Thursday, June 29, 2017

On Netflix: OKJA (2017)

(US/South Korea - 2017)

Directed by Bong Joon Ho. Written by Bong Joon Ho and Jon Ronson. Cast: Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Giancarlo Esposito, Byun Heebong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Woo Shik Choi, voice of Jungeun Lee. (Unrated, 120 mins)

Visionary South Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho (THE HOST) returns with the Netflix Original film OKJA, his first since 2014's word-of-mouth arthouse/VOD hit SNOWPIERCER. Like SNOWPIERCER, OJKA splits its time between English and subtitled Korean, but instead of a grim, dystopian class struggle among the last remnants of humanity aboard a perpetually-moving train, it's a freewheeling, go-for-broke satire on corporate America, genetically modified foods, and idiotic TV personalities, among everything else Bong throws at the wall to see what sticks. Normally, the kitchen sink mentality on display here is a recipe for disaster, and while some of it is far too forced and over-the-top, its barbs hit and hit hard. The wild tonal shifts are by design, but Bong could've tightened the leash on a couple of the film's bigger names. OKJA opens in 2007, as Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, in her second film for the director after SNOWPIERCER) is installed as the CEO of Mirando, an agrochemical biotechnology corporation obviously modeled on Monsanto. Lucy's taken over the post, replacing her twin sister Nancy, a PR nightmare viewed as "too mean" to sell the Mirando brand to the public. Lucy immediately starts a goodwill campaign involving 26 "super pigs"--genetically modified pigs created in a Mirando lab under the guise of maximum profits with a minimal footprint. And, as Lucy also explains, "They need to taste fucking good."

26 piglets are sent to various Mirando branches all over the world for a ten-year contest where farmers from each region raise the piglet from infancy to see who has the best "super pig." It's all a PR stunt to improve Mirando's dubious reputation and unethical practices, but in the rural farmlands outside Seoul, 14-year-old Mija (An Seo Hyun) lives with her simple farmer grandfather Heebong (THE HOST's Byun Heebong) and has grown attached to Okja, the intelligent super pig that Heebong received as a piglet a decade ago and is now the size of a small elephant. Okja is orphaned Mija's only friend, and when a Mirando entourage--including hapless South Korea branch exec Mundo Park (Yoon Je Moon) and asshole TV personality and MAGICAL ANIMALS host Dr. Johnny Wilcox (an out-of-control Jake Gyllenhaal)--plan a visit to check on the pig's progress after ten years, she's unaware that their intent is to take Okja away to show her off at Mirando's "Best Super Pig Fest" in NYC before sending her straight to the slaughterhouse. Angry at her grandfather for not being truthful with her about Mirando's plans, Mija runs away to Seoul in an effort to rescue Okja. She ends up being aided by a coordinated crew of animal rights activists from the ALF-- Animal Liberation Front--led by fiercely devoted Jay (Paul Dano), whose soft-spoken demeanor clashes with his propensity for violence when need be ("I apologize for putting you in a choke-hold...I promise you it is a non-lethal choke-hold," he calmly tells a security guard he's incapacitating). Meanwhile, at Mirando headquarters in NYC, the media attention over the incidents in Seoul are a concern to the company's PR head Frank Dawson (Giancarlo Esposito), with Lucy's standing as CEO on such shaky ground that bitch-on-wheels Nancy is given her old job to get things back on track.

Co-produced by Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment, the $50 million OKJA is heavy-handed at times, but for the most part, it does a good job of balancing the very Spielbergian relationship between Mija and Okja with its desire to be the DR. STRANGELOVE of GMO takedowns (in lesser hands, this would probably be called OKJA AND ME). The targets are easy, but the jokes land and the jabs leave some bruising, whether it's the tacit dismissal of US consumers having any qualms about eating genetically modified food ("If it's cheap, they'll eat it," and "It's all edible except the squeal"), or the extreme level of conviction of some of the privileged ALF kids, like rail-thin Silver (Devon Bostick), who goes days without eating to minimize his footprint and chronically passes out (Jay: "I admire your conviction, Silver, but your pallid complexion concerns me"). There's also one laugh-out-loud moment in a Mirando situation room where everyone's watching the events unfold in Seoul and each person present in the room assumes the exact position of a counterpart in the famous shot of President Obama and others watching the raid that took out Bin Laden, complete with Swinton's Lucy with her hand over her mouth just like Hillary Clinton and madman Dr. Johnny taking the Joe Biden spot. There's no reason for it other than a quick sight gag, but it's the best visual joke of its kind since the one-sheet for THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 copying THE BREAKFAST CLUB or the "everybody rips everybody else off" line in SWINGERS that's immediately followed by the cast recreating the RESERVOIR DOGS opening credits.

Sometimes Bong dampens the mood by going too dark, particularly in a horrifying and truly unsettling scene where a terrified Okja is subjected to a forced mating overseen by a drunk, cackling, rolling-around-on-the-floor Dr. Johnny. Gyllenhaal is clearly enjoying himself here, and his character's screechy, grating, whiny voice turning into Gyllenhaal's regular voice when Dr. Johnny goes in front of the camera is a amusing running gag, but the actor's performance might be a little too broad, frequently crossing the line into the grotesque, leaving zero room for any subtlety or nuance. Both of Swinton's characters are varying degrees of shrieking monsters (Nancy: "Fuck you, we're very proud of our accomplishments!" she yells in a warehouse full of genetically modified carcasses and pig parts, a blistering bit of absurdist humor that's as close as OKJA gets to "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!") that seem to spring from her Oscar-winning performance in MICHAEL CLAYTON, but she keeps it in check, even if there's no real reason she has to play twins other than Bong indulging his top-billed star who also has a producer credit on the film. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, enters the film as Talk Show Robin Williams and just escalates it further from there. There's a couple of riveting action set pieces in Mija's pursuit of Okja, and indeed, the heart and soul of the film is young An, who has a strong resemblance to Bong's now grown-up HOST and SNOWPIERCER co-star Ko Asung. An turns in a remarkable performance as a lonely, sensitive girl willing to go to the ends of the earth to save her only friend. It helps that Okja herself is a convincingly CGI'd creation in a strange, uneven action/horror/comedy/monster movie/corporate satire that tries to be too many things at once, and while it does trip over itself and teeters on the verge of collapsing into a hot mess on a few occasions, it manages to pull pretty much all of them off.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

