Monday, May 23, 2016

Retro Review: CANDY (1968)

(Italy/France - 1968)

Directed by Christian Marquand. Written by Buck Henry. Cast: Charles Aznavour, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, James Coburn, John Huston, Walter Matthau, Ringo Starr, Ewa Aulin, John Astin, Enrico Maria Salerno, Elsa Martinelli, Sugar Ray Robinson, Anita Pallenberg, Florinda Bolkan, Marilu Tolo, Nicoletta Machiavelli, Umberto Orsini, Joey Forman, Fabian Dean, Lea Padovani, Peter Dane, Enzo Fiermonte, Buck Henry. (R, 124 mins)

Based on the controversial 1958 "dirty book" of the same name by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, CANDY is the kind of movie that could only have been made in the late 1960s. Unevenly mixing slapstick sex farce with trippy psychedelia and counterculture satire in one bloated, overly indulgent, and almost instantly dated package, CANDY is a chaotic all-star mess of the 1967 CASINO ROYALE variety, but like that film, it's an endlessly fascinating one. Contrary to the myth that's stuck over the nearly 50 years since its release, it was not a box office disaster. Indeed, opening in December 1968, it made $16 million and was the 18th highest grossing film of the year in the US, sandwiched between THE BOSTON STRANGLER and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. Adjusted for inflation, that's $111 million in 2016 dollars. Can you imagine something as balls-out insane as CANDY making $111 million in theaters today?

Adapted by Buck Henry, who had just been nominated for an Oscar for co-writing THE GRADUATE, and directed by Christian Marquand, the French actor who co-starred with Brigitte Bardot in the iconic AND GOD CREATED WOMAN (1956), CANDY's biggest draw was the spectacle of a huge cast of big names and a couple of Oscar winners starring in a smutty comedy based on a book that was widely considered pornography. Much less explicit than the book, the film nevertheless has a high raunch factor and a decent amount of nudity that still warrants the R rating it got 46 years ago. Opening with what looks like her arrival on Earth (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY special effects mastermind Douglas Trumbull designed some of the surreal visuals in the opening and closing sequences), CANDY centers on naive high-school student Candy Christian (18-year-old Ewa Aulin) and her wild sexual escapades with a increasingly deranged parade of pervy older men. What was played as comedy in 1968 would undoubtedly be labeled rape by today's trigger warning-obsessed thinkpiece writers, but the oblivious Candy just rolls with it, starting with drunken poet MacPhisto (Richard Burton), who has his way with her in the back of his glass-bottom limo, slurping spilled champagne off the floor while ranting and grunting about his "overpowering need!" Arriving at her house while her social sciences teacher father T.M. (John Astin) is still at school, Candy is attacked by Mexican gardener Emmanuel (Ringo Starr) who shouts "Viva Zapata!" as he ejaculates and MacPhisto dry-humps a Candy-lookalike doll on the floor. Enraged by her dalliance with Emmanuel, her uptight, conservative father tries to take her to NYC with his lecherous brother Jack (also Astin), and Jack's swinging wife Livia (Elsa Martinelli), but they're accosted on the airport runway by Emmanuel's domineering, revolutionary biker sisters (Florinda Bolkan, Marilu Tolo and Nicoletta Machiavelli). Hopping aboard a refueled military plane that's been transporting the squadron of Gen. Smight (Walter Matthau) around the globe for six years, T.M. suffers a head injury while sexually frustrated Smight tries to force Candy to bear his child. Landing in NYC, they rush T.M. to the hospital where he's the next production in the gala theater of superstar brain surgeon A.B. Krankheit (James Coburn), who hosts a wild post-surgery after-party/orgy where Uncle Jack has sex with Candy in her father's hospital bed, pushing his brother onto the floor when he gets in the way. Krankheit seduces Candy in another room while a partially lobotomized T.M. wanders the halls, and even enraged hospital head Dr. Dunlap (John Huston) tries to spread unconscious Candy's legs and look up her skirt. From there, Candy is separated from Uncle Jack and Livia, and crashes the set of sex-crazed filmmaker Jonathan J. John (Enrico Maria Salerno) and is soon pursued by a pair of horny cops (Joey Forman, Fabian Dean). Then she meets a hunchback (Charles Aznavour) in Central Park, who asks her for "rub dub dub" before taking her back to his mansion, where he can fly and climb walls. Candy's next escapade finds her in an Indian temple housed in the back of a big rig, where she's mentored in the ways of bullshit philosophy and tantric sex by fake guru Grindl (Marlon Brando).

Unless you're in the mood for it, CANDY can be downright unwatchable, but the once-in-a-lifetime cast makes it mandatory viewing at least once (there's also model and longtime Keith Richards girlfriend Anita Pallenberg as Krankheit's chief nurse and boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson as MacPhisto's chauffeur Zero). It gets more bewildering as it goes along, all the way to a fourth-wall breaking finale where a wandering Candy actually sees Marquand himself directing the movie that's imploding on itself. The good slightly outweighs the bad, and while some segments are tedious duds (the sequences with Matthau, Salerno, and Aznavour just land with a thud, and Starr's Mexican caricature is embarrassing even by 1968 standards), others are legitimately funny. Burton gets the best entrance of his career as MacPhisto, his hair and scarf constantly blown back by a seemingly supernatural wind that surrounds only him. Coburn is great as the demented Krankheit, with the notion of the rock star-like surgeon, years before Buckaroo Banzai, the height of the film's absurdist Southern influence (Southern also co-wrote DR. STRANGELOVE and would write 1969's star-studded and equally anarchic THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN, which also starred Starr). Brando is also quite amusing as the phony mystic, sheepishly trying to hide a footlong sub and a bottle of beer as Candy awakens after a marathon of Twister-like sex.

