Sunday, October 28, 2012


(Canada/France - 2012)

Written and directed by Michael J. Bassett.  Cast: Adelaide Clemens, Kit Harington, Sean Bean, Carrie-Anne Moss, Malcolm McDowell, Deborah Kara Unger, Martin Donovan, Radha Mitchell, Peter Outerbridge, Roberto Campanella. (R, 94 mins)

Directed by Christophe Gans (BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF) and written by Roger Avary (PULP FICTION, THE RULES OF ATTRACTION), the 2006 film version of the video game favorite SILENT HILL wasn't exactly a model of narrative cohesion, but it was a triumph of atmosphere and mood and has found a devoted cult following in the years since its release.  It's doubtful that anyone will ever be looking back fondly on the belated sequel SILENT HILL: REVELATION.  Written and directed by Michael J. Bassett (WILDERNESS, SOLOMON KANE), SILENT HILL: REVELATION is based on the SILENT HILL 3 video game, but also has to function as a sequel to the Gans film, so some characters from the game end up having their roles filled by characters from the first film, which is a reasonable liberty.  I was a little rusty on the first film and revisited it the day before seeing the sequel, and even that doesn't make REVELATION's plot any more coherent.  Bassett's script has the characters spouting pages and pages of exposition to get the viewer up to speed on who's who and why they're important, but you almost have to be equally familiar with the plots of the video games to figure out what's going on.  The end result is a chaotic, unfocused, and boring film that relies heavily on tired genre cliches and jettisons the atmosphere and mood for dreary, ugly visuals, graphic gore, noise, and mostly uninspired 3-D.

Several years after the events of the first film, the nearly 18-year-old Sharon Da Silva (Michelle Williams-lookalike Adelaide Clemens, replacing Jodelle Ferland) is going by the name Heather and is on the run from the Silent Hill cultists with her widowed father Christopher (Sean Bean), who's calling himself Harry.  Sharon was adopted by Christopher and his late wife Rose (Radha Mitchell) and, as Bassett's script mentions multiple times in case you forgot, she's the manifestation of the good inside Alessa, a girl who survived being burned by the witch-fearing residents decades earlier for being born out of wedlock, bringing forth an otherworldly, supernatural darkness over the West Virginia coal mining town.  Rose, as explained by Mitchell who returns for a ghostly cameo, is trapped somewhere in the Silent Hill netherworld and had to sacrifice herself in order to save Sharon and return her to Christopher in the real world.  Sharon/Heather is plagued by nightmares and horrific visions, and when Christopher is abducted and taken to Silent Hill, she and new friend Vincent (Kit Harington, best known as Jon Snow on GAME OF THRONES) must travel to the cursed town to rescue him.  Of course, it's all part of a plot to lure her back to Silent Hill--being that she's the pure, non-evil part of Alessa--for the fanatical cult to rid the town of its sin.  Or something like that.

The foggy town and the constantly raining ash--both visuals carried over from the first film--still look effectively ominous, but that's about all that Bassett gets right.  What may work in the confines of a video game doesn't always translate to the screen, and SILENT HILL: REVELATION has no drive, no momentum.  It's practically incomprehensible, and where Gans was concerned with the atmospheric elements, Bassett goes in the other direction, focusing on splatter, dismembered body parts, steam-filled corridors in an abandoned factory, bodies hung upside down, flesh sliced off, cooked, and eaten by a bunch of grotesque, suture-faced demons that look like rejected Cenobite makeup designs from HELLRAISER.  The iconic "Pyramid Head" character reappears here, but in a heroic capacity, which makes no sense in reference to how he was portrayed in the first film (the video game apparently explains that Pyramid Head feels compelled to protect Sharon/Heather because she's a double for Alessa and he can't tell the difference).  It's hard not to leave SILENT HILL: REVELATION with the feeling that they simply made this up as they went along.

With less than half the budget of the first film, SILENT HILL: REVELATION looks a lot cheaper, and much of that money must've gone towards squandering an overqualified supporting cast, most of whom, with the exception of Bean, appear for a few minutes to proclaim some impossibly confusing exposition in about the same amount of time it would take for their agents to verify that the check cleared.  Mitchell probably left her car running while she ran in to shoot her scene.  Deborah Kara Unger returns briefly as Alessa's mother.  Carrie-Anne Moss sports some Johnny Depp pancake makeup to play the cult leader before she's transformed into a creature and faces Pyramid Head in a battle to the death.  Martin Donovan, looking homeless and sporting a comically oversized fedora, is granted an early exit as doomed private eye Douglas Cartland (a major character in the video game, but killed off quickly here).  Most embarrassing of all is the great Malcolm McDowell as a blind asylum inmate who holds the other half of an amulet that Sharon needs to defeat Alessa.  McDowell, onscreen for about three minutes tops, likely arrived prepared and with his lines memorized to enable a quick exit (no way he was on the set for more than a day) and, gracious raconteur that he is in his elder statesman years, probably entertained the cast and crew with tales of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and CALIGULA, but when he starts ranting about Alessa and "the Seal of Metatron," you just feel bad for him.  He's kept in chains for the duration of his role, and it probably had less to do with his character and more to do with keeping McDowell from fleeing in despair.

Of the two stars, Clemens seems like an appealing young actress.  She's not given much to work with here, but perhaps better offers will come her way (she should be on standby if there's ever a film where Michelle Williams' character has a little sister).   It's interesting for GAME OF THRONES fans to see Harington briefly reunited with Bean (Harington's Jon Snow is the illegitimate son of Bean's Eddard Stark on the show's first season), but the young British actor is pretty bad here, with a West Virginia accent that sounds like he's attempting the world's least successful Aasif Mandvi impression.

Being a fan of the 2006 film as well as a fan of Bassett's earlier work (WILDERNESS is a gem waiting to be discovered), I had high hopes for SILENT HILL: REVELATION, but between its terrible pacing, incoherent script, abandoned plot threads, and the obvious disinterest of its slumming cast, among other major issues, it's really hard to find anything worthwhile about this depressingly dismal sequel.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


(Canada/France - 2012)

Veteran Canadian actress Sarah Polley showed maturity beyond her years when she made her writing/directing debut at 28 with 2007's AWAY FROM HER, a sensitive and emotionally devastating look an at aging couple struggling to cope when the wife (Julie Christie) is diagnosed with Alzheimers.  As an actress, Polley has always chosen smart and creative projects, even in the occasional instances when she stars in something commercial (1999's GO or the 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD).  Dating back to her childhood, Polley has worked with many great filmmakers--Terry Gilliam, Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Wim Wenders, just to name a few--and she's learned from them.  Her second feature, TAKE THIS WALTZ, is uneven and too frequently succumbs to quirkiness and occasionally feels "cute" to the point of annoyance.  But it's a deliberate and clever misdirection and it enables the film to really sneak up on you in its much more effective second half.  In a bohemian enclave in Toronto, travel writer Margot (Michelle Williams, who's very quietly become one of today's great actresses) and cookbook author Lou (a nice dramatic turn by Seth Rogen) have been married for five years and a sense of complacency has crept in.  They have goofy rituals and talk to each other in funny voices and they seem more like close friends than a married couple.  Entering the situation is Daniel (Luke Kirby), who Margot meets while on a research trip and it turns out he lives just a few doors down the street.  They begin a flirtaceous but platonic relationship as Margot wrestles with the idea of the known/old (Lou) vs. the unknown/new (Daniel). 

While Polley's script (and a lot of Williams' and Rogen's dialogue feels improvised) is frequently more quirky than it needs to be (Daniel works as a rickshaw driver?) and the dialogue in the early going too obviously prophetic (Margot on air travel: "I'm afraid of connections"), it eventually displays a level of honesty and complexity rarely seen in films like this.  You ever notice in movies how, when men have affairs, they're selfish assholes, but when women have affairs, it's because they need to "find themselves"?  Polley approaches it differently.  Her characters are real (she takes a big risk by making Margot frequently obnoxious) and they're flawed.  She and the film don't take sides, they don't make excuses, and they don't provide any easy answers.  And when certain things are revealed, the characters respond like real people would respond (Rogen is especially good late in the film).  TAKE THIS WALTZ can best be summed up by a line during a scene in a gym shower where Margot is listening to Lou's recovering alcoholic sister (Sarah Silverman, also good in a serious role) talk about the sense of boredom, the routine, and the lack of "new" in her own marriage, and an older woman overhears them and offers some simple words of experience and wisdom:  "New things get old, too."  (R, 116 mins)

(US/Russia - 2012)

A lunkheaded but surprisingly entertaining "men on a mission" combat action film, the barely-released SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE gets off to a clunky and exposition-heavy start before finding its groove as a likably brainless second-string EXPENDABLES.  For a while, it gets perilously close to being a subversively satirical commentary before backing up and focusing on blowing shit up.  Maybe it's the overqualified cast that does a good job of selling it--and admittedly, it's a dumb movie--but I was surprised at how much I found myself enjoying it.  In desperate need of cash, disgraced ex-Marine Christian Slater accepts a job with Soldiers of Fortune, a war-games resort company that caters to billionaires and assorted One-Percenters wishing to experience the thrill of warfare without the danger of actually being killed.  With his fellow dishonorably discharged pal Freddy Rodriguez tagging along, Slater heads to Ukraine to whip his unlikely soldiers into shape:  there's mining magnate Sean Bean, telecommunications giant James Cromwell, international arms dealer Ving Rhames, Wall Street hedge-fund dickwad Charlie Bewley, and spazzy video-game designer Dominic Monaghan.  Essentially observers on a mercenary mission to Snake Island to topple a nefarious Russian colonel (Gennadi Vengerov), the rich fatcats are forced into battle when all of the experienced military guys except Slater are killed en route to the island.  Of course, this is personal to Slater:  the Russian's right-hand man is rogue CIA agent-turned-contractor Colm Meaney, who--wait for it--was the guy responsible for ruining Slater's military career.

SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE never takes itself seriously, and at times, it seems like it might cross the line into actual comedy.  But even as a cliche-filled action film, it's a total guilty pleasure.  Director Maxim Korostyshevsky does a good job making a low-budget film look a lot "bigger" than it really is.  It's very nicely shot in some scenic Ukraine areas (a welcome change of pace from the dreary Bulgarian locations usually seen in this type of thing), there's some daring stunt work, convincing explosions (some CGI, some real), minimal shaky-cam, and a good mix of CGI blood with actual splattery squibs so as not to look completely cartoonish.  There's nothing here you haven't seen before (sweeping aerial shot of the heroes walking a narrow path along the top of a mountain?  Check!  Sneering villain strutting into the room where the nabbed heroes are being held and gloating "Hello again, gentlemen..."?  Check!), but the ensemble cast works very well together and they seem to be having a good time.  Not a great or even a very good film by any means, but it's a lot of fun and accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, and definitely deserved more than a 50-screen dumping with no publicity at all.  (R, 94 mins)

(France/Poland - 2012)

This frustrating and impenetrable would-be thriller from acclaimed Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski (MY SUMMER OF LOVE) establishes a certain degree of interest for a while but it doesn't take very long to conclude that it simply isn't going anywhere.  Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) is an American novelist and literature prof who arrives in Paris and drops in unexpectedly on his estranged wife (Delphine Chuillot) and young daughter (Julie Papillon), in apparent disregard of a restraining order.  Ricks has recently had a mental breakdown and may or may not have been hospitalized or imprisoned.  He's also a bit of a clueless doof, as he falls asleep on a bus and wakes up to find his bags stolen.  He gets a room at a seedy bar/flophouse run by the obviously shady Sezer (Samir Guesmi), who agrees to provide room and board if Ricks will spend his evenings watching a video monitor outside a drug den that he owns.  Ricks foolishly gets involved with Sezer's Polish girlfriend Ania (Joanna Kulig) while at the same time seeing a mystery woman named Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas) who he meets at a literary gathering.  A third-act twist merely confirms what was suspected all along, but it still doesn't really provide any answers, as the whole story may or may not even be happening.  It's really quite dull and pointless, and the pieces of the puzzle probably aren't even meant to fit, which would be fine if it was a visually interesting work.  Hawke is fine in the lead, and plays most of his role in French, but THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH isn't suspenseful, it isn't overtly stylish, and it's not erotic.  It's the kind of ponderous snoozer that gives subtitled arthouse films a snobby rep. (R, 84 mins, also available on Netflix streaming)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: FEAR AND DESIRE (1953)

(US - 1953)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick.  Written by Howard Sackler.  Cast: Frank Silvera, Paul Mazursky, Kenneth Harp, Steve Coit, Virginia Leith.  (Unrated, 62 mins)

Almost from the time it was released, Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) disowned his debut feature FEAR AND DESIRE (1953), dismissing it as "amateurish."  Rumors persisted for decades that he'd had as many prints of it as possible rounded up and destroyed, but a few managed to survive in private collections, and once the film fell into the public domain, there was little he could do to bury it completely.  It was considered a lost film for many years, and was never officially released on home video, though copies could often be found on the bootleg circuit.  It's been shown at various film festivals over the years (most notably at Telluride in 1993), and ran on Turner Classic Movies in late 2011, but with Kino's new HD restoration (from a Library of Congress print), Kubrick's feature films are finally represented in their entirety on DVD and Blu-ray.

Kenneth Harp as Lt. Corby, with
Frank Silvera and Steve Coit
FEAR AND DESIRE isn't likely to earn the top spot on anyone's list of favorite Kubrick films and frankly, it's not very good.  But for those with a passion for cinema history as well as Kubrick obsessives, it's fascinating to see some classic themes and motifs make their first appearances.  Running just past an hour but often feeling like three, FEAR AND DESIRE follows four soldiers stranded behind enemy lines after their plane crashes.  They wander around, talk, find a mute woman (Virginia Leith), and bind her to a tree with a belt.  Three of them--leader Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), Sgt. Mac (Frank Silvera), and Pvt. Fletcher (Steve Coit)--go off to build a raft, leaving the woman with the shaky Pvt. Sidney (future filmmaker Paul Mazursky), who's just about to snap.  Through a convoluted set of circumstances that involve character stupidity and some horrid acting by Mazursky, Sidney ends up killing the girl and disappearing, and the other three decide to take out a pair of enemy officers at a nearby compound.  The fact that Harp and Coit also play the two enemy officers makes for one of the most ham-fisted anti-war statements ever committed to film.

Virginia Leith with Silvera
Kubrick shot FEAR AND DESIRE without sound, with the dialogue post-synched later, and it often makes things awkward.  Silvera acquits himself well being the most experienced member of the cast (he would also star in Kubrick's next film, 1955's KILLER'S KISS), and the light-skinned Jamaican character actor would go on to a busy career playing nearly every ethnicity imaginable before his accidental death in 1970 when he was electrocuted while trying to fix the garbage disposal unit in his kitchen sink.  As Corby, Harp is impossibly wooden and Coit is more or less just there, but young Mazursky, who would go on to a stellar career behind (and occasionally in front of) the camera (directing BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE, AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, and DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS, among many others), is an absolute embarrassment as Sidney.  He's so bad that he's actually hard to watch.  The film picks up noticeably once Sidney wanders off midway through and the others decide to take out the enemy officers.  The enemy commander (played by Harp, who's far more interesting in this role) is the first of many military madmen in Kubrick's filmography, and you can draw a straight line from this character to George Macready's General Mireau and Adolphe Menjou's General Broulard in PATHS OF GLORY (1957), Sterling Hayden's General Jack D. Ripper and George C. Scott's General Buck Turgidson in DR. STRANGELOVE (1964), and arguably R. Lee Ermey's Sgt. Hartman in FULL METAL JACKET (1987).  And in regards to JACKET,  Sidney is certainly an early incarnation of Vincent D'Onofrio's Pvt. Pyle.  The recurrent "dehumanization" theme of much of Kubrick's work is demonstrated in its infancy here as well.  But when Corby and Fletcher see the two enemy officers and see that they look...wait for it...just like them!, it's far too obvious a point and the kind of rookie mistake that Kubrick probably had to make to mature into the great filmmaker he would soon become.

Kubrick on the set of FEAR AND DESIRE
Kubrick had been working as a photographer for the magazine Look when he decided to pursue filmmaking, first helming a few documentary/industrial short films before attempting a feature film.  FEAR AND DESIRE was shot for roughly $30,000, and funded mostly by Kubrick's pharmacist uncle/associate producer Martin Perveler, with additional financial assistance from a life insurance policy cashed in by Kubrick's father.  Held to the lofty standards of Kubrick's subsequent films--most of which rank among the greatest ever made--FEAR AND DESIRE is decidedly quite amateurish.  But there's flashes of creativity and style that even the few 1953 critics who saw it managed to notice.  The film features some unique lighting and some inventive camera angles and it's clear that this young filmmaker has some potential.  That potential would be realized just two films later with Kubrick's 1956 breakthrough THE KILLING, which didn't generate much box office, but earned some significant critical acclaim and had a fan in Kirk Douglas, who was so impressed by it that he agreed to star in PATHS OF GLORY, and the rest is history.  Just seven years after FEAR AND DESIRE, Kubrick was directing the gargantuan epic SPARTACUS.

Kino's Blu-ray presents the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and for a 60-year-old film shot with what amounted to pocket change, it looks amazingly good in HD.  The sole extra is THE SEAFARERS, a 1953 promotional short (running just 28 minutes) that Kubrick directed for the Seafarers International Union.  By this point, Kubrick quit his job at Look to focus full-time on filmmaking, and he took the SEAFARERS gig to fund what would become KILLER'S KISS.  Unlike FEAR AND DESIRE, there are no embryonic signs of the distinct Kubrickian style.  Rather, it's strictly a director-for-hire job, showing the benefits of joining the SIU, and it's hosted by popular news personality Don Hollenbeck, who would commit suicide a year later (Hollenbeck was played by Ray Wise in George Clooney's GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK).  THE SEAFARERS is the kind of industrial/promotional short that MST3K would knock whenever Tom Servo would bellow something like "Industry!  3M!  Combining innovation with effective risk management!"

FEAR AND DESIRE won't generate much interest beyond devout Kubrick completists.  But if you've got the Kubrick Blu-ray box set from Warner, and the Criterion editions of PATHS OF GLORY and THE KILLING (which features KILLER'S KISS as an extra), then it's definitely worth picking up to have essentially everything (minus a couple of those early industrial shorts) done by arguably cinema's greatest filmmaker.  Just know going into FEAR AND DESIRE that everyone has to start somewhere.  But even that early on, you can tell the wheels were turning.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: LAKE MUNGO (2008)

(Australia - 2008; 2010 US release)

Written and directed by Joel Anderson.  Cast: Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, Steve Jodrell, Martin Sharpe, Talia Zucker.  (R, 87 mins)

"Alice kept secrets.  She kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret."

While it owes a tremendous debt to elder statesmen trendsetters like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), the found footage/faux documentary subgenre really exploded with the runaway success of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2009).  PARANORMAL ACTIVITY has spawned three sequels (four if you count Japan's tenuously-connected and still-unreleased-in-the-US PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: TOKYO NIGHT) and countless imitations in the short time since its release, as the subgenre is particularly ideal for ghost stories and demonic possession, as we've seen with films like THE LAST EXORCISM (2010) and the terrible THE DEVIL INSIDE (2012).  PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sat on the shelf for a few years before its eventual release (remember how the ads informed us that we demanded it?), which also happened--at least in the US--with the Australian film LAKE MUNGO.  Shot in 2007, LAKE MUNGO was made around the same time that PARANORMAL ACTIVITY was starting to be screened at horror festivals but well before it became a pop culture phenomenon with the general public, and while it deals with ghosts and video cameras, it really does stand on its own and can't simply be dismissed as a knockoff.  But at the same time, one must acknowledge that LAKE MUNGO very likely only got its belated 2010 US release because of the huge success of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.

Lionsgate acquired the US rights to LAKE MUNGO and packaged it as part of their fourth "After Dark Horrorfest," which was basically a bunch of largely shitty, D-grade zombie flicks and torture porn SAW ripoffs that got dumped in theaters for a week before heading to DVD.  There were a few legitimately good films to be found--Nacho Cerda's THE ABANDONED (2006), Xavier Gens' FRONTIER(S) (2008), and Sean Ellis' THE BROKEN (2009) are definite standouts--but anyone approaching LAKE MUNGO with a shrug and the expectation of a standard-issue PARANORMAL ACTIVITY clone found something else entirely:  a faux-doc horror film with found footage (and photographs) in a thought-provoking, unnerving, and often heartbreaking examination of death, grief, guilt, secrets, family dynamics, loss of innocence, things left unsaid, and the impossibility of ever really completely knowing someone.  It also has numerous scenes that just flat-out give you the fucking willies.

Writer/director Joel Anderson masterfully handles the documentary aspect, and it helps--for a US audience, at least--that the actors are essentially unknown (two stars, Martin Sharpe and Talia Zucker, co-starred on a short-lived Australian TV series called SCOOTER: SECRET AGENT) and therefore can easily sell the faux-doc angle.  Using the clinical approach that brings to mind the best work of Errol Morris, Anderson tells the story of 16-year-old Alice Palmer (Zucker) who drowns in a lake while on a day trip with her family--mom June (Rosie Traynor), dad Russell (David Pledger), and older brother Mathew (Sharpe).  The Palmers (certainly a reference to TWIN PEAKS) are a normal, middle-class family in Ararat, Victoria, and Alice, by all appearances, is a typical 16-year-old girl, has a boyfriend, and is well-liked by her friends.  All are devastated by her tragic death, and the family copes in different ways:  Russell focuses on his job and Mathew his photography, while June cannot find closure and suffers from recurring nightmares and in an attempt to find some normalcy, resorts to entering neighboring houses in the middle of the night just to be in an environment without such crushing grief.  It's the kind of neighborhood where everyone knows one another and doors are left unlocked, and everyone gossips about what June is doing, but they more or less view this strange trangression as a coping mechanism and give her some space to grieve.

In the weeks following Alice's death, the Palmers start hearing noises in the house.  Alice's bedroom door slams. Mathew has unexplained bruising.  Russell tells of actually encountering what he believes was Alice's ghost in her room.  Mathew sets up a video camera and captures a brief image of a blurred figure moving down a hallway.  Photographs taken around the house and the yard start to reveal faint, fuzzy images of what appear to be Alice lingering in the background.  Another Ararat resident finds similar blurry images of Alice in a photograph taken at the lake. A review of one night's footage inexplicably finds the next-door neighbor crouched in a corner in Alice's bedroom. The Palmers reach out to radio psychic and paranormal expert Ray Kemeney (veteran Australian TV director Steve Jodrell), and here is where LAKE MUNGO takes the first of several unexpected turns that set it apart from the rest of its type.

To relay any more of the plot would do a disservice to those who haven't seen it, but LAKE MUNGO is ultimately a fright film of surprising depth and emotion, which is not to imply that it forgets its primary mission:  there are several sequences in this film that recall--and equal--the level of disturbing creepiness in the "shared dream" sequences of John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987).  Any fan of PRINCE OF DARKNESS feels the hairs on their neck stand just with the mere mention of those scenes.  When Anderson breaks out the found footage on a cell phone that Alice buried out of fright while partying at Lake Mungo with friends, LAKE MUNGO establishes its horrific bona fides and cements its place as a modern cult horror classic.  The cell phone scene is definitely LAKE MUNGO's money shot, as it were.  But all throughout the film, Anderson does such a terrific job of creating an ominous, dread-filled, slow-burning atmosphere that something as played out as a ghost story manages to feel fresh, inventive, and truly terrifying.  To date, Anderson, whose only prior credit was a 2002 short, has yet to make another film. 

By 2010, the After Dark fests were barely getting into theaters, so no one really got a look at LAKE MUNGO until it turned up on DVD, and it didn't take long for word of mouth to spread via DVD review sites, movie discussion boards, and social networking that there was a little more going on with it than first impressions would indicate and that it really was a sleeper gem that was worth seeing.  Aside from being one of the most consistent and convincing in the realm of faux documentaries, it's also one of the most devastating and genuinely scary horror films of the last decade.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: TRANSIT (2012) and DRAGON EYES (2012)

(US - 2012)

Released in just a handful of theaters, TRANSIT is the kind of tight, fast-moving, action-packed B-movie that would've become a word-of-mouth rental hit back in the heyday of the video store.  In a gritty performance, Jim Caviezel plays a seemingly average every-dad on a road trip with wife Elisabeth Rohm, foul-mouthed teenage son Sterling Knight, and younger son Jake Cherry.  There's tension early on, and it turns out Dad just got paroled after serving 18 months for real estate fraud, and he's putting forth every effort to rebuild his life.  Meanwhile, James Frain, girlfriend Diora Baird, hotheaded partner Harold Perrineau and getaway driver Ryan Donowho have stolen $4 million in an armored car heist and, spotting Caviezel's SUV parked at a truck stop, Frain hastily hatches a plan to stash the money bag on the SUV's roof rack in order to bypass an upcoming roadblock, with the intention of catching up with Caviezel further down the road.  Misunderstandings and various mishaps abound (fleeing Frain, Caviezel gets pulled over for reckless driving and, trying to convince the bullheaded cop that he was being chased, gets himself arrested, thereby violating his parole; and Rohm finds the bag of money and assumes her ex-con husband has stolen it from Frain), and it soon becomes a blood-soaked battle on the lonely bayou backroads between Caviezel, who just wants to protect his family, and the criminals, who only want their money.  With its cast of familiar TV faces, TRANSIT plays a lot like a TV movie with gratuitous F-bombs and is fairly solid entertainment, except for the idea of Donowho's rumbling muscle car somehow being able to sneak up on people.    Director Antonio Negret relies a bit too much on shaky-cam action scenes and there's one really dodgy bit of CGI splatter, but TRANSIT dives right into the story, relentlessly plows along, doesn't overstay its welcome, and accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.  And it gets a lot of mileage out of a committed cast, none of whom (particularly Caviezel and Frain) seem to be aware that they're in a junk movie and quite admirably give it everything they've got. (R, 88 mins)

(US - 2012)

A dreary, D-grade YOJIMBO/A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS update that plays like a Master P rapsploitation holdover from 1998, DRAGON EYES stars MMA fighter Cung Le as Hong, an ex-con who gets involved in a war involving two rival gangs and some corrupt cops all under the rule of ruthless police chief/crime boss Victor Swan, aka Mr. V (a hammy Peter Weller).   Between Tim Tori's bland, predictable script (is there any way this won't end with a showdown at an abandoned factory?), John Hyams' (son of the great Peter Hyams) pointlessly convoluted non-linear/back-and-forth direction, and the dull Le's utter lack of charisma, almost nothing works in DRAGON EYES.  Weller seems to be enjoying himself, and with his close-cropped white hair and his aged face, he looks eerily like Lee Marvin in some shots.  Jean-Claude Van Damme is prominently displayed in the poster art, but he's basically relegated to guest star status in flashbacks as Hong's prison cellmate Tiano.  It's Tiano who, of course, teaches Hong the ways of martial arts philosophy and fighting.  Van Damme and the Hyams family go way back (Peter directed him in TIMECOP, SUDDEN DEATH, and the upcoming ENEMIES CLOSER, and he worked with John on the last UNIVERSAL SOLDIER entry), so he obviously enjoys working with them, and he even brought along his son Kristopher Van Varenberg to co-star as one of the corrupt cops, but JCVD is wasted in a nothing supporting role here.  A flashback to Tiano's past (so, a flashback-within-a-flashback, then?) just feels like padding to give Van Damme something to do.  He's got less than ten minutes of screen time in this, and it's unfortunate this actually got a limited theatrical release, doing nothing to convince those out of the loop that Van Damme has made a lot of above-average straight-to-DVD films over the last decade that, unlike DRAGON EYES, are worth checking out.  (R, 91 mins)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

In Theaters: SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012)

(UK - 2012)

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh.  Cast: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, Zeljko Ivanek, Harry Dean Stanton, Gabourey Sidibe, Michael Pitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Kevin Corrigan, Linda Bright Clay, Long Nguyen, Brendan Sexton III. (R, 110 mins)

Writer/director Martin McDonagh's follow-up to his acclaimed IN BRUGES (2008) again demonstrates his deftness at mixing the comedic and the dramatic and doing so without jarring or uneven shifts in tone.  SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS adds a "meta" element that's somewhat reminiscent of Shane Black's 2005 cult favorite KISS KISS BANG BANG (a great film totally abandoned by its distributor).  With rare exception--KISS KISS BANG BANG, for example--self-reflexive meta films of this sort tend to exude a certain air of smugness about them, almost as if the filmmakers are too busy marveling at how preciously clever they're being.  For the most part, McDonagh does a good job at keeping that element in check, but it doesn't always work as well as it should, or as well as McDonagh thinks it is.  Contrary to what the trailers, TV spots, and poster art are selling, this isn't exactly the wacky comedy about a ragtag group of criminal miscreants that it appears to be.  It's *A* film like that...just not the one being advertised.

In Hollywood, hard-drinking Irish screenwriter Marty (McDonagh's IN BRUGES star Colin Farrell) is having a hard time finding inspiration for his latest script, titled SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS.  He's got one:  the Jack of Diamonds serial killer, who happens to be going around wiping out mobsters and leaving a jack of diamonds card behind.  Marty's best friend Bobby Bickle (Sam Rockwell) is an out-of-work actor who makes a living in a lucrative scam with aging, dapper, cravat-wearing criminal Hans (Christopher Walken), where Bobby kidnaps a dog and after a few days, Hans returns it to the owner for the reward.  Things spiral out of control when Bobby kidnaps Bonny, a Shih Tzu owned by hot-tempered, trigger-happy crime boss Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), who thinks nothing of killing anyone who gets in the way of him retrieving his beloved dog.

That's the essential "plot," and that's where a typical Hollywood points A-to-B-to-C story would focus.  But McDonagh takes things in unexpected directions with various sidetracks and detours as he cinematically demonstrates the stages of the writing process as Marty and Billy (who wants to help write the script) brainstorm and the film turns into a running commentary on itself.  These are tricky waters for a film to navigate.  If it's done right, it's brilliant.  If it's not, then it's pompous and insufferable.  SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS isn't brilliant as a whole, but it seems headed that way for the first half.  It's filled with sharp writing, witty and profane dialogue, great characters, and inspired situations that often border on silly but are immensely enjoyable.  McDonagh weaves together hilarious comedy, devastating drama, and some surprising scenes of shocking violence with confidence and energy, but once Marty suggests, instead of a big shootout, the characters in his script should just go to the desert and talk, that's exactly what McDonagh has his characters in the film do.  While it's nice watching Farrell, Rockwell, and Walken explore these characters and give them added dimensions, there's no denying it kills the momentum for a while.  There's certainly an argument that subverting that expectation of a big shootout (which we eventually get) is McDonagh's whole point, but it's the only time the film threatens to become one of those meta movies where the winking gets a little forced and you start to feel like the filmmakers think the material is beneath them.  There's some good stuff after this section, but SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS never returns to being as entertaining as it was for that first hour.

Even if it doesn't quite hang together all the way through, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS does boast a terrific ensemble cast.  Rockwell has rarely been better, and Hans is easily Walken's best role in years.  Whether he's doting over his cancer-stricken wife (Linda Bright Clay), making odd facial expressions, or saying things like "Fuck the cops!  Fuck 'em!" in ways that only he could say them, Walken turns in a marvelously inspired "Christopher Walken"-y performance that's great fun to watch.  Rockwell and Walken are the standouts, but Farrell and Harrelson do fine work, and there's also memorable supporting turns by Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, and, of course, Bonny the Shih Tzu.  SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS functions on multiple levels and is the kind of film that probably requires more than one viewing to catch and process everything.  It's one of those films where subsequent viewings will likely bring other things to the surface to enrich the experience.  I certainly enjoyed enough of it to pick up the eventual Blu-ray and spend more time studying it in greater detail.  It's just that kind of film.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

In Theaters: SINISTER (2012)

(US/UK - 2012)

Directed by Scott Derrickson.  Written by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill.   Cast: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Vincent D'Onofrio, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Ransone, Clare Foley, Michael Hall D'Addario.  (R, 109 mins)

Horror fans can often the most demanding, nit-picky, and impossible-to-please movie audience out there.  I include myself in that to a certain extent and of course there's things one could grumble about in SINISTER but they're relatively minor and for a film dealing with the supernatural and a demonic serial killer with the possible ability to traverse realms of existence, you can't complain about something not being "realistic," or, as one IMDb commenter states, "The wife sure is a heavy sleeper!"  Just shut up.  SINISTER is one of the best horror films to come down the pike in some time, and if you're tired of CGI silliness or torture-porn excess or creatively-bankrupt remakes, then you'll forgive the minor lapses in logic and the lack of documentary realism.  For the most part, SINISTER is smart, character-driven, deeply unsettling and genuinely terrifying. 

True-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn't had a hit book in ten years.  In a slump and running out of money but with no desire to go back to teaching or editing textbooks, he moves his family--wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), 12-year-old son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario), and young daughter Ashley (Clare Foley)--into a new house in a small town so he can research the ritualistic killing of a local family the previous year, with the disappearance of the family's youngest daughter still unsolved. What Ellison doesn't tell Tracy, and what the grumpy sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) tells him is "in poor taste," is that they've moved into the murdered family's house.  Ellison finds a box of Super 8 films with a projector in the attic, the film cans labeled "Hanging Around," and "BBQ" among other innocuous titles.  To his horror, Ellison watches the films and discovers that they seem to be homemade snuff films of a series of ritualistic killings of families dating back to 1966.  Transferring the films to his laptop and inspecting the footage in more detail by adjusting the contrast or zooming in, Ellison discovers repeat appearances of a demonic, white-faced figure lurking in the background or reflected in mirrors.  A series of children's drawings on the inside of the box lid identifies both the names of the murder victims and this figure, known as "Mr. Boogie."  Ellison starts hearing footsteps in the attic (inexplicably finding a snake and a scorpion at different times), the film projector starts turning itself on in the middle of the night, Trevor has incidents of night terrors, artistic Ashley starts drawing images from the films that she couldn't possibly have seen, and at one point, Ellison accidentally snaps a cell phone pic of himself while falling through the attic floor and when he looks at it, sees tiny hands attempting to drag him down.  Then he looks out of his office window and spots Mr. Boogie watching him from some bushes in the distance.

With some help from the sheriff's starstruck deputy (James Ransone), Ellison is referred to Prof. Jonas (Hawke's close pal Vincent D'Onofrio, who Skypes in his entire role), an expert in occult crimes who recognizes a symbol found in the footage as that of an ancient Pagan deity named Bhaguul, who was able to move from various dimensions through visual means such as drawings--or, in more modern times, photos or film.  Ellison starts to find concrete connections not just with Mr. Boogie's involvement in the ritual slayings, but also between the victims over the half-century of collected footage.

Directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson (THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE and the 2008 remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), SINISTER is a rare kind of fright film for these days:  there's very little gore (some snippets on the footage, and a couple of throat slicings reflected in Ellison's glasses as he watches), and an unusually diligent focus on mood and character.  We get to know Ellison and the family before the terrible things start happening, and Derrickson makes a brave decision in making him somewhat unsympathetic.  It's hard to get behind a protagonist who keeps important information from his family and stubbornly insists on staying because of his ambition and need to resuscitate his fame.  The story progresses organically, so it doesn't even feel like a cliche when Ellison starts hitting the bottle and neglecting his family.  SINISTER creates a mood of suffocating dread the likes of which aren't typically seen in mainstream, wide-release genre fare.  And yeah some of it may come off as illogical--for some of the atmosphere to be effective, it's necessary for Ellison to wander around in the dark using his light from his cell phone to guide him when he could just simply flip a damn light switch--but from start to finish, SINISTER works.  We see just enough of Mr. Boogie to make him scary, where many films would have him front and center and probably be a wisecracking smartass on top of that. 

Sure, Derrickson does go for a few cheap jolts, but he knows there's tension and terror in the waiting, and on several occasions, he and veteran composer Christopher Young (the score here is fantastic) work together to hypnotically lull the audience before dropping a pants-shitting scare.  There's something inherently ominous about any use of grainy film stock in horror movies (think the "shared dream" bits of John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS), and it's a hard scare tactic to screw up, but Derrickson not only makes it work, but he makes it scarier than usual (the instant-classic lawnmower scene had the audience buzzing with assorted "Jesus Christ!"s ,"Holy shit!"s and "Daaaaaamn!"s, followed by several minutes of nervous chuckling and breath-catching).  SINISTER has a lot of things in common with James Wan's INSIDIOUS from last year, but where that film started cutting corners (Really? This mystery woman is openly lurking in the background of every photo ever taken of you in your life and you never noticed it until now?) and falling down on the job with a ludicrous third act, SINISTER finds the right tone and maintains it all the way through to its grim and uncompromising day-ruiner of a finale.  This film earns its cred the old-fashioned way, relying more on the horror of the unseen and the imagined rather than explicitly depicting it in graphic fashion.  And even better--it's a self-contained story.  Sure, there could be a sequel (I hope there's not), but it doesn't wrap up on the kind of cliffhanging, open ending that almost every modern horror films seem to do.  Well-acted, smartly-written, bleak and disturbing as hell, SINISTER is the real deal.

Friday, October 12, 2012

In Theaters: ARGO (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by Ben Affleck.  Written by Chris Terrio.  Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall, Titus Welliver, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Michael Parks, Adrienne Barbeau, Richard Dillane, Keith Szarabajka, Jamie McShane.  (R, 120 mins)

ARGO is a riveting, relentlessly-paced chronicle of the covert operation that rescued six Americans who escaped from the US Embassy in Iran as the 1979-81 hostage crisis unfolded.  They spent nearly three months hiding in the home of Canadian ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) before CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed) was able to put an extremely unlikely rescue plan in motion, or as Mendez's boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) puts it:  "This is the best bad idea we've got."

Mendez is presented with a preliminary plan of getting the six Americans bicycles to ride 300 miles to the Turkish border ("You can send someone to follow them with an air pump," he says), but stumbles upon an idea while watching BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES on TV:  have the six Americans pose as a Canadian film crew scouting Iranian locations for a big-budget STAR WARS ripoff.  Mendez consults Oscar-winning makeup designer John Chambers (John Goodman), who's "worked for us before," and brings in aging Hollywood producer (and fictional composite character) Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), to help establish the backstory to make the plans for the film "real."  They can't just say they're making a movie...it has to look like it's being made, which means a fake production company, ads in Variety, a table read, Chambers creating costumes and makeup effects, and Siegel doing some Hollywood wheeling and dealing.  They choose a script called ARGO, a "piece of shit" that's in turnaround and likely has no chance of getting made.  Mendez, posing as a Canadian movie producer and using the cover name "Kevin Harkins," arrives in Tehran on January 27, 1980 and meets with Taylor and the six Americans, assigns them their cover identities and preps them for an escape from the Tehran airport via a flight to Switzerland.

This whole incident was known for a long time as "The Canadian Caper," and for the safety of the 50 American hostages at the embassy (who were ultimately released on January 20, 1981), US involvement remained top secret until the whole "Argo" operation was declassified by President Clinton in 1997.  Until then, it was a Canadian operation, which strained their relations with Iran and Taylor had to head home for his own safety. There was a 1981 Canadian TV movie entitled ESCAPE FROM IRAN, which dealt with the story strictly from the Canadian side with Taylor, and one flaw of ARGO is that it does seem to downplay Taylor's involvement and just how much he put himself and his wife at risk by giving sanctuary to the Americans.  It doesn't take long for the Ayatollah's forces to figure out that six Americans are unaccounted for, and if they'd been caught, Taylor and his wife certainly would've been jailed or executed.  ARGO is, of course, "based on a true story," so Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio do play a little fast and loose with some facts for the sake of dramatic and entertainment purposes. Apparently, the tension-filled trip through the Tehran airport wasn't nearly as tension-filled as the film suggests, and one of the six Americans, Robert Anders (played by Tate Donovan in a gray wig) is chosen to pose as ARGO's director because he's "the oldest of the group" at 54, when the real Anders was, in fact, just 34 at the time. 

But ARGO is not a documentary, it's a thriller, and it's a damn fine one.  After the excellent GONE BABY GONE (2007) and THE TOWN (2010), ARGO is Affleck's most accomplished work yet as a director, and one that makes a clear case that he's a serious filmmaker.  This is an actor who's clearly spent a lot of time watching and learning from other directors over the course of his career.  He does a terrific job of not just overseeing a 1980 look (from the hair, the wardrobe, and the ghastly eyeglass frames to the smoke-filled interiors) but a 1980 feel, even opening with that era's Warner Bros. logo.  ARGO has the same sort of tense, nail-biting, nerve-wracking energy that guys like Sidney Lumet and Alan J. Pakula routinely brought to their films of the 1970s and early 1980s.  Affleck also proves to be an actors' director, graciously giving all of his co-stars the best moments, particularly Goodman and Arkin, both of whom are just fantastic.  Arkin, especially, is an absolute joy to watch as a seen-it-all dealmaker who's way past his prime but still knows how to get it done.  One surprising element of ARGO, given its grim, serious nature, is how laugh-out-loud funny it sometimes is.  Terrio's script has some great quotable dialogue, most of it coming from Arkin, Goodman, and Cranston.  The supporting cast is packed with character actors young and old and Affleck gives them all an opportunity to shine. Affleck himself is good as Mendez, even if he isn't exactly a convincing Hispanic and looks nothing like the real guy.   In the end, ARGO is a stomach-in-knots experience that honors some extraordinarily brave people and is one of the year's best films.

Tony Mendez meeting with President Jimmy Carter
in 1980 after completing the "Argo" rescue mission.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE HOLE (2012), ROSEWOOD LANE (2012), and (2012)

(US - 2012)

For much of his 1980s GREMLINS heyday working in conjunction with producer Steven Spielberg, director Joe Dante was generally considered a capable, commercial genre craftsman.  He made entertaining movies that made money.  But going back to his days editing trailers for 1970s Roger Corman productions, and with his own early directing efforts like PIRANHA (1978) and THE HOWLING (1981), Dante's work exhibited knowing winks, nods, and loving homages to his own influences from classic horror films to vintage Looney Tunes, including giving some of his favorite and still-living old-time actors some meaty late-career roles long before Quentin Tarantino made it cool.  Nowadays, critics recognize Dante's often subversive wit and anarchic style and even a film like THE 'BURBS, savaged by critics in 1989, has enjoyed a resurgence as a cult film with a lot more going on beneath the surface.  Dante films like GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH (1990) and SMALL SOLDIERS (1998) have been praised for their cutting social commentary in the guise of popcorn genre fare. Now, at a still-youthful 65, Dante, like his contemporary John Carpenter, has lived long enough to see many of his dismissed films re-evaluated and to find himself considered an auteur.  And like Carpenter, Dante seems content to enjoy his emeritus status and has opted to focus more on interviews, retrospectives, and conventions rather than worrying about remaining topical and trendy in a world of cinema that's simply changed too drastically for him to be as commercially viable as he once was.  Dante was unstoppable in the 1980s.  His latest film took three years to get picked up by a company called Big Air Studios.

THE HOLE, shot in 2009 but unreleased in the US until a very limited theatrical run (in 3D) in September 2012, is Dante's first feature since 2003's troubled LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION.  In that time off, he's directed episodes of CSI and the new HAWAII FIVE-0, a short film accompanying a GOOSEBUMPS amusement park ride, two episodes of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR (including the acclaimed anti-war screed "Homecoming"), and the wraparound segments of the terrible 2008 anthology film TRAPPED ASHES.  THE HOLE almost feels like a GREMLINS-era 1980s throwback in many respects, probably the main reason why it took so long to find a distributor, even with being shot in 3D.  Entertaining if a bit lethargically paced, THE HOLE has single mom Teri Polo moving to a small town with moody teenage son Chris Massoglia and younger son Nathan Gamble.  The brothers and cute girl next door Haley Bennett discover a locked door in the basement floor, which leads to a seemingly bottomless pit.  They keep this finding a secret, but are soon confronted by--stop me if you've heard this one before--the physical manifestations of the things they fear the most.  For young Gamble, it's evil clowns.  For Bennett, the spectre of a ghost girl straight out of RINGU, and for Massoglia, it's a nightmarish version of his abusive, long-absent father.  As charmingly old-school as THE HOLE can be, the script by Mark L. Smith (VACANCY) is really stale, and even at 92 minutes, the film feels padded.  I thought Massoglia and Gamble both did good work, and I liked the feel of the early scenes, which really took me back to seeing Dante films like GREMLINS and EXPLORERS as a kid, but once the plot kicks in, you'll know every twist and turn, and only in the finale, when Massoglia ventures into the hole, does Dante really attempt anything unique.  Also with Bruce Dern as Creepy Carl, the house's previous owner who tries to warn them about the hole, and the venerable Dick Miller in a silent cameo as the world's oldest pizza delivery guy.  THE HOLE is a pleasant, if extremely slight film, nowhere in the vicinity of top-tier Dante, but it's nice to see a new film by him. (PG-13, 92 mins)

(US - 2012)

I can't fathom there being a more absurd, laugh-out-loud thriller in 2012 than ROSEWOOD LANE, the latest from Victor Salva, who's a long way from JEEPERS CREEPERS here.  Salva is a filmmaker known more for being a registered sex offender (I'm not going to rehash it here, check his Wikipedia page if you don't know the story), but credit where it's due:  JEEPERS CREEPERS is a pretty great horror film.  The sequel was terrible, and so is ROSEWOOD LANE, an instant Bad Movie classic that Universal didn't even bother releasing in theaters. Talk radio shrink Dr. Sonny Blake (Rose McGowan) moves back into her childhood home in the suburbs after the mysterious death of her estranged father.  It seems to be a quiet, peaceful neighborhood in a cul-de-sac on Rosewood Lane, but the neighbors live in an all-consuming fear of psychotic paperboy Derek Barber (Daniel Ross Owens).  Derek is almost immediately sneaking into Sonny's house, rearranging ceramic figurines, confronting her in the basement, calling in to her show and taunting her with nursery rhymes...and a great introductory deal on a subscription, but she better act now to save!  And he's not really making any effort to hide what he's doing.  Even old neighbor Fred (Rance Howard, Ron's dad) says "Yeah, sometimes I hear him walkin' on my roof...I seen him up on yours, too."  THEN DO SOMETHING!  During a housewarming backyard BBQ, Derek takes a leak on Sonny's on-again/off-again boyfriend Barrett (Sonny Marinelli) through a hole in a privacy fence.  But the paperboy always seems to disappear into thin air before anyone can confront him.  And no one seems really eager to deal with the issue.  Do-nothing detective Briggs (Ray Wise) says there's no evidence and questions if Sonny's just imagining all of it as a psychological reaction to being back in a traumatic environment, and since Derek's a minor (the actor Owens is 29 and looks it), they can't go after him without his parents' permission.  So, Derek's reign of terror escalates and the body count starts piling, and well, gosh darn it, there just isn't anything that can be done about it.

I have a few questions: did Salva intend for this to be a comedy? What is the deal with Derek? Where are his parents? Why do the neighbors just put up with him routinely entering their homes and terrorizing them? Why does everyone just accept the lunatic antics of this little shit as part of life on Rosewood Lane? And does he do this to the rest of his paper route? Why just this dead-end street?  Has anyone called the newspaper and asked to speak with Derek's supervisor?  Why do the cops look the other way? Actually no, I take that back. They don't look the other way. They look right at it. And do nothing. Derek even calls Sonny's show at one point and flat-out says he buried Barrett alive in Sonny's backyard...but when the cops go there, they just stand around and bitch because they can't find anything, and only notice the snorkel sticking out of a mound of dirt when one cop trips over it. No, really. Also with Lauren Velez, Lin Shaye, Bill Fagerbakke, and Lesley-Anne Down (still a knockout after all these years), ROSEWOOD LANE is professionally-made and competently-acted, but the film is almost as out-to-lunch hilarious and as off-the-charts stupid as THE ROOM. Come on, Salva. Seriously. What the hell is this bullshit? (R, 96 mins, also streaming on Netflix)
(UK - 2010; 2012 US release)

It took Universal two years to dump this occasionally diverting but overlong British crime thriller straight to DVD in the US. Written and co-directed by KIDULTHOOD and ADULTHOOD writer and sometime DOCTOR WHO guest star Noel Clarke (who shares directing duties with Mark Davis), has some cast members that would seem to guarantee at least a limited US theatrical release, but apparently, Universal didn't see a Simon Pegg thing happening with Clarke.  Highly reminiscent of Doug Liman's GO (1999), details the wild weekend of four young London-based women and highly unlikely friends--American expat Jo (Emma Roberts), wealthy and virginal piano prodigy Cassandra (Tamsin Egerton), street-smart lesbian Kerrys (Shanika Warren-Markland), and mousy, introverted graffiti artist Shannon (Ophelia Lovibond).  Starting on a Friday afternoon and told in four roughly 25-minute segments, we follow the path of each through the weekend--including a quick trip to NYC for Cassandra--going back after each until all the plot lines and characters converge.   There's sex, a diamond heist, Viagra, stolen cars, Pringles, a panic room, mistaken identity, a misplaced note, familial dysfunction, convenience store mayhem, club brawls, a NYC racist confronted by a large group of thugs ("Hey, come on guys...I voted for Obama!") led by Eve, and a ruthless assassin (Michelle Ryan).  Lots of familiar British TV faces and Clarke pals turn up (Sean Pertwee, Ashley Thomas, Ben Miller, Camille Coduri, and others), in addition to Mandy Patinkin and even Kevin Smith in a likable supporting turn as the gregarious Big Larry, who becomes an unexpected friend of Cassandra's in NYC. isn't likely to achieve the cult status of GO or the early films of Guy Ritchie (another obvious influence), and it could probably lose 15-20 minutes, but it's not bad and the cast seems to be having a blast.  (Unrated, 117 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: WEREWOLF: THE BEAST AMONG US (2012), THE BARRENS (2012) and CHAINED (2012)

(US - 2012)

Passable DTV time-killer from Universal, intended as a semi-sequel of sorts to their 2010 revamp of THE WOLFMAN, but also as a tie-in with their just-released Universal Classic Monsters Blu-ray box set.  Shot in Romania, WEREWOLF is a period horror piece set in old school Transylvania where a team of ace werewolf hunters led by Charles (Ed Quinn) are hired to rid the village of a rampaging werewolf who seems to be targeting the town's undesirables and lowlifes.  A werewolf waging class warfare?  Give it bonus points for originality.  Charles is constantly being pestered by Daniel (Guy Wilson), who's eager to assist in the hunt instead of hanging around town as the medical assistant to the local doctor (Stephen Rea).  WEREWOLF: THE BEAST AMONG US isn't really all that good, but it takes some unpredictable turns in the last third that make it interesting, at least until the belated and nonsensical appearance of a vampire that seems more like a bone tossed to the UNDERWORLD crowd rather than any wink to the classic monster rallies of the 1940s (there also seems to be a lot of JAWS references throughout).  Directed by 1990s Roger Corman associate and DTV vet Louis Morneau (CARNOSAUR 2, MADE MEN, BATS, THE HITCHER II, JOY RIDE 2), who also co-wrote the script with fellow Corman grad Catherine Cyran (SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III, BLOODFIST II, IN THE HEAT OF PASSION II), WEREWOLF is clearly dealing with a low-budget, with dubious CGI werewolf and splatter effects farmed out to a Chinese effects team, and the cast is comprised of mostly TV actors who seem to have gotten the gig based on their resemblances to bigger stars:  Quinn's Charles is patterned enough on the 2004 VAN HELSING that he seems like Halfway Hugh Jackman, while his team contains a guy who comes off as Relatively Robert Downey, Jr and another who's Kinda Kate Beckinsale, and the village has a guy who's Somewhat Sean Bean.  THE CRYING GAME Oscar nominee Rea is by far the biggest name, though you also get Nia Peeples as Daniel's brothel-managing mother, and an eye-patched Steven Bauer (SCARFACE) in a rather insignificant role as one of Charles' werewolf-tracking posse.  Pretty forgettable overall, but OK for its type.  You're still better off just watching one of the classic Universal monster movies.  (Unrated, 94 mins/R, 93 mins, R-rated version streaming on Netflix)

(US - 2012)

Darren Lynn Bousman (SAW II-IV, REPO: THE GENETIC OPERA) wrote and directed this horror film that ostensibly deals with the Jersey Devil, the mythical winged creature that's said to haunt the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.  However, Bousman is more interested in remaking Kubrick's THE SHINING in the woods instead of a hotel, right down to the jeopardized boy being named Danny and his crazed dad yelling "Danny-boy!"  Philadelphia dad Richard (TRUE BLOOD's Stephen Moyer) is taking the family--second wife Cynthia (Mia Kirshner), their six-year-old son Danny (Peter DaCunha), and Sadie (Allie MacDonald), Richard's angry 17-year-old daughter with his late first wife--on a camping trip to the Pine Barrens even though no one really wants to go.  Richard wants to scatter his dad's ashes in a lake where the two fished when he was a kid.  He also has suspicions that Cynthia might be having an affair, Sadie is just being sullen and 17, and Danny is too worried about their dog who's been missing for two weeks.  Richard has a strange bite on his arm and acts increasingly irrational over the weekend.  He's convinced the Jersey Devil has been stalking him since childhood and it--or the acceleration of the infection from the mysterious bite--may or may not be possessing him or driving him to the brink of madness.  I'm not really sure Bousman knows, either.  THE BARRENS is slow and dull (yeah, it's another one of these post-Ti West slow-burners--Jesus, did I just coin the term "post-Ti West"?), and even though it comes alive in the climax, it still doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  The whole Jersey Devil angle seems oddly shoehorned into a SHINING ripoff (even the poster art depicts Moyer recreating an unforgettable SHINING shot), and it takes far too long and far too many red flags for Cynthia to get with the program and realize that this trip was a terrible idea, and that the shit's hit the fan and she needs to save her family from her insane husband.  Bousman made two of the better SAW sequels (SAW II and SAW III), and his REPO splatter musical has become a cult classic, but THE BARRENS just feels like too many half-baked ideas cobbled together with no real purpose.  If Bousman wanted to make a SHINING homage, then he should've just made one and not bothered with the Jersey Devil element.  What's the point?  (R, 94 mins)

(US/Canada - 2012)

Unrelentingly grim and depressing thriller from writer/director Jennifer Lynch (David's daughter, and the director of 1993's controversial BOXING HELENA and 2009's underrated SURVEILLANCE) that tries to be another HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (with shades of the 2010 DTV obscurity BEREAVEMENT) but just gets too silly and too stupid for its own good.  In a performance that's occasionally brave but for the most part horribly self-indulgent, Vincent D'Onofrio is Bob, a cab driver who abducts women and takes them to his isolated rural home to rape and murder them before burying the bodies in a crawlspace under the house.  One afternoon, he kills a mom (Julia Ormond) and keeps her young son (Evan Bird) as a prisoner.  He renames the boy "Rabbit" and makes him take care of the house and clean up the messes left behind by his atrocities.  Years go by, Rabbit is now in his late teens (and now played by Eamon Farren), and Bob decides to train his "adopted" son as his protege. 

Originally slapped with an NC-17 rating, CHAINED is pretty repulsive but still isn't as gory as most of these things go.  It seems more concerned with establishing that HENRY feeling of claustrophobic tension, but it just doesn't work. Lynch lets D'Onofrio run wild, doing some weird accent that sounds like a lisping Noo Yawker with a severe head cold. There's a backstory involving Bob's abusive father forcing him to have sex with his own mother, and one seemingly throwaway line of dialogue lets the cat out of the bag that there's going to be an inane twist ending. There's a couple of squirmy shots of Rabbit giving Bob a sponge bath, Bob playing with what appears to be a piece of a severed limb, and we do get a shot of a nude D'Onofrio covered in blood and sprawled atop one of his victims. I'm a big fan of D'Onofrio while at the same time conceding that he can be a divisive actor. A lot of people disliked him on LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT, but I thought he was brilliant. He excels with a good script and a disciplined director, but when he's not kept on a tight leash, things like CHAINED happen. Unfortunately, he's at his most mannered and affected here, and a lot of CHAINED's problems wouldn't be had he played it straight and not made the "Hey, check me out! It's THE VINCENT D'ONOFRIO SHOW!!!" decision to use a distracting, ridiculous accent and bust out every tic and twitch in his repertoire. On the plus side, Farren is effective as the tortured Rabbit and just by exhibiting some quiet restraint, manages to make a stronger impression than his veteran co-star. (R, 94 mins)

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Cannon Files: CYBORG (1989)

(US - 1989)

Directed by Albert Pyun.  Written by Kitty Chalmers.  Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Deborah Richter, Vincent Klyn, Dayle Haddon, Alex Daniels, Ralf Muller, Haley Peterson, Terrie Batson, Jackson "Rock" Pinckney. (R, 86 mins)

The making of CYBORG was apparently an arduous process.  The budget was low, the project thrown together, and the director was fired during post-production.  One of the cast members--Jackson "Rock" Pinckney--lost an eye in a mishap with a prop knife.  According to legend, Cannon honchos Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had deals in place to with Marvel to produce SPIDER-MAN and with Mattel on a sequel to 1987's MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, and both were to be shot simultaneously by journeyman director Albert Pyun (THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER) in North Carolina at the deserted DEG Studios.  DEG Studios was constructed by Dino De Laurentiis for his short-lived DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group, which released a bunch of movies in 1986 and 1987 before going bankrupt by the end of 1987 (many DEG titles were held in limbo for years, such as BILL & TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, acquired by Orion and released in 1989, and William Friedkin's RAMPAGE, completed in 1987 but unreleased until Miramax picked it up in 1992).   By 1989, Cannon was on life support from a string of costly, high-profile box office duds borne of Golan & Globus' quest to be respectable, high-rolling, Oscar-baiting A-listers;  a bunch of standard-issue B-movies that were no longer making money (including many cheaply produced at their Apartheid-era South African branch that they denied existed); the ill-advised purchase of Thorn-EMI's movie division; and far too many dubious and impulsive business deals drawn up on cocktail napkins. Golan would leave the partnership and form 21st Century Film Corporation later in 1989, though Cannon would wheeze on until 1993 with Globus and, briefly, Italian schlock king Ovidio G. Assonitis (BEYOND THE DOOR, TENTACLES) running things, with occasional desperation Hail Mary's like 1990's LAMBADA that inevitably tanked and became industry punchlines.  In short, Cannon's best days were clearly in the past, and they simply didn't have the cash flow to be dealing with big-budget superhero movies, as clearly evidenced by 1987's pitiful SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE.

In order to recoup some of the money already spent on their never-to-be SPIDER-MAN and MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE 2, and to spotlight rising star and "Muscles from Brussels" Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose 1988 breakthrough BLOODSPORT provided Cannon with one of their very few recent successes, Golan & Globus had Pyun use some costumes and some sets that were constructed for the abandoned projects and, with screenwriter Kitty Chalmers (apparently a real person), hastily assemble the post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller SLINGER, which ended up being retitled CYBORG by the time it was released in April 1989.

Jean-Claude Van Damme as
Gibson Rickenbacker
CYBORG's budget was officially $500,000 (though Pyun has said it was more like $400,000), a far cry from the $20 million Cannon spent on MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE and the $12 million they paid Sylvester Stallone to star in OVER THE TOP just two years earlier (a record payday for a movie star at the time--half of the film's budget went to Stallone's salary).  In their 1980s heyday, most Cannon genre fare had a unique feel, with their stock company of behind-the-scenes technicians and actors frequently turning up.  Almost all of them ran in the vicinity of 100 minutes.  There was a formula and nine times out of ten, they stuck to it.  If you're a Cannon junkie, it doesn't take long to notice that something about CYBORG is...off.  And the more you get into it, the less it feels like a Golan-Globus production and more like a corner-cutting Concorde/Roger Corman venture of the era, from the truncated 86-minute running time to the obvious backlot DEG sets that often make it the stagiest post-apocalyptic film this side of the Burbank Studios-shot THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR (1975), which looked like a TV show despite starring Yul Brynner and being directed by ENTER THE DRAGON's Robert Clouse.  And other than the fight scenes, there's not much in CYBORG other than the characters walking around, because that's all that the budget allowed.  Perhaps Pyun was simply giving us a preview of his landmark "Gangstas Wandering Around An Abandoned Warehouse" (© AV Club's Nathan Rabin) trilogy.

Dayle Haddon in the title role as the cyborg Pearl Prophet

The story takes place in the early 21st century, after a plague has wiped out most of mankind.  Nomadic, vicious pirates roam the land.  Cyborg Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon, a French-Canadian model who had a busy career in European softcore porn in the '70s--including the title role in 1976's SPERMULA--before playing Nick Nolte's girlfriend in the 1979 football classic NORTH DALLAS FORTY) has the key to a cure for the plague implanted in her brain and needs a "slinger"--a mercenary guide--to guard her on her trip from New York to the CDC in Atlanta.  Enter "slinger" Gibson Rickenbacker (Van Damme), who takes the job but quickly loses Pearl when they're ambushed by a marauding band of pirates led by the ruthless Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn).  Gibson and Fender have a past:  Gibson is haunted by memories of a previous slinging job where he fell in love with Mary (Terrie Batson), the woman he was protecting and was helpless to stop her from being killed by Fender (Van Damme is not helped in these scenes by a hilariously awful flashback wig).  Fender's gang also includes Mary's now-grown sister Haley (Haley Petersen), who's torn between her loyalties to the two men.  Gibson joins forces with another lone traveler, Nady Simmons (Deborah Richter), and ventures to Atlanta to find Pearl and get his revenge on the nefarious Fender.

Vincent Klyn as Fender Tremolo

Cheap, disjointed, derivative (the most creative element is that all the characters are named after some kind of musical equipment brand or music term) but strangely entertaining, CYBORG also feels oddly retro for 1989, with a look and feel that seems more fitting for the string of post-ROAD WARRIOR ripoffs that petered out around 1985.  And, despite being an American film shot in English, it almost feels like an Italian post-nuke since everyone but Van Damme appears to be dubbed.  Pyun had CYBORG taken away from him during post-production, but he began selling his "director's cut" DVD, culled from a VHS workprint copy, on his web site in 2011, with more violence (CYBORG was apparently cut to secure an R rating), a completely different score, and without some of the reshoots he did back in 1989 (Fender's demise is different in each version).  In Pyun's director's cut, Klyn (or the guy dubbing him) dubs every male character except for Van Damme, which was probably intended as a "placeholder" dubbing track until a final mix could be arranged.  I haven't seen Pyun's cut, but by all accounts, the theatrical version supervised and edited by Cannon is the much more polished and professional film (and if Pyun's post-1980s output is any indication, I believe it).  Pyun had worked with Cannon before on 1986's DANGEROUSLY CLOSE, 1987's DOWN TWISTED, 1988's ALIEN FROM L.A., and he directed most of 1989's JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (shot mostly in 1986) even though Rusty Lemorande gets sole credit.  And there must've been no hard feelings over CYBORG with Golan, since Pyun's next project would be CAPTAIN AMERICA for Golan's 21st Century.  MGM just released CYBORG--in its 86-minute theatrical version--on Blu-ray in a surprisingly solid HD transfer at a low price, so fans of this cult classic--yes, it has a devoted fan base--will definitely find that worthwhile.

CYBORG opened in theaters the same day as MAJOR LEAGUE, THE DREAM TEAM, and DEAD CALM, and it's a testament to how popular Van Damme was at the time that the film landed in fourth place.  Van Damme was making a name for himself while still essentially a B-movie figure on the fringes of the mainstream, and was in a relentlessly busy period (with BLOODSPORT, BLACK EAGLE, CYBORG, KICKBOXER, DEATH WARRANT, LIONHEART, and DOUBLE IMPACT hitting theaters from 1988 to 1991) of building a grass-roots, word-of-mouth following and establishing his action bona fides before graduating to the A-list with 1992's UNIVERSAL SOLDIER and 1993's HARD TARGET.  20-plus years and countless straight-to-DVD titles later, with his recent turn in THE EXPENDABLES 2 reminding everyone that he's indeed still around, it's easy to forget how popular Van Damme was in his heyday, and he achieved it the old-fashioned way:  by paying his dues and working his ass off.

CYBORG was a moderate box-office success and arguably Cannon's last hit (though Chuck Norris' THE HITMAN grossed a few million in 1991), and proved popular enough in video stores and on cable to spawn two non-Cannon sequels.  1993's CYBORG 2 had little relation to Pyun's film other than cyborgs and a brief stock footage shot of Van Damme in a dream sequence.  Directed by former Cannon production assistant Michael Schroeder, CYBORG 2 was notable at the time for the appearance of a slumming Jack Palance--a year after his CITY SLICKERS Oscar--bellowing dialogue like "If you want to dine with the devil, you'll need a loooooong spoon!" as a cyborg named "Mercy," but back in 1993, no one knew much about second-billed, 18-year-old newcomer Angelina Jolie as "almost human" cyborg Cash Reese.  Schroeder also helmed 1995's CYBORG 3: THE RECYCLER, which brought back the Cash Reese character but replaced Jolie with Khrystyne Haje from the ABC sitcom HEAD OF THE CLASS (1986-91).  CYBORG 3 featured a cast that screams "1995 straight to video," including Malcolm McDowell as "Lord Talon," Richard Lynch, Zach Galligan (GREMLINS), William Katt as "Decaf," Margaret Avery (THE COLOR PURPLE), and Kato Kaelin, credited as "Beggar" in what must've been a real stretch.