Thursday, May 30, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: AVENGEMENT (2019) and GENERAL COMMANDER (2019)

(US/UK - 2019)

The best-kept secret in action movies, Scott Adkins continues to pay his dues and delivers the performance of his career thus far in the stunning, blood-splattered AVENGEMENT. It's also his latest collaboration with director Jesse V. Johnson, another guy who's been plugging away on the fringes of VOD for several years now and is finally found his calling with Adkins. While THE DEBT COLLECTOR and TRIPLE THREAT weren't exactly the Adkins/Johnson duo's finest work, they really clicked on SAVAGE DOG, the terrific ACCIDENT MAN, and now AVENGEMENT, a film that should be playing on 2500 screens and turning Adkins into an A-list movie star. He stars as Cain Burgess, a convict in London's Bellmarsh Prison, a hellhole affectionately known as "The Meat Grinder." Given a supervised 12-hour, six-man security furlough to visit his dying mother in the hospital, he arrives 20 minutes after she passes--partially because the cops stopped for vanilla lattes, which really sours his mood. He manages to escape and embarks on a two-day rampage of revenge across London, settling old scores with everyone who had a hand in turning him into the violent psychopath he's become, with the ultimate target being his big brother Lincoln (Craig Fairbrass), a ruthless loan shark whose backstabbing machinations led to Cain's incarceration in The Meat Grinder.

Johnson and co-writer Stu Small arrange the story in a non-linear fashion through time jumps and flashbacks as Cain ends up at Lincoln's bar and holds a bunch of his flunkies hostage--including his right-hand man Hyde (Nick Moran)--and informs them what he's been up to over the last couple of days as he waits for his brother's arrival. Like an unholy alliance between Guy Ritchie (especially with Moran's presence), Steven Soderbergh, and longtime Adkins collaborator Isaac Florentine (the UNDISPUTED sequels and the two NINJA films among others), AVENGEMENT is a bit more imaginatively constructed than you normally see in VOD action fare, and in terms of style, ambition, and quality, it's a step up for Adkins and especially Johnson, following through on the promise of ACCIDENT MAN. But this is the Scott Adkins Show from start to finish. Outfitted with a grill after Cain loses most of his teeth in a prison brawl stair-stomping and with a face adorned with cut scars and burns after being splashed with homemade napalm by another inmate ("Looks like someone set fire to your face and tried to put it out with a shovel," Hyde snarks), Adkins looks like a feral, roid-raging Pete Postlethwaite in a performance of frightening intensity. A fundamentally good man--his boxing career ended when he became persona non grata after disobeying orders from Lincoln to throw a fight--Cain has been handed a shit deal by life at every turn, and the very person he looked up to is the one who continually threw him under the bus for his own personal gain and/or to save his own ass (watch the pain Adkins conveys with his eyes when his terminally mother visits him in prison for the last time and says "Thank God Lincoln is there for me"). Cain Burgess is a great movie character brought to vivid life by a seething, explosive Adkins. There are moments in this where he doesn't even look human. Filled with genuinely unpredictable twists and surprises and one of the great action sequences of the year once all hell breaks loose in the bar, AVENGEMENT is an instant cult classic and with its current 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it seems like mainstream critics are finally taking notice of Adkins. It's about fucking time. (Unrated, 88 mins)

(UK/US - 2019)

The latest DTV excretion pinched off by former action star and probable Russian sleeper agent Steven Seagal has an even shakier foundation than usual. GENERAL COMMANDER was conceived in 2017 as a 12-episode TV series, but the project was abandoned by creator/co-director Philippe Martinez (JCVD's WAKE OF DEATH) after just two episodes were shot. The solution? Just put those two 40-minute episodes together and release it as a new Seagal movie. That certainly explains the abrupt non-ending that probably served as a cliffhanger to the third episode, along with the credit "Created by Philippe Martinez," the TV-style opening credits, a GENERAL COMMANDER logo that looks like Martinez should be expecting a cease-and-desist order from Van Halen's lawyers, incredulous technological capabilities that make the CBS prime-time procedural lineup look like John Le Carre tutorials, plus an overwrought but not-completely-terrible theme song performed by co-star Mica Javier. As if it even matters, Seagal *IS* Jake Alexander, the leader of an elite CIA black-ops unit specializing in hunting down the world's richest and deadliest criminals who rule the "dark web" and trade in untraceable cryptocurrency. After one of their own is killed in Cambodia in a botched raid on a black market organ harvesting operation, Alexander's handler (Martinez's wife Megan Brown Martinez, who's maybe a worse actor than Seagal) grows tired of his cowboy methods and disbands the unit. Alexander goes rogue, getting financing from wealthy Russian investor--wink wink--Katarina Sokolov (Evgeniya Ahkremenko) to set up his own freelance operation to track down Gino Orsetti (Edoardo Costa), the wealthy and powerful Malta shitbag and apparent Maximilian Schell cosplayer who's behind the black market organ outfit.

There's a couple of go-through-the-motions action sequences, and Seagal has about a 12-second, badly-edited fight scene with a CIA assassin played by Ron Smoorenburg, but even factoring in the extremely diminished expectations of a present-day Seagal movie, GENERAL COMMANDER is a crushing bore. Much of that is due to all of the exposition and background that must be established in any premiere episode of a TV series, which just makes it all the more obvious that this is just two episodes crammed together (Ross W. Clarkson is credited as a second director, the assumption being that he helmed the second episode, which relies far less on the ridiculous, wanky flourishes and pointless echo effects on some dialogue in the first half). Seagal is still the laziest actor alive, but at least he isn't obviously doubled like he usually would be (I guess this is him showing "commitment") and is actually there in most of the shots with his co-stars. Don't think he's turning over a new leaf, though: Seagal does disappear for unusually long stretches throughout, which is pretty much on-brand for a Steven Seagal TV series. (R, 85 mins)

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

On Netflix: THE PERFECTION (2019)

(US  - 2019)

Directed by Richard Shepard. Written by Richard Shepard, Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder. Cast: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber, Alaina Huffman, Mark Kandborg, Graeme Duffy, Molly Grace, Eileen Tian, Milah Thompson, Winnie Hung, Johnny Ji, David Soo. (Unrated, 90 mins)

Horror's "slow burn" movement over the last decade has given way to term "elevated horror," often invoked when it comes to the likes of THE WITCH, HEREDITARY, the Jordan Peele double-shot of GET OUT and US, and other ambitious thinkpiece-launchers. The Netflix Original film THE PERFECTION is every bit as important a modern horror film, even though "elevated horror" really reeks of highbrow snobbery and a term used as a pass for those who like the movie in question but still regard the genre with scornful dismissal. Regardless of what kind of horror you want to call it, THE PERFECTION is a film best approached knowing as little as possible. It's a deranged gut-punch that weds the stylistic flourishes of Brian De Palma with the shocking ferocity of South Korean OLDBOY and THE HANDMAIDEN auteur Park Chan-wook. It's an out-of-left-field stunner from director Richard Shepard--best known for 2005's THE MATADOR and the 2009 John Cazale documentary I KNEW IT WAS YOU--who co-wrote with RINGER and SUPERNATURAL vets Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder. The filmmakers have so many twists and tricks up their sleeve--and they actually play fair with how they're revealed--that it takes some time before you realize you've been sent in the wrong direction, whether it's a flashback to show you that what you just saw is indeed not what happened, a second-act change in protagonists, or the way they have you continually shifting your alliances with the major characters.

