Monday, September 30, 2019

Retro Review: KILLER CROCODILE (1989) and KILLER CROCODILE 2 (1990)

(Italy - 1989)

Directed by Larry Ludman (Fabrizio De Angelis). Written by David Parker Jr. (Dardano Sacchetti) and Larry Ludman (Fabrizio De Angelis). Cast: Anthony Crenna, Ann Douglas, Thomas Moore (Ennio Girolami), Van Johnson, Wohrman Williams (Bill Wohrman), Sherrie Rose, Julian Hampton (Pietro Genuardi), John Harper, Gray Jordan, Marte Amilcar. (Unrated, 92 mins)

A very late-to-the-party "Nature Run Amok" Italian JAWS ripoff shot in the Dominican Republic, 1989's KILLER CROCODILE was never too hard to find even back in the VHS bootleg heyday prior to the circa-2000 Eurocult explosion on DVD. But for whatever reason, it's never been officially released in the US until now, courtesy of Severin's new Blu-ray (because physical media is dead). Directed and co-written by veteran producer (THE BEYOND, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS)-turned-exploitation knockoff specialist (the Rambo-inspired THUNDER WARRIOR trilogy, the Namsploitation OPERATION: NAM, aka COBRA MISSION) Fabrizio De Angelis under his trusty "Larry Ludman" pseudonym, KILLER CROCODILE doesn't waste any time, showing the titular beast front and center about 40 seconds into the film. Taking a page from 1980's ALLIGATOR, the croc here is an oversized mutant thanks to chemical contamination, in this case radioactive waste in barrels clandestinely dumped in a river surrounding an impoverished Caribbean island. A team of environmental activists led by Kevin (Anthony Crenna, son of the late, great Character Actor Hall-of-Famer Richard Crenna) are journeying along the river to find and expose the illegal waste disposal that's been orchestrated by corporate hatchet man Foley (Florida-based regional actor Bill Wohrman--credited as "Wohrman Williams"--who had a small role as a cop in PORKY'S and PORKY'S II: THE NEXT DAY), who keeps getting away with it because he's got a flunky with the corrupt local judge (Van Johnson--a long way from THE CAINE MUTINY--as Murray Hamilton) who represents the law on the island.

When one of the activists disappears, the judge blows off the concerns of her friends, and when her mutilated body is later found with clear evidence of crocodile chomping, the judge and Foley go full "Fake News" and accuse Kevin and the others of killing her. That lasts about a minute and a half until the massive croc destroys a dock and kills a few locals in the process. With the judge nervous about his corruption being made public and Foley threatening to "reveal who you really are," in a pointless attempt at throwing in a red herring (unless he's the croc wearing a Van Johnson disguise), Kevin and the activists team with wily local crocodile expert Joe (Ennio Girolami as Robert Shaw) to hunt down the beast and expose Foley's nefarious actions. De Angelis throws in a good amount of gore and dismemberment in the croc attacks, and there's no shortage of nonsensical bits that connoisseurs of Italian ripoffs know and love, such as the repeated mention of a big reveal about the judge not being much at all (he's a fugitive ex-con...big deal); dubious dubbing; Riz Ortolani's score being little more than barely tweaked John Williams/JAWS cues;  members of Kevin's group swimming around in contaminated water and deciding to make camp right by a shore lined with visible barrels stamped "Radioactive," ample proof that Foley and the judge are doing a pretty shitty job of keeping their activities buried, and a riotous outboard-motor-in-the-mouth demise for the croc at the hands of a crazed Kevin.

The most ridiculous character is Joe the Crocodile Whisperer, with his good luck hat that he tosses to Kevin for inspiration in an incredible scene that begins with Joe riding the Giannetto De Rossi-designed croc like the redressed immobile surfboard that it likely is, and earlier sensing the croc is near and talking to it from the boat, calling it a "pollywog" and advising Kevin that "They get really crazy when you insult them." It's not quite the USS Indianapolis monologue, but you get what you pay for, and it's good enough for KILLER CROCODILE. It's not quite Henry Fonda in TENTACLES or Richard Harris in STRIKE COMMANDO 2, but it's still strange seeing a beloved figure from Hollywood's Golden Age like Johnson doing some late-career slumming here, but work's work, and he was appearing in quite of few of these Italian exploitation obscurities during this period, including Stelvio Massi's never-completed slasher film TAXI KILLER, Ettore Pasculli's post-apocalyptic sci-fi FLIGHT FROM PARADISE, and Pierluigi Ciriaci's  DELTA FORCE COMMANDO 2. KILLER CROCODILE never even made it to US video stores and didn't even make much of an impression in Italy, but that didn't stop De Angelis from releasing the immediate sequel KILLER CROCODILE 2 the next year, shot back-to-back with its predecessor.

(Italy - 1990)

Directed by Giannetto De Rossi. Written by David Parker Jr. (Dardano Sacchetti), Larry Ludman (Fabrizio De Angelis) and Giannetto De Rossi. Cast: Anthony Crenna, Debra Karr, Thomas Moore (Ennio Girolami), Terry Baer, Hector Alvarez, Alan Bult, Paul Summers, Tony De Noia, Peter Schreiber, Franco Fantasia. (Unrated, 87 mins)

Now available as part of a limited-edition two-disc Blu-ray set with KILLER CROCODILE, the even lesser-seen 1990 sequel KILLER CROCODILE 2 was cranked out so cheaply and so quickly that it doesn't even bother roping in a past-his-prime, "and with"-worthy name actor to pull Van Johnson special appearance duty. Fabrizio De Angelis farmed out directing chores to veteran Italian makeup effects designer Giannetto De Rossi, best known to genre fans for his trailblazing splatter work on Lucio Fulci gorefests like ZOMBIE and THE BEYOND. De Rossi designed the croc in KILLER CROCODILE, and constructs a bigger and even more ridiculous one here. An offspring of the first film's title monster, Killer Crocodile Jr. proves to be a huge disruption to the development of a tourist resort that's certain to boost the economy of the impoverished area, which somehow hasn't become a huge cancer cluster with all the barrels of radioactive waste being dumped in the area. The potential contamination is why NYC reporter Liza Post (Debra Karr) is sent to investigate only to spend much of her time fighting off leering locals in addition to the rampaging croc. It's first seen devouring a vacationing couple, then attacking two boats filled with schoolkids and their nun chaperones, followed by an insane scene where it plows into a hut in what looks like the world's worst Kool-Aid Man impression. Once Liza confirms the existence of radioactive waste, her boss calls in ace environmentalist Kevin (a returning Anthony Crenna, now dubbed by Ted Rusoff), who seeks out his old buddy Joe the Crocodile Whisperer (Ennio Girolami, dubbed by Robert Spafford), left hobbled and even more crazy after his fateful encounter with the first toxic monstrosity, resulting in him behaving less like JAWS' Quint and more like an Obi-Wan Kenobi-like Jedi master ("I feel something," he says, looking out at still water).

