Saturday, December 28, 2019

I Watched These So You Don't Have To: THE TEN WORST FILMS OF 2019

2019 offered no shortage of cinematic dumpster fires, so much so that this year's Ten Worst list features 14 titles, with one spot holding a four-way tie. Congratulations to Bruce Willis and Nicolas Cage--who didn't make the final cut despite their best (or, in Willis' case, least) efforts to secure a position--and especially to John Cusack, who only appeared in one movie in 2019, and it was actually very good (the grim western NEVER GROW OLD--well worth seeing). But don't be alarmed--Ten Worst perennial Steven Seagal puts in his usual appearance, along with a couple of legendary filmmakers who had their worst year, some awful sequels, some long-shelved duds, and one thriller containing what might be the single most ridiculous plot twist in film history.

Before we begin, one film deserves special mention, and I'm talking about THE FANATIC. Don't misunderstand me--it's quite awful. But it's on such a different plane of awful that it transports you to a level of Bad Movie Nirvana that's rarely seen in the modern era. From the moment that still of a bowl-mulleted John Travolta--as "Moose," a socially inept and obsessive autograph hound and unhinged celebrity stalker--went viral, alerting the world to the existence of an ostensibly serious John Travolta thriller directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, THE FANATIC instantly became 2019's must-see bad movie. And my God, it was everything I hoped it would be. Travolta's absolutely go-for-broke performance is a sight to behold. He screams at people, he cuts off conversations because "I gotta poo," he drools, he rubs behind his ears and sniffs his fingers when he gets nervous, he practices what he'll say when he gets to meet his favorite actor Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa, who actually seems to be taking it seriously), he sneaks into Dunbar's house and sniffs his toothbrush, and he ties Dunbar to his bed and cuddles with him. You simply can't take your eyes off Travolta no matter how ridiculous and cringeworthy he gets, and that has to count for something (but maybe not the "For Your Consideration" ads that have been taken out). The movie is all kinds of terrible, but it's such a misguided, jawdropping train wreck and it's so alive with the kind of shamefully perverse fascination that comes with, say, being in a checkout line behind a Karen screaming for the manager--you just wanna see where this goes--that I can't, in good conscience, include it among these ten (14?) other films that offer absolutely zero entertainment value whatsoever (starting with #9, click on the title for the original review). And with that, let's get this over with and get ready for 2020.


Deadpan to the point of catatonia with a cast that seems to be in a somnambulant HEART OF GLASS trance, THE DEAD DON'T DIE is a completely DOA misfire from cult icon Jim Jarmusch, who displays no affinity for the zombie genre, leaving one to wonder exactly what he was going for with this lifeless zom-com spoof. Sure, there's a lot of cool people on hand here--Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Chloe Sevigny, Caleb Landry Jones, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, RZA, Rosie Perez, Selena Gomez, Carol Kane, and, of course, Larry Fessenden--but they probably had more fun hanging out on the set than you'll have watching the end result. One amusing joke about the Sturgill Simpson theme song is subsequently beat to death, but aside from that, I counted three times where I almost laughed but only chuckled: a fourth wall break where Murray calls Jarmusch a dick, cop Driver rolling up to a crime scene in a tiny Smart, and Buscemi as a local racist sporting a red "Keep America White Again" hat and complaining that his coffee's too black. Everything else falls flat. Sure, you get Swinton as a Scottish samurai mortician but is that the extent of the joke? Or did Jarmusch just assume that his eclectic ensemble and the idea of "Jarmusch zombie comedy" would predictably lead to hipster approbation and instant accolades sight unseen?  It's his worst film.


Brian De Palma's first film since 2013's PASSION, the counterterrorism non-thriller DOMINO was shot back in 2017 and finally got a stealth VOD burial from US distributor Lionsgate this past summer. That was a couple months after the trailer went online, when De Palma was already actively distancing himself from the released version (he denied initial rumors that it was cut down from 148 to 89 minutes). His name is still on the film, though other than a few scattered deployments of his signature split diopter shots--which everyone does now in homage to him--the severely-compromised DOMINO never feels like a De Palma film until the climax, and even that is so gutted and badly-assembled that it plays more like someone trying to rip off De Palma and blowing it. De Palma claimed this wasn't his project and that it was given to him by the Danish producers who never had enough money, were constantly cutting corners, and didn't even allow him to properly finish the movie. He even called it the most miserable experience he's ever had on a film, and that's coming from the guy who made THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. The only thing more embarrassing than DOMINO itself was the number of incoherent word salads tossed by the filmmaker's most fervent and delusional admirers in the days after its release to passionately defend a film already disowned by its own director. Why are you doggedly championing a Brian De Palma film that Brian De Palma didn't even want you to see? There's no need for anyone to die on this hill.


Pulled from the release schedule in the fall of 2017 when it became a casualty of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, POLAROID was eventually picked up by Vertical Entertainment and given a publicity-free VOD release just in time for Halloween. Forget being in limbo for two years--POLAROID feels like a forgotten, expired roll of film that's been left undeveloped and slowly deteriorating since the waning days of the post-SCREAM craze as an attempt to cash in on both FINAL DESTINATION and THE RING. It's bad enough that it comes off like a tired retread, but the filmmakers also made the bizarre decision to set the film in almost complete darkness. Making it even worse is the total lack of logic, with the primary antagonist being a possessed Polaroid instant camera from the '70s that claims the lives of anyone who's in a photo snapped by it. The camera was once owned by a serial killer who abducted and murdered several high school students back in the 1970s, and none of the kids in this small rural town where this tragedy took place seem to know something that would certainly be passed down from generation to generation as the urban legend of their area. Why does the heroine have to go to the archive room at the local library--a building that appears to be lit by a single 15-watt bulb--to peruse old newspapers for this shocking discovery? Prior to the Weinstein scandal breaking, POLAROID was bounced around the release schedule several times, almost as if they knew they had a dud on their hands and finally had a horrific enough excuse to pawn it off on another distributor.


Or, HONEY, I CLONED THE FAMILY. We all love Keanu Reeves, and the upcoming BILL & TED reboot will probably be a lot of nostalgic fun, but if it wasn't for the JOHN WICK movies, he'd be stinking up your nearest Redbox kiosk with Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage, and Steven Seagal (anyone a fan of recent Reeves gems like EXPOSED, THE WHOLE TRUTH, THE BAD BATCH, or SIBERIA? And you just wait until that fourth MATRIX movie you're all so excited about ends up reminding you how much you hated the second and third ones). REPLICAS arrived in theaters in the second week of 2019 adorned with all the tell-tale signs of an ignominious January dump-job that should've gone straight-to-VOD: multiple bumped release dates after playing everywhere else in the world months earlier; credits sporting a 2017 copyright; bush-league CGI that can charitably be described as "almost finished;" a script that's a melange of half-baked ideas shamelessly stolen from at least a half-dozen other, better sci-fi movies; and a slumming star who seems mildly irritated that his paid vacation is being interrupted by work. Shot in a pre-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico in 2016, REPLICAS is an utterly illogical and thoroughly incoherent mess with Reeves as a scientist who clones his wife and three kids after they're killed in a car crash. The film's idea of science is just giving Keanu a bunch of gobbledygook exposition that's ultimately just him trying to look serious while blurting Philip K. Dipshit-sounding buzzwords like "Stasis modality!" and "Execute the memory cortex!" and "Initiate the neural implant!" while he dons a virtual reality headset and starts emphatically conducting a symphony in front of a MINORITY REPORT holographic screen. REPLICAS might've been stupidly enjoyable with someone like Nic Cage going off the chain, but Reeves numbly walks through it with the look of an actor who knows things just aren't clicking and is just doing his professional duty by sticking around until it's over.


