a year of cataloging wind and weather patterns, the meteorologist, dubbed "Friend" by Gruner, is in for a rude awakening when his cabin is attacked on the first night by a horde of amphibious creatures--resembling a cross-breeding of Voldemort with the Crawlers from THE DESCENT--who emerge from the water and only attack at night. The cabin catches fire and burns down, forcing Friend to find refuge at the lighthouse--somewhat fortified by spikes and makeshift barriers that merely slow the creatures down rather than keep them out--with Gruner. Friend also finds another surprise: Gruner has captured one of the female creatures, Aneris (Aura Garrido), and uses her as a sex slave. Friend and Gruner tentatively agree to share the lighthouse, forced to team up every night to fight off the persistent creatures as Gruner goes increasingly off the rails, especially once Friend starts treating the frightened Aneris with dignity and compassion. Given his past work, Gens is surprisingly restrained here, especially considering a key plot point being the sexual abuse of Aneris by Gruner. The creatures are an inconsistent mix of practical makeup and CGI, and the greenscreen work is occasionally shoddy, sometimes taking you out of the scene with a sense of artifice that doesn't appear to be by design. The attacking creatures storm the lighthouse in a very WORLD WAR Z fashion that's a little wonky and cartoonish, but there's some creepily effective moments throughout, particularly when Friend finds the dead meteorologist's notebook filled with sketches of a violent and sexual nature, with random scribblings like "Darwin was wrong." Stevenson is very good in a performance that grows unexpectedly complex as the film goes on, and Gens pulls off a few nice effects-aided technical shots, like a slow pan across the beach that takes the story from summer to winter. COLD SKIN needed a bigger budget to realize its full potential, but after a decade of floundering, this is Gens' most accomplished work since FRONTIER(S). (Unrated, 107 mins)

Friday, November 23, 2018

In Theaters: CREED II (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Steven Caple Jr. Written by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone. Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Phylicia Rashad, Wood Harris, Russell Hornsby, Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nielsen, Milo Ventimiglia, Ivo Nandi, Jacob "Stitch" Duran. (PG-13, 130 mins)

2015's CREED surprised everyone. The idea of a ROCKY spinoff featuring Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, being trained by his father's rival-turned-best friend Rocky Balboa seemed like a desperate attempt by Sylvester Stallone to keep the ROCKY saga going. But it was a project conceived by others, most notably director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, who brought an electrifying energy to the story and a deep-rooted empathy and understanding of its characters, particularly Rocky, portrayed in a gut-wrenching performance by Stallone that earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination (he lost to Mark Rylance in BRIDGE OF SPIES). It also put FRUITVALE STATION director Coogler and its star Jordan on the map, leading to their reteaming for 2018's phenomenally successful BLACK PANTHER, where Jordan played the villainous N'Jadaka/Erik Killmonger. Coogler remains onboard as a producer on CREED II, but directing duties have been handed off to Steven Caple Jr., who helmed the acclaimed 2016 indie THE LAND. More importantly, the script is co-written by Stallone, given a more active behind-the-scenes role this time out. That proves to be both a blessing and a curse: yes, he's lived and breathed Rocky Balboa for over 40 years, but as evidenced by the increased absurdity of every franchise in which Stallone has been involved in a creative capacity, he doesn't know when enough is enough (the long-in-development fifth RAMBO film was rumored to have him battling a PREDATOR-type alien creature until cooler heads prevailed). There seems to be little need for a CREED II, which serves as not just a sequel to CREED but also 1985's ROCKY IV.

Depending on your tolerance for the jingoistic, flag-waving Cold War histrionics of the Reagan era, continuing the storyline of ROCKY IV may or may not seem like the right direction for CREED II to go. As the film opens, Adonis has just won the heavyweight title from aging Danny "Stuntman" Wheeler (Andre Ward). He's proposed to hearing-impaired musician girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and he's on top of the world. That all comes crashing down with the reappearance of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring in ROCKY IV and was defeated by Rocky in a revenge match in the Soviet Union, where even the most hardline communists--including a Mikhail Gorbachev lookalike president--stood up and cheered for Rocky as he was draped in the American flag. Drago's life in the ensuing 30 years has found him alienated and shamed in his homeland. He now lives in a gloomy Kiev, Ukraine apartment block with his hulking son Viktor (Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu), both of them abandoned by Drago's wife Ludmilla (Stallone's ex-wife Brigitte Nielsen also returns). An embittered, seething Drago wants vengeance--on Rocky, on Russia, on his ex-wife, on the Creed legacy, and on everyone--and he's spent Viktor's entire life training him to reclaim the glory of the Drago name, an opportunity that arises when unscrupulous fight promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) teams up with them to issue a challenge to the new world champ Adonis. Rocky wants nothing to do with it, leading to a falling out that results in Adonis recruiting Little Duke (Wood Harris), the son of his father's trainer. Bianca also has her reservations, considering she just found out she's expecting and fears that history will repeat itself and Adonis won't be around for her and the baby.

The fight is a disaster: Viktor beats the shit out of Adonis, the fight virtually over in the second round but resulting in a disqualification for an out-of-control Viktor when he lands a huge blow to Adonis' head while he was already down. You know what comes next: Adonis on a long road to recovery, doubting his ability, turning his back on Rocky, feeling sorry for himself, patching things up with Rocky, and answering the challenge for rematch in--where else?--Moscow, this time with Rocky in his corner. CREED II gets by almost entirely on emotional manipulation and audience familiarity with Rocky. There's some deep and thoughtful themes running through this film, with parallels to both other characters and previous ROCKY films. And time and again, whenever it seems poised to go further down that road, it hesitates and reverts to the familiar. Stallone is again great as an aged and weary but always positive Rocky, and he makes magic with little moments and asides, like the way he visits Adrian's grave and talks about how cold it is and after a pause, mumbles a barely audible "Miss you." It's a real and heartfelt moment, as is Adonis, hurt and furious over being told he's battling Viktor on his own, lashing out at Rocky about his estranged relationship with his own son (Rocky's feeling of not belonging is constantly conveyed in shots that show him standing alone outside a perimeter like John Wayne at the end of THE SEARCHERS, away from a group of people, whether it's the ring, the delivery room, or his son's house). Those words sting only because of the degree to which these two characters have come to love one another, and it's in those moments that CREED II manages to achieve the honesty and gut-punch emotion of its predecessor.

