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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

On Blu-ray/DVD: AMITYVILLE: THE AWAKENING (2017) and SAVAGE DOG (2017)


AMITYVILLE: THE AWAKENING
(US - 2017)



On the shelf so long that the prefix "the long-delayed" should just be tacked on to the title, the long-delayed AMITYVILLE: THE AWAKENING was shot was back in 2014 with a trailer hitting theaters that fall, ahead of its planned January 2, 2015 release. After being abruptly pulled from the schedule and sent back for reshoots, with at least six more release dates announced then bumped or canceled over the next two and a half years, the film finally debuted--for free and with disgraced co-executive producer Harvey Weinstein's name awkwardly erased from the opening credits--on Google Play in October 2017, ahead of a ten-screen theatrical release for a total gross of $742. It's hard telling what caused the delay, other than the Weinsteins' perpetual financial issues or that they just knew it was dog shit. A reboot of the AMITYVILLE franchise for the Blumhouse era of horror, THE AWAKENING has 17-year-old Belle (Bella Thorne) moving into the infamous house with her widowed mom Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh), little sister Juliet (McKenna Grace), and James (Cameron Monaghan), Belle's comatose twin brother, who hasn't moved or shown any brain activity since a horrible fall from a third story balcony when he go into a fight with a guy who posted nude pics of Belle all over the internet. Rebellious, sullen Belle doesn't fit in and gets bullied because of where she lives, but makes a couple of friends with nerdy Terrence (Thomas Mann) and goth Marissa (Taylor Spreitler), who inform her of the legend of the "Amityville Horror" by showing her the 1979 movie.





Now, what the hell kind of bullshit is writer/director and Alexandre Aja protege Franck Khalfoun (the 2013 remake of MANIAC) trying to pull here? Are we going the meta WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE and SCREAM route with an AMITYVILLE movie that takes place in a world where the movie franchise is a known thing? If so, then you have to try harder. Exactly how has Belle made it to 17 years of age without hearing of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR? I'm not even asking her to know the James Brolin version since it's like, so old and she probably can't even--but she doesn't even know the Ryan Reynolds remake, as evidenced when Terrence suggests it and Belle and Marissa roll their eyes and vocal fry "Remakes totally blow!" OK, so if you're a savvy enough movie watcher to conclude that remakes totally blow, then how are you unaware of any incarnation of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR?  At this point, James--unlike Khalfoun's script--starts showing signs of brain activity thanks to malevolent spirits in the basement's "Red Room," and Belle becomes convinced that the same evil that possessed Ronald DeFeo Jr to slaughter his family in 1974 is inhabiting James and risking all of their lives. A tired jumble of AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION and PATRICK with hints of last year's already forgotten SHUT IN, AMITYVILLE: THE AWAKENING stumbles to its tired conclusion, relying completely on predictable jump scares and hinging on Joan's thoroughly idiotic reasons for moving into a house she knew was home to a godless evil, all the while abandoning plot points and completely forgetting James' doctor (Kurtwood Smith cashing a paycheck), who has a swarm of bush-league CGI flies go down his throat before excusing himself and vanishing from the movie. That's about what Khalfoun does with the limp finale, which looks so much like a hastily tacked-on epilogue that if you analyze the audio and listen deep into the mix, you can probably hear Khalfoun saying "Let's just get this over with." (PG-13, 87 mins)




SAVAGE DOG
(US - 2017)


The latest from busy VOD/DTV action star Scott Adkins is a period adventure set in 1959 Indochina, which has become a safe haven for despots, warlords, Nazi war criminals and other undesirables. Fugitive Irish boxer Tillman (Adkins) is one of the top fighters in a tournament overseen by the camp's commander, former Nazi Steiner (Vladimir Kulich, looking like a dead ringer for '60s German bad guy Peter Van Eyck). Tillman is released from the compound and gets a job as a bouncer at a bar owned by American expat Valentine (Keith David). He finds love with Isabelle (Juju Chan), and is eventually drawn back into Steiner's tournaments since they provide easy money. Steiner and his overly enthusiastic henchman Rastignac (Marko Zaror), who humbly refers to himself as "The Executioner," inform Valentine that they'll be taking over his business, which results in a dispute leading to Rastignac losing his shit and blowing everyone away, with Tillman left for dead. Of course, he's not dead, and after recuperating with the help of a local tribal chieftain (Aki Aleong sighting!), he returns to Steiner's camp as a one-man killing machine, blowing shit up and shooting, slicing, and dicing his way through everyone, including another bad guy played by Cung Le, before his inevitable confrontation with The Executioner.





Written and directed by DTV vet Jesse V. Johnson (THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT, GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS 2), SAVAGE DOG is pretty pedestrian stuff in the early going, with clumsy narration by David's Valentine (who continues narrating even after he's killed, actually saying "Well, there I was...killed by three slugs from my own gun"), and a drinking game-worthy amount of cliched dialogue (of course, Isabelle tells loner Tillman "Some animals are not meant to be caged," and "We build our own cages," and Steiner sucks on a cigar while smugly informing Tillman "You're not so dissimilar to us"). Once Tillman returns to the camp and starts killing everyone, SAVAGE DOG becomes a rowdy gorefest along the lines of Stallone's 2008 resurrection of RAMBO, culminating in an unexpected final blow to The Executioner that's pretty transgressive as far as by-the-numbers DTV actioners go. The copious splatter is a mix of practical and CGI, with an unfortunate emphasis on the latter. It's distractingly cheap-looking at times, but it almost goes hand-in-hand with the low-budget aesthetic of the whole project, with the jungles of Indochina being played by the Sanna Ranch in Santa Clarita, CA. With some more convincing gore and some better writing, SAVAGE DOG could've been a minor gem among the year's VOD releases. It's not bad and Adkins fans will definitely want to give it a look, but it's the kind of budget-deprived corner-cutter where a big action sequence shows the same extra, wearing three different outfits, getting killed three times in about five minutes of screen time. (Unrated, 95 mins)

Monday, November 13, 2017

In Theaters: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)



MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
(US - 2017)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Michael Green. Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Lucy Boynton, Olivia Colman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Marwan Kenzari, Sergei Polunin, Gerald Horan, Phil Dunster, Miranda Raison, Hayat Kamille. (PG-13, 114 mins)

The first big-screen Hercule Poirot mystery since Peter Ustinov starred in Cannon's little-seen APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH way back in 1988, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS gives a mustache attached to the face of Kenneth Branagh the opportunity to play Agatha Christie's legendary detective. David Suchet enjoyed much success as Poirot in a series of PBS productions, including an ORIENT EXPRESS in 2010. The novel was also turned into a 2001 CBS TV-movie with Alfred Molina as a present-day Poirot. Suchet is often cited as the best Poirot, but the standard--at least as far as cinema is concerned--remains Albert Finney's Oscar-nominated turn as the fussy Belgian sleuth in Sidney Lumet's classic 1974 film version. While Christie adaptations were frequent (Margaret Rutherford played Miss Marple in several 1960s films, TEN LITTLE INDIANS was a big hit in 1965, and Tony Randall portrayed Poirot in 1966's THE ALPHABET MURDERS), it was the all-star MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS that got the ball rolling on a star-studded, big-screen Christie renaissance that lasted into the 1980s, including a 1974 remake of TEN LITTLE INDIANS, rushed into production by Harry Alan Towers to compete with Lumet's film; Ustinov starring as Poirot in 1978's DEATH ON THE NILE, 1982's EVIL UNDER THE SUN, the aforementioned latecomer APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH; and Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple in 1980's THE MIRROR CRACK'D, giving the actress an old-school test run before her long-running TV series MURDER, SHE WROTE.





All of this leads to the inevitable question: why does this 2017 remake of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS exist? It brings nothing new to the table story-wise, with the mystery's solution being common knowledge to any older moviegoer who's seen the 1974 version and anyone who watched Suchet's run on PBS. Is it to give students something newer to stream when they want to skip the reading and have no idea who Albert Finney is and the quiz is tomorrow? Is that why Imagine Dragons' "Believer" was so prominently featured in the trailer? It's really just an excuse for director Kenneth Branagh to give star Kenneth Branagh some very wide latitude to ham it up. Boarding the Orient Express in Istanbul bound for Western Europe, Poirot makes the acquaintance of a diverse group of passengers: much-divorced, man-hunting Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer); secret lovers Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr); missionary Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz); Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman); Count Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his drug-addicted wife Countess Elena (Lucy Boynton); Nazi sympathizing Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe); Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a car salesman; Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a sinister American "businessman" in the art forgery game; Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), Ratchett's nervous, hard-drinking secretary; and Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Ratchett's long-suffering butler. Poirot turns down an offer to work as Ratchett's eyes and ears on the journey, as the corrupt entrepreneur has been receiving threatening letters and is aware that people are after him over his shady dealings. The second day of the journey, the train is stopped by an avalanche and left precariously stranded on a bridge in the mountains. But it gets worse when Ratchett's dead body is discovered in his compartment, with twelve random knife wounds over his torso and neck area.


Christie's novel and its adaptations thus far have arguably the most famous and well-known reveal of any whodunit. Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green (who's had a busy 2017 with LOGAN, ALIEN: COVENANT, and BLADE RUNNER 2049, plus his work on the Starz series AMERICAN GODS) don't change anything about the structure of the story or its final result, instead adding some ethnic diversity and some racial tension with Hardman not hesitating to air his true feelings about Arbuthnot, who fears that his being a black man instantly makes him a suspect (also the case for "Spaniard" Marquez). It's a lavishly-mounted production that allows Branagh to show off--perhaps too much--some directorial flair, with an overuse of overhead shots, Dutch angles, and beveled reflections. There's a CGI avalanche that looks like something out of an Asylum production, and one really badly-edited foot chase outside the derailed train. When we're shown the "how" part of the whodunit--one of the most memorable scenes in Lumet's 1974 version--Branagh bungles badly, staging the murder of Ratchett as a quick, shaky-cam, black & white cutaway that looks like something out of a cheap horror movie. And when he solves the mystery and confronts the passengers, the action is taken out of the tense, claustrophobic confines of the train car and moved to an improbably long table set up in a tunnel outside the train, with the suspects all seated Last Supper-style, out in the freezing cold with no visible breath. It's one thing to make a straight remake that gets a bunch of A-listers together to have a good time with a classic story, but the few changes that are offered are, if not worse, then at least dumber. Why do they have to go to the trouble of finding a long table and a bunch of chairs to sit outside? And if you're gonna do that, at least make it look cold.


Even with Pfeiffer, Depp, Dench, and Dafoe onboard, the whole point of something like this is the blinding shine of star power. In comparison to Lumet's film, Daisy Ridley is no Vanessa Redgrave, Leslie Odom Jr is no Sean Connery, Tom Bateman (as railroad official and Poirot pal Bouc, who assists in the investigation) is no Martin Balsam, and Josh Gad is no Anthony Perkins. In the end, ORIENT EXPRESS '17 is another in a long line of pointless remakes (2013's CARRIE, 2014's ROBOCOP, etc) that's not terrible but does nothing to justify its existence. It comes perilously close to being a Kenneth Branagh vanity project, with his Poirot making snide comments, laughing uproariously as he reads Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and often coming across like a Larry David version of the legendary detective, letting the mustache--presumably a spare MORTDECAI prop loaned to him by Depp or a tribute to Sam Elliott in THE BIG LEBOWSKI--do most of the acting for him. And of course, since everything has to be a franchise now, the film ends with Poirot being summoned to Egypt because, "there's been a death on the Nile!"



Friday, November 10, 2017

On Blu-ray/DVD: VENGEANCE: A LOVE STORY (2017); THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM (2017); and GUN SHY (2017)

VENGEANCE: A LOVE STORY
(US - 2017)


Though the title and the poster would indicate this is another by-the-numbers, Redbox-ready Nicolas Cage VOD actioner--and it gets off to a dubious start with video-burned opening credits straight out of a TV show-- VENGEANCE: A LOVE STORY is a peculiar outlier in Cage's filmography, at least for this stage of his career. Cage originally planned to direct, something he hasn't done since 2002's little-seen SONNY, but at some point before shooting began, he handed the job off to veteran stunt coordinator and second-unit helmer Johnny Martin. Given Martin's pedigree, VENGEANCE: A LOVE STORY is very light on action and stunts, which one might expect once you know it's based on Joyce Carol Oates' 2003 novel Rape: A Love Story (not hard to see why they went with a slightly more marketable title for the movie). For a while, after a shaky opening and the obvious budget deprivation on display, the Georgia-shot, Niagara Falls-set VENGEANCE does alright as a melancholy, low-key character piece until it gives way to overwrought, deck-stacking melodrama before the "vengeance" element kicks in. Taking a shortcut through the woods at night on their way home from a 4th of July barbecue, single mom Teena (Anna Hutchison of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS) and her 12-year-old daughter Bethie (Talitha Bateman) are attacked by four sub-literate, hillbilly yokels who physically assault Bethie and gang-rape Teena. Glum, burned-out (we know this because he moves pieces on a solitary chess board in his living room) cop and Gulf War PTSD case John Dromoor (Cage) catches the case and gets emotionally invested in it, still shell-shocked and trying to fill a void after the recent death of his partner during a botched arrest.





It looks to be an open-and-shut case, as the four rapists--all brothers--leave ample fingerprint and DNA evidence and are all identified by Bethie in a lineup, but their bitter, white trash mother (Charlene Tilton sighting!) makes her husband mortgage the house to hire slick, high-priced, Harley-riding defense attorney Jay Kirkpatrick (Don Johnson). At a preliminary hearing, Kirkpatrick tries to establish that Teena seduced the brothers, launching a town-wide smear campaign to slut-shame the victim, even questioning her competency as a parent. Kirkpatrick is also friends with the judge (Mike Pniewski), who overrules every objection from Teena's lawyer (Kara Flowers) and takes petty offense to grammatical errors in Dromoor's testimony ("It's 'my partner and I,' detective...not 'me and my partner'"). The brothers are released on bail and begin terrorizing Teena and Bethie, kill Teena's mother's (Deborah Kara Unger) cat, and intimidate witnesses, and then the judge moves the trial date up to give Teena's lawyer as little time to prep as possible. Seeing that Teena is getting a raw deal, Dromoor does what lone wolf cops in formulaic movies with the word "vengeance" in the title do. It takes about 75 of the film's 99 minutes for the vengeance to commence, but even after that, Cage turns in maybe the quietest performance of his career. He never even smiles. Johnson, who's become a great character actor in recent years (COLD IN JULY, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99), delivers another terrific performance in a movie seen by no one. Hutchison and young Bateman are very good, at least until the script by TV vet John Mankiewicz (a writer on MIAMI VICE, a producer on HOUSE M.D. and HOUSE OF CARDS, and creator of the short-lived 1990s Jeff Fahey series THE MARSHAL) starts asking the audience to buy too many implausibilities. There's no way a judge would behave like this one does, and there's no way a defense attorney would sit there and let his clients leer at and threaten someone who's accusing them of the crime for which he's defending them, right there in court. By the end, VENGEANCE: A LOVE STORY never lives up to its potential. It's too hokey and lacking in nuance and subtlety to be taken seriously, but it's too restrained and slow-moving to work as a dumb action thriller. It's earnest and well-meaning, but it can't reconcile its goals and decide what it wants to be. Cage and long-retired ONION FIELD and VISION QUEST director Harold Becker, who hasn't made a film since 2001's DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE, were among the producers. (Unrated, 99 mins)



THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM
(UK - 2017)



Based on Peter Ackroyd's 1994 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, the Jack the Ripper-inspired British mystery THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM falls victim to some tedious stretches in its first half, but it gets better as it goes on. Even during its slow spells, it's a pleasure to watch just for the opportunity to enjoy the great Bill Nighy in a rare lead, brought in as a last-minute replacement for Alan Rickman, who hoped to make the film despite his pancreatic cancer diagnosis but was forced to back out when his health began rapidly declining just before filming began in October 2015 (Rickman died in January 2016). Of course Rickman would've been perfect (the film is dedicated to him), but Nighy is superb as Inspector John Kildare, a weary Scotland Yard official in 1890 London who gets the case of a serial killer known as "The Limehouse Golem" dumped in his lap. At the same time Kildare inherits the case, he finds a link to another involving stage actress Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke), accused of poisoning her husband John (Sam Reid). Kildare finds a journal with insane rantings that may implicate John as the Limehouse Golem, though the investigation leads to other suspects, including real-life figures like music hall comedian Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), novelist George Gissing (Morgan Watkins), and even Karl Marx (Henry Goodman). Partnered with constable George Flood (Daniel Mays), Kildare up-ends the Limehouse district to find proof John Cree is the killer, hoping that if Elizabeth is convicted of poisoning him, she can be spared execution for putting an end to the Golem's reign of terror.





Low-key despite some occasional flashes of splatter, THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM almost plays like an R-rated PBS mystery. Director Juan Carlos Medina and screenwriter Jane Goldman (KICK-ASS, THE WOMAN IN BLACK, both KINGSMAN movies) spend a little too much time in the first half on Leno's theatrical troupe, often veering from a murder mystery into a redux of Mike Leigh's TOPSY-TURVY. But once all the pieces are in place and everything involving Elizabeth's hellish upbringing and John's insane jealousy over her friendship with Leno and that her career is taking off while he languishes as a failed playwright is established, THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM takes off and becomes a riveting suspense piece, anchored by terrific performances from Nighy and Cooke (THE QUIET ONES). The production design and period detail are big pluses, with London looking about as gray, bleak, and grimy as it did in the 1979 Sherlock Holmes classic MURDER BY DECREE. It's not quite on the same level, but Nighy's Kildare--a complex character whose closeted homosexuality makes him the object of hushed scorn and dismissal among his colleagues, even though there's a cryptic moment where a sympathetic Flood whispers "I'm on your side"-- is ample proof that the actor would make a great Holmes. (Unrated, 109 mins)



GUN SHY

(US/UK - 2017)


You probably won't find a worse comedy in 2017 than GUN SHY, a staggeringly awful adaptation of Mark Haskell Smith's 2007 novel Salty, which garnered some acclaim at the time for its Carl Hiaasen-esque comic mystery crossed with an Irvine Welsh sense of the grotesque. Smith co-wrote the screenplay, but everything that book reviewers liked about Salty appears to have been neutered into oblivion for GUN SHY. This is a film where it's abundantly clear that the endgame was a mystery for all involved. The humor here isn't clever, it isn't sly, it isn't raunchy...it isn't anything. The film plods along, gasping and wheezing to its conclusion without a single laugh or even a remotely humorous moment. Gags fall flat, the story goes nowhere, and the actors look completely stranded. It's not like there's a lack of talent here: Antonio Banderas and Olga Kurylenko are fine actors, and Simon West isn't an auteur by any means, but he's directed some entertaining movies (CON AIR, THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER, THE EXPENDABLES 2, THE MECHANIC), but GUN SHY is one of those rare instances where, whatever the intent was going in, nothing works. It's painfully unfunny and miserable to endure, and the only thing saving it from complete ruin is that Banderas actually seems to be enjoying himself. Between recent VOD duds like BLACK BUTTERFLY, FINDING ALTAMIRA, SECURITY, and now this, Banderas is due for either a new agent or an intervention.





Banderas is Turk Henry, former bassist/vocalist for the '80s hair metal band Metal Assassin, best known for their hit single "Teenage Ass Patrol." Kicked out of the band after his supermodel wife Sheila (Kurylenko) was deemed a "Yoko" by the other members, Turk's career and personal life are in the toilet. Now an emotionally needy, drunken recluse who still dresses like "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)"-era Steven Tyler, he hasn't left his Malibu mansion in two years, prompting Sheila to arrange a vacation to Turk's native Chile in an attempt to boost his spirits. Once there, she's kidnapped by a group of neophyte pirates who think they've struck gold and try to extort a huge ransom when they realize she's Turk Henry's wife. Turk's manager sends his assistant Marybeth (Aisling Loftus) and Clive Muggleton (Martin Dingle Wall), a Crocodile Dundee-like Aussie mercenary with impossibly white teeth and a serious shellfish allergy, to help Turk negotiate with pirate leader Juan Carlos (Ben Cura). US Homeland Security gets wind of the kidnapping and sends ambitious CIA agent Ben Harding (Mark Valley), who's quick to label it a terrorist act in order to boost his profile to his superiors. What follows is a lot of shameless mugging and dead air as entire sequences go by with nothing even remotely amusing, unless you count a vomiting llama, Turk getting bitten on the dick by a snake, Turk trying to dodge Harding by dressing in drag, a clueless Turk calling his GPS a "CGI," and mispronouncing easy words, like "tore-toys" for "tortoise." The novel had the vacation taking place in Thailand, with a hapless, shaggy dog Turk getting involved in busting a sex trafficking ring. Here, he's just a bumbling buffoon making an ass of himself in Santiago. There's no attempt at political satire, no attempts at physical comedy, and no attempt at any INHERENT VICE or BIG LEBOWSKI-style absurdist noir humor. No, the only thing the makers of GUN SHY had was "Antonio Banderas dressed up like a hair metal singer" and they just assumed everything would work itself out. GUN SHY is so lazy that it doesn't even have any insider, THIS IS SPINAL TAP-style jokes about the music industry. There's nothing here, though Banderas, not an actor known for his comedic skills, looks like he's having fun despite his helpless, idiotic character having absolutely nothing to do. As if GUN SHY wasn't oppressive enough, it pads out the running time by including four endings, two music videos during the closing credits, and three (!) post-credits stingers, as if anyone watching this would think "Wow, I had such a blast with these characters...just keep giving me more!" This is stunningly bad. (R, 92 mins)

Monday, November 6, 2017

Retro Review: SLAUGHTER HIGH (1986)


SLAUGHTER HIGH
(UK - 1986)

Written and directed by George Dugdale, Mark Ezra and Peter Litten. Cast: Caroline Munro, Simon Scuddamore, Carmine Iannaccone, Donna Yaeger, Gary Martin, Billy Hartman, Michael Saffran, John Segal, Kelly Baker, Sally Cross, Josephine Scandi, Marc Smith, Jon Clark, Dick Randall. (Unrated, 90 mins)

Perhaps more than any other slasher movie of the '80s, SLAUGHTER HIGH's rabidly devoted cult following is rooted more in nostalgia for the era rather than any inherent greatness in the film. Because, frankly, SLAUGHTER HIGH is pretty terrible. It's able to get away with boasting "From the makers of FRIDAY THE 13TH" because co-producer Steve Minasian was one of the partners in Georgetown Productions, the company that helped finance the original FRIDAY THE 13TH, even though Minasian was never credited onscreen. Minasian ended up partnering with veteran schlockmeister Dick Randall on the Spanish-made 1983 chainsaw epic PIECES and the British-made 1984 killer Santa movie DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS, both of which are more in line with Randall's lowbrow oeuvre (CHALLENGE OF THE TIGER, FOR YOUR HEIGHT ONLY) than any groundbreaking, trailblazing slasher horrors in Sean S. Cunningham's classic. Among the first theatrical releases of Vestron Video offshoot Vestron Pictures, a studio that would fold just a couple of years later with DIRTY DANCING being their only big hit, SLAUGHTER HIGH isn't nearly as much fun as either PIECES or DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS, but it's nevertheless beloved by fans. This could be due to its overt and at least partially intentional silliness (it takes place at a high school that looks nothing like a 1986 high school and is in the middle of nowhere) and mockability as a Bad Movie, but it does manage to pull off a few fairly decent and splattery--at least in the unrated version--kill scenes. But throughout, SLAUGHTER HIGH is played so broadly, with grating, "wacky" music cues and terrible performances that it's never really scary because by 1986, audiences had seen nearly a decade of these things post-HALLOWEEN and were savvy enough to know when all the jolts were coming. It's more likely that SLAUGHTER HIGH is cherished not for what it is, but for the period in which it was created.






35-year-old Caroline Munro as the
world's least-convincing high school student. 
Shot as APRIL FOOL'S DAY but retitled when the producers learned Paramount had their own APRIL FOOL'S DAY slasher film in production, SLAUGHTER HIGH was filmed in the UK with a mostly British cast sporting American accents that range from "kinda sorta OK" to "completely embarrassing" (Carmine Iannaccone as jokester Skip is actually American, while Scottish-born Billy Hartman, seen that same year as Connor MacLeod's cousin Dougal in the classic HIGHLANDER, has what might be the worst American accent in movie history as Frank). In a nearly 20-minute prologue, all the cool kids play a cruel April Fool's Day prank on Marty Rantzen (Simon Scuddamore), "the dork of Doddsville High," a dweeby science nerd who's led into the girls' locker room under the pretense of being seduced by beauty queen Carol (genre vet Caroline Munro, 35 years old at the time and playing a teenager). Of course, Marty is humiliated and later given a laced joint that he lights up in the chemistry lab, which eventually leads to a nitric acid spill that causes an explosion setting him ablaze. Ten years later, the group of students behind the prank--including Carol, who's now a cokehead movie star--are invited back to the now-closed Doddsville High for a reunion. It's all a set-up as they're offed one by one in a variety of inventive ways by Marty, his disfigured face obscured by a grinning jester's mask. That creepy jester's mask is one of the few effective horror elements of SLAUGHTER HIGH (the killer's mask in DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS was also unexpectedly unnerving). There's a few memorable kills--the acid bath, the exploding stomach, the dual electrocution in mid-coitus--and when composer Harry Manfredini drops the wonky synth cues and goes for that frenzied, screeching sound he brought to the suspense sequences in FRIDAY THE 13TH, the film occasionally manages to vaguely look like the American slashers that it's emulating, but in the end, it's a lesser entry in the '80s subgenre that's further diminished by a stupid twist ending that leaves the door opened for a sequel that never happened.





The creative team of George Dugdale, Mark Ezra, and Peter Litten are credited with writing and directing, though on the commentary track of Lionsgate's just-released Vestron Collector's Series Blu-ray, Dugdale and Litten explain that Dugdale did most of the directing, Ezra did most of the writing, and Litten did the special effects, with each frequently contributing in other areas. There's some intermittently interesting information in the commentary--such as the occasional Dick Randall anecdote; the exteriors of the high school being an abandoned asylum, and the interiors (usually the same slightly redressed hallway) being the shuttered St. Marylebone Grammar School, a building constructed in 1791 and closed in 1981; and that Randall offered Telly Savalas $25,000 for one day's work as the gym teacher in the prologue, with Savalas slamming the phone down on Ezra when Randall wouldn't meet his demand of $50,000 (the role went to American expat Marc Smith, a voice actor best known as the guy who dubbed Franco Nero in ENTER THE NINJA and Lou Ferrigno in HERCULES)--but otherwise, the two filmmakers blather on endlessly about mostly uninteresting stuff (like what the weather was like when they shot a particular exterior). They don't even mention Caroline Munro's name until an hour into the commentary, which is bizarre considering 1) she's a beloved cult movie icon, 2) she's the biggest name in the cast, 3) was Dugdale's girlfriend at the time of filming, and 4) has been his wife since 1990 (why didn't she come along?). Even more egregious is barely even mentioning Simon Scuddamore, whose name finally comes up near the end when one of the directors mentions the actor is only playing Marty at the beginning and the end, and isn't the guy walking around in the jester's mask in the rest of the movie.


Simon Scuddamore (1956-1984)
Ezra, the only one of the three filmmakers who's gone on to a somewhat successful career in the industry (he wrote some British TV shows and was a producer on the later arthouse hit WAKING NED DEVINE), isn't on the commentary but is instead interviewed separately in a featurette, and he goes into much greater detail about the production in 15 minutes than Dugdale and Litten do in 90. Ezra actually provides some information about the enigmatic Scuddamore, who won the role after an open audition, had no acting experience, and requested weekends off during the shoot so he could continue his volunteer job at a facility for special needs children. Just days after SLAUGHTER HIGH wrapped production in November 1984, Scuddamore committed suicide in what was believed to be an intentional drug overdose. Ezra doesn't go into specific details, but he mentions Scuddamore's unexpected death and that it was under unfortunate circumstances, which is more than Dugdale and Litten say. How does the death of the movie's star just after filming not be a key talking point on a commentary? The fact that Scuddamore died in 1984 and the movie remained unreleased for two years might also be a topic to discuss, but it never comes up (nor is there even a dedication to Scuddamore in the closing credits). Neither do other potentially interesting tidbits, like 23-year-old future acclaimed author of the Thursday Next mystery series Jasper Fforde being a member of the camera crew. Even a junk movie like this deserves a thorough and informed commentary for fans. On the plus side, the Blu-ray looks good, and it's nice to see this properly framed after Lionsgate's janky DVD release from several years ago put forth zero effort and just used the full-frame VHS transfer. I've seen SLAUGHTER HIGH four or five times in 30 years and I still don't really like it--or, perhaps more accurately, I don't see why fans love it as much as they do--but even I'm guilty of being suckered in by the nostalgia element, and now I own the Blu-ray. I get it. I miss the '80s, too. Will I watch this unremarkable and thoroughly mediocre movie again? Of course I will.



SLAUGHTER HIGH opening in
Toledo, OH on February 13, 1987


Friday, November 3, 2017

Retro Review: THE AMBASSADOR (1985)


THE AMBASSADOR
(US - 1985)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Written by Max Jack. Cast: Robert Mitchum, Ellen Burstyn, Rock Hudson, Fabio Testi, Donald Pleasence, Heli Goldenberg, Michal Bat-Adam, Ori Levy, Shmulik Kraus, Avi Kleinberger, Sasson Gabai. (R, 95 mins)

It was a box office flop at the time, but 1986's 52 PICK-UP has come to be regarded as a top crime thriller of its era and one of the best films to come off the Cannon assembly line in their heyday. Adapted from Elmore Leonard's 1974 novel and directed by the great John Frankenheimer, 52 PICK-UP stars Roy Scheider as Harry Mitchell, a successful L.A. businessman caught up in a web of blackmail and murder when a trio of porno industry dirtbags (the leader constantly condescendingly calling him "Sport") videotape him having sex with his young mistress, shaking him down for an exorbitant sum of money in exchange for not embarrassing his wife (Ann-Margret), the top aide to a popular mayoral candidate. When he refuses to pay, they kill the mistress and try to frame Mitchell, not understanding that he's a self-made man used to doing things his own way, bullheadedly determined to take on the blackmailers himself, manipulating them and beating them at their own game, of course inevitably leading to Scheider delivering one of his signature "Smile, you son of a bitch!" lines just as he takes out the chief shitbag ("So long, Sport!"). It's lean, mean, gritty piece of vintage '80s L.A. sleaze, not entirely faithful to Leonard--he wasn't happy that the setting was moved to L.A. from his native Detroit--but it stands today as one of the better adaptations of the author's work, which would enjoy a significant renaissance a decade later with films like GET SHORTY, OUT OF SIGHT, and JACKIE BROWN, the latter based on his novel Rum Punch.






52 PICK-UP was actually Cannon's second adaptation of Leonard's novel. Prior to the Frankenheimer film, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus produced THE AMBASSADOR, ostensibly based on 52 Pick-Up but veering so far from the source that any mention of Leonard and the "Based on the novel by" credit weren't even included in the finished version. It was obviously a subject important to Israeli-born cousins Golan and Globus, but we may never know what it was about a decade-old, neo-noir novel set in Detroit that inspired them to turn it into a preachy polemic about Israeli-PLO relations, but that's exactly what happened with THE AMBASSADOR. The only plot point from Leonard's book that it retains is the blackmail element, but it even changes that by making it the wife's infidelity that's captured on film. One of Cannon's periodic mid '80s attempts at highbrow respectability, THE AMBASSADOR was shot in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and wants to make serious political statements, but it also wants to be a Cannon genre picture. It wants a classy, Oscar-winning actress like Ellen Burstyn to give it awards season credibility, but it needs her topless and doing Skinemax back-arching in a couple of surprisingly revealing, sweaty sex scenes with Fabio Testi, who had just been fired from Cannon's BOLERO after clashing with Bo and John Derek and sent to Israel to have simulated sex with Ellen Burstyn instead. Burstyn is Alex Hacker, the bored, frustrated wife of Peter Hacker (Robert Mitchum, in a role that was probably pitched to Cannon regular Charles Bronson at some point), the US Ambassador to Israel. Hacker is so distracted trying to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine that he's completely oblivious to his wife's torrid affair with antiques dealer Mustapha Hashimi (Testi), a shady figure with lifelong ties to terrorism. After a bombing in Jerusalem, Hacker is summoned to an abandoned movie theater where he's shown a stag film of Alex and Hashimi having sex, and is promptly blackmailed in exchange for not airing the footage on TV and creating an international incident over the wife of the US Ambassador getting between the sheets with a terrorist. The blackmailers are presumed to be from the PLO, but it's actually a rogue faction of far-right Mossad agents determined to maintain the status quo. There's duplicity and double crosses, and numerous attempts on the Hackers' lives by a renegade KGB agent (Shmulik Kraus), which sends Hacker's security chief and bodyguard Stevenson (Rock Hudson in his final big-screen role) into ass-kicking Cannon action hero mode.



Dull, overly convoluted, and bearing no resemblance to the "He's through negotiating!" thriller the poster art indicated, the barely-released and justifiably obscure THE AMBASSADOR just hit Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber, though it's one of Cannon's worst films. It never finds the balance between serious drama and hard-hitting action, and the finale goes from laughably out-of-touch to appallingly tacky, with Hacker organizing Israeli and Palestinian youth for a candle-lit kumbaya "dialogue for young people" where he delivers a series of rambling talking points while the attendees chant "peace" before being interrupted by a machine-gunning terrorist attack with a Sam Peckinpah level of gore and splatter. It's another example of Cannon trying to have it both ways by taking what they think is a high-minded, serious film and turning it into a grindhouse action shoot-'em-up (outside of the same year's existential action classic RUNAWAY TRAIN, that kind of Cannon crossover move almost never worked). An aging Mitchum looks bleary-eyed and confused throughout, never once looking like he understands the Political Science 101 dialogue he's reciting. You could make a drinking game out of how many times he mumbles "I just want to start a dialogue for young people" and it's one he'd almost certainly be up for playing. Burstyn brings her A-game but the material is simply beneath her (surprisingly, she worked for Cannon again a few years later on the expensive Golan-directed prestige flop HANNA'S WAR), while Donald Pleasence gets to ham it up a bit as the irate Israeli defense minister.



Hudson is solid as the tough-as-nails Stevenson, working well with Mitchum even though they reportedly didn't get along well at all. Hudson was under the weather throughout the shoot and he looked slimmer than he had in the years prior to his 1981 heart attack and subsequent quintuple bypass surgery, but not in an ill way that would indicate the HIV diagnosis he would receive a few months after THE AMBASSADOR wrapped production in early 1984 (the film wasn't released until January 1985; Hudson starred with an unknown Sharon Stone in the 1984 TV-movie THE VEGAS STRIP WAR and appeared on the fifth season of DYNASTY before succumbing to AIDS in October 1985). Leadenly directed by the veteran J. Lee Thompson, who would become of the top in-house Cannon guys throughout the decade (10 TO MIDNIGHT, KING SOLOMON'S MINES, FIREWALKER, DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN) and simplistically written by Max Jack and an uncredited Ronald M. Cohen (both vets of the short-lived 1981 ABC series AMERICAN DREAM), THE AMBASSADOR does offer one clever bit of caustic repartee between the Hackers (when she uses horseback riding as a cover story for some afternoon delight with Hashimi, Peter asks "English or western?" and she snidely replies "Bareback") but little else, jettisoning any connection to Elmore Leonard and wasting an overqualified cast in the process. At least with 52 PICK-UP, Cannon got it right the second time.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Retro Review: THE SALAMANDER (1981)


THE SALAMANDER
(UK - 1981; US release 1983)

Directed by Peter Zinner. Written by Robert Katz and Rod Serling. Cast: Franco Nero, Anthony Quinn, Eli Wallach, Martin Balsam, Claudia Cardinale, Sybil Danning, Christopher Lee, Cleavon Little, Paul Smith, John Steiner, Renzo Palmer, Anita Strindberg, Jacques Herlin, Marino Mase, Fortunato Arena, John Stacy, Andre Esterhazy, Nello Pazzafini, Tom Felleghy, Gitte Lee. (R, 101 mins)

Based on the 1973 novel by Morris West, the long-in-the-works conspiracy thriller THE SALAMANDER began life as a screenplay adaptation by TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHT GALLERY creator Rod Serling, left unfinished following his death in 1975. It languished for several years until Robert Katz (THE CASSANDRA CROSSING, THE SKIN) reworked and completed it. The film finally went into production in 1980, with veteran editor Peter Zinner making his directing debut at 62, fresh off his Oscar win for editing 1978's THE DEER HUNTER. Zinner was a late-blooming hot commodity at the time, as his other credits included 1967's IN COLD BLOOD, 1972's THE GODFATHER and 1974's THE GODFATHER PART II, but he really was a hired gun at heart, as his work on THE DEER HUNTER was sandwiched between esteemed prestige projects like 1977's TINTORERA and 1979's THE FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH. Shot entirely in scenic locations throughout Italy and featuring an all-star cast, THE SALAMANDER should've been a hit but was a DOA dud worldwide. It was another in a string of flops from Sir Lew Grade's ITC Entertainment, the British company that produced THE MUPPET SHOW and had some hits like THE MUPPET MOVIE, ON GOLDEN POND, and THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER, but lost a ton of money over 1980-81 on expensive bombs like the Village People's CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC, the Farrah Fawcett-pursued-by-horny-robot-in-space sci-fi dud SATURN 3, the Clive Cussler adaptation RAISE THE TITANIC!, and the ill-fated THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER. ITC had distribution through various means, whether it their own Associated Film Distribution or was major studios like Universal and 20th Century Fox, but after being released in Europe in 1981, THE SALAMANDER remained unseen in the US until it turned up in one theater in NYC in May 1983 before being bum-rushed off to television and a belated VHS release in 1986. Pathfinder released it on DVD with no fanfare in 2002 but otherwise, it's spent 30 years in relative obscurity despite a cast packed with cult icons and big-screen legends and it's just been resurrected on Blu-ray courtesy of Scorpion Releasing. It's nice that it's available again and in a quality presentation, but it should come as no surprise that THE SALAMANDER isn't exactly an unsung classic waiting for its day in the sun.





The film opens in Rome with the assassination of beloved Gen. Panteleone (Fortunato Arena), a beloved statesman, WWII hero, and champion of democracy in his younger, post-war years. The truth behind his murder is buried and "natural causes" is the reason given to the public. Carabinieri officer Col. Dante Matucci (Franco Nero) is assigned to investigate, along with his big brotherly mentor Capt. Stefanelli (Martin Balsam). Both are stonewalled by everyone, from Panteleone's heir apparent Gen. Leporello (Eli Wallach) to Italy's counterintelligence chief Prince Baldasar (Christopher Lee), and the body count rises as anyone Matucci questions or is about to question turns up dead. After tying Panteleone's death to a decades-long string of assassinations of war criminals staged to look like suicides--pulled off by a hit man known as "The Salamander," the long-retired alter ego of billionaire industrialist Bruno Manzini (Anthony Quinn)--Matucci uncovers a plot to orchestrate a coup d'etat by a renegade group of military officials and high-powered politicos attempting a Make Italy Great Again move by taking the country back to the Mussolini glory days.


Matucci's investigation also involves a momentum-killing romance with Polish spy Lili Anders (Sybil Danning, who had just co-starred with Nero in Enzo G. Castellari's THE DAY OF THE COBRA), some ballbusting with his NATO-based USMC buddy Malinowski (Cleavon Little), and a sadistic and profusely sweaty torturer known as "The Surgeon" (Paul Smith, doing his usual MIDNIGHT EXPRESS stink-eye side-glancing act). Even with the cast and the potentially intriguing story, THE SALAMANDER just never catches fire despite the heroic efforts of a typically excellent score by Jerry Goldsmith that belongs in a more exciting movie. It gets bogged down in sequence after sequence of Matucci going to see someone, interviewing them, and then moving on to the next person. Zinner offers one low-energy car chase in which both cars crash through oddly-placed fruit stands right on cue. Intermittently-deployed voiceover narration by Nero is a clear indication of Zinner scrambling to cover gaps in the narrative, and most of the big names--Quinn, Lee, Little, Wallach, Claudia Cardinale (as Leporello's wife)--have little more than extended cameos. Balsam has one great bit where the camera slowly moves in on his aging face as he delivers a devastating monologue about how he, as a young man during WWII, stepped out for cigars and returned home to find his entire family massacred, but then Zinner ruins it, breaking the spell by inexplicably cutting to a reaction shot from a cat. There's a little oomph offered by some third-act sleaze, with Mrs. Leporello having a torrid affair with her husband's aide-de-camp Roditi (John Steiner, dubbed by Larry Dolgin) and the discovery that Gen. Leporello has a thing for very young girls, plus some unintended hilarity with a torture scene leading to a Franco Nero/Paul Smith brawl, with a hirsute Nero sporting nothing but a jockstrap with his bare ass flailing all over the place and nearly giving Smith a faceful of his taint. THE SALAMANDER is an interesting curio if for no other reason than that cast, all of whom are fine and do what's expected of them (Lee's smug, sinister Baldasur allows him to pull out almost every move in his "pompous prick" arsenal), but it proved to be one-and-done for Zinner as a director. After the film's failure, he returned to his regular job, earning an Oscar nomination for editing 1982's AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and several Emmy nominations for various TV gigs, including the epic 1983 ABC miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR and its 1988 sequel WAR AND REMEMBRANCE, winning for the latter. Zinner died in 2007 at 88.




Sunday, October 29, 2017

October Roundup: Various new Netflix, Blu-ray and Theatrical Releases


WHEELMAN
(US - 2017)

A mostly routine but diverting Netflix Original film that's a fine showcase for the growing cult of veteran tough guy character actor Frank Grillo. Grillo also produced and his character fits in perfectly with the persona he's crafted in the second and third PURGE movies (and it's infinitely better than THE CRASH, the dismal Libertarian polemic he produced and starred in earlier this year, which was so bad that the last name of its Wall Street financial titan villain was actually "Del Banco").  As the titular wheelman, Grillo is a stoical, no-nonsense getaway driver for an early evening bank robbery that goes typically awry when he's contacted by "the handler," who tells him to ditch the robbers and drive away. He can't get a hold of the contact (Garret Dillahunt) who arranged the job, and when a second handler calls and reveals that the other handler was an impostor, the wheelman has no idea who to trust and things get really hairy when the fake handler kidnaps his ex-wife (Grillo's wife Wendy Moniz). The wheelman ends up reluctantly teaming with his 13-year-old daughter Katie (Caitlin Carmichael) in an unpredictable and surprisingly engaging plot development, as Katie turns out to be smart, resourceful, and wise beyond her years and not the spoiled, "can't even" brat we're led to expect from the periodic phone calls to her dad throughout.  The introduction of Carmichael's character could've easily been the film's death knell, but she and Grillo make an unexpectedly solid team.  Writer/director Jeremy Rush, a protege of co-producer Joe Carnahan, wisely keeps 99% of the action in the car and focused on Grillo, who's in every scene and onscreen from start to finish. It sort-of ends with a whimper, but for the most part, WHEELMAN, a cross between DRIVE and LOCKE, is an entertaining, uncomplicated B-movie that's ideal for streaming and doesn't overstay its welcome at just 82 minutes. Also with Shea Whigham, perfectly cast as "Motherfucker." (Unrated, 82 mins, on Netflix)


SHOT CALLER
(US - 2017)


Following a pair of straight-to-video thrillers (1996's EXIT and 2001's IN THE SHADOWS), stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh has carved a niche for himself as a maker of gritty prison dramas. SHOT CALLER shares a lot of themes as his 2008 film FELON, which was a bit better than you'd expect from a 2008 movie with Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer.  Waugh continued on this trajectory with the slightly more improbable Dwayne Johnson vehicle SNITCH, but the barely-released SHOT CALLER really should've been his breakthrough. Opening with the parole of hardened, gang-affiliated convict "Money" (GAME OF THRONES Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the film follows his post-prison activities that include taking part in a deal for a shipment of Russian military weapons stolen from Afghanistan, intercut with flashbacks to his old life and how he ended up where he is. Ten years earlier, "Money" was Jacob Harlin, a successful stockbroker with a wife (Lake Bell) and young son. After a dinner out with another couple, Frank is distracted by conversation and runs a red light. His friend in the backseat is killed and since he had a couple too many glasses of wine, he's charged with DUI with vehicular manslaughter. He makes a plea deal and is sentenced to two years and eight months, but life on the inside means ensuring your safety. He pragmatically aligns himself with a gang of white supremacists for protection, and is soon smuggling drugs in his ass and shivving a guy at their command. After he's involved in a riot, his sentence is extended and he builds a wall around himself, cutting off contact with his wife and son. Now that he's out, he still beholden to the powers that be on the inside, specifically The Beast (Holt McCallany), a gang lord who's so powerful that the guards in solitary answer to him.


It sounds like a standard-issue prison melodrama, but Waugh constructs SHOT CALLER in a way that it becomes a character study of a man using his intelligence to stay alive in a horrible situation. In a typical scenario like this, the story would be about what the prison system does to convicts. Everything that happens to Jacob in his transformation into Money is of his own volition. The pieces don't all fit until much later--indeed, there are moments here with the storytelling seems muddled, especially with exactly what Money's parole officer (Omari Hardwick) is really up to, but it all becomes clear by the end (though I'm still not quite sure what happened to Jeffrey Donovan's "Bottles," a key gang figure who vanishes from the film with no explanation). The main reason SHOT CALLER works so well is Coster-Waldau. Money is a quiet man who can only be pushed so far, and Coster-Waldau, in one of 2017's best performances that no one will see, never goes over the top and rarely raises his voice, internalizing Money's rage, always playing it smart and reading the room before making a decision that shows he's several steps ahead of everyone else. SHOT CALLER premiered on DirecTV before going straight to VOD after two years on the shelf. This deserved a much better release strategy than it got. (R, 121 mins, on Blu-ray/DVD)


THE BABYSITTER
(US - 2017)



It dispenses with any and all logic by the end, but the Netflix Original film THE BABYSITTER is a fun, fast, blood-splattered horror-comedy that's perfect for streaming. Bullied, overprotected 13-year-old Cole (Judah Lewis) is the only kid his age who still has a babysitter, but he doesn't mind because it's hot and hip Bee (Samara Weaving), who's so cool that she can quote BILLY JACK with him (there's the first tip-off that this doesn't exist on any level of reality). When his parents (Ken Marino, Leslie Bibb) go for a romantic getaway for the weekend, Cole and Bee party it up, and she even gives him encouraging big sister talks about how things will get better and how he should just be himself and stand up for who he is. Curious about what she does after he goes to bed, he spies on her when he hears the doorbell ring and she lets some friends in.  One of these kids is a nerdy type who clearly isn't like the others (cheerleader, football star, etc), and when Bee puts two daggers through the nerd's skull and they all drink the blood pouring out of his head while reciting passages from an ancient book of Bee's, it's pretty clear that Cole might not make it through the weekend.


Basically HOME ALONE with Satan worshipers instead of bumbling burglars, THE BABYSITTER has Cole evading Bee and her accomplices, setting traps for them, and using his wits to take them out one by one. Considering it's after midnight and they're in a neighborhood, it's surprising no one calls the cops with all the mayhem going on, but hey, whatever. The kills are goofy and gory and the set-ups for some of the splattery gags are surprisingly smart in some foreshadowing and joke construction that's far more clever than it has any reason to be.  It's a little more small-scale than you 'd normally expect from brainless blockbuster purveyor McG (CHARLIE'S ANGELS, TERMINATOR: SALVATION), who really goes for a sort-of Joe Dante vibe here. It's a guilty pleasure and I'm probably way past the target demographic, but it was funny and surprisingly enjoyable and just the right length at 85 minutes. Look for this to become a big cult movie with teenagers. (Unrated, 85 mins, on Netflix)


THE FOREIGNER
(China/UK - 2017)


A formulaic (villain says to hero "We're a lot alike, you and I") but still-riveting revenge/political thriller that's probably not quite as action-packed as the trailers make it out to be.  Chinese immigrant Jackie Chan, trained by US Special Forces during Vietnam and now a British citizen, is obsessed with vengeance after his teenage daughter is killed in a London bomb blast. A group calling itself "Authentic IRA" claims responsibility, which doesn't sit well with Pierce Brosnan, a former IRA and Sinn Fein legend in his youth, now a Belfast-based bureaucrat working for the British government. Chan demands answers from Brosnan and won't leave him alone, setting off a small bomb in his office, following him, texting him photos he's taken of him with his mistress.  Tensions escalate and it becomes clear Brosnan has something to hide, and it's quite fun watching him grow increasingly agitated that this "60-year-old Chinaman" is outwitting all the bodyguards and flunkies he sends after him.  At first it appears the film when be Jackie Chan's entry into Liam Neeson/TAKEN mode, but THE FOREIGNER is equally focused on political intrigue and the past haunting the present, whether it's Chan and his family's tragic backstory or Brosnan's former associates and even his wife (Orla Brady) thinking he's a sellout. The story gets surprisingly twisty and complex, with one really sleazy plot reveal midway through that produced audible gasps from the audience.  One problem is that the second half is so focused on Brosnan (who's really great here, chewing the scenery with rage and gusto) that there's a long stretch where Chan vanishes and seems like a guest star in his own movie, and Chan purists may lament the trickery used to help him with his stunt work (the dude's 63--give him a break), but THE FOREIGNER allows the beloved action star a chance to show his dark side in an English-language role, and the film proves to be a solid thriller from director Martin Campbell (GOLDENEYE, CASINO ROYALE) with a terrific score by the always-reliable Cliff Martinez. (R, 114 mins, in theaters)


CULT OF CHUCKY
(US - 2017)


The seventh entry in the now-29-year-old CHILD'S PLAY franchise, written all these years by Don Mancini (who took over directing with the fifth installment, 2004's SEED OF CHUCKY), returns to the more comedic approach largely abandoned by 2013's surprisingly straightforward CURSE OF CHUCKY. CULT brings back paraplegic Nica (Fiona Dourif) from the previous film, and it makes Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent, a little kid in the first film back in 1988) a key supporting character. Mancini's storyline is muddled for the most part, but eventually things make sense--at least on their own terms--and you'll just roll with the insanity that develops. Mancini seems to be making it up as he goes along, but like CURSE, there's some surprisingly well-done shout-outs to the horror genre in general, with one SUSPIRIA-inspired death being a real standout.  There's other genre staples like De Palma split screen, a lecherous doctor, and a mental hospital whose chilly, antiseptic layout has a vaguely Canadian horror vibe to it.  Plus having Chucky possess the patients at a mental hospital one by one is a sly nod to THE EXORCIST III with that film's Brad Dourif also being the voice of Chucky. It's actually almost adorable watching Nica get possessed by Chucky and cackling along with him, Fiona Dourif perfectly replicating her dad's Chucky laugh. There's some impressively over-the-top gore, a lot of it old-school and practical. This has turned into one of the more durable horror franchises, very unusual in that it's been going nearly 30 years with Mancini and Dourif, as well as the returning Vincent and Jennifer Tilly, who's been a part of the party since 1998's BRIDE OF CHUCKY, and has yet to be rebooted. CULT OF CHUCKY is what it is--it's no masterpiece, but in the world of DTV and being a horror franchise that's several decades old, it's more entertaining than it has any reason to be. (R, 91 mins, on Blu-ray/DVD)