Thursday, April 19, 2018

Retro Review: CRUCIBLE OF HORROR (1971)

(UK - 1971)

Directed by Viktors Ritelis. Written by Olaf Pooley. Cast: Michael Gough, Yvonne Mitchell, Sharon Gurney, Olaf Pooley, Simon Gough, David Butler, Nicholas Jones, Mary Hignett. (R, 91 mins)

An early release from the pre-Golan & Globus incarnation of Cannon, and shown in theaters on a double bill in the fall of 1971 with CAULDRON OF BLOOD, a Spanish cheapie that was one of Boris Karloff's several posthumously released films after his death in 1969, the British shocker CRUCIBLE OF HORROR (not to be confused with the same year's CRUCIBLE OF TERROR) has a nostalgic following after being in regular rotation on late-night TV in the '70s and '80s. Nevertheless, it's a frustrating film because there's obviously some thought and ambition that went into it, but it's so leadenly-paced and indecisive over what it's doing--the first 40 minutes are incredibly slow--that it eventually becomes self-defeating. And it's got what might be the ultimate ambiguous ending that's just gonna piss everyone off. But there's something here, particularly its bleak and disturbing depiction of the cycle of abuse in a seriously dysfunctional family. The great Michael Gough is Walter Eastwood, the physically and psychologically abusive patriarch of an upper class family. He constantly berates his wife Edith (Yvonne Mitchell) and has not-very-subtle incestuous designs on his daughter Jane (Sharon Gurney), while his dutiful and sycophantic son Rupert (Gough's own son Simon) seems to be following in his father's footsteps. Edith and Jane decide they've had enough and plot to kill Walter, with unexpected complications ensuing, namely a corpse that won't stay put, and a nosy neighbor (actor and occasional screenwriter Olaf Pooley, who would also do some uncredited script work on Cannon's insane LIFEFORCE a decade and a half later) whose dog almost exposes the whole scheme.

Michael Gough, a regular presence in countless genre films like HORROR OF DRACULA, KONGA, and DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, but best known to mainstream audiences as Alfred in the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher BATMAN movies in the '90s, is so good here that you'll wish it was in service of a more satisfying film.  His character is an absolute creep, whether he's taunting his wife over her favorite pastime of painting, beating his daughter with a riding crop, or sauntering up to her bicycle just after she gets home and feeling and squeezing its warm seat. His issues also manifest with obsessive-compulsive hand-washing, obviously meant to "cleanse" himself of his deranged, impure, self-loathing thoughts and behavior. Perhaps CRUCIBLE OF HORROR had a troubled production--assistant director Nicholas Granby is interviewed on Scream Factory's new Blu-ray, and while he goes off topic a bit, he does reveal one important tidbit in that credited director Viktors Ritelis (who had a long career in British TV; this was his only feature film) left late in production, with shooting completed by producer Gabrielle Beaumont, who would go on to make 1980's OMEN-inspired THE GODSEND, an early hit for Golan-Globus' Cannon that was also written by Pooley.

CRUCIBLE OF HORROR is confused enough that it could very well be two clashing visions haphazardly stitched together, which would certainly explain why it seems to fall flat on its face every time it looks like it's about to get its shit together. There's a lot here to chew on--Mitchell has some heartbreaking moments as Edith, trapped in a prison of Walter's making and almost at a point of resigned acceptance since it's what she's come to know, Jane promiscuously acting out with older men to get back at Walter, and Rupert practically brainwashed to look the other way and even smack his sister around because hey, Father does it--but ultimately, a film must be judged by what it is instead of it what it almost was or what it could've been. And in the end, despite the flashes of something substantive and serious, it's a crushing disappointment that feels like bottom-of-the-barrel Hammer or a really half-baked installment of Brian Clemens' anthology series THRILLER. As far as Scream Factory's Blu-ray is concerned, the image quality is fine but the audio is, to put it mildly, inconsistent, with the first 20 minutes sounding like a muffled mess before getting relatively clear from that point on. Even when you turn on the subtitles, almost every other word is "(mumbles)," which I'm going to assume wasn't in Pooley's script. One interesting trivia bit that made this an important film for the Gough family: while playing dysfunctional siblings, Gurney and Simon Gough fell in love and have been married since 1970. The younger Gough never achieved the cult notoriety of his father (who died in 2011 at the age of 94), and has only made fleeting appearances in movies and TV since the late 1970s, a few years after 24-year-old Gurney (soon to be in the cult classic RAW MEAT) retired from acting altogether in 1974 to focus on raising the couple's (eventually) four children.

Monday, April 16, 2018

In Theaters/On VOD: SUBMERGENCE (2018)

(France/Germany/Spain - 2018)

Directed by Wim Wenders. Written by Erin Dignam. Cast: James McAvoy, Alicia Vikander, Alexander Siddig, Celyn Jones, Reda Kateb, Jannick Schumann, Jean-Pierre Lorit, Julian Bouanich, Loic Corbery, Hakeemshady Mohamed, Hans Torgard, Jess Liaudin, Abdikjam Abdulllahi Aden. (Unrated, 112 mins)

All careers have ups and downs, but for those with an intense passion for movies, there's few things more depressing than watching a great filmmaker lose their way and fall into a pattern of sustained collapse. Along with trailblazers like Werner Herzog, Volker Schlondorff, Margarethe von Trotta, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders was one of the key figures in the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s. Important Wenders works from that era, like 1974's ALICE IN THE CITIES, 1976's KINGS OF THE ROAD and 1977's THE AMERICAN FRIEND, remain revered by cineastes and studied in film courses to this day. After his 1982 American debut HAMMETT flopped, Wenders returned to Europe and came back strong with 1984's PARIS, TEXAS, which gave Harry Dean Stanton the role of his career, and 1987's WINGS OF DESIRE, his masterpiece and an often breathtaking work of art that found Wenders at the peak of his powers. But over the last 25 years, something's gone wrong. Like Herzog, Wenders found himself more interested in documentaries, and he enjoyed the biggest commercial success of his career with 1999's BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB, where he followed guitarist Ry Cooder to Havana to track down and pay tribute to an obscure collective of elderly Cuban musicians. In addition, he also directed several U2 music videos, and he helmed an episode of the PBS documentary series THE BLUES, among other short films and smaller, personal projects.

