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Monday, May 2, 2016

Retro Review: RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985)



RUNAWAY TRAIN
(US - 1985)

Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky. Written by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel and Edward Bunker. Cast: Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay, Kenneth McMillan, Kyle T. Heffner, John P. Ryan, T.K. Carter, Stacey Pickren, Walter Wyatt, Edward Bunker, Reid Cruickshanks, John Bloom, Hank Worden, Danny Trejo, Tommy "Tiny" Lister, William Tregoe. (R, 111 mins)

Though they were primarily known for Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, and ninja movies, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had serious aspirations as Cannon hit its stride in the mid '80s. Wanting artistic credibility, they began courting important, influential filmmakers like John Cassavetes (LOVE STREAMS), Robert Altman (FOOL FOR LOVE), Liliana Cavani (THE BERLIN AFFAIR), Lina Wertmuller (CAMORRA), Franco Zeffirelli (OTELLO), Roman Polanski (PIRATES), Jean-Luc Godard (KING LEAR), Barbet Schroeder (BARFLY), and Dusan Makavejev (MANIFESTO), among others. Released in late 1985 and expanding wide in early 1986, RUNAWAY TRAIN was the closest Golan and Globus came to working with legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, whose films like SEVEN SAMURAI and YOJIMBO are among the most iconic in all of cinema. Based on a never-filmed script that Kurosawa wrote and intended to shoot in 1966 following the release of RED BEARD, RUNAWAY TRAIN was re-written by the unlikely trio of Djordje Milicevic (VICTORY), YA novelist Paul Zindel (The Pigman), and crime writer and ex-con Edward Bunker, who scripted STRAIGHT TIME and would go on to play Mr. Blue in RESERVOIR DOGS. It was the second of four Cannon productions directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, a Russian filmmaker who more or less became Cannon's go-to, in-house art-house guy with 1984's MARIA'S LOVERS, 1986's DUET FOR ONE, and 1987's SHY PEOPLE. Konchalovsky broke away from Cannon for the 1989 Whoopi Goldberg/James Belushi bomb HOMER AND EDDIE and directed most of Warner Bros' mega-budget TANGO & CASH before he was fired and replaced by an uncredited Albert Magnoli (PURPLE RAIN).





Perhaps more than any other Cannon production, RUNAWAY TRAIN is representative of Golan and Globus straddling the line between mainstream and highbrow, with one foot in the grindhouse and the other in the art-house. At its core, it's a no-bullshit, edge-of-your-seat action movie with a very simple premise--right there in the title-- straight out of a B movie. At a maximum security prison in Alaska, lifer Manny Manheim (Jon Voight) is considered such a danger and an escape risk that he's spent the last three years in solitary with the door welded shut. When a court order forces vindictive, borderline psychotic warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) to let Manny back into general population, Ranken has another inmate attack Manny, which backfires and starts a prison riot. With none-too-bright and eager-to-please youngster Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) in tow, Manny manages to escape and the pair sprint miles through the snowy wilderness and hop aboard a four-car train. "Why this one?" Buck asks. "Because I want it," Manny replies, as if fate is drawing him to it.


As the train departs the railyard and Manny and Buck hide in the fourth car, the conductor suffers a fatal heart attack, falling off the train and leaving it in a way that overrides the automatic stop. The train accelerates at such a rate that it burns through the brakes and gains momentum, going at a high rate of speed with no one in control, barreling through the middle of desolate Alaskan nowhere. It takes the pair a while to figure this out, while railroad command center dispatcher Frank Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner) tries to manage the situation. Of course, arrogant hot shot Barstow designed the foolproof, fail-safe transportation communication system, which naturally, is neither foolproof nor fail-safe when the shit hits the fan. Ranken, meanwhile, correctly assumes that his two escaped cons are on the train, along with a third passenger, a rail line employee named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay), who eventually makes her way back from the second car to the fourth, where it's theoretically safer when the train inevitably crashes.




RUNAWAY TRAIN is one of the best films to come off the Cannon assembly line, but it's still basically a Cannon production, from a good chunk of Trevor Jones' score demonstrating that distinct '80s keyboard-and-drum-machine sound to the presence of perennial B-movie villain Ryan, best known for one of his rare good-guy roles in Larry Cohen's IT'S ALIVE and his other Cannon bad guy gigs in AVENGING FORCE and DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN. Nevertheless, RUNAWAY TRAIN got a lot of love from critics: it won rave reviews, was a Palme d'Or contender at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, and received three Oscar nominations: Voight for Best Actor (William Hurt won for KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN) Roberts for Best Supporting Actor (Don Ameche won for COCOON), and Henry Richardson for Film Editing (Thom Noble won for WITNESS). While it is a terrific genre film, it seems odd in retrospect that RUNAWAY TRAIN was such a critical favorite, especially given the dismissive treatment given to most Cannon fare. There's an argument to be made that the tenuous Kurosawa connection--1985 was also the year of RAN--made critics treat it with kid gloves or take it a little more seriously than they might have otherwise.




While seething with intensity, Voight and Roberts both use indecipherable accents and seem to be playing things far too broadly, with their performances--Voight's in particular--ranking among the hammiest to ever score Oscar nods. Roberts--back when he was supposed to be the Next Big Thing--really just offers a louder variation on his dumb, would-be gangster character in the previous year's THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, even using the same affected voice ("Aw, Manny...take me wit ya!" and "I need some shooooooes!" providing some memorable moments). Voight, in his showiest role in years and one of only four films he made in the 1980s, chews the scenery in ways unseen until his incredible performance over a decade later in ANACONDA. There's really not much difference in Voight's acting here ("You gonna clean dat spot!") or when he winks at Jennifer Lopez after he's barfed-up in a partially digested state by a giant CGI snake. Voight dials it up to 11, which is extremely entertaining, but it sometimes seems like it's too much considering all the praise he and Roberts received. Watching RUNAWAY TRAIN again after many years, it's easy to picture a less frothing Manny providing a serious stretch for say, Cannon stalwart Charles Bronson if he felt like breaking away from vigilante movies. Voight and Ryan rage through clenched teeth and make perfect adversaries (though playing a maniacal villain, Ryan actually comes off as more restrained than Voight), and while many have questioned Ranken's thought process in dropping from a chopper on to the runaway train when it means certain death, it just goes to show that yes, at its core, RUNAWAY TRAIN is really just a dumb Cannon action movie with John P. Ryan as a very John P. Ryan bad guy--a great, textbook example of a Cannon action movie, sure, and maybe a bit more gritty than most, but had Kurosawa's name not been attached to it, it seems doubtful this would've received the accolades and the respect it got from critics.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

On Netflix: SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS (2016)


SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS
(US/Canada/UK - 2016)

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais. Cast: Ricky Gervais, Eric Bana, Vera Farmiga, Kelly Macdonald, Kevin Pollak, America Ferrera, Raul Castillo, Benjamin Bratt, Jim Norton, Kim Ramirez, Mimi Kuzyk. (Unrated, 101 mins)

The 2009 French comedy ENVOYES TRES SPECIAUX, where two Paris reporters file fake reports from the comforts of home while pretending to be covering an insurgency in Iraq, has been refashioned by writer/director/star Ricky Gervais into this toothless farce that's debuting as a Netflix original movie. Gervais has always been a master of cutting and often uncomfortable comedy, so the potential is there for some scathing digs at politics and the news media. It's all for naught, as Gervais just drops the ball and seems completely lost, relying on stale jokes (a "Go ahead, make my day" reference in 2016?) and painfully protracted set-ups for jokes that either land with a thud or never come at all. Making like Hope and Crosby on The Road to Nowhere, Gervais and Eric Bana star as, respectively, dweeby sound engineer Ian Finch and arrogant, smooth-talking news radio journalist Frank Bonneville. Handsome bullshit artist Frank is the superstar reporter at NYC-based news radio station Q365, and he and his de facto sidekick Finch are assigned by their blustery boss Mallard (Kevin Pollak) to cover a brewing insurgency in Ecuador. Just dumped by his shrewish, materialistic wife Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) and oblivious to the interest of nice, mousy Q365 reporter Claire Maddox (Kelly Macdonald), Finch decides to go along, tossing his suicide note to Eleanor in a garbage truck as they hail a cab to the airport. The problem is, Finch mistakenly threw out their passports, travel itinerary, and money instead of his epic suicide note. Rather than miss the story, Frank and Finch decide to fake it, hiding out in the apartment above a Mexican restaurant that's owned by Brigida (America Ferrera) and Domingo (Raul Castillo), and is directly across the street from the Q365 building.


Hilarity fails to ensue as Frank radios in fake updates and breaking news about a rebel leader named Alvarez and all the upheaval they're witnessing. It's never specified how long they plan to keep up the ruse, but when the US Secretary of State (Mimi Kuzyk) tells Mallard to order the pair to report to the US embassy in Quito, the only thing they can do is actually sneak away to Ecuador in order to show up at the embassy. And of course, once in Ecuador, they impulsively snort some coke and end up getting kidnapped anyway. All the while, aspiring singer Eleanor is raking in the money generated by a "rescue fund" benefit single and subsequent album deal, and she's not in any hurry to bring the pair back to the US safely, especially since she seduced an oblivious Frank--who never met Finch's wife before--shortly before the Ecuador assignment. Much is made of Frank's smooth charm and rogueish good looks--is there some reason he's not on TV? Oh, that's right. Because there'd be no movie if he wasn't a news radio superstar, which doesn't even seem like a thing.


