Thursday, January 31, 2013

In Theaters: MOVIE 43 (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Peter Farrelly, Steven Brill, Will Graham, Steve Carr, Griffin Dunne, James Duffy, Jonathan Van Tulleken, Elizabeth Banks, Patrik Forsberg, Brett Ratner, Rusty Cundieff, James Gunn.  Cast: Dennis Quaid, Greg Kinnear, Common, Seth MacFarlane, Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Anna Faris, Chris Pratt, J.B. Smoove, Emma Stone, Kieran Culkin, Richard Gere, Kate Bosworth, Jack McBrayer, Aasif Mandvi, Justin Long, Jason Sudeikis, Uma Thurman, Kristen Bell, Bobby Cannavale, Leslie Bibb, John Hodgman, Katrina Bowden, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jimmy Bennett, Patrick Warburton, Matt Walsh, Seann William Scott, Johnny Knoxville, Gerard Butler, Halle Berry, Stephen Merchant, Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, Terrence Howard, Elizabeth Banks, Josh Duhamel. (R, 94 mins)

The extremely R-rated sketch comedy MOVIE 43 boasts what might be the most overqualified cast ever assembled for the sole purpose of thoroughly embarrassing themselves.  The project was headed by Peter Farrelly, who gathered eleven other directors and a total of 18 writers to put together what probably seemed like a good idea in theory:  get an incredible amount of A-list movie and TV stars together for a modern take on raunchy 1970s sketch comedies like THE GROOVE TUBE (1974), IF YOU DON'T STOP...YOU'LL GO BLIND (1975), CAN I DO IT...TIL I NEED GLASSES? (1977), JOKES MY FOLKS NEVER TOLD ME (1978), and the subgenre's standard-bearer, THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977).   It's hard to believe that this much talent could be squandered so badly, but MOVIE 43 only has a couple of good ideas and a total of about five decent laughs throughout.  I don't think it's being too demanding to have expected a little more than that.  A joke occasionally lands and only sticks out because what's around it is so depressing and dismal.  Entire segments go by where you can't help but ask yourself "What was the endgame here?  What is the joke?" 
Farrelly handled the main storyline, which has Dennis Quaid as a washed-up director in skinny jeans and a Justin Bieber cut barging into studio exec Greg Kinnear's office and pitching him an idea for a sketch movie.  And that's the premise.  So, we get Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman on a blind date, where she discovers that he has a scrotum dangling from his neck.  Things briefly pick up with an interesting idea that's one of the very few examples of MOVIE 43 doing something edgy and daring:  Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber play homeschooling parents who want their teenage son to have the complete high school experience, so they regularly subject him to bullying and insults for starters, then throwing a huge party and not inviting him, culminating in Mom trying to make out with him and Dad making a pass at him, all to give him that special "awkward first time" opportunity that all teenagers should have.  It's a funny idea, but the writers and segment director Will Graham don't really know where to take it, so it ultimately fizzles, but it's one of the only examples of MOVIE 43 trying to do something.  Next, it's Anna Faris asking boyfriend Chris Pratt to "poop" on her (not even the great J.B. Smoove of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM can save this one, telling Pratt to eat beefy bean burritos with guacamole to "add some color" to it).  Supermarket checkout clerk Kieran Culkin and ex-girlfriend Emma Stone have an intense erotic conversation, unaware that the intercom is picking it up and it's being pumped through the store (Stone: "Do you still like fingers in your butthole?" Culkin: "I want to give you a hickey on your vagina").  Then, Richard Gere is the CEO of a company facing lawsuits over their "iBabe" music player, which is a life-sized replica of a woman, prompting teenage boys to mutilate their penises because of a cooling fan that's in the "lower quadrant."  I think the joke is that none of the execs except Kate Bosworth saw that this would be a problem.  Next up, Robin (Justin Long) is at a speed date when Batman (Jason Sudeikis, who has a few amusing lines) shows up to cock-block him.  Kristen Bell is Supergirl, Uma Thurman is Lois Lane, and Leslie Bibb is Wonder Woman.  Then there's a painfully unfunny commercial about "Machine Kids," that shows people getting mad at vending machines, ATMs, and copiers and being told that little kids are inside operating them (I don't know what the joke is, either). 

Chloe Grace Moretz is at boyfriend Jimmy Bennett's house when she gets her first period, prompting Bennett, older brother Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and their dad Patrick Warburton to freak out.  Then there's a Tampax commercial with a CGI'd shark eating a female swimmer (because of the blood and the...yeah, you know).  Seann William Scott and Johnny Knoxville are roommates who kidnap a foul-mouthed leprechaun (Gerard Butler's face CGI'd on to a smaller body) in a segment directed by Brett Ratner (it's a cliche to bag on Ratner at this point, but when there are four people credited as "Brett Ratner's assistants" for a contribution this miniscule, he's pretty much asking for it).  Things get better for a short while with Halle Berry and Stephen Merchant on a blind date that turns into an increasingly ridiculous, rude, and politically incorrect game of Truth or Dare.  It's another example of a solid idea without a punchline, but there are some amusing gags and this particular segment is comic genius compared to the several that preceded it, even with Oscar winner Berry mashing guacamole with her (stunt) breast and inserting a turkey baster filled with hot sauce into her vagina. Terrence Howard is the coach of a black college basketball team in 1959, where his game plan is essentially "You're black...they're white.  This ain't hockey!"  It's a one-joke premise that wears out its welcome fairly quickly, but it's not awful and it's nice to see segment director Rusty Cundieff (FEAR OF A BLACK HAT, TALES FROM THE HOOD) working on the big screen again.  MOVIE 43 finally ends with a laughless offering from the otherwise dependable James Gunn, with Elizabeth Banks (who directed the Moretz/period segment) battling a jealous, gay, masturbating, animated cat named Beezil for the affection of boyfriend Josh Duhamel.

Other than the Watts/Schreiber "Homeschooling" and the Berry/Merchant "Blind Date," there's not much humor to be found in MOVIE 43.  It's more concerned with shock value, which can be funny, but there's just nothing for these people to work with here.  If they wanted to be edgy, the filmmakers needed to bring more to the table than diarrhea, menstrual blood, and a nutsack dangling from Hugh Jackman's neck.  Even something as simple as having Gere make a gerbil joke would've demonstrated that they were trying and anything was fair game.  But really, 15 years after THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY and we're still getting "jizz as hair gel" jokes?  Is MOVIE 43 as apocalyptically bad as many critics have said?  Is it "the CITIZEN KANE of bad movies"?  No, not even close.  Oh, make no mistake...it's terrible, and easily one of 2013's worst films, though I'm sure it won't be the worst. I laughed a few times and it's still better than, say, any spoof movie by Friedberg & Seltzer, the Antichrists behind DATE MOVIE and MEET THE SPARTANS.  No, MOVIE 43's biggest crime is amassing an IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD-sized cast (and JERSEY SHORE's Snooki) and thinking the shock and the novelty of these people making genitalia and bodily-function jokes would be enough.

MOVIE 43 was shot over a period of three years, and worked on whenever actors or directors had time in their schedules.  The version released overseas omits the wraparound segments with Quaid and Kinnear and substitutes it with three teenagers scouring the internet for something called "Movie 43," reputed to be the world's filthiest film.  That at least explains the title, which means nothing in the context of the US release.  Two additional segments were shot but ultimately not included:  one directed by Bob Odenkirk, with Julianne Moore and Tony Shalhoub as parents being interviewed about their missing daughter (funny!) and one with Anton Yelchin as a necrophiliac, which begs the question of how bad they must've been if they were deemed unworthy of MOVIE 43.  I'm sure those will end up on the inevitable "Unrated and Unacceptable!" (or some such nonsense) version on DVD/Blu-ray, but for now, the biggest winners of MOVIE 43 have to be Julianne Moore, Tony Shalhoub, and Anton Yelchin.