Throughout this period, following 1991's UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD, Wenders continued exploring non-fiction while his narrative features were proving to be one forgettable disappointment after another: 1993's FARAWAY, SO CLOSE! was a decidedly inferior sequel to WINGS OF DESIRE that nobody liked; 1997's THE END OF VIOLENCE had some interesting moments amidst a generally muddled story involving Hollywood movie producers, government surveillance, and illegal immigrants; 2001's THE MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL is aggressively unwatchable, co-written by U2's Bono and headlined by Jeremy Davies in possibly the most annoyingly mannered performance in the history of motion pictures. It remains Wenders' worst film by a country mile, one whose cause wasn't helped by co-star Mel Gibson, going for some arthouse cred as a bellowing detective in a back and neck brace, telling an interviewer that it was--and he wasn't wrong--"as boring as a dog's ass;" and 2005's middling DON'T COME KNOCKING reunited Wenders with PARIS, TEXAS writer Sam Shepard but with significantly lesser results. 2005's post-9/11 drama LAND OF PLENTY is really his only consistently good scripted film after 1991. It more fully develops his half-baked surveillance themes from THE END OF VIOLENCE, and it got a big boost from Michelle Williams and a career-best performance by John Diehl, a veteran TV actor (he was Zito on MIAMI VICE) who took the opportunity and ran with it, but it's one of Wenders' least-known and least-seen films. Wenders stays busy and still earns significant accolades when it comes to his documentaries, most notably 2011's PINA, 2014's Oscar-nominated THE SALT OF THE EARTH, and the upcoming POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD. But of his four scripted features over the last decade, two--2008's PALERMO SHOOTING (one of Dennis Hopper's final films) and 2016's THE BEAUTIFUL DAYS OF ARANJUEZ--remain unreleased in the US, while 2015's EVERY THING WILL BE FINE was a stilted, somnambulant Atom Egoyan knockoff with James Franco that was pointlessly shot in 3D, which hardly mattered since it went straight to VOD anyway.

That brings us to Wenders' latest, SUBMERGENCE, which again spotlights the esteemed filmmaker's ongoing inability to function outside of the documentary genre. It's based on a 2011 novel by J.M. Ledgard, but not helping matters is that the screenplay adaptation was entrusted to Erin Dignam, the same writer behind Sean Penn's 2017 embarrassment THE LAST FACE. As in that film, we have a blossoming romance between two driven but lost souls being intruded upon by career dedication, Third World strife, geopolitical concerns, godawful writing, and a director with a message that gets mired in lugubrious self-indulgence. To his credit, Wenders doesn't come close to approaching the smugness of Sean Penn, but make no mistake, this could very easily be titled THE LAST FACE II: SUBMERGENCE. The film chronicles the whirlwind romance between James More (James McAvoy) and Danny Flinders (Alicia Vikander) after they meet at a Normandy bed-and-breakfast resort. He's a Scottish-born MI-6 counterterrorism agent undercover as a water engineer and awaiting instructions for his next assignment in Somalia. She's a biomathematician prepping for a deep sea dive in a high-tech submersible off the coast of Greenland to study the origins of life. They court in vague riddles, usually with clunky nautical references. Lunch dates don't get much hotter than a monotone Danny droning "The ocean has five layers...the first one is epipelagic..." or James making his move when responding to her question "What's your favorite water body?" with a come hither "The human body."

He's eventually sent on his mission and is promptly abducted and held prisoner by Somali jihadists, who attempt to brainwash him into believing in their cause as he all the while insists he's just a water engineer. This leads to a real attention-grabbing conversation with a Somali doctor (Alexander Siddig) about well construction and water filtration systems. Danny, meanwhile, gets ready for her dive but is troubled by James' sudden disappearance and his unanswered texts. She tries to focus on her work, as evidenced by one breathlessly thrilling scene that's almost as riveting as Donald Sutherland's clandestine, 15-minute conspiratorial park bench exposition dump on Kevin Costner in JFK, where Danny's examining some large rock formations near the shore and tells a fellow researcher "If you come closer, they're like tiny trees...this one here is a marriage between a fungus and a cyanobacteria," adding "It dissolves from life into non-life." At this point, Vikander could very well be referring to the pages of Dignam's script.

If SUBMERGENCE has one thing working in its favor, it's that it certainly looks good, thanks to the contributions of regular Gaspar Noe cinematographer Benoit Debie, who's also worked on films as varied as Dario Argento's THE CARD PLAYER, Harmony Korine's SPRING BREAKERS, and Ryan Gosling's LOST RIVER. But for as utterly inert and lethargically lifeless as the dramatic elements are, Wenders would've been better served by making a documentary about either a biomathematician deep-sea diving off the coast of Greenland or a water engineer working with locals to construct a water filtration system in Somalia. Much like what's happened with Terrence Malick's recent string of duds, SUBMERGENCE comes across like Wim Wenders directing a parody of a Wim Wenders film. And like Malick, he's still attracting A-list stars who want to work with him, even though they must realize they aren't quite getting the same guy who made WINGS OF DESIRE. There's still enough cache in his legend that you can't blame McAvoy and Vikander for wanting to say "I was in a Wim Wenders film." At this point, the 72-year-old filmmaker has nothing to prove to anyone. His classic films are eternal and no amount of MILLION DOLLAR HOTELs, EVERY THING WILL BE FINEs, and SUBMERGENCEs will diminish their impact. Sure, it's not a so-bad-it-makes-you-question-your-will-to-live fiasco like THE MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL, a film that moved at the pace of plate tectonics and was so inconceivably awful that it took four sittings over a two-day period to get through because I could only endure it in 30-minute increments and I refused to let it defeat me. No, SUBMERGENCE is not on that level of bad, but it's a chore to sit through. It's not completely fair to say Wenders has lost his mojo, but this and almost all of his "commercial" features of the last quarter century don't play to his current strengths. Concerns and priorities evolve over a long career, and it's obvious that his passion lies with documentary filmmaking and not with ponderous drivel like SUBMERGENCE.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Retro Review: RED RINGS OF FEAR (1978)

(Italy/West Germany/Spain - 1978)

Directed by Alberto Negrin. Written by Marcello Coccia, Massimo Dallamano, Franco Ferrini, Stefano Ubezio, Alberto Negrin and Peter Berling. Cast: Fabio Testi, Christine Kaufmann, Ivan Desny, Jack Taylor, Fausta Avelli, Bruno Alessandro, Tony Isbert, Helga Line, Brigitte Wagner, Caroline Ohrner, Silvia Aguilar, Taida Urruzola, Maria Asquerino, Cecilia Roth. (Unrated, 84 mins)

The final installment of a loosely-connected "Schoolgirls in Peril" trilogy that began with 1972's WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? and 1974's WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?, the giallo RED RINGS OF FEAR was a troubled production even before filming began. Massimo Dallamano, a career journeyman (A BLACK VEIL FOR LISA, DORIAN GRAY, THE NIGHT CHILD) who established himself as a top cinematographer in the 1960s with Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, directed SOLANGE and DAUGHTERS and was set to helm the third installment, but was killed in a car accident in Rome in November 1976, not long after the release of his final film, the polizia COLT 38 SPECIAL SQUAD. He was still in the process of completing the RED RINGS script, which was then cycled through an additional five credited writers--including future Dario Argento collaborator Franco Ferrini--over the next year and a half before shooting finally began. In Dallamano's stead, directing duties were assigned to Alberto Negrin, who's spent his entire career in Italian television as a go-to guy for prestigious RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana TV-movies and miniseries that would occasionally make it onto American networks, such as the 1985 miniseries MUSSOLINI AND I with Susan Sarandon, Anthony Hopkins, and Bob Hoskins as Il Duce, and 1990's VOYAGE OF TERROR: THE ACHILLE LAURO AFFAIR with Burt Lancaster and Eva Marie Saint. RED RINGS OF FEAR remains Negrin's only theatrical feature to date in a career going back to 1971, and he took the opportunity to cut loose and run with it. Typical of the sleazy direction gialli would take in the latter half of the 1970s beginning with the likes of the subtly-titled STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER, RED RINGS OF FEAR doesn't go as far as the 1979 giallo/porno crossovers GIALLO A VENEZIA and PLAY MOTEL, but it doesn't avoid embracing the trashier side of things, with a twisty and perverse story involving murders, corruption, cover-ups, abortion, and Catholic schoolgirls forced to take part in a prostitution ring being run by one of their own teachers.

Fabio Testi starred in WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? as a lecherous teacher at a posh girls school who, as per giallo rules, becomes an amateur sleuth in an attempt to get to the bottom of a mystery in which he's briefly the main suspect. Here, dubbed by the velvet tones of Ted Rusoff, he plays the actual detective in charge of the case, Insp. Gianni Di Salvo, assigned to investigate the death of a teenage girl whose genitally-mutilated corpse was found wrapped in plastic and dumped in a river near a dam. The girl was a student a nearby Catholic girls school and, from a tip by the victim's little sister Emily (Fausta Avelli), learns that she was part of a clique known as "The Inseparables." He immediately suspects the other girls are hiding something, and since it's a giallo, he's right. The investigation leads to numerous red herrings, mostly involving the teaching staff who all act like they're hiding something, including an uptight headmistress and another who pointlessly sleeps with one black glove on his bedside table. The dead girl's diary also has recurring drawings of a designer jeans logo, which eventually leads to the involvement of uncooperative clothing store owner Parravicini (Jack Taylor with a perm). Anger management case Di Salvo begins losing his patience, especially after an attempt on his life as well as an escalating body count when a teacher (Tony Isbert) is killed in a mysterious hit-and-run accident and the remaining Inseparables become targets themselves.

Unlike SOLANGE and DAUGHTERS, RED RINGS OF FEAR was never released theatrically in the US, instead going straight to video in 1985 as TRAUMA (one of its many retitlings, another being the grindhouse-ready VIRGIN KILLER), in one of those Wizard Video big boxes that also erroneously included five-time Oscar-nominee Arthur Kennedy in the credits on the packaging (he was in his share of Eurotrash movies in the mid-to-late '70s, but this wasn't one of them). It's just out now on Blu-ray from Scorpion in a restored transfer, properly framed at 2.35:1, and looking better than it ever has after decades of barely watchable VHS prints that were ported over to numerous public domain DVD sets. From the time of Dallamano's tragic death, the film was plagued with problems, from script changes to, as Nathaniel Thompson points out on the Blu-ray's commentary track, co-star Jack Taylor even claiming the film was never completely finished. At the very least, things seem to be missing and possibly never shot, which may explain the unusually brief running time of just 84 minutes. Second-billed Christine Kaufmann, an Austrian actress and former Hollywood ingenue who was married to Tony Curtis for five years after co-starring with him in 1962's TARAS BULBA, is barely in the movie as Di Salvo's kleptomaniac friend-with-benefits. It's not really clear if they already know each other when he catches her stealing cat food at the supermarket early on (some of the dialogue even hints at the possibility that she's a prostitute) and nothing results from a later revelation after they have a fight and she's next seen sleeping with Di Salvo's boss, Chief Insp. Roccaglio (Ivan Desny, dubbed by Ed Mannix). She's never seen again after that--it's unknown whether she had scenes cut or never filmed and her appearances are sporadic and pointless enough that it's not out of the question to wonder if she simply quit the movie. For a prominently-billed actress of established repute in both Europe and Hollywood (she won the Golden Globe for Best Newcomer Female for 1961's TOWN WITHOUT PITY and went on to appear in several Rainer Werner Fassbinder films before and after RED RINGS OF FEAR), it's a strangely minor and insignificant role. Spanish cult actress Helga Line (HORROR EXPRESS) also has a brief bit part as the first victim's mother and future Pedro Almodovar regular Cecilia Roth (ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER) has a small early role as a Parravicini employee sleeping with her boss. In keeping with the choppy, seemingly rushed nature of the film's assembly, Riz Ortolani's main theme sounds like it belongs more to a 1970s cop show than a giallo murder mystery (Thompson points out that it was recycled in full from Ortolani's score for Dallmano's 1973 crime film SUPERBITCH).

But RED RINGS OF FEAR holds your attention: you've got Testi's rageaholic detective barging into a school meeting and bellowing "Somebody with a cock THIS BIG raped and killed her!"; you've got a bizarre sequence where, following the designer jeans lead, Di Salvo's partner (Bruno Alessandro) goes jeans shopping and struts around in skin-tight denim; you've got Di Salvo sarcastically calling the same partner "Starsky," something obviously ad-libbed by Rusoff in the dubbing studio; you've got one victim being stabbed in the neck with a flaming hot curling iron; bullying Di Salvo interrogating and threatening a scared-shitless Parravicini on a speeding rollercoaster; there's an ominous, unsettling vibe in the dimly-lit hallways of the school, filled with intimidatingly-placed religious iconography and a statue of a scowling, finger-pointing nun at the top of the main staircase, seemingly silently and pre-emptively judging everyone who walks in the building; an Argento-like sequence where an absurd amount of marbles are poured down a staircase being ascended by one of The Inseparables; a memorable performance by young Avelli, the other little red-haired girl in 1970s Italian horror movies who was called upon when the far creepier Nicoletta Elmi was busy (Avelli is probably best known to mainstream audiences as "Sweets," the little girl O.J. Simpson is killed trying to rescue in the 1977 plague-on-a-train disaster movie THE CASSANDRA CROSSING); and, in what has to be the film's most notorious bit, a cross-cutting juxtaposition of Inseparables member Virginia (Silvia Aguilar) going to a clinic for an abortion, intercut with flashback footage of the Inseparables at the orgy where the first victim was killed, bleeding out after her vagina was penetrated and torn apart by an oversized dildo. It has to rank as one of the tackiest sequences in any giallo up to that point, made even more retroactively surreal since one of the actresses playing The Inseparables is a dead ringer for Jennifer Lawrence. It had to be hard to fathom the giallo getting any more tasteless, but fear not, the 1979 double shot of GIALLO A VENEZIA and PLAY MOTEL saw ENIGMA ROSSO's abortion/orgy jawdropper, said "Hold our beers," and introduced hardcore porn into the genre, pretty much taking things as far as they could go and effectively ending the giallo at least until it was given a post-slasher film resurrection with a return to relatively tradidional, classier fare in the 1980s. RED RINGS OF FEAR is a mess, but it's got its share of unusual, inventive, and audacious moments that make it hard to outright dismiss, especially with a quality Blu-ray presentation that helps it make a credible case for itself.

The back of the Wizard Video big box from 1985,
with Arthur Kennedy mistakenly credited. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: BRAVEN (2018); BEAST OF BURDEN (2018); and MOHAWK (2018)

(US/UK/Canada - 2018)

The surprisingly engaging BRAVEN doesn't pretend to be anything other than a formulaic action thriller, but it handles itself with such spirited gusto that it's easy to roll with what's basically ASSAULT ON LOG CABIN 13. Jason Momoa, best known as GAME OF THRONES' Khal Drogo, may be Aquaman but he has what's probably his best big-screen role yet as Joe Braven, a tough-as-nails logger with a heart of gold in a small, isolated Pacific Northwest town in the middle of snowy nowhere (the film was shot in Newfoundland). He's been running the family logging business since his dad Pops (Stephen Lang) has been suffering from accelerated dementia following an on-the-job head injury a year earlier. Pops has been pretty forgetful and sometimes fails to recognize his granddaughter Charlotte (Sasha Rosoff) and is prone to wandering into the town bar and causing trouble when he thinks random women are his late wife. The time has come for Joe and his wife Stephanie (Jill Wagner) to consider putting him in a home, and Joe wants to spend some time with Pops at the family cabin to discuss his care going forward. Once they arrive at the cabin, some problems arise: stowaway Charlotte snuck into the bed of Joe's truck and tagged along, and there's a crew of criminals led by ruthless drug lord Kassen (Garret Dillahunt as Kurtwood Smith as Clarence Boddicker) who arrive to retrieve a shipment of drugs stashed at the Braven cabin by one of Joe's dipshit drivers (Brendan Fletcher) who's been secretly hauling product for Kassen on his logging runs. Kassen makes it very clear that he wants his drugs and he's not leaving any of them alive when he's done, so Joe does what anybody would do: turn into an action hero and join forces with Pops, who drifts in and out of lucid, coherent thought, to protect the cabin, keep Charlotte safe, and take out Kassen's crew one by one.

Joe Braven is pretty adept with shotguns and a bow and arrow, and once she inevitably arrives looking for Charlotte, Stephanie is shown to be well-schooled in the ways of the crossbow. Yes, BRAVEN is the kind of movie where the good guys instantly turn into a family of John Wicks when their cabin is under siege, just like Kassen is the kind of bad guy who has to get pissed off and tell his flunkies "Enough...we're taking this cabin!" Except for a dodgy-looking greenscreen in the climax, veteran stunt coordinator and TV director Lin Oeding (CHICAGO FIRE, CHICAGO P.D.), making his feature debut, stages some occasionally wild and inspired action scenes when Joe starts unleashing hell on Kassen's guys (the bit where he hurls a flaming axe that lands in a guy's neck, then throws a jar of moonshine at him is pure PUNISHER: WAR ZONE). In a perfect world, BRAVEN would establish Momoa (also one of 26 credited producers) as a major action star, and his performance is quite good despite the silliness of the whole thing. Braven isn't a smartass and doesn't have any convenient witty quips at the ready. Momoa gets you on his side but plays it with just the right degree of gravitas to keep everything grounded. He's very good with young Rossof and he works well with Lang, one of our great character actors who gets saddled with too many junk movies to pay the bills. Pops is a difficult role that Lang handles beautifully. Watch the way he plays one scene where Pops traps one of Kassen's goons and drives a screwdriver into his lower jaw and up into his mouth. Despite the dementia, Pops' fight-or-flight kicked in but midway through forcing the screwdriver into the guy's jaw, Lang does this thing with his eyes where he conveys Pops was somewhere else and is only just then cognizant of the horrific act he's committing in self-defense. Of course, Lionsgate dumped BRAVEN on VOD with no fanfare and sure, there's nothing innovative about it whatsoever and I don't want to oversell it, but this is the kind of throwback, kickass, no-bullshit action movie that's impossible to resist and hugely enjoyable when done right. (R, 94 mins)

(US - 2018)

With indies like SWISS ARMY MAN, IMPERIUM, and JUNGLE, Daniel Radcliffe has made some intriguing career choices post-HARRY POTTER, but his attempt at an airborne LOCKE crashes and burns. LOCKE, which spent its entire 85 minutes inside a car with Tom Hardy, was a compact little suspense piece that also inspired last year's Netflix Original film WHEELMAN. Much like a copy of a copy losing its clarity, BEAST OF BURDEN is essentially DIPSHIT LOCKE, with Radcliffe as Sean Haggerty, dishonorably discharged from the Air Force for reasons we never learn, now working as a pilot flying drug shipments for a Mexican cartel. Sean's piloting a tiny, rickety, one-seater Cessna and he's constantly badgered with phone calls from his wife Jen (Grace Gummer, one of Meryl Streep's daughters), who thinks he's working for the Peace Corps; intimidating Mallory (Robert Wisdom), who represents the cartel boss; and Bloom (Pablo Schreiber), a DEA agent who's convinced Sean to rat out the cartel in exchange for new identities and medical coverage for Jen, who's just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Until the climax, when the story exits the Cessna and improbably becomes a murky chase and shootout thriller that requires the otherwise prepared and cool-under-pressure Mallory and Bloom to suddenly turn into careless idiots, BEAST OF BURDEN--basically LOCKE meets AMERICAN MADE--is largely a one-man show for Radcliffe, who mainly takes calls and grimaces as he pretends to fly a rickety plane through very inclement weather at night. This also means most of the film takes place in near-total darkness, which makes it hard to see what's happening on some occasions. The actor gives it his best shot, but there's just not much depth to Adam Hoelzel's script, as evidenced by a line from Bloom to Sean where Schreiber is actually required to say "You're a beast of burden living on borrowed time." The same could be said for Swedish director Jesper Ganslandt's time in Hollywood if BEAST OF BURDEN is any indication. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2018)

Ted Geoghegan's 2015 feature debut WE ARE STILL HERE borrowed elements of THE FOG and displayed an affinity for the classic films of Lucio Fulci. It didn't exactly reinvent horror, but it was an anomaly in today's genre scene in that its focus was on middle-aged characters and was the kind of effective post-Ti West slow-burner that Ti West fans think Ti West makes. Geoghegan is back with MOHAWK, a complete misfire of a sophomore effort that has him regressing in every way. Set in New York in 1814 in the waning days of the War of 1812, the film tells a simple revenge/survivalist story that's hard to screw up, but does so anyway. A group of American soldiers led by Col. Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington) piss off the wrong Mohawk in Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn). She's a fierce warrior in a tribe that's adamantly remained neutral in the US and British conflict, and she's in a polyamorous relationship with fellow tribe member Calvin Two Rivers (Justin Rain) and British officer and arms dealer Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren). Holt and his men start by attacking Joshua, but he's rescued by Oak and Calvin and the pursuit begins. They eventually capture and kill Calvin and then Joshua, and shoot Oak and leave her for dead. She experiences a vaguely supernatural reawakening, and of course, makes them pay with their lives. And your time.

The polyamory angle leads to exactly one interesting moment, when Calvin is being tortured and screaming in agony, and it's Joshua who insists on going back to rescue him while Oak tries to talk him out of it. What is the point of putting these characters in that relationship when it has no bearing on anything that develops? Is this a colonial survivalist thriller or a Dan Savage column? It's trying too hard. It's like Geoghegan said "I want to make a brutal, blood-splattered revenge saga, but I'm also woke." Has anyone watched BROKEN ARROW on Turner Classic Movies lately and thought "Yeah, this is good, but I could relate to it a lot more if Debra Paget was fucking Jimmy Stewart and Jeff Chandler's Cochise?" Also, why is there an anachronistic, intrusive, throbbing John Carpenter-styled synth score in a War of 1812 movie? The entire project has a student-film amateurishness about it that makes it look like a group of LARPing fanboys took over an historical site for a couple of weekends and a made a movie. With the exception of Buzzington, who brings a sort-of off-kilter Stephen McHattie intensity to Col. Holt, the performances are all various degrees of atrocious across the board, with the actors making no effort to sound period appropriate at all. Horn is a dull heroine, though in her defense, Geoghegan and co-writer Grady Hendrix (whose recent Paperbacks from Hell, a non-fiction chronicle of all those great horror paperbacks of the 1970s and 1980s, is a fun read) keep her offscreen for too much time. There's one nicely-done PREDATOR-inspired bit where Holt's fey translator (Noah Segan, who's just terrible and wearing a bad Henry Jaglom hat, for some reason) crawls into a hole and Oak's eyes materialize behind him, but considering the promise Geoghegan showed with WE ARE STILL HERE, MOHAWK is an alarming step in the wrong direction, both in concept and execution. (Unrated, 92 mins)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

In Theaters: BEIRUT (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Brad Anderson. Written by Tony Gilroy. Cast: Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Mark Pellegrino, Larry Pine, Jonny Coyne, Douglas Hodge, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Idir Chender, Kate Fleetwood, Leila Bekhti, Hicham Ouraqa, Ahmed Said Arie, Sonia Okacha, Mohammed Attougui. (R, 109 mins)

At the risk of sounding wistful or cliched, BEIRUT is the kind of movie you don't see in theaters very often these days. It's a smartly-written, mid-budget political thriller whose target audience is middle-aged adults. It's a star vehicle for Jon Hamm, whose place in pop culture history is cemented thanks to MAD MEN but who hasn't really had a breakout leading role on the big screen, instead standing out in supporting roles in films like THE TOWN and BABY DRIVER. With Hamm's biggest success being on TV and SESSION 9 and THE MACHINIST director Brad Anderson settling comfortably into hired-gun TV journeyman mode in recent years (FRINGE, TREME, BOARDWALK EMPIRE), BEIRUT almost feels like the kind of period piece project that's designed more for a limited series on HBO, FX, or Netflix. On one hand, that's a depressing commentary on the changing landscape of mainstream moviegoing over the last couple of decades that a solid piece of suspenseful escapism like BEIRUT seems like a pleasant surprise. However, in the capable hands of veteran screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the BOURNE series, MICHAEL CLAYTON, and most recently, ROGUE ONE, for which he also handled the reshoots when director Gareth Edwards was relieved of his duties), BEIRUT, which does share a few core plot ideas with 2000's Gilroy-scripted PROOF OF LIFE, is a riveting thriller about the delicate nature of political gamesmanship and double-crossing diplomacy making an already volatile region even more dangerous and unpredictable.

Opening in 1972, Mason Skiles (Hamm) has a pretty cushy gig as a US diplomat based in Beirut. He's a smooth negotiator and spends most of his time schmoozing and entertaining visiting politicians and intellectuals. He and his wife Nadia (Leila Bakhti) are hosting a dinner party when his State Department buddy Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino) shows up with CIA officials who want to haul in Karim, a 13-year-old Palestinian orphan the Skileses are currently sponsoring and hope to adopt, for questioning. Skiles was unaware that Karim had an older brother, Abu Rajal (Hicham Ouraqa), who is being hunted by Mossad agents for his role in the Munich massacre that killed eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team. Abu Rajal has been in contact with his little brother, and Cal has photographic evidence. As Skiles attempts to placate the agents with as little disruption to his party as possible, Abu Rajal and his men storm Skiles' house, whisk Karim away, with Nadia among those killed in the ensuing skirmish.

Cut to 1982, and widower Skiles is an alcoholic wreck, living in Boston and skating by as a mediator on various local union disputes as something to do during the day until he can get to the bar in the evening. He's summoned by the State Department and told he's needed in a civil war-torn Beirut. He's offered $6500 and a passport and is instructed to be on a flight in six hours. Once on the ground in Beirut, everyone--State Department guys Gary Ruzek (Shea Whigham) and Donald Gaines (Dean Norris), and glad-handing US politician Frank Shalen (Larry Pine)--hems and haws about why he's there and why he's been provided with CIA handler Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike) to babysit him. Skiles has been requested by name to lead the negotiation to release a kidnapped Cal, who's being held by a splinter group of the PLO. A meet is arranged and Skiles comes face to face with the group's leader, a now-grown Karim (Idir Chender), who's threatening to kill Cal if Israel doesn't turn over his brother in exchange for Cal, and he knows Skiles is the only negotiator sharp enough to get it done. Skiles meets with multiple Israeli officials who agree to look into Abu Rajal's whereabouts and all come back with the same story: "We don't have him." Things get even more complicated, forcing Skiles to go rogue when Ruzek and Gaines reveal their true motive: making sure Cal, who's been based in Beirut for 13 years and is a walking encyclopedia of classified intel, doesn't talk about the things he knows, both on and off the books.

Given Gilroy's expertise in screenwriting, the cynical BEIRUT does a good job of keeping the copious exposition of the various Middle East conflicts as concise and succinct as possible. It also gets some terrific location work from Tangier doubling as Beirut, with some chilling atmosphere throughout as we see the almost nonchalant, business-as-usual reaction of citizens when guns and bombs go off around them. Hamm displays enough gravitas to convey Skiles' cut-the-shit attitude once he figures out that Ruzek and Gaines consider Cal expendable, even if "Mason Skiles" is a name that could only exist in a Hollywood screenplay. Likewise, we of course get the obligatory scene where the drunkard hero finally his shit together and pours all of his booze down the drain while regarding his aging visage in the mirror and pondering What I've Become, but Gilroy and Anderson aren't making a documentary here. They do, however, incorporate actual events and historical elements into a fictional story that's tense, fast-paced, and well-acted by its cast. Pike, in her second terrorism thriller in the last month after the inexplicably dance-crazed 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE, does what she can with an underwritten role (Sandy is dismissed by Gaines as a "skirt," but then Pike still isn't given that much to do other than yell at Skiles when he needs a kick in the ass), but Norris is perfectly cast as a duplicitous, untrustworthy dick with an Oscar-caliber rug, while Whigham is at his sneering best, barely tolerating Skiles' meddlesome involvement in the entire negotiation process. But BEIRUT is Jon Hamm's show from start to finish, and he proves himself a capable leading man who probably would've been better served by Hollywood movie studios if he was around in the '70s and '80s. He's displayed a gift for comedy and proven his versatility in supporting roles and ensemble feature films, and BEIRUT leaves no doubt that he can carry a movie but it's an anomaly in today's distribution model that declares everything a disappointment if it doesn't make $100 million out of the gate. BEIRUT is the kind of mid-range film that used to turn into a word-of-mouth sleeper hit in April or September and maybe make $25-$30 million and everyone would be happy. But those days are gone. It's not going to make a ton of money, but it'll enjoy a long life on streaming and cable, acquiring fans shocked that they'd never heard of it before.

Monday, April 9, 2018

On HBO: PATERNO (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by Debora Cahn and John C. Richards. Cast: Al Pacino, Riley Keough, Kathy Baker, Greg Grunberg, Annie Parisse, Larry Mitchell, Steve Coulter, Kristen Bush, Ben Cook, Sean Cullen, Peter Jacobson, Tom Kemp, Michael Mastro, Jim Johnson, Murphy Guyer, Julian Gamble, Darren Goldstein, William Hill. (Unrated, 105 mins)

There was once an air of prestige surrounding HBO's original movies, particularly in the 1990s glory days which saw them regularly producing top-notch films like BARBARIANS AT THE GATE, AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN, THE LATE SHIFT, GIA, IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK, and INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE, just to name a few. For the last decade, the network has specialized in at least one fact-based drama or biopic every spring, with some highlights being 2010's YOU DON'T KNOW JACK, with Al Pacino as Jack Kevorkian, 2012's GAME CHANGE, chronicling the Republican side of the 2008 election with Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin and Ed Harris as John McCain, and 2013's BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, with Michael Douglas as Liberace. The HBO spring movies have been slipping in recent years, content to rely on painstaking makeup jobs as opposed to the solid writing that made their 1990s films so memorable. 2013's PHIL SPECTOR is arguably the worst of the bunch, a slobbering Spector apologia from David Mamet, with Spector played by a frizzy wig attached to the head of Al Pacino. Last year's THE WIZARD OF LIES cast Robert De Niro in a perfect recreation of Ponzi scheme poster boy Bernie Madoff, but otherwise felt content to serve as a live-action version of Madoff's Wikipedia page, with director Barry Levinson indulging in some predictable Scorsese worship, right down to De Niro using some of his leftover Ace Rothstein schtick from CASINO.

Levinson also directs PATERNO, which goes through motions in such a "Movie of the Week" fashion that it doesn't even work up the enthusiasm to rip off Scorsese. PATERNO reunites the director with his YOU DON'T KNOW JACK star Pacino for a chronicle of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal that broke in late 2011 and quickly took down beloved, legendary football coach Joe Paterno, who died of lung cancer just two months later in January 2012. Pacino absolutely looks the part and is in appropriate "restrained Pacino" mode here. Where PATERNO drops the ball is that, like THE WIZARD OF LIES, it just goes through the story as if the script is a series of bullet points. There's nothing here you don't already know if you followed the story as it broke, and the filmmakers aren't really interested in going beneath the surface for anything substantive. It could've been so many things, especially if you're aware that when HBO originally announced the project way back in 2013, it was called HAPPY VALLEY (also the name of a 2014 documentary on the scandal from THE TILLMAN STORY director Amir Bar-Lev) and was to have been directed by Brian De Palma. Pacino was attached as Paterno from the start, and veteran character actor John Carroll Lynch (FARGO, ZODIAC) was cast as his longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who retired in 1999 and was ultimately convicted on 45 counts of child molestation and corruption of minors among other charges, with boys as young as 10 years of age. HAPPY VALLEY was put on hold during pre-production for "budget concerns" and was subsequently rechristened PATERNO when HBO gave it the greenlight once again in 2016, with Pacino but without De Palma and Lynch. It's telling that the film is now simply called PATERNO, since Sandusky (now played by eerie lookalike Jim Johnson) is seen fleetingly on maybe three occasions and has one audible line of dialogue. PATERNO opens with "JoePa" in a hospital MRI machine reflecting on the just-breaking scandal. And if you know the story, then you know the rest.

Levinson and writers Debora Cahn and John C. Richards could've taken just about any other approach and made a stronger film. They could've set it in 2001 when Paterno was allegedly first made aware of Sandusky's heinous crimes after then-graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary (briefly played here by Darren Goldstein) witnessed him raping a boy in the Penn State locker room, to which Sandusky still had access post-retirement, and would often take victims he procured from his Second Mile charity. Or, they could've focused on Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), the Patriot News reporter who first broke the story and encountered all manner of stonewalling, cover-ups, vanishing police reports, and a conspiracy of silence that would've made for a riveting investigative drama along the lines of ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, ZODIAC, or SPOTLIGHT. In terms of setting the film in 2011, the crux of the story is "Did JoePa know or not?" and at that point in time, Ganim's pursuit of that answer and jumping every hurdle in her way would've been more compelling and revealing, at least as an examination of how football is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of Penn State, thus leading to the "protect the shield" attitude of the school, the students, and the community.

Or, they could've given Pacino something more to do that look doddering and befuddled as the 84-year-old Paterno. In a way, that's accurate, as Paterno clearly comes off as a man whose football-focused tunnelvision made him pretty much oblivious to, if not everything else around him, then at least the seriousness of Sandusky's crimes. This was a man who spent over 60 years in coaching and concerned himself with little else. One of the more interesting moments comes when he doesn't even get the optics of how bad it would look if he admitted waiting two days to tell the university higher-ups what he heard about Sandusky because he "didn't want to ruin" their weekend. More details like that would've helped, but scene after scene just has Pacino's JoePa puttering around, looking confused, and unable or unwilling to understand the gravity of the situation as if to say "Why is this happening to me?" But this approach is a cop-out: by never really substantively getting into JoePa's head and relegating Ganim to the sideline for much of the second half, PATERNO never has to take a stand, it never has to risk criticizing its subject, and it never has to do anything beyond ensuring that Pacino gets nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe next year. BARBARIANS AT THE GATE, AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, and their HBO contemporaries of the '90s didn't earn their deserved accolades by sidestepping the issues, pulling their punches, and letting the makeup department do the heavy lifting. PATERNO offers a generally fine Pacino performance that his fans will want to see, but this film should be more than a showcase for its iconic star.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

In Theaters: A QUIET PLACE (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by John Krasinski. Written by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck and John Krasinski. Cast: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cade Woodward, Leon Russom. (PG-13, 90 mins)

Even in the most tightly-written screenplays, there's going to be things you can pick at and call a "plot hole," though most people using that term rarely do so correctly. A QUIET PLACE isn't exactly airtight in its execution, with a couple of head-scratching "plot conveniences" or "plot inconsistencies," let's call them, but it's a chilling, visceral, stomach-in-knots experience in horror moviegoing that we just don't see much anymore. It's PG-13 and the gore is minimal and fleeting, but A QUIET PLACE knows how to manipulate an audience and in the process, director/co-writer/star John Krasinski (yes, that John Krasinski) creates one of the most fascinating social experiments in recent memory. Can you recall the last time you went to a see a movie in a packed theater on its opening weekend and the audience--the entire audience--behaved perfectly? No talking, no phones lit up, no loud snacking, only an occasional cough and some relieved exhaling after any number of well-executed suspense set pieces (that bit with the nail will have you holding your breath with dread). I don't even think anyone got up to use the restroom. A QUIET PLACE dives right into its story in medias res (the opening title card reads "Day 89") and essentially conditions its audience to go along because no one wants to be the asshole who breaks the silence and ruins it for everyone. I won't go so far as to call Krasinski the DGA equivalent of Ivan Pavlov or Stanley Milgram, but let this film serve as proof that civility and courtesy can be part of present-day multiplex attendance. Nevermind the Oscars or the Golden Globes--Krasinski's accomplishment here practically qualifies him for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Produced by Michael Bay, of all people (Krasinski starred in his 13 HOURS), and set in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic America in the very near future, A QUIET PLACE opens with an unimaginable tragedy: a family witnessing the death of their youngest member after he's attacked and whisked away by a barely-glimpsed creature moving with lightning speed. In the minutes preceding this, we're introduced to the dad (Krasinski), mom (Emily Blunt), deaf teenage daughter (Millicent Simmonds), and pre-teen son (Noah Jupe) silently procuring supplies at an abandoned store and walking home barefoot. A toy rocketship grabbed by the youngest child (he's four) at the store--and he put the batteries in with no one looking--starts making noises unexpectedly, alerting the creature to their location, killing their third child before his father can save him. Cut to "Day 472," and the family has their survival routine down. It seems some kind of alien invasion wiped out much of America and, it would seem the world, with some bands of survivors in scattered rural pockets (from atop a grain silo, there's a few observable campfires in the distance, but with one brief exception, we meet no one else), and the common knowledge now being that you're safe if you're silent. They have paths made around the farm, paint marks on the steps to delineate where to walk to avoid creaking boards, and they're in the midst of constructing a soundproof room in anticipation of the next member of the family, due in two weeks and certain to generate a lot of noise (and of course, that water's gonna break at the worst possible time). The first third of A QUIET PLACE just shows the daily routine and how, with kids being kids, noise will be made regardless of how careful they are (especially a concern for the daughter, who can't tell if the floors creak as she walks). Because the daughter is deaf (as is young Simmonds, as Krasinski pushed for a hearing-impaired actress for the part), the family knows sign language. Conversations are conveyed in subtitles, and the first audible line of dialogue doesn't even occur until 40 minutes in, when father and son are able to have a regular conversation while hiding under a waterfall while out fishing.

Of course you may ask "Why can't the monsters hear the water?" Or "Why do they have picture frames precariously hanging on the wall?" A QUIET PLACE works as long as you go along for the ride, though it's one of those films where you're riveted while watching it but you're asking questions by the time you get to your car and have had time to think about it. In a way, it's a throwback to M. Night Shyamalan in his prime (SIGNS, especially), and like the good Shyamalan films, your first experience with it will be the best experience, because you're aware of everything on subsequent viewings. There's no Shyamalanian twist to A QUIET PLACE, and it's tense and involving enough to warrant repeat viewings, but some of the more plot-convenient cracks, structural flaws, and lapses in logic will be more apparent. It's tough to pull off a movie that's largely silent except for some infrequent whispers and some Marco Beltrami music cues, but credit to Krasinski and his actors for pulling it off. As a director (this is his third feature, after 2009's BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN, which is about as watchable as you'd expect a David Foster Wallace adaptation to be, and 2016's little-seen drama THE HOLLARS), Krasinski graciously leaves the biggest dramatic moments to his offscreen wife Blunt and an impressive Simmonds, whose character is reaching that age where headstrong rebellion is innate and she's tired of the unintentional marginalization by her father due to her disability and his possibly passive-aggressive blaming her for the youngest child's death (she handed the toy back to him after Dad took it away, but this kid does at least three other things in the first two minutes that could've gotten them all killed). Almost every thought and emotion has to be communicated silently in A QUIET PLACE, and it's a gamble that pays off. The audience was with this from the first ominous moment until the crowd-pleasing final shot. Even in big tentpole movies that make $200 million in their opening weekend, you'll have people talking, texting, checking Instagram, Snapchatting, fidgeting, getting up, walking around, and being generally insufferable pains in the ass.  In an era where the viability of cinemas is constantly in question due to streaming, VOD, and ever-changing distribution platforms, A QUIET PLACE is the kind of communal moviegoing experience that serves as a welcome reminder of how satisfying seeing a good, scary movie with a equally captivated audience can be.