Does any of this sound even remotely funny? It's a bad sign when you're only six minutes into the movie and Frank walks into the Q365 offices and is greeted by one employee standing up and slow clapping which, of course, escalates into office-wide applause. Gervais is a smart enough writer that he's probably making fun of the slow clap, but it's already an easy target that's been mocked endlessly. The same goes for dorky man-child Finch and his obsession with collecting comic books and action figures. Where's the joke here? And on what planet would he and Eleanor ever make it to a second date, let alone years of marriage?  By the end, Gervais is resorting to mawkish sentimentality, antiquated stereotypes (why does Brigida shout "Julio Iglesias!" when she gets excited?) and an action movie finale that has Finch manning up and gunning down his captors to the accompaniment of Motorhead's "Ace of Spades." That's how he decided to wrap up the movie? How many of these contemporary "media/political" comedies have to fail before the plug is pulled on this subgenre? Remember NETWORK?  It was brilliant, outrageous, bile-soaked satire in 1976 and remains so today but young people watching it for the first time now don't get it because the satire has become so depressingly close to reality in the ensuing 40 years. Look at more recent films like THE INTERVIEW, OUR BRAND IS CRISIS, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, and, to an extent, ROCK THE KASBAH. These films don't succeed because today's 24/7 news media-as-entertainment culture is already so inherently ludicrous that any attempts to satirize it only succeed in stating the obvious. Why take shots at something that's already ridiculous? The failure of these other films, and now SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS, is enough to make you appreciate the relative comedic genius of Richard Brooks' expensive 1982 bomb WRONG IS RIGHT, which still isn't very funny but might be worth studying, as its barbs have grown even more prescient with age, almost a thematic precursor to THEY LIVE in the way it predicted the future in many respects. A completely asleep-at-the-wheel Gervais can't even be bothered to try when it comes to SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS, a film nobody's going to remember next week, let alone look back on decades from now. It fails as satire, it fails as comedy, and it fails as anything even slightly resembling entertainment, and there's an almost Sandlerian laziness to the entire project. Is there even a target demographic for this thing?  Who is it for? Why was it made? How is it possible that the creator of THE OFFICE and EXTRAS somehow managed to make an atrocious and incredibly dull WAG THE DOG knockoff with exactly zero laughs?


Friday, April 29, 2016

In Theaters: GREEN ROOM (2016)


GREEN ROOM
(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier. Cast: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, Macon Blair,  Eric Edelstein, Mark Webber, Kai Lennox, Brent Werzner, David W. Thompson, Jake Love, Kyle Love, Samuel Summer. (R, 95 mins)

Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier established himself as filmmaker to watch after 2014's gritty revenge noir BLUE RUIN and his latest film, GREEN ROOM, finds him putting his characters in even more dangerous territory with grim and horrifying results. The Ain't Rights--bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), frontman Tiger (Callum Turner) and drummer Reece (Joe Cole)--are a small-time, Richmond-based punk band touring the Pacific Northwest in a beat-up van and getting from gig to gig by siphoning gas. When their next show is abruptly cancelled and they're out of money, local zine writer and Ain't Rights superfan Tad (David W. Thompson) hooks them up with a show in the rural outskirts of Portland where his cousin Daniel (Mark Webber) is a bouncer. He warns them that there's a catch: the gig's at the clubhouse of a neo-Nazi stronghold owned by a group of white supremacists who don't take to The Ain't Rights kicking off their show with a cover of Dead Kennedys' "Nazi Punks Fuck Off." The band play their set and get paid and are packing up their gear to make way for the death metal house band Cowcatcher when Pat goes back to the dressing room to get Sam's phone and finds members of Cowcatcher and bouncer Werm (Brent Werzner) standing over a dead girl with a knife planted in her skull. Bouncer Gabe (Macon Blair, the star of BLUE RUIN) tries to contain the situation after Pat calls 911 to report a stabbing and has the phone taken from him as the rest of the bouncers refuse to let them go, with Gabe politely explaining "We're not keeping you...you're just staying." Gabe and club manager Clark (Kai Lennox) try to contain the situation by having two new recruits stage a stabbing outside in order to get rid of the cops, but when the band gets the edge on bouncer Big Justin (Eric Edelstein), grabbing his gun and barricading themselves in the room, Gabe has no choice but to call owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart), who takes charge and immediately decides the band will have to be eliminated and it has to look like an accident.


One of the more memorable things about BLUE RUIN was the way Blair's hapless, homeless hero tried to be a tough guy but had no idea how to handle any kind of weapon. That's a similar motif that pops up here as the dwindling number of Ain't Rights, accompanied by the dead girl's friend Amber (Imogen Poots), aren't really adept at handling guns and end up resorting to other means at their disposal, like box cutters, machetes, fire extinguishers, mic stands, etc, as Darcy keeps sending his guys into the club to deal with them. It's a survival/siege movie in the classic John Carpenter style (there is a synthy score, but it's very subtle, a surprise given the Carpenter score homages so prevalent in genre fare these days), and Saulnier does a great job of capturing that sense of bleak, claustrophobic hopelessness as the situation gets worse by the minute in one of the scariest clubs you'll see in any movie. Early attempts to run out of the club fail miserably as Darcy has guys waiting behind the door of every room they pass, and even breaking through the floor to Darcy's basement storage area for his cash and the neo-Nazis' heroin business fails to lead them to a way out. The Ain't Rights have no choice but to fight their way out and the results are gruesome and hard to watch. Even the most seasoned gorehound will have a tough time withstanding what happens to Pat's left hand, and when they're forced to work with what's available, a box cutter will certainly disembowel someone or slit a throat. But it's tough-going, and Saulnier assaults you with it so quickly that you don't have a chance to look away.