Thanks to John Charles for the tip on the alternate version.

On DVD/Blu-ray: CITADEL (2012), THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY (2012), and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 (2012)

(Ireland/UK - 2012)

This dark, creepy, and very effectively-shot low-budget horror film has several scenes and images that are unnerving and intense, but it too often suffers from illogical plotting that smacks of writer's convenience.  Much of the mayhem that ensues in CITADEL, no matter how disturbingly claustrophohic and chilling it frequently tends to be, happens for nonsensical reasons.  Writer-director Ciarin Foy gets a lot right--enough that CITADEL is recommended for horror scenesters--but honestly, the script could've used one more polish or maybe another set of eyes giving it a once-over.  There's simply too many dumb things that have to happen for the story to unfold the way Foy wants it to.  Tommy (Aneurin Barnard, who looks like a disheveled Daniel Radcliffe) is raising his nine-month old daughter in a depressing Irish slum after his wife (Amy Shiels) was beaten by a group of hoodie-wearing children in their apartment building.  Tommy and the baby are on their own after the wife is removed from life support, and he lives in constant, paralyzing, agoraphobic fear of these feral children coming back to kill him and take his child, especially after the local priest (James Cosmo) tells him that's exactly what they'll do.  Tommy consistently finds evidence that these children, who often lurk outside his frosted-glass front door (a creepy image that seems indebted to the last shot of Andrezj Zulawski's 1981 film POSSESSION), have been in his apartment and even resorts to barricading himself and the baby in the bathroom at night, where he listens to them tap on the window and roam about the place.  When several of them attack Tommy and take the baby away, Tommy teams up with the priest, who's really quite insane, and Danny (Jake Wilson), a young blind boy who was once held captive by them, to raid the high-rise they inhabit, find the baby, and blow up the building.

Foy's inspiration for CITADEL stemmed from a brutal assault he endured at age 18 when he was attacked by a group of teenagers, beaten with a hammer and stuck with a syringe.  He suffered from debilitating agoraphobia afterwards and the script, with its overt horror an allegory for a more socio-economic statement, was undoubtedly therapeutic.  But that still doesn't explain why, at the beginning, Tommy and his wife don't ride down the elevator together.  He takes their bags down eleven floors and leaves her waiting in the hallway for no other reason that the script needs her to be attacked and put in a coma.  It doesn't explain why so many children are missing in this area and yet the cops don't investigate (a similar issue with the recent THE TALL MAN) and no parents seem to be looking for their kids.  And the whole "they can't see if you if you feel no fear" motif doesn't feel quite fully-baked when Danny starts going between being blind and being able to see, depending on what's going on in that particular scene.  Still, Foy manages to create some memorable scares, his depiction of this bleak urban hellscape is extremely unsettling, he gets a strong performance out of Barnard and a very appealing one by Wunmi Mosaku as a kind-hearted nurse who tries to help Tommy face his fears. I'll grade just about any high-rise mayhem flick on a slight curve, and there's no doubt Foy's got the chops and is a filmmaker to watch.  However, CITADEL's script has some shaky spots that should've been addressed.  (R, 84 mins)

(US/Spain - 2012)

A rather uninspired TAKEN knockoff, THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY got almost no publicity from US distributor Summit Entertainment and was quietly dumped on 1500 screens several months after it was released in the rest of the world.  It was in and out of most theaters in a week and grossed just $3 million, and while it's not a terrible movie, it's a pretty forgettable one despite a committed performance by Henry Cavill (the upcoming MAN OF STEEL), who gives 110% and acts as if this was going to be the biggest blockbuster of the year.  He certainly seems more invested in this than his more famous co-stars, who likely signed on for a working vacation in Spain.  The British Cavill is American businessman Will Shaw, who's meeting his family in Spain for a long-planned vacation.  Mom (Caroline Goodall) and his brother and the brother's girlfriend are kidnapped from their boat, and Will briefly teams up with his stern, CIA operative dad Martin (a visibly bored Bruce Willis) to find them before Martin is killed by a sniper.  Will meets his dad's Madrid-stationed colleague Carrack (Sigourney Weaver), who tells him that she and Martin stole a briefcase from a Mossad agent and the Israelis want it back.  Will, who's learned all sorts of things about his dad, including a secret second family he's had in Madrid, agrees to work with the Israelis to recover the case from the corrupt Carrack, who had Martin killed. 

Cavill makes a convincing action hero, even if the character isn't--how does he so quickly turn into a quick-thinking superspy capable of intensely choreographed fight scenes and gun battles?--but everyone else involved is just going through the motions, especially Weaver and Willis.  Weaver gets to ham it up near the end and fire an assault weapon while driving a speeding SUV in a typically incoherently-assembled car chase with CGI crashes and flips, but she can't even hide that she knows this is junk.  Willis has a much easier time sleepwalking since he exits the film around the 30-minute mark.  Director Mabrouk El Mechri previously helmed the acclaimed Jean Claude Van Damme confessional/mockumentary JCVD (2008), but doesn't have that level of inspiration here. THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY moves briskly, has a solid lead in Cavill, and kills 90 minutes on a slow night if nothing else is on and you need background noise while cleaning or folding laundry, but it's the kind of generic, predictable actioner that should've debuted in the $5 bin at Wal-Mart. (PG-13, 93 mins)

(US - 2012)

This durable found-footage horror franchise has been a fall staple since 2009, but the latest entry's comparitively paltry box office is a strong sign of audience fatigue with the whole concept.  It still grossed a nothing-to-sneeze-at $50 million, but that's what PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 took in during its opening weekend.  The problem with these films is that in their attempts to shake things up and add new things to the story, they end up fracturing the continuity to the point where they aren't even trying to be cohesive anymore.  Oh, so Katie Featherston and her sister were part of some Hittite cult when they were kids?  OK, we'll just go in that direction now.  And use webcams to stay topical. It's hard to believe that the last three films have had the same screenwriter (Christopher Landon, Michael's son).  Is he just making this up as he goes along?  Also returning from the last film are CATFISH directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, and PA4 deals with a family in Henderson, NV who end up taking in the strange little boy who just moved in across the street when his mother is taken to the hospital.  They've never even met the mother, and their only run-in with the kid is when he was found mysteriously hanging out in their backyard treehouse.  What police or rescue service would just dump a kid with a neighbor?  But the filmmakers need the kid to get in the house, because for some reason, the family's six-year-old son has some connection to Katie's nephew, who disappeared with his aunt and hasn't been seen in five years.  I wonder who the mysterious mother of the strange boy might be?  This formula is so played out that nothing about it is scary or even remotely suspenseful at this point.  If the action remains static for ten or so seconds, we know something will happen in a corner, or some figure will breeze by the camera.  Or if someone is looking into a webcam and turns their head, something will be behind them.  The filmmakers put forth minimal effort, dragging this out all the way up to an out of nowhere ending that isn't scary, just stupid and as rushed and random as anything else that popped into Landon's head when he sat down to shit out this script.  How soon before Katie is cryogenically frozen and the franchise moves to outer space with KATIE X?  The Blu-ray and DVD have both the unrated and theatrical versions, with the unrated running nine minutes longer and consisting of two or three superfluous scenes in the early going that add nothing to an already empty and pointless experience.  Needless to say, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 5 is due out later this year.  (Unrated, 97 mins/R, 88 mins)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited, Special "Super Bowl Stupidity" Edition: THE LAST MATCH (1990)

