Thursday, October 23, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: SEE NO EVIL 2 (2014); LIFE AFTER BETH (2014); and PERSECUTED (2014)

(US - 2014)

It's hard to name the bigger mystery: why we're getting a sequel to the completely forgettable 2006 torture porn slasher SEE NO EVIL in 2014 or why the acclaimed Jen & Sylvia Soska--the "Twisted Twins"--are directing it. The Canadian siblings and Eli Roth protegees earned significant acclaim even from outside the usual horror circles with last year's body modification film AMERICAN MARY. It was a colorful and stylish, but ultimately empty and overrated film that nevertheless has found a major cult following thanks to the Soskas and GINGER SNAPS star Katharine Isabelle. The Soskas probably viewed the Lionsgate/WWE production SEE NO EVIL 2 as a stepping stone into the majors, but other than one inspired death scene and an admittedly clever "Directed by" credit placed over the sisters playing corpses in a morgue, the film is completely and utterly ordinary in every way. It's dimly shot, it's not scary, and neither the protagonists nor the killer are the least bit interesting. Even the idea of subverting audience expectation over the "final girl" isn't exactly new, so what we're left with is yet another rote slasher movie with an unstoppable killing machine working his way through a cast of soon-to-be dead meat.

SEE NO EVIL, directed by former porn auteur Gregory Dark (who previously made a slew of early '90s DTV erotic thrillers under variations of the name "Alexander Gregory Hippolyte" and a couple of action movies as "Gregory Brown"), had hulking murderer Jacob Goodnight (7 ft. tall WWE star Kane, real name Glenn Jacobs), aka "the God's Hand Killer," gouging out the eyes of a bunch of unlikable dickheads in an abandoned hotel as some obscure vengeance against his domineering, insane mother. He was killed at the end, and the Soskas' sequel opens with Goodnight (again played by Kane) being brought to the morgue during the graveyard shift, overseen by wheelchair-bound Holden (Michael Eklund) and his on-duty staff, Seth (Kaj-Erik Eriksen) and birthday girl Amy (convention circuit scream queen Danielle Harris). Holden lets Amy's friends in to party and things go south when the dead Goodnight inexplicably reanimates while serial-killer-obsessed Tamara (Isabelle) and Carter (Lee Majdoub) are screwing on a slab next to him. Soon enough, Kane slaughters the revelers one-by-one as they run through the endless corridors of the morgue, which starts to resemble Freddy Krueger's boiler room and has roughly the same square footage as a typical Costco, not to mention an alarming lack of exit doors. There is one well-executed kill that would get an audience wound up had this actually been released in theaters instead of VOD four days before its Blu-ray/DVD release, and it's more of a straightforward slasher film than its uglier and more SAW-inspired predecessor, but there's nothing here to get excited about. The fanboy/fangirl hype surrounding SEE NO EVIL 2 is more about the Soskas than anything in the film or any demand for the further slice-and-dice misadventures of Jacob Goodnight, and it's again indicative of the too sycophantic environment of horror fandom. Thanks to conventions and social media, horror filmmakers are without question the most accessible and fan-friendly of any genre. And they almost always seem like cool people who would be awesome to hang with and watch movies. That sometimes makes people maybe praise the movies more than they would if the people who worked on it weren't their "friends." The Soskas obviously have talent and the potential to be unique voices in cult horror cinema. They're smart, funny, and extremely charming in the "Twisted Twins" bonus feature. You'll totally want to hang out with them. I know I do. But AMERICAN MARY didn't work its magic on me and SEE NO EVIL 2, written not by the Soskas but by first-timers Nathan Brookes and Bobby Lee Darby, looks and plays like the director(s)-for-hire gig that it is, and if it didn't boast the novelty of the can't-miss selling point of hip, cool twin sisters behind the camera, there's a good chance nobody would give even give a shit about SEE NO EVIL 2. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2014)

Are we done with zombies yet? I HEART HUCKABEE'S co-writer Jeff Baena apparently doesn't think so, as he returns from a decade-long absence to make his directorial debut with the bland and mostly unfunny zom-com LIFE AFTER BETH. Grieving emo-kid Zach (Dane DeHaan) can't get over the snakebite death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza) and isn't getting much sympathy from his parents (Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines) or his asshole older brother (Matthew Gray Gubler). Things get worse when Beth's parents (John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon) seem to be avoiding him, but Zach soon finds out why: Beth has crawled out of her grave and returned home, completely unaware that she's dead. Her parents are overjoyed to have her back, and like Zach, they don't seem to mind that she's irrational, prone to banshee-howling, that she gradually starts physically deteriorating, and eventually develops a taste for human flesh, and perhaps most shockingly, smooth jazz. All the while, a zombie outbreak happens all over town, which leads to one of the film's few funny scenes when Zach's dead grandpa (Garry Marshall) returns home, along with the the zombified previous owners of Zach's parents' house. Most of LIFE AFTER BETH deals with Zach deluding himself into thinking a relationship with Zombie Beth is possible, and it's a one-joke premise that gets stretched entirely too thin before Baena just gives up, opting to go for cheap laughs with easy-listening tunes (Benny Mardones' "Into the Night" and Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good"), and offering nothing but generic zombie apocalypse mayhem. A good cast is wasted (Anna Kendrick plays a potential new--and alive--girlfriend for Zach, and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT's Alia Shawkat is still in the credits even though she was cut from the film), 30-year-old Plaza and 27-year-old DeHaan are too old for roles that seem like they were written with much younger actors in mind, and the film's tone veers around so wildly that it's hard to gauge exactly what Baena had in mind when he concocted this thing. Co-produced by Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope for some reason, LIFE AFTER BETH debuted on VOD in July before getting a 30-screen theatrical release in September, grossing just $88,000. (R, 89 mins)

(US - 2014)

From the annual Fox News hysteria over the "War on Christmas" to this year's earlier surprise hit GOD'S NOT DEAD, you'd think Christianity was under attack despite between 73-76% of Americans surveyed identifying themselves as Christians. The makers of PERSECUTED feed into that notion of victimization with a sort of faithsploitation version of THE FUGITIVE. Former alcoholic and drug addict and born-again family man John Luther (James Remar), the head of the hugely popular ministry Truth, steadfastly refuses to endorse the Faith and Fairness Act, a bill proposed by (presumably liberal, though the film pretends it's not playing politics) Sen. Donald Harrison (Bruce Davison) that would effectively force the inclusion and acceptance of all religions, equal across the board under the law. Harrison says it's "the most crucial piece of legislation since the Bill of Rights," but the influential Luther ("You reach more people than the evening news!" he's told at one point) refuses to get behind anything that would diminish Christianity. With Luther refusing to play ball, Harrison, working in cahoots with a vaguely Bill Clinton-esque president (James R. Higgins), dispatches a ruthless Secret Service assassin (Raoul Trujillo) to drug Luther and frame him for the murder of a scantily-clad young woman. Luther wakes up and goes on the run, giving proof of his innocence to his priest father (Fred Dalton Thompson), who's almost immediately killed by scary Secret Service hit men. Meanwhile, Luther's second-in-charge, Pastor Ryan Morris (conservative stand-up comic Brad Stine), is playing all sides in his quest to generate more revenue and tax breaks for Truth, and in the quest to clear his name, Luther realizes he's just a pawn in the game of politics and sets the record straight with top cable news host Diana Lucas, played in a real stretch by Fox News' Gretchen Carlson.

Unlike most "bus 'em in," preaching-to-the-converted evangelical titles, PERSECUTED is at least professionally-assembled and looks like a real movie (former Francis Ford Coppola associate Gray Frederickson is one of the producers). Other than being reduced to faithsploitation (where else will Remar get to play a big-screen lead these days?), the actors don't really embarrass themselves, but writer/director Daniel Lusko can't seem to figure out who the villains of the piece really are. As a result, the film more or less comes off as paranoid about everything, which is probably why your right-wing, talk-radio listening uncle will be recommending it to everyone at Thanksgiving. Even the board of directors for Luther's own ministry (including a frail-looking Dean Stockwell) are revealed to be a bunch of unscrupulous assholes quick to hang the heroic Luther out to dry, and when Harrison's true nefarious intentions are revealed and we learn just how unfathomably evil he is, he doesn't sound any different than any conservative politician you'd find if you turn on any random cable news show. And of course, the idea of a Clinton-like Commander-in-Chief dispatching hit men is just pure Viagra for the far-right conspiracy theorists to get their Vince Foster boner on. While PERSECUTED looks like a real movie, the script is laughable, with hilarious contrivances like a group of people hanging out in some bushes who just happen to film the frame-up of Luther, and the way Luther (who, if you recall, reaches more people than the evening news) can move about undetected--even blending in with the crowd at a major, televised Harrison speech--even though he's all over the news as the country's most wanted--and persecuted!--fugitive. Lusko demonstrates zero ability to lay out exposition in a remotely plausible way, as Luther's dad drops this humdinger while talking to his son about Harrison: "That's your friend...the Senator...the majority leader of the United States Senate." Really?  Who talks like that? Wouldn't Luther already know that Harrison is the majority leader? Couldn't Lusko have found a less cumbersome way to pass that info to the audience?  Critiques--like secular audiences--be damned, PERSECUTED's hysterical fantasies play to the most frothing Newsmax junkie but it at least gives some past-their-prime actors something to do while waiting for a LAW & ORDER: SVU guest spot. (PG-13, 91 mins)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

In Theaters: KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Michael Cuesta. Written by Peter Landesman. Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Pepper, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Paz Vega, Michael Kenneth Williams, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Robert Patrick, Richard Schiff, Gil Bellows, Yul Vazquez, Lucas Hedges, Dan Futterman, Josh Close, Steve Coulter, Susan Walters, Clay Kraski. (R, 112 mins)

Though it has some flaws in its execution, particularly in its second half, it's a shame that the compelling KILL THE MESSENGER isn't finding an audience. That Focus only has it on 425 screens nationally isn't helping, but it's also indicative of the fact that smart films for adult audiences--films that used to be commonplace--are now largely relegated to art houses and limited/VOD releases. With just a $5 million budget and a sizable cast of well-known faces obviously taking a pay cut to be onboard, KILL THE MESSENGER is obviously a project that the actors believed in and it'll find an audience eventually, but with its incendiary subject matter and a riveting performance by Jeremy Renner, it should be getting more attention than it's received thus far. Based on Gary Webb's 1998 book Dark Alliance and Nick Schou's 2006 book Kill the Messenger, the film tells the story of Webb (Renner), a small-time San Jose Mercury News reporter who stumbled onto a story that blew the doors off the CIA's involvement in cocaine trafficking and the crack epidemic in South Central L.A. that helped fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

KILL THE MESSENGER opens in 1996 with Webb following the money in the trial of drug dealer Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez) and sticking his nose into the story to the point where the irate prosecutor (Barry Pepper) drops the charges. Webb figures out that Blandon is both a drug dealer and a paid CIA informant who needs to be operational in order to supply the agency with the information it needs. Acting on a tip from incarcerated drug runner Ricky Ross (Michael Kenneth Williams), Webb's detective work leads him to Nicaragua where imprisoned cartel boss Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia) informs him of the CIA's involvement in the drug trade to fund the Contra rebels a decade earlier, which was the government's only way to secretly pay for a war that Congress wouldn't approve for President Reagan. As Webb's investigation deepens and ominous government officials strongly encourage him to back down, it only fuels the fire and when the story runs, Webb is the toast of the journalism world, much to the delight of his editors (Oliver Platt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead). His triumph is short-lived, however, as he soon realizes he's being followed, he spots a prowler in his driveway, and finds silent, sinister men in suits in his basement, rifling through his files. The CIA and other news outlets begin a smear campaign to discredit him, digging into everything in his past, including an affair he had while working at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which led to Webb moving his wife Susan (Rosemarie DeWitt) and kids to California to start over.

For its first hour or so, KILL THE MESSENGER is cut from the same cloth as ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976), SHATTERED GLASS (2003), and the Robert Graysmith investigative portions of ZODIAC (2007), the kind of newsroom nailbiter where the tension is cranked up and every conversation is an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Director Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.) and screenwriter Peter Landesman (the little-seen Kevin Kline drama TRADE) have studied the classics and the film is propelled by an excellent Renner, in maybe his best performance yet. But once Webb's bombshell of a story is published, the filmmakers keep the focus strictly on Webb, despite the explosive implications of the bigger picture. On one hand, I get that he's the central character and everyone--from his previously-adoring editors to jealous competitors to shady CIA operatives--is trying to throw him under the bus, but other than a Los Angeles Times editor (Dan Futterman) chewing out his staff for missing the boat on the story, we never get a grasp of just how much Webb's story has shaken things up. All we see is the effect on his job (he's busted down to the Cupertino office, which seems to be located in a strip mall) and the soap-opera subplots for his family, with his adoring teenage son (Lucas Hedges) sobbing "I'm disappointed in you," when he learns of the affair, and Webb telling his wife "I never stopped loving you" when they reunite after Cupertino. Though Webb's story should be told, the KILL THE MESSENGER story is bigger than just Gary Webb. Cuesta and Landesman (and probably Renner, for that matter) seem conflicted over lauding and paying tribute to Webb while trying to do the right thing and show him as a flawed human being. They wisely avoid the pitfall of devolving into grandstanding pontification and canonizing the protagonist (can you imagine if Oliver Stone directed this?). Webb has cheated on his wife and been forgiven, though Susan lets him know that she hasn't forgotten. His CIA/Contra story, while completely true and enough to have the top levels of the US government in a panic, isn't air-tight as far as sources go. If anything, KILL THE MESSENGER probably needed to be a longer film in order to include all facets of the story and not make the second half feel glossed-over and scaled-down, and the detours into Webb's personal life flow more smoothly.

Gary Webb (1955-2004)
Though Renner is front and center, he and the film get solid support from the fine ensemble, many of whom only have one scene but make it count. Garcia is terrific as Meneses (when he mentions an "Ollie," Webb asks "Ollie?  You mean Oliver North?" Meneses: "No, Oliver Hardy. Yes, Oliver North!"), Michael Sheen has a marvelous bit as a weary and disillusioned congressman who knows the story needs to be told but warns Webb that it will only ruin him ("They won't address the story...they'll just attack you"), and Ray Liotta has an odd scene that doesn't really go anywhere but allows him to serve as this film's Donald Sutherland-in-JFK. Until its midpoint, KILL THE MESSENGER is thoroughly engrossing, suspenseful filmmaking but it doesn't really follow through on its potential. Imagine ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN if it paused the Watergate digging and cut down the scenes with Jason Robards, Jack Warden, and Martin Balsam to introduce subplots about Woodward's and Bernstein's personal lives. That's not to say it isn't worthwhile--it's a very good film that, for a while, flirts with being almost great. Though the focus shifts to Webb the man, it doesn't follow him all the way to his tragic end as the CIA released a 400-page report later in 1998, admitting its complicity and completely vindicating Webb, though that story received almost no coverage because the media was focused on the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. In December 2004, Webb was found in his apartment with two bullet wounds in his head.  His death was ruled a suicide.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: RAW FORCE (1982)

(US - 1982)

Written and directed by Edward Murphy. Cast: Cameron Mitchell, Geoff Binney, Hope Holiday, Jillian Kesner, John Dresden, Jennifer Holmes, Rey King, Carla Reynolds, Carl Anthony, John Locke, Mark Tanous, Ralph Lombardi, Vic Diaz, Camille Keaton, Jewel Shepard. (R, 86 mins)

Fans of early '80s grindhouse and late-night cable have largely kept RAW FORCE to themselves over the years, but that's likely to change with Vinegar Syndrome's release of the film in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. A revival of the MIAMI CONNECTION sort is likely, and while both are equally ridiculous, RAW FORCE at least knows it's ridiculous. Writer/director Edward Murphy is interviewed in the release's accompanying retrospective, and says "It was a movie for 17-year-old boys...and it probably still is." Probably the best Philippines-shot B-grade T&A actioner that Roger Corman never produced, RAW FORCE has a winking and very tongue-in-cheek attitude, mixing action, horror, comedy, and gratuitous nudity into a jawdropping plot that's equal parts kung-fu epic, DAWN OF THE DEAD, Nazisploitation, raunchy slob comedy, GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, and THE LOVE BOAT. Anyone taking this seriously is completely missing the point: RAW FORCE is the kind of sleazy exploitation gem that demands to be resurrected on the midnight movie circuit.

Members of the Burbank Karate Club--including Mike O'Malley (Geoff Binney), John Taylor (John Dresden), Go Chin (Rey King), and Los Angeles cop Cookie Winchell (Jillian Kesner)--are on a cruise organized by dotty Hazel (Hope Holiday) and captained by the disgruntled Harry Dodds (Cameron Mitchell), that runs afoul of the jade trading operation of nefarious, Hitler-mustached villain Speer (Ralph Lombardi). When Speer gets wind of the cruise stopping at Warrior's Island, he dispatches his incompetent underlings--who look like a Village People tribute act--to stop them, which only results in a bar fight where the kung-fu Love Boaters handle them with ease. Speer's jade operation is a cover for his lucrative sex trade, abducting and supplying girls for a sect of monks (led by Filipino exploitation fixture Vic Diaz) that live on the otherwise deserted island. But even that's a cover for what's really going on: the island was settled by this sect in 1779 as the burial ground for disgraced martial artists, and the monks are there to watch over the kung-fu zombies who require the flesh of young women to survive. Not even Speer's henchmen are aware of the truth behind his operation, and when they abduct cruise member Eileen (Carla Reynolds), the Burbank Karate Club and gun-toting Capt. Dodds take action.  Because they're...the RAW FORCE!

There's some spirited and occasionally impressive fight choreography in RAW FORCE if it involves people actually schooled in martial arts, like Kesner (FIRECRACKER) or King. With most of the actors, however, it looks awkward and not-very-rehearsed, which of course only adds to the enjoyment. Like the filmmakers, most of the actors--particularly Lombardi as the evil Speer--seem to be in on the joke. RAW FORCE has such a pronounced sense of anything-goes giddiness that it's indicative of what might've happened if Filipino exploitation legend Cirio H. Santiago was clever enough to make a self-aware spoof of his own trash movies. In that sense, it almost belongs in the same category of self-conscious New World titles like HOLLYWOOD BLVD (1976) and PIRANHA (1978), but if anything, RAW FORCE is more ridiculous and cartoonishly over-the-top than almost anything Roger Corman was releasing in the early '80s, GALAXY OF TERROR worm-rape notwithstanding. It's not enough to have martial arts fight scenes and topless beauties throughout (including I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE's Camille Keaton and future DTV erotic thriller mainstay Jewel Shepard in tiny roles), but RAW FORCE take it several steps further by throwing in a Hitler surrogate as the primary villain along with evil, clapping, cackling monks and a kung-fu zombie army. And it ends with Dresden's Taylor breaking the fourth wall and winking at the audience as a title card promises "To Be Continued..." thereby essentially all but openly stating that yes, RAW FORCE is a comedy.

The cast is only as good as they have to be, though Lombardi, who obviously saw THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL and patterned his performance on Gregory Peck's Josef Mengele, chews the scenery with gusto, and the always-appealing Kesner is enjoyable as the tough-as-nails Cookie. Dresden is the nominal main hero, even though sporadically-employed 1970s TV actor Binney is more prominently-billed in what turned out to be his last role before retiring from acting at 37. It's great fun watching a grumbling Mitchell, who appears to be nowhere near the vicinity of sober, bitching his way through his role, endlessly griping about the lack of maintenance on the ship and the penny-pinching cheapness of Hazel's cruise operation--it's almost as if it's his own personal running commentary on being a once-promising 1950s leading man reduced to appearing in movies like RAW FORCE. With some of the film's financing coming from the Philippines' San Miguel Brewery, Mitchell (1918-1994) was the biggest name the producers could afford, and Holiday--Mitchell's girlfriend according to Murphy, even though she was married to character actor Frank Marth from 1967 until his death in 2014--presumably was part of his deal as they worked together on several D-list exploitation titles in the 1980s, including KILLPOINT (1984) and the MST3K favorite SPACE MUTINY (1988). Holiday had prominent supporting roles in the Billy Wilder films THE APARTMENT (1960) and IRMA LA DOUCE (1963) before she was relegated to TV and drive-in gigs.

Cameron Mitchell (1918-1994)
It was even worse for Mitchell by the early 1980s. He stayed busy but was a long way from Happy Loman in the big-screen version of DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1951), or playing the older brother of Marlon Brando's Napoleon in DESIREE (1954), or clashing with James Cagney over Doris Day in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955). Though he might still turn up in some all-star disaster movie like THE SWARM (1978), gigs for Mitchell in major-studio films dropped drastically by the late 1970s. Around the same time as RAW FORCE, Mitchell had a showy, cigar-chomping supporting turn with an Oscar-nominated Peter O'Toole in MY FAVORITE YEAR, which marked his last appearance in an A-list big-screen project. Mitchell continued making movies and was still guesting on TV shows like FANTASY ISLAND, MAGNUM P.I., KNIGHT RIDER, MURDER SHE WROTE, and SIMON & SIMON, and in miniseries like DREAM WEST (1986), but things like RAW FORCE and KILL SQUAD were pretty much the state of his career in the 1980s. In 1983, Mitchell even co-starred with John Leslie and Veronica Hart in the hard-boiled hardcore porno DIXIE RAY, HOLLYWOOD STAR, which was cut down into an R-rated softcore version retitled IT'S CALLED MURDER, BABY. Though Mitchell didn't partake in any sex scenes, it was very rare for a well-known, mainstream actor to appear in a XXX film (similarly-skidding '50s tough guy Aldo Ray co-starred with Carol Connors in the 1978 porno western SWEET SAVAGE), even if he would later claim he was unaware that it was going to be hardcore. No matter how many lowly, disreputable jobs he was offered, Mitchell never stopped working (eight credits in 1987 alone!) and while he was usually hired to overact and would often appear to be drunk, he would occasionally demonstrate that he still had that fire in his belly and would turn in an interesting and unexpectedly strong performance when no one was looking in something like THE OFFSPRING (1987). He died from lung cancer in 1994, never achieving a big comeback. Mitchell's final role came in Steve Latshaw's no-budget horror film JACK-O, released straight-to-video over a year after his death.

RAW FORCE marked Murphy's filmmaking debut, and he only made one other film, 1985's HEATED VENGEANCE, starring BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA's Richard Hatch. In the bonus features, the gregarious writer/director, who left movies to becoming a practicing attorney, talks about living as an expat in the Philippines after serving in Vietnam. He found work as a bit player in a slew of Filipino exploitation titles before stepping behind the camera. Like his cast, Murphy knows RAW FORCE is a stupid movie, but you can see the enthusiasm emanating from Murphy now and immediately see why RAW FORCE is so much fun. Murphy might be a bit too enthusiastic and reveling in the newfound attention that Vinegar Syndrome is bringing him. He talks about Holiday being Mitchell's girlfriend, but never mentioning her husband. Instead, he names Jonathan Winters as Holiday's ex-husband, and that was never the case. Winters was married once, to the same woman from 1949 until her death in 2009. Murphy claims to be good friends with Winters, even saying Winters was brought along by Holiday and Mitchell to a dinner meeting for a potential RAW FORCE II (it was never made, despite the joking promise at the end), yet he's surprised when offscreen interviewer Elijah Drenner informs him that Winters is dead (he died in 2013). I'm not saying Murphy is telling tales out of school--maybe Winters stepped out on his wife with Holiday, who knows?--or indulging in some full-of-shit revisionist history like Mark Damon claiming it was he, and not Roger Corman, who directed 1961's THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, but it's possible that he misspoke and is simply confusing Jonathan Winters with someone else. It's also hard to believe Winters would even entertain the notion of accepting an offer to co-star in RAW FORCE II, unless he was just tagging along to get a free dinner out of it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: KILLER FISH (1979)

(UK/Italy/Brazil/US - 1979)

Directed by Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti). Written by Michael Rogers. Cast: Lee Majors, Karen Black, Margaux Hemingway, Marisa Berenson, James Franciscus, Gary Collins, Anthony Steffen, Dan Pastorini, Roy Brocksmith, Frank Pesce, Charlie Guardino, Fabio Sabag, Chico Arago, Jorge Cherques. (PG, 101 mins)

A hybrid of heist thriller, disaster movie, and JAWS ripoff, KILLER FISH is a perfect example of the kind of international co-production insanity that only could've happened in the 1970s. Produced by the UK's Sir Lew Grade, Italy's Carlo Ponti, the Brazilian company Filmar do Brasil, and American TV power couple Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, the film was designed as a star vehicle for Lee Majors, whose successful five-season run on ABC's THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN had just come to a close in 1978. Majors, a veteran of several past TV hits like THE BIG VALLEY, THE VIRGINIAN, and OWEN MARSHALL, COUNSELOR AT LAW, was trying to parlay his television success into a big-screen career and from 1978 to 1981, starred in several B-movies of usually dubious quality, while at the same time turning down an offer from Paramount to co-star with Nick Nolte in NORTH DALLAS FORTY (1979). Majors' role--a hard-partying, good ol' boy star quarterback--went to Mac Davis and the film is now regarded by many as the definitive serious football film. While NORTH DALLAS FORTY was a box office hit and opened to almost universal acclaim, Majors was making KILLER FISH and other films like THE NORSEMAN (1978), STEEL (1980), AGENCY (1981), and THE LAST CHASE (1981), all of which were out of theaters in a week, and by the end of 1981, he was back on ABC for another series, THE FALL GUY, which ran until 1986.

Of those five films Majors made before going back to TV, KILLER FISH has become a legitimate cult film, primarily for its loony plot and its unusual cast, and that it's directed by legendary Eurocult journeyman Antonio Margheriti, using his usual "Anthony M. Dawson" pseudonym.  Margheriti was just coming off his NYC-shot heist thriller THE SQUEEZE and brought that film's suddenly slumming co-star Karen Black along to Brazil for another heist plot. Shot entirely in some stunningly beautiful locations, it's very likely that it was the idea of a working vacation in Rio that lured much of KILLER FISH's cast, which had an unusually large number of American actors for such trashy European-ish fare. While the Italian/West German co-production THE SQUEEZE is probably Margheriti's most American-looking film thanks to some effective location work in some grimy parts of Manhattan and just over the river in New Jersey, KILLER FISH is right alongside the US/Spanish blaxploitation western TAKE A HARD RIDE (1975) and the rainforest-set Italian RAMBO ripoff INDIO (1989) as the most American-feeling of Margheriti's vast output. Much effort was made to package KILLER FISH like a typical Hollywood disaster movie, with only one Italian actor in the cast (former DJANGO Anthony Steffen, best known for 1971's THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE), several Americans, including model Margaux Hemingway, part-time actor and soon-to-be talk show and Miss America host Gary Collins and, as usual in these types of movies, an off-season football star--in this case, Houston Oilers QB Dan Pastorini.  KILLER FISH also sported its own Maureen McGovern-mandated disaster movie theme song, "Winner Takes All," performed by flash-in-the-pan disco queen Amii Stewart, who had a chart-topping, Grammy-nominated hit in early 1979 with "Knock on Wood."

KILLER FISH is great cheesy entertainment, but other than the outstanding location shooting by cinematographer Alberto Spagnoli, it can barely compete with the budget-conscious likes of Roger Corman, let alone the expensive product that Master of Disaster Irwin Allen was cranking out. The main reason is that Margheriti was too attached to his use of outdated miniatures, which he would be until the end of his career. Sloppy rearscreen projection work is one thing, but toy trains and model dams that look like Lionel factory irregulars aren't going to cut the mustard. Of course, now these laughable effects are part of KILLER FISH's charm, but Margheriti's continued insistence on using techniques that were antiquated in the 1960s would consistently undermine his work into the 1990s. Margheriti was adept at action scenes and shootouts and could stage an explosion as impressively as any director who ever stepped on to a movie set, but it's hard to get into the excitement of a car chase in something like CODENAME: WILDGEESE (1984) when you can clearly see in a few shots that it's a toy car with an immobile plastic action figure in the driver's seat. For all the big names involved in the financing, KILLER FISH often looks ridiculously cheap. It's more likely that most of money went to the actors, their hotel bills, their bar tabs, and their per diems than toward anything that ended up on the screen. KILLER FISH is so lacking in funds for special effects and spectacle that Ponti had Margheriti open it with a factory explosion lifted completely from THE SQUEEZE.

In Brazil, former mine executive and fanatical backgammon enthusiast Paul Diller (James Franciscus), pushed out of the company after a heart attack, has hired a team of professional thieves led by Lasky (Majors) to break into a secure part of the mine and make off with a large stash of diamonds and emeralds. Helping Lasky is Diller's girlfriend Kate (Black), and when the team stashes the diamonds in a weighed-down metal container at the bottom of a lake, tensions start to mount when Kate suggests they wait 60 days for the cops to give up looking for them or the loot. That doesn't sit well with Lasky, who's conspired with a pair of sibling mooks, Warren (Frank Pesce) and Lloyd (Charlie Guardino) to replace the container in the lake with another and make off with the goods. When Lloyd dives into the lake to retrieve the container, he's promptly devoured by something unseen, which Warren thinks is "a giant snake." Warren talks their getaway driver Hans (Pastorini) into diving into the lake to check things, and when he starts being eaten in a similar fashion, Warren falls in trying to rescue him and they're both dead. It seems that months before pulling off the heist, Diller introduced an especially vicious strain of piranha into the lake to breed ("There's probably tens of thousands of them by now," he sneers), completely altering the ecosystem of a major tourist destination just in case some criminal co-conspirators got greedy. When one of cinema's least convincing hurricanes hits and destroys a nearby dam, the piranha are let loose in the open water and almost everyone in the cast who hasn't been eaten ends up on a small, damaged, dead-in-the-water charter boat captained by rugged local sea salt Max (Steffen, dubbed by Ted Rusoff), who's acting as a guide for a fashion shoot for supermodel Gabrielle (Margaux Hemingway), her manager Ann (Marisa Berenson), and portly, flamboyant photographer Ollie (Roy Brocksmith). As an untold number of hungry piranha surround the boat, Diller--after a backgammon showdown with Lasky--is willing to kill everyone if it means getting away and keeping his diamonds, and it's up to playboy pilot Tom (Collins) to rescue the stranded boaters.

The climax is quite hilarious at times, with Majors' Lasky and Steffen's Max indulging in heroics so stupid that you might even think they deserve to be piranha chow. Franciscus is appropriately dastardly and Black has one very convincing scene where her character is having a convulsing panic attack as she's being pulled out of the water after nearly being eaten. There's also a strange sexual undercurrent to the film, with Kate growing intensely jealous over Lasky's pre-mayhem resort romance with Gabrielle, and Gabrielle subtly suggesting to Lasky that they have a threesome with the bisexual Ollie. In addition, Margheriti and screenwriter Michael Rogers (probably a pseudonym for a committee of Italian writers, as this is "Rogers"' only IMDb credit) spend far too much time on Tom trying to get in Ann's pants. There's too many characters in KILLER FISH, with Tom and Ann's flirting, Ollie functioning as dual stereotypes of the raging queen and comic-relief fat guy, and even more extraneous characters turning up on the boat with no purpose at all. When KILLER FISH focuses on the heist, the piranha, and the janky special effects--the piranha swimming shots are priceless--it's a lot of fun.

Arriving not long after the definitive piranha movie, Joe Dante's PIRANHA (1978), KILLER FISH opened in US theaters in December 1979 and promptly bombed. It played on NBC a few times starting in 1981, under the title DEADLY TREASURE OF THE PIRANHA, and was released on VHS in 1986 as KILLER FISH, but has only now been released on DVD and Blu-ray, courtesy of Scorpion Releasing/Kino Lorber. The 1.78 transfer is pristine as can be, and the sole bonus feature is a nearly-hour-long informal dinner discussion between Frank Pesce and cult filmmaker William Lustig (MANIAC, MANIAC COP), who's known Pesce for decades and worked as a production assistant on the American location shooting of Margheriti's THE SQUEEZE. Pesce found work as an extra in THE GODFATHER (1972) and THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) and was hanging around the set of ROCKY (1976), lucking into acting after winning $6 million in the New York state lottery in 1976. He's appeared in many movies and TV shows over the years, usually B or straight-to-video titles, but he's occasionally turned up in big movies--he's the bolting cigarette buyer at the beginning of BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984) and returned to further incur Axel Foley's wrath in BEVERLY HILLS COP II (1987), and he played gangsters in MIDNIGHT RUN (1988) and DONNIE BRASCO (1997). His story was chronicled in the 1991 film 29TH STREET, with Anthony LaPaglia as Pesce, and the film produced and based on a story by Pesce and Franciscus, who became good friends after working together on KILLER FISH (Franciscus retired from acting in 1985 and died of emphysema at just 57 in 1991, a few months before 29TH STREET's release). Pesce and Lustig get sidetracked, as old friends do, and don't start talking about KILLER FISH until midway through the segment, but Pesce's got some priceless stories about his and Lustig's late friend Joe Spinell, and about working as a stand-in for Robert De Niro on TAXI DRIVER (1976), and Roy Scheider on MARATHON MAN (1976) and in the NYC scenes in SORCERER (1977). He also talks about Black trying to convert him to Scientology and tells a great story about some KILLER FISH cast and crew members going to a popular Rio disco, where Pesce's working his magic on an attractive blonde and was about to make his move when a bat flew into his hair, startling him and prompting him to scream loudly. The blonde immediately lost interest and Pesce later saw her leaving with Majors, who was "with her" for the rest of the shoot. Regarding Majors and his then-wife Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Pesce recalls that it was during the filming of KILLER FISH that Majors got word that Fawcett was involved with Ryan O'Neal, or as Pesce eloquently puts it, "Lee found out that whatsisname, Ryan O'Neal, was bangin' Farrah."

Friday, October 17, 2014

In Theaters: FURY (2014)

(US - 2014)

Written and directed by David Ayer. Cast: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Brad William Henke, Xavier Samuel, Scott Eastwood, Kevin Vance, Jim Parrack, Anamaria Marinca, Alicia von Rittberg, Laurence Spellman. (R, 133 mins)

It's been 16 years since the visceral brutality of the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, a horrific depiction of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, forever changed the cinematic depiction of war. Sure, plenty of war films, especially those centered on Vietnam, pulled no punches and went straight for the jugular, but SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was a game-changer, at least as far as depictions of long-ago wars were concerned. Its impact has been felt in practically every war film or TV show that came in its wake, from the graphic detail of the beloved HBO miniseries BAND OF BROTHERS and THE PACIFIC to the infamous femoral artery scene in Ridley Scott's BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001). The fictional FURY, set in April 1945 during the final month of action in the European theater, is a film that wants to be another SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, but really only ends up being an exponentially more violent and foul-mouthed take on the kind of WWII saga that would've been made in the days after WWII and into the late 1960s. It has engrossing story, some good performances, and some well-shot battle sequences that abstain from today's standard quick-cut shaky-cam action, but there's a gnawing feeling that you've seen it all before, from the graphic carnage and the way ammunition shreds through flesh to the outsider joining an established unit and going through the requisite hazing and having to prove his manhood, to Brad Pitt's performance being a somewhat toned-down rehash of his work as Lt. Aldo Raine in Quentin Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009). Writer/director David Ayer (END OF WATCH) has Spielberg-sized ambitions, but he can't resist relying on easy genre tropes, cardboard characterizations, and fuckin' macho tough guy fuckin' posturing just like he fuckin' had earlier this fuckin' year in fuckin' SABOTAGE, one of fuckin' 2014's worst fuckin' movies. And please, in the name of all things cinematic, the time has come to declare a moratorium on alpha-male lunkheads in war movies or cop movies or firefighter movies or doctor movies--any kind of real-world movie or TV show with an ensemble of everyday people doing heroic things--feeling the need to emphatically declare "This is what we do!"

FURY focuses on a close-knit Sherman tank crew (the tank has been christened "Fury") led by Wardaddy (Pitt), a stern, no-nonsense type who lives for war because it's what he does. He's fiercely protective of his men: devoutly-religious Bible (Shia LaBeouf), fast-talking Gordo (Michael Pena), and sub-literate hillbilly Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal). They've just lost their assistant driver and Wardaddy isn't happy with his newest addition: inexperienced and terrified Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a typist who's been in the Army for eight weeks. Naturally, Norman is razzed and ridiculed by the others and an early fumbling of the ball leads to another tank commander being ambushed and killed by German soldiers ("That's on you!" Wardaddy yells, because of course he does). Ayer's episodic script follows the men on a series of assignments, culminating in an epic battle where every other tank in their company is destroyed and they hit a mine shortly after, rendering the tank immobile. Rather than turn the film into DAS TANK, Ayer introduces a battalion of German officers approaching from further down the road as the men of Fury strap in, hunker down, and arm themselves for a 5-against-300 suicide mission that jettisons the relative realism of the preceding 80 or so minutes as the film degenerates into the equivalent of a WWII cartoon.

Ayer leaves no cliche unused, and the men of Fury exit in the exact order you expect.  Of course, Norman proves his worth to the crew and earns his own cool nickname--"Machine"--because that's what he is. The arc of "Machine" hits all the required marks of a naive, innocent, baby-faced kid turning into a battle-hardened killer. And of course, Coon-Ass isn't the complete dipshit he spends almost the entire film being, acting like a bullying Neanderthal before putting his arm around Machine and grunting "Yer alright." Some attempts at character depth are made, like Wardaddy excusing himself so he doesn't look shaky and apprehensive in front of his adoring men, and LaBeouf turns in a strong performance as Bible, with a stare that belongs to a good-hearted man who's dangerously close to losing it--it's too bad Ayer undermines LaBeouf's performance by almost constantly showing him with tears welling in his eyes to the point where it becomes unintentionally funny. But for a film where none of war's graphic horrors are spared--heads are blown off, tanks squash corpses underneath, limbs are seared off, bodies split in half, Norman has to clean up pieces of his dead predecessor's face--the most impressive and suspenseful section of FURY is a long sequence where Wardaddy and Norman invite themselves into the home of a German woman (Anamaria Marinca) and her niece (Alicia von Rittberg). We're not sure where it's going, but as the women make eggs and coffee and Wardaddy shaves, a romance blossoms between Norman and the niece and there's a temporary and oddly tranquil domesticity amidst the madness that's destroyed when the other three guys from Fury drunkenly barge in and behave like animals. The ultimate end to this detour is that it makes Norman a man in more ways than one, but it's a strange sequence (I'm surprised the studio didn't make Ayer shorten it or cut it entirely) that demonstrates something genuinely substantive beyond Ayer's uber-macho dick-swinging and the checklist of war movie cliches and could almost function as a stand-alone short film. If only the rest of FURY was as unpredictable and willing to take chances.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix Instant: VENUS IN FUR (2014) and WITCHING & BITCHING (2014)

(France/Poland - 2013; US release 2014)

In adapting David Ives' play, shifting its location from Manhattan to Paris, and casting his wife Emmanuelle Seigner as one of the two leads, Roman Polanski turns Venus in Fur into an often very personal look at his own obsessions. Perhaps too personal, as the other lead, QUANTUM OF SOLACE Bond villain Mathieu Amalric, looks almost exactly like a younger Polanski. The legendary and always controversial filmmaker, still going strong at 81, tosses in some callbacks to several of his past works, from CUL-DE-SAC (1966) to BITTER MOON (1992) to DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (1994) and even THE TENANT (1976), as playwright and first-time director Thomas Novachek (Amalric) adapts Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch's scandalous 1870 novel as a modern stage production and gets a late audition in Vanda Jourdain (Seigner) that goes places he never expected. Vanda, conveniently named after the dominating mistress of the book, is brash, rude, and pushy, and seems ill-prepared and not very articulate ("I'm like, demure and shit"). But when she starts reading, something clicks and Thomas is transfixed. Soon, the dialogue of the play starts mirroring the developing situation between them as Vanda, who somehow knows the play front to back even though Thomas hasn't given the complete script to anyone, slowly peels away at Thomas' exterior and forces him to reveal his true submissive nature while his fiancee keeps calling to see why he's so late getting home. Polanski plays visual tricks throughout, like an increase of shots staged in a way that Seigner towers over Amalric, and indulging in some cruelly sick humor like a spotlight on a large phallic cactus prop with two bushes on each side of its base (left over from a musical production of STAGECOACH, Thomas explains earlier) during the moment of Thomas' ultimate emasculation at the hands of Vanda.

While best known to mainstream audiences for Hollywood hits like ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) and CHINATOWN (1974), Polanski has repeatedly utilized claustrophobic settings and seems to have a particular affinity for putting as few characters as possible in very tight quarters, going all the way back to his 1962 debut KNIFE IN THE WATER. His previous film, 2011's CARNAGE, had four characters seemingly trapped EXTERMINATING ANGEL-style in an apartment as they argued over a playground scuffle between their children.  It, too, was based on a stage play and Polanski did a good job of creating fluid camera movements to alleviate the confined nature and make it more cinematic. He tries to replicate that feeling with VENUS IN FUR, but with two less protagonists, increased staginess is inevitable and at times, the verbal sparring and psychological gamesmanship grow tiresome (it helped that CARNAGE ran a brief, brisk 81 minutes). Still, Seigner and Amalric are excellent even though you can't help but wonder if Polanski is revealing a bit too much of his and Seigner's relationship here. It can't be coincidental that Amalric can practically function as a Polanski doppelganger while Seigner spends most of the film strutting around the theater in high heels and a seemingly painted-on leather bustier. Maybe the couple's next collaboration should just be a leaked sex tape. (Unrated, 96 mins)

(Spain/France - 2013; US release 2014)

Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia has frequently been compared to Mexico's Guillermo del Toro, as both arrived on the scene around the same time (de la Iglesia with 1993's ACCION MUTANTE, and del Toro with 1992's CRONOS), and both made their name in fantasy/horror. This is probably more so with del Toro, who has stayed under that umbrella while de la Iglesia has frequently dabbled in other genres but remained true to his kinetic, gonzo style. While del Toro has gone on to commercial fame and fortune, de la Iglesia remains on the fringes of cult cinema stateside, with his one attempt at a Hollywood blockbuster--a late '90s big-screen version of the video game DOOM that was set to star Arnold Schwarzenegger--falling apart in pre-production (it was eventually made by Andrzej Bartkowiak in 2005, with Karl Urban and The Rock). De la Iglesia still hasn't had a major breakthrough in the US but enjoys a respectable cult following thanks to oddities like 1997's DANCE WITH THE DEVIL, aka PERDITA DURANGO, a road thriller with a bizarre cast featuring Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Don Stroud, REPO MAN director Alex Cox, and James Gandolfini in a plot that involves homicidal lovers on the lam, explicit sex, kidnapping, rape, incompetent feds, voodoo, pedophilia, and a big rig transporting black market human fetuses across the US/Mexico border and isn't likely to be mentioned by Perez on THE VIEW anytime soon. He also tried his hand at formulaic mysteries with the forgettable Elijah Wood thriller THE OXFORD MURDERS (2008), but de la Iglesia's milieu is over-the-top insanity, and his latest, the horror-comedy WITCHING & BITCHING, finds the director in his primary comfort zone.

Owing a debt to many things, but primarily FROM DUSK TILL DAWN in its shifting structure, WITCHING & BITCHING opens very promisingly with a team of strangers pulling a jewelry store heist in the middle of a busy Madrid shopping square. They're dressed as costumed entertainers for the outdoor mall, which allows us the unique sight of a machine-gun-toting SpongeBob Squarepants. Ringleader Jose (Hugo Silva) is dressed as a silver-painted Jesus and brought along his young son Sergio (Gabriel Delgado) since he didn't want to miss a visitation day. A few of the makeshift gang are killed or apprehended, but Jose gets away with Tony (Mario Casas) and they carjack a cab, thereby involving driver Manuel (Jaime Ordonez) and his fare (Manuel Tallafe), with the cops and Jose's enraged ex-wife Silvia (Macarena Gomez) in hot pursuit. Heading to France, they end up in the small Spanish town of Zugarramurdi, known for its centuries-old witch trials. Sure enough, they've been lured there by a witches' coven led by Gracia (Almodovar regular Carmen Maura), desperate to sacrifice men to a giant, grotesque female god and anoint Sergio as "the chosen one," with Gracia's sympathetic, rebellious daughter Eva (Carolina Bang, de la Iglesia's wife) the sole voice of reason trying to help the guys out of their situation. WITCHING & BITCHING is all over the map, making obvious statements about men and women, with the guys venting that all the women in their lives are "witches" before running afoul of actual witches. And the witches spend their downtime talking about men and articles they read in Cosmo. In addition to shifting gears from heist thriller to spoofy horror, de la Iglesia also manages to work in demonic possession, supernatural rom-com, escalating homoerotic tension between the two detectives (Pepon Nieto, Secun de la Rosa) investigating the robbery, and the witches turning into a sprinting zombie horde before finally settling on a CGI-heavy knockoff of the remake of THE WICKER MAN, with ballbusting witches settling the score with misogynists everywhere. It's never meant to be taken seriously, right down to the casting of de la Iglesia regular Santiago Segura--the Spanish Clint Howard--and Carlos Areces (star of de la Iglesia's THE LAST CIRCUS) in drag as catty witches and a comical henchman played by Enrique Villen, who looks like the perfect genetic fusion of Marty Feldman and Sid Haig. There's a frenzied, anarchic Joe Dante-meets-Peter Jackson-meets Edgar Wright ethos here amidst the digital splatter and the embarrassing, Asylum-level CGI, but it basically degenerates into a series of undisciplined and increasingly random homages that never really come together. De la Iglesia's enthusiasm is admirable, but he simply doesn't know when or where to stop, and at nearly two hours, it's exhaustingly overlong for such slight material. (Unrated, 114 mins)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On VOD: STRETCH (2014)

(US - 2014)

Written and directed by Joe Carnahan. Cast: Patrick Wilson, Ed Helms, James Badge Dale, Brooklyn Decker, Jessica Alba, Chris Pine, Ray Liotta, David Hasselhoff, Norman Reedus, Randy Couture, Shaun Toub, Ben Bray, Jason Mantzoukas, Kevin Bigley. (R, 94 mins)

VOD has proven to be a viable distribution channel in our post-SNOWPIERCER world, and Universal is hoping to replicate The Weinstein Company's unintended phenomenon with Joe Carnahan's STRETCH. Abruptly yanked from the schedule just a few weeks before its planned March 2014 release, STRETCH was one of several titles produced by Jason Blum's Blumhouse Productions (INSIDIOUS, SINISTER) that distributor Universal decided to leave languishing in limbo on the shelf, along with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY creator Oren Peli's AREA 51 (completed in 2009) and Joe Johnston's thriller NOT SAFE FOR WORK (completed in 2012), among others (STRETCH's time gathering dust was relatively brief, having wrapped in 2013). Universal hasn't said much about the shelving of these films, but it's mainly that the typical Blumhouse production costs $5 million or less, and that Universal balked at spending "$25 to $30 million" to market and distribute the films. It's now the major studio mindset that anything less than a $150 million take at the box office is a flop and movies grossing $30 million domestically simply aren't worth releasing in theaters anymore. There's no such thing as a moderate hit. Something's either a blockbuster or it's a bomb and in that climate, there's no in-between. Outspoken NARC and SMOKIN' ACES director Carnahan wasn't happy with Universal's decision, especially since he had a proven track record after he helmed a blockbuster with 2010's THE A-TEAM and had a decent-sized hit with the critically-acclaimed 2012 Liam Neeson vehicle THE GREY, which "only" grossed $51 million. When Universal shelved STRETCH earlier this year, they allowed Blum the chance to shop it around to other distributors, and when no one bit, the rights reverted back to Universal, and seeing the success of SNOWPIERCER, they opted to release it on VOD rather than dumping it straight-to-DVD. In interviews leading up to STRETCH's VOD debut, Carnahan has more or less taken an "It is what it is" approach to the release, expressing his disappointment that Universal abandoned what he considers his best film thus far. Carnahan is so sure that moviegoers will dig STRETCH that he posted messages on Facebook and Twitter promising that if you didn't enjoy STRETCH and can send him a pic proving you paid to watch it, he'll personally refund your money.

Like the word-of-mouth buzz with SNOWPIERCER and it being The Little Movie That Could, all of Carnahan's incessant yapping only serves to publicize STRETCH, though you have to applaud him for standing by his work and his in-your-face enthusiasm in making sure people know about it. It's too bad STRETCH isn't going to be another SNOWPIERCER, nor is it Carnahan's best film (that would be NARC). But then, the filmmaker has always straddled the line between maverick and loudmouth, better known for the films he didn't make--walking off of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III during pre-production, the collapsed DEATH WISH remake with Liam Neeson, and his dream project, an adaptation of James Ellroy's 1992 noir novel White Jazz--than the ones he's made. Carnahan's an enthusiastic filmmaker with a terrific sense of humor in his writing, and one of the few people making generally smart, no-nonsense, manly movies for men in the old-school tradition of Walter Hill. Sometimes he just talks too much.

STRETCH is entertaining if a bit slight, definitely in the over-the-top style of SMOKIN' ACES, but set in a typically excessive vision of L.A. Failed actor Kevin Bryzkowski (Patrick Wilson), who unsuccessfully tried to market himself as "Kai Bruno" before giving up after losing a guest role on CSI: MIAMI and taking a job as a limo driver, has kicked his coke, booze, and gambling habit and gotten over his ex-girlfriend (Brooklyn Decker) dumping him for the quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. He's been paying off a $12K debt to his bookie Iggy (Ben Bray), who's been bought out by some Cantonese gangsters who want the remaining $6000 he owes by midnight. Kevin, or "Stretch" as he's known to his friends, is on thin ice with his boss (Shaun Toub), who's paid guys to hack into the computer system of rival limo company Cossack, run by a hair-metal-coiffed hulk known as "The Jovi" (Randy Couture) so they can steal their gigs. Stretch gets one-upped by the Jovi when he's late picking up David Hasselhoff ("You don't have any respect for the Hoff!" he scolds Stretch), so he gets revenge by jacking the Jovi's next client, Carnahan regular Ray Liotta, from a movie set. Liotta leaves a prop gun and a fake badge from the movie behind, and Stretch doesn't get it back to the set before stealing the Jovi's next pickup: insane, cokehead billionaire Roger Karos (an unrecognizable Chris Pine). Karos has Stretch drop him off at an EYES WIDE SHUT-type sex party while he sends him off on a series of dangerous errands throughout L.A., involving a money pickup, a drug deal, and an undercover FBI agent (James Badge Dale), in exchange for a $6000 tip to clear his debt, and all the while Stretch is pursued by Iggy's goons, forced to pose as hard-assed LAPD cop "Raymond Liotta," and is harangued by the taunting ghost of his mentor, legendary limo driver Karl With a K (Ed Helms), who got so fed up with the business that he blew his brains out in mid-job, "marking the first time in 20 years that someone else had to clean his limo."

Carnahan packs a lot of plot into STRETCH's 94 minutes, and most of it works. Wilson has rarely been this loose onscreen before, but that's nothing compared to the way Pine (uncredited, but arguably the second lead) dives headfirst into his role with no concern for his image or any modicum of good taste. It's a literally balls-out performance, as he's first seen skydiving in nothing but a vest and a jockstrap, landing on top of Stretch's limo as Carnahan introduces him via a taint shot as his exposed scrotum slides down the front windshield.  Yeah, STRETCH is that kind of a movie. Pine's overtly demonic Karos (often shot in reddish Italian horror lighting) seduces the desperate Stretch with the promise of $6000, with the resulting AFTER HOURS-inspired parade of grotesqueries an obvious metaphor for the way the power players of L.A. use, abuse, chew up, and spit out generally decent people like Stretch (or, if you expand on it, Hollywood dicking over well-meaning filmmakers like, oh I dunno, Joe Carnahan). Elsewhere, Karos snorts mountains of blow and cavorts with an array of high-class prostitutes, to whom he's also known as "Captain Fisty." Liotta, who also had a memorable cameo as himself in WANDERLUST, is very funny as an alternate universe, asshole version of "Ray Liotta," getting an assistant's name wrong and flat-out admitting "I don't give a fuck" when he's corrected, and being furiously indignant over the Jovi picking up "a TV actor" instead of him, even though he has no idea who Hasselhoff is ("Don't know him...should I?") or what KNIGHT RIDER and BAYWATCH are ("A talking car? What the fuck?"). Norman Reedus also has an inspired bit as himself, in a flashback where Karl With a K helps him cover up a motel room bloodbath ("Is that a severed penis?" Karl With a K asks). As funny as it can be, we've seen this sort-of "L.A. as immoral, hedonistic hellscape" motif a thousand times before, and despite some enthusiastic work by Wilson and Pine, some genuinely funny bits of offensive humor, and some periodic respites from the obnoxiousness courtesy of Jessica Alba as a limo dispatcher and Stretch's dependable Girl Friday, it frequently comes off as a Carnahan tantrum, and a louder, more aggressively garish version of John Landis' underrated 1985 gem INTO THE NIGHT. The actors are obviously having a good time, and it's worth a look on a slow night once it hits Redbox or Netflix Instant. Enough of it works that only a shameless asshole would ask Carnahan for their money back, but let's cut through the shit here: it's an offbeat little film that will find a minor cult following and probably enjoy a long future as the kind of movie you stop at while channel-surfing, but it wasn't going to be a hit in theaters.

UPDATE (10/21/2014)
As of 10/21/2014, STRETCH and three other shelved Blumhouse productions--NOT SAFE FOR WORK, the Stephen King adaptation MERCY, and the horror film MOCKINGBIRD (directed by THE STRANGERS' Bryan Bertino)--were released on DVD by Universal as Walmart exclusives.