Tuesday, January 23, 2018

In Theaters: DEN OF THIEVES (2018)

(US - 2018)

Written and directed by Christian Gudegast. Cast: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Meadow Williams, Brian Van Holt, Evan Jones, Eric Braeden, Dawn Olivieri, Jordan Bridges, Mo McRae, Maurice Compte, Cooper Andrews, Kaiwi Lyman, Sonya Balmores, Oleg Taktarov. (R, 140 mins)

If you're a fan of the films of Michael Mann, you probably still don't love them nearly as much as DEN OF THIEVES writer/director Christian Gudegast does. Gudegast co-wrote LONDON HAS FALLEN, which is probably where he managed to secure the services of star and producer Gerard Butler for his directing debut, an epic L.A. heist saga so indebted to a certain Mann masterpiece that brought together Al Pacino and Robert De Niro that an old friend of mine has been enthusiastically referring to DEN OF THIEVES as "DIPSHIT HEAT" (© David James Keaton) from the moment he first saw the trailer. DIPSH...er, I mean, DEN OF THIEVES is shamelessly derivative not just of HEAT, but with its Cliff Martinez score doing its damnedest to be as Tangerine Dreamy as possible, it's also got a lot of THIEF as well, not to mention William Friedkin's TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and a third-act curveball that takes things head-on into Keyser Soze territory. In short, DEN OF THIEVES is a greatest hits version of Gudegast's Blu-ray collection, and while it doesn't have an original thought in its head, it's a fast 140 minutes, and Butler as Russell Crowe as Mel Gibson is a blast as the ethically-challenged "Big Nick" O'Brien, the badass head of an elite Major Crimes unit of the L.A. County Sheriff's Dept who--*SPOILER*--plays by his own rules.

After a shootout resulting from the hijacking of an empty armored car, O'Brien can't figure out the motive. That is, until a clue leads him to Donnie (O'Shea Jackson Jr), who turns out to be the wheelman for Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), the leader of a crew of skilled, coordinated bank robbers, all ex-military with Kevlar masks and body armor and high-tech assault rifles. O'Brian has a backlog of unsolved robberies with similar MOs and unusual circumstances going back to 2004. He's convinced this is Merriman's crew, as he's just been paroled after ten years, during which time no heists have displayed the tell-tale signs of the unsolved jobs. O'Brien uses Donnie as an informer, but it doesn't accomplish much, since he's just the wheelman and he's kept largely in the dark on the intricate planning. Merriman and his right-hand man Levi (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) are plotting their most outlandish job yet: robbing the Federal Reserve in downtown Los Angeles, a building where every inch of the premises is under surveillance and only authorized security and armored car personnel are allowed in. The plan? Get in to steal $30 million in old bills being taken out of circulation--thereby making them untraceable--before they're put in the shredder. O'Brien doesn't really hide the fact that he's on to Merriman and his gang, even showing up to harass and embarrass them as they dine at a Japanese restaurant ("The food here sucks...I'm just here for the ass!" O'Brien bellows in DIPSHIT HEAT's version of this), so Merriman changes the game, plotting a decoy heist to throw O'Brien and his guys off their trail. Of course, things don't quite go as planned.

DEN OF THIEVES bulldozes forward in constant motion, often glossing over the specifics--I'm still not sure what initially leads O'Brien to Donnie, and even as it's happening inside the Reserve, the heist itself makes little sense--but as a scuzzy guilty pleasure, it's undeniably entertaining. Much of that is thanks to Butler, who plays O'Brien as an uncouth, corrupt lout of an antihero who's frequently more unhinged than the perps he's trying to nail. He's introduced hungover and looking like shit, surveying a murder scene outside a coffee shop and helping himself to a donut out of the box dropped by one of the victims. Like most movie cops of this sort, he answers to no one, he straddles the line between cop and criminal, and he does what's necessary to get under his target's skin, like screwing Merriman's stripper girlfriend (Meadow Williams) and then engaging in a shirtless, morning-after staredown in her apartment when Merriman shows up unexpectedly. Schreiber (younger half-brother of Liev, and best known for his roles on THE WIRE, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, and as a recurring Olivia Benson nemesis on LAW & ORDER: SVU) is all stoic and barely-contained fury as Merriman, and with Butler's scenery-chewing, their relationship is much like that of Pacino and De Niro in HEAT and William Petersen and Willem Dafoe in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (with Williams functioning as the Darlanne Fluegel stand-in). The difference between then and now is that today, everything requires a twist ending, so what better route to take than cribbing from THE USUAL SUSPECTS in a convoluted finale that probably takes a couple of run-throughs to fully comprehend? The Reserve heist not only involves a) a decoy robbery, but also b) the improbability of heavily armed security personnel letting a delivery guy out when they never saw him come in, as well as c) a take-out order of rotten Chinese food. Don't ask. Gudegast gets the HEAT love going right away with a huge opening shootout, plus there's a later nod to the SICARIO traffic jam shootout. Is it fair to call this DIPSHIT HEAT? Yeah, probably, even if Gudegast doesn't let his tough guy dialogue ever get quite as magical as LONDON HAS FALLEN's "Why don't you pack up your shit and move back to Fuckheadistan?" But it's diverting enough and it's the kind of movie you'll end up watching until the end when you're channel-surfing and stumble on it, which is really the best compliment you can pay to something like this. Plus, Gudegast does earn some points for getting daytime soap icon Eric Braeden back on the big screen for just the third time in 20 years--probably not difficult since Braeden is his dad--in a small role as a bar owner named "Ziggy Zerhusen." Top that, Michael Mann!