The Ain't Rights are generally OK, though other than Yelchin, they don't really have much to do but be frantic and try to survive. Outsider Amber is the toughest of the bunch--and she's not with the neo-Nazis but has a specific reason for being there--but even before she's injured, Poots' performance is overly affected and off-putting, almost like she's speaking at half-speed for no reason. She's the major misstep in GREEN ROOM, as Amber is a character who's a fierce, independent badass but Poots is playing her like a tranquilized Aubrey Plaza. The real revelation here is Patrick Stewart like you've never seen him before. Stewart is all calm, soft-spoken menace as the malevolent Darcy, doing whatever he can to keep the cops away from a situation that's spiraling out of control thanks to the resourceful nature of prey he's drastically underestimated ("They're smarter than you!" he shouts at Gabe in his one moment of losing his cool). Stewart is such a beloved, iconic figure that it's hard to get by him playing such a despicable character who says some things it's hard to imagine Patrick Stewart saying, but he makes it work by not overdoing it. Darcy isn't a raving maniac. In fact, he seems oddly detached at times, almost like he just assumes the situation will work itself out, even as more and more of his guys go inside to kill the Ain't Rights but don't come back out. Stewart underplays Darcy, a charismatic leader who can blend into society and be a nice guy on the surface, which makes his being a cold-blooded killer, heroin trafficker, and unapologetic racist and anti-Semite all the more chilling. Like many close-quartered, powderkeg nerve-shredders of this sort, GREEN ROOM works perfectly (Poots' terrible performance aside) until it goes outside, leaving the compound for a conclusion that seems abrupt and a bit unsatisfying given the buildup. Still, for 90% of its duration, it's a bold, brutal, stone cold piece of work, sickeningly violent in all its extreme, hard-R glory and unrelentingly intense in its execution.


Thursday, April 28, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: JANE GOT A GUN (2016); BACKTRACK (2016); and #HORROR (2015)



JANE GOT A GUN
(US - 2016)



An infamously troubled production that changed directors and cinematographers and went through multiple rewrites and several cast switch-ups before filming began and then spent nearly three years on a Weinstein Company shelf before bombing in theaters, JANE GOT A GUN is rivaled only by EXPOSED and FLIGHT 7500 as the biggest catastrophe of the first quarter of 2016. A longtime pet project of Natalie Portman (one of 31 credited producers), JANE was set to go in early 2013 with director Lynne Ramsey (WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN) at the helm, and with SEVEN and frequent Woody Allen collaborator Darius Khondji as director of photography. Even before Ramsey quit over a dispute with one of the producers over final cut and Khondji left with her, co-star Michael Fassbender was forced to back out over a scheduling conflict with X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. Joel Edgerton was already cast as the villain, but that role was given to Jude Law and Edgerton was shifted over to Fassbender's vacated role. Law signed on specifically to work with Ramsey, and when she left, he followed suit. Gavin O'Connor (WARRIOR) took over as director and Bradley Cooper signed on to replace Law, but quit over a scheduling conflict with AMERICAN HUSTLE and was replaced by Ewan McGregor (now the fourth actor to be cast in the villain role). In addition, Edgerton pulled double duty by rewriting Brian Duffield's original screenplay. Filming was completed in the fall of 2013, and after multiple canceled release dates that stretched back to summer 2014, the $25 million production was finally released in theaters in January 2016, grossing just $1.5 million.




JANE GOT A GUN has all the hallmarks of compromise, clashing ideas, and behind-the-scenes rancor: released with little fanfare after languishing in limbo, a truncated running time, choppy editing, slack pacing and stretches where important scenes seem to be missing, and a couple of prominently-billed actors who are barely in the movie. In the New Mexico territory in 1871, feisty rancher Jane Hammond (Portman) tends to bullet wounds on her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich), who informs her that the gang of outlaw John Baxter (McGregor) is headed their way. She enlists the help of ex-fiance and hired gun Dan Frost (Edgerton), while flashbacks fill in the complicated backstory of the quartet of characters. It's filled with darkness and tragedy, from Civil War prison camps to sex slavery to a dead child, with Jane forced into a hellish life servicing Baxter's gang until she's rescued and whisked away by one of his men, the kind-hearted Bill. For obvious reasons, Baxter remains enraged at the couple and when some of his men spot Bill and soon pay with their lives when Bill guns them down, he leads the rest of the gang after them for revenge (it does beg the question, if Bill ran into the gang and killed some of them, how does he manage to get several days ahead of the rest, back to his ranch with time to warn Jane that they're coming?). While Bill lies immobile in bed, Jane and Dan fortify the ranch and get their guns ready for the showdown. This should've been a RIO BRAVO situation, but it plays out in almost total darkness with intermittent breaks for flashbacks and long dialogue scenes that are incoherently mumbled by Portman and Edgerton. McGregor's appearances are so fleeting and brief that he has no chance to make any kind of impact as a threatening presence, and the best you can say for it is that it looks nice for a while, but even that ceases to help by the climax since you can't see a damn thing. Nothing works in JANE GOT A GUN, a doomed project plagued by pre-production turmoil from which it never recovered. Stick with HANNIE CAULDER instead. (R, 98 mins)


BACKTRACK
(Australia/UK/UAE - 2016)



