Sunday, June 30, 2019

Retro Review: THE BORDER (1982)

(US - 1982)

Directed by Tony Richardson. Written by Deric Washburn, Walon Green and David Freeman. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Valerie Perrine, Warren Oates, Elpidia Carrillo, Shannon Wilcox, Manuel Viescas, Jeff Morris, Dirk Blocker, Mike Gomez, Lonny Chapman, Stacey Pickren, Floyd Levine, James Jeter, Alan Fudge, William Russ, Gary Grubbs, Lupe Ontiveros. (R, 108 mins)

Released in late January 1982, THE BORDER is a film that remains somewhat prescient today given the immigration debate, endless talk of a US/Mexico border wall, and the ongoing humanitarian crisis with family separation and migrant children being held in detention centers. It was one of a cluster of similarly-themed films released in the early 1980s that dealt with immigration issues (with varying degrees of seriousness, if you consider Cheech & Chong's 1985 Springsteen-spoofing hit single "Born in East L.A." leading to Cheech Marin's fashionably late 1987 movie of the same name), including the 1980 thriller BORDERLINE with Charles Bronson as a border patrol officer going undercover as an illegal alien to search for a killer (Ed Harris in one of his earliest roles) targeting border-crossing immigrants; the little-seen 1980 public domain staple BORDER COP, with Telly Savalas as a border patrol officer taking on corrupt colleagues; and the acclaimed 1983 drama EL NORTE, an unforgettable and deeply moving saga of the immigrant experience. BORDER COP (also known as BLOOD BARRIER) skipped theaters and debuted on CBS in 1988 and shares some surface similarities with THE BORDER, which was shot in the summer and fall of 1980 but underwent reshoots in 1981 when test audiences disliked the downbeat ending. It was an unusual project for British filmmaker Tony Richardson, best known for the angry young man classics LOOK BANK IN ANGER (1959) and THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER (1962) and Albert Finney's 1963 breakout TOM JONES. With a script co-written by Walon Green (THE WILD BUNCH), the presence of Warren Oates in the cast, a score by Ry Cooder, and its gritty subject matter, THE BORDER seems like something tailor-made for a Sam Peckinpah or a Walter Hill rather than Richardson, who hadn't made a Hollywood movie since the 1965 satire THE LOVED ONE, not counting the 1975 Diana Ross vehicle MAHOGANY, which he started before being fired early in production by producer Berry Gordy, who ended up directing it himself.

In one of his more restrained performances that recalls his character driven, pre-CUCKOO'S NEST work of the early 1970s and foreshadows 2001's underrated THE PLEDGE, Jack Nicholson is Charlie Smith, a bored, coasting immigration officer in L.A. He's got a nice arrangement going with local sweatshops, who let him pick some illegal laborers to haul in every now and then without incident. Charlie's wife Marcy (Valerie Perrine) is tired of living in their double wide and wants more, specifically a duplex in El Paso that they'd share with her high school friend Savannah (Shannon Wilcox), whose husband Cat (Harvey Keitel) is a border patrol officer. Charlie transfers to El Paso and finds patrolling the Rio Grande at the Texas/Mexico border proves to be far more dangerous work: his first night on the job, his partner Hawker (Alan Fudge) is killed by gunfire in a skirmish with coyotes leading migrants across the border. Cat tries to let him in on a lucrative side deal involving human trafficking he has going on with other officers and their gruff boss Red (Oates), but it's a line Charlie won't cross. That is, until Marcy's free spending and department store charge account--she gets a new waterbed, furniture, and a pool to create a "dream house" that Charlie can't afford--cause him to reconsider. He eventually rights himself on the path to redemption when Manuel (Mike Gomez), a sleazy coyote on Red's and Cat's payroll, steals a baby belonging to detained illegal Maria (Elpidia Carrillo)--a regular fixture in roundups and sent back across the border--and sells it to an American couple for $25,000.

Much closer to the low-key, Bob Rafelson-style character pieces that helped establish Nicholson as a star a decade or so earlier, THE BORDER--which also counts DEER HUNTER Oscar-winner Deric Washburn and David Freeman (STREET SMART) among its writers--found a certain degree of studio interference when Universal demanded a new ending be shot after screening poorly with test audiences. The revised ending offers an abrupt shift in tone from character piece to revenge thriller, with Charlie retrieving the baby and making a daring run across the border into Mexico to return it to Maria, but not before a couple of wild shootouts that feature one of the bad guys accidentally blasting his own face off with a shotgun. The entire climax--with Keitel's Cat and Oates' Red setting a trap for Charlie--seems every bit the rushed and truncated compromise that it is, culminating in a happy ending that's freeze-framed like the conclusion of a TV show. It's still a solid film with good supporting performances, particularly Keitel and Carrillo, but one gets the feeling that if it was made even a few years earlier, the original downbeat ending--with Charlie killing his corrupt colleagues and going to prison--would've been left intact.

Warren Oates (1928-1982)
Nicholson is excellent, and in a move that almost seems designed to placate his fans after THE SHINING, is afforded one vintage "Jack" moment when he gets so enraged during a cookout that Marcy insisted on hosting--where his drunk co-workers start a food fight, wasting everything he's purchased--that he wheels the grill with flaming kebabs into the pool, declaring "Soup's on!" Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), THE BORDER is a sincere film diminished somewhat by studio-mandated changes. It didn't do well at the box office in 1982 and while it stayed on TV and cable and was represented on home video enough in the ensuing years to keep it from fading into obscurity, it's a film that's rarely referenced in discussions of the careers of Nicholson or Richardson. It was also the last work that Warren Oates would see released in his lifetime: the grizzled screen veteran and Peckinpah bestie (BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA) died of a heart attack on April 3, 1982, just two months after THE BORDER hit theaters, with years of hard living making the 53-year-old actor look a decade older. A workhorse to the end, Oates, who got a bit of a late career bump displaying his comedic slow burn chops as the no-nonsense Sgt. Hulka in the 1981 Bill Murray smash hit STRIPES, had four projects in the can when he died: the CBS miniseries THE BLUE AND THE GRAY aired in November 1982, while the feature films BLUE THUNDER and TOUGH ENOUGH would bow in the summer of 1983. He also starred in an episode of the syndicated Roald Dahl anthology series TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED that was shot shortly before his death but didn't air until 1985.

THE BORDER opening in Toledo, OH on 2/12/1982

Monday, June 24, 2019

In Theaters/On VOD: NIGHTMARE CINEMA (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugues, Joe Dante, Ryuhei Kitamura and David Slade. Written by Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugues, Richard Christian Matheson, Sandra Becerril, David Slade and Lawrence C. Connolly. Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Elizabeth Reaser, Annabeth Gish, Sarah Withers, Faly Rakotohavana, Maurice Benard, Zarah Mahler, Mark Grossman, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Mariela Garriga, Adam Godley, Ezra Buzzington, Orson Chaplin, Daryl C. Brown, Lexy Panterra, Chris Warren, Eric Nelsen, Celesta Hodge, Reid Cox, voice of Patrick Wilson. (R, 119 mins)

Even in their Amicus heyday 50 years ago, horror anthologies tended to be mixed bag with stories of varying quality, and the format in the modern era, popularized by the like of the V/H/S and ABCs OF DEATH franchises, is even more inconsistent. But they remain favorites with the horror crowd--arguably the easiest lays in fandom--and NIGHTMARE CINEMA comes virtually rubber-stamped as the next Horror Insta-Classic (© William Wilson). Overseen by Mick Garris (best known for his Stephen King TV adaptations THE STAND, THE SHINING, DESPERATION, and BAG OF BONES), and dedicated to Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, and George A. Romero, NIGHTMARE CINEMA plays a lot like a big-screen offshoot of Garris' Showtime series MASTERS OF HORROR and its NBC follow-up FEAR ITSELF. He corralled some horror pals who would probably turn up on a new season of MASTERS--Alejandro Brugues (JUAN OF THE DEAD), the legendary Joe Dante (PIRANHA, THE HOWLING, GREMLINS), Ryuhei Kitamura (VERSUS, THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, NO ONE LIVES), and David Slade (HARD CANDY, 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, and episodes of HANNIBAL and BLACK MIRROR)--with each contributing a segment with the Garris-helmed wraparounds taking place in an abandoned movie theater (played by the Rialto in L.A.), where a sinister projectionist (Mickey Rourke, also one of 22 credited producers) entertains five doomed souls by running a film that shows what horrific fate their future holds.