Starting with using the same Riz Ortolani score, KILLER CROCODILE 2 has all the tell-tale signs of a quickie sequel. While the crocodile set pieces are more over-the-top in terms of execution and splatter--with a climactic battle between Kevin and the croc that features an Anthony Crenna action figure attached to a toy croc in some shots that not even Antonio Margheriti would deem acceptable--the rest is padded with stock footage from the first film (including recycling the same initial appearance of the crocodile, which is just flipped) and absurdly longer-than-necessary establishing shots of buildings, people walking into offices, Crenna and Girolami on the boat, pans across the river, etc. It has to resort to these tactics just to make it to 87 minutes, yet somehow, top-billed Crenna doesn't even appear until around 40 minutes in. The actor is on hand for an interview in the KILLER CROCODILE extras (he now goes by "Richard Anthony Crenna") and explains that he went to Rome in the late '80s when his dad was working on a movie (most likely LEVIATHAN) and decided to test the waters of the Italian film industry since he wasn't catching any breaks in Hollywood. He quickly nabbed the KILLER CROCODILE gig, probably on the basis of his known surname, and recalls it being a fun shoot in Santo Domingo even though there were language barriers, the production got caught in a hurricane, and he contracted dysentery at one point. He returned for the sequel, which again took him to Santo Domingo, but when De Angelis offered him the lead in De Rossi's TERMINATOR ripoff CY WARRIOR immediately following the back-to-back KILLER CROCODILEs (and again scheduled to shoot in Santo Domingo), he turned it down because he was ready to return home, with the part eventually going to Frank Zagarino. Crenna's only notable acting job came with a recurring role on ROSWELL a decade later, as things ultimately didn't pan out for him like they did for his father. As with John Wayne's youngest son Ethan Wayne in 1985's THE MANHUNT and 1987's OPERATION: NAM, De Angelis did his best to make Anthony Crenna happen, but the young actor probably would've found more success in the Italian B-movie industry if he made the move a few years earlier. By 1989-90, the entire Italian genre scene was on life support aside from whatever Dario Argento or Michele Soavi were doing, as evidenced by neither KILLER CROCODILE film finding any US home video distribution.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

On Netflix: IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON (2019)

(UK/US - 2019)

Directed by Jim Mickle. Written by Gregory Weidman and Geoffrey Tock. Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Cleopatra Coleman, Michael C. Hall, Bokeem Woodbine, Rudi Dharmalingam, Rachel Keller, Sarah Dugdale, Quincy Kirkwood, Philippa Domville, Tony Nappo, Al Maini, Julia Knope, Colton Royce. (Unrated, 115 mins)

After a trio of films that were well-received in indie horror scenester circles (2007's MULBERRY ST, 2011's STAKE LAND, and 2013's WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, a remake of a 2010 Spanish film), director Jim Mickle delivered an instant cult classic with 2014's East Texas noir COLD IN JULY, adapted from a Joe R. Lansdale novel. Following that, he devoted his energies to the three-season run of the Lansdale-based Amazon series HAP AND LEONARD. Now, Mickle--working for the first time from a script by others and not with writing partner Nick Damici, though Damici is one of the producers--returns to features for his most ambitious effort yet with the Netflix Original film IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON. Written by TV vets Gregory Weidman and Geoffrey Tock (both worked on the CBS series LIMITLESS and ZOO), the film has a doozy of a high concept involving a time-traveling serial killer hitting Philadelphia once every nine years beginning in 1988, on a fateful night that will forever affect the future of young patrolman Thomas "Locke" Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook). With a pregnant wife (Rachel Keller) due to give birth at any moment, Locke heads out for another night on the graveyard shift with his partner Maddox (Bokeem Woodbine) when the entire department ends up in a state of chaos over a string of identical deaths--a sort-of hemorrhage where the victims' brains seemingly melt out of their eyes, ears, nose, and mouth--simultaneously taking place miles apart across the entire city. The victims all have puncture wounds on the backs of their necks made by some kind of undetermined weapon, and witnesses mention a black female in a blue hoodie fleeing a club where the weapon was used on a young woman, who soon dies in the same manner while she's giving a statement to police.

After hitching themselves to the investigation against the wishes of Capt. Holt (Michael C. Hall, Mickle's COLD IN JULY star), who also happens to be Locke's brother-in-law, Locke and Maddox manage to catch up to the blue-hoodied killer, a young, shaven-headed woman named Rya (Cleopatra Coleman) after cornering her on a subway platform. Rya breaks Maddox's leg and gets into a violent scuffle with Locke, who injures her with her own strange weapon, causing her to stagger off the platform into the path of a speeding train, killing her instantly. Cut to 1997, Locke and Maddox are now detectives who made their names on the events of nine years ago, which has come to be known as the "Market Street Murders," though the department managed to get away with never divulging the identity of the killer and keeping many of the details secret. But on this day, his daughter's ninth birthday, a string of copycat killings take place, with Locke eventually coming face-to-face once more with Rya, who was splattered into pieces nine years ago but is somehow back to pick up where she left off with the killings.

To say anymore would involve significant spoilers, but this will pattern of Rya returning will repeat in 2006, 2015, and into 2024 over the course of the film, a time frame that finds Locke growing more obsessed and disheveled over time, at the expense of his job and his relationship with his daughter (played by Quincy Kirkwood at 9 and then Sarah Dugdale at 18 and older). The story is a wild mash-up of THE TERMINATOR, TIMECOP, DEJA VU, ZODIAC, LOOPER, and TRUE DETECTIVE among others, all wrapped into what plays like a feature-length episode of BLACK MIRROR with some incendiary present-day social commentary that's actually pretty ballsy in what it's trying to accomplish. But the more it goes on, the more muddled it becomes and the realization sets in that Mickle and the writers are simply trying to do too much in the timeframe they've been allotted. That's especially true in the deployment of about ten minutes worth of voiceover narration in lieu of a climax, which feels last a last-ditch Hail Mary because there's too many loose ends and no other way to resolve them while keeping it under two hours. It's still very much worth a watch, and the opening 35 minutes stands as a terrific extended suspense/chase set piece, but IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON is ultimately a film whose incredibly lofty thematic ambitions would've perhaps been better served as a two or maybe three-part Netflix limited series.

Friday, September 27, 2019

In Theaters/On VOD: 10 MINUTES GONE (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Brian A. Miller. Written by Kelvin Mao and Jeff Jingle. Cast: Michael Chiklis, Bruce Willis, Meadow Williams, Kyle Schmid, Lydia Hull, Lala Kent, Texas Battle, Swen Temmel, John Hickman, Sergio Rizzuto, Tyler Jon Olson, Geoff Reeves, Tanya Mityushima, Megan Neuringer. (R, 88 mins)

The latest installment in Lionsgate's landmark "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series, 10 MINUTES GONE also marks his fourth collaboration--more like chance encounters--with director Brian A. Miller, following the triumphant trio of THE PRINCE, VICE, and REPRISAL (it's OK if you don't remember those, because Willis doesn't either). An accurate description of the amount of time Bruno probably spent on set, 10 MINUTES GONE is a day trip to Cincinnati, OH for the former actor, who appears sporadically as Rex, a go-between who organizes heist crews for wealthy benefactors requiring distance. He has his usual crew but brings in a couple of outsiders for this latest job--veteran safecracker Frank (Michael Chiklis)--"the best lock man outside of New York," according to Rex--and Frank's younger brother Joe (Tyler Jon Olson), who worked on a Rex job once before but got pinched. Joe's got a bad rep as a result ("Even when he worked all the angles, the chips never fell his way," someone says about him) and the more reliable Frank tags along to vouch for him. Of course, the job--a bank robbery where Frank has to get into the vault to retrieve a mysterious case--goes south when Rex's crew--Griffin (Kyle Schmid), Baxter (Swen Temmel, also one of 25 credited producers), and Marshall (Sergio Rizzuto, also one of 25 credited producers)--are nowhere to be found after an alarm gets pulled. Frank and Joe use a secondary exit only to have Frank get bonked on the head in an alley during their getaway. He comes to ten minutes later to find Joe dead, the case missing, and no clue what went down in the time he was out cold. Convinced he's been set up, Frank teams with Joe's bartender girlfriend Claire (Meadow Williams, also one of 25 credited producers) and hunts down the other three members of Rex's crew of Reservoir Assclowns. Meanwhile, an irate Rex--from the confines of a nearly empty office on the top floor of a high rise overlooking downtown Cincy--sends his ruthless "fixer" Ivory (Lydia Hull, also one of 25 credited producers) to track down Frank when she isn't putting on shades and walking away from explosions as slowly as possible.