Another January 2019 release that spent most of 2018 being frantically shuffled around the release schedule, SERENITY is truly something special. And it's not just because Matthew McConaughey (born in 1969) and Anne Hathaway (born in 1982) are supposed to be former high-school sweethearts. It's not just because it has Hathaway as a convincing and very game femme fatale and wastes it by having her purr clunky and flaccid dialogue like "We're both the same...damaged but in different ways." It's not just because it takes place in some fishing town where everyone obsessively follows McConaughey's pursuit of a mythical giant tuna named "Justice." It's not just because it asks you to buy Diane Lane as a woman who has to pay a man to sleep with her. And it's not just because McConaughey plays a guy named "Baker Dill." No...what makes SERENITY so special is a third-act development that's a legitimate contender for the dumbest plot twist in the history of motion pictures. What was sold as a perfectly acceptable BODY HEAT noir knockoff becomes something else entirely. The end result feels like an homage to the heyday of the erotic thriller borne of a doomed alliance between James M. Cain, Joe Eszterhas, M. Night Shyamalan, Charlie Brooker, and Jack Daniels, and for generally respected LOCKE writer/director and PEAKY BLINDERS creator Steven Knight (he also wrote EASTERN PROMISES and got an Oscar nomination for scripting DIRTY PRETTY THINGS), SERENITY is the kind of catastrophically bad career-killer the likes of which we haven't seen since GIGLI sent BEVERLY HILLS COP and MIDNIGHT RUN director Martin Brest into the DGA's witness protection program, apparently never to be seen or heard from again.


Yet another DTV excretion pinched off by former action star and probable Russian sleeper agent Steven Seagal, GENERAL COMMANDER has an even shakier foundation than usual. It was conceived in 2017 as a 12-episode TV series, but the project was abandoned after just two episodes were shot. The solution? Just cram those two 40-minute episodes together and release it as a new Seagal movie. That certainly explains the abrupt non-ending that probably served as a cliffhanger to the third episode. Almost nothing happens in the first half of GENERAL COMMANDER, since it has to establish all the characters and exposition that any premiere episode of a TV series has to do, but in the context of what GENERAL COMMANDER became, it takes up literally half the movie, and the situations that develop in the second half have no payoff. Seagal plays another mysterious black-ops CIA operative, this time going after wealthy creeps who rule the "dark web," dabbling in everything from cryptocurrency to black market organ harvesting. Not a bad idea for the kind of CBS procedural that our dads would watch, and it could work with a real star who was either invested in the project or could convincingly pretend to give a shit, but even in the two completed episodes, there's still long stretches where Seagal disappears, which is pretty much on-brand for the laziest actor on the planet.


The first narrative feature from Argentine documentary filmmaker Rodrigo H. Vila is a resounding failure on almost every front, save for some occasionally atmospheric location work in what appear to be some dangerous parts of Buenos Aires. A dreary dystopian hodgepodge of THE MACHINIST, JACOB'S LADDER, and BLADE RUNNER, the long-shelved THE LAST MAN (shot in 2016 as NUMB, AT THE EDGE OF THE END), is set in a constantly dark, rainy, and vaguely post-apocalyptic near-future in ruins from environmental disasters and global economic fallout. Oppressively dull and with classic rock references inanely smuggled with a wink-and-a-nudge into some dialogue exchanges (one character is admonished with "You're trading your heroes for ghosts!"), THE LAST MAN is further dragged down by Hayden Christensen, who still can't act (2003's terrific SHATTERED GLASS remains the only film where his limitations have worked in his favor), and is saddled with trite, sub-Rick Deckard narration on top of that (at one point, he's actually required to gravely mumble "If you look into darkness, the darkness looks into you") as a PTSD-stricken combat vet obsessed with building a fortified bunker after being convinced of the coming apocalypse by a deranged street messiah played by Harvey Keitel, who looks like he's been caught in the midst of some hardcore C. Everett Koop cosplay. Vila achieves a gloomy and foreboding atmosphere with the Buenos Aires cityscapes, which just reinforces the notion that he should stick to documentaries.


Universal's 1440 DTV division has spent years cranking out belated sequels demanded by no one, turning one-off projects into unlikely franchises that are only discovered when someone browsing through some streaming options suddenly realizes "There's three sequels to JARHEAD?!" Recent years have seen Universal 1440 raiding the studio's back catalog to come up with HARD TARGET 2 (with Scott Adkins in place of JCVD), KINDERGARTEN COP 2 (with the always-available Dolph Lundgren stepping in for Arnold Schwarzenegger), and COP AND A HALF: NEW RECRUIT (with Lou Diamond Phillips subbing for Burt Reynolds) among others, but things went completely off the rails very early in 2019 when they unveiled THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE, coming 42 years after 1977's THE CAR. It has almost nothing to do with the first film, and Universal 1440's boasting that CAR co-star "Ronny Cox returns as The Mechanic" is a strong indication that no one in their marketing department has even seen THE CAR, since Cox played not a mechanic but rather, the deputy to sheriff James Brolin, who was probably the first to get a call to appear in THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE before wisely letting it go to voicemail and blocking the number.

Universal 1440 had a busy year, and while the utterly unnecessary INSIDE MAN: MOST WANTED--the sequel to Spike Lee's heist thriller that only has IMDb head shots of Denzel Washington and Clive Owen to connect it to its 2006 predecessor--wasn't terrible, the rest was one shitshow after another: the 28-years-later BACKDRAFT 2 managed to get a returning William Baldwin and Donald Sutherland to embarrass themselves for a quick paycheck, and BACKDRAFT director Ron Howard has a courtesy executive producer credit even though he probably won't even be aware of BACKDRAFT 2's existence until his accountant shows him his 2019 tax return. JARHEAD: LAW OF RETURN--starring Devon Sawa, capitalizing on that FANATIC momentum--is a series of sub-literate bro-downs that offers formulaic action and bonus One America News Network-level xenophobia for the MAGA hat crowd. And the 17-years-later UNDERCOVER BROTHER 2 has BLACK DYNAMITE's Michael Jai White replacing Eddie Griffin and then spending 75% of the movie in a coma while Undercover Brother's Brother (grating comedian Vince Swann) takes center stage. 2019 also saw Universal 1440 release such highly-anticipated gems as DOOM: ANNIHILATION (a sequel to the 2005 Karl Urban/Dwayne Johnson video-game dud that nobody liked, and obviously, neither one of the stars are back), GRAND-DADDY DAY CARE (with Danny Trejo, Barry Bostwick, George Wendt, and Hal Linden), and BENCHWARMERS 2: BREAKING BALLS (with Chris Klein and Jon Lovitz), but I didn't watch them because, well, frankly, I feel I've suffered enough. Don't worry, 1440 is kicking off 2020 in a big way with BULLETPROOF 2, the sequel to the 1996 buddy action comedy with Faizon Love and Kirk Fox in place of Damon Wayans and Adam Sandler, as well as DRAGONHEART: VENGEANCE, featuring a dragon voiced by Helena Bonham Carter, who really should have better things to do. Hey, Universal 1440...wake me when you get around to convincing Scott Eastwood to risk being cut out of his dad's will with HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER 2.