First up is Brugues' "The Thing in the Woods," where Samantha (Sarah Withers) sees herself in what appears to be the climax of a slasher film as she's relentlessly pursued by a shielded maniac known as "The Welder." It starts out as a winking riff on body count thrillers with a wicked sense of humor (a blood-soaked Samantha seeking refuge in a house and screaming "It's not my blood...it's Lizzie's, Maggie's, Tony's, Carl's, Jamie's, Ron's, Stephanie's..."), but soon switches gears and becomes something else entirely. It's wildly unpredictable, genuinely inspired, and the strongest segment overall. The best thing Dante's done in quite some time, "Mirari" finds insecure Anna (Zarah Mahler), self-conscious about a facial scar she got in a car accident when she was two years old, being talked into cosmetic surgery by her seemingly well-meaning fiance David (Mark Grossman). He takes her to Mirari, an exclusive facility run by renowned miracle worker Dr. Leneer (Richard Chamberlain), who allegedly did wonders with work on David's mother. Kitamura's "Mashit" isn't a complete success, but it's a well-crafted homage to a specific type of Italian horror film, blending elements of Lucio Fulci's early '80s gothic horrors and Bruno Mattei's THE OTHER HELL. It's set at a Catholic boarding school where a priest with some dark secrets (longtime GENERAL HOSPITAL star Maurice Benard) and a nun (Mariela Garriga) with whom he's having a secret fling face a reckoning in the form of a demonic entity called "Mashit," who possesses the children and drives them to suicide. It doesn't quite come together in the end, but it has some vividly Fulci-esque vibe (tears of blood a la CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) and a score by Aldo Shllaku that's seriously indebted to Goblin and Fabio Frizzi.

Slade's "This Way To Egress" details the psychological meltdown of Helen (Elizabeth Reaser), as she waits for an appointment with her shrink (Adam Godley) while dealing with the fallout of being left by her husband (a phoned-in voice cameo by Patrick Wilson). It's a black & white descent into madness as the shrink's office opens portals to a disturbing, disorienting netherworld that looks like something not unlike ERASERHEAD meets PAN'S LABYRINTH. Like "Mashit," "Egress" has some interesting ideas (and an intense, powerful performance by Reaser) and some startling imagery, but never quite coalesces into a complete piece. Last and unquestionably least is Garris' "Dead," with teenage piano prodigy Riley (Faly Rakotohavana) shot and left for dead after a carjacker (Orson Chaplin, the son of SUPERMAN producer Ilya Salkind and Charlie Chaplin's daughter Jane) kills his parents (Annabeth Gish, Daryl C. Brown) and flees the scene. A hospitalized Riley starts seeing dead people as their souls wanders the hospital halls. He not only has to contend with the spirit of his mother encouraging him to let go and join her in the afterlife, but there's also the carjacker, who keeps showing up at the hospital to finish what he started. Alternately riffing on THE SIXTH SENSE and VISITING HOURS, "Dead" is exactly that, and anyone assembling a horror anthology knows you don't put the weakest story last. Clearly, "The Thing in the Woods" would've been the ideal closer, but hey, I guess project leader Mick Garris thought long and hard about it and concluded that contributing director Mick Garris' segment was the best choice. I'd be shocked if Rourke worked more than a day on this (he doesn't even appear until 45 minutes in, appropriately introduced after the conclusion of Dante's plastic surgery segment), but true to form, NIGHTMARE CINEMA is ultimately a mixed bag: there's one great story, then a very good one, then two flawed but interesting offerings before "Dead" lands with a resounding thud. You can't help but think the whole movie would seem better by the end if the order of the stories was completely reversed.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

In Theaters: ANNA (2019)

(France - 2019)

Written and directed by Luc Besson. Cast: Sasha Luss, Helen Mirren, Cillian Murphy, Luke Evans, Lera Abova, Eric Godon, Andrew Howard, Jean-Baptiste Puech, Sasha Petrov, Adrian Can, Jan Oliver Schroder, Eric Lampaert. (R, 119 mins)

Managing to emerge generally unscathed from sexual assault allegations by a total of nine accusers after Paris prosecutors dropped charges in February 2019 stemming from Dutch writer and comedian Sand Van Roy's claims that he repeatedly raped her, French auteur Luc Besson is back with the throwback espionage thriller ANNA. The allegations against Besson broke just after ANNA finished production, and while watching it, it's hard not to think of the disconnect between the accusations and his recurrent theme of strong, ass-kicking women going back to 1990's highly influential LA FEMME NIKITA. ANNA is largely another retread of the same story, one that seems especially played out considering recent films like ATOMIC BLONDE and RED SPARROW, both inspired to some degree by LA FEMME NIKITA and mining very similar territory in the waning days of the Cold War. The star is Russian supermodel Sasha Luss, who had a small, motion-capture supporting role in Besson's megabudget 2017 sci-fi epic VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS. Luss' Anna is cut from the same cloth as Besson's first wife Anne Parillaud's title character in LA FEMME NIKITA and the kind of cult favorite badasses that his third wife Milla Jovovich played in the RESIDENT EVIL series and other actioners after achieving stardom in his 1997 film THE FIFTH ELEMENT. Luss has a similar background and career path as Jovovich and even resembles her at times, which only adds to the feeling of familiarity and wheel-spinning with ANNA.

Opening with a prologue where nine CIA operatives are killed in Moscow in 1985 and their decapitated heads sent back home to their boss Leonard Miller (Cillian Murphy), ANNA repeatedly jumps back and forth to various points from 1987 to 1990. In 1990, Anna Poliatova (Luss) is selling Russian dolls at a Moscow marketplace when she's spotted by a French modeling agent (Jean-Baptiste Puech) and whisked away to Paris. Her star soon rises and she gets involved with wealthy Russian Oleg (Andrew Howard), who deals arms to Syria and Libya. Just as they're about to consummate their relationship, she pulls out a gun and shoots him in the head. Cut back to 1987, when an orphaned, junkie Anna was recruited by KGB agent Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans) and put under the stern tutelage of ruthless, unsympathetic, chain-smoking spymaster Olga (Helen Mirren, looking like Fran Lebowitz's stunt double). Under the guise of an up-and-coming supermodel, Anna is given assignments of escalating importance, rubbing out whoever Olga, Tchenkov, and KGB chief Vassiliev (Eric Godon) say, until the assassination of Oleg puts her on Miller's radar.