(Italy - 1990)

Directed by Larry Ludman (Fabrizio De Angelis).  Written by Gianfranco Clerici and Vincenzo Mannino.  Cast: Oliver Tobias, Ernest Borgnine, Henry Silva, Charles Napier, Martin Balsam, Melissa Palmisano, Jeff Moldovan, Jim Kelly, Jim Kiick, Jim Jensen, Bart Schuchts, Elmer Bailey, Mark Rush. (Unrated, 85 mins)

In a perfect world, THE LAST MATCH would be an integral part of the Super Bowl pre-game show, an ideal time to annually visit one of the all-time dumbest action movies ever barely released to an ambivalent public. Made at the end of the '80s Italian action cycle and, as far as I can tell, never released in the US, not even on video (IMDb credits Vidmark Entertainment, and the above art--not only showcasing '70s-style "faces in boxes" but also head shots of the actors that actually appear to be from the '70s--has the Imperial Entertainment logo, but neither ended up actually releasing it), this hilariously awful actioner from director/head coach Fabrizio De Angelis (utilizing his trusty "Larry Ludman" alias seen on such 1980s video store mainstays as the THUNDER WARRIOR trilogy, DEADLY IMPACT and the KARATE KID ripoff KARATE WARRIOR), with input from offensive coordinator Gianfranco Clerici and special teams coach Vincenzo Mannino, fails to execute its howler of a game plan, drawing multiple flags for sheer idiocy.

Pro football quarterback Cliff Gaylor (Oliver Tobias) calls an audible (OK, I'll stop) when his daughter Jenny (Melissa Palmisano) is falsely accused of drug smuggling and thrown in prison while vacationing in an unnamed Latin American country. After a useless US Embassy official (Charles Napier) does nothing but refer him to a corrupt local attorney (a profusely sweaty Martin Balsam), Gaylor thinks all hope is lost. That is, until his gruff, fatherly coach (Ernest Borgnine) shows up with the team to draw up the perfect game plan.  And Borgnine is a coach who really thinks outside the box:  the team brought along their uniforms and equipment, along with props like a sliced-open football, into which their kicker stuffs a grenade and punts at a hovering chopper! Coach Borgnine and his special infrared binoculars are able to survey the prison and he directs his players where to fire and when to attack, which they do with enthusiastic grunts of "Hut! Hut! Hut!" as they crash through doors and walls, guns blazing, clad in full game-day attire. Why? Because it's the biggest game of their lives! Evil, leering prison warden Henry Silva never stands a chance against this Hall of Shame team!

I'm not making this up.  This movie is for real.  It exists.  Don't believe me?  Well, here you go:

The above clip, coupled with the one below, is essentially THE LAST MATCH in a nutshell.  This second clip gives you more "Hut! Hut! Hut!" football commando action, Henry Silva overacting,  Coach Ernie's infrared binoculars, staggeringly bad music, a sleepy Tobias, and even an inside-the-helmet POV shot.

THE LAST MATCH probably sounds a lot more delirious than it plays.  It's carelessly shot and lacks even the production values of cheap Italian action films of just a few years earlier, with much of the budget obviously going to aging, coasting vets like Borgnine, Balsam, and Silva.  But once the football commandos suit up and raid Silva's prison, it becomes every bit the lunatic idiocy that the poster promises. The film was shot in Florida, and adding to its insanity is that it also offers supporting roles for a few off-season or retired football players with Florida ties as members of Coach Ernie's football commando unit:  former Florida State star and then-Buffalo Bills QB Jim Kelly (early in the Bills' 1989-93 stretch of Super Bowl futility, for which THE LAST MATCH must at least be partially accountable) and all-purpose Miami Dolphin Jim "Crash" Jensen are clearly visible, along with some retired Dolphins like tailback Mike Kozlowsky, receiver Elmer Bailey and Jim Kiick, a RB with the legendary undefeated 1972 team.  Former Miami Hurricanes RB Mark Rush and Bart Schuchts, a Florida State standout and then-linebacker for the Arena League's Denver Dynamite, also appear.   Has Jim Kelly ever fessed up to being in this thing?  There's no mention of it on his Wikipedia page or his web site.  Why is he in this?  How did this happen?  Did he have nothing better to do in his offseason?  Kelly was at the height of his career in 1990--it's amazing that he wasn't used to sell this in the US.  I wonder why they didn't just go ahead and make this an outright comedy. It's actually played totally serious, though Borgnine seems to be at least partially amused. Silva doesn't do much but smirk at Tobias, leer at Palmisano and yell at his guards, while Napier and Balsam aren't even in it enough to register. Tobias, who previously played for Coach Fabrizio on the much better COBRA MISSION (aka OPERATION NAM), is terrible, trying to be all grim and pissed-off but looking more like he took a sedative that's just starting to kick in.

Packed with establishing and filler shots that take entirely too much screen time (not to mention a completely anti-climactic ten-minute coda that just proves De Angelis has no idea how to piece together a convincing-looking football game), clumsy shots of the unnamed Latin American country that happens to have Florida highway signs, an utterly terrible score, slumming name actors (including two Oscar winners in Borgnine and Balsam), a woefully weak lead performance, and arguably the most ridiculous premise in all of 1980s (for all practical purposes) Italian B-movie action, THE LAST MATCH is a total fumble, but a must-see for all bad-movie aficionados.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

In Theaters: PARKER (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Taylor Hackford.  Written by John J. McLaughlin.  Cast: Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis, Nick Nolte, Wendell Pierce, Clifton Collins, Jr., Bobby Cannavale, Patti LuPone, Carlos Carrasco, Michah Hauptman, Daniel Bernhardt, Emma Booth, Kirk Baltz. (R, 117 mins)

PARKER is notable as the first big-screen adaptation of one of the 24 Parker novels to actually call the cold-blooded antihero by the name given to him by author Richard Stark, a pen name for Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008).  Past cinematic Parkers include Lee Marvin's Walker in POINT BLANK (1967), Jim Brown's McClain in THE SPLIT (1968), Robert Duvall's Macklin in THE OUTFIT (1973), Peter Coyote's Stone in SLAYGROUND (1984), and Mel Gibson's Porter in PAYBACK (1999).  Regardless of the name chosen by the filmmakers, they're all "Parker," and while Jason Statham is a natural for the role, he still doesn't surpass Marvin's immortal interpretation from 45 years ago.  PARKER uses establishing elements from the first Parker novel, 1963's The Hunter, but is primarily based on one of the later Parker books, 2000's Flashfire.

Parker is running the show on a heist of the cash room at the Ohio State Fair, with an independent crew recommended to him by his aging associate Hurley (Nick Nolte).  The job is nearly botched by the incompetent Hardwicke (Michah Hauptman), but after a successful getaway, Parker is informed by the crew's hot-headed leader Melander (Michael Chiklis) that the take will provide the seed money for an even bigger job he's got planned in Palm Beach, FL.  Parker says he just wants his cut and to be on his way.  Of course, they shoot him and leave him for dead, but being that he's Parker, he's not dead and vows revenge (how many times has Parker been screwed out of his cut of a heist, anyway?  Has he ever had any hassle-free jobs?).  Hurley confesses that he didn't really vet Melander and his guys (there's also Wendell Pierce of THE WIRE and TREME as Carlson, and Clifton Collins, Jr. as Ross), and it turns out they've got ties to a powerful Chicago mobster.  Hurley, whose daughter Claire (Emma Booth) is Parker's girlfriend, warns Parker to let this one go and even tries to compensate him for his lost cut of the Ohio State Fair job, but Parker declines, saying it's a matter of principle.  Oh, and killing their asses.