Remember when Gary Oldman ruled the awards season a couple of years ago and capped it off with a Best Actor Oscar for his work as Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR? By any chance, does Gary Oldman remember? I only ask because the projects he's chosen in the wake of an actor's greatest triumph have been enough to make Cuba Gooding Jr and Adrien Brody look away in embarrassment. At least it took those two several years to squander their good fortune and scrape bottom. It took Oldman about three months. Not since Michael Caine followed HANNAH AND HER SISTERS with JAWS: THE REVENGE has an Oscar curse been so maliciously cruel. The laughless, unwatchable "support group for assassins" comedy KILLERS ANONYMOUS looks like something that was shot five years ago and was only released because of Oldman's DARKEST HOUR triumph. But no...it began production in the summer of 2018, with Oldman arriving on the set a newly-anointed Academy Award-winner. He appears sporadically and usually alone, as his character is running surveillance, meaning this was probably a Bruce Willis-type gig where he was on the set for a few days and split. Likewise, the ludicrous "possessed yacht" horror movie MARY is not something that a recent Oscar-winner should be doing, and it's an even more bizarre career choice when you discover that Oldman stepped in after Nicolas Cage bailed during pre-production. Dude, you just won an Oscar and you're taking Nic Cage's turndowns? Sure, Oldman also appeared in Steven Soderbergh's Netflix film THE LAUNDROMAT with Meryl Streep, but projects like KILLERS ANONYMOUS, MARY, and THE COURIER (I haven't seen it yet), a straight-to-VOD action thriller where he's second-billed to Olga Kurylenko--currently third on the action heroine depth chart after Milla Jovovich and Noomi Rapace--are proof positive that if Uwe Boll was still making movies in 2019, Oldman probably would've turned up in one.

And the worst film of 2019:


If you thought Rob Zombie shit the bed with 31, then fuckin' hold his motherfuckin' beer because the unwatchable 3 FROM HELL is so bad that even some of his "gooble gobble, one of us!" fanboy faithful began turning on him after the film's three-night Fathom Events run a month before its Blu-ray/DVD release. The third chapter in what's--fingers crossed--a trilogy that began with 2003's HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and 2005's THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, 3 FROM HELL seemed like a desperation move after his pointless remake of HALLOWEEN and its disastrous sequel, his ambitious but unsuccessful THE LORDS OF SALEM--which at least tried to do something different before falling apart in the end--and the dismal 31 were all starting to make him look like a hick-horror one-trick pony whose entire filmmaking career was an endless tribute to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. A brutally intense and absolutely uncompromising throwback to '70s grindhouse at its grittiest, THE DEVIL'S REJECTS remains Zombie's masterpiece, and he's never come close to duplicating it since. Even with 14 years to think about it, he doesn't even seem to have the slightest semblance of a game plan with 3 FROM HELL, which ends up looking like a flimsy excuse for Zombie, his wife Sheri Moon Zombie, and some friends from the convention circuit to hang out under the guise of belatedly continuing the saga of the homicidal, serial-killing Firefly clan. There's clearly no script. Zombie and the actors are just making it up as they go along, and it's even capped off with a big shootout set to Iron Butterfly's "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida," as if goddamn MANHUNTER doesn't already exist.

Sid Haig (1939-2019)

The sole saving grace is the brief appearance of the late Sid Haig, returning as Captain Spaulding before exiting the film at the seven-minute mark. Frail-looking and obviously gravely ill, the beloved cult legend, who died just a few days after the Fathom Events screenings in September, nevertheless brings his A-game to his one scene, but when he's gone, 3 FROM HELL crashes and burns and never recovers. Tedious, ploddingly-paced, and ridiculously overlong at just under two miserable hours, the embarrassingly self-indulgent 3 FROM HELL is Rob Zombie fuckin' scraping rock fuckin' bottom, and the only thing it accomplishes is proving once and for all that THE DEVIL'S REJECTS was a fluke. But no matter how bad it gets, Zombie will always have a loyal--albeit dwindling--core of die-hard apologists who will stand by whatever he does, so best of luck to them going forward. I'm leaving.

Missing the cut (in alphabetical order)

A SCORE TO SETTLE (which does have this amazing moment)

And for the record: Ten Favorite Films of 2019 (so far)

Thursday, December 26, 2019

In Theaters: UNCUT GEMS (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Josh & Benny Safdie. Written by Ronald Bronstein and Josh & Benny Safdie. Cast: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch, The Weeknd, Mike Francesa, Pom Klementieff, Paloma Elsesser, Keith William Richards, Tommy Kominik, Jonathan Aranbayev, Jacob Igielski, Noa Fisher, Wayne Diamond, Ca$h Out, Kerwin Frost, Benjy Kleiner, John Amos, Louis Anthony Arias, voices of Tilda Swinton, Natasha Lyonne. (R, 135 mins)

"This is me. This is how I win."

You know UNCUT GEMS is going to be an audacious piece of work when the opening scene begins in an Ethiopian mine with a zoom-in journey inside an uncut opal and eventually emerges from the rectum of the protagonist, who's in the middle of a colonoscopy. That's fast-talking, hard-hustling NYC jeweler Howard Ratner, vividly brought to life by the unlikely Adam Sandler, who was exactly who the Safdie Brothers had in mind when they started writing the script over a decade ago. The filmmaking siblings--elder Josh and younger Benny--only had the little-seen 2009 indie THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED to their credit when they first approached Sandler, but after a few more small films generally seen by no one other than critics and festival audiences, they found some significant acclaim with their 2017 cult breakout GOOD TIME, a gritty '70s-style throwback with a riveting performance by Robert Pattinson. UNCUT GEMS feels like a logical extension of GOOD TIME, like the two films could theoretically exist in the same Safdie Cinematic Universe in the parts of NYC that have remained largely unchanged over the last 30-odd years (you can see the influence of Martin Scorsese, who's also one of the producers). It was probably best that everyone involved waited to make UNCUT GEMS, so the Safdies could get some directing efforts under their belt, hone their skills, and carve their niche, and for 53-year-old Sandler (after turning the Safdies down several times before finally caving when their second choice, Jonah Hill, backed out), who's sporadically tackled dramatic work before with varying degrees of success, to be at the place he needed to be in order to dive into the role of a lifetime.

Say what you will about his dubious history of mostly terrible comedies, but Sandler is a fucking revelation here (and a shout-out to A24 for pulling their most A24 move ever by releasing this wide at Christmas). His Howard Ratner joins the shortlist of cinema's top degenerate gamblers, be they cocky, schmucky, self-destructive, or self-aggrandizing, and always thoroughly doomed, right alongside the likes of James Caan in THE GAMBLER, Harvey Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT, Edward Norton in ROUNDERS, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in OWNING MAHOWNY. Decked out in flashy clothes, designer eyeglasses, and assorted bling, Howard owns a jewelry store in the NYC diamond district. He's doing well on the surface, but he's drowning in gambling debts all over town, and his ruthless loan shark brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) isn't about to cut him any slack just because he's family. Howard's marriage to Arno's sister Dinah (Idina Menzel, or, if you're John Travolta, "Adele Dazeem") is falling apart, due in large part to Howard being a sugar daddy to his much-younger girlfriend and employee Julia (Julia Fox). But things are looking up, as Howard's off-the-books associate Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) has made the acquaintance of Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett (as himself). KG comes into the store to look at some watches, and Howard being Howard, can't resist showing off a rock filled with uncut opals that he had illegally shipped from Ethiopia with the intent of clearing $1 million at a prestigious auction house. In the midst of the 2012 playoffs against against the Philadelphia 76ers, KG is offended that Howard won't sell it to him, but pleads with him to let him hang on to the rock for luck during the semifinals, offering his 2008 NBA Championship ring as collateral. Owing Arno $100,000, Howard immediately pawns KG's ring for $20,000, with the intent of using it to place a bet on that night's game and using the earnings to pay off Arno and get KG's ring back with the basketball star being none the wiser.

