Tuesday, January 17, 2017

On Netflix: CLINICAL (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Alistair Legrand. Written by Luke Harvis and Alistair Legrand. Cast: Vinessa Shaw, Kevin Rahm, William Atherton, India Eisley, Aaron Stanford, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Nestor Serrano, Wilmer Calderon. (Unrated, 104 mins)

A committed performance by Vinessa Shaw (EYES WIDE SHUT) isn't enough to salvage this sub-Shyamalianian bed-shitter that digs itself into a hole so deep that it can't possibly claw its way out. It starts out decently enough, with Shaw as Dr. Jane Mathis, a psychiatrist still traumatized two years after being attacked with a glass shard by a teenage patient named Nora (India Eisley, daughter of Olivia Hussey and David Glen Eisley, frontman for '80s hair metal B-listers Giuffria), who then used the shard to slit her own throat. Jane is still in therapy with her own shrink Dr. Terry Drummond (DIE HARD's William Atherton), dating nice cop Miles (Aaron Stanford, Shaw's co-star in the remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES) and cautiously restarting her practice on a part-time basis at her home (is that ever a good idea?). One of her new patients is Alex (Kevin Rahm of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and MAD MEN), who's suffering from severe PTSD and anxiety after a car accident that took the life of his daughter and required multiple reconstructive surgeries that have left his face horribly scarred. Strange things begin happening: a sleepwalking Alex appears rummaging through Jane's garage one night, she keeps hearing noises outside the back door, she suffers from sleep paralysis and nightmares, and is having visions of a maniacal, blood-splattered Nora chasing her through the house. Is Nora really there or is it a manifestation of Jane's guilt over believing she mishandled her treatment, something she fears she's doing again with Alex?

Directed and co-written by Alistair Legrand (THE DIABOLICAL), CLINICAL is an acceptable slow-burner for about an hour and change until Legrand and co-writer Luke Harvis drop the Shyamalan twist and everything promptly falls apart. From then on, nothing makes any logical sense no matter how many times the characters explain it (and the culprit is one of these types who just talk and talk and talk). It's weird in that the twist is overexplained yet still doesn't make any sense, almost as if Legrand and Harvis are not so much spelling it out for the viewer as much as they're trying to convince themselves "Yeah, you see how with this and that, and...yeah, I mean, see...this works...right?" Legrand is pretty generous with the splatter and also throws in a few nice split diopter shots (the one with the snow globe is the foreground is well done) to let us know that he's seen some Brian De Palma movies. But by the end, you'll have pretty much given up on trying to figure out what the hell's going on with all the rapid fire revelations and just feel bad for Shaw, a journeyman who's never been out of work over her 25-year career and has been plugging away at it since her teen years (HOCUS POCUS, 3:10 TO YUMA, TWO LOVERS, COLD IN JULY, tons of TV guest spots). She really brings her A-game to this, as if she was certain this was the breakout that would finally take her to the next level. Shaw carries this entire project on her shoulders and it eventually crushes her, and despite some obvious competence behind the camera by Legrand, the weak script (much is made of the Christmas setting, but it doesn't really do anything with it) just seems like its last few pages were blank and everyone just crossed their fingers and hoped it would work itself out.

Monday, January 16, 2017

In Theaters: LIVE BY NIGHT (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Ben Affleck. Cast: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Remo Girone, Robert Glenister, Miguel J. Pimentel, Matthew Maher, Anthony Michael Hall, Clark Gregg, Max Casella, J.D. Evermore, Christian Clemenson, Benjamin Ciaramello, Derek Mears. (R, 130 mins)

Ben Affleck made his directing debut with 2007's excellent Dennis Lehane adaptation GONE BABY GONE, and after establishing himself as a solid filmmaker with 2010's THE TOWN and 2012's Best Picture Oscar-winner ARGO, he returns with LIVE BY NIGHT, based on another Lehane novel. Where GONE BABY GONE and THE TOWN (based on a Chuck Hogan novel) were set in contemporary Boston, LIVE BY NIGHT looks at the city in a Prohibition-era setting. While Affleck the director captures the look of late 1920s Boston, his script is all over the place and he's completely miscast in the lead role. Affleck isn't an actor who thrives in period pieces and the film would've been better served had he stayed behind the camera as he did with GONE BABY GONE and cast someone else (co-producer Leonardo DiCaprio, perhaps?). With his Panama hat and oversized suit, he never looks comfortable in the role of Joe Coughlin, a WWI vet and Boston stick-up man-turned-Tampa rum runner. There's simply too much story for a feature film, and here is yet another example of an overstuffed film that would've been better served as a cable miniseries where characters could be fleshed out and events wouldn't be so glossed over. The pacing is choppy and there's reams of sleepy,, mumbly Affleck narration to cover exposition and whole sections of plot that are missing, not to mention Scott Eastwood and Titus Welliver having their entire roles cut out (Welliver is still in the credits, but if he's there, I didn't see him). Robert Richardson's cinematography and Jess Gonchor's production design are top-notch and every now and again, there's a striking image (like a car engulfed in flames sticking out of a shallow lake) or a memorable line of dialogue (the "So what am I talkin' to you for?" bit is great), but the cluttered and muddled LIVE BY NIGHT is otherwise is just too familiar to make its own mark in the gangster genre, borrowing too many ideas from too many movies that came before it to tell a story we've seen countless times before.

Affleck's Coughlin is a small-time Boston hood who happens to be the son of a high-ranking police superintendent (Brendan Gleeson). He's also in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the moll of powerful Irish mob kingpin Albert White (Robert Glenister). Their plan to run away together is thwarted when she's intimidated into ratting him out to White, who beats him senseless and leaves him in a coma. After he wakes and serves a stint in prison, he's paroled only to find his father has died and Emma was killed by White. Hell-bent on revenge, Coughlin forms an unholy alliance with Italian crime boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to take over the booze operation in the Tampa enclave of Ybor City and cut White out of the picture. Heading to Tampa with his buddy Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), Coughlin teams with Cuban gangster Esteban Suarez (singer Miguel, under his full name Miguel J. Pimentel) and falls for his sister and partner Graciella (Zoe Saldana). Coughlin has to deal with all sorts of pressure, from stern police chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) cordially warning him to stay in his territory and they won't have any trouble, to the local chapter of the KKK, led by Figgis' idiot brother-in-law R.D. Pruitt (Matthew Maher), who wants a 60% cut of the business since Joe's club caters to Cubans and blacks and because he's hooked up with Graciella. LIVE BY NIGHT also finds time for a subplot about Figgis' wholesome daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) heading off to Hollywood to be a movie star but instead falling into drugs and prostitution. She then returns to Ybor City to become a fire-and-brimstone preacher warning the townsfolk about the dangers of gambling and "the demon rum," which stonewalls Pescatore's plans for Coughlin to build a casino.

There's also double-crosses against Coughlin by the increasingly greedy Pescatore, who wants his moron son Digger (Max Casella) to take over the Ybor City operation, a sudden reappearance by a character presumed dead for no discernible reason, and about four endings before the credits finally roll. People are introduced and things happen so quickly and at times randomly that it's sometimes difficult to process who's who and how they figure into the story. LIVE BY NIGHT is always nice to look at and Affleck has an undeniable flair with set pieces (including an intense early card game stick-up that he does in a single take), but it's lacking everywhere else. He tries to cover it up with all the narration, but the seams don't take long to show. Affleck's performance is curiously bland throughout, never seeming like a 1920s gangster but always like a modern actor playing gangster dress-up (and for a smart guy, Coughlin is pretty brazenly stupid about being seen in public with Emma). Graciella's character arc makes no sense, bemoaning her husband's (yeah, she and Coughlin get married offscreen and then it's casually mentioned several scenes later) dangerous career, seemingly forgetting that they met because she's a partner in a major Cuban crime organization. Gleeson and Miller have nothing to do, and Cooper's character never makes consistent sense from scene to scene. Veteran Italian character actor Girone (in his first American film in a career going back to 1974) and an outstanding Fanning fare best, even if her Loretta ends up being another underdeveloped plot tangent that briefly turns the film into an Eli Sunday sermon from THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Affleck tries to go for a MILLER'S CROSSING feel, but ends up with a rushed, lesser BOARDWALK EMPIRE, and his own lackluster performance never inspires you to care much about Coughlin. By the  third or fourth ending, the relaxed pace starts to lend a second-tier Clint Eastwood feeling to the proceedings, further demonstrating the uneven tone of the entire project. LIVE BY NIGHT might've had potential, and perhaps a longer director's cut would help, but in the end, it's a formulaic, cliche-laden misfire from Affleck.

Monday, January 9, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE MONSTER (2016); EQUITY (2016); and KILL COMMAND (2016)

(US/Canada - 2016)

Similar to THE BABADOOK in that its title figure should be wearing a bright neon sign flashing "Metaphor!," THE MONSTER is an intermittently effective horror film that works better in the buildup that it does in the follow-through. It gets a lot from a pair of terrific performances by Zoe Kazan and young Ella Ballentine (also excellent in the little-seen STANDOFF) as a dysfunctional mother and daughter who stop fighting with one another when a car accident on a dark and desolate road makes a bad night even worse. Divorced Kathy (Kazan) is, to put it mildly, a trainwreck. A verbally and physically abusive alcoholic, Kathy drinks herself to sleep every night, usually leaving her ten-year-old daughter Lizzie (Ballentine) to be the responsible party in the relationship. Getting a nearly nine-hour late start to a road trip after hungover Kathy decides to sleep the day away, Lizzie demands they drive straight through for a planned visitation with her father for which she doesn't plan on returning, which keeps them on the road past midnight. Kathy crashes the car after hitting a wolf in a torrential downpour. An ambulance is running late, but a wrecker arrives and the driver (Aaron Douglas) is killed by a reptilian creature that looks like the result of a drunken hook-up between THE INCUBUS and a komodo dragon. After the ambulance arrives and the EMTs meet a similar fate, Kathy and Lizzie must figure out how to evade the monster and get off the road to safety.

Written and directed by Bryan Bertino (THE STRANGERS), THE MONSTER has a few genuinely terrifying scenes, with the director just showing brief flashes of the creature materializing in the background through sheets of rain. Kathy and Lizzie are stuck in what's essentially a CUJO situation, with their dysfunctional backstory being played out in periodic cutaway flashbacks. It's pretty easy to read the Monster itself as symbolic of Kathy's alcoholism and substance abuse (it's hinted that she's a recovering drug addict as well), with Lizzie determined to defeat it and emerge victorious. It's not quite as deep and disturbing as THE BABADOOK's representation of mental illness and the execution at times feels like an idea Bertino concocted in a high school creative writing class and didn't really expand upon over the years. It's sincere and well-made (and a huge improvement over Bertino's terrible MOCKINGBIRD), and the Monster is a nice old-school, practical man-in-a-suit for the most part, but the tension starts deflating in the third act (of course, once they get out of the car) and the film limps to a shrug of a finish, leaving all sorts of questions unanswered--things like "If Dad is the responsible parent, why is Lizzie is the custody of grossly neglectful Kathy and her succession of dirtbag boyfriends?" and "Why isn't anyone concerned about the ambulance that went out after midnight and still hasn't returned by daybreak?" (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2016)

The indie financial drama EQUITY had a chance to make a powerful statement about Wall Street wheeling and dealing from a woman's perspective, but it's almost completely sunk by two things. First is the obvious symbolism of a smug financial titan having an increasingly precarious Jenga tower on his desk. I wonder if that will coming crashing down by the end? The second is a throwaway bit late in the film where the main character is in the midst of watching the IPO she shepherded crash and burn and she loses her shit over being handed a chocolate chip cookie with only "THREE! MOTHER! FUCKING! CHIPS!" in it. And this film wants to be taken seriously? Not only does her utter shrieking hysteria come off as a negative stereotype considering EQUITY's POV, but it's overplayed to the point where it doesn't ring true in any way at all. And it was a lot better when Robert De Niro bitched in an equally insane but much quieter way about the blueberry muffins in CASINO over 20 years ago. Anna Gunn, a TV and stage veteran who stayed busy for years before breaking out and winning two Emmys as Skyler White on BREAKING BAD, stars as Paige Bishop, a powerful investment banker with a proven track record who's nonetheless being pilloried in the press over a recent IPO that performed far below expectations. She's about to rebound with Cachet, a new privacy company that's going public. When she isn't being treated condescendingly by Cachet's douchebag CEO (Samuel Roukin), she's being prodded about a promotion by her assistant and VP Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas) and hounded by Samantha Ryan (Alysia Reiner of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK), an old college friend who's now a fed working with the white collar crime unit. Samantha is after Michael Connor (James Purefoy, who still hasn't wiped the smirk off his face from THE FOLLOWING), who's at the same firm as Paige and is suspected in insider trading with his asshole buddy Benji Akers (Craig Bierko), who runs a rival firm. Paige is romantically involved with Connor, which complicates things, and it only gets worse after a Cachet coder (Sophie von Haselberg, Bette Midler's lookalike daughter) informs Paige--in a clandestine meeting in a poorly-lit parking garage, of course--that there's several security issues with Cachet. It soon becomes apparent that someone is trying to sabotage the Cachet IPO and make Paige the scapegoat for its failure.

EQUITY occasionally works in fits and starts. Samantha's investigation generates some MARGIN CALL-like suspense, and Gunn is good until the third act, when director Meera Menon has her shouting every line. EQUITY was written, produced, and directed by women (Thomas and Reiner co-produced and have story credits) and it seems to think it can coast by just on that. It has some valid points about the struggle of women trying to make it in a boys club, especially in the way Paige is repeatedly passed over for consideration of her outgoing boss' (Lee Tergesen) job because she "ruffles some feathers" and "rubs people the wrong way," and how when Erin finally gets her overdue promotion not because of performance but because a coasting, borderline incompetent underling made a call to his uncle, who's a higher-up at the firm. But for every astute observation it makes, there's that Jenga tower and the chocolate chip cookie, and another ridiculous scene where pregnant Erin is getting her first ultrasound and can't be bothered to look at the screen because she's too busy taking an urgent call about Cachet. In the middle of an ultrasound. EQUITY may have noble intentions, but it's too forced and too melodramatic, and with the cast almost completely coming from television, it plays a lot like a pilot for an FX series that never got picked up. (R, 100 mins)

(UK - 2016)

It offers little in the way of innovation, but KILL COMMAND is a not-bad B-movie that wears its '80s influences on its sleeve in a straightforward and dignified fashion. While its ideas echo classics like ALIENS and PREDATOR, it's really more like a sci-fi DOG SOLDIERS with a dreary, dystopian production design that Blockbuster Video regulars of a certain age will recall from 1990s straight-to-VHS Vidmark Entertainment fare like CYBORG 2 and DEATH MACHINE. Set in the near-future, KILL COMMAND has cyborg scientist Mills (THE CROWN's Vanessa Kirby) being sent by her employers at Harbinger to accompany a group of hard-ass US Marines on a routine training exercise on a remote island. Harbinger deals in weapons manufacturing and combat technology (and, judging from its name, pure evil), and Mills is their top programmer. She recognized a flaw in the code of their soon-to-be-rolled-out line of robot soldiers and is to observe the Marines in their mock combat with the robots on the island to see how the machines respond. After some extended set-up involving a lot of macho ballbusting and the establishing of everyone's mistrust of Mills, from no-nonsense Capt. Bukes (FLAME AND CITRON's Thure Lindhardt) on down, differences are set aside when Mills figures out one of the robots has gone HAL 9000. It's now capable of making its own decisions, programming the rest to mimic the battle action of the Marines and using the military's own techniques against them but with live ammo. After several are killed in the initial skirmish, Mills and the remaining survivors make their way to an abandoned compound for your standard-issue RIO BRAVO/John Carpenter scenario, with a small band of heroes fighting off the onslaught of sentient robots trying to get inside.

Little more than a pastiche of other movies' concepts, KILL COMMAND is pretty minor-league stuff but writer/director Steve Gomez, a veteran visual effects tech making his feature filmmaking debut, keeps things moving at a brisk pace once it gets going and works wonders with a small budget. Shot in 2014 and kept on the shelf for a couple of years, KILL COMMAND is a British production pretending to be American, so some of the American accents are a little off and the line delivery stilted (though Kirby and the Danish Lindhardt do alright), none more so than Mike Noble as the nervous Goodwin, with the actor's overbaked southern drawl constantly slipping into his own accent like some unholy fusion of Tennessee Williams and Guy Ritchie. It's ultimately slight and forgettable, but if approached with minimal expectations, KILL COMMAND provides atmosphere, action, and some solid effects on a low budget and ends up a reasonably entertaining 100 minutes for '80s and '90s genre fans in the mood for something directed by a second-string Neil Marshall. (Unrated, 100 mins)

Saturday, January 7, 2017

In Theaters/On VOD: ARSENAL (2017)

(US/UK - 2017)

Directed by Steven C. Miller. Written by Jason Mosberg. Cast: Adrian Grenier, John Cusack, Nicolas Cage, Johnathan Schaech, Lydia Hull, Mark McCullough, Tyler Jon Olson, Abbie Gayle, Christopher Coppola, Christopher Rob Bowen, Megan Leonard, C.J. LeBlanc. (R, 92 mins)

It's only the first weekend of 2017 and we've got the year's first of undoubtedly several straight-to-VOD thrillers with either Nicolas Cage or John Cusack--in this case, both. The CON AIR stars were last seen together in 2013's surprisingly good THE FROZEN GROUND but with ARSENAL, they're already blowing their New Year's resolutions to start appearing in better movies. Scripted by a debuting Jason Mosberg and directed by VOD mercenary Steven C. Miller (whose not-terrible 2016 Michael Mann knockoff MARAUDERS was the best-by-default entry in Lionsgate's landmark "Bruce Willis phones in his performance from his luxury hotel suite" series), ARSENAL's biggest problem is that it can't figure out what it wants to be. Set and shot in Biloxi, MS, with a special appearance by the Biloxi Shuckers minor league baseball team, ARSENAL opens in a such a somber and downbeat fashion with a focus on two teenage brothers in the early 1990s that it could almost pass for an early David Gordon Green indie drama. Older Mikey pushes little brother JP around but there's genuine love between them as they come from a broken home and have one another's back. 23 years later, they still live in the same town but a lot's changed: JP (ENTOURAGE's Adrian Grenier, who was in MARAUDERS and is looking like a new regular in these things) is married with a newborn daughter and owns a successful construction company, while Mikey (Johnathan Schaech, already a regular in these things) is a perpetual fuck-up who was booted out of the military, can't hold down a job, and has an ex-wife and a daughter who hate him. He's also a low-level criminal with tenuous ties to Eddie King (Cage), a coke-snorting crime lord who holds court in a skeezy titty bar on the outskirts of town. Mikey is such a loser that JP loaned him $10,000 to pay his back rent and get braces for his daughter, but instead Mikey spent it on a cocaine shipment that he planned to flip for double the price. Of course, other lowlifes knew he had the stash and jacked it from him, leaving him with nothing. Mikey needs money, and so does Eddie. He's in debt to some NYC mobsters who have sent his younger brother Buddy (Cage's brother Christopher Coppola) to collect. Eddie comes up with a half-assed plan to stage Mikey's kidnapping and shake JP down for a $350,000 ransom. Things obviously don't work out for anyone, starting with the viewer (I'd say "audience," but I don't wish to exaggerate).

ARSENAL's more serious side would work better if Grenier and Schaech were more engaging actors. But that seriousness is undermined by frequent instances of ludicrously over-the-top violence, including a cartoonishly splattery climax more fitting for the insane Paul Walker thriller RUNNING SCARED or the gloriously bonkers PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, with slo-mo bullets blowing up everything from skulls to ballsacks with wild abandon. Grenier and Schaech seem to be in a serious drama about the family ties that bind, while Cage is off in his own movie where he's inexplicably reprising his role in the barely-released 1993 campy pseudo-noir bomb DEADFALL, which he agreed to do as a favor to Christopher Coppola, who wrote and directed. Cage's performance--possibly his most gonzo in a career full of them and augmented by what appears to be a Tony Clifton-meets-Sonny Bono wig and mustache combo with a putty nose--is the only reason anyone remembers DEADFALL, a film that's barely watchable despite a cast that includes Michael Biehn, Charlie Sheen, James Coburn, Talia Shire, Micky Dolenz, Clarence Williams III, Angus Scrimm, and Peter Fonda. While Cage's Eddie was killed off midway through DEADFALL, he's clearly playing the same character here, right down to the wig, the stache, and the fake schnoz, which may go down as 2017's most obscure and self-indulgent inside joke.

In ARSENAL, Cage is here to do exactly what you expect him to do: shout, yell, scream, spaz out, and totally Cage it up as his putty nose perpetually seems on the verge of falling off. He's introduced shoving a steel pipe into a guy's mouth and driving it out the back of his skull with a baseball bat and he spends much of the second half of the film covered in blood after shooting and clawing his way out of a mob ambush. If ARSENAL went for this level of sustained lunacy for its entire run time, it might grow exhausting but it would at least be interesting for Nic Cage fans. No one cares about JP taking a stand against Eddie (telling his wife "Katrina didn't run us out and neither will Eddie King!") or shitbag Mikey's redemption. ARSENAL tries to have it both ways and succeeds at neither. It also fails to find a purpose for Cusack, sporting a doo-rag, a ball cap, shades, and his ubiquitous vape pen in a thoroughly superfluous supporting role as Sal, a shady undercover cop who's buddies with JP and Mikey and dispenses sage advice to JP about how to handle Eddie. Sal does nothing to advance the plot, and Cusack could've been completely eliminated with no effect at all on the movie. As usual for this sort of gig in the Cusackalypse Now canon, he looks haggard and sleep-deprived, like he just crawled out of a dumpster, exerting no effort to camouflage his utter lack of interest in the entire project. Cage is fully aware that this is shit as well, but he at least embraces the notion of self-parody and gives you what you came to see.

Friday, January 6, 2017

In Theaters: A MONSTER CALLS (2016)

(US/Spain - 2016)

Directed by J.A. Bayona. Written by Patrick Ness. Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson, Toby Kebbell, Geraldine Chaplin, James Melville, Ben Moor, Dominic Boyle, Oliver Steer. (PG-13, 108 mins)

Acclaimed Spanish filmmaker and Guillermo del Toro protege J.A. Bayona (THE ORPHANAGE, THE IMPOSSIBLE) crafts his first genuine masterpiece with A MONSTER CALLS, adapted by Patrick Ness from his 2011 novel. The book came from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, who planned to write it herself but only got as far as outlining the project before succumbing to terminal breast cancer in 2007, a battle that inspired the story. Dowd's editor passed her notes on to Ness, who agreed to write the novel. As a director, Bayona seems more akin to classic-era Spielberg than del Toro (Bayona is currently at work on the next JURASSIC WORLD movie, due in summer 2018), demonstrating a gift for getting natural performances out of young and inexperienced actors. He coaxes a star-making from young Lewis MacDougall (PAN) as Conor O'Malley, a lonely 12-year-old boy in a small British town trying to cope with the slow decline of his terminally ill mother (Felicity Jones). Treatment after treatment doesn't work, and Conor has no one to turn to--his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is cold and stand-offish, and his father (Toby Kebbell) split several years ago and has since started a new family in Los Angeles ("You could come for Christmas and meet your sister," he tells Conor, who snaps "Half-sister"). He's bullied on a daily basis at school by Harry (James Melville) and spends his time sketching and drawing, a passion he inherited from his mother, who wanted to go to art school but put it on the backburner when she became pregnant with him. Conor is plagued by recurring nightmares in which he's clinging to his mother as she dangles over a bottomless hole that's opened up, always followed at 12:07 am by an ancient yew tree in the cemetery behind their home coming to life.

Voiced and motion-captured by Liam Neeson, the giant, fire-breathing tree monster is in Conor's imagination but mentors him in dealing with his problems--with the bullies at school, with his grandmother, the resentment he feels toward his father, and his refusal to accept that his mother is near death. The monster tells Conor three stories that have little to do with one another and whose points are initially lost on him. In them, nothing is black and white. People who are presumed evil are actually not and vice versa and there are no clear answers for anything. Conor is, as the tree monster says, "A boy, too old to be a child and too young to be a man." He's faced with thoughts that he can't process. He wants his mother to recover but is angry with her when the last-ditch attempt at treatment doesn't work. He's happy to see his visiting father, but it doesn't take long before he realizes that he's not the priority when Dad declines his request to move with him to L.A. ("There's just no room," Dad says). Things take a devastating turn when Mom is readmitted to the hospital and Conor is forced to stay with Grandma and crosses a line that may irreparably damage any chance at establishing a positive relationship with her. The moral of the tree monster's stories all parallel plot developments in the film, and in doing so, the tree monster is preparing Conor for the inevitable truth he has to face: that his mother is going to die and there's nothing he can do to stop it.

For anyone who's lost a parent or a close family member to a long illness, A MONSTER CALLS may dig up emotions both devastating and cathartic. You'll recognize every thought that runs through Conor's head: his wish that treatment is a success and everything will get back to normal, his anger when that doesn't happen, his wish that the suffering would just end, a sentiment that he misconstrues as wishing she'd die, which causes him extreme guilt ("You don't want her to die," the tree monster reassures, adding "But you want the pain to end. For her and for you"). It's hard to discuss a lot of what happens in A MONSTER CALLS without giving away too much, but it's a powerful and deeply moving film that addresses a difficult subject in a mature and thoughtful way. I wouldn't be at all surprised if psychologists and families find it to be a therapeutic tool in the future for helping children cope with the pending loss of a terminally ill parent. It's a film about loss and grief that handles real life issues in a blunt but sensitive fashion. It isn't afraid to show its characters in a negative light because that's how life happens. There are moments where you'll intensely dislike Conor, no matter how much you empathize with his situation, making A MONSTER CALLS a special effects-heavy fantasy with much going on under the surface--"monster" has numerous meanings here--pulling no punches and unafraid to take risks. It's depressing, heartbreaking, comforting, and hopeful in equal measure, and is thus far my pick for 2016's best film.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Retro Review: THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (1969)

(Spain - 1969; US release 1971)

Written and directed by Narciso Ibanez Serrador. Cast: Lilli Palmer, Cristina Galbo, John Moulder Brown, Mary Maude, Candida Losada, Tomas Blanco, Maribel Martin, Pauline Challenor, Teresa Hurtdao, Conchita Paredes, Victor Israel. (PG, 94 mins)

It's not nearly the exploitative grinder that American International's poster art promised when it opened in the US in 1971, but 1969's THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED is a slow-burning and quietly effective Spanish chiller that's certain to find a new audience now that it's been rescued from obscurity by Shout! Factory's new Blu-ray release. Never released on VHS and all but impossible to see in a decent-looking presentation for many years, THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED looks terrific on Blu-ray with its "old dark house" sets and late 19th century period detail. The entire film takes place at a French boarding school for wayward girls run by Mme. Fourneau (Lilli Palmer), a strict spinster-type who lords over her charges and doesn't hesitate to dole out stern punishment, such as headstrong, rebellious Catherine (Pauline Challenor) being thrown into the "seclusion room," where Fourneau has her whipped by sadistic teacher's pet Irene (Mary Maude). The girls welcome the arrival of new resident Teresa (Cristina Galbo), dropped off by a friend of her family, which consists of her absent mother who may or may not be a prostitute. There's a gloomy cloud hanging over the proceedings, whether it's the unbending rule of Fourneau, who harbors a barely concealed desire for the girls--watch the way she leers at them while they shower or gently kisses the bleeding flagellation wounds in the middle of Catherine's back--or her sheltered and sexually curious son Luis (DEEP END's John Moulder Brown), who's prone to spying on the girls and seems to be developing a fixation on Teresa.

Writer/director Narciso Ibanez Serrador (the disturbing 1976 masterpiece WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?) spends nearly half the film methodically establishing an unsettling and perverse atmosphere (with some help from a moody score by Waldo de los Rios) before he even introduces a killer into the proceedings with the unexpected murder of Isabelle (THE BLOOD SPLATTERED BRIDE's Maribel Martin), a shy girl who angered Mme. Fourneau by having romantic feelings for Luis. It's only later that we discover several girls have vanished over the last few months, their disappearances unaccounted for and swept under the rug by Mme. Fourneau. The ultimate reveal of the killer isn't a big shock, but THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED surprises in other ways. The best example is the unexpected character arc of Irene, who spends much of the film behaving even more despicably than Mme. Fourneau, exacting mean girl revenge on Teresa after her overt lesbian advances are rejected (the agonizingly long scene where she terrorizes Teresa is almost too uncomfortable to watch), but having a change of heart when she realizes Fourneau has been negligent about the missing girls and has been using her as a puppet to bully the other girls and keep them under her thumb. Irene's transformation from bitchy villain to hero-by-default is tough to pull off in a believable fashion but Maude does, and her performance really is the film's secret weapon. Serrador also displays some sly bits of dark humor, as evidenced in one scene where quick-cut shots of girls frantically knitting is used to symbolize intense sexual frustration as they listen to one of the others having sex outside with a local stud who secretly visits the school once a week.

With its horny schoolgirls, lesbian undertones, a weirdo mama's boy, rampant sexual repression and a knife-wielding maniac, there's an undeniable sense of tawdry sleaze permeating THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED, but it's usually presented in as subtle and tactful a manner as possible. For lack of a better term, it could be called a "gothic giallo," with the look and feel of a Hammer horror period piece with a plot that prefigures the Italian thrillers that would be popularized by the likes of Dario Argento and Sergio Martino in the next year or two. It's one of the earliest "schoolgirls in peril" subgenre offerings, coming not long after Alfred Vohrer's krimi THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS and Antonio Margheriti's THE YOUNG, THE EVIL AND THE SAVAGE, and a few years before Massimo Dallamano's essential giallo/krimi hybrid WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? (which featured Galbo), initially released in the US as THE SCHOOL THAT COULDN'T SCREAM, and its semi-sequels WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? and ENIGMA ROSSO, There's only a couple of onscreen murders, but they're handled in an unusual fashion, with one playing with de los Rios' score and having it slowly grind to a halt as the victim dies. Factoring out the supernatural element with which Argento ran wild, SUSPIRIA also owes a bit of a debt to THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED, especially with its girls trudging through a miserable ballet class and Palmer's Mme. Fourneau being cut from the same cloth as Joan Bennett's Mme. Blanc and Alida Valli's Miss Tanner in the Argento classic. Argento also incorporated the schoolgirl theme into his 1985 film PHENOMENA, aka CREEPERS, with Daria Nicolodi's psycho headmistress Miss Bruckner another variant on Mme. Fourneau. THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED goes pretty bonkers in its unforgettable closing minutes, and without going too deeply into spoiler territory, it'll become clear to fans of the legendary 1983 Spanish splatter classic PIECES where that film got one of its craziest ideas.

Based on the plot, it was probably easy to sell THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED as a trashy drive-in horror flick to American audiences, but like many Spanish films of that era and into the mid '70s, it takes some not-very-veiled swipes at the regime of Francisco Franco. There's no aggressive political statements being made, but certainly Mme. Fourneau's forcing the girls to shower in their nightgowns, refusing to allow them to be nude even while bathing--this is another thing against which Catherine rebels and Fourneau can't stop herself from staring with obvious desire at the young woman's breasts (Palmer plays this moment perfectly)--is a jab at the pervasive censorship of the arts under Franco. Such critiques were common in Spanish cinema of this period, most notably in the works of Luis Bunuel (1961's VIRIDIANA) and Carlos Saura (1975's CRIA CUERVOS), but also Victor Erice's 1973 classic THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE. THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED is ultimately a film firmly ensconced in the thriller/horror genre and doesn't take quite the line-in-the-sand stances that Bunuel, Saura, and Erice did, or that Serrador would do seven years later with the still-shocking WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?, but it's got a little more going on than the typical AIP B-movie exploitation import you'd see in 1971. Born in Uruguay in 1935 and in apparent retirement now, Serrador's family moved to Spain when he was 12, and his career dates back to the late 1950s, much of it spent doing gun-for-hire work for Spanish television, often under the pseudonym "Luis Penafiel." He's best known in Spain for creating several TV game shows, including the hugely popular UN, DOS, TRES...RESPONDA OTRA VEZ, which ran in prime time from 1966 to 2004. He compiled a handful of screenwriting credits over the years and didn't aspire to be a "horror guy" but oddly, his mere two outings as a feature film director have cemented his status as a major figure in Spanish cult horror cinema to those outside of Spain, while to Spanish audiences, his association with game shows and variety programs have basically made him that country's Merv Griffin. Shout's Blu-ray includes both the 94-minute American cut of THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED and an extended 102-minute version with standard-definition inserts of footage cut by AIP that included some additional gore and nudity but primarily consisted of dialogue that slowed the pace a bit. There's also interviews with Moulder Brown and Maude that make this as comprehensive a package as you can get for a horror gem that's been long forgotten except by a small cult of devoted fans.

Friday, December 30, 2016

On Netflix: SPECTRAL (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Nic Mathieu. Written by George Nolfi. Cast: James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer, Bruce Greenwood, Max Martini, Cory Hardrict, Clayne Crawford, Gonzalo Menendez, Ursula Parker, Stephen Root, Aaron Serban, Dylan Smith, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Ryan Robbins, Jimmy Akingbola. (Unrated, 108 mins)

After over a year on the shelf, SPECTRAL, a $70 million Legendary Pictures-produced sci-fi horror actioner, was set to open in theaters nationwide in August 2016. That never happened, as it was abruptly yanked from the release schedule a few weeks earlier after Legendary's WARCRAFT bombed and distributor Universal grew skittish about having another expensive summer flop on its hands, even though WARCRAFT was a hit everywhere in the world but America. They shopped SPECTRAL around to other studios and found a taker in Netflix, who are now streaming it as a "Netflix Original." It's not a great movie by any means, and it likely would've ended up tanking in theaters just as Universal feared, especially being a summer movie lacking any big name draws in front of or behind the camera. In that respect, Netflix seems like perfect platform for SPECTRAL, where it's free from box office expectations and can earn the minor cult following it's inevitably going to get. Military-contracted science researcher Dr. Mark Clyne (James Badge Dale, a solid supporting actor, but c'mon, who puts a $70 million summer sci-fi action movie on the shoulders of James Badge Dale?) is summoned to Moldova to help a tactical unit that's been using high-tech "spectral" combat helmet cam goggles that he designed. He's informed by Gen. Orland (Bruce Greenwood) and CIA operative Fran Madison (Emily Mortimer) that the cameras have been picking up images of apparitions--termed "hyperspectral anomalies"--who have attacked and killed several members of the Delta Force team, led by Sgt. Sessions (Max Martini, Dale's 13 HOURS co-star). Orland and Madison believe it's a cloaking device being used by enemy insurgents, which Clyne dismisses since the US hasn't even come close to achieving that capability. Orland orders Clyne and Madison to accompany Sessions and what's left of the Delta team to find another unit that went missing the day before, obviously taken out by the "anomalies," ghostly specters that can only be seen through the combat goggles or the light from a hyperspectral camera that Clyne creates on the fly when most of the goggles are destroyed in a paranormal skirmish.

Written by George Nolfi (a good buddy of Matt Damon's who co-scripted OCEAN'S TWELVE and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, and wrote and directed THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU) and directed by feature-debuting TV commercial vet Nic Mathieu, SPECTRAL dives pretty deep into hard sci-fi with Clyne's theories on the origin of the anomalies. They're impervious to weapons and can travel through any surface except iron and ceramic, which leads Clyne to believe they're man-made via bosons hovering near absolute zero with a cooled gas of extremely low density and known as the Bose-Einstein Condensate, which is not something Joe Multiplex normally expects to be name-dropped in a big-budget summer action movie. SPECTRAL has some great ideas, but while Nolfi's script talks a big game, it doesn't really have the brains to back it up. The scene where Clyne explains everything to Madison and the soldiers turns into a momentum-killing monologue because Dale has a difficult time selling it when he just keeps anxiously repeating "ceramic" and "condensate." He doesn't sound like he knows what he's talking about, probably because Nolfi doesn't either and should probably be sharing the screenplay credit with Wikipedia. Nevertheless, SPECTRAL is very well-made, and with location shooting in Hungary, Slovakia, and Israel, it definitely looks like a "bigger" movie than one usually associates with "Netflix Original." It also boasts some impressive visual effects and refreshingly coherent combat sequences, and with its stark, ominous Eastern European setting (most of this was shot in Bucharest) and some lighting and cinematography techniques, it would appear that SPECTRAL owes a stylistic debt to Michael Mann's 1983 cult classic THE KEEP. The biggest structural influence is obviously James Cameron's 1986 masterpiece ALIENS, right down to the discovery of a little Moldovan orphan girl (Ursula Parker, one of the daughters on LOUIE) who isn't named "Newt," but might as well be (all that's missing is a scheming Paul Reiser to sabotage the mission). Feeling like BLACK HAWK DOWN retooled as a John Ringo or David Weber military sci-fi novel published by Baen Books, SPECTRAL isn't nearly as smart as it thinks it is, but its ambition is appreciated. It delivers if you're looking for action, special effects, and atmosphere, so this really is custom-made for Netflix streaming.