A horror movie that feels like it should've gone straight to video in 2002, BACKTRACK is a shameless ripoff of THE SIXTH SENSE, with some STIR OF ECHOES, JU-ON/THE GRUDGE, and INSIDIOUS thrown in, perhaps to prevent M. Night Shyamalan from suing. Continuing his post-Oscar slide into irrelevance, Adrien Brody offers a fairly credible accent as Peter Bower, an Australian psychologist who's still reeling over the tragic death of his daughter Evie a year earlier when she was hit by a truck while riding her bike. While Peter is at least doing slightly better than his shattered wife Carol (Jenni Baird), who can't even get out of bed, he's haunted by visions of a dead girl named Elizabeth Valentine (Chloe Bayliss), and the realization that all of the patients referred him by his mentor Duncan (Sam Neill) seem to be people who died in an accident on July 12, 1987. This prompts him to return to his childhood home and visit his estranged father (George Shevtsov), triggering memories of a traumatic incident from his teen years (lemme guess...July 12, 1987?) that may have indirectly had a hand in his daughter's eventual death nearly 30 years later. Writer/director Michael Petroni (who scripted QUEEN OF THE DAMNED, THE RITE, and THE BOOK THIEF) thinks he's being clever by introducing incredibly hackneyed elements that would be painfully obvious twists to any seasoned viewer and revealing them almost immediately, like Elizabeth Valentine's initials E.V. sounding out "Evie" and that Duncan's really a ghost, which isn't a spoiler since it's revealed 20 minutes in. But he just keeps piling on one coincidence and absurd contrivance after another until you're too busy rolling your eyes and shaking your head to catch all the post-INSIDIOUS jump scares preceded by that distinctive JU-ON croak, which is something filmmakers in 2016 are still fucking doing. Some shoddy greenscreen work and a hilariously awful CGI train derailment provide some unintentional laughs, but BACKTRACK is stale, cliched, and dated, obviously a script Petroni's had stashed in a drawer for at least a decade. Though it does provide a brief role for THE ROAD WARRIOR's Bruce Spence as a ghost, there's not much to recommend with BACKTRACK, which continues Brody's fool's quest to become Nicolas Cage. I see dead careers. (R, 90 mins)






#HORROR
(US - 2015)



Actress and artist Tara Subkoff, best known as the kidnapping victim in 2000's THE CELL, makes her writing and directing debut with this ambitious horror indie that succeeds and stumbles in equal measure, amounting to 98 uneven minutes. It's a social media-savvy slasher film that admirably doesn't approach its subject with snarky irony, but too often overstates its message to the point of harping. It's set over one night at a sleepover at the isolated Connecticut mansion of bitchy Sofia (Bridget McGarry), the 12-year-old queen of a group of Mean Girls who tear one another down in vicious hashtags using a Bejeweled Blitz-type app (Subkoff really overuses this visual motif), tagged to their endless postings of selfies. Their targets change by the minute, whether it's Cat (Hayley Murphy), whose mother recently died; overweight Georgie (Emma Adler), who they've fat-shamed into bulimia; tomboyish Francesca (Mina Sundwall), who they've labeled a "dyke," or lesser-income Sam (Sadie Seelert), who's new to their school and has cut scars on her arm from past self-harming. And these girls are friends. When Cat tears into Georgie about her weight in a way that even Sofia thinks is over the line, Cat is expelled from the party. She leaves a hysterical message on the voice mail of her preoccupied cosmetic surgeon dad (a furious Timothy Hutton), while Sofia's alcoholic, ennui-drowning mom (Chloe Sevigny) leaves the girls alone to go through the motions at an AA meeting, completely unaware that her philandering husband (Balthazar Getty) has had his throat slashed by the same maniac who's now in the house and offing the girls one by one.





Let's address the elephant in the room that is the terrible title, which does the film no favors and makes it tempting to dismiss outright. And things get off to a dubious start with the gimmicky ENTER THE VOID-style opening credits that look like a bunch of rapid-fire Candy Crush images. But amidst the catty bitchery of the mostly overprivileged, underparented kids, Subkoff manages some small accomplishments that start to add up. The massive house is a great location that allows Subkoff to really take advantage of open space in the 2.35:1 image, especially when the creepy-masked killer starts materializing anywhere in the frame. The film takes place in the dead of winter and there's a vividly chilling, uniquely Canadian-inspired coldness that's conveyed in striking imagery both outside in the snowy setting and inside in the Cronenberg-like design and decor of the house (I'm willing to bet Subkoff is a big fan of the 1983 cult classic CURTAINS). There's also a pronounced giallo influence, particularly in one Argento-styled murder that takes place in a glass-enclosed tennis court, and it's all supplemented by an unsettling, driving score by EMA. Subkoff does such a solid job with the horror elements that you wish it didn't take her 70 minutes to get to them. With the exception of the opening murder (Getty's in the film for about seven seconds), the first hour and change focuses on the Mean Girl bullying, with the girls supporting and turning on one another with no notice, exploiting weaknesses and pushing to the breaking point, and it goes on long after Subkoff has made her point. The young actresses are convincingly unlikable, and Hutton is outstanding in his few scenes, one in particular when he barrels through the house in a frothing rage searching for Cat. Hutton plays it like a vein-popping homage to Alec Baldwin, screaming at the girls and shredding them for their shallow, nasty actions, and it's a scene that's destined to become a YouTube favorite. There's a lot to appreciate in #HORROR, especially a devastating reveal at the very end, but there's a lot of missteps as well. Call it a flawed but nonetheless interesting film that shows it's worth keeping an eye on what Subkoff does next. Incidentally, nothing's made me feel older lately than seeing Sevigny, Getty, and Natasha Lyonne now playing the parents in a horror movie. (R, 98 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Retro Review: THE HOLCROFT COVENANT (1985)


THE HOLCROFT COVENANT
(UK - 1985)

Directed by John Frankenheimer. Written by George Axelrod, Edward Anhalt and John Hopkins. Cast: Michael Caine, Anthony Andrews, Victoria Tennant, Lilli Palmer, Mario Adorf, Michael Lonsdale, Bernard Hepton, Richard Munch, Carl Rigg, Shane Rimmer, Michael Balfour, Andre Penvern, Andrew Bradford, Tharita Olivera De Sera. (R, 113 mins)

A misfire that reunites director John Frankenheimer with his MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE screenwriter George Axelrod (who shares script credit with two other respected scribes in Edward Anhalt and John Hopkins), THE HOLCROFT COVENANT is an intriguing conspiracy thriller that just never finds its footing. Adapted from Robert Ludlum's novel, the film has a fatally miscast Michael Caine as Noel Holcroft, an American architect who gets involved in a decades-old plot hatched by his biological father--a high-ranking Nazi and member of Hitler's inner circle--to pay reparations to surviving Holocaust victims and heirs to those killed using a secret Zurich bank account that's ballooned to $4.5 billion in the 40 years since the end of WWII. Certain parties have other plans for the money, like creating a Fourth Reich, which requires getting rid of Holcroft, who has completely disavowed his father and whose mother (Lilli Palmer, in her last big-screen role before her death in 1986) fled Germany when he was 18 months old and settled in America where she married the man who would adopt Noel (Holcroft's repeatedly proclaiming "I'm a foreign-born American citizen!" seems to be Caine trying to explain away his distinctly Michael Caine accent). Holcroft isn't alone in this inheritance. He must share the proceeds with the children of two other Nazis who entered this "covenant"--the Von Tiebolt siblings (Victoria Tennant and Anthony Andrews) and famed conductor Jurgen Mass (Mario Adorf), which of course leads to numerous double and triple crosses and assassins lurking in the background and foreground of scenes, constantly making attempts on Holcroft's life.






Made during a several-year stretch when he was turning absolutely nothing down (how can we forget his triumphant turn in 1987's JAWS: THE REVENGE?), Caine finished shooting the comedy WATER on a Friday when he got a call to begin work on HOLCROFT on the following Monday, a last-minute replacement after a disagreeable James Caan bailed the day before shooting was to begin. In his memoir, Caine wrote that he arrived for his first day of work on HOLCROFT without seeing even a page of the script, so he had no idea what he was doing, only that it was a thriller and that he wanted to work with Frankenheimer (and, presumably, the pay was good). Nobody seemed to consider that Caine was completely wrong for the part and early scenes find him doing some weird thing with his voice where he's trying to sound American but quickly throws in the towel (Caine is one of the all-time greats, but his American accent, which sounds like someone doing a bad Michael Caine impression, wasn't any better when he tried it again on 2013's LAST LOVE). Frankenheimer spends too much time doing some distracting camera trickery and weird zooms and pointless Dutch angles instead of creating a suspenseful story. The script is a mess--it almost seems like none of the three credited screenwriters looked at what the others wrote--and Holcroft's transformation from a clueless dolt to a coldly lethal manipulator who becomes a crack shot when the movie needs him to never seems plausible. Coming soon after 1983's equally scattershot Sam Peckinpah swan song THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, this would be the last big-screen Ludlum adaptation (other than a couple of TV-movies) until Hollywood finally got it right with THE BOURNE IDENTITY in 2002. For a globetrotting international thriller, it also looks surprisingly cheap and sloppy at times, with a London backlot doing a piss-awful job of portraying a Manhattan street, looking almost Bulgarian in its utter lack of conviction. And one laughable process screen shot shows Holcroft with some construction workers atop a skyscraper backed by a bush-league NYC skyline that looks edited in with all the cutting edge technology of your local TV weather forecast.  Also, why does Noel Holcroft need a remote control for his answering machine?  Is it that important that he put his bag on a chair ten feet away that he can't stand there and press "skip"?






THE HOLCROFT COVENANT is also the kind of film that gives away its surprises when you realize a prominently-billed actor has been given almost nothing to do and is barely in the first 3/4 of the movie, so of course, he has to end up being the chief villain (also, are we to believe that Caine, Tennant, Andrews, and Adorf are all roughly the same age?). There's some good work by Bernard Hepton as a British agent who helps Holcroft and the sluggish film finally comes to life with a climactic press conference that has a nice wink-and-a-nudge from Frankenheimer that's an obvious self-referential nod to a memorable scene in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. But all in all, THE HOLCROFT COVENANT is one of the great director's most forgettable films--not terrible (we're not talking THE EXTRAORDINARY SEAMAN or YEAR OF THE GUN here), but by no means essential, unless you never miss a Mario Adorf vehicle. Universal picked up the British-made HOLCROFT for the US but pretty much buried it, releasing it on just 73 screens in the fall of 1985 before it quickly turned up on video store shelves.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Retro Review: EDGE OF SANITY (1989)


EDGE OF SANITY
(UK/Hungary - 1989)

Directed by Gerard Kikoine. Written by J.P. Felix and Ron Raley. Cast: Anthony Perkins, Glynis Barber, Sarah Maur-Thorp, David Lodge, Ben Cole, Ray Jewers, Jill Medford, Lisa Davis, Briony McRoberts, Claudia Udy. (R, 91 mins)

Taking on the dual roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has always been an opportunity for a distinguished actor to deliver a tour-de-force performance. Legends like John Barrymore, Fredric March (who won on Oscar for 1931's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE), Spencer Tracy, Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, and John Malkovich among many others have taken a turn (even Jerry Lewis if you count the Jekyll & Hyde-inspired THE NUTTY PROFESSOR), but it was 1989's EDGE OF SANITY that provided the great Anthony Perkins with his contribution to the Jekyll & Hyde canon. After nearly 30 years of PSYCHO-derived typecasting as nervous, twitchy weirdos, Perkins had long since given up trying get out of Norman Bates' shadow by the time EDGE OF SANITY came along, with multiple PSYCHO sequels under his belt, including one he directed himself (1986's PSYCHO III). There's a case to be made that Perkins wasn't being very choosy about the gigs he was accepting by 1989, and EDGE OF SANITY is Exhibit A. Produced by the always-suspect Harry Alan Towers, who shepherded many a Jess Franco project in the late '60s and early '70s, EDGE OF SANITY is probably the most jawdroppingly sordid take on Robert Louis Stevenson's source novel that you'll ever see, the possible exception being Walerian Borowczyk's 1981 masterpiece THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE, which was least artistic and genuinely disturbing in its shocking transgressions. EDGE OF SANITY, on the other hand, is an unabashed raunchfest that seems poised to break out into a hardcore porno at any given moment. Perhaps that's not surprising given that French director Gerard Kikoine had previously dabbled in European porn prior to joining the Towers stock company, where he was assigned several of the producer's dubious, apartheid-era South Africa-lensed projects like DRAGONARD (1987) and its simultaneously-shot companion piece MASTER OF DRAGONARD HILL (1987) and the Poesploitation dud BURIED ALIVE (1990). So feverishly perverse is EDGE OF SANITY that rumors have persisted for years that Jess Franco secretly co-wrote it. Even though the credited J.P. Felix doesn't really sound like a real person and has no other IMDb credits, it's not Franco, despite the name sounding very much like his occasional pseudonym "J.P. Fenix."





Shot using more tilted Dutch angles than a Hal Hartley wet dream, EDGE OF SANITY presents Perkins' Jekyll as a milquetoast London surgeon whose experimentation with a cocaine-based anesthetic ends up inadvertently creating Victorian-era crack. With himself as the subject, Jekyll transforms into a gaunt, pale, compulsively-masturbating, crackhead Jack Hyde, sucking on a glass pipe and cruising for Whitechapel streetwalkers. They tend to turn up brutally slaughtered as Hyde's drug-fueled spree of sex murders earns him the name "Jack the Ripper." It's an interesting angle to fuse Mr. Hyde with the Ripper mythos, but EDGE OF SANITY is more concerned with letting Perkins fly his freak flag, using all the tics and mannerisms in his arsenal and borrowing a lot of his leftover Rev. Peter Shayne histrionics from Ken Russell's CRIMES OF PASSION (1984). Jekyll already has some sexual hangups in his psyche, stemming from a childhood voyeurism incident involving a servant girl (Sarah Maur-Thorp), a figure who repeatedly turns up in various guises in Hyde's nightly travels. It's another interesting touch to have Maur-Thorp play a series of prostitutes who all look the same to the out-of-control Hyde, the id of the more outwardly proper Jekyll. But again, whatever deeper themes Fenix, co-writer Ron Raley, and director Kikoine are going for are obliterated by the garish lighting, a demeaning role for Maur-Thorp (who only made a couple of other movies before quitting acting) and Perkins' insane performance, which manages to be simultaneously fearless and embarrassing. As a goth-looking Hyde, Perkins grimaces, twists and contorts his body, moans, groans, and grunts while aggressively rubbing bare asses, sucks on a crack pipe, head-butts Cockney pimps, initiates threesomes, masturbates a prostitute with his walking stick, and repeatedly gropes and fondles himself throughout.


