Friday, May 31, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE NUMBERS STATION (2013) and DARK SKIES (2013)

(UK/US/Belgium - 2013)

John Cusack's career is in a strange place that his fans never would've expected a decade ago.  At 47, he's obviously outgrown the boyish romantic roles that made him so iconic back in his younger SURE THING and SAY ANYTHING days. For a while, beloved favorites like GROSSE POINTE BLANK, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, and HIGH FIDELITY made it seem like Cusack would be "John Cusack" forever.  But long careers have peaks and valleys and he's in a major slump these days.  When he tries to go for hammy character parts, as in THE RAVEN and the embarrassing THE PAPERBOY, he doesn't seem comfortable, instead remaining reserved in roles that call for him to go over the top (even when he's rubbing one out to Nicole Kidman in THE PAPERBOY).  And misfired personal pet projects like 2008's WAR, INC come off as smug and preachy.  So, for the most part, he stays busy by settling for unchallenging roles as cops or detectives (he was terrible in this year's pathetic THE FACTORY), or in the case of THE NUMBERS STATION, a burned-out CIA agent.  After botching a job in New Jersey when he refuses to kill a teenaged girl who witnessed one of his government-assigned hits, Emerson Kent (Cusack) is banished to a CIA-operated numbers station in the middle of nowhere in Suffolk in the English countryside.  Still haunted by the girl's death--carried out by his boss Grey (Liam Cunningham)--Kent self-medicates with booze and has a cordial working relationship with Katherine (Malin Akerman), the contracted cryptographer he supervises.  It's just the two of them in a secret underground bunker, filled mainly with long hours of staring at the wall until the occasional message comes down for Katherine to covertly broadcast.  Kent and Katherine arrive at the facility for their shift and find it compromised, with the supervisor and cryptographer on duty murdered. They're trapped inside as a team of enemy agents are trying to find their way in, and when he calls for help, Kent is told to terminate Katherine.

THE NUMBERS STATION's opening 25 or so minutes are surprisingly engaging, but once it settles in, with Kent and Katherine trapped inside as the villains, led by Max (Richard Brake), try to get in, it becomes a sluggish sort-of Black Ops RIO BRAVO.  There's no real surprises and no escalating tension, bickering takes the place of character development, the climax hinges on Kent doing something uncharacteristically stupid because the script requires him to, and the story doesn't really build to a suspenseful conclusion as much as it ambles towards a quick and easy wrap-up.  If you remove a few F-bombs, with its relatively short running time, it almost feels it could be the pilot of the CBS cop/agent procedural that Cusack will inevitably be doing after a couple more years of forgettable fare like this.  Released to just a few theaters a month ago, THE NUMBERS STATION is a diverting enough time-killer on a slow night (and it probably plays a lot better streaming on Netflix than it would dropping $10 on seeing it theatrically) and Cusack is better here than in his other recent efforts, but this is a paycheck for him and he doesn't need to do anything more than show up and be a professional.  In a way, it seems like he's been getting the gigs that Nicolas Cage turned down because they didn't really give him enough of a chance to "Nic Cage" it up.  It's only fitting that the two actors, far removed from their box-office glory days of 1997's CON AIR, are reunited (with the added bonus of the inevitable 50 Cent) in the upcoming thriller THE FROZEN GROUND, which will most likely be bypassing theaters near you later this year.  (R, 89 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US/UK - 2013)

Is it just me or does every horror film released these days boast "From the makers of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and INSIDIOUS"?  DARK SKIES combines elements of both (no found footage, thankfully) and plays a lot like a reworking of INSIDIOUS, employing the same essential template, but with aliens filling in for malevolent spirits.  It has an eerie vibe throughout and isn't without a legitimately chilling moment here and there, but there's just such an overwhelming feeling of familiarity to the whole endeavor that it's just really hard to get excited about it.  The Barretts are a middle-class family in a rough patch:  dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton) recently lost his job and mom Lacy (Keri Russell) is a real estate agent in need of a sale.  12-year-old son Jesse (Dakota Goyo) is starting to rebel and five-year-old Sam (Kadan Rockett) starts sleepwalking, wetting himself, and saying he's getting nocturnal visits from someone he calls "The Sandman."  Food is scattered throughout the kitchen in the middle of the night, items are perfectly stacked ceiling-high on kitchen counters, and all of the family photos disappear from their picture frames.  Three different flocks of birds fly directly into their house from different directions, all of the family members start hearing individual ringing in their ears, Daniel has a strange mark behind his ear, and Lacy loses six hours when she blacks out and starts banging her head against a sliding glass door while showing a house.  Lacy's research leads her to a freelance alien contact expert (J.K. Simmons), who verifies their story, tells them he lives it every day, and that "The Grays," as he calls them, have been here for millions of years, will not leave a family alone once they've "chosen" one, they observe their targets for years, and only make their presence known when they're about to abduct someone. 

Much like the family in INSIDIOUS dealt with the paranormal and couldn't escape it even after they moved ("It's not the house that's haunted...it's your son that's haunted"), DARK SKIES puts its family in a hopeless situation that isn't going to get better, and when strange markings start appearing on Jesse's and Sam's bodies, the authorities start investigating Daniel and Lacy for child abuse.  The film gets off to a shaky and sometimes unconvincing start, beginning with the family's glib non-reaction to food being strewn about their kitchen and not really all that concerned that something got in their house and into the fridge (Daniel: "A big rabbit with opposable thumbs?"), to the elements pilfered from other movies (the stacking straight out of POLTERGEIST), and, as long as I'm being nit-picky, who goes to a job interview at a prestigious design firm sporting the kind of five-day vacation/stay-at-home-dad stubble that Daniel does?  Surprisingly, DARK SKIES improves as it proceeds, and I liked the way writer/director Scott Stewart (whose dubious track record includes LEGION and PRIEST) handled Simmons' character.  In most cases, the crackpot extraterrestrial expert would be wildly eccentric with a tinfoil hat, with the actor hamming it up for comic relief.  Simmons plays his character dead serious and resigned to the fact that "The Grays" have dominated his life, which seems to be a struggle just to get through the day.  It's the one legitimately unpredictable element of a script that's so by-the-numbers that you'll even be able to utter certain lines of dialogue moments before the characters do.  And yes, there's a twist ending because of course there is.  DARK SKIES is OK for what it is (and Simmons is quite good in his minimal screen time), but it just seems like it could've--and should've--been a lot more.  (PG-13, 97 mins)

Thursday, May 30, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: GENERATION UM... (2013) and LORE (2013)

(US/Luxembourg - 2013)

If you stumble upon the largely-improvised GENERATION UM... in its last ten minutes, you might think you're catching the tail end of a very good movie.  Until then, it's an insufferably self-indulgent, pretentious, meandering mess that exhibits every possible pompous, smug caricature that the average Joe Multiplex moviegoer hates about art-house cinema.  It's the kind of movie where the director plants the camera in front of Keanu Reeves as he sits on a bench outside a bakery and eats a cupcake in real time.  Reeves has only been working sporadically the last few years (though to be fair, a lot of that time has been spent on the troubled and long-delayed 47 RONIN, due out later this year), and for those who hear his name and immediately picture Ted "Theodore" Logan, Johnny Utah, Neo, or a speeding bus, it seems impossible to believe he's pushing 50 these days...at least until you see him here.  Gaunt and disheveled, Reeves is underachieving John, a Lower East Side denizen who shares a rat-hole apartment with his annoying younger cousin Rick (Jonny Orsini) and works as a driver for a pair of escorts, Violet (Bojana Novakovic) and Mia (Adelaide Clemens).  Following John and the girls over a 24-hour period, director Mark L. Mann includes several sequences shot guerrilla-style as John wanders the streets of Manhattan--getting that cupcake, stopping for coffee, watching some hula-hoop performance artists dressed as cowboys--but the people gawkishly looking at the camera only serve as a distracting reminder that we aren't observing a gritty slice-of-life look at the Lower East Side but rather, a bunch of people watching some guy with a handheld follow Keanu Reeves around.  John steals a camcorder from one of the cowboy hula-hoop performance artists and turns into an amateur documentarian, filming squirrels and water fountains in the park, then interviewing the coke-snorting Violet and Mia about their lives and what drove them into their profession before taking them to their appointments for the night. 

