Sunday, July 5, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: HARD TO BE A GOD (2015); LAST KNIGHTS (2015); and WHILE WE'RE YOUNG (2015)

(Russia - 2014; US release 2015)

The final work of Russian auteur Aleksey German (credited here as Alexey Jurievich German), HARD TO BE A GOD was also the maverick filmmaker's career-long obsession. German first conceived the notion of adapting the 1964 sci-fi novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatski shortly after its publication. While other projects came and went, German remained determined to bring Hard to Be a God to the screen, even after a somewhat commercial Germany/USSR co-production directed by Peter Fleischmann and featuring Werner Herzog in a supporting role was released in 1989. He was known for his infamously meticulous nature, drawing obvious comparisons to Stanley Kubrick but probably more akin to Orson Welles with his doggedly stubborn nature and refusal to compromise. German, who only directed six films over his 45-year career, began shooting HARD TO BE A GOD in 2000 and didn't wrap until 2006. He then spent an additional seven years on post-production, endlessly tinkering with the editing and the sound mix until his death from heart failure in February 2013 at the age of 74, leaving his wife and son to finally complete the film. While it's tragic that German didn't live long enough to see his life's work through to its ultimate completion, one can't help but wonder how much longer it would've taken the film to be finished had he lived. Shot in black & white and running three hours, HARD TO BE A GOD is a cinematic endurance test to end all cinematic endurance tests, existing purely on its own terms and made for no one other than Aleksey German.

It opens in mid-story, with a team of scientists having spent an undisclosed amount of time (probably several years) on Arkanar, an Earth-like planet that's about 800 years behind in terms of thought and technological advancement, and still in what's tantamount to the medieval Dark Ages. Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) is one of several Earth scientists who have infiltrated the Arkanar society and are aghast at what they see, but are expressly forbidden from taking a proactive role in it, lest they influence the course of its future. They're strictly there as observers but smart enough to be considered gods by the unwashed, brutish masses. That's a summary of the Strugatski novel and indicative of things only vaguely hinted at in the finished film. German's HARD TO BE A GOD is adamantly against any kind of narrative drive or momentum whatsoever. The director's primary focus is capturing the medieval look and feel of Arkanar on sets constructed in the Czech Republic, and on that level, the film is an achievement both monumental and monotonous. HARD TO BE A GOD is one of the grossest films ever made, loaded with filthy, slobbering Dark Agers with endlessly streaming snot, shooting boogers out of their nose, vomiting, defecating, and pissing, rolling around in bodily waste, smearing feces everywhere, always looking like they're breaking the fourth wall as they look into German's handheld camera. There's a lot of nonsensical, stream of consciousness babbling by the denizens of Arkanar, almost like German is offering us what might happen if Terrence Malick lost his mind and directed a long-lost Chaucer adaptation written by Pasolini. Drenched in rain, fog, and mud, HARD TO BE A GOD looks like no other film ever made, and to that end, as well as German's endless devotion to the project, it's something that can't be easily dismissed. When someone puts that much into a project, are the accolades for the content of the work or for the obsession that drove it? There's a fine line between genius and insanity and though it may come off as cold, no one wants to say that perhaps German wasted the last 13 years of his life. It's a Stalinist allegory that took so long to complete from German's first inclinations of interest in 1964 to his death in 2013 that it inadvertently became a Putin critique, which may say something along the lines of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss," but it's lost here. There's incredible ambition in the end result, with fleeting moments that recall the likes of Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Bela Tarr and Terry Gilliam (Rumata even compares himself to Baron Munchausen on one occasion), but what's here is far beyond the bounds of reasonable self-indulgence. The bodily waste never stops flowing and, like the endlessly hanging gobs of snot, HARD TO BE GOD just goes on and on and on, which is part of German's master plan. He set out to make something as anti-entertaining as possible. While going against convention is admirable, you'll just feel numb around the 90-minute point, especially when you realize you're only halfway through this thing. HARD TO BE A GOD took 13 years to complete, and that's about how long it feels watching it. (Unrated, 177 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

(US/South Korea/Japan - 2015)

With the financial backing of three countries and carrying 37 credited producers, it's clear that a lot of money went into the medieval adventure saga LAST KNIGHTS, but that still didn't keep it from spending three years on the shelf before getting an unceremonious VOD release. While the film is formulaic and a little too reliant on cliches, it's nevertheless surprisingly solid, grand in its presentation, and would've looked terrific on a big screen. There's a couple of instances where the CGI scenery gets a little dodgy, but for the most part, it's blended seamlessly and with care and precision, which is more than you can say for most mega-budget movies that get 3000 screen releases. Directed by Kaz I. Kiriya (2004's compromised but visually stunning CASSHERN), LAST KNIGHTS is set in a feudal society in medieval times, with the revered Lord Bartok (Morgan Freeman) outraged by a tax increase imposed on him by Geza Mott (HEADHUNTERS' Aksel Hennie), the sniveling minister to the Emperor (A SEPARATION's Payman Maadi), with the ulterior motive being to take over the Bartok lands for himself. Knowing a shakedown when he sees one, Bartok and his chief army commander Raiden (Clive Owen) venture to Geza Mott's palace for a meeting, where Bartok intentionally insults the greedy minister with a cheap gift in a wooden box ("You can keep the box, too," he snarks). Geza Mott later provokes Bartok into a physical confrontation, and when Bartok draws his sword in self-defense, he's nevertheless ordered by the Emperor to pay for his offense against Geza Mott with his life, and also cruelly orders Raiden to be his executioner. The Bartok lands are claimed by Geza Mott, who casts out Bartok's widow (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and forces his daughter (Si-Yeon Park) into prostitution. The paranoid minister lives in constant fear of Raiden's vengeance, unaware that Raiden has become a hopeless drunkard who sold his cherished sword and is so overcome by grief and guilt over killing his beloved master that he has little will to live. Unknown to Geza Mott, the rest of Raiden's army, led by Cortez (Cliff Curtis) has a spy inside their former stronghold and a plan for revenge is on, eventually joined and taken over by Raiden when he finally rises out of his sulking stupor and decides to take back the Bartok lands and restore his master's good name.

Loosely inspired by the legend of the 47 Ronin, and much better than the recent botched Hollywood take on the subject, LAST KNIGHTS could easily be written off as a GAME OF THRONES knockoff, but it smiles ahead of a lot of recent films of this type (HAMMER OF THE GODS, OUTCAST, SWORD OF VENGEANCE, and the terrible IRONCLAD sequel). though with its rousing battle scenes and committed performances, it's more akin to the original IRONCLAD and like that film, should have a long life on Netflix streaming and cable. There's one great shot of a guy getting his head sliced off and taking several more steps before stumbling into a pool, and one very well-choreographed, OLDBOY-inspired scene where Raiden works his way down a hallway, slicing and dicing about 20 of Geza Mott's soldiers without Kiriya employing a single cut. No, LAST KNIGHTS doesn't break any new ground (it opens with--spoiler alert--narration by Freeman), its momentum depends on the villains stupidly underestimating Raiden, and you just know that the most eager and ambitious young soldier in Raiden's army will be the first one to die ("Did I do well?" he gasps in his dying breath, tears welling up in the eyes of the weathered, seen-it-all dogs of war comforting him in his final moments), but it's an almost defiantly old-fashioned adventure nicely blended with the violent and downbeat nature of a GAME OF THRONES or a VIKINGS. Freeman, sporting some interesting facial hair, exits about 30 minutes in but does what he's required to do (basically, be Morgan Freeman). While Owen stars in the acclaimed period drama THE KNICK, Cinemax's "We're not just Skinemax, so put the Kleenex away, fellas!" bid at respectability, Hollywood has seemingly lost all faith in his ability to open a movie. Owen glowers and grimaces and is excellent as the battle-hardened, heartbroken Raiden, exhibiting the kind of dour, steel-edged gravitas that will come in handy in about eight years or so when his career gets a second wind after it inevitably enters its "Liam Neeson Geriatric Asskicker" phase. Very well-made and epic in scope, with every dollar up on the screen, LAST KNIGHTS was abandoned by its distributors--when's the last time you saw a Clive Owen movie in a theater?--and reviled by the few critics who saw it. It's not to be mistaken for a great movie, but it's a fine adventure and didn't deserve the shitty reception it got. (R, 115 mins)

(US - 2015)

Ben Stiller has always seemed like he was born ready for midlife crisis roles and now that he's nearly 50, he's got a prime one in WHILE WE'RE YOUNG, which reunites him with his GREENBERG writer/director Noah Baumbach. Baumbach, an occasional Wes Anderson collaborator (he co-wrote THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU and FANTASTIC MR. FOX), a voice of Gen-X malaise with his 1995 debut KICKING AND SCREAMING, and a master of cinematic discomfort with THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005) and the brilliant and underrated MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (2007), seems to be mellowing with age. WHILE WE'RE YOUNG isn't as caustic as some of his mid '00s work, and gives Stiller a chance to basically use his "Ben Stiller" persona as Josh, a 44-year-old documentary filmmaker who's gone full Aleksey German and has been working on the same project for nearly a decade, a coma-inducing series of interviews with left-wing theorist Ira Mandelstram (Peter Yarrow) that comprise so many hours that he's actually lost track of what the film is even about (when asked, he's quick to desperately blurt "It's about America, really"). His wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a producer for her legendary documentary filmmaker father (Charles Grodin), is constantly being hounded by her friends about why she and Josh are still childless. They seem happy and content with their careers and each other, but something's missing. That void is temporarily filled by Jamie (Adam Driver--and can someone explain the whole "Adam Driver is hot" thing to me?) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a pair of mid-20s, newlywed bohemian hipsters who make their own furniture, churn their own ice cream, watch old movies on VHS, and embrace CITIZEN KANE and Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" with equal passion. Soon, Cornelia is joining Darby for hip-hop dance classes, Josh is wearing a porkpie hat, and they're drifting away from friends their own age. Tensions rise when Josh and Jamie collaborate on a documentary about a high-school classmate of Jamie's (Brady Corbet), which leads to a Jamie side project that starts getting him everything evading Josh: money from investors, critical acclaim, and the approval of his father-in-law.

Many pointed out that WHILE WE'RE YOUNG seems like an art-house version of the Seth Rogen/Zac Efron comedy NEIGHBORS. It's very low-key and never really cuts loose, instead focusing on character, where a more mainstream film would have Josh embarrassing himself beyond going out in a public in a porkpie hat. The film's one attempt at overt slapstick is also its weakest sequence--a tedious and overlong visit to a drug-tripping ayahuasca ceremony where everyone vomits into a bucket. As the film goes on and Jamie's and Darby's intentions and true nature come into question, Baumbach never paints them as villains and still treats everyone with sympathy, whether it's Josh and Cornelia trying to find themselves at a crossroads in their life together, and forgiving Jamie and Darby's trespasses because of their youth and inexperience at life.  "They're not evil," Josh realizes. "They're just young." (R, 97 mins)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In Theaters: TERMINATOR: GENISYS (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Alan Taylor. Written by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier. Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons, Byung-hun Lee, Matt Smith, Courtney B. Vance, Sandrine Holt, Dayo Okeniyi, Michael Gladis, Wayne Bastrup, Griff Furst, Afemo Omilami. (PG-13, 125 mins)

The fifth entry in the TERMINATOR franchise also functions as a reboot that eliminates the third and fourth films from the series continuity. That's too bad, since the middling TERMINATOR: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003) and TERMINATOR: SALVATION (2009), about which I recall nothing except Christian Bale's on-set meltdown with cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, look like neglected, misunderstood classics compared to the ill-advised TERMINATOR: GENISYS. The best thing GENISYS has going for it is the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Fans will no doubt get a kick out of his re-introduction but that joy quickly fades into a blurred rubble of narrative incoherence, CGI histrionics, and post-Michael Bay destruction porn. Indeed, TERMINATOR: GENISYS represents the TRANSFORMERS-and-Marvelization of the franchise. James Cameron's THE TERMINATOR (1984) and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991) look like quaint, quiet relics compared to the garish stupidity on display here. Story and character are sacrificed in place of so much computer-generated mayhem that half the film looks animated. There's no need for a CGI'd Arnold to be bouncing around the frame like a pinball, and good and evil Terminators hurling one another around like WWE stars. It's THE TERMINATOR reimagined for gamers who don't have a problem with the way movies look today in yet another attempt to make Schwarzenegger matter to teenagers and millennials, when it's clear from his recent box-office grosses that, while his aging fan base might come out to see him, younger fans don't give a shit, and GENISYS isn't likely to change that. To them, Schwarzenegger is a relic whose films they've occasionally seen their dads watching on TNT. GENISYS resorts to cheap references and groan-inducing pandering to the lowest-common denominator because it has nothing to say and no reason to exist. Don't believe me?  Then justify the scene where the Terminator, Sarah Connor, and Kyle Reese get arrested to the tune of Inner Circle's "Bad Boys."  Yeah, that's right...the COPS theme.  Do you find that funny? Yeah? Then by all means, go see TERMINATOR: GENISYS. And thank you for being the reason blockbuster movies are as dumbed-down and generic as they are.

Veteran TV director Alan Taylor (THE SOPRANOS, GAME OF THRONES) has THOR: THE DARK WORLD under his belt and GENISYS feels very much like The Terminator was dropped into a Marvel superhero movie. The script by Laeta Kalogridis (NIGHT WATCH, SHUTTER ISLAND) and Patrick Lussier (DRIVE ANGRY) gathers the Terminator, Sarah Connor (GAME OF THRONES' Emilia Clarke), Kyle Reese (Hollywood still trying to make Jai Courtney happen), and John Connor (Jason Clarke) into an alternate timeline of the events of the first two films. In an attempt to thwart Judgment Day on August 29, 1997, a 2029 John Connor sends Reese back to 1984 to follow the original Terminator and stop him from killing Sarah Connor, thus preventing John's birth and his eventual victory over Skynet, the sentient computer system that brings about nuclear destruction. So far, so familiar. But when the Terminator arrives in 1984 (in scenes recreated from the first film due to rights issues, so you get a punk who sort of looks like a young Bill Paxton), things already look a bit off, starting with the Terminator itself. It's a CGI recreation of a young Schwarzenegger, and it has that same eerie, dead-eyed, not-quite-there look that the young, CGI Jeff Bridges had in TRON: LEGACY. The Terminator is then ambushed by what appears to be the Terminator from the second film (Schwarzengger, for real), but is actually another Terminator sent back to 1973 when Sarah Connor was just nine years old. The events of GENISYS take place in an alternate reality based on Sarah encountering the good Terminator from T2 much earlier than that film's setting of 1997.  In GENISYS, an orphaned Sarah has been raised by the Terminator and has already been trained for her role as a soldier in the upcoming war on Skynet. Much like the audience, Reese is confused, but in his travel back to 1984, has seen visions of his own alternate reality and realizes Judgment Day is not in 1997 but in 2017. So after some perfunctory chase sequences involving a return appearance by T2's liquid-metal T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee), Sarah and Kyle time travel to 2017 where they're met by a graying Good Terminator (though he's a machine, his human casing ages) and prepare to take on Genisys, a powerful computer program created by Cyberdine Systems, the corporation behind Skynet. Genisys will electronically link everything and everyone and put their entire lives online, thereby allowing the self-acting Skynet to bring about Judgment Day.

A film with a modicum of intelligence in its foundation might've used Genisys--essentially an even more evil fusion of Facebook, Twitter, and Google--as a substantive commentary on today's ubiquitous nature of social media and our over-reliance on computer technology. But TERMINATOR; GENISYS is too busy making COPS references and having Arnold spout one-liners and signature quips (of course "I'll be back" makes an appearance) to deal with that. Schwarzenegger is easily the best thing about the film, and there are some scattered moments that work, like the genuine emotion his Terminator feels toward Sarah, or the gleam in his eye when he bonds with Reese, like a father reluctantly letting his little girl go. But do those have any place in a TERMINATOR movie? The film feels in constant danger of abandoning its plot to become WHEN SARAH MET KYLE, with the mismatched pair engaging in rom-com banter, and the Terminator in the role of her overprotective dad, forever about to shake his head, raise his fist, and yell "Reeeeeeese!" On one hand, it's nice to see Arnold as the Terminator once more, but on the other, it's unfortunate that the 67-year-old actor is resorting to this for a hit, especially on the heels of the barely-released MAGGIE, the most out-of-left-field project of his career since directing a 1992 cable remake of CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT starring Dyan Cannon. Not everything in GENISYS is awful, but the worthwhile moments are few and far between, and by the time one character's true nature is revealed in a midway twist (actually spoiled by some of the trailers), the film becomes too confused with itself to care. It doesn't use Arnold to its best advantage, instead relegating the Terminator to basically being a sideline character (much like THE EXPENDABLES 3 left a tired-looking Arnold babysitting the parked chopper) and talkative exposition machine, as he was conveniently implanted with all of this knowledge prior to being sent to 1973 in the alternate timeline. When was the Terminator ever this chatty? While the iconic star gets a few decent moments, none of the other actors fare as well. Emilia Clarke is OK as Sarah, but Jason Clarke is stuck with an unplayable John Connor, and it doesn't help that the film is never really sure what it wants the character to be. Fresh off of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for WHIPLASH, J.K. Simmons, in the most inconsequential post-Oscar role this side of Michael Caine in JAWS: THE REVENGE, plays a laughingstock L.A. cop who believes Sarah's and Kyle's time travel story before vanishing from the movie. Former DOCTOR WHO Matt Smith is a holographic representation of Genisys in a plot development that in no way reminds one of RESIDENT EVIL. Worst of all is Courtney, apparently the go-to guy when you've decided to drive your franchise off a cliff (A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD), who's a complete black hole as Reese, emoting like a lunkheaded jock and demonstrating none of the desperation and humanity of Michael Biehn's performance in the first film.

TERMINATOR: GENISYS is odd in that it makes so many references to the first two films yet seems designed for those who haven't seen them or don't like them. Sure, the special effects in the first TERMINATOR are 31 years old and some haven't aged well, but it's still a marvelously inventive and thrillingly-told story, with nonstop action, strong performances, and believable characters that you care about. T2 raised the bar on the action and the visual effects, and while it has its flaws and the attempts to humanize the good Terminator occasionally fell flat, it still holds up. GENISYS, on the other hand, just flounders in its quest for a reason to exist. It's a two-hour video game, as dumb and obnoxious as a TRANSFORMERS movie, and somehow, showcasing extensive CGI that not only makes zero improvements on the groundbreaking work Cameron and his crew did on T2 nearly 25 years ago, but actually looks worse! TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY was the first film with a budget to crack $100 million and every penny was up on the screen. Remember when that was an inconceivable amount of money to spend on a movie? TERMINATOR: GENISYS cost $170 million and looks like it should be premiering on cable. So go ahead and tell me blockbusters have gotten better.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: WOLFEN (1981)

(US - 1981)

Directed by Michael Wadleigh. Written by David Eyre and Michael Wadleigh. Cast: Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines, Dick O'Neill, Tom Noonan, Peter Michael Goetz, Dehl Berti, Reginald Veljohnson, James Tolkan, Victor Arnold, Max M. Brown, Anne Marie Pohtamo, Sarah Felder, Caitlin O'Heaney. (R, 115 mins)

Thanks to influential makeup effects wizards like Rob Bottin and Rick Baker and their mastery of their craft, werewolf movies were able to make a huge comeback in 1981. Rather than the old time-lapse method done with Lon Chaney Jr. in the Universal horror movies of the 1940s, it was now possible to show a character's entire agonizing transformation into a wolf. Released in the spring of 1981, Joe Dante's THE HOWLING boasted stunning man-to-wolf transformation work by Bottin that still looks better than CGI today, and the same goes for John Landis' AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, released at the end of the summer of 1981, which featured makeup so convincing that it won Baker an Oscar. WOLFEN was released in July 1981, between THE HOWLING and AMERICAN WEREWOLF, and while it isn't a werewolf movie in the vein of those other two films, it typically gets lumped in with them. Based on the 1978 novel The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber, who would later be best known for his alien abduction memoir Communion (turned into a 1989 movie with Christopher Walken as Strieber), WOLFEN is much more ambitious in scope than either of 1981's other big wolf movies, with a labyrinthine plot involving Native American folklore, police surveillance, radical activism, urban trust-fund guerrillas, domestic terrorism, voodoo, urban legend, and urban decay, among other themes that range from half-explored to abandoned. With extensive location shooting in the hellhole that was The Bronx of that time, WOLFEN is very much a product of its era, while at the same time being amazingly prescient in its depictions of corporate greed, gentrification, and the way its NYPD's secret surveillance unit draws obvious comparisons to the NSA and prefigures the Patriot Act. Make no mistake--the film is an often unwieldy, confused mess but it's a fascinating mess. If WOLFEN is guilty of anything, it's biting off more than it can chew in two hours.

When multi-millionaire developer and political scion Christopher van der Veer (Max M. Brown), his coke-snorting wife, and their bodyguard are torn to pieces in Battery Park, the culprits are believed to be the "Gotterdamerung," an underground, left-wing urban guerrilla network protesting van der Veer's demolishing of old buildings in the Bronx and other boroughs to replace them with expensive high rises, driving out the longtime residents and bringing in the wealthy and the privileged. Given van der Veer's status and Washington ties, the case is deemed top priority by the mayor and the police commissioner, and is handed to (of course) troubled, eccentric detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney), a recovering alcoholic who's brought off suspension by his beleaguered captain Warren (Dick O'Neill). Department brass works hard to establish any connection to Gotterdamerung, but Wilson and criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) aren't convinced, primarily because the murders were too violent for a bunch of rich kid activists. When a similar slaughtering of a homeless man draws them to an abandoned church in the Bronx, Wilson hears a wolf's howl and is further convinced the killer isn't human when coroner Whittington (Gregory Hines) discovers hairs on the victims belonging to the wolf family but aren't indicative of any known breed. Acting on a hunch, Wilson visits Native American activist Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos)--Wilson arrested him on a murder charge years earlier--who talks of shapeshifting and "Wolfen," a unique breed of wolf that's lived in secret alongside humanity, a close-knit clan that will do what it needs to do to protect its turf--turf that was being threatened by van der Meer's revitalization of the Bronx.

Almost everything in WOLFEN turns out to be red herrings and misdirection. Much time is devoted to the police investigation of Gotterdamerung activists that turns out to have no bearing on anything. Holt's "shapeshifting"--witnessed when he's tailed by Wilson--turns out to be nothing more than Eddie stripping nude after dropping acid and pretending he's a wolf. Unlike the lupine creatures in THE HOWLING and AMERICAN WEREWOLF, the wolves in WOLFEN are just that: wolves, albeit a unique breed of wolf, the next step in canus lupus evolution, complete with near-human intelligence and heat-sensory vision conveyed in then-innovative Steadicam tracking shots using thermal imagery that would be popularized several years later in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger classic PREDATOR. In their hunting and the establishment of their turf, the Wolfen have survived on the least visible, and therefore least missed, people. Hence, their stronghold in the Bronx, an area filled with the homeless and the disenfranchised, and all of that is threatened by van der Veer's attempts to gentrify the area. The message is hardly subtle: whether it's the wealthy or the Wolfen, something's always feeding on society's least fortunate.

Garrett Brown (with Steadicam) and director Michael Wadleigh (turned around,
facing stars Finney and Venora) on location in the ruins of the Bronx in 1979.

Recently released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive, WOLFEN was a troubled production that started shooting in and around NYC in the fall of 1979, with director/co-screenwriter Michael Wadleigh at the helm. This was Wadleigh's first film since his directing debut, the 1970 Best Documentary Oscar-winner WOODSTOCK. Prior to that, Wadleigh dropped out of medical school and enrolled in NYU's film school, where he met fellow student Martin Scorsese. Born in Akron, OH in 1942, Wadleigh made short political documentaries and found work as a cinematographer on several micro-budget underground films, including 1968's WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR?, Scorsese's directorial debut. Scorsese repaid the favor when Wadleigh got his first major gig, helping his friend out as an assistant director and editor on WOODSTOCK. After that film's phenomenal success, Scorsese cemented his place as one of America's great young directors with 1973's MEAN STREETS, while Wadleigh spent the bulk of the decade planning what would've been an epic about the American Revolution that ultimately never came to fruition. When funding fell apart in 1979, he was offered a list of potential projects by then-fledgling Orion Pictures as a consolation prize and chose to adapt The Wolfen, not because of any desire to work in the horror genre but more likely because of the activism themes in the novel. When filming wrapped on WOLFEN in February 1980, Wadleigh assembled a four-hour rough cut and neither the producers nor the execs at Orion were happy with what they saw when Wadleigh turned in his finished version, which clocked in at 149 minutes. Claiming Wadleigh made a "message picture" and lost sight of the fright factor, the producers demanded more horror and a shorter running time. When the filmmaker wouldn't budge and it became obvious that the delays would now force the $10 million film to miss its announced October 1980 release date, Wadleigh was fired. Screenwriter Eric Roth, who would go on to win an Oscar for his FORREST GUMP script, was commissioned for rewrites and director John Hancock (LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY) was called in for reshoots that were done in November 1980 to reach a sufficient horror and gore quota. Neither Hancock nor Roth received credit for their work and an irate Wadleigh unsuccessfully tried to have his name removed from the film, which ran 115 minutes when it was finally released on July 24, 1981, its cost nearly doubled to a then-expensive $17 million by the time it was completed. WOLFEN was met with generally positive reviews, but the often-confused jumble of half-baked ideas is strongly indicative of too many cooks in the kitchen (there are four credited editors), and the lack of werewolves or transformation scenes have always placed WOLFEN a distant third among fans when it comes to the big three 1981 lycanthrope classics.

Finney and Olmos atop the Manhattan Bridge. No doubles, no CGI, no greenscreen.

Nevertheless, it has moments of greatness. Though commonplace today, the groundbreaking thermal imagery tracking shots (with help from Steadicam creator Garrett Brown) are outstanding and the film's sound design is remarkably effective, whether it's garbled surveillance chatter or the fingernails of a corpse scraping across a morgue slab as the body is being moved. WOLFEN has a terrific performance by a grumbly, shaggy-haired Finney and a scene-stealing, star-making one by Hines in what was his big-screen debut, even though Mel Brooks' HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART 1 (1981) was shot later but released first. There's some amusingly dark humor throughout (Finney's Wilson stuffing cookies into his mouth while viewing an autopsy) and the climactic showdown between Wilson, Rebecca, and Warren with a pack of Wolfen (probably shot by Hancock, considering the amount of splatter involved) is terrifying. In addition, WOLFEN boasts one of the earliest scores by the late, legendary James Horner. Wadleigh and cinematographer Gerry Fisher do a stunning job of capturing the sights of 1979-80 NYC, from Battery Park to the war-zone-like Bronx to some dizzying shots of Olmos atop the Brooklyn Bridge and Olmos and Finney on the Manhattan Bridge, both sequences done pre-CGI and with much effort made to show that, yes, the actors are really up there in a way that just wouldn't be done today, both for the sake of safety and efficiency (how did they get a camera crew up there?). Watch Finney on top of the Manhattan Bridge--it's a windy day and he's visibly terrified. That's exactly why the scene works as well as it does.

Wadleigh (with headband) and Martin Scorsese (on headset)
during the shooting of the landmark documentary WOODSTOCK 

A 2013 photo of Michael Wadleigh
After his unpleasant experience on WOLFEN, Wadleigh almost completely withdrew from the film industry, emerging from self-imposed exile every now and again, whenever WOODSTOCK gets an anniversary re-release in theaters or on DVD/Blu-ray. He also apparently recorded a commentary track for the 2002 DVD release of WOLFEN with Olmos and the late Hines (who died in 2003) that was ultimately shelved and never heard by the DVD-buying public (any bets that he's still bitter and let it be known on the commentary?). In the decades since, he earned degrees in Physics and Medicine, and became a Harvard professor. Still a counterculture icon to his core at the age of 72, the now-UK-based Wadleigh may be an enigmatic figure in the world of cinema, but he's known in activist circles, working for various nonprofit organizations, traveling the world, and giving interviews, lectures, and multimedia presentations on the dangers of climate change. Barring any surprise comeback attempts after 35 years away from the game, it's a safe assumption that Wadleigh is done with mainstream filmmaking. If so, he leaves a unique, if very brief, body of work behind, with two movies in the last 45 years being the kind of sparse output that makes Stanley Kubrick look like Woody Allen.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: POUND OF FLESH (2015); THE FORGER (2015); and SWORD OF VENGEANCE (2015)

(Hong Kong/Canada/China/US/Monaco - 2015)

In a solid performance, Jean-Claude Van Damme does his best to salvage this overwrought, heavy-handed actioner, but he can't overcome a terrible script by Joshua James, uninspired direction by Ernie Barbarash that relies too much on quick-cuts and shaky cam in the action sequences, and some embarrassingly bush-league CGI and greenscreen work that's inexcusable in 2015. JCVD is Deacon Lyle, a former kidnap-and-rescue black ops specialist who arrives in Manila, is promptly roofied by the seductive Ana (Charlotte Peters) and wakes up in his hotel room the next morning with an envelope full of money and a fistful of painkillers, but minus a kidney. This poses a problem since he was in Manila to donate a kidney to his deathly ill niece Isabella (Adele Baughan). Deacon and his widower brother George (John Ralston), a minister having a crisis of faith, have some bad blood between them, the cause being something the filmmakers think is a big reveal later on but is obvious almost instantly. Desperate to save his niece's life, Deacon goes on a rampage across Manila to recover the organ, almost like TAKEN if Liam Neeson's kidney was abducted instead of his daughter. He gets help from former enemy and now trusted friend Kung ('80s Cannon stalwart Aki Aleong, credited as "Leonard Gonzales") as well as Ana who, being your typical Hooker with a Heart of Gold, isn't really a bad person but was forced into it by her vicious pimp (Philippe Joly), who was paid off by Drake (the late Darren Shahlavi, who died during production of his next teaming with Van Damme, a KICKBOXER reboot due out in 2016), who orchestrated the kidney heist at the behest of his rich and powerful employer.

With JCVD gouging out someone's eye with the corner of a hardcover Bible and shouting things like "Last chance...where's my kidney?" this could've been goofy fun if James' script wasn't so awful. An action movie with a crazy Belgian in search of a missing vital organ shouldn't be this depressing. The film really gets bogged down with George's endless, melodramatic hand-wringing over taking a life to save a life. POUND OF FLESH is the kind of film where it's not enough for George to question if taking part in Deacon's ruthless pursuit of his kidney is for the greater good and saving Isabella at the expense of the person who had it stolen. No, he has to pause and look at his hands--which literally have blood on them--as a cross dangles from his necklace, forcing him to ponder What I've Become. It's also the kind of film where George has a clandestine meeting with a computer hacker and they have to speak in clumsy exposition that laboriously lays out their shared history that the characters should already know ("You testified on my behalf...if I'm caught near a computer, I go back to prison!") despite the urgency of the meeting. It's the kind of movie where the protagonists are on the run and have nowhere to go, only to have George chime in with a convenient "I have a cabin near here," and when Deacon and Kung desperately need to scrape money together to get the information and weapons they need, only much later, after the Hooker with a Heart of Gold throws in her own $20,000 to help Deacon, does George say "I have $50,000 in this account...here's the password," and no one says "Thanks, asshole...we coulda used it earlier." The climax involves Deacon somehow planting explosives all around the exterior and interior of Drake's employer's fortress-like mansion--it's never explained how he gets around an army of bodyguards patrolling the perimeter. And the film has so little use for Ana that while gunfire and explosions that look like they came from apps on Barbarash's iPhone are going off inside and outside of the mansion, she just patiently waits in Kung's van, right there in the driveway. It's a combination of idiotic plotting and ham-fisted seriousness that derails the cheap-looking POUND OF FLESH. Less George angst and more Bible eye-gouging by Deacon would've been a good thing. Though the 54-year-old Van Damme is relying on obvious stunt doubles a little more than he did as a younger man (he does do his signature splits move while being dragged by a car, which is pretty cool), as an actor, he gives it his all and is quite good, especially in the closing scenes. It's too bad he's stuck in a badly-written and very ugly film that often appears to be unfinished. JCVD deserves better. (R, 104 mins)

(US - 2015)

THE FORGER finds John Travolta in one of the frequent lulls of his notoriously up-and-down career and is his second consecutive film to both a) go straight to VOD, and b) feature him with ridiculous facial hair. 2013's little-seen KILLING SEASON was hardly worthy of pairing a chinstrap-bearded Travolta and a slumming Robert De Niro for the first time, and while THE FORGER isn't terrible, it's also not even remotely noteworthy other than for the sight of 61-year-old Travolta sporting a velcro dot of a soul patch and a flowing, rock star wig that looks in danger of sliding off at any moment. Ray Cutter (Travolta) comes from a long line of small-time Boston criminals. He's also a master art forger ten months away from being paroled. He has neighborhood crime boss Keegan (Anson Mount) get him sprung from the joint early so he can be with his cancer-stricken Will (Tye Sheridan of MUD and JOE), who has an inoperable, stage IV brain-stem tumor. Will's spent the last four years living with his crotchety but tough-loving Irish grandfather Joseph (Christopher Plummer) and Ray wants to be able to spend what little time he can bonding with his son. Keegan has other ideas, especially since Ray owes him a favor: forge a Monet painting and plot a heist to swap it with the real thing at the Museum of Fine Arts. Ray's also being hounded by an ambitious FBI agent (Abigail Spencer) who's looking to bust Keegan, who needs the Monet to satisfy a debt to a ruthless Latin American cartel boss. In between working on the forgery and plotting the heist, the three Cutter men bond as Will gets sicker by the day.

Directed by British TV vet Philip Martin and scripted by Richard D'Ovidio (THE CALL, THE DAMNED), THE FORGER is uneven, to say the least. It tries to be a gritty crime drama, low-key character piece, crowd-pleasing tearjerker, and One Last Job heist thriller and doesn't fully succeed at any of them. The heist itself is ludicrous and the broad performances by Travolta and the usually infallible Plummer don't help. Travolta's cartoonish accent isn't really Baaah-ston and instead sounds like he opted to dust off his Vinnie Barbarino voice, while Plummer seems on the verge of breaking into a gravel-voiced rendition of "Danny Boy" at any moment and falls into the trap that so many geriatric actors do in modern cinema: hamming it up and dropping a ton of F-bombs. Jennifer Ehle, a great actress who should be much better-known than she is, does some good work as Ray's drug-addict ex-wife, who walked out when Will was a small child. She briefly re-enters the picture when Will wants to see her one last time, and the day they spend together, with Will awkwardly but politely going along with her obvious lies about being successful and living in NYC instead of popping pills in a trailer park. It's one of the rare instances when THE FORGER feels genuine. The other is at the very end, with the empty look in Ray's eyes showing the kind of pain and heartbreak that Travolta knows all too well offscreen. In that moment, Travolta brings his own personal grief to the forefront and, if only briefly, manages to overcome the soul patch and whatever it is on his head. (R, 96 mins)

(UK - 2015)

A sluggish GAME OF THRONES and VIKINGS-inspired look at the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, SWORD OF VENGEANCE is a dull, dreary sword & splatter epic with a story credit for Matthew Read, who wrote the equally drab HAMMER OF THE GODS and helped Nicolas Winding Refn script the Viking saga VALHALLA RISING. SWORD has tyrannical William the Conquerer flunky The Earl of Durant (Karel Roden) and his two sniveling sons Romain (Edward Akrout) and Artus (Gianni Giardanelli) ruling the Saxons in their region with an iron fist. The Saxons are given hope in the form of corn-rowed, nomadic, lone-wolf warrior Shadow Walker (Joel Kinnaman lookalike Stanley Weber), who helps lead their depleted forces in revolt against the Durant reign of terror. Loaded with desaturated cinematography that looks sepia-bordering-on-black & white and copious amounts of CGI and slo-mo battle scenes, SWORD OF VENGEANCE is about as forgettable as they come, with lifeless direction by Jim Weedon, tired action sequences that are almost entirely presented in ultra-stylized, 300-like slo-mo, and absolutely no character development or chemistry among its mumbling cast, especially Weber's Shadow Walker, one of the most boring and charisma-deficient heroes in recent memory. Roden, a veteran big-screen villain, is sleepwalking through his performance, hindered by some really unconvincing burn makeup stretched across his face. An empty and incoherent mess with nothing to recommend other than an occasionally interesting electronic score by Steven Hilton, SWORD OF VENGEANCE also features Annabelle Wallis, the late Dave Legeno (best known for SNATCH and as Fenir Greyback in the HARRY POTTER films), who was found dead from heat exhaustion in Death Valley in summer 2014, and Ed Skrein, one-time Daario Naharis on GAME OF THRONES (he was replaced by Michiel Huisman) and star of the upcoming reboot THE TRANSPORTER: REFUELED. (Unrated, 87 mins)

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Cannon Files: ENTER THE NINJA (1981) and REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983)

(US - 1981)

Directed by Menahem Golan. Written by Dick Desmond. Cast: Franco Nero, Susan George, Sho Kosugi, Christopher George, Alex Courtney, Will Hare, Zachi Noy, Constantin de Goguel, Dale Ishimoto, Ken Metcalfe, Joonee Gamboa, Leo Martinez, Jim Gaines, Michael Dudikoff. (R, 100 mins)

The mainstreaming of the ninja in American movies is something that must rank high on Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus' list of accomplishments as the heads of Cannon. Ninjas appeared in American films prior to Cannon's interest in them, most notably 1980's THE OCTAGON, a minor drive-in hit for Chuck Norris, but with the release of 1981's ENTER THE NINJA, ninjas became a ubiquitous pop culture fixture throughout the decade, and proved a very lucrative genre on video and cable. In 1981, the Golan-Globus incarnation of Cannon was still finding its footing and it would be another couple of years before they started to hit their stride as the "contract signed on a cocktail napkin" madmen that cult movie fans find so endearing today. ENTER THE NINJA became a surprise hit when it arrived in theaters in October 1981 but in retrospect, it feels more Roger Corman or Cirio H. Santiago in execution than it does Golan-Globus. This is mostly because it was shot in Manila and uses some familiar locations seen in Filipino action films, not to mention a supporting role for American expat and Santiago regular Ken Metcalfe, who also worked as the film's location manager. While it certainly has higher production values than a Santiago joint, it also appears to be completely looped in post-production, with Italian star Franco Nero's thick accent distractingly dubbed over by what sounds like an American voice actor whose specialty is the narration of workplace instructional videos. Even for viewers who might be unfamiliar with Nero, the dubbing is obvious, as the voice doesn't fit the veteran actor at all. The decision to dub him has remained the primary complaint that fans have about ENTER THE NINJA, and as the actor has become a beloved cult movie icon over the decades, it seems even more egregiously boneheaded now. Nero, 40 when ENTER THE NINJA was made, wasn't an unknown actor--he'd experienced huge success at home starting with DJANGO and was in constant employment between Europe and Hollywood since the mid-1960s--and by this point in his career, headlining a hit movie and having his voice replaced was insulting, to put it mildly.

Nero is Cole, an American ex-mercenary (why couldn't he just be a European mercenary and keep his voice?) traveling the world following a stint serving in the South African Border War. A loner fascinated with Asian culture, Cole has been in Japan studying the art of ninjitsu under Master Komori (Dale Ishomoto). Komori's acceptance of Cole as a ninja angers Hasegawa (Sho Kosugi), a stubborn traditionalist with shogun lineage who doesn't approve of letting outsiders learn their ways. Cole makes his way to Manila to visit his old war buddy Frank Landers (Alex Courtney), now a hopeless, irresponsible drunk whose wife Mary Ann (Susan George) oversees their farm in the outskirts of town. Frank and Mary Ann are routinely hassled and threatened by the flunkies of Charles Venarius (Christopher George), the megalomaniacal CEO of Venarius Enterprises, a corporation that has a serious interest in getting the Landers' land, as Frank and Mary Ann have no idea their farm is directly over a massive oil field. At this point, ENTER THE NINJA essentially becomes a modern-day western, with enigmatic outsider Cole stepping up to defend the Landers' and their workers against the strongarm tactics of the venal Venarius, who even resorts to hiring the embittered Hasegawa to come to Manila and kill Cole.

ENTER THE NINJA was one of the few Cannon releases actually directed by Golan himself. He does a serviceable job behind the camera, though he wisely didn't do it any more often than was necessary (other Cannon titles helmed by Golan include 1980's THE APPLE, 1986's THE DELTA FORCE, and 1987's OVER THE TOP). The film has some decent action scenes, coordinated by martial arts expert Mike Stone, who also gets a story credit (the script is credited to Dick Desmond, which is either a pseudonym or a one-and-done screenwriter, as this the only credit on his IMDb page). Things really come alive in the ENTER THE DRAGON-inspired climax as "white ninja" Cole makes his way through a series of hired killers and warriors, eventually taking out Venarius with a ninja star (Christopher George's performance is ludicrously over-the-top throughout, but the contemplative acceptance he demonstrates in his death scene is the stuff of legend) before his final showdown with Hasegawa, "the black ninja." The biggest problem throughout ENTER THE NINJA is that Golan takes an often too lighthearted tone that doesn't quite gel with the bloodshed on the screen. The score has a TV-show feel to it with a "wacky" cue that's repeated throughout, even when someone's getting their throat slit. There's also the buffoonish antics of the hapless "The Hook" (Zachi Noy), a portly, one-armed Venarius henchman with detachable forearm and hook hand. Cole gives him a beatdown at one point and tosses his hook hand back to him, all accompanied by a "sad trombone" sound effect. "The Hook" turns up again at the end, running away in fright at the sight of Cole, as Nero breaks the fourth wall, turns to the camera and winks. Going lighthearted is one thing, but Golan can't draw the line between lightening the mood and diving into full-on slapstick. It's not a dealbreaker, but indulging that sort-of comedy would be a mistake that Sam Firstenberg wouldn't make in the 1983 semi-sequel REVENGE OF THE NINJA. Indeed, REVENGE OF THE NINJA is hilarious for much different reasons.

(US - 1983)

Directed by Sam Firstenberg. Written by James R. Silke. Cast: Sho Kosugi, Keith Vitali, Virgil Frye, Arthur Roberts, Mario Gallo, Ashley Ferrare, Kane Kosugi, Grace Oshita, John LaMotta, Professor Toru Tanaka, Oscar Rowland, Steven Lambert. (R, 90 mins)

Sho Kosugi made such an impression as Hasegawa, the evil "black ninja" in ENTER THE NINJA that he was promoted to star and hero for the sequel-of-sorts, REVENGE OF THE NINJA. The second of a trilogy of films that aren't really direct sequels and can be enjoyed without having seen the others (though why would you deprive yourself of that?), REVENGE OF THE NINJA definitely exhibits more of a vintage '80s Cannon vibe than its predecessor. You can see the Cannon formula coming together now that Golan & Globus were gaining momentum as Hollywood players. Directing duties were assigned to Polish-born, Israeli-raised Sam Firstenberg, a former Golan assistant who attended film school in the US in the early 1970s. After graduating, Firstenberg moved back and forth between Hollywood and Tel Aviv, handling second-unit duties on a number of Israeli Golan productions in the '70s. Firstenberg would settle in America for good when he came to work for his old bosses once more after Golan & Globus set up shop in Hollywood. Though he was an efficient journeyman director who could handle any job he was assigned, including 1984's BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, Golan quickly realized with REVENGE OF THE NINJA that Firstenberg was a natural with action movies. Soon, Firstenberg became Cannon's go-to guy for ninja mayhem, directing 1984's NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, 1985's AMERICAN NINJA, and 1987's AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION. On Kino's new Blu-ray edition of REVENGE OF THE NINJA, the humble and immensely likable director is quick to thank the stunt coordinators and the editors for their work in helping put together the action sequences and rightly so, but there's no denying that Cannon's ninja movies were operating on a different level once Golan unleashed Firstenberg on them.

All of Cannon's ninja films are entertaining to various degrees (think NINJA III: THE DOMINATION with its fusion of a FLASHDANCE-meets-THE EXORCIST story into its ninja plot), but they all take a backseat to REVENGE OF THE NINJA, easily the greatest ninja movie ever made. In a Japan-set prologue, most of ninja Cho Osaki's (Kosugi) family is killed in an attack by enemy ninja. After being persuaded by his American friend and business partner Braden (Arthur Roberts), Cho and the surviving members of his family--son Kane (played, in a real stretch, by Kosugi's son Kane) and his mother (Grace Oshita)--move to Los Angeles where Cho and Braden run a successful gallery that imports high end Japanese dolls. What Cho doesn't know is that Braden is using the gallery as a front to smuggle heroin into L.A. in a side deal with powerful mobster Chifano (Mario Gallo). In his spare time, Braden also dresses up as a silver-masked ninja, taking out members of Chifano's organization and starting a turf war in an attempt to control the heroin trade himself. Chifano unleashes his goons on the gallery, which sets Cho and martial-arts expert cop Dave Hatcher (Keith Vitali) into action against both the mob and the treacherous Braden, who not only tries to kill Kane when the child accidentally breaks a doll and discovers the heroin inside, but also emerges victorious in a battle with Cho's mother, despite Granny Ninja putting up a good fight. Eventually, all parties converge inside Chifano's office building for an orgy of shuriken-hurling ninja carnage, with a final battle between Cho and Braden that's one for the ages, complete with Braden's clown car of a duffel bag somehow containing a robotic decoy ninja arm and a complete dummy ninja in an attempt to fool Cho.

Shot mostly in the very L.A.-like Salt Lake City, REVENGE OF THE NINJA is one of the most sublimely ridiculous action movies ever made. I didn't even mention Braden's eye-glowing powers of hypnosis, as evidenced by his turning his sexy assistant Kathy (Ashley Ferrare) against Cho and Kane and tricking her into trying to kill the boy. Or Cho and Dave's battle with some hilariously-dressed troublemakers in a park and just nonchalantly leaving when it's over. Or a pink-sweatered Kane taking care of some bullies. Or Cho's stealthy ninja-star belt buckle. There's a throwdown between Cho and some Chifano strongarms that turns into an insane van chase, and the final 20 or so minutes inside the skyscraper ranks among the finest set pieces ever seen in a Cannon film, culminating in some SANJURO-level gushing splatter when Cho finally kills Braden. Several of the film's more violent moments were trimmed after the film was originally given an X rating by the MPAA, and that edited, R-rated version is what hit theaters and VHS back in the day. When the film appeared on cable in the mid '80s, it was the uncut, uncensored version, which was eventually released on DVD and remains intact on the new Blu-ray. REVENGE OF THE NINJA was an even bigger hit in theaters than its predecessor. Opening on the slow weekend of September 16, 1983, when the only other new movies in theaters were THE FINAL OPTION and STRANGE INVADERS, neither of which cracked the top ten, REVENGE landed in third place on just 432 screens, with a per screen average of nearly $5000. Small numbers by today's standards, but that weekend's top movie was MR. MOM in its ninth week, on 1300 screens with a $3000 per screen average. It stayed in the top five for two more weeks, and was in the top ten for a month. Though MGM handled the distribution, REVENGE OF THE NINJA was one of the most successful projects undertaken by Golan & Globus and was instrumental in getting the momentum going for Cannon over the next few years.

The Blu-ray features a commentary track with Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert, unfortunately moderated by one-man serial commentary wrecking crew Bill Olsen. Olsen indulges in his usual antics, demonstrating his continued inability to pronounce names correctly (he refers to screenwriter James R. Silke as "James Sikes"), snickering at names he finds funny (he's particularly delighted by one stuntman's name being "Dick Hancock," and giggles about it so much that a clearly unamused Lambert says "Well, his real name is Richard Hancock"), and focusing on things that don't really matter (Olsen seems unusually concerned with why veteran character actor Virgil Frye, as Dave's irate boss Lt. Dime, gets above-the-title billing with Kosugi and Vitali on the poster, and brings it up so many times that Firstenberg finally says "I had nothing to do with the contractual stuff on the poster"). Like many participants on Olsen-moderated commentaries, Firstenberg and Lambert sound audibly annoyed with him and do their best to shut him down, even if Lambert's main contributions are limited to pointing out when he's doubling either Kosugi or Roberts. Olsen's continued presence on these commentaries is baffling, especially when there's so many more knowledgeable film historians out there who won't derail a discussion by snickering like an eight-year-old because a guy has the words "dick" and "cock" in his name. It deserves a better commentary, but make no mistake, for any fan of Cannon and '80s action, REVENGE OF THE NINJA is an essential masterpiece. The insanity continued when Firstenberg, Silke, and Kosugi reunited for NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, with Kosugi as another ninja hero. For more on that classic, and Kosugi's post-Cannon career, click here.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: BEYOND THE REACH (2015) and THE PYRAMID (2014)

(US - 2015)

From 1987's FATAL ATTRACTION through 2001's DON'T SAY A WORD, Michael Douglas had a remarkable run as the king of the controversial, hot-button hit. Whether it was WALL STREET or BASIC INSTINCT or FALLING DOWN or DISCLOSURE and others (you could even go back further and include 1979's THE CHINA SYNDROME), Douglas' string of hits were routinely the subject of water-cooler discussion and zeitgeist-capturing debate. Douglas' star no longer shines like it once did and the movies aren't as attention-getting, but he's kept busy in recent years, even attempting to recapture some of that Gordon Gekko magic in Oliver Stone's dismal WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS (2010). The thriller BEYOND THE REACH finds him in prime "smug, entitled asshole" mode, like a fusion of Douglas' Gekko and his murderous husband in 1998's DIAL M FOR MURDER remake A PERFECT MURDER, and he seems to be enjoying every minute of it. Produced by Douglas, BEYOND THE REACH would've been a hit if it came out 15 years ago, but was only released on 27 screens in the US for a gross of $46,000--a far cry from the actor's early '90s glory days. Douglas is John Madec, a multi-millionaire insurance exec who stops in a small town outside the Mojave Desert to hire a tracker to help him bag a bighorn sheep. The sheriff (Ronny Cox) tells deputy Ben (Jeremy Irvine), "the best tracker in the state," to take Madec out beyond "The Reach," a desolate area of the Mojave. Because he calls the shots in the boardroom, Madec doesn't really care that he's total amateur hour outside the security of a canned trophy hunt, careless with his high-tech weapon and operating under the belief that wealth and privilege trump safety and knowledge. Madec is a man who gets what he wants and brazenly advertises that he's the most important guy in the room (he even parks his obscene, $500,000 Mercedes 6x6 off-road-vehicle--with an espresso machine and calibrated convection oven for perfectly-grilled steaks--across three spots outside the sheriff's office). Madec makes Gordon Gekko look humble, and when he isn't on his phone brokering the sale of his company to some Chinese businessmen, he waxes rhapsodic to Ben about his favorite subject: John Madec. An unimpressed Ben goes along to get along, even taking a bribe when he learns Madec doesn't have a hunting license, but things quickly go south when Madec impulsively shoots something moving in the distance--something that turns out to be a local prospector. Madec uses his manipulative sales techniques to cajole Ben into burying the body and buying his silence with the promise of a college education and a future career, an agreement settled with a bloody handshake. But when Ben's conscience kicks in, he tries to radio back to town and Madec decides Ben has to die--not by gunshot, but by stripping down to his boxers and walking across The Reach, barefoot and without water, in the blistering 120°F sun, with Madec following close behind to ensure he dies of heatstroke. It's like a class struggle version of Tuco's desert torture of Blondie in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY.

Based on Robb White's 1972 YA novel Deathwatch and previously made into the 1974 ABC TV-movie SAVAGES with Andy Griffith and Sam Bottoms, BEYOND THE REACH works when it's a tense game of cat-and-mouse between Madec and Ben. But screenwriter Stephen Susco (THE GRUDGE, TEXAS CHAINSAW) and director Jean-Baptiste Leonetti throw in a lot of inconsequential padding, like Ben moping around over his girlfriend (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) going off to college and entirely too much time spent on Madec's uninteresting deal with the Chinese. As the film proceeds, it starts relying on contrivances and gets increasingly cartoonish, with Madec sipping martinis and blaring classical music in the middle of The Reach while waiting for the right moment to shoot Ben from a distance (also, they're out in The Reach for several days--wouldn't the sheriff come looking for them at some point?). Douglas is obviously enjoying the opportunity to ham it up, but it undermines the genuine suspense of the early-going, and by the time the climax rolls around, Susco and Leonetti have completely driven things off the cliff, with a coda that's more at home in a slasher movie than it is here. Madec is a rich asshole--he's not an unstoppable killing machine.  BEYOND THE REACH is entertaining enough and at just 90 minutes, it's never boring, but the additions made to the story just end up being extraneous filler that does it no favors. It's nice to see Douglas--who, at 70, is looking more like his dad than ever--sinking his teeth into the sadistic extreme of the kind of role he used to own, but BEYOND THE REACH just gets too beyond silly for its own good. (R, 92 mins)

(US - 2014)

20th Century Fox planned on opening THE PYRAMID on over 2000 screens until shortly before its December 2014 release, when some studio exec must've accidentally watched it and it was abruptly scaled back to around 600, essentially a tacit admission that 600 screens would be 600 too many. Produced by Alexandre Aja (HIGH TENSION, the remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES) and the debut directing effort by his longtime writing partner Gregory Levasseur, THE PYRAMID is yet another faux-doc/found-footage time waster, centering on a bickering father-daughter archaeologist team (Denis O'Hare, Ashley Hinshaw) investigating an underground, three-sided pyramid in Egypt that's supposedly been unexplored for untold millennia. They're being tailed by a documentary crew, but Levasseur can't be bothered to establish any consistency in the way the film is shot. Sometimes it's documentary shaky-cam, sometimes it's a straight narrative horror movie, switching back and forth at random. Once inside the pyramid, they encounter feral, cat-type creatures and are picked off one by one by a larger monster, ultimately concluding that the pyramid is a) the prison of Anubis, the heart-weighing, heart-devouring jackal god of ancient Egypt, and b) probably still a more pleasant place to be trapped than inside a theater showing THE PYRAMID. Most of the film consists of screeching characters running around in total darkness, and what little you can see isn't scary or even remotely interesting. The worst film to come from the Aja camp since the remake of PIRANHA, THE PYRAMID is further evidence that this style of horror film has just run its course and should be mercifully taken off life support. Dull, uninspired, impossibly lazy, and filled with the kind of stupid dialogue exchanges where people are having things they should already know clumsily explained to them strictly for the sake of informing the audience, THE PYRAMID is so bad that it may actually induce a newfound appreciation for the similarly-set AS ABOVE SO BELOW. You're better off just listening to Mercyful Fate's 1993 song "Egypt," which essentially tells the whole Anubis/Osiris story in a more coherent fashion, with the added bonus of some killer guitar work and King Diamond's signature falsettos. (R, 89 mins)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

In Theaters: JURASSIC WORLD (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Colin Trevorrow. Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly. Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D'Onofrio, Irrfan Khan, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Judy Greer, Lauren Lapkus, Brian Tee, Andy Buckley, Katie McGrath. (PG-13, 124 mins)

JURASSIC WORLD, the long-in-gestation reboot/continuation of the JURASSIC PARK franchise, opts to ignore 1997's THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK and 2001's underappreciated JURASSIC PARK III and instead function as a direct sequel to Steven Spielberg's 1993 classic. Much has changed in the ensuing 22 years and JURASSIC WORLD exists in a CGI-driven cinematic environment. There's very sporadic animatronics used for a close-up here and there, but overall, the dinosaur effects are CGI creations, utilized sparingly by Spielberg (who has an executive producer credit here) in 1993 but relied upon heavily here by director Colin Trevorrow. With only one feature film to his credit, 2012's low-budget Aubrey Plaza rom-com SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, Trevorrow is an odd choice to helm a mega-budget summer tentpole, but honestly, any anonymous indie filmmaker or idealistic, wide-eyed kid fresh out of film school could've supervised the actors in JURASSIC WORLD. There's really nothing for Trevorrow to do but direct his actors and let the plethora of CGI and visual effects teams do the heavy lifting. There's no Spielbergian sense of wonder this time around--Trevorrow really just needs to make sure the camera's pointed in the right direction and the actors are looking exactly where the dino threats will be added during post. JURASSIC PARK was the JAWS of its day and by the time you get to the fourth film in the franchise, there's not much magic left to mine. That doesn't mean JURASSIC WORLD is another JAWS: THE REVENGE. It's big-budget summer junk food of the highest order: dumb, derivative, but undeniably entertaining since all Trevorrow really has to do is not screw it up. The film almost owes as much to James Cameron's ALIENS as it does to JURASSIC PARK, with one sequence directly harking back to when soldiers encountering the aliens are killed and their monitors start flatlining one-by-one back at the control station. Trevorrow does a nice job handling these scenes, but we've seen them before. There's some early digs at marketing tie-ins, commercialization, and that bored, "can't even" teens aren't even excited about seeing live dinosaurs anymore, but the satire is a gentle nibble rather than a bite, and it's quickly dropped to get on with the action. About the only "Trevorrowian" touch the director brings comes in the form of two minor characters in the control room: ironic hipster Lowery (Jake Johnson, who co-starred in SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED), who wears a vintage Jurassic Park tee he found on eBay, and his snarky quipping with co-worker Vivian, played by comedian Lauren Lapkus, who looks and acts like a somewhat less deadpan Aubrey Plaza.

Going back to Isla Nublar off the coast of Costa Rica, Jurassic Park has been reinvented as Jurassic World, a massive theme park that allows visitor interaction with the more docile dinosaurs, who have been genetically engineered to be safe for such activities. Except, of course, for the carniverous ones like the T-Rex, kept in glass compounds safe for guest viewing. Jurassic World's billionaire owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), the eighth-richest person in the world, vows to follow in the footsteps of John Hammond (the late Sir Richard Attenborough in the original films), to allow the public to experience these wondrous creatures, "no expense spared." Masrani's workaholic marketing chief Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is constantly monitoring the bottom line and ways to enhance profits, so much so that she dumps her visiting nephews, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) off on her harried, distracted assistant Zara (Katie McGrath). Most of her attention is devoted to a Jurassic World-created hybrid dinosaur, the Indominus Rex, engineered in absolute secrecy by the scientific team of Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, the only holdover from the 1993 film). The Indominus Rex has lived its entire life in its compound, has no social interaction skills other than with a backup Indominus that it opted to have for dinner instead of companionship, and has a DNA makeup so secret that even Masrani doesn't know what really went into its creation. Of course, the Indominus will escape its inescapable paddock, and of course Zach and Gray will get separated from the inattentive Zara, and of course, icy, brittle Claire will fall for Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), the ex-Navy hero velociraptor expert--a Raptor Whisperer, of sorts--who understands the dinosaur mind and is constantly at odds with Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio), the security contracting chief who wants to train raptors for use in military situations as a replacement for boots on the ground.

Trevorrow, one of four credited screenwriters (William Monahan and even John Sayles had a crack at the script as far back as 2007), pulls off a good number of exciting sequences and for the most part, keeps JURASSIC WORLD moving at a furious clip, whether the Indominus is rampaging or the pterosaurs are escaping from the massive aviary and attacking the 20,000 park visitors. Sometimes, the action is diminished somewhat by the disconnect that comes with too much CGI. Aerial shots of a helicopter going down look embarrassingly bush league and there's no denying that some shots have an almost SyFy look to them. There's also some glaring inconsistencies in logic and character portrayals: Masrani is a benevolent humanitarian with no concern for profits and margins in one scene, and in the next, he's refusing to authorize the killing of the Indominus, a clear threat to the visitors and a certain PR nightmare, because "We've got $26 million tied up in this thing!" The whole military contracting subplot with Hoskins and Wu is only barely touched upon and completely forgotten about, with Wu, made into a snarling Dr. Frankenstein villain for some inexplicable reason and even getting a hissing "This is what we do!" speech when Masrani asks him what he's been up to, boarding a chopper with lab-created dino DNA samples and promptly disappearing from the movie. And how does it make any sense whatsoever--other than plot convenience--that Masrani isn't authorized to know what DNA strands make up the Indominus?  Isn't he the owner of Jurassic World? Isn't he signing Wu's checks? How does he not have clearance?  If not Masrani, then who? Does Dr. Wu answer to no one? Wu's character shift from the first film to this one couldn't be any more ludicrous if he was Fiendish Dr. Wu from BLACK DYNAMITE. And who put Hoskins in charge of security? I guess it wouldn't be a Jurassic Park without an incompetent and dangerous Dennis Nedry somehow slipping through the vetting process and the background check and ending up on the payroll, but D'Onofrio plays him a lumbering loose cannon who's just salivating over the opportunity to mutiny and take control of the park.

But the brontosaurus in the room and the plot element set to launch a thousand inane thinkpieces thanks to the internet's perpetually churning outrage machine is Howard's Claire. Complaints of sexism dogged the film prior to its release, starting with a Joss Whedon tweet, and while it's easy to dismiss the complaints of SJWs who need to invent things to be offended by, there might actually be some merit to the charges. Claire is portrayed as an incomplete woman because she chooses to focus on her career instead of having a family, unlike her sister (Judy Greer), Zach and Gray's mom. There's tension between Claire and Owen, who went out on one disastrous date at some point, over which he chides her for having such a stick up her ass that she brought an itinerary with them ("I'm an organized person!" she whines). Much was made of Claire being in high heels the entire film--at times, Trevorrow goes to almost Tarantino lengths to get a shot of Howard's heels, and Owen even mocks her about them at one point, as he does when she rolls up her sleeves to get down to business when they find themselves in the middle of the forest, needing to get back to the main part of the park, asking "What was that supposed to be?" to which she replies "That was me getting ready for this!" All of Claire's attempts to be heroic are dismissed, even by her own nephews, who cling to Owen because he's a "badass." What finally loosens Claire up is a big kiss from Owen after she finally gets it together and saves his life, after which she largely stands aside and lets him be the hero. The film doesn't go so far as to directly send the message that what she really needs is some Owen dick, and the treatment of Claire by the filmmakers isn't necessarily awful (she does step up when she has to) as much as it is out of step with the franchise's past portrayals of women. Laura Dern's paleobotanist in JURASSIC PARK and Julianne Moore's paleontologist in THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK were independent career women who weren't made into an object of smirking derision for it. Maybe Claire was a throwback, Fay Wray, "damsel in distress" idea that played better on paper than it does on the screen...who knows? Regardless of how sexist the film's treatment of Claire is and how Owen is lauded as a hero for being the same kind of career-driven loner more comfortable with raptors than people, anyone going to a big-budget dinosaur rampage movie and fixating on the heroine wearing heels and needing to be rescued by a big, strong man probably lost the ability to have fun years ago anyway.

JURASSIC WORLD is an easy film to pick apart, but in the end, plot holes, logic lapses, and missed satirical jabs aside, it gets the job done. It doesn't do it with the same intelligence and sense of freshness that Spielberg brought over 20 years ago, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do. Those who will get the most out of this are those too young to have seen JURASSIC PARK on the big screen 22 years ago or those moviegoers who don't really care to learn much any pop culture that existed before they were born. To them, sure, JURASSIC WORLD probably kicks ass and JURASSIC PARK may as well be a relic from the Cretaceous. But where Spielberg forged his own path, Trevorrow is merely following in the footsteps, more or less admitting as much during the press junket when he said that Spielberg would provide feedback on what needed to be fixed and it was he who ultimately had final cut. So really, like any good soldier, Trevorrow was just following his boss' orders, but that's really all one can do four films and 22 years into a franchise in an era when any kind of deviation from formula or challenge to the audience are simply not realistic options. It's Trevorrow's second movie and being hand-picked by Spielberg would be a big deal for anyone in his position. With that in mind, it really didn't matter who directed this, but it's doubtful an experienced and long-established filmmaker would want to enter such an arrangement. Just ask Tobe Hooper.