In short, Charlotte Willmore (GET OUT's Allison Williams) is a former cello prodigy who walked away from a promising career to care for her ailing mother for what became ten agonizing years, with quick flashes indicating a suicide attempt and shock treatment in a mental institution. In her teens, Charlotte was a student of renowned cello instructor and arts benefactor Anton Bachoff (Steven Weber) and his wife Paloma (Alaina Huffman), and she reconnects with the two of them when they invite her to a cello symposium in Shanghai. They surprise Charlotte by making her one of the two judges of a youth competition for the next Bachoff scholarship. The other judge is Anton's most prized alum, globally-revered cellist Elizabeth "Lizzie" Wells (Logan Browning). Initially apprehensive of meeting one another (though they glanced at one another as children when a 14-year-old Charlotte left the Bachoff Academy and nine-year-old Lizzie was just arriving), they immediately hit it off, first with mutual respect then sexual attraction, and after several hours of dancing and drinking at a club, they end up spending the night together. Lizzie talks Charlotte into accompanying her on a two-week "rough and tumble" bus tour through off-the-grid parts of China, but the trip gets off to a rocky start when Lizzie can't shake the hangover from the previous night's partying. Things then get exponentially worse on the road after Lizzie becomes deathly ill and the irate driver kicks both women off the bus.

That's about as much of a synopsis--roughly the first 20 minutes of the film--as one can reveal without going into significant spoilers. You'll never see where THE PERFECTION is taking you and even when you think you do, you're wrong. Motives shift, perceptions change, and the rage is so palpable that this will likely go down as a furiously definitive statement of the #MeToo movement in the horror genre. The De Palma worship isn't subtle--drink every time you see a split diopter and you'll be as hungover as Lizzie is on the bus--and it promotes an overwhelming sense of unease and doom while at the same time being so playfully lurid in its style that you're dazzled even as you're cringing and wincing. Shepard, who previously worked with Williams when he helmed several episodes of the HBO series GIRLS, conducts a master class in screw-tightening tension, with the ill-fated bus trip a small masterpiece of nerve-shredding intensity as an unfortunate situation turns horrifying and quickly spirals out of control. It's extraordinarily well-acted by Williams and Browning, both tasked with difficult roles that run the gamut of every conceivable emotion. THE PERFECTION is a film that must be experienced rather than read about. It's as terrifying and disturbing as anything in the "elevated horror" (I'm using the term begrudgingly) movement, and in a perfect world, it would be playing on 2500 screens to astonished audiences who would exit the theater at the end, buzzing over that remarkable final shot and how much this movie fucked them up.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

In Theaters: BRIGHTBURN (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by David Yarovesky. Written by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn. Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Meredith Hagner, Matt Jones, Gregory Alan Williams, Becky Wahlstrom, Emmie Hunter, Annie Humphrey, Stephen Blackehart. (R, 90 mins)

Very nearly a casualty of alt-right conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich's attempt to engineer the cancellation of executive producer and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY helmer James Gunn over some offensive tweets in his past as some kind of "both sides" revenge for Roseanne Barr losing her TV show, BRIGHTBURN is an intriguing superhero deconstruction that owes a tremendous debt to SUPERMAN. Following the Man of Steel template starting with a childless couple discovering a human-looking alien child and raising it as their own, BRIGHTBURN doesn't take long to ponder the hypothetical of young Clark Kent discovering his inner Damien Thorn and running with it. Unable to successfully conceive a child, happily married Tori (Elizabeth Banks, who starred in Gunn's SLITHER) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) are at least enjoying the continued attempts when they're interrupted by a crash in the woods behind their farmhouse in rural Brightburn, Kansas. Cut to the 12th birthday of their adopted son Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn), who's discovering new things about himself, namely the extent of his physical strength and an uncontrolled rage at those who wrong him. He's drawn to a glowing, rumbling light in the barn--which he's been forbidden to enter and has obeyed that order until now--where something locked under the floorboards is sending him a message and frequently putting him in a trance. Tori and Kyle write it off to the onset of puberty, and after finding some hidden photos of naked women and autopsies under his mattress, Kyle addresses his son's confusion by telling him that sexual feelings and "touching it" are normal and that he shouldn't be ashamed.

Emboldened by the conversation ("Good talk," well-meaning Kyle says after the awkward interaction), Brandon begins acting on his urges by stalking cute classmate Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), even entering through her bedroom window and watching her from behind the curtain. He later breaks her wrist after she calls him a "pervert" in front of other kids. As his mood becomes darker and his artistic scribblings more violent in nature, Tori still keeps attributing it to changing hormones. This is even after the body count starts rising in Brightburn, starting with the slaughter of Kyle's chickens all the way to Caitlyn's Brandon-hating mother (Becky Wahlstrom), followed by threats to the school guidance counselor (Meredith Hagner), who happens to be Tori's sister. Only Kyle seems to realize that maybe the innocent baby they rescued from a crashed space pod that they've kept locked away in a secret room in the barn for a dozen years--now donning a cape and a creepy, crimson executioner's mask and hood and demonstrating decidedly superhuman powers--might be a force they can no longer control.

Written by Gunn's brother Brian and their cousin Mark, and directed by David Yarovesky, whose 2015 indie horror film THE HIVE starred James and Brian's brother Sean Gunn, BRIGHTBURN takes a novel approach to the superhero concept by mashing it up with the "evil child" subgenre, which is having a comeback year already--in terms of quantity if not commercial success--with THE PRODIGY and THE HOLE IN THE GROUND. Its use of Brandon's discovery of his true nature as a metaphor for puberty is intriguing, and the film contains some inventively gruesome kills that rely on some good old-fashioned practical gore effects, but the more it goes on, the more difficult it is to buy the stupidity of the Breyers, particularly Tori, who's still making desperate excuses for Brandon's behavior even after the sheriff (Gregory Alan Williams) has some pretty damning evidence that her son is pre-teen serial killer (though they really don't do anything different from Ma and Pa Kent, who definitely lucked out by having a better kid who didn't give them any trouble). Banks and Denman are good, despite being saddled with lunkheaded characters (how does Kyle possibly think his solution to dealing with Brandon is going to work?), and Dunn, who resembles a young Paul Dano, has an effectively dead glare in his eyes. Yarovesky stages a couple of solid scare sequences, with one involving a glass shard and an eyeball that might even have fans of Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE squirming a little. The ending is a bit frustrating, only because it leaves the door open for a sequel, a feeling that's solidified shortly after by an early closing credits stinger featuring a surprise cameo from a major James Gunn BFF as a ranting, Alex Jones-type cable news nutjob making references to Rainn Wilson's character in Gunn's 2010 superhero black comedy SUPER, vaguely hinting at yet another goddamn "cinematic universe." Can't anybody just make a fucking stand-alone movie anymore?

