Friday, November 29, 2019

In Theaters/On Netflix: THE IRISHMAN (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Steven Zaillian. Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Kathrine Narducci, Welker White, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Domenick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Louis Cancelmi, Gary Basaraba, Marin Ireland, Sebastian Maniscalco, Steven Van Zandt, Lucy Gallina, Bo Dietl, Aleksa Palladino, Jim Norton, Daniel Jenkins, Paul Ben-Victor, Patrick Gallo, Jake Hoffman, Barry Primus, Vinny Vella, John Cenatiempo, Action Bronson, Danny A. Abeckaser, India Ennenga, Kate Arrington, John Scurti, Louis Vanaria. (R, 208 mins)

A few years ago, it would've been ludicrous to imagine that the most eagerly anticipated film of the year would be a Netflix Original, but here's THE IRISHMAN, Martin Scorsese's long-in-the-works return to his gangster movie glory days of GOODFELLAS, and his first collaboration with Robert De Niro since 1995's CASINO. It's the most ambitious undertaking of Scorsese's career, a story that spans nearly 60 years, with a budget said to be $160 million but possibly as much as $200 million, and a year-and-a-half of post-production that utilized extensive CGI technology to "de-age" the film's stars, allowing them to play their characters as younger men. In various stages of development since 2007, THE IRISHMAN is based on Charles Brandt's 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses, which chronicled mid-level, Philly-based Irish mobster and labor union figure Frank Sheeran's post-WWII rise from truck driver to right-hand-man and trusted muscle of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. Years later, an elderly Sheeran (1920-2003) would claim to be directly involved as the reluctant trigger man in Hoffa's still-unsolved 1975 disappearance and certain murder. Sheeran's story remains speculative and with no body ever found, it isn't any more or less plausible than Hoffa being buried in the end zone of Giants Stadium, but THE IRISHMAN takes the Sheeran-Hoffa story and turns it into an often profoundly moving examination of friendship, regret, betrayal, guilt, and mortality. It's a film that Scorsese only could've made at this point in his life. THE IRISHMAN is the gangster genre seen through the eyes of life experience, a stark contrast with the brash cockiness of 1973's MEAN STREETS or 1990's mob-glorifying GOODFELLAS, arguably the most influential gangster movie ever made. In hindsight, CASINO's third act, where Ace Rothstein's Vegas dream collapses and everything goes to shit, definitely hints at things to come in THE IRISHMAN, but this latest film largely serves as Scorsese's UNFORGIVEN by way of that devastating deathbed monologue Jason Robards gives at the end of Paul Thomas Anderson's MAGNOLIA. The characters in the world of THE IRISHMAN aren't rich guys with a luxurious lifestyle. There's no glitz or glamour here. And whether they're whacked or somehow make it to old age, they all die alone.

Running just two minutes shy of three-and-a-half hours, THE IRISHMAN opens with an 83-year-old, wheelchair-bound Sheeran (De Niro) in an assisted living facility, breaking the fourth wall to tell his story. He uses the framing device of a flashback to a 1975 weekend where he and his wife Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba) are traveling with Sheeran's longtime friend Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his wife Carrie (Kathrine Narducci) to a wedding in Detroit. The trip--mapped out in great detail by Sheeran and prolonged by the wives' frequent smoke breaks since Russell doesn't allow smoking in his car--takes them across Pennsylvania to Toledo and north to Detroit, and along the way, Sheeran spots the very location where he first met Russell 30 years earlier, when his truck broke down and Russell was a good samaritan stranger who helped him fix it (this means THE IRISHMAN is set up as flashbacks-within-flashbacks, and at one point, by my count, Scorsese goes four flashbacks deep as Sheeran recalls an incident killing some German officers in Italy during WWII). After the war, Sheeran found employment as a truck driver and got involved in some minor skimming and side deals involving some steaks with mob bosses on his route, including Frank "Skinny Razor" DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), an underboss with powerful Philly capo Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). When Frank gets busted by a supplier for a missing shipment, he's successfully defended by lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), who introduces him to his mob boss cousin Russell--small world--the very man who helped him out a couple of months earlier. Sheeran starts working for Russell as a bagman and hit man, which eventually brings him into the orbit of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the controversial head of the Teamsters, who has connections with Bufalino crime family and likes that Sheeran is one of his own in the Teamsters brotherhood.

What follows is a labyrinthine saga involving labor unions, the FBI, the CIA, Castro, JFK, Richard Nixon, E. Howard Hunt, Watergate, and everything in between. Hoffa becomes a target of JFK's brother and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Jack Huston) and refuses to lower the Teamsters' building's flag to half-staff following JFK's assassination. Hoffa is eventually convicted of jury tampering and goes on a scorched earth campaign against Teamsters rivals Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba) and Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano (Stephen Graham). Once he's released and given a Presidential pardon by Nixon in 1971, Hoffa, with Sheeran at his side, attempts to regain control of the Teamsters, which seals his fate with both the union and their mob partners. By 1975, it's decided by the powers that be that Hoffa, who confidently boasts to Sheeran that he's untouchable ("I know things they don't know I know!"), is a problem that needs to go away.

For its first hour or so before the Hoffa plot kicks into gear, THE IRISHMAN feels like a Scorsese victory lap of sorts, a greatest hits package with a "Hey, the band's back together!" vibe with a familiarity that's predictable yet welcome. There's the rapid-fire editing (Thelma Schoonmaker still the best in the business), the voiceovers, the music (drink every time you hear The Five Satins' "In the Still of the Night" and you'll be unconscious before Pacino even appears) and everything else that says "vintage Scorsese." He also includes shout-outs and callbacks not just to his earlier films but those of his stars. You'll spot the overwhelming remorse inherent to both Pacino's Michael Corleone, haunted throughout THE GODFATHER PART III after ordering his brother Fredo's death at the end of THE GODFATHER PART II, and De Niro's aging Noodles and the guilt over ratting on his friends in Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Hoffa's false sense of invincibility recalls Pacino's Tony Montana in Brian De Palma's SCARFACE and his doomed Carlito Brigante in De Palma's CARLITO'S WAY. There's even a fleeting appearance by Dave Ferrie (Louis Vanaria), the terribly-toupeed Lee Harvey Oswald acquaintance that Pesci played in Oliver Stone's JFK.  It's also this stretch of the film where the CGI de-aging is most obvious, and while it plays better in motion on the screen than individual still shots would initially indicate, it doesn't always work (and even with all the digital trickery, there is nothing more distracting in THE IRISHMAN than Scorsese's inexplicable casting of rapper/chef Action Bronson as a casket salesman). Fortunately, the scenes with 76-year-old De Niro playing a 25-year-old Sheeran (with Pesci calling him "kid") are brief, and no matter how much the lines on his digitally-tweaked face are smoothed, he's still walking like a guy in his mid 70s. But once Sheeran hits his 40s and 50s, the effect is much less jarring and your eyes make the necessary adjustments, even if De Niro's eyes too often look like Johnny Depp's Whitey Bulger contact lenses from BLACK MASS. The de-aging of Pesci and Pacino is significantly less drastic since they aren't at any point required to portray themselves 50 years younger: 79-year-old Pacino plays Hoffa from his 40s to his death at 62, and 76-year-old Pesci plays Bufalino from his 40s to his death at 91.

THE IRISHMAN probably doesn't need to run 208 minutes, but with Scorsese and this cast, it's not exactly wasted time (one wishes Keitel had more to do, though he does get one great scene reminding a young Sheeran that he fucked up and Bufalino basically saved his life). It's such pure cinematic joy seeing De Niro, Pacino (his first time working with Scorsese), and Pesci inspired and doing their best work in years that they're instantly forgiven for the likes of DIRTY GRANDPA, HANGMAN, and 8 HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG. De Niro carries the emotional weight and is in nearly every scene, and Pacino does his shouty Pacino thing but keeps it in check and accurate to the character (and he's a more credible Hoffa than the prosthetic nose attached to the face of Jack Nicholson in 1992's HOFFA). Another complex performance comes from an unexpected source: as the soft-spoken Bufalino, the semi-retired Pesci, in just his third film appearance in 20 years, plays it subdued and totally against type, often as the voice of calm even when he's being ruthless and manipulative. It's a smart approach for a film that already has a bloviating Pacino, but by dialing down the "Funny how?" routine that defined his volatile performances in GOODFELLAS and CASINO, Pesci makes Bufalino even more subtly intimidating. That feeling is never more apparent than in his interactions with Sheeran's daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a child, Anna Paquin as an adult), who is never receptive to "Uncle Russell"'s affections no matter how hard he tries. She knows what he and her father do for a living and lets them know it with her silence, and in his reactions, Bufalino is both angry and hurt. There's been some criticism leveled at Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (SCHINDLER'S LIST, GANGS OF NEW YORK) for giving Peggy almost no dialogue, but that ends up being another example of film writers and bloggers missing the point to score woke cred--Peggy's silence and her withering glares are reminders of their criminal misdeeds. Bufalino is a cold, calculating, powerful mob boss who desperately wants Peggy's approval and will never have it, much like Sheeran will never be granted forgiveness after an adult Peggy can instantly see in her father's demeanor and his nervous drinking that he had something to do with Hoffa's disappearance. She can see it when the news breaks on TV, registering her disgust that it's been several days and he has yet to even call Hoffa's wife Jo (Welker White, so memorable as Lois in GOODFELLAS, refusing to go on Henry Hill's drug run without her lucky hat). When she finally spits out a terse "Why haven't you called her?," it cuts right through Sheeran.

THE IRISHMAN is always compelling, but it's a slower and more meditative piece than GOODFELLAS or CASINO. In many ways, it can be seen as a spiritual relative to De Niro's own 2006 directing effort THE GOOD SHEPHERD, though it's not somber and serious all the time (there's a great running gag where each new gangster character is introduced with a caption detailing when and how he was eventually killed). It really becomes something special in the last half hour when age, time and guilt take their toll on Sheeran. This home stretch packs an emotional wallop and helps put a lot of what's happened over the preceding three hours into perspective. And it's that perspective that a younger Scorsese wouldn't have had the life experience to create circa MEAN STREETS or GOODFELLAS. Ranging in age from 76 to 80, Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel all appear to be well and with hopefully much more to give (even though this feels like the perfect career capper for all the major players), but at the same time, there's the inevitable. They're still here but these are their autumnal years. They could've done a convincing job of acting that in their younger days, but their advancing ages and their own sense of mortality give THE IRISHMAN a poignancy and an added resonance--for them and for the fans who have followed them over the decades--that just isn't there in any of their past gangster films.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

In Theaters: KNIVES OUT (2019)

(US - 2019)

Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer, Margaret Langford, Jaeden Martell, Riki Lindhome, Frank Oz, Edi Patterson, K Callan, Noah Segan, M. Emmet Walsh, Marlene Forte. (PG-13, 130 mins)

Pop culture artifacts have always served as accurate reflections of the era in which they were produced, and when the dust settles, the wildly and wickedly entertaining KNIVES OUT will go down as one of the most razor-sharp critiques of the Age of Trump. It may draw from the mysteries of Agatha Christie and play like an elaborate redux of CLUE, but with its cast of greedy, deplorable heirs content to live off Daddy's wealth and fame, and the daughter of an illegal immigrant who ends up the target of their white privilege wrath, KNIVES OUT isn't exactly subtle. It's ultimately a perfect metaphor for the whole idea of the 2019-2020 now of this moment, not just in the political and social divide but also the rage and the malignant narcissism that have become commonplace, and it's best thing writer/director Rian Johnson has done since his 2006 debut BRICK. That's certainly not to slight 2012's LOOPER in any way, but perhaps after dealing with everything that came with making something as huge as STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, KNIVES OUT almost seems like a back-to-basics breather of sorts, even with its labyrinthine plot, endless twists and turns, and a large cast of characters with ever-shifting alliances and an eagerness to talk shit and throw everyone else under the bus.

It's best going into this sly whodunit as cold as possible, since the surprises start fairly early never stop (NO SPOILERS). World-famous mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead by his housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) in his hidden study on the third floor of his mansion the morning after his 85th birthday party. The cause of death is assumed to be suicide as he appears to have slashed his own throat. Detective Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) and doofus-y state trooper/Thrombey superfan Wagner (Noah Segan) are conducting a routine investigation of what looks like an open-and-shut case. But it quickly reveals almost the entire Thrombey clan to be a pit of vipers who, at best, are shamelessly salivating over their inheritance and, at worst, displaying no shortage of reasons to be glad the old man is gone. There's Thrombey's eldest child, daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), who constantly crows about building her successful business on her own from the ground up even though everyone knows she started it with a $1 million loan from her dad; her husband Richard (Don Johnson), who had a testy private conversation with his father-in-law the afternoon of the party; Thrombey's son Walt (Michael Shannon), who manages his father's publishing house and is frustrated by his dad's refusal to allow movie and TV adaptations of his work despite being offered a ton of money by Netflix; Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette) is a new age-y Instagram influencer and the widow of Thrombey's late son, and lives a cushy, carefree life on an annual allowance from her father-in-law, who also covers the college tuition of her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford); Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans) is the son of Linda and Richard, the black sheep of the family and a lifelong problem child (as if the name "Ransom Drysdale" doesn't already render him pre-ordained to be a complete prick), who stormed out of the party after a verbal spat with his grandfather and then skips the funeral while making sure to show up for the reading of the will; and Walt's wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), and teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), a Ben Shapiro-like alt-right troll who spends all of his time owning the libs on social media and calling his cousin Meg a "snowflake." Finally, there's Great Nana (K Callan), Harlan's mother ("His mother? How old is she?" Elliott asks Linda, who replies "No one knows"), who says almost nothing but sees everything.

The lone outsider is Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas, in what should be a star-making performance), Thrombey's caregiver who was hired after a recent back injury but who came to be a trusted friend and confidante to the old man. Everyone considers her "part of the family" even though they aren't entirely sure where she's from, alternately calling her Brazilian, Uruguayan, Paraguayan, or Ecuadorian because they really don't know the difference. It isn't long before Elliott is deferring the investigation to one Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a wily Southern gentleman of a private eye and a bit of a celebrity in his field (a star-struck Joni gushes "I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you!") who's been hired by an anonymous client to get to the bottom of an alleged suicide that's starting to look more and more like foul play. Blanc presses more than the ineffective cops when he rightly suspects that old Harlan went on a scorched earth bridge-burning with some his family on the day of his birthday and more than one family member's life would be a lot easier if he was no longer around. Blanc finds an unexpected Watson to his Holmes in Marta, who he deduces is the most trustworthy ally in the house because everyone in the Thrombey family knows she has a rare condition where she vomits if she tells a lie (and yes, that's mined for laughs on numerous occasions).

Almost everyone in the ensemble gets a chance to claim the spotlight, with de Armas (who's really the star of the movie) making a charming and resourceful heroine and Craig getting to show some comedic chops in a role that falls somewhere between Hercule Poirot and Jason Sudeikis' "Maine Justice" judge on SNL (Ransom: "What is this? CSI: KFC?"). KNIVES OUT masterfully balances suspense, blistering laughs at the expense of the 1% (multiple characters refer to Jacob as "the little Nazi," and watch Johnson's Trump-supporting Richard blast immigrants while thoughtlessly handing Marta his empty plate, proof that even when she's an invited guest at Thrombey's birthday party, they still only see her as "the help") and frequently self-aware humor, as when Elliott describes the Thrombey estate as "living in a Clue board" or when he reacts to an obligatory, out-of-nowhere car chase by declaring "That was the dumbest car chase ever." Johnson errs slightly by sidelining too many of the film's more vigorous supporting actors in the second half (Curtis, in particular, is on fire here, and we're long overdue for the Don Johnsonssaince that COLD IN JULY would've started in a perfect world), but the richly-textured and intricately-constructed KNIVES OUT is an absolute blast from beginning to end, culminating in a beautifully cathartic final shot that ends it on a perfect note.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Retro Review: THE FAN (1981)

(US - 1981)

Directed by Edward Bianchi. Written by Priscilla Chapman and John Hartwell. Cast: Lauren Bacall, James Garner, Maureen Stapleton, Hector Elizondo, Michael Biehn, Anna Maria Horsford, Kurt Johnson, Feiga Martinez, Dwight Schultz, Reed Jones, Charles Blackwell, Dana Delany, Griffin Dunne, Terence Marinan, Lesley Rogers, Robert Weil. (R, 95 mins)

"Can there be more than one 'worst-picture-I-ever-made?'" - James Garner on 1981's THE FAN in his memoir The Garner Files, two pages after declaring 1966's MISTER BUDDWING the worst picture he ever made. 

It's a pretty safe bet that during the glory days of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Lauren Bacall never envisioned herself decades later starring in a trashy slasher movie where the killer says "How would you like to be fucked with a meat cleaver?" That line is one of the more memorable elements of THE FAN, which opened in the spring of 1981 to almost unanimous pans from critics before making a quick exit from theaters. It didn't help that Bacall openly trashed it during the press junket, saying that the end result bore little resemblance to the original script she was given, but it was also plagued by bad timing, with its story of a legendary movie star being stalked by a crazed fan maybe not sounding like a fun night at the movies and coming off as a little too queasily exploitative just six months after the December 1980 murder of John Lennon by deranged fan Mark David Chapman. History would repeat itself to a certain extent in 1982 when both THE SEDUCTION (news anchor Morgan Fairchild is stalked by psycho fan Andrew Stevens) and VISITING HOURS (news anchor Lee Grant is stalked by psycho fan Michael Ironside) both underperformed at the box office around the same time that RAGING BULL co-star Theresa Saldana miraculously survived being stabbed nearly a dozen times in broad daylight by an obsessed fan. THE FAN does allow Bacall to indulge her passion at the time--she was only sporadically acting on the big screen by this point, with her primary focus being Broadway and live theater, which earned her a Tony for APPLAUSE in 1970 and would win her another for WOMAN OF THE YEAR later in 1981--but it's also a product of its era. And with the success of slasher films like HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH, and the controversial buzz around Brian De Palma's DRESSED TO KILL (the latter two hitting theaters while THE FAN was in production), concessions had to made to the trends of the day. Producer Robert Stigwood, then riding high on SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and GREASE, wasn't seeing eye-to-eye with director Waris Hussein (THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY), the latter wanting the more traditional psychological thriller approach that drew Bacall to the project.

After clashing with Stigwood and Paramount execs over their demand for more shock value, violence and gore, Hussein exited during pre-production (he either quit or was fired, depending on who's telling the story), and Stigwood brought in an unlikely replacement in rookie Edward Bianchi, who was already developing a sequel to SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, a gig he landed because Stigwood was impressed with some Dr. Pepper commercials that he directed. Bianchi was pulled off of the SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER sequel (which was eventually made in 1983 by Sylvester Stallone as STAYING ALIVE) and handed THE FAN, a production that was already troubled long before its star, tough as nails and not one to suffer fools gladly, became increasingly surly when she realized the movie that was being made wasn't going to be the one for which she signed on.

Based on a 1978 novel by Bob Randall, THE FAN, just out in an extras-packed Blu-ray from Scream Factory because physical media is dead, stars a perfectly-cast Bacall as Sally Ross, an aging Hollywood actress who's in NYC to begin rehearsals for a high-profile Broadway musical. She's also trying to patch things up with her ex-husband Jake Berman (James Garner), a director who's in town working on his latest movie and has already hooked up with a much-younger ingenue. She's got enough going on that her loyal assistant Belle (Maureen Stapleton) hasn't alerted her to the disturbing and increasingly threatening and sexually explicit letters being sent by an obsessed fan named Douglas. The fan is Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn, three years before THE TERMINATOR), a weirdo who alienates his co-workers (including a young Dana Delany in her first movie) in a record store and spends his free time having imaginary candlelit dinners with Sally in his apartment, which has become a shrine to the star. He makes it very clear in his letters that he is the perfect lover for Sally ("I have all the necessary equipment to make you very, very happy"), that no one loves her as much as he does, and that nothing will stop them from being together. Belle writes back and basically tells him to get lost, and an offended Douglas follows Belle from the rehearsal studio to the subway, where he attacks her with a straight razor. Belle survives but can't give much useful information to Andrews (Hector Elizondo), the detective on the case. Enraged that Sally is ignoring him, Douglas breaks into her apartment while she's at rehearsal and kills her maid, prompting Sally to take a leave of absence from the show and hole up at her secluded beach house. Douglas then fakes his own death after cruising in a gay bar, killing his similarly-built hookup, leaving a suicide note, and burning the body beyond recognition to make the police close the case and to give Sally a false sense of security to return to the production, where he is determined to be with her the night of the show's triumphant debut.

Buoyed by one of Pino Donaggio's most Pino Donaggio-esque scores, THE FAN is really busting its ass to be DRESSED TO KILL II, but Edward Bianchi is no Brian De Palma. He does alright for a first-time director dealing with a diva who was unhappy throughout the shoot, but THE FAN simply doesn't have the stylized verve and panache to compete with anything De Palma was doing at the time. Two big suspense set pieces are pulled off in bland fashion by Bianchi, and one wonders what De Palma could've done with the subway stalking and razor-slashing of Belle, or the YMCA swimming pool murder where Douglas kills Sally's co-star (Kurt Johnson), by swimming underneath him and holding up a knife that slices him open as he passes above. Bianchi, now 77 and looking at least a decade younger in an interview on the Blu-ray, toiled in relative anonymity until the 2000s (his only other feature film to date is the 1991 straight-to-video Cyndi Lauper comedy OFF AND RUNNING), when he became one of cable TV's busiest directors on shows like THE WIRE, DEADWOOD, and BOARDWALK EMPIRE. He's still active, most recently helming episodes of GET SHORTY, CITY ON A HILL, and YELLOWSTONE. Biehn, then largely unknown with a couple of movie credits (the comedies COACH and HOG WILD), acquits himself as well as he can in a role that doesn't give him much to do other than look and act like a total creep, while Garner, fresh off a six-season run on THE ROCKFORD FILES, seems to be coasting through in a minor supporting role just to hang out with good friend Bacall. He's so inconsequential to anything that happens that he seems to actually show himself out of the movie along with Stapleton and Elizondo after Sally's performance and is never seen again. This was Garner and Bacall's third project together in as many years, after she guest-starred on a two-part ROCKFORD FILES in 1979 and they co-starred in Robert Altman's little-seen 1980 comedy HEALTH. The pair were rumored to be an item over 1979 and 1980 while Garner was separated from his wife Lois, with whom he eventually reconciled and remained with until his death at 86 in July 2014, a month before Bacall passed at 89.

But for better or worse and whether she liked it or not, THE FAN is Bacall's movie, and a good chunk of the third act devoted to the premiere of the elaborate stage production, complete with her singing the Razzie-nominated Marvin Hamlisch/Tim Rice composition "Hearts, Not Diamonds," seems to be a move to placate her to some degree. The end result is a compromise that satisfied no one--it's too trashy and sleazy to appeal to older moviegoers who followed Bacall since her days with Bogie in the 1940s, those who liked Garner on TV, or those who wanted an old-fashioned Hitchcockian thriller, but it wasn't over-the-top enough to appease the young gorehounds looking for the next FRIDAY THE 13TH. THE FAN was eventually embraced as a cult movie by the gay community for its camp value, particularly all the time devoted to the truly bizarre Broadway production, which at times makes it feel like what might've happened if Bob Fosse made a slasher movie.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

In Theaters: 21 BRIDGES (2019)

(US/China - 2019)

Directed by Brian Kirk. Written by Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan. Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller, J.K. Simmons, Taylor Kitsch, Stephan James, Keith David, Alexander Siddig, Louis Cancelmi, Morocco Omari, Chris Ghaffari, Victoria Cartagena, Gary Carr, Dale Pavinski, Jamie Neumann, Jennifer Onvie, Adriane Lenox. (R, 99 mins)

Sometimes you just need a good old fashioned, big-city cop thriller and to that end, 21 BRIDGES gets the job done, even if it seems more like a January or an April release than something coming out just before Thanksgiving and the holiday season. Chadwick Boseman made his name on biopics (as Jackie Robinson in 42, James Brown in GET ON UP, and Thurgood Marshall in MARSHALL) before blowing up in Marvel's phenomenally successful BLACK PANTHER and two subsequent AVENGERS movies (in addition to his T'Challa earlier appearing in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR). With 21 BRIDGES, Boseman gets to display some stoical, next-gen Denzel Washington gravitas as NYPD homicide detective Andre Davis, a by-the-book cop who's nonetheless painted as a trigger-happy loose cannon by Internal Affairs pencil-pushers since he's known as "the cop who kills cop-killers." All the instances were deemed justified, but Davis has a constant spotlight on him because of his family history: he was 13 when his dad, a beloved and highly decorated officer, was killed in the line of duty, and his superiors think he uses that traumatic event to appoint himself judge, jury, and executioner. But it's Davis who gets called in as the lead investigator after a midnight shootout in Brooklyn leaves eight cops dead following the heist of a massive uncut cocaine stash in the basement of a posh winery. The two perps are a pair of Afghanistan war vets, both lifelong troublemakers with mile-long rap sheets: short-fused maniac Ray Jackson (Taylor Kitsch) and his reluctant accomplice Michael Trujillo (Stephan James). It's Jackson who blew all the cops away while Michael unsuccessfully tried to contain the situation, and now it's 1:00 am and they're forced to unload all the coke they could grab (they were told 30 kilos and they found 300), launder the money, and get out of town.

That becomes impossible after Davis has all 21 bridges leading into and out of Manhattan--along with all the subways going to the other boroughs--closed and the whole island put on lockdown, against the wishes of the FBI, who are giving him until 5:30 am to find the killers before it's his ass and they take over the case. On the orders of Brooklyn's 85th Precinct Capt. McKenna (J.K. Simmons), Davis is paired with narcotics detective Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller, really chewing on that Noo Yawk accent), and they remain consistently one step behind Jackson and Trujillo. But the more Davis digs into the details, the more something seems off. Why did the cops show up at the winery without being called? And how did the cops know that Jackson and Trujillo were at the home of money launderer Adi the Cleaner (Alexander Siddig)? Is it possible that Jackson and Trujillo got themselves involved in a situation that went way beyond a simple coke deal and were being set up by their shady contact (Louis Cancelmi)? Could it be that Davis was called into this case specifically because of his reputation for blowing away cop killers? Are these two particular cop killers being set up to take the fall as part of a conspiracy that may involve those sworn to uphold the law and will do whatever it takes to protect the shield? Have you ever seen a dirty cop movie before?

Yes, 21 BRIDGES is extremely formulaic and there's little suspense insofar as who the corrupt cops are, but more about how long it will be before Davis figures it out (boy, that one prominent character sure does linger in the background taking a few too many personal calls, huh?). It's the kind of movie where someone gives someone else a flash drive with damning information and that person takes one cursory glance at some random numbers and dollar amounts and instantly concludes "These are badge numbers!" It's the kind of movie where someone mentions the perps' car was spotted in Chinatown and there's an immediate cut to a rundown neighborhood with nothing but neon Chinese-lettered signs, yet the filmmakers still feel the need to include the caption "Chinatown." The script by Adam Mervis (whose original treatment was titled 17 BRIDGES until someone realized there were 21) and Matthew Michael Carnahan (WORLD WAR Z, DEEPWATER HORIZON) won't win any points for innovation, and Philadelphia isn't always convincing in its portrayal of Manhattan, but 21 BRIDGES has a solid lead in Boseman, and veteran TV director Brian Kirk (THE TUDORS, LUTHER, BOARDWALK EMPIRE, GAME OF THRONES) does a good job with keeping up the pace and suspense in the race-against-the-clock, survive-the-night scenario. It also has some well-done action and chase scenes courtesy of second-unit director and revered stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos, who's been busy working on various mega-budget FAST & FURIOUS and Marvel movies (likely where he crossed paths with Boseman), but here makes a return--at least in spirit--to the B-movie wheelhouse of his early days on William Lustig and Larry Cohen joints like the MANIAC COP franchise and THE AMBULANCE (a young Razatos also did that insane stunt facing off against an overturning car in 1987's SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2). 21 BRIDGES isn't destined for anything other than constant rotation on cable until the end of time, and it doesn't have an original thought in its head, but it's the kind of diverting enough entertainment that sufficiently scratches that itch when you want some empty calorie cop movie junk food.

Friday, November 22, 2019


(US - 2019)

Universal's 1440 DTV division is back with another belated sequel nobody was waiting for with UNDERCOVER BROTHER 2. A modest hit in the summer of 2002, the combination blaxploitation/Bond spoof UNDERCOVER BROTHER was based on an animated internet series created by John Ridley, who also wrote the script and would go on to win an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Ridley obviously has better things to do than this sequel, as does everyone else associated with the first film--not just Dave Chappelle, a standout as Conspiracy Brother, but also stars Eddie Griffin and Chris Kattan, neither of whom have been burdened with busy schedules in recent years. UNDERCOVER BROTHER remains in regular rotation on cable, and one thing it likely had a hand in inspiring was the 2009 cult classic BLACK DYNAMITE, a pitch-perfect homage to blaxploitation that gave Michael Jai White the greatest role of his career. And that's what makes UNDERCOVER BROTHER 2's existence all the more pointless, because White has been hired to replace Griffin in the title role, and as enjoyable as UNDERCOVER BROTHER was, it's a safe bet that everyone--White included--would rather have a BLACK DYNAMITE 2 than this. Making things even worse is that Undercover Brother spends most of this sequel in a coma after he and his tag-along, dog-grooming kid brother Lionel (Vince Swann) are frozen in ice when the nefarious The Man (Barry Bostwick) triggers an avalanche after they track him down at his secret headquarters in Austria. Cut to 16 years later, and the pair are discovered by a climber due to melting ice caps. While Undercover Brother remains hospitalized, Lionel--aka "Undercover Brother's Brother"--joins the secret agency known as The B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. to lead the search for the long-missing The Man, who never fulfilled his master plan of black mind control via fried chicken, menthol cigarettes, and orange soda. The Man's gay son Manson (Steven Lee Johnson) has taken over his father's organization and is using Resistance Brew, an overpriced fair trade coffee chain, as a front to flood hip, gentrified enclaves with a powerful street drug called Woke, which can cause hooked users to become petty, hypersensitive, and judgmental.

There's some undeniable potential in the script, co-written by Stephen Mazur, whose credits include other illustrious DTV sequels like WITHOUT A PADDLE: NATURE'S CALLING, JINGLE ALL THE WAY 2, and BENCHWARMERS 2: BREAKING BALLS. But UNDERCOVER BROTHER 2 is a borderline unwatchable fiasco, even by the lowered standards of a Universal 1440 sequel. Super-woke hipsters are an easy target, but this film never finds a funny way to skewer the subject or mine any real laughs from Lionel being frozen for 16 years (he can't believe Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Prince are dead, or that Donald Trump is president). Much of this is a direct result of the grating, shamelessly mugging Swann, who equates being loud with being funny, and whose idea of a screen persona is to be young Will Smith, RUSH HOUR-era Chris Tucker (even stealing the "Do you understand the words that are comin' outta my mouth?!" line), and the least-talented member of the Wayans family all rolled into one. The film is so sloppily directed by Leslie Small (HAIR SHOW) that no one bothered to pay any attention to the continuity of Lionel's hi-top fade, which drastically changes from scene to scene, along with his earring that appears and disappears throughout. Swann is absolutely atrocious, but nobody fares well here. Bostwick, looking like Mitt Romney as the Frankenstein monster, is saddled with the most embarrassing role of his career, at one point even spooning with a blow-up doll. But the real bullshit is leaving White sidelined for 75% of the movie, lying in a hospital bed or occasionally appearing as an apparition to guide his little brother until he eventually returns for the climactic raid on The Man's new stronghold. White gets the only amusing lines, and they sound more BLACK DYNAMITE than UNDERCOVER BROTHER ("I'd launch a full-scale investigation...into those titties"). In a perfect world, BLACK DYNAMITE would've catapulted Michael Jai White to mainstream stardom and eliminated his need to star in movies as bad as UNDERCOVER BROTHER 2, much less cynically coasting through on his status a B-movie cult hero when he only has a glorified cameo. C'mon, man. (R, 85 mins)

(US - 2019)

It's occasionally overwrought and contrived, but the grim indie AMERICAN DREAMER--shot in Norfolk, VA and partially financed by Old Dominion University--establishes a certain level of cringe-worthy intensity the more it goes on, sort of like a schlubby version of GOOD TIME. Much of that is due to a strong dramatic performance by comedian and popular late-night talk show guest Jim Gaffigan, who's doing his best sad sack Philip Seymour Hoffman misery-wallow through one of the most haphazardly-planned crimes of financial desperation this side of BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD. After losing his job and being slapped with a restraining order by his estranged wife (Tammy Blanchard), who refuses to let him see their son, unstable rage-case Cam (Gaffigan) moves into an extended-stay shithole motel and earns a meager income as a rideshare driver. He also picks up some side money by chauffeuring volatile drug dealer Mazz (Robbie Jones) on his runs. When he falls behind on his child support and his brother won't loan him any more money, Cam decides to kidnap Mazz's girlfriend Marina (Isabel Arraiza) for a $20,000 ransom. With an hour to kill after dropping off Mazz before he has to pick him up, Cam goes to Marina's house and finds their toddler son alone while Marina is out having sex with Mazz's partner Gumby (Alejandro Hernandez) to score some drugs. Cam hastily improvises by taking the kid instead and putting him in the trunk of the car. He sends a ransom text to Mazz on a burner phone he just bought at a carryout and, of course, ends up driving him around all night in pursuit of the kidnappers.

Cam's plan is extraordinarily stupid, but that's the whole idea. It goes without saying that things quickly fly off the rails as Cam has to go to extreme lengths to keep Mazz from finding out what he's done. It doesn't take long for a body count to start accumulating as Mazz assumes the kid has been taken by rivals, underlings, or even Gumby. Jones has an intimidating presence as Mazz even if his performance falls a little on the side of caricature at times, but the film is really a showcase for Gaffigan, who's quite effective as a troubled guy whose life completely went to shit because of one bad day. At the same time, director/co-writer Derrick Borte (THE JONESES) never tries to get you on Cam's side despite some attempts to show that he's not a bad guy (he gives his leftover Chinese takeout to a homeless person before picking up Mazz). The ending could use more punch, but overall, it's a solid little film with admittedly limited commercial appeal, though fans of Gaffigan, urban "survive the night" scenarios, and poorly-plotted crimes going tragically awry in every conceivable way will definitely find AMERICAN DREAMER worth a look. (R, 93 mins)

(US - 2019)

Set for release in theaters in August 2017 before being bumped to December and then back to November, POLAROID then vanished from the release schedule altogether when it became one of the many casualties of the Harvey Weinstein scandal that broke in October 2017. It would be another two years before the film finally resurfaced with zero publicity as a VOD dumpjob courtesy of Vertical Entertainment, with nary a mention of Weinstein or Dimension Films to be found in the credits. Even before the scandal, Dimension had to know it had a dud on its hands with POLAROID, but now had a convenient excuse to bury it. It's Norwegian filmmaker Lars Klevberg's feature debut, an expansion of his identically-titled 2015 short film, which itself seems to owe a huge debt to "Say Cheese and Die," a 1996 episode of GOOSEBUMPS that starred a young Ryan Gosling (Klevberg went on to direct this year's CHILD'S PLAY remake, which ended up getting released first). In the small town of Locust Harbor, high school loner Bird Fitcher (British actress Kathryn Prescott, 26 years old at the time of filming) is a photography enthusiast who enjoys collecting old trinkets and knick-knacks and works part-time after school in a local antique shop. Her friend Tyler (Davi Santos) gives her a vintage, still-working 1970s Polaroid SX-70 instant camera that he picked up at a garage sale. When she takes Tyler's picture, she notices a smudge lingering off to the side of the shot. That same smudge appears in several other pics she takes with some friends at a party, and almost immediately, everyone who appears in the photos starts being offed one by one by a supernatural entity (Javier Botet) whose vengeful spirit rests inside the camera.

Prescott has a striking resemblance to TEACHING MRS. TINGLE, GOSSIP, and FREDDY GOT FINGERED co-star Marisa Coughlan, and that's not the only reason this feels like it could've been made in 2003 in the waning days of the post-SCREAM era as a response to both FINAL DESTINATION and THE RING. The sense of it being a stale retread is uninspiring enough, but Klevberg and cinematographer Pal Ulvik Rokseth (22 JULY) also make the bizarre decision to shoot the entire film in almost complete darkness, making it virtually impossible to see what's going on for the majority of the feels-like-three-hours 88-minute run time. With some more sensible lighting, POLAROID could've been harmlessly average and merely forgettable, but it goes out of its way to establish itself as the year's dumbest horror movie this side of ELI. This takes place in a small town. Why then, is the revelation that Bird's dad was killed in a car accident when she was 12 and that she always wears a scarf to cover a scar on her neck a surprise to anyone? If she's in high school now, that means it happened, at the most, six years earlier. None of these kids--who have just now started calling her "Scarf Girl"--are aware of this traumatic event in the life of a classmate they've known for years? That wouldn't stay secret in a small town, nor would anyone forget it. Hell, I still remember the name of the kid in my class who shit his pants in third grade. Also, the Polaroid is discovered to have once belonged to a serial killing teacher who abducted, tortured, and murdered three Locust Harbor high school students in 1974. Wouldn't this be the major urban legend that everyone who lives in Locust Harbor would know and pass down from class to class and generation to generation? Why does Bird have to go to the archive room at the local library--a building that seems to be lit by a single 15-watt bulb that's got about 30 seconds of life remaining--to peruse old newspapers for the shocking discovery? And it's also a big plot reveal that the teacher's widow (Grace Zabriskie, second-billed for a five-minute cameo) still lives in the same house under an alias. Really? Nobody knows who she is, 40+ years running? Did all of the Locust Harbor townies just shrug and say "Hey, that weird shut-in lady who bought the crazy killer teacher's house looks a lot like his wife who just sold it!"?  How has she managed to keep her existence a secret all this time? I suppose she could order all of her necessities from Amazon but from what I can tell, Locust Harbor doesn't even have adequate electricity, let alone good wi-fi. And honestly, would Mrs. Killer Teacher not want to start her life anew somewhere else, maybe? I mean, what the fuck, POLAROID? I know you're just a dumb horror movie, but you've gotta try a little harder than that.  (PG-13, 88 mins)

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

In Theaters: FORD V FERRARI (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by James Mangold. Written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller. Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Remo Girone, Ray McKinnon, JJ Feild, Jack McMullen, Corrado Invernizzi, Gianfranco Tordi, Benjamin Rigby, Wallace Langham, Jonathan LaPaglia, Ward Horton. (PG-13, 152 mins)

With a pace as relentless as the 24 Hours of Le Mans race that takes up most of its third act, FORD V FERRARI is a throwback to the kind of vintage, character-driven, star-powered crowd-pleasers that we don't see nearly enough of these days. It's probably the fastest two and a half hours of the year, and it's also nice to see it click with moviegoers in a year when films aimed at grownups haven't been doing well (a shame nobody went to see MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN). It's a quintessential dad movie that's both feel-good and a man-weepie. It's funny and filled with riveting action, dramatic tension, quotable dialogue, and terrific performances all around. At its heart, it's a classic buddy movie and one of the best films about racing ever made, but is engineered as such that you don't even need to be a racing fan or a huge car aficionado to get completely sucked into it. "They don't make 'em like this anymore" is a cliched turn of phrase, but it applies here. FORD V FERRARI is the kind of mainstream, multiplex popcorn movie that ends up winning a ton of awards simply because it gets just about everything right and is almost impossible to dislike.

Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) won the 24-hour endurance race Le Mans in 1959 but was soon forced to retire from the circuit after being diagnosed with a heart condition. By 1964, he's a successful businessman who runs Shelby American, which builds and modifies sports and racing cars for the circuit and for private buyers wealthy enough to afford them (Steve McQueen is mentioned as a regular client). At the same time in Detroit, Ford is struggling and CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) demands solutions from his marketing team. His VP Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) suggests they abandon the '50s style vehicles and start focusing on flashier, sportier cars to appeal to Baby Boomers who are now driving age. Iacocca goes even further by suggesting they make the Ford name synonymous with cool (Iacocca: "James Bond doesn't drive a Ford." Ford II: "James Bond is a degenerate") by entering the racing world in a partnership with Italian auto magnate Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), who rules Le Mans but is secretly facing bankruptcy. When Ferrari reveals himself to be playing them simply to drive up his asking price for preferred partner Fiat, and insults an enraged Ford II--aka "The Deuce"--and the entire Ford company, the blustering CEO orders Iacocca and senior executive VP Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) to find the best engineers and drivers in the US--with no expense spared--to design and built a Le Mans-ready machine and crush Ferrari into the ground.

Iacocca immediately meets with Shelby, knowing he's the best in the business, and the top driver Shelby has in mind is his British buddy Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Miles is the best at what he does, but he's hot-tempered and doesn't play well with others, and he rubs Beebe the wrong way by showing up at an event as Shelby's guest and wasting no time derisively dismissing the Mustang, Ford's newest product on the market. Fearful that Miles' abrasive personality makes him the wrong driver to represent Ford, Beebe forces Shelby to keep his friend behind the scenes to placate Ford. But when none of the Ford drivers finish the '64 Le Mans, Shelby convinces Ford to allow Miles behind the wheel going forward, much to the sneering disapproval of the scheming Beebe, who basically functions as the film's chief villain. It's hard to imagine turning the engineering of the perfect racing vehicle--in this case the Ford GT40--into compelling cinema, but that's exactly what FORD V FERRARI does, culminating in the 1966 Le Mans, where Ford's racing team, headed by Miles, gives Ferrari his first serious competition in years.

Titled LE MANS '66 in Europe and some other parts of the world (apparently American moviegoers have no idea what Le Mans is--they probably don't, even though we already had the Steve McQueen vanity project LE MANS way back in 1971), FORD V FERRARI began life nearly a decade ago as a Tom Cruise-Brad Pitt teaming set to be directed by Michael Mann. Cruise's OBLIVION director Joseph Kosinski was later attached, though nothing ever happened and the two stars moved on. The script by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (EDGE OF TOMORROW, GET ON UP) was tweaked by Jason Keller (MACHINE GUN PREACHER, ESCAPE PLAN--the latter under the pseudonym "Arnell Jesko"), and directing duties landed with James Mangold, one of Hollywood's top journeymen (COP LAND, GIRL INTERRUPTED, 3:10 TO YUMA), coming off 2017's LOGAN, arguably the UNFORGIVEN of superhero movies. The end result is pure entertainment from start to finish, anchored by Damon, who sometimes appears to be channeling Tommy Lee Jones in his portrayal of a take-no-shit Shelby, and Bale, who's rarely been this loose and likable onscreen, even when Miles is being a surly, uncooperative pain in the ass (Bale gets to show Miles' soft side in his scenes with Caitriona Balfe as his supportive wife who never hesitates to let him have it when he's got it coming to him, and Noah Jupe as their son, who idolizes his dad). They get excellent support from Letts, Bernthal, Girone (who lets his scowl do most of his emoting), Ray McKinnon (bringing a Dennis Weaver-ish folksiness to Shelby's chief engineer Phil "Pops" Remington), and Lucas, who makes an utterly punchable Beebe, depicted throughout as a servile, boot-licking toady who's willing to throw anyone under the bus if it makes him look good in The Deuce's eyes. While there is no doubt some liberties taken in the service of telling the story, FORD V FERRARI is exhilarating filmmaking and an inspired addition to the pantheon of underdog sports cinema.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Retro Review: STREET PEOPLE (1976)

(Italy - 1976)

Directed by Maurizio Lucidi. Written by Ernest Tidyman, Randal Kleiser, Gianfranco Bucceri, Roberto Leoni, Nicola Badalucco and Maurizio Lucidi. Cast: Roger Moore, Stacy Keach, Ivo Garrani, Ettore Manni, Fausto Tozzi, Ennio Balbo, Loretta Persichetti, Pietro Martellanza, Luigi Casellato, Romano Puppo, Rosemarie Lindt, Aldo Rendine, Emilio Vale, Salvatore Torrisi, Franco Fantasia, Giuseppe Castellano, Salvatore Billa. (R, 92 mins)

One of four films Roger Moore made in quick succession between his second and third 007 outings (1974's THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN and 1977's THE SPY WHO LOVED ME), the 1976 Italian-made mob thriller STREET PEOPLE was always an oddity in his filmography, and that's even counting his appearance in the 2003 Cuba Gooding Jr/Horatio Sanz atrocity BOAT TRIP. Moore never held himself in any particularly serious regard as an actor, and with the mountains of cash he was making once he got the James Bond gig, his other jobs seemed to be decided by how nice of a working vacation they'd provide. Much of STREET PEOPLE was shot in San Francisco--which offered plenty of sights to see in his downtime--with interiors done in De Paolis Studios in Rome. Moore is quite improbably cast as Ulysses, the half-Sicilian/half-British consigliere to his uncle, San Francisco mob underboss Salvatore Francesco (Ivo Garrani), who helpfully gets the viewer up to speed on Ulysses sounding like Roger Moore by mentioning, apropos of nothing, "The smartest thing I ever did was get you out of Sicily and into that English law school!"

It's Ulysses' job to make Uncle Salvatore's business ventures look legal and that gets difficult when Salvatore arranges the importing of a large Sicilian cross from a church in the small town where he grew up in the old country. It arrives at a pier in the warehouse district, accompanied by Father Frank (Ettore Manni), a childhood friend of Salvatore's. But it turns out the inside of the cross, unbeknownst to Father Frank, has been packed with a massive heroin shipment that's hijacked by three ambitious gangsters--Nicoletta (Fausto Tozzi), Pano (Pietro Martellanza, aka "Peter Martell"), and Fortunato (Romano Puppo)--looking to make a huge score. Salvatore claims to know nothing about the drugs and pleads his case to boss of bosses Don Giuseppe Continenza (Ennio Balbo), who orders all the drugs off the streets in order to find the culprits. Don Giuseppe's edict still doesn't out them, which means it must be an inside job with someone in the organization, prompting Ulysses to recruit his racing driver pal Charlie (Stacy Keach) to track down the three gangsters and find the mastermind behind the shipment.

The mystery doesn't prove to be a difficult one to solve, especially once an enraged Father Frank starts reminding Ulysses about a long-suppressed traumatic memory from his childhood. The plot gets far too convoluted for its own good, and it doesn't sufficiently explore the frayed relationship between Salvatore and Father Frank or any parallels you might expect in the friendship between Ulysses and Charlie. It's possible these themes were touched upon in the 101-minute European version titled THE SICILIAN CROSS, but the film was chopped down to 92 minutes and rechristened STREET PEOPLE by American International when it played drive-ins and grindhouses in the fall of 1976. Director Maurizio Lucidi (STATELINE MOTEL) was one of six credited screenwriters, and it wouldn't be at all surprising if none of them bothered to check anyone else's work. Other hands in the screenplay include diverse figures like future SANTA SANGRE co-writer Roberto Leoni; a 30-year-old Randal Kleiser, the same year he directed the John Travolta TV-movie THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE and soon on his way to big-screen fame with 1978's GREASE and 1980's THE BLUE LAGOON; and Oscar-winning FRENCH CONNECTION screenwriter Ernest Tidyman, no stranger to '70s crime thrillers having also written 1971's SHAFT (based on his own novel) and 1975's underrated REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER.

Just out on Blu-ray in its US cut from Kino Lorber with a new Stacy Keach interview (because physical media is dead), STREET PEOPLE isn't quite on the level of those gritty Tidyman-penned gems. But it does get a lot from some genuinely likable Terence Hill/Bud Spencer-style camaraderie between Moore and Keach, the latter having an especially good time as a devil-may-care hellraiser prone to oddball quips ("I'll have to tell everyone on the street that you're a turkey deluxe!" he says to a potential snitch who doesn't want to play ball), ambitious but foolhardy schemes (switching out the heroin with powdered milk), and some proto-SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT levels of wanton destruction. In addition to a vaguely FRENCH CONNECTION-inspired car chase, there's a long sequence where Charlie takes a car being sold by a cash-strapped Nicoletta for a test drive and speeds up and down the streets crashing into anything in sight and demolishing the car to the point where it's a barely-recognizable hunk of metal. It's unquestionably the film's highlight and also does a nice job of showing off Keach's rarely-utilized comedic skills. As enjoyable as STREET PEOPLE's goofy side can be, it's also indicative of its struggle to find its own identity, as the film can't decide if it wants to be a gangster buddy comedy, a violent pseudo-polizia mob thriller, or something more serious in terms of Ulysses confronting a horrible childhood memory, which is really sold by composer Luis Bacalov going for his best mournfully elegiac Ennio Morricone-style cues. Lucidi (1932-2005) had a generally undistinguished journeyman career, dabbling in peplum (1965's HERCULES THE AVENGER), spaghetti westerns (1967's HALLELUJAH FOR DJANGO, 1972's IT CAN BE DONE, AMIGO), macaroni combat war actioners (1969's PROBABILITY ZERO), gialli (1971's THE DESIGNATED VICTIM), and he even used the alias "Mark Lander" when he made a one-off, late-career sojourn into hardcore porn in the late '90s with A GYNECOLOGIST AND HIS VICES. He was also one of several uncredited directors who didn't want to deal with the always-unstable Klaus Kinski on 1988's notoriously troubled NOSFERATU IN VENICE. Lucidi isn't exactly an Umberto Lenzi or a Fernando Di Leo, and STREET PEOPLE isn't about to make anyone's list of top 1970s Eurocrime outings, but it's got some great San Francisco location work throughout (check out Keach driving through the city's seedy red-light district, and Moore and Keach chasing Tozzi across some downtown rooftops), and it's better than its reputation, even if Roger Moore was rarely more miscast.

Monday, November 11, 2019

In Theaters: DOCTOR SLEEP (2019)

(US - 2019)

Written and directed by Mike Flanagan. Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis, Carl Lumbly, Bruce Greenwood, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind, Robert Longstreet, Carel Struycken, Jocelin Donahue, Zackary Momoh, Alex Essoe, Henry Thomas, Jacob Tremblay, Nicholas Pryor, Selena Anduze, Catherine Parker, Roger Dale Floyd, Dakota Hickman, Violet McGraw, Michael Monks, Hugh Maguire, Sadie Heim, KK Heim, Danny Lloyd. (R, 152 mins)

There are no shortage of reasons to be apprehensive about a sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 1980 classic THE SHINING. It's been almost 40 years since it opened to middling reviews and disappointing box office (and got Razzie nominations for Kubrick and co-star Shelley Duvall) only to become one of the most iconic masterpieces of cinema and a ubiquitous pop culture touchstone, even though Stephen King, the author of the 1977 source novel, still hates it. The sequel is based on King's own 2013 follow-up Doctor Sleep, and isn't considered one of his better books. Mike Flanagan, who did as good as job as he could turning King's almost unfilmable GERALD'S GAME into a Netflix film a couple of years ago, opted to fashion the movie version of DOCTOR SLEEP as both a King adaptation and a direct sequel to Kubrick's film. Flanagan (OCULUS, HUSH, Netflix's THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE) is one of the top contemporary horror genre craftsmen, but to say DOCTOR SLEEP is a daunting task is an understatement. He seems to realize the gravity of this endeavor and the time and thought he put into his screenplay and his choices as a director are ample proof that the need to do right by both King and Kubrick was a responsibility that he absolutely did not take lightly.

To put this on a more personal level, THE SHINING is my all-time favorite film. I first saw it at the drive-in with my parents in 1980 when I was seven years old. Maybe they couldn't find a sitter, maybe they assumed I'd go to sleep, but all I know is, once the plot kicked into gear, I started paying attention and I was riveted from the backseat of the car. Partially because it was obvious that I shouldn't be watching it ("Close your eyes!" my mom said as the woman in room 237 got out of the tub; I didn't), and partially from the story, which I probably didn't fully get, but also from the look of it. My dad started taking me to movies a couple of years earlier, around the time I was five, and I remember seeing JAWS, JAWS 2, SUPERMAN, and ROCKY II on the big screen and I remember watching the good parts of THE GODFATHER SAGA (the re-edited network TV version of the first two GODFATHER films) with him, but they didn't look like THE SHINING. I didn't realize it at the time, but Stanley Kubrick would be the first instance where I was actively aware of who the director was and that it was a person of importance. I've seen THE SHINING countless times since. I stopped keeping track at 100 and that was probably 20 years ago. I've been obsessed with it since the summer of 1980. It was one of the defining moments of my life. The dialogue is committed to memory. I could recite the whole thing for you. My point is, for someone whose love of THE SHINING is somewhere in the vicinity of the maniacal, it would be a small victory if DOCTOR SLEEP simply managed to not be terrible, and even that's only because Flanagan's involvement meant approaching it with cautious optimism instead of immediate dismissal.

Running an epic 152 minutes (eight minutes longer than THE SHINING), DOCTOR SLEEP occasionally feels like it should be an HBO or Netflix limited series, but works just fine as a feature film. Flanagan paces it like an engrossing novel, cutting back and forth between three different narratives that eventually intersect. That's following an opening prologue set in 1980, just after young Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd) and his mom Wendy (Alex Essoe, doing a spot-on Shelley Duvall) have relocated to Florida following their horrific winter at the Overlook Hotel. Danny still "shines" and is still haunted by the ghosts of the hotel, particularly the rotting woman in the bathtub in room 237, and is frequently counseled by the spirit of Overlook chef and fellow shiner Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly in place of the late, great Scatman Crothers), who was killed in Kubrick's film but survived in King's novel, and whose presence is a perfect example of creative ways Flanagan does his best to stay true to both Kubrick and King.

Cut to 2011, and adult Dan (Ewan McGregor) hasn't dealt with the trauma of his childhood and is now an alcoholic drifter some years after his mother has passed on. At the same time, a nomadic cult known as "True Knot," led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), moves around the country seeking recruits as well as victims, psychically-gifted children that they kill to absorb their life force--"steaming," as they ingest the steam that exits their mouths as they die, thus healing wounds and holding off the aging process, enabling them to live hundreds of years and adapt to a changing society. Dan ends up in a small town where he befriends Billy (Cliff Curtis), a recovering alcoholic who knows one when he sees one. He sponsors Dan in AA and helps him achieve sobriety and get a job as an orderly at a local hospice, where he earns the nickname "Doctor Sleep" for his ability to sense, via his psychic abilities, when a resident is about to die. At this same time, Dan starts getting vague "shining" messages from a young girl named Abra, who then goes silent for seven years. Cut to 2018, Dan is still sober and still working at the hospice. True Knot is still on a quiet rampage undetected, though their latest victim is a child (Jacob Tremblay) who shines to a now-13-year-old Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who then tries to alert Dan. She even tracks him down, and while he offers sympathy and describes his experiences with The Shining, he advises her to keep her head down and ignore it. But as Abra continues to psychically connect in a dangerous game with Rose the Hat and her minions, the stakes increase and Dan has no choice but to help her, especially when Rose realizes Abra's abilities far exceed her own.

After the 15 minute opening sequence taking place in 1980, DOCTOR SLEEP settles into its own groove and the overt SHINING references are dialed down, at least in terms of the developing plot (check out the visual shout-out to the Overlook manager Stuart Ullman's office when Dan meets with the head of the AA group, played by Bruce Greenwood in a rare sympathetic role). This gives Flanagan enough opportunities to make the film his own, and during this majority of its duration, it sticks generally close to King's book (the "True Knot" cult is very reminiscent of the RV-travelling vampire clan in NEAR DARK). One of King's major gripes about Kubrick's film is that he felt it lost the humanity and the central themes of alcoholism, violence, and the traumatic effects of abuse on a family in exchange for the "coldness" that typified Kubrick's work. Flanagan keeps those ideas intrinsic to the heart of DOCTOR SLEEP, with McGregor very believable as a man still haunted by ghosts both literal and figurative, whether it's the woman from room 237 or the psychological specter of an abusive father who tried to kill him and his mother, eventually using alcohol and self-destruction as the quickest coping mechanism. DOCTOR SLEEP resonates on a more emotional level than THE SHINING ever could, especially in the few scenes where the spirit of Hallorann appears (it should be mentioned that Lumbly is just terrific here). A SHINING fan might actually get a little choked up when Hallorann tears Danny a new one over his reluctance to help Abra, telling him "You was just a kid when you wandered into my kitchen all those years ago and here I am, still on the hook." As good as those dramatic elements are, it's Ferguson who creates the most indelible character with Rose the Hat, who's quirky and terrifying at the same time ("Well, hi there!").

It's not until about the two-hour mark that Flanagan has a Kubrickgasm and takes a deep dive into full-on SHINING worship. Some may feel it's an awkward shift in style and tone, but I found the transition to be handled in an effective way that, in lesser hands, would've seemed like a tacked-on compromise akin to the out-of-nowhere, studio-mandated exorcism finale in THE EXORCIST III. On the run with Abra, Dan decides to lure Rose the Hat to the long-shuttered, boarded-up, moldy-walled ruins of the Overlook, where he's been mentally locking away the spirits that have haunted him all these years. It's giddily, dizzyingly surreal to see McGregor's Dan wandering through almost perfect recreations of those legendary sets at England's Elstree Studios (except for one thing--there were steps going into the Torrance apartment). Everything is as it was left in 1980, looking like a combination of a crime scene and a SHINING museum (plus there's that droning, rhythmic beat, a crescendoing "Dies Irae," and a little "Midnight, the Stars and You"). The attention to detail is actually breathtaking at times (even after Steven Spielberg's tribute in READY PLAYER ONE), and it results in what should be one of the most crowd-pleasing comeuppances in recent memory once Rose the Hat shows up for the big showdown in the Colorado Lounge.

But something unexpected has happened: DOCTOR SLEEP flopped its opening weekend. Nobody cares. There's a million ways this could've shit the bed, and almost any other filmmaker would've been content to play it safe and rely on easy SHINING fan fiction. Flanagan doesn't cave to the lowest common denominator, and maybe that's why it's not playing well or bringing in the crowds despite acclaim from critics and hardcore SHINING fans. IT kickstarted a King renaissance a couple of years ago, but are we already suffering from fatigue and burnout? The inferior IT: CHAPTER TWO made a lot of money a couple of months ago but it definitely didn't have the fan adoration or the lasting impact of its predecessor (and does anyone remember we had a new PET SEMATARY earlier this year?). Or do the kids just not know THE SHINING like Warner Bros. assumed? I saw the 4K restoration of THE SHINING theatrically in September and there were a lot of younger people in attendance, and "Here's Johnny!" didn't even register with them. They don't know who Johnny Carson is. Has it been too long between films to attract anyone but the most devout--and likely middle-aged and older--superfans? A similar fate befell the 35-years-later sequel BLADE RUNNER 2049, which opened big with devotees of the 1982 Ridley Scott classic but dropped nearly 66% in its second weekend after everyone who wanted to see it saw it immediately. DOCTOR SLEEP is an entirely different beast than THE SHINING, but speaking as someone who regards the Kubrick film as sacrosanct, it surpasses all expectations and is the most worthwhile sequel that a Shining and SHINING fan could hope to get, and maybe the best big-screen Stephen King adaptation since 1994's THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Like THE SHINING, DOCTOR SLEEP will stand the test of time and hopefully find an audience on streaming and cable. In the meantime, I just don't know what the hell moviegoers want anymore.