The time jumps and the twists and turns grow increasingly absurd and it gets more difficult to keep track of what is taking place when, though Besson does put it to clever use as all the pieces--eventually, finally--start falling into place. At this point, it's hard to take any thriller seriously when it uses chess as a metaphor (cue Anna gravely intoning "Checkmate!" as she blows someone's brains out), and Besson almost seems to be glibly winking at the audience, whether it's a long modeling-and-murder montage set to INXS' "Need You Tonight" or constant anachronisms that have to be intentional, like laptops and wi-fi in Anna's shithole Moscow apartment in 1987, and flash drives and cell phones in 1990. But then he strangely tosses in an era-appropriate pager for Miller near the end of the film, which seems peculiarly antiquated considering all the advanced technology everyone's been shown using to that point. Murphy and Evans are fine as flip sides of the same coin, both in their careers and in their simultaneous hot-and-heavy relationships with Anna, while Mirren is under no illusion that this is John Le Carre material and enjoyably hams it up for an easy paycheck. The statuesque Luss handles herself well in the action scenes, particularly where she takes on an entire restaurant full of goons in pursuit of a target, but she's a terrible actress otherwise, never once convincing you that she's capable of manipulating the KGB and the CIA. In the end, ANNA is nothing you haven't seen before and Besson is more or less ripping himself off. It's utterly insignificant but it's never boring and goes down like harmless junk food from Besson's EuropaCorp action assembly line, the kind of movie you'll stop on and end up watching on a lazy weekend afternoon a year from now when it starts running on cable in perpetuity for the rest of your life.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Retro Review: ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE (1985)

(UK - 1985)

Directed by Desmond Davis. Written by Alexander Stuart. Cast: Donald Sutherland, Faye Dunaway, Sarah Miles, Christopher Plummer, Ian McShane, Diana Quick, Michael Elphick, Annette Crosbie, George Innes, Valerie Whittington, Phoebe Nichols, Michael Maloney, Cassie Stuart, Billy McColl, Ron Pember. (PG-13, 90 mins)

The critical and commercial success of 1974's MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS kickstarted a big-screen Agatha Christie revival that lasted into the early 1980s, with Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot in 1978's DEATH ON THE NILE and 1982's EVIL UNDER THE SUN, as well as Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple in 1980's THE MIRROR CRACK'D. The small screen also proved to be a popular venue, with Ustinov continuing to portray Poirot and Helen Hayes taking a few turns as Miss Marple in a series of TV-movies. It was after Christie mysteries seemed relegated to television that Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus belatedly brought Cannon into the act with a trio of mid-to-late '80s Christie projects that received little theatrical exposure, starting with 1985's ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE, based on the legendary mystery writer's 1958 novel. Like most Christie adaptations, it was a star-studded affair, but the end result is a dreary, ponderous misfire that's arguably the worst movie version of her work. The novel was a bit of a departure for Christie at the time, focusing less on any mystery and more on psychological drama, but it simply doesn't translate well to the screen. Much of this was due to a troubled production that saw director Desmond Davis (CLASH OF THE TITANS) being relieved of his duties after a disastrous rough cut screening at Cannes in 1984. He was replaced by New Zealand-born British exploitation hack Alan Birkinshaw (KILLER'S MOON, INVADERS OF THE LOST GOLD), who shot about 25 minutes worth of new footage and oversaw extensive re-editing into its finished 90-minute state, though Davis remains the sole credited director (this wasn't the first time Birkinshaw stepped in for a fired director; he also took over for Edmund Purdom on 1984's killer Santa movie DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS, juicing it up with numerous splatter scenes and gratuitous T&A). Also jettisoned was a moody, atmospheric score by Pino Donaggio that Cannon and test audiences didn't like and would've had to be significantly reworked after Birkinshaw's new footage and subsequent restructuring. Donaggio had already moved on to another project and was no longer available to tweak the score to anyone's liking, prompting Golan and Globus, in search of a "name" composer, to make the ill-advised decision to sub in newly-recorded versions of existing pieces by Dave Brubeck and his quartet. Brubeck is one of the most important figures in the history of American music, but these compositions simply don't belong in this movie, with dark and somber scenes accompanied by bouncy jazz piano, noodling clarinet solos, and bombastic, pseudo-Buddy Rich drum histrionics that make the entire score sound like a temp track left in as a joke.

Just back in mid-1950s England after a two-year expedition to Antarctica, paleontologist Dr. Arthur Calgary (Donald Sutherland) finally gets around to delivering an address book left behind in his car by Jacko Argyle (Billy McColl), a stranger to whom he gave a lift en route to his departure by ship two years ago. They parted ways, but Calgary hung on to the address book, and when he delivers it to the Argyle mansion, he's informed by patriarch Leo (Christopher Plummer) that his son Jacko was hanged two years earlier for the murder of his mother, Leo's wife and Argyle matriarch Rachel (Faye Dunaway). Upon hearing the details of the murder and the time that it took place, Calgary is stunned to realize that Jacko had to be innocent, because he was in the passenger seat of his car when the murder occurred, making Calgary the perfect alibi, albeit two years too late. While Jacko apparently professed his innocence and insisted he was hitching a ride with a stranger at the time, the family sees fit to let sleeping dogs lie and not address the issue that there is a murderer among them. But the persistent Calgary becomes obsessed with exonerating Jacko, conducting his own investigation, much to the disapproval of the Argyles, who are only now beginning to recover from the scandal, and chief investigator Inspector Huish (Michael Elphick), who doesn't want his closed case reopened.

Most of ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE consists of an uncharacteristically bland Sutherland wandering from place to place to interview Argyle family members and ask each of them the same series of questions, which gives you a chance to see a parade of fine actors that are unfortunately not put to good use. Dunaway is wasted in a glorified cameo, seen only in black & white flashbacks, while 43-year-old Sarah Miles is improbably cast as the daughter of 55-year-old Plummer and 44-year-old Dunaway. Ian McShane has a couple of scenes as Miles' wheelchair-bound, Argyle-hating husband. There's also one weird bit where Jacko's widow (Cassie Stuart) attempts to seduce Calgary, with Stuart playing the entire scene topless, a move that has Birkinshaw's greasy fingerprints all over it. Screenwriter Alexander Stuart (who would fare much better by adapting his controversial 1989 novel The War Zone into Tim Roth's acclaimed 1999 directing debut) takes some liberties with the source novel, starting with Jacko being executed instead of dying in prison, but the finished film is so choppy, badly-paced, and obviously truncated (with scenes either cut or never filmed in the first place) that it never builds any sense of momentum, suspense, or urgency (not helped at all by Brubeck's completely inappropriate score), ending with a big reveal about the real killer and Sutherland's Calgary just shrugging and ambling away to the dock to take the boat back to the mainland, likely mirroring the reaction of the very few people who saw this when it was barely released in theaters in the spring of 1985. It's just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), which would've been a good opportunity to have an alternate audio track that played parts of the film with Donaggio's discarded score just for the sake of comparison (it was eventually released on cd), but there's no bonus features other than a couple of trailers, as ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE is met with the same ambivalence today as it was in 1985, seemingly doomed to its destiny as a justly-forgotten footnote to the careers of everyone involved.