Reeves, Novakovic, and Clemens are capable actors, but they struggle in these endless, laborious scenes that feel like outtakes from an unsuccessful acting workshop (Novakovic, in particular, is especially grating), and only at the end, after the girls take turns servicing the douchebag groom at an unpleasant bachelor party and John drives them home as all three ponder the choices they've made in their lives, does the film finally feel effectively authentic (and, it should be pointed out, nobody's talking).  Unfortunately, it's far too little, far too late, as the preceding 85 minutes are an absolute endurance test.  Sometimes movies just get lost in the shuffle and sometimes they get buried for a reason: GENERATION UM... (what a terrible title) debuted on VOD and got a two-screen US theatrical release earlier this month after two years on the shelf.  Draw your own conclusions.  (R, 97 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(Germany/Australia - 2012; 2013 US release)

Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland, who received accolades for her 2004 debut SOMERSAULT, directed this powerful German-language drama set in the days just after Hitler's death and the fall of Nazi Germany.  When her cowardly father (Hans-Jochen Wagner), a high-ranking Nazi official, and mother (Ursina Lardi) abandon the family for fear of arrest by the Allies, 14-year-old Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is left to take care of her four younger siblings: Liesel (Nele Trebs), fraternal twins Jurgen (Mika Seidel) and Gunther (Andre Frid), and infant Peter (Nick Holaschke).  With just the belongings they can carry and their mother's jewelry and silverware their only currency, Lore leads the children on a 560 km trek to their grandmother's house in Hamburg.  She quickly steps into the role of parent, taking charge and doing what needs to be done, even if it means lying to the other children and promising them that their parents will be waiting for them.  They're joined by Thomas (Kai Malina), a young Jewish man who escaped from a concentration camp and becomes an unlikely protector to the children--and possible object of Lore's awakening sexuality.  Her womanhood isn't the only thing to open Lore's eyes--living a sheltered bourgeois life with her parents, she was led to believe that the world had fallen in line with Hitler's vision, that Nazi Germany was victorious and that Der Fuhrer was respected worldwide as a leader and a hero.  She's quite surprised to find that isn't the case and her whole life has been a lie, though she still struggles with the indoctrinated beliefs instilled by her parents.  When Thomas ultimately resists her blunt advances in a frank but discreetly-filmed scene, she immediately resorts to an ignorant statement about "you filthy Jews are all alike," and never really understands why she's saying it, only that she's supposed to think it.

LORE drags a bit in spots and Shortland sometimes channels a little too much of an inner Terrence Malick, but its slow build leads to a heartbreakingly angry finale where she finally rejects everything she's been taught and told to believe (note the symbolism of the ceramic figurines) and it's an interesting perspective on the immediate post-war Germany, seen entirely through Lore's eyes.  While the entire ensemble of child actors does exemplary work (even the baby seems to be a natural actor with an ability to cry on cue), it's largely Rosendahl's film and the debuting actress--17 when she was cast and 18 at the time of filming--convincingly establishes herself as one with a promising future.  While Rosendahl received--and deserved--the lion's share of the acclaim, it's unfortunate that 12-year-old Trebs got somewhat lost in the shuffle:  she has a significantly less-showy role and her Liesel doesn't say much, but Trebs speaks volumes with her facial expressions, and with these and other subtle touches, this equally impressive young actress succeeds in showing her character's maturity over the course of the film. (Unrated, 109 mins)

Monday, May 27, 2013


(US - 2013)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh.  Written by Richard LaGravenese.  Cast: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Scott Bakula, Debbie Reynolds, Paul Reiser, Cheyenne Jackson, Nicky Katt, Tom Papa, Boyd Holbrook, Bruce Ramsay, David Koechner. (Unrated, 118 mins)

The prolific Steven Soderbergh's seventh or eighth consecutive "last movie" is based on the memoir by Scott Thorson and the film retains what's largely Thorson's side of events in his relationship with legendary pianist and entertainer Liberace.  Set between 1977 and 1987, everything is seen through his eyes, and it's less a Liberace biopic and more a study of an average young man seduced not just by an older man, but by fame, fortune, and excess. 

In 1977, 19-year-old Thorson (Matt Damon) meets Liberace (Michael Douglas) backstage after a Vegas show and the two immediately hit it off.  Before long, Liberace's "protégé" (Cheyenne Jackson) and his houseboy Carlucci (Bruce Ramsay) are moving out of his mansion and Scott is moving in, despite his getting warnings from Carlucci that someday, the time will come when he'll find himself being moved out of the house by Liberace's loyal attorney Seymour (Dan Aykroyd) and someone younger will be moving in.  Scott, who grew up in a variety of foster homes due to a mentally unstable mother, is initially apprehensive but grows attached to the flamboyant Liberace, both as a lover and a father figure, and for the first time in his life, feels like he's part of a "family," especially when Liberace offers to make him his legally adopted son.  Problems develop in the relationship--Liberace makes Scott get plastic surgery to look more like him; Scott gets addicted to painkillers and starts selling Liberace's jewelry to support his drug habit; bisexual Scott refuses to be the bottom and Liberace starts looking for sex elsewhere, even resorting to glory holes in skid row peep show booths.  Several years go by and the relationship grows more strained, and Scott notices a new young protégé (Boyd Holbrook) hanging around as Carlucci's prophetic warning comes to pass.  Believing their relationship was practically a marriage, Scott files a palimony suit against Liberace.

Soderbergh, working from a script by Richard LaGravenese, tells the story in a very straightforward fashion, demonstrating none of his trademark back-and-forth crosscutting and tricky editing techniques (though there is a great opening shot set to the hypnotic Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder disco classic "I Feel Love"), instead presenting it as more of an acting showcase for Douglas and Damon.  42-year-old Damon manages to overcome some serious miscasting by conveying the demeanor of a guy in his early 20s rather than convincingly looking like one.  Douglas, in his first acting role since recovering from his throat cancer battle, does a terrific job of expressing the flamboyance and effeminate nature of Liberace (who never came out of the closet and publicly presented an image of "just never finding the right girl," still using 1930s Olympic skater-turned-actress Sonja Henie as his beard even after her 1969 death) without resorting to caricature and clichéd broad strokes.  Douglas still has some fun sinking his teeth into some scenes, particularly with the devilish grin he flashes as Liberace fondles Scott under the sheets and says "Look who's up!" before going down on him.  Soderbergh complained that he intended BEHIND THE CANDELABRA to be a theatrical release (which it will be overseas) but that US distributors found it "too gay," before HBO agreed to back it.  The sex scenes in the film aren't especially graphic and aren't shocking other than the novelty of seeing Douglas and Damon in them together. 

There's some very humorous elements throughout--not just of the "Look who's up!" variety:  Rob Lowe is ghoulish as Liberace's pill-pushing plastic surgeon who looks like he spends his spare time operating on himself; Scott's shocked reaction to a post-facelift Liberace sleeping with his eyes open because they can no longer close; and there's a marvelously dark-humored bit where Scott, regretting his new face, complains to his friend Bob (Scott Bakula, sporting a big moustache that makes him look like Gay Sam Elliott) that he doesn't even recognize himself anymore and in the same breath, this average guy ponders which of the several luxury cars at his disposal he should use today.  Soderbergh leans a bit too heavily on the GOODFELLAS/BOOGIE NIGHTS "coke-fueled paranoia-cam" in the scenes with Scott and his dealer (Nicky Katt), and there's somewhat of an "unreliable narrator" feeling in the way Thorson is presented, but it could be argued that it's simply the filmmakers staying faithful to the source.  It is, after all, an adaptation of Thorson's book. 

With that in mind, it's never mentioned that Thorson was a key witness in the 1989 trial of the 1981 Wonderland murders and spent some time in witness-protection as a result, nor is it mentioned that, in the years following Liberace's death from AIDS in 1987 (Thorson tested negative for HIV), Thorson served time in prison for charges ranging from drugs to burglary to credit card fraud.  All we see of Thorson's post-Liberace life in BEHIND THE CANDELABRA are scenes of him working at a Kinko's and living a quiet life in a small apartment.  On one hand, it feels a little whitewashed, but those elements aren't part of the story being told.  All things considered, BEHIND THE CANDELABRA won't go down as Soderbergh's best film, but it works thanks to the performances of Douglas and Damon.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: CHAINED HEAT (1983)

(US/West Germany - 1983)

Directed by Paul Nicolas.  Written by Vincent Mongol and Paul Nicolas.  Cast: Linda Blair, John Vernon, Sybil Danning, Tamara Dobson, Stella Stevens, Henry Silva, Sharon Hughes, Kendall Kaldwell, Robert Miano, Dee Biederbeck, Greta Blackburn, Nita Talbot, Louisa Moritz, Jennifer Ashley, Jody Medford, Mae Campbell, Monique Gabrielle, Edy Williams, Marcia Karr, Carol White, Susan Meschner, Michael Callan, Leila Chrystie, Martha Gallub, Aaron Butler, Irwin Keyes. (R, 98 mins)

The women-in-prison (WIP) genre existed as far back as the 1930s but with the dawn of a new era and the freedoms allowed by an R rating, it blew up as an exploitation staple in the early 1970s thanks to Roger Corman producing a string of sleazy gems for his New World Pictures like THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971), WOMEN IN CAGES (1971), THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972), BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (1973), and Jonathan Demme's directorial debut CAGED HEAT (1974).  The ever-reliable Jess Franco really kicked things off with 1969's 99 WOMEN, but the popularity of Corman's New World releases begat European imitations like THE BIG BUST OUT (1973) and Jess Franco's ILSA, THE WICKED WARDEN.  With their hammy acting, gratuitous nudity, prison-yard catfights, lecherous guards, sadistic wardens, and mandatory lesbian shower seductions, these became fixtures in drive-ins and grindhouses for the rest of the decade before winding up in regular rotation on late-night cable in the early '80s, which is also when the Australian soap PRISONER: CELL BLOCK H started running in syndication on American television.  A second wave of WIP films took off with THE CONCRETE JUNGLE (1982), and led to HELLHOLE (1985), THE NAKED CAGE (1986), and the spoofy REFORM SCHOOL GIRLS (1986), along with the requisite Italian knockoffs like CAGED WOMEN (1982, released in the US in 1984), and the utterly bonkers WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE (1983, US release 1985), with the focus almost entirely on the exploitative elements and lacking even the cursory allusions to social commentary that existed in some of the more ambitious Corman productions.  The '80s WIP films enjoyed much popularity on video store shelves and on cable, but there was one film from this second wave that has managed to tower over its contemporaries and is largely considered the ultimate WIP epic:  CHAINED HEAT, released in theaters May 27, 1983.

Producer Billy Fine brought a lot of the ladies from THE CONCRETE JUNGLE back for CHAINED HEAT, but while that film's slumming big-name value was limited to Jill St. John as the bitchy warden, CHAINED HEAT boasted a ridiculous cast of actors either in a career lull or on their way down, almost all of them well aware of what kind of movie they're in and just rolling with it.  Journeyman types like John Vernon and Henry Silva were still regularly appearing an A-list fare, but never turned down a gig if the pay was right, especially, in Vernon's case, if most of your screen time was spent in a hot tub filming and fooling around with topless co-stars.  Yes, CHAINED HEAT is the infamous "the warden has a jacuzzi in his office" movie, and judging from his over-the-top performance, I'm confident Vernon at no point mistook this for a serious project.  Sure, he'd worked with the likes of John Boorman, Lee Marvin, Alfred Hitchcock, Clint Eastwood, and Dusan Makavejev in the past, and cemented his place in comedy history as Dean Wormer in ANIMAL HOUSE (1978), but when you get a chance to spend almost the entire movie surrounded by naked women and sinking your teeth into dialogue like "Don't call me Warden...call me Fellini!" then you don't pass it up.

In what was publicized at the time as her first "grown-up" role, Oscar-nominated EXORCIST star Linda Blair, her career already bogged down by bad movies, hard partying, and a late '70s drug bust, is naïve "prison virgin" Carol Henderson, sentenced to 18 months for accidental vehicular manslaughter.  The terrified Carol isn't sure where to turn or who to trust, and finds herself in the middle of a prison turf war between rival gangs led by Ericka (Sybil Danning) and Duchess (Tamara Dobson).  Also not helping matters is sleazy warden Bacman (Vernon), who entertains the sexier inmates in his hot tub and keeps them supplied with heroin from his side business, which is being cut in on by his chief guard Capt. Taylor (Stella Stevens) and her slimy pimp boyfriend Lester (Silva), who are running their own drug smuggling operation on the inside with Ericka.  After Ericka kills his snitch Debbie (Monique Gabrielle), Bacman tries to talk Carol into replacing her as his eyes and ears and she trusts Bacman until he rapes her in a drugged rage.  Eventually, Ericka and Duchess set aside their differences and unite to fight the oppressive rule of the sadistic Taylor and her crew of guards, who frequently abuse and sexually assault the inmates.  Taylor is also preoccupied with getting the venal Bacman out of the picture so she and Lester can run both the prison and the drug trade within.

"Mr. Silva's wardrobe provided by Henry Silva"

With the plot stripped down to its basics, CHAINED HEAT sounds like any other WiP flick of its era.  But where this stands out from the crowd is its cast, their bug-eyed histrionics, and the rampant trashiness of the entire project.  Even Blair engages in some much-ballyhooed topless shots, including a lathering up by Danning in the shower.  Bacman's private hot tub is a constant source of amusement.  Stevens' late-film outburst of "Slimy pig shit!" while beating Danning has to be seen to believed.  Silva is a blast as the Cosby sweater-sporting pimp, who's always hanging out at the prison but it's never really clear what his job is (is he some sort of supplies delivery person?), other than sneaking some of the girls out of prison to pimp them out to rich gangsters like the one played by busy TV actor Michael Callan, 1961's Golden Globe winner for Most Promising Newcomer.  The imposing Dobson spends the entire film in a pained, jaw-clenched grimace, and her confrontation with Danning is one for the ages.  And remember:  "No Spitting."

The German-produced CHAINED HEAT was shot in Los Angeles at the shuttered Lincoln Heights Jail, which closed in 1965 but frequently functioned as a location for film shoots (it can also be seen in CAGED HEAT and Jamaa Fanaka's 1979 hit PENITENTIARY, and the Freddy Krueger boiler room sequences in 1984's A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET were also shot there).  The film was directed by Paul Nicolas, a pseudonym for German writer/director Lutz Schaarwachter, a minor-league exploitation vet whose credits included scripting the softcore, young Nastassja Kinski late-night cable favorite BOARDING SCHOOL (1978) and directing Danning in the "disturbed teenage daughter has the hots for her dad and tries to kill her stepmother" erotic thriller JULIE DARLING (1983).  The very sporadic Schaarwachter/"Nicolas" would return to the WIP genre with THE NAKED CAGE for Cannon, and he's only made two films since then, the most recent being the 2000 Vegas-set drama LUCKYTOWN, with Kirsten Dunst and James Caan.  Nicolas never really became a prominent B-movie figure, but CHAINED HEAT is enough to ensure his bona fides as an exploitation legend.  Let's face it:  no matter how many forgettable-to-shitty movies you may have directed, helming CHAINED HEAT gets you a lifetime pass.

CHAINED HEAT opened on Memorial Day weekend in 1983 and landed in 7th place at the box office--not a bad finish considering the only other wide release that weekend was RETURN OF THE JEDI (Video Junkie's William Wilson on CHAINED HEAT: "Only one movie had the balls to open up against RETURN OF THE JEDI!").  Budgeted at just $1 million, it stayed in the top ten for two weeks and grossed a little over $6 million--not a blockbuster by most standards, but it made a huge profit for the producers and for small-time distributor Jensen-Farley Pictures before it hit video stores courtesy of the legendary Vestron Video, a company whose logo preceded many great exploitation films of the '70s and '80s and seems to perfectly epitomize the 1980s video store experience.  The full-frame 1.33 VHS transfer of CHAINED HEAT inadvertently added to its cult status as a Bad Movie classic:  it was improperly framed from the 1.78 theatrical image, leaving the top of the frame visible, leading to the unsteady boom mic being in the film nearly as much as Linda Blair.  For years, people who missed CHAINED HEAT theatrically were under the impression that the film was simply shot this incompetently.  When viewed in its proper widescreen aspect ratio, the boom mic is never seen.

CHAINED HEAT still gets shown in semi-regular rotation on Showtime and Flix's late-night schedule, but avoid that version at all costs, as it's misframed (black bars slapped on a 1.33 image to create the illusion of letterboxing, causing the tops of heads to be awkwardly cut out of the frame) and missing about 12 minutes of footage, including Vernon's death scene and most of the footage involving Edy Williams' nympho inmate.  In 2011, Panik House released the complete CHAINED HEAT in a impressive anamorphic transfer as part of a triple feature Women in Prison set, along with 1984's JUNGLE WARRIORS (from the same producers and also featuring Vernon and Danning) and 1985's RED HEAT, "presented" by cinema nudity expert Mr. Skin.  RED HEAT was sold as a semi-sequel of sorts, again with Blair as a naïve innocent thrown into a cruel prison, this time in East Germany.  It's a very grim film that focuses more on brutality, and while it's unusually serious for the genre, it's ugly, downbeat, and not much fun at all.  CHAINED HEAT did spawn two in-name-only, Czech Republic-shot straight-to-video sequels: CHAINED HEAT 2 (1993), with Brigitte Nielsen, and the post-apocalyptic sci-fi outing CHAINED HEAT 3: HELL MOUNTAIN (1998), with Jack Scalia and Sarah Douglas.  Neither of these films have anything to do with the iconic original.  An additional sequel of sorts came from CHAINED HEAT 2 director Lloyd Simandl, whose RAGE OF THE INNOCENTS (2001) was released in the UK as CHAINED HEAT 2001: SLAVE LOVERS.

CHAINED HEAT didn't really do anything to boost anyone's career, be they a young starlet or a check-cashing veteran, though on the DVD's accompanying documentary, Danning (who's introduced the film at some midnight screenings in recent years) has a great sense of humor about it, while Stevens, whose career had certainly seen better days (like 1963's THE NUTTY PROFESSOR), seems to have taken it very seriously.  To the surprise of no one, the film got almost unanimously negative reviews from critics, and Danning was rewarded with a Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress for both this and the Lou Ferrigno version of HERCULES, which would open at the end of the summer of 1983, a busy one for the actress that also saw her on the cover of the August 1983 issue of Playboy.

What hype CHAINED HEAT did receive at the time was centered on Blair, and the film did nothing to further her cause of tackling serious adult roles.  She was back playing a high school student-turned-vigilante in 1984's SAVAGE STREETS, which co-starred Vernon (who was really slumming in the grindhouse during this period, between the films mentioned here as well as 1983's CURTAINS) and gave the veteran actor one of the most nonsensically quotable lines of his career.  Blair stayed busy in the world of straight-to-video for the rest of the 1980s and through the 1990s, even spoofing THE EXORCIST by teaming up with Leslie Nielsen for the dismal 1990 comedy REPOSSESSED, as well as a cameo in Wes Craven's 1996 blockbuster SCREAM.  Now 54, Blair acts infrequently (she recently finished shooting an indie comedy called WHOA! and it was her first acting gig in five years), is a regular guest at fan conventions and a prominent PETA and Feed the Children activist and spends most of her time focusing on animal rescue work with The Linda Blair WorldHeart Foundation.

As far as bad movies go, CHAINED HEAT is a gift that never stops giving.  From the lewd and crude plot to the hilarious dialogue to Henry Silva rockin' a pimp sweater like no one before or since, CHAINED HEAT is not only the last word in Women in Prison flicks, it's also an essential grindhouse exploitation classic of the early 1980s glory days when something this phenomenally trashy could actually open nationwide on a holiday weekend.  They just don't make 'em like this anymore.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


(US - 2013)

There's an interesting concept behind the anthology horror film THE ABCs OF DEATH:  producers gave a letter of the alphabet to 27 cult horror filmmakers (the letter "O" is handled by the two-person team behind the giallo throwback AMER), giving each $5000 and complete artistic freedom to do what they want with their letter and make a four-to-five-minute short film that must culminate in death.  As with any anthology, it's a wildly inconsistent mixed bag with several standouts and quite a few duds.  There's a tendency toward transgression and almost-childish shock value--look no further than the fact that three of the 26 segments prominently feature a toilet, and another has a guy getting his face dunked in a diarrhea-filled bedpan--but there's a few surprising winners spread throughout, often from unexpected sources.  The standout is probably "D is for Dogfight," by DEADGIRL co-director Marcel Sarmiento, a genuinely shocking, misanthropic piece about an underground fight club that pits man against dog (among the slobbering onlookers is a cheering toddler wearing just a diaper) with a surprising twist. "Q is for Quack" is a brilliantly-conceived meta piece where director Adam Wingard (A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE) plays himself, bitching about being picked last for the project ("even after Nacho Vigalondo," his buddy reminds him) and being stuck with the letter Q.   "O is for Orgasm" is a color-drenched piece from AMER creators Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani.  Music video animator Lee Hardcastle's claymation "T is for Toilet" presents a truly horrific potty-training incident that avoids the scatological direction of the other toilet-centric stories.  FRONTIER(S) director Xavier Gens' "X is for XXL" is a horrifying look at an obese woman who decides to take an electric carving knife to her body fat.  "M is for Miscarriage" is the shortest of the segments at around two minutes, but it packs a sick and jaw-droppingly dark wallop and again proves that hipster would-be horror wunderkind Ti West (THE INNKEEPERS) is best when taken in small doses. 

There's a lot of DOA material throughout--you can pretty much skip letters F-through-L (starting with Noboru Iguchi's useless "F is for Fart" up to Timi Tjahjanto's semen-drenched "L is for Libido"), and Simon Rumley's "P is for Pressure" is a real disappointment considering how great his extraordinarily unsettling RED, WHITE & BLUE was.  ABCs stumbles to its conclusion with a pair of late-in-the-game low points with Joe Schnepp's "W is for WTF?" and Yoshihiro Nishimura's "Z is for Zetsumetsu," but the unlikely Jason Eisener (the terrible prefab cult movie HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN) gives the closing stretch a lift with the revenge tale "Y is for Youngbuck," which gets a hugely catchy soundtrack with "Vengeance" by the synth-rock outfit Powerglove.  Other directors include Srdjan Spasojevic (A SERBIAN FILM), MAY star Angela Bettis, Ben Wheatley (KILL LIST), Andrew Traucki (THE REEF), and Jorge Michel Grau (WE ARE WHAT WE ARE).  There's some good stuff in THE ABCs OF DEATH, but you have to get around a lot of shit--and other byproducts of the human body--to appreciate it.  (Unrated, 129 mins)

(Brazil - 2012)

NEIGHBORING SOUNDS, the first narrative feature by Brazilian documentarian and former film critic Kleber Mendonca Filho, is the kind of long and slow-moving film that demands patience and attention but the diligence pays off by the end.  The film looks at an ensemble of residents in a changing neighborhood of tower blocks in Recife.  One high-rise after another has been constructed as the upper-middle class has moved in, literally looking down upon the lower class at the street level, who will soon be displaced to make room for more towers.  Crime is on the increase, prompting Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) and a few friends to collect money from the residents and function as the neighborhood's self-appointed security crew.  As they establish more of a presence, it becomes clear that Clodoaldo has set up shop here for a reason.  We also meet old Francisco (W.J. Solha), a former sugar plantation owner who used to own all of the buildings but has made himself a fortune selling the properties to developers.  There's also Francisco's grandson Joao (Gustavo Jahn), who works as the area's leasing agent; his maybe-girlfriend Sofia (Irma Brown), who grew up in a house that Francisco now owns and has just sold to be demolished; Joao's cousin Dinho (Yuri Holanda), the resident car stereo thief; and stay-at-home mom Bia (Maeve Jinkings), who spends her days devising ways to quiet a neighbor's incessantly barking dog in addition to alleviating the boredom by getting high or rubbing herself against the dryer when it's on spin-cycle.  Even when very little is happening, the constant presence of Clodoaldo and his "security" team, coupled with the way Filho uses sound, usually coming from just outside the frame, succeeds in creating a profound sense of unease and tension throughout NEIGHBORING SOUNDS (with one shot that provides more of a jolt than any recent horror movie).  In a way, this is a very angry film in the way it presents the upper-middle class as living above and being better than those who live beneath and serve them, blithely dismissing them as they live among them in this endless, bitter class struggle, a fact that something Clodoaldo is clearly itching to remind them (and demonstrated in the way a parking attendant keys the car of a rude resident).  Almost willfully obfuscating and evasive at times, it isn't until the very end of the film (the next-to-last scene, in fact) that Filho lays all the cards on the table.  While some of the plot threads don't really go anywhere (Bia and the dog, for example), they do provide some character shading and a general "feel" for this particular place.  Slow but never dull, the beautifully-shot NEIGHBORING SOUNDS very gradually pulls you in, maintaining a very mysterious aura all the way to its surprise ending that expects you to have been paying attention from the film's very first images. (Unrated, 131 mins, also available on Netflix streaming)

(Australia - 2011; 2013 US release)

This visually arresting and occasionally ambitious debut from writer/director Ben C. Lucas starts as an Australian LESS THAN ZERO with a touch of Larry Clark's BULLY and also flirts with the revenge thriller genre.  With its total absence of adults in any capacity (there's no parents or teachers to be found), it functions more as a parable than a plausible narrative (at one point, against an obviously fake greenscreen sky, one character says "This place isn't real, anyway") and contains enough fantasy imagery of school shootings that it's easy to see why this only got a very limited US theatrical and VOD release two years after it made the rounds in Australia.  Despicable swim-team god Zack (CHRONICLE's Alex Russell) lords over the students of a posh private school ("When you're above people, you don't have to explain yourself to anyone, for anything") and keeps his bookish, introverted stepbrother Darren (Oliver Ackland) under this thumb, allowing him on the swim team but making him do all of his school assignments.  When Zack and his jock buddies see Darren and cute, brainy Xandrie (Adelaide Clemens) hitting it off, they decide to invite her to a party where Xandrie is drugged, raped, and left unconscious on a nearby beach.  Darren, under the impression that Xandrie left the party, is unaware of what happened until he tries calling her the next day and finds her phone buried between couch cushions in the basement.  When Xandrie reappears at school several days later, Zack and his crew have made sure that her reputation is ruined, that everyone knows she was "asking for it," and that she's just making up stories about Zack because "she regrets sleeping with him."

Lucas' use of color (there's a very striking shot of Xandrie appearing at the top of a staircase that looks like it belongs in an Italian giallo), framing, and creative editing techniques (this mostly unfolds in a linear fashion, but there are some interesting instances of back-and-forth cross-cutting between past, present, and future) are very well-managed by the first-time filmmaker, who gets strong performances from his three leads, even if 31-year-old Ackland, whose perpetual five-o'clock shadow frequently makes him look like he should be Russell's stepfather rather than his younger stepbrother, is a decade too old for his role.  Russell manages to make the cocky, smirking Zack truly hateful without resorting to cliches, and the promising Clemens (the Michelle Williams lookalike who's become a bit of a new scream queen with SILENT HILL: REVELATION and NO ONE LIVES) is very good as Xandrie.  Sometimes the intentional unreality is distracting from a storytelling perspective (when Darren is caught downloading video files from the laptop of one of Zack's asshole buddies, Zack's blase non-reaction reeks of plot convenience), and the climax gets a little too tech-geeky and ham-fisted in its messaging of social media and the sense of disconnect, but overall, despite a couple of minor rookie mistakes, WASTED ON THE YOUNG is a solid debut from a filmmaker with obvious potential. (R, 97 mins, also available on Netflix streaming).

Saturday, May 18, 2013

If This Wasn't Streaming on Netflix, Would Anyone Remember It Existed?: WHERE IS PARSIFAL? (1984)

(UK - 1984)

Directed by Henri Helman.  Written by Berta Dominguez D.  Cast: Tony Curtis, Cassandra Domenica, Erik Estrada, Peter Lawford, Ron Moody, Donald Pleasence, Orson Welles, Christopher Chaplin, Vladek Sheybal, Arthur Beatty, Nancy Roberts, Jay Benedict, Anthony Dawson, Edward Burnham, Victoria Burgoyne, Ava Lazar. (PG, 82 mins)

Alexander Salkind (1921-1997) had been producing films in Europe since the early 1960s when he finally had a pair of breakout hits with THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973) and THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (1974).  He managed to make opulent films while always keeping an eye on the bottom line, as evidenced by the cast of the MUSKETEERS films--which were shot simultaneously--suing Salkind for only paying them for one film when his plan was to release them as two all along (this flim-flammery prompted the Screen Actors Guild to create what's actually known as the "Salkind Clause," which prevents producers from extending an actor's contract for one film into two or more).  He tried the same thing a few years later with SUPERMAN (1978) and SUPERMAN II (1981), the latter being shot mostly at the same time as SUPERMAN until Salkind and his producing partner and son Ilya (born in 1947) fired director Richard Donner and replaced him with Richard Lester.  Co-star Gene Hackman, aware of Salkind's chicanery on the MUSKETEERS films, wasn't having any of it and refused to return when shooting reconvened with Lester in 1979, forcing the use of a Lex Luthor double in SUPERMAN II's Lester-shot footage (anything you see of Hackman in SUPERMAN II was actually shot in 1977-78 by Donner).  Alexander Salkind became a veritable mini-mogul thanks to the SUPERMAN films, but a string of costly bombs quickly sent things south for him.  SUPERMAN III (1983) flopped and the spinoff film SUPERGIRL (1984) and SANTA CLAUS (1985) tanked badly.  By 1987, the Salkinds were forced to sell the SUPERMAN franchise to Cannon's Golan & Globus, who produced the botched SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE.  Salkind resurfaced in 1992 when he produced CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: THE DISCOVERY, which cost $40 million and grossed $8 million, landing a spot on the Ten Worst list of virtually every major critic that year.  Following the COLUMBUS debacle, both Salkinds left the movie business.  Alexander died in 1997, and several years later, Ilya attempted an ill-advised comeback by trying to cash in on Oliver Stone's ALEXANDER with the troubled YOUNG ALEXANDER.  Filmed in 2004, YOUNG ALEXANDER had release dates announced in 2007 and 2010, but remains shelved, possibly uncompleted, and thus far has yet to be released anywhere, bringing the once-mighty Salkind legacy to its apparent conclusion.

Maybe the Salkinds weren't cut out to be blockbuster movie producers.  Alexander seemed to be more at home with artsy and auteur-friendly European fare like Abel Gance's 1960 epic AUSTERLITZ and Orson Welles' brilliant 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka's THE TRIAL.  But during the height of their success--or at the beginning of the fall--there was one other Alexander Salkind project, made between SUPERMAN III and SUPERGIRL, that's fallen through the cracks over time and is rarely mentioned.  WHERE IS PARSIFAL? was produced by Salkind and veteran director Terence Young (DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, WAIT UNTIL DARK), and was conceived as a vanity project for Salkind's wife Berta Dominguez D, who wrote the script under her own name and co-starred under the pseudonym "Cassandra Domenica."  She'd written scripts before (1977's CROSSED SWORDS) and after (Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1990 misfire THE RAINBOW THIEF), and acted occasionally (her own self-financed 1982 film MAYA, and co-starring in Catherine Breillat's 1988 film 36 FILLETTE), but WHERE IS PARSIFAL? was Salkind giving his wife carte blanche to make whatever she wanted to make and he provided a generous budget to get a large cast of big names, even if many were on the downside of their storied careers.  The film is the only English-language work of French TV director Henri Helman, and considering the appearances of Young regulars like Vladek Sheybal and Anthony Dawson (both vets of early 007 films), it's possible that Young may have directed some of it. 

Little is known about WHERE IS PARSIFAL?, as it vanished shortly after being screened at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.  Columbia submitted it to the MPAA and it got a PG rating, even with a few topless shots of Victoria Burgoyne, but they ended up shelving it.  It never received a US theatrical or home video release, and was largely unseen in the rest of the world, turning up first on VHS in Australia in the late 1980s.  Bootleg DVDs have appeared, and the film made a recent British Film Institute "75 Lost Films" list.  Well, it's lost no more:  it turned up on Netflix streaming earlier this week in what looks like a 1.33 VHS transfer, around the same time that same transfer magically appeared on YouTube (you can tell it just went up because as of this writing:  5 views).   There's a reason WHERE IS PARSIFAL? was buried under a rock and has been nowhere to be found for decades:  it's a self-indulgent, unwatchable piece of shit.

As Elba, Dominguez D/"Domenica" is the supposed star, but after an incomprehensible introduction pulling off some weird theft with sinister magician Morjack (Sheybal), she largely takes a backseat as the film is overtaken by a cast of embarrassed guest stars.  Elba's husband is financially-strapped inventor Parsifal Katzenellenbogen (Tony Curtis), an eccentric hypochondriac who's desperately trying to sell the rights to a skywriting machine.  Parsifal, or "Parsi," oversees a house full of oddballs: his depressed teenage son Ivan (Christopher Chaplin, Ilya Salkind's brother-in-law and the youngest child of Charles, who was 73 when he was born) and his older girlfriend Sheila (Ava Lazar); Elba's rollerskating lover Luke (Jay Benedict); Jasper (Arthur Beatty), a tall black Buddhist who broadcasts radio transmissions through Parsi's mansion; and alcoholic German butler Beersbohm (Ron Moody).  All of these characters mug shamelessly, shout, run from room to room, slam doors, drop things, engage in slapstick pratfalls, and spout improvised nonsense.  This goes on for some time until Parsi arranges a dinner party with some potential purchases of the skywriter:  wealthy gangster Henry Board II (Erik Estrada), who's accompanied by aging, has-been movie heartthrob Montague Chippendale (Peter Lawford); babbling, kilt-wearing Scotsman Mackintosh (Donald Pleasence), and, much later, gypsy billionaire Klingsor the 19th (Orson Welles).  What transpires is a lot of yelling, more running around, periodic bits where wacky music plays over sped-up action in an attempt to be "zany," Moody turning in the most humiliating performance of his career--at different points in the film, he's sporting bird shit and a lampshade on his head--and finally, a mawkish skywritten message from Berta Dominguez D, instructing the world to "Master Your Fate, Try Love."  People will do a lot for love, and if nothing else, the pointless, practically plotless WHERE IS PARSIFAL? proves that Alexander Salkind truly, madly, and deeply loved his wife.

You'll rarely see a cast looking more abandoned than the one spazzing out here.  Curtis, his career on a decade-plus downward spiral from which it never really recovered, was hitting bottom with alcoholism and a serious cocaine addiction that rendered him virtually unemployable in Hollywood.  He looks terrible here, and shortly after finishing PARSIFAL, he was hospitalized and went into rehab.  He got clean and sober, and was rewarded with his best role in years in Nicolas Roeg's INSIGNIFICANCE (1985), but Hollywood lost interest in him and he was still forced to resort to stuff like LOBSTER MAN FROM MARS by 1989.  This was Estrada's first movie role after the hugely popular TV series CHiPS went off the air in 1983.  His big-screen career pretty much started and ended with WHERE IS PARSIFAL? and while his TV fame didn't carry over to the big screen (his next film was the 1985 Italian action flick LIGHT BLAST), he remained busy in low-budget DTV fare and, inevitably, reality TV, and is a fan-convention fixture to this day.  It had to be disheartening for Estrada to make the leap from TV to movies and think he's hitting the big time in an Alexander Salkind project with all these big names.  Who wouldn't sign on for that?  Estrada's performance here is pretty hammy, but unlike almost everyone else, he doesn't shame himself and manages to generate some amusement with his delivery of lines like "I'm gonna kick your ass to Katmandu!"  WHERE IS PARSIFAL? was Lawford's last film (he died in late 1984) and he's essentially playing a caricature of himself.  Welles turns up about 70 minutes in and promptly takes over the film, which wasn't too difficult.  Welles died in 1985 and WHERE IS PARSIFAL? is sometimes erroneously credited as his last film.  It's his last onscreen appearance playing a character, if that counts for anything.  His final two films were posthumously released:  he was the voice of Unicron in the animated TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE (1986), and played a version of himself dispensing filmmaking and romantic advice to the insufferable Henry Jaglom in Jaglom's SOMEONE TO LOVE, shot in 1985 but unreleased until 1988.  Welles was never one to turn down an easy payday, but he probably felt some sense of gratitude to Salkind, who bankrolled THE TRIAL for him two decades earlier and, though it was a low-budget film and Salkind ran out of money before it was finished, he was one of the few producers who left Welles alone, trusted him, and let him make the film he wanted to make.

WHERE IS PARSIFAL?, allegedly a satirical look at the Salkinds' odd home life, is a thoroughly and painfully unfunny home movie disguised as a farce, broadly played to the back rows in the most grating way imaginable, trying to go for some kind of "anarchic" spirit, but it's essentially a bunch of vignettes with once-reputable and probably intoxicated pros acting like blithering idiots for a paycheck.  Curtis is at least energetic and amped up, but it was probably just the coke.  It's no surprise Berta Dominguez D's acting career never took off, considering that she manages to get crowded into a corner for the bulk of her own vanity project.  No one should have to endure WHERE IS PARSIFAL? (I almost bailed after ten minutes), but with that incredible cast, there's an undeniable train wreck fascination to it, even if it makes what should be a brief 82 minutes feel like a prison sentence.  It's one of the worst comedies of the 1980s, and maybe even one of the worst films you'll ever see and while it was smaller and more under the radar compared to expensive turkeys like SUPERMAN III, SUPERGIRL, and SANTA CLAUS, WHERE IS PARSIFAL? must share some of the culpability in the crashing and burning of the Salkind empire.

Friday, May 17, 2013

In Theaters: STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by J.J. Abrams. Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof.  Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, Leonard Nimoy, Noel Clarke, Nazneen Contractor, Aisha Hinds, Deep Roy. (PG-13, 132 mins)

I'm not a Trekkie by any stretch of the imagination.  I've enjoyed the 1966-69 TV series but never felt a real devotion to it.  I've always been a much bigger fan of the movies, particularly that incredible three-film run of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982), STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984), and STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986).  I really liked J.J. Abrams' terrific 2009 reboot STAR TREK and thought it did an excellent job of going back to the younger days of these iconic characters and updating the story and the visuals for a modern audience.  Abrams and that film's two screenwriters (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) are back for STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, joined by Abrams' LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof, and the results are much less successful.  Abrams and the writers seem to forget that the key to STAR TREK has always been the characters, and instead go for a "bigger is better" mentality more akin to Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer.  Everything about ST:ID is bigger and louder.  Characterization and creativity are sacrified and despite some positive elements, in the end it's just a lot of noise.

After ignoring protocol on a mission and continuing his arrogant, hot-dogging ways, young Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) is relieved of his command of the Enterprise and sent back to the Academy.  The demotion doesn't last long, as a bombing in London staged by renegade Starfleet Commander John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) leads to another attack at Starfleet command that kills Kirk's mentor Adm. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood).  Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) reinstates Kirk's command of the Enterprise and sends him and his crew--Spock (Zachary Quinto), Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), a last minute replacement for an irate Scotty (Simon Pegg), who disagrees with the mission and refuses to go along but returns in a heroic capacity much later--to Kronos, the home of the Klingons, where Harrison is reportedly in hiding.

(MAJOR SPOILERS in the unlikely event you don't already know)

This is where I'd normally stop and say something like "to say anything more would involve spoilers," but considering the biggest spoiler is already the worst-kept secret of the summer and IMDb's page for ST:ID has Cumberbatch's character named as his true identity, there seems to be little point in carrying on with the charade:  yes, Harrison is really genetically-engineered superhuman and future Kirk arch-nemesis Khan, and he's playing everyone--the Klingons, Starfleet, Marcus, and Kirk--against each other in order to rescue 72 cryogenically-frozen friends and colleagues being held in stasis by Marcus in exchange for Khan's scientific and biological expertise in helping him wage war on the Klingons.

After a pretty good first hour, ST:ID becomes one big action sequence after another.  Some of these are nicely done, particularly one where Kirk and Khan (who briefly become, yes, allies) have to dodge space debris and then fit into a small airlock to board another ship, but each one seems to ramp up the sense of overkill.  With the revelation that Harrison is Khan, easily the greatest of all villains in the STAR TREK universe, the film becomes more concerned with restaging vital moments of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, frequently to its own detriment.  Yes, we get a "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" invocation, a sacrifice for those needs, and the expected bellowing of "KHAAAAAN!"  The filmmakers' idea of shaking things up is to have these moments involve different characters and it just feels gimmicky.  There's no heart to it and it doesn't have the same effect because we aren't as invested in these characters.  That's not a knock on the actors--Quinto is an excellent Spock, and while he's a dastardly Khan, even the Cult of Cumberbatch must concede that Ricardo Montalban simply raised the bar too high for anyone else to meet, let alone top--but it's the weakness of the writing.  There's a reason STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN was a huge hit with Trekkies and non-Trekkies alike and has endured and become a timeless cinematic classic over the last 31 years, and it's not because of how big and flashy and over-the-top the action sequences were.  It's the characters.  It's the writing.  And yes, the actors, but without all of those elements working in tandem, it's inevitably going to fall short even if the new ensemble does a decent job, and if the filmmakers insist on using so much of KHAN in ST:ID's plot, then they can't be surprised that fans resort to comparing the two.

Also not helping at all is the lens-flaring, jerky shaky-cam directing style that Abrams utilizes, making this feel like STAR TREK for the TRANSFORMERS crowd.  There's really no reason for a climactic Spock/Khan fist fight, especially one that looks like the actors were CGI'd into outtakes from THE FIFTH ELEMENT.  ST:ID is the kind of formulaic product that thinks it can be Taken Seriously by throwing in thinly-veiled references to topical events.  Christopher Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES handled this effectively, but the inclusion of a suicide bombing, a Dick Cheney-esque warmongering military figure, and some 9/11-inspired imagery with a Starfleet ship commandeered by Khan crashing into a bustling metropolis seems contrived and offensive not for its inclusion but for the transparent obviousness of it.  This is a junk movie conceived by a committee (even resorting to the now-standard "nefarious villain detained or standing in a cell while glaring at and/or taunting the hero" scene; see also Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT and Javier Bardem in SKYFALL).  It's not an artistic vision or a serious statement. It's just loud and disorienting (and I didn't even see it in 3D) and at the risk of sounding like an old man telling J.J. Abrams to get off my lawn, I generally find it hard to enjoy a movie when it's giving me a pounding headache.  Coming after such a successful reboot four years ago, STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS has its moments, but overall, it's a mostly empty and disappointing experience.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: TEXAS CHAINSAW (2013); TOMORROW YOU'RE GONE (2013); and HELLGATE (2012)

(US - 2013)

The latest TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE reboot pretends none of the original's three sequels or the mid-2000s Michael Bay-produced remake and prequel happened, and opens as a direct sequel to the 1974 film, picking up right where it left off for a ten-minute prologue.  In it, the deranged, cannibalistic Sawyer clan are all killed in a fire started by a vigilante mob.  A childless couple among the vigilantes takes a Sawyer infant to raise as their own.  Then it jumps to the present day, with 20-ish Heather (Alexandra Daddario), that grown child, getting news that her biological grandmother has left her a mansion in Texas.  Off she goes with her friends, who are eventually killed one by one by the black sheep still locked in the basement:  Leatherface (Dan Yaeger), who it turns out is Heather's cousin.  TEXAS CHAINSAW gets off to a surprisingly OK start before constructive sloppiness by director John Luessenhop and the screenwriters (JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY director Adam Marcus among them) starts becoming too much of a distraction.  These college-age kids should be in their late 30s at least, as the film takes place 39 years after the 1973-set events of the first film and this film's own prologue.  Yet, Heather and her friends look to be in their early 20s...but the film can't be taking place in the mid-1990s because people are using smartphones.  Maybe that's being nitpicky, but there's other issues, like stacking the deck with a cartoonishly evil Texas he-man mayor (Paul Rae) who's such an asshole that it's easy for the filmmakers to make Leatherface the hero.  And they can't even keep track of their own characters, as a sheriff's deputy played by Scott Eastwood (Clint's lookalike son), a fairly important element of the story, completely vanishes during the climax.  This TEXAS CHAINSAW (even the shorthand title comes across as half-assed), produced by Cannon cover band Millennium/NuImage, is stupid but it isn't completely terrible--it's almost good compared to the Bay productions--but it exerts the bare minimum to get by and does nothing to justify its existence.  Just stick with the first two films that Tobe Hooper directed.  The rest are irrelevant, as are the cred-begging cameos by past CHAINSAW vets Gunnar Hansen, Bill Moseley, John Dugan, and Marilyn Burns.  (R, 92 mins)

(US - 2013)

Is a movie doomed the moment Stephen Dorff is cast in the lead?  That's not to say that Dorff is a bad actor, because he's not, and his bad movies are rarely if ever his fault.  He gave the performance of his career in Sofia Coppola's SOMEWHERE (2010), but that's just it: nobody saw it, and the film wasn't as good as he was in it.  Dorff puts forth effort in serious indies that play to crickets and tumbleweed, but then gets a reputation as a washout hack when he does a random DTV thriller or pitches e-cigs to pay the bills.  The guy had some momentum going in the '90s, but hasn't been able to catch a break since Leonardo DiCaprio started getting all of his roles.  He's turned in some good performances and maybe some day, luck will finally be on his side but, unfortunately for Dorff and the viewer, TOMORROW YOU'RE GONE is not that day.  It's hard to say where the Cleveland-shot TOMORROW went wrong, but it's never a good sign when a film is held in limbo for a couple of years because the filmmakers are filing lawsuits.  Matthew F. Jones adapted his novel Boot Straps, but was so appalled at the end result that he sued the producers and director David Jacobson (2006's DOWN IN THE VALLEY) and tried to prevent it from being released.  It eventually got a token limited release in April 2013 before being dumped on DVD and Blu-ray six weeks later, with no extras whatsoever, unless you count "Scene Selection."  It seems everyone associated with TOMORROW YOU'RE GONE has actively distanced themselves from it.

I haven't read Jones' novel, so I can't compare the book and the film, but Jacobson seems to be going for some blatant David Lynch worship here--I should clarify "Lynch when his films were still coherent"--specifically WILD AT HEART and some of the more grounded-in-reality portions of LOST HIGHWAY.  Dorff is ex-con Charlie, assigned by crime boss The Buddha (Willem Dafoe, who was in WILD AT HEART) to whack someone.  Charlie kills the guy but botches the job by leaving a witness, and then hits the road with bewitching part-time porn actress Florence Jane (Michelle Monaghan--why isn't she getting better roles?) and then...well, not much else. There's a lot of mumbling about trying to find and kill the Buddha.  For a while, Jacobson flirts with the idea that Florence Jane is a figment of Charlie's imagination, and she wears a blonde Marilyn Monroe wig at one point for no apparent reason.  After a potentially intriguing, modern noir set-up (with opening credits accompanied by Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Hear Voices"), Jacobson plants his mouth firmly on Lynch's nutbag and acts like his work is done, stumbling into coast-mode and stranding the audience with two uninteresting characters, lots of open road, and no shortage of Angelo Badalamenti/TWIN PEAKS-styled vibrato in Peter Salett's highly derivative score.  With the game Monaghan providing its only spark, TOMORROW YOU'RE GONE isn't the worst film of 2013 (though it tries to be), but it may very well be the dullest. (Unrated, 92 mins)

(US/Thailand - 2012)

This tired snoozer of a horror movie has some nice location shooting in Thailand but not much else to recommend.  After barely surviving a Bangkok car crash that kills his wife and son, Cary Elwes starts having visions of the usual quick-cut, herky-jerky ghosts and demons.  His nurse (Ploy Jindachot) conveniently has an aunt who knows all there is to know about the Thai spirit world, and she directs him to aging American surfer dude/ghostbuster William Hurt.  Hurt, of course speaking from experience, tells Elwes that the souls of his wife and son are not at rest (Elwes was in a coma for five weeks after the accident and was unable to say goodbye to them) and it's that vulnerability that makes him a magnet for other malevolent spirits that Elwes now has the power to see.  Naturally, Elwes must go on a journey deep into the haunted jungles of Thailand to give these souls closure.  Predictable and ploddingly-paced, with J-horror cliches and embarrassing CGI, HELLGATE squanders a potentially interesting setting with the most rote, cliched story imaginable.  The bland Elwes has demonstrated comic chops in the past, but he's really never been an interesting dramatic actor and that doesn't change here, while Oscar-winner and four-time nominee Hurt is obviously just onboard for the free Thailand vacation.  In a more inspired fright flick, Hurt's character could've been a real hammy crowd-pleaser (the bit where he's just suddenly standing there with a surfboard is amusing and feels like it was improvised by the actor), but everyone from the actors to writer-director John Penney just seem to be taking this far too seriously, as if it's the first horror film to ever deal with the subject of tortured spirits in some purgatorial limbo.  Penney, whose infamous ZYZZYX ROAD made headlines for its $30 box office gross back in 2006, has been involved in enjoyable horror films in the past--he co-wrote the cult favorite THE KINDRED (1987) and scripted RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3 (1994) and worked with Hurt before, scripting the underrated B-movie CONTAMINATED MAN (2000), which is still in regular night-owl rotation on cable--but HELLGATE, originally titled SHADOWS when it was shot in 2010, is just dead on arrival.  (Unrated, 93 mins, also streaming on Netflix)