The idea of that blank ten minutes has a little in common with Miller's most recent film, the straight-to-VOD BACKTRACE, a film that inexplicably had Sylvester Stallone second-billed to Ryan "Who?" Guzman. But aside from that, 10 MINUTES GONE is so shameless in its groveling, slobbering HEAT worship that even DEN OF THIEVES is looking away in embarrassment. The clumsily-edited shootouts only succeed in making this look like the cheap, Redbox-ready ripoff that it is, but what makes 10 MINUTES GONE worse than usual for its ilk is the laughable script by first-timers Kelvin Mao and Jeff Jingle, a pair of writers who never encountered a cliche they couldn't utilize, starting with some opening narration from Chiklis explaining the rules of Three-Card Monte ("the shills conspire with the mark to cheat the dealer, when in fact, they're simply conspiring with the dealer to cheat the mark"), which still doesn't make the events that transpire any more coherent. Almost every line sounds like something David Caruso would've deemed too cheesy to utter on CSI: MIAMI. Just a random sampling:

  • Rex: "None of us would be here if we didn't believe in honor among thieves."
  • Frank: "We got a rat in the crew!" 
  • Rex: "Who else is after this thing?" 
  • Frank: "The heat's comin' down!" 
  • Mysterious European benefactor: "Ze clock is ticking."
  • Frank, before shooting Baxter in the ankle: "Hey Baxter, ya like dancin'?"
  • Doctor who stitched up Griffin, who's vanished from a safe house: "Gone with the wind..."
  • Rex, glaring at diagrams on a clear dry-erase board: "This was planned to perfection! What happened?"
  • Rex, answering phone: "Talk to me!"
  • Rex: "Check his burner!"
  • Rex: "Let's load 'em up!"
  • Rex: "Time to clear the board! Liquidate everyone!" 

But no one in 10 MINUTES GONE needs Cliche-to-English subtitles like Temmel's Baxter who, in the span of about 30 seconds, drops these turds in rapid-fire succession:

  • "How do I know you weren't gonna bring the Five-0?"
  • "We in some gnarly shit, Hoss!"
  • "I covered my post!"
  • "It was clear till things went postal!"
  • "We were sittin' on the guards when the fireworks started!"
  • "You know how he rolls! Charlie Bronson had to check it out!"
  • "I got the hell outta Dodge when the alarms chimed!"

Chiklis is a fine actor and obviously smart enough to know a piece of shit when he's in one, but he soldiers through like a pro because a lead role is a lead role--even if he has to carry Williams, who's a terrible actress--especially when it allows him to indulge in some ass-kicking like a beefy Jason Statham, which maybe reminded him of some glory days on THE SHIELD. As for Willis, it is what it is: another one-day gig in Cincinnati where 95% of his minimal screen time takes place in one room and you can't tell if his later annoyance is him in character over the plot developments or if it's because Willis himself has to be inconvenienced by moving to a different set for the obligatory showdown. In this case, it's a new wing of a train station that's under construction, probably the closest thing they could find to an abandoned warehouse before they ran out of time and Willis' double would have to be pressed into service. The climactic twist is about as predictable and ho-hum as it gets, so much so that it requires the surprise villain to offer this startling auto-critique of the film in progress: "Never walk into a place you don't know how to get out of. Sound familiar?" Yeah, because we've all seen HEAT. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: A SCORE TO SETTLE (2019), PASOLINI (2019) and JACOB'S LADDER (2019)

(US/Canada/UK - 2019)

Nicolas Cage got some of his best reviews in years with 2018's instant cult classic MANDY, but for every MANDY or MOM AND DAD or Richard Stanley's upcoming and much-anticipated THE COLOR OUT OF SPACE, there's a LOOKING GLASS, a HUMANITY BUREAU, a 211, a BETWEEN WORLDS or another utterly generic Redbox-ready clunker to effectively quash any comeback momentum he might accidentally have going. A SCORE TO SETTLE can be lumped in with a dozen other already-forgotten Cage paycheck gigs (raise your hand if you remember him dabbling in faithsploitation with the LEFT BEHIND reboot), a haplessly hokey revenge thriller with a really dumb Shyamalanian twist that anyone should be able to call less than ten minutes into the movie. Cage is Frank Carver, aka "Frankie Triggers," a low-level mob flunky who's spent nearly 20 years in prison after being set-up to take the fall on a hit that was ordered by his boss Max (Dave Kenneth MacKinnon) and carried out by his buddies Jimmy (Mohamed Karim) and Tank (Ian Tracey). Frank is getting a compassionate early release due to a terminal illness--a rare condition known as fatal insomnia that will, in time, cause his motor functions to dramatically diminish and his body to eventually shut down. He uses the time to reconnect with his estranged son Joey (Noah Le Gros, the lookalike son of veteran character actor James Le Gros) while indulging in a lavish lifestyle thanks to the recovery of a stash of Max's money that he left buried in a secret location prior to his incarceration. Widower Frank also treats himself to some fun with high-class prostitute Simone (Karolina Wydra), all the while plotting his revenge on those responsible for his two lost decades, especially once he learns that the presumed-dead Max may have faked his own death years earlier.

Directed and co-written by Shawn Ku, whose little-seen 2010 debut BEAUTIFUL BOY found some acclaim but only led to a Lifetime movie and the Crackle series SEQUESTERED, A SCORE TO SETTLE lugubriously dawdles for a good hour by setting itself up as a maudlin, manipulative man-weepie complete with some really terrible acoustic ballads, just in case you weren't sufficiently getting the feels. Once Ku drops the obvious twist about 2/3 of the way through, things finally pick up a little as Nic gets uncaged and does all sorts of crazy shit for his YouTube highlight reel: dramatically chewing on some jerky while he's interrogating Tank before blowing his head off, shooting another guy in the dick, busting out some seemingly improv impressions of Kurtwood Smith in ROBOCOP and later capping off a threat to a pimp with a Montgomery Burns "Excellent!" and, finally, coming up with several different ways to yell "BEEF?!" in the climactic showdown. The latter is truly a sight to behold, but until then, Cage (one of 22 credited producers) is just sleepily going through the motions, with one eye on the clock and the other presumably on the stack of bills he has to pay, bringing no life whatsoever to a series of awkwardly-played scenes with both Le Gros and Wydra. This is the sort of movie that has a reasonably well-known actor who gets a special "and" credit and is only seen sporadically throughout and has little to do with the plot, thus ensuring that he'll be of some "surprise!" importance later on. Also with Benjamin Bratt as one of Frank's old gangster pals who went straight, became a restaurateur, and keeps trying to talk Frank out of his plans for revenge, A SCORE TO SETTLE is the kind of by-the-numbers throwaway that's typified the bulk of Cage's output in recent years, only lately they've been looking a lot cheaper and much less polished. (R, 104 mins)

(France/Italy/Belgium - 2014; US release 2019)

Belatedly given a stealth summer 2019 arthouse run in the US by Kino Lorber five years after it played everywhere else in the world, Abel Ferrara's PASOLINI is a frustrating chronicle of the last day and a half in the life of controversial Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was murdered on November 2, 1975. Masterfully portrayed by Willem Dafoe--whose Oscar-nominated performance as Vincent Van Gogh in AT ETERNITY'S GATE is likely the reason this tough sell finally found a US distributor--Pasolini is introduced giving an interview as he works on post-production of his most notorious film, 1976's posthumously-released SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM. We observe Pasolini go about his day: giving interviews, working on a novel, having lunch with his loving mother (Adriana Asti), his loyal assistant (Giada Colagrande), and his close friend, actress Laura Betti (Maria de Medeiros), and later meeting frequent star and former lover Ninetto Davoli (JOHN WICK 2's Riccardo Scamarcio) for dinner. Pasolini's day is capped off with a fateful night of cruising where he picks up 17-year-old street hustler Pino Pelosi (Damiano Tamilia), drives to the beach, has sex with him, and is then beaten to death by the young man and several of his cohorts who were waiting nearby. Pelosi drove over Pasolini's mutilated corpse and would eventually be arrested several days later when he was caught riding around in the filmmaker's stolen car. Pelosi confessed to the murder and was convicted, though he recanted it nearly 30 years later.

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975)
Pasolini was an openly gay communist and outspoken cultural figure who made many political enemies, and there were numerous conspiracy theories surrounding his murder, including a possible Mafia hit or an ill-fated meeting with an extortionist after several cans of SALO footage were stolen. Ferrara (KING OF NEW YORK, BAD LIEUTENANT) doesn't go into any of that, and doesn't offer much help for anyone who's not already really up to speed on their Pasolini knowledge. It's less a narrative piece and more of a kaleidoscopic series of snapshots of random, mundane events of a day like any other, except that it turns out to be its subject's last. But with almost nothing in the way of exposition or an establishing of time or place (there's fleeting mention of the incendiary political scene in Italy at the time), there isn't much of a hook here aside from Dafoe's uncanny resemblance to Pasolini. It almost seems like Ferrara realizes this, as roughly half of the film's already brief 84-minute running time consists of scenes from Pasolini's novel as well as the script for his never-filmed intended follow-up to SALO playing out as they might have been. The novel sequences feature Roberto Zibetti as a politically ambitious, closeted bourgeois cipher serving as a Pasolini surrogate, while the scenes from the unmade screenplay have Scamarcio's Davoli as the young sidekick to an eccentric old man named Epifanio, played in an admittedly clever bit of stunt casting by the aged, white-haired Ninetto Davoli, who still has that beaming smile and Chaplin-esque screen presence he displayed in several Pasolini films decades ago. Only in the harrowing finale depicting Pasolini's brutal murder does PASOLINI start to generate any kind of dramatic momentum. Dafoe is a four-time Oscar-nominee and one of our great actors, and it's impossible for him to be uninteresting--though it is odd that his Pasolini and those interacting with him speak English while all scenes not involving Dafoe are in Italian or French. But his inspired casting isn't very well-served by a director who doesn't seem sure about what he's even trying to do with the project. (Unrated, 84 mins)

(US - 2019)

No one was demanding a remake of Adrian Lyne's disturbing Tim Robbins-starring mindfuck from 1990, and considering it spent three years on the shelf before debuting on DISH Network en route to VOD, no one was in a hurry to release it either. Financially-strapped LD Entertainment intended on opening it wide in theaters in February 2019 before abruptly yanking it from the release schedule and selling it to the lowly Vertical Entertainment. Even as modern-era remakes go, JACOB'S LADDER sets new standards for the perfunctory. It obviously can't replicate the kick-in-the-balls twist ending of the 1990 original, but its solution is just an ambivalent shrug. It wastes a good performance by Michael Ealy as Jacob Singer, an Iraq War vet and trauma surgeon at a VA hospital in Atlanta. He suffers from PTSD but is coping, is happily married to Samantha (Nikki Beharie), and they've recently had a baby boy. Jacob believes his brother Isaac (Jesse Williams) is dead--a casualty of the same war--but he runs into a stranger (Joseph Sikora) from Isaac's unit who informs him that his brother is alive and in Atlanta. The brothers are reunited, with Isaac dealing with paralyzing PTSD, hooked on a drug designed to control it, and still holding a grudge against Jacob since Samantha was his girlfriend first. These soap opera elements do nothing to enhance the JACOB'S LADDER experience, forcing director David M. Rosenthal (who previously worked with Ealy on THE PERFECT GUY) to resort to simply recycling all of the same shock elements from the first film as Isaac, and eventually Jacob, have hallucinatory visions of various monstrous creatures after using the experimental PTSD drug known as "The Ladder." Ealy, also one of the producers, busts his ass to make this work, especially near the end, but he's giving this pointless remake more than he can possibly get from it in return. Put it this way: JACOB's LADDER '19 is written by the guy who wrote the PET SEMATARY remake and the upcoming GRUDGE remake, and it's got a story credit for the guy who wrote the WHEN A STRANGER CALLS remake and the HITCHER remake. C'mon, man. (R, 89 mins)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

In Theaters: AD ASTRA (2019)

(US/China - 2019)

Directed by James Gray. Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross. Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Liv Tyler, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, Greg Bryk, Donnie Keshawarz, Bobby Nish, Natasha Lyonne, LisaGay Hamilton, Sean Blakemore, John Finn, Freda Foh Shen, Ravi Kapoor. (PG-13, 123 mins)

Writer/director James Gray has spent too much of his career--dating back to 1994's LITTLE ODESSA--paying and repaying his dues. Starting out as a gifted NYC filmmaker of the Sidney Lumet sort whose style and subjects would've made him an influential auteur in the '70s instead of someone with a devoted cult following today, Gray hit a wall when he stood his ground against a meddling Harvey Weinstein over 2000's THE YARDS. Weinstein, at the peak of his powers as a Hollywood mover and shaker, retaliated by shelving the film for two years and then barely releasing it despite critical acclaim. Gray resurfaced with 2007's underrated cop thriller WE OWN THE NIGHT but again saw his momentum stalled when 2009's TWO LOVERS fell victim to star Joaquin Phoenix's faux-public meltdown with his fake documentary I'M STILL HERE. Gray's next film, the wonderful period piece THE IMMIGRANT, was acquired by Weinstein and, in one of the most flagrant acts of petty, prickish score-settling in recent Hollywood history, was promptly shelved for a year before being unceremoniously dumped on Netflix with no fanfare in 2014, as Weinstein opted to bury what would've been certain Oscar bait just to get back at a director who didn't cave to his bullying tactics 15 years earlier. 2017's THE LOST CITY OF Z was Gray's most ambitious project up to that time, and while it wasn't a big hit, he had the support of executive producer Brad Pitt and for the first time in a long time, didn't have to deal with any extraneous bullshit.

That brings us to Gray's latest film, the mega-budget, near-future sci-fi epic AD ASTRA, which again reunites him with producer Pitt, who also stars as Col. Roy McBride, a SpaceCom astronaut summoned to embark on a top-secret, classified mission to the outer reaches of the solar system, ostensibly to deal with a recent phenomenon known as "The Surge"--waves of power bursts that are posing a grave threat to Earth and the entire universe. The Surge has been traced to the Lima Project, an exploratory mission that took off 30 years earlier to search for intelligent life in the universe. SpaceCom lost contact with the Lima Project 16 years into the mission, the last official dispatch coming from Mars, with Lima now believed to have drifted into the orbit of Neptune. Roy has been chosen for a reason: his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) was the commander of the Lima Project and SpaceCom brass has enough evidence to believe he's been alive all this time and might be the source of the threatening Surge. The assignment opens old wounds for Roy, who never got over the feeling of abandonment by his father, who's regarded as the world's greatest and bravest space traveler. Roy teams with Col. Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), an old colleague of his father's, and takes a commercial flight to the moon, now a popular tourist destination (with an Applebee's and a Subway in a shopping center), where the plan is to board a rocket to Mars, the last manned outpost in the solar system, to send a message to the Lima Project in the hopes that Clifford will respond. Pruitt is forced to sit out the remainder of the mission and remain on the moon after stress from a run-in with space pirates on the dark side of the moon sends him into emergency surgery, leaving Roy to go it alone with the crew of the Cepheus escorting him to Mars.

For its first hour and change, AD ASTRA (meaning "to the stars") is an effective reimagining of APOCALYPSE NOW, with Roy sent through the solar system ("upriver") to the Lima Project, now a de facto compound run by his father, who may be a rogue lunatic whose continued existence is a threat to all life everywhere. The exact purpose of the mission doesn't become clear to Roy for some time, but the Heart of Darkness-type set-up only ends up being a bait-and-switch for what slowly morphs into what can best be described as Terrence Malick remaking FIELD OF DREAMS and changing the setting from an Iowa cornfield to outer space. The notion of fractured familial bonds and fathers and sons not seeing eye to eye are recurring motifs in Gray's work going back to LITTLE ODESSA, and the idea of Jones' Clifford putting exploration before his duties as a husband and father echoes Charlie Hunnam's doomed Percy Fawcett in THE LOST CITY OF Z, but the shift in tone here doesn't really work. AD ASTRA had a somewhat troubled production, with shooting initially wrapping in the fall of 2017 followed by some badly-received test screenings that had 20th Century Fox ordering more than one round of reshoots and bumping the release date multiple times. To that end, AD ASTRA has the look and feel of compromise all over it. It's not enough that Gray turns his space-set APOCALYPSE NOW homage into a hard sci-fi FIELD OF DREAMS (and, to a certain extent, Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE, which starred Pitt), but he's also riffing on Andrei Tarkovsky's SOLARIS, Christopher Nolan's INTERSTELLAR, Alfonso Cuaron's GRAVITY, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, plus the moon buggy chase with space pirates that seems like it's on loan from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. AD ASTRA even finds room for an out-of-nowhere attack by crazed baboons that's straight out of a horror movie with someone getting their face chewed off. Gray's simply juggling too many things here--did a test audience member jokingly scribble "needs a baboon attack" on a feedback card and Fox execs inexplicably latched on to it?--and the film loses its way in the back end.