That's only the beginning of Howard's Murphy's Law-esque miasma of misery and shit luck. It should come as no surprise that anything that could possibly go wrong will, which is what makes a great degenerate gambler movie. But Sandler and the Safdies have a genuine masterpiece on their hands with UNCUT GEMS, a kinetic, captivating, heart-pounding exercise in sustained intensity that many have accurately likened to a 135-minute anxiety attack. The rapid-fire dialogue, the perpetual propulsive throb of the Tangerine Dream-ish synth score by Daniel Lopatin (who also scored GOOD TIME under his alias Oneohtrix Point Never), the grimy old-school NYC mood and energy, and the live-wire performance of a never-better Sandler come together to fashion a film that's like nothing else you've seen in 2019. Whatever Sandler is doing--whether it's bullshitting his way out of a situation, getting into a club brawl with an up-and-coming The Weeknd (remember, this is set in 2012) when he catches Julia doing coke with him in the bathroom, trying to talk his wealthy father-in-law (Judd Hirsch) into jacking up an already large bid at the auction, freaking out when he needs the rock with the opals and both KG and Demany are ignoring his calls--you can't take your eyes off him. You cringe pondering the endless variety of new and innovative ways that Howard--a far-too-confident schmuck with big ideas and an even bigger mouth--can't stop making things exponentially worse for Howard. Shot by the veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji (SE7EN, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS) and expertly edited by Benny Safdie and co-writer Ronald Bronstein, UNCUT GEMS is a nerve-shredding descent into a hell of Howard's own making that becomes an almost communal experience with a theater audience--you're holding your breath, gasping in shock, and shaking your head in disbelief at the increasingly absurd dilemmas of the hapless Howard Ratner, so much so that the occasional bits of deliberate humor (there's a great joke involving GOOD TIMES star John Amos) serve as very brief moments of relief. Boiling with relentless tension from start to finish, you don't just watch UNCUT GEMS...you survive it. And it's the best American film of 2019.

Friday, December 20, 2019

In Theaters: BOMBSHELL (2019)

(US/Canada - 2019)

Directed by Jay Roach. Written by Charles Randolph. Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Mark Duplass, Liv Hewson, Brigitte Lundy-Paine, Rob Delaney, Stephen Root, Robin Weigert, Amy Landecker, Mark Moses, Richard Kind, Holland Taylor, Alanna Ubach, Anne Ramsay, Andy Buckley, Brooke Smith, Ben Lawson, Josh Lawson, Nazanian Boniadi, Brian d'Arcy James, Alice Eve, Elisabeth Rohm, Bree Condon, Ashley Greene, Tricia Helfer, Jennifer Morrison, Lisa Canning, Ahna O'Reilly, John Rothman, Tony Plana, Kevin Dorff, P.J. Byrne, Spencer Garrett, Michael Buie, Marc Evan Jackson, Katie Aselton. (R, 109 mins)

A chronicle of the Fox News sexual harassment scandal that brought down chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, BOMBSHELL belongs to that same "ripped from the headlines" subgenre that gave us THE BIG SHORT and VICE, generally decent films that provide easy Oscar bait for big-name actors to do uncanny impressions of ubiquitous figures. BOMBSHELL is very much in line with those films, and could make an unofficial trilogy with director Jay Roach's two previous HBO political docudramas, 2008's RECOUNT and 2012's GAME CHANGE. Those were instant Emmy and Golden Globe magnets, with RECOUNT giving Laura Dern a chance to do a remarkable take on Florida Attorney General Katharine Harris, and GAME CHANGE showcasing Julianne Moore and Ed Harris as dead-on versions of Sarah Palin and John McCain, respectively. But because these stories are so recent and the 24-hour news cycle so constantly there and in our faces, BOMBSHELL falls into the same trap as the rest of these kinds of movies: it entertains but offers nothing that we don't already know. Given Roach's history with HBO, it's surprising that BOMBSHELL is even in theaters. It follows the same formula and style as RECOUNT and GAME CHANGE, eschewing the snarky smartassery that Adam McKay brought to THE BIG SHORT and VICE, opting instead for occasional fourth-wall breaking while generally keeping it straightforward and serious.

The Fox News scandal broke in 2016 and BOMBSHELL is already the second 2019 project to tackle Ailes as a subject, following the Showtime limited series THE LOUDEST VOICE, with Russell Crowe as Ailes and Naomi Watts as Gretchen Carlson, the fired Fox News personality who was the first to sue him for sexual harassment. THE LOUDEST VOICE was more about the entire Ailes story, starting with the establishment of Fox News, while BOMBSHELL just deals with the scandal, with the focus being on Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), who finds herself under fire as the film opens in 2015, just after her debate scuffle with Donald Trump that led to his infamous "blood coming out of her...wherever" comment. Ailes (John Lithgow, with prosthetic jowls and a NUTTY PROFESSOR fat suit) sympathizes with the way Trump supporters are raging at her on Twitter, but wants her to play nice, as Fox and Trump are well on their way to a perpetual state of symbiotic co-dependence. At the same time, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is ruffling feathers on the afternoon dead zone she's been given after being bounced from the highly-rated morning show FOX & FRIENDS, and when she's eventually fired, she decides to blow the doors off the worst-kept secret in the building: that Ailes is a serial sexual harasser and all-around creep, and that the network's "boys club"--the costly harassment settlements of Bill O'Reilly (played here by Kevin Dorff) are unspoken common knowledge among the grunts in the newsroom--has made for a toxic work environment. The mood is also fueled by deranged, right-wing paranoia that comes straight from Ailes, who at one point makes an off-the-cuff remark to his legal team about an Obama White House plot to have him murdered, a comment so batshit crazy that even his attorney Rudy Giuliani (Richard Kind) is seen looking away in incredulous discomfort.

The third figure in the story is the most problematic in that she's a wholly fictional creation of Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph (a co-writer of THE BIG SHORT). Margot Robbie is the improbably-named Kayla Pospisil, a composite character meant to show the kind of treatment given to established vets like Kelly and Carlson when they were ambitious youngsters at the network. Composite characters are very often a necessity with dramatic narrative recreations, and while it's no fault of Robbie's, the script just requires Kayla to be too many things at once. Ostensibly an "evangelical millennial" with a repressed upbringing in a staunchly far-right church family, Kayla is at Fox News to be a voice for young conservatives. She's first shown in a control booth, demonstrating no knowledge of the Eagles or classic rock in general when she puts a photo of Don Henley on the air to accompany a breaking news report on the death of Glenn Frey, blaming the gaffe on "never listening to secular music." The next time we see her, she's telling Carlson that she's leaving her staff to work for O'Reilly (wait...when was she on Carlson's staff in the first place?). Right after that, she's hopping into bed with a closeted lesbian cubicle mate (Kate McKinnon), who's a secret Hillary Clinton supporter. It's rightly disgusting and infuriating when we see ambitious Kayla requesting a meeting with Ailes and ending up being subjected to his degrading requests that she pull up her skirt for him, and the squirm-inducing scene is played very well by Robbie and Lithgow. But Robbie simply can't assemble a believable character out of the wildly disparate pieces she's been given.

Kidman has a good amount of screen time, but her story generally takes a backseat to what goes on with Robbie's Kayla and Theron's Megyn Kelly. Theron is definitely the MVP here, with just the right amount of subtle prosthetics combined with an astonishing mimicry of Kelly's voice, cadence, and speaking style. It's one of the most believable transformations of an actor into a real-life figure in recent memory. There's been some chatter online complaining that the film makes Kelly a hero, but that's another discussion for another time. No one deserves to be a victim of sexual harassment, and BOMBSHELL isn't about Megyn Kelly's dubious comments as a Fox News personality or during her short tenure at NBC. Briskly-paced and well-acted (except for the one scene between Theron and Robbie, which comes off as strangely clunky), with Theron and Lithgow being the standouts, BOMBSHELL also boasts a very large supporting cast, including Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch, Allison Janney as Ailes attorney Susan Estrich, Spencer Garrett as Sean Hannity, Tony Plana as Geraldo Rivera, a perfectly-cast Alanna Ubach as Judge Jeanine Pirro, Mark Moses as the loathsome Bill Shine, Anne Ramsay as Greta Van Susteren, Bree Condon as a Mean Girl-ish Kimberly Guilfoyle, P.J. Byrne as Neil Cavuto, and Connie Britton as Ailes' endlessly supportive wife, introduced scoffing at an employee for eating "liberal" grocery store sushi. Like RECOUNT, GAME CHANGE, THE BIG SHORT, and VICE, BOMBSHELL is perfectly fine entertainment and it'll almost certainly be up for major awards (Theron and Lithgow are both deserving). But once you get past the dedication and diligence of the performances, do these films have any lasting impact beyond that first viewing? THE BIG SHORT was great, but have I thought "I need to rewatch THE BIG SHORT" even once in the four years since I saw it in the theater?

Thursday, December 19, 2019

In Theaters: RICHARD JEWELL (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Billy Ray. Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez, Dylan Kussman, Niko Nicotera, Wayne Duvall, David Shae, Mike Pniewski, Charles Green, Billy Slaughter, Eric Mendenhall. (R, 131 mins)

After granting himself not one but two threesomes in 2018's surprisingly lighthearted geriatric drug trafficking saga THE MULE, Clint Eastwood returns to his unofficial "American Heroes" series with RICHARD JEWELL. Late-period Eastwood has been maddeningly inconsistent, from the hagiography of AMERICAN SNIPER to his playing fast and loose with the facts in SULLY to the completely botched THE 15:17 TO PARIS, where he couldn't possibly have been less engaged with the material. Eastwood's always worked fast (RICHARD JEWELL began filming in late June 2019, and it's already out), but there's been an increasing sloppiness to his films as he's gotten older, almost like he's more concerned with getting it done than getting it right, but at 89, he seems to be mostly back on his game with RICHARD JEWELL. Helping immensely is Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell (1962-2007), the security guard who discovered a pipe bomb in Atlanta's Centennial Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics, and quickly went from hero to prime suspect thanks to an anxious FBI and an overzealous media. Hauser, also memorable as Shawn Eckardt, the hapless "bodyguard" and "terrorism expert" involved in the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, in I, TONYA, turns in the best performance Eastwood's gotten out of an actor in years, fearlessly capturing all facets of Jewell, whether it's his insecurities, his flaws, his eagerness to respect authority, and his foolish belief that the FBI agents investigating him are "fellow law enforcement." The well-intentioned Jewell is a wannabe cop who was dismissed from the sheriff's department and later fired from a university after student complaints and for overstepping his bounds, even pulling people over off-campus when he suspected them of DUI. He studies the penal code on his nights off and clings to his pipe dream of becoming a police officer. He's encouraged by his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates), who almost certainly realizes it's never going to happen for Richard, but she loves him too much to hurt his feelings.

Jewell's life changed on July 27, 1996 when he was working security and discovered a mysterious backpack under a bench near the sound tower in Centennial Park, which was packed with people attending a Jack Mack and the Heart Attack concert. Initially dismissed by cops at the event aware of his history of being overzealous, Jewell persisted until someone in charge opened the backpack and found the bomb. It went off, killing one and wounding 111 others. Jewell was immediately hailed as a hero who saved lives but FBI investigators, led by composite characters Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and Dan Bennet (Ian Gomez) start putting together a profile that points to Jewell, basing it on his obsession with becoming a cop, his desire to be a hero, his being fired from past security jobs, his large size, that he lives with his mother, etc. Over drinks, Shaw leaks to ambitious Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) that they're looking at Jewell and the paper runs with it on the front page. Within three days of the bombing, Jewell is now the prime suspect being hounded by the media and Shaw, who has no actual evidence but keeps trying to trick Jewell into incriminating himself. With nowhere to turn and with the FBI determined to pin the bombing on him, Jewell calls mercurial attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), who was at a law firm a decade earlier where Jewell worked as a supply room clerk and, as Jewell tells him, "you were the only one who talked to me and treated me like a human being."

Eastwood being engaged with the material makes a difference, and his fury over the treatment of Jewell, who was eventually exonerated three months later (Eric Rudolph was captured in 2003 and confessed to Centennial Park and numerous other bombings) is palpable. That's perhaps to a fault, especially in regards to the way the film handles Scruggs, the real reporter who broke the story. Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray (SHATTERED GLASS) came under fire as the film was released for their depiction of Scruggs, an actual person who died in 2001 and isn't here to defend herself, offering sex in exchange for a hot tip from Hamm's Shaw, a fictional character created for the film. There's plenty of blame to lay at the feet of Scruggs and the Atlanta Journal Constitution without resorting to cheap-shot slut-shaming or turning her into a vamping, strutting, bitch-on-wheels femme fatale out of an early '90s straight-to-video erotic thriller. Wilde's performance as Scruggs is absolutely ridiculous in its cartoon villainy (made even more hollow by her later teary realization that she's been instrumental in railroading Jewell before promptly disappearing from the film), and here once again, Eastwood is overdoing it to further stack the deck against an American Hero™, like the guy heading the NTSB inquiry in SULLY doing everything short of twirling a mustache in his ruthless quest to nail Sully Sullenberger's balls to the wall for the Miracle on the Hudson, a sentiment that necessitated Sullenberger requesting the names of those characters be changed because that's not how they treated him. Making her the cold-blooded Mean Girl of the AJC newsroom also doesn't seem an accurate representation from what her colleagues have said, but with her cackling and preposterously evil interpretation of Scruggs, Wilde often appears to be auditioning for a future role as Cruella de Vil in a 101 DALMATIANS reboot she thinks might happen two or three decades down the road. I don't think Wilde's performance is entirely her fault--this is how she's been directed to play it--but it's the one big misstep that Eastwood makes in an otherwise fine film.

So yes, the Scruggs scenes are a major detriment to RICHARD JEWELL, but Hauser, Bates, and Rockwell are so good that they manage to wash away the bad aftertaste. After seeing his work here, it's hard to imagine anyone else playing Jewell, though Jonah Hill was initially attached when the project went into development as THE BALLAD OF RICHARD JEWELL back in 2014 with Leonardo DiCaprio as Bryant and Paul Greengrass set to direct (Hill and DiCaprio have producer credits here). His being generally little-known works to Hauser's advantage, and his resemblance to Jewell is striking (Eastwood uses real footage of Jewell in news clips on TV, and it's hard to tell the difference between subject and actor). But even beyond that, Hauser just brilliantly captures the little moments where the eager-to-please Jewell just can't stop himself from opening his big mouth, despite being repeatedly admonished by Bryant to say nothing. When the FBI team comes in to his mother's apartment and starts ransacking the place, even taking her Tupperware and underwear as evidence, he's still agreeably offering "If you need help finding anything, let me know." The expression on Hauser's face, regret over being a willing doormat combined with the faint hope that the agents view him as an equal, as Jewell can't even look at Bryant or his mom as they glare at him, speaks volumes. Also worthy of mention in a scene-stealing supporting role is Nina Arianda as Nadya, Bryant's no-nonsense secretary and legal aid, who very quietly becomes the heart and soul of the unlikely Jewell support team that also includes his only friend, Dave Dutchess (Niko Nicotera) who's hauled in by the FBI as a possible accomplice, with agents also threatening to start a rumor that he and Jewell are lovers (that Jewell is very adamant about clearing up that falsehood is another risky move for woke 2019, but it's true to the character). With a mishandling of Scruggs that's irresponsible at best and misogynistic at worst, RICHARD JEWELL is a decidedly flawed film, but at the end of the day, it's one of the better offerings from this latter period of Eastwood's legendary career, thanks mostly to a committed and often quite moving performance by Paul Walter Hauser.