Monday, May 27, 2019

In Theaters/On VOD: THE POISON ROSE (2019)

(US/Italy - 2019)

Directed by George Gallo. Written by Richard Salvatore. Cast: John Travolta, Morgan Freeman, Famke Janssen, Brendan Fraser, Robert Patrick, Kat Graham, Peter Stormare, Ella Bleu Travolta, Blerim Destani, Julie Lott, Nick Vallelonga, Devin Ellery, Chris Mullinax, Melissa Greenspan, Sheila Shah, Nadine Lewington, Ashley Atwood, Anson Downes, Bill Luckett. (R, 97 mins)

It's always unfortunate when great movie stars don't team up until the downside of their careers. This means you get things like Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins having a one-scene confrontation in the 2016 straight-to-VOD dud MISCONDUCT, but they're never in the same shot together as it quickly becomes obvious that they weren't even there at the same time. That's not quite the case with John Travolta and Morgan Freeman in THE POISON ROSE, but it's just as dispiriting that these two never worked together until the era of VOD Travoltablivion. A neo-noir that feels like it's been frozen in ice since the waning days of Savoy Pictures and boasting the finest ensemble that 1997 had to offer, THE POISON ROSE opens in 1978 Los Angeles, as low-rent private eye Carson Phillips (Travolta, sporting a career-worst wig) is offered a job by a mystery woman (Julie Lott) to verify the whereabouts of an elderly relative named Barbara Van Poole, who's supposedly a patient at a sanitarium in Phillips' hometown of Galveston. Phillips is reluctant, as he got as far away from Texas as he could 20 years earlier when he was disgraced in a point-shaving scandal that ended his gridiron career. And before we go any further, yes, THE POISON ROSE is the kind of movie that asks you to buy 65-year-old John Travolta as a guy who was a college football star 20 years earlier.

Phillips arrives in Galveston and is promptly stonewalled by Dr. Miles Mitchell (Brendan Fraser, a last-minute replacement when Forest Whitaker backed out), the weirdo in charge of the sanitarium, who insists that Ms. Van Poole is undergoing intense treatment and cannot be bothered. Using his downtime to renew old townie acquaintances like Sheriff Bing Welsh (Robert Patrick), aging hippie Slide Olsen (Peter Stormare), and obscenely wealthy mover-and-shaker Doc (Freeman), Phillips gets involved in another mystery when college football star Happy Chandler (Devin Ellery) takes a nasty hit on the field and dies. An autopsy reveals speed, meth, and an overdose of a cancer drug in his system, and the chief suspect is his wife Becky (Ella Bleu Travolta), who has plenty of motive since Happy was abusive and was sleeping with several other women, including Doc's sultry chanteuse daughter Rose (Kat Graham). Further complicating matters is that Becky's mother is Jayne Hunt (Famke Janssen), the woman Phillips left after his football scandal and the widow of a Galveston oil baron who was Doc's chief competitor. Doc wants part of Jayne's empire and for her to talk a snooping Phillips into going back to L.A., and Jayne wants Doc to grease Sheriff Welsh and the local law to take the heat for Happy's death off of Becky. All the while, Phillips keeps investigating and uncovers a conspiracy of corruption, a cancer cluster resulting from groundwater contamination, rampant medical billing fraud, and disappearing sanitarium patients, with random people threatening and taking shots at him to let him know he's no longer welcome in Galveston.

This is more or less DIPSHIT CHINATOWN, with the period detail primarily limited to the cars and people smoking indoors, with no real point to it taking place in 1978. Freeman's Doc is straight out of the Noah Cross playbook ("He owns everyone and everything!" Jayne says) and the story is so convoluted that you'll ultimately stop caring. In relation to Travolta's recent output that's almost enough to make John Cusack and Bruce Willis look away in embarrassment (GOTTI, SPEED KILLS, TRADING PAINT), THE POISON ROSE has a little more going for it--it's hard to dislike any movie that opens with GREEN BOOK Oscar-winner Nick Vallelonga getting kneed in the balls--and its biggest disappointment is that it takes itself too seriously and never fully embraces its inherent insanity. This is a film where Peter Stormare is shown singing a country music ditty and even he doesn't have the weirdest accent in it. It's been a while since Fraser was in a feature film, and if he's gunning to reinvent himself as a character actor in the Sidney Lassick mold, he's off to a promising start with his fey, lisping, whiny Dr. Mitchell. Fraser gives THE POISON ROSE its biggest spark and it's entertainingly weird whenever he's onscreen, plus his final scene is a viral YouTube clip waiting to happen. There's a hilarious scene where local drug dealer Lorenzo (Blerim Destani) is firing at Phillips in an empty football stadium, and Phillips grabs a football and takes him down with a perfectly-thrown spiral. It's also nice to see Travolta acting with his daughter Ella Bleu, even if it's something dumb like Phillips teaching Becky how to properly dunk donuts in coffee. Screenwriter and Travolta pal Richard Salvatore, working from a self-published novel by, uh, Richard Salvatore, gets off a few good P.I. zingers in the requisite noir narration, with Phillips cracking that "the next big case Bing solved would be his first," but usually it's cliches along the lines of "This is a bad place...worse than you can imagine," or this groan-worthy exchange more fitting for DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID:

Phillips: "You're tough as nails."
Jayne: "Those nails got rusty."  

The film was directed by George Gallo, best known for scripting the 1988 buddy classic MIDNIGHT RUN and co-writing 1995's BAD BOYS, but has done little else of note. IMDb and some reviews are crediting two Italian filmmakers--Francesco Cinquemani and Luca Giliberto--as additional co-directors, though their names are nowhere to be found on the film itself. Shot in Savannah, GA, THE POISON ROSE is a US/Italian co-production from Cannon cover band Millennium and Italian producer Andrea Iervolino, and the closing credits list an Italian unit. Cinquemani--who also directed the abominable Italian HUNGER GAMES ripoff ANDRON that somehow starred Alec Baldwin--has been actively plugging THE POISON ROSE all over social media but it's not clear from this exactly what his or Gilibertro's contributions were. The inclusion of numerous Italian actors in the cast listing on the film's IMDb page who aren't even in the movie--among them Claudia Gerini (JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2) and Bruno Bilotta (DEMONS 2)--could indicate either some serious post-production tweaking or that Iervolino had Cinquemani and Giliberto shoot additional scenes specifically tailored for the Italian and/or European market, though I really can't imagine this being a hit anywhere.

Friday, May 24, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: TRADING PAINT (2019) and TRIPLE THREAT (2019)

(Spain/US - 2019)

Neither as hilariously bad as GOTTI nor as aggressively awful as SPEED KILLS, the dirt racing drama TRADING PAINT is the "best" of John Travolta's recent VOD output simply by default. Oh, make no mistake, it's terrible, but it has a couple of supporting performances that save it from total Travoltablivion. Travolta (also one of 25 credited producers) is Sam "The Man" Munroe (that's the best nickname they could come up with?), a legend on the Alabama dirt racing circuit who's passed the torch on to his son Cam (Toby Sebastian, best known for his stint as Trystane Martell on GAME OF THRONES). Sam's racing team is plagued by minimal funds and Cam is tired of losing, so he causes a rift when he bails to race for his dad's longtime arch-nemesis Bob Linsky (Michael Madsen). Sam and Cam have always been there for each other, especially after Sam was behind the wheel in a car crash that killed his wife 20 years ago, and Sam is so incensed by his son's betrayal that he comes out of retirement and gets back on the track. This almost ends in tragedy after Sam wins a race and Linsky thinks Cam went easy on him, prompting him to have one of his other drivers (Chris Mullinax) try to knock Cam out of the next race, causing Sam to plow right into Cam's car, with the younger Munroe's car going up in flames as he barely makes it out alive with two broken legs. This leads to a reconciliation as Cam goes on a long road to recovery and rejoins his father's team to reclaim the crown from Linsky at the final race of the season.

