Friday, January 31, 2020

In Theaters: GRETEL & HANSEL (2020)

(Canada/US - 2020)

Directed by Osgood Perkins. Written by Rob Hayes. Cast: Sophia Lillis, Alice Krige, Samuel J. Leakey, Jessica De Gouw, Charles Babalola, Beatrix Perkins. (PG-13, 87 mins)

With a comfortable enough distance from the movie industry's inexplicable fixation on all things Hansel & Gretel back in 2013 (the big-budget bomb HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS, the Asylum knockoff HANSEL & GRETEL, and the stoner-themed HANSEL & GRETEL GET BAKED), the Brothers Grimm fairy tale has returned to the big screen in GRETEL & HANSEL, a revisionist take from director Osgood Perkins. The son of PSYCHO star Anthony Perkins and photographer Berry Berenson, the LEGALLY BLONDE actor-turned-filmmaker specializes in the slowest of slow-burn horror, and over the course of his two previous films--the 2016 Netflix original I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE and 2017's THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER--he's carved his own niche in the genre, much like HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR director Ari Aster. But that comes with a caveat: the term "slow-burn" really doesn't appropriately convey just how glacially-paced an Osgood Perkins film can be. PRETTY THING's biggest coup was Perkins coaxing longtime family friend Paula Prentiss out of retirement, but the film is almost too slow for its own good, with shots so static and quiet that, at times, it comes off like a series of still-life portraits with intermittent narration. It's almost as slow and almost as quiet, but THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER, on the other hand, is a profoundly unnerving experience that, to quote myself, "will fuck you up for days after seeing it," and is one of the very few horror movies of recent years that I found legitimately scary and disturbing. But while PRETTY THING is technically Perkins' chronological "debut" as a director, BLACKCOAT was actually made first (under the title FEBRUARY), with A24 leaving it on the shelf for a couple of years while they figured out how to market it. Oddly, it's BLACKCOAT that plays more like the work of an assured filmmaker who's gained some confidence in what he's trying to accomplish, while PRETTY THING feels like more of a stunt that borders on the experimental.

Though he didn't write GRETEL & HANSEL (the script is by British screenwriter Rob Hayes), it's very much in Perkins' wheelhouse with its focus on a female protagonist and its extremely deliberate pacing that emphasizes atmosphere and mood over in-your-face scares. The switching of the name placement in the title is the obvious giveaway that this is going to be a significantly different interpretation of the Brothers Grimm, and in it, we get 16-year-old Gretel (Sophia Lillis of IT and HBO's SHARP OBJECTS) forced to take care of her tag-along younger brother, eight-year-old Hansel (Samuel J. Leakey). Plague and pestilence have ravaged the land, their father has disappeared, and their desperate, distraught mother is losing her mind. Independent-minded Gretel has trouble accepting things that are expected of her as a young woman--she refuses her mother's demand to join a convent, and her attempt to find employment at the manor of a leering, drunkard nobleman quickly goes south when the first question in the extremely uncomfortable job interview is if her "maidenhood is still intact." Starving and with no hope, their mother sends them off on their own, but not before imploring Gretel to dig a grave for her. They're briefly tutored in the ways of survival by a stern but sympathetic huntsman (Charles Babalola), and soon happen upon a lonely house deep in the foreboding forest, with a glance through a window revealing a seemingly boundless feast waiting inside. Also inside is the mysterious Hilda (great to see Alice Krige once again getting a showy role that's up there with her work in 1981's GHOST STORY and as the Borg Queen in 1996's STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT), who possesses supernatural abilities and sees a kindred spirit in Gretel.

Lillis' IT notoriety is probably the main reason GRETEL & HANSEL is getting a nationwide rollout in a move that might cause you to incorrectly assume it's another multiplex audience-alienating A24 release rather than one from the reactivated Orion, now a niche division of MGM under the United Artists banner. Yes, the jump-scare horror crowd and IT superfans are probably gonna hate this (and yes, I'm linking film critic Jason Coffman's essential 2016 "gatekeepers" piece once again, because it still holds true), but those going into it possessing a familiarity with Perkins' work will find it to be ambitious, highly symbolic, metaphorically rich, and visually intoxicating. Working with cinematographer Galo Olivares (a camera operator on Alfonso Cuaron's ROMA) and production designer Jeremy Reed (a collaborator on I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE), Perkins creates a world of folk horror that's hypnotic on an almost Panos Cosmatos level throughout. The Kubrickian shot compositions in the rarely-utilized 1.55:1 aspect ratio (after a prologue in 2.35), the emphasis on triangular shapes, disorienting camera angles, eerie glimpses of robed figures in the fog, giallo-inspired colorgasms, recurring Perkins motifs like mirrors and insidiously subtle rumblings in the sound mix, and the synth-driven electronic score by "Rob" (French composer Robin Caudert, who worked on the MANIAC remake and REVENGE) that invokes the sounds of Goblin, Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter, and Sinoia Caves, all combine to make GRETEL & HANSEL an often vividly surreal experience. Granted, it's one that will try the patience of viewers whose tastes lean more toward the mainstream but will certainly appeal to those who have logged significant time off the beaten path with eccentric genre outliers. And while it might not fall under the parameters of a modern-era "jump scare," Hilda's first appearance is a near pants-shitter.

The Panos Cosmatos comparison is an important one, and even beyond the sequence where Gretel and Hansel eat some special mushrooms, there are several bits here that recall that sort-of trippy, otherworldly, almost out-of-body feel of BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW and MANDY, with some imagery looking like it could've conjured from the lyrics of a black metal concept album by Jethro Tull. And with a setting that's more than slightly reminiscent of Robert Eggers' THE WITCH, it's debatable that the obvious influences here might work to Perkins' slight detriment (I'm also willing to bet he's an EYES OF FIRE fan). Sometimes, the film feels like his auteurist designs are being filtered through some movies he's seen and liked over the last few years. And the abrupt third act--which manages to make the film seem both too long and too short at the same time--has the faint whiff of compromise to it, like somebody at MGM told the minimalist filmmaker "You need some special effects here." Mind you, these are, at most, very minor gripes. There's been some chatter that this is a "woke" take on the Brothers Grimm, but that's a tired buzzword that does the film a disservice. It has a decidedly feminist point of view, and Lillis does a great job of conveying Gretel's fury with all of the bullshit women have had to deal with forever, like the sexual harassment by the creepy, lip-smacking nobleman, or being told she should "smile more," offering biting social commentary in the guise of a surreal and unsettling period horror tale. You'll either connect with GRETEL & HANSEL or you won't--as with PRETTY THING and BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER, there's no middle ground. But if you've been intrigued by Perkins' work thus far, this is one that you really should see on a big screen. And you should probably do so sooner rather than later because it's not gonna be there very long.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

On Blu-ray/DVD: BEYOND THE LAW (2019), I SEE YOU (2019) and THE COURIER (2019)

(US - 2019)

Drably-shot and about as polished as someone's first DIY effort funded by successfully talking their dad into cashing out his 401k, the dreary, amateurish, and cheap-looking BEYOND THE LAW marks a reunion of sorts for Steven Seagal and DMX, the duo previously headlining 2001's EXIT WOUNDS, one of Seagal's last gasps of box office success. "Reunion" might be stretching it, since they don't have any scenes together here, making it quite possible that Seagal has no idea that DMX--or for that matter, Steven Seagal--is even in BEYOND THE LAW. Both have supporting roles, with the real star being Johnny Messner (returning for more Seagal duty after 2016's THE PERFECT WEAPON) as Frank Wilson, an alcoholic ex-cop who we can assume played by his own rules. He goes on a rampage of revenge after his son falls in with the wrong crowd and is killed by Desmond Packard (one-time Uwe Boll semi-regular Zack Ward, further away than ever from A CHRISTMAS STORY's Scut Farkus), the sniveling, dirtbag son of former crime boss-turned-legit businessman--and lemme check and make sure I get this name right--Augustino Finn Adair, played by a cigar-sucking Seagal with his usual N'awlins accent and total indifference to the proceedings. BEYOND THE LAW then turns into a DIPSHIT JOHN WICK--only with a slovenly drunk as its vigilante killing machine--as Wilson goes after Desmond, who's also mounting a challenge to topple his father and restart his old criminal empire (and we know Desmond is intense because he constantly flicks his Zippo while glaring menacingly), a plan probably egged on by his old man trying to tell him to straight up his act and muttering "I feel like I'm talking to a retarded child."