But as the film goes on, Stallone's influence becomes the driving force, and right around the time they're going back to Moscow, it essentially switches to autopilot, becoming pretty much a remake of ROCKY IV, minus the patriot porn and Paulie's robot, but with the addition of a singing and dancing Bianca as his hype man. The biggest missed opportunity of CREED II is the way it only scratches the surface of the Ivan Drago story. He's granted moments of genuine drama that almost generate sympathy for him and his son, but it takes the easy way out and turns them into stock Russian bad guys by the final act (perhaps Coogler would've explored the psychological complexity of Drago by having him show some remorse for killing Apollo, but Stallone definitely does not). There's a story to be told about Drago's humiliating downfall and the way he's obsessively molded his son into a single-minded vessel for revenge to restore honor to the family name. There's even some signs in his mannerisms--perhaps brought to the table by Lundgren, whose aged, craggy face speaks volumes that his minimal amount of dialogue cannot--that Drago regrets not letting his son be his own man. And there's some hints in Munteanu's performance that boxing isn't even what Viktor wants, but it's all he's been taught to do. It's always nice seeing Rocky back onscreen, and Stallone, Jordan, and all the returning CREED cast members (there's also Phylicia Rashad as Apollo's widow) are excellent across the board, but CREED II never gets by the fact that the Adonis Creed story didn't need to be continued, and what we've got is really just another generic ROCKY sequel that Coogler's CREED managed to successfully transcend. It's a testament to CREED II's adherence to a tried-and-true formula and cookie-cutter storytelling that the most interesting character arc belongs to Ivan Drago, and that Dolph Lundgren's performance had me wishing they'd made a hypothetical DRAGO spinoff instead.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018


(US - 2018)

Written and directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen. Cast: Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Jonjo O'Neill, Chelcie Ross, Saul Rubinek, Tom Waits, Clancy Brown, Jefferson Mays, Stephen Root, Willie Watson, David Krumholtz, Ralph Ineson, Jesse Luken, Sam Dillon. (R, 133 mins)

There's a loose, shaggy dog vibe to THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, a six-part western anthology from the Coen Bros. Erroneously reported to be a planned Netflix series retooled as a Netflix Original film, it still feels like a feature-length pilot for a potential series that could be hosted by Buster Scruggs, the protagonist of the first segment, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a singing cowboy of the Roy Rogers/Gene Autry sort, but with a ruthless streak that's incongruous with his affable, folksy demeanor. He rides into the town of Frenchman's Gulch and crosses paths with the fearsome Çurly Joe (Clancy Brown), which starts the first in a series of showdowns. It's an amusing piece that's short enough to not overstay its welcome, and is a fine display of the kind of absurdist humor that defines the Coen Bros' funniest work. That same tone is apparent in "Near Algodones," with James Franco as an outlaw who messes with the wrong teller (Stephen Root) in a bank in the middle-of-nowhere desert town of Tucumcari, sending his day on a quick journey from bad to worse.

The Coens have been sitting on some of these ideas for years, and indeed, first two stories are briskly-paced and funny, almost like short sketch concepts that wouldn't have had a place in any of their other projects. BALLAD takes a much darker and almost macabre, SANTA SANGRE-like turn with "Meal Ticket," with Liam Neeson as a grubby, hard-drinking impresario traveling from town to town with Harrison (Harry Melling), an armless, legless "artist" who recites pieces of Biblical verses, poetry, and the Gettysburg Address into a sort of still-life performance art that plays to decreasing attendance as they venture to more distant areas until the impresario finds a new act and has to make a decision about what to do with his old one. "All Gold Canyon," based on a Jack London story, stars Tom Waits as a grizzled old prospector who finds a gold deposit (which he names "Mr. Pocket"). It's mostly a one-man show to a certain point, but while Waits is entertaining, this is probably the least interesting of the stories.

The fifth segment, "The Gal Who Got Rattled," based on a story by Stewart Edward White, is the longest and most substantive, with a devastating gut-punch of a wrap-up. On the arduous Oregon Trail, Alice (Zoe Kazan) is left to fend for herself when her older brother Gilbert (Jefferson Mays) dies unexpectedly. Trail boss Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines) and his right-hand man Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) offer their condolences and bury Gilbert but they're a day away before Alice realizes their money was on his person and is now buried with him. Potential Indian attacks make it too dangerous to go back, but as they continue on the trail, a bond forms between Alice, who has no money and no one else in the world, and Billy, who wants to settle down with a family and not grow old and alone like Mr. Walker. "Gal" meanders and takes its time and doesn't seem to be headed anywhere in particular, but it sneaks up on you, and it gets a lot from a trio of outstanding performances by Kazan, Heck, and especially Hines, a guy who's been around in bit parts (he's credited as "Emergency Room Aid" in ROCKY II) and minor supporting roles for decades but has never before gotten a chance to shine like he does here.

The final segment, "The Mortal Remains," could almost pass for an old-west version of DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, with five stagecoach passengers barely tolerating one another: Irishman Clarence (Brendan Gleeson), Englishman Thigpen (Jonjo O'Neill), Frenchman Rene (Saul Rubinek), society matron Mrs. Betjeman (Tyne Daly), and a scurvy, unkempt, and extremely talkative trapper (Chelcie Ross). Disagreements abound and barbs are traded, and Mrs. Betjeman is worked into a state of apoplexy, but as its pointed out, the driver never stops. Like "Gal," "The Mortal Remains" engages in some clever misdirection by seemingly going nowhere, especially in the hilariously rambling monologue delivered by the trapper, which gives veteran character actor Ross more dialogue than he's ever had in a movie. But then Clarence calms down Mrs. Betjeman by singing an Irish ballad and the story becomes something else entirely. Its final destination may not come as a surprise, especially once O'Neill starts acting like he's auditioning for a Vincent Price biopic, but in spite of that, it becomes oddly moving.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS feels too cobbled together and scattershot to be top-tier Coen Bros., and despite their claims that this was its intended format all along, it really does play like the two-hour premiere of a TV series. But even in a weaker segment like "All Gold Canyon," there's joys to be had. Shot digitally by Bruno Delbonnel, the film has some stunning shots of desert and canyon vistas along with some--perhaps intentionally--dubious CGI visuals. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS has too many positives to say it's only for Coen completists, but when their bio is written, this will be one of the peculiar outliers in their filmography. It's by no means the place for newbies stumbling upon this on Netflix and impulsively deciding to begin their Coen studies, but having said that, it's a good sampler appetizer for their unique style and the themes that have run through their work over the last four decades.

Monday, November 19, 2018

In Theaters: WIDOWS (2018)

(US/UK - 2018)

Directed by Steve McQueen. Written by Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen. Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Liam Neeson, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Garret Dillahunt, Lukas Haas, Jon Bernthal, Kevin J. O'Connor, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Molly Kunz, Matt Walsh, Coburn Goss, Michael J. Harney, Adepero Oduye, James Vincent Meredith, Josiah Sheffie, Tonray Ho. (R, 129 mins)

Following 2008's HUNGER, 2011's SHAME, and 2013's 12 YEARS A SLAVE, British filmmaker/video artist Steve McQueen's winning streak continues with the heist thriller WIDOWS. Though it's McQueen's most commercially accessible work yet, it's got more going on beneath the surface, mixing contemporary concerns into a story with a decidedly '70s aesthetic, one that manages to be a stylish, Michael Mann-inspired crime saga, an introspective, Robert Altman-esque character piece, as well as a chronicle of big-city political corruption that feels like vintage Sidney Lumet. Based on a British TV series created by Lydia LaPlante that ran in 1983 and 1985, WIDOWS has been both streamlined and expanded for its American incarnation by McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn, the latter quick to point out in interviews that the one whopper of a mid-film plot development is all LaPlante, despite it having Flynn's GONE GIRL style and execution written all over it.