The end credits are filled with jobs preceded by the word "additional," which is rarely a good sign, and it's been rumored that second-unit director Dan Bradley (who helmed the ill-fated RED DAWN remake several years ago) was responsible for some of the reshoots. If that's the case, Gray's been very diplomatic about it, and regardless of its story deficiencies, AD ASTRA is a technical triumph filled with astonishing visual effects and stunning cinematography, mostly by recent Christopher Nolan collaborator Hoyte Van Hoytema (DUNKIRK), with the great six-time Oscar-nominee Caleb Deschanel credited with "additional photography," presumably because Van Hoytema was working on Nolan's upcoming TENET and wasn't available for reshoots (there's a great shot of a backlit Pitt running that's straight out of Michael Mann's THE KEEP, so bravo to whomever was responsible for that). Pitt, who's in virtually every scene, is excellent, though his performance grows more internalized as the film goes on, with Gray relying far too much on Roy's voiceover narration, which would be intentional as part of the APOCALYPSE NOW vibe of the far superior first half, but also seems like it's scrambling to clarify plot points like the original theatrical cut of BLADE RUNNER. Other than Pitt, everyone's screen time is limited, with Liv Tyler being particularly squandered as Roy's estranged wife and Jones' Clifford not really living up to the Kurtz-esque build-up the film provides him, though Gray makes his fleeting appearances count in the form of the always-unsettling garbled audio and distorted video transmissions. Wait...so add EVENT HORIZON and SUNSHINE to AD ASTRA's crib sheet.

Monday, September 23, 2019

In Theaters: RAMBO: LAST BLOOD (2019)

(US/China/Sweden - 2019)

Directed by Adrian Grunberg. Written by Matt Cirulnick and Sylvester Stallone. Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Oscar Jaenada, Adriana Barraza, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Yvette Monreal, Pascasio Lopez, Marco de la O, Fenessa Pineda. (R, 89 mins)

When Sylvester Stallone resurrected his second-most iconic character after a 20-year break with 2008's RAMBO, nobody expected the ferocious and relentlessly over-the-top gorefest that he delivered. Packed with endless stabbings, slashings, eye gougings, throat rippings, decapitations, dismemberments, disembowelings, heads blown off, arrows through the skull, and virtually every other ultra-violent way to be killed, RAMBO was a kick in the balls that felt like Stallone had perhaps spent some prep time binge-watching a stack of '80s Italian splatter epics with his Eurocult superfan son and Grindhouse Releasing co-founder Sage, who would die unexpectedly in 2012. RAMBO ended with the title character returning to the family ranch in Arizona after slaughtering half of Burma in a quest to rescue some abducted American missionaries, and RAMBO: LAST BLOOD picks up a decade later, with Rambo living a quiet life raising both horses and his 17-year-old niece Gabriella (Yvette Monreal), after her mom--Rambo's sister--succumbed to cancer ten years earlier. Also living with them is beloved housekeeper Maria (BABEL Oscar-nominee Adriana Barraza), who took care of Rambo's late father and is like a grandmother to Gabriella. Everything is going well until headstrong but naive Gabriella, against Rambo's and Maria's wishes, goes to Mexico alone in search of her deadbeat father (Marco de la O), looking for answers as to why he abandoned her after her mother died.

Meeting up with Gizelle (Fenessa Pineda), a friend who now lives in the area, Gabriella knocks on her father's door and is cruelly rejected, which leads to the two girls going to a nearby club where Gabriella is roofied and taken to the stronghold of the Martinez brothers--Victor (Oscar Jaenada) and Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta)--powerful crime bosses who run a lucrative sex and human trafficking ring. Rambo makes his way south of the border and is unprepared for the beatdown he gets from the Martinez brothers, with Hugo promising to make Gabriella's life a living hell and unwisely letting Rambo live so he can think about it every day. Rambo is nursed back to health by Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega), a journalist who's been tracking the Martinez brothers after they killed her sister three years earlier. Undeterred--and with a fresh "X" carved into his face by Victor--Rambo stages a daring rescue of Gabriella, who's been beaten and hooked on heroin by Martinez goons, and heads back to the Rambo homestead, where he prepares for an inevitable showdown.

Using the tried-and-true "this time it's personal" approach, the script owes more to TAKEN than to anything conceived by author David Morrell, whose 1972 novel First Blood was the basis of the 1982 film that started the franchise (and who's gone on the record as hating this new film) or by the Rambo that Stallone played back in the '80s (in its earliest stages, this fifth RAMBO was conceived with a sci-fi/horror angle, with Rambo helping track a PREDATOR-type alien creature, an idea that was wisely shitcanned). It all leads to a graphically gory tribute to HOME ALONE, as Rambo sets up a ton of Rube Goldberg-ian booby traps around the ranch and in a series of tunnels he's spent years constructing under the property as he leaves no kill method unutilized in his annihilation of the Martinez crew. It's cartoonish in the extreme, and its depiction of Mexico--portrayed here by Bulgaria--is straight out of a Donald Trump fever dream, a MAGA doomsday scenario complete with a shithole shantytown where a wholesome, virginal American girl is in immediate and constant danger and everyone who hasn't already joined a migrant caravan is a leering, lip-smacking rapist, a drug dealer, a corrupt cop, or a whore, and not even a close friend can be trusted (Gizelle sells Gabriella out to the sex traffickers, and even steals her bracelet which, of course, Rambo notices). Even in the glory days of '80s action movies, there was almost always a decidedly right-wing slant to these kinds of things, but it certainly has an added dimension in today's more aggressively partisan climate knowing that this scenario is the kind of bloodbath revenge fantasy that seems specifically designed to make Lou Dobbs come.

Nevertheless, it moves so briskly and Stallone is still so good at what he does that it's entertaining if you just accept it for the garbage exploitation movie that it is, headlined by a 73-year-old living legend methodically killing an endless parade of scuzzy shitbags in the most ridiculously blood-splattered ways imaginable, making this as close as we're likely to get to a DEATH WISH 3-level experience at a multiplex in 2019. Running just under an hour and a half and with the closing credits rolling at 79 minutes, RAMBO: LAST BLOOD does feel like it's been cut to the bone, especially with Vega's character, who just vanishes from the film after she agrees to help Rambo some more (also, marvel at how Rambo somehow manages to make it back across the border offscreen with what we must assume was no hassle even though there's a strung-out teenage girl in the passenger seat of his truck). Reports have already surfaced that the overseas version runs another 12 minutes and has an opening sequence where Rambo rescues a pair of stranded hikers caught in a storm. This prologue--likely to turn up on the eventual Blu-ray--was cut shortly before the North American release and obviously explains why Louis Mandylor is still in the credits as the sheriff but nowhere to be found in the film.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Retro Review: CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1960)

(UK - 1960)

Directed by Sidney Hayers. Written by George Baxt. Cast: Anton Diffring, Erika Remberg, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasence, Jane Hylton, Conrad Phillips, Kenneth Griffith, Vanda Hudson, Yvonne Romain, Colette Wilde, Jack Gwillim, John Merivale, Carla Challoner, Walter Gotell, Kenny Baker. (Unrated, 92 mins)

Known primarily for the first dozen films in the long-running CARRY ON series, the British production company and distributor Anglo-Amalgamated occasionally delved into the respectable with BILLY LIAR and DARLING, but was otherwise a prolific B-movie factory through the 1950s and 1960s. They got in on the residual Hammer horror action with what was unofficially termed "the Sadian trilogy" by film historian David Pirie in his groundbreaking 1971 British gothic horror chronicle A Heritage of Horror. 1959's HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (directed by Arthur Crabtree) and 1960's classic PEEPING TOM (directed by Michael Powell) set the tone with their increased focus on the lurid, whether it's the grisly-for-the-time violence or the sexually suggestive elements (particularly in the self-explanatory PEEPING TOM) that took things a step beyond Hammer. 1960's CIRCUS OF HORRORS closed the "trilogy" in grand fashion and became a box-office success in the US, where it was released by American International and spawned multiple versions of Garry Mills' hit UK single "Look for a Star," which is heard several times throughout. Directed by Sidney Hayers, who would go on to helm 1962's terrifying BURN, WITCH, BURN, CIRCUS OF HORRORS is rather tame by today's standards but remains a trashy delight, anchored by the quintessential Anton Diffring performance, and is just out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory, because physical media is dead.