Co-written by Gary Gerani (PUMPKINHEAD) and directed by Sweden-based Iraqi filmmaker Karzan Kader, TRADING PAINT is as perfunctory and formulaic as it gets. There's no excitement in the blandly-shot racing sequences, and the forced dramatic tension has no foundation or ultimate purpose. Why are Sam and Linsky such bitter rivals? And who thought present-day Michael Madsen, who's more or less morphed into KILL BILL's Budd, was credible casting as the top driver on the circuit? This is the kind of film where characters who already know each other speak in laborious exposition in order to clumsily get the audience up to speed. An early scene has Sam and new girlfriend Becca (Shania Twain, in her acting debut) out fishing, with Sam asking "Why'd you move down here?" as she goes into the whole backstory of her divorce and finding a new job. Wouldn't they have already covered this subject by this point in their relationship? The same goes for the track announcers when Sam rejoins the circuit, their racing analysis essentially serving as an in-movie summary in case you just stumbled on it or dozed off: "Sam 'The Man' Munroe, coming out of retirement and now he's mixed up in the crazy soap opera that has his son Cam driving for his old arch-rival Bob Linsky...hell, you can't write this any better!" Well, they could, but they didn't bother trying (Cam, embarking on his comeback: "Racing is in our blood!"). Twain has a charming screen presence as Becca and certainly deserves to be in a better film, and Kevin Dunn, as Sam's limping buddy Stumpy (that's original), gets a long monologue where he has to tell a really dumb story about how Sam once saved him from an alligator attack (hence, "Stumpy"), but Dunn is a total pro who uses all of his Character Actor Hall of Famer skills to convincingly sell it. The great Barry Corbin also turns up for a cameo as a folksy racing radio show host, and it's these little bits that periodically upgrade TRADING PAINT from "bad" to "inoffensively mediocre." (R, 87 mins)

(US/China/Thailand/Australia/UK - 2019)

An EXPENDABLES-type summit of today's top martial-arts and second-tier action stars, TRIPLE THREAT strands its packed cast in a story that's generic and uninspired even by the standards of VOD. Any one of these guys have made much more interesting films on their own or in pairs and while it seems they're enjoying themselves, this really should've been something special. In the fictional Maha Jayan jungle in southeast Asia, a team of mercenaries led by Devereaux (BLACK DYNAMITE's Michael Jai White) have infiltrated a prison camp with the help of local trackers Payu (ONG-BAK's Tony Jaa) and Long-Fei (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON stuntman-turned-actor Tiger Chen, one of 30 credited producers), who were enlisted under the guide of helping out with a humanitarian rescue mission. It's a rescue mission, but the mercenaries' true target is their boss Collins (Scott Adkins), a deadly international terrorist who's being held at the camp. A skirmish claims the life of the wife (Sile Zhang) of camp guard Jaka (THE RAID's Iko Uwais), and Collins' crew leaves Payu and Long-Fei for dead. As required by law in films of this sort, Jaka winds up in an illegal, underground fight tournament where he vows revenge on Payu and Long-Fei until they convince him that they were misled and that they're after Collins as well, thus forming the titular unholy alliance. Also mixed into the melee is wealthy heiress Xiao Xing (Celina Jade of WOLF WARRIOR 2 and the TV series ARROW), who's committed to wiping out an Asian crime syndicate headed by Su Feng (Monika Mok), who happens to be the chief benefactor of Collins' terrorist activities.

Director Jesse V. Johnson--who's worked with Adkins several times, most notably on the wildly entertaining ACCIDENT MAN--and veteran fight choreographer Tim Man (ONG BAK, BOYKA: UNDISPUTED) stage some expectedly brutal throwdowns, and there's a surprising amount of splatter, but TRIPLE THREAT still never really catches fire. It doesn't take advantage of having all of these people in the same movie (there's also retired UFC fighter Michael Bisping, CHOCOLATE's Jeeja Yanin, freestyle full combat champ Dominique Vandenberg, and jump kick world record holder Ron Smoorenburg), and Jaka going off on his own in mid-film to attempt an undercover infiltration of Collins' team seems like a decision made less for the narrative and more to accommodate Uwais' availability. The pace drags in that middle section when the focus is on Payu, Long-Fei, and Xing, and when Payu finally confronts Devereaux after realizing it was he who killed his wife, Jaa is actually forced to growl "This is personal." Adkins has some fun as the villain, even though the script (credited to six writers!) requires him to emphatically declare "This ends tonight!" when he realizes the Triple Threat is coming for him. TRIPLE THREAT leaves no cliche untouched, but while you could certainly do a lot worse in the world at Redbox, this is unfortunately among the most forgettable efforts of almost everyone in it. (R, 96 mins)

Monday, May 20, 2019

Retro Review: THE CHOSEN (1978)

aka HOLOCAUST 2000
(Italy/UK - 1977; US release 1978)

Directed by Alberto De Martino. Written by Sergio Donati, Alberto De Martino and Michael Robson. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Simon Ward, Agostina Belli, Anthony Quayle, Romolo Valli, Adolfo Celi, Virginia McKenna, Alexander Knox, Ivo Garrani, Spiros Focas, Massimo Foschi, Geoffrey Keen, Alan Hendricks, Peter Cellier, John Carlin, Penelope Horner, Caroline Horner, Vittorio Fanfoni, Teresa Rossi Passante, Andrea Esterhazy. (R, 102 mins)

The Italian ripoff is one of the most enjoyably rewarding aspects of being a fan of '70s and '80s exploitation and Eurocult cinema. If there was a game-changing American blockbuster (THE GODFATHER, THE EXORCIST, JAWS, STAR WARS), an immensely popular genre effort (DAWN OF THE DEAD, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II), or even an influential film that wasn't necessarily American-made but was a worldwide hit (THE ROAD WARRIOR), it was guaranteed that at least a dozen shameless Italian ripoffs would follow in its wake. These often starred slumming, past-their-prime American and sometimes British actors who weren't getting lead roles at home and often had to resort to TV guest spots, considered at the time to be a step down. By contrast, European producers were offering starring roles, top billing, treated them like royalty, gave them an all-expenses-paid Italian vacation, and all they had to do was put in the bare minimum for the biggest paycheck, or in many cases, a suitcase full of tax-free cash. In the annals of Italian ripoffs, the 1978 OMEN knockoff THE CHOSEN stands out from the crowd, not just because it's unusually ambitious, has a much bigger budget than most of its Eurotrash imitation brethren, and a distinguished supporting cast, but because it stars a surprisingly engaged Kirk Douglas. Already a Hollywood legend by this point and not exactly hurting for work (he had Brian De Palma's THE FURY in theaters at the same time), Douglas had enough clout and his name enough value that he could've gotten away with doing as little as possible, shot his close-ups, and gone sight-seeing while his stand-in did the heavy lifting and competent editors could create the illusion that he was there the whole time, but he approaches this with all the gravitas and teeth-clenched, lock-jawed intensity of SPARTACUS.

THE CHOSEN works largely because Kirk clearly believes in it. In an era when aging leading men who stayed in Hollywood were often begrudgingly starring in glossy, big-budget horror movies that they never would've made in their heyday--Gregory Peck wasn't that enthused about being in THE OMEN, and William Holden did DAMIEN: OMEN II because he turned THE OMEN down only to see it become a huge phenomenon--Douglas passionately brings his A-game to THE CHOSEN and busts his ass like his reputation and the future of his career depended on it. We're obviously not talking Henry Fonda literally phoning in his performance from his living room in the 1977 Italian JAWS ripoff TENTACLES or Richard Harris turning up, presumably at gunpoint, in Bruno Mattei's 1988 RAMBO knockoff STRIKE COMMANDO 2, but it's always fascinating to find someone of Douglas' stature in a movie like THE CHOSEN, and usually, it's for the wrong reasons, especially in those occasional instances where they don't even stick around to dub themselves. But THE CHOSEN isn't a run-of-the-mill, quickie Italian ripoff, and perhaps Douglas recognized that. It deals with the same core ideas as THE OMEN and has some very OMEN-esque cues in Ennio Morricone's score, but also has the political and corporate plot elements that would eventually turn up in subsequent OMEN sequels as well as other Italian ripoffs like the insane THE VISITOR. It's a rare case of an Italian ripoff inadvertently influencing the later sequels to the movie it was ripping off in the first place, including a disturbing sequence in a maternity ward that foreshadows the third OMEN film, 1981's THE FINAL CONFLICT.