McQueen opens WIDOWS with an initially jarring series of smash-cut snippets that quickly settle into a masterfully economic display of concise exposition. Chicago career criminal Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) lives a life of luxury in a penthouse apartment with his wife Veronica (Viola Davis), a former rep for the Chicago teacher's union. Veronica is as aware of Harry's "business" as she needs to be and seems to feign blissful ignorance while enjoying its many financial benefits. That comes to a screeching halt when Harry and his crew--Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and Jimmy (Coburn Goss)--are killed in an explosive shootout with police following a high-speed chase after their latest score. Immediately following the funeral, Veronica is visited at home by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a well-known south-side crime kingpin who was robbed of $2 million by Harry's crew. That money burned up with Harry and the others and he gives Veronica a month to get it back, threatening to send his ruthless, attack-dog younger brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) after her if she fails to pay up.

It's a sign that Jamal isn't quite ready to let go of his past life, even as he's trying to go legit at the same time by running a high-profile campaign for alderman of the city's economically-depressed and predominantly African-American 18th Ward. It's a spot that's been held for three generations by the corrupt Mulligan political dynasty, currently being handed off by elderly and ailing Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) to his son Jack (Colin Farrell), the scion who's inheriting a storied legacy that he doesn't really want. With her back against the wall, Veronica reaches out to the widows of Harry's partners--Carlos' wife Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), violent meathead Florek's battered wife Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Harry's wife Amanda (Carrie Coon)--to carry out a haphazardly-sketched heist from a notebook of Harry's, one that will net them $5 million--$2 million to repay Jamal and $3 million to split among themselves. Amanda, preoccupied with a four-month-old infant, declines to take part, and when Jatemme kills Harry's loyal driver Bash (Garret Dillahunt) to send a message to Veronica that the clock is ticking, they need a driver. They find one in hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo, so memorable in the recent BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE), a casual acquaintance of Linda's who's been babysitting her kids while Linda meets with Veronica and Alice to plan the heist.

All of these characters cross paths in unexpected ways, and WIDOWS manages to pack quite a bit into its brisk and relentlessly-paced 129 minutes. There are times where it feels like things are too simplified or convenient, most notably when Alice's gold-digging mom (Jacki Weaver) convinces her to become a de facto escort for some easy money, and her first "date" is David (Lukas Haas), who happens to be a big-time architect who spots a blueprint of the heist target on her bedside table and instantly recognizes it as a panic room and eventually helps identify its location. There's also Alice pretending to be a Russian mail-order bride at a gun show and effortlessly convincing a red-state mom to buy her three Glocks. And of course, Veronica's dog, an adorable little Westie that accompanies her everywhere, seemingly holding on to it in desperation as the last connection to a family that's been taken from her (she and Harry had a teenage son, whose death ten years earlier will prove to have a profound effect on the events that transpire), but is really there as a plot device that's instrumental in setting up that mid-film twist.

From the standpoint of commercial, mainstream storytelling, McQueen's handling of these sorts of things could use a little more polish, but WIDOWS makes up for its occasional narrative clumsiness with a stacked ensemble of award-worthy performances, the standouts being the always-galvanizing Davis, a terrifying Kaluuya, who makes Jatemme one of 2018's great bad guys, and Debicki, whose character gets the most surprising arc, revealing her unexpected smarts and ambition as the one who most transcends her lot in life as an abused doormat for her asshole husband and narcissistic mother. The political gamesmanship between Farrell's Mulligan and Henry's Jamal almost has enough going on that it could warrant its own movie, but it serves its purpose as part of a greater mosaic that McQueen is constructing, both thematically and artistically. There are several arresting visual touches ranging from the use of reflections in windows and mirrors (the final scene in the coffee shop!) to one long, uninterrupted take involving the younger Mulligan's limo that's a total knockout telling you all you need to know about his character. In the end, despite some occasional hiccups that might seem smoother on repeat viewings, WIDOWS is a terrific and compelling piece of grown-up filmmaking--the kind that can credibly and successfully coexist in the multiplex and the art-house--the likes of which we don't see enough of these days.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Retro Review: THE FIFTH FLOOR (1980)

(US - 1980)

Directed by Howard Avedis. Written by Meyer Dolinsky. Cast: Bo Hopkins, Dianne Hull, Patti D'Arbanville, Sharon Farrell, John David Carson, Julie Adams, Robert Englund, Mel Ferrer, Anthony James, Pattie Brooks, Earl Boen, Betty Kean, Alice Nunn, Cathey Paine, Udana Power, Michael Berryman, Marie Marq, M.G. Kelly, Tracey Walter. (R, 90 mins)

A late-night cable fixture in the early '80s, THE FIFTH FLOOR has largely disappeared from view in the decades since. Just out on Blu-ray from Code Red (because physical media is dead) in a transfer that;s only acceptable but oddly appropriate given its exploitative nature, the film was just scuzzy enough for the perpetually shady Film Ventures International to release on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit over the spring and summer of 1980, but it's tamer than you might think, and it even aired on CBS in 1983. Its plot has several similarities with 1979's grungier HUMAN EXPERIMENTS and 1985's exponentially more tacky HELLHOLE, all three films combining staples of the women-in-prison potboiler with a quasi-SNAKE PIT tropes with a nice young woman thrown into a mental institution. After she suffers a seizure at a disco that's eventually determined to be caused by strychnine poisoning and considered by the ER doc to be a botched suicide attempt, college girl Kelly (Dianne Hull), who just broke up with her boyfriend Ronnie (PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW's John David Carson), is deemed a risk to herself and ordered to spend 72 hours in observation in the mental ward on the fifth floor, referred to as "Psycho City" by the other patients.

Distraught and unable to convince anyone that someone poisoned her and that she wasn't attempting suicide, Kelly is incredulously dismissed by everyone charged with her care, and no one--Ronnie, attending shrink Dr. Coleman (Mel Ferrer), head Nurse Hannaford (Julie Adams), and especially leering orderly Carl (an unhinged performance by Bo Hopkins)--seems very eager to hear her out, let alone release her. She makes friends with some of the other patients, like pregnant Cathy (Patti D'Arbanville), unstable Melanie (Sharon Farrell), who lost it after her husband's affair with a younger woman, and kooky Benny (Robert Englund), the fifth floor's resident class clown, but her defiant attitude keeps inevitably extending her stay. She also has to contend with the unwanted attention of Carl, who makes her shower while he watches and insists on soaping her back, and when she runs away, he tells Nurse Hannaford and Dr. Coleman that she grew violent and had paranoid breakdown, which forces Coleman to keep her confined for another 90 days.

THE FIFTH FLOOR was allegedly based on a true story, but that claim seems pretty suspect. Director Howard Avedis (THE TEACHER SCORCHY, MORTUARY, THEY'RE PLAYING WITH FIRE) was no stranger to trashy B-movies before or after THE FIFTH FLOOR, and the film marked one of the rare big-screen scripting efforts by veteran TV scribe Meyer Dolinsky, whose journeyman career included stops on shows like BONANZA, THE OUTER LIMITS, WAGON TRAIN, DAKTARI, STAR TREK, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, HAWAII FIVE-0, and MARCUS WELBY, M.D. Though it's generally lumped in with the horror genre, THE FIFTH FLOOR is more of a suspense drama, closer in spirit to ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST than anything inherently "scary." It was probably easy to sell it as a horror film ("Once the door closes here, it never opens!"), but if you remove some profanity, Hull's nudity and a surprisingly gory comeuppance for the villain, it could've easily been a made-for-TV movie. It's more uncomfortable than anything, especially with Hopkins' genuinely repellent performance, though even entertaining the notion that standards may have been lax 40 years ago compared to now, it's hard to believe any hospital would've kept this creep on the payroll. Avedis and Dolinsky also completely lose track of the whole "Who poisoned Kelly?" plot thread, addressing it in a throwaway line late in the film that should've gotten her released from the hospital weeks earlier but no one seems to be doing their job. It's possible that was the whole point (Adams' Nurse Hannaford clearly doesn't trust Carl, but Ferrer's Dr. Coleman is absolutely useless), but it's doubtful Avedis was crafting this as some kind of hard-hitting, SHOCK CORRIDOR-style statement.

