Sunday, April 29, 2012

In Theaters: SAFE (2012)


Written and directed by Boaz Yakin.  Cast: Jason Statham, Robert John Burke, Chris Sarandon, Anson Mount, James Hong, Reggie Lee, Catherine Chan, Sandor Tecsy, Joseph Sikora, Igor Jijikine, Jack Gwaltney, Jay Giannone. (R, 95 mins)

The heyday of the action star is further in the rearview mirror every day, so much so that 2010's THE EXPENDABLES and its upcoming sequel come off as nostalgic trips to a bygone era instead of current action movies (especially the sequel, which will mark the first wide-release appearances of Chuck Norris and Jean Claude van Damme on the big screen in years).  Sure, we got a Bond and a Bourne movie every few years, but these days, action flicks are usually forgettable, CGI-heavy yawners with no sense of style or personality.  But here's Jason Statham, cranking out anywhere between two and four movies a year that aren't exactly blockbusters, but with their modest budgets, they rarely lose money.  Statham is very much the Last Action Hero who, depending on your point of view, either came along 20 years too late or is one of the only things keeping these old-school genre pictures alive.

A rare shot of Jason Statham
pointing a gun in a film
In the ridiculous and highly entertaining SAFE, Statham is Luke Wright, and Luke has fallen on hard times, to put it mildly.  An ex-cop who resorted to MMA cage fighting, Luke was supposed to throw a fight and didn't, which resulted in his wife and unborn child being murdered by Russian mobsters.  These same Russian mobsters are after Mei (Catherine Chan), a young Chinese girl and a mathematical genius gifted with instant memorization.  Mei knows a secret code given to her by powerful Triad boss Han Jiao (the great James Hong) and his flunky Quan Chang (Reggie Lee), that holds the key to a large sum of money.  Luke and Mei's paths cross on a NYC subway platform where he's about to end it all by jumping in front of a train and she's being pursued by the Russians, the Triads, and a squad of rogue cops, led by Wolf (Robert John Burke), who work for both organizations.  Luke saves her and the pursuit begins, with Luke playing all three sides, plus the corrupt mayor (Chris Sarandon) and his assistant/lover (Anson Mount) against the other, with a good chunk of Manhattan being shot up in the process.

Statham and Catherine Chan on the run
Writer-director Boaz Yakin, an occasional filmmaker (FRESH, REMEMBER THE TITANS) and veteran journeyman screenwriter (with credits ranging from Clint Eastwood's THE ROOKIE to PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME and even DIRTY DANCING: HAVANA NIGHTS), gives us a lot, and I mean a lot of exposition in the early going, but he does a very impressive job of economizing it.  Other films with as much backstory would've taken over an hour to go through what Yakin bulldozes past in about a third of the time.  SAFE packs a lot of plot into 95 minutes, and, as usual with Statham films, it gets pretty hard to swallow.  It's not enough for Statham's Luke to be an ex-cop:  he has to be a whistleblower ousted from the NYPD and forced to become a cage fighter, then he's a widower, homeless, suicidal, and part of a secret anti-terrorism task force that caused some bad blood between him and the mayor's assistant.  As ludicrous as it all is, it's a total blast until a rather weak wrap-up that feels like Yakin didn't know how to close it.  But it has a lot of great action scenes (choreographed by veteran stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski, most notably Keanu Reeves' stunt double on the MATRIX films) and some impressively outrageous, over-the-top violence, the likes of which make SAFE a distant relative to films like RUNNING SCARED (2006) and PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (2008) in terms of utterly repugnant characters and a complete disregard for human life and restraint in general.  It's the kind of movie where Quan Chang is ushering a bunch of people out of a hotel lobby and yells "Anyone stops moving gets killed...like this!" and blasts the poor bastard in front of him--who was moving, and quickly--just to illustrate his point, and you find yourself laughing at it.

Chan with James Hong as powerful Triad boss Han Jiao
In spite of some intermittently-utilized CGI and compositing, SAFE feels a lot like a NYC-set film of the 1970s or 1980s.  Not so much in style, but in tone.  A good chunk of it was actually shot in NYC (the rest in Philadelphia) and Mark Mothersbaugh's score sounds like a score used to sound. There's a lot of percussion and a lot of horns that, in a way, reminded me of some of David Shire's legendary TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE score back in 1974.  There's no trendy, flavor-of-the-month sound propelling the mayhem here.  It's an enjoyably silly, stupid movie, but it has grit and a personality to it that a lot of today's would-be action films are sorely lacking.  And when's the last time you saw guys like Chris Sarandon and James Hong getting prominent screen time in a major theatrical release?

Friday, April 27, 2012

In Theaters: THE RAVEN (2012)


Directed by James McTeigue.  Written by Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston.  Cast: John Cusack, Luke Evans, Brendan Gleeson, Alice Eve, Kevin R. McNally, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Sam Hazeldine, Dave Legeno.  (R, 111 mins)

THE RAVEN is a potentially fun bit of speculative fiction that presents Edgar Allan Poe spending the days before his death tracking down a Baltimore serial killer who patterns his murders on elements in Poe's own work.  Not a new concept, but it's one with some potential given Poe's stature to this day.  But what ends up on the screen is a drab, laborious cut-and-paste slasher film that never finds the right tone and doesn't do anything of interest with Poe himself.  As Poe, a miscast John Cusack never seems set on whether he wants to play it straight or tongue-in-cheek. 

An alcoholic and an opium addict, Poe is broke and dealing with writer's block when he's consulted by Detective Fields (Luke Evans) about a string of brutal murders lifted directly from his stories.  The killer is specifically targeting Poe, and ensures the writer's involvement by kidnapping his fiancee Emily (Alice Eve, who's terrible) and burying her alive and leaving clues to her whereabouts on the bodies of each new victim.

Cusack as Poe
Former Wachowski Bros. protege James McTeigue, director of V FOR VENDETTA (2006) and the disappointing NINJA ASSASSIN (2009), is helming his first film away from the MATRIX duo, but doesn't bring any of the sense of pacing or style that those films possessed.  What he does hold over from NINJA ASSASSIN is the completely cartoonish CGI splatter, seen in its full effect during a PIT AND THE PENDULUM-inspired killing that's simply embarrassing and gives it a thoroughly DTV feel.  How much longer will we tolerate this nonsense?   Have you ever seen CGI blood in a non-comic book or graphic novel-derived film and not had it take you completely out of it? 

Cusack, with Alice Eve as

Cusack doesn't seem at all comfortable in a period piece like this, especially when the script by Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston has him using anachronistic bits of dialogue, like "serial killer," a term that wasn't coined until the late 1960s and not even used until the 1970s (and I have doubts that "mouth-breather" was a common insult in 1849).  There are numerous bits where Cusack seems to be attempting a sort-of campy, over-the-top Nicolas Cage thing, especially when he's screaming "EMMMMIIIIIILLLLLYYYYYYY!!!!" (watch for that to be a YouTube sensation shortly), which only distracted me into wishing Nicolas Cage was starring in this.  Then it at least would've been crazy and stupid instead of halting and indecisive.  Cusack is a fine actor, but he's all wrong here, and he's not helped by Eve's awful performance.  Brendan Gleeson is OK as her irate father, but he's not given much to do other than be Brendan Gleeson.  Evans (Aramis in last year's steampunk-inspired THREE MUSKETEERS remake) does some good work as the determined Fields and actually gives a more interesting performance than Cusack.  But it's mainly just a series of increasingly improbable coincidences and giant leaps of presumption (oh look, here's a convenient map tattooed on a victim's back and there's a guy right here who's an expert on latitude and longitude!) where 17 consecutive contrivances--all expertly choreographed by the killer, of course--have to take place in order to move to the next plot point. 

Luke Evans as Detective Fields
THE RAVEN could've been a fun, affectionate, and enjoyably gory tribute to a master of American literature and mystery/horror icon, but it just takes this character and puts him in a dull and unattractively-shot 19th century police procedural.  It's too self-serious when it should be winking, and its attempts at actual humor are ill-timed and miss the mark.  There's talent and intelligence behind the scenes here, but almost everyone seems to be going through the motions on an off day.  It's a slight, forgettable time-killer that no one will remember two weeks from now, and the DVD (is there a street date yet?) should just come with a $3 Big Lots price sticker as part of the cover art.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

New from Criterion: THE ORGANIZER (1963)


Directed by Mario Monicelli.  Written by Age-Scarpelli (Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli) and Mario Monicelli.  Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Gabriella Giorgelli, Folco Lulli, Bernard Blier, Francois Perier, Vittorio Sanipoli, Mario Pisu, Kenneth Kove, Giampiero Albertini. (Unrated, 130 mins).

Famed Italian director Mario Monicelli (BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET) was never identified with the Neorealist movement but was occasionally on the periphery, usually as a script contributor on films like THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US and BITTER RICE.  But Neorealism's influences can be seen in THE ORGANIZER, released this week in beautiful DVD and Blu-ray editions by Criterion.

THE ORGANIZER (Italian title: I COMPAGNI, or The Comrades) wears its socialist politics on its sleeve with the story of a late 1800s strike at a Turin textile factory.  The workers, worn down by 14-hour work days with one 30-minute lunch, revolt when an aging, exhausted worker loses his hand in a machine accident.  Uneducated and with a good number of them illiterate, their initial attempts at dealing with management--first with the glad-handing, manipulative supervisor (Vittorio Sanipoli) who keeps trying to convince them that he's on their side and he's "one of them," and then with the openly condescending manager (Mario Pisu)--get them nowhere.  But one day, a grubby-looking stranger calling himself Professor Sinigaglia (Marcello Mastroianni) arrives in town and immediately latches himself to their cause.  But who is Sinigaglia?  He has a friend in schoolteacher Mr. DiMeo (Francois Perier), and may be on the run from police in Genoa. He may even be a con artist.  But he's a natural, charismatic leader, and he inspires the factory workers to stand up for themselves and helps them put together a strike from the planning stages to implementation. Their demands?  A 13-hour work day with a one-hour lunch break, and accident insurance  But the factory management, and the old, angry owner Mr. Luigi (Kenneth Kove) aren't about to play ball.

While the subject matter is serious and the finale a grim, powerful gutpunch, complete with a brilliant final shot that's cynical and heartbreaking, Monicelli and co-writers Age-Scarpelli (the name used by the writing team of Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli) spend a lot of time with these characters, allowing us to know them and their backstories (Mastroianni doesn't appear until 30 minutes into the film) and this establishes a feeling of warmth and familiarity with the workers.  And there's a lot of humor as well.  It's often very funny but never slapsticky, and the filmmakers do a magnificent job of balancing the humor with the serious drama in a way that feels natural and compassionate and never stoops to screaming "Message!"  The script got a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination after the film's 1964 US release, losing to the Cary Grant film FATHER GOOSE.  Giuseppe Rotunno's black & white cinematography makes for a stunning HD presentation in 1.85:1.  Extras include a booklet with a short essay by longtime Village Voice critic J. Hoberman and a 2006 introduction by Monicelli, who committed suicide in 2010 at 95 years of age by jumping from the window of his room at a hospital where was being treated for prostate cancer. 

Criterion have done their usual masterful job with this acclaimed-in-its-day but now somewhat forgotten film whose rediscovery in the US seems perfectly timed with today's economic and political concerns.  Highly recommended.

One-sheet for the film's 1964 US release

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Cult Movie Trash: CREATURE (2011)


Directed by Fred M. Andrews.  Written by Fred M. Andrews and Tracy Morse.  Cast: Mehcad Brooks, Serinda Swan, Dillon Casey, Lauren Schneider, Aaron Hill, Amanda Fuller, Sid Haig, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Daniel Bernhardt, Lance Nichols.  (R, 93 mins)

I saw a trailer for CREATURE late last summer before DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, and I wasn't alone in thinking "Uh...no way that's opening in theaters."  To everyone's surprise, it opened in early September as one of several new films hitting theaters nationwide on the same weekend.  Horror fans, having seen CREATURE on the cover of Fangoria as well as through numerous online ads, instantly gave it their blind seal of approval on internet discussion boards, declaring it the must-see movie of the weekend, essentially saying "Screw CONTAGION!  CREATURE looks like a real horror flick for the fans!"

CONTAGION opened in first place that weekend, and CREATURE opened...in 19th.  It pulled in $327,000 on 1507 screens, giving it the worst opening weekend of any film on more than 1500 screens.  Ever.  It averaged $220 per screen, giving it the second worst per screen average of any wide release.  Ever.

So what happened, fanboys?  I thought CREATURE was the movie to see.

Sid Haig in CREATURE.  Or any one of
the last 15 movies in which he's appeared.
How did a low-budget monster movie distributed by something called The Bubble Factory end up on 1500 screens nationwide?  Well, the Bubble Factory is a company owned by former Universal CEO Sid Sheinberg, largely credited with "discovering" Steven Spielberg.  It was Sheinberg who greenlit JAWS and was around a couple decades later for JURASSIC PARK.  It was also Sheinberg who infamously battled with Terry Gilliam over BRAZIL and it was Sheinberg who pieced together the butchered and ultimately unreleased "Love Conquers All" cut of the film against Gilliam's wishes.  Sheinberg left Universal at some point after the mid-1990s buyout by Seagrams and formed The Bubble Factory with his two sons.  Sheinberg and his family still undoubtedly have more money than they'll ever spend, which explains how CREATURE managed to get such a wide release, even though The Bubble Factory claimed it was "experimental marketing."  Yeah...experimental marketing made possible by access to ludicrous amounts of money.  You'd think someone of Sid Sheinberg's stature could find better projects to bankroll than a subpar SyFy-level movie with mostly unknown actors.  Aren't there more meaningful, ambitious projects for an old studio warhorse like Sheinberg to get behind?   And look, everybody loves the guy, but is it a good sign when Sid Haig is the biggest name in the cast?

The convoluted and rather perverse plot involves a group of obnoxious vacationers heading to New Orleans, driving through an off-the-map podunk town and finding their trip detoured by the backwoods legend of Lockjaw.  Lockjaw is a half-man/half-gator who was once inbred local Grimley Boutine (Daniel Bernhardt).  How he mutated into Lockjaw doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but does it need to?  The vacationing idiots want to check out Grimley's cabin, abandoned for 100 years, and after setting up camp, end up coming face-to-face with Grimley/Lockjaw, who pursues them through the surrounding bayou area. 