In what's certainly his last memorable--for better or for worse--role before his death from AIDS in 1992, Perkins simply doesn't know where to stop, and considering some of the peccadilloes he demonstrated in his direction of PSYCHO III, one can't help but wonder how much of Hyde's antics stemmed from the actor being given some wide latitude by Kikoine. You'll need to shower after watching EDGE OF SANITY, though on Shout! Factory's new double feature Blu-ray, where it's paired with 1988's haunted prison dud DESTROYER simply because Perkins co-stars in it, it ends up looking far better than it has any business being. Filmed in Budapest using some of the same sets and locations as the same year's Robert Englund-headlined PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (also produced by Towers), EDGE OF SANITY is opulent and ornate, looking deceptively high-end for the in-your-face, late '80s T&A grinder that it is. The Blu-ray features the uncensored 91-minute version, five minutes longer than the R-rated 86-minute theatrical cut released in the spring of 1989 by the short-lived Millimeter Films, an offshoot of Miramax and sort-of a precursor to the Weinsteins' later Dimension Films genre brand. It's hard to believe Perkins hit all the major promotional destinations to plug this thing, showing up to talk EDGE OF SANITY on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT and some morning shows, as well as the late-night circuit with Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and Arsenio Hall.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Retro Review: STRANGE SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM (1977)


STRANGE SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM
aka BLAZING MAGNUM
aka SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM
(Italy/Canada - 1977)

Directed by Martin Herbert (Alberto De Martino). Written by Vincent Mann (Vincenzo Mannino) and Frank Clark (Gianfranco Clerici). Cast: Stuart Whitman, John Saxon, Martin Landau, Gayle Hunnicutt, Tisa Farrow, Carole Laure, Jean Leclerc, Jean Marchand, Anthony Forest. (R, 99 mins)

Filmed as BLAZING MAGNUM, this Italian/Canadian co-production was sold in the US by AIP as STRANGE SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM, with chillingly effective poster art that unfortunately has little to do with the actual film. Coming from producer Edmondo Amati (THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE) and the same creative personnel behind the goat-tastic 1974 EXORCIST ripoff THE ANTICHRIST, which wouldn't even be released in the US until late 1978 as THE TEMPTER, STRANGE SHADOWS is a very American-looking police procedural that happens to be shot and set in Montreal. Almost everyone is hiding behind Americanized pseudonyms--director Alberto De Martino is "Martin Herbert," while screenwriters Vincenzo Mannino and Gianfranco Clerici (a pair who also collaborated on the scripts for HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK and THE NEW YORK RIPPER) have been respectively rechristened "Vincent Mann" and "Frank Clark"--an exception being composer Armando Trovajoli, whose moody, jazzy score wouldn't be at all out of place in a then-contemporary cop show on TV. Only in a late-film flashback does STRANGE SHADOWS feel even remotely Italian, and even the end, with the camera pulling away from the obligatory pissed-off, plays-by-his-own-rules cop in an aerial shot as he walks away in disgust, looks like the final shot of any DIRTY HARRY movie. Poliziotteschi may have been big in Italy at this time, but STRANGE SHADOWS is only very vaguely indebted to them, playing more like a Canadian tax shelter actioner with some DIRTY HARRY/FRENCH CONNECTION overtures and some slight hints at giallo. The US poster is a selling a horror film that's really a mean-spirited little gem of a cop movie that's just been resurrected on Blu-ray by Kino (which drops the "STRANGE" and is now just called SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM) but it stands out as an Italian cop thriller that seemingly makes strenuous effort to be as North American as possible.




When his kid sister Louise (Carole Laure) is poisoned at college in Montreal and her doctor/possible lover George Tracer (Martin Landau) is the main suspect, perpetually aggravated Ottawa police captain Tony Saitta (Stuart Whitman) decides to go out of his jurisdiction and take over the investigation himself. Getting some help from agreeably sympathetic Sgt. Matthews (John Saxon), the tactless, bull-in-a-china-shop Saitta follows a convoluted trail of clues and dead ends that involve Louise's secret life about which overprotective Saitta knows nothing; Louise's blind friend Julie (Tisa Farrow); Tracer's creep son (Anthony Forest); a slutty prof (Gayle Hunnicutt), who may be sleeping with the married Tracer but is definitely screwing Tracer Jr; Louise's ex Fred (Jean Leclerc), who's still not happy about being dumped; the theft of a valuable necklace and someone wanting to keep potential witnesses from squawking; and a dismembered transvestite whose body parts are found in a scrapyard. Saitta cracks skulls all over Montreal and doesn't care who he pisses off or how much destruction he leaves in his wake, whether it's a ridiculously violent penthouse brawl with a trio of kung-fu cross-dressers that ends with him shoving a hot curling iron up exactly the worst place you can imagine, or one of the great unsung car chases of the '70s, coordinated by the venerable car stunt legend Remy Julienne and one that just keeps getting more ludicrous the longer it goes on. Even though he seems more like Laure's father than her brother, Whitman is very entertaining as the irate Saitta, who practically goes full McBain by the end with one of the most reckless acts of wanton destruction that a no-rules, one-man-force movie cop has ever pulled off.  De Martino and producer Edmondo Amati reteamed later in 1977 for HOLOCAUST 2000 (aka THE CHOSEN and RAIN OF FIRE), an Italian OMEN ripoff with plenty of spectacularly gory deaths and a fully-committed and full-frontal Kirk Douglas giving it his all at the beginning of his exhibitionism phase.