Cannon went on to make two more Christie adaptations with 1988's Michael Winner-helmed APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH (with Ustinov returning as Hercule Poirot, accompanied by legends like Lauren Bacall, Piper Laurie, and John Gielgud), and 1989's South Africa-shot Harry Alan Towers production TEN LITTLE INDIANS, directed by Birkinshaw and starring Frank Stallone, Donald Pleasence, and Herbert Lom. Ordeal by Innocence was retrofitted as a 2007 episode of the ITV/PBS series MARPLE (with Geraldine McEwan in the title role), and was recently turned into an acclaimed three-part miniseries by BBC One and aired on Amazon Prime in 2018 with Luke Treadaway as Calgary and Bill Nighy as Leo Argyll (changed to "Argyle" in the Cannon film). While it was much better-received than the 1985 version, the miniseries encountered some controversy when co-star Ed Westwick (as another Argyll son) was accused of sexual assault by multiple women, prompting BBC execs to pull an ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD and completely reshoot his scenes with replacement Christian Cooke.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: CRYPTO (2019) and SLAUGHTERHOUSE RULEZ (2019)

(US/UK - 2019)

No movie that features someone yelling "That's not Dad's tongue, Caleb!" should be as dull as CRYPTO, a Bitcoinsploitation financial thriller that's destined to be the ROLLOVER of the cryptocurrency era. Martin Duran (Beau Knapp) is a savant-like fraud investigator with the ominously-named Manhattan financial behemoth OmniBank. Despite the support of his immediate supervisor (Jill Hennessy), he pisses off the company's CEO, who busts him down to a local branch in his podunk western New York hometown of Elba, and if you think there's a clever "Napoleon's exile" metaphor there that a smarter film would leave unspoken, don't worry, because the filmmakers actually have Martin say "Exiled to Elba...this is just like Napoleon." He hasn't been back to Elba since his mother's death a decade earlier, and he's completely estranged from the rest of his family--rage-case older brother Caleb (Luke Hemsworth, Chris and Liam's elder sibling), who hasn't been the same since Afghanistan, and their stoical potato farmer father Martin Sr. (a slumming Kurt Russell), who's facing bankruptcy and foreclosure. But something else is going on in Elba, and the more Martin digs into OmniCorp's files, the more evidence he finds that the Russian mob has taken over the town and is using the bank to launder money involving smuggled paintings at a swanky new art gallery, along with a Bitcoin scam run out of a local bait shop, and a human trafficking ring operating along the Niagara River at the US/Canada border.

Martin figures all of this out with the help of his high school buddy Earl (Jeremie Harris), who owns the local convenience store and conveniently moonlights as a hacker with a high-tech command center in his stockroom. About as enthralling as listening to a hipster talk about Bitcoin, CRYPTO is competently directed by John Stalberg, Jr. (his first film since 2010's little-seen Adrien Brody stoner comedy HIGH SCHOOL), but it's so draggy and listless that it never engages until it's too late, and it doesn't take advantage of the potentially politically-charged notion of the blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth Elba townies completely oblivious to all the Russian crime going on right in front of them. Knapp tries to create something with a character who's likely on the spectrum, but the film pretty much drops that aspect after demonstrating some examples of Martin's tendency toward faux pas and misreading signals ("I'll get out of your hair now," he says after questioning his predecessor in his job, a cancer patient undergoing chemo). Hemsworth again demonstrates why he's the perennial third-string Hemsworth, Alexis Bledel has little to do as an art gallery employee and potential love interest for Martin, and Vincent Kartheiser resembles a young Russell Crowe as a Russian mobster incognito as a skeezy Elba accountant. In a role that will never be lumped in with the Snake Plisskens and Jack Burtons of his legendary career, Russell is uncharacteristically bad here, using a weird sort-of Noo Yawk accent that he simply forgets about midway through. At this point, the beloved icon really should have better things to do than schlep his way through one of these kinds of Redbox-ready, Lionsgate/Grindstone VOD clunkers with 38 credited producers. (R, 106 mins)

(UK - 2018; US release 2019)

Don't go into the abysmal SLAUGHTERHOUSE RULEZ expecting another fun Simon Pegg/Nick Frost teaming. The SHAUN OF THE DEAD fan favorites have supporting roles and share only one scene together in this tedious and painfully unfunny mash-up of '80s REVENGE OF THE NERDS-style slob comedy and slimy, TREMORS-esque creature feature. Slacker ne'er-do-well Don (Finn Cole of PEAKY BLINDERS and ANIMAL KINGDOM) is read the riot act by his widowed mom (Jo Hartley), who enrolls him in the posh Slaughterhouse boarding school, a beacon of class and upstanding citizenry since 1770. He becomes fast friends with sardonic misfit Willoughby (Asa Butterfield of HUGO), whose previous roommate committed suicide. There's a vicious social hierarchy at Slaughterhouse, and at the top is the cruel Clegg (Tom Rhys Harries), a William Zabka-like asshole who lords over Slaughterhouse with the wink-and-a-nod approval of sneering headmaster "The Bat" (Michael Sheen) and spineless administrator Meredith (Pegg). Don ends up part of Sparta House, the de facto Lambda Lambda Lambda for the Slaughterhouse dorks and dweebs, but their top concern is a fracking tower installed at the edge of the Slaughterhouse property by powerful conglomerate Terrafrack. The Bat is in favor of partnering with Terrafrack, but Sparta House, inspired by a group of shroom-enthusiast environmental activists led by Woody (Frost), take a stand against it, which seems to be the appropriate idea once Terrafrack opens a massive sinkhole that exposes a series of subterranean tunnels and caves that have been home to large, lizard-like creatures that come crawling to the surface and attacking the school.

Directed and co-written by Pegg buddy and Kula Shaker frontman Crispian Mills (son of Hayley Mills, and also the director of Pegg's career-worst A FANTASTIC FEAR OF EVERYTHING), SLAUGHTERHOUSE RULEZ takes over an hour for the creatures to figure in, and when they do, the horror action is so dark that it's nearly impossible to see what's going on amidst the severed limbs and splattery goo. Until then, it's a glacially-paced YA bore that quickly collapses after some occasionally amusing bits in the early going. The film seems significantly longer than 104 minutes, and Mills is far too indulgent to Pegg, who gets entirely too much screen time begging and pleading to get back together with his ex (a Skyped-in cameo by Margot Robbie) in scenes that have nothing to do with the story and everything to do with Pegg mugging shamelessly (eliminating just these pointless Pegg/Robbie scenes could've cut this down to a still-awful but more reasonable 90 minutes). There's little wonder why Sony buried this on VOD with no publicity, but after this and the unwatchable A FANTASTIC FEAR OF EVERYTHING, the real question is how many more times Pegg will keep stepping up to get the green light for his buddy's terrible movies. (R, 104 mins)

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Retro Review: ARABIAN ADVENTURE (1979)

(UK - 1979)

Directed by Kevin Connor. Written by Brian Hayles. Cast: Christopher Lee, Milo O'Shea, Oliver Tobias, Mickey Rooney, Peter Cushing, Capucine, Emma Samms, Puneet Sira, John Wyman, John Ratzenberger, Shane Rimmer, Suzanne Danielle, Elizabeth Welch, Hal Galili, Art Malik, Milton Reid, Jacob Witkin. (G, 98 mins)

Variety called it "STAR WARS with flying carpets," which should give you an idea of what ARABIAN ADVENTURE is all about. A huge Thanksgiving flop in 1979 for the doomed Associated Film Distributors (CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC, RAISE THE TITANIC!), ARABIAN ADVENTURE was the last of a quintet of British adventure sagas from the team of producer John Dark and director Kevin Connor. The initial four--a trio of Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations with 1975's THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT, 1976's AT THE EARTH'S CORE, and 1977's THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT, followed by 1978's WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS--all starred Doug McClure and were modest hits in theaters and drive-ins. Kicking off a busy holiday movie season that featured the likes of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, 1941, THE JERK, KRAMER VS. KRAMER, THE BLACK HOLE, and ALL THAT JAZZ, ARABIAN ADVENTURE didn't generate much interest, even with its family-friendly G-rating, and its visual effects could be charitably deemed "antiquated" in the post-STAR WARS era. Written by veteran DOCTOR WHO scribe Brian Hayles (who died unexpectedly during production in 1978 at just 48), ARABIAN ADVENTURE has the spirit of classic adventures of old, borrowing extensively from the Arabian Nights tales and likely conjured up on Blu-ray now from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead) to take advantage of the live-action ALADDIN with Will Smith.