Mehcad Brooks vs. CREATURE

Equal parts THE DESCENT, THE WICKER MAN, and HEE HAW, CREATURE throws in some twists and has a weird incest theme throughout, so it gets points for earning its R rating with gusto, and in all fairness, it's hardly the worst thing that's ever played in theaters.  It only made headlines and gained its notoriety by bombing so spectacularly that it earned cult status as soon as the weekend grosses posted on Box Office Mojo by Sunday night of the opening weekend.  It's really nothing more than the kind of trashy, on-the-cheap, by-the-numbers splatter flick that gets dumped on DVD every week...just one with enough pull behind the scenes to somehow make it into theaters.

Amanda Fuller, presumably looking
for a way out of CREATURE
It's pretty disheartening to see the promising Amanda Fuller in this.  Her work in Simon Rumley's unbearably grim and profoundly depressing RED, WHITE & BLUE (2010) was a revelation.  But she's still young and establishing herself.  I'm not sure what Pruitt Taylor Vince is doing in this as Grover, the hapless village idiot.  An always-working, always-reliable character actor most recently seen as the doomed Otis on THE WALKING DEAD, Vince turned in an acclaimed performance in the 1995 indie HEAVY and has worked for the likes of Oliver Stone, Wim Wenders, and Giuseppe Tornatore, but here he is, stumbling and bumbling around and getting his face chewed off by a half-man/half-gator 25 minutes in.  I guess everybody's got bills to pay.  As expected, Sid Haig is cast radically against type as Sid Haig.

CREATURE's dismal box office performance set new standards for bombing in theaters.  But it's really just your ordinary bad DTV horror movie that accidentally made it to the big screen.  We're not talking about an MST3K-worthy yukfest here.  There's a nice shout-out to Jack Hill's SPIDER BABY (1968), which featured Haig.  But mostly, it's indifferently acted and slow moving and the best that can be said about the work of first-time director Fred M. Andrews is that he keeps the camera pointed in the right direction.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE WICKER TREE (2012)

(UK - 2012)

Written and directed by Robin Hardy.  Cast: Graham McTavish, Jacqueline Leonard, Brittania Nicol, Henry Garrett, Christopher Lee, Honeysuckle Weeks, Clive Russell, Keira McMillan, Lesley Mackie.  (R, 96 mins)

Robin Hardy's "re-imagining" of his 1973 classic THE WICKER MAN is a lot like one of those "latest & greatest" albums of re-recorded versions of past hits that aging hair metal bands crank out cheaply and quickly with one, maybe two original members when they're completely lacking any worthwhile new material. It looks and sounds a lot like the original, only without the thrill of seeing or hearing it for the first time, but there's a palpable sense of desperation disguised as relevancy permeating the whole phoned-in endeavor.  THE WICKER TREE, based on Hardy's 2006 novel Cowboys for Christ, is a truly depressing affair and a pale, uninspired, pointless retread of a revered film whose name has already been sullied by one bad remake in 2006.  But at least that Nicolas Cage train wreck was entertaining for all the wrong reasons ("The beeeeeees!").  THE WICKER TREE is just plain bad, and makes THE WICKER MAN (2006) look like THE WICKER MAN (1973).

Brittania Nicol as born-again Beth Boothby
Evangelical Christian music star Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) and her fiance Steve (Henry Garrett) are leaving Dallas to spend two years spreading God's word through Scotland (would it take that long?).  They're met in the small village of Tressock by Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonard).  The residents of Tressock are planning their annual May Day celebration, and elect Beth to be the May Queen, and Steve the "laddie" in their elaborate ritual, performed to bring the gift of young life to an area strangely devoid of new births.  Is it a curse on Tressock, or could it possibly be contamination from Sir Lachlan's nuclear power plant on the edge of town causing mass sterility?  Anyone who's seen either version of THE WICKER MAN knows that the two born-again innocents (well, almost...Beth used to be a trashy country-pop star before converting) are obviously being led to a sacrifice.

Graham McTavish as the evil Sir Lachlan Morrison
Where Edward Woodward's Sgt. Howie was appalled by the pagan goings-on around him in the 1973 version, Beth is strangely oblivious to it.  The townspeople sing the same kind of bawdy songs and everyone--including Steve--seems to have a go with Tressock's main seductress Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks), but Beth just seems to exist in her own bubble.  This could be intentional on Hardy's part as a criticism of America's religious right, and that would've made an interesting story if he had anything to say about it.  But instead, he just puts his characters through the motions, slowly (very slowly) killing time until we get to the inevitable climax.  Hardy does change things up a bit when it comes to who burns in the Wicker Tree, but it's handled so ineptly that it comes off as more humorous than anything, leading to a conclusion that rings completely false and makes no logical sense.  Without spoiling too much, wouldn't someone--anyone--come looking for a famous American singer who went to Scotland and never returned?  Or am I putting more thought into this than the filmmakers did?

Sir Christopher Lee in front of
the world's crappiest greenscreen
Hardy, directing his first film since 1986 and only his third since 1973, tries to modernize the incidental elements of the story--red-state America, a nuclear power plant, a considerable amount of gore in the climax, a mandatory stupid twist ending--but it's just perfunctory window dressing that really brings nothing new to the story.  He can use the term "re-imagining" or "companion piece" all he wants, but let's just call it what it is:  a lame, tired remake.  It's even sadder to see the legendary Christopher Lee trotted out to lend some semblance of credibility for maybe one minute (seriously, like 64 seconds) of screen time in a flashback as an elderly relative of a young Sir Lachlan.  Lee famously played the villain Lord Summerisle in the 1973 film, and he's always cited it as his personal favorite of the countless films he's made.  He was originally cast as Sir Lachlan when the film was announced in 2007 (and both Vanessa Redgrave and Faye Dunaway were, at various times, set to play Delia before Joan Collins ended up being cast), but by the time the cameras started rolling in 2009, Lee suffered a serious back injury during the filming of THE RESIDENT and withdrew from the project.  McTavish had been cast as Sir Lachlan's henchman Beane and found himself promoted to the lead role, which led to Collins being replaced by the more age-appropriate (McTavish being 40 years younger than Lee) Leonard.  Hardy quickly wrote a cameo for Lee, whose one brief scene is shot against the ugliest, shoddiest-looking greenscreen CGI imagery you'll ever see.

Other than Lee, who really isn't on screen long enough to do much, the film's only decent performance comes from McTavish, who tries to bring some level of menace to the role and gives it his best effort.  But it's Nicol and Garrett who have to carry the film, and neither are up to the challenge, especially Garrett, who sounds badly dubbed most of the time.  Let's be honest:  most people walking into Best Buy or Wal-Mart will see this on the shelf and think it's a sequel to Neil LaBute's hilarious 2006 remake.  And I think that's great.  Let the 1973 film stand on its own in its unique, lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance, untarnished by ill-advised remakes and "re-imaginings" that give it a bad name.   Those who have experienced it know, and those willing to chance it, despite the nonsense that it's spawned, will be richly rewarded.  I can't say the same for the truly abysmal THE WICKER TREE.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: LAST OF THE DOGMEN (1995)


Written and directed by Tab Murphy.  Cast: Tom Berenger, Barbara Hershey, Kurtwood Smith, Steve Reevis, Andrew Miller, Eugene Blackbear, Parley Baer, Mark Boone Junior, Molly Parker.  (PG, 118 mins)

Released with little fanfare in the fall of 1995, LAST OF THE DOGMEN didn't generate much business in theaters, opening wide but topping out around $7 million and exiting multiplexes fairly quickly.  But it was one of those films that became a word-of-mouth hit once it was released on video and found an even bigger audience once it started airing on cable.  I was working at Blockbuster at the time this came out on video and we had just two copies and they were never in stock.  It was eventually released on DVD, but that edition has gone out of print.  Currently, at the time of this writing, sealed DVD copies of LAST OF THE DOGMEN are starting at $72 on Amazon.  Originally released by the short-lived Savoy Pictures, the film's rights are now held by Universal, who have no plans to re-release the film on DVD or on Blu-ray.  As my friend Marty McKee of Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot often says, "Some studios must not like making money."

When three escaped convicts head into a 4000-mile stretch of rough terrain in Montana's Oxbow Mountains, Sheriff Deegan (Kurtwood Smith) knows there's only one man who can find them.

Sheriff, to deputy: "Go find Lewis Gates."
Deputy: "You mean..."
Sheriff: "Just find him!"

Cut to the exterior of Doc's Bar, as the person we assume to be Lewis Gates is--where else?--passed out on the pool table.  Gates (Tom Berenger) is a loner and the town drunk, and there's a lot of bad blood between him and Deegan:  Gates was married to Deegan's daughter, and she drowned while crossing a river and Gates couldn't save her.  Deegan has no use for Gates, and of course sums it up in the most cliched way possible: "Drunk or sober...you're still the best tracker in the state!"

This is all in the first eight minutes, and admittedly, the film doesn't get off to a great start.  Gates reluctantly heads into the mountains with his trusty canine companion Zip, and they soon find some prison clothing, an arrow, and "enough blood to paint (the sheriff's) office!"  Gates seeks the assistance of Lillian Sloan (Barbara Hershey), an expert in Native American anthropology, and despite her misgivings, Gates is convinced that the convicts were killed by Cherokee "dog soldiers," warriors thought to be wiped out at least a century earlier.  Soon, Gates, Lillian, and Zip head deep into the Oxbows to investigate the possibility of a secret tribe, one made of descendants of the "Dogmen," still existing in the mountains, untouched by man and modern society.

Clearly inspired by DANCES WITH WOLVES, LAST OF THE DOGMEN certainly appeals to that uniquely annoying "midlife crisis white guys who find out they're 1/32 Native American and just run with it" demographic, but its true appeal lies elsewhere.  This is a charmingly, almost defiantly old-fashioned picture, the kind of which were hard to come by even in 1995, let alone today.  It's easy to see why it resonated with video store customers and TV viewers.  In a way, Berenger is the perfect leading man for such a film.  Almost a decade removed from his Oscar-nominated performance in 1986's PLATOON, Berenger enjoyed several years as an above-the-title Hollywood A-lister able to shine in commercial hits (1989's MAJOR LEAGUE) and ambitious, challenging arthouse fare (1991's AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD).  But by 1995, after several flops in a row (SLIVER, MAJOR LEAGUE II, CHASERS), Berenger's star was dimming and after LAST OF THE DOGMEN, he would only headline one more big theatrical release (1996's THE SUBSTITUTE) before launching his second career as a straight-to-video mainstay, with occasional supporting roles in major films like 2001's TRAINING DAY and 2010's INCEPTION).  Berenger is one of those actors who didn't draw huge crowds to theaters on his own, but was a sturdy, reliable actor for an evening's video rental, and that's where LAST OF THE DOGMEN really took off (the same could be said for THE SUBSTITUTE, but that did a little better theatrically). 

LAST OF THE DOGMEN is cliched and predictable and the soaring, manipulative score by David Arnold tells you exactly what to feel in the most John Williams-y way possible, but it's marvelously acted by Berenger and Zip (easily one of cinema's great dog sidekicks), beautifully shot by Karl Walter Lindenlaub (this must've looked stunning on a big screen), and writer/director Tab Murphy manages to make it look like a much bigger-budgeted film than it is.  Murphy was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing 1988's GORILLAS IN THE MIST and logged some time later on writing for Disney (1996's THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, 1999's TARZAN, 2001's ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE, and 2003's BROTHER BEAR), but LAST OF THE DOGMAN is, thus far, his only credit as a director.

It's worth noting that at least two versions of LAST OF THE DOGMEN exist.  The theatrical version (also on VHS) includes much-maligned narration by an uncredited Wilford Brimley that was added by the producers against Murphy's wishes and probably did more harm than good. The eventual DVD release apparently included options for the version with narration and without.  The version streaming on Netflix has some very sporadic narration in maybe three scenes, but it's definitely not Brimley, nor is it Berenger, even though it's supposed to be him talking.  I don't know if this is actually a third variant of the film, but the Netflix print (HD, 2.40:1) also runs two minutes shorter than the 120-minute theatrical version, so perhaps Murphy has tweaked it since the DVD release.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

New on DVD: Accidental Robert Powell Retrospective: THE ASPHYX (1973) and THE SURVIVOR (1981)

Best known for the title role in the classic 1977 NBC miniseries JESUS OF NAZARETH, British actor Robert Powell seemed poised for the big time in the mid-to-late 1970s.  After paying his dues with small roles in major films like THE ITALIAN JOB (1969) and supporting turns in horror films like ASYLUM (1972), Powell had his breakout role in Ken Russell's MAHLER (1974), followed by a guest turn in Russell's TOMMY (1975) and after JESUS OF NAZARETH, he starred in the 1978 version of THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS.  In 1980, he turned in a brilliant performance as a phony Rasputin-like mystic manipulating a politician's family in the bizarre Australian thriller HARLEQUIN (released in the US as DARK FORCES), and then he more or less drifted from the limelight and by 1984, he was doing bad sci-fi/horror movies like WHAT WAITS BELOW.  He always stayed busy, usually in television (most recently spending seven years on the BBC medical drama HOLBY CITY) or in foreign-language films that didn't see much exposure outside of Europe.  In recent years, he's also found much work as a sought-after voice for audio books and TV documentaries.  Now 67, Powell remains busy but hasn't appeared in a film since the barely-released COLOR ME KUBRICK (2006) with John Malkovich.  But there was a time when Powell was almost a major star, and two cult films were coincidentally released on DVD by two different companies this week that serve as virtual bookends to Powell's big-screen heyday:  1973's THE ASPHYX, from Redemption/Kino Lorber (also available on Blu-ray), and 1981's THE SURVIVOR, from Scorpion Releasing.


THE ASPHYX has been on DVD before, but never looking quite as good as Redemption/Kino Lorber's HD remastering here.  The exquisite production design and striking colors are showcased in this beautiful transfer.  That the film looks as good as it does shouldn't be a surprise:  director Peter Newbrook (his only directing credit) and cinematographer Freddie Young both logged significant time under the tutelage of David Lean, with Newbrook as a camera operator and second unit photographer, and Young winning cinematography Oscars for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, and RYAN'S DAUGHTER.  THE ASPHYX, long revered as one of the most imaginative of 1970s British horror films, can now be appreciated as one of the most visually stunning as well.  I've always found this film a little too slowly-paced, but seen the way it's meant to be seen, in glorious 2.35:1 widescreen instead of a crummy budget-label DVD or a hideously cropped, unwatchable VHS tape makes it a much better experience.  Seeing it on this Blu-ray really is like seeing it again for the first time.

In 1875 London, widower Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) is experimenting with photographic techniques and, through the deaths of his young fiancee and his son and a series of contrivances and hokey deduction that require you to just roll with it, concludes that smudges found on photographs of people near the moment of death is a manifestation of the Asphyx, the ancient Greek "spirit of death" coming to claim a soul as it departs the body. Working with his adopted son Giles (Powell), Sir Hugo develops a technique of capturing a person's Asphyx using light projection and crystals (just roll with it), thereby enabling a person to achieve immortality.  Of course, various tragedies befall Sir Hugo, as they would to anyone exhibiting the hubris to try to play God.

US poster art
There's no denying that a lot of this is rather silly, but a pro like Stephens (THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES) can sell a line like "We must capture my Asphyx!"  Powell, who would go on to MAHLER right after this, provides solid support as the initially skeptical Giles.  If you can get by the occasional silliness, THE ASPHYX is one of the more ambitious British horror films of its time, marred mainly by an intrusively inappropriate score by Bill McGuffie that seems like it belongs in a lush romantic drama.  Redemption/Kino Lorber provides two versions of THE ASPHYX in this package:  the original 86-minute British cut, and the extended 99-minute American cut (an 83-minute version also exists, but there was no need to include that).  The American cut fleshes out some character bits and at least a couple of important details and is probably the way to go.  However, the additional 13 minutes of footage throughout are culled from a clearly inferior source and there's a glaring dip in image quality during these bits, which is very likely why it's presented as an extra rather than as the primary presentation.  The shorter cut was the official UK release and that version maintains the consistently exemplary image and sound quality.  (Unrated, 86/99 mins)


The second of two back-to-back films Powell starred in for Australian producer Antony I. Ginnane, THE SURVIVOR is a supernatural thriller directed by Powell's HARLEQUIN co-star David Hemmings (BLOW-UP, DEEP RED).  Powell stars as David Keller, an airline pilot whose 747 crashes and explodes just after takeoff.  300 people oboard--all passengers and crew--are killed, except for Keller, who manages to walk away unscathed.  Keller has no recollection of what happened, is told by investigators that there's no possible way he could've escaped from the wreckage and they even begin to doubt he was ever on the plane at all.  We know he was, and he starts being stalked by a mystery woman (Jenny Agutter) who talks of life after death and how "they're" using her to get to him.  Meanwhile, young children around town are killing off adults--who may or may not have some connection to the crash--in assorted grisly ways.  THE SURVIVOR never got a US theatrical release and wasn't seen in America until it aired on CBS in 1988.  It's been on a couple of public domain DVD labels in its truncated form, probably using the TV version running anywhere from 82 minutes to 87 minutes, but this Scorpion release marks the first official release of the uncut 98-minute version in the US.

Based on a novel by James Herbert and scripted by David Ambrose (one of the writers of 1980's THE FINAL COUNTDOWN), THE SURVIVOR is a rather low-key, slowly-paced thriller, ambitious but rarely exciting, with more ideas than it knows how to handle, and it feels very much like an extended episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE that could've probably used one more polish.  In the first 45 or so minutes, Hemmings spends too much time with minor supporting characters and keeps Powell offscreen for far too long, but he does an impressive job with the terrifying plane crash, there's a couple of nicely creepy sequences and the scenes with Powell and Agutter haunted by the wailing cries of the spirits of the dead are quite unnerving. There's one or two moderately gory deaths and some typically dangerous Ozsploitation stuntwork early on, but I can see why no US distributors showed much interest in it, especially in the slasher-crazy days of 1981.  Powell and Agutter are fine and there's some nice cinematography by John Seale, who would soon go to Hollywood and earn several Oscar nominations and winning one for his work photographing THE ENGLISH PATIENT.  THE SURVIVOR is a decent, restrained little horror film, but largely an insignificant one except for it being the final screen appearance of Hollywood legend Joseph Cotten, seen here in a small role as a priest.  Cotten, then 76 and looking frail, suffered a debilitating stroke shortly after finishing his work on THE SURVIVOR, prompting his retirement from acting.  He died in 1994 at the age of 88. 

Scorpion's remastered, 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer looks fantastic.  Extras include a commentary with Ginnane and Scorpion horror hostess Katarina, plus a trailer. (Unrated, 98 mins)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


The two-disc THE NURSES COLLECTION, the latest in Shout Factory's "Roger Corman's Cult Classics" line, gathers four of the five NURSES films, omitting the first entry in the series, Stephanie Rothman's THE STUDENT NURSES (1970), which is planned for a future "Student" collection.  It also presents the remaining four films out of chronological order, but I don't suppose it matters much since they aren't direct sequels, but for purists' sake, they'll be covered in their proper order. 


Writer/director George Armitage went on to make films as varied as VIGILANTE FORCE (1976), MIAMI BLUES (1990), and his best-known effort, GROSSE POINTE BLANK (1997), but his career got off to a dubious start with PRIVATE DUTY NURSES, generally regarded as the low-point of the series.  It's dull, downbeat, unnecessarily grim and almost completely lacking in humor, making it one of the least-entertaining drive-in exploitation films to come off the Corman assembly line.  It follows the basic formula of three young nurses (Kathy Cannon, Joyce Williams, Pegi Boucher) and their various trials, tribulations, and sexcapades.  Armitage's script is going for insight but comes off as heavy-handed as he tries to shoehorn in too much social commentary, be it in the form of civil rights, feminism, pollution, or Vietnam, instead of what he should be doing, plus he bogs things down with a drug smuggling subplot and one of the nurses being violently raped late in the film.  I thought these were supposed to be "fun."  There's the requisite T&A, but Armitage tries to make the sex scenes all arty with various show-offy camera techniques.  PRIVATE DUTY NURSES just doesn't work at all, and given how hands-on Corman was with all of the films he was overseeing, I'm surprised he didn't order some changes.  But everyone has to start somewhere, and Armitage went on to make a few fine films over his long-lasting but frequently inactive career (he's only directed seven films in 41 years, the last of which was 2004's THE BIG BOUNCE).  Also with future all-purpose '80s asshole Paul Gleason, Herbert Washington, Jr, Dennis Redfield, Joseph Kauffman, and Paul Hampton.  The most memorable element of PRIVATE DUTY NURSES is the soundtrack by Sky (who also appear in the film), led by future Knack frontman Doug Fieger.  (R, 80 mins).


Armitage is back for NIGHT CALL NURSES, but only with a screenwriting credit, as Jonathan Kaplan makes his directing debut.  Kaplan went on to a busy career in mainstream films, most notably directing Jodie Foster in her Oscar-winning performance in 1988's THE ACCUSED, before settling into network TV in recent years.  The tone is still semi-serious, but Kaplan does a better job putting more humor into the proceedings.  He seems to be aware that it's a junk movie and doesn't take anything too seriously.  Again, we have three nurses, this time in a psych ward--Patti T. Byrne, Mittie Lawrence, and Alana Collins, who married George Hamilton around this time and was better known as Alana Stewart during and after her marriage a few years later to Rod Stewart.  Byrne hooks up with a New Agey commune leader (Clint Kimbrough), Collins with a pill-addled trucker (Richard Young), and Lawrence with the ex-con pal (Felton Perry) of a jailed black activist (Stack Pierce).  For the most part, Kaplan knows what's expected of him and makes a fairly entertaining B-picture that starts off shaky but improves as it progresses, is better-paced, with a late film car chase, a shootout, a strange and very brief detour into slasher horror territory, and several sex scenes throughout, though the Byrne angle of the plot is a real momentum-killing drag.  Also with Corman fixture Dick Miller, 1940s PRC leading man Tris Coffin, Martin Ashe as the perpetually exposing Bathrobe Benny, and a young Dennis Dugan (director of most of Adam Sandler's comedies) as a dweeby male nurse. (R, 78 mins)



NIGHT CALL NURSES co-star Clint Kimbrough returns to direct this entry, electing to use the Why Bother? pseudonym "Clinton Kimbro," and wastes no time, giving us a topless shot of star Jean Manson in the very first scene.  Written by regular Corman screenwriter Howard R. Cohen, THE YOUNG NURSES is more of the same, with--wait for it--three nurses (Manson, Ashley Porter, and Angela Gibbs) and their R-rated soap opera shenanigans: Manson rescues champion boater Zack Taylor, romancing and nursing him back to health before the big regatta, Porter getting with doctor Jack LaRue, Jr. while overstepping her bounds into possible malpractice, and Gibbs investigating the mysterious drug-related death of a teenager she was treating for conjunctivitis.  Armitage is nowhere behind the scenes on this one, and as a result, there's no pretense of subtext as the series now focuses almost exclusively on sex and action.  THE YOUNG NURSES boasts an interesting supporting cast, most notably legendary director Samuel Fuller as a rich drug kingpin, plus Allan Arbus, Dick Miller, Don Keefer, a then-unknown Sally Kirkland, and, in his last screen appearance, Mantan Moreland, who died later the same year.  Future Charles Bronson business partner Pancho Kohner handled second unit duties.  Kimbrough and Cohen do work in a brief rallying cry against a medical profession that's not as focused on the patient as it should be, but unlike Armitage, they wisely don't let the social commentary get in the way of gratuitous sex.  (R, 76 mins).


When you watch all four of these in quick succession, they start to blur together.  But I can see why Shout Factory positioned CANDY STRIPE NURSES as the first film on disc one of this set.  It's easily the best of the four, with the most comedic elements and the most T&A, even though there's still a crusader subplot with one of the titular ladies (Maria Rojo) trying to clear a murder suspect who, natch, she's screwing. Here we have high-school girls volunteering as candy-stripers at a local hospital, with cult star Candice Rialson (CHATTERBOX) taking it upon herself to treat a burned-out, impotent rock star (Kendrew Lascelles), and brainy Robin Mattson helping injured college basketball star Rod Haase write his final term paper, in addition to...you know. Writer/director Alan Holleb benefits from having what's arguably the best-looking trio of stars in this set.  Plus, Rialson, Mattson, and Rojo all turn in credible and very appealing performances (Mattson went on to a long career in daytime soaps, but this was Rojo's only screen credit), miles ahead of the acting seen in PRIVATE DUTY NURSES, to name just one.  While following the same formula, Holleb actually manages to establish some character development and succeeds in finding just the right balance between comedy, drama, action, and sex.  Also with Rick Gates, Bill Erwin, Tara Strohmeier, Monte Landis, and repeat appearances by Don Keefer, Sally Kirkland, and Dick Miller as a boorish basketball spectator, getting popcorn poured over his head by the impossibly cute Mattson. (R, 77 mins)

Shout Factory presents these films in extremely nice-looking 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers and they undoubtedly look as good as they ever will, especially given their low-budget origins.  Extras include interviews with Corman, his wife Julie, and directors Kaplan and Holleb, with Kaplan telling a great anecdote explaining the structure of a Nurses film, with Corman's insistence on three storylines (also the norm in his Stewardess and Teacher productions) based on the success of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.  While there's no issue at all with the quality of the presentation, the fact is these films, with the exception of the entertaining CANDY STRIPE NURSES, just aren't very good.  These were pretty big drive-in hits for Corman back in the day, but they're very much a product of their time and they've aged with far less grace than a lot of the films Shout Factory has been releasing in these sets.  Having said that, they are important documents of a bygone exploitation era and are certainly worth purchasing for devotees of that time period.  Shout's acquisition of the Corman library has been one of the great DVD (and occasional Blu-ray) happenings of the last several years, but the appeal of THE NURSES COLLECTION is probably a bit more limited than its predecessors.  They aren't at all the lighthearted, comedic romps promised by the advertising, but in a way, that's classic Corman.  Imagining yourself as a teenager at the drive-in watching these sexploitation flicks...who cares about the plot?  And I'm sure that someone, somewhere, got laid for the first time at a drive-in that was showing PRIVATE DUTY NURSES.  And to that person, it's probably the greatest movie ever made.  That guy will want to own this.

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE DIVIDE (2012)


Directed by Xavier Gens.  Written by Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean.  Cast: Lauren German, Michael Biehn, Milo Ventimiglia, Courtney B. Vance, Rosanna Arquette, Ashton Holmes, Michael Eklund, Ivan Gonzalez, Abbey Thickson. (Unrated, 122 mins)

French director Xavier Gens' 2008 release FRONTIER(S) established him as an ambitious new voice in horror cinema, though he also had the dismal HITMAN in theaters in late 2007 (FRONTIER(S) was made first).  The postnuke endurance test THE DIVIDE is Gens' long-awaited follow-up, and it finds him back in the nihilistic "extreme" mode of FRONTIER(S) as he was reportedly unhappy with his experiences doing HITMAN for a major studio.  I'm usually drawn to that peculiar brand of cinema that tries to see just how much you can withstand, but THE DIVIDE is essentially SALO in a bomb shelter, wallowing in misery, degradation, and boredom for over two hours.

When nuclear warheads fall on NYC, a small group of apartment dwellers manage to find shelter in a basement fortified for such an occasion by the super (Michael Biehn).  After about two minutes where everyone just seems mildly inconvenienced, tensions mount and tempers flare over things like the monotony of eating beans all the time to concerned mom Rosanna Arquette wanting people to stop smoking.  There's also Arquette's young daughter Abbey Thickson; Lauren German, who's possibly pregnant (it's mentioned in passing, then forgotten); her spineless fiance Ivan Gonzalez; conscientious Courtney B. Vance, who seems to have some kind of military experience; leather-jacketed Michael Eklund (who, right after the bombs hit and Biehn seals the steel door, flicks a smoke and declares "I'm gonna take a shit"), and half-brothers Milo Ventimiglia (short-fused dickhead) and Ashton Holmes (sensitive acoustic guitar type). Some guys in Haz-Mat suits come in and Biehn and Vance manage to kill three of them, but not before another takes Thickson away and then the door is welded shut, leaving these characters--and us--confined to the bunker for the duration.  Forget even having time for cabin fever to set in.  These people are unbearable assholes from the get-go.  I think showing the ugliness of humanity was probably the idea, but it doesn't work when it's done in such scenery-chewing fashion: Biehn growls, chomps on a cigar, and blames it all on "the ragheads."  Ventimiglia and Eklund immediately form a bizarre bond where they just bully everyone, particularly Arquette, who cracks quickly and becomes an eager and willing sex slave to the two of them (I wonder if the anal sex scene with Eklund, during which he smears baked beans over her back between thrusts while Ventimiglia watches and masturbates will end up on her career highlight reel), and Gonzalez constantly has his manhood tested. 

Alliances form and shift throughout, and there are some admittedly interesting character arcs that take place, especially in the climax.  Gens and writers Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean take a pretty big risk late in the game with German's character that immediately changes the dynamic of the entire structure, but an inventive idea 115 minutes into a 122-minute film is, to say the least, tardy.  Elsewhere, Gens only seems interested in shock value:  the decomposing bodies of the three Haz-Mat guys start to stink up the place, so dismemberment and disposal in the septic tank is required.  Roaches multiply amidst the rotted food.  Bodies deteriorate over the unspecified time, and hair and teeth start falling out.  When a power shift takes place and Ventimiglia and Eklund gain control, then it's time for some random torture, garish application of makeup, cross-dressing, treating people like dogs and making them beg for food, trangressive moments involving bowel movements and menstrual blood (necrophilia is also implied), and, in what is apparently a recurrent Gens motif from FRONTIER(S), a heroine forced to swim through shit. I know how she feels.

All of this would have some kind of effect if Gens had any kind of commentary to make.  But it's just overwrought and unbelievable, with six capable actors who seem to be engaged in a contest to see who gets the last morsel of scenery remaining (I exclude two from those charges, as German keeps it under control for the most part, as does Vance, who if anything, seems slightly embarrassed to be in this).  There's also gratuitous 9/11 invocations to unsuccessfully convince the viewer that this is a serious film.

THE DIVIDE received mostly negative reviews during its limited theatrical release three months ago, but Arquette was singled out as delivering a "brave" performance.  I think it's a terrible performance and one that isn't at all "brave."  For all the humiliation her character endures, something seemed oddly disingenuous about her portrayal, and near the end, I realized what it was.  As Eklund and Ventimiglia repeatedly abuse and violate her, she's almost completely nude except for duct-tape around her breasts and genitals.  Would they really take the time to cover her private areas?  This was clearly a case of Arquette drawing the line with what she wanted to show.  I'm not saying I demand or require nudity, but it seems utterly absurd that she'd be partially covered in these scenes with the levels of humiliation taking place.  And it's one thing for Gens to screw up the geography of NYC (they're in NYC, but when someone makes it outside, they're looking at the NYC skyline from Brooklyn), but he can't even keep the layout of the bomb shelter straight.  Who cares if that's not where the toilets have been through the whole film?  That's where Gens needed them to be for the climax to work, so what the hell?  Maybe he figured everyone would've bailed by then and it wouldn't matter.  And it really doesn't.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

In Theaters: THE RAID: REDEMPTION (2012)


Written and directed by Gareth Huw Evans.  Cast: Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Donny Alamsyah, Ray Sahetapy, Pierre Gruno, Yayan Ruhian.  (R, 100 mins)

A young Indonesian Muslim wakes, prays, does morning exercises, and gets ready to go to work.  He kisses his very pregnant wife and tells her to rest.  He's a police officer, and though he doesn't know it yet, he's embarking on the worst day of his life.

That serene opening sequence is the calmest moment in the explosive, balls-to-the-wall action epic THE RAID: REDEMPTION.  Directed by Indonesia-based Welshman Gareth Evans, who made his mark with 2009's cult item MERANTAU, THE RAID: REDEMPTION (the "Redemption" was added by US distributor Sony after THE RAID was already claimed) quickly sets up a story and then it's insanity unleashed.  The Muslim cop is Rama (Iko Uwais, one of several MERANTAU stars who also appear here), who's a member of an elite SWAT team dispatched by Lt. Wahyu (Pierre Gruno, who looks like an Indonesian Malcolm McDowell) to raid the 30-story apartment building/stronghold of powerful crime lord Tama (Ray Sahetapy).  The cops have long given Tama unspoken clearance to run his operation, which involves a narcotics lab and providing sanctuary for the city's most wanted criminals, in addition to standard slum housing on the lower floors.  Rama is a dutiful officer, but questions why now and why today do the cops finally decide to arrest Tama.  They quickly secure the lower floors, but a child sees them and pulls the alarm, notifiying Tama, whose bunker is on the 15th floor, that the cops are in the building.  Tama dispatches his goons and those from neighboring buildings to get to work.  And so begins a day-long, multi-floor battle between cops and criminals, with guns, knives, machetes, hammers, and, when all else fails, fists and feet and whatever else is available, even a propane tank and a refrigerator to make an impromptu bomb.

Iko Uwais as Rama
While the "Best Action Movie in Decades!!!" line that the ads scream is a tad hyperbolic, THE RAID: REDEMPTION is quite a jawdropper.  Incredible choreography and fight sequences, expertly-designed and stunningly executed like none you've ever seen before.  Before the Silat martial arts skills of Uwait come into play, Evans does a marvelous job of conveying the danger and the claustrophobia of the situation, especially once the SWAT guys find out that Wahyu orchestrated this hit without telling any of his superiors, so no backup is on the way because no one knows they're there.  With the constant synth-based score by Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda, the early sequences in the film have the distinct feel of in-his-prime John Carpenter, reversing the frequent Carpenter motif of "evil trying to get in" to "good guys trying to get out."  But once Rama finds himself essentially alone, he--with some unexpected help--takes on Tama's men in an endless and breathtaking series of truly inventive fight sequences (of course, some things never change, as the bad guys still attack Rama--how else?--one at a time), Evans really succeeds in establishing himself as a uniquely styled action auteur.  I took a look at MERANTAU (currently streaming on Netflix) immediately after seeing this, and it has its share of crazy action sequences, but they come mostly after a talky first hour with a predictable plot.  MERANTAU is a slower but solid enough demonstration of his filmmaking talents (before relocating to Jakarta, Evans also made a 2006 British thriller titled FOOTSTEPS, but I haven't seen it) but Evans really makes a statement with THE RAID.  He also does a commendable job of using CGI blood in a way that's not cartoonish and distracting.  It's there, but it's used more subtly and mixed much more effectively with the Karo syrup for a CGI look that still has the appropriate level of...wetness, if you will.  And in a film as blood-drenched as this, that's important, so props to Evans for being one of the few filmmakers today who gets it and uses CGI blood the right way.

Drug lord Tama (Ray Sahetapy) confronted by Lt. Wahyu
(Pierre Gruno as Indonesian Malcolm McDowell)

THE RAID: REDEMPTION is not just a martial-arts movie (it's also an instant classic in the "high-rise mayhem" subgenre), but it's the best martial-arts movie I've seen in quite some time.  Maybe not "DECADES!!!" but probably since the CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON-inspired wuxia craze of the early 2000s.  If you're a fan of this stuff, it's a virtual impossibility to be disappointed by this.

Original Indonesian poster before Sony
tacked on the REDEMPTION part of the title

Friday, April 13, 2012

In Theaters: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012)


Directed by Drew Goddard.  Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard.  Cast: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Fran Kranz, Anna Hutchison, Jesse Williams, Brian White, Amy Acker, Jodelle Ferland, Tim De Zarn.  (R, 92 mins)

Completed in 2009 and left in limbo by MGM's financial woes until Lionsgate ended up acquiring it, the much-anticipated THE CABIN IN THE WOODS has been generating over two years worth of buzz that it was a game-changer of a horror film like nothing we've ever seen before.  Contributing to the chatter was the involvement of producer/co-writer/cult-TV god Joss Whedon (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, FIREFLY, ANGEL, DOLLHOUSE, DR. HORRIBLE'S SING-ALONG BLOG) and director/co-writer Drew Goddard (writer of CLOVERFIELD and veteran of BUFFY, ANGEL, ALIAS and LOST).  To call these two critics' and fanboy darlings would be an understatement, so the question is, does THE CABIN IN THE WOODS live up to the hype?  Mostly, yes.

It's impossible to map out a plot synopsis of CABIN without going into spoiler territory, so I won't, other than to lay out what's in the trailers:  five college students:  jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth, who went on to star in THOR), his girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison), her brainy friend Dana (Kristen Connolly), Curt's buddy Holden (Jesse Williams), and stoner conspiracy nut Marty (Fran Kranz) head to the titular location, owned by somebody's cousin, for a weekend of partying.  Of course, scary things start happening in the woods.  Meanwhile, in what appears to be some kind of high-tech underground research facility, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) oversee a wall of monitors displaying what's happening at the cabin, and they seem to be able to control and decide the goings-on.  There's talk of "Stockholm going south" and things not going according to plan in Japan.

At the cabin, we have a fairly typical horror film going on.  The winds howl, doors fling themselves open, creepy artifacts are found in the basement, and soon all manner of evil starts assaulting the cabin and its five archetypal occupants.  But there isn't anything typical about what Whedon and Goddard have up their sleeves.  It ends up being--no spoilers--essentially a meta-commentary on the horror genre and its audience.  But they're not done.  Then some really crazy shit starts happening, and a good chunk of the fun is trying to figure out how the cabin ties into the work at the research facility.  Also, all of the little character bits throughout.  Nothing is what it seems here, and the character arcs can be quite surprising.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is an ambitious, audacious film that almost requires a second viewing to see how everything falls into place.  This is largely a love-it or hate-it proposition, and I almost wish the trailers didn't reveal as much as they do (but even that barely scratches the surface).  We already know going in that things aren't what they seem, but what if we went in just under the impression that it's about scary stuff happening at a cabin in the woods and didn't even show us Jenkins and Whitford?  But then, are they bringing in more of an audience by essentially announcing "This movie is not what it seems and you won't believe it when you see it!"?  What I find most shocking is that the twists have managed to stay unexposed for going on three years.  I intentionally avoided reading anything about it, but even then, this is one of those rare instances where people at industry or test screenings really have played fair and not ruined it for everyone.  I imagine that'll change after this weekend, but it really is best to go into THE CABIN IN THE WOODS cold.  It's far from a perfect film and I think Whedon and Goddard bite off a bit more than they can chew, but it's one of the most original and exciting we'll likely see this year, and one of those films that leaves the audience buzzed and enthusiastically discussing and debating at the end.  And it's a pretty bold ending for what's being sold as a mainstream horror movie.  I'll be seeing this again soon.

Lionsgate's original poster art for the October
2011 release, which got bumped to April 2012.

In Theaters: LOCKOUT (2012)


Directed by Stephen Saint Leger & James Mather.  Written by Stephen Saint Leger, James Mather, Luc Besson.  Cast: Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Vincent Regan, Peter Stormare, Lennie James, Joseph Gilgun, Jacky Ido, Tim Plester, Peter Hudson. (PG-13, 94 mins)

LOCKOUT is another enjoyably brainless outing from the Luc Besson action factory.  The film owes such a debt to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK that John Carpenter probably deserves a co-story credit.  It's loud and dumb and the cliches are too plentiful to count, but it's the kind of entertaining cinematic junk food that will do OK in theaters before a long and healthy life in near-constant weekend rotation on TNT for many years to come.

"Call me Snake.  Er, uh, I mean Snow."
In Washington DC 2078, disgraced CIA agent Snow (Guy Pearce as Kurt Russell) is framed for the murder of another agent and sentenced to 30 years at MS-One, a supermax prison hovering far above Earth.  Inmates are in a state of hibernative stasis and everything is carefully monitored by on-site security and medical staff and by a space station that's home to the L.O.P.D. (Low Orbit Police Department).  Meanwhile, Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace), First Daughter to the 56th President of the United States (Peter Hudson) is on a humanitarian fact-finding mission to MS-One to assess the stasis conditions of the prisoners.  Of course, one awakened inmate (Joseph Gilgun) being interviewed by Emilie manages to steal a gun from a Secret Service agent and orders the control room to wake everyone up.  Now the prisoners, led by Gilgun's infinitely more intelligent brother (Vincent Regan), have commandeered MS-One and taken Emilie and the civilians hostage.  President Warnock won't send the Marines to attack because his daughter is up there, so Secret Service chief Langral (Peter Stormare as Lee Van Cleef) opts to send...you guessed it...Snow!  Because he's the best there is...but he's a loose cannon!  (A line present in the trailer, yet tragically absent from the film).  Snow manages to get into MS-One, both to find and rescue Emilie and to find Mace (Tim Plester), his framed partner who knows the whereabouts of a briefcase that could prove Snow's innocence.

Maggie Grace, taken again in LOCKOUT
LOCKOUT is the kind of guilty pleasure actioner where you get a wisecracking lawman hero named Snow who has a partner named Mace.  To his immense credit, a seriously bulked-up Pearce, generally not one to cut loose on screen, clearly knows how ridiculous the whole thing is and just has fun with it.  Some of his one-liners are groaners, but Pearce sells it and makes an inherently stupid movie pretty watchable.  The biggest mistake that directors/co-writer Stephen Saint Leger and James Mather make is giving far too much screen time to the hammy histrionics of Gilgun, who delivers what's already the frontrunner for 2012's most irritating performance.  I'm sure they told him to go for "scene-stealing," but it's more like "scene-killing."  The production design is impressively bleak in a future-dystopia sort-of way that shooting in Serbia probably greatly aided.  Things are almost derailed during a chase sequence early on, as the police pursue a motorcycle-riding Snow.  It may be the most incoherently-staged sequence of its kind, an incomprehensible blur of shaky-cam and inexcusably horrible CGI that's so bad that the sequence actually looks incomplete.  Thankfully, it picks up after that.

Joseph Gilgun delivers what may go down as
2012's most gratingly annoying performance.

I'm not saying LOCKOUT is a very good movie or that anyone needs to run out and see it.  But I mostly had a good time with it, primarily because it knows it's garbage and seems perfectly fine with that.  It knows it's ripping off ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), DIE HARD (1988), FORTRESS (1993), and the little-seen and even less-remembered SPACERAGE (1986) and STAR SLAMMER (also 1986).  Already released in Europe, the film was trimmed by a few seconds to secure a PG-13 rating, which is kind of lame but has no real effect on things, even if you can tell exactly where the cut took place.  I'm sure we'll get the inevitable "Unrated Director's Cut" on dvd and blu-ray.

The more effective French poster art