Friday, October 13, 2017


(US - 2014)

For a long time, THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES was shaping up to be the DAY THE CLOWN CRIED of found-footage. Filmed in 2007 and screened at that year's Tribeca Film Festival, the film was abruptly yanked from the schedule by MGM just a week before its planned February 8, 2008 release date (for some perspective on how long ago this was, that weekend's other major releases were FOOL'S GOLD, WELCOME HOME ROSCOE JENKINS, VINCE VAUGHN'S WILD WEST COMEDY SHOW, and IN BRUGES), even though a trailer had been out and multiplexes had promo material on display for several weeks. The found-footage genre was still in its post-BLAIR WITCH PROJECT era in 2008, and THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES would've preceded the next wave brought in by PARANORMAL ACTIVITY by over a year and a half had MGM released it on schedule. While no explanation was ever given for why the studio buried this like a dark family secret, the filmmakers--writer/director John Erick Dowdle and his producer brother Drew--had a hit later the same year with QUARANTINE, a remake of the Spanish found-footage horror phenomenon [REC], before going on to make the 2010 M. Night Shyamalan production DEVIL, the 2014 Paris catacombs-set found-footage opus AS ABOVE, SO BELOW, and the 2015 Owen Wilson thriller NO ESCAPE. The Dowdles got QUARANTINE on the basis of THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES, and while none of their subsequent films were blockbusters, their moderate success still wasn't enough to free POUGHKEEPSIE from the MGM shelf. It eventually got a stealth release on DirecTV in 2014, but just as word got around to horror fans that it was available, MGM pulled it once more without warning. Only now, in the fall of 2017, has the now-decade old film been made widely available, with Shout! Factory's Blu-ray and DVD release rescuing it from oblivion and finally giving it, for all intents and purposes, it's first actual, widespread exhibition.

You'd assume this must be a terrible movie, but the end result is quite surprising. It's unfortunate that the found-footage genre has played itself into overexposed irrelevance, because THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES is one of the best of its kind. There's no jump scares to be had and the gore is minimal, but its violence and intensity are such that it's quite dark, disturbing, and sometimes difficult to watch. It's hard telling if that's why MGM got skittish about releasing it, but the closest comparison I can draw to illustrate just how utterly real and horrifying this film can be is the sad and heartbreaking Australian found-footage outing LAKE MUNGO. Set up as a faux talking-head documentary, THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES chronicles the exploits of the east coast serial killer The Water Street Butcher, tracing his murders back to 1991 via a vast collection of homemade snuff videos found in his house in 1996. The madness begins with the abduction and murder of a little girl right from her front yard, escalates to a couple being kidnapped on their way home to Poughkeepsie from Pittsburgh, and soon, he's very intricately crafting the murder sites to deliberately mislead the investigators and misdirect the profilers when the FBI is called in. To throw them off even more, he changes his M.O. and kidnaps 19-year-old Cheryl Dempsey (Stacy Chbosky), holding her captive as a sex-and-torture slave in his basement. He even shows up at Cheryl's house and films himself talking to her mother, laughing and taunting her ("If there's anything I can do...") before running away once the mom realizes she's looking right at the man who kidnapped her daughter. The murders go on, with the killer deliberately leaving DNA behind as if he's trying to get captured, and that's when things take an unexpected and even more horrific turn, with Dowdle even working in 9/11 in a plausible, non-exploitative fashion.

THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES takes full advantage of one of the unsung ringers of modern-era horror: blurry video and garbled audio, which always gets under your skin if done right. This film excels at it, even if you have to cut them some slack that all of the VHS tapes are somehow 1.78:1. The unpredictable patterns of the murders, the rawness of the tapes that make them look like genuine snuff films, the intelligence and the patience of the killer, and the horrific conditions in which he leaves the victims (the couple is found with the man decapitated, his head surgically implanted into the woman's stomach with his face protruding like some demented tribute to TOTAL RECALL's Cuato) are the stuff of nightmares straight from the Hannibal Lecter or SE7EN playbooks. The same goes for the notes read by the investigating agents ("His genitals were removed and placed in the sock drawer of the master bedroom"), and one absolutely chilling scene that rivals the cell phone discovery in LAKE MUNGO, when an exhaustive study of the now-dead Pittsburgh-to-Poughkeepsie couple on surveillance footage from a gas station gives police their first look at the killer, a blurry image of a figure standing on the far edge of the frame, seemingly communicating to the camera in sign language in so subtle a fashion that it takes them a while to figure out that he's telling them where they'll find the bodies. There's a bit of a logic lapse later on involving the killer's fate, but it's a minor quibble in a very effective film that's so bleak and unflinching that it probably wouldn't have done well in theaters. This is grim, bleak shit that makes SE7EN look like the feel-good movie of the year. Maybe that's why MGM had no idea what to do with it.  (R, 81 mins)

(US - 2017)

Fusing elements of a PREDATOR-type actioner with EVENT HORIZON, THE KEEP, and the short-lived, late '80s "haunted prison" craze (DESTROYER, PRISON, SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK, THE CHAIR) had some potential for some batshit craziness, but ARMED RESPONSE is a lethargic, drably-shot, ploddingly-paced bore that only comes alive in the last five minutes, by which point it's way too late to care. It's probably going for slow burn, but there's no tension, no suspense, and about 90% of the running time consists of people either walking down dark corridors with flashlights and military weapons at the ready, staring at rows of monitors, or arguing with one another. Gabriel (BROTHERS & SISTERS' Dave Annable) is still in shock over the death of his young daughter (some backstory that has no payoff) when he's visited by Isaac (Wesley Snipes), his old commander in Afghanistan. Isaac needs him to investigate some strange occurrences at "The Temple," a secret compound inside an abandoned prison. The Temple is the next stage in the evolution of the war on terror: a sentient, AI lifeforce whose technological capabilities to weed out the truth trumps all lie detectors and "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Gabriel is a former MIT whiz kid who designed the security system inside The Temple, and he may be needed to get Isaac and his team, among them no-nonsense Riley (Anne Heche) and hothead Brett (WWE star Seth Rollins), in and out of the facility. It seems the last team stationed at The Temple were slaughtered when The Temple went rogue. Security footage shows the team being attacked by unseen and apparently supernatural forces, and soon those forces start coming for them. The Temple is able to detect wrongdoings and buried secrets, and like the last crew, Isaac and his officers committed swept-under-the-rug war crimes in Afghanistan and The Temple intends to make them pay, as illustrated by such dialogue as "There's a presence in the code!" and "The Temple has judged us deserving of punishment!" and "The Temple has reached a tipping point." So will most viewers by that time.

There's potential for some insightful, layered commentary here, but ARMED RESPONSE goes the generic route, offering a bunch of cliched military hardasses in lieu of characters or interesting ideas. The whole idea behind "The Temple" is half-baked and never really clearly expressed, and it only gets remotely interesting when Gabriel has to reboot the system and The Temple slowly regains its power, with its cinder block walls coming to life and reaching out to unlucky victims, yanking their arms out of their sockets. That kind of craziness would've been helpful in the 85 minutes up to that point, but director John Stockwell, a former actor (CHRISTINE, MY SCIENCE PROJECT, TOP GUN) who made some successful movies (CRAZY/BEAUTIFUL, BLUE CRUSH, INTO THE BLUE) before his post-2011 slide into the world of VOD/DTV (CAT RUN, IN THE BLOOD, KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE) just seems to be coasting through, and the end result looks like an updated and slightly higher-end version of something Roger Corman's Concorde would've released in 1989. Snipes and Heche are the big names here, and while they're in the whole movie and don't pull any Bruce Willis or Steven Seagal phone-ins, they're definitely sidelined in favor of the bland Annable. The film was produced by WWE Studios (hence, Rollins' involvement) and upstart Erebus Pictures, a production company formed by none other than KISS icon and NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE villain Gene Simmons, who also briefly appears in either a bald cap or sans wig (looking a lot like late-career Michael Ansara) in a flashback as a suspected terrorist. Simmons is also all over the accompanying making-of featurette, and if you watch that before the movie, you'd might think that he's the star of the movie. (R, 94 mins)

(Australia - 2017)

After a ten-year hiatus, Lionsgate dusts off the OPEN WATER franchise for another go by taking an Australian shark attack movie called CAGE DIVE and slapping the "OPEN WATER 3" prefix on it. It's very similar to what they did with 2007's OPEN WATER 2: ADRIFT, where they took a sharkless German film called ADRIFT, with a bunch of people stranded in the ocean, unable to get back on a yacht after they all jumped off and no one pulled the ladder down. Neither in-name-only "sequel" has anything to do with Chris Kentis 2004 micro-budget indie hit OPEN WATER, and CAGE DIVE, is more or less a remake, with some added melodrama and the requisite found footage angle, taking advantage of the Trend That Wouldn't Die. Probably hastily prepped for VOD after the surprise success of the long-shelved Weinstein castoff 47 METERS DOWN, CAGE DIVE opens with the remains of a digital video camera found on the ocean floor, its memory card still intact. Faster than you can say "I wonder who the real sharks are," we're watching shaky, handheld footage of Americans--siblings Jeff (Joel Hogan) and Josh (Josh Potthoff), and Jeff's girlfriend Megan (Megan Peta Hill)--traveling to Australia to visit Jeff and Josh's Sydney-born cousin (Pete Valley) before heading off to a cage dive, digital camera in tow since Jeff wants to get them all on a daredevil reality show. They head out on a group excursion, and while the three of them are in the cage, a freak tidal wave appears out of nowhere, capsizes the boat, and the few survivors who weren't killed in the impact are soon eaten by great white sharks until only Jeff, Josh, and Megan remain, treading water. Of course Jeff never stops filming, even as hypothermia and delirium set in, and writer/director Gerald Rascionato (also credited with producing, photographing, editing, and casting) also makes time for turgid melodrama with Jeff finding out what the audience already knows from his camera being left on earlier: Megan is cheating on him with Josh, which really puts a damper on his plans to propose to her on the trip. OPEN WATER 3: CAGE DIVE has some convincing shark action, but relies too heavily on characters doing stupid things (luck sends a lifeboat drifting their way, so of course Megan sets it ablaze when she freaks out and mishandles a flare) to the point where you'll eventually start rooting for the sharks, in which case, you'll get a happy ending. (R, 81 mins)

Friday, October 6, 2017

In Theaters: BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Barkhad Abdi, Edward James Olmos, Wood Harris, Hiam Abbass, David Dastmalchian, Tomas Lemarquis, Sean Young. (R, 164 mins)

Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER, based on Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is so highly and rightfully regarded as an influential sci-fi masterpiece to this day that it's easy to forget that it only did middling business in theaters in the summer of 1982 and the reviews weren't all that great. Over time, thanks to incessant cable and TV airings and the reconstruction of the "director's cut" in 1992 (assembled from the workprint and Scott's notes; he was busy working on 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE at the time and wasn't directly involved in it other than being consulted) and later with Scott's official "final cut" in 2007, the film's reputation and significance grew. The compromised theatrical version was a thorn in the side of both Scott and star Harrison Ford, who wasn't pleased about adding hard-boiled voiceover narration and made every effort to ensure that it sounded as if it was doing it at gunpoint. The director's cut removed the narration and added the much-debated unicorn scene, meant to ambiguously convey that perhaps Deckard (Ford), the titular blade runner, was himself a replicant just like those he was assigned to pursue and "retire." In the unlikely event you haven't seen BLADE RUNNER since it was in theaters and all you know is the now-obsolete theatrical version, then you're going to be completely baffled as to what's going in BLADE RUNNER 2049, which uses the director's cut as its springboard. With Scott onboard as executive producer, the original film's co-writer Hampton Fancher (his first credit since 1999's THE MINUS MAN) contributing to the script, and acclaimed filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (PRISONERS, SICARIO, ARRIVAL) at the helm, BLADE RUNNER 2049 established its bona fides before filming even began. Villeneuve promised to remain true to the beloved original and he more or less does. It in no way insults or diminishes the memory of the 1982 classic, and it throws in plenty of winking callbacks, but at the end of the day, it's still a 35-years-later sequel that doesn't succeed in justifying its existence.

Set 30 years after the first film, BLADE RUNNER 2049 opens in an even more dystopian California. Due to repeated replicant rebellions like the one led by Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty, the Tyrell Corporation went bankrupt. Replicant production began once more when what was left of Tyrell's operation was purchased by billionaire industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) arrives at the isolated desert farm of Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), an old-school Nexus 8 replicant with an indeterminate lifespan. After a violent confrontation, K does his job and takes him out before reporting back to LAPD headquarters for a "baseline" debriefing required of replicants. Yes, that's right. BLADE RUNNER 2049 immediately answers the million dollar question: blade runners are replicants, and they're now integrated into society, even though they're regarded as second-class citizens, or "skinjobs" and "skinners." Investigation of Morton's property reveals a box of human skeletal remains near a tree. Examination of the remains indicate that it was a woman who died giving birth, and further analysis of the DNA shows proof that the skeleton is that of a replicant, thus blowing the doors off everything known about the bioengineered "skinjobs," who can apparently sexually reproduce, one last experiment pulled off by the Tyrell Corporation before it imploded. K's investigation into the whereabouts of the woman's child leads him to numerous places--very slowly--and also involves his hologram love interest Joi (Ana de Armas); a "memory designer" (Carla Juri) who knows about a specific real or imagined event that's been planted into K's memory; Wallace's ruthless enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks as Milla Jovovich) who's also out to find the now-adult child; and even a visit to a retirement home with Gaff (Edward James Olmos), who's still passing the time and busies his hands by making tiny origami animals.

Eventually, K ends up in the radioactive ruins of Las Vegas, where Deckard has been in hiding for 30 years after running off with now-deceased  replicant Rachael (Sean Young) at the end of the first film. To say anymore would involve too many spoilers, but let's begin with the positives: it's just as visually stunning as you'd expect, thanks in large part to the work of the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Susan Lucci of D.P.s who's been nominated for 13 Oscars and has yet to win. The world of BLADE RUNNER 2049 is just as vividly dystopian as its predecessor in its own ways, this time mixing its neon-drenched cityscapes with dusty wastelands and the almost Overlook Hotel-esque appearance of the abandoned casino resort Deckard calls home. Ford's appearance here is not unlike Charlton Heston's extended cameo in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES: BLADE RUNNER 2049 runs an ass-numbing 164 minutes, and in one of the most delayed entrances this side of Marlon Brando in APOCALYPSE NOW, Ford's first appearance doesn't even happen until nearly two hours in. Atmospheric slow-burn is one thing, but the ponderous and relentlessly gabby BLADE RUNNER 2049 is oppressively overlong, with scenes going on much longer than necessary and too many instances of characters introduced making overly verbose expository proclamations from the shadows only to slowly emerge in the light (Leto only has two scenes, and he enters both of them in this fashion). Everyone in this movie is a slow talker, and it probably adds 30 minutes to the running time.

Knowing now that Deckard is a replicant doesn't change the events of the first film since the director's cut more or less said as much, but Ford still managed to create a compelling and complex character. Here, Deckard just looks befuddled and grouchy. In other words, he looks like Harrison Ford, reliving his Han Solo and Indiana Jones glory days in present-day nostalgia trips that don't quite measure up to the classics that came before (STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS was fun, but have you ever met an INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL fan?).  K is a character that, on paper, plays to the strengths of Gosling's moody persona as seen in DRIVE and ONLY GOD FORGIVES, but Nicolas Winding Refn made those enigmatic Gosling characters a lot more interesting in those films than Villeneuve does here. K's love for Joi is an interesting concept that never really feels developed, but then, nor do any of the characters. BLADE RUNNER is a hypnotic experience that feels new and compelling and fresh with each revisit. It's timeless. But for all the talk of replicants finding their humanity in BLADE RUNNER 2049, there's nothing here even remotely as memorable or gut-wrenching as Rutger Hauer's "Tears in Rain" monologue before his final, resigned declaration of "Time to die." And while Vangelis' synth score is one of the 1982 film's most memorable components, the score here by Hans Zimmer is so aggressively, overbearingly bombastic that it almost qualifies as self-parody. Vangelis enhanced the mood and the vision and contributed to the hypnotic nature. Zimmer's score stampedes and bulldozes over everything to the point where it's an overwhelming, suffocating distraction that actually detracts from the effectiveness of numerous scenes. I gave BLADE RUNNER 2049 time, fidgeting through its laborious first hour and legitimately intrigued by a major plot reveal that finally seems to set things in motion, but it resumed dragging ass shortly thereafter and Zimmer's score got even more obnoxious, and no matter how captivating the visuals were, I finally had to accept the fact that it was well past two hours into this thing, its contrivances and developments were getting more half-baked and nonsensical (I'm still not sure what's going on with the replicant "revolution" that gets brought up near the end and is instantly dropped) and the point had passed where I ran out of excuses and had to admit to myself that I wasn't connecting with it at all. BLADE RUNNER was slow in a methodical way that was never boring. BLADE RUNNER 2049 is so concerned with replicating that feeling that it never finds its footing and never gets any momentum going. Maybe I'll look at it again in a year.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Retro Review: THE DEVIL'S HONEY (1986)

(Italy/Spain - 1986; US release 1991)

Directed by Lucio Fulci. Written by Ludovica Marineo, Vincenzo Salviani, Jesus Balcazar and Lucio Fulci. Cast: Brett Halsey, Corinne Clery, Blanca Marsillach, Stefano Madia, Bernard Seray, Paola Molina, Eulalia Ramon, Lucio Fulci. (Unrated, 83 mins)

With the release of 1979's ZOMBIE, genre-hopping journeyman Lucio Fulci established himself as the foremost Italian splatter auteur, launching a seemingly unstoppable run of trailblazing films over a few busy and prolific years--most of them produced by Fabrizio De Angelis--that ran until 1982's MANHATTAN BABY. It was during that film that the working relationship between Fulci and De Angelis went south after the producer slashed the film's budget by 75%. Following their acrimonious split, De Angelis started directing Italian ripoffs of American blockbusters under the name "Larry Ludman," while Fulci returned to his role as a director-for-hire, dabbling in the sword-and-sorcery CONQUEST, the post-apocalyptic THE NEW GLADIATORS, and the FLASHDANCE-inspired giallo MURDER-ROCK: DANCING DEATH. Some serious health issues sidelined Fulci for much of 1984 and all of 1985, and 1986's THE DEVIL'S HONEY marked a comeback of sorts, though he'd never attain the heights of fame and infamy that he had in the days of ZOMBIE, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, or THE BEYOND. The latter years of Fulci's career have a few interesting moments--fans generally cite TOUCH OF DEATH and his meta cut-and-paste job CAT IN THE BRAIN as the high points--but are mostly dreadful affairs like SODOMA'S GHOST, DEMONIA, and the boring DOOR TO SILENCE, a 1991 dud that proved to be his final film before his death in 1996. He was scheduled to direct the Dario Argento production WAX MASK, but his rapidly declining health forced him to back out and he was replaced by Italian makeup maestro Sergio Stivaletti, though Fulci did receive a co-writing credit on the film, released a year after his death.

THE DEVIL'S HONEY is an odd outlier in the later years of Fulci's filmography, primarily because it's a Skinemax-ready 9 1/2 WEEKS knockoff that isn't the kind of film one usually associates with the beloved Godfather of Gore. Essentially a sort-of Fifty Shades of Fulci, THE DEVIL'S HONEY is an extraordinarily trashy, S&M-crazed erotic thriller that took five years to get a straight-to-video US release in 1991, shorn of several minutes and generically retitled DANGEROUS OBSESSION. After over 25 years languishing in obscurity in the US, THE DEVIL'S HONEY has resurfaced on Blu-ray from Severin Films in its uncensored, 83-minute version (the trimming of the most explicit content took the DANGEROUS OBSESSION cut down to a mere 78 minutes) to allow fans to marvel at some often jaw-droppingly kinky Lucio After Dark sexcapades. Jessica (Blanca Marsillach) is a naive and submissive young woman being dominated in a sadomasochistic relationship by sleazy, saxophone-playing asshole Johnny (Stefano Madia). You know THE DEVIL'S HONEY will be something special when the first scene has Johnny kicking everyone out of the recording studio so Jessica can strip down to her panties and get off on the vibrations of the melody being blown through the bell of his grinding sax. That's almost immediately followed by Jessica giving him a handjob while they're speeding on his motorcycle and an episode of rough anal sex where she's shown growing more aroused each time she tells him to stop. Then we meet Dr. Wendell Simpson (Brett Halsey), a middle-aged surgeon who's grown bored with his wife Carol (Corinne Clery) and spends his free time meeting hookers for degrading quickies in no-tell hotels. When Johnny suffers a head injury after a motorcycle wipeout, he's rushed into surgery. Simpson is the surgeon on call, but he's so distracted by an argument he just had with Carol that he can't focus on the task at hand and Johnny dies on the operating table. Enraged, overwhelmed by grief, and so co-dependently addicted to being treated like shit by Johnny, Jessica snaps and confronts Simpson at gunpoint, forcing him to drive to Johnny's country house where, in between erotic fantasies about her dead lover and how much she misses being abused by him, she makes Simpson sit in his piss-soaked pants before stripping him nude, chains him to a wall, prances around in the buff to tease him, forces him to eat dog food, pours hot candle wax on him and generally humiliates him in between death threats brandishing the gun that Johnny would frequently use to penetrate her, which only serves to turn the surgeon on rather than frighten him.

Even for connoisseurs of the halcyon days of Eurotrash softcore porn, THE DEVIL'S HONEY stands alone. A year earlier, Fulci had a hand in the screenplay for LA GABBIA, aka THE TRAP, a film he wanted to direct but when his health made it impossible, the producers went ahead with Giuseppe Patroni Griffi (THE DIVINE NYMPH) at the helm. LA GABBIA, released straight to video in the US in 1988 as COLLECTOR'S ITEM, has some surface similarities to THE DEVIL'S HONEY: Tony Musante is a lothario who cheats on his girlfriend (Florinda Bolkan) with an old one-night stand ('70s Italian sex goddess Laura Antonelli), who snaps and holds him captive, treating him to the whole stripped-and-restrained, humiliation and degradation act. It even features Marsillach as Antonelli's daughter, who also has designs on Musante, who may or may not be her biological father from that 20-year-old one-nighter. Marsillach is up for absolutely anything in THE DEVIL'S HONEY: she's naked half the time, masturbating in nearly every other scene when she isn't delirious with anger, and enthusiastically dives into whatever depravity Fulci demanded. Clery has little to do and disappears about midway through the film, but with getting to take part in steamy sex scenes with a disrobed Clery and Marsillach, it's easy to see what drew Halsey to the project. Born in 1933, he was groomed for success by Hollywood studios in the 1950s but it didn't quite pan out (his most high-profile early role was probably starring with Vincent Price in RETURN OF THE FLY). Instead, he tested the waters of the European film industry in the 1960s where he found much more success in 007 knockoffs like SPY IN YOUR EYE and spaghetti westerns like TODAY WE KILL, TOMORROW WE DIE. He was married to future THUNDERBALL Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi from 1960 to 1962 and to popular German singer and actress Heidi Bruhl (THE EIGER SANCTION) from 1964 to 1976. For some reason, even though he was established and known in America and Europe and enjoyed a certain level of success as Brett Halsey, he inexplicably tried to reinvent himself and made a few movies from 1968-1970 using the name "Montgomery Ford." This only served to confuse his European fans and do nothing for his career, so he switched back to Brett Halsey when he decided to give Hollywood another go. He spent the rest of the 1970s and into the 1980s doing countless guest spots on tons of TV shows, including mandatory stops on THE LOVE BOAT and FANTASY ISLAND (shockingly, he never ended up on a MURDER, SHE WROTE), in addition to writing several Harold Robbins-esque beach-read novels about the movie industry.

THE DEVIL'S HONEY marked Halsey's return to Europe, where he would spend the next several years working on films for Fulci (TOUCH OF DEATH), Bruno Mattei (COP GAME), Antonio Margheriti (THE COMMANDER), Luigi Cozzi (THE BLACK CAT), and Jess Franco (ESMERALDA BAY), while finding time to play the second husband of Diane Keaton's Kay Corleone in THE GODFATHER PART III. Halsey approaches the content of THE DEVIL'S HONEY as fearlessly as his alluring co-stars, whether it's brushing his mouth over Marsillach's pubic hair, removing Clery's fingers from her crotch and putting them right in his mouth, or groping a prostitute (Eulalia Ramon) in close-up as she masturbates with a fingernail polish brush (Halsey even gets naked in this thing, probably assuming none of his Hollywood friends would ever see it). He turns in a solid performance, even though he didn't stick around for the dubbing and has been revoiced by someone else. Halsey continued working on American TV in the 1990s and still pops up every now and again (his most recent TV credit is a 2008 episode of COLD CASE) in a low-budget DTV movie. These days, he mainly does conventions and gives interviews for Blu-ray releases of his old movies (he can be seen on the Criterion edition of the late '50s sci-fi cult movie THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE in their "Monsters and Madmen" set), and is revealed to be an engaging raconteur at 84 on the DEVIL'S HONEY bonus features. He speaks fondly of his old movies, doesn't dismiss the trashy ones, and doesn't pull any punches, saying Fulci was always nice to him but could be a tyrant with others, and flat-out admitting that he absolutely hated Marsillach and wished the film gave Clery more to do (he doesn't stop there, also saying that ESMERALDA BAY co-star Ramon Estevez--one of Martin Sheen's sons--was "a nice kid, a really nice kid," but had no business being in a movie). There isn't much in THE DEVIL'S HONEY that's distinctly Fulci--it's not a Filmirage production, but with its hazy, late '80s Filmirage look, it feels more akin to a Joe D'Amato movie than anything--but it's perversely sleazy, entertaining trash that's right alongside MURDER-ROCK as the standouts of his post-Fabrizio De Angelis years.

One of the more subtle moments of THE DEVIL'S HONEY

Saturday, September 30, 2017

On Netflix: GERALD'S GAME (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Mike Flanagan. Written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard. Cast: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Chiara Aurelia, Kate Siegel, Carel Struycken. (Unrated, 103 mins)

Based on Stephen King's 1992 novel of the same name, the Netflix Original film GERALD'S GAME comes at a particularly zeitgeisty moment in pop culture: Andy Muschietti's IT, from King's 1986 novel, is a bona fide blockbuster and the biggest horror hit in years, and with its themes of sexual abuse and toxic masculinity, GERALD's GAME is a film practically tailor-made for the era of the woke thinkpiece. It's probably taken this long for Gerald's Game to be made into a movie because it's usually cited as one of King's less filmable works, though director/co-writer Mike Flanagan, one of horror's most promising voices of the last decade (OCULUS, HUSH, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, and still-shelved BEFORE I WAKE), gives it his best shot. Gerald's Game was the first novel in what could retroactively be termed King's "woke" phase. It was followed the same year by the acclaimed Dolores Claiborne (made into a movie in 1995) and the middling Rose Madder in 1995 (not yet adapted for the big or small screen, and probably even less filmable than Gerald's Game). GERALD'S GAME works best when it stays focused in the here and now, with its heroine in an increasingly doomed situation. Fatigue sets in and her mind starts playing tricks on her. She begins hallucinating manifestations of long-suppressed traumas of her past that have influenced every decision she's ever made. She summons a degree of inner resolve she never thought possible and King believes in her, and fortunately for Flanagan, he has a game lead actress giving it everything she's got in what should be the role of her career.

GERALD'S GAME is anchored by a gutsy and absolutely fearless performance by Carla Gugino, a jobbing actress who's been a familiar face in movies and TV since the late 1980s, though she first gained notice with her breakout role opposite Pauly Shore in 1993's SON IN LAW. Gugino is Jessie, the beautiful trophy wife of older, wealthy attorney Gerald (Bruce Greenwood). Their marriage has gone stale, and Gerald arranges a weekend getaway at an isolated cabin to reignite the spark. Jessie buys some sexy lingerie, while Gerald packs Viagra and handcuffs. He wastes no time, handcuffing Jessie to the reinforced bedposts and cajoling her to engage in a rape fantasy. Things quickly turn uncomfortable as his play gets a little more rough than Jessie's willing to indulge. She bites his lower lip to get him off of her and in the middle of the ensuing argument, Gerald clutches his arm and his chest, dropping dead of a heart attack right on top of her. She kicks him off the bed and onto the hardwood floor where the fall cracks his head open. There's no one around, Gerald's phone and the keys to the handcuffs are just out of reach, and the design of the bedposts makes it impossible to slide the cuffs off of them to allow freedom. On top of that, Gerald left the front door open in his excitement to get between the sheets, allowing a hungry stray dog inside, who almost immediately helps himself to Gerald's corpse on the bedroom floor. Then the hallucinations start.

Jessie sees herself in the room, giving herself advice and guidance that goes against the vision of Gerald that keeps belittling her and reminding her of her place. The image of Jessie starts bringing up horrific events of her childhood, all centered on an instance of sexual molestation by her father (Henry Thomas in flashbacks) during a solar eclipse while the family was vacationing at a lake when she was 12 (Chiara Aurelia plays Jessie in these scenes). While "Jessie" pushes her to fight, "Gerald" tells her to give in to Death, who will come at night at take her in the form of The Moonlight Man (Carel Struycken), a monstrous specter who collects souvenirs of the dead. When GERALD'S GAME stays in the room, it works, and that's due almost entirely to Gugino's performance. She's ably supported by Greenwood, riffing on his now-standard "Bruce Greenwood" persona (he really is the go-to guy for smug, asshole husbands), but the film falls apart at roughly the same place the book does. Flanagan makes some changes--the book version of Gerald is a unattractive and slovenly, while Greenwood is handsome and impressively buff at 61--but remains faithful to King to a fault. The finale of the novel wasn't a disaster, but on the screen, it doesn't work at all, and not knowing how to end things has been just one problem that's plagued King's inconsistent output since right around the time he wrote Gerald's Game (this was also glaringly apparent with Rose Madder, which starts great but shits the bed and never recovers the moment its battered wife heroine dives into a mirror and enters a fantasy realm, and the issue of whether we're at the point where King's mediocre and forgettable work outnumbers his classics is a valid discussion to have). Flanagan has been a Gerald's Game superfan since he read it as a teenager and has cited it as a dream project that was a main inspiration in his wanting to become a filmmaker. But in the end, his movie adaptation will stand as an example of something not quite translating from page to screen. Stories work differently depending on the medium, and mileage may vary, but the last ten minutes of GERALD'S GAME feel anticlimactic and tacked-on, and the book's ending should've been the first thing to go when Flanagan began outlining the script. Yes, he should be commended for tackling a difficult adaptation and succeeding more often than not (and there's one grisly moment that will make even the most experienced gorehounds grimace and look away), but despite a great performance by Gugino, this aims for the fences but doesn't quite make it.

Friday, September 29, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE BAD BATCH (2017) and IT STAINS THE SANDS RED (2017)

(US - 2017)

In the first ten minutes of THE BAD BATCH, heroine Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is banished to a vaguely post-apocalyptic desert wasteland in Texas, abducted by marauding cannibals who hack off her right arm and right leg and cook them on a grill, then she covers herself in her own shit to make the rest of herself less appetizing. So begins writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour's followup to the acclaimed A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. THE BAD BATCH is a bigger film with bigger names, but it's definitely a classic case of a sophomore slump. Arlen manages to escape her flesh-eating captors and is taken by a mute, nameless hermit (Jim Carrey, of all people) to a makeshift town called Comfort, ruled by a guru-like cult figure known as The Dream (Keanu Reeves, looking like Joe Spinell circa MANIAC). After encountering one of the women who initially abducted her, Arlen, now sporting a prosthetic leg, kills her and takes the woman's young daughter Honey (Jayda Fink) back to Comfort. Honey was stolen from her father Miami Man (Jason Momoa) with the intention of grooming her for a life of sexual servitude to The Dream. Miami Man--himself a cannibal but hey, he's a sympathetic flesh eater and a loving father with artistic talent-- then ventures into the desert and enlists the aid of Arlen and the hermit to find his daughter.

After an intriguingly strange opening act, THE BAD BATCH just goes nowhere. Repetitive scenes of people walking through the desert and mumbling give the film the distinct feeling of an '80s post-nuke fused with Gus Van Sant's GERRY. An endless mid-film acid trip after a rave at The Dream's stops the film cold and it never recovers. Waterhouse is OK in the lead, but Amirpour can't decide if the focus should be on Arlen or Miami Man, a quandary that isn't helped by Momoa sporting one of the worst accents ever heard in a movie. He's supposed to be from Cuba, but he sounds like Mushmouth trying to do a Scarface impression, making about 90% of his dialogue unintelligible without putting on the subtitles. There's some nice cinematography and the film's vision of a dystopian hellscape is intermittently effective, as are some incongruously '80s and '90s-sounding music choices by present-day indie bands like Federale, whose track "All the Colours of the Dark" is used in a nicely-done montage. At the same time, a woman getting her neck snapped to Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon" and Arlen getting her arm sawed off to Ace of Base's "All That She Wants" comes off as silly and pointless, and reeking of "Well, we got the clearance on these songs, so I guess we have to use them." Watching THE BAD BATCH, it's apparent that Amirpour had the beginnings of an idea but didn't know where to take it. There's certainly some political commentary to be mined from a fenced-off area of Texas, deporting undesirables--"The Bad Batch"--to the harsh outside, and Miami Man being an illegal immigrant, but Amirpour doesn't bother. She also wastes a potentially interesting supporting cast, with Giovanni Ribisi serving no purpose whatsoever as a nutcase called "The Screamer," Reeves getting a long monologue about where shit travels after it's excreted, and the unexpected casting of a silent, grizzled, barely recognizable Carrey in easily the strangest role of his career. Agonizingly overlong at just shy of two hours, and low-key to the point of catatonia, THE BAD BATCH is a barely half-baked concoction that falls almost completely flat and fails to follow through on the promise Amirpour displayed with her impressive debut. (R, 119 mins)


(Canada/US - 2017)

Under their collaborative moniker "The Vicious Brothers," Colin Minahan and Stuart Ortiz earned a small degree of cult notoriety among horror scenesters with their 2011 found-footage debut GRAVE ENCOUNTERS. The wrote and produced that film's 2012 sequel, and they wrote 2014's EXTRATERRESTRIAL, with Minahan directing solo. That arrangement continues with IT STAINS THE SANDS RED, the duo's day-late-and-a-dollar-short contribution to the zombie apocalypse genre. There's a couple of clever ideas here, but they're enough for maybe a 15-minute short film as opposed to a padded, laborious, 92-minute slog. Opening in medias res with the zombie invasion underway and Las Vegas in ruins, we're introduced to stripper Molly (Brittany Allen, also the star of EXTRATERRESTRIAL) and boyfriend Nick (Merwin Mondesir) speeding down a desert highway on their way to an air field where one of his friends has offered to fly them into Mexico. The car gets stuck in the sand as one lone, shambling zombie (Juan Riedlinger) approaches. Nick wastes his remaining bullets trying to shoot it in the head and is eventually killed and eaten when he tries to get out of the car to retrieve his dropped cell phone. Molly gathers what supplies she can--water, smokes, and a vial of coke--and begins hoofing it 30 miles through the desert in her Gene Simmons platform shoes with the zombie following in persistent pursuit. It moves slow enough that she can get a good distance and take periodic breaks, but it never stops and never gets tired, sort-of like a zombie version of IT FOLLOWS.

That's a nifty idea for a short film, but Minahan and Ortiz really struggle to get this thing to 90 minutes. Once the premise is established, along with a gross but admittedly clever bit where she manages to distract the zombie--who she eventually names "Smalls"--by offering it her bloody tampon to munch on while she gets a head start on her next getaway, this thing runs out of gas in record time. Minahan shoots in a saturated and frequently garish style that's more ugly than anything, and hardly any time has elapsed before Molly's babbling to herself and Minhan's already breaking out the surreal, grotesque, NATURAL BORN KILLERS-esque flourishes. She eventually forms a bizarre kinship with Smalls that comes out of nowhere and makes no sense--she even declines rescue from military personnel on one occasion because she doesn't want to leave the zombie alone. There's also a pointless detour involving a pair of yahoos who rescue then rape her, and she keeps having flashbacks to the son she abandoned in favor of her irresponsible, Vegas party girl lifestyle. The sliver of remaining humanity left in Smalls awakening Molly's dormant maternal instincts might've been a good idea if it had any foundation, but nothing in IT STAINS THE SANDS RED (a cool title, at least) makes sense, and everything that happens requires Molly to be conveniently stupid in order to advance the plot. Riedlinger is OK as Smalls, but he's not giving DAY OF THE DEAD's Howard Sherman any competition when it comes to great zombie performances. It doesn't help that he exits the film with nearly 30 minutes to go as Molly, much like IT STAINS THE SANDS RED, continues on aimlessly. An interesting set-up, but this thing just goes nowhere fast and has nothing to add to an already overcrowded genre. (Unrated, 92 mins)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Retro Review: CYBORG 2087 (1966) and DIMENSION 5 (1966)

(US - 1966)

Directed by Franklin Adreon. Written by Arthur C. Pierce. Cast: Michael Rennie, Karen Steele, Wendell Corey, Warren Stevens, Eduard Franz, Harry Carey Jr., Adam Roarke, Dale Van Sickel, Troy Melton, Jimmy Hibbard, Sherry Alberoni, Betty Jane Royale, John Beck, Jo Ann Pflug, Richard Travis, Byron Morrow. (Unrated, 86 mins)

Made on the cheap and originally intended for TV syndication, CYBORG 2087 has surprisingly bigger aspirations than its paltry budget can accommodate. Shot in a flat fashion on backlots, a western ghost town set, and in a Los Angeles neighborhood, the film was directed by Franklin Adreon (1902-1979), a career journeyman who began writing Republic Pictures serials back in the 1930s like THE FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS and DICK TRACY'S G-MEN before moving into directing television in the 1950s and 1960s like LASSIE and SEA HUNT. Released by the short-lived United Pictures Corporation, CYBORG 2087 was shot back-to-back with DIMENSION 5, using the same crew and many of the same sets and locations, and both were written by Arthur C. Pierce (1923-1987), whose screenplay credits include such gems as 1960's BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER, 1965's THE HUMAN DUPLICATORS, and 1966's WOMEN OF THE PREHISTORIC PLANET. Nothing Pierce ever penned was as imaginative as CYBORG 2087, but the film is repeatedly thwarted by its cheapness and the old-fashioned, get-it-in-the-can attitude of Adreon. He's obviously constrained by a budget that looks like less than an average episode of LOST IN SPACE, but only an anonymous clock-puncher like Adreon could take this ambitious science-fiction story and end it with a old-timey brawl in a barn that looks like an outtake from yet another version of THE SPOILERS. Watching CYBORG 2087 today, it's impossible to ignore the similarities with James Cameron's THE TERMINATOR--a universally-regarded classic--and Charles Band's TRANCERS--a smaller film with a devoted cult following--two films by young, visionary directors that would come a couple of decades later while CYBORG 2087 was consigned to late-night TV well into the 1980s and eventual obscurity once battered prints of old movies on The Late Late Show followed by a sign-off became a thing of the past.

In 2087, half-human/half-machine cyborg Garth A7 (a slumming Michael Rennie, in an obvious riff on his iconic role as Klaatu in 1951's THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL) is beamed aboard a small spacecraft to 1966. His mission: abduct military scientist Prof. Marx (Eduard Franz) and bring him to 2087, preventing him from introducing his latest findings in his study of "radiotelepathy" that will result in government abuse and subjugation of future generations over the next century, turning the America of 2087 into a totalitarian hellhole of controlled thought and rule by evil cyborgs. Garth A7 is programmed to feel no emotion, his focus only on his mission, which makes it easy to exercise control over Marx's colleagues Dr. Zellar (Warren Stevens) and Dr. Mason (Karen Steele). But as they become convinced that what he's saying is true, Garth A7 learns emotion and bonding and feels a need to protect Mason and Zellar when two "tracers" (old-school stuntmen Dale Van Sickel and Troy Melton) are sent from 2087 to kill Garth and prevent him from changing the future.

It's almost certain that James Cameron saw CYBORG 2087 at a drive-in or on TV at some point in his life prior to 1984 (Garth A7's bond with Mason and Zellar also prefigures the Terminator's friendship with young John Connor in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY). While it's entertaining and never dull, it more or less boxes itself in as an MST3K-worthy "bad" movie with its inherent time-capsule cheesiness that puts in in the same category as everything else Pierce wrote: the ridiculous western brawl between Garth A7 and a tracer; the cheap "future" sets in the 2087 prologue (featuring a lab technician played by a debuting Jo Ann Pflug, who would co-star in Robert Altman's MASH a few years later), including a time-travel console with old-school 1960s tapewriter labels, the script not even foreseeing the era of the P-Touch; the instantly-dated pandering to "the kids" with 1966 teenagers who look like they're in their mid-20s and behave like it's a decade earlier (one is played by a debuting John Beck, later of ROLLERBALL and AUDREY ROSE); the exterior of the sheriff's office being an obvious condo that probably belonged to someone on the production; the sheriff being played by a skidding Wendell Corey (REAR WINDOW), drunk and slurring his words (he'd be even more shitfaced in 1968's THE ASTRO ZOMBIES before he died the same year from liver failure at 54 but looking 74); the tracers jogging around L.A. neighborhoods with toy ray guns and Great Gazoo helmets as they scour the area for Garth A7; Garth A7's mechanized left arm just being some silver retractable pens Scotch-taped to Rennie's arm; and Rennie running around throughout the film apparently completely oblivious to how Garth A7's tight space outfit makes it awkwardly obvious that the veteran British actor is going commando and totally freeballing it.

Michael Rennie (1909-1971)
Rennie made a name for himself in his native England in the 1940s before coming to Hollywood in 1950. After THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, he co-starred in some prestigious productions throughout the decade (THE ROBE, DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS, DESIREE) before moving to TV in the 1960s. By the time of CYBORG 2087, his career was in a serious downturn and despite appearances in a couple of big-budget Hollywood movies in 1968 (THE POWER and THE DEVIL'S BRIGADE), he was becoming a regular fixture in European genre fare like Antonio Margheriti's THE YOUNG, THE EVIL AND THE SAVAGE (1968) and Giorgio Ferroni's "macaroni combat" outing THE BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN (1968). Battling emphysema and forced to have his final performances dubbed by someone else due to his weakening health and voice, Rennie finished his career in an undistinguished fashion, playing a mad alien scientist sent to Earth (between that and CYBORG 2087, you can see the Klaatu-inspired typecasting that plagued his final years) to resurrect dubious incarnations of classic movie monsters in the 1970 Spanish-made Paul Naschy monster rally ASSIGNMENT: TERROR. Always a consummate professional, Rennie brings some gravitas to CYBORG 2087 and appears to be taking it seriously, despite his impressive package shifting and flopping around for all to see. CYBORG 2087 isn't the standard definition of a "good movie," but it's better than its reputation and deserves some credit for attempting some ambitious ideas with a budget that can be politely termed "woefully inadequate."

(US - 1966)

Directed by Franklin Adreon. Written by Arthur C. Pierce. Cast: Jeffrey Hunter, France Nuyen, Harold Sakata, Donald Woods, Linda Ho, Robert Ito, David Chow, Jon Lormer, Bill Walker, Kam Tong, Marianna Case, Deanna Lund. (Unrated, 91 mins)

Shot immediately after and released at the same time as CYBORG 2087, DIMENSION 5 is just as cheap but completely lacking in any entertainment value. The less said about it, the better, and filled with endless clumsy exposition drops of the walk & talk variety (early on, one of these has the actors going through doors but walking down the same barely redressed corridor three times, and the same condo from CYBORG 2087 is somehow used as the entrance to a spy agency previously established as existing in the California Federal skyscraper), DIMENSION 5 runs 90 minutes but feels like a week and a half. American superspy Justin Power (Jeffrey Hunter) teams with sexy Chinese agent Kitty (France Nuyen) to use a nonsensical time travel belt (don't ask) to stop a plot by nefarious crime lord Big Buddha (Harold Sakata, best known as GOLDFINGER's Oddjob) to blow up Los Angeles (of course, it's later revealed that Kitty's reasons for going after Big Buddha are personal). Absolutely nothing happens in DIMENSION 5--one argument between Power and Kitty plays like a dry run for the "Whose reality? Yours or mine?" argument from THAT'S ARMAGEDDON! in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE--and the whole clunky, unpolished fiasco plays like the kind of painfully bad Z-movie you'd expect from an Al Adamson or a Jerry Warren. It's hard to believe the same director and writer made CYBORG 2087, which isn't necessarily "good" but at least has some inventive ideas and tries to look as presentable as it can while being financed with pocket change. DIMENSION 5, on the other hand, is an endurance test that only has a charming Nuyen to make it remotely bearable, and not even the imposing Sakata--badly dubbed by Paul Frees, who also revoiced Toshiro Mifune in John Frankenheimer's GRAND PRIX the same year--can liven it up, other than some amusing overacting in his death scene. Fans of QUINCY, M.E. will enjoy seeing Robert Ito as a Chinese agent (never mind that Ito is of Japanese descent) a decade before his career-defining role as Sam, medical examiner Quincy's hapless assistant, constantly forced to cancel his plans and stay late at work while an easily-distracted Quincy abandoned his job duties to play amateur sleuth, ordering him to "Cover for me, Sam."

Jeffrey Hunter (1926-1969)
DIMENSION 5 gets nothing from a bored, coasting Hunter, who co-starred with John Wayne in John Ford's timeless classic THE SEARCHERS a decade earlier and played Jesus in the epic KING OF KINGS just five years before this bottom-of-the-barrel dud. Hunter had recently finished "The Cage," the unaired pilot episode of STAR TREK, where he starred as Capt. Christopher Pike opposite Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. After some retooling by creator Gene Roddenberry, Hunter declined to shoot a second pilot and wasn't interested in committing to the show if NBC picked it up, so the Pike character was essentially rewritten as Capt. James T. Kirk, giving William Shatner the role of a lifetime as Hunter made mostly garbage movies for his few remaining years. Like Michael Rennie on CYBORG 2087, Hunter was at a career low circa DIMENSION 5. His subsequent roles were TV guest spots, supporting roles in the 1968 Robert Shaw western CUSTER OF THE WEST and the same year's Bob Hope/Phyllis Diller bomb THE PRIVATE NAVY OF SGT. O'FARRELL, and several low-budget European productions, including the raunchy German sex comedy SEXY SUSAN SINS AGAIN and the Spanish gangster movie CRY CHICAGO. Hunter suffered a concussion during an on-set mishap near the end of production on CRY CHICAGO. He subsequently had a seizure on the flight back to the US, later believed to be a smaller stroke preceding a massive cerebral hemorrhage he would suffer at home in Los Angeles, during which he fell and fractured his skull. He was rushed to the hospital for surgery and never woke up. He died on May 27, 1969 at just 42, only three months after marrying his third wife. It would be 1971 before SEXY SUSAN SINS AGAIN would open in the US, along with the 1968 Italian spaghetti western FIND A PLACE TO DIE, and SUPER COLT 69, a 1969 Mexican western Hunter shot just prior to CRY CHICAGO, which ended up going straight to syndicated TV at some point in the 1970s.

Both CYBORG 2087 and DIMENSION 5 have just been released on Blu-ray (!) by Kino Lorber. They've been given the red carpet treatment with HD restorations--4K in DIMENSION 5's case, which completely undeserving. The rights to the films ended up with Paramount at some point, and they've been languishing in a vault for years, if not decades. They look better than ever, certainly an improvement over scratchy old TV prints and incomplete versions on YouTube. There's an audience for every movie, and I'm sure someone will find some semblance of entertainment value in DIMENSION 5 that a sane person cannot, but CYBORG 2087, once you get past its cheesy TV look and general cheapness and ineptitude, has something there in its concept--it's one of the earliest instances of pop culture specifically using the term "cyborg," first coined in 1960--that paved the way for smarter, better explorations of its themes and ideas.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: CARTELS (2017) and THE RECALL (2017)

(US - 2017)

Shot back in 2015 under the title KILLING SALAZAR and probably retitled to cash in on Netflix's NARCOS, CARTELS "stars" Steven Seagal but was held from release as six more Seagal movies were shat out ahead of it in 2016 (I'd list them but that would surpass the effort Seagal put forth in all seven movies total). It's hard to fathom the existence of a present-day Seagal joint that's so bad that Lionsgate delays releasing it, but CARTELS is maybe the least terrible of the bunch, though that's in no way meant to be interpreted as a recommendation. As usual, Seagal is a top-billed guest star who was probably on the set in Romania for a couple of days, while another actor--in this case, Luke Goss, still cornering the market on second-string Stathams--is the real lead. Seagal and his double are featured in a framing device as John Harrison, a covert CIA black ops mastermind interrogating US Marshal Tom Jensen (Goss) over a botched assignment involving Mexican-Russian cartel boss Joseph "El Tiburon" Salazar (Florin Piersic Jr), who's introduced ruminating over a chess board as he tells his top underling "You know why I love this game so much? Because there can only be...one king!" The CIA fakes Salazar's death in order to take him into custody after he offers to flip and go informant, turning him over to a crew of US Marshals and military personnel and holing them up in a luxury hotel in Romania to await extraction for 24 hours. Knowing Salazar has turned on them, his betrayed crew, led by second-in-command Bruno Sinclaire (Georges St-Pierre), lead an assault on the hotel, going up floor by floor in pursuit of their old boss--somehow, the hotel remains open for business--and taking out the Marshals and soldiers one by one until, of course, only the disgraced Jensen, seeking redemption after a previous assignment went south, remains to kill them all.

Seagal's usual director Keoni Waxman is on hand, and for what it's worth, he does an acceptable job handling what's basically a RIO BRAVO/ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13/THE RAID scenario. Goss is actually trying, for some reason, and creates a surprisingly credible hero, and while the fight scenes and gun battles are mostly an incoherent, quick-cut blur, Waxman at least uses a decent-looking mix of practical and CGI splatter that looks a lot wetter and splashier than in most films of this sort. CARTELS starts stumbling when it tries to get tricky, doling out increasingly ludicrous twists and double-crosses before abandoning logic altogether: the team has obviously been infiltrated by at least one mole, but when that person's identity is revealed, it certainly begs the question of whether CARTELS' version of the CIA has ever heard of a background check and wait, Seagal's character knew this person was a mole all along? Then why are you interrogating Jensen? It's no surprise that Seagal is once more the epitome of laziness, mumbling and wheezing, sporting his standard tinted glasses and a bushy goatee dyed with shoe polish, doubled in every shot where he's not facing the camera and in an embarrassing fight scene with GSP, where the MMA champ is forced to pretend he's getting his ass handed to him by the three-decades older and almost completely immobile Seagal, master of the timeless "wave your hands around and let your opponent run into them" move. CARTELS would've been an ordinary and perfectly watchable B-movie had Waxman just focused on Goss and the siege of the hotel and shitcanned the framing device. But the need to shoehorn Seagal into the movie ends up being its biggest detriment, stopping things cold every time he or the double pretending to be him shows up. The age-old question remains: Seagal doesn't give a shit. Why should we? (R, 100 mins)

(Canada/US/UK - 2017)

A muddled jumble of a sci-fi thriller, the Freestyle pickup THE RECALL can't figure out what it wants to be: alien invasion saga, CABIN IN THE WOODS ripoff, sensitive YA weepie, conspiracy movie, superhero origin story, or Wesley Snipes comeback vehicle. There's three credited writers plus someone else credited with "additional writing," so there's a big tip off to the indecisiveness and lack of focus. THE RECALL can't stop tripping over its own feet, shifting tone and direction so many times that it constantly stonewalls any momentum it generates. Five uninteresting college-age kids--two couples and a nerdy fifth wheel played by BREAKING BAD's RJ Mitte--head to a cabin for a weekend getaway only to find their plans ruined by an inconvenient alien invasion. Hothead Rob (Niko Pepaj) accidentally shoots and kills his girlfriend Kara (Hannah Rose May) and promptly gets pulled into the sky and zapped aboard a spacecraft, leaving heartbroken Charlie (someone calling himself Jedidiah Goodacre), who's still grieving after his girlfriend's death in a car crash ten months earlier, Kara's friend Annie (Laura Bilgeri), and Brendan (Mitte), to seek the protection of a local survivalist (Snipes) with a complicated backstory who's been preparing for "the arrival" for over 20 years. Snipes' character has some kind of psychic connection with a Russian prisoner (Graham Shiels) being held at a remote military base in Alaska in one of several subplots that never quite come together.

Top-billed Mitte has little to do and Snipes gets more screen time than you might expect for his "and Wesley Snipes" billing (he's also one of 22 credited producers), but the real stars are Goodacre and Bilgeri, which requires director Mauro Borrelli to frequently stop the film cold to establish their love connection and his emo bona fides. There's nothing like a violent attack by a seven-foot-tall, lizard-like alien brought to a screeching halt by a guy who picks the most inopportune times to wallow in self-pity over his dead girlfriend. Sorry for your loss, brah, but is this really the time? Borrelli has made a few low-budget DTV horror movies over the last decade in between his far more lucrative day job as a conceptual artist and illustrator on any number of big budget movies going back to the late '80s--THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, BATMAN RETURNS, a couple PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN entries, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, and the upcoming STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI just to name a few--and early on, some of the visual effects and the creature design are surprisingly well-done, which isn't a surprise considering he probably has some friends in the business who did him a solid. But those guys must've had other things to do midway through production, because the effects get much shoddier as the film goes on, but it's right in line with everything else in THE RECALL that starts falling apart around the same time. The only reason to bother checking this out is Snipes, who turns in a far more spirited and amusing performance than he needed to, putting forth much more effort here than he did in most of the films leading up to his stretch in the hoosegow for tax evasion. Snipes turns the character into a bitterly sarcastic smartass ("Come on, sissy boy!" he keeps telling Brendan), though that could just be a coping mechanism once the veteran actor realized he was merely a supporting actor in a Jedidiah Goodacre movie that ends with three young characters newly imbued with otherworldly powers, looking in the distance at a gray sky with one actually saying "Looks like a storm's coming." (R, 91 mins)