Friday, May 30, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray, Special "Terrible, Barely Released Remakes" Edition: GAMBIT (2014) and PATRICK (2014)

(US - 2014)

Veteran Andrew Bergman producer Mike Lobell (THE FRESHMAN, HONEYMOON IN VEGAS) began attempting to assemble a remake of the 1966 Shirley MacLaine/Michael Caine caper comedy GAMBIT as far back as 1997.  Countless creative personnel were officially and unofficially attached to the new GAMBIT at various times over the next decade plus--directors Robert Altman, Mike Nichols, Alexander Payne, Anand Tucker, Bo Welch, Richard LaGravenese, and Doug Liman, writers Aaron Sorkin, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and Joel & Ethan Coen--and time and again, the project would stall and collapse. When LaGravenese was onboard around 2009, he rewrote much of the script, and again, it didn't make it out of pre-production.  By the time filming finally started in 2011, Lobell had Michael Hoffman (ONE FINE DAY) directing, and LaGravenese's revisions were tossed in favor of the Coen Bros.' draft, which they penned during some down time between films a decade earlier.  The Coens would probably prefer to forget they were ever involved in this doomed production, which bombed everywhere else in the world in 2012, prompting CBS Films to abruptly cancel the US release and shelve it for a couple of years in the hopes that everyone would forget about it. In a move of stealth deception that almost rivaled the Baltimore Colts sneaking away to Indianapolis in the middle of the night when no one was looking, CBS swiftly and silently released GAMBIT on VOD and on just nine screens in the US in late April 2014 with virtually zero publicity--probably not the desired end result of 15 years of work on Lobell's part.

It's often said that no one sets out to make a bad movie, that they sometimes just happen.  Almost nothing goes right in the stunningly DOA GAMBIT, which tries to evoke the classic '60s caper aesthetic in a modern setting, but joke after joke after joke lands with such a dead thud that it actually feels uncomfortable watching a cast of pros flailing so helplessly. Considering the talent involved, there's no reason GAMBIT shouldn't be an enjoyable farce, but it's just a miserably dull misfire. Art appraiser Harry Deane (Colin Firth) is fed up with his venal boss, media baron Lionel Shabandar (Alan Rickman), and concocts a scheme with an art forger known as The Major (Tom Courtenay) to bilk him out of a fortune with a fake Monet. Helping them in the scam is hard-partying, trailer-park Texas rodeo gal P.J. Puznowski (Cameron Diaz), who lives with her senile grandmother (Cloris Leachman).  Diaz plays it as broadly as possible (as does Stanley Tucci as Harry's German appraising rival), while Firth tries to be Michael Caine by way of Peter Sellers, whether he's losing his trousers or stuck on a ledge or repeatedly getting punched in the face or all manner of slapstick. This is the kind of stuff that should be funny, but everything is just off--the performances, the timing--everyone just seems lost and confused, with a "let's just get this over with" look on their faces.  Everyone, that is, except for Rickman, who plays smug pricks as well as anybody and relishes the opportunity to do it again here. When Rickman is dismissively sneering at pretty much everything around him--it's possible he wasn't acting--GAMBIT has some spark.  But Rickman's pomposity and the chance to hear Courtenay say "shitbag" aren't nearly enough to carry this all the way through.  By the time GAMBIT resorts to fart jokes, it's a safe bet that everyone involved has officially given up.  (PG-13, 89 mins)

(Australia/UK - 2013; US release 2014)

Hitchcock disciple and future PSYCHO II director Richard Franklin's PATRICK (1978) is one of the cornerstones of the Ozploitation scene. Written by the venerable Everett De Roche (LONG WEEKEND, ROAD GAMES, RAZORBACK), PATRICK dealt with a comatose young man wreaking telekinetic havoc in a hospital in a twisted display of obsessive love for a new nurse.  It's rather slow and dry by today's standards, but the sight of Patrick lying in bed, eyes wide open, is one of the iconic horror images of the 1970s.  The film did only modest business in Australia, but became a surprise hit in Italy, where its original score was wiped in favor of one by Goblin and was successful enough to generate its own Italian ripoff/fake sequel with Mario Landi's PATRICK STILL LIVES (1980), which turned Franklin's comparatively restrained little horror film a sleazy gorefest best known for its infamous "fireplace poker in the vagina" scene.  PATRICK was acquired by Vanguard/Monarch for its 1979 US release, where it lost nearly 20 minutes of material to neuter it down to a PG rating and, as AIP did with MAD MAX a year later, the Australian cast was dubbed over by American voice actors.  PATRICK remains a cult classic to this day, and exploitation superfan Mark Hartley, a native Australian behind such hugely enjoyable and infectiously fun documentaries as the Ozploitation love letter NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD (2008) and the Filipino exploitation tribute MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED (2010), as well as the upcoming ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS, makes his narrative feature debut with this remake. NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD jump-started the recent resurgence of interest in Australian cult cinema and it's very probable that a PATRICK remake wouldn't have happened were it not for NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD. Hartley's love of '70s and '80s B-movies rivals that of Quentin Tarantino, but unfortunately, the comparisons end there:  no matter how much his heart is in the right place by affectionately remaking one of his favorite films, Hartley's PATRICK is just not good, and it does no favors for vintage Ozploitation, PATRICK fans, or Hartley himself.

The plot is essentially the same:  nurse Kathy Jacquard (Sharni Vinson of YOU'RE NEXT) gets a job at a hospital run by the stern Dr. Roget (Charles Dance) and his uptight head nurse daughter Matron Cassidy (Rachel Griffiths).  Kathy is intrigued by comatose Patrick (Jackson Gallagher), who's been lying still and unresponsive since killing his mother and her boyfriend years earlier. Patrick seems to respond to Kathy in the form of reflexive spitting and transferring his thoughts to a computer monitor or via text to her phone (the lack of such technology forced him to communicate via typewriter in the original version).  Of course, in true "One Froggy Evening" fashion, only Kathy sees this.  Patrick is also able to control the minds and bodies of others, particularly those close to Kathy, whether it's her estranged boyfriend Ed (Damon Gameau) or doctor/potential suitor Brian (Martin Crewes).  Kathy can't convince anyone of Patrick's brain activity, and as Dr. Roget's unethical, electro-shock treatments on Patrick increase, so do Patrick's violent tendencies and his drive to control Kathy and the people around her. Hartley is sure to pay homage to Franklin's film by giving the new Patrick the surname of the actor who played him in 1978 (Robert Thompson), giving Ed the surname Penhaligon, after the 1978 film's Kathy (British actress Susan Penhaligon), naming a hospital "The Royal Helpmann" after the 1978 Dr. Roget (Robert Helpmann), and in casting Ozploitation fixture Rod Mullinar (the 1978 Ed) in a small role as an asshole hospital administrator. He even pays brief tribute to PATRICK STILL LIVES (Italian title: PATRICK VIVE ANCORA) in the form of an end credits stinger. Hartley frames a lot of shots in the fashion of Hitchcock and De Palma, and has a score by regular De Palma collaborator Pino Donaggio, but it's so grating and over-the-top that it annoys more than enhances. Hartley also relies too much on cheap jump scares and some really bush-league, cheap-looking CGI that makes the whole project look like an Asylum ripoff of PATRICK.  PATRICK '13 is a plodding, slowly-paced bore, with only Dance's acid-tongued villainy providing any entertainment (the way he spits "And you are prissy, meddling little bitch who's wasting my precious time, and I would dearly love for you to fuck off!" at Vinson is the highlight). He gave it a shot, but Hartley's first foray outside of the documentary realm is a resounding failure, though I have no doubt that ELECTRIC BOOGALOO will be his magnum opus. He's doing great things to preserve the memory of the B-movies that many of us hold so dear. But if PATRICK '13 is any indication, he just doesn't need to be making his own. (Unrated, 96 mins)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix Streaming, Special "DIY Indie" Edition: 24 EXPOSURES (2014) and ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW (2013)

(US - 2014)

Indie filmmakers Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, and Ti West form the core of a relentlessly busy crew of DIY mumblecore filmmakers who took part in the V/H/S anthology and have received acclaim mostly in indie hipster circles but seemed poised to break into the mainstream with the terrific 2013 slasher film YOU'RE NEXT, directed by Wingard, written by Barrett, and co-starring Swanberg and West.  West, who had some acclaim away from this posse with THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and the overrated THE INNKEEPERS, also directed Swanberg in the current THE SACRAMENT.  Swanberg wrote and directed 24 EXPOSURES, which stars Wingard and looks like what might happen if West teamed up with Henry Jaglom to make a slow-burn re-imagining of the 1983 cult slasher film DOUBLE EXPOSURE. 24 EXPOSURES is obviously a film shot cheaply and quickly.  It's as minimalist as can be, with some really bad acting and a score that vacillates between "1980s John Carpenter" and "Skinemax fuck scene." Wingard is "fetish photographer" Billy Wingard, who specializes in graphic still death shots of staged murders.  Helping him is assistant/girlfriend Alex (Caroline White), who's open enough to allow model Callie (Sophia Takal) to join them in bed. Billy is also preoccupied with Callie's friend Rebecca (Helen Rogers), whose possessive boyfriend (Mike Brune) doesn't want her taking part in his photo sessions. Meanwhile, down-in-the-dumps and improbably-named detective Michael Bamfeaux (Barrett) is given the boot by his wife but still has to do his job, which involves investigating the murder of a model who never showed up for a scheduled shoot with Billy and Alex.

Starting with Wingard's character having the same surname, 24 EXPOSURES is meta almost to the point of self-parody.  This is especially the case by the end when, after a whole lot of very little has happened, Bamfeaux, moonlighting as an aspiring writer, turns his search for the murderer and his friendship with Billy into a memoir as a literary agent (played by Swanberg) goes through a laundry list of his manuscript's flaws, go-nowhere plot details, and general construction weaknesses and rattles off ways to improve it, almost like Swanberg is stopping to critique his own film, still in progress.  It's that kind of nonsense that shows he's more interested in being "clever" than constructing a real story.  Some parts of 24 EXPOSURES look almost Tommy Wiseau-like in their sub-softcore-porn production value.  You'd think for as long as Wingard and Barrett have been friends, they could at least convincingly play friends in a movie (Barrett, in particular, is awful).  But this is the kind of film where the sense of amateurish artifice is intended and the bad performances are by design, but to what end?  Other than Swanberg drawing facile parallels between Billy and Bamfeaux by showing them both eating dry cereal as a snack, there's no real attempt at character or thematic depth. 24 EXPOSURES is a tediously self-indulgent home movie made by guys who should know and have done better.  It's either an inside joke among their clique or, more likely, an excuse for Swanberg and Wingard to hang out with some naked chicks on set.  (Unrated, 77 mins)

(US - 2013)

When it debuted at 2013's Sundance Film Festival, it seemed highly unlikely that ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW would ever be seen again afterwards. With an inheritance from his grandparents providing the budget, writer/director Randy Moore and his cast and crew pulled off one of the most audacious and ambitious guerrilla filmmaking stunts in the annals of cinema:  with season passes to both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, they shot the bulk of the black & white film inside the parks, using scripts stored on their phones and armed with handheld (or concealed) cameras and sporting wardrobes that made them look like average tourists. Moore said in interviews that as many times as they went back to the parks and as many times as the actors got on the rides (he reportedly had the four main actors ride It's a Small World 12 times in a row until he got the shots he needed), none of the Disney cast members got wise to what they were doing. Much to the surprise of Moore and everyone else, Disney, fiercely protective of its image and its intellectual property, never attempted to block the film's release and never publicly addressed it, though it has been added to the online supplement to Disney A to Z: The Official Encyclopedia.

On the last day of a family vacation to Walt Disney World in Florida, Jim (Roy Abramsohn) gets a call from his boss telling him that he's been fired.  Jim keeps this devastating news to himself and focuses on giving wife Emily (Elena Schuber) and kids Elliott (Jack Dalton) and Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez) one last fun day before going home.  It's a day that becomes increasingly surreal as every song, every attraction, and every animatronic character becomes more sinister and nightmarish by the minute.  And that's on top of the everyday horrors of a nagging wife, screaming kids, rude or constantly coughing patrons, lines that won't move, and Elliott getting sick on Space Mountain. Jim is also bewitched by two seductive, giggling French teenage girls (Danielle Safady, Annet Mehendru) who turn up everywhere before he starts deliberately following them. It's clear early on that Jim's current level of reality might not actually be, and the completely off-the-rails second half becomes a horrifically dystopian version of the Disney experience, fusing elements of TOTAL RECALL and VIDEODROME, with a cat-flu epidemic, turkey legs made of emu, rollercoaster decapitations, a secret crew of cleaners, and Disney princesses who double as high-priced courtesans for wealthy Asian businessmen.  By the end, it's basically an elaborate TWILIGHT ZONE episode and would probably work better as such, but Moore's daring filmmaking process and his ability to make do with what he had--a lot of the shots are composed as such to avoid copyright infringements and being discovered--are very impressive.  Regardless of how the film even turned out, it's a major accomplishment that he was able to get it done.  As a story, it loses its way a bit and seems to drag even at 90 minutes, but as an exercise in DIY filmmaking, it's not to be missed.  (Unrated, 90 mins)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In Theaters: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

(US/UK - 2014)

Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Simon Kinberg.  Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry, Ellen Page, Anna Paquin, Peter Dinklage, Nicholas Hoult, Shawn Ashmore, Fan Bingbing, Omar Sy, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Michael Lerner, Mark Camacho. (PG-13, 131 mins)

Director Bryan Singer's return to the X-MEN universe for the first time since 2003's X2 is a loose adaptation of a 1981 storyline in The Uncanny X-Men and brings together both the original cast and their X-MEN: FIRST CLASS counterparts in a gathering the likes of which we haven't seen since Yes' 1991 album Union.  Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg somehow manage to keep the multiple plot threads coherent for the most part, though if you aren't up to speed on your X-MEN lore, there's a good chance you'll be a bit lost here and there, as DAYS OF FUTURE PAST serves as a sequel to both 2006's X-MEN: THE LAST STAND and 2011's X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.

Opening in a dystopian future where robots known as Sentinels are waging war on mutants, DOFP has Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) sending the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 so he can stop the assassination of Sentinel creator and Nixon cabinet member Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) at the hands of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).  As it plays out in their current timeline, Trask dies a hero, and Mystique is captured, with her DNA being used to help create the mutant-hunting Sentinels killing them in the future. Wolverine is advised by Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) to track down their younger selves in 1973 for assistance.  Young Xavier (James McAvoy) is a despondent recluse being cared for by Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) in the decrepit Xavier School, while young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is being held in a enclosed prison deep beneath the Pentagon. Wolverine, Xavier, and Beast enlist the aid of Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to infiltrate the Pentagon and extract Magneto in what's probably the film's most inspired sequence, boasting an unforgettable use of Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle."  Once freed, it doesn't take Magneto long for his evil ways to take control, often working at cross purposes with Mystique, who has her reasons for killing Trask, who isn't the noble altruist that history has purported him to be.

The wild plot also works in the JFK assassination, the Watergate tapes (Mark Camacho is a peculiar-looking Nixon), SANFORD AND SON, and some time-travel comic relief as Wolverine adjusts to life in 1973. Other than Jackman's Wolverine, who acts as a bridge between the two casts, the focus is more on the FIRST CLASS end of things, with the original cast not having a whole lot to do after the opening sequence other than pop up periodically to remind the audience that they're still there as they bide their time until a climactic showdown with some Sentinels.  McKellen and Stewart look dour and concerned, Page's Kitty Pryde (it's Kitty, not Wolverine, who goes back in time in the comic book source story) does little more than rub her hands on future Wolverine's temples as she guides his soul into the past, Halle Berry's Storm has maybe three lines of dialogue, and a prominently-billed Anna Paquin returns--if you can call it that--as Rogue, a central character in the first film but now reduced to a two-second walk-on without even a clear view of her face (Singer decided to cut all of her scenes, but they'll be included on the Blu-ray release).  Other than Wolverine and a brief face-to-face with young and old Professor Xavier, there's no interaction between the originals and the First Class. Jackman, McAvoy, and Hoult make a great team, and Peters almost manages to steal the film with his Quicksilver antics (after the brilliant Pentagon escape sequence, you'll wish Peters was in the movie more).  The X-Men vs. Magneto vs. Mystique vs. the Sentinels showdown on the White House lawn is a superbly crafted set piece, even if one element makes it bit too reminiscent of the stadium destruction from Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.  It's not perfect, and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is looking even better as the year goes on, but X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is an ambitious return to the franchise for Singer, and it gets the job done as enjoyably huge big-screen summer entertainment.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA (1989)

(Philippines/Australia - 1989)

Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith. Written by William Nagle, Tony Johnston, Brian Trenchard-Smith and R. Lee Ermey. Cast: Wings Hauser, R. Lee Ermey, Albert Popwell, Robert Arevalo, Mark Neely, Gary Hershberger, Clyde R. Jones, Margi Gerard, Richard Kuhlman, John Calvin, Nick Nicholson, Michael Cruz, Henry Strzalkowski. (R, 99 mins)

Before it came back into circulation on MGM's HD cable channel, streaming services, and as an "MGM Limited Edition Collection" manufactured-on-demand DVD in recent years, Brian Trenchard-Smith's THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA was a hard-to-find VHS obscurity going for exorbitant rates on eBay. It was a sought-after title not just for B-movie aficionados and cine-hipsters who embraced it after learning Quentin Tarantino was a huge fan, but also for Vietnam War veterans.  Released in January 1989 by the short-lived Fries Entertainment, THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA was one of many post-PLATOON Vietnam War dramas that saw a marked reduction in the "The war's not over till the last man comes home" side of Namsploitation, where the heroes of UNCOMMON VALOR (1983), MISSING IN ACTION (1984), and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985) went back to 'Nam to settle scores and take care of unfinished business. Instead, there was a shift to grittier fare like HAMBURGER HILL (1987), PLATOON LEADER (1988), and EYE OF THE EAGLE 3 (1989), throwbacks to the types of straightforward, formulaic, B-grade WWII and Korean War battle pictures that Sam Fuller made in the 1950s.  FIREBASE GLORIA's trump card was the presence of R. Lee Ermey, a Vietnam vet and former Marine drill sergeant who found work as a Vietnam genre Hollywood technical advisor on films like THE BOYS IN COMPANY C (1978) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), where he can be seen as a helicopter pilot during the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence.  Ermey was hired by Stanley Kubrick to mentor actor Tim Colceri, who was cast as the brutal drill instructor Gunny Sgt. Hartman in FULL METAL JACKET (1987). Kubrick's instructions to Ermey were simple: "Lee, I want it real."  What Kubrick realized in witnessing Ermey's training of Colceri was that he cast the wrong guy in the part and that Ermey should be playing Hartman.  Kubrick, never known as the most sympathetic director to actors, felt bad enough about replacing Colceri that he gave the young actor the consolation prize of a small but memorable one-scene role as a trigger-happy doorgunner ("Get some!"). Ermey, meanwhile, was given wide latitude by Kubrick to improvise and actually wrote much of his own dialogue, creating one of the most memorable characters and some of the most quotable lines in cinema history in the film's harrowing opening 45-minute basic training segment (it's worth noting that Hartman's insults about "steers & queers" and "I will gouge out your eyes and skullfuck you!" were bellowed five years earlier by an Oscar-winning Louis Gossett, Jr. in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN).

Ermey's FULL METAL JACKET success led to him being given the lead in THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA, even though '80s B-movie icon Wings Hauser (VICE SQUAD) gets top billing. Like Kubrick, Trenchard-Smith gave Ermey a lot of wiggle room, allowing him to rewrite much of the script, which is credited to William Nagle and Tony Johnston (Trenchard-Smith and Ermey are credited with "additional dialogue").  Nagle wrote the novel The Odd Angry Shot, about Australian soldiers in Vietnam, and it was turned into the acclaimed 1979 film that may very well have the worst trailer ever.  He also scripted the WWII courtroom drama DEATH OF A SOLDIER (1986) before working as an assistant director on 1990s straight-to-video fare like INDECENT BEHAVIOR II.  It's hard telling how much of Nagle and Johnston's work made it into the finished film, but the result resonated with many Vietnam veterans who feel that THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA is the most accurate cinematic depiction of the war.  You can find that sentiment on message boards and IMDb user reviews, and I can even attest from my days at Blockbuster Video that this film was regularly cited as the most brutally realistic look at Vietnam that many of these vets had ever seen.

Now, as someone who's never served in the military, I can only approach THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA from the perspective of a fan or a film critic. You can see it trying to be a little more than the typical Namsploitation offering.  Its depictions of the savagery of war are unflinchingly grim and bloody, and the battle scenes have a relentless intensity to them. I suspect these are the bits of realism that the vets are talking about, along with paying briefly futile lip service to the idea that "The VC are soldiers, too," in the way it spends time with Viet Cong commander Cao Van (Robert Arevalo), who believes in respecting the courage of one's enemies.  Other than that, the story and the characterizations roll straight off of the war movie assembly line. At the start of the Tet Offensive in 1968, Sgt. Maj. Hafner (Ermey) and his right-hand man DiNardo (Hauser) and their squad commandeer and fortify a ramshackle firebase populated by stoned, disillusioned burnouts and led by a C.O. (John Calvin), who sits at his desk nude while jerking off to nudie mags and getting high. Of course, the no-nonsense Hafner is outraged over such things as weed and long hair, as Ermey himself probably is, and proceeds to whip the men into shape using the same kind of speeches he gave in FULL METAL JACKET.  Sure, it's entertaining hearing Ermey fire off quips like "We're gonna fortify this shithole and protect it like it's your daughter's cherry," or "It's time to sprinkle some shit in Charlie's rice," and another about how "there is no such thing as an atheist in a combat situation!" but when Ermey's not doing his Ermey schtick, FIREBASE GLORIA becomes so awash in cliches that it defeats itself.  There's a little Vietnamese boy named "Pee Wee" (Michael Cruz), who becomes a surrogate son to battle-hardened DiNardo, who's still mourning the death of his own young son; there's Hafner having no time for emotional silliness like a female captain (Margi Gerard) who's in charge of the infirmary; there's wide-eyed, naive innocent Murphy (Mark Neely), who immediately goes off the deep end and starts thousand-yard-staring like he invented it as soon as the shit hits the fan when Cao Van's forces attack; there's the crazed, stoned photojournalist (Nick Nicholson as Dennis Hopper); and with several reminders that he only has 17 days left in his tour, is there any chance radio communications guy Shortwave (Clyde R. Jones) is making it out alive?

One of the few instances of Namsploitation doubling as Ozploitation, THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA was a Filipino/Australian co-production that displayed the kind of grandiose action sequences that Trenchard-Smith was known for in his prior Australian exploitation films, which often showcased the death-defying stuntwork of perpetual Trenchard-Smith man-crush Grant Page (STUNT ROCK).  Once it gets going, FIREBASE GLORIA is almost non-stop battle sequences, with some explosions that would make Antonio Margheriti envious. And that's really what this film is all about.  It may have some scattered moments of lofty ambition, but it's really just a higher-end, Philippines-shot Namsploitation entry that's just made with more precision and care than, say, the Cirio H. Santiago joints of the same period, like BEHIND ENEMY LINES or EYE OF THE EAGLE (both 1987). Ermey is onboard to be R. Lee Ermey, but perhaps FIREBASE GLORIA's dramatic element would work better if Hauser's performance wasn't so terrible.  Hauser is a legend in B-movie histrionics, but that approach doesn't adapt well to serious drama.  His big emotional scene near the end, where he talks to Hafner about his dead son and how a drunken, post-funeral, three-week AWOL bender got him busted down to corporal should be DiNardo's big moment, but Hauser's bug-eyed over-emoting is just embarrassing and cartoonish, as is every line of dialogue spoken by Gary Hershberger, who turns up late in the film as Moran, an Army chopper pilot who lends the men some assistance. When Hafner gives Moran a list of necessary supplies, Moran quips "You want french fries with that?"  Hershberger seems to have been told to act as much like Bill Paxton's Chet-from-WEIRD SCIENCE as possible, and he's so grating that you almost expect him to smirk "Cleanup, aisle 3!" after mowing down some VC.  Speaking of ridiculous, don't miss the scene where an enraged Hafner yells at his men while carrying the severed heads of two slaughtered Marines.  It's possibly the most batshit moment of R. Lee Ermey's career.

If one approaches THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA as a B-grade actioner in the Namsploitation subgenre, it doesn't disappoint. It may occasionally try to go the extra klick quality-wise, but when it's all said and done, it's still the kind of movie that expects you to cheer and chant "U-S-A!" when DiNardo tortures an enemy soldier. That, coupled with Hafner/Ermey's almost John Wayne concepts of social conservatism (Hafner has bigger fish to fry than Moran getting a haircut and a shave), probably puts FIREBASE GLORIA more on the right-wing HANOI HILTON end of the political spectrum as far as these films are concerned. But it's all in the eye of the beholder: THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA wasn't seen by many people in theaters, but became a word-of-mouth hit with both military vets and exploitation fans on video, and it's a film many of them have held near and dear in the 25 years since.  In other words, it's the very definition of a cult classic.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

In Theaters: THE RAILWAY MAN (2014)

(Australia/UK - 2013; US release 2014)

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky.  Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson.  Cast: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeremy Irvine, Sam Reid, Tanroh Ishida. (R, 107 mins)

Based on Eric Lomax's acclaimed memoir of his time spent in a Japanese prison camp after the fall of Singapore during WWII and his later efforts to track down the officer who tortured him, THE RAILWAY MAN offers fine performances and harrowing depictions of war crimes, but sometimes suffers from hokey dialogue and too often emits a "Weinstein Company awards bait" vibe.  The script by frequent Michael Winterbottom collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson takes some occasionally questionable liberties with Lomax's story, but overall, it's a solid film that succeeds more often than it stumbles, and gets an immense boost from a quietly powerful performance by Colin Firth as Lomax.

Set in 1980, the film presents Lomax as a milquetoast railway enthusiast with an almost savant-like knowledge of trains and rail schedules.  He meets Patti (Nicole Kidman) during a train ride home and, in a bit of rushed storytelling, they hit it off and soon marry.  Only then does Patti become aware of Lomax's PTSD in the form of nightmares, mood swings, periods of aloof silence, and attacking a bill collector with a box cutter. He refuses to discuss his war experiences, prompting Patti to turn to Lomax's war buddy Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), who also believes in the stiff upper lip, keep-calm-and-carry-on mentality but can see how much Patti wants to help his friend.  Flashing back to 1942, young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) and Finlay (Sam Reid) were engineers taken prisoner by the Japanese and forced to help build the Burma Railway (part of this railroad was the centerpiece of the 1957 classic THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI).  All the men were tortured and treated with barbaric cruelty by the captors, none more than Lomax, who was caught with a secretly-built radio used for listening to British broadcasts.  His captors insist it was an instrument for secret communication, and though he endures extensive beatings and all manner of torture overseen by Kempeitai officer Nagase (Tanroh Ishida), Lomax never gives in.  Back in 1980, Lomax's psychological torment threatens his marriage and his sanity until Finlay alerts him to a Kempetai historical museum located at the very camp where they were prisoners, and the museum is run by none other than Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada).

THE RAILWAY MAN then sends Lomax off on a mission of vengeance against Nagase that becomes a journey of healing for both men.  The remorseful Nagase is just as haunted by his actions during the war, and runs the museum as a way of setting things right and dealing with the past.  It takes Nagase a few minutes to realize he's talking to Lomax. In reality, Lomax never considered revenge, their reunion took place in 1993, and Nagase knew he was coming.  From the outset, the meeting was an effort to turn the page on that chapter of their lives.  Of course, film is a different medium and THE RAILWAY MAN is not a documentary. Dramatic developments must be expressed in their own way, but initially portraying Lomax as a nebbishy vigilante seems a bit disingenuous, no matter how good Firth is in the role. The inaccurate 1980 setting seems to have been chosen perhaps because it's the latest year that the filmmakers could possibly ask the audience to buy Firth in the role of a WWII vet, considering the two men, both born in 1919, were 74 when they reunited. The film also does some pre-emptive damage control to maximize audience sympathy, completely eliminating the fact that Lomax was married for 37 years and had two adult children who wanted nothing more to do with him when he left his wife for the younger Patti in the early '80s, and he wasn't quite the stammering, socially-awkward Rain Man he is in the early scenes. Nevertheless, taken in its own context and on its own terms, THE RAILWAY MAN is compelling, with outstanding performances by Firth and Sanada, even if both look too young for their roles at 52, when Lomax and Nagase would've been 61 even if they met in 1980.  As for the rest of the cast, Kidman has little to do after the midway point, but Irvine (WAR HORSE) does a remarkable job of channeling a young Firth and bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Lomax.  As far as a "true story" is concerned, to say THE RAILWAY MAN plays fast and loose with the facts is an understatement, but the essential message of forgiveness and healing is key and in that respect, the film gets the job done. This story was also adapted into the 1995 British TV movie PRISONERS IN TIME, with John Hurt as Lomax.

Friday, May 23, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: MCCANICK (2014) and SQUATTERS (2014)

(US - 2014)

David Morse has long been one of those respected character actors whose presence always gives a boost to whatever he's in, whether he's making good projects better or bad projects bearable. He'll go down as one of the greats of his kind, but MCCANICK, which gives the actor a rare big-screen lead, offers the unthinkable:  a bad David Morse performance. MCCANICK didn't get much of a release--eight screens for a gross of $2000--but it did get some notoriety as the final work of GLEE star Cory Monteith before his overdose death in July 2013.  It's a departure for Monteith and his performance is enough to show that he had ambitions beyond GLEE, but aside from him, the cliched MCCANICK is an almost complete disaster, and it pains me to say that star/producer Morse is a big reason why.  Morse stars as Philadelphia narcotics detective Eugene "Mack" McCanick, the kind of cop who has a punching bag hanging in his kitchen.  It's his 59th birthday and he just found out that Simon Weeks (Monteith) has been paroled.  Seven years earlier, McCanick busted a 17-year-old Weeks, then a small-time hustler and male prostitute, for the murder of a closeted Congressman who regularly cruised for young men.  McCanick is enraged about the early release, but is warned by boss Quinn (Ciarin Hinds) to stay away from Weeks.  Of course, McCanick ignores him and misleads his partner Floyd (Mike Vogel) into pursuing Weeks, which only results in McCanick accidentally shooting Floyd.  Ordered to go home, McCanick instead gets drunk and goes on a city-wide rampage trying to find Weeks.

Director Josh C. Waller and writer Daniel Noah are intentionally vague about the truth behind McCanick's motivations: does he have a score to settle with Weeks?  Does it have something to do with McCanick's estranged cop son?  Does he feel a paternal instinct to help Weeks?  Did he frame Weeks?  Does Weeks, as Quinn suggests, have some information on dirty cops that might bring them all down? Once revealed, the ultimate answer is ludicrous at best and offensive at worst once you consider the absurd lengths McCanick goes to in order to "just talk" to Weeks. MCCANICK starts out as a tough, gritty cop thriller, and for a while, it works in spite of the cliches.  But then the silliness kicks in and it starts to drag badly--why would Floyd call McCanick in a dingy apartment building where he knows McCanick is trying to stealthily corner a suspect?  And watch the filmmakers awkwardly cram in a bunch of exposition in the middle of a pursuit, as if McCanick would really choose that time to go into why his marriage fell apart and why his son hates him. Most laughable of all is McCanick demolishing someone's apartment then pausing to pensively regard his distorted reflection in a mangled toaster.  Oh, the symbolism!  As McCanick's actions become increasingly illogical and cement-headed, Morse's performance goes off the rails.  His strengths as an actor have always been in his quiet, controlled intensity, not in sub-Nicolas Cage meltdowns. By the end, it starts to look a lot like a David Morse vanity project that was understandably hijacked after the fact by Monteith's death.  How else do you explain the closing credits starting not with an "In loving memory of Cory Monteith" (which is saved for the very end), but instead with with a lone "David Morse as Eugene 'Mack' McCanick," then a fade, then the rest of the cast scrolling by in the typical fashion. Morse is a great actor, but MCCANICK shows that even the best in the business can have a really off day. (R, 96 mins)

(US - 2014)

Or, "OMG I'M, LIKE, SO HOMELESS! :(" Debuting on DVD two years after it was completed, the useless SQUATTERS has vague cover art and a trailer that suggests it's a home invasion suspense thriller of sorts, but it's really a sappy, simplistic drama that comes off like a homeless version of TRUE ROMANCE with all the insight of a spoiled 13-year-old who hasn't heard the word "no" nearly enough. Riddled with one plot convenience and hackneyed contrivance after another, SQUATTERS tells the not-very-compelling story of Kelly (Gabriella Wilde, from the already forgotten ENDLESS LOVE remake) and Jonas (Thomas Dekker), two homeless Pacific Palisades teenagers who spend their days dumpster diving, shoplifting, and scoring drugs.  While rooting around inside a parked car in a lot, Jonas overhears wealthy Evelyn Silverman (Lolita Davidovich), who's standing a few cars down, telling her Mexican cleaning lady "We'll be going on vacation to Greece, and remember, the alarm code is the address backwards," as Evelyn and the cleaning lady get in separate cars. Now, let's pause here for a moment.  Evelyn appears to be picking up her dry-cleaning.  Why is the cleaning lady meeting her there in her own car?  If Evelyn is picking up the dry-cleaning herself, why does the cleaning lady even have to be there?  Couldn't Evelyn have given her that information over the phone? Did they really have to drive in two cars to a parking lot just to talk about an alarm code so Jonas could happen to overhear it?  Anyway, Jonas steals a bike, follows Evelyn and gets a look at the house, and then with Evelyn and her wealthy businessman husband David (a slumming Richard Dreyfuss, whose presence is either a nod to DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS or a sad realization that DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS was a long time ago) away, Jonas and a reluctant Kelly crash there, where Jonas spends two, perhaps three seconds rifling through a few random scattered papers on David's desk and, based on that thorough research, manages to crack David's safe combo after three attempts, because yeah, that's how it works.  Jonas tries to broker a deal with obnoxious, fey British crime lord Ronald (Andrew Howard as Jason Statham as Vinnie Jones) to fence all of the Silvermans' belongings, including cars, jewels, and a gun, while the more sensitive Kelly spends time watching the Silverman's home movies and getting the sense of family she never had.  Of course, the Silvermans return from Greece early and find they've been burglarized, and after a chance meet-cute with the Silvermans' son Michael (Luke Grimes) at a screening of Chaplin's THE KID, Kelly ends up back at the house as Michael's love interest as Jonas tries to contend with the "Fookin' 'ell, mate!" histrionics of Ronald, a character who seems to have gotten lost on his way back to a bad late 1990s Guy Ritchie knockoff.

Written by Justin Shilton (grandson of F TROOP's Larry Storch and a co-writer on Chris Messina's upcoming directorial debut ALEX OF VENICE) and directed by Martin Weisz (the repulsive GRIMM LOVE and the 2007 THE HILLS HAVE EYES II), SQUATTERS is about as dumb as it gets. It's hard to tell exactly what audience the filmmakers are pursuing, considering it has all the depth of a bad YA novel but has enough violence and F-bombs to warrant an R rating.  There's an interesting film to be made about situations where homeowners find themselves forced to contend with squatters, and it certainly would've been more interesting than the cookie-cutter blandness that develops in this one. Shilton's writing is just lazy and amateurish, whether he's piling on the improbable coincidences, magically pulling contrivances out of his ass or clumsily trying to work in Chaplin references to establish critical cred.  He's matched by Weisz's bumbling direction, which includes perhaps the worst sex scene of 2014, composed entirely in pretentious, zooming still-life freeze frames, much like the climactic shootout at Ronald's, a CGI splatter-filled fiasco that inexplicably looks like the Slo-Mo tripping scenes in DREDD.  And it all ends not with "The End" but with the cutesy "And THIS is where our STORY ends," followed by on-set photos during the closing credits showing how much fun everyone had.  Everyone, that is, except the audience.  Come on, Mr. Dreyfuss...you've gotta have better things to do than this.  (R, 106 mins)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: THE SQUEEZE (1978)

(Italy/West Germany - 1978; US release 1981)

Directed by Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti). Written by Simon O'Neill (Giovanni Simonelli), Marc Princi, and Paul Costello. Cast: Lee Van Cleef, Karen Black, Edward Albert, Lionel Stander, Robert Alda, Angelo Infanti, Peter Carsten, Antonella Murgia, Dan Van Husen, Roy Brocksmith, Ron Van Clief, Steve Burche. (R, 99 mins)

Italian cult director Antonio Margheriti (1930-2002) was the consummate journeyman over the course of his career, dabbling in everything from muscleman epics, gothic horror, and 007 ripoffs in the '60s, spaghetti westerns and gialli in the '70s, and Namsploitation, commando, and INDIANA JONES-derived action films in the '80s.  He's perhaps best known today for his "Gamma 1" quadrilogy of goofy and practically interchangeable far-out space operas THE WILD, WILD PLANET (1965), WAR OF THE PLANETS (1966), WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS (1966) and SNOW DEVILS (1967) as well as the immortal YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983) and his many actioners of the '80s, like THE LAST HUNTER (1980), HUNTERS OF THE GOLDEN COBRA (1982), CODENAME: WILDGEESE (1984), and INDIO (1989). Margheriti, aka "Anthony M. Dawson," dabbled in a little bit of everything and could stage an explosion with the panache of any Hollywood blockbuster.

With his 1975 spaghetti western/kung-fu hybrid THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER, Margheriti worked with legendary badass Lee Van Cleef for the first time and the pair became good friends who would team up for five more projects before Van Cleef's death in 1989.  After STRANGER, Margheriti cast Van Cleef as the bad guy squaring off against Jim Brown in the 20th Century Fox blaxploitation western TAKE A HARD RIDE, which would be Margheriti's only Hollywood studio gig. Van Cleef also turned up in Margheriti's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK knockoff JUNGLE RAIDERS (1985) and two of his WILD GEESE ripoffs with CODENAME: WILDGEESE (released in the US by New World in 1986), and the unreleased-in-the-US THE COMMANDER (1988). But the pinnacle of the Margheriti/Van Cleef alliance is 1978's THE SQUEEZE, a wonderfully grungy little heist flick that began production in December 1977, with extensive location work in the NYC metropolitan area in January and February 1978. According to Edoardo Margheriti, the director's son and regular production assistant, some of THE SQUEEZE's NYC shoot coincided with a major late January snowstorm that, given the time frame, would've been the tapered-off remnants of the Blizzard of '78 that hit Ohio during the last week of January.  By the time it hit the east coast, it wasn't quite the monster that incapacitated Ohio, but it managed to dump heavily on the city, which also got hit with its own separate blizzard during the first week of February and you can see some of both storms in THE SQUEEZE. The brutal cold, the unplowed streets, the wet slush, the visible breath on the actors, and cars getting stuck in the snow all add to the harshly gritty ambience that makes it an essential NYC movie of the era, playing more like a street-tough American crime thriller rather than the generously budgeted, Carlo Ponti-backed Italian/German co-production that it was.  Margheriti made a lot of films over his long career, but none boasted the bitterly cold and uniquely scuzzy verite atmosphere that he and cinematographer Sergio D'Offizi captured with THE SQUEEZE.  They secured an American production office and permits to shoot in certain areas, but there's an unmistakable handheld immediacy to scenes set in fleabag hotels, bars, tenements, a police precinct, filthy cabs, and a ride on the Roosevelt Island tram, and enough gawking onlookers throughout to suggest that Margheriti caught a lot of footage on the fly in the guerrilla-style of many Italian filmmakers shooting in the city without permits in the 1970s and 1980s.  The only mistake Margheriti makes in his depiction of the city's sublime grime of the time is not finding a reason to send any of the characters to Times Square.

THE SQUEEZE was written by veteran Italian screenwriter and frequent Margheriti collaborator Giovanni Simonelli (SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE), Marc Princi (GREAT WHITE), and voice/dubbing actor Paul Costello, who was probably in charge of the English translation.  The script is essentially another in the One Last Job heist subgenre, with legendary safecracker Chris Gretchko (Van Cleef) in self-imposed exile on a Mexican ranch under the name "Ray Sloan."  He's tracked down by Jeff Olafson (Edward Albert), the son of an old criminal associate who told his son to find Chris if he ever got into a jam.  Jeff is involved with some German mobsters led by Van Stratten (Peter Carsten), and he needs Chris to open a safe filled with diamonds or Van Stratten's goons will whack him.  Chris is reluctant ("The last door I opened cost me eight years!"), but out of loyalty to Jeff's late father, agrees to help the kid out and heads back to NYC and secures the assistance of his old fence, grumpy pawn shop owner Sam (Lionel Stander).  When Van Stratten tries to cut Jeff out of the deal, Jeff tells Chris that Van Stratten's going to kill him as soon as he opens the safe, prompting Chris to hatch a scheme to keep the diamonds for themselves and split the take.  To do so requires Jeff being out of the picture so nobody knows about his involvement, so he gets himself arrested on a minor charge so he can spend a month in jail while Chris plans to wait it out at a safe house rented by Jeff. Chris gets the stones, but takes a bullet in the leg in the process, and is tended to at the safe house by ditzy, new age neighbor Clarisse (Karen Black), while Van Stratten's guys and the muscle for the safe owner (Roy Brocksmith) try to track down Jeff, figuring there's some kind of con game going on.  All the while, irate police captain Donati (Robert Alda) is perpetually one step behind but closing in.

As the double and triple crosses ensue, Chris takes too long to realize that he's being played, and the script could do a better job of exploring that storyline. Once he knows Chris has the diamonds, Jeff is already figuring out a way to get rid of him. Chris is a smart enough guy that he should see this, but time and again, he lets his loyalty to Jeff's father blind him to what should be right in front of his face. These are interesting ideas that are never fully fleshed out, as Margheriti gets sidetracked with an extended action sequence and a series of explosions that were impressive enough for Ponti to have him recycle the footage for his 1979 PIRANHA ripoff KILLER FISH.  THE SQUEEZE is one of the rare Margheriti films where dialogue scenes really come alive, and it's likely due in part to the abundance of American actors working together instead of European actors being post-synched later on. For instance, here's a very loose and improvisational feel to some of Van Cleef's and Stander's scenes together, with Stander even making fun of Van Cleef's earring at one point.

There's that same familiar feel in the conversations between Chris and Jeff.  Albert was a promising actor in the early '70s, winning a Golden Globe for his breakout performance as a young blind man who falls in love with Goldie Hawn in BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE (1972), but while he remained busy until his death in 2006 at just 55, stardom eluded the son of GREEN ACRES star Eddie Albert. He turns in one of his best performances in THE SQUEEZE, but not long after, he was mainly doing TV guest spots and B-movies like GALAXY OF TERROR (1981) and THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS (1982).  His most high-profile gig after that was a recurring role as Linda Hamilton's love interest on the CBS series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.  But Albert was still getting major Hollywood work when he made THE SQUEEZE, which features an unusually strong cast for a Margheriti film--probably because Ponti could afford them--the most notable being the participation of Black. Black was nominated for an Oscar for 1970's FIVE EASY PIECES and was only a couple of years removed from films like THE GREAT GATSBY (1974), NASHVILLE, THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, the legendary TV-movie TRILOGY OF TERROR (all 1975), BURNT OFFERINGS, and Alfred Hitchcock's swan song FAMILY PLOT (both 1976). Black's fall from the A-list was alarmingly rapid--she worked for Margheriti again on KILLER FISH--though she remained a beloved B-movie figure until her death in 2013, her late-career cult status due in large part to shock rockers The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, and for her role as Mother Firefly in Rob Zombie's HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003), which she apparently disliked so much that she refused to do the 2005 sequel THE DEVIL'S REJECTS and was replaced by Leslie Easterbrook.

Many American actors did these sort of Eurotrash movies for quick paychecks and free vacations, but the ensemble of THE SQUEEZE brings their A-game. At the heart is a top-notch Van Cleef, who does everything he can to add deeper dimensions to the character. Chris is a guy who made his money and enjoyed the life, but he knew when to get out, especially now that the game is run by greedy bastards like Van Stratten and amoral shitbags like Jeff.  It's only through his loyalty to Jeff's father that he inadvertantly allows himself to be manipulated by the young man. It almost takes too long for Chris to realize that Jeff isn't like his father (or Chris or Sam, for that matter), and Van Cleef's weary yet stone-cold Angel Eyes demeanor in the climax is some terrific acting. When he's forced to shoot Jeff and tells Sam with a resigned sadness "I had to kill the kid," both old men lament not just the loss of someone they trusted and that Chris came to regard like his own son, but the loss of another era when a man's word and his honor meant something.  Chris doesn't even care about the diamonds at that point.  He's already lost too much for the stones to even matter. As Sam's car drives down the unplowed, snowy, slushy streets with the NYC skyline in the background, there's an overwhelming sense of melancholy artistry that Margheriti rarely attempted. Throughout its duration, THE SQUEEZE, while containing some weak writing, some typically dubious Margheriti miniatures in the explosion sequence and boasting a cheesy yet oddly effective and infectiously catchy score by Paolo Vasile (Italian pop group I Nuovi Angeli performs the opening credits tune "Now"), comes dangerously close to being a genuine auteur statement by the guy who would go on to make YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE.  It's almost a legitimately great movie.

On-set wardrobe malfunction or Lee Van Cleef
making unreasonable demands of Antonio
Margheriti? (photo from antoniomargheriti.com)
Even with its NYC shooting and the cast of American headliners, THE SQUEEZE wasn't released in the US until 1981, when it was acquired by the short-lived exploitation outfit Maverick Pictures International, whose distribution slate consisted of a whopping five films over 1980-81 before they threw in the towel.  THE SQUEEZE was also released as THE RIP-OFF, and that was the title used when it aired on CBS in 1986 and on cable and in late-night syndication after that.  The film fell into the public domain and is available on any number of budget DVD labels under those titles as well as the less common DIAMOND THIEVES. You could probably walk into any Wal-Mart and find it on one of those VHS-transfer multi-film DVD sets in the $5 bin. It's a film long overdue for a proper widescreen presentation and critical re-evaluation.  THE SQUEEZE is a buried treasure of sorts--a solid thriller, a cinematic snapshot of a harsh 1978 winter in NYC, and an essential film for Lee Van Cleef fans--and it may be Margheriti's masterpiece.

Friday, May 16, 2014

In Theaters: GODZILLA (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Gareth Edwards.  Written by Max Borenstein.  Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Richard T. Jones, Victor Rasuk, Al Sapienza, Taylor Nichols, Carson Bolde, CJ Adams. (PG-13, 123 mins)

The second attempt at an American GODZILLA serves to commemorate the iconic monster's 60th anniversary as well as erase any lingering trauma left by Roland Emmerich's universally-despised 1998 GODZILLA. Emmerich's "Zilla" was so reviled by Godzilla purists that 2004's GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (thus far the final film in the official Toho franchise) brought Zilla onboard and, in one of the all-time great big-screen disses, had Godzilla kill it in a matter of seconds. Director Gareth Edwards previously helmed the overrated 2010 monster movie MONSTERS, which was unique in its minimalist approach but lacking overall even though it already has a devoted cult following.  Edwards' affinity for Godzilla is obvious and he does a nice job of honoring its legacy as well as reshaping it for today's audiences.  Edwards knows he has to eventually give the audience what it wants, but he utilizes the same kind of anticipatory buildup that young Steven Spielberg used on JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, letting the tension mount and making Godzilla's entrance--about an hour into the film--a truly impressive sight to be behold. This is the biggest and most imposing Godzilla has ever been onscreen, but in finding some common ground between his low-budget MONSTERS roots and this mega-budget GODZILLA, Edwards often seems to be working at cross purposes.  It wasn't uncommon in the Toho productions of old for Godzilla's appearance to be delayed, and Edwards paces his film as such that even though Godzilla doesn't make his entrance until halfway through, it still works because it's just the way this story flows to that point.  Edwards also takes a page out of Spielberg's JAWS playbook by not showing too much.  There are very few full-on shots of Godzilla and even that isn't a problem.  The biggest mistake Edwards makes is that Godzilla simply isn't in the film enough, and it's a film that frequently seems to relegate its namesake to a minor supporting character and could just as easily have been titled ATTACK OF THE MUTOS.

The "MUTO"'s are "Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms."  Opening with a prologue set in 1999, Japanese scientist Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his colleague Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins) are investigating a creature skeleton found in the Philippines with evidenced of hatched eggs.  At the same time, a Japanese power plant explodes, and American supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) has been tracking strange seismic shifts. The explosion, which kills several scientists including Brody's wife (Juliette Binoche), is blamed on an earthquake and the entire area is quarantined due to intense radiation. 15 years later, Brody is a raving conspiracy theorist convinced that there's no radiation in the area and that the Japanese and American military are covering something up regarding the truth behind the explosion. Of course, he's right. His Navy explosive experts son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has to go to Japan to get his father out of jail and the two are eventually arrested for trespassing in the quarantined area.  They're met by Serizawa and Graham, who are on the scene and recognize the same seismic patterns Brody was talking about 15 years earlier.  It's then that the first MUTO, a winged arachnid-esque creature, appears.  Serizawa deduces that it feeds on radiation and was trying to send a signal to a second MUTO that they trace to a nuclear waste site in the desert outside of Las Vegas.  But the signal was also heard by another creature, an ancient god resting near the core of the earth.  Known as "Godzilla," it has the power to restore balance to the natural order of things, and Serizawa is convinced that it will rise to fight the MUTOs, one of which is female and looking for a place to lay hundreds of eggs.  From Japan to Hawaii to Vegas and finally to San Francisco, the monsters will wreak havoc and do battle, and oh yeah, Ford has to figure out how to get back to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde) in San Francisco.

True to the Godzilla that most fans love, Edwards opts to make him a good guy here, despite his villainous, horrific kaiju origins in Ishiro Honda's 1954 classic.  As those films went on and were aimed at younger and younger audiences, Godzilla eventually became a good guy who would even do victory dances after winning a kaiju battle.  Godzilla is the hero here, but that doesn't mean he's any less furious.  His final battle with the MUTOs culiminates in perhaps Godzilla's angriest moment in the last 60 years.  It's a crowd-pleasing capper to the expected fight, but Edwards fumbles the ball a few times.  I heard grumbling from the audience on a few occasions where a Godzilla/MUTO throwdown was about to happen and Edwards cuts back to whatever Ford is doing.  It's one thing to subvert expectations and formula, but that's dangerously close to just being a contrarian dick.  It's commendable that Edwards has no interest in turning this into a generic Michael Bay-style, quick-cut, shaky-cam, video-game, CGI blur--and the CGI on display throughout GODZILLA is top-notch and proof that it can look good when the filmmakers want it to--but why cut away from a kaiju battle?  Edwards walks a fine line and mostly ends up on the right side with the film's effective pacing, less-is-more reveals, and some stunning visual effects, but when he ends up on the wrong side, it's glaring and deflating. The actors are fine, but no one cares about Ford, especially when Watanabe's Serizawa (a nice nod to the 1954 film for those in the know) is the far more interesting character (it's too bad Watanabe and Hawkins vanish for most of the last third of the film).  Taylor-Johnson has little to do other than run from place to place and doesn't really have much to build on, though I suppose it's nice that Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein (with uncredited contributions by Frank Darabont) didn't turn him or Navy Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) into the kind of slogan-spouting, flag-waving cartoons that most films of this sort would.

It's got some major flaws (the climactic battle is sometimes too dark and murky-looking for its own good), but overall, GODZILLA is a fun time, especially in the almost quaintly old-school way that it's made.  The suspense is allowed to build, the action sequences are coherent, the CGI is done with care, and the monsters are genuinely frightening.  It's as much a tribute to Spielberg as it is to Godzilla.  This is once again a situation--OCULUS was another recent one--where it's a surprise that a film is made in an almost defiantly old-fashioned way and manages to stick out from the crowd simply for looking more like a movie instead of a video game.  I like Edwards' Spielbergian mindset.  It shows he's studied the classics, he knows what works, and he knows what doesn't need fixed.  We've seen it enough times that we're maybe a little numb to its magic, but remember the first time you saw JAWS or JURASSIC PARK?  Remember that feeling? Edwards goes for that here and sometimes pulls it off.  Sometimes he doesn't and makes some questionable decisions that have the best intentions but seem to stem from him wanting to go too far in the opposite direction.  No one needs a feature-length WWE battle, but at the same time, cutting away from kaiju throwdowns is a risky move that provoked audible frustration in the crowd.  Edwards gets enough right that this is a good GODZILLA, but his missteps prevent it from being a great one.  Yes, it's a classic compared to Emmerich's botch job, and while every dollar is up there on the screen and it looks fantastic, I'm still partial to the guys running around in monster suits while demolishing scale models of Tokyo.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: I, FRANKENSTEIN (2014); DEADLY CODE (2014); and MOBIUS (2014)

(US/Australia - 2014)

It's no surprise that I, FRANKENSTEIN looks like an UNDERWORLD sequel, as it's based on an unpublished graphic novel by UNDERWORLD co-writer and actor Kevin Grevioux and features Bill Nighy (UNDERWORLD's nefarious vampire leader Viktor) as the villain.  It seems to take place in the same Vampires-and-Lycans world, but it owes just as much to THE DARK KNIGHT, right down to that film's Harvey Dent/Two-Face, Aaron Eckhart, in the title role. Relying heavily on mimicking Christian Bale's grunting Batman voice, Eckhart is Frankenstein's monster, here dubbed "Adam," and any faithfulness to Mary Shelley is buried by the four-minute mark, along with Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Aden Young), laid to rest by Adam just as he's confronted by a horde of winged demons. He's rescued by warriors in the service of Lenore (Miranda Otto), Queen of the Gargoyles, who's been locked in an eternal struggle with the army of demon prince Naberius.  Cut to 200 years later, as Adam is now a globetrotting demonslayer still pursued by Naberius' minions.  Naberius is passing himself off as wealthy Charles Wessex (Nighy), CEO of the Wessex Institute, where his science research is a cover for his real plot:  to learn the secrets inside Dr. Frankenstein's diary in order to transfer the damned souls of descended demons into thousands of reanimated corpses stored in a secret bunker at the lab's headquarters.

Considering that Lionsgate kept this on the shelf for a year after its original planned release, only to see it gross $19 million domestically against a $65 million budget, it's not likely that I, FRANKENSTEIN will become an UNDERWORLD-like franchise (or the initially-rumored crossover film), or that there will be any future interest in actually publishing Grevioux's graphic novel.  It's got a goofy enough plot that it should be campy fun, but while the dark and dour demeanor worked for THE DARK KNIGHT, it doesn't bode as well here.  No film with a story this silly should be as somber and self-serious as this, though there are occasional hints at humor that manage to shine through, like Adam doing a "bad cop" interrogation of a demon and dunking his head in holy water, or the requisite speed-ramping where Adam punches a winged demon in the face. But overall, I, FRANKENSTEIN is just an eye-glazing blur of crummy CGI and graphic novel cliches.  Eckhart rarely seems comfortable with the character or his idiotic dialogue, such as Adam grunting "I think your boss is a demon prince!" to Wessex's leading researcher, hot electrophysiologist Terra (Yvonne Strahovski), and Nighy is past the point where he can play this character--it's basically Viktor with a different name--in his sleep. Writer/director Stuart Beattie previously helmed the acclaimed Australian film TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN (2010) and wrote Michael Mann's COLLATERAL (2004), but is best known as a screenwriting mercenary on fare like PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003), 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007), and G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA (2009).  Given that resume, it's easy to see COLLATERAL as an anomaly and that Beattie's seemingly opted to instead channel his inner Len Wiseman or Stephen Sommers.  Cult movie nerds will enjoy seeing Bruce Spence--THE ROAD WARRIOR's Gyro Captain--in a small role as one of Wessex's lab flunkies, but I, FRANKENSTEIN isn't a movie.  It's a bland, boring, assembly-line product. (PG-13, 92 mins)

(Italy/UK - 2013; US release 2014)

Italian filmmaker Gabriele Salvatores has worked steadily for the last 30 years but is best known for directing 1991's MEDITERRANEO, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and the overrated 2003 thriller I'M NOT SCARED.  Elsewhere, most of his output is forgotten or unseen outside of Italy--his 1997 virtual reality sci-fi snoozer NIRVANA was picked up by Harvey Weinstein, who shelved it until dumping it on DVD in 2005--and that seems the likely fate for DEADLY CODE, which has gone straight-to-DVD in the US with perhaps the least-appealing cover art of the year.  Shot in 2011 under the title SIBERIAN EDUCATION, the tedious and cliche-filled DEADLY CODE wants to be the Russian Mafia version of THE GODFATHER, but comes off as a third-rate EASTERN PROMISES knockoff.  The confusing narrative jumps around from 1985 to 1998, telling the story of two men, Kolima (Arnas Fedaravicius) and Gagarin (Vilius Tumalavicius), who--wait for it--were childhood best friends who became bitter adversaries as adults.  As if that wasn't a tired enough story foundation, it's a woman who comes between them, in this case the mentally-challenged Xenja (Eleanor Tomlinson), a sweet but simple-minded young lady referred to by the locals as everything from "a special gift from God" to "retarded."  Both men enter a life of crime and spend time in prison--Gagarin as a youth and Kolima as an adult--and once Kolima is released, he swears vengeance on Gagarin, who raped Xenja while he was gone and left her a catatonic shell of the vibrant, innocent woman she was, the quick culmination of a sudden conflict between the two men that, until Kolima finds out about the rape, seems to come out of nowhere.

DEADLY CODE tries and fails to address the culture of the Russian mob and its ties to the fall of the Soviet Union and its aftermath, represented in the hammiest possible fashion by John Malkovich as ruthless Siberian crime boss Grandfather Kuzia, who happens to actually be Kolima's grandfather.  Malkovich gets to dust off his Teddy KGB-from-ROUNDERS accent while dispensing sage advice and hackneyed metaphors.  It's hard to believe it took six screenwriters--including THE BEST OF YOUTH scribes Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli--to put together a story this cookie-cutter rote and by-the-numbers.  The film was shot in English, so perhaps something got lost in the translation, especially with stilted dialogue like an enraged Gagarin yelling "I destroy everything I touch!" and "I don't follow your rules!  I don't believe in anything, so I can do what I want!"  Lithuanian actors Fedaravicius and Tumalavicius both debut here and aren't bad, though they're sabotaged by poor writing and a bland story. Tomlinson (JACK THE GIANT SLAYER) is stuck with an almost unplayable character about which we learn very little, so really the only entertainment value here is Malkovich, who spends a lot of time tending to his doves, showing his grandson how to properly shiv someone, and taking a steam with other underworld figures, like Ink (Peter Stormare), who's in charge of all the body art.  DEADLY CODE had an opportunity to explore a unique subject, but instead opts to fall back on trite dialogue, stale genre conventions and a scenery-slurping guest turn by its American export value.  (R, 103 mins)

(France/Belgium/Luxembourg - 2013; US release 2014)

Quite possibly the most boring financial thriller this side of 1981's ROLLOVER, the deadening MOBIUS offers little aside from the novelty of THE ARTIST Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin in a straight-faced and completely serious role.  Dujardin is Russian FSB agent Gregory Lubov, codename "Moses," caught in a complex web of lies and deception involving American financial analyst Alice Redmond (Cecile de France), who's been exiled from Wall Street after helping bring down Lehman Brothers.  She's now working as a trader at the headquarters of a Monaco firm owned by billionaire Russian banking magnate Ivan Rostovski (Tim Roth), whose firm is a front for a global money laundering scheme.  Alice is actually working for the CIA as a mole in Rostovski's employ in order to obtain information that will enable her to return to the US. Rostovski keeps trying to get Alice into bed, but she's more interested in Moses, who's posing as a writer and, judging from Alice's facial twitching, popped neck veins, and quivering body spasms in their sex scenes, may very well be the inventor of the female orgasm.  These scenes aren't particularly explicit and de France's nudity is brief, but writer/director Eric Rochant's static, lingering close-ups of her face as Alice reaches multiple orgasms just feels like an odd decision that completely fails to come off as erotic, especially considering that, taken out of context, it looks like she could just as easily be constipated. The Monaco scenery looks beautiful, but Rochant's script is weak, especially when a folksy CIA agent (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS' Brad Leland) has to explain the concept of the Mobius Strip to Moses in the most heavy-handed fashion imaginable. Dujardin is good and is obviously capable of anchoring a suspense thriller, but it would've worked out better if MOBIUS was even remotely suspenseful or thrilling. De France isn't exactly a convincing American, and the always-reliable Roth is horribly miscast, playing the ruthless, big-money power broker with a glum, slouched disinterest that borders on narcolepsy. Also with Emilie Dequenne as Moses' FSB associate and John Lynch, John Scurti (RESCUE ME, HOUSE OF CARDS), and Wendell Pierce (THE WIRE, TREME) as CIA honchos overseeing Alice's infiltration of Rostovski's empire, MOBIUS is a sleep-inducing, hopelessly convoluted dud of a thriller where the most versatile acting is done by Cecile de France's facial muscles. (R, 108 mins)