Douglas stars as Robert Caine, a successful London-based American industrialist whose Caine Enterprises is about to break ground on a nuclear power plant in the Middle East. The first red flag appears when Caine's wife Eva (Virginia McKenna), who opposes the construction of the plant, is killed by a fanatical protester (Massimo Foschi) in a botched assassination attempt on Caine. Then the Prime Minister (Ivo Garrani) who approved the plant is defeated in an election by military hardliner Harbin (Spiros Focas) who sternly informs Caine that his project is too dangerous and will never come to pass. One by one, everyone who opposes the construction of the plant is killed in a variety of OMEN-inspired freak accidents (including a bisection that would be copied in a much gorier fashion in DAMIEN: OMEN II, which opened two months later) as Caine, over the objections of his son Angel (Simon Ward), starts to question whether the plant should be built. A chance meeting with a priest (Romolo Valli), who may as well be named Father Exposition, leads to Caine's realization that the design and layout of the power plant is an atomic-era recreation of a Biblical prophecy of the apocalypse brought about by the Antichrist (and to further hammer it home, Father Obvious emphatically declares "The dragon of the apocalypse...is your atomic plant!"). The priest tells him that the Antichrist is a mirror image of Jesus, and with the help of Caine Enterprises chief computer programmer Griffith (Anthony Quayle), Caine discovers that a nonsense mathematical equation is really the revelation that he has "generated something that is not human." This is just before Sara (Agostina Belli), the much-younger anti-nuke journalist with whom has been having a fling, announces that she's pregnant with his child.

Directed and co-written by Alberto De Martino, best known for the blasphemous, goat-rimming 1974 Italian EXORCIST ripoff THE ANTICHRIST (belatedly released in the US in the fall of 1978 as THE TEMPTER) and whose next film was the MST3K favorite THE PUMAMAN, THE CHOSEN is endlessly entertaining despite boasting the most awkwardly-cadenced protest chant you'll ever hear ("What do our children...want to be...when they grow up...ALIVE!") and its inability to play its cards close to the vest. This makes some of Belli's performance as Sara a little baffling, since by the time she's acting strange and refusing to enter a church, we already know who the Antichrist is thanks to De Martino using no subtlety in his direction of Ward, making him look sinister from his first moment onscreen (and he's named "Angel," for Christ's sake). The screenplay has some intriguing ideas that lead to arresting images, like Caine holding a meeting of his 12-member board of directors that's staged exactly like The Last Supper. The sight of the inscription "IESVS" carved into a cave wall near the plant site and the use of the equation "2√231" to illustrate the priest's assertion that the Antichrist is a mirror image of Jesus and Griffith reminding Caine that digital numbers can form words won't fool anyone who's ever looked at the Dio logo upside-down or keyed "80085" into a calculator when they were in third grade, but like the De Martino's THE ANTICHRIST using sexual frustration as the impetus for demonic possession, THE CHOSEN is film that tries harder than it needs to and has ambitions beyond presenting a rote (yet memorable) series of splattery kill scenes.

Originally titled HOLOCAUST 2000 for its European release in late 1977, the film was rechristened THE CHOSEN when it arrived in the US in the spring of 1978 in an altered version with a different ending. The HOLOCAUST 2000 ending is more open-ended and suggests that Caine and Sara's child is the Second Coming and will battle its evil, mirror image older brother. But the cobbled-together US ending features newly-shot footage of a bearded Douglas walking through an airport, intercut with Angel vowing to complete the nuclear power plant by his 33rd birthday in a meeting with the board of directors, which he's just increased from 12 to 21 members. This goes on while an unseen figure--Caine, played by a pair of hands probably not belonging to Douglas--blows up the Caine Enterprises headquarters to ensure Angel's evil plan never comes to fruition. It isn't known whether De Martino shot this new footage commissioned by US distributor American International (ABBY and FOOD OF THE GODS editor Corky Ehlers is credited with "additional editing" in the US credits), but that was the version I remember seeing when CBS aired this in prime time in summer 1983 under its HOLOCAUST 2000 title. The film has undergone a number of title changes over the years, which hasn't been easy to keep straight given the two different versions. Despite being retitled THE CHOSEN for the US, the title reverted back to HOLOCAUST 2000 for TV and on Vestron Video's 1985-issued VHS, even though it has the CHOSEN version's "Kirk blows shit up" ending, and when it finally appeared on DVD from Lionsgate in 2008, it was retitled RAIN OF FIRE, but was the original HOLOCAUST 2000 European version without the explosion. Confused yet?

Scream Factory's new Blu-ray (because physical media is dead) contains both the HOLOCAUST 2000 and THE CHOSEN cuts, albeit in different aspect ratios (HOLOCAUST 2000 is 2.35:1, while THE CHOSEN is 1.78:1). There are minor tweaks to both versions aside from their endings (the conclusion to an early confrontation in an asylum between Caine and his wife's killer plays a bit more smoothly in the US cut), with both clocking in at 102 minutes, THE CHOSEN running a few seconds longer. Oddly, a Douglas-Belli sex scene is slightly more explicit in the US version, with some additional Belli nudity and a few extra Kirk thrusts. In a display of Douglas' absolute commitment to the project, which includes doing his own stunts like being thrown off a hospital gurney and into the air by asylum inmates while strait-jacketed, both versions showcase full-frontal Kirk in an insane dream sequence where he envisions the end of the world while running and flailing around a desert in his birthday suit. Whether it's a sense of professional dedication or just Douglas showing off his still-sterling 61-year-old physique (which he would also be happy to do in 1980's ridiculous SATURN 3, possibly influencing the future exhibitionism of co-star Harvey Keitel), his willingness to throw himself into his role helps sell the hell out of THE CHOSEN, a gem among '70s Italian genre ripoffs that deserves to be better known.

THE CHOSEN airing on CBS as HOLOCAUST 2000 on 7/30/1983

Friday, May 17, 2019


(US - 2019)

Directed by Chad Stahelski. Written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Mark Abrams. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Barry, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, Anjelica Huston, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Tobias Segal, Said Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn, Jason Mantzoukas, Cecep Arif Rahman, Yayan Ruhian, Margaret Daly, Randall Duk Kim, Robin Lord Taylor, Boban Marjinovic, Susan Blommaert, Unity Phelan, Roger Yuan. (R, 131 mins)

An unexpected sleeper hit in theaters in 2014 after being given an 11th hour reprieve from VOD excommunicado, JOHN WICK provided Keanu Reeves with another iconic character that's single-handedly carried him through an otherwise rough career patch: a retired hit man who walked away from his old life to be with the woman he loved, unleashed as vengeance personified after the son of his former employer steals his car and kills his puppy Daisy, the final gift given to him by his wife before she succumbed to cancer. 2017's JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 was even better--a gonzo, comic-book-inspired actiongasm that cranked up the stakes, the inventive world-building, and ended with its hero embarking on a run for his life with seemingly the entire world in pursuit. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM (that title's a bit of a mouthful) opens just seconds after the ending of CHAPTER 2 as Wick, branded "excommunicado" by the High Table of the organization after killing double-crossing Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) on the consecrated grounds of the NYC branch of the hotel-for-assassins The Continental, is given a one-hour head start by Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane) before a $14 million mark is opened on Wick and offered to every professional assassin in the world.