When a Chicago hit man (Daniel Bernhardt, who turns in an overexpressive performance more suited for a silent movie) unsuccessfully tries to kill Claire, Parker sends her and her father out of town and heads to Palm Beach to find Melander and his guys.  Knowing the ways of like-minded career criminals, Parker passes himself off as a Texas oil man named Daniel Parmitt, and enlists the aid of real estate agent Leslie Rodgers (Jennifer Lopez) to look at area homes on the market to narrow down where Melander is staying and what exactly this big heist will be.

Scripted by John J. McLaughlin (BLACK SWAN) and directed by Taylor Hackford, who was all over the place in the '80s (AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, AGAINST ALL ODDS, WHITE NIGHTS), but has really slowed down in recent years (his last notable film was 2004's RAY), PARKER gets off to a terrific start and remains solidly enjoyable for the most part.  It's on the more grounded end of Statham's work, not up there with THE BANK JOB, but straightforward and serious like THE MECHANIC or KILLER ELITE instead of cartoonish like the TRANSPORTER and CRANK films.  It's not through any real fault of hers, but when Lopez enters around the 40-minute mark, the film shifts gears and it feels like the filmmakers are expanding a minor role in the book to accommodate a big name that they got to play the part.  Lopez's Leslie character is in the book and does help Parker to some degree, but her presence and the need to establish her backstory (divorced, broke, living with her mother, jealous of her successful co-workers, tired of eating shit from rich and entitled clients who've never worked a day in their lives, estranged from her sister, lonely and unable to find a man, etc) and to remind us through several wardrobe changes and a strip search that Lopez has that ass combine to seriously drag the film down and much of the Leslie character development feels like the kind of material that would be among the earliest stuff ditched for a screenplay adaptation.  We start with a tight, tough heist-turned-revenge thriller and that gets put on the backburner for the entire midsection so we can see Lopez playing a character pouting about how she doesn't have a boyfriend and acting heartbroken when she realizes Parker isn't on the market.  To have Statham and Lopez in an OUT OF SIGHT-inspired situation is okay, but not when plays like it's shoehorned into the middle of another film that was working just fine.

Statham doesn't really strain himself acting-wise here.  He's largely the same stoical, ruthless badass he always plays, but it's a formula that his fans enjoy and he does it well.  He's surrounded by a solid supporting cast, most notably Chiklis' patented bulldog-in-a-china-shop rage and a restrained, paternal Nolte, whose wonderfully gravelly voice has become just fascinating to hear as he's gotten older.  Despite the casting of Lopez to potentially bring in the chick-flick crowd, PARKER is still very much an entertaining Statham joint that loses its way for a time but pulls it together with no shortage of wry one-liners and over-the-top violence.

Friday, January 25, 2013

In Theaters/On VOD: JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

(US - 2012)

Written and directed by Don Coscarelli.  Cast: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones, Daniel Roebuck, Angus Scrimm, Fabianne Therese, Jonny Weston, Jimmy Wong, Tai Bennett, Allison Weissman, Bark Lee. (R, 99 mins)

JOHN DIES AT THE END, the first film from cult director Don Coscarelli (PHANTASM, THE BEASTMASTER) since 2003's BUBBA HO-TEP, is based on the online serial-turned-2007 novel by Cracked.com editor and contributor David Wong, the pen name of writer Jason Pargin.  The result is a twisty, trippy, free-wheeling, almost anything goes film that couldn't have been conceived as anything other than a prefab midnight movie.  It's too easy to say it's for the stoner crowd, but yeah, it'll get a lot of love there.  Filled with more concepts than it can handle, JOHN DIES AT THE END is pretty hit or miss:  many jokes land with a thud or probably read better on the page, but there's some very imaginative ideas throughout and when it hits, it's very good.  While it plays very much like BILL & TED'S NAKED LUNCH, Wong's source writing and Coscarelli's script make some intriguing observations about things like perception, fate, reality, the origin of the universe...there's a lot to absorb here.

The heroes--David Wong (Chase Williamson) and his buddy John (Rob Mayes) are sort-of "spiritualist exorcists" who specializing in exterminating beings from other dimensions who have crossed over into our world (such as a Meat Monster that assembles itself out of frozen cuts of meat).  David tells his story to journalist Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti, who also co-produced), and establishes his credibility by knowing how much change Arnie has in his pocket, right down to the years on the pennies, and rattling off intimate details of a dream Arnie had the night before.  David and John are able to open doors to other worlds and traverse dimensions, and can remember things that have yet to take place.  It all stems from a drug called Soy Sauce, which John obtained from a Jamaican named Robert Marley (Tai Bennett).   John is able to physically be in one place with David while calling David on his cell from another point in time and space (David to Phone John: "I'm here with you."  Phone John: "Ok, say hello to me for me!").  When a bunch of their friends die after OD-ing on Soy Sauce, the pair are arrested by irate detective Appleton (Glynn Turman).  John dies while in custody, but manages to call David from another point in time and talk him out of the police station after he's attacked by another cop's living mustache.  David is able to communicate with the dead John through a bratwurst that becomes a makeshift cell phone, and eventually teams up with a few friends (and John, whose body is present from another time or dimension--or at least, it's perceived as John) to do battle with a multi-dimensional Lovecraftian demon called Korrok, with the portal to this other realm located behind a ghost door in an abandoned shopping mall.  Of course, they have trouble entering this alternate universe because the ghost door has a "ghost knob."

With the dead John repeatedly reappearing in slightly different form (and an opening sequence involving David's axe that has a replacement blade and a year later, a replacement handle, which begs the question "Is it the same axe?"), Wong's story and Coscarelli's adaptation of it are addressing the perception of things--life, death, reality--and the Soy Sauce doesn't necessarily cause insanity, as is initially believed, but rather, it enhances the perception of reality for the user.  These multi-dimensional demons (one is known as "Shitload") are always here...they just can't be seen with the naked eye and the Soy Sauce allows that. 

The Meat Monster
So yeah, JOHN DIES AT THE END is a rather unique piece of work, blending elements of Lovecraft, George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD, John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS, and yes, even Coscarelli's own PHANTASM.  The film is smart and frustrating in equal measures, sometimes brilliantly clever, other times annoyingly tedious, and some of the jokes tank (the bratwurst one just flatlines), but its good qualities outweigh the not-so-good (how can you not like a spiked bat wrapped in pages from the Old Testament? Or David going through a portal and finding a newspaper dated February 37th, 5189?).  And it's simply too bizarre to just dismiss.  While it's messy and chaotic and most definitely not for everyone, followers of strange cinema will find a lot to sift through and discuss here.  If nothing else, it proves Coscarelli, usually boxed in as a "horror guy" because of the PHANTASM series, is a unique voice in cult cinema and should be heard from more than once a decade.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

In Theaters: BROKEN CITY (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Allen Hughes.  Written by Brian Tucker.  Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper, Kyle Chandler, Natalie Martinez, Alona Tal, Griffin Dunne, Michael Beach, James Ransone, Justin Chambers, Chance Kelly, William Ragsdale. (R, 109 mins)

BROKEN CITY is the kind of big-city corruption drama that a guy like the late, great Sidney Lumet could make in his sleep.  Unfortunately, it can't even muster the energy to be anywhere near as compelling as Lumet at his least-inspired.  A plodding solo effort by Allen Hughes, one half of the twin Hughes Brothers, who made their mark 20 years ago with MENACE II SOCIETY, BROKEN CITY boasts a fine cast that just seems to be sleepwalking through a really tired script by debuting screenwriter Brian Tucker.  Everything is calculated well in advance, nothing is what it seems, and everyone has a secret.  With some oomph and enthusiasm, even something this played-out can at least be entertaining.  BROKEN CITY is just OK, nothing more.  It's formulaic, by-the-numbers storytelling that's about on the level of a lesser LAW & ORDER episode.  Despite the A-list headliners, almost everything about this, from the Emmett/Furla Films logo in the beginning to most of the NYC-set film being shot in Louisiana, feels straight-to-DVD.

NYC private eye Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) is an ex-cop forced out in disgrace seven years earlier after killing an acquitted rapist who got off on a technicality.  He's hired by Mayor Nick Hostetler (Russell Crowe) to shadow his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and get evidence of an adulterous affair before the election in eight days.  Taggart discovers that Cathleen's lover is Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), the campaign manager of Hostetler's liberal opponent Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper).  Taggart turns the evidence over to Hostetler and later that night, Andrews is found dead with a bullet to the head.  But was Andrews really having an affair with the mayor's wife?  And does his murder have something to do with a $4 billion deal to buy out a bunch of apartment buildings in the projects that's become a major campaign issue?

BROKEN CITY is better in the early going but once it settles in, it just gets blander and sillier and the plot holes and inconsistencies start piling up.  Tucker's script stops making much sense around the time it's revealed (SPOILER) that Taggart's been duped by Hostetler and that the mayor's wife really isn't having an affair but was working with Andrews to dig up dirt on the mayor involving his secret co-ownership in the $4 billion projects deal.  OK, fine.  But Taggart tailed Andrews from NYC to his vacation home on Montauk where he arranged a rendezvous with the mayor's wife, during which they hug, kiss, and pop open some champagne before pulling the curtains closed while Taggart is on the beach snapping photos. If they aren't having an affair and they don't yet have the proof of the mayor's involvement, then what the hell are they toasting, why are they cuddly, and why are they meeting so clandestinely?  Because the script needs them to.  And it's not like the mayor's involvement should be hard to prove and his ownership isn't a matter of public record.  He passionately defends the purchase of the projects by an organization that happens to be run by his close buddy (Griffin Dunne), and not one NYC journalist (or, for that matter, concerned Valliant-supporting citizen) thinks to check whose name is all over the legal documents signed 30 years earlier when the mayor was just a young businessman?  Does the internet not exist in BROKEN CITY's version of NYC?

Wahlberg's bored performance seems to indicate that he realizes this is a bit of a dud.  He gets to go on some nonsensical detour when his character falls off the wagon after attending a premiere of his girlfriend's (Natalie Martinez) acting debut in a pretentious indie film.  He starts downing shots after seeing her in an explicit sex scene with the film's star (Justin Chambers).  None of this advances the plot in any way though it does provide one of the film's highlights when Wahlberg decks the porkpie-hat-wearing Chambers.  Crowe uses a broad Noo Yawk accent, keeping things generally restrained but it's obvious from the start that he's up to something even before he threateningly caresses/borderline chokes Zeta-Jones, who has very little to do in a role that amounts to a slightly extended cameo.

The best thing about BROKEN CITY is easily the spirited performance of Israeli actress Alona Tal as Katy, Taggart's feisty, take-no-shit receptionist-turned-P.I.-partner.  Tal, best known for recurring roles on VERONICA MARS and SUPERNATURAL and the co-star of the upcoming CW series CULT, nails the "girl Friday" aspect of her character and lights up the screen whenever she appears.  Even Wahlberg arises from his slumber to step it up a little when he's bantering with her.  Whether Katy is profanely tearing into clients who haven't paid up, busting Taggart's chops, or having a mild anxiety attack about finally working alongside her boss on a job, Tal is bright, funny, and thoroughly charming, stealing the movie from her more experienced, much higher-paid co-stars who have been in the game long enough to cynically realize that they just need to show up and punch in for this one.  This young woman is going to be a star.  She's just about the only memorable thing in the otherwise lackluster and generic BROKEN CITY.

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE PAPERBOY (2012) and OFFICER DOWN (2013)

(US - 2012)

Already guaranteed a spot in film history as "that movie where Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron," THE PAPERBOY is a miserable fiasco based on a Pete Dexter novel and scripted by Dexter and director Lee Daniels.  Daniels gained some industry respectability for co-producing 2001's MONSTER'S BALL and directing 2009's PRECIOUS, but THE PAPERBOY is more in line with his mindblowing directorial debut, the 2006 cult trash classic SHADOWBOXER, a film that offered Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren sex scenes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mo'Nique as a couple, and Stephen Dorff strutting around wearing nothing but a condom.  SHADOWBOXER is a terrible movie, but it's a great terrible movie, and one where something jawdroppingly insane can happen at any moment.  THE PAPERBOY wants to be as thoroughly batshit as SHADOWBOXER, but Daniels is torn between a desire to sleaze up the screen and be Taken Seriously, and proves himself absolutely unable to reconcile the two.  The result manages to somehow be both grotesque and boring, and it's easy to see why Cannon cover band Millennium/Nu Image only put this on 76 screens at its widest release, grossing just $700,000 despite a big-name cast and all the golden shower hype.

In a long, hot summer in the swamplands of Moat County, FL in 1969, local crazy-ass Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is convicted of murdering the sheriff.  Big-city Miami reporters Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and Yardly Acheman (David Oyelowo) arrive in Moat County to interview Van Wetter, causing some tension with Ward's father W.W. (Scott Glenn, sporting ludicrous sideburns that are more 1869 than 1969), who owns the local rag. Ward's younger brother Jack (Efron) accompanies them, along with area floozy Charlotte Bless (Kidman), who wrote to Van Wetter and intends to become his bride.  While Ward and Yardly investigate the possibility that Van Wetter is innocent, Jack, the titular paperboy, a college dropout who whittles away most days lounging around in his tighty-whiteys and flirting with the housekeeper (Macy Gray), becomes obsessed with Charlotte, who spends most of her time teasing him but is there to urinate on him when he gets stung by a jellyfish.  Ridiculous twists abound, most of which are predictable and none of which are interesting, before Daniels sets up a finale that seems more fitting for a horror film.  He's clearly gunning for this to be some overripe, campy melodrama, but he doesn't have the courage of his convictions.  The screen fades to black just before Jack and Charlotte finally get busy, as if to say, "Well, we want to make this sweaty, panting potboiler, but we're not asking Zac Efron and Nicole Kidman to get naked."  You can't fault McConaughey for going all out, allowing himself to be filmed nude and hog-tied in one scene that's almost on the "Dorff condom" level of outrageousness, and there is one amusing BAD LIEUTENANT-esque bit during a prison interview where a handcuffed Cusack masturbates while, across the room, Kidman spreads her legs and mimes fellatio...with McConaughey, Efron, and Oyelowo sitting right next to her (and Daniels, in a classy move, fails to exhibit the restraint of Abel Ferrara and pans the camera down to show a big wet spot on Cusack's drawers, clarifying any mystery as to whether or not the character came.  SPOILER ALERT: he did).  This ridiculous, over-the-top scene happens early enough that it makes one hopeful for some pulpy, hard-R histrionics to follow, but ultimately, THE PAPERBOY is as big of a tease as Kidman's character.  It's all talk and no payoff, filled with embarrassing performances, particularly Kidman (did she really get a Golden Globe nomination for this?) and Cusack (who's trying to be Nicolas Cage), and filmed with jittery hand-helds in an ugly, grainy, washed-out, fake '70s look, making the resulting film just as hideous as the script.  Pointless, endless, pretentious, and nothing close to the trashy fun that it thinks it is, THE PAPERBOY is a total misfire.  (R, 107 mins)

(US - 2013)

Released on one screen in the US four days before its DVD/Blu-ray release (where it may get some accidental sales thanks to confused shoppers who mistake it for END OF WATCH), the hopelessly muddled cop thriller OFFICER DOWN boasts an interesting cast of familiar movie and TV faces, none of whom are put to good use in a film that simply tries too hard for its own good.  Director Brian A. Miller, a sort-of lower-budgeted DTV version of L.A.P.D. cop flick specialist David Ayer (TRAINING DAY, STREET KINGS, END OF WATCH), previously helmed the atrocious Chris Klein/50 Cent dud CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE, and while OFFICER DOWN may have better performances than Klein and Fiddy could offer, it's entirely too convoluted with too many extraneous, meandering plot threads that either go nowhere or get abandoned altogether.  Miller and screenwriter John Chase get some points for trying something a little more ambitious than the usual DTV cop outing, but the film just collapses under the weight of its aspirations, with Miller more concerned with style and technique than telling a remotely coherent story.

Supposedly based on a true story, the film cuts between the present and two years earlier as it follows Bridgeport, CT detective David Callahan (Stephen Dorff), a reformed bad boy cop who used to go full-on TRAINING DAY and pal around with Russian mobsters and strippers, and had a drinking and drug problem.  He cleaned up his act after getting shot trying to shake down some thugs for drugs and refocused his energy on his family (wife Elisabeth Rohm and teenage daughter Beatrice Miller) and his job, and while he drinks Diet Coke, he still orders a bourbon when he goes to a bar and just lets it sit there, because that's apparently what cops on the edge do.  He's presented with a diary that belonged to a murdered stripper (EXCISION's Annalynne McCord) who worked for a former criminal associate with Russian mob ties (Dominic Purcell), and may have been killed by a regular customer known as "The Angel" (Walton Goggins), a creepy type who used to sketch the dancers on napkins at his usual table.  The film continues to cut back and forth from the current, honest Callahan (in color) to the corrupt, asshole Callahan (in black & white), as his old demons resurface and he kills someone in cold blood, tries to cover it up and then--wait for it--is assigned to investigate that very murder. Chase's script veers all over the place and is overpopulated with far more characters than it really needs and only serves to pad the flimsy story.  Was there really a need to show McCord's character so extensively in flashbacks?  David Boreanaz turns up for a few scenes to yell and pound his fist on some tables as a cop who hates Callahan.  There's also Stephen Lang as the gruff lieutenant, Tommy Flanagan as an Irish priest, Johnny Messner as a serial rapist, Richard Brooks as his lawyer, rapper Soulja Boy as the thug who shoots Callahan, Oleg Taktarov cast radically against type as a slow-witted Russian mobster named Oleg, and James Woods, looking mildly annoyed as the hot-headed, preserve-the-department's-image-at-all-costs police captain prone to barking warnings like "If I go down, you will be the one to break my fall!" which is probably the same thing his agent heard when he presented Woods with this script.  (R, 97 mins)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

In Theaters: THE LAST STAND (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Kim Jee-woon.  Written by Andrew Knauer.  Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Luis Guzman, Eduardo Noriega, Rodrigo Santoro, Jaimie Alexander, Peter Stormare, Zach Gilford, Genesis Rodriguez, Harry Dean Stanton, Daniel Henney, Christiana Leucas, Rio Alexander, John Patrick Amedori. (R, 106 mins)

As much a review as an autopsy after a disastrous opening weekend that saw it land in tenth place, THE LAST STAND marks Arnold Schwarzegger's first starring role since 2003's TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES.  And it doesn't appear that many people care. Grossing just $6 million, this is easily Arnold's worst opening and there's any number of reasons why.  Wrong month, bad marketing (ads closer to the release date played up the comedy angle with co-star Johnny Knoxville), Arnold's dirty laundry being aired, or that memoir where he didn't seem to portray himself all that well. Or "the kids" just aren't interested in him or the adults were all seeing ZERO DARK THIRTY.  Maybe these action vets only do well in EXPENDABLES situations where there's a bunch of them.  Jason Statham is about one box-office dud away from going straight to DVD.  And it'll be interesting to see what happens with Sylvester Stallone's BULLET TO THE HEAD and Bruce Willis' A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD in the coming weeks. Or, for that matter, Arnold's proposed new CONAN sequel. And Stallone and Arnold are teaming up in the prison thriller THE TOMB, due out in the fall. THE LAST STAND is a lot of fun until it fumbles badly in a crucial point--more on that in a bit--but overall, it's a blast and it's great to see Arnold kicking ass on the big screen again.  Sure, maybe he's a shitty husband, but I honestly expected him to get a warmer reception than barely cracking the top ten.

Schwarzenegger is Ray Owens, retired L.A. supercop who's now enjoying a quiet life as sheriff of Sommerton Junction, a tiny Arizona town near the Mexico border.  There isn't much for him to police in Sommerton Junction, and his day off is ruined when Las Vegas-based FBI agent Bannister (Forest Whitaker) informs him that Mexican drug cartel kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) has escaped custody and taken a female FBI agent (Genesis Rodriguez) hostage, and to be on the lookout since they may be headed in the general vicinity.  Owens is already suspicious of a stranger (Peter Stormare) he's seen in town and when two of his deputies, Sarah (Jaimie Alexander) and Jerry (Zach Gilford) find a local farmer (Harry Dean Stanton) murdered, he knows there's a connection.  Sarah and Jerry find the stranger overseeing the installment of a narrow, temporary bridge over a small canyon divide separating the outskirts of Sommerton Junction from Mexico.  A gunfight ensues and Jerry is killed, and Owens figures out that the bridge is there to allow Cortez to flee the country.  Bannister warns Owens to step aside and let the Feds handle it, but Owens and his ragtag team of law enforcers--Sarah, Deputy Figueroa (Luis Guzman), newly-deputized Iraq War hero and now town drunk Frank (Rodrigo Santoro), and eccentric local gun nut Dinkum (Knoxville)--decide to take on Cortez and his goons themselves.

THE LAST STAND is essentially a modern western, right down to the deliberately Ennio Morricone-esque score and other genre staples like the retired city lawman who becomes a small-town sheriff because he's seen too much killing, the town drunk who puts down the bottle so he can help, the eager rookie who may as well be named Dead Meat, the comic relief sidekick, and the cackling villain.  It's a little RIO BRAVO, a little HIGH NOON, and a bit of a spaghetti western--with Noriega channeling a young Tomas Milian at times--and for the most part, it's entertaining and works very well.  Arnold looks a bit older but hasn't lost a beat. Andrew Knauer's script--with uncredited contributions from George Nolfi (THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU) and Jeffrey Nachmanoff (TRAITOR)--does give a little too much time to Knoxville and his JACKASS antics that are frequently distracting from the lean, mean action that constitutes the bulk of the film.

THE LAST STAND marks the American debut of South Korean auteur Kim Jee-woon, director of A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (2003), THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD (2008), and the unforgettable revenge thriller I SAW THE DEVIL (2010).  It's an unlikely endeavor for Kim, but he brings an energetic sense of style and obvious enthusiasm to the film, from an imaginative car chase in a corn field to the violent showdowns in the streets of Sommerton Junction.  His handling of the actors is good, considering he doesn't speak English.  Where Kim--or the visual effects team--really botches the job is in the final confrontation between Owens and Cortez on the bridge.  To this point, the film has shown seamless and conservatively utilized CGI and practical visuals--the explosions and car wrecks look mostly real, the blood looks wet--but this showdown is a disaster.  Maybe the sequence was a hastily-assembled reshoot, but the greenscreen is bush-league, nothing in the scene--from the bridge to the landscape to even the actors--looks real.  I'm not even entirely convinced Schwarzenegger and Noriega were there at the same time or even there at all.  When we first see Arnold standing on the bridge, he's digitally composited into the shot so badly that his image seems to be hovering on top of the frame and his body isn't even the correct scale to the size of the bridge.  The whole sequence is shockingly and inexcusably sloppy, and doesn't even look finished.  How are professional filmmakers and visual effects teams still screwing up greenscreen and CGI?  It's 2013 and for the most part (unless it's by design--say, SIN CITY or SUCKER PUNCH), when it's used to simulate a "real" setting, this shit still isn't ready for prime-time. Get some crew people together and drive the actors to a bridge and shoot the scene.  Enough is enough.

But for the brisk 90 minutes leading up to what looks like a Photoshop job that even The Onion would reject, THE LAST STAND is a welcome return for Schwarzenegger, and he's been missed.  Regardless of how badly it bombs theatrically (and it's looking ugly), this will find an appreciative audience on DVD/Blu-ray and cable.  It's great that guys like Arnold and Stallone are still getting it done, but for how long?   Unless it's for a jokey, self-referential nostalgia trip like THE EXPENDABLES, audiences aren't really interested in geriatric action stars.  Even Clint Eastwood's movies were tanking in the late '80s before UNFORGIVEN turned him into a serious filmmaker in 1992.  Charles Bronson's late '80s offerings didn't exactly rake in the money.  Maybe THE LAST STAND bombing isn't such a surprise after all.  It just feels weird.  Arnold was always a box-office guarantee (even THE LAST ACTION HERO opened better than THE LAST STAND, and that was in 1993 figures).  He'll be 66 this summer, Stallone will be 67, and Willis is creeping up on 60.  How many more of these do they have in them--regardless of how in-shape they are--when even 45-year-old Statham is losing his box-office appeal?  Well...there's always THE EXPENDABLES 3.

The film's more recent one-sheet, emphasizing
the comedy element and, for some reason,
third-billed Johnny Knoxville.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971)

(Australia/US - 1971)

Directed by Ted Kotcheff.  Written by Evan Jones.  Cast: Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson, John Meillon, Peter Whittle, Al Thomas. (Unrated, 109 mins)


Based on a 1963 novel by Kenneth Cook, 1971's WAKE IN FRIGHT is a still controversial early film in the 1970s Australian New Wave, a renaissance that began with films like this and Nicolas Roeg's WALKABOUT (also 1971) and continued throughout the decade with standouts like PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975) and MY BRILLIANT CAREER (1979) and into the 1980s with BREAKER MORANT (1980) and THE ROAD WARRIOR (1982), among many others.  WAKE IN FRIGHT, a US co-production headlined by two British actors and directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, is a famous and infamous film in Australian cult cinema, influential and abhorred, revered and reviled, and unlike anything you've ever seen.  Among its fans is Martin Scorsese, whose 1985 film AFTER HOURS has a bit of an NYC WAKE IN FRIGHT vibe to it.  After its theatrical run, it was screened only sporadically, and never appeared on home video.  Edited and censored prints turned up here and there over the decades but the original, uncensored negative was nowhere to be found and the complete WAKE IN FRIGHT became a de facto "lost" film.  That changed when the negative was found in a Pittsburgh storage facility in 2004 (US co-producer Group W Films was a short-lived wing of the Pittsburgh-based radio network Westinghouse Broadcasting), in a container labeled "For destruction."  The film underwent an extensive restoration before being unveiled at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival and being released on the midnight movie circuit by the Alamo Drafthouse in late 2012.  It was just released on a stunning-looking Blu-ray (and DVD) and finally, after over 40 years, is widely available to be seen, discussed, and debated once more.

Disgruntled school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) is bored running the single-room schoolhouse in the desolate outback town of Tiboonda, where he's been assigned as part of a contractual bond and is eager to ride out the term and move on.  Over the Christmas break, he has plans to fly to Sydney to meet up with his girlfriend, but those fall apart during a one-night layover in the mining town of Bundanyabba, known to the locals as "the Yabba."  Grant goes to a Yabba pub and is aggressively befriended by affable but pushy sheriff Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), drinks way too many beers and gambles away all of his money playing Two-up.  Out of money and with nothing but time on his hands, Grant dives head first into his personal apocalypse. 

Missing his flight and unable to leave the Yabba, Grant heads to the pub where he's taken in by old-timer Hynes (Al Thomas) and his strange daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay).  Eventually, two rowdy locals, Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle) show up, and they're later joined for an evening of heavy drinking by Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence), a disheveled wreck of a physician who lives in a bug-infested cabin on the outskirts of the Yabba.  Janette tries to seduce Grant, who's too drunk to do anything and nearly vomits on her.  Grant wakes up at 4:00 pm the next day at Tydon's pigsty of a hovel, where Tydon serves him kangaroo stew before they head out to a drunken kangaroo hunt with Dick and Joe (the film's most disturbing and censored sequence), the most perilous step yet on a psychological journey from which the Grant of two days earlier will never return.

Ted Kotcheff today
The general concensus on Kotcheff is that he's a journeyman hired gun who took the assignments that paid the bills.  That's only partially true. Sure, his career is filled with a lot of commercial fare like FUN WITH DICK AND JANE (1977), UNCOMMON VALOR (1983), SWITCHING CHANNELS (1988) and WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S (1989), and the now-81-year-old Kotcheff spent over a decade as a supervising producer on LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT.  But from its brilliant 360-degree opening shot, WAKE IN FRIGHT is indicative of a visionary filmmaker who could've been an auteur.  To merely label Kotcheff a journeyman hack is unfairly dismissive:  films like ROOM AT THE TOP (1965), THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ (1974), NORTH DALLAS FORTY (1979), SPLIT IMAGE (1982), and JOSHUA THEN AND NOW (1985) were met with critical acclaim and are generally held in high esteem.  NORTH DALLAS FORTY is arguably the best film ever made on the subject of pro football.  Even a film like FIRST BLOOD (1982), largely written off as a "typical" Sylvester Stallone vehicle by critics when released, has come to be regarded as an important and serious film, one that's completely different in tone from its cartoonish, flag-waving follow-ups.  It hasn't helped to make Kotcheff's case as a filmmaker worthy of study when he's spent most of the last 20 years in television, helming some TV movies and even resorting to directing episodes of the Showtime series RED SHOE DIARIES at one point.  He hasn't made a feature film since the 1995 Dolph Lundgren actioner HIDDEN ASSASSIN, which went straight to video in the US.  The rediscovery of WAKE IN FRIGHT can do a lot to solidify Kotcheff as a unique voice, and fortunately, it's happening while he's still here to be a part of it.  There's a small contingent of Kotcheff fans who have long praised films like NORTH DALLAS FORTY, but now that WAKE IN FRIGHT has been reintroduced to film fans, it will no doubt belatedly come to be regarded as his masterpiece.  It was nominated for the Palme D'Or at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival and was showcased again at the festival in 2009 when WAKE IN FRIGHT superfan Scorsese was heading the jury and personally chose it for a "Classics" screening.

To this day, WAKE IN FRIGHT is not a well-received film in Australia, due largely to its depiction of the people of the Outback as unintelligent, uneducated, beer-guzzling, brawling, macho he-men.  Those same qualities are played for laughs in everything from CROCODILE DUNDEE (1986) to Foster's beer commercials to every time someone uses a terrible Australian accent when ordering a Bloomin' Onion at the Outback Steakhouse.  However, WAKE IN FRIGHT puts a decidedly sinister spin on it, and really, with only a few changes, this could almost be a raunchy comedy in the vein of THE HANGOVER.  It's the kind of film that burrows under your skin and stays with you, haunting you days after you've seen it.  It has elements that put in in that same subgenre that one might classify STRAW DOGS (1971) and DELIVERANCE (1972), but the plot details differ.  Like Dustin Hoffman's mathematician in STRAW DOGS and Jon Voight's intellectual, pipe-smoking ad exec in DELIVERANCE, Bond's Grant doesn't blend in, but unlike the protagonists of those other films, he isn't met with hostility by the Yabba residents, even when he makes his pompous arrogance known.  Grant clearly thinks he's better than these people, and he resents Jock's "aggressive hospitality."  But, like Hoffman and Voight, he's about to learn what he's made of, with his manhood almost constantly being called into question (it's not enough for Grant to just quietly enjoy a beer; Jock isn't comfortable getting another one for himself until Grant's is empty).  Despite his disdain for these people, he's constantly placating them.  Nothing that happens to Grant happens because he's defending himself.  He's taken in and welcomed by the Yabba folks, which perhaps prompts him to let down his guard.  But even that doesn't explain why he wakes up face down in bed and completely nude the morning after his first night in the Yabba.  Rather than being forced to fight for his life or defend his home or property, Grant is forced to confront sides of himself that society, his education, and his upbringing have taught him to keep buried: gut-level impulses of violence, excess, and sexuality.

You can also almost smell the sweat, beer, cigarette smoke, and armpit stench wafting through the pub in the Yabba, which is home to an overwhelmingly male population.  The bar where Grant spends his first night and begins his descent into madness couldn't house any more of a sense of sweltering homoeroticism if it was the Ramrod in CRUISING (1980).  Kay's Janette is the only female character of note, and the most we learn about her--from Doc Tydon--is that every guy in town has had a go with her, with Doc saying they still get together every now and again, when the urge strikes.  That hardly prepares Grant for what happens--offscreen--after he and Doc crash at Doc's shack after the kangaroo hunt.  Playful wrestling gives way to a pausing glance...and the screen fades to black.   Cut to Grant waking up the next morning, his pants undone and Doc lying next to him in a woman's nightie (an absurd visual for Pleasence that has to be seen to be believed).  Clearly, some kind of sexual act has taken place between the two men, and it's too much for Grant to handle (certainly this sense of Grant's gay panic wasn't lost on Bond, an actor who was openly gay at a time when it wasn't the most accepted thing to be).  He's lost his money, bailed on his fiancee, been on a multi-day bender, and took part in the horrific slaughter of kangaroos, and now sex with Doc has made him aware of too many dormant sides of himself that he wasn't ready to face.

But Grant survives his several days in the Yabba and emerges a changed person, almost like a boy maturing into a man.  He isn't better than these people.  He is these people.  His days of dehumanizing regression in the Outback have reduced him to man's most basic state:  eating, drinking, fighting, pissing, puking, and fucking.  He's adapted to this world and it's a part of him, and the transition comes full circle as evidenced in his accepting a drink from some boisterous passengers on the train back to Tiboonda.  They may be the same blokes who were on the train when he left Tiboonda.  He declined their drink before, sitting several rows up near an elderly aborigine man, two outsiders who don't belong.  But on the way home?  Sure, he'll have a beer.  Who wouldn't have a beer?  It's just what you do in the Yabba.

Also contributing to the profoundly unsettling tone of WAKE IN FRIGHT is the much-discussed kangaroo-hunting sequence.  Kotcheff accompanied and filmed an actual hunt and cleverly edited the shots of the animals and the actors so that it seamlessly appears as if Pleasence, Bond, Thompson, and Whittle are shooting (or in Bond's case, stabbing) the kangaroos.  It's the kind of disturbing material usually seen in the horrific animal slaughter footage in any number of late '70s/early '80s Italian cannibal films.  The kangaroo killings in WAKE IN FRIGHT, done on a real hunt by professional hunters, aren't quite as nauseatingly exploitative as the far more graphic material in something like Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) or Umberto Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX (1981), where the directors would have the actors slaughter animals for real, on camera.  Nevertheless, it's disturbing stuff, and very hard to watch, but it only adds to the film's gut-punching impact. 

Chips Rafferty (1909-1971)
Fans of Pleasence will be surprised to see some of his antics as essentially a drunken id in WAKE IN FRIGHT, with one meltdown that surpasses his "You're the Duke!" histrionics in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).   This was the only feature film lead for Bond, who had supporting roles in ZULU (1964) and ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS (1969), but was best known for his work on British television and in stage productions of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT and EVITA.  He died of AIDS in 1995 at 55.  It's the presence of Rafferty, in a daring and wonderfully subversive bit of casting, that's one of WAKE IN FRIGHT's most interesting and least-discussed elements.  Born in 1909 in Broken Hill--known as "the capital of the Outback"--and beloved in his homeland (he's on an Australian postage stamp, and the entertainment center in Broken Hill is named after him), Rafferty was sort-of the Australian John Wayne and the very image of "the Outback" to Australian moviegoers.  The Rafferty persona was a clear inspiration on Paul Hogan's portrayal of Crocodile Dundee.  To see Rafferty in WAKE IN FRIGHT would be akin to seeing the Duke as a vaguely threatening character in an American film that didn't have very many nice things to say about Americans.  His performance as the gregariously intimidating Yabba sheriff was Rafferty's last:  he died from a heart attack before the film was released and, according to some sources, just a few hours after a phone conversation with Jerry Lewis about possibly co-starring in Lewis' next planned film, THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED.  Whether it was years of hard Outback living that caused Rafferty's heart to give out or the stress, anxiety, and shock of trying to process exactly what Lewis had just offered him, we may never know.  I'm going to blame THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED.

United Artists released this in the US as OUTBACK, which takes away from the theme inherent in the title WAKE IN FRIGHT:  this film is one of the most vivid nightmares ever captured on film.  It's doubtful that a still-irate Australia will ever accept this film--maybe it's the depiction of some of its people, maybe it's that it was made by outsiders.  John Grant left the Yabba a different man than when he entered, and for better or worse, audiences will leave WAKE IN FRIGHT in the same fashion.  Still as shocking, powerful, and groundbreaking today as it must've been to the few who saw it in 1971, WAKE IN FRIGHT is essential viewing for serious cinephiles.