Tuesday, June 28, 2016

In Theaters: THE NEON DEMON (2016)

(France/US/Denmark - 2016)

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Written by Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola, Charles Baker, Jamie Clayton, Stacey Danger. (R, 118 mins)

With his latest film THE NEON DEMON, DRIVE director and cult filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is aspiring to be the same kind of poking-with-a-stick provocateur as his fellow Danish countryman Lars von Trier. Refn's last film, 2013's hypnotic and hyper-stylized masterpiece ONLY GOD FORGIVES (infamously booed at Cannes, which is essentially a badge of honor, if not the entire endgame to guys like Refn and von Trier) is a key influence here, at least in terms of the throbbing synth score by Cliff Martinez, the obsessive perfectionism of the Kubrickian shot composition, and the red and blue Dario Argento colorgasms. But THE NEON DEMON is Refn's worst film, a huge disappointment that looks like the equivalent of an ONLY GOD FORGIVES B-side, with the visual and aural elements crammed into a puerile, simplistic, and embarrassingly heavy-handed metaphorical allegory that's part supernatural spin on BLACK SWAN and part good vs. evil lecture on whatever it takes to get ahead in the Los Angeles modeling world. One senses around 3/4 of the way through that it's all a goof to amuse Refn, no doubt chuckling to himself thinking about how cineastes will sift through every last bit of faux symbolism and gawk in astonishment at some of the shocking imagery on display. Sure, THE NEON DEMON is the most transgressive summer release to hit mainstream multiplex chains in years, but it feels like lukewarm leftovers otherwise: Refn seems like he's just copying himself, and even the score sounds familiar and uninspired. The busy Martinez--a former drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers back in the Freaky Styley days-- has composed some of the most memorable film music of the last several years, but even he appears to be on autopilot here, with only the sights and sounds of an early club scene hitting the exhilarating, intoxicating heights of DRIVE and ONLY GOD FORGIVES.

A proverbial wide-eyed innocent just off the bus and on her own on the mean streets of L.A., Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16-year-old orphan posing as 19--"18 is too on-the-nose," she's told by her agent (Christina Hendricks)--and trying to make it in modeling. She befriends nice-guy photographer Dean (Karl Glusman of Gaspar Noe's LOVE), who takes some shots for her portfolio, and at a test shoot, she meets makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone, in the film's best performance). Ruby senses Jesse is something special, and more or less takes her under her wing, advising her how to navigate the pit of vipers that is the world of fashion modeling. A natural beauty of virginal purity who catches the eye of every photographer and designer she meets, Jesse quickly earns the jealous derision of Ruby's friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), models in their very early 20s who have undergone extensive cosmetic surgery and are quickly aging their way out of the business. It doesn't take long before Jesse is well on her way to becoming the next big thing after a photo shoot with starmaker Jack (Desmond Harrington) and closing the latest show by L.A.'s hottest fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola). It's the designer who drives home the notion that "Beauty isn't everything...it's the only thing," passive-aggressively chastising Gigi and her cosmetic artifice. As Jesse is indoctrinated--in an almost ritualistic, sacrificial way--into this new world, she rejects the sincere affections of both Dean and Ruby, starts lording her gift of beauty over others, and the seething Gigi and Sarah decide they've had enough of the ingenue usurping the attention and adoration for which they've had themselves almost completely surgically reconstructed but have yet to reap the benefits.

I suppose it's some kind of auto-critique that a film calling out the shallowness of surface beauty is all shallow surface itself. THE NEON DEMON is an exercise in tedium for its first 90 minutes, riddled with cliches and going nowhere slowly, and by the time the really sick and twisted shit starts in the last half hour, it doesn't come off as shocking, but rather, juvenile and attention-seeking. Refn has nothing new to say here about L.A., fashion, or fame--he's just trying to outrage people and get a reaction. All the foreshadowing about "fresh meat" and the like should give you an idea of where at least some things are going, and it ultimately plays like an unfilmable short story from the halcyon days of splatterpunk, a lot of stuff that reads better on the page than it can possibly play out on the screen. Refn manages to create a few striking images here and there, mostly in the early going (the aforementioned club scene is a highlight), and Hendricks has a memorably acidic line about small-town girls pursuing modeling because "some guy named Chad in the food court told them they were beautiful enough to be a model." But there's an awful lot of very little otherwise, from extraneous supporting characters who serve little or no purpose (Glusman's Dean is absent for long stretches, then just vanishes altogether, and Keanu Reeves seems to have put in a day's work tops, as the repugnant manager of the fleabag motel where Jesse lives) to its painfully obvious metaphor for the way "the scene" chews up the naive innocents and spits them out. There's absolutely no doubt that a cult will form around this and I'm not ruling out another look at it down the line, but this seems like it's all smoke and mirrors, with Refn making a lot of noise but having very little to say.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Retro Review: NIGHTFALL (1988)

(US - 1988)

Written and directed by Paul Mayersberg. Cast: David Birney, Sarah Douglas, Alexis Kanner, Andra Millian, Starr Andreeff, Charles Hayward, Jonathan Emerson, Susie Lindeman, Russell Wiggins, Larry Hankin. (PG-13, 83 mins)

As an acclaimed screenwriter working in conjunction with an experienced, visionary director, Paul Mayersberg has been a key figure in at least two legitimate classics and several other fascinating works. A frequent collaborator with Nicolas Roeg, Mayersberg scripted the director's 1976 masterpiece THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH as well as his eccentric 1983 curio EUREKA. He also worked with Roeg in 1979 in the early stages of an abandoned adaptation of J.G. Ballard's novel High Rise, which ended up getting made decades later by Ben Wheatley in 2016. He also co-wrote the 1983 WWII drama MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE with director Nagisa Oshima, and enjoyed a short-lived renaissance when he wrote GET CARTER director Mike Hodges' 2000 comeback CROUPIER, which became a word-of-mouth hit on the arthouse circuit and made a star of Clive Owen. But in the three instances he's been left to his own devices to direct his scripts himself, without a Roeg, an Oshima, or a Hodges at the helm, Mayersberg simply implodes. He made his directing debut with 1986's obscure, Patty Hearst-inspired straight-to-video UK kidnapping thriller CAPTIVE, which starred Oliver Reed but is only remembered today because its score was composed by U2 guitarist The Edge, with vocals by a then-unknown Sinead O'Connor (the soundtrack was released as an Edge solo album). In 1988, Mayersberg wrote and directed NIGHTFALL, a bizarre adaptation of a highly-regarded 1941 Isaac Asimov short story, for Roger Corman's late '80s company Concorde.

Born in 1941, the British Mayersberg had a history with Corman: Roeg was the cinematographer on Corman's 1964 classic THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, on which Mayersberg served as a production assistant. It's possible Mayersberg just needed the work, but it's hard to believe the guy who wrote THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE was responsible for the mess that is NIGHTFALL, which has just been released in a limited edition Blu-ray sold exclusively on Code Red's web site. It's not particularly faithful to Asimov's story, which involved a planet existing in eternal daylight thanks to it being surrounded by six suns, but that got whittled down to just three suns by the time Mayersberg got the green light. In one of those vague settings that may be the future or the past, guru-like astronomer Aton (David Birney, sporting what looks like a discarded Ritchie Blackmore wig) is the science-minded leader of the populace of a planet that's never experienced the darkness of night but is about to thanks to an event that, until then, has only occurred every 2500 years. His followers are looking for guidance into this heretofore unknown phenomenon, but a distracted Aton has been bewitched by the alluring Ana (Andra Millian) and is blowing off his work for some constant afternoon delight. This opens the door for an insurrection led by blind prophet and fearmongering doomsayer Sor (Alexis Kanner), who claims "The Book of Illuminations" has foretold that Nightfall means the end of the world. Sor has brainwashed his acolytes and also seduced Aton's estranged wife Roa (Sarah Douglas), eventually strapping her in some bizarre contraption where birds peck out her eyes in a rather blatant bit of "blind leading the blind" symbolism.

There's some prescient themes of science vs. religion in NIGHTFALL, culminating in Aton admonishing the zealot-like Sor (a terrifically hammy performance by Canadian stage vet Kanner) with "You took our doubts and turned them into fears." Unfortunately, Mayersberg lets the plot get bogged down with endless new age babbling and tiresome subplots involving the bedhopping extracurricular activities of Aton and Ana, Sor and Roa, and later, Ana leaving Aton and having a clandestine affair with Kin (Charles Hayward), who happens to be married to Aton and Roa's daughter Bet (Starr Andreef). For a PG-13-rated film, there's a surprising amount of skin and sex, with Millian's Ana frequently naked and with one scene showing a post-coital Kin being bitten by a snake, with Ana sucking the venom out of his upper inside thigh with Millian's face practically buried in Hayward's copious pubes. Mayersberg takes great advantage of a terrific location with the commune-like Arcosanti, an experimental "arcology" community set up in Arizona in 1970 by architect and ecology enthusiast Paolo Soleri (some Arcosanti residents and University of Arizona students served as extras). That and some surrounding desert areas shot by debuting cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who would go on top be a top figure in his field with films like THE CROW, DARK CITY, the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series, and numerous Ridley Scott titles like PROMETHEUS, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, and THE MARTIAN, give NIGHTFALL a vivid and distinctive look despite its pitifully low-budget.

While it doesn't work for a variety of reasons--paltry budget, comatose pacing, Birney's dull performance (did he only take this gig because he got to roll around in some sex scenes with Millian?)--there's a strangeness to NIGHTFALL that makes it too odd and too ambitious to just simply dismiss as schlock, even though it's generally considered one of the worst films to come off the Corman assembly line. It's filled with sequences and images throughout that just need more of an auteur touch than Mayersberg--a significantly better writer than he is a director--is capable of providing. There's an eccentric and surreal vibe to NIGHTFALL that's crying out for the masterful guidance and artistic vision of an Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Ridley Scott, a Nicolas Roeg or even the late Andrei Tarkovsky. Indeed, this is as close to an abstract, avant-garde art film that a Corman production would ever get during the Concorde era. Alas, there's too many things working against Mayersberg--time, money, Paul Mayersberg--to make it a success. He's obviously trying hard, but it's tough to figure out if he's making a serious Asimov adaptation or providing the inspiration for a terrible David Arkenstone concept album. By the end, it basically looks like Corman just commissioned a cheap knockoff of DUNE. Now 75, Mayersberg has laid low in the years since CROUPIER. He only directed one more film after NIGHTFALL--the South Africa-shot adventure THE LAST SAMURAI (not to be confused with the Tom Cruise epic), with Lance Henriksen and John Saxon, released straight-to-video in 1995 after six years on the shelf--and co-wrote a 2000 straight-to-video thriller titled THE INTRUDER, with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Nastassja Kinski. Apparently still owning the movie rights to Asimov's story, Corman produced a straight-to-video remake of NIGHTFALL in 2000, directed by Gwyneth Gibby and starring David Carradine.

NIGHTFALL opening in Toledo, OH on 5/27/1988. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

In Theaters: THE SHALLOWS (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Written by Anthony Jaswinski. Cast: Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Angelo Josue Lozano Corzo, Jose Manuel Trujillo Salas. (PG-13, 86 mins)

THE SHALLOWS doesn't give JAWS any cause for concern about losing its place as the greatest shark movie ever, but it gets the job done as mindless summer entertainment and the kind of relatively low-budget film ($17 million--pocket change by today's industry standards) that can quietly become a very profitable sleeper hit. It's handled in the best B-movie fashion by director Jaume Collet-Serra, who's become a reliable genre craftsman in the last several years with 2009's underrated and insane ORPHAN, and a pair of enjoyable Liam Neeson vehicles with 2011's Hitchcockian UNKNOWN and 2014's NON-STOP. Keeping the film lean and fast-moving (the closing credits start just shy of the 80-minute mark), Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski (the terrible VANISHING ON 7TH STREET) plow through the exposition as quickly as possible and get to the heart of the surfer vs. shark story.

Still mourning her mother's death from cancer and seeking some kind of closure, med school dropout Nancy (Blake Lively) is ditched by her hard-partying friend and opts to go alone to an isolated Mexican beach that her mother visited while pregnant with her. An experienced surfer, Nancy rides some waves, enjoys the scenery, and briefly chats with a pair of nice locals who soon head back to the shore. Of course, that's just about the time Nancy is bitten and dragged under the water. She gets free, climbing onto a nearby decomposing whale carcass floating in the water. The shark, a great white, rams the carcass, throwing her off and sending her swimming for a nearby rock formation sticking out of the water. From there, it's Nancy vs. the great white, one trying to outsmart the other as Nancy fashions a tourniquet from her wet suit to stop the profuse bleeding from the bite on her leg (a great excuse for Collet-Serra to show off Lively in the skimpiest swimwear this side of Jacqueline Bisset in THE DEEP, at least until the gangrene makeup gets applied), which she holds together using her earrings as makeshift stitching. She finds an unlikely sidekick in an injured seagull she dubs "Steven Seagull." A few other characters wander into the water despite Nancy screaming "Shark!" and of course, they usually end up as dinner. As the tide comes in, Nancy needs to get off the rock as the persistent shark just endlessly circles her, almost sending Nancy a message that it's got nowhere else to be and she's got nowhere to hide.

THE SHALLOWS is a high-end junk movie that knows it's a junk movie. Lively makes a strong and believable heroine and for the most part, the CGI effects are pretty good (the shark is much more convincing here than the technology allowed in, say, 1999's DEEP BLUE SEA, a wild and fun shark flick completely undone by primitive CGI work that was unconvincing then and simply embarrassing now). Structurally similar to OPEN WATER, THE SHALLOWS is a lot prettier to look at, not just with Lively but with some crystal clear blue ocean off the coast of Queensland, filling in for Mexico. There isn't much depth and there isn't whole lot to say with this--it's a classic case of "It is what it is," and it works. It's not trying to be another JAWS, though it certainly acknowledges its influence, from the always-unnerving shots of the shark fin protruding from the water to giving Lively her own Roy Scheider last word when she finally gets the shark where she wants it. However, it's a sign of the times that the comparative gentlemanly elegance of "Smile, you son of a bitch!" has given way to the more blunt and verbally economical "Fuck you!" but I suppose it's an appropriate farewell.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016) and 45 YEARS (2015)

(US - 2016)

Terrence Malick makes movies for no one other than Terrence Malick, and by this point, you're either onboard with his improvisational, self-indulgent, stream-of-consciousness journeys up his own ass or you're not. So if you've been open to his increasingly prolific output in recent years or found him stretching well beyond the point of myopic self-parody, KNIGHT OF CUPS isn't going to do a thing to change your opinion. Similar to 2013's ponderous misfire TO THE WONDER--notable for being the first instance of some of his most devoted acolytes finally having the stones to admit he kinda lost them with this one--Malick continues to move away from the concept of narrative altogether in his presentation of Hollywood screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale, who worked with Malick on 2005's significantly better THE NEW WORLD), a man hopelessly lost in a suffocating malaise of L.A. ennui. No, KNIGHT OF CUPS isn't one of those bile-spewing insider takedowns of Hollywood but that might've actually been preferable. There's lots of scenes of Rick walking and driving around various obligatory recognizable locations (other than Bale, the most screen time goes to the 405 and some Death Valley wind turbines, and yes, at one point, he engages in some thousand-yard staring at the nearly bone-dry concrete of the L.A. River, whose appearance in a Los Angeles-set film is apparently required by law) and replaying the bad decisions and lost loves in his life. It's all accompanied by the expected ponderous, insufferable, pained-whisper narration by various characters that's become Malick's trademark (note: these make even less sense in context):
  •  "Fragments...pieces of a man...where did I go wrong?" 
  •  "I want you. Hold you. Have you. Mine."
  •  "All those years...living the life of someone I didn't even know."
  •  "You gave me peace. You gave me what the world can't give. Mercy. Love. Joy. All else is cloud. Be with me. Always."
  •  "We find me."
  •  "Oh. Life."
  •  "Begin."

Many familiar faces drift in and out throughout, some playing characters (Cate Blanchett as Rick's ex-wife; Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas, Freida Pinto, and Teresa Palmer as various lovers; Wes Bentley as Rick's brother, who commited suicide; Brian Dennehy as their dad; barely visible bits by Nick Offerman, Jason Clarke, Clifton Collins Jr., Joel Kinnaman, Dane DeHaan, Shea Whigham, and Kevin Corrigan as Rick's buddies or colleagues) and others playing themselves in what amounts to an arthouse ZOOLANDER 2 (Ryan O'Neal, Fabio, Joe LoTruglio, Joe Manganiello, Thomas Lennon, and Antonio Banderas, who offers this bit of sage relationship advice to Rick: "It's like flavors...sometimes you want raspberry and after a while, you get tired and want strawberry," in a way that sounds like Antonio Banderas imitating Chris Kattan imitating Antonio Banderas on SNL). TO THE WONDER was terrible, but at least it captured the beauty in the bland sameness of middle America in a vividly Antonioni-esque, RED DESERT fashion. With KNIGHT OF CUPS, shot way back in 2012 and endlessly tinkered with by its dawdling maker, Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki don't even find a unique visual perspective of Los Angeles, mainly because we've seen all of these places in 50,000 other movies and Malick, currently American cinema's top auteur who doesn't seem to get out much, has no new perspective to offer. Sure, Malick injects some personal pain into the story--his own brother committed suicide--but does it matter when his writing has regressed to the level of an angsty teenager who's just had his heart broken for the first time? Do we need another movie about depressed and loathsome L.A. dickbags and their first-world problems? The Malick of old could bring a singularly original perspective to this tired and played-out concept, but all the Malick of today has to offer are sleepy, enigmatic voiceovers and more California cliches than a Red Hot Chili Peppers song. Look, film snobs. Let's just cut the shit. Stop giving Malick a pass simply because of your fond memories of what he once was. (R, 118 mins)

(UK/Germany - 2015)

A quiet and low-key character piece that subtly grows more tense and uncomfortable as it goes along, 45 YEARS is also a showcase for a pair of late-career triumphs for stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. Rampling received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Kate Mercer, a retired schoolteacher in a small, rural British town. The film follows Kate and husband Geoff (Courtenay) over the week leading up to a swanky party with all of their friends--the Mercers never had children--celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary (a party was planned for their 40th, but Geoff's heart attack and bypass surgery led to its cancellation). On Monday of that week, Geoff receives a letter from Germany informing him that the still-preserved body of Katya, his German girlfriend who died over 50 years ago, was found in a melting glacier where she fell into a crevasse while they were mountain climbing in Switzerland. Memories from a half-century ago come back to haunt Geoff, and while Kate is initially supportive of the wave of grief overcoming her husband, she grows increasingly concerned over the week as long-buried details of his relationship with Katya come to the surface. He was contacted because the initial report listed him as her next-of-kin, which leads Kate to think Geoff and Katya were married. He insists they weren't, only that they pretended to be since it was a much more conservative era. After a failed attempt at sex due to Geoff's mind being elsewhere, she catches him rummaging around in the attic in the middle of the night, looking for pictures of Katya. Geoff starts smoking again, tries to back out of a lunch with some old work buddies, and even their friends remark that he seems distant, agitated, and preoccupied. He starts reading up on global warming and Kate finds out he's been talking to a travel agent about booking a trip to Switzerland. While Geoff is out one afternoon, Kate goes through his old photos and notebooks in some boxes stashed away in the attic and finds something that makes her question everything about their 45-year marriage.

Based on David Constantine's short story "In Another Country" and written and directed by Andrew Haigh, who cut his teeth working on the editing team of several Ridley Scott films (GLADIATOR, BLACK HAWK DOWN, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN), 45 YEARS is a fascinating, unsettling, and often deeply moving meditation on marriage, trust, love, and the disturbing realization that no matter how long or how well you've known someone, you'll never know everything about them. Kate was aware of Katya's death when she met Geoff, but it never occurred to her just how much of a presence the memory of Katya was in her marriage to Geoff, or the ways in which Katya has been the driving force in many of Geoff's--and by association, Kate's--decisions over the years. Haigh doesn't ask the audience to pick sides--indeed, there are times when Kate seems insensitive to Geoff's grief, but Geoff doesn't make it easy, yammering on about "my Katya" in ways that sometimes seem like an inadvertent slap in Kate's face. There's no doubt that Geoff loves Kate dearly, but it's just as clear that Katya has always been on his mind. In their best roles in years (probably decades for Courtenay, who's been nominated for two Oscars and was big in the mid '60s but seemed to consciously avoid the commercial pursuits of his British "angry young man" contemporaries like Richard Burton, Albert Finney, and Peter O'Toole), the two living legend stars are just superb, their body language and mannerisms expertly conveying decades of lived-in familiarity and shorthand communication, culminating a long, static shot near the end that up-ends all of that in a devastating portrait of ambiguity and uncertainty. (R, 95 mins)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: RABID DOGS (2016); GRIDLOCKED (2016); and THE ABANDONED (2016)

(France/Canada - 2015; US release 2016)

Mario Bava's RABID DOGS was shot in the summer of 1974 but went unseen for 23 years after being caught up in a bankruptcy quagmire involving producer Roberto Loyola. A departure for horror icon Bava, RABID DOGS (also seen in the inferior alternate cut KIDNAPPED, with scenes added two decades later by Bava's son Lamberto) was a crime thriller that crammed all of its characters into a getaway vehicle commandeered by a trio of robbers, with a hostage, and the carjacking victim who's trying to get his sick kid to a hospital. Now that the long-lost RABID DOGS has been readily available in the home video age (unfortunately, only the KIDNAPPED cut is currently on Blu-ray in the US), fans of Bava and Eurocrime have had a chance to see one of the director's strongest efforts from the latter days of his career. Directed and co-written by Eric Hannezo (THE HORDE director Yannick Dahan also co-wrote, and Oscar-winning ARTIST star Jean Dujardin is one of the producers), the remake of RABID DOGS follows the same basic concept but consistently displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what made Bava's film work so well. Sure, RABID DOGS '15 is a lot more flashy and stylish than Bava's minimalist thriller, but that only goes so far. Hannezo spends much more time on the robbery and the getaway, and makes some incidental changes: here, it's not a random flunky who gets killed, but the ringleader (Laurent Lucas), leaving his protege Sabri (Guillaume Gouix) in charge of two volatile hotheads, Vincent (Francois Arnaud) and Manu (Franck Gastambide). During a badly-staged shootout at a mall and a standoff in the underground parking garage, they take an innocent bystander (Virginie Ledoyen) hostage and eventually carjack a father (Lambert Wilson), who only has a few hours to get his gravely ill daughter to a hospital for a kidney transplant.

That's more or less how Bava's film starts, minus the remake's specificity of the child's illness and the gaudy visual flourishes. Bava got his characters in the car a lot quicker than Hannezo does, and unlike Bava, he can't wait to keep getting them out of the car, never establishing the sweaty tension and increasing claustrophobia that makes RABID DOGS '74 so intense and nerve-wracking. No, Hannezo insists on giving us backstories of the bank robbers--who gives a shit that Manu is participating in the bank robbery to get enough money to get to see his estranged son?  It doesn't humanize him at all, and it doesn't make him as dangerous as Aldo Caponi's comparable Bisturi in Bava's film. All we knew about the bad guys in Bava's film is that George Eastman's psychotic "32" had a huge dick. Hannezo's characters encounter various obstacles along the way, with a traffic jam of almost Godard/WEEKEND proportions slowing them down, and when they stop so the father can change a flat tire, the film completely falls apart. Even though the clock's ticking on the transplant, they take time to bullshit in the woods, share some smokes, and talk about themselves, as Hannezo cuts to a flashback of Vincent and Manu in some FIGHT CLUB-type activities in a garishly-lit red hallway seemingly on loan from Gaspar Noe. Later on, they get stuck in a WICKER MAN situation, with a town of gun-toting weirdos celebrating "The Feast of the Bear," which shuts the whole area down, preventing them from getting through or back out. The filmmakers do keep the devastating twist ending from the Bava film, but don't pull it off nearly as effectively. There's a few good moments that come mostly early on, though a later one, in the Bear town where an elderly, mute woman paralyzed by a stroke recognizes Manu from TV news reports and keeps incessantly ringing her little bell for help that never comes, is a memorable little set piece of which RABID DOGS '15 doesn't have nearly enough. There's some nice scenery in the Quebec location shooting (even though it takes place in France), but Hannezo is too focused on style over suspense here, as when he stops the climax cold for a slo-mo scene of everyone in the car bathed in more Gaspar Noe lighting schemes to the tune of Scala & Kolacny Brothers' cover of Radiohead's "Creep," featured prominently in the trailer for THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Why? Who knows?  Who cares?  On one hand, it's nice to see an obscure Bava film getting props from a fan who must love the movie (there's even a music cue that recalls Stelvio Cipriani's score for the 1974 film), but on the other, if he loves it so much, it's too bad Hannezo didn't do better by it. Then again, revisiting Bava's RABID DOGS right before watching the remake probably didn't do it any favors. (Unrated, 94 mins, also streaming on Netflix).

(Canada - 2016)

When you wade through enough DTV B-movie swill, you're bound to accidentally find a pleasant surprise every now and again. The NYC-set, Canadian-made GRIDLOCKED is an unabashed homage to the late '80s-to-mid '90s heyday of action producer Joel Silver, though the chief influence, according to director/co-writer Allan Ungar, was John Badham's THE HARD WAY (1991), with James Woods as an angry cop forced to chaperone a spoiled movie star (Michael J. Fox) who's riding along with him to prep for an upcoming role. Ungar goes so far as to have HARD WAY villain Stephen Lang play the bad guy here, but the whole movie is an affectionate mash-up of Silver-produced classics like LETHAL WEAPON, DIE HARD, and THE LAST BOY SCOUT, with a big nod to John Carpenter's ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 to cap it off. When Canadian-born child actor-turned-Hollywood bad boy Brody Walker (Canadian karate champ Cody Hackman) has yet another public meltdown when he punches a cameraman for a TMZ-like tabloid show and gets the latest in a string of DUIs, his foul-mouthed agent Marty (Saul Rubinek, cast radically against type as "Saul Rubinek") tells him his next mega-budget, pre-packaged blockbuster will be canceled if he doesn't get his shit together. Brody's lawyer plea bargains a cushy deal for him: community service in the form a ride-along with a local cop. The cop turns out to be Hendrix (Dominic Purcell), a badass SWAT legend busted down to patrol duty after a botched raid that resulted in too many casualties. The stoical, humorless Hendrix isn't excited about the assignment and resists any attempt by Brody to bond, sighing in disgust as the pampered Hollywood brat takes selfies with perps and generally makes an ass of himself.

Wanting to visit his old pals, Hendrix takes Brody on a late-night tour of his old Strategic Response outpost and armory about 40 miles outside of Manhattan, where the staff includes elderly Sully on desk duty, running the check-in. That Sully is a) near retirement, and b) played by LETHAL WEAPON star Danny Glover, it should come as no surprise that he ends up dead not long after declaring that he's gettin' too old for this shit. A dull and quiet night comes to an abrupt end when disgraced former SRT commander Korver (Lang) leads a team of mercenaries in an attempt to raid the facility, which the government has been using to covertly store assets seized both legally and illegally. Korver is after several hundred thousand dollars in bonds acquired from a raid involving a Central American drug lord, and he's not about to let his old buddy Hendrix stand in his way. Of course, the SWAT team on duty, plus Hendrix and Brody, have to work together--if they don't kill each other first!--to survive the night and keep Korver's guys (Vinnie Jones among them, as a corrupt and improbably Cockney, fookin' 'ell, mate!-accented NYC cop) from getting in. Purcell is an actor who has specialized in the unwatchable since PRISON BREAK went off the air, and relative to 98% of his headlining filmography, GRIDLOCKED is pretty damn good, right up there with his surprisingly solid boxing drama A FIGHTING MAN. He's perfectly cast and a great seething foil for the snotty Brody, who's obviously meant to be Justin Bieber several years from now (strangely, the film never makes use of Hackman's martial arts skills). GRIDLOCKED doesn't have an original thought in its head, but it wears its love of a specific era of action cinema on its sleeve and replicates it quite convincingly in a John Badham/Richard Donner/Walter Hill kind-of way, from the glossy production values to the smartass buddy action comedy bickering, and it's punctuated with some occasionally shocking, stomach-turning violence. Against all odds, this is definitely one of the better straight-to-DVD titles to come down the pike in quite a while, even if it's several years too late: had Purcell had this in theaters with some major studio backing right after PRISON BREAK ended, he would've never returned Uwe Boll's phone calls. (R, 113 mins)

(US - 2016)

Not to be confused with Nacho Cerda's 2006 Lucio Fulci homage with the same title, THE ABANDONED (shot in 2013 under the title THE CONFINES) is an intermittently effective chiller with some terrific atmosphere but it's saddled with a story derived from a hodgepodge of influences ranging from THE ORPHANAGE to SESSION 9 to CROPSEY to the jump-scares of Blumhouse to the facepalm-worthy twists of M. Night Shyamalan. Julia, aka "Streak" (Louisa Krause) is a troubled single mom in danger of losing her daughter if she screws up one more time. Her last chance is a gig as an overnight security guard at a posh, abandoned NYC apartment building. Her co-worker is bitter, wheelchair-bound Cooper (Jason Patric), who mans the control room and watches the monitors as Streak patrols the premises. They get off to a rocky start, with Cooper tired of breaking in newbies only to have them flake out after a week over the tedious nature of the job (though it could be that he's just an unpleasant asshole) and not even masking his contempt for Streak. She doesn't win him over by breaking the rules on her first night by letting a homeless man (Mark Margolis) and his dog stay in one of the rooms. It gets worse when she finds a bolted door blocking off a section of the building that Cooper claims was unfinished. Of course, Streak unlocks the door and finds that it leads to a series of dark, ominous underground tunnels branching off of the basement, along with the requisite checklist of things you find in dark, ominous underground tunnels, like hidden rooms with filthy mattresses, creepy childrens' drawings on the walls, and occasional taunting whispers and banging on doors. Of course, this used to be a secret orphanage from decades back, used to stash away deformed or mentally and physically challenged children of parents too poor to care for them or too embarrassed to acknowledge them at all, and of course, their vengeful spirits still haunt the premises. Or do they?

Making his feature directing debut, Eytan Rockaway has a good eye for chill-inducing atmosphere with his use of darkness, light, and shadows. But the script by Ido Fluk seems like the end result of a particularly wild weekend video roulette binge with his DVD collection. As messy as THE ABANDONED's story is, it's a film that's obviously trying hard. Maybe too hard, as if its makers weren't confident they'd ever corral the cash to make another movie, so they're cramming everything they've got into this one. They had to be happy to get access to even a faded star like Patric, who helps the young filmmakers out by turning in a surprisingly strong performance and giving this low-budget affair what little commercial value he can (it still took three years to get released). The final twist packs a punch, but at the same time renders much of what's happened before meaningless. THE ABANDONED falls apart by the end, but it's not fair to bag on it too much--Rockaway and Fluk give it their best shot, and even when you're shaking your head as the plot collapses and the cliches abound, it looks too good to just dismiss. He's not quite there yet, but if Rockaway can find a script that's up to par with his command of the camera and his staging of set pieces, he might go places. (PG-13, 87 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Retro Review: STREET SMART (1987)

(US - 1987)

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg. Written by David Freeman. Cast: Christopher Reeve, Kathy Baker, Mimi Rogers, Morgan Freeman, Jay Patterson, Andre Gregory, Anna Maria Horsford, Frederick Rolf, Erik King, Rick Aviles. (R, 97 mins)

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, who guided a young Al Pacino to his breakout role in 1971's THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK, 1987's STREET SMART represents Cannon/Golan-Globus in serious mode, a gritty look at ambition and ethics in the world of TV and print journalism. Christopher Reeve is Jonathan Fisher, a reporter in a slump, pulling the desperation move of fabricating a piece about 24 hours in the life of a NYC pimp he dubs "Tyrone." "Tyrone" has alarming similarities to Fast Black (Morgan Freeman), a sadistic pimp who's facing a murder charge. The article becomes a sensation and Fisher the toast of the town, but when the D.A.'s office wants to subpoena his notes--which don't exist--and Fast Black wants him to produce notes that provide him with an alibi, things quickly head south for the fabulist--with his employers, with a ruthless Fast Black, and with his girlfriend (Mimi Rogers), when he gets dangerously close to Punchy (Kathy Baker), one of Fast Black's long-suffering hookers.

STREET SMART still has the look and feel of a Cannon film, and though there's some NYC location work, most of it was shot in Montreal, which isn't the most convincing understudy for pre-Giuliani Times Square. A longtime pet project of Reeve's (he only did the embarrassing, corner-cutting SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE for Cannon because they agreed to make this), STREET SMART was supposed to be the actor's latest shot at escaping his SUPERMAN image but is best known today for launching the little-known, 50-year-old Freeman, up to then a jobbing character actor in minor roles going back to 1970. Prior to his portrayal of Fast Black, Freeman's biggest gig was as a cast member of the PBS educational series THE ELECTRIC COMPANY during its 1971-77 run, where his recurring characters included Easy Reader, Mel Mounds, and Vincent the Vegetable Vampire. Though STREET SMART was not a hit, Freeman stole the film from Reeve and made enough of an impression on critics and the few who did see it that he scored a surprise Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, losing to Sean Connery in THE UNTOUCHABLES. Everything Freeman does as Fast Black commands the screen--facial expressions, adjusting his ballsack, the snarling look when he bites his lower lip, or just his terrifying glare. He takes what could've been a cardboard cliche in any random Cannon genre offering and adds depth and complexity while turning him into one of the most terrifying villains of the '80s ("It's not your face, bitch. It's my face. My tits and my ass," he tells one of his girls when she begs him to not cut her with a broken bottle). For the most part, STREET SMART is a TV-movie with a lot of F-bombs, and sometimes it's kind of dumb and takes some too-easy shots at Manhattan high society (represented by Fisher's editor, played by MY DINNER WITH ANDRE's Andre Gregory), but Freeman's unforgettable performance makes it mandatory viewing.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Retro Review: PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (1971)

(US - 1971)

Directed by Roger Vadim. Written by Gene Roddenberry. Cast: Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, Telly Savalas, John David Carson, Roddy McDowall, Keenan Wynn, James Doohan, William Campbell, Barbara Leigh, Susan Tolsky, Aimee Eccles, Margaret Markov, June Fairchild, Joy Bang. (R, 91 mins)

A textbook example of the kind of movie that could never be made today, PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW is a brazenly smutty, time-capsule-worthy T&A black comedy where laughs are mined from an awkward virgin being seduced by his sexy teacher and from underage, nympho high school girls hooking up with and being murdered by their charming, predatory guidance counselor and pillar-of-the-community football coach...with music by The Osmonds! It's a plot more suited for a New World Pictures drive-in comedy produced by Roger Corman, even featuring frequently nude Corman starlets like Barbara Leigh (THE STUDENT NURSES), Joy Bang (NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN), and Margaret Markov (THE ARENA, BLACK MAMA WHITE MAMA), but it came from MGM, directed by French auteur and enfant terrible Roger Vadim, making his American debut ("his tribute to the high school girls of America!" the trailer crows) following the international success of 1968's BARBARELLA, and scripted by none other than STAR TREK creator Gene Roddenberry. Based on a 1968 novel by Francis Pollini, the film began life as a project for one-time Stanley Kubrick producing partner James B. Harris, with the lead role of serial killing counselor, coach, and sex addict Tiger McDrew intended for New York Jets QB Joe Namath. Given his playboy reputation, Namath would've been perfect casting, but the film spent two more years in development before it ended up in the hands of Vadim, with the role of Tiger McDrew eventually going to Rock Hudson. It's against-type casting that works, considering Hudson's past in light romantic comedies with Doris Day and years later, his closeted homosexuality becoming common knowledge to the world beyond industry insiders. Despite an Oscar nomination for 1956's GIANT, Hudson was always labeled a lightweight actor. He was making efforts to tackle more complex and challenging roles, starting with John Frankenheimer's 1966 cult classic SECONDS (easily his best performance), but the public wasn't buying it. Hudson spent most of the rest of his career in TV after PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, appearing in just five more big-screen features (and only three of those were leads) until his death in 1985. As McDrew, Hudson, sporting longer hair than usual as well as an impressive early '70s porn stache, has a few extra pounds on him than he did in his heyday but he's still got all of the charm that made him a star, even with a sinister gleam in his eye and an unsettling leer as a bevy of beauties disrobe and throw themselves at him with reckless abandon. It's an inspired decision that allows Hudson to slyly explore the dark and twisted flipside of his onscreen persona.

Hudson's McDrew is a married dad introduced having sex with a student in his office at the same time confused, sexually frustrated virgin Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson) is so taken with substitute English teacher Miss Smith (Angie Dickinson, introduced with a close-up of her ass jiggling in a miniskirt) that he goes to the lavatory to jerk off but instead discovers a girl's nude body in the next stall. While clueless principal Mr. Proffer (Roddy McDowall) can't get a grip on what's happened ("I don't understand this...we've always kept our academic averages so high!") and can only offer superficial memories of the victim ("She was a fine girl...and a terrific little cheerleader") and incompetent sheriff Poldaski (Keenan Wynn) lets a bunch of curious onlookers loiter about the crime scene, no-nonsense detective Surcher (Telly Savalas) and his partner Follo (James Doohan, the only STAR TREK cast member present) arrive to take charge of the investigation. All the while, Tiger continues to score with a succession of high school hotties as the body count rises, while simultaneously advising Ponce on understanding women and learning to control his awkward and badly-timed erections. Tiger even recognizes a kindred spirit in Miss Smith, who needs little prodding when Tiger suggests she seduce Ponce and make him a man.

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW is inappropriate in all kinds of ways. Sure, the bulk of the film is a series of dirty jokes and naked women (the August 1971 issue of Playboy was devoted to the film, with pictorials for Dickinson as well as all of the actresses playing the Pretty Maids), but there's some brilliant bits of dark humor and social commentary, whether it's a student asking Ponce if they've got football practice and Ponce responding with a dead-serious "No, we never have practice the day of a murder," or idiotic and knee-jerk Poldaski arriving on the scene of the first murder and impulsively grabbing the first black student he sees for questioning with a threatening "Not so fast...where do ya think yer goin'?" There's a running gag with Surcher constantly busting Poldaski down to traffic duty, with a great sneering performance by Savalas in what plays like a sarcastic dry run for his years on KOJAK. PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW was a box office flop in 1971, though it found a second wind on late-night Showtime and HBO in the early '80s, when the relationship between Dickinson's Miss Jones and Carson's Ponce (Dickinson has never been sexier onscreen than she is here) made the film fit right in with the "Hot for Teacher" craze spawned by the likes of PRIVATE LESSONS (1981), HOMEWORK (1982), MY TUTOR (1983), and THEY'RE PLAYING WITH FIRE (1984). With the ubiquity of teacher-student sex scandals, it's hard to believe there was once a time when such things were played for good-natured laughs, and were so part of the pop culture norm that Van Halen even had a huge MTV hit inspired by the subject. In that respect, perhaps PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW was ahead of its time, but can you even imagine it or something like PRIVATE LESSONS--a smash sleeper hit in theaters in 1981--getting the green light today without a shitstorm of controversy and trigger warnings?