tenebre

tenebre

Friday, December 15, 2017

Retro Review: PLATOON LEADER (1988)


PLATOON LEADER
(US - 1988)

Directed by Aaron Norris. Written by Rick Marx, Andrew Deutsch, David Walker and Peter Welbeck (Harry Alan Towers). Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Robert F. Lyons, Rick Fitts, Michael DeLorenzo, Jesse Dabson, William Smith, Brian Libby, Tony Pierce, Michael Rider, Daniel Demorest, Al Karaki, Evan J. Klisser, Dean Ferrandini. (R, 96 mins)

A gritty Namsploitation outing from the beginning of the waning days of Cannon, PLATOON LEADER is still big on explosions and firefights but surprisingly light on the flag-waving jingoism so common in the Reagan era with Sylvester Stallone's Rambo and Chuck Norris' Braddock. Based on the 1985 memoir of Lt. James McDonough, PLATOON LEADER--originally titled NAM until Cannon went back to the book's title to take advantage of the success of Oliver Stone's PLATOON--gave Cannon's AMERICAN NINJA star Michael Dudikoff his biggest opportunity to act and build a three-dimensional character. Dudikoff is Lt. Jeff Knight, a book-smart West Point grad sent to Vietnam with an assignment to run the 103rd Airborne--aka "The Herd"--a platoon of battle-hardened, seen-it-all troops tasked with guarding a village from attack by the VC. Knight is inexperienced in battle, talks down to the guys, and commits one mistake after another, quickly earning the derision and scorn of his far more experienced charges. He's severely injured by an exploding landmine and shipped off to recover. It's assumed he'll never be back, but once he's well, he requests to be assigned to the same post, this time learning the error of his ways and becoming a genuine leader, unafraid to get down in it and do the grunt work and earn the respect of his men as they protect the village from invasion by VC forces.







It's a formulaic story that gets a big boost from some solid action sequences and a believable performance by Dudikoff. The film takes a big risk in making Knight kind of a prick in the early going, but Dudikoff wisely doesn't oversell it. Dudikoff always had an engaging presence in his action movies without ever being a particularly gifted thespian, but he steps up his game in the presence of veteran character actor Robert F. Lyons as the cynical Sgt. McNamara, his second in command and the diplomatic peacemaker, keeping the soldiers in line and getting it through to Knight that he needs to quit being such a dick. Usually cast as cops or lawyers in a long career on the big and small screens, Lyons rarely got a chance to shine, but he's very good here, giving a lot more to a low-budget action movie than most jobbing journeyman actors would. And speaking of journeyman actors, PLATOON LEADER gets a little added gravitas from gravelly-voiced B-movie legend and '70s biker movie fixture William Smith, on hand for a few scenes as Knight's commanding officer back at the base.


Shot in South Africa, PLATOON LEADER was a Cannon production farmed out to legendary producer Harry Alan Towers, who also co-wrote the script under his usual pen name "Peter Welbeck." Best known for his many collaborations with Jess Franco in the 1960s and into the early 1970s, Towers was one of the movie industry's all-time great exploitation hucksters. In the late '80s, he was producing a ton of films in South Africa, including several for Cannon and Menahem Golan's post-Cannon outfit 21st Century, at a time when apartheid was still a thing and working there was a dubious career choice. Despite the terrible optics, working actors went where the work was, and Tower$ always had a way of getting known names attached to his projects. Accordingly, many established but past-their-prime actors who weren't fielding offers from Hollywood studios opted to take the paycheck and headed to South Africa for Towers, including Oliver Reed (DRAGONARD), Ernest Borgnine (SKELETON COAST), Jack Palance (GOR), Donald Pleasence (TEN LITTLE INDIANS), Herbert Lom (RIVER OF DEATH), Brenda Vaccaro (THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH), and Robert Vaughn (BURIED ALIVE), among others.


In what was one of the worst-kept secrets in Hollywood at the time, Golan and Cannon partner Yoram Globus also had a production facility in Johannesburg that they repeatedly denied existed, and with a bad taste in his mouth after shooting AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION, PLATOON LEADER, and RIVER OF DEATH in quick succession in South Africa, Dudikoff decided he would no longer work there. As a result, he sat out AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT and would only return for AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION when Cannon agreed to move the production to Lesotho, a sovereign nation inside South Africa. Easily the best film directed by Aaron Norris (BRADDOCK: MISSING IN ACTION III) and the only one that didn't star his big brother Chuck, PLATOON LEADER is an unusual entry in the Cannon Namsploitation canon, lacking the "America! Fuck yeah!" fist-pumping of MISSING IN ACTION and P.O.W.: THE ESCAPE--the latter ending with star David Carradine literally draped in the American flag--and the blunt, right-wing polemicism of THE HANOI HILTON. Call it Cannon's version of THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA.



A still from the NAM press materials before
the title was changed to PLATOON LEADER.

Monday, December 11, 2017

On Blu-ray/DVD: INGRID GOES WEST (2017); SINGULARITY (2017); and THE CRUCIFIXION (2017)


INGRID GOES WEST
(US - 2017)


A timely and extremely uncomfortable cringe comedy take on SINGLE WHITE FEMALE for the Instagram era, INGRID GOES WEST manages to stay on course and never lose its way despite some wild shifts in tone. It's got some career-best work from PARKS AND RECREATION co-star and deadpan icon Aubrey Plaza as Ingrid Thorburn, a desperately lonely young woman introduced crashing a wedding in tears and pepper-spraying the bride, a supposed bestie who didn't even invite her. Ingrid is slapped with a restraining order and committed to a mental facility, and we soon learn the two were barely acquaintances after Ingrid commented on one of her posts and immediately began stalking her, attempting to ingratiate herself into her life in a purely one-sided friendship. Ingrid spends her days scrolling through Instagram and liking every pic she sees. She's also still mourning the recent death of her mother, and after happening upon a magazine article about trendy "social media influencer" Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), she immediately follows her on Instagram. When Taylor responds to her comment, Ingrid cashes in her mother's $60,000 life insurance policy and impulsively moves to L.A. to find Taylor, tracking her through her posts and following her home, and as soon as Taylor and her artist husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) step out, Ingrid lets herself in, kidnaps their dog and waits for the reward offer to call and set up a meeting. Ingrid and Taylor become fast friends, going on road trips and hitting the trendy L.A. spots, with Ingrid completely making herself over in Taylor's image and quickly growing discontented when Taylor can't devote all of her attention to her.





Things take an even darker turn with the arrival of Taylor's douchebag, drug addict brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen), who derisively refers to Ingrid as "Olga" and quickly senses that something is off about her. Ingrid also gets involved with Dan (O'Shea Jackson Jr), her Batman-obsessed landlord who's unaware of just how mentally unstable she is. Making his feature debut, director/co-writer Matt Spicer does a commendable job of keeping a sense of balance to INGRID GOES WEST. The comedy shifts from commercial to cringe to unbelievably dark in ways that would cause a less-focused filmmaker to completely drop the balls they're attempting to juggle. Spicer gets a lot of help from a fearless Plaza, who somehow manages to elicit sympathy even at Ingrid's worst moments. The sense of desperation and isolation Ingrid feels is palpable, spending all of her time alone in total silence, eyes glazed over while she stares at her phone, not even looking at what she's "liking" and retreating further away from the world with each click. As the cycle begins again with Taylor, Ingrid recognizes history repeating itself but can't stop it. This is just how she is, and the nature of social media brings out the worst of it. We never learn much about Ingrid's past and what we do learn isn't really reliable since she's a compulsive liar. Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith find intriguing parallels between Ingrid and Taylor as well as Ingrid and Ezra, who knows Taylor better than anyone and confides in Ingrid that his wife's existence isn't what it appears to be to her Instagram followers. Spicer closes with a terrific final shot with a focus on Plaza's smiling face that leaves the resolution open-ended but hints that Ingrid is headed for some next-level crazy. The story arc gets a little predictable the longer it goes on, but for Plaza and Olsen fans and connoisseurs of cringe (it's also somewhat reminiscent of the underrated OBSERVE AND REPORT) should consider INGRID GOES WEST required viewing. (R, 98 mins)


SINGULARITY
(Switzerland/US - 2017)


A thoroughly incoherent sci-fi hodgepodge that manages to rip off BLADE RUNNER, I ROBOT, THE MATRIX, THE HUNGER GAMES, DIVERGENT, THE TERMINATOR, and TRANSFORMERS in its first 15 minutes, SINGULARITY's behind-the-scenes story is more interesting than the film itself. The story is a jumbled mess, dealing with Kronos, an AI program designed to save Earth, but immediately deciding on its own volition that humanity isn't worth saving and promptly blowing up everything and killing billions of people. 97 years later, the world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland with small clusters of humans still existing, though we only see two: Andrew (Julian Schaffner) and Cania (Jeannine Wacker), a fearless warrior with a wardrobe provided by Katniss Everdeen. They're making their way to Aurora, a supposed safe haven where humanity will attempt to rebuild itself, but Andrew is actually an advanced synthetic lifeform so real that even he's unaware that he isn't human. Their journey is overseen from a command center inside the Kronos program, where the uploaded avatars of misanthropic Kronos designer Elias Van Dorne (John Cusack) and his flunky (Carmen Argenziano) monitor their whereabouts to discover the secret location of Aurora. Savvy moviegoers will notice something strange almost immediately and it becomes glaringly apparent with each passing appearance of Van Dorne: Cusack doesn't seem to be in the same movie as everyone else, and that's because he's not.





Remember in 1984 when Paramount desperately shoehorned newly-shot footage of red-hot Eddie Murphy into the two-years-shelved Dudley Moore comedy BEST DEFENSE?  It's a similar situation here, only with an ice-cold Cusackalypse Now. SINGULARITY began life as a very low-budget Swiss sci-fi film titled AURORA, shot way back in 2013 and never released. It was written and directed by 21-year-old Robert Kouba and starred Schaffner, Wacker, and veteran character actor Argenziano, the latter probably the biggest American name the largely Kickstarter-funded production could afford. Trailers for AURORA were posted online in 2014 and 2015 but it remained shelved until US outfit Voltage Pictures acquired it and brought Kouba and Argenziano back to shoot new scenes with Cusack in Los Angeles in 2017. With the added Cusack footage, the restructured film was rechristened SINGULARITY and dumped on VOD and on eight screens in the fall of 2017. Whatever changes Voltage had Kouba make don't appear to have helped, and there's really nothing to see here unless you want to witness the depressing sight of Cusack being Raymond Burr'd into a terrible sci-fi movie that isn't improved by his barely-there presence. There's no way he was on the set for more than a day (there's a credit for "Catering, L.A." so he at least stuck around for lunch), with his entire screen time spent in front of a greenscreen and occasionally watching four-year-old footage of Schaffner and Wacker, never once coming into contact with either of them. Throughout, Cusack looks disheveled and tired, uttering nonsense like "Yes...his code continues to evolve" in ways that would make Bruce Willis look away in pity. As a fan of old-school exploitationers, there's a part of me that's amused that these kinds of GODZILLA and Roger Corman moves still occasionally go on today (for further fun, check out 2015's BLACK NOVEMBER to see Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger, Anne Heche, and Wyclef Jean get Raymond Burr'd into a long-shelved Nigerian-made political drama), but on the other hand: John Cusack...what the hell are you doing? There's some OK cinematography in some of AURORA's Swiss and Czech Republic location work, and the opening sequence of a neon cityscape accompanied by Vangelis-inspired synth farts courtesy of The Crystal Method's Scott Kirkland (who also wasn't involved in AURORA) might give the impression that it's a passable BLADE RUNNER riff if you're barely paying attention or you've had several beers. But in its released condition, SINGULARITY is nothing more than Cusack--once a bankable, A-list actor who could get movies made (remember HIGH FIDELITY?)--scraping bottom. What's wrong, dude? Seriously. Should we be concerned? (PG-13, 92 mins)








THE CRUCIFIXION
(US/UK - 2017)


Ten years ago, director Xavier Gens made an immediate splash with genre fans for the bold and ballsy FRONTIER(S), his contribution to the wave of extreme French horror. Immediately after, he directed the Luc Besson-produced actioner HITMAN, though he was, of course, given the Hollywood welcome by being fired in post-production after clashing with Fox execs. It would be five years before he resurfaced with the dismal THE DIVIDE, a repugnant post-apocalyptic SALO knockoff that could easily have been titled LAST BOMB SHELTER ON THE LEFT. Gens directed a short segment of THE ABCs OF DEATH prior to another extended leave from the big screen, directing a few episodes of the Euro TV series CROSSING LINES before recently returning with the barely-released THE CRUCIFIXION. One of the dullest horror movies of the year and maybe the least-warranted demonic possession film since THE VATICAN TAPES, THE CRUCIFIXION is inspired by the "Tanacu Exorcism" in Romania in 2005, where a priest and four nuns were accused of murder when an exorcism on an allegedly possessed nun resulted in her death. Here, the case is investigated by fictional American journalist Nicole Rawlins (British actress Sophie Cookson, from the KINGSMAN films), a non-believer who journeys to Romania to interview jailed priest Father Dimitru (Catalin Babliuc) and the family and friends of the late Sister Adelina Maranescu (Ada Lupa) to prove God isn't real. She's haunted by calculated, predictable jump scares and loud noises and has weird sexual dreams about Father Anton (Corneliu Ulici), a young priest who worked with Father Dimitru.






That's about all that happens. THE CRUCIFIXION is one of the most relentlessly gabby films of its kind, which would be fine if the mystery was engaging or if Cookson was even remotely believable as a dogged, hard-nosed reporter. Her whole motive has to do with guilt over not accepting Christ when her mother was dying of cancer a year earlier, so of course the whole point is to convince her to believe, which would almost put this tame, tired dud firmly in faithsploitation territory if not for Nicole's erotic dreams and one lone F-bomb when she's suddenly possessed out of the blue in the last ten minutes of the film. Written by the CONJURING twin sibling duo of Chad and Carey W. Hayes in the most clumsy and cumbersome fashion possible (Nicole's editor/uncle, skeptical about her story idea, ten seconds after we're introduced to both of them: "This is just a chance for you to nail faith to the wall, and it's NOT going to bring your mother back!"), THE CRUCIFIXION is the kind of sleep-inducing trifle that evaporates from your memory while you're watching it. FRONTIER(S) is pretty badass, but between THE DIVIDE and now THE CRUCIFIXION, Gens, once hailed as a wunderkind and the horror genre's next big thing, is looking an awful lot like a one-hit wonder. (R, 90 mins)

Friday, December 8, 2017

In Theaters: THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017)


THE DISASTER ARTIST
(US - 2017)

Directed by James Franco. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. Cast: Dave Franco, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Megan Mullally, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas, Hannibal Buress, June Diane Raphael, Andrew Santino, Nathan Fielder, Charlyne Yi, Bob Odenkirk, Jerrod Carmichael, Zoey Deutch, Randall Park, Casey Wilson. (R, 104 mins)

Since making his mark nearly 20 years ago on the ignored-and-now-iconic cult TV series FREAKS AND GEEKS, James Franco has had one of the strangest careers of any mainstream Hollywood actor. He's one of the industry's most tireless workaholics, with some extremely unpredictable choices that often border on some kind of obscure performance art. He appears in box-office blockbusters (Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN trilogy, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES), hit comedies (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, THIS IS THE END), played the bad guy in a Jason Statham movie (HOMEFRONT), stars in acclaimed indies (SPRING BREAKERS), barely-released European art films (Wim Wenders' EVERY THING WILL BE FINE, Werner Herzog's QUEEN OF THE DESERT), Lifetime movies (the remake of MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP WITH DANGER?), has an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (127 HOURS), did a three-year recurring stint on GENERAL HOSPITAL, frequently turns up in uncredited cameos (THE HOLIDAY, the remake of THE WICKER MAN, NIGHTS IN RODANTHE, THE GREEN HORNET, ALIEN: COVENANT), has published several collections of poetry and short stories, created a multimedia presentation based on the late '70s/early '80s sitcom THREE'S COMPANY, starred in the TV series 11.22.63 and THE DEUCE, earned a degree in Creative Writing in the mid '00s while maintaining his film and TV work schedule, and more recently, taught film courses at UCLA. For the last several years, he's been in an average of ten movies a year, and has somehow found the time to direct over 20 feature films, most getting very limited exposure and some still unreleased, ranging from the experimental CRUISING riff INTERIOR LEATHER BAR to biopics (he directed and starred as poet Hart Crane in THE BROKEN TOWER) to gothic horror (THE INSTITUTE), and most notably, an ongoing series of classic American literature adaptations (William Faulkner's THE SOUND AND THE FURY and AS I LAY DYING, Cormac McCarthy's CHILD OF GOD, and John Steinbeck's IN DUBIOUS BATTLE). Franco's oeuvre as a director has been commonly described as self-indulgent at best and unwatchable at worst, but he remains undeterred: he's got five directing efforts scheduled for release in 2018.









With that in mind, it's easy to see why Franco the filmmaker might feel some sense of kinship with Tommy Wiseau, the auteur behind 2003's THE ROOM, the midnight cult movie sensation that's become one of the most beloved bad movies of all time. Based on the 2013 memoir by ROOM co-star Greg Sestero, THE DISASTER ARTIST chronicles the friendship between Wiseau (Franco) and Sestero (James' younger brother Dave Franco) that began in a San Francisco acting class in 1998. 19-year-old Greg lives with his mom (Megan Mullally) and dreams of being an actor, but he's too shy and lacking in confidence in front of an audience. Enter Tommy, a long-haired, enigmatic mystery man of unknown origin and indeterminate age who gives the class an overwrought, climbing-the-walls, writhing-on-the-floor, pelvic-thrusting version of the "Stella!" bit from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Greg approaches Tommy about practicing some scenes together, and though he's a terrible actor, Tommy's fearlessness inspires Greg and almost immediately, the pair move to Los Angeles to pursue their acting dreams. They live in Tommy's L.A. apartment--a self-described "pied-a-terre" that he rarely uses. Tommy also drives a Mercedes and seems to be independently wealthy, but refuses to discuss his past, his money, or his age. Greg soon lands an agent and gets a few small gigs and a girlfriend (Alison Brie, Dave Franco's offscreen wife), while Tommy, with his strange appearance and even stranger accent, goes nowhere and grows increasingly jealous of Greg's relative "success." With both of their careers seemingly stalled before they even begin, Tommy considers giving up and going back to San Francisco but when Greg half-jokingly suggests they make their own movie, Tommy takes him seriously.


Tommy spends nearly three years writing THE ROOM, a drama with obviously semi-autobiographical plot elements, including a woman who broke his heart by cheating on him with his best friend. Tommy casts himself in the lead role of Johnny and Greg as his best friend Mark. Tommy also intends to direct the film, despite having no filmmaking experience. This is evident when he chooses to go the significantly more expensive route of buying the camera and sound equipment instead of renting, and when asked if he's shooting in 35mm or digital, he impulsively blurts out "both," which requires two different crews of technicians, but Tommy doesn't care because "I have a vision!" He pays to have sets constructed that look exactly like the real locations right outside the studio, which thoroughly baffles experienced script supervisor Sandy Schklair (Seth Rogen), who's worked on real movies and TV shows and immediately recognizes that Tommy has no idea what he's doing. But Tommy perseveres, making the film he wants to make while alienating a good chunk of the cast and crew, including Greg, with a turning point being his berating female lead Juliette Danielle (Ari Graynor) over a couple of small pimples on her chest that he insists will ruin their sex scene. By the time filming is finished--it's no surprise that Tommy goes over schedule--the budget balloons to $6 million and he doesn't even bat an eye at the cost.


What makes THE DISASTER ARTIST work as well as it does is the respectful approach James Franco takes--both as a director and an actor--to Wiseau. It would've been easy to make a snarky and mocking takedown, but Franco seems to genuinely admire the eccentric auteur. And he's perfect in the role, nailing his garbled, vaguely Eastern European accent (Wiseau repeatedly claims to be from New Orleans) and his mannerisms, right down to every facial expression. THE ROOM was a film whose early cult consisted of celebrities telling their friends about it--both James and Dave Franco, Rogen, and others like Kristen Bell (who acquired a print and would screen it for friends at her house), Paul Rudd, Patton Oswalt, Kevin Smith, Adam Scott, Danny McBride, David Cross, J.J. Abrams, and VERONICA MARS creator Rob Thomas, who began slipping ROOM references into episodes of the show. Like THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, THE ROOM took on a life of its own on the midnight movie circuit, with audiences throwing plastic spoons (a reference to a strange photo of a framed spoon in Johnny's house) and tossing footballs around, which characters in the film always seem to be doing. And there's so much quotable dialogue, from "Oh, hi Mark," to "You're tearing me apart, Lisa!"


Tommy Wiseau, James Franco, Greg Sestero, and Dave Franco
at an early 2017 screening of THE DISASTER ARTIST


Making his most accessible, commercial effort yet as a director (you really don't need to know THE ROOM to enjoy THE DISASTER ARTIST, but if you haven't seen it, you should), James Franco clearly adores Wiseau but isn't afraid to show his paranoid and often unlikable side, nor does he shy away from pointing out the genuinely inept elements of THE ROOM--like Wiseau's bizarre choice to have Johnny laugh at a story Mark tells about a friend being nearly beaten to death, or one character's announcement that she has breast cancer never leading anywhere or being referenced again ("It's a twist!" Franco-as-Tommy explains, obviously not knowing what a plot twist is), and James Franco matches Wiseau's utter lack of self-consciousness with the auteur's tendency to lay himself bare when a ranting Tommy demands his thrusting ass be the center of attention in a sex scene. There's a fair amount of dramatic license taken for sure, but THE DISASTER ARTIST is a funny, heartfelt, and sincere love letter not just to a movie that's brought joy to a lot of people (of course, Wiseau now insists much of the film was meant to be funny), but to all of the misguided souls whose dreams are too far beyond their capabilities--few soundtrack choices this year are more perfect than Faith No More's "Epic" playing as Tommy and Greg walk to the set in slo-mo on the first say of shooting ("You want it all but you can't have it!") . Be sure to stick around for the credits, where several ROOM scenes are played side-by-side with dead-on, perfectly-matched recreations by the in-character cast of THE DISASTER ARTIST. I wouldn't be surprised if Franco actually shot a scene-for-scene remake of THE ROOM with his cast to be included as an inevitable Blu-ray bonus feature.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

In Theaters: THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)



THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
(UK/US - 2017)

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Zeljko Ivanek, Amanda Warren, Samara Weaving, Sandy Martin, Kerry Condon, Brendan Sexton III, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Kathryn Newton, Malaya Rivera Drew, Jerry Winsett, Nick Searcy. (R, 115 mins)

With its dark humor, small-town cops, generous doses of local color, quotable dialogue, shocking bursts of unexpected violence, and Frances McDormand heading the cast, it's inevitable that THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI will draw comparisons to the Coen Bros.' FARGO. But it quickly makes its case as very much its own film, and it's the best work yet from Martin McDonagh, the British writer/director who gave us the great IN BRUGES and the half-great (loved the first half, didn't care for the second) SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS. McDonagh expertly captures the small-town, rural atmosphere and succeeds in making every major character complex and multi-dimensional. Lesser films would've made everything that transpires black and white and one-sided, stacking the deck against the main character to maximize sympathy, but in THREE BILLBOARDS, everything is in shades of gray. Even the most loathsome characters have redeeming qualities, and while the outrageously foul-mouthed insults and seething anger fly fast and furious, THREE BILLBOARDS is, at its core, one of the warmest, honest, and most emotional films to hit theaters in some time.






Seven months after her teenage daughter Angela was raped, burned, doused in gasoline, and burned to a crisp, Mildred Hayes (McDormand) has run out of patience. There's no leads, no breaks, and local police are still reeling from a recent scandal where Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist cop with serious anger management issues, beat and tortured a black suspect. Consumed with bitterness and rage and past her breaking point, Mildred rents out three billboards near her home outside the tiny town of Ebbing, MO, on a virtually abandoned stretch of road that's been rarely used in the 30 years since a nearby highway was constructed. They say, in succession, "Raped While Dying," "And Still No Arrests?" and "How Come, Chief Willoughby?" Understandably, police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is upset, explaining to Mildred that there was no DNA match, no witnesses, and nothing for them to go on. The billboards attract the attention of the local and regional media and earn Mildred the scorn of Ebbing's residents, with none more furious than Dixon, who repeatedly tries to intimidate and bully Mildred and local ad agency owner Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) into taking them down. People also resent Mildred's aggressively calling out Willoughby since it's the worst-kept secret in Ebbing that the chief, married to Anne (Abbie Cornish) and with two young daughters, is terminally ill with pancreatic cancer and doesn't have long to live.







To say much more about the relentlessly busy plot would spoil the rich rewards THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI has to offer. The billboards have an effect on everyone: Willoughby, a good man trying to do his job and being put in an awkward position while facing his certain death; Mildred's son Robbie (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA's Lucas Hedges), who's already having a hard time getting over the death of his older sister (he thanks his mom for the billboards "in case I go more than two minutes without thinking about her"); and Mildred's ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), a wife-beater still prone to violent tendencies who's taken up with 19-year-old Penelope (THE BABYSITTER's Samara Weaving). But none are impacted more than Dixon, and Rockwell rises to the challenge with the film's most difficult role and most expansive and unexpected character arc, simultaneously presented as a dipshit, mama's boy cop who took six years to get through the police academy, a virulent and unapologetic racist and homophobe, and ultimately, a guy capable of recognizing the mistakes he's made and doing something to right his many wrongs. It's national treasure McDormand's film for obvious reasons, and it's probably her finest work since FARGO, but an Oscar-worthy Rockwell has never been better. All of the actors get a chance to shine, even if they only have a couple of scenes (especially Weaving as the sweet but dim Penelope, and Peter Dinklage as the local used car salesman and town drunk who has an unrequited crush on Mildred), and McDonagh's dialogue, while occasionally coming off as a little too scripted (particularly Mildred's rant at a local priest played by Nick Searcy), is brutal and lacerating in its misanthropic fury that's also occasionally sweet, if you can believe that. Only in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI could "cunt" be a term of endearment from a son to his mom and sister. It's a moving, perceptive, tragic, funny, and devastating look at grief, choices, and the haunting regret of words and actions that you'd give anything to take back. It's one of the best films of the year.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Retro Review: NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS (1975)


NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS
aka LAST STOP ON THE NIGHT TRAIN
aka THE NEW HOUSE ON THE LEFT
aka LAST HOUSE PART II
aka XMAS MASSACRE
(Italy - 1975; US release 1976)

Directed by Aldo Lado. Written by Renato Izzo and Aldo Lado. Cast: Flavio Bucci, Macha Meril, Enrico Maria Salerno, Gianfranco De Grassi, Marina Berti, Franco Fabrizi, Irene Miracle, Laura D'Angelo, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Selan Keray. (Unrated, 94 mins)

Christmas horror movies don't get much more unrelentingly grim, downbeat, and depressing than the film that's come to be known as NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS. Though it fell into relative obscurity until Blue Underground unearthed it on DVD in 2004, it existed under at least a half dozen different titles since its 1975 European release and, courtesy of three different distributors, several runs through American drive-ins and grindhouses from 1976 to 1978. On the surface, it's a pretty blatant ripoff of Wes Craven's 1972 breakthrough THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, itself a loose remake of Ingmar Bergman's 1960 film THE VIRGIN SPRING. Italy was home to a number of LAST HOUSE ripoffs, whether intentional or not, with LAST HOUSE star David Hess called upon to essentially reprise his Krug character in Pasquale Festa Campanile's HITCH-HIKE (1977) and Ruggero Deodato's notorious HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK (1980). In addition to Franco Prosperi's THE LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH (1978), there was also Mario Bava's 1971 film BAY OF BLOOD, also known as TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE and CARNAGE but also making several stops through the US drive-in circuit throughout the 1970s as LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT PART II.





Like the Bava film, NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS was a fixture at the nation's drive-ins, re-released under so many different titles that moviegoers probably inadvertently saw it several times. Bryanston released it in the US in 1976 under its actual LAST STOP ON THE NIGHT TRAIN title (but with completely made-up cast and director credits on the poster) just before folding that same year. In 1977, it was picked up by Hallmark Releasing--the company that distributed Craven's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, retitled the Bava film, and created the infamous "vomit bag" marketing campaign for MARK OF THE DEVIL--who re-released under the "Newport" banner as LAST HOUSE PART II (not to be confused with the BAY OF BLOOD retitling LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT PART II). Soon after, it went out again under the Newport offshoot Central Park Films as both THE NEW HOUSE ON THE LEFT and XMAS MASSACRE. Under any title, NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS is one of the very few examples of a ripoff surpassing the film it's imitating. Director/co-writer Aldo Lado was already an established filmmaker, helming a pair of intriguing gialli with 1971's SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS and 1972's WHO SAW HER DIE?, both unusual in the sense that they demonstrate some sociopolitical commentary that would separate Lado from most of his journeyman contemporaries in horror at the time, whether it's GLASS DOLLS' scathing critique of the bourgeois upper class or WHO SAW HER DIE?'s conspiracy of silence among a cabal of high society pedophiles in Venice, while also exploring issues of unhinged clergy that also figured into Lucio Fulci's DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING the same year and in Antonio Bido's later THE BLOODSTAINED SHADOW (1978). NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS shares with LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT the core concept of two teenage girls traveling alone and being raped, tortured, and murdered by repugnant shitbags who will eventually end up in the home of one of the girls' parents, who learn that the girls have been murdered and gradually realize their houseguests are the ones who did it.




But Lado adds another level of menace to NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS with the nightmarish situation being escalated by an upper-class, bourgeois mystery woman who turns out to be the biggest sadist of them all. She spends much of the film sexually toying with and manipulating a pair of psychotic, drug-addicted degenerates and goading them into increasingly heinous acts of violence and depravity, often getting herself off on the resulting transgressions, and eventually throwing the two of them under the bus and playing the victim by using her elite social status to shield herself from any blame. The two girls, Margaret (American actress Irene Miracle, best known as Brad Davis' girlfriend in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS and for Dario Argento's INFERNO) and Lisa (Laura D'Angelo), are students traveling from Germany to Italy by train to spend Christmas with Lisa's parents, Giulio (Enrico Maria Salerno) and Laura (Marina Berti). After an unpleasant encounter on the train with troublemakers Blackie (Flavio Bucci, the blind pianist in SUSPIRIA) and Curly (Gianfranco De Grassi), they end up switching trains at a stop, hoping for a quiet ride in a barren compartment on a sparsely-booked train only to find out that Blackie, Curly, and a nameless "lady on the train" (Macha Meril, the doomed psychic in Argento's DEEP RED) with whom Blackie had a random sexual encounter in the bathroom, have followed them. The trio barges into the girls' compartment, initially making fun of their packed lunch by candlelight before Blackie and the woman start masturbating each other. They won't let the girls leave, and Curly keeps staring at Lisa, who's eventually forced by the woman to give Curly a handjob. When a Peeping Tom (Franco Fabrizi) is seen leering through their compartment window, he's dragged inside and forced to rape Margaret. It only gets worse from there.


David Hess and others somehow figuring prominently in the
poster art for a movie none of them are even in. And there's no Marcia. 



Once the girls are dead and the trio of killers dump their bodies and luggage off the train (resulting in one major continuity gaffe that's the film's only real glaring flaw), ending up at the station and happening to meet Giulio, who generously gives them a ride, NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS mostly follows the LAST HOUSE template. The ruse is up as Lisa's mother recognizes an ugly turquoise tie being worn by Curly as the same one Lisa bought in Germany for Giulio. This sends Giulio on a murderous rampage through his own house, himself egged on by the mystery woman, now pretending she was abducted by Blackie and Curly and of course, gaining the sympathy of Giulio and Laura, themselves privileged members of the upper class who see the woman as one of their own. Born in 1934 and still occasionally active (his last IMDb credit is from 2013), Lado largely became a gun-for-hire in the years to come, with his last noteworthy film being the ludicrous 1979 STAR WARS ripoff THE HUMANOID, where he hid behind the very George Lucas-like pseudonym "George B. Lewis," but NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS offers the same inherent contempt for the pillars of society that was evident in SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS and WHO SAW HER DIE?  He doesn't quite share the bleeding heart feelings of a Giulio dinner guest who believes the lower class are victims made violent criminals by society, but he's certainly a misanthrope has no love for the wealthy, the privileged, and figures of authority. Almost everyone is complicit in what happens to Margaret and Lisa--including the well-dressed Peeping Tom who could've gone for help before he was seen but was too busy smacking his lips and perving out over watching Curly getting the forced handjob from Lisa. The early scenes on the train show there's reprehensible characters everywhere, from a compartment full of Nazi sympathizers to a priest winking and flirting with an altar boy as another priest tries to justify his actions and write them off as a "nervous tic." Decades before serial sexual abuse by priests became common knowledge, Lado alludes to it here and there's immediately someone there fully aware of it and all too eager to dismiss it and cover it up.





Where LAST HOUSE was gritty and grimy, NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS is well-made and stylishly shot by veteran cinematographer Gabor Pogany (TWO WOMEN, PINK FLOYD AT POMPEII), and he and Lado maximize the claustrophobic tension inside the cramped car that's drenched in a deep Argento blue with the sound of the tracks and Ennio Morricone's most haunting harmonica cue since ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST only adding to the overwhelming sense of dread and doom. The brutality inflicted on Margaret and Lisa is almost unbearable to watch, and the effect is so jarring simply because there's such polish and style to the way the film is shot. When Blackie and Curly get their comeuppances from a shotgun-toting Giulio, Lado doesn't even give the audience a sense of catharsis because we know Giulio and Laura have been played for fools by the lady on the train, the kind of privileged asshole who's never held accountable for their actions. The film's underlying issues of class struggle and outright sociopathy may have added prescience today, and for those who can withstand it (and get by the overwrought Demis Roussos theme song "A Flower's All You Need"), NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS is a masterpiece of its kind, a profoundly unsettling example of the rape/revenge subgenre, one that stays with you for days after and absolutely lives up to the promise of its US trailer: "Don't waste time looking for an ending you can live with."








NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS opening as LAST HOUSE PART II in
Toledo, OH on June 10, 1977, on a double bill with DON'T OPEN THE
WINDOW, aka THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE

Saturday, December 2, 2017

On Blu-ray/DVD: ACTS OF VENGEANCE (2017); REMEMORY (2017); and RED CHRISTMAS (2017)


ACTS OF VENGEANCE
(US - 2017)


Arriving very soon after BLACK BUTTERFLYSECURITY, and GUN SHY, ACTS OF VENGEANCE is Antonio Banderas' fourth straight-to-VOD vehicle in the last five months. Looking pretty ripped at 57, the prolific actor appears to have embraced the idea of jumping on the 60-and-over action bandwagon (he's also got something called BULLET HEAD hitting VOD in December). Shot under the title THE STOIC, ACTS OF VENGEANCE teams the busy Banderas with the great action director Isaac Florentine, the DTV legend behind US SEALS 2 and several excellent Scott Adkins actioners. Florentine is probably the best action filmmaker still stuck in low-budget B-movies, though at this point, it almost has to be by choice. Produced by Avi Lerner's Cannon cover band Millennium Films, ACTS OF VENGEANCE isn't top-shelf Florentine: the fight scenes, while outstandingly choreographed, are few and far between, and the inane script by Matt Venne (WHITE NOISE 2, MIRRORS 2) is a blatant ripoff of JOHN WICK. Smooth criminal defense attorney Frank Valera (Banderas) gets preoccupied at the office, breaking a promise to his wife Sue (Cristina Serafini) to make it to their daughter's talent show (or, as the Bulgarian production team labeled it on the marquee, "tallent (sic) show"). Hours go by and he gets concerned when they never make it home. Police arrive at the house and inform Valera that his wife and daughter were murdered. The investigation by detective Lustiger (Johnathan Scheach) goes nowhere, and Valera implodes: he takes a leave from his job, drinks to numb the pain, and voluntarily goes to a secret fight club--barely concealed in the upstairs of a bar on a busy street--to get the shit beat out of him, his way of punishing himself for not being there for his family.






He eventually has an epiphany after happening--in the most hackneyed way possible--on a paperback of the writings of Marcus Aurelius, channeling his sorrow and grief into the life of a stoic, taking a vow of silence ("Good things do happen when you shut the fuck up for a minute or two" is easily the script's most inspired line) and training with a sensai (played by martial arts expert Florentine) to condition himself in preparation of devoting his life to finding his wife and daughter's killers, refusing to utter a word until justice is served. There's a potentially interesting philosophical angle here that the film doesn't really explore aside from rudimentary analogies to samurai or ronin, but stylistically, it's all JOHN WICK. The supporting characters are poorly-defined, with Paz Vega turning up halfway through as a nurse who tries get close to Valera, but Robert Forster gets one scene, delivering a blistering, no-bullshit dressing down as Valera's father-in-law, who flat-out tells him that now that his daughter and granddaughter are dead, he wants nothing more to do with him. The big reveal involving the killer's identity involves a plot twist that calls Valera's entire competence as an attorney and even as a human being with a functioning brain into question, though it's always a good rule of thumb in these kinds of movies to pay attention to any prominently-billed, reasonably well-known actor who appears fleetingly and doesn't appear to have much to with the plot. Also with DREDD and STAR TREK's Karl Urban as a police officer who occasionally turns up at the secret fight club, ACTS OF VENGEANCE is passable as brain-dead action fare--the "NYC street" backlot at the Nu Boyana Studios in Sofia, Bulgaria is somehow even less convincing than usual--and it's at least better than Banderas' recent comedic shitshow GUN SHY. But despite allowing Florentine to work with bigger names than usual, ACTS OF VENGEANCE is one of the director's more forgettable efforts, though it's understandable if his mind was elsewhere: the film is dedicated to his late wife Barbara, who died in January 2017 after a two-year battle with cancer.  (R, 87 mins)



REMEMORY
(UK/Canada/US - 2017)


The BLACK MIRROR episode "The Entire History of You" did a better job of exploring similar subject matter, but an excellent performance by GAME OF THRONES' Peter Dinklage makes the melancholy sci-fi drama REMEMORY worth a look. It's gray, gloomy, occasionally Cronenbergian in its production design, and vividly Canadian in its chilly mood, as introverted model maker Sam Bloom (Dinklage), still mourning and blaming himself for the death of his younger brother Dash (Matt Ellis) in a car crash in which he was behind the wheel, involves himself in a mystery when groundbreaking psychiatric genius Gordon Dunn (Martin Donovan) is found dead in his office. Dunn was the CEO of Cortex, a company that created the Rememory Machine, a high-tech form of therapy in which Dunn is able to filter and record the memories of his patients down to every specific detail. It's a controversial technique that isn't without its detractors, most of whom seem to be his patients/guinea pigs, among them Wendy (Evelyne Brochu), a young woman with whom Dunn has been having an extramarital affair; Charles (Scott Hylands), a dementia-stricken man in an assisted living facility; and Todd (the late Anton Yelchin in one of his last roles), an anger management case who Sam considers the prime suspect in Dunn's death, which the police have labeled natural causes but he's convinced was murder. He ends up stealing the Rememory Machine and befriends Dunn's widow (Julia Ormond, also very good), while Dunn's sinister business partner (Henry Ian Cusick) acts suspicious and may have something to hide. Directed and co-written by Mark Palansky (who hasn't made a feature film since the 2006 Christina Ricci bomb PENELOPE), REMEMORY starts out like a mystery with deep sci-fi leanings, but eventually goes the route of Shyamalanian sentimentality, with Sam's investigation ultimately all smoke and mirrors leading to a conclusion that isn't really a surprise, as Sam obviously has secrets of his own that he's been hiding from everyone else, including the audience. In the end, it's an overlong and somewhat muddled BLACK MIRROR episode that's very well-shot, with a catchy electronic synth score, and two lead performances by Dinklage and Ormond that go the extra mile to make a minor and mostly forgettable film worth a stream on a slow night. (PG-13, 112 mins)






RED CHRISTMAS
(Australia - 2017)

Released on three screens and VOD at the tail end of summer, the Australian RED CHRISTMAS got some buzz from scenesters eager to anoint it that week's Insta-Classic (© William Wilson) horror indie, with the added nostalgic rush of cult icon Dee Wallace once again summoning some of her CUJO maternal fury. It's great seeing the veteran actress and convention fixture in a lead role again, and it's easy to see why she jumped at the opportunity, but RED CHRISTMAS isn't worthy of her talents. Amateurishly shot, with pointlessly garish red and green, sub-Argento colorgasms, cheap splatter effects, and a muddled political subtext, RED CHRISTMAS centers on the final Christmas gathering at the isolated rural home of widowed matriarch Diane (Wallace), an American who's spent most of her life in Australia and is about to sell the house to take a long sabbatical to Europe, a last request by her cancer-stricken husband on his deathbed after she spent so many years putting everyone else first. Joining her are her infertile, ultra-conservative religious zealot daughter Suzy (Sarah Bishop) and her minister husband Peter (David Collins); bitchy, free-spirited, and very pregnant daughter Ginny (Janis McGavin) and her pot-smoking partner Scott (Bjorn Stewart); adopted, artist daughter Hope (Deelia Merial), her youngest, son Jerry (Gerard O'Dwyer), who has Down syndrome, and her medicinal marijuana enthusiast brother Joe (Geoff Morrell). A huge family argument is broken up by a stranger appearing at the front door: a cloaked figure with bandages covering face and going by the name Cletus (Sam "Bazooka" Campbell). Cletus appears to be homeless and alone but soon wears out his welcome when he begins taunting Diane with very personal information about an event 20 years earlier--a bombing at an abortion clinic where she happened to be, secretly terminating a pregnancy after learning that it was another DS baby and that her husband only had a few months to live. Unable to face raising an additional special needs child alone, she made a decision to abort, but the child somehow survived, and was taken in by the fanatical right-wing activist who bombed the clinic. And now, 20-year-old Cletus is determined to get revenge on the mother who tried to kill him by taking out her entire family one by one. And, of course, Ginny goes into labor.






There's so many ways that this could've been a creative, daring film with a thoughtful subtext. But it's pretty much amateur hour in the hands of writer/director Craig Anderson, who rushes through the set-up only to have the characters whispering and wandering around in the darkness for most of the rest of the way, often requiring them to do stupid things to get to the next kill scene. Why else would a sheriff arrive and park his car 100 yards from the house--with plenty of driveway ahead of him--unless it's to get a bear trap thrown over his head by Cletus while walking the ludicrous distance from his car to the house? There's no sense of spatial layout to the house, so it's impossible to tell where anyone is at any given time, or how Cletus manages to end up in or out of the house so much. Wallace turns in a strong performance, though it's hard to tell if we're supposed to be on her side or not. The film justifies her decision but seems intent on making her and her family suffer for it. On top of that, very few of the characters are particularly likable (Ginny picks fights with everyone, repressed Peter spies on Ginny and Scott having sex in the laundry room) with the exception of easy-going Joe and devoted Jerry, who questions his entire life after learning about the abortion and angrily confronting Diane with "Do you want to kill me too?" (O'Dwyer, who has DS and is a well-known figure in Australia, is quite good). Cletus' kills are pulled off with little imagination and style, and when his monstrous face is revealed, it looks like a MAC AND ME mask that was left out in the sun too long. RED CHRISTMAS' closing credits include a list of recommended books and movies that deal with the subject of abortion from both the pro-life and the pro-choice angle, conveniently allowing Anderson to "both sides" his way around his own movie. He should've included a list of better Christmas horror movies to watch instead of this one, but since he didn't, I will: any of them. Pick one. (Unrated, 81 mins)


Friday, November 24, 2017

On Blu-ray/DVD: JUNGLE (2017) and THE SHOW (2017)


JUNGLE
(Australia/US/UK - 2017)


This fact-based chronicle of future tech entrepreneur and ecological activist Yossi Ghinsberg's harrowing three weeks spent lost in the uncharted jungles of Bolivia in 1981 provides a chance for Daniel Radcliffe to give it everything he's got and he certainly runs with it. Looking to see the world after serving three years in the Israeli military, Tel Aviv-born Yossi upsets his parents by not going to university, but he's a wandering, curious soul who does what he must do. After venturing through Alaska and down into the States, with stops in NYC and Vegas, Yossi ends up in Bolivia where he meets Swedish tourist Marcus Stamm (Joel Jackson) and noted American hiker and photographer Kevin Gale (Alex Russell). A chance encounter with Austrian adventurer and treasure hunter Karl Ruprechter (Thomas Kretschmann) leads to the quartet venturing deep into uncharted territory in the foreboding Bolivian jungle on a trip they'll soon regret taking. An infection in Marcus' feet slows them down, but after building a raft and attempting to travel via river, increased tensions and the discovery that Karl may not be what he claims to be have them turning against each other as much as they're fighting the forces of nature. Hopelessly lost, Marcus and Karl decide to hike their way back to civilization while Kevin and Yossi proceed along the river on the raft. The raft is destroyed in a dangerous stretch of rapids and Kevin and Yossi are separated. So begins Yossi's three-week journey into the heart of darkness, with a useless map and delirium sending him in circles, battling the elements, fungal infections, a persistent parasite, red ants, and quicksand.





Sporting a convincing Israeli accent, Radcliffe looks like he went to hell and back shooting this thing, but director Greg McLean (WOLF CREEK, ROGUE, THE BELKO EXPERIMENT) keeps things moving at a detrimentally glacial pace, and by the third act, gets totally sidetracked with Yossi's flashbacks, hallucinations, and random Jesus Christ poses. Based on Ghinsberg's memoir, JUNGLE admirably doesn't sugarcoat its characters and their passive-aggressive treatment of Marcus, and is appropriately grueling and unflinching (though as icky as the parasite-extraction scene is, readers of the memoir may wonder why they left out the bit where Yossi lands ass-first on a sharp pole, penetrating and severely injuring his rectal area), but McLean meanders all over the place, torn between making a Werner Herzog homage and a standard survivalist adventure, and coming up short at both ends. Still, Radcliffe fans will definitely want to check it out, but they'll probably end up wishing his work was showcased in a better movie. (R, 115 mins)



THE SHOW
(US/UK - 2017)


THE SHOW wants to be a blistering takedown of reality TV, but it has no idea how satire works, taking its place alongside AMERICAN VIOLENCE as the most embarrassingly heavy-handed film of 2017. After a rejected woman on a BACHELOR-like reality show kills the bride and groom and turns the gun on herself on live TV, smarmy host Adam Rogers (Josh Duhamel, sporting the douchiest haircut you'll ever see) pitches a new show to his boss (Famke Janssen as Faye Dunaway) called THIS IS YOUR DEATH (the film's original title when it played the festival circuit), where contestants come up with various elaborate ways to commit suicide in front of a live studio audience and millions watching on TV, with the winner's designated survivors getting a huge payday. Meanwhile, hard-working family man Mason (Giancarlo Esposito, who also directed) has fallen on hard times and works two jobs--one as a janitor and the other as a dishwasher at a posh restaurant--and ends up losing both of them in the same night (the dishwashing one because he sees Rogers sitting at the bar and criticizes THIS IS YOUR DEATH, prompting dickhead Rogers to complain to the manager). With his wife on his case, his disabled son needing new crutches, his bills mounting, no job prospects, and close to his breaking point thanks to the deck that the script has stacked against him, Mason decides to audition for the season finale promising $1 million to the winner, and of course, he makes the cut.






Approached with a sardonic, DEATH RACE 2000 or NETWORK attitude, THE SHOW could've been the bitter, bile-soaked screed that the subject deserves. But it comes off as obnoxiously pushy and utterly humorless wokesploitation, taking itself completely seriously, and Duhamel's impossibly smug caricature of a TV host is hard to take after a while (imagine how subversive this could've been simply by casting someone like Ryan Seacrest as Rogers). The only thing that saves THE SHOW from total oblivion is a genuinely effective performance by Sarah Wayne Callies (THE WALKING DEAD) as Rogers' sister, a nurse and recovering addict whose life takes a downward spiral thanks to her brother's notoriety as the man behind the most controversial show in America. THE SHOW gets more sanctimonious and full of itself as it goes along, pointing fingers at everyone, from Rogers' increasingly monstrous behavior to the ghoulish, rubbernecking audience that can't get enough (there's one guy holding a sign that says "Show Me the Bloody") and Mason on live TV shouting things like "WHY ARE YOU WATCHING THIS?" and "TURN IT OFF!!!" Considering Esposito is the director, that may be the most accidentally satirical thing THE SHOW has going for it. (R, 104 mins)

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

In Theaters: ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (2017)


ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.
(US/Canada/China/UAE - 2017)

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravatt, Amanda Warren, Hugo Armstrong, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, DeRon Horton, Amari Cheathom, Nazneen Contractor, Niles Fitch, Elisa Perry, Annie Sertich, Esperanza Spalding, Just N. Time. (PG-13, 122 mins)

Veteran journeyman screenwriter Dan Gilroy made his directing debut three years ago with the critically acclaimed NIGHTCRAWLER, and coaxed a career-best performance out of Jake Gyllenhaal in the process. It was a challenge to base a film around one of the most repulsive protagonists in recent memory--Louis Bloom, a petty thief specializing in copper wire and chain-link fencing who makes a name for himself selling accident and murder footage to a desperate, bottom-ranked L.A. news station--and Gilroy explores similar themes with the legal drama ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. Played by the great Denzel Washington, the titular character is ultimately just as morally and ethically challenged as Louis Bloom, but he's not a bad guy. He's just as much of a misfit, though where Bloom was an unrepentant sociopath, Los Angeles defense attorney Roman J. Israel is a savant who eats nothing but peanut butter sandwiches and has the entire California legal code memorized. He works behind the scenes as part of a two-man firm, and his elderly partner--the face of the practice and the guy who appears in court--has just gone into a coma after a massive heart attack, leaving the abrasive and socially awkward Roman--in no way a people person--to handle his cases in front of a series of increasingly exasperated judges. Roman is a career civil rights activist with a borderline Cornel West afro, unfashionable eyewear, and mismatched, ill-fitting, ragged suits that look like they've been worn for 30 years (Washington's also wearing some padding to add a little girth to his midsection). He has a brilliant legal mind, which is why his partnership with his aged colleague has worked, but with the old man out of the picture, the practice has been handed over, per his wishes, to slick, high-priced criminal lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student and protege of whom Roman was completely unaware. The practice has been losing money due to its taking on a large of pro bono, social activism cases that Roman lives for, so with the blessing of the ailing lawyer's family, Pierce shuts it down and reluctantly agrees to take Roman on as an attorney at his own hugely successful firm.






With Roman's appearance and his dinosaur ways--he has a battered, ancient flip phone and hates computers, relying on index cards, countless Post-Its, and voluminous stacks of documents precariously clipped and rubber-banded together--Gilroy could've just as easily taken this situation and made it a mismatched, fish-out-of-water buddy comedy. Instead, it's a character piece and a morality play where Roman, who can't help but burn bridges at Pierce's office because that's what he does, snaps after nearly losing his job over his botched handling of client Derrell Ellerbee (DeRon Horton), a 17-year-old being charged as an accessory in the murder of an Armenian convenience store clerk. The shooter was Carter Johnson (Amari Cheathom), who's now a fugitive but Derrell secretly told Roman his whereabouts in exchange for the possibility of a reduced sentence. When Derrell turns up with throat slashed in the jailhouse shower the next day and Pierce informs him his termination is imminent since he angrily hung up on the prosecuting attorney and never conveyed her offer to Derrell, Roman decides he's had enough after nearly 40 years of "doing the impossible for the ungrateful." When an Armenian community center offers $100,000 for information leading to the arrest of the shooter, Roman anonymously provides the info and collects the reward money. He treats himself to a weekend vacation, buys some new suits, gets a new haircut and signs a lease at a posh apartment building. He plays ball and takes on some easy money cases at Pierce's practice and starts making friends, quickly seeing that playing the legal game and putting his hardball activist dedication aside--including an epic class action lawsuit he's been working on for seven years that he insists will redefine the nature of legal defenses and the concept of plea bargaining--means he can finally live the good life he's denied himself for decades ("My failures are self-inflicted," he tells Pierce). It should go without saying that Roman's impulsive actions will eventually blow up in his face, especially when a jailed Carter retains the services of Pierce, who hands the case off to...who else?


Washington is terrific as Roman, even if his actorly affectations indicate that the film can't seem to decide if Roman's spectrum-stretching issues are that he's Rain Man, an OCD case, a social anxiety sufferer, or if he has Asperger's (the film seems to conflate them all under one all-purpose special needs umbrella). He manages to alienate everyone he meets, with the exception of Maya (Carmen Ejogo), an earnest volunteer activist for a civil rights group who comes to appreciate Roman's dedication to the cause, and more or less serves as his conscience once he starts wearing expensive suits and dining at classy restaurants. Washington's performance is effective, but at the same time, it's pure Oscar bait, and Gilroy's story just doesn't have any real foundation at its base, especially once it veers into commercial thriller territory in the third act. Roman's character arc is obvious and simplistic, and Washington is required to go through several scenes where he looks in a mirror and regards his flashy new appearance and silently ponders What I've Become. If Maya is Roman's conscience, then Pierce is the Roman that might've been--a beloved protege to Roman's partner who had the interpersonal chops to be a successful lawyer both philosophically and financially. Pierce is a good lawyer as well as a good businessman. Ultimately, he's hardly the unscrupulous shark we expect him to be based on his high-priced suits and slicked-back hair, even though his demeanor changes from scene to scene, especially in his attitude toward Roman.


After ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ--filmed under the generic title INNER CITY--screened to a middling response at the Toronto Film Festival, Gilroy recut some scenes and excised approximately 15 minutes to get it to its present, 122-minute length (Gilroy said much of the changes dealt with Farrell's character, which may explain why Pierce's attitude is so hard to pin down). Even now, its structure still seems off, especially after an opening that sets up the story as a flashback beginning three weeks earlier, which seems like an awfully short amount of time for this entire story to go down. NIGHTCRAWLER was a film that probably would've been a lot more scathing and hard-hitting if it didn't take place in such a cynical era, but it has a mesmerizing performance to make you look past it. ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ doesn't even have the limited substance of NIGHTCRAWLER and even pilfers some of its ideas and observations, coming up just a bit short even though it gets a lot out of an expectedly outstanding performance from Washington.


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Retro Review: INTO THE NIGHT (1985)


INTO THE NIGHT
(US - 1985)

Directed by John Landis. Written by Ron Kosnow. Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Richard Farnsworth, Irene Papas, Kathryn Harrold, David Bowie, Paul Mazursky, Vera Miles, Roger Vadim, Clu Gulager, Dan Aykroyd, Bruce McGill, Carl Perkins, Stacey Pickren, Carmen Argenziano, David Cronenberg, Domingo Ambriz, Jake Steinfeld, Art Evans, Michael Zand, Beruce Gramian, Hadi Sadjadi, John Landis, Ali Madani, Houshang Touzie, Reid Smith. (R, 115 mins)

Just out on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, John Landis' INTO THE NIGHT has often been compared to Martin Scorsese's AFTER HOURS, another 1985 film with a similar concept of an ordinary guy finding himself in increasingly strange situations in the wee hours of the morning in unfamiliar and dangerous parts of the city. Where AFTER HOURS was set and shot in NYC, INTO THE NIGHT represents the west coast, taking place in and around Los Angeles (there's even a couple of chances to see some vintage TV commercials for legendary L.A. car dealer Cal Worthington). In hindsight, INTO THE NIGHT is often relegated to the sideline and viewed as a lesser AFTER HOURS knockoff, even though it opened seven months earlier. Landis had been on a hot streak going back to 1977's THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, with a string of huge hits that included 1978's ANIMAL HOUSE, 1980's THE BLUES BROTHERS, 1981's AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and 1983's TRADING PLACES, plus he was at the helm of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," the groundbreaking and probably the most famous music video of all time. INTO THE NIGHT grossed a very modest $7 million, not awful by 1985 standards but far below the box office Landis films generated in that period. While TRADING PLACES became a blockbuster thanks largely to Eddie Murphy, INTO THE NIGHT didn't have that kind of star power to headline it. This meant Landis' name was the main focus, and the deaths of Vic Morrow and two children on the set Landis' segment of 1983's TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE were still fresh in everyone's minds, particularly the director himself, as Landis was officially charged with involuntary manslaughter three weeks into filming INTO THE NIGHT, with a trial spread out over 1986 and 1987. Though Landis and three co-defendants were eventually acquitted, and he continued working in Hollywood (having hits with 1985's SPIES LIKE US, 1986's THREE AMIGOS, and 1988's COMING TO AMERICA), Landis' career never really recovered. His subsequent work in the '90s ranged from middling (1992's INNOCENT BLOOD) to quick paycheck (1994's BEVERLY HILLS COP III, six years after he and Murphy clashed on COMING TO AMERICA, prompting Murphy to quip "John Landis has a better chance of working with Vic Morrow than with me") to desperate (1998's BLUES BROTHERS 2000) to completely unwatchable (1996's THE STUPIDS). Landis has worked very sporadically over the last two decades, with a couple of acclaimed documentaries (2004's SLASHER and 2007's MR. WARMTH: THE DON RICKLES PROJECT), but that nearly 20-year stretch has only seen Landis directing one narrative feature with 2011's dismal, little-seen Simon Pegg horror comedy BURKE AND HARE. His last directing credit to date is a 2012 episode of the TNT series FRANKLIN & BASH.






Propelled by some bluesy B.B. King on the soundtrack, INTO THE NIGHT may not have made much of an impression in theaters, but it found an appreciative audience thanks to its incessant airplay on cable throughout the rest of the '80s. It also helps to look back at it now with star Jeff Goldblum's oddball persona firmly established. In 1985, the actor wasn't an unknown by any means, with numerous TV gigs and roles in 1978's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and 1983's THE BIG CHILL to his credit, but he hadn't yet established the quirky, eccentric "Jeff Goldblum" we know today from THE FLY, JURASSIC PARK, and INDEPENDENCE DAY. The recognizable Goldblum mannerisms are here but he plays it pretty straightforward as mild-mannered aerospace engineer Ed Okin, a quiet type who's suffering from extreme insomnia ("Summer of 1980," he replies when asked the last time he slept a full eight hours), is miserable at his job, and is coming to terms with the fact that his wife (Stacey Nelkin) is cheating on him. Wide awake, he decides to go on a late-night drive and finds himself in the parking garage at LAX, where he's as shocked as anyone when he ends up rescuing Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) from a quartet of bumbling Iranian assassins (one of them played by Landis). Once an aspiring starlet ("I'm not as young as I look," she says), Diana has fallen in with some shady characters and was returning from Zurich with priceless jewels that belonged to the deposed Shah of Iran. Her associate Hasi (Ali Madani) was killed at the airport just before she landed on the hood of Ed's car. Her contact is Hamid (Houshang Touzie), but in addition to the four assassins working for Hasi's double-crossing, vengeful aunt Shaheen (Irene Papas), she and unlikely new partner Ed are also targeted by Colin Morris (David Bowie), a dapper killer in the employ of French criminal Melville (Roger Vadim), in a madcap plot that also involves Diana's Elvis impersonator brother (Bruce McGill), her actress friend Christie (Kathryn Harrold), and her estranged, terminally ill sugar daddy Jack Caper (Richard Farnsworth).



It's not every day that you see a movie with rockabilly legend Carl Perkins pulling a knife out of his chest and using it to attack David Bowie, and INTO THE NIGHT is filled with bizarre bits throughout that always keep you intrigued. Goldblum and Pfeiffer (then best known for GREASE 2 and SCARFACE) are a charming team, but the script by Ron Koslow (who went on to create the acclaimed late '80s Linda Hamilton/Ron Perlman TV series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) has uneven tonal shifts from goofy comedy to shocking violence, with one likable character and even a cute dog being ruthlessly killed off. One of the most notable elements of INTO THE NIGHT--similar to THE BLUES BROTHERS--is Landis packing it with a ton of cameos, from small roles for Bowie, Perkins as Hamid's henchman, and Dan Aykroyd as one of Ed's engineer colleagues to appearances by a small army of Landis' filmmaker friends: Vadim, Paul Mazursky as Christie's boyfriend, David Cronenberg as Ed's boss, Don Siegel as a lecherous old man with a hooker in a men's room stall, Paul Bartel as a hotel doorman, Waldo Salt as a homeless guy, Rick Baker as a drug dealer, Jim Henson as a guy forced off of a hotel lobby phone, Lawrence Kasdan as a detective, Jonathan Demme as an FBI agent, Amy Heckerling as a waitress, and others. Roger Ebert was very critical of the plethora of director cameos, saying they were a distraction from the real actors, but Landis is careful to not draw too much attention to them. A sight gag with an old rich guy emerging from a men's room stall followed close behind by a hooker is funny regardless of whether or not it's Don Siegel. Don Siegel isn't the joke. It's a fun, running inside joke for hardcore movie nerds, but it's not a distraction for the casual moviegoer. I don't understand Ebert's gripe, because other than when it came to guys like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Henson, and Landis, it's doubtful anyone but an obsessive film fanatic was able to recognize directors by sight in the primitive, pre-internet days of 1985. Did anyone other than a movie critic watch INTO THE NIGHT and say "Hey, look, it's FOUL PLAY director Colin Higgins!"? Ebert was distracted because he knew who the directors were and apparently was in a bad mood when he watched it, but did civilian moviegoers care? Cinephiles have an added layer of enjoyment with INTO THE NIGHT, but even without that insider knowledge, time's been kind to it. It's a funny and offbeat, if frequently uneven film that remains a sentimental favorite of mine from the 1980s.