Of all the star power in the cast, the biggest surprise is Astin, who's a riot as the shameless horndog Uncle Jack, constantly leering and making suggestive, over-the-line comments as he tirelessly tries to get in his niece's pants. According to legend, Marquand's original choice for the T.M./Uncle Jack dual roles was Peter Sellers, and there's a lot of Sellers' style in Astin's performances, particularly the Clare Quilty skeeziness he brings to Uncle Jack's LOLITA-like designs on Candy. Probably because he was known as a TV actor, his spot in television history forever cemented by his Gomez Addams on THE ADDAMS FAMILY (he also briefly replaced Frank Gorshin as the Riddler in the second season of BATMAN), Astin isn't even granted the dignity of having his name above the title with the others--where, alphabetically, he would've been top-billed before legendary French singer Aznavour--even though between both of his roles, he's got the most screen time other than Aulin. Sellers would've been incredible but Astin's work in CANDY is rarely cited as one of its strong points and that's a shame. He manages to upstage his significantly higher-profile co-stars and gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie. Given an "introducing" credit even though it was her fourth film, Swedish actress Aulin's voice is dubbed but she certainly looks the part, and seems like a good sport considering she spends a good chunk of the film in various states of undress while being pawed by a bunch of overpaid and presumably highly intoxicated A-listers (quoted in the 2004 book The Candy Men by Terry Southern's son Nile, about the controversy surrounding the novel, Coburn claimed that inexperienced Aulin had a breakdown and needed several days off to decompress after dealing with Brando). CANDY's notoriety didn't really open any doors for Aulin, despite a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Female Newcomer (she lost to Olivia Hussey in ROMEO AND JULIET). She remained busy in Italian films, most notably the gialli DEATH LAID AN EGG (1968) and DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER (1971), with her most high-profile post-CANDY role being in the Gene Wilder-Donald Sutherland comedy START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME (1970). Tired of being offered the same kinds of sexpot roles, the now-66-year-old Aulin quit acting in 1974, enrolled in college, became a schoolteacher, and focused on raising her kids. She made a one-off comeback in a supporting role in the little-seen 1996 Italian comedy STELLA'S FAVOR and quickly returned to a life completely off the celebrity grid.

An unmistakable product of its time (featuring music by The Byrds and Steppenwolf), CANDY was hard to see after its theatrical run in 1968 (where it was in cinemas the same time as the similarly time-capsule-worthy SKIDOO), Outside of some occasional and highly-edited late-night TV airings, the film built a cult mystique as it essentially disappeared for a number of years. It was never released on home video until Anchor Bay's DVD and VHS editions in 2001. It recently debuted on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber, with a very good Buck Henry interview, where the 85-year-old comedy writing legend is pretty blunt about what works and what doesn't and shares a number of stories about the production.

Friday, May 20, 2016

In Theaters: THE NICE GUYS (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Shane Black. Written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagorazzi. Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Kim Basinger, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Gil Gerard, Jack Kilmer, Ty Simpkins, Murielle Telio, Daisy Tahan, Lance Valentine Butler, Hannibal Buress. (R, 115 mins)

It's one of the most egregious crimes of recent movie distribution that Shane Black's 2005 meta noir/private eye black comedy KISS KISS BANG BANG didn't get the exposure it deserved. Perhaps the most quotable movie of the last couple of decades after THE BIG LEBOWSKI, KISS KISS BANG BANG was the directorial debut of Shane Black, the screenwriter behind such wiseass, mismatched, "...if they don't kill each other first!" action/buddy classics as LETHAL WEAPON, THE LAST BOY SCOUT, and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT. KISS KISS BANG BANG was nothing if not a mission statement for Black, encompassing all of his ideas and influences in one smart, razor-sharp, brilliantly executed package that Warner Bros. had no idea how to market. Showcasing a mystery with the labyrinthine complexity of CHINATOWN fused with the big action set pieces of producer Joel Silver and one of the all-time classic bickering, forced-together partnerships with small-time criminal Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), gay private eye Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), and still-aspiring starlet-in-her-mid-30s Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), KISS KISS BANG BANG got rave reviews across the board but the studio still only gave it a limited release, topping out at just 226 screens. It became a bigger hit in Europe and eventually found a cult following on DVD/Blu-ray and cable, and it led to Downey getting Black a major directing gig with IRON MAN 3.

In a lot of ways, THE NICE GUYS is Black's chance at do-over of KISS KISS BANG BANG. It's another Warner Bros. release of a Silver production, though the studio is giving this one a significantly bigger push, opening it nationwide in the summer movie season. It's a similarly busy, intricate, self-aware Hollywood mystery filled with lightning-fast, hard-boiled, profane dialogue and a story awash in sleaze and corruption, only this time in the period setting of 1977. Opportunistic and hapless (he cuts himself with an electric razor) private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a widower raising his wise-beyond-her-years 13-year-old daughter Holly (a terrific performance by Angourie Rice). He's also the kind of guy who takes money from a deranged old woman to find her missing husband whose urn is on the mantelpiece ("I haven't seen him since the funeral!" the woman tells him). Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a fixer-for-hire, a guy who doesn't care to get an investigator's license and makes a better living getting paid under the table by clients who want the shit beat out of someone. He's been paid by a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) to do just that to March, who's been working for her aunt (Lois Smith), who thinks she's gone missing. Amelia's situation dovetails into a car-crash suicide involving porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), prompting Healy and March to set aside their differences and work together (with a lot of help from Holly, who in many ways is the smartest of the trio) when the case balloons into a conspiracy involving Detroit's Big Three auto companies, a Justice Department honcho (Kim Basinger), a psychotic hit man known as "John-Boy" (Matt Bomer), a corrupt auto industry CEO (Gil Gerard sighting!), and a missing film canister containing the lone print of Misty Mountains' final work, a porno film titled HOW DO YOU LIKE MY CAR, BIG BOY?

A lot of this will sound very familiar to any fan of KISS KISS BANG BANG: the way the trio of protagonists essentially serve the same plot functions; the Hollywood setting; the mystery kicking off with a car crash suicide; a scene where a hero happens to look over his left shoulder to find a dead body right behind him; the way Black has his heroes--and a little kid ogling a nudie mag in the opening scene--respectfully cover exposed areas when they find a dead woman's body. Anyone accusing Black of repeating himself wouldn't be wrong. But it's a formula that once again works beautifully, with the work of Crowe and Gosling perhaps even more surprising than Downey and Kilmer since neither are particularly known for their comedic skills (Downey, as good as he was, was essentially playing a very "Robert Downey Jr" character, and Kilmer had some comedies under his belt). With his gut the biggest it's ever been, Crowe is a burly attack dog as Healy, and while he's basically Gosling's straight man, he's still never cut this loose onscreen before. That's a surprise given his dismal performance during his recent SNL hosting gig, where he appeared in only four sketches for what would be the season's worst show were it not for the Donald Trump episode. Gosling, on the other hand, demonstrates a versatile flair for the comedic throughout, whether it's fast-talking bullshit, slow-burn reactions, his tumbling, Clouseau-like pratfalls, and an incredible impression of Lou Costello from ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. A serious actor who's done some grim films in the past, Gosling is a revelation here, though it may not be a surprise if you saw his own SNL stint a few months ago, which was so infectiously fun that he couldn't stop completely breaking in nearly every sketch. While they're both funny as hell, there's a melancholy--and in March's case, tragic-- undercurrent to their characters and the ways they use their cynicism as a protective shield (if anything, the character development might be stronger here than it is in KISS KISS BANG BANG) as they make their living navigating the cesspool of Tinseltown depravity (one aspiring starlet to another as Healy walks by them at a party: "I told him if you want me to do that, fine...just don't eat asparagus first"). The leads are matched by a breakout performance from young Australian actress Rice, whose Holly is rebellious and fearless, getting herself into dangerous situations and using her wits to extricate herself. At the same time, she really grounds the mismatched detective team and keeps them on their toes. It's a huge accomplishment that she holds her own with guys like Crowe and Gosling and manages to steal scenes from dramatic actors of their caliber.

Though Paul Thomas Anderson handled it with a bit more obsessive attention to details with INHERENT VICE, Black gets the late '70s period look as right as he needs to, not overwhelming the audience with it but always cognizant of it, whether it's the cars; the chain-smoking in public places (around kids, even!); billboards for SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, AIRPORT '77, and JAWS 2; and songs like Earth Wind & Fire's "September," America's "A Horse with No Name," and Rupert Holmes "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)." It's easy to overrate THE NICE GUYS, simply because movies like it are such a rare commodity these days. It's noteworthy that eleven years after not knowing how to sell KISS KISS BANG BANG, a decade in which the power of word-of-mouth has diminished and everything is about breaking $150 million on the opening weekend, Warner Bros gives a nationwide release to something that could just as easily have been called KISS KISS BANG BANG II: THE NICE GUYS. A lot of this will be familiar if you've seen KISS KISS BANG BANG, but it's pulled off so well by Black and his actors that if you're a fan of that film, you won't mind seeing an equally enjoyable and just-as-quotable '70s pseudo-reimagining of it. Consistently laugh-out-loud funny, THE NICE GUYS is the best time I've had at a movie so far this year. If only Black had found a way to work in the name "Chook Chutney."

Thursday, May 19, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: KINDERGARTEN COP 2 (2016); SOUTHBOUND (2016); and DEMENTIA (2016)

(US - 2016)

Here to present its case as the most unnecessary sequel of 2016, KINDERGARTEN COP 2 would more accurately be termed a remake, and not a very funny one at that. No returning cast or characters from the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy are on hand here, with the star replaced by perennial DTV legend Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren is a better actor than he's usually required to be, but comedy isn't really his specialty, and KINDERGARTEN COP 2 does little to establish any genre bona fides for him.The tired plot has Seattle-based FBI agent Reed (Lundgren) going undercover as the new kindergarten teacher at the posh, expensive, and ultra-politically correct Hunt's Bay Academy. He's looking for a flash drive hidden somewhere in the school by his dead predecessor, whose loser brother worked for Albanian gangster Zogu (Aleks Paunovic), who's about to go on trial and the flash drive is needed to lock him away for life. Reed isn't prepared for what he has to deal with, namely oversensitive kids with names like Cowboy, Jett, and Patience who, along with their classmates, need constant reassurance of emotional safe spaces and boundaries, and the structure of a rigid schedule. Reed also finds he has to negotiate with the kids, who need their hands held through everything, eat tofu for lunch and lecture him about the dangers of gluten. Worst of all, Reed can't even have a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich in the classroom because of Cowboy's peanut allergy.

KINDERGARTEN COP 2 really could've taken some shots at helicopter parenting and the delicate-snowflake coddling of today's kids, but the kids barely factor into the story. Instead, Reed and his partner Sanders (Bill Bellamy) bust each others' chops in cliched buddy comedy fashion when they aren't being chewed out by their shouty, Frank McRae-like boss Giardello (Danny Wattley), and Reed dates pretty kindergarten teacher Olivia (Darla Taylor). She seems to be the only other educator in the school (and Reed's class the only students) other than uptight principal Miss Sinclaire (Sarah Strange) and oafish computer teacher Hal (Michael P. Northey), who's never shown teaching a computer class and gets angry when Reed and Olivia become an item in a subplot that goes nowhere. There's not really anything funny in KINDERGARTEN COP 2, with an early reference to Grey Poupon more or less setting the tone. There's a running gag about the Asian kid in the class having his perfectly understandable dialogue accompanied by English subtitles, but it's not funny the first time they do it, let alone the 20th. Screenwriter David H. Steinberg (AMERICAN PIE PRESENTS THE BOOK OF LOVE) shares script credit with Herschel Weingrod, Timothy Simon, and Murray Salem, the trio who wrote the 1990 original, but their inclusion here seems to be for legal, WGA reasons, especially considering Salem died in 1998. KINDERGARTEN COP 2 was directed by Don Michael Paul (HALF PAST DEAD, WHO'S YOUR CADDY?), apparently the go-to guy for forgettable DTV sequels to movies that you had no idea spawned a franchise that was somehow still a thing, with LAKE PLACID: THE FINAL CHAPTER, JARHEAD 2: FIELD OF FIRE, SNIPER: LEGACY, TREMORS 5: BLOODLINE, and the upcoming SNIPER: GHOST SHOOTER to his credit. Sure, there's worse things out there than KINDERGARTEN COP 2, but who wants an uninspired carbon copy of the first movie, and one that seems more focused on constant Twix product placements and doesn't even bother to supply a game Lundgren with his own "It's not a toooo-maaah!" quotable? (PG-13, 100 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US - 2016)

Much of the creative personnel behind the wildly overrated V/H/S franchise reconvenes for another hipster-approved Horror Insta-Classic (© William Wilson) of its week. As far as this generation of horror anthologies go, SOUTHBOUND is no CREEPSHOW--hell, it's not even NIGHTMARES--and while it's marginally better than most of its ilk, it still isn't worthy of all the slobbering knobshines it got from the scenesters. With an overarching Purgatory metaphor running through all of the stories--all in some way are connected, and the ending of one blends with the beginning of the next--the themes are rather obvious and there's little narrative drive, even once everything starts to clumsily coalesce. Revelations land not with a "Whoa!" but with a "Huh? Uh, that's it?" On an endless desert highway that seems to go in circles with all road signs indicating South (METAPHOR!), two men (Chad Villella and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin) covered in splattered blood try to flee strange, hovering, insect-like creatures in "The Way Out," directed by the collective Radio Silence, of which Villella and Bettinelli-Olpin are two of the four members. That leads to "Siren," from debuting director Roxanne Benjamin (a V/H/S producer), where a female punk trio--a quartet until one band member was recently killed--are stranded on that same endless highway and picked up by a strange couple who are part of a cult (led by comedian Dana Gould, of all people) planning their next sacrifice. Next is "The Accident," from THE SIGNAL co-director David Bruckner, where a distracted driver (Mather Zickel) on that same endless highway plows over someone from "Siren" and is given a series of increasingly strange directions by EMT personnel who are too far away to assist. The segues into "Jailbreak," by ENTRANCE and THE PACT II director Patrick Horvath, in which a vengeance-crazed man (Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow) takes on some dangerous dudes at a middle-of-nowhere bar in an attempt to rescue his kidnapped sister. Finally, Radio Silence return with the closer, "The Way In," a rote home-invasion story where a bunch of guys in creepy masks--two of which will obviously be the guys in "The Way Out"--converge on a seemingly nice family (mom Kate Beahan and dad Gerald Downey) spending a final weekend together before their daughter (Hassie Harrison) goes off to college.

If general weirdness is your thing, then you might get more out of SOUTHBOUND than I did. We're eventually shown the source of the hovering creatures from the first segment who also periodically appear in other segments, but that still doesn't mean their eventually-explained presence makes any sense. Because the filmmakers have the stories flow together in a not very smooth fashion, they tend to end in abrupt and confusing ways. Nothing makes sense in "The Way Out," and by the time you get to the big reveal of "The Way In," you'll still have more questions than answers. "The Accident" and "Jailbreak" have some committed performances by Zickel and Yow respectively, and both go above and beyond the gore quota. The standout story is easily "Siren," which is the only one to make concerted efforts to develop its characters and establish a legitimately unsettling vibe. It almost feels like a tribute to those really unnerving occult movies of the '70s and has a real MESSIAH OF EVIL thing going on. Elsewhere, there's synth cues and John Carpenter homages all over the place, which was affectionate fun for a while but has become so prevalent and obligatory in today's horror movies that it's really time for the genre's current standard-bearers to find a new crutch. Also, I'm sure they're nice people and it's nothing personal, but when Larry Fessenden and Maria Olsen--an unusual-looking actress who's found an indie horror niche as essentially the female Michael Berryman--turn up in the opening credits, I'm already annoyed. I don't know--I'm pretty much a curmudgeon when it comes to most new horror offerings these days, especially these fawned-over indies where the film's most vocal supporters are all Facebook friends of the directors. The accessibility of fans to the artists has undoubtedly clouded the judgment of critics and bloggers when an unwatchable piece of shit like V/H/S: VIRAL gets good reviews. SOUTHBOUND isn't bad for this new breed of horror in the social media age, but there's still very little about it that's noteworthy. (R, 89 mins)

(US - 2015)

A thriller that would fit right into the late 1990s with its "caregiver-from-Hell" plot, DEMENTIA is a reasonably suspenseful and well-acted film with a twist that's perhaps a little too easy to see coming, but the script by Meredith Berg does some alliance-shifting bait-and-switches that keep you on your toes. After a mild stroke, elderly retiree George Lockhart (Gene Jones from Ti West's THE SACRAMENT and best-known as the gas station clerk on the receiving end of the "Call it, Friendo" coin-flip in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) is tended to by his estranged son Jerry (Peter Cilella) and 18-year-old granddaughter Shelby (Jennifer Lawrence lookalike Hassie Harrison, also seen in SOUTHBOUND), neither of whom he's seen for many years. The recovery goes slow when moody George has difficulty focusing and periodically forgets who Shelby is ("This bitch broke into my house!"), so Jerry and Shelby decide to hire a temporary live-in caregiver to assist him until he's well again. The caregiver is Michelle (Kristina Klebe), who says her specialty is post-stroke therapy and insists Jerry and Shelby check into a hotel in order for her to focus on George's recovery, but it doesn't take long before George gets a bad vibe from her. When he begins showing signs of improvement, she pumps him full of unnecessary medication that makes him worse, then starts playing tricks on him, which escalates to Michelle beheading George's beloved cat and covering him with its blood while he's sedated to convince him he did it. George insists he's a victim of elder abuse, but a preoccupied Jerry doesn't buy it, choosing to go back home to his job while a summer vacationing Shelby decides to stay behind at the hotel and keep visiting with her grandfather, an idea constantly thwarted by an increasingly irrational Michelle.

While Michelle is the clear antagonist of the story and obviously isn't what she claims to be, George isn't exactly an innocent victim. A man deeply traumatized by his experiences in Vietnam (Eric Senter plays George in flashbacks), George returned home and became a violent, alcoholic wife-beater and child-abuser, the source of Jerry's alienation from his father. George has made efforts to change: he's been sober for over 20 years and tells Jerry he's proud of how he raised Shelby since he had such a terrible role model. His sorrow is sincere, and while an understanding but apprehensive Jerry warns her not to get to close to him, Shelby can't help but feel sympathy for her ailing grandpa, even if she steals jewelry out of a drawer and helps herself to some of his more powerful meds when nobody's looking. But George is a man with secrets, and he's been specifically targeted by Michelle, whose rage grows so strong the she forces whiskey down his throat and starts torturing him in ways he endured during his days as a POW. Berg and director Mike Testin do a good job of making the audience reconsider its loyalties throughout: is Michelle batshit crazy? Does she have her reasons for putting George through hell? And sure, George is contrite and has sincerely attempted to right his wrongs as a husband and father, but is he a monster beyond redemption? DEMENTIA provides no easy answers, and it's the kind of movie that would be a talked-about, hot-button, big-studio thriller if it was made 20 years ago. Jones, Klebe, and young Harrison turn in convincing performances, and 90% of DEMENTIA is a nicely-done sleeper that's sure to find a cult following on Netflix Instant. But then something inexplicable happens in the climax that has nothing to do with the script or story but still manages to very nearly drive the movie off a cliff. Just as the big reveal comes along of what George did and why Michelle has gone to such extreme lengths to make his life hell, the sound mix gets all bungled and wonky, with the score cranked up really loud and the dialogue drowned-out and almost completely unintelligible. I had to turn the subtitles on to find out what was being said. There's a whole thread about this on the movie's IMDb page, and several reviews from the film's December 2015 VOD release also mention the dialogue being muffled and barely audible when it matters most. Was this an artistic decision on Testin's or the producers' part? If so, it's one of the dumbest I've ever seen. It must be by design, or else it would've been remixed between December and now. I don't get it. It's baffling why the filmmakers drown out the dialogue just in time for the big reveal. I mean, seriously. What the fuck? (Unrated, 90 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Retro Review: CLAY PIGEON (1971)

(US - 1971)

Directed by Tom Stern and Lane Slate. Written by Ronald Buck, Buddy Ruskin and Jack Gross Jr. Cast: Telly Savalas, Robert Vaughn, John Marley, Burgess Meredith, Ivan Dixon, Tom Stern, Jeff Corey, Peter Lawford, Marilyn Akin, Marlene Clark, Belinda Palmer, Mario Alcalde. (R, 92 mins)

A laughable hippie revenge saga that had to look like a dated relic the day it was released, 1971's CLAY PIGEON was co-written by MOD SQUAD creator Buddy Ruskin but is otherwise an amateurish, heavy-handed vanity project for producer/co-director/star Tom Stern. Born in 1940, Stern was an up-and-coming young actor who had small roles in major films like THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965), THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL (1965), and THE DEVIL'S BRIGADE (1968) before briefly finding a niche in biker movies. ANGELS FROM HELL (1968) and HELL'S ANGELS '69 (1969) did good business on the drive-in circuit, but CLAY PIGEON was a DOA flop that would pretty much kill any momentum the actor and budding auteur had going. Financed independently but distributed by MGM, who no doubt regretted the acquisition and relegated the film to the bottom half of drive-in double bills well into 1972, CLAY PIGEON's only accomplishment was convincing the rest of Hollywood that there was nothing to gain by getting into the Tom Stern game, which had to be a hard lesson learned by the lineup of big-name actors Stern somehow cajoled into appearing in it.

Filmed and edited with all the competence and precision of a classic Al Adamson joint, CLAY PIGEON is embarrassingly bad, and not even in a "so bad, it's entertaining" way. The demand for hippie/biker movies was so heavy at the time that MGM probably didn't care that the film was largely unwatchable. Looking like a cross between painter Bob Ross and MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE's Torgo, Stern is Joe Ryan, an ex-cop and Vietnam vet who's now a homeless, cart-pushing hippie living on the streets of Hollywood. In one of his many random acts of sticking it to The Man, Joe steals a cop's motorcycle and takes it on a joyride before getting tossed in jail, where he's made an offer by rogue FBI agent Redford (Telly Savalas): go undercover and infiltrate the heroin smuggling operation of L.A. drug lord Neilson (Robert Vaughn). When Joe refuses, Redford sets him up to be mistaken for Neilson in some nonsensical attempt to draw Neilson out of hiding. All parties converge for an impressively bloody shootout at the Hollywood Bowl, filled with all that great '70s blood that looks like bright red paint. Stern (who has never directed another movie) and co-director Lane Slate (who would go on to write numerous TV movies, but also a few theatrical releases like 1972's THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS and 1977's THE CAR) even throw in an over-the-top, gory axe murder in the wild climax, but it's too little, way too late, especially with a hackneyed groaner of a surprise ending.

Other than the splattery finale, nothing works in CLAY PIGEON. If Uwe Boll time traveled back to 1971 to make a counterculture revenge thriller, it would turn out a lot like CLAY PIGEON. Redford's plan makes no sense (and why is Savalas, for no reason, shown in one scene shirtless and staggering around a fleabag hotel room with his hands in restraints? In the next scene, he's wearing a suit and whatever was going on in the hotel room is never referenced again). There's entirely too many meandering asides that provide some nice time-capsule location shooting around the skeezier parts of Hollywood, but it's mainly just Stern walking around or going to strip joints, or hanging out with some free-lovin' lady friends who can't help but throw themselves at a smelly homeless guy. Stern gives himself a couple of nude scenes, including one where he and two full-frontal hotties in all their '70s bush glory are frolicking in a swimming pool threesome, a scene that producer Tom Stern, in conjunction with co-director Tom Stern, no doubt felt was a necessary component to the development of the character played by star Tom Stern. Action scenes (including a slow motion shot of a highway patrol truck repeatedly flipping over that takes up two minutes of screen time) are jarringly accompanied by mellow and laid-back country, folk, and/or protest tunes by the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Arlo Guthrie. John Marley has a few scenes as a grumbly police captain constantly arguing with Redford, while Peter Lawford appears briefly as Redford's boss. But where else will you see Burgess Meredith as a geriatric hippie scrap metal junkyard owner named Freedom Lovelace?

Looking hippie but often sounding like a square, Stern tries to make some big social statements throughout, usually in the most ham-fisted, AFTERSCHOOL SPECIAL way imaginable. He stops to give a finger-pointing lecture to Redford--calling him "Supercop"-- about hard drugs, complaining that the dealers get off because they can afford to bribe judges, but kids "get five-to-ten years for possession of a roach, which in case you don't know it, is a marijuana cannabis joint!" Even Savalas is weighed down by attempts to make his character sound hip to the lingo ("I wanna arise the conscience of this freakout," Redford says of Joe), though there is one good exchange where he tells Joe "Your slang is a little dated," to which Joe replies "Is 'fuck off' dated?" Vaughn's bizarre performance is the only reason to watch CLAY PIGEON. Apparently given carte blanche to improvise and do whatever was necessary to keep himself amused, Vaughn is obviously making it up as he goes along, appearing in a series of increasingly ridiculous hats that Judge Smails wouldn't even try on. In one scene, he gives a rambling, spiritual monologue while wearing a Gilligan hat and a gold chain with a Volkswagen hood ornament attached to it, along with a scene-stealing parrot resting on his shoulder. No matter how insane Vaughn's scenes become or how silly of a hat he's wearing (it's surprising he isn't wearing a propeller beanie for the big shootout), he somehow manages to keep a straight face. The same can't be said for Ivan Dixon, who plays Neilson's chief enforcer, and in several scenes with Vaughn (the bumper pool scene, in particular), Dixon is visibly breaking like they're in an off-the-rails SNL skit. Of course, the home-movie-quality CLAY PIGEON is so badly-made that Stern just left the mistakes as they were. There's a reason this obscurity was never released on VHS or DVD and didn't even get much play on late-night TV back in the day. It's been hard to see for several decades, though Turner Classic Movies recently aired a 1.33 print on their "TCM Underground" series. After this film's failure, Stern sporadically appeared in TV guest spots and occasional B-movies, his last credit being Zalman King's 1998 drama IN GOD'S HANDS. A film more suited to the likes of Independent-International than MGM, CLAY PIGEON, despite how crazy it sounds, has little entertainment value for anyone other than Robert Vaughn completists. If someone put all of his scenes in a YouTube video, you'd have all you need to see of it.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Retro Review: THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND (1983)

(US - 1983)

Directed by Sam Peckinpah. Written by Alan Sharp and Ian Masters. Cast: Rutger Hauer, John Hurt, Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper, Burt Lancaster, Chris Sarandon, Meg Foster, Helen Shaver, Cassie Yates, Sandy McPeak, Christopher Starr, Jan Triska, Merete Van Kamp, Tim Thomerson, Buddy Joe Hooker. (R, 103 mins)

The legendary Sam Peckinpah's final film was a typically troubled production that saw him clashing with producers and having the film recut without his involvement. A very loose adaptation of Robert Ludlum's 1972 novel, THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND stars John Hurt as Lawrence Fassett, an embittered CIA agent whose obsessive investigation into his wife's murder leads him to uncover evidence that three men--TV writer Bernard Osterman (Craig T. Nelson), plastic surgeon Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper), and hotheaded stockbroker Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon)--are really Soviet agents who have been operating in the US since their college days. Fassett convinces their old college buddy John Tanner (Rutger Hauer), now a successful liberal pundit in the political talk show arena, to host a weekend reunion with the guys and their wives. With Tanner's home filled with hidden surveillance cameras and Fassett in regular communication, it's the perfect set-up to expose the alleged KGB agents and in exchange for helping out the US government, Tanner gets an exclusive, one-on-one interview with controversial CIA chief Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster), infamous for his extensive authorization of all manner of high-tech surveillance.

Given its prescient subject matter--cable news pundits, high-tech spy games, government overreach, etc--THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND was a bit ahead of its time and seems ripe for an updated remake today. This version is entertaining, often for the wrong reasons.  It's incredibly convoluted, crossing over into the incoherent on occasion, and it's often very sloppily edited, with a few repeated shots and no one watching the continuity when it comes to Nelson's epic fake mustache, which almost never looks the same in two consecutive shots. Peckinpah reportedly tried to make this into an espionage satire, similar to his initial cut of 1975's THE KILLER ELITE which, by the time the producers finished recutting it, was left with only a visibly drunk and unsteady Gig Young slurring his words and struggling to stand and James Caan and Burt Young battling ninjas to keep it interesting. As with that film, the producers removed all the comedy, so maybe OSTERMAN's inconsistent editing and the varying mustache lengths were all part of unsung satirist Peckinpah's master plan. There's some effective bits, especially once Peckinpah lets the film fly off the rails in the last third. Peckinpah uses a peculiar technique in his action scenes here, with a lot of slow-motion and drawn-out, quick-cut editing that, in context, works well, especially in the late-going with the exploding RV, plus he gets a genuinely terrific performance out of Hurt. There's a lot to like here--irate Lancaster at his most assholish (is there any way a guy named "Maxwell Danforth" won't be a complete prick?); gratuitous nudity; Meg Foster decking Helen Shaver; and a hilarious bit involving a dog's head in the fridge--but at the same time, it feels like a missed opportunity. There's a pronounced lack of focus and the disconnect between the director and his producers is apparent.  It's a mess, but a consistently intriguing one.

Speaking of messes, Anchor Bay's Blu-ray, released last year, is a splotchy, ugly disaster. And unlike their special edition DVD from 2004, it doesn't include the 116-minute Peckinpah rough cut that led to his dismissal from the project. THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND was Peckinpah's first film since 1978's CONVOY, much of which was directed without credit by his friend James Coburn. Coburn was interested in stepping behind the camera for some future projects and was serving as second unit director to get his DGA card. The veteran actor ended up directing significant portions of the movie while Peckinpah was holed up in his trailer on an extended coke binge. After doing uncredited second unit work without incident for old friend Don Siegel on the 1982 Bette Midler bomb JINXED!, Peckinpah was given THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND as a comeback project and while things initially ran smoothly, disagreements took over and by the end of shooting, there was no communication between him and the producers. When Peckinpah refused to make the changes demanded after a disastrous test screening in May 1983, he was handed his walking papers and the producers re-edited the film themselves. After directing a pair of Julian Lennon music videos, including one for his breakout hit "Too Late for Goodbyes." Peckinpah died of heart failure at just 59 in December 1984, a little over a year after THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND's November 1983 release.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: HIGH-RISE (2016)

(UK/Ireland/Belgium - 2016)

Directed by Ben Wheatley. Written by Amy Jump. Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Bill Paterson, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Stacy Martin, Augustus Prew, Tony Way, Enzo Cilenti, Dan Skinner, Louis Suc, Neil Maskell. (R, 119 mins)

Producer Jeremy Thomas has tried to put together an adaptation of J.G. Ballard's novel High-Rise since it was first published in 1975. Though regarded as unfilmable, it nearly came to be in the late '70s with director Nicolas Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg intending it to be their next film after 1976's THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. That never happened, nor did any other attempt, and the closest anyone got prior to now was when CUBE director Vincenzo Natali nearly got the greenlight in the early 2000s. It took 40 years, but Thomas finally got HIGH-RISE made, with acclaimed British cult filmmaker Ben Wheatley at the helm, working from a script by his wife and writing partner Amy Jump. Wheatley has acquired a cult following with the overrated WICKER MAN knockoff KILL LIST, the dark comedy SIGHTSEERS, and the unnerving A FIELD IN ENGLAND, but HIGH-RISE is his most ambitious project yet, working with his biggest budget and largest, most prestigious ensemble cast yet.

Combining the coldness of David Cronenberg (whose controversial 1996 film CRASH was based on the Ballard novel of the same name) with the absurdist black comedy of Terry Gilliam, HIGH-RISE is ultimately done in by a too-lengthy delay between the publication of its source novel and its eventual big-screen adaptation. Had Roeg and Mayersberg made this in 1977, it likely would've been prophetically visionary and as highly regarded as THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH  But now, in 2016, it's exhaustingly heavy-handed, hammering its points over the audience's head again and again, and even ending with a Margaret Thatcher soundbite just in case the themes of class struggle and the haves ruling the have-nots wasn't quite hammered home for the preceding two hours trip into the hellhole of dystopia and capitalism run amok. Med school instructor Robert Laine (Tom Hiddleston, in a role that would've been perfect for David Bowie had Roeg had his shot at this way back when) moves into the 25th floor of a Jenga-esque 40-story high-rise tower block. The swingin' 70s are here in all their glory, as Laine quickly hops into bed with sexually liberated single mom Charlotte (Sienna Miller), and the residents of the high-rise form a very insulated community with every convenience--a gym, pool, 15th floor grocery store--readily available. The not-very-subtly-named Royal (Jeremy Irons), the building's architect, lives in the top floor penthouse, and when problems start arising--priorities for supply deliveries going to the wealthy one-percenters on the top floors and the lower class near the bottom being plagued by frequent power outages--he dismisses it as "teething" and "the building settling in." Disgruntled, philandering TV documentarian Wilder (Luke Evans) lives on one of the lower floors with his very pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and several kids, and eventually leads a revolt against the rich and powerful in the high-rise. Soon, all sense of order disintegrates as the high-rise becomes both the entire world of its occupants and a microcosm (SYMBOLISM!) of societal inequality and injustice: garbage piles up, food molds, and it's kill or be killed as life metamorphoses into a visceral orgy of rage, violence, hate-fucking, and all manner of degradation, debauchery, and destruction.

This feels a lot like SNOWPIERCER in a skyscraper, from the class struggle motif to Wilder's making his way to the top of the building, all the way to one character admonishing Laine to "know your place." Sure, in retrospect, it looks like SNOWPIERCER--and other movies--co-opted a lot of Ballard's ideas, and that's not the fault of the filmmakers here, but it doesn't do this belated adaptation any favors. It's also reminiscent of a somewhat less abrasive BLINDNESS, though Wheatley and Jump do keep the unpleasantness to a minimum, mostly implying it except for a few examples of shock value shots and dialogue (Royal to Laine, during a game of squash: "By the way, I hear you're fucking 374...she has a tight cunt as I recall"). Laine is the relative "everyman" audience surrogate, a successful career man who lives in the middle of the building and is comfortable screwing third-floor Charlotte and hobnobbing with penthouse Royal and other near-the-top residents, like sneering, asshole gynecologist Pangbourne (James Purefoy). Royal, the Trump of the high-rise if you want a present-day analogy, speaks of the building as both a living, breathing entity and as a symbol of society. It's all rather facile and obvious, though again, it could've been the angry FIGHT CLUB of its day had it been made 40 years ago. Whatever ham-fisted conclusions there are to draw from the events in HIGH-RISE have already been made decades ago. Wheatley scores some points for the film's retro-future look that ties in perfectly with Laine's observation that it "looks like a future that had already happened," and trippy, early '70s prog tunes by Amon Duul and Can, and a Portishead cover of ABBA's "S.O.S." provide a lot of atmosphere, but HIGH-RISE is repetitive, dated, and eventually oppressive. The filmmakers swing for the fences and get a few hits, but it goes on forever and you'll be ready for it to end long before it finally does.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

In Theaters: MONEY MONSTER (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Jodie Foster. Written by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf. Cast: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O'Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Lenny Venito, Christopher Denham, Chris Bauer, Emily Meade, Dennis Boutsikaris, John Ventimiglia, Condola Rashad, Aaron Yoo, Carsey Walker Jr, Grant Rosenmeyer, Olivia Luccardi. (R, 98 mins)

The kind of slick, hot-button star vehicle that was a weekly thing back in the 1990s, the George Clooney-Julia Roberts-headlined MONEY MONSTER probably could've been released 20 years ago with, say, Michael Douglas and uh, I guess Julia Roberts, and not been much different. While obviously not in the same league, it's a throwback "New York City" movie in the vein of DOG DAY AFTERNOON, but probably owes more to (and comes off better than) Costa-Gavras' forgotten 1997 flop MAD CITY, where an improbably cast Dustin Hoffman was an ambitious TV news reporter in a hostage situation instigated by an unemployed security guard played by a set of sideburns attached to John Travolta. MONEY MONSTER opens with disgruntled package service delivery driver Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) crashing the live broadcast of the cable financial news show MONEY MONSTER, hosted by the smugly arrogant and almost buffoonish Lee Gates (Clooney). Suggesting a more roguishly handsome MAD MONEY host Jim Cramer combined with the grating, "look at me!" showmanship of Jimmy Fallon, Gates is the kind of "news-as-entertainment" jagoff who has softball interviews with money experts, mockingly dons gold chains and has choreographed routines with backing dancers, and has his snarky one-liners punctuated with cheesy horror movie clips and zany sound effects straight out of the "wacky radio morning zoo" playbook. There's a lot to suggest that the cocky, strutting Gates is regarded as a clown by Wall Street: as the film opens, a financial guru and "friend of the show" cancels their dinner plans for the seventh time and blows him off on the phone, and Gates' long-suffering director Patty Fenn (Roberts), who tells one guest "We don't do gotcha journalism here...hell, we don't even do journalism here," has accepted a job with another show and has yet to tell her boss she's leaving.

All of that gets put on the backburner when Budwell manages to get through lax security under the auspices of a package delivery. Pulling a gun on Gates on live TV and forcing him to strap on a vest bomb, Budwell wants to know why IBIS Global Capital's stock lost $800 million the day before. IBIS communications director Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) is making the talk show rounds saying it was a "computer glitch" but that's only because CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) is gallivanting around the world on his private jet and has been MIA for several days. He was scheduled to be on MONEY MONSTER that day, which is why Budwell brought two vests. Budwell invested his entire savings--$60,000 in insurance money he received when his mother died--in an investment that Gates and frequent guest Camby endlessly crowed was a sure thing, and he wants answers, not just for himself but for all the other investors who were victimized by a rigged system (or dumb enough to throw everything into one basket). Budwell doesn't believe that $800 million can just vanish because of a computer glitch. Of course, he's right, and Patty, whose long-dormant inner journalist is reawakened as she tries to keep Gates focused by talking to him through his hidden earpiece, directs MONEY MONSTER staffers to do some actual investigative work and look into the coincidental timing of nearly $1 billion vanishing while Camby's been off the grid and impossible to find for nearly a week.

Directed by Jodie Foster and co-written by veteran journeyman Jim Kouf (STAKEOUT, RUSH HOUR, NATIONAL TREASURE, and back in his younger, dues-paying days, THE BOOGENS and UP THE CREEK), MONEY MONSTER is more concerned with being a commercial hostage thriller than taking a serious look at stock market fraud and income inequality issues. That's not to say it doesn't make some bitter, satirical points here and there, whether it's taking aim at the vacuous nature of most cable news shows (of course, real-life news personalities like the increasingly hapless Wolf Blitzer and the increasingly loud Cenk Uygar have cameos as themselves), and the fickle, short attention span of the viewing public. One of the big mistakes MONEY MONSTER makes is in its closing minutes, tacking on a coda to give the audience one more scene with Clooney and Roberts when a perfect, hard-hitting indictment of an ending would've been the shot of the foosball game resuming in the coffee shop (no spoilers, but you'll know it when you see it).

MONEY MONSTER has some tricks up its sleeve in that nearly every time you start rolling your eyes at some hackneyed plot device or think the movie is careening off the rails with an improbable, Hollywood plot convenience, it pulls the rug out from under the audience--and its characters--and essentially confirms your feelings. Just when you think Budwell is an impossibly dumb, useless lug (British O'Connell is really chewing on that "working-class Queens schlub" accent) who's gathering the sympathy of captivated TV viewers, the movie introduces his pregnant girlfriend--played by Emily Meade in the kind of incredible, one-scene turn that got Beatrice Straight a Supporting Actress Oscar for NETWORK--to mercilessly lay into him about just how impossibly dumb and useless he is. Meade's is the best scene in the movie, with the actress practically stealing the whole show in about two minutes of screen time. It's destined to be a YouTube favorite, along with Clooney's ridiculous dancing. O'Connell (UNBROKEN) overdoes it a little too much at times, with his Budwell weighed down by a massive blue-collar chip on his shoulder about how "you tink I'm fukkin' stoopid?" and "you's rich fucks wit ya fancy edgee-cayshuns!" Clooney and Roberts are, as usual, a solid, almost comfort-food team even though they don't share the screen very much (one question: is Clooney wearing eyeliner in the climax at Freedom Hall? His eyes are all puffy and he looks completely different, like that sequence was a reshoot or maybe he was sick that day), and the supporting cast is filled out with numerous familiar, reliable character actors (Giancarlo Esposito, Lenny Venito, Christopher Denham, Chris Bauer, John Ventimiglia, and Dennis Boutsikaris, cast radically against type as the kind of sneering prick who would've been played by the late Ron Silver two decades ago). MONEY MONSTER isn't high art and it isn't very deep or analytical about Wall Street aside from obvious points that too much of the money is controlled by too few people, but it's an entertaining, straightforward movie for grown-up audiences, so enjoy this kind of thing in a theater while you still can.