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Friday, May 18, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: THE FORGIVEN (2018) and BENT (2018)


THE FORGIVEN
(US/South Africa/UK - 2018)


1984's THE KILLING FIELDS and 1986's THE MISSION earned Roland Joffe a lifetime pass to the Respected Filmmakers Club, but his career's been in a near-constant state of freefall for the better part of 25 years. His last good movie was 1998's underrated modern noir GOODBYE LOVER, and in the years since, he crashed and burned with 2007's unwatchable CAPTIVITY, a repugnant SAW ripoff made at the height of the torture porn craze that has to go down in the annals of cinema as one of the most shocking and depressing downfalls for a once-revered filmmaker. Joffe's subsequent films range from forgettable at best to embarrassing at worst (who knows how he got roped into directing the t.A.T.u.-inspired Mischa Barton vehicle YOU AND I, which went straight to DVD in 2012 after three years on the shelf?), but THE FORGIVEN almost qualifies as a return to form. It's ponderous and slow-moving, and has to dumb it down for the audience (opening with a caption that defines "apartheid"), but it's also sincere, well-acted, and get better as it goes on. Set in 1996 in post-apartheid South Africa under President Nelson Mandela, THE FORGIVEN centers on Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Forest Whitaker) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a restorative justice body whose goal is to grant amnesty for those guilty of human rights violations, all in the hopes of the country coming together to put its past behind. Tutu is assessing the amnesty candidacy of Piet Blomfeld (Eric Bana), an ex-death squad member in a maximum security Cape Town prison. Blomfeld doesn't seem interested in clearing his conscience--he taunts the Archbishop with the kaffir slur and enthusiastically recounts his most vile crimes against black South Africans--but Tutu senses something in him when it comes to a court case involving two murdered teenagers that connects Blomfeld with two other death squad cohorts--Francois Schmidt (Jeff Gum) and Hansi Coetzee (Morne Visser)--who are now guards in the very prison housing him.






Based on the Michael Ashton play The Archbishop and the Antichrist, THE FORGIVEN was scripted by Ashton and Joffe and expands on the play by adding a subplot involving a 17-year-old black inmate (Nandiphile Mbeshu) forced into the attempted murder of Blomfeld to establish his cred on the inside only to be taken under his target's wing. Blomfeld's demonstration of a capacity to forgive and his AMERICAN HISTORY X/Come-to-Jesus moment where he realizes the error of his ways never quite come off as believable, despite Joffe's ham-fisted attempts to hammer it home by providing the loathsome, rage-filled racist with a tragic backstory to excuse the monster he's been for his entire adult life. But Bana is good, as is Whitaker, despite being forced to act around an almost comically large prosthetic nose that makes him look less like Desmond Tutu and more like Squidward from SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. The long scenes between Tutu and Blomfeld (a fictional composite) constituted Ashton's play and here, with Blomfeld's unapologetic and horrifically detailed descriptions of his misdeeds, almost makes these sequences play like a post-apartheid EXORCIST III with back and forth monologues by the two stars. The climactic courtroom showdown between an on-trial Coetzee and the grieving mother (Thandi Makhubele) of two teenagers brutally slaughtered by Blomfeld while Coetzee and Schmidt looked on is powerful and unexpectedly moving. THE FORGIVEN is a mixed bag--it's too slow and meandering and the story arc for Blomfeld smacks of plot convenience--but it has its moments, especially once you can get around Whitaker's cartoonishly fake nose and focus on his performance. It's not enough to say the 72-year-old Joffe is back per se, but THE FORGIVEN shows that there might be some signs of life. (R, 120 mins)




BENT
(Spain/US - 2018)


After winning an Oscar for co-writing CRASH with Paul Haggis, Bobby Moresco made the little-seen crime drama 10TH AND WOLF and moved on to TV, creating the acclaimed but short-lived series THE BLACK DONNELLYS. He wrote and directed the straight-to-VOD BENT, his first feature film in over a decade, and it's a thoroughly generic and utterly forgettable present-day noir-inspired cop thriller. Disgraced ex-cop Danny Gallagher (Karl Urban) has just been paroled after serving three years for the killing of an undercover officer during a botched drug bust set up by his broke, gambling-addicted partner Charlie (Vincent Spano). They were supposed to nail scumbag businessman Driscoll (John Finn), but Charlie ended up getting killed, Gallagher took two bullets, and both Charlie's and Gallagher's names were dragged through the gutter after Driscoll framed them as corrupt, or "bent" cops on the take. Once he's out, Gallagher makes like an unlicensed and uncharismatic Philip Marlowe, trying to get to the bottom of the mystery that may involve the car bomb death of the wife of a Driscoll associate, as well as shady and untrustworthy femme fatale government agent Rebecca (a miscast Sofia Vergara), who's been ordered to keep Gallagher from digging any further, an assignment that inevitably involves showing up unannounced at his ramshackle pier house and immediately disrobing and stepping into the steaming shower with him.






Based on a series of Gallagher novels by J.P. O'Donnell, BENT is hopelessly muddled (there's even a red herring about "Arab terrorists" being involved), with an uncharacteristically dull Urban on what seems to be one of the least urgent quests for vengeance you'll ever see. BENT is filled with would-be hard-boiled dialogue that rarely works, mainly because it's delivered in such a bland fashion. It's the kind of movie that has a climactic showdown and shootout at a shipyard. It's the kind of movie where the bad guy delivers a long-winded, Christopher Walken-esque speech ("You know, in Alaska, they smoke this fish on the beach...") while intimidatingly slicing salmon with a huge knife. It's the kind of movie where you know a prominently-billed name actor has to have more to do with what's going on since he's barely in it until the last 15 minutes. Also with Andy Garcia as Gallagher's retired, fatherly cop mentor who pops up periodically to tell him to let the past go and get out of town, BENT doesn't even muster the energy to be a harmless time-killer on a slow night. Nobody seems really invested in it, and New Orleans is rather unconvincingly played by Rome, of all places. At least everyone got a nice Italian vacation out of it. (R, 96 mins)


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Retro Review: EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS (1977)


EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS
aka TRAP THEM AND KILL THEM
(Italy - 1977/US release 1984)

Directed by Joe D'Amato (Aristide Massaccesi). Written by Romano Scandariato and Aristide Massaccesi. Cast: Laura Gemser, Gabriele Tinti, Susan Scott (Nieves Navarro), Donald O'Brien, Percy Hogan, Monica Zanchi, Annamarie Clementi, Geoffrey Copleston, Dirce Funari, Cindy Leadbetter. (Unrated, 93 mins)