Toledo, OH, 6/27/1980
The charms of THE FIFTH FLOOR lie mainly in nostalgia for its era and with its cast, which also includes such recognizable faces as Anthony James (the chauffeur in BURNT OFFERINGS), Earl Boen (the disbelieving police shrink in THE TERMINATOR), Michael Berryman (THE HILLS HAVE EYES), Tracey Walter ("Bob the Goon" in Tim Burton's BATMAN), and Alice Nunn (whose place in  pop culture is cemented thanks to her work as Large Marge in PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE) as fifth floor patients. Film Ventures somehow managed to corral the services of Casablanca Record & Filmworks (known primarily as a disco label thanks to Donna Summer and the Village People, but also the home of rock bands like Kiss and Angel) to handle the soundtrack, though the only performer they could get to contribute anything was Pattie Brooks, who just had a huge hit in 1978 with THANK GOD IT'S FRIDAY's "After Dark" and is seen onscreen singing "Fly Away." THE FIFTH FLOOR has an appropriately grimy feel that's matched by Hopkins and the performance of Hull, if you can overlook her borderline Elaine Benes dance moves in the opening sequence. Born in 1949, she had a few prominent roles--as Kirk Douglas and Deborah Kerr's daughter in 1969's THE ARRANGEMENT, as Rose in 1975's ALOHA, BOBBY AND ROSE, and as John Savage's wife in 1979's THE ONION FIELD--but her career never took off. She has no IMDb credits after 1991 and her last big-screen role was as Mrs. Settigren in 1988's THE NEW ADVENTURES OF PIPPI LONGSTOCKING. THE FIFTH FLOOR was a minor hit at drive-ins and found a cult following on VHS and cable, but even the poster art did nothing to sell it as Hull's movie, since it's adorned with the image of distraught Sharon Farrell.

THE FIFTH FLOOR opening in Toledo, OH on 6/27/1980

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Retro Review: DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)

(UK - 1972)

Directed by Alan Gibson. Written by Don Houghton. Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Stephanie Beacham, Christopher Neame, Michael Coles, Marsha Hunt, Caroline Munro, Janet Key, William Ellis, Philip Miller, Michael Kitchen, Stoneground. (PG, 96 mins)

By 1972, Christopher Lee wasn't even trying to hide his seething contempt for Hammer's ongoing DRACULA series. He portrayed the Count in five Hammer productions going back to 1958's HORROR OF DRACULA, and in between two entries in 1970 (TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and SCARS OF DRACULA), he went to Spain to star in Jess Franco's COUNT DRACULA with the promise that it would be the faithful-to-Bram Stoker adaptation that he'd spent years pleading with Hammer to make. Hammer still wasn't listening, and in 1972, following their attempts to capture the youth market with the increased T&A of HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, they decided to move Dracula to mod, swinging London in all its Austin Powers glory with DRACULA A.D. 1972. It's not a bad idea, and the film's an entertaining time capsule that's proven to have significant longevity as a genre cult favorite, but it just doesn't have enough of Lee, who's in it so sporadically that there's no way he was on the set for more than a few days. That was likely by design, as Lee made it clear he didn't want to do the movie, even though it marked the return of Peter Cushing, as Dracula's arch-nemesis Van Helsing, to the franchise after 12 years away following 1960's Dracula-less THE BRIDES OF DRACULA.

A.D. 1972 gets off to a roaring start with a prologue set in 1872, with Dracula (Lee) and Lawrence Van Helsing (Cushing) fighting on a runaway coach as daybreak approaches. The coach crashes, with a broken wheel impaling Dracula in the heart as the rising sun turns him to dust, with Van Helsing soon succumbing to his injuries. A Dracula disciple (Christopher Neame, really busting his ass to be the next Malcolm McDowell) arrives on the scene, gathers some of Dracula's ashes in a vial and buries them at the perimeter of a churchyard cemetery that's Van Helsing's final resting place. 100 years later, that seemingly undead disciple is revealed to be Johnny Alucard (clever!), a black-mass enthusiast who hangs out with a group of Chelsea hippies that includes Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham), who lives with her grandfather Lorrimer Van Helsing (Cushing), a descendant of the legendary vampire killer. Alucard needs Jessica for his master plan: the resurrection of Dracula for his master's ultimate revenge on the Van Helsing family. She proves difficult to pin down and get alone, thanks in part to her boyfriend Bob (Philip Miller) but more to her skeptical, overprotective grandfather, who's convinced something isn't right, especially when her friends start turning up dead. As Dracula takes refuge in the ruins of the church located at the cemetery where Lawrence Van Helsing is buried, Alucard tries to placate him with offerings like Jessica's friends Laura (Caroline Munro) and Gaynor (Mick Jagger's then-girlfriend Marsha Hunt, considered by many to be the inspiration for "Brown Sugar"), but the Count remains adamant that he must have Jessica. Alucard attempts to stage the dead bodies of the victims as cult-like sacrifices, but Lorrimer, working with Scotland Yard's Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) has studied his ancestor enough to recognize the work of Dracula when he sees it.

Christopher Lee can barely contain his enthusiasm in this
DRACULA A.D. 1972 publicity shot, accompanied by Caroline Munro,
Stephanie Beacham, Marsha Hunt, and Janet Key. 

Given Lee's surly attitude toward the franchise and the character at this point, it's little wonder that most of the heavy lifting is left to the presumably less mercurial Cushing. Lee may have hated doing these movies, but the film has a noticeable spark whenever he's onscreen, particularly when he's with his good friend Cushing. There's a lot of time devoted to Jessica and her friends, including a ridiculously drawn-out sequence involving American rock group Stoneground, and the detective subplot with Van Helsing teaming with Murray serves to advance the plot, but A.D. 1972's best scenes involve Dracula, with Lee channeling his frustration into a portrayal of the Count that's arguably his meanest and cruelest yet. He doesn't even seem grateful for his disciple's 100 years of service to his memory, instantly dismissing him upon his Alucard-instigated resurrection and taking credit for it himself ("It was my will," he scoffs, waving Alucard aside). The problem is that Dracula has so little screen time (after the prologue, he has one appearance in the next hour) that, like many of Lee's performances during this period, is really little more than an extended cameo spread out enough to make it look like he's in the whole thing. It's difficult to tell if this is the result of his frustration or the root cause of it, considering that he actually had a lot of screen time in SCARS OF DRACULA. DRACULA A.D. 1972 was a box-office disappointment in both the UK and in America, where it was released by Warner Bros. Nevertheless, Hammer wasn't deterred, as Lee, Cushing, Coles, writer Don Houghton (DOCTOR WHO), director Alan Gibson (CRESCENDO, GOODBYE GEMINI), and the contemporary setting would all return for 1973's THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA.