Paul Walter Hauser and Clint Eastwood on the set. 

Monday, December 16, 2019

Retro Review: ACES: IRON EAGLE III (1992)

(US - 1992)

Directed by John Glen. Written by Kevin Elders. Cast: Louis Gossett, Jr., Rachel McLish, Paul Freeman, Horst Buchholz, Christopher Cazenove, Sonny Chiba, Fred Dalton Thompson, Phill Lewis, Mitchell Ryan, Tom Bower, Rob Estes, J.E. Freeman, Juan Fernandez, Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, Inez Perez, Bob Minor, Branscombe Richmond. (R, 99 mins)

Released in January 1986, with the blockbuster TOP GUN still four months down the road, IRON EAGLE became a sleeper hit with its mix of aerial action, flag-waving Reagan-era jingoism, and a mostly hair metal soundtrack propelled by Queen's "One Vision," Dio's "Hide in the Rainbow," and King Kobra's "Iron Eagle (Never Say Die)." It proved even more popular on home video and on cable, inspired one blatant ripoff with 1988's THE RESCUE, and it became an unexpected franchise for AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN Oscar-winner Louis Gossett, Jr., who starred as Air Force Col. "Chappy" Sinclair, reluctantly helping an Air Force Academy reject (Jason Gedrick) mount a secret operation to rescue the kid's war hero father (Tim Thomerson!), who's been shot down and condemned to death by the fictional Arab country of Bilya. Gossett then returned to lead some young fighter pilots against some requisite Soviet bad guys for 1988's IRON EAGLE II. Both IRON EAGLEs were directed by veteran journeyman Sidney J. Furie (THE IPCRESS FILE, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, THE ENTITY), but he sat out when it came time for 1992's ACES: IRON EAGLE III, which hands the reins over to John Glen. Best known for his long association with the James Bond series, first as an editor and second unit director on 1969's ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, 1977's THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, and 1979's MOONRAKER, Glen paid his dues and was promoted to director for 1981's FOR YOUR EYES ONLY and he went on to helm every 007 movie of that decade--with the exception of 1983's non-canon NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN--ending his run with 1989's LICENCE TO KILL. Glen brings some of the Bond mindset and style to the third IRON EAGLE outing, along with providing Gossett with an age-appropriate international cast of co-stars that make the film play like a WILD GEESE-esque proto-EXPENDABLES of sorts.

Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), ACES: IRON EAGLE III finds Chappy spending his down time flying refurbished and customized WWII fighter planes on the air show circuit, taking part in staged aerial battles with three fellow old-timer pilots: German Leichman (Horst Buchholz), British Palmer (Christopher Cazenove), and Japanese Horikoshi (Sonny Chiba). Chappy gets word that his Peruvian-born Air Force buddy Ramon was shot down during an apparent rogue mission and his body recovered by the Coast Guard, with the DEA brought in to investigate when $250 million worth of cocaine was found in the wreckage. Unbeknownst to Chappy, Ramon was a forced accomplice in a Peru-based drug trafficking operation overseen by former Nazi Gustav Kleiss (Paul Freeman). Kleiss has taken over the small village where Ramon was born and is holding his younger sister Anna (former bodybuilder Rachel McLish) hostage, threatening to kill their mayor father if he didn't comply. Ramon and another pilot, Doyle (SILK STALKINGS' Rob Estes) are part of Kleiss' operation that's using a Texas Air Force base as a distribution point. Anna manages to escape and stow away on one of the flights, and once in Texas (we never see how she somehow manages to get off the plane undetected), she informs Chappy of what's going on in her village. When base commander Simms (Mitchell Ryan) refuses to listen to Chappy and instead opts to tarnish Ramon's legacy, Chappy once again plays by his own rules and talks Leichman, Palmer, and Horikoshi into using their WWII show planes to launch a covert attack on Kleiss' Peruvian compound and rescue the enslaved villagers.

ACES: IRON EAGLE III's plot is beyond ludicrous (credit screenwriter Kevin Elders, who penned the two previous films and went on to make his directing debut with the 1999 Dennis Rodman actioner SIMON SEZ), but the cast doesn't seem to be taking it too seriously, especially Gossett, who at one point mutters a required-by-law "I'm gettin' too old for this shit." In addition to McLish's Anna, the team is also helped by their air show promoter Stockman (Fred Dalton Thompson, who's unusually loose and likable here), and Tee Vee (Phill Lewis), the film's ill-advised comic relief. Tee Vee lives in the same decrepit slum apartment building where Anna is hiding with her aunt, in a laughably unconvincing inner city "hood" set that you'd swear was on a Bulgarian backlot if you didn't know the film was shot in Arizona (and don't miss boxer Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, out-acted by his mullet in a brief role as a local cartel enforcer). For all the anti-Arab racism present in the first IRON EAGLE, nothing has aged worse than ACES' Tee Vee, who's introduced stealing a TV and at various points, is shown riding a shrieking donkey, doing impressions of Eddie Murphy and John Wayne, referencing the Fresh Prince, 2 Live Crew, and Milli Vanilli, and, in possibly the most cringe-worthy moment in the entire franchise, starts rapping and busts out a "My name is Tee Vee and I'm here to say..." The only good thing you can say about Lewis' performance is that it's marginally better than the one delivered by McLish, the early '80s female bodybuilding champ and focus of the 1985 documentary PUMPING IRON II: THE WOMEN. Married to IRON EAGLE franchise producer Ron Samuels, McLish's acting career began with ACES: IRON EAGLE III and ended with her next film, the Samuels-produced, Albert Pyun-directed RAVENHAWK. She gets to take part in a couple of throwdowns and she looks great glistening with sweat, but McLish is painfully bad, and being surrounded by an Academy Award-winner and a bunch of other experienced pros doesn't do her any favors.

Fortunately, ACES: IRON EAGLE III gets by on the screen presence of Gossett, Buchholz (the MAGNIFICENT SEVEN co-star even getting to wear a cowboy hat at one point), an Errol Flynn-channeling Cazenove, and Chiba. Working with a much smaller budget than what he'd been granted in his 007 glory days, Glen brings an unmistakable Bond vibe to the film from the drug cartel plot of LICENCE TO KILL, to some terrific action sequences and huge explosions, or Freeman's villain, somewhat of a riff on the actor's best-known role as the treacherous Rene Belloq in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, with the addition of a hammy German accent and a Blofeld-like facial scar (and a memorable one-liner when he gets a look at Chappy and sneers "Hardly the Ayran ideal, are you?"). He even has a standard-issue Bond villain henchman in the ruthless Escovez, played by perennial late '80s/early '90s bad guy Juan Fernandez, so memorable as "that shitbag Duke" in the 1989 Charles Bronson sleazefest KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS. There's also an outlandish action sequence involving Cazenove that would've been right at home in a Roger Moore-era 007 outing. ACES: IRON EAGLE III sat on the shelf for year before short-lived New Line subsidiary Seven Arts released it in theaters with little publicity on June 12, 1992, where it tanked in 11th place, grossing even less than WAYNE'S WORLD in its 18th week (it probably didn't help that it was R-rated, where its teen-aimed predecessors were PG-13 and PG, respectively). It was the first of two flops that summer for Glen, the other being the costly Alexander Salkind bomb CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: THE DISCOVERY, which hit theaters two months later. Glen went on to direct several episodes of the short-lived British TV series SPACE PRECINCT and made his last film to date with the 2001 Christopher Lambert espionage thriller THE POINT MEN. That same year, he published his memoir For My Eyes Only, and later contributed commentary tracks to the 2006 DVD editions of his Bond films. These days, the now-87-year-old director occasionally gives interviews and appears to be enjoying his retirement. Furie--also still with us at 86 and, as of 2018, still working--not-very-triumphantly returned to the franchise for 1996's straight-to-video IRON EAGLE IV, which found Gossett's Chappy Sinclair leading the usual ragtag group of young military misfits to stop a chemical warfare plot.

ACES: IRON EAGLE III opening in Toledo, OH on 6/12/1992

Saturday, December 14, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: LUCKY DAY (2019) and FREAKS (2019)

(Canada/France - 2019)

Roger Avary's place in film history is secure thanks to the Oscar he shared with Quentin Tarantino for co-writing PULP FICTION, but the career paths of the former Video Archives co-workers went on decidedly different trajectories. While Tarantino became one of the most lauded and influential filmmakers of the modern era, Avary, whose own KILLING ZOE was released a few months before PULP FICTION, followed his Oscar win with the 1995 straight-to-video Rutger Hauer sci-fi/horror film MR. STITCH. He did some hired gun TV writing and script doctoring until his underappreciated and critically-panned 2002 film version of Bret Easton Ellis' THE RULES OF ATTRACTION, which has since acquired a well-deserved cult following. At the same time, Avary cobbled together an extensive amount of unused Kip Pardue footage from RULES' memorable "Victor's trip" sequence and assembled it into an adaptation of Ellis' semi-sequel GLITTERATI, but it remains unreleased to this day. Avary then settled into journeyman screenwriter mode, working on Christophe Gans' SILENT HILL and Robert Zemeckis' BEOWULF before his personal and professional life collapsed. Avary was behind the wheel in a 2008 drunk driving crash that killed his passenger. He pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter and other DUI-related charges and was sentenced to a year in a furlough program that allowed him to work during the day and return to jail at night. Those privileges were suspended when officials realized he was tweeting about jail conditions and he was ordered to serve out the remainder of his year in lockup, followed by five years probation.

Once released, he wrote a few episodes of the Canadian TV series XIII in 2012, but LUCKY DAY marks Avary's first feature film project in over a decade. He started writing it while incarcerated, and it's easy to see the influence of his jail time in the story of safecracker Red (Luke Bracey from the POINT BREAK remake that you forgot happened), just paroled after serving two years after a botched bonds heist. He wants to settle down with his artist wife Chloe (Nina Dobrev) and eight-year-old daughter Beatrice (Ella Ryan Quinn), but that's impossible with deranged, unstoppable French hit man Luc Chaltiel (Crispin Glover) leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake in his quest for revenge against Red, who he blames for his brother's death in the job that got Red arrested. Other than the return of Roger Avary, the big selling point here is the over-the-top performance by Glover, who's using a ludicrous Inspector Clouseau accent as a ruthless assassin who only thinks he's French. It's amusing for a few minutes, but Glover sets a land-speed record for wearing out a welcome, and once that happens, all you're left with is the realization that Avary is just spinning his wheels on what amounts to nothing more than another belated Tarantino knockoff that feels two decades old right out of the gate, like something you'd stumble upon while browsing the new release shelves at Blockbuster in 1997.

He might be entitled to a bit of a pass considering his connection, but LUCKY DAY is mostly just garish and grotesque, with Clifton Collins Jr as Red's racist parole officer with an unexpected expertise in art, and David Hewlett as Chloe's sexually-harassing art gallery benefactor coming in close behind Glover in the running for the film's most grating performance (there's also brief appearances by Mark Dacascos, Tomer Sisley, Josie Ho, and a voice cameo by Eric Stoltz). Bracey is essentially a second-string Tom Hardy, and the film's only genuinely amusing moments are provided by Cle Bennett as Red's best friend Leroy, who's just changed his name to "Le Roi," and is having a hard time making it stick. Much of LUCKY DAY is devoted to Avary's self-indulgence, from a Bret Easton Ellis shout-out in the form of a door sign reading "This Is Not An Exit," to Red calling Chloe "Honey Bunny," and Dobrev looking and sounding a lot like Maria de Medeiros' Fabienne in PULP FICTION, almost as if Avary is taking this opportunity to let us know which elements of that classic are his contributions. A tribute to late producer Samuel Hadida, who died in November 2018, in the form of an end-of-credits stinger is a sincerely heartfelt gesture on Avary's part (Hadida co-produced KILLING ZOE, so they go back a long way), but LUCKY DAY is just...not good. (R, 99 mins)

(US/Canada - 2019)

A low-budget indie sci-fi outing that plays like an origin story for Dafne Keen's Laura in LOGAN, FREAKS managed to get some good buzz at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival but it was another year before it finally landed a straight-to-VOD release. Some of the praise given to the film was for the way it revealed itself through the eyes of its confused seven-year-old heroine, only letting the audience see it from her POV and, for quite a while, leaving anyone watching just as hopelessly confused as she is. That set-up is reminiscent of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD as well as the ill-fated Blumhouse production STEPHANIE, but the way FREAKS presents itself starts to feel less like clever exposition and more like an excuse to pull anything and everything out of its ass, to the point where the film itself resembles a nonsense story that an imaginative seven-year-old might concoct. Young Chloe (Lexi Kolker) lives in a mostly boarded-up house--in the middle of an otherwise nice neighborhood--with her disheveled, nervous father (Emile Hirsch, looking a lot like a haggard Jack Black). He doesn't let her go outside and there's a half-dozen dead bolts on the front door. He makes her practice the biography of a fake identity he's devised for her and has stacks of cash hidden throughout the house. At this point, FREAKS could be about anything--a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a WALKING DEAD scenario, or a Shyamalanian/TWILIGHT ZONE scenario where the dad is a paranoid nutjob and the outside world he's keeping her from is completely normal. But Chloe demonstrates telepathic abilities. She gets in people's heads and influences them, and her ability to control others is getting stronger. She can control the mind of a neighbor girl (Ava Telek) across the street and make her role-play, lying with her and innocently cuddling as the dead mom Chloe never met. And Chloe is strangely drawn to the incessant jingle of an ice cream truck that's constantly parked outside her house, manned by the mysterious "Mr. Snowcone" (Bruce Dern), who seems to know a lot about her and her father and their strange abilities.