In his first film since spending a year in prison for tax fraud, DMX periodically turns up as Munce, the detective supposedly investigating the murder of Wilson's son (of course admonishing the enraged father with "Look, you're not a cop anymore!") but secretly on Desmond's payroll before he gets the clumsiest death scene since Michael Madsen in BLOODRAYNE. Written by DTV vet Chad Law (DRIVE HARD, CLOSE RANGE, JARHEAD 3) and director James Cullen Bressack (13/13/13 and some other very low-budget Asylum and Unearthed Films horror indies), who also throws in some incongruous jump scares when Wilson keeps imagining seeing his dead son, BEYOND THE LAW leaves no cliche untouched. You get B-movie drinking game staples like Wilson yelling "This ends tonight!" and Munce telling Wilson "You're not an easy man to find," to which Wilson mutters "Sometimes when you can't find a man, it's because he don't wanna be found," a philosophy that must explain Johnny Messner continuing to appear in modern-era Steven Seagal movies. But there's also some real head-scratchers, like Munce getting angry with Desmond because he's never seen GREMLINS ("It's a classic!") and--again, lemme make sure I get this name right--Augustino Finn Adair mumbling to his chief flunky that a meeting with a new "supplier" has to be postponed a day because "I gotta clean up my house." The kind of movie where someone in a bar orders a vodka shot and gets it in a regular-sized red plastic Solo cup because real shot glasses apparently weren't in the budget, BEYOND THE LAW might succeed in fooling some casual Seagal fans who haven't seen anything he's done since HALF PAST DEAD into thinking it's a belated sequel to ABOVE THE LAW upon a cursory glance at the Redbox kiosk. It also shamefully wastes veteran character actor Bill Cobbs as Wilson's fatherly friend, and DEATH WARRANT's Patrick Kilpatrick appears in a thankless role as a bouncer. (Unrated, 90 mins)

(UK/US/UAE - 2019)

It's surprising that Saban Films didn't give I SEE YOU any kind of a push beyond an ambivalent VOD release. Maybe it's a little too much of a slow-burner for the multiplex, but it's filled with so many twists and turns and rugs being pulled out from under the viewer that you just know it's desperately hoping you don't question its implausibilities until it's over. It's best to go into this knowing as little as possible, but the basic set-up goes like this: in a greater Cleveland suburb, two young boys have gone missing in the woods, with the opening scene showing the second kid seemingly yanked off his bike by an unseen force. The focus shifts to an upper-class neighborhood and the Harpers, a well-to-do family fraught with the kind of simmering tension we haven't seen since HEREDITARY. Therapist mom Jackie (Helen Hunt) is popping pills and trying to repair the damage caused by a brief recent affair. Teenage son Connor (Judah Lewis) is bitter and resentful and wants nothing to do with her, and husband Greg (Jon Tenney) is dividing his time between the couch and the guest room and isn't quite ready to forgive her. Greg's preoccupied, however, since he's the lead detective in the disappearance of the two kids. Evidence is found in the woods that indicates a copycat of a case several years earlier where local boys were targeted by a now-incarcerated pedophile whose victims described him living in "a magic house that disappears." Strange things have been happening in the Harper house: the TV turns itself on, all of their silverware disappears, photos are missing from frames, and when Jackie returns home to find a repairman in the house, he claims a very polite young girl let him in.

At just around the midpoint, director Adam Randall (the British Netflix acquisition iBOY) and first-time screenwriter Devon Graye (an actor probably best known for playing the teenage DEXTER in flashbacks during the show's first two seasons and was later The Trickster on The CW's THE FLASH) deploy their first major twist, and from then on, you never know what to expect with I SEE YOU. It seems like it's not going to stand up under scrutiny, but there's always something happening that shifts your loyalties or puts things in a new perspective that you never saw coming. Yeah, maybe that one bit hinges on a garage door taking an improbably long time to close, but these are hiccups that you just have to roll with, because every time Randall and Graye make a decision that seems like too big of a leap, they manage to steady the ship, almost like they sense your incredulity and are saying "No, wait...just hear us out!" I SEE YOU doesn't go for jump scares and its bigger concern is a slowly mounting sense of eerie dread and unease, but at the same time, it's surprising that Saban didn't even try to sell it. It might've had potential to be a small word-of-mouth sleeper hit like SEARCHING, and it's got an Oscar-winning headliner in Hunt. I SEE YOU is a film that has to be taken on its own terms, and no matter how preposterous it gets on occasion, it's surprisingly effective and often genuinely chilling. (R, 98 mins)

(US/UK - 2019)

THE COURIER is the kind of dumb thriller that feels the need to accompany an aerial shot of an illuminated Tower Bridge at night with the caption "London, United Kingdom," and soon follows it with an establishing shot of the Washington Monument with the caption "Washington D.C." The opening credits play over quick shots of newspaper headlines that can't settle on whether its main villain is named "Manning" or "Mannings." It's also apparently the kind of movie that Gary Oldman does now, despite winning an Oscar for 2017's DARKEST HOUR, a title that, in retrospect, seems depressingly prophetic considering his 2019 had him in the unwatchable "support group for assassins" comedy KILLERS ANONYMOUS, the possessed yacht horror trifle MARY, and now THE COURIER, a straight-to-VOD DIPSHIT DIE HARD IN A PARKING GARAGE. Sporting a scarred face and an eye-patch like he took a wrong turn on his way to playing the bad guy in a JOHNNY ENGLISH sequel, Oldman puts in a couple of days work as powerful and bizarrely-accented NYC real estate mogul Ezekial Manning(s), who's under house arrest in his luxury penthouse overlooking Central Park while facing charges of fraud and murder, the latter witnessed by lowly office worker Nick Murch (Amit Shah) during Manning(s)'s last trip to London. Murch is under Interpol witness protection and en route to a secret location in London to give video testimony to a hearing in DC when the independently-contracted courier (Olga Kurylenko) hired to deliver the video link is ambushed by the agents, who are secretly on Manning(s)'s payroll with a plot to kill Murch and frame The Courier.

Or, make that "Courier? COUUURRRRRIIIIERRRR?!!!" as psycho Interpol agent Bryant (THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA's William Moseley, who's matured into an unbelievably terrible actor) keeps tauntingly calling her Luther-from-THE WARRIORS-style, adding other creative bon mots like "Run, rabbit, run!," "Come out, come out, wherever you are!" and "FFFFUUUUUUUCCK!" when the Courier gets the upper hand and takes it upon herself to keep Murch alive and take out the rogue agents one by one in a closed-off parking structure (it somehow took four screenwriters to come up with this shit), forcing Bryant to repeatedly call Manning(s) and inform him the job still isn't done. THE COURIER is just dull, predictable, and brain-dead from the start, and Kurylenko is a capable action star who deserves better material than the leftover table scraps of Milla Jovovich and Noomi Rapace. Dermot Mulroney also pulls some Bruce Willis duty, glowering and pacing around an office as a CIA honcho who may or may not be trustworthy (SPOILER: he's not). And then there's Oldman, who spends almost all of his screen time in one or two rooms of Manning(s)'s posh apartment, ordering the hapless Bryant to "Finish this!" while periodically doing some PROFESSIONAL-inspired shouting at his Ivanka-like daughter (Calli Taylor) and looking at his phone, perhaps waiting for his agent to call with something better than THE COURIER. (R, 100 mins)

Monday, January 27, 2020

In Theaters: THE TURNING (2020)

(US - 2020)

Directed by Floria Sigismondi. Written by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes. Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Joely Richardson, Barbara Marten, Niall Gregg Fulton, Denna Thomsen, Kim Adis. (PG-13, 95 mins)

Many of pop culture's most effective and familiar ghost story tropes can be traced back to Henry James' 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, the chilling tale of a prim, proper, and--through as much suggestion as standards of the period would allow--sexually-repressed governess put in charge of two orphaned children in a gothic mansion which may or may not be haunted by the ghosts of the previous governess and the sinister groundskeeper. The story has inspired an untold number of horror novelists and short story writers and has been been adapted for stage, screen, and television dozens of times. The most famous, of course, is Jack Clayton's 1961 classic THE INNOCENTS, with Deborah Kerr as the governess. That was followed by a 1974 TV-movie from DARK SHADOWS creator Dan Curtis and starring Lynn Redgrave; a 1992 version with Patsy Kensit; 1999's Spanish-made PRESENCE OF MIND with Sadie Frost; as a 2000 PBS production with Jodhi May; 2006's IN A DARK PLACE with Leelee Sobieski; and as a 2009 BBC production with a pre-DOWNTON ABBEY Michelle Dockery (and while not a direct adaptation, Alejandro Amenabar's 2001 film THE OTHERS, with Nicole Kidman, owes a tremendous debt to The Turn of the Screw). Not only is James' story always the source of serious chills down the spine, but the governess role is a strong, complex, and multi-layered one for any actress to tackle, so much so that screen legend Kerr often cited her work in THE INNOCENTS as her best performance, and it wasn't even one of six for which she was Oscar-nominated.

The latest film to tackle James' renowned novella is the misbegotten THE TURNING, which moves the story to 1994--with an early shot of a TV showing breaking news of Kurt Cobain's suicide--apparently for no reasons other than fetishized nostalgia and the idea that even The Turn of the Screw needed to be revamped in order to pander to the AMERICAN HORROR STORY/STRANGER THINGSification of today's horror, right down to the presence of IT and STRANGER THINGS co-star Finn Wolfhard as one of the orphaned children. The 1994 setting probably seemed like a wink-and-a-nudge from director Floria Sigismondi, directing her first feature film since 2010's THE RUNAWAYS and who's best known for her music videos for David Bowie, Marilyn Manson (she directed the video for "The Beautiful People"), Tricky, Bjork, Fiona Apple, and The White Stripes, and in more recent years, Pink, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, and Dua Lipa. Sigismondi clearly has stylistic chops and a good reputation in her field in order to land so many high-profile gigs in the music industry, but THE TURNING just doesn't work. The script by twin horror scribes Chad and Carey W. Hayes (still dining out on the two CONJURINGs, while hoping we forgot they penned $3 Big Lots DVD rack fixtures like the Paris Hilton HOUSE OF WAX, THE REAPING, and WHITEOUT) is content to recycle every hoary horror cliche of the modern era, while attempting to give some contemporary subtext that it introduces in a half-assed fashion and almost instantly abandons. There's enough sexual overtones to James' story that a modern update (or modern-ish, if we consider the grunge-era setting, with songs not from that era but rather, current alt-rock throwbacks like Warpaint, The Kills' Alison Mosshart, and Soccer Mommy) could've been an insightful commentary on #MeToo and #TimesUp, but after laying the groundwork for such a topic, the filmmakers don't do anything with it and instead opt to move on to the next tired jump scare, as if Sigismondi suddenly remembers (or was reminded) that she's contractually obligated to deliver a PG-13 film.

Set for release in February 2019 and shelved for nearly a year until a weekend could be found for a slightly more appropriate January dumping, THE TURNING uses enough of James' source work but also tries to split the difference with the little-remembered 1972 film THE NIGHTCOMERS, a prequel to THE INNOCENTS before the term "prequel" entered the moviegoing lexicon. Freed from the cinematic restraints of just a decade earlier, THE NIGHTCOMERS enjoyed the relatively new freedom of the R rating in its INNOCENTS origin story about the previous governess Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham) and her sweaty, sadomasochistic sexcapades with groundskeeper Quint, played by Marlon Brando just before his triumphant GODFATHER comeback. THE NIGHTCOMERS is essentially INNOCENTS fan fiction that erases the mystery and ambiguity of the older film's much-debated ending and again, subtly incorporating those sexual aspects could've taken THE TURNING to some intriguing places. In the governess role, Mackenzie Davis is Kate, a college student who takes a job as a live-in teacher for seven-year-old orphan Flora (THE FLORIDA PROJECT's Brooklynn Prince) at a massive gothic estate in an isolated region of the Pacific Northwest. Devoted and judgmental housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten) is an obvious keeper of dark secrets who insists Flora never leave the grounds, and claims to not know what happened with previous teacher Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen), or how her mysterious "disappearance" relates to the accidental death of Quint (Niall Greig Fulton). It isn't long before Kate starts hearing strange voices, creaks, and moans in the middle of the night and catches glimpses of faces that look like they might be Miss Jessel and Quint. But instead of leaving, she sticks around. She feels a duty to help young Flora, and while she didn't lose her parents in a tragic car accident like the little girl did, she understands the notion of a rough childhood after her father walked out on her and her psychologically-disturbed mother, who's now in a mental institution. In what's really THE TURNING's sole inspired decision, Kate's mother is played in two brief scenes by Joely Richardson, making her yet another member of the Redgrave acting dynasty to appear in an adaptation of the story: her aunt Lynn Redgrave starred in the aforementioned 1974 TV-movie, her uncle Corin Redgrave appeared in the 2009 BBC version, and her grandfather Michael Redgrave played the cold-hearted uncle who hired Kerr's governess to care for his niece and nephew in THE INNOCENTS.

Complicating matters is the unexpected arrival of Flora's older, teenage brother Miles (Wolfhard), who's been expelled from boarding school after violently attacking a classmate (of course, Mrs. Grose refuses to believe it, since both children are "thoroughbreds"). Miles immediately antagonizes Kate and undermines the bond she's formed with Flora, and she even wakes in the middle of the night to find him standing over her and caressing her. One of the main ideas of James' novella and THE INNOCENTS was the governess' belief that the spirits of Miss Jessel and Quint were attempting to possess the children in order to continue their secret relationship. But it's never really a certainty that these ghosts exist and there's significant evidence that the governess is projecting her own neuroses and psychosexual hang-ups on to the children. Having a teenage, hormonal Miles demonstrate some leering designs on Kate--if indeed he's possessed by Quint--is an example of THE TURNING potentially updating James with contemporary relevance. But every time it even flirts with any story element of that sort, it backs off and takes the safe route, with more rote jump scares, extended dream sequence fake-outs that only seem to be there to pad the run time, a brief sojourn into AMITYVILLE HORROR/ "we need to get out of this house!" territory with the enraged ghost of Quint going on an estate-wide rampage, and finally, the lamest non-ending to a horror movie since THE DEVIL INSIDE sent the audience to a web site to see how things panned out. Attempts at ambiguity can't work when there's no subtlety to the story and no underlying themes on which to build it. THE INNOCENTS remains one of the most terrifying of horror films, and those shots of the ghostly Miss Jessel standing on the lake in the distance are still the stuff of nightmares. By contrast, THE TURNING is a film that can't even be bothered to come up with a cliched twist ending and instead just abruptly peaces out, dumbing down THE INNOCENTS and Henry James into a pointless post-Blumhouse jump-scare machine with a fundamental misunderstanding of the source material. Davis essays her role with convincing anguish and emerges unscathed, as does the very promising Prince, one of the most natural and unaffected child actors in recent years, and who was so memorable as Moonee in THE FLORIDA PROJECT. They--and everyone else--deserve better than THE TURNING.