Evil wizard Caliph Alquazar (Christopher Lee) will stop at nothing to obtain the magical Rose of Elil, a talisman that will grant him immortality and power over the entire world. That includes duping Prince Hasan (Oliver Tobias) by promising him his stepdaughter Princess Zuleira's (18-year-old Emma Samms in her debut, several years before breaking out on DYNASTY and its spinoff THE COLBYS) hand in marriage. Of course, he has no intention of following through, sending his cowardly flunky Khasim (Milo O'Shea) along as a "bodyguard" for the sole purpose of killing Hasan once the Rose is acquired. Khasim finds an unexpected obstacle when mischievous street urchin Majeed (future Bollywood producer Puneet Sira) and his capuchin monkey sidekick Chetti are drawn to Hasan's quest when they end up in the possession of a magical jewel gifted to them by the spirit of Vahishta (Capucine). Along the way and traveling on a magic carpet, they encounter mechanical fire-breathing dragons operated by the Wizard of Oz-like Daad Al-Shur (Mickey Rooney), an evil genie (perennial hulking manservant Milton Reid), and a crew of comic relief bandits led by Achmed (John Ratzenberger), who end up in the service of Alquazar.

It's generally enjoyable and silly fun, though there's a black hole at the center with THE STUD's Tobias making a dull hero (Connor/Dark regular McClure was in his 40s and two decades too old to play a young prince, but he at least would've brought some charm and personality to the part), but Lee is a blast, bringing all the pomposity in his arsenal as the sneering, bellowing, dastardly Alquazar. The special effects are definitely of the old-school sort even though this was the biggest-budgeted film of the Connor/Dark partnership, with the sometimes cheap-looking sets augmented by a copious use of matte paintings and rear-screen projection and even a couple of fleeting instances of Ray Harryhausen-inspired stop-motion. The optics of ARABIAN ADVENTURE's casting would probably launch a slew of AV Club and Vulture cancellation pieces if they ever got a review copy of it, with the largely white British and American actors sporting turbans and fezzes, and in the case of Ratzenberger (then an American expat working exclusively in the UK until landing his big break as Cliff on CHEERS) even wearing some smudgy brownface as "Achmed." That's nothing compared to Reid's appearance as the Genie, the India-born actor sporting near-full-on blackface and painted-on bulging eyes each looking left and right. Like a lot of 40-year-old films, certain elements of ARABIAN ADVENTURE haven't aged well, but from the perspective of 1979, it didn't deserve the miserable fate it found with audiences and perhaps could've done a bit better if it was released at a different time of the year (by the standards of today, this has "February" or "September" written all over it). Still, it's got a great cast of pros (there's also Lee BFF Peter Cushing in a small role as a long-imprisoned Alquazar enemy), and Christopher Lee as a de facto Jaffar is alone worth the price of admission. Lee, Samms, and Ratzenberger would reunite with director Connor on the 1981 syndicated miniseries GOLIATH AWAITS. Connor would go on to a busy journeyman career with the cult favorites MOTEL HELL (1980) and THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS (1982) before settling into countless TV assignments, including a long run in recent years as a go-to director for the Hallmark Channel.

ARABIAN ADVENTURE opening in Toledo, OH on 11/21/1979

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Retro Review: THE SEDUCTION (1982)

(US - 1982)

Written and directed by David Schmoeller. Cast: Morgan Fairchild, Andrew Stevens, Michael Sarrazin, Vince Edwards, Colleen Camp, Joanne Linville, Kevin Brophy, Wendy Smith Howard, Woodrow Parfrey, Betty Kean, Marii Mak. (R, 103 mins)

Released by Avco Embassy in January 1982, THE SEDUCTION was supposed to be the big-screen breakout for Morgan Fairchild, who was having a bit of a moment throughout 1981 thanks to NBC's FLAMINGO ROAD, which began as a 1980 TV-movie before being spun off into a series in January 1981. It premiered just a week before ABC's DYNASTY, with both being respective network responses to the phenomenal success CBS was having with DALLAS (than at its peak following the "Who Shot J.R.?" season) and its spinoff KNOTS LANDING. The first season of FLAMINGO ROAD was a ratings hit, and in a cast that included familiar faces like Howard Duff, Stella Stevens, Kevin McCarthy, Cristina Raines, John Beck, and Mark Harmon, it was Fairchild who got all of the hype and attention with her portrayal of scheming, bitchy Constance Weldon Carlyle, essentially FLAMINGO ROAD's answer to J.R. Ewing, the character-you-love-to-hate--in this case, a serial adulteress and the cuckolding wife of aspiring politician Field Carlyle (Harmon). Born in 1950, Fairchild had been paying her dues for some time, starting with an uncredited gig as Faye Dunaway's double and stand-in on the 1967 classic BONNIE AND CLYDE. She first got attention during a 1973-1977 stretch on the daytime soap SEARCH FOR TOMORROW and picked up supporting roles in made-for-TV movies and had some TV guest spots along the way (most notably trying to seduce Mork on MORK & MINDY), but with FLAMINGO ROAD, Fairchild was suddenly everywhere. However, DALLAS, KNOTS LANDING, and DYNASTY proved to be too much competition. Viewers soon lost interest in FLAMINGO ROAD and NBC canceled it after its second season, at the same time that the much-hyped THE SEDUCTION was failing to make Fairchild a movie star.

At the risk of overselling it--and it's hard to just dismiss any movie that gives you a shotgun-toting Morgan Fairchild--THE SEDUCTION does a look a little ahead of its time in hindsight. While it owes a bit to Clint Eastwood's 1971 directing debut PLAY MISTY FOR ME, it also prefigures the post-FATAL ATTRACTION psycho-thriller craze as well as the Skinemax erotic thrillers that would be mainstays on late-night cable and in video stores in the 1990s. It also deals with the subject of obsessed fans while the murder of John Lennon by Mark David Chapman in December 1980 was still fresh in the public consciousness. And just six weeks after THE SEDUCTION's release, stalking became a subject of national awareness when actress Theresa Saldana barely survived being stabbed ten times in broad daylight by a crazed admirer who approached her outside her apartment. The assailant became obsessed with Saldana after seeing her in the 1980 films RAGING BULL and DEFIANCE, eventually getting the actress' address from her mother by posing as Martin Scorsese's assistant and claiming the director lost her contact info and needed her to replace another actress on his current film. THE SEDUCTION is never as grimly serious as those real-life examples, but it has one surprise up its sleeve with a legitimately creepy performance by Andrew Stevens as Derek, a photographer with a frightening fixation on his neighbor, popular L.A. news anchor Jamie Douglas (Fairchild). He pesters her with phone calls, flowers at the station, and even shows up in her dressing room with chocolates. Jamie writes him off as a harmless oddball, but her journalist boyfriend Brandon (Michael Sarrazin) isn't amused. Derek eventually forces his way into her house and gets his ass beat by Brandon, and even then, cynical detective Maxwell (Vince Edwards) insists there's nothing that can be done because Derek hasn't broken any laws, instead recommending Jamie and Brandon buy a gun and just blow the guy away the next time he shows up. It's advice that pretty much defines Plot Convenience Playhouse, as Derek has done almost nothing but break laws, and if Maxwell could be bothered to do his job instead of shuffling papers at his desk, ducking out to grab some breakfast at a greasy spoon, or using a Sharpie to write graffiti in a phone booth ("Cops do it better"), the movie would be over in 45 minutes.