Diffring, fresh off off the title role in Hammer's THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, stars as Dr. Rossiter, an egomaniacal, quack plastic surgeon who flees post-war, 1947 London after a botched experimental operation that leaves a young socialite (Colette Wilde) horribly disfigured. Still convinced of his own genius, and with a pair of fawning sycophants in tow in sibling apprentices Martin (Kenneth Griffith) and Angela (Jane Hylton), Rossiter changes his appearance--primarily the removal of a proto-beatnik beard-- and starts going by "Dr. Schuller" by the time the trio end up in France, which is still in poverty-stricken devastation from the war. A chance encounter on the side of the road where Schuller asks a little girl (Carla Challoner) for directions leads him to a decrepit circus owned by the girl's widowed, drunkard father Vanet (a young-ish Donald Pleasence). The little girl--Nicole--has extensive facial scarring from a bomb blast, inspiring Schuller to concoct a scheme where he can continue to practice his craft by using the circus as a front. He restores the girl's beauty, which convinces Vanet to sign the circus over to him as part of a partnership. Then Schuller does absolutely nothing to intervene when the celebrating, shitfaced Vanet tries to dance with the circus' bear and is promptly mauled to death.

Ten years pass, and the circus has relocated to Berlin, where the grown Nicole (Yvonne Monlaur) now calls Schuller "Uncle," and the other circus performers--among them the star attraction Magda von Meck (Vanda Hudson) and the ambitious Ellissa Caro (Erika Remberg)--are all formerly scarred criminals being blackmailed by Schuller by being given a new lease on life and hiding incognito in the circus in exchange for letting Schuller operate on them. All goes well for Schuller until inconveniences start popping up--like Magda falling in love with wealthy Baron von Gruber (Walter Gotell) and wanting to leave the circus, or spiteful Ellissa making a lot of noise when Schuller starts devoting his attention to new and formerly burn-scarred attraction Melina (Yvonne Romain)--leading to the doctor cajoling the hapless Martin into staging a series of fatal "accidents" to keep them quiet. Adding to Schuller's dilemma is Angela's increasing resentment of being kept on the backburner after carrying a torch for him since his days as Rossiter, plus a detective (Conrad Phillips) who's gone undercover as a reporter to ingratiate himself into the "jinxed circus" to investigate why a dozen of its pretty female performers have died in freak mishaps over the last several years.

Anton Diffring (1916-1989)
The story is beyond preposterous, but it works thanks in large part to Diffring. Born in 1916, Diffring fled Hitler's Germany in 1939 only to find himself typecast as Nazi generals and commandants in films throughout the 1950s all the way to the 1980s (most notably in 1965's THE HEROES OF TELEMARK, 1966's THE BLUE MAX, 1969's WHERE EAGLES DARE, 1971's ZEPPELIN, 1975's OPERATION DAYBREAK, the epic 1983 ABC miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR, and Jerry Lewis' infamous and never-released THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED). Diffring turned up in respectable films like Francois Truffaut's 1966 Ray Bradbury adaptation FAHRENHEIT 451, but he also found consistent employment in Eurotrash fare like 1971's THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE, 1973's MARK OF THE DEVIL PART II and SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE, Jess Franco's 1977 nunsploitation potboiler LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN, the same year's German EMMANUELLE ripoff VANESSA (where he played Alain Cuny's aging sexual mentor role), and, in one of his last credits before his death in 1989, Franco's all-star 1988 plastic surgery gorefest FACELESS, where his very presence was an obvious shout-out to his turn in CIRCUS OF HORRORS. As sleazy as the proceedings can be, it's given a classy sheen with the cinematography of the great Douglas Slocombe, a future three-time Oscar-nominee whose long career lasted from 1940 until his retirement following 1989's INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, after which he lived another quarter century until his death in 2016 at the age of 103 (in addition to THX-1138 co-star Pleasence, the film has another George Lucas connection with Kenny Baker, seen briefly as a circus dwarf 17 years before playing R2-D2 in STAR WARS). Though Hayers (1921-2000) displayed some undeniable chops in the horror genre between this and BURN, WITCH, BURN (and a pair of 1971 efforts with IN THE DEVIL'S GARDEN and INN OF THE FRIGHTENED PEOPLE), the remainder of his career was spent mostly in TV journeyman mode with credits on shows like THE AVENGERS, THE NEW AVENGERS, MAGNUM P.I., THE FALL GUY, MANIMAL, T.J. HOOKER, KNIGHT RIDER, and THE A-TEAM.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

In Theaters: IT: CHAPTER TWO (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Andy Muschietti. Written by Gary Dauberman. Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Bill Skarsgard, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Teach Grant, Nicholas Hamilton, Javier Botet, Xavier Dolan, Jess Weixler, Taylor Frey, Molly Atkinson, Joan Gregson, Will Beinbrink, Stephen King, Peter Bogdanovich, Stephen Bogaert, Luke Roessler, Jackson Robert Scott, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Joe Bostick, Megan Charpentier, Juno Rinaldi, Owen Teague, Jake Sim. (R, 169 mins)

A blockbuster hit that currently stands as the highest-grossing horror film of all time (by present-day dollars and not by ticket sales or adjustment for inflation), 2017's IT, an adaptation of the first half of Stephen King's gargantuan 1986 novel, ushered in an era of renewed interest in the legendary author's work. This includes the Netflix films GERALD'S GAME and 1922, this year's remake of PET SEMATARY, this fall's DOCTOR SLEEP, a sequel to both King's novel The Shining and Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film version, which King has spent nearly 40 years criticizing, and several other announced film and TV projects in various states of development or production. Every generation has their genre touchstones, and IT--in many ways a hard-R GOONIES--has become a gateway film for impressionable young horror fans. Every generation's gateway is different, and just as aging purists who cut their teeth on Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi dismissed the blood and guts horror that gained traction in the 1970s, it's easy to for us jaded cynics now in our 40s to take a shit all over whatever it is "the kids" are into and inevitably sound all Old Man Yells at Cloud. I liked IT--it didn't blow me away, but I can see where a 13-year-old might consider it a watershed moment that hopefully leads to further exploration. IT was entertaining but it relied heavily on the now-overused trope of "scary clowns" as well as the crutch of nostalgia, especially by updating the setting of the childhood section of the novel from 1958 to 1989. Of course this also meant recurring invocations of everything 1989, from BATMAN to LETHAL WEAPON 2 to A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5, and a running gag about New Kids on the Block. This retro fetishizing of everything '80s (all that's missing is a John Carpenter-esque synth score) is representative of the move in horror toward The Reference--the AMERICAN HORROR STORY/STRANGER THINGSification of the genre, if you will. And returning director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman push that even further in IT: CHAPTER TWO.

Running a bladder-challenging 169 minutes--a mere three minutes shorter than THE GODFATHER--IT: CHAPTER TWO is a disappointing sequel. With the first film's characters reconvening in 2016 after 27 years apart, the film is a success in terms of its effective casting choices and finding actors who, for the most part, strongly resemble the younger versions of their characters. When murders begin taking place in Derry 27 years after "It" was defeated, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the town librarian and lone member of "The Losers" who never moved away, reaches out to his six childhood friends spread all across the country--Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), a novelist and screenwriter with a habit of writing bad endings; Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), a popular but hacky stand-up comic who doesn't even write his own material; Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone), still a nervous hypochondriac who works insurance risk assessment and married a woman just like his mother (and played by the same actress, Molly Atkinson); Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), now an architect who lost all the weight that made him a target of incessant childhood bullying; Stanley Uris (Andy Bean), who grew up to be an accountant; and Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), a successful fashion designer stuck in an abusive marriage. The reunion is one short when childhood memories come back to Stanley, who commits suicide rather than face the manifestation of It in Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgard). Those youthful traumas are only remembered by Mike, who informs the others that once you leave Derry, the memories slowly fade away. But with "It" rearing its ugly head again and the body count rising, the other Losers begin to remember. Through his research, Mike learns that the only way to defeat It is by performing "The Ritual of Chud," a Native American tribal rite that requires them to find one artifact from their childhood before venturing deep into It's lair underneath Derry.

The camaraderie of the young cast of IT--who also appear here in new scenes--was probably its most successful aspect aside from Skarsgard's wild performance as Pennywise. As in IT, the actor is too often replaced by herky-jerky CGI enhancement that almost makes his very presence pointless. IT: CHAPTER TWO, however, spends much of its length with the adult Losers on various solo quests to obtain their artifacts, during which time they have their own confrontations with the past and run-ins with It. There's also the grown-up bully Henry Bowers (Teach Grant), busted out of a mental institution by It in the form of the decayed corpse of his childhood partner-in-crime Patrick Hockstetter (Owen Teague); a little boy (Luke Roessler) who lives in Bill's childhood home and is a new target of It; and Ben's still-unrequited love for Beverly, and these are just some of the too many subplots that IT: CHAPTER TWO has to juggle while jettisoning key characters like Bill's movie star wife Audra (Jess Weixler) and Beverly's asshole husband Tom (Will Beinbrink), who are quickly introduced and never seen again, and still managing to find time for a jokey Stephen King cameo. The film seems long for the sake of being long, and certainly the interminable artifact quests, which constitute almost the entire second hour, could've been condensed or perhaps would've played better if this were made into the limited cable series that it often seems to be emulating, especially with the extended wrap-up that feels more like a series finale than the ending of a movie.

The MVP standout is Hader, whose grown-up Richie is given a new layer of characterization that could've easily come off as woke pandering but is brought to life with heartfelt empathy by the SNL vet, best known for his comedic skills but someone I can easily see morphing into a versatile dramatic actor of the Micheal Keaton variety. As it is, IT: CHAPTER TWO is the HOBBIT of Stephen King adaptations. For all its bloat and overlength despite dumping huge chunks of the novel, it's a story that could've easily been told in two hours, but its predecessor was such a success that Muschietti was likely given carte blanche to run as long as he wanted. It has its moments, but they're spread out over the nearly three-hour run time. Any experienced horror fans will see the jump scares coming a shot before they do since Muschietti's set-ups are all the same, and Pennywise's now-repetitive antics seemed much scarier when they were aimed at the childhood-era Losers (and nothing here even comes close to the terrifying slide projector scene in the first film). Plus, the endless referencing and shout-outs--to things like THE THING, ALIENS, THE SHINING, STAND BY ME, THE LOST BOYS, and even Hader is forced to utter a groaner in the form of DIE HARD's most iconic line in the final battle with Pennywise--just feels lazy. Right around the point when adult Eddie's frightful run-in with It in the dank, cavernous basement of the Derry pharmacy is punctuated by what might go down as the dumbest and most pointless needle-drop in film history in the form of Juice Newton's 1981 hit "Angel of the Morning," I was pretty much over this chapter of IT.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

In Theaters/On VOD: THE FANATIC (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Fred Durst. Written by Dave Bekerman and Fred Durst. Cast: John Travolta, Devon Sawa, Ana Golja, Jacob Grodnik, James Paxton, Josh Richman, Marta Gonzalez Rodin, Kenneth Farmer, Martin Pena, Denny Mendez. (R, 88 mins)

"You are a fan. Without you, I'm nothing" - Hunter Dunbar

"I can't talk too long. I gotta poo" - Moose

From the moment a pic of a bowl-mulleted John Travolta went viral, showing him playing an obsessed stalker named Moose in a thriller directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, THE FANATIC was instantly tapped as 2019's must-see bad movie. It's not as if Durst is a completely terrible director--his family-friendly 2008 Ice Cube comedy THE LONGSHOTS was a modest success in theaters--but THE FANATIC is a perfect storm. That's due in part to Durst's place as the poster boy for a rock subgenre that's aged like a piss-warm Monster energy drink, but mainly for the sorry state of Travoltablivion, with the iconic actor having spent the better part of the last decade in a VOD lull that probably makes him long for the glory days of BATTLEFIELD EARTH. GOTTI was a laughingstock and SPEED KILLS his all-time worst, but THE FANATIC is...well, it's something. So much so that you're torn between declaring it the next THE ROOM or admiring its insanity and marveling at the sheer chutzballs audacity of Travolta's truly unhinged, lunatic performance. For better or worse, you've never seen anything quite like THE FANATIC--not even the similarly stan-themed thrillers like 1981's THE FAN or 1996's THE FAN. It's bowing on VOD a week after tanking hard on about 50 screens across the US, which does THE FANATIC a grave injustice: this deserves to be the next midnight movie sensation playing to packed audiences shouting out Travolta's most ridiculous lines ROCKY HORROR-style. Is THE FANATIC good? Fuck no, it's not good. But it was everything I hoped it would be after seeing that pic of Travolta and everyone who loves movies needs to experience it.

Travolta is Moose, an obsessive movie nerd, autograph hound and painfully awkward denizen of Hollywood Blvd, clearly on the spectrum but THE FANATIC doesn't address that. Moped-riding Moose makes some spare cash doing a terrible "London bobby" busking act on the street, but he lives to nab autographs set up by his only friend, low-level aspiring paparazzo Leah (Ana Golja). Leah gets the score of a lifetime for Moose by talking him into crashing a swanky party where his favorite actor Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa) is rumored to be in attendance. He isn't, and Moose makes such a scene with another actress (Denny Mendez) that security throws him out. But Moose is undeterred, since Dunbar is also doing a book signing at a local comic shop the next day, but just as Moose gets to the front of the line, Dunbar is called away by a personal matter with his irate girlfriend who's waiting out back. And Moose--who bought the very jacket Dunbar wore in VAMPIRE KILLERS in the hopes of having it signed--never does get his autograph. This leads to a tense confrontation outside prompting Moose to write a heartfelt fan latter and, using a star maps app suggested by Leah, deciding to hand-deliver it, waiting outside Dunbar's house to get his autograph so he can personally tell him how much his movies mean to him. An enraged Dunbar writes his name with a Sharpie across Moose's favorite shirt ("You want an autograph? Here's your autograph!") and angrily tells him to get lost. Moose leaves and comes back, again and again, and the cycle repeats and gets increasingly weird and uncomfortable.

Moose eventually gets inside Dunbar's house as the film ultimately becomes a rote rehash of MISERY, but it's everything up to that point that makes THE FANATIC a must-see. From his first line of dialogue--telling the comic shop manager "I can't talk too long...I gotta poo"--Travolta's go-for-broke performance is astonishing, almost like it's his personal version of the sandwich board scene in DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, as if someone has made a grave threat and is "Simon Says"-ing him into engaging in increasingly absurd ways of embarrassing himself. It's impossible to take your eyes off Travolta, starting with his ludicrous appearance, but then with nearly everything he says and does: rubbing behind his ears and sniffing his fingers whenever he gets nervous or excited; standing in front of the mirror practicing what he'll say to Dunbar ("You were really rad in VAMPIRE KILLERS!") and being so proud of himself for coming up with something "rememorable" ("He's gonna love me!"); getting angry with Leah, grabbing his phone, and screaming "See! Watch me! I'm unfollowing you on social media!"; choking a bullying street hustler (Jacob Grodnik) and drooling uncontrollably as he shouts about how he wishes Freddy Krueger would chop off his head; having a crying fit when he's rejected time and again by Dunbar, burning all of his Hunter Dunbar memorabilia and rocking back and forth on his couch as he watches Dunbar movies in his shithole apartment while screaming "You're a big fake!"; sneaking into Dunbar's house after accidentally killing his housekeeper (Marta Gonzalez Rodin) and puttering around, raiding his fridge, taking a dump, sniffing and licking his toothbrush and hiding in his bedroom closet; waiting for Dunbar's insomnia meds to kick in and knock him out so he can rub behind Dunbar's ears and sniff his fingers, stick his finger in Dunbar's mouth, then take selfies with the passed-out actor; and finally tying Dunbar to his bed and demanding his autograph, and totally being seduced by promises that they'll hang out, watch movies, go to Musso & Frank's and get strawberry ice cream, and be total BFFs. You really haven't lived until you've seen a weeping John Travolta crawl into bed to cuddle and put his head on the shoulder of a restrained Devon Sawa and coo "I love you!"

Devon Sawa: in character or genuinely
marveling at Travolta's work in THE FANATIC?
THE FANATIC promised the Bad Movie event of 2019 and goddammit, it delivers. It's got--by the widest margin imaginable--the most over-the-top performance of Travolta's career. You'll marvel at the idiotic machinations that the script (co-written by Durst) has to go through to make the twist ending happen. You'll roll your eyes at Dunbar driving around with his young son and asking "You wanna listen to some music? How about a little Limp Bizkit?" You'll wonder why Travolta needed an "executive assistant" and three additional personal assistants in the closing credits. You almost have to think this is a joke and that Travolta and Durst are in on it. If that's the case, someone forgot to tell Sawa--in some clever casting in that he was the title fanatic in Eminem's "Stan" video nearly 20 years ago--who plays it serious and somehow manages to keep a straight face amidst Travolta's off-the-chain histrionics. It's competent on a technical level--it's not that kind of bad movie--but I can't stress enough how spectacularly terrible it is. I don't know whether to feel sorry for Travolta for sinking this low or to give him a standing O for his unwavering commitment to this mad vision. You're actually uncomfortable not so much for what the character is doing but for watching Travolta bring it to life. It's one of the ten worst films of 2019 but I guarantee it's the only one on that list that I'll be buying on Blu-ray and watching several more times. I don't exaggerate when I say that I haven't been to this level of Bad Movie nirvana in the modern era since the heyday of Uwe Boll.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: INTO THE ASHES (2019) and COLD BLOOD (2019)

(US - 2019)

The grim rural Alabama indie noir INTO THE ASHES seems to have all the ingredients for a compelling story that's heavy on the bleak hopelessness, but it just never quite manages to get its shit together and become the next BLUE RUIN or BAD TURN WORSE. Nick Brenner (YELLOWSTONE's Luke Grimes) lives a quiet life doing repairs for a local furniture company, but his past is about to come back and bite him in the ass in the form of Sloan (Frank Grillo). Just paroled after serving a several-year stretch because Nick hung him out to dry, Sloan wants revenge, and he doesn't care that Nick has cleaned up his act and built a new life--including buying a home with Sloan's money--with Tara (Marguerite Moreau). Sloan and two associates, Charlie (David Cade) and Bruce (Scott Peat), with the help of a sleazy private eye who learns the hard way that he shouldn't gouge Sloan for more money, end up at Nick's house while he's away for the weekend working on restoring a boat with his buddy Sal (James Badge Dale). When Nick returns, he's greeted by Sloan and his crew, who inform him that they killed Tara before shooting him twice in the back and leaving him for dead. He wakes up handcuffed to a hospital bed under the steely glare of Sheriff Frank (Robert Taylor, taking his LONGMIRE act for another spin), who also happens to be his father-in-law and always knew he was no good. Nick manages to escape from custody when Frank leaves him with his idiot deputy (Brady Smith), and teams up with Sal to go after Sloan, Charlie, and Bruce.

It shouldn't take much to make something like INTO THE ASHES function as an engrossing thriller, but writer/director Aaron Harvey (best known for the dismal 2011 Tarantino knockoff CATCH .44, one of Bruce Willis' earliest forays into the world of straight-to-VOD) keeps the pace at a lugubrious crawl, and repeatedly errs in having significant events take place offscreen, only to have the characters talk about them after. That includes a late-film POV switch from Nick to Frank, who arrives on the scene of a motel shootout, sending him on a search for his son-in-law. Harvey eventually shows what happened in a later flashback, but by that point it doesn't matter, since we know who was killed and whatever minimal momentum was building has been completely quashed by a director trying to be stylish. Grillo (among the team of producers, along with his buddy Joe Carnahan) is an effective bad guy, but he's absent for long stretches, a tell-tale sign that they only had him for a few days. Grimes is sufficiently glum and dour but he remains a blank slate throughout, and only Taylor manages to create a genuinely interesting character, which Harvey of course diminishes by giving him pretentious voiceovers referencing religious parables about Samson in reference to Nick. INTO THE ASHES would've been a lot better if it just told a straightforward story instead of incessantly stalling itself and fumbling around with Creative Writing 101-level subtext in an attempt to be "deep." (Unrated, 97 mins)

(France/Ukraine - 2019)

A thriller so blandly by-the-numbers that it actually fades from your memory while you're watching it, COLD BLOOD could almost qualify as Luc Besson fan fiction on the part of debuting director Frederic Petitjean, right down to the hiring of cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, a frequent Besson collaborator going back to 1990's LA FEMME NIKITA. But the real Besson worship is evidenced by the presence of Jean Reno in what amounts to an alternate universe incarnation of his Leon character from Besson's 1994 favorite THE PROFESSIONAL, only here he's called Henry. The film opens in the snowy nowhere of the Pacific Northwest wilderness, where Melody (Sarah Lind) crashes her snowmobile. Bleeding and unconscious, she's found and nursed back to health by Henry, who lives in quiet solitude in a cabin on the lake. Flashbacks reveal Henry is actually a hit man in hiding after whacking a billionaire CEO (Jean-Luc Olivier) in NYC ten months earlier. The CEO was actually born in the nearest town in Washington state and chose to be buried there (of all the places for Henry to hide), which prompts irate local detective Kappa (BACKDRAFT 2's Joe Anderson) to investigate the murder himself. Other characters exist on the fringe, like an assassin (David Gyasi) hired by the CEO's sinister chief aide (Francois Guetary) and a "surprise" involving Melody that will only surprise you if COLD BLOOD is the first movie you've ever seen.

A French-Ukrainian co-production shot in Kiev, COLD BLOOD never quite looks or feels "American," starting with most of the Ukrainian supporting cast being unconvincingly dubbed. But there's also a ton of awkward, stilted dialogue like Kappa's wizened old partner Davies (Ihor Ciszkewycz) asking him why he transferred from NYC to the middle of nowhere and being told, in a way that suggests a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma that's covered in pretentious bullshit, "Maybe I wanted to get lost." Or a head-scratcher of an exchange that actually sounds like Petitjean fishing for a distribution deal, where Davies asks Kappa "They got Netflix in New York?" and Kappa glowers "You see the things I see in New York City, you won't need Netflix." Or a floridly overwritten scene between Kappa and the CEO's estranged, dementia-stricken ex-wife (DOWNTON ABBEY's Samantha Bond, also Miss Moneypenny in the Pierce Brosnan-era 007 films), who's prone to surprisingly verbose purple prose and mellifluous exposition dumps for someone who can't remember a damn thing. For his part, Reno is Reno. At first, it's nice to see him in lethal assassin mode again, but he looks tired and bored, and after watching COLD BLOOD, one could hardly blame him. (R, 91 mins)