Monday, January 22, 2018

On Netflix: THE OPEN HOUSE (2018)

(US - 2018)

Written and directed by Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote. Cast: Dylan Minnette, Piercey Dalton, Patricia Bethune, Sharif Atkins, Aaron Abrams, Edward Olson, Katie Walder, Paul Rae, Leigh Parker, Kathryn Beckwith, Matt Angel. (Unrated, 94 mins)

An intriguing and occasionally effective chiller hobbled by one of the most egregiously awful third-act collapses in recent memory, the Netflix Original film THE OPEN HOUSE draws from films like BLACK CHRISTMAS, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, HUSH, and the lesser-known HIDER IN THE HOUSE. HIDER IN THE HOUSE starred Gary Busey as a psycho who manages to live in the attic of the home of Mimi Rogers and Michael McKean without being detected, and somewhat similarly, THE OPEN HOUSE explores the notion of someone hiding in a still-occupied home that's on the market, coming in for an open house with others milling about and simply not leaving. Teenager Logan Wallace (Dylan Minnette of DON'T BREATHE and the Netflix series 13 REASONS WHY) is still grieving the tragic death of his father Brian (Aaron Abrams), who was hit by a speeding car while walking across a parking lot. The bills are piling up, and Logan's financially strapped mom Naomi (Piercey Dalton) loses the house. Her sister Allison (Katie Walder) convinces them to leave L.A. and stay at the spacious house she has up for sale in a sparsely-populated area of the Pacific Northwest until they get back on their feet. The only catch is that they have to leave for several hours on Sundays so the realtor can hold an open house. Neither Naomi or Logan are enthused about it, but they're desperate and have little choice.

It isn't long before strange things start happening: Logan's phone disappears, the pilot keeps going out on the water heater whenever Naomi's in the shower, doors slam, there's thumping sounds, a family photo is found crumpled up in the trash, and the phone rings with no one answering and the only sound being an echo of Naomi or Logan saying "Hello." The already tense relationship between mother and son frays further when Naomi is convinced Logan is acting out over his father's death despite his insistence that he's not to blame. We know what Logan and Naomi do not: a man dressed in black (Edward Olson) visited during a busy open house one Sunday afternoon and never left. We periodically see him lingering and hovering in the background. He plays games with them, hiding under Logan's bed and moving his glasses from the nightstand, or leaving photos for Naomi to find that show the two of them sound asleep in the middle of the night, observed by a silent intruder.

THE OPEN HOUSE is a slow-burner punctuated by a few solid jump scares and a pervasive sense of unease and dread. The cold, wintry setting, some early mountain road aerial shots, the use of the Steadicam, and suspense set-pieces accompanied by manic strings display a heavy SHINING influence for the feature debut writing/directing team of Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote. And for a while, THE OPEN HOUSE manages to hold your attention despite not being all that original. It's hard to screw something like this up, but Angel and Coote shit the bed in spectacular fashion. Not only do they leave several plot points unattended--what does Naomi mean when she angrily tells Logan that his father never cared about them, why does the creepy basement have tunnels that look like the catacombs of Paris, and what's with the eccentric neighbor lady (Patricia Bethune) who ultimately has nothing to do with anything? Ambiguity is one thing, but this is straight-up negligence. Any seasoned genre fan will have the fate of nice-guy townie and potential Naomi love interest Chris (Sharif Atkins) figured out almost immediately after he's introduced, so much so that his name may as well be "Dead Meat." But the whole thing is in smoldering ruins by the end, with the Man in Black finally making his presence known to Naomi and Logan. Unexpectedly downbeat finales are true gut-punches when done right, but Angel and Coote cross the line from downbeat to just being dicks, with the climax basically flushing the rest of the movie--and the solid performances of Minnette and Dalton--right down the crapper in a failed attempt to go full edgelord. It's the kind of crummy ending that qualifies as contempt for the audience. You don't leave THE OPEN HOUSE thinking you just saw a gut-punch of an ending. You leave it feeling like you pissed away an hour and a half only to have the filmmakers chuckle and call you a dumbass. Do I even need to mention that the door is left open for a sequel?

Saturday, January 20, 2018

In Theaters/On VOD: MOM AND DAD (2018)

(US/UK - 2018)

Written and directed by Brian Taylor. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Lance Henriksen, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur, Robert Cunningham, Olivia Crocicchia, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Rachel Melvin, Samantha Lemole, Sharon Gee, Adin Alexa Steckler. (R, 83 mins)

An inspired mash-up of 28 DAYS LATER, HOME ALONE, AMERICAN BEAUTY, and Bob Balaban's 1989 cult classic PARENTS, MOM AND DAD is the first solo effort of Brian Taylor, half of the Neveldine/Taylor duo behind the gonzo Jason Statham masterpiece CRANK. Neveldine/Taylor's anarchic, adrenalized style of filmmaking only got more over-the-top with each subsequent film, like the forgettable GAMER and the unwatchable CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE, which has its defenders but is just too stupid for its own good, whether Statham is growing to Godzilla size or David Carradine is playing an Asian guy named "Poon Dong." The crazier Neveldine/Taylor got, the more they regressed. The pair parted ways after 2012's GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE (another film I found terrible but one that has its admirers) and while Neveldine went on to be involved in a number of awful films (he directed THE VATICAN TAPES and produced URGE and OFFICER DOWNE), Taylor laid low until he resurfaced in 2017 as a co-creator of the Christopher Meloni SyFy series HAPPY! MOM AND DAD has distinct elements of the Neveldine/Taylor style, but even amidst its batshit lunacy, it's a film with a clear vision and assured, controlled direction. It's smart, it's thoughtful, it's funny, and on a few occasions shocking. It's the best thing Taylor's done since CRANK, and the early buzz from last year's Toronto Film Festival gave some serious cause for celebration: this is the best Nicolas Cage movie in years.

A signal transmitted through white noise on TVs, monitors, and other devices sends parents into an uncontrolled rage to murder their children. The situation quickly spirals out of control as a mob of seemingly possessed parents show up at the school and attack their kids when they try to flee. The Ryans--dad Brent (Cage), mom Kendall (Selma Blair), teenage daughter Carly (Anne Winters), and young son Josh (Zackary Arthur)--are an average suburban family whose lives are turned upside down by this event. Brent is exposed to it when he dozes off after a little downtime with some internet porn in his office, and Kendall is "infected" after the white noise comes through on a monitor in a hospital. She's at the hospital since her younger sister (Rachel Melvin) is giving birth, and the new mom's first instinct upon seeing her daughter is to try and stab her to death to the tune of Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love."  After Carly and her boyfriend Damon (Robert Cunningham) flee the school and head to the Ryan house, Brent is already there waiting to kill Carly and Josh--with Damon being collateral damage--and he's soon joined by Kendall, as Carly and Josh barricade themselves in the basement while Mom and Dad reroute the gas line to flush them out, armed with a meatcleaver and a Sawzall ("A Sawzall...saws all!" Brent keeps repeating) waiting to attack when the door opens.

For Cage devotees, MOM AND DAD represents the actor caving to his inner William Shatner and going into fully self-aware "give the fans what they want" mode. Following one of his most subdued turns in the recent drama VENGEANCE: A LOVE STORY, he's at his unhinged best here, whether he's demolishing a pool table while screaming "The Hokey Pokey," ranting to Damon about anal beads and ass-to-ass dildos, or just randomly shouting or running around the house barking. Blair is a bit more restrained as Kendall, instead going the less-is-more route, using a dead-eyed glare as she chases her children through the house, hellbent on slaughtering them in the most brutal way possible. There's also other unsettling and dark-humored bits throughout, like new fathers in the hospital looking through the window into the nursery, seething with unexplained rage, barely able to wait for the chance to kill their infant children; a mother pushing a stroller in front of a speeding car; and a radio announcer's grave warning to parents, "Do not go near your children!" On a deeper level, MOM AND DAD is a film about the frustrations of parenting and about parents in midlife crises. In a flashback, Brent and Kendall have an epic argument that turns emotional when both realize they aren't the people they thought they'd be and that their dreams never came true (a point earlier brought home by the use of Dusty Springfield's version of "Yesterday When I Was Young"). They're losing touch with their children with each passing day. Indeed, bratty, bitchy Carly can't even, and does little but roll her eyes and dismiss her mother, even stealing $80 from her purse to buy drugs for a party. "We used to be best friends," Kendall tells Carly, who snottily replies "Well, I have new friends now. It's not my fault you have no life."

Taylor has made MOM AND DAD the most deranged examination of the generation gap you'll ever see, a point hammered home with the eventual appearance of Lance Henriksen as Mel, Brent's hardass, Vietnam vet dad, who shows up for dinner ready to kill his son. Every generation harbors contempt and resentment for what came before and after, whether it's Carly perceiving her mother to be out of touch, or Mel griping that "I fought in wars! What have you done?" while frantically trying to stab Brent to death. MOM AND DAD is a raucous blast, but it's also got a bit more going on under the surface, and it's sure to delight cult movie fans with its BRADY BUNCH-style, '70s TV show opening credits and throbbing synth score by Mr. Bill that often sounds similar to Ennio Morricone's work on John Carpenter's THE THING (unlike many of today's genre films, it works here and doesn't sound forced or too winking). A lot happens in MOM AND DAD's brief 83-minute running time and judging from what's here and from the drek that Neveldine's name has been on since they parted ways, it's really looking like Taylor may have been the brains out of the operation. It's surprisingly thoughtful, the story is multi-layered, and Taylor expertly balances humor and horror. But the big news here is Cage, who came to this party ready to have a blast--he told the audience in Toronto that this was the most fun he's had a movie in a long time, and it's obvious--and MOM AND DAD serves as proof that he can bring his A-game when he's inspired by the material.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Retro Review: BEYOND REASON (1985)

(US - 1985)

Written and directed by Telly Savalas. Cast: Telly Savalas, Diana Muldaur, Laura Johnson, Marvin Laird, Bob Basso, Walter Brooke, Barney Phillips, Douglas Dirkson, Tony Burton, Biff Elliot, Rita Marie Carr, Jason Ronard, Lilyan Chauvin, Toni Lawrence, Susan Myers, Kathy Bendett, Paul Gale, Lee Terri, Debra Feuer, Melissa Prophet, Denise DuBarry, Priscilla Barnes. (PG, 88 mins)

After over a decade of being a jobbing character actor in the US and in Europe (and getting a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 1962's BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ), Telly Savalas became a pop culture phenemenon with the success of the CBS cop series KOJAK in 1973. KOJAK ran for five seasons, during which time Savalas was everywhere, appearing on talk shows, awards shows, variety shows, CIRCUS OF THE STARS, Dean Martin's celebrity roasts, you name it. Kojak's lollipops became synonymous with Savalas, and the detective's "Who loves ya, baby?" was one of the most iconic catchphrases of its day. Savalas had the clout to do whatever he wanted and nobody stopped him. He released two albums, 1974's Telly and 1976's Who Loves Ya, Baby? and had a minor hit single with a novelty spoken word cover of  Bread's "If," and, a few years later, a cover of Don Williams' "Some Broken Hearts Never Mend" topped the charts in Switzerland. He wanted to direct a few episodes of KOJAK, so CBS let him direct a few episodes of KOJAK. He had a lavish lifestyle, gambled all over the world, traveled with an entourage, and with his shaved head and macho demeanor, he became an unlikely sex symbol and one of the most instantly recognizable celebrities on the planet. That image made him the perfect pitchman for Player's Club in the '80s and '90s. It wasn't just a role: for a brief window in time, Telly Savalas was the ultimate player.

As can be the case when someone becomes a phenomenal success, no one in that person's inner circle is willing to step forward and tell them no. By all accounts, Savalas knew he was the fucking man and always enjoyed it, but he was loyal to his friends and didn't let his newfound stratospheric fame turn him into an asshole. During his downtime between the fourth and fifth--and ultimately final--season of KOJAK, Savalas decided he wanted to become an auteur. With the backing of his longtime friend, producer Howard Koch, Savalas wrote, directed, and starred in BEYOND REASON. Filmed in 1977 under the title MATI ("Mati" is the Greek term for "evil eye"---symbolism!), BEYOND REASON was Savalas' shot at becoming a serious, respected filmmaker. He stars as Dr. Nicholas Mati, an unconventional psychiatrist who gambles with his patients, believes "love" is the cure for all, and allows a certain degree of freedom in both the ward of patients he's treating and in the class he teaches. He's happily married to Elaine (Diana Muldaur, saddled with a thankless role), and they have a teenage daughter named Penelope (Susan Myers, best known for the 1977 made-for-TV CARRIE ripoff THE SPELL). But Mati's life soon begins to unravel after a heated conversation over treatment philosophies with med student Leslie Valentine (future DALLAS and FALCON CREST co-star Laura Johnson). He's called up to the roof of the hospital where a stranger (Paul Gale) takes a dive off the building right in front of him, and shortly after, he starts seeing things that aren't there, and his disorientation escalates to the point where he breaks into Leslie's apartment and is almost shot by her roommate Ann (Rita Marie Carr). He begins to think Leslie is trying to drive him insane, especially when he sees a framed photo on her wall showing her with the roof jumper. He keeps telling the police that Leslie witnessed the suicide but no one can recall seeing her. Bizarre hallucinations and cryptic clues ("You're the courier of love...but it's not that simple!") haunt him, until nothing makes sense anymore. That goes for Dr. Mati as well as the viewer.

It's obvious Savalas was trying to fashion his own ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST with all the psych ward shenanigans and his attempt to be a "fun" version of Nurse Ratched, and work it into an ill-advised Hitchcockian setting, but adding to the confusion is an uncredited and then-unknown Priscilla Barnes replacing Johnson as Leslie for a few fleeting shots. Barnes was originally cast as Leslie before being replaced by Johnson at some point, but it's never quite clear why Barnes is still clearly visible in several shots, other than Savalas might've seen Luis Bunuel's THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE right before filming and thought the "two women alternating playing the same character" would be pretentious enough for him to be taken seriously, or (more likely) he just fucked up and left her in the movie. It's almost like a psychological thriller or maybe even a horror film is trying to break out with BEYOND REASON, but Savalas never pulls the film's seemingly random plot elements together. It's assembled in an almost stream-of-consciousness fashion, so much so that I'm not really sure if the twist ending really is a twist ending, with the end result possibly being a precursor to SHUTTER ISLAND but the climax is so confusingly presented that it's impossible to tell. To Savalas' credit, there's a few interesting shot compositions where it shows he might've been paying attention to directors like Mario Bava (LISA AND THE DEVIL) and Alberto De Martino (SCENES FROM A MURDER) during his early '70s Italian sojourn. There's also one very striking dissolve from the guy diving off the roof to an eerie, atmospheric shot of Mati's colleague Vincent (Marvin Laird) walking in silhouette down a dimly lit corridor toward the camera, but beyond those fleeting moments of inspiration and style, BEYOND REASON is an almost unwatchable train wreck for about 87 of its 88 interminable minutes.

Savalas' 1974 debut album Telly.

late-night on June 24, 1986
It's the worst kind of vanity project, with no one on the set pulling Savalas aside and telling him what isn't working. Savalas the filmmaker is so concerned with directing Savalas the actor to an Oscar that he lets him just run wild. Savalas could ham it up like the best of them, especially in his European films, as anyone who' seen his third act hijacking of the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing cult classic HORROR EXPRESS or his truly insane performance in the profoundly uncomfortable REDNECK can attest. But in BEYOND REASON, his mannered performance is just bizarre. He keeps grabbing people to talk and walk arm in arm, has his co-stars put his coat on him and button it for him, he wears a large-brimmed pimp hat in some scenes, is shown in one scene doing an early mannequin challenge while wearing a chef's hat, he pats nurses on the butt ("Oh, doctor!" they giggle), and he improvs nonsense, like meeting with a patient named Phyllis (Kathy Bendett) and bellowing "Phyllis! Philos! Philanthropy! Philosophy! Philadelphia! I'm going to talk to you and you are going to shut up and listen!" BEYOND REASON is a tedious exercise in waiting for a payoff that never comes. When he's having a breakdown late in the film, sporting a bowtie and looking around wondering what's happened to him, he resembles a befuddled Irving R. Levine and the film starts to look like a textbook case of a director who's bitten off more than he can chew. Despite Savalas' cultural omnipresence in 1977-78, MATI, as it was then called, found no interest from any studios or indie distributors (even with a ludicrously misleading two-page ad in Variety desperately trying to sell it as an EXORCIST/OMEN ripoff). It sat on the shelf for five years, and in 1982, Savalas retitled it BEYOND REASON and tried to shop it around again but found that nobody loved it, baby. Media Home Entertainment quietly released BEYOND REASON straight to video in 1985, and it aired on THE CBS LATE MOVIE on June 24, 1986, presumably allowing night-owl viewers at least a one-night respite from their chronic insomnia. KOJAK was cancelled in 1978 and Savalas remained busy in a few movies and in his Player's Club TV spots (he was also commissioned to kick off the 1982 rollout of Diet Coke in a commercial with Bob Hope and Linda Evans), but spent the bulk of his remaining years on TV--including several KOJAK TV-movies--before his death in 1994. He never directed another film.

Incredibly misleading two-page ad in Variety desperately
trying to pass BEYOND REASON off as a supernatural horror film

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017) and FRIEND REQUEST (2017)

(US - 2017)

A sleeper hit from the Blumhouse assembly line, HAPPY DEATH DAY is essentially a slasher spin on GROUNDHOG DAY with elements of MEAN GIRLS and, to a certain extent, Lucio Fulci's THE PSYCHIC. Bitchy, self-absorbed sorority girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes up hungover in the dorm of nice guy Carter (Israel Broussard) after a night of partying, only to go about her day and be killed by a masked maniac on the way to the party her sorority sisters are throwing for her. She relives the time loop day after day and initially can't even, but she eventually uses the repetition and the learned responses to team with Carter--who never remembers the events of the last time loop--to figure out the identity and motive of her killer. There's no shortage of suspects since Tree is a truly horrible person--she's completely dismissive of her nice roommate Lori (Ruby Modine, Matthew's daughter), slept with sorority sister Danielle's (Rachel Matthews) douchebag boyfriend (Blaine Kern III), and is having a casual fling with a married professor (Charles Aitken). She's also been distant toward her concerned dad (Jason Bayle) since her mom's death on her birthday three years earlier. Directed by PARANORMAL ACTIVITY vet Christopher Landon, HAPPY DEATH DAY was stuck in development hell for a decade, originally given the green light back in 2007 with Megan Fox in the lead. Uncanny X-Men comic book scribe Scott Lobdell is the credited screenwriter, though Landon did an almost complete overhaul of the original script. It's got some clever ideas and a few scattered bits of sharp humor, and though some of its twists are a little hokey, it's entertaining and better than it has any business being. A lot of this is due to a terrific performance by Rothe, who's very believable handling Tree's gradual transformation from a cruel, cold-hearted bitch to a sympathetic heroine forced to relive various methods of being murdered at the end of every day and using it to make herself a better person. Budgeted at just $4 million, HAPPY DEATH DAY opened big but took a tumble its second week, still far surpassing its cost and probably on its way to being another Blumhouse franchise. It's no classic by any means, but there's some effective chills throughout, particularly the unnerving mask worn by the very driven killer, and the versatile, appealing Rothe (who had a supporting role as one of Emma Stone's friends in LA LA LAND) definitely has some star potential. (PG-13, 96 mins)

(Germany/South Africa - 2017)

2015's real-time social media/Skypesploitation horror film UNFRIENDED was no masterpiece, but it was surprisingly compelling and managed to stick to its gimmicky conceit without blowing it. The similarly social media-based FRIEND REQUEST, on the other hand, is a tired and uninspired mess that's more or less a Facebook version of THE RING. Shot in 2014 under the title UNFRIEND, the German/South African co-production FRIEND REQUEST was released by Warner Bros in Europe in 2016, but they wisely declined to distribute it in the US. They instead pawned it off on the lowly Freestyle Releasing, who had a trailer in theaters a couple of years ago and then...nothing. Freestyle ended up being acquired by comedian and former talk show host Byron Allen's upstart Entertainment Studios, who enjoyed an unexpected sleeper summer hit after picking up the Weinstein castoff 47 METERS DOWN. Blind luck isn't a reliable sales model, and lightning failed to strike twice. Audiences flatly rejected FRIEND REQUEST, which Allen hubristically rolled out on almost 2600 screens even though it had been readily available on torrent sites for over a year. It promptly crashed and burned with what's presently the ninth-worst wide release opening ever. Shot in South Africa but set in an anonymous American college town, FRIEND REQUEST has social media-addicted student Laura (FEAR THE WALKING DEAD's Alycia Debnam-Carey) getting a friend request from Marina (Lisel Ahlers), a quiet, goth outcast who sits in the back corner of her psych class. Marina is shy and has no friends, and Laura doesn't see the harm in being friendly acquaintances with her. Of course, Marina immediately bombards Laura with posts, messages, and texts, and Marina loses it when she isn't invited with Laura's other friends to a birthday dinner being thrown by her boyfriend Tyler (William Moseley from the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA movies). A physical confrontation in the dining hall ultimately leads to Marina committing suicide by simultaneously hanging herself and setting herself on fire and posting the video on Facebook. The university removes the suicide video but it keeps reposting on Laura's timeline and any attempts to delete it only get a prompt reading "Unknown Error," which may have been a better title for the script.

Needless to say, Marina's vengeful ghost is haunting Laura via Facebook, also posting the video on the timelines of all of her friends and making it impossible to delete it or their accounts. Marina's ghost starts spontaneously friending all of Laura's friends, which leads to their grisly deaths--by throat slashing, CGI wasp attack, and random Blumhouse ripoff jump scares. Even as people start turning up dead, Tyler's biggest concern is how much time Laura's spending with her platonic friend and computer whiz/code expert Kobe (Connor Paolo) as they try to figure out how Marina is haunting their social media feeds. Directed and co-written by Simon Verhoeven (no relation to Paul but the son of THE NASTY GIRL director Michael Verhoeven and 1960s actress Senta Berger), FRIEND REQUEST is a boring and brazenly idiotic snoozer filled with vacuous characters and almost every post-RINGU/JU-ON cliche imaginable (consider it a small victory that Marina doesn't manifest herself doing the herky-jerky J-Horror shuffle). The door is inevitably left open for a sequel, but you'd be wise to ignore, delete, and block anything related to FRIEND REQUEST. (R, 92 mins)

Monday, January 15, 2018

Retro Review: BLACK COBRA (1976)

(Italy - 1976/US release 1980)

Written and directed by Joe D'Amato (Aristide Massaccesi). Cast: Jack Palance, Laura Gemser, Gabriele Tinti, Michele Starke, Sigrid Zanger, G. Mariotti. (R, 97 mins)

Though it stars Laura Gemser and is directed by "Joe D'Amato," the best-known pseudonym of Italian cinematographer-turned-journeyman genre legend Aristide Massaccesi (BURIED ALIVE, THE GRIM REAPER), BLACK COBRA isn't one of the duo's many "Black Emanuelle" movies, but it might as well be. Shot under the title EVA NERA, BLACK COBRA was filmed in Rome and Hong Kong on the same trip to the Far East that yielded the same year's earlier EMANUELLE IN BANGKOK, the first teaming of Gemser and D'Amato. Born in Indonesia in 1950, Gemser made an impression as a masseuse in 1975's EMMANUELLE: THE JOYS OF A WOMAN, the second in the official Sylvia Kristel series. As a result, Gemser was rewarded with the starring role in the same year's knockoff BLACK EMANUELLE (note the elimination of one of the "m"'s), directed by Bitto Albertini. Albertini replaced Gemser with the one-and-done Shulamith Lasri (aka "Sharon Lesley") for 1976's BLACK EMANUELLE 2, prompting Gemser to team with D'Amato for several EMANUELLE movies that are different from the initial BLACK EMANUELLEs but are generally lumped in with them anyway thanks to the her presence. In addition to the actual EMANUELLE movies, Gemser made several other quickie softcore porn outings that were often rechristened as unofficial EMANUELLE or EMMANUELLE movies by their distributors (like 1976's dreadful EMMANUELLE ON TABOO ISLAND, probably the low point of five-time Oscar-nominee Arthur Kennedy's career). BLACK COBRA has gone under a variety of titles over the decades, but was just released on Blu-ray by Code Red as EMMANUELLE AND THE DEADLY BLACK COBRA. Other than Gemser's character being named "Eva," the EMMANUELLE retitling is fitting, given its focus on all of D'Amato's favorite things: Gemser's body, unkempt mid '70s bushes, and extensive location shooting in exotic ports of call.

"I'm in a Laura Gemser softcore porn. Believe it....or not!"
There was always a "travelogue" element to D'Amato's EMANUELLE movies, but never more than in BLACK COBRA. About 1/3 of the movie seems to be dedicated to Gemser and various co-stars sightseeing around Hong Kong, driving, walking into restaurants, watching street vendors skin, chop, and fry a live snake in a wok and then eating it, all in real time, or a long scene of Gemser feeding live rats to snakes as lounge music with the wordless vocals of Edda dell'Orso or someone who sounds just like her goes on and on. The EMANUELLE movies remain entertaining time capsules of their era (except for Pedro the Horse in the notorious EMANUELLE IN AMERICA), but Gemser and D'Amato are having a really off day here. Perhaps it's due to it being very early in their partnership and they hadn't yet found their groove and perfected their formula (this could really use an English-as-second-language tune as catchy as EMANUELLE IN AMERICA's "Celebrate Myself" or EMANUELLE AND THE WHITE SLAVE TRADE's "Run Cheetah Run"), but BLACK COBRA is loaded with sex, nudity, and sleaze and still manages to be boring, and that's even with the unlikely participation of Jack Palance, somehow cajoled into taking top billing in a Joe D'Amato softcore porno (he was most likely brought on by uncredited ghost producer Harry Alan Towers). The busy Palance was doing a lot of work in Italy over 1975-76 (Nello Rossatti's THE SENSUOUS NURSE, Bruno Corbucci's THE COP IN BLUE JEANS, Fernando Di Leo's RULERS OF THE CITY, Alfonso Brescia's BLOOD AND BULLETS), and also had his starring gig on CBS' one-season, Carroll O'Connor-produced cop show BRONK going on at the same time. Palance is in a lot of BLACK COBRA, but there's a few long stretches where he's not, and his appearances are spaced out enough--he's in none of the Hong Kong exteriors, only the interiors which were shot at Elios Studios back in Rome--that it's likely D'Amato managed to get all of his scenes in the can in matter of a few days, and maybe even got away with not telling the legendary Hollywood actor what was going on in the rest of the movie.

Eva (Gemser), a nightclub dancer whose act involves snakes writhing around her naked body, makes the acquaintance of smarmy businessman Jules Carmichael (Gabriele Tinti, Gemser's future husband and frequent co-star) on a flight from Holland to Hong Kong. Later that evening, Jules convinces his older brother Judas (Palance) to check out Eva's act. Judas, a wealthy eccentric obsessed with his large collection of venomous snakes, is immediately taken with Eva. He brings her home to show her his collection, but she's afraid of both the snakes and Judas, especially after he blows it up by creepily hissing "I like the scent of you" in a way that only Palance can. Eva eventually warms up to Judas, who becomes her platonic sugar daddy while duplicitous Jules has his own designs on her. Eva's not interested in either of the Carmichael boys, and though she gives her body to a sleazy Hong Kong nightclub owner, her serious carnal attentions go to Gerri (Michele Starck) and Candy (Sigrid Zanger), much to Jules' jealous disapproval.

There isn't much of a plot to BLACK COBRA, at least not in the sense that there's developed story or character arcs. Nobody's watching Gemser/D'Amato movies for the story, but the EMANUELLEs at least had the "crusading photojournalist" angle and some semblance of drama. Not much happens in BLACK COBRA in the periods between the Gemser/Starck nude rubdowns, soapy showers, and sex scenes. Tinti's Jules is the clear villain, but there's not really any urgency or forward momentum but the one legitimate surprise comes in the handling of Palance's Judas. D'Amato does flip the script to a certain extent by gradually revealing that Judas is a harmless guy and the film's most intriguing character, one who seems to have been brought in from another movie. Perhaps it was a concession made to dignify Palance's presence in this kind of project, but Judas turns out to be an introverted, sensitive homebody, a loner who has never felt comfortable around people and prefers the company of his snakes, tending to them and observing them. Early on, you expect Judas' behavior to lead to a horror movie, and it belatedly turns horrific to a degree in its final ten minutes, but it's through no fault of  Judas. Palance being in BLACK COBRA is surprising enough, but to see him actually giving a shit is almost flabbergasting (there are a few fleeting instances where Palance's voice changes and he's dubbed for a line or two by Michael Forest, and the effect is strange, to say the least, especially since Forest's Palance impression sounds more like Clint Eastwood), especially to anyone who saw him slumming and visibly shitfaced in Jess Franco's 1969 film JUSTINE. Some of the scenes in his residence play like D'Amato talked him into believing he was in some kind of Visconti knockoff. Palance remains clothed and isn't directly involved in any of the more salacious material (he observes some fondling between Gemser and another woman in a restaurant, but it's cut between the women and Palance reaction shots, making it almost certain he wasn't actually watching them and wasn't there at the same time), he isn't there for any of Jules' snake-abetted murders, and he certainly isn't present for the scene where Jules gets his comeuppance when Eva has a cobra slither up his ass.

Video Gems' VHS cover art
Against-type casting for Jack Palance shouldn't be the most interesting thing about a skin-filled Gemser/D'Amato joint, and it would take four years and several Gemser EMANUELLE films for BLACK COBRA to find a US distributor. The short-lived Aurora Film Corporation gave it a spotty release on the grindhouse and drive-in circuit in 1980 (with the immortal tag line "How much snake can one woman take..."), which seems to be the only year the company existed, possibly due to acquiring product like BLACK COBRA. Aurora's other releases included the Stuart Whitman/Robert Vaughn B actioner CUBA CROSSING, one of the few feature films directed by Chuck Workman, best known for his filmed pieces for a couple decades' worth of Oscar telecasts, and the kiddie kung-fu comedy THE LITTLE DRAGONS, which was in heavy rotation on Showtime in the early '80s and an early credit for future L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and 8 MILE director Curtis Hanson. BLACK COBRA was released on VHS and has been on a number of dubious budget labels in crummy presentations, but Code Red's Blu-ray, distributed by Kino Lorber, looks great. It's too bad it's accompanied by an almost completely useless commentary by film historian Mirek Lipinski.

Code Red's 2018 Blu-ray cover art
Lipinski is a figure of some repute in cult movie circles (well, at least he was before this commentary), running the Latarnia Forums and doing a lot to document and preserve the legacy of beloved Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy. But commentaries--this is his first one--don't seem to be his thing (and in the interest of full disclosure, I was Facebook friends with Lipinski but was unfriended by him at some point several years ago). Lipinski gets sidetracked very early on, going into such ludicrous detail about Chinese restaurants and its many accoutrements (did we need an extensive lesson on the uses of the Lazy Susan serving dish?), and awkward analysis of why lesbian sex scenes are "a turn-on to the male of the species," that for a while, it almost seems like it's some kind of Andy Kaufman-style stunt. Lipinski does helpfully mention that Palance's scenes were shot in Rome and that he never went to Hong Kong, but then keeps repeating the point ad nauseum. His other observations are obvious and already known to any genre fan (like Massaccesi using the name 'Joe D'Amato' to seem more American), and ultimately, there's really no reason to listen this meandering, almost stream-of-consciousness track that makes Bill Olsen's usual antics of mispronouncing actors' names and complaining about the movie he's watching seem academic and Criterion-esque by comparison. The situation gets more dire as it goes on, starting with Lipinski proclaiming his disdain for women shaving their pubic hair, the likelihood of getting a "happy ending" at a Hong Kong massage parlor, and still more on Chinese restaurants. But as the movie winds down, he completely shits the bed, turning into the world's creepiest tour guide, babbling incessantly about the seedy underbelly of Hong Kong and the intricacies and loopholes of its prostitution laws and other details that have jack shit to do with the movie and maybe tell us a little TMI about Lipinski. In fairness, this probably wasn't the best film to tackle for a first time commentator. There's really no one from the production who could've taken part: Gemser is long-retired and has given maybe three interviews in the last 20 years; Starck's last IMDb credit is an appearance in the 1984 Tom Hanks hit BACHELOR PARTY; and D'Amato, Palance, Tinti, and editor Bruno Mattei are all dead. Judging from what's here, Lipinski just didn't have much to say about the movie, in which case, it was probably better to say nothing at all. Bottom line: it's a contender for the worst commentary I've ever heard, and the only one I can recall where I've felt the need to shower afterward.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

In Theaters/On VOD: ACTS OF VIOLENCE (2018)

(US/UK - 2018)

Directed by Brett Donowho. Written by Nicolas Aaron Mezzanatto. Cast: Cole Hauser, Bruce Willis, Shawn Ashmore, Ashton Holmes, Mike Epps, Sophia Bush, Melissa Bolona, Patrick St. Esprit, Sean Brosnan, Tiffany Brouwer, Jenna B. Kelly, Rotimi Akinosho, Matt Metzler, Christopher Rob Bowen. (R, 87 mins)

The latest installment in Lionsgate's landmark "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series finds the actor celebrating the 30th anniversary of DIE HARD by spending 90% of his cumulative ten minutes of screen time seated at a desk thumbing through paperwork. As burned-out Cleveland detective Avery, Willis opens the film big, participating in a well-shot drug raid that has enough arresting camera work to show that the filmmakers watched that one episode from the first season of HBO's TRUE DETECTIVE. Avery is trying to bust a drug and human trafficking raid run by crime lord and all-around shitbag Max Livingston (the unlikely Mike Epps), who's also alternately referred to as "Max Livington" in an apparent homage to Stallone's Lincoln Hawk(s) in OVER THE TOP. But don't think Willis is putting forth any effort, because the action soon switches gears and becomes THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN remade as a blue collar TAKEN ripoff. The MacGregors took no guff as kids (they're shown decking some bullies in a flashback) and they still don't as adults. So when baby brother Roman's (A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE's Ashton Holmes) fiancee and childhood sweetheart Mia (Melissa Bolona) is abducted by Living(s)ton's goons (one of them played by Sean Brosnan, son of Pierce) and held captive among destitute women forced into drug addition and prostitution (and his inventory of "product" is depleted thanks to a bad batch of fentanyl making the rounds) and the cops' hands are inevitably tied, Roman's military vet brothers--eldest Deklan (Cole Hauser), a PTSD anger management case who can't adjust to civilian life, and elder Brandon (Shawn Ashmore), also a combat vet--give him a crash course in military and weapons training. This preps them all to go full urban SEARCHERS to mount a rescue mission to save Mia and destroy Living(s)ton's operation.

As far as these kinds of by-the-numbers, straight-to-VOD actioners with 29 credited producers go, ACTS OF VIOLENCE is passable. It moves briskly enough and with the closing credits rolling at 80 minutes, doesn't overstay its welcome. There's no shortage of cliches, whether it's frustrated Avery telling Deklan to back off and let the cops do their job, or Avery reaching into his top desk drawer for a flask of Jim Beam to pour into his coffee mug, or the very concept of average citizens taking the law into their own hands (which Willis will be doing soon in Eli Roth's upcoming remake of DEATH WISH). You've seen this movie a thousand times before, but director Brett Donowho and screenwriter Nicolas Aaron Mezzanatto earn some points by letting things get a little more unpleasant and grim than expected, as well as demonstrating a willingness to kill off characters you wouldn't expect. Still, don't look for much in the way of cinema verite or social commentary despite Ohio, particularly the Cleveland area with its close proximity to the Ohio Turnpike, being a key transportation hub in human trafficking as well as a major contributor to the state's distressingly high numbers of overdose deaths related to the opioid epidemic.

While it's not enough to make it anything above average, ACTS OF VIOLENCE also gets a surprising boost from a convincing performance by Hauser. Looking and sounding more and more like his dad--B-movie legend Wings Hauser--as he gets older, Hauser is actually trying here and there's no reason he shouldn't have a busy career in these kinds of movies. He'll always have DAZED AND CONFUSED, but he also paid his dues with supporting roles in big-budget hits like PITCH BLACK and 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS, but Hollywood gave up on trying to make him a leading man after nobody went to see PAPARAZZI and THE CAVE a decade and a half ago. Hauser could be a case of getting better with age, because he gives ACTS OF VIOLENCE a little more stoical grit than you'd expect. He's certainly more enthused about being here than his HART'S WAR and TEARS OF THE SUN co-star Willis, who mumbles his way through his sporadic appearances like he just accidentally took some Advil PM for a daytime headache. A visibly inconvenienced Willis is doubled in a few shots of his character from behind and probably didn't work on this for more than two days, but even he fares better than an under-utilized Sophia Bush, wasted in a frivolous supporting role as Avery's concerned partner. Bush's lines are limited mainly to some variation on "Avery, are you OK?" and you have to wonder why she left a popular hit cop show like CHICAGO P.D. to play essentially the same role in a run-of-the-mill Bruce Willis VOD cop movie. This isn't exactly an upward move if she left TV for the movies, unless she's taking misguided career advice from Bruce Willis.