DRACULA A.D. 1972 opening in Toledo, OH on 4/6/1973

(UK - 1973; US release 1978)

Directed by Alan Gibson. Written by Don Houghton. Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Coles, William Franklyn, Freddie Jones, Joanna Lumley, Richard Vernon, Patrick Barr, Barbara Yu Ling, Lockwood West, Richard Mathews, Maurice O'Connell, Valerie Van Ost. (R, 88 mins)

If it was a stretch to imagine Dracula going after "London's hotpants," as the DRACULA A.D. 1972 poster promised, then who knows how they came up with the insane plot of THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA? It's crazy enough to admire, but it never quite pulls its various threads together, and like A.D. 1972, it still doesn't have enough Christopher Lee, who doesn't even enter the story until 30 minutes in and then isn't seen again for another half hour. Indeed, anyone watching SATANIC RITES' first 25 minutes might think they've accidentally stumbled on a Michael Coles police procedural, as his returning Inspector Murray catches a case involving a dead SIS agent's undercover investigation of a Satanic cult that's populated by a quartet of prominent Londoners, among them Nobel Prize-winning biochemist and germ warfare expert Prof. Keeley (Freddie Jones), real estate mogul Lord Carradine (Patrick Barr), government security analyst Dr. Porter (Richard Mathews), and military honcho Gen. Freeborn (Lockwood West). A stumped Murray and SIS official Torrence (William Franklyn) decide to consult occult expert Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), who happens to be an old college chum of Keeley's. Van Helsing discovers that Keeley has been secretly developing a new and ultra-lethal strain of bubonic plague that could wipe out mankind on the 23rd of the month--known in the occult world as "The Sabbat of the Undead," all under the auspices of a secret foundation bankrolled by enigmatic, reclusive Howard Hughes-like tycoon D.D. Denham, whose skyscraper headquarters is located at the location of the demolished church from A.D. 1972.

Once Van Helsing gets wind of "The Sabbat of the Undead," he immediately concludes that Dracula is somehow involved, which is confirmed when he's granted a personal meeting with Denham, who's revealed to be--you guessed it--Dracula. His latest plan--apparently concocted after seeing too many 007 movies in his downtime--is to unleash a bubonic apocalypse that will wipe out humanity and yet, he still needs to abduct Van Helsing's granddaughter Jessica (future ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS star Joanna Lumley replaces Stephanie Beacham) and take her as his bride, which will render the two of them immune from the apocalypse, carried out by his own personal "Four Horsemen." The bonkers SATANIC RITES fared even worse at the box office than A.D. 1972. After a disastrous reception in Europe, Warner Bros. shelved it in the US, eventually selling it to exploitation outfit Dynamite Entertainment, who belatedly released it on the American drive-in and grindhouse circuit in the fall of 1978 as COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE. Once SATANIC RITES bombed, Lee, who's again terrifically snarling once he finally shows up (and his Bela Lugosi accent as D.D. Denham is...something), finally reached his breaking point and refused to appear in the next film, the 1974 Hammer/Shaw Brothers horror/kung-fu hybrid THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES. In it, Cushing's Van Helsing teams with a family of Bruce Lee-like karate experts to take on Dracula, now played in a bland and ineffective fashion by Lee's one-and-done replacement John Forbes-Robertson. The film was recut and retitled THE 7 BROTHERS MEET DRACULA for its 1979 US release, but by that time, the franchise and Hammer itself were over. With genre trendhops like SATANIC RITES' outlandish 007 plot and the ENTER THE DRAGON-inspired martial arts action of 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES, it would've been inevitable that Dracula and Van Helsing would've somehow ended up in space if the series was still going when STAR WARS came around in 1977.

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA's biggest problem is that it's never as fun as its crazy story makes it sound. It's also pretty stupid: why would Dracula and his surrogate Renfield in the form of Chin Yang (Barbara Yu Ling) keep his vampire brides stashed away in a basement with a fully-functioning and easily-accessible sprinkler system when water is lethal to the undead? And for someone with the means to create the ultimate weapon in germ warfare, Dracula seems to be off his game here, especially when Van Helsing tricks him into walking directly into a giant prickly bush like a cloddish oaf and getting caught in its vines and branches in what could very well be Dracula's dumbest-ever movie demise. Under both of its titles, SATANIC RITES ended up falling into the public domain and was available in various versions on any number of cheap, bargain-bin DVD sets over the last 20 years. It's just out now on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, who also released a spiffed-up A.D. 1972 last month (a double feature set would've been perfect). To see the constant posts on Hammer's fan page on Facebook over the last year, you'd think SATANIC RITES was some lost classic or something akin to THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND of Hammer horror. Calm down, guys...it's not that good, but it's a must-have for completists, especially with it looking better that it ever has in this new edition. I like the Dracula-as-Blofeld idea of THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA more than what it ultimately turns out to be. But for all its faults, it's always a joy to see the two horror legends together (they also starred in HORROR EXPRESS, NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT, and THE CREEPING FLESH during this same period), and ever the stalwart, Cushing again seems more accommodating to the filmmakers than the disgruntled Lee, playing it totally straight and never once letting on how ridiculous he likely found the entire project to be.

opening in Toledo, OH on 10/13/1978

Thursday, November 15, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: FINAL SCORE (2018), BEL CANTO (2018) and THE PADRE (2018)

(UK/US - 2018)

As DIE HARD celebrates its 30th anniversary, it's only fitting that FINAL SCORE exists as a testament to its enduring influence. Entire scenes and situations are lifted completely, whether it's the hero listening in on the bad guys' walkies and jotting their names down or throwing a henchman off the top of a building with a message for the asshole police honcho who refuses to believe his story. The busy Dave Bautista gets a rare heroic lead as ex-Navy SEAL Michael Knox, who's in London to visit his dead combat buddy's widow Rachel (Lucy Gaskell, a second-string Sally Hawkins) and troubled 15-year-old daughter Danni (Lara Peake), who's always angry with her mum but appreciates "Uncle Mike" still being in their lives and looking out for them. Knox scores two tickets to the West Ham football semi-finals (he keeps calling it "soccer" like every American) at a nearby stadium, and--wouldn't ya know it--fanatical "Sokovian" terrorist Arkady Balov (Ray Stevenson) has packed the place with bombs and commandeered the power grid in an attempt to force the British government to turn over his brother Dimitri, who was presumed killed in a 1999 skirmish when Russia quashed a Sokovia rebellion led by the Balov brothers. Turns out Dimitri is very much alive, having turned himself over to the CIA after faking his death, getting plastic surgery, moving to London, becoming a huge football fan, and getting as much screen time as director Scott Mann (reteaming with Bautista after the better-than-average Lionsgate DTV thriller HEIST) could manage in Pierce Brosnan's two, perhaps three days on the set.

Like John McClane at the Nakatomi Plaza, Knox figures out what's going on and starts taking on Balov's goons one by one while the sellout crowd and the teams are oblivious to what's going on, which also gives FINAL SCORE a chance to rip off the 1995 Van Damme hockey actioner SUDDEN DEATH as an added bonus. After Danni gets separated from Knox, he finds an unlikely sidekick in lowly security usher Faisal (Amit Shah) while butting heads over the radio with both Balov and Steed (Ralph Brown), the bullheaded London police commissioner and this film's Dwayne T. Robinson. He also get in a couple of throwdowns with Tatiana (Alexandra Dinu as Alexander Godunov), Balov's most feral accomplice, who of course takes it personally when Knox dunks her lover Vlad's (Martyn Ford) head in a boiling concession stand fry vat, after which he bears an uncanny resemblance to The Toxic Avenger. As far as belated DIE HARD knockoffs go, you can do a lot worse than FINAL SCORE if it's a slow night and you're looking for a brainless action movie. Bautista (one of 25 credited producers) is an engagingly brutish hero who doesn't have much tolerance for bullshit ("Seriously? That guy's a dick," he scoffs when introduced to Danni's would-be boyfriend), and he's a better Bruce Willis than Bruce Willis is capable of being right now. There's nothing wrong with FINAL SCORE--it's better than a lot of DTV and Redbox-ready B action movies--but there's really nothing to make it all that memorable, either. (R, 105 mins)

(US - 2018)

One of the most inert hostage thrillers ever made, BEL CANTO is a lifeless and ultimately absurd adaptation of Ann Patchett's 2001 bestseller, itself inspired by a several-month hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy in Peru in 1996. Directed and co-written by an out-of-his-element Paul Weitz (AMERICAN PIE, LITTLE FOCKERS), the film also takes place in 1996, as wealthy Japanese industrialist and opera enthusiast Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe) travels to an unnamed and politically unstable South American country with his interpreter Gen (Ryo Kase), where the president and assorted investors and diplomats plan to woo him into a building a factory by arranging a swanky dinner and intimate birthday performance by world-renowned American soprano Roxane Coss (Julianne Moore). The president bails, sending his VP (J. Eddie Martinez) instead, and Roxane is barely into her first piece when a group of armed rebels led by Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta, a last-minute replacement for Demian Bichir) storm the mansion and hold everyone hostage. They're demanding the release of a group of fellow guerrillas imprisoned by the president, as Red Cross negotiator Messner (Sebastian Koch) is called in to attempt to broker a peaceful resolution. Messner manages to convince Benjamin to release the women as well as Roxane's diabetic pianist (22 JULY's Thorbjorn Harr) but Roxane remains held due to her value as an American celebrity.

Weeks and months drag on as Benjamin refuses to budge and Messner comes and goes from the grounds as he pleases, and eventually Stockholm Syndrome-esque bonds form between the captors and their captives, especially with Gen falling in love with Carmen (Maria Mercedes Coroy), one of Benjamin's loyal soldiers. Romance blossoms between Hosokawa and Roxane as well, and as time goes on, the mansion becomes a sort-of idyllic paradise that no one really wants to leave ("This is where we live now," Carmen tells Gen). Call it DOG DAY AFTERNOON meets THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL as the outside world gradually ceases to exist. They play chess and soccer, they exercise together, they eat lavish meals, they teach Benjamin's soldiers English, Hosokawa learns Spanish, Roxane becomes a mentor to one of the rebels who's inspired to pursue his love of singing, and all the while, an incredulous Messner--perhaps a surrogate for the viewer--can't believe what he's seeing. There seems to be no urgency on the part of anyone--Messner, the president, various world governments (also among the hostages are Christopher Lambert as the French ambassador and Olek Krupa as a Russian trade delegate), and the hostages themselves--to bring this crisis to an end. When Messner finally loses it with Benjamin and shouts "You must release these people! Now!" it's hard to tell if he's talking about the hostages or the audience  This sort of kumbaya utopia might've worked better in Patchett's novel where the medium allows the reader to get into the characters' heads, but it's absolutely ludicrous and deadening on the screen, and the abrupt shift in tone of the last ten minutes shows that Weitz had something in mind here, and I get it, but by that point, it's too little, too late. BEL CANTO is hobbled by wishy-washy politics and the bizarre intent of being a feel-good hostage thriller, leaving great actors like Moore (who doesn't even lip-sync Renee Fleming's vocals convincingly) and Watanabe completely defeated by the material, and even their presence couldn't get this barely-released dud on more than 30 screens for a paltry $80,000 gross. (Unrated, 101 mins)

(Canada/Ireland - 2018)

Some good performances and gritty location work throughout Bogota elevate this minor chase thriller/character piece slightly above the norm among the plethora of VOD and Redbox options out there. Disguised as a priest, British con man Clive Lowry (Tim Roth) is on the run in Colombia, picking pockets and running scams and doing whatever he can to keep moving. In pursuit is Nemes (Nick Nolte), a retired and still-obsessed US marshal hunting the man known as "Padre" on his own time and dime, even hiring local cop Gaspar (Luis Guzman) to be his guide and translator. Padre crosses paths with Lena (Valeria Henriquez), a 16-year-old orphan desperately trying to get to the US to find her 12-year-old sister, who's been bought on a black-market adoption web site by a family in Minnesota. But with Nemes and Gaspar never far behind, Padre and Lena only keep moving south, with a plan to rob a church and fence some priceless goods to secure passage to the States. It's obvious Nemes' quest is personal, in ways that are both poignant and predictable, as is the way that Padre seems destined for redemption, but Gaspar is quick to remind Nemes of that old adage "Those who seek revenge should dig two graves." Nemes is hesitant to get into specifics in the quest for what's essentially his white whale, telling Gaspar--in a way that sounds awesome when grunt-croaked by a grizzled, 77-year-old Nick Nolte--"I'm bound to him...I lashed my fate to a spear and I aimed it at his heart!" a line fraught with such heavy-handed portent that he repeats it verbatim later on. Henriquez carries much of the dramatic weight, and Roth and Guzman play characters similar to those they've played before (Guzman seems to be the same guy he portrayed in THE LIMEY), but it's great seeing Nolte get such a showy role that keeps him onscreen from start to finish, even busting through doors with his gun drawn and constantly grumbling like a geriatric Jack Cates. With a cast headlined by Roth, Nolte, and Guzman, THE PADRE would need to take a time machine back to 1998 to have any chance at a wide theatrical release. It's easy to see why Sony relegated it to VOD--it's slight and forgettable, and it gets a little sluggish in the second half--but it's a decent enough time-killer that's worth seeing for some frequent flashes of vintage Nolte. (R, 95 mins)

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

In Theaters: OVERLORD (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Julius Avery. Written by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith. Cast: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Pilou Asbaek, Mathilde Ollivier, John Magaro, Bokeem Woodbine, Iain De Caestecker, Dominic Applewhite, Jacob Anderson, Gianny Taufer, Erich Redman, Meg Foster. (R, 110 mins)

Long-rumored to be another installment in executive producer J.J. Abrams' CLOVERFIELD universe, OVERLORD is not, perhaps thankfully so after the toxic reception given to the disastrous Netflix dumpjob THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX earlier this year. Set in 1944 in the hours leading up to "Operation Overlord," the D-Day invasion of Normandy, OVERLORD is a solid throwback to '80s-style horror that's equal parts BAND OF BROTHERS, THE DIRTY DOZEN, RE-ANIMATOR, THE KEEP, the WOLFENSTEIN video game series, and John Carpenter's THE THING. The Carpenter element is mainly in its third-act siege scenario, some periodic thumping synth beats, and the presence of Wyatt Russell, Kurt Russell's look-and-sound-alike son with Goldie Hawn. Young Russell's been plugging away for some years now, with showy supporting roles in COLD IN JULY, EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!, and INGRID GOES WEST, but this is the first time his casting is a deliberate homage to his legendary dad. The day before the planned Normandy invasion, a squadron of Army paratroopers is shot down over France en route to destroy a German radio tower atop a church in an occupied France village in order to shut down enemy communication prior to the operation. The plane goes down with a few survivors, but their commander, Sgt. Eldson (Bokeem Woodbine) is killed by German officers, leaving the rest to carry out the mission: second-in-command Cpl. Ford (Russell), quiet Boyce (Jovan Adepo of FENCES), loudmouth Noo Yawk smartass Tibbet (John Magaro as Leo Gorcey), photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker), and aspiring writer Dawson (Jacob Anderson), who doesn't last long thanks to a mine.

The remaining four end up taking refuge with Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who lives with her kid brother Paul (Gianny Taufer), and a gravely-ill aunt who's barely seen but whose guttural wheeze is heard throughout the house (the actress, very fleetingly seen and rendered unrecognizable under makeup, is credited as Meg Foster, but IMDb seems to think it's a different Meg Foster--one with only one other acting credit way back in 2009--than the veteran cult movie actress, though I'm inclined to think it's "the" Meg Foster until that's confirmed otherwise). Ford sends Tibbet and Chase to check their assigned rendezvous location and while he and Boyce are hiding in the attic, Chloe is visited by sadistic SS officer Wafner (Pilou Asbaek, best known as GAME OF THRONES' Euron Greyjoy), who routinely demands sexual favors. Boyce leaves to check on Tibbet and Chase and ends up discovering a secret lab under the church where Nazi scientists are conducting bizarre experiments on local villagers and captured POWs, including Rosenfeld (Dominic Applewhite), one of their squad who was presumed dead. He rescues Rosenfeld, but the labyrinthine lab is filled with disfigured creatures capable of superhuman strength, and Boyce realizes that Chloe's "sick" aunt is a botched casualty of the inhuman experimentation. Stealing a sample of a mysterious serum, Boyce makes it back to the house where they run afoul of Wafner, leading to a chain reaction of increasingly horrific events that necessitate overhauling the mission to destroy both the radio tower and the evil goings-on in the underground lab.

The plot hinges on Hitler's plan to create a Thousand Year Reich, which is only slightly more outlandish than, say, Quentin Tarantino's rewriting of history in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and while it doesn't really break any new ground, OVERLORD is an enjoyably goofy and gore-soaked spiritual '80s-style throwback. To put it more simply, if I saw OVERLORD when I was 12, I'd probably still consider it a classic today. Director Julius Avery (SON OF A GUN), working from a script by Billy Ray (SHATTERED GLASS) and Mark L. Smith (THE REVENANT), keeps the pace fast and intense and allows everyone in the ensemble a chance to shine, whether it's Magaro acting like a drafted Bowery Boy, Ollivier getting a badass moment with a flamethrower, or Russell coming off like R.J. MacReady (I'd love to watch Kurt Russell watching OVERLORD). The CGI sometimes disrupts the mood, but there's enough practical splatter mixed in that it's not a dealbreaker. OVERLORD is obviously the end result of a variety of influences, but it does a nice job of keeping its homage factor in check so it's not just a lazy checklist of references. It could be that seeing Nazis get their asses handed to them is just something we need right now, and despite the pre-release hype and that not-very-promising first trailer inexplicably showcasing AC/DC's "Back in Black," it's really not about Nazi zombies, which would be pointless to even attempt, because you can't top 1977's SHOCK WAVES. Is OVERLORD a classic or a "game-changer?" No, but it's two hours of enjoyable, cut-the-bullshit popcorn thrills for genre fans.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

On Netflix: OUTLAW KING (2018)

(UK/US - 2018)

Directed by David Mackenzie. Written by Bash Doran, David Mackenzie, James MacInnes, David Harrower and Mark Bomback. Cast: Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, Stephen Dillane, Billy Howle, Sam Spruell, Tony Curran, Callan Mulvey, James Cosmo, Steven Cree, Alastair Mackenzie, Chris Fulton, Lorne MacFadyen, Jack Greenlees, Josie O'Brien, Jonny Phillips, Tam Dean Burn. (R, 121 mins)

A longtime pet project of Scottish-born HELL OR HIGH WATER director David Mackenzie, OUTLAW KING tells the story of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots from 1306 until his death in 1329. The film takes place at the same time as the events depicted in Mel Gibson's BRAVEHEART (where Robert the Bruce was played by Angus MacFadyen). Sir William Wallace is invoked frequently, though his screen time is limited to a cameo by his severed arm following his execution. Like Wallace, Robert (played here by Chris Pine) took part in the rebellion against King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane), who was asked to help choose a successor to Scotland's throne when the king had no heirs and promptly ended up claiming the land for himself. As the film opens in 1303, Robert is among the rebels begrudgingly pledging fealty to King Edward at the request of his acquiescing father (the great James Cosmo, also in BRAVEHEART and whose appearance in these sorts of medieval period pieces is apparently required by law), who sees it as the best option, as the alternative is execution.

The widower Robert, whose wife died several years earlier giving birth to their daughter Marjorie (Josie O'Brien), is also given King Edward's god-daughter Elizabeth Burgh (Florence Pugh) as part of the deal. The sense of peace and complacency doesn't last long: inheriting the title of the Earl of Carrack upon his father's death (their relationship is portrayed quite differently here than in BRAVEHEART), Robert is outraged to learn of the execution of Wallace and decides to reignite the rebellion against King Edward. Seeking an ally in rival John III Comyn (Callan Mulvey), Robert is denied and when Comyn threatens to turn him over to King Edward's forces, he impulsively murders him. He confesses his crime to the church, which agrees to give him absolution and pledge its fealty if he can defeat King Edward and reclaim Scotland. Crowned "King of Scots," Robert the Bruce and his loyal army are joined by displaced nobleman James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) as King Edward's forces, led by his sniveling, power-crazed son Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle) and the King's chief attack dog Aymer de Valance (Sam Spruell), proceed into Scotland, eventually capturing Elizabeth and Marjorie.

With its generous budget and epic battle scenes, OUTLAW KING probably would've benefited from a wide theatrical release instead of being relegated to the Netflix Original platform. While the script-- credited to five writers--is largely a spinoff of BRAVEHEART and doesn't really offer anything you haven't seen before (drink every time one of Robert's blood-soaked men yells), the film is technically ambitious and extremely well-made, with Mackenzie indulging in numerous long and complicated tracking shots (the opening sequence is almost nine uninterrupted minutes that establish numerous characters and conflicts in a rapid-fire fashion) and using natural lighting in some stunning and often breathtaking Scottish locations (he also cut it down from 137 minutes to 121 after a negative reception at the Toronto Film Fest). Anyone who's a fan of this sort of thing knows to expect a mud-caked bloodbath and on that end, especially with its climactic Battle of Loudoun Hill and its geysers of arterial spray, OUTLAW KING doesn't disappoint. Pine might initially seem miscast, but you get used to his mullet and he settles into the role nicely, especially in his scenes with LADY MACBETH star Pugh. She's terrific here as the supportive and fiercely outspoken Elizabeth and is quickly establishing herself as one of today's top young actresses from whom we'll be hearing a lot. Taylor-Johnson has a few standout moments as the almost-feral Douglas, while Dillane does a solid job of following in the footsteps of Patrick McGoohan, and gets off a couple of good jabs at his pathetic weasel of a son ("Well, you did manage to imprison a few women," he scoffs after the Prince's latest failed attempt to defeat Robert). Howle manages to create a villain you love to hate with his Prince of Wales, but it's a mostly cardboard display of bratty petulance that looks like he studied a highlight reel of Tim Roth in ROB ROY, Joffrey on GAME OF THRONES, and a few Donald Trump press conferences. There's apparently another Robert the Bruce film in the works for 2019, one that stars Angus MacFadyen in his most famous role, though it's hard telling if that's an actual film or just an IMDb page created by an "amacfadyenrulz69@hotmail.com." Rather formulaic in terms of its storytelling but entertaining and beautifully-made, OUTLAW KING is definitely above-average by the standards of Netflix Original films.

Friday, November 9, 2018

In Theaters: THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB (2018)

(US/Germany - 2018)

Directed by Fede Alvarez. Written by Jay Basu, Fede Alvarez and Steven Knight. Cast: Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Lakeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Stephen Merchant, Vicky Krieps, Claes Bang, Cameron Britton, Synnove Macody Lund, Mikael Persbrandt, Christopher Convery, Andreja Pejic, Hendrik Heutmann, Volker Bruch. (R, 115 mins)

It's been seven years since David Fincher's big-budget American version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, based on the first novel in Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy." It was generally faithful to the book, with Rooney Mara's Oscar-nominated interpretation of researcher/hacker/badass Lisbeth Salander more than holding its own against Noomi Rapace's career-making portrayal in a trilogy of Swedish adaptations. Larsson was only 50 when died of a heart attack in 2004, a year before the first of his three completed books in the series hit European bookstores en route to becoming a phenomenally popular bestseller in the US in 2008. Swedish writer David Lagercrantz was commissioned to continue the "Millennium" series, resurrecting Salander with 2015's The Girl in the Spider's Web and 2017's The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. Opting to nix the second and third books in Larsson's trilogy and start fresh with a sequel to/reboot to the 2011 film, THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB doesn't bring back any of DRAGON TATTOO's participants other than producer credits for Fincher and Scott Rudin. Mara has been replaced by a game Claire Foy, but she's fighting a losing battle. Director/co-writer Fede Alvarez, best known for his work in the horror genre with the EVIL DEAD remake and the overrated DON'T BREATHE, completely drops the ball on re-establishing Salander as a heroic figure for the #MeToo era. The film jettisons almost everything that made her such a fascinating and iconic heroine in the past and instead drops her in the middle of what looks like a mash-up of SPECTRE, Jason Bourne, and a FAST & FURIOUS sequel. DON'T BREATHE was an excellent thriller to a very specific point where Alvarez jumped the shark: THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB's turkey baster moment comes rather early, when Salander leads some cops on a motorcycle chase and eludes them by driving off a dock and speeding across a frozen lake. It's only the first of several instances where you can hum the 007 "da-da-DA-DAAA!" cue and it wouldn't be at all out of place.

Opening with a flashback to Salander's childhood that doesn't really gel with her background in Larsson's books or in any of the movies, we're introduced to her sister Camilla, the favorite of their pedophile father (Mikael Persbrandt). Though Salander would grow up to be a righter of wrongs against women, she left her sister behind, escaping their abusive father by taking an improbably steep dive down a snowy hill off a balcony and never looking back. Cut to the present day as Salander--apparently known throughout Sweden as a hacker, vigilante, and media figure and somehow constantly out in public and living in what looks like a huge warehouse in a busy part of the city with its own closed-circuit security system and panic room--is hired for a job by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), who worked for the US government and designed a software program that would allow the US military to access and override the world's nuclear launch codes. Feeling he's created a monster with the serious potential for global destruction, Balder wants Salander to hack into the NSA's system in D.C. and steal it back so he can permanently delete its existence. This catches the attention of NSA analyst and former military and black-ops mercenary Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), who immediately flies to Stockholm with the intent of retrieving the program and eliminating Salander. With Swedish intelligence head Gabriella Grane (Synnove Macody Lund) putting Balder and his genius/autistic son August (Christopher Convery) in the least safe safe house imaginable, with a wide-open window you can see in from a great distance, it's only a matter of time before their lives are in danger. Of course, the danger arrives in the form of The Spiders, a collective of Russian bad guys in the employ of--who else?--Camilla Salander (Sylvia Hoeks), who took over their father's criminal empire and wants the launch codes as a global power play and, I presume, to get her sister's attention?

Does that even sound like something Stieg Larsson would've concocted? Foy could've made this role her own but not with that material she's been given, turning Salander into a rote, generic action hero. If this is indeed the start of a new action-driven franchise, then it already looks about two films away from putting Salander in space. Lisbeth Salander is an abuse survivor, troubled loner, and genius with incredible researching and computer skills. Why is she in car chases? Why is she in intricately-staged shootouts? Why is she dodging explosions? Why is her sister an albino-looking, Blofeld-like supervillain with a ridiculous wardrobe that makes her resemble the long-lost sister of Edgar and Johnny Winter? Why is Mikael Blomkvist (played here by BORG VS. MCENROE's Sverrir Gudnason) given virtually nothing to do? And why do Salander and Blomkvist seem to be the same age now? Wasn't his being quite a bit older a key component of their complicated relationship? Speaking of nothing to do, why is Vicky Krieps, who was so good opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in PHANTOM THREAD, squandered in a superfluous supporting role as Blomkvist's editor and sometime lover Erika Berger (played by Robin Wright in the 2011 film)? Salander's shut-in hacker pal Plague also returns in the form of MINDHUNTER co-star Cameron Britton, who more or less serves as a de facto Q to Salander's 007.

Only Stanfield (GET OUT, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU) manages to stand out, mainly because most of his scenes show him intensely glowering and walking through crowded places with steely purpose, almost as if he's trying to find the nearest way out of this movie. His character's shifting alliance seems more like plot convenience, and the long sequence where Salander assists him in escaping police custody in a Stockholm airport is thoroughly absurd (how can she coordinate that many things with such perfect precision timing?). THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB is filled with preposterous contrivances, eye-rolling coincidences, and lazy storytelling, glossing over plot details in a muddled fashion and leaving a capable cast stranded. Alvarez is obviously no Fincher, but while the film looks nice and has a couple of striking shots (one standout being Salander and Blomkvist facing each other from glass elevators in adjacent buildings), everything about it is a perfunctory clock-punch that feels like a Netflix Original that was accidentally released in theaters.