There's no shortage of reasons why THE SEDUCTION is really impossible to take seriously (what high-end department store would hire Woodrow Parfrey as a salesman?), but that doesn't stop Stevens from giving a shit. He wisely never overplays Derek, and his relative calm and his generally upbeat and incredulous, "What are you talking about?" tone when confronted with his actions can be genuinely effective. The script by TOURIST TRAP and future Empire/Full Moon director David Schmoeller (CRAWLSPACE, PUPPET MASTER) initially portrays Derek not as slobbering slasher but rather, a functioning psychopath who blends right into society. He's a seemingly upstanding, professional guy with a career and an ability to afford a luxurious home, and he's even outwardly appealing enough to have a chance at a normal relationship, with his nice assistant Julie (Wendy Smith Howard) pining away for him with unrequited love. But he goes off the rails before long, thinking only of Jamie, staring at a Jamie shrine in his office, spending his free hours spying on her, sneaking into her house and hiding in her closet, and rejecting Julie's advances because he's "engaged to be married." But Schmoeller knows what THE SEDUCTION is and wastes no time delivering the goods with Fairchild skinny-dipping during the opening credits (accompanied by the theme song "In Love's Hiding Place" by Dionne Warwick). Edwards' character is ludicrous even by the standards of do-nothing movie cops, and is so preposterously useless that he probably could've been cut entirely with no damage being done to the narrative, and Derek sneaking into the TV station to put a secret message on Jamie's teleprompter causing her to have an on-air breakdown is a howler. The same goes for a scene where Jamie preps for her showdown with Derek by stripping nude and slinking into her bed by candlelight after luring Derek over (also, it's never really clear whether she knows Derek is her neighbor), only to have him enter her bedroom and pull back the sheets to reveal pillows, allowing her to sneak up on him from behind. Then why show her disrobing and getting into bed in the first place? I've seen plenty of pointless nudity throughout my movie-watching life but that's gotta be near the top. Again, Schmoeller knows what's important here.

After her Razzie-nominated performance in THE SEDUCTION, Fairchild went back to TV and ended up as another scheming temptress on ABC's short-lived PAPER DOLLS and spent a season on CBS' FALCON CREST before settling into TV-movies, miniseries (both NORTH AND SOUTHs), late '80s B-movies (RED-HEADED STRANGER, DEADLY ILLUSION, PHANTOM OF THE MALL: ERIC'S REVENGE), and Eurotrash (MIDNIGHT COP), recurring roles on popular TV shows (FRIENDS, CHUCK), self-deprecating cameos as herself (THE NAKED GUN 33 1/3: THE FINAL INSULT, HOLY MAN, WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY) and the world of DTV, eventually reuniting with Stevens on 1993's BODY CHEMISTRY 3: POINT OF SEDUCTION. Initially turning down THE SEDUCTION because he wanted top billing, Stevens later became synonymous with the DTV erotic thriller in the early-to-mid '90s with the NIGHT EYES franchise and several other pairings with Shannon Tweed. While THE SEDUCTION was not a success in theaters, it found a minor cult following throughout the '80s thanks to Fairchild remaining a recognizable celebrity and the film's constant airings on cable. It's just been resurrected on an extras-packed Blu-ray by Scream Factory (because physical media is dead), with a commentary track from Schmoeller (whose short film PLEASE KILL MR. KINSKI, chronicling his horrific ordeal trying to direct Klaus Kinski in 1986's CRAWLSPACE, is a must-see), and producers Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis, along with new interviews with Fairchild and Stevens. THE SEDUCTION is enjoyable 1982 trash all the way, and in retrospect, a film that had some minuscule degree of cultural relevancy with its stalking theme, as well as having a hand in setting the template for the types of exploitation thrillers that would provide Stevens with an unexpected new career direction a decade later.

THE SEDUCTION opening in Toledo, OH on 2/26/1982

Sunday, June 9, 2019

On Netflix: I AM MOTHER (2019)

(Australia/US/Luxembourg/New Zealand - 2019)

Directed by Grant Sputore. Written by Michael Lloyd Green. Cast: Clara Rugaard, Hilary Swank, Luke Hawker, Tahlia Sturzaker, voice of Rose Byrne. (Unrated, 113 mins)

It's little wonder that the post apocalyptic sci-fi indie I AM MOTHER was acquired by Netflix after being screened at this year's Sundance Film Festival. With all the influences it wears on its sleeve and the twist-happy plot, it's another "Netflix Original" that sports the look and feel of a feature-length BLACK MIRROR episode. It's a film with more ideas than it can handle, and it perhaps errs on the side of overlength at nearly two hours. But in the end, it's an impressive debut for Australian filmmaker Grant Sputore, from a high-concept script by Michael Lloyd Green that spent several years on the "blacklist" of Hollywood's top unproduced screenplays. Sputore, with the help of production designer Hugh Bateup, whose credits include numerous Wachowski projects like the MATRIX series, CLOUD ATLAS, and JUPITER ASCENDING, gets a lot out of the film's relatively low budget, making I AM MOTHER look much more expensive than it is.

It opens at a heavily-fortified, underground "repopulation facility" one day after a planet-wide "extinction event," where a single android named "Mother" (Luke Hawker in a practical, WETA-designed costume, and voiced by Rose Byrne) oversees 63,000 human embyros stored on site in the event of such a global catastrophe. She incubates a female embryo in a 24-hour period, then raises her from infant to young woman (Clara Rugaard), and that's when the trouble starts. Daughter (as she's been named) is sheltered, to say the least, with her only permitted insight into humanity coming from old episodes of Johnny Carson's TONIGHT SHOW. She starts asking questions, especially about Mother's claim that the outside world is an uninhabitable wasteland, something that keeps gnawing at her when she spots a mouse in one of the rooms, prompting Mother to incinerate it with no emotion. Mother and Daughter's peaceful existence is shattered with the arrival of a Woman (Hilary Swank) who shows up at one of the facility's entry points while a dormant Mother is "recharging." The Woman has been shot--she claims by a droid who looks just like Mother--and insists there's other humans out there.

For a while, I AM MOTHER functions as an almost satirical allegory of the trials and tribulations of parenting, with Mother, introduced cradling infant Daughter and singing "Baby Mine" (the Mother design also gives her a way to smile) but later growing increasingly irritated by the bad influence that Woman is being on Daughter. But something is off with Mother (watch how that smile can be deployed in a sinister fashion), starting with a parenting style that lands somewhere between overprotective and Munchausen-by-proxy. The Woman doesn't even want to be in the same room with Mother and the feeling is mutual, but they're forced to put up with one another, especially once Daughter figures out that Mother hasn't been entirely truthful about everything. These are things that every parent/child dynamic experiences and utilizing that angst in such a bleak sci-fi setting is an intriguing angle for Sputore and Green to explore. But then the twists and turns start piling on, along with the influences and the shout-outs to everything from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, THE TERMINATOR, HARDWARE, SNOWPIERCER, EX MACHINA and probably a few others. I AM MOTHER plays its cards a little too early if you're so inclined to divide the number of days since the extinction event to figure out a key character's age, but while it can't quite get all of its ideas under control and it more or less collapses in the last half hour (incidentally, right about the time the story moves outside the repopulation facility), Sputore's ambition and what he manages to pull off with a not a very significant budget are admirable. It's almost as if he wasn't sure he'd ever get a shot again and wanted to get everything he had out there right now just in case. Flawed but endlessly thought-provoking, it's one of the more promising genre debuts of late, and there's enough here that Sputore could have a shot at being the next Alex Garland a film or two down the road. He gets a lot of help from a two-time Oscar-winning pro like Swank, and the almost eerie maternal calm in Byrne's voice that immediately gives one some HAL-9000 chills. But also keep an eye on Rugaard, who manages to steal the film from her two much more experienced co-stars.