Unable to get out of the city and dodging bullets, knives, and various other lethal weapons everywhere he goes, Wick calls in a favor and seeks safe passage from The Director (Anjelica Huston), a Russian ballet instructor and enigmatic figure from his past. Meanwhile, the High Table sends The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), an ice-cold problem-solver whose job is to enforce appropriate punishment to any of those who aided Wick in his escape, including Winston and The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), both of whom are given seven days to get their affairs in order before they're relieved of their duties. The Director gets Wick on a boat to Morocco, where he visits the Casablanca branch of the Continental, run by former colleague Sofia (Halle Berry). This leads to a meeting in the desert with a High Table elder (Said Taghmaoui), who offers Wick his freedom if he goes back to NYC and eliminates Winston, who's been deemed unreliable after failing to properly handle the D'Antonio debacle. Waiting in NYC is Zero (Mark Dacascos sighting!), a sushi chef and ambitious assassin ordered by The Adjudicator to kill Wick.

With Reeves and director Chad Stahelski returning, there's certainly a nice, lived-in feeling of comfort with the increasingly complex world of JOHN WICK. But like almost all franchises on its third go-around, CHAPTER 3 does start feeling like it's spinning its wheels at times. Derek Kolstad, the screenwriter of the first two films, is also back, but there's three additional credited writers, a telling indicator of how cluttered and structurally chaotic this often seems. After an electrifying opening half hour, the repetition starts creeping in, and there's only so many ways Wick can blast a bad guy in the head at point blank range before it starts to become a blur (Stahelski seems particularly indebted to Gareth Evans' THE RAID 2, right down to the presence of Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian as two of Zero's chief flunkies). But just because it isn't as fresh and inspired as its predecessors doesn't mean there isn't a lot to enjoy: the knife fight is terrific; a long gun battle with Wick, Sofia and her two loyal, ass-kicking, crotch-biting dogs vs. the army of Casablanca crime boss Berrada (Jerome Flynn) could almost be its own stand-alone short film; an amusing shout-out to Andrei Tarkovsky; an eye-piercing that's right up there with Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE; Lance Reddick as the NYC Continental's unflappable concierge getting to blast shotguns as he helps Wick take on some of Zero's guys; and Dacascos has a lot of fun as Zero, who's assigned to kill Wick but can't stop being a gushing fanboy whenever he's in his presence (and he gets not one, but two opportunities to remind Wick "You see? We're the same!"). But after a pair of creative, inventive action sagas, CHAPTER 3 is still enjoyable but the fatigue is there. The stylish elements and the colorful look just feel recycled from CHAPTER 2, the whole Casablanca detour doesn't serve much of a narrative purpose other than bloating the running time (and Berry's role is little more than an extended cameo), and the increasingly epic nature of the action sequences necessitate using more noticeable and less convincing CGI as a crutch as the JOHN WICK franchise starts resorting to FAST & FURIOUS-esque silliness. The door is left open for an inevitable CHAPTER 4, so I'm predicting here and now that John Wick will be in space or at the very least battling a cyborg by CHAPTER 6.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: BACKDRAFT 2 (2019) and NEVER GROW OLD (2019)

(US/Belgium - 2019)

In addition to creating random franchises for its 1440 DTV division with sequels to TREMORS, THE SCORPION KING, DEATH RACE, DRAGONHEART, and JARHEAD, Universal has also decided to start raiding their back catalog for some really belated follow-ups like KINDERGARTEN COP 2 (27 years between films), HARD TARGET 2 (21 years after the first), COP AND A HALF: NEW RECRUIT (24 years), and THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE (a ludicrous 42 years after THE CAR). After 28 years, they've given us the sequel you never knew you didn't need with BACKDRAFT 2. Incredibly, they managed to get screenwriter Gregory Widen to cobble a script together, somehow convincing him to take a brief respite from cashing HIGHLANDER and THE PROPHECY royalty checks for the rest of his life. Also returning are William Baldwin as Brian McCaffrey, now a Chicago fire chief, and Donald Sutherland as the incarcerated Ronald Bartel, the Hannibal Lecter of Windy City arsonists. The story focuses on Chief McCaffrey's hothead nephew Sean (Joe Anderson as the son of Kurt Russell's late character from the 1991 original), a plays-by-his-own-rules arson whisperer prone to inner monologues that begin with statements like "We only come out at night..." when confronting a fire and "Stay out of my burn!" when higher-ranking fire department desk jockeys and pencil-pushers question his methods. Forced to take on rookie partner Maggie Rening (Alisha Bailey) and greeting her with "You know anything about this work?," Sean--who also says things like "I don't like fire...but I understand it"--is convinced he's dealing with a serial arsonist in a convoluted plot that ends up involving mercenary contractors selling missile production secrets to either the Russians or the Chinese. Or something. Who gives a shit?

Less a sequel to BACKDRAFT and more like a pilot for a bad spinoff series that got rejected by Crackle, BACKDRAFT 2 never gets around the insufferably grating performance of Anderson (who was a great Mason Verger when he replaced Michael Pitt on the third season of HANNIBAL), who comes off as one of the most off-putting heroes in quite some time. Much of that is due to the British actor seriously overcompensating with his American accent, a problem facing every cast member aside from Baldwin (who's really looking like Alec these days) and Sutherland, as this was shot mostly in Romania and Canada with an almost-entirely British cast (more than everyone else, the guy playing Sean's ATF nemesis is seriously struggling with his American accent). At least Baldwin emerges unscathed in his handful of scenes, but Sutherland, who couldn't have spent more than a day on the set, is a hammy embarrassment as the gleeful, cackling Bartel, who's consulted by Sean, correctly assuming that the arsonists have sought the advice of "the master." So terribly-written and cartoonishly cliched in almost every aspect that it practically qualifies as self-parody, BACKDRAFT 2, directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego (APOLLO 18, THE HOLLOW POINT), offers a hero who lives in an abandoned warehouse that's approximately the size of an airplane hangar, a potential drinking game every time someone gravely intones "It's a backdraft," a climactic showdown in a massive shipyard, a shitty theme song by what sounds like an Imagine Dragons cover band, and what might go down as the funniest bad guy demise of the year. It's one of the most cynical name-brand DTV cash-ins to come down the pike since, well, THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE, and that also goes for BACKDRAFT director Ron Howard, who gets a courtesy executive producer credit but I'm willing to bet he won't even know this exists until his accountant shows him his 2019 income tax return. As for Universal dusting off ancient catalog titles for really late Redbox sequels, what's next? May I suggest Scott Eastwood in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER 2? (R, 102 mins)

(Ireland/Luxembourg/Belgium/France - 2019)

A muddy and bloody western of the post-PROPOSITION sort, NEVER GROW OLD is part of a recent trend of underseen revisionist European art westerns, similar in tone and style to SLOW WEST, THE SALVATION, and BRIMSTONE. Written and directed by Irish filmmaker Ivan Kavanagh (THE CANAL), the film is set in 1849 in a puritanical haven of Garlow, a town on the California Trail. Overzealous Preacher Pike (Danny Webb) effectively rules Garlow, having banished alcohol, gambling, and prostitution to its economic detriment. Most of the businesses have left, and the residents are following suit. Garlow's undertaker/carpenter, Irish immigrant Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch), doesn't have much work, but he does have a pregnant French-born wife, Audrey (Deborah Francois), son Thomas (Quinn Topper Marcus), and young daughter Emma (Molly McCann). Patrick tries to talk Audrey into leaving on the two-month journey to the promised land of California, but she hopes to build a good, Christian life in Garlow. That goes to hell on a dark and stormy night with the arrival of outlaw Dutch Albert (John Cusack, looking like cult filmmaker Richard Stanley) and his two cohorts, Sicily (Camille Pistone), and hulking mute Dumb-Dumb (Sam Louwyck), who carries his preserved severed tongue and uses it as a comedic prop. Albert is in pursuit of Bill Crabtree, an ex-partner who cheated him out of some money, and intimidates Patrick into taking him to see Crabtree's wife (Anne Coesens), who claims he left her and their teenage daughter a year ago. Disappointed that there's no booze, gambling, or women in Garlow, Albert decides to buy the decrepit hotel, reopening it as a saloon with gambling and whores, defying Preacher Pike and causing an escalating body count, which keeps Patrick busy but puts a strain on his family, especially when Dumb-Dumb decides he wants Audrey for himself and Patrick is too afraid to do anything about it.