Friday, January 24, 2020

In Theaters: THE GENTLEMEN (2020)

(US - 2020)

Written and directed by Guy Ritchie. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Hugh Grant, Colin Farrell, Henry Golding, Michelle Dockery, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Marsan, Tom Wu, Bugzy Malone, Jason Wong, Lyne Renee, Chidi Ajufo, Simon Barker, John Dagleish, Eliot Sumner, Samuel West, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr, Tom Rhys Harries, Danny Griffin, Mark Rathbone, Andrew Greenaugh. (R, 113 mins)

After a decade of playing the big-budget Hollywood franchise game with Robert Downey Jr.'s two SHERLOCK HOLMES films, the underrated THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., the costly flop KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, and the live-action ALADDIN, writer/director Guy Ritchie returns to his LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS and SNATCH roots with the twisty, convoluted, and wildly entertaining THE GENTLEMEN. He hasn't revisited these sorts of "fookin' 'ell, mate!" British gangster shenanigans since 2008's middling ROCKNROLLA, but buoyed by a game cast and a gleeful willingness to offend everyone, THE GENTLEMEN manages to be a lot of fun despite Ritchie not really having any new tricks up his sleeve. You could call it LOCK, STOCK 4: ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT, as Matthew McConaughey stars as expat American Mickey Pearson, who came to London from trailer park America with a genius-level IQ and a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford that he blew off when he found being a weed dealer for his rich and spoiled classmates was more lucrative. And in the years since, he's set up a massive empire in the UK covering all facets from production to distribution. He's incredibly wealthy, has a ton of guys on his payroll to do any required dirty work, and he uses the property of lesser-ranking, under-the-radar royals to secretly house his dozen underground facilities in exchange for a cut of the profits.

But Mickey's been in the game a long time and he wants to retire, which brings everyone out of the woodwork in an attempt to buy out his operation, including unscrupulous American billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong, reuniting with McConaughey after last year's SERENITY triumph) and Dry Eye (Henry Golding), an ambitious underboss with a Chinese mob outfit who's looking to break away from his boss Lord George (Tom Wu). There's also Fletcher (Hugh Grant), a sleazy private eye who's been hired by tabloid publisher Big Dave (Eddie Marsan) to dig up dirt on Mickey after he's snubbed by him at a swanky society gathering, to the delight of onlookers. And Big Dave knows Mickey has connections to distant Royal Family member Lord Pressfield (Samuel West), whose runaway daughter Laura (Eliot Sumner, youngest daughter of Sting and Trudie Styler) is a heroin addict. But Fletcher has his own ideas of taking the information he's gathered and selling it to Ray (Charlie Hunnam), Mickey's loyal right-hand man, occasionally embellishing his findings with some Hollywood bells and whistles in the hope that it could be sold as a script (Ritchie has some meta fun with this aspect, including a bit where the scheming Fletcher meets with a producer who has a 2015 MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. poster in his office). Double, triple, quadruple, and quintuple crosses ensue, with shifting loyalties and unexpected players--including Mickey's take-no-shit wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), and Coach (Colin Farrell), a tough Irish bloke who runs a gym for underprivileged kids, and who's pulled into the proceedings when a few of his ne'er-do-wells foolishly decide to steal some of Mickey's product.

In other words, it's pretty much business as usual for old-school Ritchie fans, but it's done with enough style and panache that you won't mind the familiarity, sort-of like listening to a new AC/DC album. It's exactly what you think it is, it strictly adheres to a carved-in-stone formula, and it doesn't fix what isn't broken (unless you really want Ritchie to make another REVOLVER). It's comfort food of sorts if you're a LOCK, STOCK fan...that is, as long as you can still laugh at insensitive jokes (at the expense of pretty much everyone, for instance Fletcher describing Dry Eye as "a Chinese James Bond...with a ricense to kill") and extraordinarily profane dialogue being rattled off by some very bad guys (this may set a new record for the number of times "cunt" is yelled in a movie). The cast is having a blast, particularly Grant, who seems to be doing a scathing Ricky Gervais impression and keeps not-very-subtly hitting on Hunnam's Ray. An underused Farrell gets a few moments to shine in the de facto Vinnie Jones role, but it's really more of an ensemble piece when it's all said and done, despite the focus on Mickey, and even then, McConaughey is offscreen for a couple of long-ish stretches. Twists and turns pile up at an absurd rate near the end, and THE GENTLEMEN is a really good time if vintage Guy Ritchie is what you're after. He also gives you one of the more blatant shout-outs to THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY that you'll ever see, and that's a nice bonus.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

On Blu-ray/DVD: JAY AND SILENT BOB REBOOT (2019) and LINE OF DUTY (2019)

(US - 2019)

With the exception of the topical 2011 thriller RED STATE, Kevin Smith's last decade of departures has found the '90s indie icon struggling to find his mojo. Yes, he has his podcast and his various online endeavors that keep his loyal fan base sticking around, but the movies have been garbage. It's little wonder that he finally saw fit to go the "give 'em what they want" route by resurrecting his two biggest fan favorite characters with JAY AND SILENT BOB REBOOT, but the resulting film wasn't made by the Kevin Smith who gave us CLERKS and MALLRATS. It was made by the Kevin Smith who gave us TUSK and YOGA HOSERS. Smith's been away from the View Askewniverse since 2006's CLERKS II and it's barely five minutes into REBOOT before you're wishing he'd made that sabbatical a little longer. There was some potential here for insightful meta commentary on the state of movies, franchises, fan conventions, or any other target ripe for satire, but the lazy and aggressively unfunny REBOOT is content to settle for a series of references straight from the Friedberg/Seltzer comedy school, where the reference is the joke--references to other movies (Jason Mewes' Jay is doing a SILENCE OF THE LAMBS junk-tuck in the opening scene in a gag recycled from CLERKS II; when Smith's Silent Bob finally opens his mouth, it's to recite Alec Baldwin's GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS speech to attendees at a Klan rally, where the Grand Wizard invokes "Can you dig it?" from THE WARRIORS), callbacks to earlier Smith movies (Ben Affleck shows up for a positively Bruce Willis-ian cameo as his CHASING AMY character, in a scene that's so bad at concealing the fact that he and Mewes weren't there at the same time that its clumsy editing almost has to be intentional), and would-be sick burns on Smith's own movies (COP OUT is a recurring target). But the endless self-deprecation feels less like genuine ribbing at his own expense and more like Smith pre-emptively shrugging "Hey, yeah, I know this whole thing is just stupid bullshit, but whatever." Everyone's default mode here is to mug shamelessly, and as a result, the film makes a lot of noise, but none of that noise is the sound of laughter.

And the sad thing is, old-school Kevin Smith could've done something with the basic idea of JAY AND SILENT BOB REBOOT. After getting busted for running an illegal weed dispensary inside a fake chicken sandwich joint (called--wait for it--Cock Smoker) inside the old RST Video next to the Quick Stop, Jay and Silent Bob end up in court. It's there that conniving lawyer Brandon St. Randy (Justin Long) gets them to sign over the rights to their names and likenesses to Saban Films (also REBOOT's distributor), who now own the "Bluntman and Chronic" comic book franchise and are rebooting the nearly two-decade-old cult superhero comedy BLUNTMAN AND CHRONIC (as seen in 2001's JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK) as the dark and grim BLUNTMAN V CHRONIC, to be directed by "Hollywood hack" Kevin Smith (playing himself in a dual role). Now, in what's essentially a reboot of STRIKE BACK, REBOOT has the pair heading off to "Chronic Con" in  Hollywood to stop Kevin Smith from making the reboot. Along the way, they end up meeting Millennium "Milly" Faulken (Smith's daughter Harley Quinn Smith), the daughter Jay never knew he had with STRIKE BACK's Justice Faulken (Shannon Elizabeth), taking her and her friends (including Aparna Brielle as a girl in a hijab named "Jihad") along for the trip.

Smith still has a ton of buds in the View Askewniverse, so there's endless cameos, none of them even remotely amusing: Craig Robinson as "Judge Jerry N. Executioner," and Joe Manganiello as his bailiff; Brian O'Halloran as Dante; Jason Lee as Brodie; Joey Lauren Adams as Alyssa; Chris Hemsworth as a hologram of himself; Fred Armisen in the longest set-up possible for a thudding punchline to an unfunny joke about Tater Tots for teenage girls called "Hater Totz"; Keith Coogan, Jason Biggs, and James Van Der Beek as themselves; Rosario Dawson as Justice's wife; Smith's wife Jennifer Schwalbach as a fast-food manager who seduces Silent Bob in the restroom; Chris Jericho as the KKK Grand Wizard; Val Kilmer as the new Bluntman opposite Melissa Benoist as a female Chronic, with Tommy Chong as their butler Alfred; Method Man and Redman as their HOW HIGH characters; and a tired-looking Matt Damon in a pointless appearance as Loki from DOGMA. What? No Johnny Depp as TUSK and YOGA HOSERS' Guy LaPointe? Is there even a point in reviewing something like this? Like Rob Zombie, the attendance is dwindling but the dutiful die-hards will always be there, and like Zombie, Smith has reached the "self-indulgent home movie" phase of his career. And if Saban Films had any faith in REBOOT at all, they would've given it a full-fledged theatrical release instead of relegating it to a two-night Fathom Events screening last fall before sending it to Blu-ray. It's a complete waste of time and talent, but if nothing else, I guess COP OUT's standing just got a little higher in the Smith filmography. (R, 105 mins)

(US/UK/Germany - 2019)

Not to be confused with the recent CROWN VIC, another day-in-the-life cop movie, LINE OF DUTY is an initially intriguing thriller that doesn't take long devolve into an outright howler. Veteran cop Frank Penny (Aaron Eckhart, also one of 32 credited producers) is lounging outside a carryout goofing off with a neighborhood kid when all hell breaks loose over the radio. A sting operation overseen by police chief Tom Volk (Giancarlo Esposito) has gone to shit nearby when the target flees and sends the cops on a frantic chase. Despite orders to stand down and not engage, Penny pursues him on foot in an impressively long sequence that takes up nearly 15 minutes of screen time. Penny is forced to shoot when the perp pulls a gun on him, and only then does he realize why there was an order to stand down: the man he just killed is Max Keller (James Hutchison), who has kidnapped Volk's 11-year-old daughter Claudia (Nishelle Williams) and is the only person who knew where she's being held. Disgraced already and with a rep as a "cowboy" after a past incident where Volk was forced to bust him down from detective to patrolman, Penny isn't about to let a little thing like "turn in your weapon and go straight downtown to IA" deter him from setting things right. And joining him is a sentient compilation of woke hot takes in the form of Ava Brooks (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD's Courtney Eaton), a snarky and incredibly smug vlogger for the online outfit "Media for the People," who spends most of her time saying things like "Whatever goes out is what my camera sees! Unfiltered!" while bitching about corporations and "sheeple." Ava ends up tagging along and livestreaming the entire pursuit after Penny figures out that Claudia is being held in an plexiglass box that will be completely filled with water in 64 minutes, tearing apart Los Angeles (played here by Birmingham, AL) to find her before it's too late.

Directed by Steven C. Miller, who's helmed numerous installments in Lionsgate's landmark "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series, LINE OF DUTY works until it becomes a Penny/Ava buddy movie, where he tries to stay focused on the task at hand while she keeps demonstrating how little she knows about the world--and actual news reporting--usually ending every statement with "Just sayin.'" There's a lot of sanctimonious hectoring from Penny about letting cops do their job and how the media just "spins the truth into whatever sells." It almost turns into BLUE LIVES MATTER: THE MOVIE, as Penny is shown tossing out every section of his morning paper except the sports page, a facile way of showing he doesn't take sides politically, and then we see him talking about basketball with a young black kid, so you know he isn't one of those racist cops. But then the main villain is introduced in the form of Max's meth-head brother Dean (Ben McKenzie), who crashes his SUV in the middle of a busy downtown area and starts mowing down cops HEAT-style in his search for Penny, who the whole city now knows was the cop who pulled the trigger on Max thanks to Ava's borderline irresponsible livestream. LINE OF DUTY is one of those films where a character like Dean can go on a massive rampage of death and destruction and all of the cops in the city seem to vanish into thin air (also, it completely forgets about the "real time" element as all of this goes down in what's only supposed to be an hour). From then on, the already far-fetched film turns unintentionally hilarious, culminating in a ridiculous, horseshit feel-good climax that truly has to be seen to be believed.

Eckhart somehow manages to keep a straight face throughout, but the terribly-written script by Jeremy Drysdale (whose only other feature credit is the 2004 Johnny Knoxville vehicle GRAND THEFT PARSONS) seems to think it's making salient points and blow-the-doors-off revelations about the media and its perception of cops, but it's all trite platitudes and cardboard cutout characterization. Eaton's indescribably grating performance is really hard to take, but there's nothing that anyone could've done when stuck with the kind of cipher she's playing (cue the pop culture references with the discovery of a homemade bomb in Dean's house, when she has time to sigh-quip "Texas Chainsaw MacGyvers!" prompting Penny to call bullshit on her earlier "I don't even own a TV!" posturing). And don't miss Dina Meyer as a local TV news producer strutting around the station's control room emphatically barking orders like "Let's get our Eye in the Sky over there!" Wouldn't she just say "chopper?" It's like a guitarist friend of mine complaining a few years ago about Denis Leary's short-lived series SEX & DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL, when Leary's rock star character would refer to his guitar as an "axe," like telling someone "Hand me my axe." "I've been in bands for 30 years," my friend said. "And nobody in a band calls it an 'axe.'" No one in this movie talks like a real person. Eaton's character, in particular, is a hysterically overwrought version of what the "OK, Boomer" crowd imagines a pushy and ambitious young "new media" journalist must be like. Filled with ludicrous dialogue, absurd plot machinations, and the usual bush-league CGI fire and car flips, LINE OF DUTY still isn't the worst Steven C. Miller movie, but it's definitely the funniest. (R, 99 mins)

Monday, January 20, 2020

Retro Review: SHE (1984)

(Italy - 1984; US release 1985)

Written and directed by Avi Nesher. Cast: Sandahl Bergman, David Goss, Quin Kessler, Harrison Muller, Elena Wiedermann, Gordon Mitchell, Laurie Sherman, Andrew McLeay, Cyrus Elias, David Brandon, Susan Adler, Gregory Snegoff, Mary D'Antin, Mario Pedone, Donald Hodson, Maria Quasimodo, David Traylor. (Unrated, 105 mins)

Loosely--and that can't be stressed enough--based on the classic 1886 adventure novel by King Solomon's Mines author H. Rider Haggard, 1984's SHE is either the worst movie ever made or visionary work of next-level postmodernism that constantly walks the fine line between genius and insanity. Flip a coin. Previously filmed in 1935 with Helen Gahagan and most famously by Hammer Films in 1965 with Ursula Andress (which led to the inferior 1968 sequel THE VENGEANCE OF SHE with Olinka Berova), this version of SHE was headlined by Sandahl Bergman, a dancer who logged time as a member of the "Golddiggers" on Dean Martin's NBC variety show before being discovered by Bob Fosse. Her first significant notice came when she was featured in a memorable production number in the mercurial choreographer's 1979 film ALL THAT JAZZ, but it wasn't Fosse and it wasn't Bergman's dancing abilities that got her the SHE gig. It was the 1982 hit CONAN THE BARBARIAN, where she turned heads and won a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year-Female (she was the final recipient, as the New Star category was discontinued after the 1983 ceremony) as the fierce and seductive warrior Valeria, joining Arnold Schwarzenegger in battle and in bed in his big-screen breakout.

While CONAN led to stardom and THE TERMINATOR for Schwarzenegger, all Bergman got was SHE, a mind-boggling Italian mash-up of the barbarian and post-nuke actioners that were being cranked out with wild abandon by Italian exploitation producers not just as a result of CONAN, but also in to cash in on THE ROAD WARRIOR. But SHE is something else entirely, a virtual spoof of the Italian post-nuke craze that doesn't even try to make any logical sense, instead throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. SHE was available in every video store in the '80s and was in semi-regular rotation on late night cable during that same period. For whatever reason, I never pulled the trigger on it until, like a lot of obscure Eurocult titles, it turned up on Netflix streaming in its infancy prior to the company rebranding itself as an original content producer. And I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Was I hallucinating this film? Or was it really this bonkers? And why wasn't I aware of just how bugfuck insane this thing was?

In a post-apocalyptic "Year 23 - After the Cancellation," three siblings, Tom (David Goss), Dick (Harrison Muller, from the Italian post-nukes 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS and THE FINAL EXECUTIONER), and their younger sister Hari (Elena Wiedermann), are venturing through the wasteland and come upon a vendors market called "Heaven's Gate," where the merchandise includes 7-Up and various boxes of Kellogg's cereals. The market is attacked by Hector (former '60s peplum fixture Gordon Mitchell), the leader of the army of the Nork. Hari is taken away by Hector's goons, who wear football helmets and padding adorned with swastikas, sending Tom and Dick on a quest to rescue her. That takes a while, since they first end up in the realm of the goddess She (Bergman), who commands an army of female warriors and is worshiped by men who endlessly bow and chant "She!" in what appears to be a decaying mansion out of a Luchino Visconti film (SHE was somehow shot at the fabled Cinecitta in Rome). An unholy alliance is eventually formed, as Tom and Dick are joined by She and her trusted second-in-command Shanda (Quin Kessler), the four venturing--together and often separated by circumstance--to the Nork city to find and rescue Hari. This involves a series of sequences including but not limited to:

  • She going into a cavernous storage area filled with upright crates that collapse to reveal armor-wearing swordsmen who we must assume were just there patiently waiting for her eventual arrival.
  • She attacked by a lumbering, cyborg Frankenstein monster whose head explodes when she bites the bolt out of its neck.
  • a run-in with mutant leader Kram (Cyrus Elias) and his chainsaw-wielding disciples in the same abandoned factory that's in almost every Italian post-nuke. 
  • some toga-wearing Caligula cosplayers led by siblings Pretty Boy (David Brandon, in perhaps some inside joke casting as he'd just starred in Joe D'Amato's CALIGULA ripoff CALIGULA: THE UNTOLD STORY) and Pretty Girl (Susan Adler), who turn out to a coven of werewolves. 
  • a telepathic despot named Godan (Gregory Snegoff) with glowing green eyes who leads a cult of communist monks
  • Rudolph (Mario Pedone), a brutish ogre in a tutu who becomes an unlikely ally
  • a foppish mad doctor (Donald Hodson) who dresses like an extra from BARRY LYNDON and holds them captive behind clear plastic shower curtains with the intent of using them in his bizarre human/plant experiments. 
  • Xenon (David Traylor, a mime later known as "robot comedian" Mr. Zed), the wacky guard of the bridge leading to the Nork fortress, who acts like Robin Williams on a talk show, sings the GREEN ACRES theme song, does impressions of James Cagney, Popeye, and the Cowardly Lion, and has the ability to clone himself from his own severed limbs.
  • getting in the Nork fortress, where the masked Nork overlord (voiced by the familiar mellifluous tones of veteran dubber Anthony La Penna) puts them in a fight-to-the-death arena showdown with his warriors where the victors get Hari. 
  • (note: the above list makes even less sense in context)

Believe it or not, Israeli-born SHE writer/director Avi Nesher is an award-winning filmmaker of sterling repute in his home country. His serious, art-house fare is rarely shown outside of Israel (2017's PAST LIFE got a limited US release), but he spent much of the '80s and '90s paying the bills with video store genre fare like the 1991 Michael Biehn sci-fi outing TIMEBOMB, the 1993 Drew Barrymore thriller DOPPELGANGER and by directing (SAVAGE, MERCENARY) or producing (AUTOMATIC, MARS, MERCENARY 2: THICK AND THIN) several Olivier Gruner actioners. SHE certainly falls under the "genre fare" category, and we can only assume that Israeli cineastes who admire Nesher's auteur works like RAGE AND GLORY and TURN LEFT AT THE END OF THE WORLD haven't been privy to the sight of Sandahl Bergman battling a cyborg Frankenstein. SHE was recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead) and has a Nesher interview as an extra. He talks about his distinctly different genre and art film careers and jokes that it's hard to imagine his serious films winning awards in Israel when watching something like SHE. He also tells a great story about shooting at Cinecitta and blasting loud heavy metal to get the actors psyched up between takes until an assistant to Federico Fellini, who was on an adjacent soundstage shooting 1983's AND THE SHIP SAILS ON, came over and asked him to turn it down. This led to an appreciative Fellini taking Nesher to lunch and asking "What are you making over there?" to which the young director replied "I'm not quite sure yet." 

Featuring a soundtrack composed by former and future Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman (!), with contributions from Moody Blues frontman Justin Hayward (!!), Motorhead (!!!), and Bastard (?), SHE ended up getting a virtually non-existent US release in 1985 and did nothing to capitalize on Bergman's fleeting bit of CONAN THE BARBARIAN and Golden Globes fame. She reunited with Schwarzenegger and got a Worst Supporting Actress Razzie nod as a result when she was cast as the villain Queen Gedren in 1985's RED SONJA. In the years that followed, she found steady work with TV guest spots on shows like CHEERS and DESIGNING WOMEN, and B-movies like the 1987 strip club drama KANDYLAND, the 1987 TERMINATOR knockoff PROGRAMMED TO KILL, and the 1988 Roddy Piper cult classic HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN. Bergman became one of many celebrities to hop on the post-Jane Fonda workout bandwagon, and became a regular in the '90s straight-to-video erotic thriller explosion, appearing in unrated gems like BODY OF INFLUENCE (a title in no way inspired by BODY OF EVIDENCE), LIPSTICK CAMERA, POSSESSED BY THE NIGHT (a Shannon Tweed vehicle that's almost as batshit crazy as SHE), INNER SANCTUM 2, and SORCERESS II: THE TEMPTRESS. Now 68, Bergman has been offscreen since a brief appearance as a dancer in the 2003 Robert Downey, Jr. comedy musical noir THE SINGING DETECTIVE, but these days, she stays busy on the convention circuit, her place in film history secured with her work in CONAN THE BARBARIAN. And while it's been shown some love at a handful of Alamo Drafthouse screenings, it's definitely time that more people experience the indescribable midnight movie nirvana that is SHE. 

Monday, January 13, 2020

In Theaters: 1917 (2019)

(US/UK/Spain - 2019)

Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Adrian Scarborough, Daniel Mays, Pip Carter, Richard McCabe, Billy Postlethwaite, Robert Maaser. (R, 119 mins)

A WWI epic inspired by a story that director/co-writer Sam Mendes was told by his Lance Corporal grandfather, 1917 is an impressive technical achievement that's so devoted to its--for lack of a better word--gimmick, that it's pulled off at the expense of telling the story in the most beneficial way. Drawing from older classics like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and Stanley Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY with the more visceral, you-are-there immediacy of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and DUNKIRK, 1917 attempts to convey its entire run time as one continuous shot, a la Hitchcock's ROPE or Alejandro G. Inarritu's BIRDMAN. Of course, if you go into any exercise of this type knowing that, you start getting distracted by trying to spot where the usually seamless cuts are, and here, the spell is momentarily broken by a huge mid-film cut to black when a character is knocked unconscious. Mendes, who has the distinction of directing the both strongest (SKYFALL) and weakest (SPECTRE) of the Daniel Craig 007 outings, makes a valiant effort to go for those Kubrick long takes and uses the legendary auteur's old standby of natural light with the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, but once its plot is set in motion, it strangely lacks the emotion or the urgency that the situation requires, primarily because Mendes' overriding concern is the single-take illusion.

Set over one day and into the morning of the next, 1917 has Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) sent by Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth) to hand-deliver a message to a battalion several miles away with orders to halt a planned attack on German forces. Aerial intel reveals that the Germans have set a trap or them, and the 1600 men under the command of Col. McKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch)--including Blake's older brother (Richard Madden)--will most likely be wiped out. All lines of communication have been cut by the Germans, leaving no alternative but for Schofield and Blake to go on foot, crossing the abandoned German front and getting through the town of Ecoust and finding McKenzie's battalion. It's a simple set-up with an intricately choreographed execution, albeit with significant digital assistance. For a while, the technique dazzles, especially as Schofield and Blake make their way across a harrowing wasteland of mud, blood, dead soldiers and horse carcasses. A trek through the vacated German trenches leads to an explosion when a rat crosses a tripwire. A dogfight between two British planes and a German pilot ends up having serious consequences to the mission.

The more 1917 goes on, the more gimmicky it looks. Because there's hardly any time to learn about these characters, the emotional stakes aren't there, and all that's left is the single-take concept. That works to a point, but eventually, you may question why Mendes was so concerned with that as opposed to developing the narrative and fleshing out the characters beyond a one-dimensional level. When it's able to focus on the immediacy of the situation--the tripwire explosion, the German plane crashing after the dogfight, a sniper attack, a stunning trip through a bombed-out town engulfed in flames that looks like something out of APOCALYPSE NOW--1917 is firing on all cylinders and has moments of undeniable brilliance. But the pseudo-"real time," single take illusion also means there's a lot of walking and talking. And walking. And more walking. And the sense of urgency is never really properly conveyed--beyond "we need to get to Col. McKenzie"--because the time element is never made clear. If the movie runs two hours, then tell them "You have two hours." The cut-to-black when a character is knocked out cold seems to serve the dual purpose of maintaining the one-shot ruse while also allowing Mendes to explain away some of that real-time issue, in a sense negating the whole single-take idea in the process. In the end, it all boils down to this: yes, it's technically impressive and it's obvious that a lot of intricate planning went into it, but why? Why tell this story this way?

MacKay (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) and Chapman (GAME OF THRONES) are fine, as good as they're permitted to be since they seem like little more than players in a WWI video game (the sequence where MacKay's Schofield gets caught in some DELIVERANCE-style rapids after going over huge waterfall that appears out of nowhere seems to belong in another movie, as does his shoddy-looking avatar that jumps in the water). Brief support is provided by continuous big-name cameos just like the WWII movies of the 1960s--in addition to Cumberbatch, Madden, and Firth, Mark Strong also appears, perhaps part of a package deal with Firth as they've seemingly appeared in more movies together than Abbott & Costello. Even with numerous standout moments and earnest performances by the leads, 1917 still doesn't even have the power of a 90-year-old relic like 1930's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. And forget comparisons to PATHS OF GLORY, a film whose anti-war rage still has a seething resonance over 60 years later. I may sound like I didn't like 1917. It's a good movie, but it could've--and should've--been a much better one. Make no mistake, it's gonna clean up at the Oscars because it's a safe pick that everybody can get behind. But it'll be one of those Best Picture winners that just doesn't stick in the memory. When's the last time you heard anyone mention GREEN BOOK?

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Retro Review: DOG DAY (1984)

(France - 1984; US release 1985)

Directed by Yves Boisset. Written by Jean Herman, Michel Audiard, Dominique Roulet, Serge Korber and Yves Boisset. Cast: Lee Marvin, Miou-Miou, Jean Carmet, Victor Lanoux, Tina Louise, Henri Guybet, Pierre Clementi, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, David Bennent, Bernadette Lafont, Grace De Capitani, Muni, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Juliette Mills, Julian Bukowski, Jean-Roger Milo, Joseph Momo. (Unrated, 99 mins)

I'm pretty sure that Lightning Video VHS box with the art you see to the left was in every video store in America in the 1980s. I picked it up and looked at it approximately 85,000 times during those long gone days of old, but only now have I finally gotten around to the utterly deranged DOG DAY. And shame on me for neglecting this bonkers French gem that's long been a public domain mainstay on discount store DVD racks or in any number of low-quality "50 Action Hits!" sets, and is available in a shitty, cropped print on Amazon, but is just out in a restored and properly 2.35:1-framed Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead). This is one of those weird movies that hasn't exactly been hard to find but has spent decades stealthily flying under the radar, and if there's any cult that's formed around this jaw-dropper, then they've successfully kept it to themselves. Based on a novel by Jean Vautrin (the literary pen name of FAREWELL, FRIEND/HONOR AMONG THIEVES director Jean Herman), and directed and co-written by journeyman Yves Boisset (THE FRENCH CONSPIRACY, THE PURPLE TAXI), DOG DAY is what might happen if you took the kind of Sebastian Japrisot-styled French crime thriller that Charles Bronson made in the early '70s (RIDER ON THE RAIN, COLD SWEAT, SOMEONE BEHIND THE DOOR, etc) and put it in the hands of Tobe Hooper circa THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or Wes Craven around the time of THE HILLS HAVE EYES. The end result in some ways resembles a French SONNY BOY but with a classier pedigree, and with its effective, Italian-sounding electronic score by Francis Lai (an Oscar-winner for his work on LOVE STORY), it wouldn't take much tweaking to turn DOG DAY into either a Fabrizio De Angelis actioner from the period or even an outright horror movie (I'm willing to bet that FRONTIER(S) director Xavier Gens is a fan). But it's very often darkly funny since you spend much of the time staring in incredulous dismay at the freakshow unfolding before your eyes, echoing the reaction of a fugitive American criminal played by the legendary Lee Marvin in one of his last films, and easily the weirdest one of his career.

Marvin was plagued with health problems over his few remaining years following DOG DAY, and he already doesn't look very good here. He seems tired and is sweating profusely throughout--the French title was CANICULE, meaning "heat wave," and it was shot during the unusually hot summer of 1983, which probably didn't do the actor any favors--though it's strangely fitting for his portrayal of Jimmy Cobb, an American gangster pulling off "one last job" in France. He's introduced prepping for an imminent armored car heist in Orleans and instructing his girlfriend Naomi Blue (GILLIGAN'S ISLAND's Tina Louise) to wait for him at a nearby hotel. With the kind of brutal, unflinching, misanthropic nastiness generally reserved for an Italian poliziotteschi directed by Umberto Lenzi, DOG DAY gets off to a rip-roaring shocker of a start with Marvin hoisting a bazooka to blow open the armored car, but something's already off: the police are there waiting for him, and in the ensuing shootout, numerous cops and many innocent bystanders--including children from a school that's letting out at the same time--are blown away with the help of some enthusiastically splattery squib work. Cobb manages to get away to the far rural outskirts of the city, where he comes upon a vast farm property in the middle of nowhere. With helicopters swarming the area, Cobb buries the loot--estimated to be in the vicinity of $1 million--in the field and takes refuge in a barn. He doesn't manage to go unnoticed for long, and when he's discovered, he finds himself at the mercy of a freakishly dysfunctional family of psychos and perverts and soon wishes he'd simply surrendered and turned himself in.

The only remotely normal one in the bunch is Jessica (Miou-Miou of Bertrand Blier's GOING PLACES), the abused wife of loathsome, brutish farm owner Horace (Victor Lanoux), the kind of charmer who clears everyone out of the kitchen immediately after breakfast so he can bend her over the table for a rough, degrading quickie. It was Jessica's father's property that she inherited, but when her first husband died and left her a widow with an infant son, she reluctantly married the repulsive Horace out of financial desperation ("He wasn't always like this," she tells Cobb at one point, and he doesn't believe it either). Horace quickly took over the farm and moved in his entire extended trash-ass family, including, among others, his dotty mother Gusta (Muni);' his prostitute daughter Lily (Grace De Capitani), who works at the brothel in town; his dim-witted older brother Socrate (Jean Carmet); and his nymphomaniac sister Segolene (Bernadette Lafont), who sexually propositions everyone--including her brothers, who affectionately call her "Slut"--and is having a torrid fling with black handyman Doudou Cadillac (Joseph Momo), which leads to no shortage of racist comments from Horace, who spends his free time disguising himself as a scarecrow and spying on a pair of nude female sunbathers who have taken up residence in his wheat field (he also tries to force them into a threesome at one point). There's also Jessica's young son Chim (THE TIN DRUM's David Bennent), a duplicitous little shit who's first seen getting a bare-assed whipping from Horace. Chim idolizes American gangsters, calls himself "Aniello Dellacroce," and refers to Cobb as "Al Capone" after he silently observes him burying the loot. He promptly digs it up and stashes most of it in the back of Doudou Cadillac's Cadillac, keeping some for himself to go live it up at the whorehouse, slapping some cash in the cleavage of the madam and declaring "I want to learn about life!" As in THE TIN DRUM, the short-statured Bennent was able to play much younger than his actual age (he was 17 in DOG DAY, and passing for maybe seven or eight), allowing the filmmakers to get away with some questionable things that essentially made him the highbrow version of BURIAL GROUND's Peter Bark.

Cobb spends most of his time at the farm bewildered by the lunacy happening around him, whether it's the actions of the gross Horace, who announces his intention to keep all of Cobb's money once he finds out where it is, or finding an unexpected superfan in Chim, or nearly being raped by an incredibly horny Segolene (every Lee Marvin fan needs to see him being aggressively straddled by a topless Lafont, who shoves his face in between her breasts while screaming "Fuck me hard! Suck my tits!"), or getting an unlikely partner-in-crime in Jessica. She pragmatically sees Cobb as her ticket out, offering to help him escape if he kills Horace. But with the police closing in--they've even stationed dumb cop Marceau (Henri Guybet) at the farm to keep lookout, only to have Horace and Socrate get him drunk while Segolene throws a screaming tantrum when her brothers won't let her have sex with him--along with some lowlife townies led by Snake (Pierre Clementi), who overhear a drunk Chim shooting his mouth off at the brothel about Cobb and the money, Cobb sees no alternative other than to send Jessica to the city to meet with the still-waiting Naomi while he stays behind and kills everyone. But he's still unaware that the money isn't where he left it thanks to Chim. DOG DAY doesn't quite succeed at sustaining its accelerated level of balls-out insanity all the way through to the end, and it more or less settles into a conventional "fugitive on the run/hostage scenario" crime thriller in the home stretch. But what a ride it is up to that point! Despite its '80s video store ubiquity and its many years in the public domain, the delightfully tawdry and thoroughly batshit DOG DAY remains one of Marvin's least-seen and least-discussed films, and that needs to change. It never received an American theatrical release, instead going straight to video in 1985, the same year Marvin starred in the TV-movie sequel THE DIRTY DOZEN: THE NEXT MISSION. His final screen appearance came a year later, co-starring with Chuck Norris in the 1986 Cannon favorite THE DELTA FORCE. He died of a heart attack in 1987.


Friday, January 10, 2020

In Theaters: UNDERWATER (2020)

(US - 2020)

Directed by William Eubank. Written by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad. Cast: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie, Gunner Wright. (PG-13, 95 mins)

It's not going to score any points for originality, but UNDERWATER is a surprisingly engaging throwback to the undersea creature craze of early 1989, when we got DEEPSTAR SIX, LEVIATHAN, and the Roger Corman-produced LORDS OF THE DEEP in quick succession, all in a mad rush to beat the much-anticipated August release of James Cameron's mega-budget THE ABYSS (as required by law, obligatory Eurotrash knockoffs belatedly followed, like ENDLESS DESCENT from Spain and ALIEN FROM THE DEEP from Italy). UNDERWATER also wouldn't exist without the template provided by ALIEN, but director William Eubank (whose 2014 film THE SIGNAL showed some promise) has studied his economically-minded B-movies, diving right into the action within the first five minutes and keeping the pace so relentless and the stakes so high that you don't have time to think about any logic lapses or unanswered questions that the film either forgets about or just puts there to misdirect the audience. UNDERWATER is what it is, and that's not a bad thing. There's no dumb late-film plot twist, there's no deeper meaning, and there's only as much characterization as you need. It's an always forward-moving scare machine that seems so quaintly old-fashioned in the era of the IP/franchise/sequel/reboot/remake that you might wonder how it isn't premiering on Netflix.

With a fleeting shot of a newspaper headline that shows the year being 2050 (a rather optimistic outlook for print media), UNDERWATER opens in the Mariana Trench, six miles deep in the Pacific Ocean aboard Keppler Station, a massive, multi-billion dollar drilling installation. As mechanical engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart) brushes her teeth, the sound of water dripping on the floor from the ceiling above poses an instant threat. Almost immediately, walls collapse and parts of the structure begin caving due to what's presumed to be an earthquake. She manages to escape into a closed-off area, finds fellow crew member Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), and in their search for a way out, encounter wisecracking Paul (T.J. Miller) buried under some rubble. The three make their way to the escape pod bay only to find Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) with two survivors, Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr.). Lucien has sent 22 others up to presumed safety but the remaining pods are damaged. They're the only six survivors of a 300-person crew. With radio contact cut off and left completely on their own with the clock ticking and no other options, Lucien suggests they venture a mile down in pressurized suits and hoof it another mile across the ocean floor to Roebuck Station, the nearest drilling installation (Norah: "Can you just admit we could all die?" Lucien: "Can you just admit we might live?"). A crack in a helmet causes one survivor to make an abrupt exit, as the remaning five start their dangerous trek, only to find out too late that...something is down here. 

That's it. There's your set-up. It's DEEPSTAR LEVIATHAN: UNDERWATER and the closest it gets to making a statement is Emily frantically stating "We've been taking from the ocean and now it's taking back...we don't belong here." The script by Brian Duffield (THE BABYSITTER) and Adam Cozad (JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT) sticks to a formula that's proven to work in the hands of the right director. Eubank wears his love of ALIEN and a ton of other movies on his sleeve, but in the process, focuses on the sense of isolation and claustrophobia in a way that's intensely effective at times. It's a physically demanding project for the actors, crawling through muck-filled tight spaces in the early scenes before the ocean walk, where Eubank and veteran cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (who got his start in the late '80s on several Abel Ferrara films) frame them in extreme close-up, often getting inside their helmets for POV shots where they can barely see anything in the murky depths and can't escape the strange sounds of something uncomfortably close to them. Obviously, UNDERWATER is a creature feature first and foremost, and it also doesn't disappoint on that front, with some nasty monsters that we only see fleetingly for a long time until things take a turn that can best be described as "Lovecraftian."

I don't want to oversell UNDERWATER. It's too beholden to its influences to really take itself to the next level, but it serves its purpose as a well-done genre rollercoaster ride. And sometimes, when it's done right, that's sufficient (you'll also spot shout-outs to THE DESCENT, some always-unnerving garbled audio transmissions straight out of EVENT HORIZON, some Overlook-esque corridors before all hell breaks loose, and one of composer Marco Beltrami's catchier synth cues sounds a bit indebted to Vangelis' end credits theme for BLADE RUNNER). Stewart's Norah proves to be a quietly resilient graduate of the Ripley school, and the rest of the cast acquits themselves generally well, with Cassel a dutifully heroic leader, Gallagher cast radically against type as second-string John Krasinski, and Miller providing the smartass comic relief ("I'm getting dangerously close to shitting myself"). Admittedly, UNDERWATER has some red flags: it's a horror movie hitting theaters in the doomed dead zone of January after three years on the shelf, with 20th Century Fox attributing the long-delayed release to a business decision tied to their acquisition by Disney. I guess that's possible, though one can't help but wonder if maybe execs wanted to let some time lapse following T.J. Miller becoming a #MeToo poster boy when sexual assault allegations from his college days resurfaced some time after shooting wrapped in 2017, a situation that he followed with a 2018 encore that saw him reporting a fake Amtrak bomb threat after he was kicked off a train for being intoxicated (his ongoing implosion also cost him his job as the Mucinex booger, and Dreamworks also replaced him with Justin Rupple as the voice of Tuffnut Thorston for 2019's HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD). Regardless of the reason--Fox restructuring under the Disney regime or the cancellation of Miller--UNDERWATER being left in limbo for so long isn't an indication of its quality. We can always use more genre offerings like this that cut the shit and just do their thing. It probably won't do well in theaters, but this will enjoy a long and frequently-viewed life on streaming and cable.