Friday, June 7, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: CLIMAX (2019), THE KID (2019) and J.T. LEROY (2019)

(France/Switzerland/Belgium/US - 2018; US release 2019)

Or, Gasper Noe's WHO SPIKED THE SANGRIA? An enfant terrible and provocateur of the highest order, Noe's films are the definition of "acquired taste." With its end-to-beginning structure and an agonizingly long sequence where Monica Bellucci is raped, 2002's IRREVERSIBLE has, for better or worse, set the Noe template for fucking with and antagonizing audiences. CLIMAX splits the difference between IRREVERSIBLE and 2009's ENTER THE VOID, eventually pummeling the viewer with shocking imagery, sensory overload, and a sense of utter disorientation as society breaks down within the walls of an abandoned school where a dance troupe is having a party before embarking on a tour of Europe and the US. Set in 1996 and inspired by an actual event (though Noe takes some liberties and runs with it, to say the least), the story is pretty thin: at the party, the students gossip, talk about future plans ("America is heaven on Earth," one of the French students enthusiastically muses), hook up, and engage in some recreational drug use before they all seem to realize at once that someone spiked the sangria with LSD. Paranoia, suppressed grudges, and hallucinations give way to madness, like FAME and A CHORUS LINE going straight to hell, with the second half of the film relentlessly tripping balls as Noe goes overboard to bombard the viewer with one transgressive set piece after another.

It would all be rather puerile if he wasn't such a master stylist, expertly mimicking Kubrick with long takes down seemingly endless corridors, turning the camera sideways and upside-down (it's another stellar showcase for cinematographer Benoit Debie), bombarding you with sound and color and so much screaming and shrieking. He wears his love of cinema on his sleeve, and he gives some shout-outs early on with some visible VHS copies of Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE, Pier Paolo Pasolini's SALO, Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION, and Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA, with one character even referencing the 1981 German drug addiction drama CHRISTIANE F. All Noe films are an endurance test to some extent, and there's a certain Chuck Palahniuk vibe to his work in the sense that his fixation on shock value seems to be stuck in the same place it was when he was a younger man with his 1998 debut I STAND ALONE. But regardless of how off-putting he may be at times, he makes up for it with the presentation. There's two jaw-droppingly dazzling dance numbers here, one part of an uninterrupted 13-minute take (Noe shot the sequence 16 times and used the 15th take), and he tops himself later on with the acid kicks in and we watch the mayhem--assault, someone set on fire, someone pissing themselves, a pregnant woman stabbing herself in the stomach, a rage orgy, etc--unfold in one 42-minute (!) take that comprises nearly half of the running time. Noe also utilizes every attention-getting trick in his arsenal to throw you off balance, starting with the closing credits playing at the beginning, the production company logos rolling around ten minutes in, and the opening cast and crew credits at the 46-minute (!) mark. The cast--mostly dancers, models, and other artists with lead Sofia Boutella (THE MUMMY, ATOMIC BLONDE) being the only professional actor--acquits themselves well using mostly improvised dialogue. Decidedly not for everyone and so aggressive in its potential for audience alienation that it makes Darren Aronofsky's MOTHER! look like a pandering crowd-pleaser, CLIMAX is probably the ultimate A24 release, and even they knew not to roll this out nationwide. (R, 97 mins)

(US - 2019)

Almost half of the main cast of the 2016 remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN reconvenes in this earnest but unsuccessful retelling of the Billy the Kid saga. The title itself is a bit of misdirection, as the "kid" in question is not William Bonney, but rather, 14-year-old Rio Cutler (Jake Schur, son of Jordan Schur, one of a stagecoach full of producers). Rio is introduced killing his abusive, drunkard father, which sends him on the run with his older sister Sara (Leila George), with their vengeful, psychotic Uncle Grant (Chris Pratt) in hot pursuit. En route to Santa Fe, Rio and Sara stumble into a standoff between notorious celebrity outlaw Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan) and a posse led by Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke). Billy surrenders and is to be delivered to Santa Fe authorities, so the Cutler siblings hitch a ride with Garrett and his men. Billy and Rio bond along the way, especially after Uncle Grant catches up to them and abducts Sara with the intention of putting her to work in his whorehouse. Directed by Vincent D'Onofrio (who also has a small role as an incompetent lawman), THE KID is actually a cross between Billy the Kid fan fiction and an unofficial TRUE GRIT redux, especially once Billy the Kid exits before the third act and Rio begs grizzled Garrett to help him rescue Sara from Uncle Grant.

There's a few sporadic shootouts and some suspense, and it works best when Hawke (in a very shouty and intense performance) and DeHaan are onscreen, but it's prone to post-UNFORGIVEN revisionist philosophizing like Garrett declaring "It doesn't matter what's true...it matters the story they tell when you're gone!" at the start of a gunfight, thinking it's PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID when it's barely even YOUNG GUNS II. Sporting a ridiculous fake beard, an over-the-top Pratt is an ineffective villain and acts like he prepped for his role by binge-watching DEADWOOD. THE KID was probably a fun gathering of friends and family--father-and-son Schurs; D'Onofrio and Hawke go way back; D'Onofrio and Pratt were also in JURASSIC WORLD; and George is D'Onofrio's daughter with ex-wife Greta Scacchi--and it's certainly an improvement over D'Onofrio's previous behind-the-camera efforts, like DON'T GO IN THE WOODS and the unwatchable MALL, which he scripted and produced, but it's a generally forgettable endeavor. Lionsgate must've felt the same way as it topped out at just 268 screens at its widest release. (R, 99 mins)

(US/Canada/UK - 2019)

Claiming to be from a broken upbringing with a prostitute mother working truck stops and in endless cycle of poverty, drugs, and sexual abuse, Jeremiah Terminator "J.T." LeRoy published three harrowing, semi-autobiographical novels and short story collections in the late '90s and early '00s that made him a literary sensation. It took several years, but "LeRoy" was revealed to be a character portrayed by two women: Laura Arnold, who actually wrote the novels, and her boyfriend Geoffrey Knoop's younger sister Savannah, who portrayed "LeRoy" in public for six years until the ruse was exposed. J.T. LEROY tells the story from SavannahKnoop's perspective, based on their memoir Girl Boy Girl. Knoop also co-wrote the script with director Justin Kelly (KING COBRA) and is one of 32 credited producers, and the more the film goes on, the more one senses there's some degree of score-settling going on. Albert's side was already told in the 2016 documentary AUTHOR: THE J.T. LEROY STORY, but here, Savannah (Kristen Stewart) is introduced arriving in San Francisco in 2001 to crash with her aspiring musician brother Geoff (Jim Sturgess) in the midst of the LeRoy phenomenon in literature circles. The mystique around LeRoy is reaching a boiling point, and two years since the release of his debut novel Sarah, he's still never made a public appearance, with Laura (Laura Dern) adopting a mumbled Southern drawl for phone interviews where she can pass herself off as a 20-year-old male writer. Under immense pressure from her publisher and the media to introduce LeRoy to the public, Laura convinces Savannah to don a wig and sunglasses and play the androgynous writer for photo shoots and interviews. It's harmless for a while, and Laura pays Savannah for her time, but the more she's required to be in public as LeRoy, the more she's forced to speak as LeRoy and make important statements and decisions. This relegates Laura to the sideline in another invented role as LeRoy's overbearing British publicist and handler "Speedie," and growing more resentful by the day that Savannah-as-"LeRoy" is getting all the attention and accolades.