NEVER GROW OLD opens with some thinly-veiled jabs at evangelicals and quickly takes a turn for the relentlessly downbeat, with Patrick constantly being prodded, bullied, and emasculated by the ruthless Albert, who doesn't get much resistance in his takeover of Garlow, either from the all-talk Preacher Pike or the useless sheriff (Tim Ahern), and you know this is the type of movie where a meek character like Patrick will only be pushed so far before he snaps. Albert's atrocities are endless, particularly when Crabtree's financially-strapped wife begs to be hired as a prostitute, and he'll only take her on if the teenage daughter is part of the package. Dutch Albert is a character who makes UNFORGIVEN's Little Bill Daggett look affable, and to NEVER GROW OLD's benefit, this is the John Cusack that even John Cusack seems to have forgotten about most of the time. He's absolutely terrifying as a western outlaw version of Frank Booth, and it's easily his best performance since 2014's LOVE & MERCY. NEVER GROW OLD doesn't blaze any new trails, but it makes an unsettling impression with its grim atmosphere, a climax as violent as Travis Bickle's rampage in TAXI DRIVER, and Cusack bringing to life a personification of pure evil that sticks with you. Look for this one to find a cult following pretty quickly. (R, 100 mins)

Monday, May 13, 2019

Retro Review: THE NIGHTCOMERS (1972)

(UK - 1972) 

Directed by Michael Winner. Written by Michael Hastings. Cast: Marlon Brando, Stephanie Beacham, Harry Andrews, Thora Hird, Verna Harvey, Christopher Ellis, Anna Palk. (R, 97 mins)

A prequel before the term was part of the moviegoing lexicon, 1972's THE NIGHTCOMERS details the events that took place prior to those depicted in THE INNOCENTS, the 1961 film based on Henry James' classic 1898 gothic horror novella The Turn of the Screw. In THE INNOCENTS, co-scripted by Truman Capote, Deborah Kerr starred as Miss Giddens, a governess in charge of Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), two orphaned young children essentially left on their own at a foreboding estate by their cold-hearted uncle (Michael Redgrave), who became their guardian and has never had any interest in raising them. The estate is haunted by the ghosts of their previous governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) and groundskeeper Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), and Miss Giddens comes to believe the ghosts are attempting to possess the children. Much changed as far as what could be shown in movies in the decade since THE INNOCENTS, and THE NIGHTCOMERS, directed by Michael Winner (THE MECHANIC, DEATH WISH) and just released on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber (because physical media is dead) takes full advantage of it. It delves with little restraint into the sordid backstory of Quint and Miss Jessel, buoyed by ability to explicitly depict things that could barely be hinted at in 1961, and given Winner's tendency to revel in being a provocateur, that really seems to be the only reason for THE NIGHTCOMERS' existence.

Winner and screenwriter Michael Hastings (THE ADVENTURERS) are hampered by the fact that the scares are limited because the horror elements--the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel haunting the estate--don't yet exist in context. They're just people here, and with little in the way of horror, the filmmakers have to go for unease and discomfort. Miles (Christopher Ellis) and Flora (Verna Harvey) are left in the care of Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham) and cranky but doting housekeeper Mrs. Grose, played here by Thora Hird (and by Megs Jenkins in THE INNOCENTS), with specific instructions by their absent uncle (Harry Andrews) to basically leave him alone unless there's a medical issue with one of the kids and he'll check in every six months or so. The kids, particularly Miles, idolize the eccentric, mischievous Quint (Marlon Brando, with long hair and an inconsistent Irish brogue that makes him look and sound like Richard Harris and serves a test run for his MISSOURI BREAKS histrionics), who seems to do little but clown around and indulge in drunken philosophical blather. This angers killjoy Mrs. Grose but falls right in line with Marlon Brando's love of tossing the script, ad-libbing, and doing whatever the hell he feels like doing while the cameras are rolling.

Quint and Miss Jessel's relationship begins with violence as he sexually assaults her in her room, but it soon gives way to consensual sadomasochism as the prim, proper governess finds she enjoys bondage, rough sex and being hog-tied by Quint in a couple of sweat-soaked sex scenes that prefigure the kind of explicit material in Brando's still-controversial turn in the next year's LAST TANGO IN PARIS. Miles spends a lot of time following Quint around, and after he spies on the pair's carnal games, he convinces Flora to role-play the same kind of S&M activities as they naively mimic intercourse, or as Miles calls it when they're caught by Mrs. Grose, "doing sex." There's enough "problematic" content in THE NIGHTCOMERS that Woke Twitter's Class of 2019 would have a field day cancelling Winner and Brando permanently, but the impact of Quint and Miss Jessel's relationship on the children was enough in 1972 to necessitate making Miles and Flora older than they were in THE INNOCENTS, simply due to the increased sexual element.

Marlon Brando and Michael Winner on the set of THE NIGHTCOMERS

The casting doesn't really work, as Flora should be about nine years old if this is purported to take place before THE INNOCENTS, yet Harvey is 19 and looks it, plus Flora is supposed to be the younger sibling but Harvey is clearly older than Ellis, who was only 14 at the time of filming (it's interesting that Winner felt the need to address the more overt sexuality of the story by casting an adult female as the younger sibling, but determined the material was acceptable enough for a 14-year-old boy to be shown hog-tying his sister and engaging in clothed play-thrusting on his of-age co-star). Feeling like a lesser Hammer or Amicus production of the period, THE NIGHTCOMERS is a slow-burner that never really ignites until an admittedly unsettling climax, and while it's developed a cult following over the years, it's really only notable as Brando's sole foray into horror until 1996's THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. Though a few prominent critics were fond of it, THE NIGHTCOMERS was a box office flop upon its release by Avco Embassy in February 1972. It did, however, mark the last film in Brando's free-falling "lost years" phase that dated back to the mid-1960s, as THE GODFATHER would be in theaters a month later, giving the notoriously difficult actor a triumphant comeback for the ages and a second Oscar.

Saturday, May 11, 2019


(Ireland/France/Iceland - 2019)

Directed by P.B. Shemran (Farhad Safinia). Written by Todd Komarnicki and P.B. Shemran (Farhad Safinia). Cast: Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Natalie Dormer, Steve Coogan, Stephen Dillane, Ioan Gruffudd, Eddie Marsan, Jennifer Ehle, Jeremy Irvine, David O'Hara, Anthony Andrews, Laurence Fox, Lars Brygmann, Bryan Murray, Sean Duggan, Olivia McKevitt, Brendan Patricks, Shane Noone. (Unrated, 124 mins)

A longtime dream project that Mel Gibson's had on the backburner since purchasing the movie rights to Simon Winchester's book when it was released in 1998, THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN ultimately became a nightmare of behind-the-scenes clashes and multiple lawsuits. Gibson began developing it as far back as 2001, when the great John Boorman (DELIVERANCE, EXCALIBUR) was set to write and direct. That fell apart and Boorman's script was reworked in 2007 by Todd Komarnicki (SULLY), with Luc Besson attached to direct, but that was right around the time that Gibson's traffic stop and other offscreen problems essentially made him persona non grata in Hollywood for at least the next decade. Nine years later, with numerous international financiers, Gibson finally got THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN going with a new script by his friend and APOCALYPTO collaborator Farhad Safinia, who would also be making his directing debut. It was near the end of filming in Ireland in 2016 that disagreements began to develop between Gibson/Safinia and Voltage Pictures head Nicolas Chartier, when the pair asked for an additional $2.5 million for five additional days to shoot some scenes that they insisted had to be done on location at Oxford University (Trinity College was filling in for Oxford until then). Chartier rejected the request, telling them that they were already behind schedule and over the $25 million budget, so Trinity in Dublin would have to suffice.

Believing the film wouldn't be complete without these Oxford-shot scenes, Gibson told Chartier that Safinia wasn't being permitted to sufficiently finish the film. Gibson sued Voltage Pictures for breach of contract, claiming the film wasn't completed and he was guaranteed final cut, with Safinia also suing, claiming copyright infringement, accusing Voltage of never finalizing his contract, thus "his" script (which still contained some of Boorman's and Komarnicki's work) was never officially handed over to them. When Voltage released a statement accusing Gibson and Safinia of trying to "hijack the movie," Safinia sued for defamation. A judge ruled in favor of Voltage all around, and when Safinia's planned 160-minute film was whittled down to 124 minutes with neither Gibson nor Safinia's input, Gibson unsuccessfully tried to prevent it from being screened for potential distributors. These lawsuits kept the film on the shelf over 2017 and 2018 until a settlement was reached in early 2019, with Gibson removing his producer credit and any mention of his Icon Productions company. Safinia also successfully petitioned to have his name removed as director and co-writer, with credit now going to the non-existent "P.B. Shemran." Also absent is any mention of Boorman, still credited as a co-writer in initial press releases, in festival reviews, and on IMDb, but whose name is nowhere to be found on the released film. A troubled production, for sure, but there was a time when a prestige period piece starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn would've been one of the most anticipated films of its year instead of one that gets a buried on VOD like a state secret by lowly, Redbox-ready Vertical Entertainment, with seemingly everyone involved actively distancing themselves from what sounds less like a battle of artistic differences and more like an alpha-male pissing contest.

With that kind of chaotic backstage melodrama, you'd think THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN would be a folly of category five shitstorm proportions along the lines of LONDON FIELDS, another recent film left unreleased for several years due to endless litigation. It's a handsomely-produced period piece with meticulous production design that's often beautiful to look at and undeniably sincere in its approach, and while this Gibson-disowned version has some all-too-obvious red flags for post-production discord, it has other problems for which Gibson and Safinia should probably be held accountable. An account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN focuses on Prof. James Murray (Gibson), a Scottish autodidact and linguist and self-taught expert in over a dozen languages, who successfully lobbies the powers that be at Oxford to entrust him with the task of compiling every word in the English language and its origin into a comprehensive, epic volume ("We are about to embark on the greatest adventure our language has ever known!" he declares). He estimates it'll take five years, but the project soon becomes too daunting, even with research assistants Henry Bradley (Ioan Gruffudd) and Charles Hall (Jeremy Irvine). It also places a strain on his family, with wife Ada (Jennifer Ehle) dutifully supporting him but truthfully not very enthused about moving their large family to a smaller home as Murray obsesses over his all-consuming project. The OED hits a brick wall, not helped by sneering publisher Philip Lyttleton Gell (Laurence Fox, conveying the erudite pomposity that his dad James and uncle Edward have projected so masterfully throughout their long careers) and supercilious Oxford board member Benjamin Jowett (Anthony Andrews), both of whom deem Murray's self-education dubious and a dishonor to the university ("I wonder if it's time to ease our gentle Scotsman off his little perch," Jowett harumphs).

Realizing it will take much longer than five years to complete the dictionary, Murray comes up with the idea of having a "dictionary by democracy," asking the general public to contribute words and origins, with Murray and his assistants determining the validity of the info provided (a pre-Wikipedia of sorts). Their largest selection of entries comes from an unexpected source: Dr. William Chester Minor (Penn, in his first feature film since 2015's THE GUNMAN), an American expat, paranoid schizophrenic and PTSD-afflicted Civil War vet being held at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane after killing a married father of six that he mistook for a wartime enemy. Minor is also a gifted surgeon and intellectual who earned reading privileges in the asylum after saving the life of an injured guard. He also feels remorse for what he's done and offers his military pension to his victim's widow Eliza (Natalie Dormer), who reluctantly accepts after briefly turning to prostitution to support her children. She begins to visit Minor in the asylum, he teaches her to read, and she slowly comes around to forgiving him after witnessing the extent of his mental illness. Dr. Murray visits and befriends Minor as well, which causes friction with the Oxford board when he insists that a known murderer be lauded as a major OED contributor.

Frequently heavy-handed and filled with barely-concealed allusions to Gibson's own personal quest for redemption, THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN benefits from his solid, committed performance, but almost everything else is miscalculated to varying degrees. As in Komarnicki's script for SULLY, the film needs a villain where there really isn't one, so Gell and Jowett are there to undermine Murray and stonewall the OED at every turn for no legitimate reason at all aside from manufactured drama. Likewise at the asylum, the kindly and benevolent Dr. Richard Brayne (Stephen Dillane) suddenly does everything short of twirl a mustache while maniacally cackling to make Minor's life a living hell, starting with cutting off visits from Murray and Eliza and eventually barbaric forms of "therapy" like violently-induced vomiting that he blames on "catalepsy." Maybe some of this was explained in the excised 40-odd minutes of footage, but as presented here, Minor's deteriorating condition (starting with a self-castration) lacks a proper buildup. Not helping matters is a wildly overacting Penn, who's been given carte blanche to gorge on a buffet of scenery by Safinia and Gibson, who also seriously bungle the time element. There is one major instance where the blame can obviously be laid on some sloppy editing in post, as evidenced when Eliza's daughter slaps a white-bearded Minor, who's next seen in his room shouting "Look what you've done!" and his beard is suddenly dark brown, making it almost certain that the scene doesn't belong where Voltage's editors have placed it. But elsewhere, it becomes a huge distraction when Penn's Minor seems to be the only person who ages over the course of the film, set from 1872 to 1910. With a big, bushy salt-and-pepper beard, Gibson looks exactly the same from start to finish, as does everyone else and, save for the final shot at a Murray family gathering, neither Murray's nor Eliza's kids ever grow up as the story progresses and the decades pass. There's also some extensive Minor voiceover in letters he sends to Murray and it's clearly not Penn's voice reciting it. These goofs and haphazard stitches aside, what's here is a compelling story. Penn seems to keep himself in check in his initial scenes with Gibson (who is really good here), and the film also offers nice supporting turns from Eddie Marsan as a sympathetic asylum guard and Steve Coogan as Murray's biggest supporter on the Oxford board. But this is a compromised work that represents the vision of an executive producer doing damage control, and not that of the producer-star who spent a decade-and-a-half trying to get it made and was perhaps too close to it for his--and the film's--own good.