Sunday, October 4, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (2015); THE CONNECTION (2015); and ALLELUIA (2015)

(UK - 2015)

When it opened in early 2015, the UK import THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY was the other BDSM film, the art-house counterpart to the more commercial and mega-hyped FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. Written and directed by Peter Strickland, whose BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO was a paranoia nightmare told in the vein of a 1970s Italian giallo, THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY follows numerous stylistic tropes seen in BERBERIAN, namely an unabashed adoration of the 1970s and an intricate and fascinating sound design. It's also a bit more substantive than the intriguing but empty BERBERIAN, which opened with a terrific set-up and then didn't really go any deeper than the surface. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY's much-discussed opening credits sequence would appear to portend a softcore '70s sexploitation outing along the lines of a smutty British sex farce or an EMMANUELLE film, complete with a prominent credit for "Perfume by Je Suis Gizella." It's the story of a BDSM relationship between older, erudite lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and younger, demure protege Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna). Their role-playing takes on an almost JEANNE DIELMAN sense of precision repetition: Evelyn arrives at Cynthia's house, and Cynthia proceeds to make her clean the house, do the laundry, and be treated in all sorts of demeaning fashions, whether it's being interrupted or Cynthia making a mess where Evelyn just cleaned. Often, Cynthia will demand a foot massage. This repeats until we see that they're a loving couple and this is their intimate routine. But Strickland gradually reveals more: it's Cynthia who's the submissive, giving into Evelyn's domination and her demands to be humiliated. It's ultimately a story of the compromises, concessions, and the give-and-take involved in any committed relationship, whether it's one party acquiescing and allowing the use of an old trunk as a coffin for the other to be bound and held in as punishment, or whether one draws the line at treating the other as a "human toilet."

Considering its subject matter, BURGUNDY, whose creative spark was ignited, oddly enough, when Strickland turned down an offer to remake Jess Franco's 1974 film LORNA THE EXORCIST, is hardly the Skinemax softcore throwback you'd expect from the opening credits (which, as amusing and dead-on retro as they are, end up feeling like a stunt that has little to do with what transpires later) and the butterfly symbolism a tad too heavy-handed an obvious (and reminiscent of the 1995 art film ANGELS & INSECTS), but it manages to convey an overtly explicit feel without being very graphic at all. There's barely any nudity and only some fleeting onscreen sex. Yet Strickland's film is a hazy fever dream of erotica, with plenty of caressed skin, a couple of tastefully-executed sex scenes (he keeps the water sports heard but not seen), two excellent performances (Knudsen, in particular), and enough lingering shots of Knudsen's and D'Anna's feet to send it to the top of Quentin Tarantino's Best of 2015 list. (Unrated, 104 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

(France/Belgium - 2014; US release 2015)

This French crime saga directed and co-written by Cedric Jiminez purports to tell the French side of the drug trade depicted in THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Despite his love of handheld cameras for maximum immediacy, Jiminez never achieves the kind of wired, adrenalized intensity that William Friedkin established 44 years ago, and aside from the immediate art-house cred that comes with being a subtitled, foreign-language film, THE CONNECTION is utterly and frustratingly ordinary in every way. Jiminez borrows some Friedkin here, some Scorsese there, a good-sized portion of Ridley Scott's AMERICAN GANGSTER, and a heaping helping of Michael Mann's HEAT in its mirror-image motif of law enforcer vs. criminal and how they're flip sides of the same coin. Just to hammer it home, Jiminez even casts two actors who look very much alike, almost like you expect him to pull a Bunuel switch at the midpoint and have the stars switch roles. At least that would've been something unpredictable. THE ARTIST Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin busts his ass to enliven the uninspired material, often channeling the pent-up rage of a young De Niro as Pierre Michel, a Juvenile Court magistrate in 1975 Marseilles. He's transferred over to the Organized Crime unit and ordered to do everything at his disposal to bring down drug kingpin Gaetan Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), the key figure in the Marseilles-to-NYC heroin trade.

What follows is over two hours of Michel and his task force of interchangeable, nondescript supporting actors unable to make anything stick to teflon Zampa during an obsessive investigation that lasts from 1975 to 1981, and both men see their private lives suffer as a result of their respective professions: Zampa's wife (Melanie Doutey) is temporarily placated when her husband gives her a disco to run (cue Blondie's "Call Me," which must mean the producers couldn't secure the rights to "Heart of Glass," the mandatory song for every establishing shot of a disco in a movie set in the 1970s), but Mrs. Michel (Celine Sallette) grows weary (as will the viewer) of Michel being called away by work from literally every meal he's able to have at home with the family. You could almost make a drinking game out of it. And of course, just as in HEAT, Michel and Zampa have a mid-film confrontation where they acknowledge they're not much different from one another, but they best stay out of the other's way. Jiminez admirably doesn't get sidetracked by paying too much attention to period detail other than long sideburns, a detour to Manhattan that shows off a badly CGI'd shot of the half-built Twin Towers (which were completed by 1975 anyway), and one character name-dropping John Travolta and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. Dujardin and Lellouche are excellent, and Benoit Magimel and Cyril Lecomte have some standout moments as some Zampa criminal associates, but they all deserve more worthy material than this rote, paint-by-numbers non-epic that plays like lukewarm leftovers of too many better movies that inspired it. (R, 135 mins)

(Belgium/France - 2014; US release 2015)

With his 2004 feature debut, the rural, backwoods-set CALVAIRE, Belgian filmmaker Fabrice Du Welz became linked with the French "extreme horror" movement popularized by the likes of Alexandre Aja's HIGH TENSION (2003), Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's INSIDE (2007), Xavier Gens' FRONTIER(S) (2008) and Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS (2008). Du Welz followed CALVAIRE with the ambitious but unfocused VINYAN (2008), an English-language "ramshackle-boat-journey-upriver as metaphor for journey-into-madness" horror film that took too long to get to its genuinely unnerving, terrifying finale. VINYAN tanked worldwide before going straight-to-DVD in the US in 2009 and Du Welz vanished. He resurfaced in 2014 with a pair of thrillers, ALLELUIA and COLT 45, though only the former has received a US release (Du Welz's next project will bring him to Hollywood 12 years after he made a splash with CALVAIRE--the Chadwick Boseman action thriller MESSAGE FROM THE KING is due out in early 2016). ALLELUIA is a very loose and aggressively unhinged retelling of the 1940s "Lonely Hearts Murders," where spinster nurse Martha Beck and con-artist/gigolo Raymond Fernandez pursued victims through personal ads and proceeded to rob and murder the women whose ads Fernandez answered, with Beck posing as his sister. The story was previously depicted in the 1969 cult classic THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, with Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco, the 1996 Mexican film DEEP CRIMSON, and the barely-released 2006 thriller LONELY HEARTS, which focused on the detectives (John Travolta, James Gandolfini) pursuing the Lonely Hearts serial killers (Jared Leto, Salma Hayek). Du Welz's version updates the story to the present-day, with lonely morgue attendant and single mother Gloria (frequent Almodovar star Lola Duenas) meeting Michel (Laurent Lucas) after her friend Madeleine (Stephane Bissot) posts her profile on an online dating site. After falling hard for Michel even knowing he's a scheming con artist, Gloria impulsively leaves her young daughter with Madeleine and hits the road with Michel, finding women on dating sites and often going for the long con, with Michel marrying them and Gloria posting as his sister. The adventure stirs some kind of psychosis in Gloria, who grows insanely jealous when Michel has to sleep with their marks, which usually results in Gloria going off the deep end and brutally murdering the women. Michel becomes her unwitting accomplice, helping her dispose of the bodies--her job experience at the morgue comes in handy--but as their con games go on, Gloria grows increasingly deranged, with Michel unable to control her and her wild impulses.

Du Welz sometimes gets a little too goofy for his own good, such as Gloria getting a somber musical number before taking a saw to the corpse of the couple's latest victim, or a half-baked attempt at putting a vague supernatural spin on things with Raymond's prayer rituals and a bizarre sequence of a naked Michel and Gloria dancing by a raging fire, but ALLELUIA is a grim and disturbing sleeper that sneaks up on you. A lot of it has to do with the almost claustrophobic immediacy of the grainy, 16mm cinematography by Manuel Dacosse (AMER, THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS), but most of it is the thoroughly off-the-chain performance of Duenas. Du Welz and Duenas pull a cunning bait-and-switch with how plain and mousy she's introduced. You question the logic of her going to work the morning after meeting Michel and having him stay the night, then leaving her daughter with him. Once they're a couple and on the road, Michel soon realizes he has no idea what he's gotten himself into, and doesn't enter into his con games with murder in mind until Gloria puts him in that position. Michel is just a scheming heel who's trying to con lonely women out of their money--it's he who becomes an accomplice to murder and it's he who's forced into murder by Gloria, in whom he's awakened a sleeping giant prone to uncontrolled fits of rage and limb-flailing meltdowns. It's a slightly different take on the subject that seems to have been chosen simply because Du Welz wanted Duenas to let it rip with wild abandon, and she obliges. There are some instances where Du Welz is distracted by what he probably perceived to be transgressive shock value, like a scene where Gloria masturbates while Michel sucks on her toes and jerks off, or when he stages one of the most precariously-framed mainstream cinema blowjobs in recent memory, but ALLELUIA is a mostly effective bit of grim bleakness that stumbles here and there, didn't need the dumb musical number and could use a stronger ending, but Duenas' mad, almost possessed performance makes it a must-see. (Unrated, 93 mins)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Cannon Files: HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983)

(UK - 1983; US release 1984)

Directed by Pete Walker. Written by Michael Armstrong. Cast: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Desi Arnaz Jr, John Carradine, Sheila Keith, Richard Todd, Julie Peasgood, Louise English, Richard Hunter, Norman Rossington. (PG, 102 mins)

When it came to ninjas, Namsploitation, and breakdancing, Menaham Golan had his fingers on the pulse of what audiences wanted to see. But just as often, he'd keep Cannon cranking out increasingly geriatric Charles Bronson actioners directed by an aging J. Lee Thompson, cheapjack franchise offerings like the one-and-done MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE (1987) and the ill-advised SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987), and misguided attempts at arthouse legitimacy that played to smaller and smaller audiences. When Golan decided to make an all-star horror movie with the screen's titans of terror in 1983, he didn't come up with the kind of horror movie that 1983 audiences had in mind. HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS was born when screenwriter Michael Armstrong (director of the 1970 barf-bag classic MARK OF THE DEVIL) and cult British horror filmmaker Pete Walker (DIE SCREAMING MARIANNEFRIGHTMARE, HOUSE OF WHIPCORD, THE CONFESSIONAL) came to Cannon with an idea for a gory horror movie called DELIVER US FROM EVIL. Golan rejected the idea and told them he wanted a vintage "old dark house" story with all the classic horror stars, so Armstrong and Walker concocted a script inspired by the 1932 James Whale classic THE OLD DARK HOUSE and based largely on the oft-filmed 1913 George M. Cohan play Seven Keys to Baldpate, itself based on a novel by Charlie Chan author Earl Derr Biggers.  According to legend, Golan demanded Walker and Armstrong cast Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in this all-star horror summit, and was not deterred by minor inconveniences like Karloff's death in 1969 and Lugosi's a decade before that in 1956.

While Karloff and Lugosi were out of the question, Golan did manage to snag four living horror legends: 72-year-old Vincent Price, 61-year-old Christopher Lee, 70-year-old Peter Cushing, and 77-year-old John Carradine. The big selling point of HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS--a playful nod to how beloved its stars were--was these iconic figures not just being in the same movie together, but finally having significant amounts of screen time interacting with one another. Of course, Lee and Cushing were paired up many times over the years (this would be their last movie together), and Cushing co-starred with Price in 1974's MADHOUSE and Price with Carradine in 1981's THE MONSTER CLUB, but usually, it would be a case of them being in the same movie but having no scenes together, like Price, Lee, and Cushing in 1970's SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN or Price and Cushing in 1972's DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN or Cushing and Carradine in 1977's SHOCK WAVES. There was also Price and Lee in 1969's THE OBLONG BOX , where they had one brief scene together very late in the film when Price finds Lee's dead body. In that respect, HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS was sort-of the old-school horror EXPENDABLES of its day. And of course, upon its US release in the spring of 1984, it bombed with critics and audiences, who loved these old-timers on late-night TV and Saturday afternoon Creature Features, but didn't venture out to see a new movie with them in theaters. A gothic Hammer/Amicus throwback didn't really appeal to the slasher and special effects crowd. LONG SHADOWS was recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber and on one of the two commentary tracks, film historian David Del Valle and moderator Elijah Drenner also cite Cannon's poor marketing campaign: a tongue-in-cheek, old-fashioned horror mystery set on a dark and stormy night, the film has enough of a playful atmosphere that it never really takes itself too seriously, though it never quite takes the plunge into all-out comedy. Cannon didn't seem to know whether to sell this as a mystery, a horror movie, or a spoof.

Best-selling novelist Kenneth Magee (Desi Arnaz Jr) is good at cranking out books but really only cares about the money. His British publisher Sam Allyson (Richard Todd) wants Kenneth to challenge himself and after dissing the likes of Wuthering Heights, Kenneth bets Sam $20,000 that he can write an old-fashioned gothic novel in 24 hours. To get in the right frame of mind, Sam arranges to have Kenneth spend the night at a desolate Welsh estate called Baldpate Manor, which has been empty for 40 years. After he's interrupted by Sam's secretary Mary (Julie Peasgood), sent there to distract him, things get weird when Baldpate becomes the location of an impromptu family reunion of the Grisbanes: patriarch Lord Grisbane (Carradine), eldest son Lionel (Price), younger son Sebastian (Cushing) and daughter Victoria (Walker regular Sheila Keith). Baldpate Manor was home to the Grisbanes until a terrible scandal brought shame upon them in 1935: the youngest of the Grisbane sons, black sheep Roderick, raped and killed a 14-year-old village girl. The horrible crime was covered up by Grisbane and his other sons, who dispensed their own family justice by sentencing Roderick to live in chains in a hidden, locked room on one of the upper floors of the manor. For over 40 years, Roderick has resided in the dilapidated manor alone, surviving on food brought by Victoria or snacking on whatever rats he encounters, and tonight is the night the Grisbanes confront him and come to terms with their ugly past. Also complicating matters is the arrival of Corrigan (Lee), a sneering businessman who plans to buy Baldpate Manor to demolish it and develop the surrounding area. It doesn't take long before they're all being picked off one by one by an unseen Roderick, who's gotten out of his room, cut the phone line and slashed the tires on everyone's cars, and won't stop until he gets his revenge.

Critics savaged HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, with Arnaz's performance inexplicably singled out as the film's biggest problem (from the film's listing in the Leonard Maltin guide: "Arnaz Jr. singlehandedly sinks this adaptation..."). He's not the most magnetic lead actor, but he does what he's required to do and graciously steps aside at the right time and lets the masters do their thing. Del Valle, a longtime friend of Price's, even recalls the legendary actor defending Arnaz and his performance in the film. Both Del Valle and Drenner are incredulous over the amount of heat Arnaz took for his work here, and they're right: he didn't deserve the pummeling he got and isn't bad at all. You could almost compare him to Michael O'Keefe in CADDYSHACK: he plays the central character and he's the real star of the movie, but you're actually there to see everyone else around him. Walker and Armstrong do take too long to get all of the players together (it's nearly 50 minutes in and the film is half over when Lee first appears), but they all get some time to shine and seem to genuinely enjoy working off of one another. Cushing amuses himself by adding an Elmer Fudd-type speech impediment, Carradine is befuddled and cranky, Lee is huffy and pompous, and Price is gloriously florid and over-the-top as Lionel Grisbane, gravely intoning "I have returned" upon his arrival and admonishing Magee for asking a question during his eulogy for the Baldpate Manor of old with a hand wave and a firm "Please...don't interrupt me whilst I am soliloquizing."

Cannon could've easily put these guys in a gory, T&A-filled slasher movie, which probably would've been more in line with Pete Walker's comparatively trashy and sleazy B-horror films of the 1970s. HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS was practically a departure for the director, whose cult status has grown in the subsequent decades. A true indie auteur accustomed to working on his own and outside the system, LONG SHADOWS was Walker's first and last gig as a hired gun director--he retired from filmmaking afterwards and in the decades since, has had success owning a chain of movie theaters in London. He remains active in the cult movie scene, recording DVD and Blu-ray commentaries for Redemption's "Pete Walker Collection," and he's on hand for a commentary track on the LONG SHADOWS release. LONG SHADOWS does demonstrate some infrequent concessions to the times in which it was made--there's a couple of mildly gory deaths and a few curse words (where else will you hear Vincent Price hiss "bitch" to Christopher Lee?), but it's a throwback before nostalgic throwbacks became a thing. It unfolds less like a Cannon production and more like a vintage Hammer or Amicus chiller and it does right by its cast, respecting them and the history they bring instead of derisively dismissing them, and when the actors are the butt of jokes, they're in on it.

Drenner points out on the commentary that it's easy to look back at the film now with a sense of nostalgia while seeing that it had to be very out-of-touch with where horror was in the early 1980s. Indeed, while it was enjoyable in 1983, it's a film that's improved over time and it's a rare instance where nostalgia is enough to carry it through. Of course, the story and the final twist are predictable, but watching these legends together is truly a joy that's helped the film out in the long run, especially now that a significant chapter of genre history has closed with the passing of Lee in June 2015 (Carradine died in 1988, Price in 1993, and Cushing in 1994).  HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS has aged like fine wine and sentimental feelings have won out over jaded cynicism, earning it a loyal cult following among classic horror fans enjoying the masters having one last hurrah without the baggage and expectations that came with its era. It may have been released in 1983 but it certainly wasn't made for 1983, and just about everyone back then--critics, audiences, and Cannon--was wrong about HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS.

Friday, September 25, 2015

In Theaters: THE GREEN INFERNO (2015)

(US/Chile - 2015)

Directed by Eli Roth. Written by Eli Roth and Guillermo Amoedo. Cast: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Daryl Sabara, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Sky Ferreira, Richard Burgi, Aaron Burns, Magda Apanowicz, Ignacia Allamand, Nicolas Martinez, Matias Lopez, Ramon Llao, Antonieta Pari, Eusebio Arenas. (R, 100 mins)

For being as ubiquitous a cult horror figure as he is, Eli Roth's filmography has been surprisingly sparse. THE GREEN INFERNO is just his fourth feature film as a director, arriving eight years after his last, 2007's HOSTEL PART II, though he's produced and "presented" several others and co-starred as Sgt. Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz in buddy Quentin Tarantino's INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009). Part of the delay was beyond Roth's control: filmed back-to-back with AFTERSHOCK (co-written by and starring Roth, and utilizing most of the same cast and crew) in 2012 and shown at festivals in 2013, THE GREEN INFERNO saw its September 2014 release abruptly cancelled by Open Road Films. They sold it to High Top Films and Blumhouse offshoot BH Tilt, who have finally gotten it into theaters three years after it was completed, still sporting a 2013 copyright. A longtime pet project of Roth's, the film is homage to the most vile of Italian horror subgenres, the cannibal film, itself an offshoot of the 1960s mondo craze. The Italian cannibal film was born with Umberto Lenzi's 1972 adventure MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, a more violent ripoff of the 1970 Richard Harris hit A MAN CALLED HORSE. There were other cannibal films that followed--Ruggero Deodato's THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD, aka JUNGLE HOLOCAUST (1977) and Sergio Martino's foul MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978), but it really exploded with Deodato's groundbreaking, found-footage-inspiring CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980), and consecutive Lenzi assaults, EATEN ALIVE (1980) and CANNIBAL FEROX, aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY (1981). The latter three, in particular, took the cannibal subgenre as far as it could go and even today, remain so extreme in their content that they still shock and repulse even the most jaded of uninitiated present-day gorehounds raised on post-SAW torture porn and hipster snark. I attended a midnight showing of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST about 11 or 12 years ago and the packed theater was ready for a good time. They wasted no time talking back to the screen, making fun of the dubbing, and mimicking one particularly cheesy synth cue in Riz Ortolani's score. Around 25 minutes in, something happened that quieted down the audience. The discomfort escalated over the next half hour. By the one hour mark, many were leaving. When the closing credits rolled, those who remained exited the theater in traumatized silence. 35 years after it was made, the snark-proof CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST still separates the players from the poseurs in horror fandom, and approaching it with a derisive MST3K attitude won't cushion the blow. You don't just watch CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.  You survive it.

So in that respect, Roth is to be commended for daring to bring that kind of experience to the multiplexes of today. THE GREEN INFERNO (named after a documentary film-within-a-film in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST) stretches its R rating about as far as it can go and more often that not, Roth and co-writer Guillermo Amoedo make a concerted effort to replicate the intensity of their influences. Alas, Roth is a director who has always straddled the line between fanboy and dudebro, and those conflicting identities trip him up throughout the film. His heart is in the right place: the jungle locations in Chile are stunning, he stays with practical effects as much as possible (though one CGI ant attack is just embarrassing to watch); in one shot, he frames his heroine (wife Lorenza Izzo) in a way that very purposefully recalls a memorable image of final girl Lorraine De Selle in CANNIBAL FEROX; and the closing credits feature a list of recommended Italian cannibal movies and end with a "Per Ruggero" dedication to the still very-much-alive Deodato, clearly a huge influence on the director (he also gave Deodato a cameo as "The Italian Cannibal" in HOSTEL PART II). But Roth also can't resist the temptation to play to the lowest common denominator, with comedic detours into a grossout humor involving vomit and diarrhea and a Scooby-Doo plan of stashing a bag of weed into the corpse of a soon-to-be-eaten character in order to make the natives high and allow the heroes to escape. That one character even derisively refers to it as "a Scooby-Doo plan" doesn't get Roth off the hook, nor does the resulting attack of the munchies that thwarts the escape when the buzzed tribesmen start chowing down on one guy like he's a bag of Funyuns.

Roth takes some shots at the college culture of hashtag activism and the political correctness of Generation Trigger Warning with mixed results. College freshman Justine (Izzo), the daughter of a big-shot U.N. attorney (Richard Burgi), falls in with a group of SJW campus activists led by the charismatic Alejandro (Ariel Levy). Alejandro and his buddy Carlos (Matias Lopez) are orchestrating a trip deep into the Peruvian rain forest to chain themselves to bulldozers to prevent an evil corporation from destroying the land and displacing the indigenous people to get to the natural gas supply deep underground. After successfully shaming the construction workers and their protecting militia via a live stream online, the group's plane crashes in an even more remote part of the jungle. While some die on impact, the survivors are soon abducted by a terrifying tribe, with one being eaten alive by the natives as an example of atrocities to come. The long sequence where the crash survivors watch in horror as one of their own is devoured limb-by-limb does a very credible job of replicating the brutal intensity of Deodato and Lenzi. Roth also makes the wise decision to avoid one troubling and indefensible element of Italian cannibal films that have always dogged them and rightly so: he doesn't even flirt with the idea of depicting on-camera animal killings, either for real or by special effects. The animals in THE GREEN INFERNO are treated with dignity (the tribe's pigs are pets who actually eat human flesh as well) and reverence, as shown by the respectful attitude displayed toward a majestic, beautiful jaguar resting near the river.

But then there's the juvenile, played-for-laughs diarrhea scene, where even the native kids are holding their noses and waving their hands in front of their faces. And there's the whole "stoned natives" sequence and the subsequent munchies. And a completely baffling scene where one character has committed suicide and Alejandro responds by vigorously masturbating in front of everyone in order to keep his mind focused. The standard-bearers of the Italian cannibal genre--CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and CANNIBAL FEROX--depict generally docile tribes goaded by cruel white interlopers into committing the horrific atrocities they do. In CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, a documentary team needs to sensationalize their film, so they burn down a village and rape a native girl, who's punished by the tribal elders by being impaled on a pole that goes through her vagina and exits her mouth. In CANNIBAL FEROX, a doctoral student (De Selle) ventures to the Amazon to once and for all disprove cannibalism, but first she encounters a fugitive, small-time NYC coke dealer (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) who also rapes a native girl and tortures another tribesman to death, and the tribe rises up to attack the white invaders and give them what's coming to them. Alejandro fills that "white villain" role to a certain extent, at least in terms of his increasingly sociopathic behavior, but in an unexpected switch that's either Roth subverting genre expectations or keeping the door open for a sequel, Alejandro never gets what's coming to him.

Like Tarantino, Roth wears his love of grindhouse trash on his sleeve and his sincerity is never in doubt. But he's neither the stylist nor the writer that Tarantino is, though of course, QT's is a unique voice in contemporary movies. Roth wants to make THE GREEN INFERNO his CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST or CANNIBAL FEROX, and while he occasionally succeeds, he too often doesn't have the courage of his convictions, whether it's his handling of Alejandro or in the way the film repeatedly brings up the subject of female genital mutilation and seems poised to present it, much like those old Italian cannibal films always had some poor schmuck getting his dick hacked off and eaten by a cannibal. Not that I'm advocating female genital mutilation, but if Roth really wanted to push the envelope like his genre heroes did, he would've crossed that line. Deodato's and Lenzi's films aren't the infamous transgressions they are for holding back in the name of good taste and a desire to treat the audience with kid gloves. All in all, THE GREEN INFERNO is...alright. It's doubtful it's going to catch on with mainstream multiplexers, but the hardcore cult aficionados who form Roth's base will eat it up, pun intended. When Roth approaches the story seriously, the film works quite well, both as a tribute and as an intense experience in horror cinema that perfectly exemplifies what Roth is about. When he doesn't, then, well, you get some smirking dudebro jerking himself off for no reason, and to a certain degree, that also exemplifies what Roth is about.

Original 2014 poster art when the film was still being handled by Open Road

Thursday, September 24, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: LOVE & MERCY (2015); WELCOME TO NEW YORK (2015); and ELIMINATION GAME (2015)

(US - 2015)

A Brian Wilson biopic that doesn't follow the standard formula of music biopics, LOVE & MERCY is an original and often deeply moving look at two significant periods in the life of the Beach Boys mastermind. Director Bill Pohlad, a busy producer (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, THE TREE OF LIFE, 12 YEARS A SLAVE) helming his first film since 1990's barely-released and long-forgotten OLD EXPLORERS, and screenwriters Oren Moverman (THE MESSENGER) and Michael Alan Lerner structure LOVE & MERCY as two parallel, GODFATHER PART II-type narratives as we see the beginning of the 1965 psychological breakdown of young Wilson, or "Brian Past" (Paul Dano) with the fragile shell of a man that is "Brian Future" (John Cusack) in 1988. The cracks are already starting to show with Brian hearing voices in his head before retiring from touring in 1965 to work exclusively in the studio on the Beach Boys' landmark Pet Sounds, which drives a wedge between him and bandmate/cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel). In 1988, an awkward and eccentric Brian stops into a car dealership to impulsively buy a Cadillac and meets salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), when a team of handlers headed by his therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) arrive to escort him out. As Brian and Melinda grow closer, she sees Landy's mistreatment of Brian--misdiagnosing him as a paranoid schizophrenic, overmedicating him, psychologically abusing him, and bringing along his own group of hangers-on to essentially live off of Brian's fortune, even taking over Brian's larger beach house and moving him into a smaller one nearby.

Telling two stories with two different actors playing the same role (shades of the multiple Bob Dylans in I'M NOT THERE) is an unusual choice that pays off. While Dano strongly resembles Brian Past, Cusack looks nothing like Brian Future, but it doesn't matter. Dano handles the breakdown while Cusack plays the result, with their performances brilliantly complementing one another. In his best role in years, Cusack inhabits Brian Future through halting and nervous body language that never crosses the line into becoming a mannered Brian Wilson impression. He approaches the role not unlike Chevy Chase playing Gerald Ford on SNL--he looks and sounds nothing like the person he's playing, but he uses his skills to bring the character alive in a way that's accurate and very believable. Many actors would've turned it into an Oscar-baiting tic-fest, but Cusack is effectively understated, reminding you what a terrific performer he can be when he's not slumming it and vaping his way through bad VOD thrillers. While Dano and Cusack are the dramatic focus, Banks also does career-best work as the emotional core of LOVE & MERCY, the woman who would become his second wife (one of the film's few missteps is the short shrift given to Brian's first wife Audree, played by a barely-there Joanna Going). Giamatti is fine, though he's largely playing "Paul Giamatti," with Landy prone to outbursts of blustery rage, which works as Landy was accurately the villain in the Wilson story, along with, to a lesser degree, the unsympathetic Love and the stern, impossible-to-please Wilson patriarch, played here by Bill Camp (COMPLIANCE). A minor word-of-mouth sleeper hit over the summer of 2015, LOVE & MERCY is, thus far, one of the standout films of the year, with performances from Cusack, Dano, and Banks that deserve to be remembered come awards season, and one that refreshingly avoids the pitfalls and cliches of the music biopic genre. (PG-13, 121 mins)

(France/US - 2014; US release 2015)

NYC auteur Abel Ferrara is no stranger to unflinching provocation and getting his actors to bare their souls and more--he is, after all, the mad genius who directed Harvey Keitel's legendary performance in 1992's BAD LIEUTENANT. A long way removed from his '80s and '90s flirtations with commercial film and television, Ferrara has spent most of the last decade and a half making documentaries and little-seen films that didn't even get any US exposure beyond a sporadic festival screening. 2012's bohemian end-of-the-world drama 4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH was the first narrative Ferrara film to get US distribution in a decade. WELCOME TO NEW YORK finds Ferrara reaching back to his BAD LIEUTENANT side for a not-very-thinly-veiled account of the 2011 Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, when the French economist, politician, and IMF managing director known to his friends and the media as "DSK" was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel employee who arrived to clean his suite at the Sofitel New York Hotel. Charges were eventually dropped due supposed credibility issues of the accuser and that much of the evidence was inconclusive, but DSK soon faced other allegations in France in what seemed to be a behavioral pattern. Gerard Depardieu stars in WELCOME TO NEW YORK as the DSK figure, here named "Devereaux," a high-powered exec at a French financial behemoth who's in NYC for one day on business. Once that's done, he decompresses in his hotel suite with an all-night-long parade of prostitutes. The next morning, a maid (Pamela Afesi) enters the suite, announces she's from housekeeping, but a showering Devereaux doesn't hear her. Once he's out of the shower, he drops his towel and pushes her down to her knees, grunting "Do you know who I am?"  He's on his way to JFK Airport when he realizes he's left his phone at the hotel, so the cops, already taking the maid's statement, intercept him at the airport under the guise of returning his phone and arrest him, forcing his long-suffering wife Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) to fly over from Paris to bail him out and set up a legal team while he's equipped with an ankle bracelet and confined to a $60K per month apartment she's rented.

All the while, Devereaux remains calm and relaxed, spending his house arrest watching movies under the assumption that something--his constant invocation of diplomatic immunity, his wealth and privilege, the ambitious Simone's political connections, his attorneys' manipulation of the media--will get him off the hook. Of course, he assumes correctly, but at the same time, Ferrara presents a portrait of a man both entitled and ill, who's convinced himself he's done nothing wrong while admitting he's powerless to combat what he is. Similar to the fearless work he got from Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT, Ferrara convinced Depardieu to abandon all illusions of shame and modesty and literally let it all hang out. Whether he's being strip-searched or attempting to force himself into the maid's mouth--during which a shot from behind captures the legendary actor's dangling scrotum--Depardieu throws all of himself into WELCOME TO NEW YORK in ways he hasn't done for many years. Likewise for Bisset, who first appears around 40 minutes in and quickly becomes the focus of the film. Simone is a woman with social and political aspirations for her and her husband (cue obvious Clinton analogy) who comes from money but is fully aware of what kind of man she married. She accepts his excesses--the booze, his predilection for prostitutes, his sex addiction--because they need each other. Simone doesn't buy Devereaux's claim that the rape accusation is false, and his excuse of "I just jerked on her!  I just jerked on her mouth!  That's all!" doesn't win him any sympathy. Ferrara goes for ultra-realism in the early going, in terms of the profoundly uncomfortable sequence between Devereaux and the maid, and with the police pursuit of him, where Ferrara makes the decision to cast the roles of the Port Authority and NYPD cops with real Port Authority and NYPD cops, who do a very good job of lending a gritty immediacy and not coming across like amateur actors. The first half is a riveting tour de force for Depardieu and represents some of Ferrara's best filmmaking since his early '90s heyday. There's a bit of a shift once Bisset arrives and she gets a couple of astonishingly vicious tirades to remind us that she's a terrific actress who hasn't been used to the best of her ability over the years.

Things bog down a bit in the home stretch, with some ponderous voiceover by Devereaux and some arguments with Simone that start to get repetitive. The cranky Ferrara loudly complained about both US distributor IFC and French co-producer Vincent Maraval preparing a 108-minute, R-rated US cut and not releasing Ferrara's 125-minute cut that was slapped with an NC-17 rating. While some of the more salacious material may have been eliminated, mostly from an early orgy sequence (we still get Depardieu's nutbag, however), WELCOME TO NEW YORK could still use some trimming near the end, which seems a little draggy even in the cut version. The only other weakness in the film is Ferrara's odd choice of showing a prologue that has Depardieu as himself being interviewed by reporters about why he chose to take this role--it's not even a real interview, as one of the reporters is played by Ferrara's girlfriend and associate producer Shanyn Leigh, demoted to bit player after her terrible lead performance in 4:44. While what's here was released under vehement protest by its maker, WELCOME TO NEW YORK is still a welcome return to vintage form for Abel Ferrara and, if you're so inclined, an opportunity to see more of Gerard Depardieu than you ever thought possible. (R, 108 mins)

(Australia - 2014; US release 2015)

ELIMINATION GAME was released in its native Australia as TURKEY SHOOT, much like the film it remakes, Brian Trenchard-Smith's 1982 cult classic TURKEY SHOOT, released in the US in 1983 as ESCAPE 2000. A future dystopian take on THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, ESCAPE 2000 was a mean and ultra-violent exploitation film that became a huge hit on cable throughout the '80s. The remake, which counts Trenchard-Smith among its producers, is an abomination: amateurishly-made and thoroughly shameless in the way it cribs from other, better movies. More of a satire on reality TV along the lines of THE RUNNING MAN and Paul W.S. Anderson's DEATH RACE, ELIMINATION GAME finds disgraced Navy SEAL Rick Tyler (a more lifeless-than-usual performance by former PRISON BREAK star and new Yoplait pitchman Dominic Purcell) rewarded for taking out a Libyan dictator (ESCAPE 2000's Roger Ward) at the behest of his commanding officer Gen. Thatcher (late 1970's TV Spider-Man Nicholas Hammond) and US President Sheila Farr (Carmen Duncan) by being thrown under the bus and sentenced to death for fabricated war crimes. Three years later, he's given a chance at freedom: being the target on "Turkey Shoot," the world's most popular TV show, which pits him in a fight for his life as expert assassins try to take him out, all for the entertainment of a global audience. Of course, Tyler manages to emerge victorious against his foes or there'd be no movie, and he's keeping top killer Ramrod (LONGMIRE's Robert Taylor, trying to make something out of nothing) alive for a reason.

ELIMINATION GAME wants to think it's perceptive satire, but its targets--vapid TV show hosts, bitch-on-wheels programming executive, corrupt government officials--are pitifully one-dimensional and obvious and its attempts to win over the audience with ESCAPE 2000 references--Ward's cameo, a scene from the 1982 film visible on someone's TV--just makes you want to watch ESCAPE 2000 instead (speaking of references to better movies, legendary Ozploitation producer Antony I. Ginnane has a cameo as Australasian president Charley Varrick). Purcell has never been worse, though putting yourself in his position, would you try? The lumbering lummox is defeated by any number of things, whether it's director/co-writer Jon Hewitt's tired use of shaky-cam, endless DOOM-like first-person shooter POV shots and crummy CGI, or letting whole sequences play out through CCTV footage and security cameras. The editing is very choppy and whole chunks of story seem to be missing. Also, for "Turkey Shoot" being as popular as it is, we never get enough of a sense of the outside world or how everyone would drop what they're doing to watch it. All of this would be petty nitpicking if ELIMINATION GAME was even reasonably clever or entertaining, or offered anything remotely worthwhile. There's no shortage of dark-humored avenues to travel if you're going to roast the concept of reality TV, but this is lazy and uninspired on an almost Friedberg/Seltzer level, and it easily supplants Mark Hartley's well-intentioned but botched PATRICK as the worst remake of an Ozploitation classic. When the best moment of your remake is a shot of the film it's remaking seen on a character's TV, then that's all the evidence you need to confirm that you really needn't have bothered. (Unrated, 90 mins)

Friday, September 18, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: PAY THE GHOST (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Uli Edel. Written by Dan Kay. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Veronica Ferres, Lyriq Bent, Stephen McHattie, Jack Fulton, Lauren Beatty, Kalie Hunter, Susannah Hoffmann. (Unrated, 94 mins)

The latest VOD offering in Nicolas Cage's slide into irrelevance is a tired and entirely too derivative supernatural horror film that tries to combine INSIDIOUS and SILENT HILL and ends up just a pale, predictable retread of both. Given the fanatastical elements of the film, Cage is surprisingly restrained as Mike Lawford, a tenured English professor in NYC (or, more accurately, a Toronto backlot with a CGI Manhattan Bridge), who loses his young son Charlie (Jack Fulton) at a Halloween carnival. Prior to his disappearance, Charlie made a couple of offhand comments about seeing a figure outside out his window and needing to "pay the ghost." A year goes by with no breaks in the case for detective Reynolds (Lyriq Bent), and Mike's marriage to Kristen (former WALKING DEAD star Sarah Wayne Callies) is on the rocks since she blames him for losing Charlie. In his obsessive search for his son, Mike uncovers more evidence of missing children taken around Halloween--children who also spoke of a dark figure or a "phantom" approaching them in the days before the abduction--and a medium (Susannah Hoffmann) is violently attacked and burned by a malevolent force when she enters the Lawford house to inquire about any spirits within. Mike seeks the help of Hannah (Veronica Ferres), a colleague in the history department, who tells him of a young Irish mother accused of paganism and witchcraft in 1679, whose punishment was witnessing her three children burned alive. This witch--Annie Sawquin (Lauren Beatty)--is back, gathering all the children she can and whisking them off to the spirit world, where Mike must venture in order to rescue his son.

There is nothing in PAY THE GHOST that you haven't seen a hundred times before. Based on a short story by British horror writer Tim Lebbon, the film looks drab and unspectacular, and Cage is just going through the motions. It's a bland venture into the horror genre for both Cage and German director Uli Edel, best known in his homeland for 1981's grim and groundbreaking CHRISTIANE F and for 1989's bleak-as-hell adaptation of Hubert Selby, Jr's LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN (he also made the 1993 Madonna bomb BODY OF EVIDENCE). Though he's made a couple of great films and still cranks out a good one every now and again (2008's THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX got a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nod), Edel doesn't bring any sense of style to the proceedings other than the perfunctory efficiency of a veteran journeyman director getting a job done. There's some cheap jump scares that you'll see coming before they happen, and a lot of shadows and mist when Mike crosses over into the spirit world to rescue Charlie (it's here that the film just becomes a grayer and less garish ripoff of INSIDIOUS). Sometimes, PAY THE GHOST is downright silly, whether it's the medium arriving in a taxi and immediately and ominously looking up at the dark, overcast sky, or Mike and Kristen going to a pagan ritual re-enactment to seek some answers and being told by the first person they ask "I'm just here to dance...I'm just a schoolteacher." Without missing a beat, the schoolteacher who's just there to dance and knows nothing becomes Mrs. Basil Exposition, unleashing pages upon pages of backstory and complex details about paganism, witchcraft, portals, and spirit worlds, simply because Edel needs to get his actors to the next part of the story and has no other way to make it happen. The great character actor Stephen McHattie also appears as a creepy blind guy who looks like a homeless Tommy Wiseau and serves as a gatekeeper of sorts to the spirit realm.

Devoid of scares, indifferently directed by Edel, and blandly acted by Cage, PAY THE GHOST should be a new euphemism for coasting film figures with revered pasts who are capable of delivering more than the shrugging, phoned-in work they're doing. Example: "Did you see the remake of LEFT BEHIND?  Nic Cage was just paying the ghost on that one."

In Theaters: BLACK MASS (2015)

(US/UK - 2015)

Directed by Scott Cooper. Written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth. Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, Juno Temple, W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp. (R, 122 mins)

If you listen closely in the theater, as the lights go down and BLACK MASS starts, you can almost hear CRAZY HEART and OUT OF THE FURNACE director Scott Cooper say "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to make a Scorsese movie." So it is with the much-anticipated BLACK MASS, touted as a return to form following a surplus of whimsical dress-up and endless self-indulgent eccentricities from former actor Johnny Depp. Even the most devoted Depp apologists turned on him after the loathsome MORTDECAI and to that end, BLACK MASS does showcase Depp's best performance in years, even if it's by default. Though he's not as "Depp"-y, it's still more of the same to some extent: as infamous South Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, he's again buried under a ton of caked-on makeup, a combination bald cap/receded hairline, and a pair of ice-blue contact lenses that look not unlike those used on Bill Bixby at the beginning of a Hulk-out into Lou Ferrigno on THE INCREDIBLE HULK. Taking place from 1975 to 1991, BLACK MASS covers a lot of ground with a lot of characters, but it has all the depth and insight of Bulger's Wikipedia page. There was probably a longer, more epic film here at some point--even shortly before the film's release, it was still being tweaked, with Sienna Miller's entire role as a Bulger girlfriend ending up on the cutting room floor due to what Cooper termed "narrative choices."

Though Depp is front and center as Bulger, it almost feels as though the film should be about FBI agent John Connolly, played here by Joel Edgerton (THE GIFT). A childhood friend of Bulger and his state senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), Connolly approaches Bulger in 1975 with an offer to become an FBI informant in an effort not to take down Southie crime operations, but rather, the Irish mob's Mafia competition. As the years go on, Bulger's Winter Hill Gang empire grows as he gives nothing to Connolly, who becomes complicit in Bulger's crimes by alerting him to FBI operations and falsifying reports under the guise of Bulger cooperation. Bulger is the devil on Connolly's shoulder, but their relationship really isn't explored, nor is there much in the way of escalating tension as Connolly gets in way over his head in his labyrinthine machinations to steer the FBI away from Bulger. We see him and co-conspirator agent John Morris (David Harbour) getting into shouting matches with incredulous colleagues played by Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott in superfluous extended cameos, and we see Connolly's new-found flashy sartorial choices not going over well with his wife (Julianne Nicholson), but nothing really happens with him until a new special agent (Corey Stoll) takes charge and starts holding him accountable as he still struts around the bureau office with a "What? Me Worry?" demeanor.

Connolly is a man obliviously drowning in his immoral and unethical choices and his pure hubris, but Cooper and screenwriters Jez Butterworth (EDGE OF TOMORROW) and Mark Mallouk are much more interested in Depp's feature-length Whitey Bulger impression. Depp is fine in the role, but at the end of the day, it's still not very far removed from what he's been doing for the last several years. He's using an intimidating monotone voice but letting the hairline and the contacts do almost all of the heavy lifting, and there's numerous scenes--the "family recipe" bit with Harbour's Morris, in particular--where he's just riffing on Joe Pesci and the "Funny how?" scene from GOODFELLAS. Cooper wants the entire film to be a Scorsese love letter, whether it's to GOODFELLAS or THE DEPARTED with its Baahston accents and Bulger being the prime inspiration for Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello in the latter film. Cooper doesn't have the style or the sense of energy to pull off Scorsese beyond a basic homage, and as a result, his film often keeps you at a distance.

BLACK MASS is a pretty good movie, but it's hard to shake the feeling that it could've been an exceptional one. There's a great cast and a fascinating story here and all we really get when it's over is a Whitey Bulger Greatest Hits package that gets into a comfortable and too-familiar groove and never tries to go further than scratching the surface. Everyone loves a good Scorsese-style crime saga, but why not just watch a real one instead of a pretend one? For all the presence Depp has as Bulger, his performance is still pretty one-dimensional in execution, with very little known about him other than his skills as a master manipulator and feared killer. Other than Edgerton, everyone else just drops by on occasion. Dakota Johnson has a brief role as the mother of Bulger's young son, but when the son dies from Reyes' Syndrome, she's never seen or mentioned again. We also see a lot of Bulger soldiers, but with the exception of hapless schlub Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), we learn little about them, other than they all eventually turn on Bulger to save their own asses. BLACK MASS is compelling from start to finish, but you've seen it all before. Overt Scorsese worship is fine when you can master the style and give it your own spin (like David O. Russell with AMERICAN HUSTLE), but Cooper's direction is workmanlike at best. Without a Thelma Schoonmaker by his side to help him find those distinct patterns and rhythms, Cooper is only capable of delivering Scorsese-lite.  And Scorsese-lite works if you're looking for a two-hour, empty calories crime story to watch when nothing else is on. Just don't expect anything substantive.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: CHINA 9 LIBERTY 37 (1978)

(Italy/Spain - 1978)

Directed by Monte Hellman. Written by Jerry Harvey, Douglas Venturelli, Ennio de Concini and Don Vicente Escriva. Cast: Warren Oates, Fabio Testi, Jenny Agutter, Sam Peckinpah, Romano Puppo, Isabel Mestres, Gianrico Tondinelli, Franco Interlenghi, Carlos Bravo, Sydney Lassick, Natalia Kim, Helga Line, Luis Prendes, David Thompson, Tony Brandt, Luis Barboo. (R, 102 mins)

Born in 1929, Monte Hellman has always existed on the fringes of the movie industry, even on the rare occasions he found himself working for a Hollywood studio. Like many filmmakers of his generation and younger, he got his start working for Roger Corman. He made his debut with the 1959 horror cheapie BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE and, along with Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Hill, and others, was one of several Corman proteges involved in the assembly of Corman's 1963 patchwork THE TERROR. Hellman then directed a pair of 1964 Filipino action films, BACK DOOR TO HELL and FLIGHT TO FURY--both featuring a young Jack Nicholson, who co-wrote FLIGHT TO FURY with Hellman--and he made a name for himself in indie circles with a pair of enigmatic 1966 westerns co-starring Nicholson, RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (which Nicholson also wrote) and THE SHOOTING. Both were backed by Roger Corman but ended up going straight to TV and not getting any theatrical exposure until after Nicholson's big breakthrough in 1969's EASY RIDER. Hellman also benefited from the post-EASY RIDER craze of big studios backing auteur projects with minimal commercial appeal when Universal gave the greenlight to his cult classic TWO-LANE BLACKTOP. A philosophical, existential road movie where The Driver (James Taylor), The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), The Girl (Laurie Bird), and GTO-driving GTO (Warren Oates) are the players in a slow-moving road race to nowhere in particular, TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is a mesmerizing odyssey with arguably the ultimate Warren Oates performance (it's a close call between that and Sam Peckinpah's 1974 journey into madness BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA) and one of the all-time great final cinematic images. Hellman would re-team with Oates for 1974's COCKFIGHTER and, in a sign of odd jobs to come, began work on Hammer Films' kung-fu actioner SHATTER with Stuart Whitman and Peter Cushing before studio head Michael Carreras fired him and ended up directing the film himself. Hellman's career is filled with unrealized or partially completed projects. It would be another four years before his next film, the unlikely post-spaghetti western CHINA 9 LIBERTY 37.

Co-written by Jerry Harvey, the programming director of the influential 1970s/1980s L.A.-based pay-TV station Z Channel (the subject of the 2004 Xan Cassavetes documentary Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION) who would kill his wife and himself in a tragic 1988 murder-suicide, CHINA 9 LIBERTY 37--the title refers to a road sign showing the direction and distance to the two nearest towns--is offbeat, unpredictable, and very character-driven. Though it hasn't been the easiest film to see over the years, at least in Hellman's intended 102-minute form, it's become a legitimate cult classic since its extremely spotty release in 1978, the last film handled by a bankrupt and soon-to-be-defunct Allied Artists. So spotty was that initial release that CHINA 9 didn't even play in NYC until November 1984 when Lorimar, who acquired the Allied Artists library, gave it a brief relaunch that went nowhere. It's since fallen into the public domain and regularly turns up in battered, drastically edited, cropped prints on those bargain bin western collection DVD sets, almost always missing the film's explicit sex scenes and with running times ranging from 90 minutes all the way down to a pitiful 76. Hellman's director's cut has never received an official DVD or Blu-ray release but aired on the Z Channel decades ago. That changed recently, when an uncut, widescreen print was aired without fanfare on Turner Classic Movies, buried in the coveted 4:15 am time slot on a late Monday night/early Tuesday morning.

CHINA 9 LIBERTY 37 is a strange and somber mix of nihilistic spaghetti western, Hellman character piece, and loving Sam Peckinpah homage, right down to Bloody Sam getting an affectionate "Introducing Sam Peckinpah" credit for his brief appearance as a famous writer of western dime novels. Outlaw Clayton Drumm (Eurocult vet Fabio Testi, of WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? and THE BIG RACKET) is spared from the hangman when he's offered a cash reward and freedom if he kills Matthew Sebanek (Warren Oates, by this point a Hellman fixture), a proud rancher who refuses to sell his property--which rests directly in the path of a planned rail line--to the region's chief railroad baron. Drumm finds the Sebanek ranch and comes to befriend the gruff Matthew, who sees through his guest's "just passing through" act immediately and concludes that he's a hired killer. Drumm fesses up, admitting that he came there to kill him but changed his mind about going through with it because he didn't expect to like him. What Drumm likes even more is Matthew's younger, lonely, and sexually-frustrated wife Catherine (Jenny Agutter). The two have a clandestine morning fling in the river and when Matthew confronts her, things get violent and she hits him over the head with a rolling pin and stabs him in the back in self defense. Thinking he's dead, she runs off with Drumm, but once Matthew recovers, he and his loathsome brothers are hot on the lovebirds' trail, and both parties are pursued by the railroad's newest hired killer Zeb (Romano Puppo), who has orders to kill Matthew for refusing to sell the land and Drumm for not killing Matthew.

The elements are in place for a fairly standard-issue spaghetti oater, but Hellman doesn't give in to conventional story arcs. We don't expect Matthew to figure out Drumm's intent so quickly, just like we don't expect Drumm to confess and say that friendship made him change his mind about killing him. We don't expect Drumm and Catherine to feel terrible about how they've hurt Matthew. Even though the cuckolded Matthew is constantly mocked and having his manhood questioned by his vulgar younger brothers--one of whom even tries to have his own way with Catherine--he still seeks a reconciliation. He loves his wife, even though his patriarchal upbringing (often addressing her as simply "Woman...") frequently makes that difficult for her to see or for him to demonstrate. Realizing the error of his ways and understanding why she chose to run away, Matthew just wants to make things right, even if he feels compelled to kill Drumm anyway because that's what he "should" do. But there will be no showdown between Matthew and Drumm because there doesn't need to be. Like Ethan Edwards at the end of THE SEARCHERS, Drumm knows he doesn't belong here, and when Matthew insists on facing off, Drumm refuses. There's a big shootout, but it's not between the people you assume it will be. Instead, it's Matthew, Catherine, and Drumm inadvertently teaming up to take on Zeb and his posse. CHINA 9 has its stumbles--the overwrought Ronee Blakley love ballad that accompanies the ludicrous and overlong slo-mo hotel room sex scene with Drumm and Catherine is just awful, and Testi's thick Italian accent (though the supporting actors are dubbed by many familiar voices, Testi's own voice remains) sometimes makes his dialogue tough to decipher. The latter issue could just be the sound mix: Hellman stated on his Facebook page that the "restored" version," presumably what TCM aired, has some sound issues and still didn't meet with his approval. Other than Testi's sometimes garbled line readings, I didn't have any problems with the sound. Regardless, it's a fine film and probably Hellman's last good one, and it's long overdue for a proper Blu-ray edition. The beautiful-looking print shown on TCM is a huge step in the right direction, at last doing justice to Giuseppe Rotunno's cinematography.

Following CHINA 9's nearly non-existent American release, Hellman accepted a paycheck studio gig by taking over the espionage thriller AVALANCHE EXPRESS after director Mark Robson died during production in June 1978. In August 1978, shortly after Lorimar brought Hellman in to finish the film, it suffered another major setback when star Robert Shaw died unexpectedly from a heart attack while returning from a golf outing on a day off from shooting. Hellman and emergency producer Gene Corman (Roger's brother) were forced to restructure the rest of the film around Shaw's absence and subsequent rewrites caused some continuity issues that necessitated them having British voice performer Robert Rietty dub Shaw's entire performance. An uncredited Hellman and Corman (they got a "special thanks to" mention in the closing credits) did what they could to clean up the inevitable mess left behind when a movie loses its director and star in a short period of time, but the film (which also starred Lee Marvin) was a lost cause that should've been shelved, and instead opened to terrible reviews and flopped with audiences in October 1979.

Sam Peckinpah, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, Sergio Leone,
and Hellman during a Leone visit to the set of CHINA 9 LIBERTY 37.

Hellman spent the bulk of the 1980s prepping projects that never came to fruition. In 1988, he returned after a ten-year absence with IGUANA, a $3 million Herzog-like period drama with Everett McGill, CHINA 9 star Testi, Jess Franco regular Jack Taylor, and a young Michael Madsen that played film festivals but didn't get much of a release anywhere in the world (it ultimately appeared on home video in the US in 2000). Hellman's next project was a money job that, at least in spirit, took him back to his early Corman days: the 1989 horror sequel SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT. Helming a straight-to-video third entry in a controversial splatter franchise was about as far away from THE SHOOTING and TWO-LANE BLACKTOP as an auteur like Hellman could get. He became a mentor of sorts to young Quentin Tarantino, who gave Hellman his script for RESERVOIR DOGS with the intention of having him make it until Tarantino decided to direct it himself with Hellman onboard as a producer. Hellman's involvement in RESERVOIR DOGS--how different would cinema be today had he directed it instead of Tarantino?--remains his last significant contribution to cinema to date. It would be another 16 years before he resurfaced, directing a segment of the awful 2008 horror anthology TRAPPED ASHES. 2011 brought ROAD TO NOWHERE, a tedious, barely-released nightmare noir that plays like a bad David Lynch knockoff and wasn't exactly worthy of the cineaste hype of being Hellman's first feature film in 22 years and as of now, his last. Still active at 86, Hellman teaches and seemingly prefers the emeritus scene, regularly doing Q&A's at screenings of his older films and recording commentary tracks, most recently the Criterion double feature Blu-ray release of RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND and THE SHOOTING.