It's hard to feel much sympathy for Laura, which is probably what Knoop is getting at in their script (Knoop now identifies as gender neutral and uses "they" and "their" pronouns). There also seems to be no love lost with Asia Argento, represented here by Diane Kruger as "Eva Avelin," a wild child European actress and filmmaker who's desperate to make a movie version of Sarah (in 2004, Argento starred in and directed THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS, based on LeRoy's 1999 short story collection, but the ruse was exposed by the time the film was released in 2006) and is not above seducing "LeRoy" to get it, causing confusion for the bisexual Savannah. Stewart and Dern are very good here, but the in medias res storytelling gives the opening act no breathing room. To tell the "LeRoy" story, Laura Albert's story must be told for the sake of context, but before we even know what's going on, Savannah's already in the J.T. LeRoy disguise and we're only ten minutes into the movie. Knoop is so concerned with their side that we never really get a handle of either Laura or Geoff, as Sturgess is given nothing to do but pout because Laura doesn't have the time to devote to their band. Even Knoop's motivations for going along are frustratingly vague ("I like performing"). Barely released by Universal before being shuffled off to iTunes and Blu-ray, J.T. LEROY has an fascinating story to tell, but it seems unsure how to tell it. The general absurdity of it could've been helped by a more satirical or darkly comedic approach, but it's so glum and serious that it's ultimately a superficial navel gaze. (R, 109 mins)

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Retro Review: THE UNCANNY (1977)

(Canada/UK - 1977; US release 1980)

Directed by Denis Heroux. Written by Michel Parry. Cast: Peter Cushing, Samantha Eggar, Ray Milland, Susan Penhaligon, Donald Pleasence, Alexandra Stewart, John Vernon, Joan Greenwood, Catherine Begin, Roland Culver, Chloe Franks, Renee Girard, Katrina Holden, Jean Leclerc, Sean McCann, Donald Pilon, Simon Williams. (Unrated, 89 mins)

Pioneered by 1945's DEAD OF NIGHT, the portmanteau horror anthology format became a durable subgenre in the 1960s with TV shows like ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and THRILLER, and on the big screen with Roger Corman's 1962 Poe entry TALES OF TERROR and Mario Bava's 1964 classic BLACK SABBATH. The UK's Amicus Productions went all-in on the trend with titles like 1965's DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, 1967's TORTURE GARDEN, 1970's THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, 1972's ASYLUM and TALES FROM THE CRYPT, 1973's VAULT OF HORROR, and 1974's FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE. Horror's game-changer came with the release of 1973's THE EXORCIST, and despite attempts to stay current by upping the gore and T&A factor, the anthology, as well as the other kinds of more classically-oriented fare from Amicus and its more renowned contemporary Hammer, began to fall out of favor with audiences. The 1973 anthology TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS--with one segment devoted to a man's sexual obsession with an erotically-shaped tree stump--is easily the worst of the British portmanteau offerings, and the subgenre more or less faded away. The work of Stephen King would help revive the movement in America with 1982's CREEPSHOW and 1985's CAT'S EYE, but in the meantime, Amicus closed up shop in 1977 but co-chair Milton Subotsky kept the faith with a couple of tangential, Amicus-style stragglers. The wave of British horror anthologies dating back to 1965 came to a quiet end with 1981's generally lighthearted, Vincent Price-headlined THE MONSTER CLUB, which featured an obnoxious movie producer character named "Lintom Busotsky." Made at a time when slasher movies and innovative special effects were dominating the genre, THE MONSTER CLUB didn't even hit US theaters, instead going straight to syndicated TV.

An almost identical fate befell 1977's THE UNCANNY, which would be unseen in the US until it premiered on CBS in 1980. It establishes its British anthology bona fides by being co-produced by Subotsky and starring the ubiquitous Peter Cushing, but it's actually more a part of the Canadian tax shelter craze of the period. Shot and set in Montreal, THE UNCANNY is a triptych of unsolved, feline-related mysteries told in a framing device by nervous, paranoid writer Wilbur Gray (Cushing) to incredulous publisher Frank Richards (Ray Milland), who's having a hard time buying Gray's thesis that cats have a supernatural hold on their human owners. "London 1912" has wealthy, elderly spinster Miss Malkin (Joan Greenwood) cutting off her family and deciding to leave her vast fortune to her horde of cats, much to the chagrin of her scheming nephew Michael (Simon Williams) and her greedy housekeeper Janet (Susan Penhaligon). Janet manages to distract Miss Malkin's attorney (Roland Culver) and swipe the original copy of the new will from his briefcase and must get the other copy from her wall safe...but the cats have other ideas.

"Quebec Province 1975" has nine-year-old orphan Lucy (Katrina Holden, who would become an orphan herself a few years later and be adopted by her mother's friends Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland) and her cat Wellington sent to live with her aunt (Alexandra Stewart) and uncle (Donald Pilon) after her parents are killed in a plane crash. Her aunt takes an instant dislike to Wellington, but that's nothing compared to the scorn heaped on Lucy by her bratty, bitchy older cousin Angela (Chloe Franks), who resents no longer being the sole center of attention and sets out to make Lucy's life hell. Unfortunately for Angela, it seems that Lucy has been studying up on books belonging to her witchcraft-enthusiast mother. And "Hollywood 1936" has ludicrously-toupeed ham actor Valentine De'ath (Donald Pleasence) orchestrating the "accidental" death of his more famous wife Madeleine (Catherine Begin) on the set of his latest film DUNGEON OF HORROR. After a grieving period of a few minutes, De'ath insists to the producer (John Vernon) that the show must go on and suggests his wife's role be recast with his younger mistress Edina (Samantha Eggar), a woefully untalented ingenue who immediately moves into the De'ath mansion, much to the disapproval of Madeleine's beloved cats.

Director Denis Heroux and Samantha Eggar on the set of THE UNCANNY.

Written by Michel Parry (XTRO) and directed by Denis Heroux (JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS), THE UNCANNY has a few trips and stumbles along the way--while the grisliest segment by far, "London 1912" drags on too long, and there's some really bad dubbing of some of the supporting cast for no apparent reason, particularly Holden and Franks--but looking at it now on Severin's new Blu-ray (because physical media is dead), it's somewhat of an unsung gem from the waning, life-support days of the British portmanteau. It's always great to see Cushing in these things, and it's fun watching him be regarded with the kind of sneering, pompous derision that was late-career Milland's bread-and-butter. Anthology horror fans will also get a kick out of seeing a teenage Franks getting her just desserts several years after her unforgettable turn as Christopher Lee's witchcraft-practicing young daughter in the "Sweets to the Sweet" segment of THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. Like any decent film of this sort should do, they save the best segment for last, with some absolutely terrific work by Pleasence and Eggar, both of whom get to show off rarely-utilized comedic skills as, respectively, the hapless Valentine De'ath--known as "V.D." to industry insiders--and his unbelievably dim mistress. Seemingly patterning her performance on Judy Holliday in BORN YESTERDAY, Eggar's scream queen screech is even worse than that terrible actress at the beginning of Brian De Palma's BLOW OUT, and is prone to obliviously saying things like, "Oh, V.D., I love you!" Lost in the shuffle thanks to a drastically changing genre landscape following the demonic horrors of THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN, THE UNCANNY probably seemed hopelessly antiquated in 1977, and it's little wonder why it completely bypassed American theaters. But time has been kind to it, and looking at it now reveals a surprisingly enjoyable mix of horror and inspired humor that's deserving of some appreciation. And of course, it doesn't miss the opportunity to deploy "What's the matter...cat got your tongue?" as an EC Comics-worthy punchline.