In Theaters: BABY DRIVER (2017)

(US/UK - 2017)

Written and directed by Edgar Wright. Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Lily James, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones, Flea, Paul Williams, Sky Ferreira, Lance Palmer, Clay Donahue Fontenot, Richard Marcos Taylor, Brogan Hall. (R, 112 mins)

There's a lot to parse with Edgar Wright's BABY DRIVER that should keep film critics, hardcore movie nerds, vinyl hipsters, and jaded music bloggers with dog-eared thesauri who haven't liked any music recorded after 1980 busy with overly analytical and diarrhetically verbose thinkpieces until Labor Day at the earliest, but before they take the fun out of everything, the short answer is yes, it's the most dynamic, exhilarating, and flat-out enjoyable big-screen experience of the summer thus far. Best known for his dead-on genre spoofs in his "Cornetto Trilogy" with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (2004's SHAUN OF THE DEAD, 2007's HOT FUZZ, and 2013's THE WORLD'S END), Wright branched out with 2010's SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD and was set to helm Marvel's ANT-MAN until creative differences sent him voluntarily packing during pre-production. THE WORLD'S END featured Wright's most multi-dimensional characterizations and demonstrated an all-around maturity and confidence as a filmmaker beyond a sense of smart, well-crafted homage, and BABY DRIVER is his most assured and ambitious statement yet. He's still making a loving homage to his DVD and Blu-ray collection, but infuses it with a manic, propulsive energy that makes BABY DRIVER a virtuoso display of cinematic mash-ups that uses its soundtrack as part of the action. When Focus' classic rock radio staple "Hocus Pocus" plays during a car chase and subsequent shootout, the gun blasts are in perfect sync with the riffs. When Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms" introduces title wheelman Baby (a star-making performance from Ansel Elgort from the pointless CARRIE remake and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS), it's timed to his own moves waiting for the crew he's driving as they're robbing a bank. When Bob & Earl's "Harlem Shuffle" plays as Baby walks down the street and around the corner on a coffee run, it becomes a production number of sorts as he dodges pedestrians and cars. There's the undeniable presence of wheelmen of heist films past constantly lurking over BABY DRIVER, whether it's 1978's THE DRIVER or 2011's DRIVE, but it's not a stretch to say that Wright's film has an infectious spirit that brings to mind LA LA LAND if directed by Walter Hill. It's the STREETS OF FIRE of its generation.

Adorned with earbuds and a fistful of iPods for different days and different moods, Baby is the regular wheelman for Atlanta criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), who assembles a different crew for each job. The common denominator is Baby, who constantly plays music to drown out a lifelong case of tinnitus dating back to a childhood car accident that left him with a few facial scars and took the lives of both of his parents. Baby can maneuver his way out of any situation as long as he chooses the right playlist for the job ("Wait, stop...I gotta restart the song," he says after Doc's guys are delayed getting out of the car). He's working off a debt to Doc going back to a teenage incident where he stole his Mercedes, which enraged Doc but "the balls on this kid" earned the criminal's respect. After finishing his last job and wiping the slate clean, Baby is relieved that he's out and can care for his aging, deaf foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) and focus on a blossoming romance with shy diner waitress Debora (Lily James). Of course, Doc comes calling, demanding Baby's services even though the debt is paid off, but this time as a partner. The latest job is an elaborate yet foolhardy money order scam involving robbing a post office, a job for which Doc assembles a veritable supergroup of shitheads from jobs past: ex-Wall Street asshole and current junkie Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his ex-stripper girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the menacing Bats (Jamie Foxx), an unstable psycho whose first response to anything is to start shooting.

Loaded with dynamite car chases and snappy, quotable dialogue ("This is Eddie No-Nose...formerly known as Eddie the Nose"), and tough guy repartee, BABY DRIVER is a big-screen mix tape where Wright uses the music as an integral part of the action, rather than just a meaningless soundtrack cue. Its characters are also fully developed with varying shades and unpredictable arcs. The biggest threats aren't who we think they are, and Wright isn't afraid to pull some surprises and give a big name an earlier-than-expected exit. Anything can happen at any time in BABY DRIVER, whether it's the ruthless Doc showing a little sympathy, Buddy not hesitating to turn on Baby, even after bonding with him over the mutual love of Queen's "Brighton Rock" from their 1975 album Sheer Heart Attack, or even a brief appearance by legendary songwriter and ubiquitous '70s pop culture figure Paul Williams as a feared gun dealer known as "The Butcher." Wright even turns Baby and Debora's laundromat date--accompanied by T.Rex's "Deborah"--into a visual feast with purposeful choreography, their movements around the washers accompanied by a colorful backdrop of a wall of dryers spinning like records. BABY DRIVER is candy for the eyes and ears, propelled by intense action, solid character turns by a cast of top-of-the-line pros in Spacey, Hamm, and Foxx, and at its core, the summer's most appealing couple in Elgort and James. The film's only stumble is that after 100 minutes of tightly-edited and perfectly-constructed control. Wright doesn't seem 100% sure of how to wrap it all up. It's a small hiccup that's hardly a deal-breaker, and it doesn't stop BABY DRIVER from being one of 2017's best and most entertaining films.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Retro Review: TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1974)

(Italy/West Germany/France/Spain - 1974)

Directed by Peter Collinson. Written by Peter Welbeck (Harry Alan Towers). Cast: Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer, Richard Attenborough, Charles Aznavour, Stephane Audran, Gert Frobe, Herbert Lom, Maria Rohm, Adolfo Celi, Alberto de Mendoza, voice of Orson Welles. (PG, 98 mins)

The second of three Harry Alan Towers adaptations of both Agatha Christie's 1939 novel And Then There Were None and her subsequent 1943 stage version, 1974's TEN LITTLE INDIANS has just resurfaced after decades of obscurity courtesy of Scorpion Releasing, and it's one of the more pleasantly surprising Blu-ray resurrections of the year. Like the 1965 and 1989 versions also produced by Towers, TLI '74 jettisons the bleak ending of Christie's novel in favor of the more relatively crowd-pleasing finale, and features an all-star cast of familiar faces being picked off one by one at an isolated location after a mysterious, unseen figure calling himself "U.N. Owen" (voiced here by Orson Welles) gathers them together and accuses each of a past crime they've successfully buried until now. The 1965 version, written by Towers under his screenwriting pseudonym "Peter Welbeck," was a box office success and Towers decided to remake it using the same script in 1974 after Paramount announced Sidney Lumet's glossy, star-powered MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, which gathered an amazing group of stars in support of Albert Finney as legendary detective Hercule Poirot. In response, Towers, one of the masters of the international co-production (TLI '74 was a deal brokered with Italian, German, French, and Spanish production companies), assembled a roster of the biggest names he could buy (and his wife Maria Rohm) in a cast headed by Oliver Reed and Elke Sommer that also boasted two iconic former Bond villains (GOLDFINGER's Gert Frobe and THUNDERBALL's Adolfo Celi), and beat ORIENT EXPRESS to European screens by two months in September 1974. As was the case with productions involving so many different countries, variant versions with were prepared for each market, with the Spanish version adding a prologue showing the characters at the airport as well as a subplot featuring Spanish actress Teresa Gimpera and Italian actor Rik Battaglia. The prologue as well as the subplot were cut from Avco Embassy's belated US release in April 1975 (the version on the Scorpion Blu-ray), though Gimpera and Battaglia inexplicably remain listed in the opening credits.

Towers (1920-2009) was known as an exploitation huckster and there's certainly no disputing that reputation, especially in the late '80 when he partnered with Cannon and produced a slew of films in apartheid-era South Africa for Golan-Globus and others (including the 1989 TEN LITTLE INDIANS as well as several late '80s B-movies with Reed, including SKELETON COAST, DRAGONARD, GOR, CAPTIVE RAGE, and THE HOUSE OF USHER). He later allied himself with some shady investors from the Russian mob on a pair of dire, simultaneously-shot Harry Palmer throwback thrillers (1995's BULLET TO BEIJING and 1996's MIDNIGHT IN ST. PETERSBURG) that left star Michael Caine in such a depressed state that he was seriously ready to give up acting altogether. In an amusing Towers anecdote recounted in his second memoir One Lucky Bastard, Roger Moore tells of frequent Towers star Herbert Lom (who's in both the 1974 and 1989 versions of TEN LITTLE INDIANS) declining an offer to appear in the two Russia-lensed Harry Palmer movies with Caine. According to Moore, Lom said Towers tried to woo him with the promise of an "exciting" chance to film in areas where no film crews had gone before. Towers was evasive about the exact location and Lom, probably knowing Towers all too well, kept pressing him and had to repeatedly ask "Well, where is it?" before Towers finally, hesitantly replied "Um...Chernobyl." In the early 2000s, in the profitable world of DTV, Towers was one of the first producers to set up shop in Eastern Europe and exploit the cost-cutting advantages of shooting in Romania and Bulgaria, practices that are still used to this day and provide homes-away-from-home for the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Scott Adkins, and former movie star Steven Seagal.

Despite his well-documented penchant for ruses and chicanery, Tower$ had a knack for drawing big names to dubious projects and his 1967-1970 partnership with Jess Franco yielded some of the cult Spanish director's most ambitious and professional-looking work (1969's JUSTINE and VENUS IN FURS and 1970's COUNT DRACULA and THE BLOODY JUDGE being the standouts). Towers was capable of backing some fairly lavish, respectable productions like 1965's THE FACE OF FU MANCHU and its first two sequels and the 1965 version of TEN LITTLE INDIANS, directed by longtime David Lean assistant George Pollock, has an air of class to it, with a fine cast headed by Hugh O'Brian and doomed GOLDFINGER Bond girl Shirley Eaton, and Christopher Lee providing the voice of U.N. Owen. There's also a classier-than-usual--for Towers--aura surrounding the 1974 TEN LITTLE INDIANS as well. Directed by British filmmaker Peter Collinson (THE ITALIAN JOB, OPEN SEASON), TLI '74 benefits greatly from Towers' securing one of the most unusual and striking locations he could find: the Shah Abbas Hotel in Isfahan, Iran, just a few years prior to the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution against the Shah. An isolated location is key to any adaptation of And Then There Were None, but the Shah Abbas (now known as the Abbasi Hotel, and not exactly located in the middle of nowhere; the desolate exteriors around the hotel were actually shot in the desert of Almeria, Spain, showcased prominently in many a spaghetti western), a luxury hotel built over 300 years ago, becomes a character itself as Collinson has the camera prowl the ornate and seemingly endless hallways and expansive lobbies and lounge areas and one of the most memorable movie staircases you'll ever see. It's almost like a Middle East Overlook Hotel (the cast and crew actually stayed at the Shah Abbas as the production more or less took over the hotel for the shoot), and while it frequently comes close to achieving that same feeling of tension and isolation in THE SHINING, it could've been even better had Garrett Brown's Steadicam been available in 1974.

A shot of the staircase from the film

A recent photo of the staircase from the Abbasi Hotel web site

Stylistically, TLI '74 is very much a product of its time, with Collinson staging the murders in a very giallo-style fashion, often taking full advantage of every bit of the widescreen frame. Two murders in particular--Elsa (Rohm) and General Salve (Celi)--are staged with an almost Dario Argento-like, logic-be-damned panache, with Salve's even foreshadowing the brutal stabbing death presented by Argento as a shadow on the wall in the opening scene of the following year's DEEP RED. Indeed, if Argento or Sergio Martino ever made a 1970s Agatha Christie adaptation, it would probably look a lot like what Collinson accomplished with TEN LITTLE INDIANS. The story yields little surprises if you've seen any other of Towers' takes on the project or Rene Clair's 1945 classic AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, but TLI '74 stands out with its stylish murders, a persistent, throbbing score by longtime Ennio Morricone associate Bruno Nicolai, and the visually stunning Shah Abbas Hotel, an expansive location that gives its ten victims nowhere to hide, yet still feels claustrophobic amidst its vastness. Even if you're familiar with the story, this well-crafted take on TEN LITTLE INDIANS is beautifully shot by cinematographer Fernando Arribas (DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT, DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS, COMIN' AT YA) and is a neglected and forgotten gem that's worthy of rediscovery. If you're intrigued by the idea of Agatha Christie gone giallo, you'll find this to be the best and most interesting version of Towers' three takes on the story.

A recent photo of the Abbasi Hotel lobby

Friday, June 23, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: MINE (2017); BITTER HARVEST (2017); and ALTITUDE (2017)

(Spain/Italy/US - 2017)

Even though he showed himself to be a credible actor as the Winklevoss twins in 2010's THE SOCIAL NETWORK and other serious films like J. EDGAR and THE BIRTH OF A NATION, it's easy to see what drew Armie Hammer to a project like MINE. It's the kind of Acting-with-a-capital-A exercise toward which an actor generally known for undemanding commercial fare like THE LONE RANGER and THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. gravitates when they want to demonstrate some real chops. But after establishing its nail-biting premise that echoes a variety of other films (127 HOURS, BURIED, PHONE BOOTH, OPEN WATER, THE SHALLOWS, LIBERTY STANDS STILL), MINE blows up in Hammer's face thanks to the hackneyed choices made by the Italian filmmaking team "Fabio & Fabio"--writers/directors Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro. In North Africa, Marine sniper Mike Stevens (Hammer) and his buddy Tommy (Tom Cullen) are perched atop a cliff overlooking a desert wedding, with orders to take out a man (Agustin Rodriguez) believed to be the leader of a major Middle East terror cell. Mike botches the operation when he gets a clear shot and hesitates. A skirmish results and Mike and Tommy are left to walk through a long stretch of desert to get to the nearest safe haven--a stretch that a discarded sign in the sand warns of being filled with mines. Sure enough, a cocky Tommy steps on one and it blows off his legs. Taking a step to help him, Mike feels a click under his left foot and realizes he's stepped on one as well. With Tommy soon out of the picture and sandstorms plus, it would seem, retaliatory petulance over the bungled mission preventing an attempted extraction for 52 hours, Mike must keep his left foot planted on the mine, standing as still as possible until help arrives.

That's the first 20 minutes of MINE, and it's around the 21st minute that it falls apart. There's significant suspense to be generated by Mike's predicament, but Fabio & Fabio instead have him reflect--on his fiancee (Annabelle Wallis), his cancer-victim mother (Juliet Aubrey), his drunkard father (Geoff Bell), whose physical and psychological abuse sent Mike running off to escape to the military in the first place, and all the things he should've done differently, like Dewey Cox having to think about his entire life before he goes on stage. MINE works just fine when it deals directly with Mike battling thirst, the elements, exhaustion, and unseen threats in the darkness at night, but that momentum is constantly interrupted either by hallucinations or the periodic appearances of a good-natured berber (Clint Dyer), who gives him the equivalent of pep talks with a bunch of inspiring platitudes straight of a self-help book. The shifts are jarring, to say the least, and the attempts to expand the story with cutaways and people real and imagined only lead to tedium, with Fabio & Fabio seemingly unaware that MINE is working just fine when the camera's planted on the star. Hammer gives this everything he's got, but his above-and-beyond efforts are sabotaged by his indecisive and unfocused filmmakers. (Unrated, 106 mins)

(Canada - 2017)

After a long career spent in exploitation movies and television, one gets the feeling that journeyman Canadian director George Mendeluk saw BITTER HARVEST as a magnum opus of sorts, a serious, sweeping historical epic that showed the world that a hired gun pushing 70 was perhaps a secret auteur who just never got his chance. To that end, BITTER HARVEST is about the best you can expect a serious, sweeping historical epic from the director of 1987's MEATBALLS III to be. It deals with a subject that's only been tackled by a couple of Russian films to this point: the Holodomor, the forced, man-made famine inflicted on the Ukrainian people from 1932-33 by Joseph Stalin (played here by GAME OF THRONES' Gary Oliver, looking suspiciously like a heftier Soup Nazi), after he declared that the farmers of the region must supply grain for all of the Soviet people while leaving themselves hungry and dying. Historians have debated the cause of the genocide and a majority agree that it was Stalin's way of quashing a Ukrainian independence movement, ultimately claiming the lives of anywhere between seven and ten million Ukrainians. Those people deserve something better than BITTER HARVEST, a heavy-handed and insipid melodrama that uses the Holodomor as a backdrop for the old standby of one man trying to get home to the woman he loves. Yuri (Max Irons, Jeremy's son) is a sensitive artist who's uninterested in fighting the Stalin regime like his father Yaroslav (Barry Pepper, not the first actor who comes to mind when you're looking for a Ukrainian guy named Yaroslav) and tough-as-nails grandfather Ivan (a slumming Terence Stamp), who has no use for his soft grandson's fancy book learning. After his father is killed in a skirmish (Pepper exits the film at the 18-minute mark), Yuri marries his childhood sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Barks) and is forced to leave her behind as he goes off to a factory job in Kiev in order to feed his family. Jailed in a gulag and narrowly avoiding a firing squad, Yuri joins the resistance and fights to return home to fight for his wife, family, and community, who are all suffering at the hands of sadistic Stalin strongarm Sergei (Tamer Hassan).

Striving to be DOCTOR ZHIVAGO but saddled with a basic cable budget and left on the shelf since 2013, BITTER HARVEST is cliched and simplistic throughout, as evidenced in a scene where a random stranger sees Yuri sketching and emphatically declares "You are an artist! You have a duty to tell the world the truth!" The film feels like one of those mid '80s Cannon productions where Golan and Globus would indulge in some blatant historical awards-bait but it would still end up looking unmistakably Cannon (THE BERLIN AFFAIR, THE ASSISI UNDERGROUND, HANNA'S WAR). For all its high-minded aspirations of being the definitive chronicle of the Holodomor, BITTER HARVEST is still the kind of movie that has a stock, brutish, '80s-style commie bad guy in Sergei, ends with the hero mowing down scores of Soviet officers with his back to a huge explosion, and credits occasional Steven Seagal director Lauro Chartrand (BORN TO RAISE HELL) with second-unit duties (it's also produced by Oscar-nominated editor Stuart Baird, for some reason). There's nothing wrong with being a career journeyman, and while Mendeluk may have gone into BITTER HARVEST with noble intentions, his best films are still the 1980 Canadian tax-shelter two-fer of STONE COLD DEAD and THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT(R, 103 mins)

(US - 2017)

We last heard from Alex Merkin back in 2013 when he directed two movies--the horror film HOUSE OF BODIES and the Master P-style rapsploitation throwback PERCENTAGE--that quietly debuted on Netflix streaming within two weeks of one another with a level of stealth secrecy usually reserved for likes of the Baltimore Colts packing up and moving to Indianapolis in the middle of the night. Both films appeared to be micro-budgeted home movies with production values that ranked somewhere between "sex tape" and "snuff film." Neither looked to be in a releasable or even finished condition, both featured real actors (Peter Fonda and Terrence Howard in HOUSE OF BODIES, Ving Rhames and Macy Gray in PERCENTAGE), and both were inexplicably produced by Queen Latifah, who also Skyped in a cameo in HOUSE OF BODIES. The only conclusion I could draw at the time--and for a long time, mine was the only external HOUSE OF BODIES review on IMDb, making me seriously wonder if I imagined the whole thing--was that Merkin did such a consistently terrific job cleaning Queen Latifah's pool that she agreed to repay the favor by financing his two movies. PERCENTAGE is merely amateurishly awful, but HOUSE OF BODIES is so bad that it deserves to mentioned in the same breath as THE CREEPING TERROR and MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE. and regardless of Queen Latifah's career accomplishments, the only question I have for her in the event I ever meet her is "HOUSE OF BODIES and PERCENTAGE. Seriously, what the fuck?"

Needless to say, ALTITUDE ("From Director Alex Merkin," the artwork brags, with zero justification at all) is by default a better film, only because it couldn't possibly be worse. Merkin still has no business being on a movie set unless he's manning the craft services table, but ALTITUDE is, at best, barely watchable. Other than scenes involving visual effects, it at least looks like a real movie, albeit a very familiar one. If you've ever wanted to see DIE HARD ON A PLANE with Denise Richards as a hardass FBI agent, here's your chance. A plays-by-her-own-rules hostage negotiator who plays by her own rules once too often, Gretchen Blair (Richards) is busted down to desk duty and sent back to Washington. Her plane is hijacked by a crack team of jewel thieves after one of their own, Terry (Kirk Barker), who made off with their recent take and is of course, seated right next to Blair. Among the baddies are the psychotic ringleader Sadie (Greer Grammer, Kelsey's daughter), who's disguised as a flight attendant, plus burly Rawbones (Chuck Liddell, doing nothing and getting killed off early as usual), and no-nonsense Sharpe (Dolph Lundgren), who takes over as the pilot when Sadie kills the entire crew, including endlessly chipper flight attendant Rick, played by a grown-up Jonathan Lipnicki--yes, the kid from JERRY MAGUIRE--who gets fourth billing for getting his neck snapped 20 minutes in. Blair spends most of the movie hiding in the cargo hold, eliminating Sadie's bad guys one by one and getting little help from a useless air marshal (daytime soap vet Jordi Vilasuso). Somehow opening with seven (!) production company logos and boasting 40 (!!) credited producers, including Lipnicki (!!!), the impossibly cheap-looking ALTITUDE is dire even by the low standards of Redbox-ready DTV/VOD actioners. Lundgren and Liddell are just cashing checks here, but one good thing to say about the whole project is that Grammer is a surprisingly engaging villain and would've held her own in better circumstances. A more ambitious film would've done something with the possibilities of a DIE HARD/PASSENGER 57/NON-STOP scenario with female adversaries. And while Richards isn't particularly well-cast or believable, she doesn't embarrass herself, at least not until she delivers the death blow to Sadie, tossing her out of the plane while quipping "You need to check your altitude, bitch!" (R, 88 mins)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Retro Review: THE VALACHI PAPERS (1972)

(Italy/France - 1972)

Directed by Terence Young. Written by Stephen Geller. Cast: Charles Bronson, Lino Ventura, Joseph Wiseman, Jill Ireland, Walter Chiari, Gerald S. O'Loughlin, Amedeo Nazzari, Fausto Tozzi, Pupella Maggio, Angelo Infanti, Guido Leontini, Maria Baxa, Mario Pilar, Alessandro Sperli, Anthony Dawson. (R, later PG, 125 mins)

The other big Mafia hit at movie theaters in 1972, THE VALACHI PAPERS was in production at the same time as THE GODFATHER, beating it to European theaters by a month in February 1972, but its US release was held up until November, eight months after the trailblazing Francis Ford Coppola blockbuster. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, THE VALACHI PAPERS benefited from the GODFATHER phenomenon and was itself a huge box office success, and along with the following year's SERPICO, was a key film in helping the legendary Italian producer establish himself as Hollywood mogul. THE VALACHI PAPERS and SERPICO were both fact-based crime based based on books by journalist Peter Maas (De Laurentiis would later produce 1978's KING OF THE GYPSIES, a fictionalized adaptation of another Maas non-fiction work). VALACHI gets a lot of mileage out of a terrific performance by Charles Bronson as Joseph Valachi, the infamous informant whose Senate testimony in 1963 blew the lid off the inner workings of the Cosa Nostra and organized crime in America. As the film opens in 1962, an aging Valachi arrives in prison and is given the "kiss of death" by incarcerated mob boss Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura), who believes Valachi was the rat who tipped off the Feds on a drug shipment that got a good chunk of the Genovese crime family pinched. Valachi emphatically professes his innocence, but after an attempt on his life in the showers, having his 15-year-sentence bumped to life after mistaking a fellow inmate for a Genovese hit man and beating him to death with a lead pipe in the yard, and receiving word that Genovese has offered $20,000 to anyone who whacks him, he demands to be put in solitary confinement and decides to cooperate with FBI Agent Ryan (Gerald S. O'Loughlin), spilling the beans on the inner workings of the Cosa Nostra and "this thing of ours."

Charles Bronson sending a message to his critics
The film then cuts to a flashback structure, going back to Valachi's early days as a two-bit hood in the 1920s. In 1931, after a stretch in Sing Sing where he meets low-level mob flunky Gap (Walter Chiari), he eventually gets a job as a driver for "Boss of Bosses" Salvatore Maranzano (Joseph Wiseman). He's placed under the tutelage of underboss Gaetano Reina (Amedeo Nazzari) and assigned to the crew of the ambitious, scheming Tony Bender (Guido Leontini). After whacking Maranzano's chief rival Joe Masseria (Alessandro Sperli), Lucky Luciano (Angelo Infanti, the only VALACHI cast member who was also in THE GODFATHER) and Genovese stage a coup with the help of Bender, killing Reina and distracting Valachi and Gap with a pair of prostitutes as they send a crew of hit men to kill Maranzano. The power play is a success, as Luciano takes over Maranzano's family, but is himself set up by the duplicitous Genovese and arrested on prostitution charges, leaving Genovese the Boss of Bosses of the Cosa Nostra. Valachi eventually marries Reina's daughter Maria (Bronson's wife Jill Ireland) and runs a successful Italian restaurant, and while he was a simple man with a seventh-grade education who never advanced beyond being a driver in the Maranzano/Luciano/Genovese family, he heard and saw everything, making him an easy target for an FBI sting where he's viewed as the small fish who can lead them to a much bigger one. Even before Genovese orders a hit on him from prison (upped to $100,000 after he learns that Valachi is talking to the FBI), Valachi already gets a spot on his shit list for his association with lunkheaded Gap, who was carrying on a clandestine affair with Genovese's bisexual moll Donna (Maria Baxa) and was brutally castrated by Bender for his transgressions in the film's most notorious scene. R-rated at the time of its release in 1972, THE VALACHI PAPERS was eventually and inexplicably re-rated PG at some point prior to its 2006 DVD release, and with some Baxa nudity, a level of squib splatter throughout that rivals Sonny Corleone's causeway death in THE GODFATHER, and Gap getting his dick chopped off in an agonizingly long scene (ripped off the next year in a cartoonishly over-the-top fashion when cuckolded mob boss Arthur Kennedy orders an underling's junk hacked off and stuffed into his own mouth in Tulio Demicheli's RICCO THE MEAN MACHINE), VALACHI might now rank as one of the most violent PG-rated movies in existence.

Controversial in its day and rumored to have moved production from NYC to Rome after threats from the mob, THE VALACHI PAPERS was scripted by Stephen Geller (who also wrote the big-screen version of Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE the same year), with uncredited contributions by Italian writers Massimo De Rita and Dino Maiuri, who co-wrote the excellent 1970 Bronson crime thriller VIOLENT CITY. The film was directed by Terence Young, whose place in film history is secured by his helming the likes of DR. NO (1962), FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963), THUNDERBALL (1965), and WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967). VALACHI was the last of three European Bronson films he directed (following 1970's COLD SWEAT and 1971's RED SUN), and by this period, Young was mostly on autopilot, slumming on mercenary gigs like the Italian T&A female gladiator movie WAR GODDESS (1973) and the outrageously offensive THE KLANSMAN (1974), and more focused on maintaining his jet-set lifestyle and being a sugar daddy to a much-younger girlfriend than he was on filmmaking. In the VALACHI PAPERS entry in the Leonard Maltin video guide, the film is described as "sloppy but engrossing," and that's just about dead-on accurate. Young got the film in the can, but from the looks of things, he was in Zero Fucks mode throughout the shoot: the film gets some key dates wrong (it says Valachi died in 1969, but he died in 1971); scenes of Valachi as a driver set in 1930 have late 1960s/early 1970s cars driving alongside him and parked on NYC streets, obviously catching footage on the fly without permits; Bronson slips at one point and refers to Masseria as "Maserati" and Young just left it in; Gerald S. O'Loughlin's name is misspelled "Gerard" in the credits; late in the film, Valachi attempts to hang himself with the power cord yanked off of the TV in his cell, and when he's rescued by Ryan, the red makeup around Bronson's neck to simulate the cord burn is smudged all over his white collar--again, no "Take 2" from Young; and most hilarious of all, a 1930 car chase that ends with Valachi driving into the East River, the camera panning up to show the 2/3 completed World Trade Center towers, still under construction with cranes visible on top of each building.

Joseph Valachi testifying before a Senate committee in 1963

THE VALACHI PAPERS is good but with a more engaged director at the helm, it could've been great. Bronson was always an engaging badass onscreen, but he rarely got a chance to really show off his acting chops, and his vivid portrayal of Joe Valachi is one of his career highlights, with the 50-year-old actor convincingly playing the character from his 20s to his late 60s. Ventura is appropriately menacing as the ruthless Genovese, while Ireland, likely included in the package deal to keep Bronson happy, has little to do in the historically thankless "Mafia wife" role, though her reactions to Valachi's lack of culture and table manners during their courting are cute, and allow Bronson a rare opportunity to show some comedic skills. Even though they're dubbed, Italian character actors Chiari, Leontini, and Fausto Tozzi (as hot-headed, Joe Pesci-like anger management case Albert Anastasia) make memorable impressions with their distinctive features. The scene-stealing honors, however, must go to Wiseman, best known for being the first Bond villain with the title role in DR. NO. Playing a Maranzano far more sympathetic than existed in real life, Wiseman conveys a grandfatherly charm and affable befuddlement, and while he may not offer the best acting in THE VALACHI PAPERS, he certainly offers the most acting. He sports a huge mustache and uses goofy facial expressions and a garbled, completely invented accent, rolling his Rs and sounding like a Transylvanian mafioso and giving the audience a bizarre, alternate universe look at what might've happened if Bela Lugosi lived long enough to audition for the role of Vito Corleone. Wiseman's shining moment comes at Reina's funeral, when the dead underboss' grieving widow demands justice and Maranzano embraces her and declares "I-uh-can-uh-not-uh-bring-uh-back-uh-the-dead-uh...I-uh-can-uh-only-uh-kill-uh-the-living-uh!" Maranzano's execution-style murder is integral to the Valachi story as it begins Genovese's ascent to capo di tutti capi, but Wiseman's performance is so unpredictably strange that THE VALACHI PAPERS definitely loses a little something when he exits midway through. Twilight Time has just released a limited edition Blu-ray of THE VALACHI PAPERS, and it's easily the best it's ever looked. Bonus features are sadly lacking, though there is an isolated audio track for Riz Ortolani's score, which has some lovely and memorable cues, but comes in a distant second to Nino Rota's work on THE GODFATHER.

THE VALACHI PAPERS opening in Toledo, OH on November 8, 1972

Monday, June 19, 2017

In Theaters: 47 METERS DOWN (2017)

(UK/Dominican Republic - 2017)

Directed by Johannes Roberts. Written by Johannes Roberts and Ernest Riera. Cast: Claire Holt, Mandy Moore, Matthew Modine, Santiago Segura, Chris J. Johnson, Yani Gellman. (PG-13, 89 mins)

Opening almost exactly one year after last summer's better-than-expected THE SHALLOWS, the Blake Lively shark attack thriller 47 METERS DOWN had an unusual journey to the big screen. Shot in 2015 as 47 METERS DOWN, the British/Dominican Republic co-production was acquired by Dimension Films, who retitled it IN THE DEEP and planned on releasing it straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray in August 2016, probably figuring it could fool less-savvy Redbox customers and Walmart and Best Buy impulse buyers into thinking it was THE SHALLOWS. A week before the planned street date, Dimension abruptly cancelled the release after closing a deal to sell the film to the upstart Entertainment Studios, a TV production company looking to branch out into movie distribution and owned by none other than veteran comedian and syndicated talk show host Byron Allen, last seen hosting COMICS UNLEASHED when you woke up at 3:30 am and realized you left the TV on. Allen reinstated the 47 METERS DOWN title, gave himself an executive producer credit (he's one of 38 credited producers), and sat on the film for nearly a year before making it Entertainment Studios' inaugural multiplex offering. Review copies of IN THE DEEP had already been sent to media outlets and DVD/Blu-ray shipments had already arrived at stores the week before the August 2016 release date. Dimension recalled the shipments, but certain retailers--Target, in particular--broke the street date, so a handful of physical copies, under its interim IN THE DEEP title, were inevitably sold and have since turned up on eBay as collector's items, even though the film hasn't officially been released until now. It's good timing on the part of Entertainment Studios: shark movies are perfect summer fare, and while co-star Mandy Moore's movie career wasn't exactly on fire two years ago when this was made (she's not even top-billed), she's enjoyed a significant resurgence thanks to the huge success of the NBC series THIS IS US.

Lisa (Moore) and her younger sister Kate (Australian actress Claire Holt of THE VAMPIRE DIARIES and its spinoff THE ORIGINALS) are vacationing in Mexico, with Kate going along as a last-minute substitute after Lisa got dumped by her longtime boyfriend for being "too boring." The sisters couldn't be more different--outgoing Kate is the life of the party while the more conservative Lisa is overly cautious and hesitant about everything. Kate convinces her big sister to live it up and take a chance after they meet Benjamin (Santiago Segura--not to be confused with the popular Spanish actor of the same name) and Louis (Yani Gellman), a couple of nice local guys who talk them into an off-the-books cage-diving excursion, chartering a boat captained by the Dude-like Taylor (Matthew Modine getting a paid vacation to the Caribbean), who lets tourists go five meters down in a shark cage to get up close and personal with the plentiful number of great whites inhabiting the waters. Benjamin and Louis go in without incident but while Lisa and Kate are in the cage, the cable frays and the boat winch breaks off, sending them to the floor 47 meters down. At a depth too far down to communicate with Taylor on the radio, with limited oxygen, sharks swimming all around the cage, and certain death from the bends even if they get out and try to ascend to the surface too quickly, there's no way out in the amount of time it will take the Coast Guard to mount a deep sea rescue.

Had director/co-writer Johannes Roberts stuck to this simple, intense premise, 47 METERS DOWN would be a front-to-back winner. The score by tomandandy is terrifically effective, the CGI sharks look surprisingly convincing, and Roberts takes a page out of the Spielberg playbook by not showing too much of them. Smart move. It's an exemplary nail-biter with convincing performances from Holt and Moore and for about 2/3 of its running time, it's looking like we might have a new gem in the shark attack subgenre. But that's before Roberts decides things are going just a little too well, forcing him to call a time-out so he can promptly shit the bed. Since the mid-to-late 1990s, when the shocking finales of films like THE USUAL SUSPECTS and THE SIXTH SENSE dazzled audiences (and you could maybe even go back to 1991's SHATTERED to see where the trend really began), third-act twists, no matter how absurd, have been become so commonplace that more often than not, they aren't even surprising anymore. That's not to say good ones don't still happen, but Roberts (STORAGE 24, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR) isn't a skilled enough filmmaker to pull it off. It's telegraphed in a line so verbosely clunky that the only way you could miss it is if you were in the restroom. Why does a shark movie need a twist ending? They're sharks, not Keyser Soze. A good filmmaker executes a twist and leaves the audience buzzing and going back and replaying the events to see how cleverly the plot was constructed and realize just how you were manipulated and played. The twist of 47 METERS DOWN leaves you feeling like you just got your chain yanked for the last 80 minutes and you leave the theater only to find Roberts keying your car. I guess there's a fine line between executing a masterful plot twist and just being a dick, and 47 METERS DOWN has one of those twists where the wave of audience resentment upon its revelation is palpable. And speaking of being a dick, there's no need for the onscreen title of this film to be JOHANNES ROBERTS' 47 METERS DOWN. How much sack does it take for the director of STORAGE 24 to pull that move? Pump your brakes, JoJo. You think you're John Fuckin' Carpenter?

DVD packaging for the cancelled 2016 release of 47 METERS DOWN

Friday, June 16, 2017


(US - 2017)

Directed by Mark Cullen. Written by Mark Cullen and Robb Cullen. Cast: Bruce Willis, John Goodman, Jason Momoa, Thomas Middleditch, Famke Janssen, Adam Goldberg, Kal Penn, Wood Harris, Stephanie Sigman, Christopher McDonald, David Arquette, Elisabeth Rohm, Jessica Gomes, Maurice Compte, Ken Davitian, Billy Gardell, Tyga, Victor Ortiz, Sol Rodriguez, Sammi Rotibi, Adrian Martinez, Ron Funches. (Unrated, 94 mins)

While it seems like a good idea for former actor Bruce Willis to take a break from his landmark "Phoning in his performance from his hotel room" series of Lionsgate/Grindstone VOD titles by actually legitimately headlining a movie again, ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE shows he needn't have bothered. Unceremoniously dumped on VOD by RLJ Entertainment after two years on the shelf, VENICE is an episodic shaggy dog story with Willis as Steve Ford, the only licensed private eye in Venice Beach. He's a disgraced LAPD detective (as shown in a framed newspaper headline on a wall in his house, which seems like an odd memento to display) who ambles about from case to case and spends his plentiful downtime beach-bumming and skateboarding. He's got a protege in young John (Thomas Middleditch), who also serves as the narrator (he gets the first lines of the film over an establishing shot: "Ah...Venice Beach...") and gets involved in various ongoing cases that Steve is barely working: a missing young Samoan woman named Nola (Jessica Gomes), who's found and promptly hops into bed with Steve, which leads to her angry brothers chasing Steve, who makes a getaway by skateboarding around Venice Beach nude; an artist known as "the Banksy of Venice" who keeps spray-painting sexually explicit graffiti on an apartment building owned by scheming businessman Lou the Jew (Adam Goldberg); and an auto repossession involving powerful drug lord Spyder (Jason Momoa) that ends up propelling the central story. Seeking revenge on Steve, Spyder's guys burglarize his sister's (Famke Janssen) house and steal Steve's beloved Parson Russell terrier Buddy. When Spyder's girlfriend Lupe (Stephanie Sigman) runs off with Buddy and a shipment of Spyder's cocaine, Steve reluctantly agrees to recover the coke for him if it means finding Buddy.

Bruce Willis at the exact moment he was told
 he'd have to leave his hotel room to work on this film
Some of the plot threads come together, but most don't. VENICE feels like a semi-improvised series pilot that got rejected by Seeso and Crackle. It's a mix of KEANU (which was in production at the same time) and a quirky detective story with shades of THE BIG LEBOWSKI, THE BIG BOUNCE, and INHERENT VICE, but with no chemistry between the actors and 99% of the jokes landing with a thud. The LEBOWSKI aspirations are apparent in the casting of John Goodman as Steve's best friend Dave Jones ("No, not the legend from the Monkees," explains SILICON VALLEY's ever-punchable Middleditch), a surf shop owner who's being taken to the cleaners by his ex-wife (Elisabeth Rohm) and comes across like a morose, self-pitying, sad-sack version of Walter Sobchak. It's a character that plays to exactly none of Goodman's strengths, and you know you're in a bad movie when John Goodman can't make it better. There's also Wood Harris as a money-laundering crime boss, David Arquette getting prominent billing for one shot of skating past Steve and shouting "We're putting the band back together!," Kal Penn as a convenience store clerk, BORAT's Ken Davitian as a ruthless loan shark who promises a "Belarus Bowtie" to anyone who doesn't pay him back within a day ("You cut off balls, stuff them down throat, you slit throat, and..." "They pop out like a bowtie," Steve says, echoing a line you'll already hear coming), and Christopher McDonald, cast radically against type as "Christopher McDonald," in this case an asshole real estate mogul trying to sabotage a lucrative deal for Lou the Jew.

Though he's in nearly every scene, Willis, whose level of commitment to his craft can be ranked somewhere between "senioritis" and "Seagal," coasts through this with a half-assed smirk and a visible ambivalence. He's always been good with wisecracks but rarely adept at comedy past the days of MOONLIGHTING and Blake Edwards' BLIND DATE, back in 1987 when he was young and still gave a shit. At 62, Willis is at the age when he should be tackling serious work and thinking about his legacy rather than slumming through D-grade VOD thrillers and unfunny comedies for a paycheck he doesn't even need. It's hard to believe he'd want to reunite with the sibling writing team of Mark & Robb Cullen, best known for their TV work (LAS VEGAS) but also the writers of the awful 2010 comedy COP OUT, Kevin Smith's buddy-cop movie homage that stood as the director's worst film until YOGA HOSERS. Willis hated making COP OUT and infamously clashed with Smith, so his beef must not have been with the Cullens, but VENICE is ample proof that they aren't exactly on their way finding sponsors for a membership at the Friars Club. While there is one legitimately funny line (a throwaway from a bartender when a nude Steve skateboards across the bar: "Steve, you can't have a gun in here!"), the pacing is laborious (it takes 40 minutes for Buddy to go missing), the credits riddled with careless gaffes (Elisabeth Rohm's name is spelled correctly in the closing credits but misspelled "Elizabeth" in the opening, and the closing credits show Goldberg's character as "Low the Jew"), and it goes without saying that the best performance comes from the dog. Buddy deserves better than ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE.