Tuesday, May 29, 2012

New on Netflix Streaming: THE HEIR APPARENT: LARGO WINCH (2008) and KING OF DEVIL'S ISLAND (2010)

(France/Belgium, 2008; US release 2011)

Based on a series of popular Belgian comic books and graphic novels, LARGO WINCH ("THE HEIR APPARENT" was added by US distributor Music Box) was a hit in Europe, but took three years to get a limited US release.  It drew comparisons to early 007 films, but it really feels more like what might happen if the Bond films focused less on action and thrills and more on meetings in M's office and the behind-the-scenes stuff at Universal Exports.  With a globetrotting plot that eventually crosses over into the incomprehensible, LARGO WINCH focuses on the titular hero (the bland Tomer Sisley), the adopted son of recently-murdered billionaire industrialist Nerio Winch (Miki Manojlovic).  At the time of his father's murder, Largo, estranged from the old man and traveling around the world, is being imprisoned in Brazil after mystery woman Lea (Melanie Thierry) plants drugs on him.  Busting out of jail and making his way back to the Winch headquarters in Hong Kong, Largo gets embroiled in all manner of corporate espionage and an attempted takeover by his father's nefarious rival Korsky (Karel Roden).  Most of the rest of the film deals with endless blathering about shares, files, accounts, debts, and Hong Kong.  Once in a while, there's an action scene or a stunning aerial shot of Hong Kong to keep you awake.  Despite game effort from a qualified supporting cast (including Kristin Scott Thomas, Benedict Wong, Anne Consigny, Steven Waddington, and the awesomely-named Wolfgang Pissors), and an admittedly spectacular climactic rooftop fight sequence, the film moves along at a snail's pace, and much of the blame lies with Sisley, suffering from a severe charisma deficiency in the starring role.  Looking like a more toned Sacha Baron Cohen, Sisley does his own stunts (though who knows why he's being chased?), but elsewhere registers zero regardless of what language he's speaking (the film is split about 50/50 in French and English).  A movie like this lives or dies with its star, and Sisley, going for cool but coming off catatonic, is either miscast or just bored when he's not in motion.  And on top of that, what the hell kind of thriller ends with a slow-clapping scene?  Sisley returned for 2011's THE BURMA CONSPIRACY: LARGO WINCH II, which co-stars Sharon Stone, but has yet to secure US distribution. (Unrated, 109 mins)

(Norway/Poland/France/Sweden, 2010; US release 2011)

Based on a true story, KING OF DEVIL'S ISLAND is a frequently harrowing look at the events leading up to the 1915 rebellion of the so-called "Bastoy Boys" at the Bastoy Island boys reform school, off the coast of Norway.  What's here isn't really anything new, and director Marius Holst lets it drag on a bit long and lays the Moby Dick analogies on a little too thick, but overall, it's very well-acted and beautifully shot.  When Erling (Benjamin Helstad) arrives at Bastoy amidst talk that he killed someone, it doesn't take long for him to establish his bona fides as the school's resident rebel.  He forms an uneasy alliance with Olav (Trond Nilsson), who's been installed as the group leader by Bastoy head Governor Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgard), who lives in a very ornate house on the other side of the island with his young wife (Ellen Dorrit Petersen).  Olav is due to be released soon and has grown accustomed to looking the other way at assorted injustices and cruelties, but it's Olav who tries to tell the Governor about his top aide, housefather Brathen (Kristoffer Joner) being a pedophile who regularly molests slow-witted Ivar (Magnus Langlete) in the laundry room.  For his own reasons, the Governor sweeps Olav's accusations under the rug, and a final tragedy involving Ivar, which finally prompts the boys to rally behind Erling and Olav and revolt.  Skarsgard's Governor is a fascinating character who, despite his stern and unbending manner, feels a duty to rehabilitate the boys and doesn't believe in the cruelty practiced by his underlings.  He's torn about doing nothing about Brathen, but in doing so, puts his own interests ahead of the boys.  Holst doesn't keep the momentum going all the way up to the very end and it occasionally succumbs to cliche and familiarity (a lot of it recalls THE MAGDELENE SISTERS), but KING OF DEVIL'S ISLAND goes far on the performances of Skarsgard, Joner, Helstad, and Nilsson. (Unrated, 116 mins)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Summer of 1982: ROCKY III (May 28, 1982)

Released Memorial Day weekend 1982, the highly-anticipated ROCKY III ended the two-week box office reign of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, grossing a then-very impressive $16 million on 939 screens.  Sold-out showings and a whopping $17,000/screen average would cause the film to expand to just over 1300 screens at its widest release.  By way of comparison, CONAN was playing on 1600 at this same time; there were none of today's 4000 screen rollouts back then, so things actually stayed in first-run theaters for a long time, because it sometimes took people weeks to be able to see them (as an example, PORKY'S was still in the top five after Memorial Day, in its 11th week of release).  ROCKY III was a durable hit, staying in the top five until late July and going on to earn $125 million, making it the fourth-highest grossing film of 1982.

Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, ROCKY III is thoroughly predictable at every turn, but few people know how to work their base like Stallone in his prime.  After two immensely crowd-pleasing films, audiences had grown to care about Rocky, his wife Adrian (Talia Shire), his dumb brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young), and his tough-as-nails trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith).  As ROCKY III opens, the Champ finds himself under fire from all directions:  Paulie's still jealous and feeling left out and Mickey doesn't want to fight anymore, but biggest (and loudest) of all is upstart heavyweight Clubber Lang (an iconic performance by Mr. T), making a name for himself and calling out Rocky as a "paper champion."  But the thing is, Clubber's right.  Rocky seems to be everywhere but the ring:  TV commercials, magazine covers, THE MUPPET SHOW, and even charity wrestling matches with Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan!).  He's more celebrity than fighter, and after Mickey confesses that he's only lined up chump challengers to keep Rocky at the top ("Ya ain't been hungry since ya won that belt!" Mick growls), Rocky starts to question his legitimacy as a champ and, despite announcing his retirement, agrees to fight Clubber to prove his ability to himself.  Rocky not only gets his ass kicked, but Mickey dies of a heart attack in the Madison Square Garden dressing room.  Enter Rocky's old opponent Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) who sees that Rocky's gotten lazy and complacent with his title and his fame and he needs to regain the "eye of the tiger."  Apollo takes over as Rocky's manager and trains him for a rematch with Clubber, who's become an even more insufferable dick now that he's the champ.

Few actors embody the underdog as well as Stallone, and as a writer, he needed to find a way to once again make Rocky fit that mold.  But was it necessary to have Rocky and company move into a fleabag Skid Row flophouse so the Italian Stallion could regain his edge?  But as hokey as it is, ROCKY III looks like RAGING BULL compared to 1985's on-leave-from-reality ROCKY IV, made the same year as RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, in the midst of the Stallone-as-American-hero mania.

One major reason that ROCKY III had such staying power with audiences--it actually had an increase in box office in early July, over a month after it was released--was the soundtrack.  And no, I don't mean the three Frank Stallone songs featured on it, but rather, Survivor's chart-topping, Oscar-nominated monster anthem "Eye of the Tiger." It's said that every summer has its song, and you couldn't go anywhere in the summer of 1982 without hearing "Eye of the Tiger."  And even today, it's an impossible song to dislike.  If you listen to "Eye of the Tiger" and don't feel even a little bit of an adrenaline rush, then there's something wrong with you.

The other major release this same weekend (on 237 more screens than ROCKY III?!) was the Canadian slasher film VISITING HOURS, directed by Jean Claude Lord.  Expectedly trashed by critics, VISITING HOURS isn't the best of its kind, but it gets a lot of mileage out of a truly repulsive, disturbing perfomance by Michael Ironside as Colt Hawker, a deranged, sadistic killer obsessed with a TV newscaster (Lee Grant).  When an attempt on her life fails and she ends up in the hospital, he just goes to the hospital to try and finish the job.  Ironside had been at the center of an instantly-legendary scene a year earlier in David Cronenberg's SCANNERS, and with VISITING HOURS, it seemed like he was poised to become a new horror icon.  Instead, he's stayed busy to this day as an in-demand character actor, in films ranging from A-list to D-grade DTV garbage, plus frequent TV guest spots.  But his reputation as a go-to bad guy was built on his turns in SCANNERS and VISITING HOURS. Aided by a creepily effective TV spot and similar poster art, VISITING HOURS managed to open in second place--a distant second at $5 million, but second nonetheless.  I watched VISITING HOURS again about a year ago, and it holds up fairly well, getting a touch of class from the participation of veteran pros like Grant and William Shatner as her TV station boss.

 VISITING HOURS trailer/TV spot

And speaking of Shatner, VISITING HOURS would not be the last time he'd be seen on the big screen in the summer of 1982. In fact, he had another film that was scheduled to open the next weekend...

*box office figures obtained from Box Office Mojo (www.boxofficemojo.com)

Saturday, May 26, 2012

In Theaters: CHERNOBYL DIARIES (2012)

(US, 2012)

Directed by Brad Parker.  Written by Oren Peli, Shane Van Dyke, Carey Van Dyke.  Cast: Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski, Nathan Phillips, Devin Kelley, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Dimitri Diatchenko, Olivia Taylor Dudley. (R, 88 mins)

Despite appearances and the involvement of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY mastermind Oren Peli as producer and co-writer, CHERNOBYL DIARIES is not another in the endless stream of "found footage" horror outings.  It does, however, rely heavily on shaky-cam to tell the story of four Americans--brothers Paul (Jonathan Sadowski of the somehow-lasted-for-an-entire-season TV series $#*! MY DAD SAYS ) and Chris (former teen pop sensation Jesse McCartney), Chris' girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and Natalie's friend Amanda (Devin Kelley)--and two Australians, Michael (Nathan Phillips of WOLF CREEK) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal of the Norwegian horror film COLD PREY), on an "extreme tour" day trip to Pripyat, the town abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown in April 1986.  Led by gregarious ex-Special Forces tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), who's been supervising these excursions for five years, the tourists are denied entrance at a checkpoint because of a "maintenance issue."  Undeterred, Uri tells his customers "There's more than one way into Pripyat," and he takes them in through a roundabout way through a surrounding wooded area.  While radiation levels are elevated, a few hours exposure won't do any harm, and the biggest surprise they get is the sudden appearance of a wild bear.  But once back at the van, Uri finds the electrical wires torn apart.  Then the howling and the wailing start, and they quickly realize they're not alone and Pripyat is not abandoned.

CHERNOBYL DIARIES, directed by veteran visual effects artist Brad Parker, does an admirable job of creating a grimly ominous, dread-filled atmosphere in the early going.  Seamlessly integrated stock footage of the real abandoned Pripyat blends with scenes shot in similar-looking locations in Serbia and Hungary (even recreating the Pripyat ferris wheel) and the resulting imagery is often very effective.  Great effort was made in the production design, and it shows.  It's too bad Peli wasn't as diligent about the script, which he co-wrote with Dick Van Dyke's grandsons Shane and Carey, both behind-the-scenes veterans of numerous Asylum ripoffs for SyFy, including STREET RACER, THE DAY THE EARTH STOPPED, TRANSMORPHERS: FALL OF MAN, TITANIC II, and even the Oren Peli knockoff PARANORMAL ENTITY.  Once the menace makes itself apparent, CHERNOBYL DIARIES basically turns into a HILLS HAVE EYES redux, with mutant Pripyat residents stalking the ever-dwindling group of tourists.  Most of the film is shot in darkness, illuminated only by flashlights, which make it incredibly easy for the mutants to capture their prey.  Also helping them are the numerous instances of convenient stupidity demonstrated by characters who must be killed for the plot to proceed.  One such demise is handled in a laughably clumsy fashion, as one of the tourists seems to momentarily forget how to climb a ladder, fumbling about and half-assedly trying to grab a rung, basically waiting for a couple beats until Parker gives some Serbian extras the cue to grab her and take her away.  Things just get dumber as the film goes along, culimating in a conclusion that could take US-Russian relations back to the glorious heyday of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What can you say about a horror movie where the most chilling moments are the quiet ones where nothing's happening and you're just observing the setting and the locations?  If you really want to be unsettled, just Google some images of the vacated Pripyat.  Those will send more chills down your spine than anything in the watchable but very tired CHERNOBYL DIARIES.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: U.S. SEALS II (2001)

(US, 2001)

Directed by Isaac Florentine.  Written by Michael Weiss.  Cast: Michael Worth, Damian Chapa, Karen Kim, Marshall Teague, Kate Connor, Sophia Crawford, Andy Cheng, Hakim Alston, Plamen Zahov, Daniel Southworth, George Cheung, Burnell Tucker, Velizar Binev. (R, 95 mins)


Anyone who's seen the deliriously insane U.S. SEALS II knows the significance of that sound.  Like its predecessor a year earlier, U.S. SEALS II went straight to video and only features two minor supporting characters held over from the first film, so knowing the events of U.S. SEALS is utterly unnecessary.  As the audaciously batshit PUNISHER: WAR ZONE was to the disappointing THE PUNISHER, U.S. SEALS II is a different beast altogether, almost completely abandoning the stale, cliched military plot and instead delivering a cartoonishly balls-out martial-arts orgy that exists on no known level of reality.  This complete shift in tone comes courtesy of director Isaac Florentine, an Israeli-born martial-arts expert who got his start as a stunt coordinator and then a director on the MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS TV series.  Over the last decade or so, Florentine has become a major cult figure in the world of straight-to-DVD action films, based largely on U.S. SEALS II, but also BRIDGE OF DRAGONS (1999), and his two sequels to Walter Hill's 2002 film UNDISPUTED:  UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING (2006) and UNDISPUTED III: REDEMPTION (2010).  Florentine's films have a kinetic, unique ferocity all their own, and I'm surprised he hasn't yet graduated to A-list fare.  Usually working with the folks at NuImage, it's possible that he enjoys the relative freedom they give him to do what he wants, especially since he wasn't pleased with the outcome of his one recent film done for others (the 2009 Van Damme actioner THE SHEPHERD: BORDER PATROL).  Sure, a lot of U.S. SEALS II is ridiculous and stupid, but it's so incredibly ridiculous and stupid that surely some of it is meant to be comedic.  Or at the very least, winking.

Michael Worth as Lt. Casey Sheppard
A SEAL raid on a terrorist compound--featuring random backflips and bazookas appearing out of nowhere--goes bad when leader Frank Ratliff (Damian Chapa) disobeys orders and kills the man they needed to keep alive.  Stationed in Okinawa, Ratliff senselessly kills Nikki (Karen Kim), the party-girl daughter of the Sensei (George Cheung) of the dojo where he and best friend Lt. Casey Sheppard (Michael Worth) study martial arts.  Disgraced, the Sensei commits seppuku and his other daughter, Nikki's twin Kimiko (also Kim) turns her back on Casey's attempt to get to the bottom of Nikki's murder.  Three years later, a despondent Casey has left military service and is living in peaceful exile when he's called back into action by Major Donner (Marshall Teague) after Ratliff, also out of the service and now a nefarious arms dealer, and some cohorts (including Sophia Crawford as a lethal femme fatale and second-unit director/stunt coordinator Andy Cheng) kidnap rocket scientist Dr. Jane Burrows (Kate Connor) and take her to an island compound where he needs her to launch two nuclear warheads.  That is, unless the US government pays him $1 billion.  Donner and Admiral Patterson (Burnell Tucker) allow Casey to assemble his own lethal team of ragtag miscreants and ne'er-do-wells (and a vengeful Kimiko) to launch a raid on Ratliff's stronghold (where there's some kind of constant methane leak, preventing the use of guns or anything that ignites), rescue Dr. Burrows, prevent global destruction, and hope we don't see the story elements pilfered from DIE HARD and UNDER SIEGE. They're...THE ULTIMATE FORCE!

Karen Kim in action
If it feels like this has a Cannon vibe to it, it's because NuImage is essentially the staff members of Cannon not named Menahem Golan or Yoram Globus.  Led by such Cannon alumni as Avi Lerner, Boaz Davidson, and John Thompson, who ran Cannon's Italian studio in the early '80s, NuImage emerged as a prolific supplier of often shoddy straight-to-video titles in the wake of Cannon's early '90s implosion.  As time went on, NuImage set up shop in Sofia, Bulgaria, helping pave the way for much US production activity in Eastern Europe that still goes on today.  Later, NuImage vacillated between that name and their "prestige" moniker Millennium Films when they tried to enter the big leagues with major Hollywood figures like Al Pacino (88 MINUTES), Michael Douglas (KING OF CALIFORNIA), and Brian De Palma (THE BLACK DAHLIA) to name just three, but other than their association with Sylvester Stallone (on RAMBO, and the two EXPENDABLES films), they haven't had a lot of success theatrically.  Some good films, to be sure (BROOKLYN'S FINEST, BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS, and the barely-released TRUST), but major flops as well (their remake of CONAN THE BARBARIAN bombed).  Despite Lerner & Co.'s attempts to go A-list, it's still video-store perennials like U.S. SEALS II and the SHARK ATTACK films that many people think of when they hear "NuImage."  And U.S. SEALS II (followed the next year by the unrelated, Florentine-less, back-to-basics follow-up U.S. SEALS: DEAD OR ALIVE) has all the hallmarks of vintage NuImage:  the feel of late-period Cannon; cheap sets; most of the over-the-top action taking place in an abandoned Bulgaria factory; ludicrous dialogue ("Just kick some ass!"); terrible dubbing of supporting actors already speaking English in an American production; and really primitive, SyFy-level CGI courtesy of the same Bulgarian VFX team they used throughout most of the decade.

U.S. SEALS II isn't Florentine's best film, but it's probably his most well-known (his two UNDISPUTED sequels are awesome).  It became a word-of-mouth hit among video store employees and bad movie fans with its constant whoosh sound effects whenever someone moves.  I'm not kidding.  Whether someone's aiming a gun, engaged in a martial-arts battle, signaling with their hand, or simply peering around a corner and turning their head, nearly every physical action is accompanied by a whoosh sound.  This fight scene with Kim and Crawford (includes SPOILERS) is a perfect example.  Even flowing hair whooshes. 

(SPOILERS again) But no discussion of U.S. SEALS II would be complete without addressing the unforgettable demise of Chapa's venal, smirking Ratliff.  Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot's Marty McKee has called it one of the top five villain deaths in all of cinema.  That's really not an exaggeration.  The main issue with its presentation is that its ambitions like beyond any budget or VFX capability that NuImage was willing or able to provide.  The CGI is wonky, but as McKee has said, it works based on sheer intent and outrageousness.  The sequence below is part of a larger one, intercut with Kim fighting Crawford and Andy Cheng, but the YouTube user edited it to just focus on Worth and Chapa, which explains why it's choppy.  But the fight choreography and the action are top-notch and often brilliantly inventive in their presentation.  Florentine is one of the best action directors in movies today.  Why isn't he directing THE EXPENDABLES 2?

Yeah!  You just saw that shit!  And did you hear it at the very end?  Go back and listen again. At 4:09 into the clip.  One final, subtle, beautiful...whoosh.

Bravo, Maestro Florentine.  Bravo.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

New on DVD: PLOT OF FEAR (1976)

(Italy, 1976)

Directed by Paolo Cavara.  Written by Bernardino Zapponi, Paolo Cavara, Enrico Oldoini.  Cast: Corinne Clery, Michele Placido, Eli Wallach, Tom Skerritt, John Steiner, Jacques Herlin, Quinto Parmeggiani, Eddy Fay, Sarah Ceccarini, Cecilia Polizzi, Claudio Zucchet, Greta Vajant, Mary Ruth League. (Unrated, 95 mins)

Raro USA has done a nice job with the restoration of this obscure late-period giallo from director Paolo Cavara, best known for 1971's Dario Argento-inspired BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA.  Long available in bootleg circles, PLOT OF FEAR (original Italian title: E TANTA PAURA) never made it to US theaters, nor did it ever turn up on home video, so this DVD marks the film's belated first official American release.  Scripted by Cavara, Enrico Oldoini, and DEEP RED co-writer and regular Fellini collaborator Bernardino Zapponi, PLOT OF FEAR gets off to a clunky, confusing start and veers wildly between giallo and poliziotteschi, with some liberal doses of trangressive softcore porn.  It's not a great film being rediscovered, but it's certainly an interesting artifact, not just for its rampant, cynical misanthropy (the rich are perverted and corrupt, men are petty and insecure, women are either vacuous models or dead hookers), but also for Eurotrash devotees, with its strange cast, terrible English dubbing (the original and better-preserved Italian audio track is also included), pervasive sleaze, and an infectiously catchy score by Daniele Patucchi, which is screaming to be covered by a present-day stoner rock band.

Opening scene.  Credits and kickass music start around 1:30 into the clip

Bad-tempered Inspector Lomenzo (Michele Placido) is dealing with several violent murders.  Heads have been bashed in, and bodies set ablaze.  One guy is even shot in the head while being interviewed on a talk show.  Pictures from a childrens book are left with the victims.  The victims are all wealthy and members of "Wildlife Friends," which imports wild animals caught on African safaris but is really a front for diamond smuggling and an underground sex club at Villa Hoffmann.  All of the murders are connected to the mysterious death of underage prostitute Rosa (Sarah Ceccarini) several years earlier at Villa Hoffmann, after a wild night that involved animated, surreal porn films, group sex, forced under-the-table fellatio, and an attempt to feed Rosa to a caged tiger.  Someone is out to avenge Rosa's death, and is brutally offing the rich, decadent perverts one by one.

One of the suspects is Rosa's pimp (Claudio Zucchet), who, in this scene, gets picked up for questioning and bolts from the police car, instigating a brief but amazing foot chase through what has to be the busiest intersection in Milan.  This brilliant bit looks as chaotic, awkward, and unchoreographed as a real pursuit would look (does that guy intend to tumble down the steps the way he does?), and I have serious doubts that the drivers of these cars knew that a movie was being shot.

Meanwhile, Lomenzo becomes romantically involved with Jeanne (Corinne Clery, fresh off the controversial, X-rated THE STORY OF O), a prostitute and part-time model who was also at Villa Hoffman the night of Rosa's death.  As the murders continue, Lomenzo is torn between his relationship with Jeanne and her possible connection to the murders, and he also finds himself tangling with Riccio (Eli Wallach), an eccentric, chocolate-addicted private investigator who seems to have all of Milan under surveillance, hired by the surviving deviants to find out who's trying to kill them.

John Steiner as Hoffmann
Placido is a fine actor, but he doesn't seem well cast here.  With its periodic delvings into polizia territory and with Lomenzo's ill temper, PLOT OF FEAR really could've benefitted from a Fabio Testi or especially a Maurizio Merli in the starring role. Placido just doesn't come off as intimidating enough.  Eurocult vet John Steiner also appears as the owner of Villa Hoffmann.  But the Strangest Casting Honors of PLOT OF FEAR (also known as TOO MUCH FEAR, and apparently released in Sweden, in what must set a new standard for "something lost in the translation," as BLOODY PEANUTS) go to visiting Americans Wallach and Tom Skerritt (yes, THAT Tom Skerritt), who has three brief scenes, wearing an entirely too-small leather jacket as Lomenzo's boss.  Neither Wallach nor Skerritt stuck around to dub their performances, so they aren't heard on the English track (Skerritt is dubbed by the ubiquitous Ted Rusoff).  For actors as recognizable as these two to be revoiced by others--especially with Wallach's gravelly tone--is more than slightly jarring.   Other English dubbing regulars heard throughout include Carolynn De Fonseca dubbing one of the Wildlife Friends, Pat Starke dubbing Clery, and Frank von Kuegelgen dubbing Steiner.  I'm not sure who's revoicing Placido and Wallach, but they sound very familiar.  Wallach actually has a sizable role, but given his brief screen time, I doubt Skerritt was on the set for more than a couple of days.  He had small roles in two other Italian projects around this time (the film LA MADAMA and the Italian TV miniseries ORIGINS OF THE MAFIA), so it's possible he knocked them all out in one trip and made a working vacation out of it.

"Buon giorno, Tom.  I'm Michele, nice to meet you.  Two quick questions:
why are you in this movie and exactly what is that you're wearing?"

"Italy?  All expenses paid?  Lots of naked women in
the movie?  And I don't even have to hang
around to dub myself?  Deal!"

Raro supplies plenty of extras, including a subtitled interview with Placido, who talks about the making of PLOT OF FEAR and shares warm memories of working with Wallach.   There's also interviews with co-writer Oldoini, as well as Pietro Cavara, son of the late director (Paolo Cavara died in 1982).  The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer looks great and has to be a significant upgrade from Raro's original, non-anamorphic Italian release some years back.  Raro USA's packaging mentions "new and improved English subtitles," but Wallach's character ("Pietro Riccio") is inexplicably referred to as "Peter Struwwel" in the English subtitles, even though "Riccio" is clearly audible on both audio tracks.  This was apparently an issue with the original Italian DVD release.  In lieu of the liner notes they used to provide, Raro USA gives us an appreciation of the film by Fangoria editor Chris Alexander, in the form of a PDF file.   He can't explain BLOODY PEANUTS, either.

Original Italian poster

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

New on DVD/Blu-ray: CERTIFIED COPY (2010); BEYOND (2012); CONTRABAND (2012)

(France/Italy/Belgium, 2010; US release 2011)

Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami's first film outside his homeland garnered much critical acclaim and has been released by Criterion, but I'm not feeling the magic. In Italy, an antique shop owner (Juliette Binoche) attends a lecture given by British art historian James (opera singer William Shimell, in a role originally intended for Robert De Niro).  Much to her surprise, he agrees to spend a leisurely Sunday afternoon with her before catching his train that evening.  They drive to a small village and discuss art, culture, philosophy, and life, and when a cafe server mistakes James for her husband at about the 50-minute point, they decide to roll with it.  For the remaining hour of the film, they role-play as a couple celebrating 15 years of marriage.  So, much like their art talk of the value of "real" vs "copy," we're meant to question which of these halves is accurate:  are they strangers spending the day together or are they a married couple at a crossroads, and the first half was role-playing?   If there are any answers, Kiarostami's not interested in them.  Instead we get a lot of facile symbolism involving mirrors, windows, and reflective surfaces (oooh..."real" vs "copy"...the duality!).  Binoche's character has a young son who exits the film early on--is this their son and is he even real?  Looking back, no one other than James seems to see him or acknowledge him. Are she and James a couple who drifted apart after an overwhelming tragedy?  Who knows?   They pontificate on art, emotions, meaning, memory, reality, but assuming for a moment that they really are strangers, are we to believe that a world-renowned figure like James would play along with this woman who would seem to grow increasingly unhinged over the afternoon?   This drew a lot of comparisons to BEFORE SUNRISE and BEFORE SUNSET, but honestly, as bizarre as the "they're strangers" side of it is, it wouldn't take much tweaking to turn it into a riff on MISERY.  And hey, I know if I had a chance to spend an afternoon with one of my favorite writers, I'd expect them to indulge me and role play so I can work through my psychological hang-ups and foibles.  CERTIFIED COPY is pompous, pretentious bullshit.  (Unrated, running time: endless)

(US, 2012)

It's nice to see Jon Voight in a lead role again, but aside from his presence, there's not much to recommend about the bland, boring BEYOND.  A kidnapping thriller with supernatural overtones, BEYOND casts Voight as a veteran Alaska detective who's the go-to guy for missing children cases.  Nearing retirement (of course), this sort-of Abduction Whisperer is called in to help find the police chief's (Dermot Mulroney) missing niece (Dharbi Jens).  Voight suspects everyone, including the squabbling parents (Teri Polo, Ben Crowley), the babysitter (Skyler Shaye), and even a famous TV psychic (Julian Morris) who claims to have visions of the missing girl.  The paranormal angle is just a dead-end distraction and the final revelation straight out of an uninspired LAW & ORDER episode.  Director Josef Rusnak (who made the underrated 1999 sci-fi film THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR, but lately has been doing stuff like the dreadful IT'S ALIVE remake) establishes an impressively cold, barren look throughout the film with wide open interiors and the snowy terrain of Alaska and gets an appropriately grizzled, grouchy performance from Voight, who's still got it at 73, but as a thriller, BEYOND is a pretty stale affair.  (PG-13, 90 mins)

(US/UK/Iceland, 2012)

Icelandic actor/director Baltasar Kormakur starred in Oskar Jonasson's 2008 thriller REYKJAVIK-ROTTERDAM and steps behind the camera for this remake.  Mark Wahlberg takes over Kormakur's role, bringing his finest "say hi to your mother for me" schtick to his role as a now-legit ex-smuggler brought back into the game for One Last Job.  Now running his own New Orleans security company, Wahlberg is forced to bail out his loser brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) who botched a drug run and is on the hook for $700,000 to dirtbag drug lord/Cajun meth-head Giovanni Ribisi.  Ribisi, totally over the top, has no problem making overt threats to Wahlberg's wife (Kate Beckinsale) and kids, so she takes them to stay with Wahlberg's best friend (Ben Foster), who really can't be trusted, since he's played by Ben Foster.  Wahlberg and some pals get work on a container ship captained by J.K. Simmons (cast radically against type as "J.K. Simmons") in order to smuggle in some counterfeit bills from Panama, but there wouldn't be a movie if the plan didn't turn to shit.  Before long, the plot involves a psychotic Panamanian crime kingpin (Diego Luna), bricks of cocaine, a priceless Jackson Pollock painting, and Ribisi threatening to shoot Wahlberg's kid at his Little League game.  Plausibility isn't CONTRABAND's strong suit, but it's sufficiently entertaining.  Kormakur thankfully avoids annoying trends like shaky-cam and in the latter part of the film, with the help of Clinton Shorter's synthy score, he actually gets a very Michael Mann vibe going before a wrap-up that's just far too conveniently neat and tidy.  Diverting while you're watching it but forgettable soon after, CONTRABAND will have a long life on cable but isn't anything special, though it's highly recommended for fans of Giovanni Ribisi scenery chewing. (R, 110 mins)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

New on DVD: MORTUARY (1983)

(US, 1983)

Directed by Howard Avedis.  Written by Howard Avedis and Marlene Schmidt.  Cast: Mary McDonough, Lynda Day George, Christopher George, David Wallace, Bill Paxton, Alvy Moore, Bill Conklin, Denis Mandel, Donna Garrett, Marlene Schmidt.  (R, 93 mins)

A familiar title from the video store glory days, MORTUARY arrived in theaters in the fall of 1983 with one of the most misleading ad campaigns of its day.  With poster art featuring a hand sticking out of a grave and a trailer that utilized footage and an actor (THE HILLS HAVE EYES' Michael Berryman) not present in the film itself, MORTUARY didn't exactly endear itself to horror fans.  Instead, it's a rather straightforward suspense thriller with post-HALLOWEEN/FRIDAY THE 13TH slasher elements that too often look like clumsily-inserted gore scenes that were added after the fact, as if a distributor or someone controlling the cash flow decided the movie needed more splatter.  Exploitation vet Howard Avedis (SCORCHY, THE FIFTH FLOOR) does a nice job staging some effective scare sequences throughout, and until you get a really good look at the killer ("Open the window, Christie!"), his appearance--sort of a cross between Captain Howdy from THE EXORCIST and the frontman of a Norwegian black metal band--is pretty unnerving.  But Avedis lets some scenes go on too long, the killer's identity is too obvious too early, and the gore scenes aren't as well done as in some of its contemporaries.  When fans today look back at a lot of these '80s slasher films, there's much misplaced nostalgia for some of them and I think it's really the era being remembered with such fondness rather than some of the individual titles. MORTUARY was not a beloved film in its time.  Is it a long-buried treasure ripe for rediscovery?  No.  But freed from the shackles of its hysterically inaccurate one-sheet and trailer and all of those expectations, it holds up pretty well.

Mary McDonough and Lynda Day George
Since her father mysteriously drowned a month earlier, Christie (Mary McDonough) is convinced his death was no accident and thinks someone is after her.  Meanwhile, her mother Eve (Lynda Day George) is attending seances held at the funeral home of local mortician Hank Andrews (Christopher George).  Hank's creepy son Paul (a pre-fame Bill Paxton), who spent time in a mental hospital after his mother's suicide, has a crush on Christie, who already has a boyfriend, Greg (David Wallace).  Greg's friend, a former employee of Hank's, has vanished without a trace.  Soon, Christie is being pursued by a robed, hooded, white-faced killer whose weapon of choice is a sharp embalming tube and of course, no one believes her.

MORTUARY was shot in 1981, just as then-20-year-old McDonough was wrapping up a ten-year run as Erin Walton on the classic TV series THE WALTONS.  It was probably a surprise to see one of the Walton kids getting naked in a horror movie, but Avedis (who co-wrote the script with his wife Marlene Schmidt, formerly 1961's Miss Universe) does a pretty bumbling job of hiding that it's a body double.  You never see McDonough's face and body in the same shot.  The gore scenes are also of varying quality, one obviously without the presence of the actor whose character is being stabbed (again, you never see their face).  Oddly--for the time period, at least--MORTUARY works best when it's more old-school in its execution.  Some of the killer's sudden appearances, as well as a chase through Christie's house (filled some some of the most cluttered and hideously garish decor you'll ever see) are very well done and Avedis seems more invested in these scenes instead of the sloppy, awkwardly-shot gore bits.

"You two donkey dicks couldn't get laid in a morgue!"
With its inconsistencies and its red herrings (the seance subplot never really goes anywhere), MORTUARY is a mixed-bag, but it's entertaining. McDonough makes a likable heroine, and the Georges, who had PIECES in US theaters just two weeks later, are on hand to provide solid professional support (and in Lynda's case, a surprising display of cleavage).  Christopher George, who died of a heart attack less than three months after MORTUARY's release, was well into his run as a grindhouse fixture by this point, after roles in THE EXTERMINATOR, GRADUATION DAY, THE GATES OF HELL (the US retitling of CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) and the forthcoming PIECES, and unlike many in his position, never phoned it in.  He seems to be genuinely trying here, and even clearly ad-libs in a few spots, including a bit where he has to sign a receipt and dickishly makes Greg remove the pen cap, and a scene where he's trying to sell a casket to a bereaved couple, telling them with all the smirking charm of the world's sleaziest used car salesman, "I could run things much smoother if people died between 9:00 and 5:00!"  But the real selling point for MORTUARY today is the presence of a young Paxton in one of his first films.  He's pretty over-the-top, but hard to take seriously, especially when he's seen at one point merrily skipping through a cemetery.

Scorpion's DVD, part of their "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" line, is framed at 1.78:1 and looks good overall.  Some print damage here and there, and some of the murder scenes show more wear than the rest of the film, a possible indication that they came from a different source. MORTUARY has been shown with running times ranging from 84 to 91 minutes, and this DVD runs 93, so maybe there's some extra footage in spots.  Extras include an interview with composer John Cacavas, and the infamous trailer that does not in any way reflect the actual film:

Monday, May 21, 2012

Summer of 1982: THE ROAD WARRIOR (May 21, 1982)

One of the most influential action films of the 1980s, George Miller's THE ROAD WARRIOR is also one of the prime examples of the golden age of Australian cinema.  From the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, films like PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH,  MY BRILLIANT CAREER, BREAKER MORANT, GALLIPOLI, THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER, and CAREFUL, HE MIGHT HEAR YOU among many others, achieved critical and commercial success worldwide. Another of the top Australian imports of the time was 1979's MAD MAX, released in the US in 1980 with the Australian-accented actors redubbed by Americans.  MAD MAX proved to be a decent-sized hit in the US and gave American audiences their first exposure to Mel Gibson.  Gibson returned to the role for MAD MAX 2, released in Australia in late 1981 and retitled THE ROAD WARRIOR for its US release on May 21, 1982, this time keeping the real voices of its cast.  Australian exploitation films,  dubbed "Ozsploitation" by fans, had been renowned for some time for their innovative action sequences and hair-raising, death-defying stunt work.  THE ROAD WARRIOR took this to new levels with its many inventive set pieces and chase sequences set in post-apocalyptic wasteland where Max (Gibson) repeatedly tangles with iconic bad guys Wez (Vernon Wells) and The Humungus (Kjell Nilsson).

US trailer

THE ROAD WARRIOR was an even bigger success than MAD MAX, and resulted in an entirely new post-nuke subgenre--mainly from Italy--films that became fixtures at US drive-ins, in video stores and on late-night cable for the rest of the decade.  Even today, virtually any dystopian film with a post-nuke setting owes something to THE ROAD WARRIOR (which itself borrows elements from its contemporaries, namely the STAR WARS wipe transitions), from the desolate locations to the costumes, cars, and weaponry.  One look at Wez and you see nearly every villain in any one of these.  Portions of the film were even restaged almost wholesale in Neil Marshall's DOOMSDAY (2008), an affectionate tribute to this unique genre that fans, for whatever reason, didn't get.  THE ROAD WARRIOR wasn't the first film of this type, but it set a template that countless films followed. Gibson returned once more for 1985's MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME, and Miller, who most recently directed the two HAPPY FEET films, has tentative plans to reboot the MAD MAX franchise with Tom Hardy in the lead role.

Mel Gibson returns to his star-making role as Max

Vernon Wells as Wez

Kjell Nilsson as the Warrior of the Wasteland, the Ayatollah of Rock n' Rolla: The Humungus!

Bruce Spence as the Gyro Captain

Emil Minty as the lethal boomerang-throwing Feral Kid

Virginia Hey as the Warrior Woman

Also in theaters on this same weekend was Lewis Teague's vigilante thriller FIGHTING BACK, an occasionally ludicrous but much less exploitative take on similar territory explored by DEATH WISH II a few months earlier.  It suffered from familiarity not just with the recently-released Charles Bronson hit but also with the similarly-plotted WE'RE FIGHTING BACK, a nearly identically-titled made-for-TV movie from a year earlier, not to mention an Australian "angry young man" drama titled (wait for it)...FIGHTING BACK, that was also released in 1982.  The May 21, 1982 FIGHTING BACK disappeared from theaters after a couple of weeks but it's acquired a following over the years thanks mainly to the outstanding performance by Tom Skerritt as a fed-up Philly deli owner who decides to take back his Italian-American neighborhood that's been overrun by pimps and pushers.  His pregnant wife (Patti LuPone) mouths off to a pimp and miscarries in the resulting car chase, and his mother walks into a drug store robbery and gets her finger cut off when the creep can't remove her diamond ring from it.  Skerritt and reluctant cop buddy Michael Sarrazin form a Guardian Angels-type neighborhood watch group, which results in various political and legal (and marital) scuffles when Skerritt repeatedly takes the law into his own hands.  The film rather ham-fistedly speaks to societal concerns of urban crime and decay, and the sensationalizing of violence by the media (it opens with a documentary crew in a news studio using creative editing for a news piece when they're disappointed to discover there's no actual clear footage of Pope John Paul II being shot).  It gets pretty silly at times, especially when Skerritt drops a grenade-in-a-water-balloon through the convertible top of a pimp's Cadillac, and with the unlikely casting of Josh Mostel as a drug pusher getting junior-high kids hooked on heroin.  Nevertheless, Skerritt's committed, believable performance really sells it, and thus far, it's the only film to ever feature a credit as awesome as "and Yaphet Kotto as Ivanhoe Washington." It's available on Netflix streaming in a cropped, but decent-looking 1.33 print.

Also released May 21, 1982:

Just some of the countless imitiations spawned by the success of THE ROAD WARRIOR, released throughout the 1980s: