Monday, February 29, 2016

Retro Review: CODE OF SILENCE (1985)

(US - 1985)

After achieving crossover success with Cannon's surprise smash MISSING IN ACTION (1984), martial-arts star Chuck Norris came as close as he ever got to the A-list with 1985's tough, gritty Chicago cop movie CODE OF SILENCE. Originally a DIRTY HARRY script pitched to Clint Eastwood in 1979, CODE was reworked for Norris and was also the first success of director Andrew Davis, who would helm Steven Seagal's hits ABOVE THE LAW (1988) and UNDER SIEGE (1992) before hitting the big time with THE FUGITIVE (1993). Norris is Eddie Cusack, a dedicated Chicago cop who plays by his own rules, much to the irritation of his perpetually grumpy captain (Bert Remsen). An intricately-coordinated drug bust goes south after low-level mobster Tony Luna (Mike Genovese) massacres everyone at the buy, including a cop and some members from the Camacho crime family, which doesn't rest well with the ruthless Luis Camacho (Henry Silva). This starts a gang war that results in Luna's daughter (Molly Hagan) being abducted by Camacho's goons, but Cusack's got other issues, like becoming a department pariah after he refuses to go along with the incompetence of boozing, burned-out detective Cragie (Ralph Foody), who impulsively shot an innocent kid and planted a gun on him to cover his ass. When it's revealed that Cusack broke the unspoken "code of silence" when he recommended the aging Cragie be busted down to desk duty, he's forced to take on the Luna and Camacho families alone when none of the other cops will respond to his calls for backup.

Davis has always excelled as a Chicago director, and his love of the city comes through in CODE OF SILENCE. Scenes are set in iconic Windy City locations and there's supporting roles for ubiquitous Chicago-based character actors like Ron Dean and a then-unknown Dennis Farina, who was still a full-time cop moonlighting as an actor when he made this. Norris was never more convincing as an actor than he was here, but even though CODE OF SILENCE was a hit for Orion Pictures, the star went straight back to Cannon for the same year's entertaining but significantly less plausible INVASION U.S.A. and stayed with Golan & Globus for the rest of his big-screen heyday. CODE OF SILENCE is filled with tough action and terrific old-school action sequences, with Norris doing his own stunts in a great foot chase atop a train, where he moves with careful hesitation, not like an indestructible badass but like someone would if they were really in that situation. CODE's only stumble comes when Cusack breaks out the Prowler, the department's remote-controlled, tank-like robotic cop prototype to use in his ambush of Camacho's shipyard HQ, but other than that concession to being a product of 1985 (hey, at least the Prowler doesn't talk), CODE OF SILENCE is Norris' best film and one of the very best cop movies of the 1980s. Davis, who would call upon the legendary Silva's expertise as a bad guy for ABOVE THE LAW three years later, failed to capitalize on the huge success he had with THE FUGITIVE, moving on to two flops--1995's STEAL BIG STEAL LITTLE and 1996's CHAIN REACTION and only getting one more hit thus far with 2003's HOLES, based on the popular YA novel. Now 69, he hasn't directed a film since the 2006 Kevin Costner/Ashton Kutcher nautical actioner THE GUARDIAN. (R, 101 mins)

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Retro Review: THE CHALLENGE (1982)

(US - 1982)

Not a ninja movie but usually lumped in with them (the recut TV version was retitled SWORD OF THE NINJA) if it's mentioned at all, THE CHALLENGE was probably conceived more as a modern-day SHOGUN, even securing the services of the great Toshiro Mifune. It's a terrific, underrated action thriller from John Frankenheimer, who had 1960s classics like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, THE TRAIN, and SECONDS to his credit and would later enjoy a major resurgence (ANDERSONVILLE, RONIN) in the years before his death in 2002, but was not at a career pinnacle in 1982. His alcoholism out of control and openly drinking on set, which he said he never did previously, Frankenheimer personally bottomed out while shooting THE CHALLENGE in Japan and immediately went into rehab when he returned to the US, later admitting he had no recollection of making this film. Co-written by John Sayles, THE CHALLENGE stars Scott Glenn (a year before THE RIGHT STUFF) as a loser boxer and all-around Ugly American who gets drawn into a decades-long feud between two brothers--honorable samurai Mifune and treacherous businessman Atsuo Nakamura--when he's hired by Mifune's son to go to Japan to help transport a priceless family sword to its rightful owner. Once the sword is returned to Mifune, Glenn is ordered by Nakamura to steal it from him, but instead comes to respect the wise old man and joins him to learn the way of the samurai (also, he nails Mifune's daughter Donna Kei Benz).

There's lots of culture-clashing and some interesting character development in the initial presentation of Glenn as an obnoxious, disrespectful fuck-up, but he eventually gets his act together and learns the meaning of honor. This all leads to an incredible finale in Nakamura's massive office building with some really intense fight (gun and sword) sequences as Glenn and Mifune team up to take on Nakamura's warriors, all propelled by an outstanding Jerry Goldsmith score, culminating in Glenn delivering one of the all-time great kills. In his first headlining role following his breakout as John Travolta's nemesis in URBAN COWBOY, Glenn is quite good in a very David Carradine-like role, though it's unlikely Carradine would've followed the same zero-to-hero character arc that Glenn does here. Mifune is basically Mifune--in a word, awesome.  A smart and compelling martial arts film that's a little glossier and slightly more highbrow than its contemporaries, THE CHALLENGE kinda gotten lost in the shuffle over the last couple of decades after being in constant rotation on cable in the '80s, but its recent Blu-ray release courtesy of Kino Lorber makes this the perfect time to rediscover it.  Also with Calvin Jung, Sab Shimono, and Clyde Kusatsu, plus an early martial arts coordinator credit for one "Steve Seagal." (R, 110 mins)

Saturday, February 27, 2016


(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Yuen Wo-Ping. Written by John Fusco. Cast: Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh, Harry Shum Jr, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Jason Scott Lee, Eugenia Yuan, Roger Yuan, Juju Chan, Chris Pang, Woon Young Park, Darryl Quan, Veronica Ngo, Gary Young, Shuya Chang. (Unrated, 101 mins)

On the heels of last year's success of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, JURASSIC WORLD, and STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, and despite the disappointment of TERMINATOR: GENISYS, everything old is new again. 2016 is now the year of the belated and unnecessary sequel that you're getting whether you want it or not: we've already had ZOOLANDER 2 (following the 2001 original) met with shrugging ambivalence, with MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2 (first film released in 2002), AMITYVILLE: THE AWAKENING (11 years since the remake), ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (MUPPETS MOST WANTED director James Bobin's followup to Tim Burton's little-loved 2010 ALICE IN WONDERLAND), INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE (a Will Smith-less sequel to the 1996 blockbuster), KINDERGARTEN COP 2 (starring Dolph Lundgren, 26 years after the Arnold Schwarzenegger hit), THE STRANGERS 2 (eight years since the first one), and BAD SANTA 2 (13 years) on the slate. No one was really clamoring for further installments of any of these films (apparently, Nia Vardalos forgot that nobody gave a shit about the short-lived 2003 TV spinoff MY BIG FAT GREEK LIFE, cancelled by CBS after seven episodes), and such is the case with CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY, which arrives 16 years after Ang Lee's revered Oscar-winner, a perfectly-balanced mix of arthouse drama and mainstream action, and the key film in making Asian wuxia accessible in the US. None of the original film's primary creative personnel, from Lee on down, are involved in this sequel with the exception of veteran martial-arts coordinator Yuen Wo-Ping, who's been promoted to director in Lee's stead. Of the 2000 film's cast, only Michelle Yeoh reprises her role as the stoical, dedicated warrior Yu Shu Lien. Unlike the first Mandarin-spoken installment, the sequel was filmed in English, and other than a limited number of IMAX screenings, is debuting on Netflix.

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON is a great film, a masterpiece deserving of all its accolades and one that, aside from some sporadic instances of wonky wire work that was the best they could do at the time, has aged beautifully and lost none of its power. It is a timeless and heart-wrenching tale of honor and unrequited love and the inability to turn back the hands of time, with parallels drawn between multi-layered characters of different generations. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY is...not that. In many ways, it's a dumbed-down, less-complicated remake of the first film. Set 18 years later, the Green Destiny, the famed sword that once belonged to the late Li Mu Bai (played in the original by Chow Yun Fat), is again stolen from the compound of Sir Te, who has just passed away and Yu Shu Lien has arrived to pay respect to her mentor. While the sword goes through a number of hands throughout the film, the initial thief, Wei Feng (Harry Shum Jr) was sent by the nefarious Hades Dai (a scenery-chewing Jason Scott Lee), an evil warlord who has clashed with the Te family and with Yu Shu Lien in the past. Wei Fang is thwarted by young Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), who wishes to learn from the wise Yu Shu Lien. Meanwhile, Te's son (Gary Young) has hired enigmatic warrior Silent Wolf (IP MAN's Donnie Yen), a legend long presumed dead following an ill-fated battle with Hades Dai, and his ragtag group of mercenaries to track down the Green Destiny. Silent Wolf was also the fiance of Yu Shu Lien in the years after she grieved for Li Mu Bai, a love that was professed only in the final moments of Li's life.

Throughout much of SWORD OF DESTINY's running time, it just seems that screenwriter John Fusco (YOUNG GUNS, THUNDERHEART, and the Netflix series MARCO POLO) is simply recycling the events of the 2000 film. Parallels abound all over the place--the theft of the Green Destiny, Yu Shu Lien taking a young protege under her wing (Bordizzo looks exactly like the first film's Ziyi Zhang), an extended mid-film flashback that shows the connection between the two younger lead characters, and another case of a long-lost love breaking Yu Shu Lien's heart once more. Yuen is better known to American audiences for his martial-arts coordinator work on films like THE MATRIX and KILL BILL, but he also directed a number of early Jackie Chan films, like SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW and DRUNKEN MASTER (both 1978) as well as 1993's IRON MONKEY, which was retooled by the Weinsteins for its US release in 2001, which only came about following the success of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. Yuen's directing efforts have been sporadic over the last 20 or so years, but his action scenes remain curiously inert here, or at least pale in comparison to the work he did for Lee 16 years ago. Something's just missing from this sequel, and it's not just Lee, the writers, and the bulk of the cast. Lee's film was an immersive experience, while SWORD OF DESTINY leaves you cold and distant, and a lot of that is due to the distractingly digital world in which it takes place (even a potentially great battle on a frozen lake sees its impact drastically diminished by CGI artifice). Lee used as many actual locations as possible in the original, but with the exception of some exteriors shot in Auckland, New Zealand, everything here has that distinct and lifeless "actor standing in front of a greenscreen" look. Lee's film was breathtaking because it presented a world that, even with the wire work, was a living, breathing, tangible thing. SWORD never has a chance to achieve that.

It also doesn't have Chow acting opposite Yeoh, which gave the first film so much of its rock-solid foundation. Yeoh is very good here and ably carries the film--without her, the whole thing would likely be a lost cause--but her Yu Shu Lien doesn't have the same chemistry with Yen's Silent Wolf that she had with Chow's Li Mu Bai, and that's likely because despite his top billing, Yen is absent for long stretches and really only serves as a guest star in a supporting role. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY has more fantastical elements (yes, even more than flying up on rooftops and running across water), like an evil blind sorceress (Eugenia Yuan) and a general vibe that makes it feel more like CROUCHING TIGER, GAME OF THRONES. It looks and plays like a DTV sequel or the debut episode of a CROUCHING TIGER cable series spinoff, watchable and by no means terrible, but unable to accomplish anything more than being an inferior knockoff of something far more lasting and significant.

Friday, February 26, 2016

In Theaters: TRIPLE 9 (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by John Hillcoat. Written by Matt Cook. Cast: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael K. Williams, Gal Gadot, Michelle Ang, Terence Rosemore, Luis Da Silva Jr, E. Roger Mitchell, Igor Komar. (R, 114 mins)

Though it openly worships at the altar of Michael Mann classics like 1981's THIEF and 1995's HEAT, along with other dirty cop movies like 2001's TRAINING DAY, 2002's DARK BLUE, and 2008's STREET KINGS, TRIPLE 9 earns its place as one of the better offerings in a genre that's usually relegated to VOD and DTV these days. Debuting screenwriter Matt Cook's script is reminiscent of vintage David Ayer, who wrote TRAINING DAY, DARK BLUE, and END OF WATCH, and directed STREET KINGS before the fuckin' motherfucker fuckin' became a fuckin' ridiculous fuckin' one-note fuckin' self-fuckin'-parody of him-fuckin'-self, but with an unusual cast, crackling direction by Australian John Hillcoat (THE PROPOSITION, THE ROAD, LAWLESS), and an endlessly driving, throbbing, synthy John Carpenter-style score by Trent Reznor collaborator Atticus Ross, TRIPLE 9 overcomes its familiarities and occasional contrivances to emerge a gritty, fast-paced, and intense cop thriller.

The film opens with a highly-coordinated, HEAT-derived robbery of one safety-deposit box at a downtown Atlanta bank. The getaway goes to shit when some out-in-the-open money stashed away by one of them has a dye-pack explode in the speeding SUV. The idiot who improvised is crew's requisite hapless fuck-up Gabe (Aaron Paul), brought into the fold by his older brother Russell (Norman Reedus, cast radically against type as "Norman Reedus"). The ringleader is Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a former black-ops mercenary who did some work in the Middle East with Russell. Also in the group are two dirty cops, the gang unit's Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and homicide's Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr). They're all in the employ of ruthless Russian-Jewish mob boss Irina Vlaslov (Oscar-winner and seven-time nominee Kate Winslet, relishing a chance to ham it up with a hairsprayed '80s helmet of a mob wife hairdo), who assumed control of her organization when her powerful and feared husband Vassili (Igor Komar) was thrown into a Russian gulag under the orders of Vladimir Putin himself. Complicating matters is Michael fathering a child with Irina's younger, dim-witted, endlessly-clubbing sister Elena (Gal Gadot), which keeps him a tight leash with Irina and her ruthless, yarmulke-sporting enforcers. Needing some homeland security files as part of a secret deal with the FBI that will get Vassili moved to Israel, Irina sends Elena off to Tel Aviv with Michael's son and refuses to pay him and his crew for their work until they pull off this One Last Job--getting what she needs from a locked-down government building--a job that's so impossible that the only way Belmont and Rodriguez can see getting it done is by calling a 9-9-9 over the radio--a "Triple 9" meaning "officer down"--which will effectively distract every available cop in Atlanta by sending them ot the scene of the cop killing, buying them some much-needed extra time. And Belmont has the perfect victim in his new partner Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a loner cop from a cushier suburban post--and the nephew of the grizzled, alcoholic, pot-smoking lead investigator (Woody Harrelson) on the opening heist--who immediately clashes with Belmont and the other cops in the gang unit.

Carrying a large ensemble and enough plot for an entire third season of TRUE DETECTIVE, TRIPLE 9 trucks along at such a relentless clip that you don't have time to question the little problems that come up (how Gabe ends up at that particular place at that time, for instance). There's little here you haven't seen before, but its nihilistic tone puts it squarely in Hillcoat's wheelhouse, and even the predictable things that take place end up happening in unpredictable ways, be it at a different time than you expect or to a different person than you anticipate. Hillcoat stages several nail-biting sequences--the opening robbery, Belmont arriving at work late the morning of the first robbery and failing to notice a small spatter of red dye on his pants, a raid on a gang compound in the projects, a chase down the traffic-jammed downtown Atlanta freeway (there's some aerial shots of downtown and a second-unit shot of the famed Stone Mountain carving, though on the whole, he doesn't make great use of Atlanta locations like, say, SHARKY'S MACHINE). The cast is committed across the board (Ejiofor and Affleck are excellent), with Winslet not necessarily succeeding as a fearsome antagonist, but seeing her in such a bizarre role so far outside her comfort zone makes her performance fascinating. She enthusiastically sinks her teeth into her Boris & Natasha accent and is almost freakish at times, so much so that Michael K. Williams' (BOARDWALK EMPIRE's Chalky White) brief appearance as a cross-dressing male prostitute and Harrelson playing a scene in a wolf's mask are the second and third strangest sights on display. Harrelson seems to be existing in a different film altogether throughout, though not in a bad way. He's approaching it from a different angle than his co-stars and seems to have been given some wide latitude to Woody it up a bit, with his character such a train wreck--showing up to work drunk and high, sifting through trash bags at crime scenes to find the tiniest remnants of a spliff to openly blaze up in front of the other cops he's supervising--that it seems impossible that he'd still have a job. TRIPLE 9 doesn't exactly forge a new path in the annals of cop vs. criminal movies, but it's riveting entertainment, the kind of film that's going to be in heavy cable rotation for the next several decades, and you'll end up watching it every time you stumble upon it.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: FRANKENSTEIN (2016) and DIABLO (2016)

(Germany/US - 2016)

Bernard Rose's ongoing freefall into absolute irrelevance continues with this aggressively awful, straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray modern updating of Mary Shelley's classic novel, co-produced by Avi Lerner and Cannon cover band NuImage. Rose, who established his horror bona fides with 1989's PAPERHOUSE and 1992's CANDYMAN, hasn't made a good film since the late '90s (his most recent efforts include the found-footage SX_TAPE and the atrocious Paganini biopic THE DEVIL'S VIOLINIST) and for a while, his take on FRANKENSTEIN is promising enough that it starts looking very much like a comeback. Accordingly, since everything Rose has touched for nearly the last 20 years turns to shit, so goes FRANKENSTEIN. Set in present-day Los Angeles, the film finds Victor Frankenstein (Danny Huston) and his wife Elizabeth (Carrie-Anne Moss) conducting top-secret experiments at a high-tech research facility. Using digital technology, they've created "Adam" (Xavier Samuel), who's essentially a baby in the body of an adult. Elizabeth bottle-feeds him and Adam learns to say "Mama," but the experiment is deemed a failure when boils start developing all over his body. An attempt at euthanizing him fails when the presumed-dead Adam jerks awake as his skull is being sawed open. He escapes from the facility and creates havoc all over Los Angeles, with the strength of ten men and seemingly impervious to bullets. When he's arrested and the cops find Elizabeth's work ID in Adam's possession, they call her in but Adam goes berserk when she claims to have never seen him before. Rejected by his "mother," the increasingly monstrous-looking Adam escapes police custody and is befriended by homeless, guitar-strumming blind man Eddie (Rose's CANDYMAN star Tony Todd), who dubs him "Monster" and hooks him up with Wanda (Maya Erskine), an area streetwalker-with-a-heart-of-gold who takes him to a fleabag motel and doesn't seem to mind that he's starting to resemble The Toxic Avenger.

Until Adam escapes from Frankenstein's research lab, FRANKENSTEIN is actually OK. Samuel's performance was credible and there seemed to be enough clever ideas that this was shaping up to be a promising reinterpretation and Rose's best film in a long time (particularly memorable is a ghoulishly macabre bit where Adam gets the upper hand on the Frankenstein associate--named Dr. Pretorius, of course--conducting his autopsy). But once Adam is out of the lab and on the streets, FRANKENSTEIN just crashes and burns on an almost LEGION level. It's not really conveyed in a proper time element how Adam goes from having the cognitive and motor skills of an infant to learning how to shower, being coordinated enough to take on a couple of gang members, and eventually programming a GPS on a dead hooker's smart phone to find out where the Frankensteins live, possibly the dumbest tech-based plot development in a horror movie since Simon Callow faxed his own ejaculate in 2009's unwatchable CROWLEY. Approaching FRANKENSTEIN with the apparent goal of turning it into MARY SHELLEY'S TIME OUT OF MIND, the second half of the film focuses on the friendship between Adam and Eddie, in a tired and obvious revamping of the blind hermit segment in James Whale's THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, moved to the mean streets of L.A.  Rose throws in embarrassingly ham-fisted commentary on bad L.A. cops (one is played an overacting Jeff Hilliard in the world's worst tribute to Bill Paxton-as-Hudson-in-ALIENS), and even resorts to a philosophical Eddie invoking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's "Free at last!" in reference to Adam. Rest assured, Rose is taking this completely seriously, but you may be distracted when your mind wanders off to questions like "Who thought this was a good idea?" and "Does this take place in a world where Frankenstein movies have never existed?" and "At what point do Rose's loved ones stage an intervention?"  He tweaks elements of both the novel and the early FRANKENSTEIN films that starred Boris Karloff, and yes, there's even a climactic funeral pyre, where CGI flames engulf both the monster and what's left of Rose's credibility as a filmmaker. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2016)

Scott Eastwood looks and sounds a lot like his legendary dad Clint, and that was probably all the makers of DIABLO felt they needed to make it work. It also borrows core ideas from THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES and UNFORGIVEN and enough of a particular 1973 western that one could sarcastically dub this HIGH PLAINS POSEUR. The setting is Colorado in 1872, and Eastwood is Jackson, a Civil War vet whose farm is set ablaze by a gang of Mexicans who take off with his new bride Alexsandra (Camilla Belle). Following the trail south to Mexico, Jackson sets off on a vigilante mission to rescue his wife and kill her abductors. He's hindered in his efforts by the mysterious Ezra (THE HATEFUL EIGHT's Walton Goggins), an overtly Mephistophelian figure who keeps appearing on the trail saying things like "Your soul is the toll," and "You're on my road, you pay my price." It's some pretty obvious soul-sellling, "Road to Hell" symbolism that probably seems like deep stuff to screenwriter Carlos De Los Rios, whose credits include several Asylum mockbusters like THE DA VINCI TREASURE and PIRATES OF TREASURE ISLAND. Unfortunately, De Los Rios and director Lawrence Roeck (who has a tenuous connection to Clint; he was a camera operator on THE EASTWOOD FACTOR, one of former Time film critic and full-time Clint BFF Richard Schickel's shamelessly slurping documentaries on the iconic actor) aren't done yet, as DIABLO goes along on an unspectacular but inoffensive path until about 50 minutes in, with a total bullshit plot twist that's the hoariest cliche this side of waking up and finding that it was all a dream. You can't even hint at what it involves without completely giving it away, but let's say the twist is similar to a certain beloved 1999 film with an unreliable narrator. The twist completely derails Eastwood's performance which, while not great, was decent enough to that point to carry a small, low-key western that inexplicably feels the need to switch gears and become a horror movie midway though. There's some really beautiful cinematography by the veteran Dean Cundey and brief appearances by jobbing pros like Danny Glover, Adam Beach, and Joaquim de Almeida, but by the time the asinine finale rolls around, DIABLO only succeeds in shooting itself in the foot. (R, 83 mins)

Monday, February 22, 2016

Retro Review: CASABLANCA EXPRESS (1989)

(Italy - 1989; US release 1990)

The great Sergio Martino's exceptionally late-to-the-party entry in the post-DIRTY DOZEN, WWII "men on a mission" subgenre, CASABLANCA EXPRESS plays like a hopelessly dated relic from two decades earlier and could pass for a made-for-TV movie were it not for some fleeting female nudity and some occasionally enthusiastic blood squibs. Looking like an Italian community theater version of THE TRAIN or VON RYAN'S EXPRESS, the film is set in Morocco in late 1942 and deals with a German plot to abduct Winston Churchill by hijacking a train bound for a summit with FDR. A joint operation between American, British, and French military headed by, respectively, General Williams (Glenn Ford), Colonel Bats (Donald Pleasence, saddled with his silliest character name since playing "Senator Blaster" in Bruno Mattei's 1987 Miles O'Keeffe actioner DOUBLE TARGET), and Major Valmore (Jean Sorel), assigns British spy Cooper (Jason Connery, son of Sean) and American officer Capt. Franchetti (Francesco Quinn, son of Anthony) to handle security. Double-crosses, treachery from within, and spy games ensue, with lots of explosions and gunplay as the good guys take on evil Germans led by the villainous Von Tiblits (Manfred Lehman of CODENAME: WILDGEESE) before a ridiculous and somewhat infuriating twist ending.

Considering the plethora of Vietnam movies and B-grade Namsploitation being made in the late '80s, a largely old-fashioned WWII throwback seems a little odd for the time, with the resulting film so cheap-looking that you might almost be convinced it's been on the shelf for 15 years if you don't notice how rough Ford looks. He was known for openly expressing contempt toward some of his later films that he felt were beneath him (he got pissed off and punched an assistant director on the 1981 slasher classic HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME), and with bloodshot eyes and several flubbed lines, he seems a little wobbly here (watch for the bit where he's mumbling "There's two (pause) one hundred people on that train," and looks blearily at Pleasence). Lehmann is a stereotypically cartoonish Nazi bad guy, exclaiming "Heil, Hitler!" as he's about to blow up the train and fails (of course, Connery responds by quipping "Up Hitler's ass!" before blowing him away). Quinn, one of the few young co-stars of the Oscar-winning PLATOON whose career didn't get a bump from it, found a lot of work in Italy around this time and gets to display some of his pop's intensity and gravitas but he fared better in Antonio Margheriti's "Rambo saves the rain forest" adventure INDIO the same year. By contrast, the bland Connery, a British Chad McQueen if you will, inherited none of his dad's screen presence and is as uncharismatic as can be, so much so that if Sean actually bothered watching this, he'd be justified in requesting a paternity test. CASABLANCA EXPRESS, written by Martino and Eurocult genre vet Ernesto Gastaldi, went straight-to-video in the US and is never egregiously bad, but it just sorta plods along and brings nothing new to the table, curiously playing like an overly earnest 1960s war movie but with no retro charm and the big-name guest stars slumming a little more than usual. Hollywood legend Ford worked very sparingly after his brief but memorable turn as Pa Kent in 1978's SUPERMAN. He lived until 2006, but CASABLANCA EXPRESS was one of his last films before retiring from acting in 1991. (Unrated, 84 mins)

Sunday, February 21, 2016


(Italy/Spain - 1984; US release 1986)

After his amazing early '80s run of legendary Eurotrash classics like 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS, THE NEW BARBARIANS, and ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX, Italian action auteur Enzo G. Castellari tried to channel his inner David Lean with TUAREG: THE DESERT WARRIOR, which wants to be another LAWRENCE OF ARABIA but doesn't quite pull it off. The film was also a one-and-done venture into Italian action for Mark Harmon, the former college football star who already had an established TV career (ABC's 240-ROBERT, NBC's FLAMINGO ROAD) and was one season into a four-year stint on NBC's ST. ELSEWHERE, but was looking for big-screen stardom beyond supporting roles in COMES A HORSEMAN (1978) and BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1979).  He didn't find it with TUAREG: THE DESERT WARRIOR, which didn't even get a US theatrical release and ended up going straight to network TV, premiering on CBS in 1986, presumably to capitalize on Harmon's Golden Globe-nominated turn as serial killer Ted Bundy in the controversial NBC miniseries THE DELIBERATE STRANGER that same year. Blue-eyed California native Harmon is hilariously miscast as Gacel Sayeh, a leader of the nomadic Tuareg tribe in the Sahara. Beholden to centuries of custom, Sayeh is outraged when a military captain (Antonio Sabato) and his underling Sgt. Malick (spaghetti western fixture Aldo Sambrell) kidnap his guest, political fugitive Abdul El Kabir (Luis Prendes), who's being hunted by the country's newly-instilled regime. Exiled Kabir showed up at the Tuareg camp in need of water, and the captain intends to turn him over to those currently in power. Bound by rules of the Tuareg, Sayeh must avenge the dishonoring of his guest, and turns into a North African Rambo, hunting down the flunkies of the new minister (Paul Costello), while trying to be peacefully reined in by the sympathetic Capt. Razman (Paolo Malco), TUAREG's de facto Col. Trautman, who's always accompanied by a grinning officer who bears an uncanny resemblance to Germs and Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear.

Shot on location in Israel, TUAREG: THE DESERT WARRIOR is unusually ambitious for Castellari, who seems to have a big budget here and was obviously trying for something more epic in scope than his usual genre fare. The legitimately unexpected twist at the end is further evidence that Castellari was attempting to make a statement about something, but the execution of the film is so muddled and the pace so slow that it's hard to conclude his exact intentions. TUAREG might've worked better with a Castellari stalwart like Franco Nero or Fabio Testi or even 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS' Mark Gregory headlining because it never overcomes the ill-advised casting of a perplexed-looking Harmon who, even though he dubs himself, sounds like he's reading off cue cards he's just now seeing for the first time. There's an undeniable curiosity value in seeing the future Sexiest Man Alive blowing shit up and guzzling camel blood in an obscure Italian actioner, but the film just doesn't work, and he's a big reason why. Harmon would eventually get some better-suited movie gigs after THE DELIBERATE STRANGER, with 1987's very enjoyable SUMMER SCHOOL and Peter Hyams' glossy 1988 thriller THE PRESIDIO, where he was paired with Sean Connery, fresh off of his UNTOUCHABLES Oscar win. Ultimately, Harmon was deemed an actor better suited for TV, always working but a bit of a late bloomer who finally found his niche in 2003 at the age of 52 with what will very likely go down as his signature role: no-nonsense investigator Leroy Jethro Gibbs on CBS' enormously popular and still-going-strong NCIS. Castellari would soon get back to his usual routine with 1985's bonkers, laser-beaming LIGHT BLAST. TUAREG also features Castellari stock company regulars Romano Puppo, Enio Girolami, Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, Massimo Vanni, and Giovanni Cianfriglia, along with a brief appearance by Ian "Kendal from PIECES" Sera as a reporter. (Unrated, 102 mins)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Retro Review: BULLETPROOF (1988)

(US - 1988)

A year after playing memorable bad guy Mr. Joshua in the smash hit LETHAL WEAPON and about six months before the motorcycle accident that would be the first step in turning him into a walking punchline, Gary Busey got to headline the ridiculous LETHAL WEAPON ripoff BULLETPROOF. Trying and failing to introduce the pejorative "butthorn" into the lexicon ("Your worst nightmare, butthorn!"), Busey--an Academy Award-nominee a decade earlier for THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY--is Frank "Bulletproof" McBain, a sax-playing, renegade L.A. cop who plays by his own rules, prompting his straight-arrow partner Roger Murtaugh, er, I mean, Billy Dunbar (Thalmus Rasulala) to go through his entire allowance of "Dammit, McBain!"'s in the first five minutes of the movie. Bulletproof is such a badass that he has a collection of self-removed bullets he keeps in a jar in his medicine cabinet (you see, because he's "Bulletproof"). Bulletproof turns out to be ex-CIA, and he's called back into action when a military convoy in Mexico is taken over by a generic consortium of Arab and Latin American terrorists led by Col. Kartiff (Henry Silva). Kartiff wants what the convoy is transporting--a high-tech, experimental supertank called the MBT Thunderblast. Of course, among the military officers taken hostage is Devon (Darlanne Fluegel), who happens to Bulletproof's one-that-got-away. She was also the ex of his old CIA partner, who was killed by a Russian goon (William Smith, essentially playing the same role he did in RED DAWN), now a Soviet general in cahoots with Kartiff.

BULLETPROOF shifts into RAMBO III territory midway through, with Bulletproof making his way to Mexico to rescue the hostages and commandeer the MBT Thunderblast, stopping just short of draping himself in the American flag to take on the commies and the "Ay-rabs," as R.G. Armstrong's CIA honcho calls them. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, and Luke Askew turn up in supporting roles, adding further evidence to support my hypothesis that the three grizzled character actors shared a house with a Three Stooges-style triple-stacked bunk bed and got gigs in B-movies as a package deal. It can't be a coincidence that BULLETPROOF is as absurd as any of Rainier Wolfcastle's MCBAIN vehicles on THE SIMPSONS, but it also helps that McBain is just a great name for a pissed-off police captain to shout, as Lincoln Kilpatrick (in the blustering Frank McRae role) gets to do with an early "Cut the shit, McBain!" BULLETPROOF has to be one of the most sublimely stupid action films of the 1980s, and even though it bombed in theaters in the summer of 1988, it's a great crowd movie, filled with idiotic one-liners ("Bird season's over, butthorn!" Bulletproof declares before blowing three dudes away), over-the-top action scenes (a getaway ice-cream truck explodes, Bulletproof screeches to a halt in the chase car, cue the '80s sax lick), and stereotypical, one-dimensional evildoers (Islamic extremists! Commies! Mexicans!) straight out of the deepest recesses of a Donald Trump voter's spank bank. Fred Olen Ray was originally set to direct--he retains a story and associate producer credit--but was replaced by veteran action guy Steve Carver (BIG BAD MAMA, AN EYE FOR AN EYE, LONE WOLF MCQUADE) just prior to filming. Also with Rene Enriquez, Mills Watson, Lydie Denier, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Danny Trejo, and Juan Fernandez, aka "that shitbag Duke" from Charles Bronson's KINJITE. The awesome BULLETPROOF is a must-see and is right up there with 1986's EYE OF THE TIGER as essential B-movie Busey, butthorn! (R, 94 mins)

Friday, February 19, 2016

In Theaters: THE WITCH (2016)

(US/Brazil/UK/Canada - 2016)

Written and directed by Robert Eggers. Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Julian Richings. (R, 92 mins)

The slowest of slow burners, THE WITCH immediately establishes debuting writer/director Robert Eggers as an extraordinarily promising new voice in cinema. A painstakingly executed 17th century period piece in which Eggers based part of his script on actual diaries and testimonies from the era, THE WITCH is the best horror film to come down the pike since THE BABADOOK and IT FOLLOWS, with Eggers masterfully cranking the dread-soaked tension until your stomach is in knots. Almost immediately after the the fade-in, the feeling of doom and despair quickly goes from palpable to overwhelming. Banished from their village for reasons the script never specifies--the film, subtitled "A New England Folktale," is a case study in presenting literal horrors surrounded by a much larger sense of ambiguity--a devoutly religious Puritan family is forced to make it on their own as they travel a distance to settle on the edge of a dark, vast woods. Patriarch William (busy British TV actor Ralph Ineson, best known to American audiences as David Brent's obnoxious pal Finchy on the original UK version of THE OFFICE and as Dagmer Cleftjaw on GAME OF THRONES) and wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, GAME OF THRONES' insane Lysa Arryn) have five children: eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is on the verge of womanhood; eldest son Caleb (the awesomely-named Harvey Scrimshaw) is just entering puberty and can't stop stealing curious glances at Thomasin's blossoming cleavage; younger twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) sing, play, and engage in mischief, spending a lot of time talking to Black Philip, the family goat; and infant Samuel. Not long after establishing their new home, Samuel seemingly vanishes into thin air as Thomasin covers her face playing peek-a-boo with him. Then the crops start dying. Then Katherine's cherished silver cup belonging to her late father goes missing and she blames Thomasin. There's a logical explanation for the cup's disappearance--William sold it for food and goods that they desperately needed--but the tensions start flaring and paranoia sets in, and the response to everything is to pray harder.

Thomasin cruelly jokes about being a witch to the twins, who believe her when Caleb returns naked and exhausted from a trip to the woods, possibly possessed by a malevolent force after he encounters a seductive, shape-shifting witch (Sarah Stephens), who may be the old crone (Bathsheba Garnett) we see absconding with baby Samuel and bathing in his blood after sacrificing him. Katherine is quick to blame everything on Thomasin (why?) and going back to their village is impossible (why?). The situation grows more dire with each passing minute, with William's intense faith and dutiful sense of innate guilt unable to keep evil from wreaking havoc on their lives. THE WITCH is set a few decades prior to the Salem Witch Trials, but Eggers toys with the idea that the finger-pointing hysteria was justified. The events in THE WITCH are not some kind of group psychosis borne of religious fanaticism and it's not just voices in their heads--it's real and it manifests itself in ways that make escape impossible. Even once they try to leave, it won't let them. Never mind the real witch casting a spell on Caleb or making itself known to the twins through a vessel like Black Philip. The horror in THE WITCH is not of the in-your-face, jump-scare variety that's the de rigeur norm for fright flicks today. No, THE WITCH takes the approach favored by ROSEMARY'S BABY and the first hour of THE EXORCIST: by the time the shit hits the fan, you're feeling so suffocated that you're practically gasping for air.

Eggers' stylistic choices are extremely effective as well. There's a definite Stanley Kubrick inspiration in the shot compositions, in the almost exclusive use of natural lighting in Jarin Blaschke's cinematography (think BARRY LYNDON), in Caleb's encounter with the witch, which is an obvious affectionate nod to Room 237 in THE SHINING, and in the chilling score, with its mix of strings and shrieking, cacophonous voices recalling unforgettable moments of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Eggers' almost obsessive pursuit of the harsh realism of the time brings to mind both the perfectionism of Kubrick and the rigorously-achieved detail of something like Bela Tarr's THE TURIN HORSE or Kelly Reichardt's MEEK'S CUTOFF, and the entire aura of THE WITCH is reminiscent of both THE CRUCIBLE reinterpreted as an exercise in Satanic horror and of Avery Crounse's 1983 film EYES OF FIRE, a low-budget, rustic-looking 18th century colonial period piece that has a small but very devoted following today (it's surprising that no one's resurrected it on Blu-ray by now). Other than Ineson and Dickie, who aren't exactly household names in the US, and a brief early appearance by Canadian cult actor Julian Richings (CUBE) as the village elder who orders the family exiled, the cast is populated by unknowns, which only makes their performances that much more gritty and utterly believable. Ineson and Dickie are superb, and Scrimshaw has one haunting moment that he plays to absolute perfection, but this should be a starmaker of a performance by Taylor-Joy, who's dragged through the ringer and required to run the gamut of emotions throughout.

A big hit at Sundance a year ago and arriving in theaters now with the seal of approval from none other than the Satanic Temple, THE WITCH was acquired by A24, who opted to roll it out nationwide. An arthouse film like this is a tough sell to a mainstream audience, and if the grumbling at the end of the matinee I saw on opening day is any indication, this isn't going to find an appreciative audience expecting cheap jolts to distract them from their phones. Eggers' devotion to period detail is as unrelentingly fanatical as the religious zealotry of his characters. It's such that the dialogue is often difficult to decipher--the accents are thick and there's a lot of "thee," "thou," and "wouldst" rolling off the actors' tongues (it's a pretty safe bet that this will be the only film of 2016 to have an actor shouting "Didst thou make an unholy pact with that goat?"). It's also very much a film in tune with the politics and culture of today, with its allegorical approach to the tunnelvision of fundamentalism and inherent distrust of anything outside of religion, while at the same time doing so without mocking them and providing no easy answers since, at least in the context of this film and its depiction of the early-to-mid 17th century, those so-called zealots have valid reasons to be very afraid. THE WITCH is a boldly original and uncompromising film that's insidious in the way it digs its hooks into you and doesn't let go. It's an exercise in vivid, complex world-building that takes its time drawing you into its orbit, and if given a chance, it's the kind of work whose chilling, disturbing effectiveness stays with you long after the movie ends. This is the first great film of 2016.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Retro Review: NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET (1987)

For this blog's regular readers--a number that is coming perilously close to double digits--"Retro Review" will be shorter, less-detailed reviews of older (2015 and back) movies that I'm either looking at again or seeing for the first time. I'm still doing the regular new theatrical and DVD/Blu-ray reviews and the infrequent "Cult Classics Revisited" and other longer pieces, but with my regular day job, I simply don't have the time to write as many of those longer (sometimes too long) pieces as I'd like to, but I don't want to taper off on my writing. In other words, I think something is better than nothing, and honestly, sometimes there's just not much to say. 

(US - 1987)

A disjointed buddy-cop movie that feels like it was made up as it went along, NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET was Cannon's quickly-made attempt to beat LETHAL WEAPON to theaters, which it did by a week, despite switching directors at some point late in production. Veteran journeyman Jack Smight (HARPER, DAMNATION ALLEY) is the credited director, but Roger Corman alumnus Steve Carver (AN EYE FOR AN EYE, LONE WOLF MCQUADE) ended up doing reshoots and finishing the film after Smight either quit or was fired. Along with Gail Morgan Hickman (who scripted the 1976 Dirty Harry entry THE ENFORCER), Jim Belushi was one of four credited screenwriters and was originally set to star, though he ended up being replaced by Robert Carradine--the same year he reprised his signature role in REVENGE OF THE NERDS II: NERDS IN PARADISE--as loose-cannon, no-rules L.A. cop Ray "Berserk" Berzak. Billy Dee Williams is Frank Hazeltine, Berzak's long-suffering, jazz-loving partner who's constantly dealing with Berzak's annoying antics, ranging from chasing off his ladies by pretending to be gay or through his obsessive pursuit of DaCosta (Barry Sattels), a BFF of the mayor and a prominent businessman that "Berserk" is convinced runs the city's drug business, with help from someone deep inside the LAPD.

The story is on the episodic side and meanders from set piece to set piece, with an emphasis on obnoxious comedy, like Berzak stalking his ex-wife (Valerie Bertinelli in one of her very few appearances on the big screen) and chasing off her current beau by implying that she has AIDS.  In addition to pretending to be gay, Berzak also cock-blocks Hazeltine by telling a bullshit story about him wasting a nine-year-old boy who was wielding a toy gun and subsequently disposing of the body. Definitely not for those susceptible to microaggressions, but it's entertaining if you're in a stupid enough mood or a completist of '80s cop movies where two mismatched cops have to work together to bring down the bad guys...if they don't kill each other first!  Also with Doris Roberts as Berzak's nagging mom, Bobby DiCicco, Mykel T. Williamson, Sunset Strip icon Bill Gazzarri, and Peter Graves as Berzak and Hazeltine's perpetually aggravated captain, who of course threatens to bust the troublemaking duo down to traffic if they don't get with the program. NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET bombed in theaters, landing in 15th place (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS opened the same weekend) and not even sticking around for a second week to give LETHAL WEAPON any competition, thus depriving us of any further Berzak & Hazeltine adventures. Smight (1925-2003) directed one more film, 1989's little-seen INTIMATE POWER, before retiring from the business. (R, 101 mins)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: CABIN FEVER (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Travis Z. Written by Eli Roth and Randy Pearlstein. Cast: Gage Golightly, Matthew Daddario, Samuel Davis, Nadine Crocker, Dustin Ingram, Louise Linton, Timothy G. Zajaros, Randy Schulman, Derrick Means, Teresa Decher. (Unrated, 98 mins)

Regardless of your stance on him and his significance to today's horror scene, there's no denying Eli Roth enthusiastically wears his love of cult horror cinema on his sleeve. Adored by horror fanboys but sometimes dismissed by purists, Roth has a tendency to let his juvenile sense of humor undermine his credibility, but his HOSTEL PART II did a great job of paying homage to '70s Italian thrillers, right down to his successfully luring both Edwige Fenech and Luc Merenda out of retirement for small roles. In addition, KNOCK KNOCK, his recent update of the 1977 home invasion sexploitationer DEATH GAME, was surprisingly engaging, and the gorefest THE GREEN INFERNO, his SJW take on the Italian cannibal films of Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi, had its positives when his dudebro humor wasn't getting in the way. But by producing and giving his seal of approval to CABIN FEVER, a not-quite-but-pretty-damn-near scene-for-scene remake of his own 2003 debut, with directing duties handed off to veteran B-movie production designer/set decorator-turned-filmmaker Travis Zariwny under his new convention-ready, cool-guy moniker "Travis Z," Roth finally, at long last, pays loving tribute to the most important and influential cult horror movie figure in his life: Eli Roth.

The cinematic equivalent of watching Roth jerk off to a mirror, CABIN FEVER '16 is a legitimate contender for the most pointless film ever (re)made, coming just 13 years after the original, and just a year and a half after its most recent sequel, CABIN FEVER: PATIENT ZERO. I could see if CABIN FEVER '03 was a foreign language film and maybe some producer thought an American remake had potential, but it's not even a decade and a half old and we've got a remake of CABIN FEVER? And not only is Roth just one of the truckload of credited producers, but the remake even uses the same script he co-wrote with Randy Pearlstein. Sure, Travis Z--a name more suited for the showboating bassist in a C-grade, circa 2002 Linkin Park knockoff that never made it beyond the club circuit--claims he whittled Roth's script down from 122 pages to 94, but somehow, the new CABIN FEVER is slower, feels much longer than 98 minutes (the exact running time of Roth's director's cut of the 2003 version), and has no sense of pacing whatsoever. Travis Z also jettisons almost all of the humor in Roth's original script, with the exception of bite-happy, "Pancakes!"-shouting Dennis, but even in Dennis' new incarnation (played by Derrick Means), his antics have been toned down significantly, and there isn't even a "Please Don't Sit Next to Dennis" sign. In an apparent concession to Generation Trigger Warning, Travis Z has also dumped the racist commentary of the general store cashier that had a legitimately funny payoff at the end. Roth and Pearlstein started writing their CABIN FEVER script when they were roommates at NYU in 1995. Though it was another seven years before they actually made the movie, the script is very much the work of young, dumb college guys who have a lot of growing up to do. CABIN FEVER '03 had a lot of problems, but it delivered the grisly gore and had enough of an oddball aura to it that it remains the one Roth film where his immaturity wasn't problematic. In nearly every way, it's an obvious first movie.

Travis Z doesn't seem to understand that. If there's one thing CABIN FEVER didn't need to be, it's stone-faced serious, which is certainly the mood established by this remake. The story of five college students whose weekend partying at a remote cabin in the woods is ruined by the rampant spreading of a flesh-eating virus, CABIN FEVER should be about gore and T&A. It still is, but in Travis Z's hands, it's a miserable slog. Not helping at all is the bombastic score by Kevin Riepl, who's not quite in the league of the coup Roth scored with CABIN FEVER '03 by getting the great Angelo Badalamenti onboard. CABIN FEVER '16 has a lot of gore (yes, the leg-shaving scene is still here), but deviates in other very minor ways: a couple of the deaths happen to different characters, and CABIN FEVER '03's doofy Deputy Winston (Giuseppe Andrews) is now a sultry blonde Deputy Winston (Louise Linton's performance is the only thing hinting at the bizarre eccentricities of the original, but she only has a couple of scenes). It's a pretty solid ballpark estimate to say 90% of CABIN FEVER '16 is identical to CABIN FEVER '03, but with even more forgettable actors (not only that, but none of them have an awesome, born-with-a-porn-actor-name like '03 star Rider Strong), much slower pacing, and a Why-So-Serious? tone that drains any possible enjoyment from the proceedings, it's an insurmountable struggle to ascertain why this thing even exists or who its intended audience might be.

I realize today's youth can't seem to get into old movies and aren't especially adept at grasping the concept of pop culture that existed prior to their lifetime, but is 2003 really that long ago? CABIN FEVER '16 offers no new perspective, unless you count an early shout-out to THE SHINING. What once remained subtext--the appearance of a mysterious hiker calling himself Grim (played in Shyamalanian fashion by Roth in the '03 film) as a harbinger of the Grim Reaper--now has to be completely sounded out real slow-like to help today's dumb and inattentive audiences make the connection (played by Timothy G. Zajaros, '16's Grim now says "Call me Grim...you know, like the Grim Reaper"), and the changes range from inconsequential at best to damaging at worst, with none making any improvements to the original--no classic, itself--in any way (and what's with the dumb, pseudo-meta scene in the middle of the end credits?). CABIN FEVER '16 looks polished and professional and Travis Z's work is sufficiently functional on a technical level, but here's my dilemma: I can't decide if this film is Roth's ultimate act of self-aggrandizement or if the whole thing is an elaborate, middle-finger punking of the horror scenester, with Roth destroying the fanboy world from within to prove that they'll blindly go along with and give a blank-check pass to anything with his name on it. I doubt that much thought and ambition went into this remake, so the only real conclusion to be drawn is that at the end of the day, no matter how much he's weighed down by sycophantic fans latched on to his nutsack, nobody loves Eli Roth more than Eli Roth.

Friday, February 12, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: 99 HOMES (2015); MI-5 (2015); and FREAKS OF NATURE (2015)

(US/UAE - 2015)

Despite critical acclaim and some major pre-release awards buzz, 99 HOMES fizzled in theaters, topping out at 691 screens and grossing just over $1 million. Directed and co-written by Ramin Bahrani, the film takes place in the greater Orlando, FL area circa 2010, after the housing bubble burst and foreclosures were big business. Unable to hold on to his home is unemployed construction worker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), who supports his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and his young son Connor (Noah Lomax). Sheriff's deputies and a team of movers are present when constantly-vaping real estate foreclosure vulture Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) shows up at Dennis' front door to begin the eviction. Powerless to fight the system despite being given 30 days to appeal, Dennis moves his family into a motel filled with other foreclosure families and when he's unable to find a job, he reluctantly accepts a job offer from Carver to do repair work on his properties. Carver admires Dennis' persistence and the way he stands up for himself, especially in confronting one of Carver's men who stole some of Dennis' tools during the eviction. This leads to Dennis being complicit in Carver's various scams and schemes in the way he takes advantage of federal government loopholes to maximize his own profits, and before long, Dennis is essentially Carver's right hand, evicting good people in the exact position he once was, but doing so for the sake of supporting his family and doing whatever he needs to do to repurchase the family home.

Basically a housing bubble redux of WALL STREET, 99 HOMES is sincere in its look at hardworking people victimized by the system and by bad luck, and the performances of Garfield and especially Shannon are excellent. Shannon even gets a big Gordon Gekko-style "Greed is good" speech about how "America was built by bailing out winners, by rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners." There are powerful moments throughout, particularly the agonizing and intense sequence where Carver coldly and methodically has Dennis and his family forced out of the house, and a heartbreaking one later on when Dennis has to evict a frail and obviously mentally-diminished elderly widower who just keeps helplessly repeating "We had a reverse mortgage...my wife signed the papers..." These scenes are very effectively done and are certain to get your blood boiling, but Bahrani and co-writer Amir Naderi give Dennis a far too familiar character arc. He doesn't tell his mother he's working for the man who evicted them, and she doesn't seem to question anything as long as he keeps getting paid, and Dern is saddled with playing a character too dim and oblivious to garner much sympathy. Of course, the more money Dennis makes, the more seduced he is by Carver's Mephistophelian appeal, which extends to him leaving Lynn and Connor in a dangerous situation at the motel to go to a swanky, boozy party with Carver and some hot women that of course results in a drunk Dennis with his head in his hands as he ponders What I've Become. 99 HOMES becomes far too predictable in it second half, especially with a by-the-numbers subplot about a deal with an even bigger real estate mogul (Clancy Brown) and Carver's plan to discredit and sabotage one man's (Tim Guinee) attempt to avoid foreclosure. There are moments of gut-wrenching power in 99 HOMES, but there's also a lot of formulaic melodrama. Overall, it's a good film, but not the great one the early buzz predicted. Bahrani dedicates 99 HOMES to the late Roger Ebert, who championed the filmmaker when he was just starting out and spoke very highly of his 2005 indie breakout MAN PUSH CART(R, 112 mins)

(UK - 2015)

A feature-film spinoff of the ten-season BBC television series SPOOKS (retitled MI-5 in most areas outside the UK; the film's UK title is SPOOKS: THE GREATER GOOD), MI-5 is a fairly standard-issue espionage/terrorism thriller, with enough action and genuinely suspenseful set pieces to make it worthwhile, even if it doesn't exactly blaze new trails in its genre. Recurring series director Bharat Nalluri and writers Jonathan Brackley and Tim Vincent stick to the style of the show, but make it accessible for the uninitiated, primarily by relegating most of the participating series stars to minor supporting roles or killing them off not long after they're introduced. Though the series featured the likes of Matthew Macfadyen and David Oyelowo in its earliest years, its only constant throughout its decade-long run was Peter Firth (EQUUS, LIFEFORCE), who reprises his role as Harry Pearce, the no-nonsense head of MI-5's counter-terrorism unit. MI-5 kicks off with a botched convoy transport of apprehended terrorist Adem Qasim (Elyes Gabel) ends up with several agents dead after Pearce lets Qasim go free in order to minimize the risk of civilians getting caught in the crossfire. Decommissioned and with his career and reputation ruined, Pearce publicly jumps from a bridge into the Thames but it's all a ruse that his superiors, namely MI-5 Director General Oliver Mace (Tim McInnerney) quickly see through. As a fugitive Pearce goes on an off-the-grid hunt for Qasim, Mace calls in rogue agent and former Pearce protege Will Holloway (GAME OF THRONES' Kit Harington) to track down his disgraced one-time mentor.

What follows are the usual shifting alliances and double crosses, with Pearce and Holloway engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse while acknowledging that they're both on the same side, while also dealing with old grudges since it was Pearce who decommissioned Holloway from MI-5 and derailed his career. Pearce is convinced that someone in his unit tipped off Qasim's people about the convoy transport, and of course, he's right. The problem is, Mace and his deputy director Geraldine Maltby (Jennifer Ehle) think the traitor is Pearce. Journeyman director Nalluri, who's spent most of his career in British TV (TORCHWOOD), but has also helmed a variety of features including the 1998 LA FEMME NIKITA ripoff KILLING TIME, 2000's THE CROW: SALVATION, and 2008's minor arthouse hit MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, does a solid job with the action sequences and the intense climax is very well-handled save for one dodgy-looking CGI explosion. Of the holdovers from the TV series, only Firth and McInnerney get any significant screen time, with Harington, Ehle, and Tuppence Middleton (JUPITER ASCENDING) as another agent helping Holloway, being new additions to the MI-5 universe. MI-5 doesn't offer much in the way of surprises, but it's engaging, it moves fast, and it does exactly what it sets out to do. (R, 104 mins)

(US - 2015)

KITCHEN SINK was a horror spoof script by Oren Uziel (22 JUMP STREET) that spent several years on Hollywood's "Black List" of best unfilmed screenplays that floated around town waiting to get the green light. Something clearly got lost on KITCHEN SINK's way to becoming FREAKS OF NATURE, a dreary and almost completely laughless slog that was shot in 2013 and spent two years on the shelf before Columbia decided to cut its losses and quietly snuck it into 100 theaters last October. Co-produced by Uziel's buddy and two-time Academy Award-nominee Jonah Hill and featuring a cast of all-star comedy ringers, FREAKS OF NATURE is a total misfire that, aside from maybe two lines and a couple of throwaway sight gags, makes SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE look like SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Set in the small town of Dillford, FREAKS presents a society where vampires (the rich and privileged), zombies (the destitute dregs of society) and humans (the middle class) co-exist. The film doesn't do anything more with the class struggle notion than that, instead focusing on three high-school protagonists: affable, sensitive, baseball-playing stoner Dag (Nicholas Braun) and his hapless attempts at romancing Lorelei (Vanessa Hudgens), who keeps him in the Friend Zone but likes his access to weed; nice-girl Petra (BAD TURN WORSE's Mackenzie Davis), who lets stud vampire Milan Pinache (Ed Westwick) transform her only to break her heart immediately after; and geeky loser Ned (Josh Fadem), who finds love with zombie girl Jenna (Mae Whitman) and lets her turn him into one of the walking dead if it means no longer putting up with his braying jackass of a jock brother (Chris Zylka as Seann William Scott as Stifler). Chaos erupts when an alien invasion (aliens, vampires, zombies, and eventually werewolves figure in, hence the original KITCHEN SINK title) turns Dillford into a war zone, which means Dag, Petra, and Ned (played by actors in their late 20s to early 30s) end up barricading themselves in the school basement in a half-assed re-staging of THE BREAKFAST CLUB, because that's what makes a great horror spoof.

Some very qualified comic performers are wasted in nothing supporting roles: Denis Leary as the asshole owner of Dillford's chief source of income--the processed-meat riblet factory (one of the very few laughs comes from him crowing about firing Dag's mom after she tried to unionize his zombie workforce); Patton Oswalt as a paranoid survivalist hiding in a bunker with his elderly mother; Bob Odenkirk and Joan Cusack as Dag's hippie parents; Ian Roberts and Rachael Harris as Ned's parents; and Keegan-Michael Key as a perpetually angry vampire high-school teacher who's burned out after dealing with 97 years of apathetic students. If you make it to the end, you'll hear Werner Herzog as the voice of the alien leader, announcing their peaceful intentions by quoting Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire," which might sound amusing, but in the context of this disastrous failure, is emphatically not. A comedy that throws in everything except the kitchen sink and comedy, FREAKS OF NATURE is staggeringly awful. A documentary about what went wrong here in the hands of director Robbie Pickering would be far more interesting than anything in the finished product, but hey, garbage in, garbage out. Doesn't matter. Audiences grading it on the horror fanboy's "everything is awesome" curve and insisting it's this week's new genre classic will scarf it up and ask for seconds. (R, 93 mins)

Friday, February 5, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: MISCONDUCT (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Shintaro Shimosawa. Written by Adam Mason and Simon Boyes. Cast: Josh Duhamel, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Alice Eve, Malin Akerman, Byung-hun Lee, Julia Stiles, Glen Powell, Christopher Marquette, Marcus Lyle Brown. (R, 105 mins)

A glossy legal thriller that probably would've opened in first place at the box office in 1996 instead of going straight to VOD in 2016, MISCONDUCT actually plays like a lesser, Grisham-inspired outing from that era that's just been thawed after 20 years in ice. In a role that would've been played by Michael Douglas in his hot-button, water-cooler-discussion heyday or perhaps Richard Gere or maybe John Cusack or Brad Pitt, the bland Josh Duhamel is Ben Cahill, an ambitious and morally dubious New Orleans attorney who thinks it's not cheating if the good guys win. He routinely relies on his computer hacker buddy (Christopher Marquette) to work his magic to get intel on the opposition and use that to secure fat settlements for his clients. Things aren't as good at home, with his marriage to nurse Charlie (Alice Eve) in a rough patch following a miscarriage. The setting is perfect for temptation, which arrives in the form of Emily Hynes (Malin Akerman), Ben's college ex who's now the trophy girlfriend to her sugar daddy, billionaire pharmaceutical CEO Arthur Denning (Anthony Hopkins). Denning is currently under investigation for fixing the clinical trials of a new drug to secure FDA approval even though he and his company know it's unsafe. Emily has the evidence to put Denning away and after attempting to seduce Ben, she manages to get him on her side. Ben takes the information to his boss, superstar lawyer Charles Abrams (Al Pacino), who's been trying to nail the corrupt Denning for years, always losing near the end of the game. What follows are the usual double and triple-crosses, a kidnapping, a body count both intentional and accidental, and the periodic appearances of a mysterious, terminally-ill Korean assassin known as "The Accountant" (Byung-hun Lee).

It's hard to dislike a twisty legal thriller with tawdry elements like Emily being a masochist who likes rough sex and being spanked, but MISCONDUCT doesn't have the drive or the chutzpah to go down the trashy, post-BASIC INSTINCT road. It doesn't really seem interested in being much of a thriller, either, with debuting director Shintaro Shimosawa (a former writer on CRIMINAL MINDS: SUSPECT BEHAVIOR and THE FOLLOWING, and the screenwriter of the career-worst Forest Whitaker vehicle REPENTANCE) more focused on show-offy camera movements that serve little purpose, like having a profile shot of one actor talking to another and slowly gliding the camera over to the other actor for their response. What Shimosawa probably thought was stylish just comes across like a badly-timed instance of panning-and-scanning that you'd see on a poorly-framed VHS edition of a widescreen film. It wouldn't be so distracting if it wasn't the only move in his repertoire, but luckily, he's got a contrived script by B horror vets Adam Mason and Simon Boyes (BROKEN, NOT SAFE FOR WORK) to absorb some of the blowback. It's all formula and cliches, with actors forced to say lines like "You're playing with fire!" and "I hope you know what you're doing...tread lightly," and "You sure you wanna play this game?" At one point, Ben and Charlie are both on the ground with their hands tied behind their back, about to be killed by The Accountant--the dumbest and least-intimidating assassin name since Pierce Brosnan played "The Watchmaker" in SURVIVOR--when Ben barks "When they find you, you're looking at three counts of murder!" as if that'll sway him or put Ben in an advantageous position. And when that doesn't work, he just goes to an old standby: "I'll fuckin' kill you!" MISCONDUCT never catches fire and never makes a whole lot of sense, with the filmmakers pretty liberally borrowing from a bunch of other similar thrillers from yesteryear, even giving Duhamel a chance to do his own "Tom Cruise running" shot when The Accountant is chasing him on a motorcycle. By the end, they also decide to start ripping off GONE GIRL because what the hell, why not?

Duhamel, Eve, Akerman, and Julia Stiles (as a hard-nosed Denning security chief) don't really register but they aren't bad, either. They're just there. The real story here is the presence of a pair of old warhorses like Hopkins and Pacino, both coasting through for a quick buck. Hopkins, whose work here will make you appreciate how much he busted his ass in FREEJACK, does his usual icy, cooing Hannibal Lecter delivery as the asshole one-percenter who thinks he can buy everything, while Pacino dials down the bombast but cranks the local color up to 11 as Abrams, breaking out a ludicrously broad N'awlins accent that would make Steven Seagal cringe. Doing everything short of throwing beads, dipping a Po-Boy in some jambalaya, and fanning himself with that day's edition of the Times-Picayune to let you know his character's from New Orleans, Pacino turns in a cartoon of a performance but neither he nor Hopkins are in this enough to make it the kind of trashy fun it should be. In fact, it's a little depressing. As ridiculous as Pacino's performance is, it's somehow not ridiculous enough. And therein lies the biggest problem with MISCONDUCT: it puts forth zero effort. None of the actors seem like they want to be there. They're punching a clock and doing only what they need to do to get by, and what scant slices of ham Hopkins and Pacino dole out are done more to keep themselves awake than to keep the audience entertained. Remember when RUNAWAY JURY came out in 2003? The promise of Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman squaring off as opposing lawyers in what press hype at the time called "The Scene" was enough to get people in the seats and make the movie a hit. And "The Scene" didn't disappoint. Now, in 2016, 78-year-old Hopkins and 75-year-old Pacino, two monuments of cinema appearing in the same movie for the first time on the cusp of their emeritus years, have one scene together and judging from the way that scene is blocked and cut, the slumming legends couldn't even arrange their schedules so they could be on the set together at the same time. They don't give a shit. Why should you?

Thursday, February 4, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: MARTYRS (2016); HOME INVASION (2016); and TURBO KID (2015)

(France/US - 2016)

With its unbearably intense torture scenes supplanted by lofty spiritual and philosophical ambitions, Pascal Laugier's often-brilliant MARTYRS (2008) took France's "extreme horror" movement of the mid-2000s as far as it could go. It seemed inevitable that it would get a pointless, watered-down US remake, and eight years later, here it is, thanks in part to Blumhouse, the company behind PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and INSIDIOUS. Directed by the sibling team of Kevin and Michael Goetz (sons of veteran character actor Peter Michael Goetz) and written by Mark L. Smith (VACANCY, THE REVENANT), the English-language MARTYRS shares the same essential foundation--for a while at, least--while offering flashbacks and more backstory as far as the friendship of its two principal characters are concerned. As a child, Lucie (Troian Bellisario of PRETTY LITTLE LIARS) was kidnapped and forced to endure extreme torture at the hands of her captors. She managed to escape, though other than the scarring, no perpetrators or other evidence were ever found to support her story. Left at an orphanage, she reluctantly befriended the kind-hearted Anna and the film jumps forward ten years. Lucie shows up at the front door of a house in the middle of nowhere and shotguns a family of four to death, determined to show Anna (played as an adult by Bailey Noble) that the seemingly normal mom and dad were the people who tortured her ten years ago. Anna is incredulous but goes along with her friend by helping her bury the bodies, but they aren't able to get away once a group of mysterious people raid the house, determined to finish what they started with Lucie.

You'd probably have to go back to Rod Lurie's underrated STRAW DOGS for a remake that was met with such venomous rage before it even began shooting. Serious horror fans were ready to pounce on the new MARTYRS the moment it was announced, and while it's not an overall success and has little if any reason to exist, it's by no means terrible. Bellisario and Noble turn in a pair of surprisingly strong performances, and the childhood flashbacks with sympathetic Anna reaching out to the anguished and withdrawn Lucie are very nicely handled by the actresses (Elyse Cole and Ever Prishkulnik) who play the younger versions of Noble and Bellisario. But the changes that Smith and the Goetz brothers make undermine the effectiveness of what made Laugier's original film so powerful. MARTYRS '16 loses the sense of hopelessness and despair felt by Anna once she's utterly alone after Lucie is unexpectedly taken out of MARTYRS '08, along with another girl they find being held captive in the house. In MARTYRS '16, Lucie doesn't commit suicide midway through, the girl they find (now a child played by Caitlin Carmichael) isn't killed by the mysterious people who arrive at the house, and instead of becoming the "martyr" for the group's twisted plan, Anna becomes a badass, shotgun-toting angel of vengeance, presumed dead but coming back to rescue Lucie and the girl while blowing everyone away. The last thing any version of MARTYRS needs is a misguided willingness to be a crowd-pleaser, and while it doesn't end in an exactly uplifting fashion, it just completely lacks the devastating impact of Laugier's film. MARTYRS '16 has some positive aspects and is marginally better than it has any business being, but it can't overcome its primary stumbling block: it's completely unnecessary and even its positives don't improve on anything in the original in any way. That is, unless you thought MARTYRS '08 really could've used some of those patented Blumhouse jump scares. (Unrated, 86 mins)

(Canada - 2016)

A listless DTV thriller as generically self-explanatory as its title, HOME INVASION occasionally rises to the level of laughable and stupid but is mostly just boring, headed by a pair of slumming actors whose careers were in much better shape 20 years ago. A trio of killers in EYES WIDE SHUT orgy masks led by Heflin (B-movie action fixture Scott Adkins) commandeer the isolated peninsula mansion of wealthy Chloe (Natasha Henstridge of SPECIES) and her sullen teenage stepson Jake (Liam Dickinson) while his father, her estranged husband, is out of the country on business. They're looking for a safe that's hidden somewhere in the house, and while the local cops are unable to get to the house thanks to a deliberate bridge malfunction caused by a fourth member of Heflin's gang, Chloe and Jake are on the line with their alarm company contact Mike (Jason Patric), who uses the many surveillance cameras--hidden and otherwise--throughout the home to guide them around and let them know when the killers are in close proximity. A lot of screen time is spent with nothing happening but Chloe and Jake tiptoeing around the house and Heflin seething as he paces around the kitchen. The house is huge but there aren't that many places to hide, and it's ridiculous that there's no way the cops can get around the bridge, either by boat or chopper. The idiotic script by Peter Sullivan (ABSOLUTE DECEPTION) relies on clumsy exposition, leaves plot strands dangling, and tosses in one contrivance after another (you'll already be laughing at the stupidity of one character less than a minute into the movie) and manages to be a ripoff of both PANIC ROOM and THE CALL, minus Halle Berry's wig. The end result is a tame PG-13 thriller that could've easily been given a PG, almost like it went straight-to-DVD but had the ultimate goal of being a Saturday night Lifetime movie. Henstridge--who's done some made-for-TV movies and TV guest spots recently, but I haven't seen her in anything she's done in years--does what she can with a stock "woman in peril" role, while Patric looks bored out of his mind, with almost all of his screen time spent seated at a row of monitors watching what's going on in Chloe's house. The one positive of HOME INVASION is a solid performance by Adkins, playing a straight bad guy role without going into his action repertoire. An engaging cult actor who should be the world's biggest action star, Adkins gives it all he's got near the finale--almost like he thought this would be playing on 3000 screens and would be the #1 movie at the box office over its opening weekend--but he gets nothing in return. That also goes for any viewer who opts to spend a long hour and a half watching HOME INVASION, a film recommended only for the most fanatical Adkins completists or rubberneckers morbidly curious about the ongoing autopsy of Patric's career. Co-produced by veteran Canadian schlock king Damian Lee and directed by David Tennant...not that David Tennant. (PG-13, 88 mins)

(Canada/New Zealand - 2015)

The perfect film for cult-movie nerds who can own up to experiencing a certain degree of arousal at the sight and sound of the old-school Vestron Video logo, TURBO KID is a sincere and affectionate example of homage done right. Set in the post-nuke apocalyptic future of 1997, the film finds lone warrior The Kid (Canadian DEGRASSI heartthrob Munro Chambers) barely getting by scavenging for scraps when he meets up with a perky robot named Apple (Laurence Leboeuf) and has to fight off the mostly incompetent minions of the eye-patched Zeus (Michael Ironside), the despotic overlord of the desert wasteland. Like most post-nukes, this deals with water being the prime commodity, and Zeus has designed a machine that can harvest the water from ground-up human bodies. The Kid periodically crosses paths with a cigarillo-chomping, Indiana Jones-like cowboy named Frederic (Aaron Jeffrey) and eventually, the heroes join forces to take on Zeus and his army. The story is pretty standard issue, but the writing and directing team of Anouk Whissell, Francois Simard, and Yoann-Karl Whissell have fashioned TURBO KID as an infectiously fun throwback, complete with a constant, catchy synth score by Le Matos, and an impeccable eye for period genre detail. While a cursory glance at the advertising may make this seem like a kids movie, it's definitely not--there's a plethora of profanity and the splatter and carnage are non-stop, almost on an early Peter Jackson level of gonzo, which is mostly hilarious but it does seem at times like the one concession the film makes to the snarky hipster crowd. Other than that, TURBO KID gets everything right--it's no wonder there's been such a developing buzz about this from cult scenesters. From the opening scenes, you'll go through the movie with a big, goofy smile on your face at every amusing detail and wry one-liner. The filmmakers avoid the pitfalls into which most films of this type plunge--it doesn't have a condescending, mocking tone toward its subject. It's obviously a labor of love by fans, for fans, right down to the smallest detail. Chambers and Jeffrey are likable heroes, and Ironside has never had more fun onscreen than he does here as Zeus, but the show-stealer is the extremely appealing Leboeuf, in what should be a breakout performance if anyone in Hollywood sees this. Jason Eisener has an executive producer credit--his HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN being a case study of the kind of pre-assembled cult movie that makes every mistake TURBO KID almost completely manages to avoid. (Unrated, 93 mins, no US Blu-ray/DVD date announced but currently streaming on Netflix Instant)