If it sounds like I made that synopsis up as I went along, then yeah, that's what FREAKS is like. I haven't even mentioned the intermittent breaking news alerts on their TV about drone strikes in Seattle or the tenth anniversary of an attack that wiped out Dallas. Or a government agent (Grace Park) who's pursuing "Abnormals," or the more derisively-termed "Freaks," a race of apparent alien invaders who were rounded up a decade ago in a "Relocation Act" and shipped off to a massive internment camp called Madoc Mountain (cue ham-fisted Trump-era immigration allegory). Or that sometimes, Chloe's dead mother (Amanda Crew) appears in her closet, only the closet looks like a holding cell of some kind. Or that Chloe can manipulate time and that a few months for some might be several years for others. The writing/directing team of Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky maybe deserve some props for somehow cobbling together every half-baked idea and passing thought they've ever had and cramming them into one movie, almost like they went into it assuming this was gonna be their only shot and said "Fuck it, we're going all-in." But FREAKS just doesn't work. Its mythology is confusing and utterly arbitrary and its characters' behavior and the extent of their abilities is dependent on whatever a particular scene needs them to do. The entire film feels like an endless barrage of dei ex machina the likes of which are rarely seen outside of late-period Stephen King novels (doesn't "Mr. Snowcone" sound like a King character?), so much so that there's never any suspense because whatever obstacles Chloe faces, the script will just make up some bullshit on the spot to move her to the next scene. Possibly the most inexplicably acclaimed sci-fi film since CHRONICLE, FREAKS is a mess, but the filmmakers do alright from a technical standpoint with an obviously small budget, and they get good performances out of Hirsch and Kolker. Dern looks completely bewildered, and it's probably not in character. Check out the tragically underseen CAPTIVE STATE instead. (R, 105 mins)

Monday, December 9, 2019

Retro Review: HOTEL COLONIAL (1987)

(US/Italy - 1987)

Directed by Cinzia Th. Torrini. Written by Enzo Monteleone, Cinzia Th. Torrini, Robert Katz and Ira R. Barmak. Cast: John Savage, Rachel Ward, Robert Duvall, Massimo Troisi, Anna Galiena, Claudio Baez, Zaide Silvia Gutierrez, Isela Diaz, Demian Bichir, Areceli Jurado, Daniel Santa Lucia. (R, 103 mins)

Dumped in one theater in both NYC and Los Angeles for a week by Orion in September 1987 before turning up at every video store in America, the obscure US/Italian co-production HOTEL COLONIAL wants to be a Graham Greene-style tale of a stranger in a strange land getting involved with all manner of mystery and intrigue, but it's little more than a sleepy John Savage travelogue. With THE DEER HUNTER, HAIR, and THE ONION FIELD in his rearview and Lucio Fulci's tedious swan song DOOR TO SILENCE on the horizon, Savage stars as Marco Venieri, an Italian-born New Yorker whose phone rings at 4:00 am informing him that his older brother and former Red Brigade terrorist Luca has committed suicide in Buenaventura, Colombia. Marco hasn't seen Luca in almost ten years, shortly before Luca was granted an early release after cooperating and ratting on other, more high-ranking Red Brigade figures and quickly high-tailing it to South America. At the request of Luca's ex-wife Francesca (Anna Galiena, who's only heard on the phone but remains fifth-billed, a good indication that her role was cut), Marco heads to Colombia to claim the body and bring it to Rome only to find that the body isn't Luca's. This sends him on a slow-moving goose chase from Colombia to Brazil and back again, not helped by Irene Costa (a terribly underutilized Rachel Ward), his contact at the Italian embassy in Colombia, who's prone to cryptic bullshit like "Whatever you're looking for, you won't find it here." If she means things action, suspense, or a point, she's right.

The trail to Luca eventually leads Marco to the titular hotel in Bogota, owned by gregarious cocaine trafficker Roberto Carrasco, played by a hilariously miscast Robert Duvall in possibly the most ridiculous role of his career. The Carrasco character is just one of many aspects of HOTEL COLONIAL that's handled in a botched fashion by director/co-writer Cinzia Th. Torrini, an Italian documentary filmmaker who found some acclaim for her 1982 narrative feature GIOCARE D'AZZARDO, which earned her a Best New Director nomination at the David di Donatello Awards, the Italian equivalent of the Oscars. Upon hearing of Luca's death, Marco recalls the last time he visited his brother in prison, and even though Torrini shoots this flashback in murky, grainy black & white, it's pretty clear that it's Robert Duvall speaking with a garbled Italian accent and hiding behind a black wig and thick beard in the least convincing disguise this side of "Richie" in COLOR OF NIGHT. This comes just a few minutes after the opening credits, which include "and Robert Duvall as Roberto Carrasco." As a result, when Duvall turns up again nearly an hour later as "Carrasco," it's not really a surprise when he's eventually revealed to be Luca, and the only mystery how long it'll take Savage's dim Marco to finally figure it out. We know Duvall is in the movie and we're almost immediately shown that he's Luca. There's no hook to the mystery and no reason to care. Imagine THE USUAL SUSPECTS showing the Keyser Soze police sketch coming out of the fax machine ten minutes into the movie after we just saw a credit reading "and Kevin Spacey as Verbal Kint."

After looking like a Next Big Thing at the end of the '70s, Savage peaked quickly. His career was already in decline by the time he got to HOTEL COLONIAL, even though he had a brief but memorable bit two years later as Clifton, the "I own this brownstone!" Celtics fan carelessly smudging Buggin' Out's brand new Jordans in DO THE RIGHT THING, and he had a small role as the priest son of the absent Duvall's late Tom Hagen in THE GODFATHER PART III. But it's hard knowing what drew Duvall to this film*. It's not exactly a case of an overqualified actor slumming in an '80s Italian exploitation outing, even though a couple familiar dubbing voices can be heard among the supporting cast (which features EL NORTE's Zaide Silvia Gutierrez in a thankless role as a cafe server as well as two future Oscar nominees with IL POSTINO's Massimo Troisi as an Italian-born Bogota charter boat captain improbably named "Werner," and A BETTER LIFE's Demian Bichir in younger days as a nervous Hotel Colonial desk clerk). No, Duvall was probably drawn to it because of Torrini's acclaim in Italy as well as some reputable behind-the-scenes personnel, including co-writer and past Liliana Cavani collaborator Robert Katz (THE SKIN); regular Fellini cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; frequent Sergio Leone editor Nino Baragli; production manager Alessandro Tasca, an Orson Welles associate on CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT and the unfinished DON QUIXOTE; and go-to Brian De Palma composer Pino Donaggio, whose work here is among his least essential, other than "Stranger," the Al Stewart-esque earworm of a closing credits song.

Duvall might've thought he was getting involved in some Italian prestige project with a couple of free vacations as a bonus (shooting was done in Mexico and Italy), but here he is, chewing the scenery with wild abandon just four years removed from his TENDER MERCIES Oscar, making you wish HOTEL COLONIAL was as entertaining a movie as the one Duvall seems to imagine he's in. Sporting a blond wig, an ascot, and usually seen smirking and strutting around in a sleeveless safari shirt, Duvall handles a gator, wrestles an anaconda, snorts blow, and regales Savage and the viewer with his best open-mic night Tony Montana impression, advising Marco "Jew want sumting? Jew take it! Jew don't aahnsore to no one!" It's hilarious even without taking into consideration that Marco somehow can't tell that Carrasco is his supposedly dead brother and it's supposed to be a surprise when he spills the beans ("You had plastic surgery!" Marco yells; nope, always looked like Robert Duvall). The kind of movie that has Carrasco conducting a drug exchange with a buyer in front of huge window during a dinner party just so Marco can stumble on it from a distance and watch the deal go down, HOTEL COLONIAL (just out on Blu-ray from Scorpion, because physical media is dead) doesn't even register a pulse until Duvall finally shows up, though even that's marred by the late introduction of a Carrasco pedophilia ring that generates more nausea than suspense. Duvall remains a national treasure, and this forgotten misfire is ultimately a very minor footnote to his career. He had the controversial COLORS in theaters the next year and the beloved LONESOME DOVE on TV the year after that, though if you're a Duvall completist, HOTEL COLONIAL might be worth checking out just for his over-the-top histrionics.

* update from my friend Bob Cashill: "I saw this on VHS and recalled zero about it until I read your review. Whenever an actor takes on a weird role I always look at the marital history; there’s often a divorce settlement and need of cash involved. And sure enough Duvall divorced in 1986, his second wife, who was...John Savage’s sister!"