The penultimate entry in the Joe D'Amato/Laura Gemser "Black Emanuelle" series, EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS is a mash-up of the softcore porn that defined the films to that point, fused with the burgeoning cannibal craze that would explode in Italy over the next few years. Umberto Lenzi's MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (1972) got the ball rolling, but it was more of a MAN CALLED HORSE ripoff that kept its extreme gore limited to very small doses. It was Ruggero Deodato's JUNGLE HOLOCAUST (1977), aka THE LAST SURVIVOR and his landmark CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) that really established the subgenre as it would come to be known, along with Sergio Martino's MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978) and Lenzi's double-shot of EATEN ALIVE (1980) and CANNIBAL FEROX (1981), the latter being pretty much the last word in the purely exploitative nature of the Italian cannibal gut-muncher cycle. To that end, D'Amato (real name: Aristide Massaccesi) was a bit ahead of the curve in 1977. Over the course of 1976 and 1977, he'd already sent Gemser's intrepid, globe-trotting, and sexually adventurous photojournalist Emanuelle to Bangkok in EMANUELLE IN BANGKOK, America in EMANUELLE IN AMERICA, and around the world in EMANUELLE AROUND THE WORLD. After the snuff film and bestiality extremes of EMANUELLE IN AMERICA, D'Amato probably figured the cannibal subgenre was the only transgressive depth to plummet. That is, until he decided necrophilia was a viable horror film subject with 1979's BEYOND THE DARKNESS.






But for its first half, it's mostly a standard EMANUELLE affair: there's one gratuitous sex scene after another, with a pretty ballsy one on the banks of the East River in broad daylight, between the Brooklyn and the Manhattan Bridges, with locals and some tourists on a passing ferry presumably getting an eyeful (this scene is shot in the same spot as the opening of Lucio Fulci's THE NEW YORK RIPPER and Yul Brynner's introduction in Antonio Margheriti's DEATH RAGE). Emanuelle is first seen undercover doing an expose of a NYC mental institution (an obvious Rome studio interior, with signs reading "Farmacy" and "Phisical Therapy") with a typically conspicuous camera, this one hidden behind the blinking eyes of a doll. One patient (Cindy Leadbetter) bites off the breast of a lesbian nurse, prompting Emanuelle to graphically grope her for information, discovering a tattoo just above her pubic region that's the sign of the Tupinamba, the last cannibal tribe still present in the Amazon jungle. Teaming professionally and sexually with anthropologist Dr. Mark Lester (Gabriele Tinti, Gemser's real-life husband), Emanuelle ventures to the jungle where Lester's old missionary pal Rev. Wilkes (Geoffrey Copleston) has his virginal daughter Isabelle (Monica Zanchi) and nun Sister Angela (Annamaria Clementi) accompany them on their quest to find evidence of the Tupinamba tribe. They eventually cross paths with impotent hunter Donald McKenzie (Donald O'Brien) and his sex-starved, nympho wife Maggie (Nieves Navarro, under her "Susan Scott" pseudonym), who's getting it on with their guide Salvador (Percy Hogan), before running afoul of the Tupinamba who, to the surprise of no one, start hunting, killing, and eating them one by one.




Factor out the plethora of sex scenes, and the set-up of EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS is virtually identical to DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. (both films were written by Romano Scandariato), where a group of New Yorkers make their way to the jungle only to encounter cannibals and zombies, thanks to the experiments of the titular doctor (played by the busy O'Brien). Other than the bit of gore in the opening sequence of LAST CANNIBALS, D'Amato waits about an hour before the horror really gets going. Until then, it's a slightly more explicit than usual EMANUELLE outing, with one surprisingly creative bit where D'Amato skips the initial coupling of Emanuelle and Dr. Lester, merely implying it until he flashes back to it later during a cab ride to the airport. It's a like a softcore porn precursor to the non-linear editing style Steven Soderbergh would use to memorable effect with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in OUT OF SIGHT. Given the context, it's an unusual and inventive decision, demonstrating the kind of pure cinema that one usually doesn't expect to see in a Joe D'Amato joint, whether it's traditional genre fare like THE GRIM REAPER or his ATOR films, his horror/porno crossovers like 1980's EROTIC NIGHTS OF THE LIVING DEAD and 1981's PORNO HOLOCAUST, or the straight-up hardcore porn he'd churn out near the end of his career.




Just out on Blu-ray from Severin, EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS is a film that gives the devout Eurotrash exploitation fan everything they want: near-constant T&A, laughably bad dubbing, misspelled English-as-second-language signs, extreme gore, incredible 1977 NYC location work, a supporting cast filled with Eurocult stalwarts, a catchy Nico Fidenco theme song with "Make Love on the Wing," bullshit claims that it's a true story (citing the work of a fictitious reporter named "Jennifer O'Sullivan"), and the iconic Gemser, who looks even more gorgeous than usual here. And as an added bonus, unlike most of its type in the cannibal cycle, there's no graphic onscreen animal violence, which has always been the biggest obstacle in the "enjoyment" of this stuff (the closest it gets is a friendly chimpanzee helping himself to a Marlboro). It took the film seven years to make it to America, where the short-lived Megastar Films gave it a spotty release on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit in 1984 as TRAP THEM AND KILL THEM, a retitling obviously designed to capitalize on the notoriety of MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY, the rechristening given to Umberto Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX when it hit the US in 1983. D'Amato and Gemser would make one more EMANUELLE film with 1978's EMANUELLE AND THE WHITE SLAVE TRADE, which features copious amounts of redubbed stock footage from earlier entries (Emanuelle's meeting with her editor and shots of Gemser and Tinti driving around NYC--complete with a theater showing KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE--are lifted completely from LAST CANNIBALS), plus an amazing newly-shot bowling alley brawl. Though the D'Amato-run "Black Emanuelle" series would wrap up after WHITE SLAVE TRADE, Gemser starred in a few offshoots as a character named "Emanuelle," most notably a pair of wonderfully nasty and batshit Bruno Mattei women-in-prison classics with 1982's VIOLENCE IN A WOMEN'S PRISON (released in the US in 1984 as CAGED WOMEN) and 1983's WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE (released in the US in 1985). Gemser retired from acting following Tinti's death from cancer in 1991, though she worked behind the scenes as a costume and wardrobe designer on several Filmirage productions, most notably the cult classic TROLL 2. She's spent the last 25 years almost completely out of the public eye, resurfacing only for a few audio interviews and one on-camera interview for a 2000 British TV documentary on Sylvia Kristel's EMMANUELLE movies.




Wednesday, May 9, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: THE HUMANITY BUREAU (2018); JOSIE (2018); and STEPHANIE (2018)


THE HUMANITY BUREAU
(Canada/US/UK - 2018)


Nicolas Cage is in total coast mode in this lifeless and embarrassingly cheap-looking post-apocalyptic sci-fi dystopia dud. Set in a future America being rebuilt 30 years after a second Civil War, famine, and nuclear fallout wreaked nationwide destruction, THE HUMANITY BUREAU has Cage as Noah Kross, an agent with the titular government organization. They're in charge of weeding out and investigating those who aren't contributing their fair share to New America, where the rule is that you must give more than you take. These laws primarily affect the lower class, making the very concept a Fox News wet dream, but THE HUMANITY BUREAU can't be bothered to muster up any political subtext, unless you count one minor character being Photoshopped into that creepy pic of Donald Trump and Mitt Romney at dinner. Those who are deemed burdens on society are sent packing to a controlled welfare community called New Eden. Now, anyone who's seen a future dystopian sci-fi movie before will instantly figure out that New Eden is really a concentration camp set up for the genocidal extermination of the lower and underclass undesirables. It's a great concept for a film that gave a shit and maybe tried, but that's not THE HUMANITY BUREAU. Instead, glum Kross, who's shocked--shocked!--to learn what New Eden really is (watch Cage gravely intone "What have we done?" when he finds out, long after anyone watching does), decides to go against his ruthless boss Adam (Hugh Dillon as Stanley Tucci as Dean Norris) and protect single mom Rachel Weller (Sarah Lind) and her 11-year-old son Lucas (Jakob Davies) when they're deemed New Eden-worthy. They head to Canada in Kross' improbably still-functional late '70s El Camino, with Adam and comic relief agent Porter (Vicellous Shannon, who saw better days as a child actor when he starred opposite Denzel Washington in THE HURRICANE) in lukewarm pursuit.





Like Andrew Niccol's just-released Netflix film ANON, THE HUMANITY BUREAU feels like a high-concept sci-fi film that might've been something in 2001 or 2002, when Cage was still an A-lister. But with most of the budget obviously going to its star, the film never effectively conveys a post-apocalyptic atmosphere. There's a ton of scenes with Cage laughably fake driving his El Camino against an amateurishly phony digital backdrop that looks like it was done by Mattel's My First Greenscreen. There's a lot of interior scenes and the exteriors just look like remote areas of Canada, where the film was shot. People live a normal life considering how hellish it was just three decades earlier according to Rachel, who tells Kross stories of neighbors selling their children for quick cash or eating them to survive (wait--he was alive then...wouldn't he know that?). Any of that would've made a more compelling film than somber Nic Cage in his new limited edition Christopher Lee Memorial Hairpiece pretending to drive a car or bonding with an obnoxious kid. Speaking of Lucas, at one point Rachel begs Kross to delay their shipping out to New Eden because Lucas has a recital the next day for which he's been "rehearsing for months."  Kross agrees and shows up at the recital to watch. Never mind that this film doesn't even seem to exist in its own world--the recital is filled with suburban middle-class parents supposedly living in a post-nuke dystopia where water is still a scarce commodity--but the big performance? Lucas and his class singing "Amazing Grace" and Lucas getting a solo dramatic reading of...The Pledge of Allegiance? This took months of preparation? Lucas is 11 years old. These kids are in 5th or 6th grade. Is this movie even trying? No, it's not. As MOM AND DAD showed earlier this year, Cage is still capable of bringing his A-game when he gives a shit, but to say he brought his even C-game to THE HUMANITY BUREAU would be charitable. He hasn't been this disinterested and disengaged with the material since BANGKOK DANGEROUS. Screenwriter Dave Schultz appears to show some affinity for CHINATOWN by giving Cage's character a name that riffs on John Huston's despicable Noah Cross, but other than that? Forget it, Jake. It's THE HUMANITY BUREAU. (R, 94 mins)



JOSIE
(US - 2018)


It seems that much of today's film criticism consists of writers trying to out-"woke" one another by airing grievances, looking for reasons to be outraged, and listing ways in which they were offended instead of reviewing the movie itself. I consciously avoid that unless the film's offenses are so upfront and blatant that addressing them is unavoidable and thus making it impossible to separate the art from the artist. One time in which that kind of review approach was unfortunately justified was back in 2014, when I reviewed the indie horror film CONTRACTED. Click here for more about that, but in short, the film's chronicle of the degenerative body and STD-related horrors that result from a young bisexual woman's acquaintance rape at a party came across as heavy-handed and frankly gross slut-shaming on the part of director Eric England, largely because the film keeps referring to the inciting act as a "one-night stand," when it clearly isn't. I was unfamiliar with England's work at that point, but upon seeing CONTRACTED, a film that willfully refuses to differentiate rape and a one-night stand and subsequently blames its heroine for the venereal horrors that result from it, it was uncomfortably obvious that this guy seemed to have some issues with women. Cut to 2018, and just as England's latest film JOSIE was going straight to VOD and the #MeToo movement was well-established as a powerful force in the entertainment industry, allegations by his ex-girlfriend Katie Stegeman (who appeared in CONTRACTED and his earlier film MADISON COUNTY) surfaced on social media detailing several years of physical and psychological abuse. Her story is quite harrowing, and if it's true (like JOSIE, any resulting scandal pretty much vanished instantly because nobody knows or cares who Eric England is), then it's safe to infer that England is every bit the creep that CONTRACTED went out of its way to reveal him to be.





I missed England's 2017 kidnapping-gone-awry dark comedy GET THE GIRL (whose cast featured convention regulars like Noah Segan and Scout Taylor-Compton), but JOSIE is a step up, at least in terms of relative prestige, as it marks the first time England's got some well-known and reasonably big-ish names who may or may not regret being in it now. In a small, depressing California town, Hank (Dylan McDermott) is a quiet loner living in a dive motel and working as a parking monitor at the local high school, where he's derisively referred to as "Spank" by a student body who look and act like they missed a casting call for Larry Clark's BULLY. Hank goes home to his dingy room, where two turtles are his only companions, and is annoyed when his nosy neighbors won't leave him alone. Hank comes out of his shell with the arrival of Josie (GAME OF THRONES' Sophie Turner), a tattooed high-schooler from the wrong side of the tracks who's new in town and arrives alone (her mom is on her way, she claims), quickly befriending Hank as well as Marcus (Jack Kilmer, Val's son), Hank's chief tormenter at school. Josie gets Hank to open up about his dark past and what drove him to choose a life of isolation and solitude, while Hank sees--though he knows he shouldn't--the possibility for something more. It isn't long before things come to a head, with Marcus vandalizing Hank's truck and boat and Josie ditching Hank to have sex with Marcus to make Hank jealous. Anyone who's ever seen a movie with a femme fatale will figure out precisely what Josie's up to at exactly the midway point and the only suspense really comes from watching how she's got both Hank and Marcus wrapped around her finger. And around the time of the climax, as things play out in the worst way possible for lonely, hapless Hank and dense, horny Marcus, that CONTRACTED ugliness and rage and England's alleged violence against Stegeman pops into your head. In fairness, JOSIE is an accomplished and more disciplined film compared to CONTRACTED, and it gets a lot of mileage from an excellent performance by McDermott, who's often achingly sad to watch as Hank talks to his turtles, is the butt of jokes and pranks at the high school, and plays some old-school country music while he puts on his best cowboy duds and slow dances by himself as he gets ready to have dinner with Josie only to find out Marcus is already in her room, leaving him to stand outside and listen to them fuck. And if you listen closely, you can probably hear England just out of camera range muttering "Yeah...that fucking bitch." (R, 87 mins)



STEPHANIE
(US - 2018)


There has to be fascinating story about what went wrong with STEPHANIE because the signs are all there that this had to be a total clusterfuck behind the scenes. Curiously short running time, with super-slow closing credits rolling at 78 minutes? Check. Produced by profitable horror factory Blumhouse and left to gather dust on a Universal shelf for three years before getting a stealth VOD debut two weeks before hitting Blu-ray? Check. The least-finished-looking visual effects this side of A SOUND OF THUNDER? Check. Familiar names present in the IMDb cast listing (Harold Perrineau, Kenneth Choi, Alexa Mansour) but nowhere to be seen in the released film? Directed by Oscar-winning mercenary screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A BEAUTIFUL MIND)? Check. It's all too apparent that Universal had no clue what to do with this movie, which doesn't even have a real trailer (see below--it's just one out-of-context clip), and doesn't even look finished, exhibiting an abundance of evidence that it was just abandoned and completely given up on by everyone involved. That's too bad, because it gets off to an odd and interesting start, with the entire opening half-hour being a one-girl show for young Shree Crooks (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) in the title role. She's alone in nice-looking suburban house and seems to have been left there for a while. Food is rotting in the fridge, she's down to pretzels and slices of American cheese, and she spends her time watching TV and talking to her stuffed toy turtle Francis. She's wary of periodic appearances of "the monster," and we see occasional flickering shadows of something around a corner, but she hides in her room and it goes away. There may or may not be the dead body of her older brother Paul in his room, and TV news reports show brief snippets of catastrophic disasters all over the world. Her parents (Frank Grillo of the PURGE sequels and FRINGE's Anna Torv) finally return home from wherever they were, casting concerned glances at Stephanie and seemingly shocked that she's alive. Talk soon turns to dealing with "the monster" as STEPHANIE proceeds to move at a glacial pace while doling out details to a story that never really comes together.





Goldsman, who doesn't have a writing credit here (that's left for the team of Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, who went on to script the cult indie SUPER DARK TIMES), gives us the what but the rest--the why and the how--remain frustrating mysteries, and not in a cleverly ambiguous or thoughtfully enigmatic way. It seems to use the classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode "It's a Good Life" as a springboard but it just doesn't make sense on any narrative or logical level. Apparently, a much different cut of STEPHANIE screened at the 2017 Overlook Film Festival, containing a framing device and a ton of exposition about the setting being a dystopian 2027 (this is where Perrineau's character appeared), but that's all gone in this version. It'll be obvious to anyone who watches enough movies even without knowing that Perrineau and others have been cut from the movie that huge chunks of this thing have been hacked away seemingly willy-nilly. There's a few positives barely salvaged in the wreckage--Crooks is very good and looks so much like Torv that the two of them playing mother and daughter is inspired casting; and there's one intense bit involving a blender--but the climactic CGI display is a bush-league embarrassment and the released film (I hesitate to call it "completed") is a botched shitshow that looks like Universal said "Hey, what's going on with this?" and Jason Blum and everyone involved shouted "Not it!" and went home. (R, 86 mins)


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

On Netflix: ANON (2018)


ANON
(Germany/US/Canada - 2018)

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol. Cast: Clive Owen, Amanda Seyfried, Colm Feore, Mark O'Brien, Sonya Walger, Joe Pingue, Iddo Goldberg, Charlie Ebbs, Damon Runyan, Sara Mitich, Doug Murray, Jean Michel Le Gal, Douglas Stolfi. (Unrated, 100 mins)

The Netflix pickup ANON finds filmmaker Andrew Niccol back in the realm of high-concept sci-fi that briefly established him as the Next Big Thing in the 1990s. He's best known for writing and directing 1997's GATTACA and he received an Oscar nomination for scripting 1998's THE TRUMAN SHOW. Since then, Niccol's career has been on an erratic trajectory, splitting time between further explorations in sci-fi like the 2002 Al Pacino flop S1M0NE and 2011's terrible IN TIME, and political films like 2005's LORD OF WAR and 2015's barely-released drone treatise GOOD KILL, which was overshadowed by the more successful sleeper hit EYE IN THE SKY. He also tried his hand at big-budget YA sci-fi with 2013's THE HOST, but 20 years on, Niccol still hasn't matched the one-two punch of GATTACA and THE TRUMAN SHOW. His latest film ANON explores themes previously seen in his earlier sci-fi films but with middling and repetitive results. The production design is superb and it's a very expensive-looking film, but after a promising start, Niccol's script devolves into a string of rote cliches and tired genre tropes, becoming the kind of film that doesn't even bother following its own internal logic.






Set in a dystopian near-future (is there any other kind?), ANON presents a world where everyone's POV is one of constant information. Pass a stranger on the street, you get a readout of their name, age, and vital stats. Order a hot dog from a food truck, and the nutritional information is displayed. It's a totalitarian practice that makes crime solving easy for glum, burned-out cop Sal Frieland (Clive Owen). He can simply look at a victim, access the playback of the last ten seconds of their life, and see what the victim saw. But after coming across several corpses whose digital memories have been hacked and scrambled, it's clear to Frieland and his boss Gattis (Colm Feore) that they're dealing with a "ghost," a face without a name that goes about undetected, their stats and identity not in "The Ether," a term used to describe the seemingly limitless digital reality that holds the data and images and the place in which they venture to solve crimes. The only thing they know for sure is that the killer is female, and the trail eventually leads to "Anon" (Amanda Seyfried, also in IN TIME), a mercenary hacker who specializes in erasing memories and playback that a client wants gone, be it criminal activities, extramarital affairs, etc. But Anon's clients are turning up dead, so Frieland goes undercover as an investment broker for over a month, establishing an identity and memories outside of his existence as a cop and then seeking out "memory hackers" in the hopes that he'll draw Anon out of hiding, setting himself up as bait to catch her in the act. This ultimately leads to Frieland's perception of reality becoming dangerously skewed as Anon--or someone--gets inside his head and starts toying with his mind.


After an intriguing set-up, ANON soon demonstrates little urgency settling into a groove of Philip K. Dick worship combined with Niccol's usual sci-fi fixations of identity, individuality, and privacy. It all culminates in a heavy-handed lecture from Anon for a final scene, and the ultimate reveal of the guilty party is largely a non-event since we don't even spend enough time with the character in question for it to pack much resonance. And the longer ANON goes on, the more careless it becomes. Every inconsistency or deux ex machina that it pulls out of its ass can be explained away with "He got in my memory...that's what he wanted me to think!" The biggest eye-roller comes after Frieland spends over a month undercover and hires Anon to do a job and the cybersecurity experts working with the police are able to begin tracking her. After three days back as a cop, Gattis tells Frieland he has to go back undercover and re-establish contact with Anon, which concerns Frieland since his most recent memories and experiences will show him being a cop doing cop things and investigating her. "We'll put a patch over it!" Gattis says, as if Frieland has asked him a silly question. A patch? If you could just "put a patch over it" and mask the memories, then why make Frieland spend over a month working as an investment broker, creating a fake girlfriend for him to cheat on with a real hooker in order to give Anon a specific memory to digitally wipe when they could've just faked it all along? A patch? Owen treads on familiar ground here, with Frieland essentially being a cop version of his CHILDREN OF MEN character. Niccol doesn't really do Owen any favors, giving Frieland a checklist of cliched baggage--he's an alcoholic, his kid was killed in a tragic accident, and he's got a bitchy and unsympathetic ex-wife (Sonya Walger) who's moved on--that's supposed to function as backstory. ANON certainly isn't terrible, but it's tired and uninspired, feeling like the kind of sci-fi movie that should've hit theaters in 2002 or thereabouts. In a way, Netflix is the perfect venue for it, since there's a good chance at least some people will mistake it for a feature-length BLACK MIRROR episode.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Retro Review: THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS (1973)


THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS
(Italy - 1973; US release 1975)

Directed by Sergio Martino. Written by Ernesto Gastaldi. Cast: Luc Merenda, Richard Conte, Silvano Tranquilli, Carlo Alighiero, Martine Brochard, Chris Avram, Luciano Bartoli, Lia Tanzi, Steffen Zacharias, Bruno Corazzari, Luciano Rossi, Cyrille Spiga, Rosario Borelli, Antony Vernon (Antonio Casale), Bruno Boschetti, Sergio Smacchi, Tom Felleghy. (R, 99 mins)

After the artistic triumphs of Dario Argento's gialli, the next most notable figure in the genre in the early 1970s was arguably the journeyman Sergio Martino. Frequently teamed with the stunning Edwige Fenech, Martino cranked out a series of verbosely-titled gialli like 1971's THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH and THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL, and 1972's ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK and YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY, and his 1973 masterpiece TORSO. Though directors like Umberto Lenzi and Fernando Di Leo also dabbled in gialli, their strengths at that point in time were the violent, politically-charged poliziotteschi, a craze to which Martino inevitably contributed a handful of entries, beginning with 1973's THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS, which has just been released on Blu-ray from Code Red.






Though it works in the social and political implications of an early '70s Milan that these films frequently presented as a violent, crime-infested hellhole, there's a definite DIRTY HARRY influence to THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS in its central character, Giorgio Caneparo (Luc Merenda). A standard-issue plays-by-his-own-rules cop, hot-tempered Caneparo is read the riot act by his boss Del Buono (Chris Avram) after blowing away a pair of escapees from a locomotive prisoner transport when they were already cornered and ready to give up and he was more than capable of simply arresting them. Del Buono suggests Caneparo lay low and look into some robberies that he's been investigating, and no sooner than mentioning that does Del Buono get gunned down in the street by a trio of mystery assailants. Obsessed with avenging his boss and fed up with the useless lip service paid to his memory ("Pathetic!" he shouts, interrupting an official government tribute to his slain boss), Caneparo goes undercover to infiltrate the bank robbery operation, which is being coordinated by Milan mob boss Padulo (Richard Conte). Caneparo gets a job as a wheelman for Padulo's current crew, and his first job with them goes off the rails when a psycho Padulo flunky (Bruno Corazzari) opens fire on a pregnant woman for no reason. But the rationale for the robberies runs deeper, as Caneparo gradually figures out that Padulo isn't quite who he says he is, and that the supposedly powerful mobster is just a cog in the wheel, serving much more powerful masters with more ambitiously sinister plans.


Those plans are never completely clear given the muddled political subtext of THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS. There's a lot of talk in Ernesto Gastaldi's script about creating an aura of chaos around Milan and throughout Italy and "rebuilding this country all over again," which probably played better for Italian audiences living through the political tumult of that era. But even in the English-dubbed version released in the US by Scotia in 1975, the film is a solid second-tier polizia offering, with a memorable score by Guido & Maurizio De Angelis, some not-quite-but-still-spirited FRENCH CONNECTION-style car chases and Merenda (dubbed by Michael Forest) a believably pissed-off lone wolf cop in the Dirty Harry vein (he even gets a final moment comparable to tossing his badge away in disgust). It's also worth noting for those with polizia experience that THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS is also the source of that oft-used shot of a car crashing through a stack of cardboard boxes engulfed in flames, which resurfaced in seemingly a dozen other polizias and even more trailers. Born in 1943, Merenda got his first big break as a doomed French racing driver in the 1971 Steve McQueen vanity project LE MANS. He would go on to work with Martino on several occasions, most notably in a supporting role in TORSO and in a pair of entertaining 1975 actioners, GAMBLING CITY and SILENT ACTION. Merenda was a regular presence in Italian action films throughout the '70s and he would shift to Italian TV in the '80s. He grew disenchanted with the entertainment industry and walked away, retiring from acting in 1992 to focus on his family and opening a successful antique shop in Paris, which he still runs to this day, taking a break only to make a one-off return to the screen when Merenda superfan Eli Roth talked him into accepting a small role in 2007's HOSTEL PART II.


Richard Conte (1910-1975)
After a memorable turn as the duplicitous Barzini in 1972's THE GODFATHER, veteran American actor Conte found himself in much demand in Italy. In 1973 alone, including THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS, he played mob figures in no less than seven Italian crime movies, including Fernando Di Leo's THE BOSS and the gangster spoof MY BROTHER ANASTASIA, which teamed him with beloved Italian comedian Alberto Sordi. Conte and Merenda reteamed in 1974 for Di Leo's SHOOT FIRST...DIE LATER, with Merenda as a corrupt cop and Conte as a subservient mob lawyer who jumps at the chance to throw his boss under the bus and take over as soon as he's feeling unappreciated. Thanks to the worldwide success of THE GODFATHER, Conte was such a sought-after export-value name for the Italian crime genre that he wound up spending the rest of his career in Europe and never appeared in another American film. Conte died in April 1975 from complications of a heart attack and a subsequent series of strokes (he's dubbed by someone else and looks noticeably frail and aged in SHOOT FIRST...DIE LATER compared to THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS just a year earlier), and by the end of his life, the jobs he was getting in Italy were on a marked decline compared to the exemplary polizia work and GODFATHER-associated star treatment he was receiving just two years earlier. Conte's final film found him as a glum, morose exorcist in 1975's tawdry and embarrassing NAKED EXORCISM, by far the worst Italian EXORCIST ripoff of them all, released in the US as THE POSSESSOR in 1977, two years after his death.


Friday, May 4, 2018

Retro Review: A PISTOL FOR RINGO (1965) and THE RETURN OF RINGO (1965)


A PISTOL FOR RINGO
(Italy/Spain - 1965; US release 1966)

Written and directed by Duccio Tessari. Cast: Montgomery Wood (Giuliano Gemma), Fernando Sancho, George Martin, Hally Hammond (Lorella De Luca), Nieves Navarro, Antonio Casas, Jose Manuel Martin, "Pajarito," Juan Casalilla, Pablito Alonso, Nazzareno Zamperla, Paco Sanz, Jose Halufi. (Unrated, 99 mins)

Following the blockbuster success of Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS in Italy in 1964, countless spaghetti westerns followed at a relentless pace for the next decade. An early hit in the spaghetti cycle, 1965's A PISTOL FOR RINGO made it to American theaters courtesy of Embassy Pictures in 1966, a full year ahead of FISTFUL's belated US release. However, its influences lie more with the '50s style Hollywood B oater rather than the trailblazing work of Leone or Sergio Corbucci's DJANGO, right down to Ennio Morricone's uncharacteristically Dimitri Tiomkin/Elmer Bernstein-like score. Written and directed by Italian genre journeyman Duccio Tessari (who had already scripted several post-HERCULES peplum and would latter dabble in everything from 007 ripoffs to gialli to crime thrillers), A PISTOL FOR RINGO is part of that first wave of spaghetti westerns--along with Ferdinando Baldi's TEXAS, ADIOS and Sergio Corbucci two-fer of MINNESOTA CLAY and THE HELLBENDERS to name just three--that were still emulating the Hollywood style before Leone's more influential FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY set the genre template, along with the more politically-charged Zapata spaghettis like Corbucci's THE MERCENARY and COMPANEROS, and Damiano Damiani's A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL. Corbucci would soon shift gears--the same year he made THE HELLBENDERS, he also cranked out the classic DJANGO--and it wouldn't take long for Tessari to make the change with PISTOL's much different sequel THE RETURN OF RINGO later in 1965.





A PISTOL FOR RINGO is an entertaining time-killer at best, the kind of Saturday matinee-type western with a wisecracking hero in Ringo, aka "Angel Face," played by Giuliano Gemma under the pseudonym "Montgomery Wood." He's an outlaw with a heart of gold who guns down four men in self-defense and is promptly thrown in jail by the sheriff (George Martin). At the same time, a band of outlaws led by Sancho (Fernando Sancho in his usual "Frito Bandito" persona that he embodied in seemingly dozens of these things) have robbed a bank and commandeered the outskirts-of-town home of wealthy landowner Major Clyde (Antonio Casas). They're holding his family hostage in exchange for the sheriff--who's engaged to Clyde's daughter Miss Ruby (Lorella De Luca, who would marry Tessari a few years later)--backing off and letting them go. Instead, the sheriff offers Ringo a get out of jail free card: pretend to be an outlaw just passing through and seeking refuge, and ingratiate himself into Sancho's gang, eliminate them all, save Miss Ruby and the hostages, and collect the reward money. Despite its vaguely DESPERATE HOURS scenario, A PISTOL FOR RINGO never takes itself too seriously. Gemma (dubbed by Marc Smith, who would later infamously revoice Franco Nero in ENTER THE NINJA) is loose and likable, but compared to where the genre would go under the leadership of Leone and Corbucci, Tessari displays all the technique, style, and pizazz of a random episode of GUNSMOKE or RAWHIDE. There is one underexplored subplot with Clyde almost being Stockholm Syndrome'd by falling for Sancho's woman (Nieves Navarro, the wife or producer Luciano Ercoli and frequently credited later as "Susan Scott"), and it's got a great theme song performed by Maurizio Graf, but it's so beholden to Hollywood westerns that it even borrows SHANE's ending with Ringo riding off alone. A PISTOL FOR RINGO was a huge hit in Italy in the summer of 1965, and by the end of the year, Tessari and most of the main cast would be back for THE RETURN OF RINGO.


Fernando Sancho as--wait for it---Sancho in A PISTOL FOR RINGO.



THE RETURN OF RINGO
(Italy/Spain - 1965; US release 1966)

Directed by Duccio Tessari. Written by Duccio Tessari and Fernando Di Leo. Cast: Giuliano Gemma, Fernando Sancho, George Martin, Hally Hammond (Lorella De Luca), Nieves Navarro, Antonio Casas, "Pajarito," Monica Sugranes, Victor Bayo, Tunet Vila, Juan Torres, Jose Halufi. (Unrated, 97 mins)

It's obvious that at some point between finishing A PISTOL FOR RINGO and starting the sequel THE RETURN OF RINGO, director/co-writer Duccio Tessari and writer Fernando Di Leo (an uncredited script contributor on PISTOL) saw A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. RETURN is an in-name-only sequel, bringing back much of the same cast (producer Luciano Ercoli even makes sure his wife Nieves Navarro gets a musical number) in different roles with Giuliano Gemma playing a character named Ringo, but clearly not the same Ringo from the previous film, much like Clint Eastwood's archetypal "Man with No Name" is similar in each installment of the Leone trilogy, but they aren't the same character. Here, Gemma's Ringo is a Union soldier returning to his home near the Mexican border two months after the end of the Civil War. He's devastated to find his entire family buried in the local cemetery after the town was taken over by a group of Mexican outlaws led by the evil Fuentes brothers, Esteban (Fernando Sancho, cast radically against type as "Fernando Sancho") and Paco (George Martin, who was the good-guy sheriff in the previous film). When Ringo learns that his wife Hally (Lorella De Luca) has been abducted, informed she's a widow, and is being forced into an arranged marriage with Paco and the useless sheriff (Antonio Casas) has no plans to do anything about it, he goes undercover as a Mexican peasant to wipe out the Fuentes gang and rescue his wife and the young daughter he never knew he had.






A loose spaghetti western reworking of The Odyssey, THE RETURN OF RINGO is a huge improvement over the OK but unremarkable A PISTOL FOR RINGO. It's significantly more atmospheric with its bleak, dusty Almeria desert landscapes, and this incarnation of Ringo is much more serious and driven, with a wife and daughter to save and vengeance to exact as opposed to the blithe and carefree Ringo from the first time around, whose only concern was reward money. It's a grimmer, darker, and more violent film, with Ringo introduced blowing a guy away in a saloon and blood splattering against the wall behind him. Tessari directs RETURN in a more Leone-like fashion, with some tense action sequences, one incredible shot of a silhouetted Ringo (in a great resurrection motif) revealing his true self to the Fuentes gang just before ruthlessly massacring the lot of them, and with music by Ennio Morricone that's still a bit Hollywood (again with a bombastically overemphatic Maurizio Graf theme song) but leaning more toward the distinctive sounds of a spaghetti score. Despite the American success of A PISTOL FOR RINGO, THE RETURN OF RINGO only received a spotty release later in 1966, though the first film was popular enough in the States for MGM to rechristen Sergio Corbucci's 1966 western JOHNNY ORO (starring Mark Damon) as the unofficial sequel RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL for its 1967 US release. A PISTOL FOR RINGO and THE RETURN OF RINGO have just been released in a double feature set from Arrow, with numerous extras, including archival interviews with Gemma (who died in 2013) and De Luca (who passed in 2014), who talks at length about the career of her late husband Tessari (1926-1994), and commentary tracks with spaghetti scholar Henry C. Parke and fan/cult screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner (CLASS OF 1999, DOCTOR MORDRID). When viewed in succession, both films serve to show the transition taking place in the spaghetti western genre in its infancy, from the mimicking of old-school Hollywood to the new standards being set by the Italians in the formation of their uniquely original style that would soon be influencing American westerns in just a few short years.





Saturday, April 28, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: FILM STARS DON'T DIE IN LIVERPOOL (2017); BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS (2018); and DEEP BLUE SEA 2 (2018)


FILM STARS DON'T DIE IN LIVERPOOL
(UK - 2017)


Gloria Grahame won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1952's THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and while she was a big star from the late 1940s through the 1950s, she's been largely forgotten aside from well-schooled movie buffs and regular viewers of Turner Classic Movies. She lived a life ready-made for the tabloids, her most notable scandal being that her fourth husband Tony Ray was the son of her second husband, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE director Nicholas Ray. As the story goes, Nicholas Ray caught Grahame in bed with his 13-year-old son (from his first marriage) and promptly filed for divorce. Grahame's marriage to the younger Ray several years later in 1960 effectively got her blackballed from Hollywood, appearing in just one film that entire decade, a supporting role in the 1966 Chuck Connors western RIDE BEYOND VENGEANCE. She resurfaced in the early 1970s, paying the bills mostly in drive-in exploitation fare like 1971's BLOOD AND LACE, 1974's MAMA'S DIRTY GIRLS, 1976's MANSION OF THE DOOMED, and her final film, 1981's THE NESTING. Grahame and Tony Ray divorced in 1974 and Grahame split her time between Hollywood, NYC, and the UK, where she stayed busy doing theater work in her final years when she was terminally ill with cancer and refused to even acknowledge her condition until it was far too late. She died in 1981 at just 57.





Based on Peter Turner's 1986 memoir detailing his relationship with Grahame, FILM STARS DON'T DIE IN LIVERPOOL concentrates on the actress' final years from 1979 to 1981, and doesn't really address the more tawdry elements of her life and never even mentions the declining quality of her film work (though she did manage to land small roles in a few reputable films like 1980's MELVIN AND HOWARD). In 1981, Gloria (Annette Bening) is doing a play at a small theater in Liverpool and collapses in her dressing room just before going on stage. She calls Peter (Jamie Bell) and asks to stay with him at home of his parents Bella (Julie Walters) and Joe (Kenneth Cranham). FILM STARS then cuts back and forth between the present in 1981 and 1979, when Gloria and Peter, nearly 30 years her junior, meet and begin a torrid romance. Director Paul McGuigan (LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN) and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (CONTROL, NOWHERE BOY) generally hit all the biopic bullet points and standard-issue melodrama of a kind-hearted but sometimes mercurial, past-her-prime star and a younger man falling head over heels. FILM STARS gets its biggest benefit from a wonderful performance by Bening, who displays only a passing physical resemblance to Grahame but really captures her spirit, demeanor, and especially her voice. The filmmakers allow her to bring some complexity to a sincere but troubled person--she genuinely loves Peter and doesn't treat him as some kind of boy-toy, she generally doesn't behave like a diva and is at the point where she prefers a quieter, simpler life--and we also get to spend some time with Peter's family, who welcome Gloria into their lives with open arms. The film glosses over some details, though a dinner scene with Gloria's mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and her bitter sister (Frances Barber) serves to inform Peter about Tony Ray without going into too many lurid specifics (when Grahame leaves the room, her mother implores Peter, "Don't marry Gloria"). Gloria's and Peter's arguments grow a bit repetitive and tiresome in the second half, but the always-great Bening is just superb throughout, and she was getting a push for awards season recognition before Sony pretty much gave up on the film, stalling its release on just 107 screens at its widest. (R, 106 mins)



BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS
(Denmark/Canada - 2018)


A24 replicates its bizarre LAST MOVIE STAR release strategy with BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS, which premiered on DirecTV a month before its Blu-ray/DVD release, followed by a limited theatrical rollout the Friday after. There's really no viable distribution option for this unbearably dull political thriller, which isn't helped at all by a title that sounds like a YA teen comedy or the kind of movie whose poster has the tag line "The con is on." It's based on the 2010 memoir of the same title by Michael Soussan, a UN diplomat and whistleblower who exposed rampant, systemic corruption in the UN's Oil for Food Program in 2003. When economic sanctions against Iraq led to the country's economy crashing and its people starving and dying under Saddam Hussein, the Oil for Food Program was developed to sell Iraqi oil vouchers in exchange for humanitarian aid. The scandal more or less got lost in the shuffle with the mainstream media amidst the extensive reporting on the Iraqi invasion in 2003, but as a film, the utterly lifeless BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS never even comes close to catching fire. Nothing works in its favor, especially the robotic, monotone Theo James (the DIVERGENT series) as Soussan surrogate "Michael Sullivan," here upgraded to the assistant to UN Under-Secretary-General Benon "Pasha" Sevan (Ben Kingsley). Pasha's palm-greasing, money-grubbing, and assorted wheelings-and-dealings are referenced and talked about but never really demonstrably shown. He spends a lot of time lecturing the idealistic "Sullivan" with sage advice like "We never lie, but we choose our facts or truths with utmost care," and "Information is currency...it's power!"





Everyone in BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS talks like this, whether it's one Baghdad-based UN office drone telling Sullivan "We're just pawns in a bigger game, you and me," or the UN's Baghdad field chief Christine Dupre (Jacqueline Bisset) yelling "Everyone is grifting! Corruption grows like a cancer!" There's a lot of talk about Sullivan's predecessor in his job being killed in a hit and run that probably wasn't an accident, and a time-consuming subplot about Pasha trying to throw a Kurdish interpreter and Sullivan love interest (Belcim Bilgin) under the bus with trumped-up espionage charges, but BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS is an oppressively boring "thriller" that might've been something worthwhile in the hands of, say, Costa-Gavras. But under the watch of director/co-writer Per Fly, it's terribly written and acted, even by a profane Kingsley, who hams mercilessly and sports an accent that has him almost constantly shouting "Fack!" This is the kind of movie that opens with a shot of the NYC skyline, the Empire State Building in plain view, accompanied by the caption "New York." This is the kind of movie that spells "Morocco" two different ways on the same closing credits page. How bad is BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS? It's so bad that it actually ends with Sullivan reflecting on the scandal and telling a reporter "The truth isn't about the lies we told each other...it's about the lies we tell ourselves." Get the fuck outta here with that shitty writing. (R, 108 mins)



Come on, BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS!




DEEP BLUE SEA 2
(US - 2018)


After 19 years, was anyone demanding a sequel to Renny Harlin's shark movie DEEP BLUE SEA? The original film, a moderate hit that's become a cable favorite to this day, has one of the all-time great shocks I've ever experienced in a crowded movie theater (if you've seen it, you know the scene) as well as one of the dumbest closing credits songs you'll ever hear, but the primitive CGI looked bad then and is utterly laughable now. It should come as no surprise that the CGI looks pretty much the same in this low-budget, DTV sequel that, for a while, throws some pretty crazy shit at the wall to see what sticks but eventually settles into being a by-the-numbers, de facto remake of its predecessor. The only reason this even exists is that it's a recognizable name that can belatedly hitch a ride on the SHARKNADO/ SHALLOWS/ 47 METERS DOWN bandwagon. Billionaire pharmaceutical CEO and standard-issue megalomaniac Carl Durant (Michael Beach as Samuel L. Jackson) is bankrolling an illegal, off-the-books research project at an underwater research facility off the coast of South Africa. He's pumped five aggressive bull sharks full of an experimental serum that's altered their genetic structure in an attempt to get to the core of creating a hyper-intelligence that he hopes to use on humans. He and his security chief Trent Slater (JOHN DIES AT THE END's Rob Mayes as Thomas Jane) can control the sharks via key fob, but a crew of scientists recruited by Durant, led by world-renowned marine conservationist Dr. Misty Calhoun (Danielle Savre as Saffron Burrows), are appalled at the lack of ethics. Of course, the sharks start to develop intelligence beyond anyone's control--first digging a tunnel under the electric fence at the perimeter of the base--and the main female shark (named "Ella") ends up having babies, which are born addicted to Durant's super-intelligent wonder drug that--wait for it--also increases their aggression and has them attacking as quickly and ferociously as small piranha. To make matters worse, Durant's gotten himself hooked on the drug himself and grows increasingly paranoid and as the situation gets worse, he has no problem sacrificing everyone else if it means preserving his research.





That's the set-up, and while it's no great shakes, it's surprisingly not terrible even if the actors are notch below what the 1999 film could corral (Savre has more than established her DTV bona fides after BRING IT ON: ALL OR NOTHING, BOOGEYMAN 2, and JARHEAD 2: FIELDS OF FIRE). It really makes no sense why this drug has to be tested on sharks, unless it's only because Durant had nothing else to do with a massive underwater research installation he owned as was just letting go to waste. But once Ella has her babies and the underwater facility starts flooding, it's strictly business as usual as the mostly non-descript cast is devoured one by one and the script seems to completely forget about Durant getting all fucked up on his superdrug. Director Darin Scott has been around for decades--he co-wrote 1987's THE OFFSPRING and 1995's TALES FROM THE HOOD, and in the '90s, produced Charles Burnett's TO SLEEP WITH ANGER, the rap comedy FEAR OF A BLACK HAT, and the great MENACE II SOCIETY (man...DEEP BLUE SEA 2, dude? I guess a job's a job)--and brings some bizarre items to table in the early going, like opening credits that look like they belong in a 007 movie. But there is one moment in DEEP BLUE SEA 2 that's so inspired, so hilarious, so brilliantly, off-the-charts ridiculous that it makes the whole thing impossible to simply dismiss: Durant is yelling at his flunky attorney, who's concerned about the legality of that they're doing and what will become of the sharks after the research is complete. Durant says he just needs the sharks until he gets the information he needs and then he'll simply kill them off. "Not so fast," thinks the super-smart Ella, lingering outside Durant's window, glaring at him and reading his lips. OK, fine, DEEP BLUE SEA 2. You win. (R, 94 mins)