Saturday, June 30, 2012

New on DVD/Blu-ray: BULLHEAD (2011) and GOON (2012)

(Belgium/The Netherlands - 2011)

This Oscar-nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is a riveting drama with an astonishing lead performance by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who gained 60 lbs. of muscle to play Flemish thug Jacky Vanmarsenille.  Jacky's family runs the top cattle farm in their region, breeding cows with all manner of added hormones and steroids obtained in their shady business deals with the local "hormone mafia." Jacky has been abusing these hormone drugs for years, which explains his bulked-up appearance (which Schoenaerts achieved naturally), but addiction to growth hormones is only one problem on his plate.  A cop has been found murdered and the police are slowly building a case against the Vanmersenilles with the help of informant Diederik Maes (Jeroen Perceval), a childhood friend of Jacky's and a witness, shown in an extended flashback, to a traumatic assault he suffered at the hands of young Bruno Schepers (David Murgia), the son of a rival farming family.  Jacky also tries to romantically pursue Bruno's sister Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), who runs a small perfume shop.  As played by Schoenaerts, Jacky is initially unappealing, violent, and completely antisocial (he's often compared to an animal, especially in the way he intimidates others by approaching them and butting heads very much like a bull).  But Schoenaerts and writer/director Michael R. Roskam slowly reveal layers of Jacky's personality and his inner torment to present a truly tragic figure whose life was derailed by one horrific moment in his childhood that still affects him every moment of every day.  Roskam's film is densely plotted and doesn't wrap everything up in a tidy fashion (we can conclude from Jacky's visit brief visit with an adult Bruno--who's not quite the same person he was as a teenager--that Jacky enacted some kind of revenge, but when and how are never explained) but it falls a little short when it comes to the handling of Lucia.  Perhaps Roskam is being deliberately ambiguous in the presentation of this platonic relationship, but it's hard to tell if Lucia recognizes Jacky or not.    It's not credible either way, but plausibility be damned, Roskam needs Lucia to drive Jacky down the path he takes.  Other than this shaky bit of plot convenience, BULLHEAD is a gut-wrenching, powerful character study of tragedy, masculinity, and the often-frayed bonds of friendship that stays with you long after it's over.  (R, 129 mins)

(Canada - 2012)

This dark, foul-mouthed, blood-splattered Canadian hockey comedy draws obvious comparisons to the 1977 classic SLAP SHOT.  While it's not quite on that level in terms of quality, there's a surprising depth and character to GOON that you wouldn't think is there based on the slapsticky advertising and the presence of Seann William Scott.  Scott really dials down his AMERICAN PIE/Stifler persona to play Doug Glatt, a nice, earnest, not-very-bright Massachusetts bar bouncer who only lucks into a spot with the minor-league Halifax Highlanders not because he's good at hockey (he's not), but because he's good at beating the shit out of people.  Director Michael Dowse and writers Jay Baruchel (who also appears as Doug's buddy, the host of a web-based hockey talk show) and Evan Goldberg (who co-wrote SUPERBAD and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS), working from Adam Frattasio & Douglas Smith's book (Glatt is based on Smith), do a very good job of conveying the unglamourous, blue-collar life of minor-league hockey and present it in a much more drab, realistic fashion than you'd think.  There's no Hanson Brothers wackiness here.  Even with all the laughs, GOON still comes off as gritty and real, and Scott's performance is a bit of a revelation.  He's generally not been one to play moody, introspective, and well-meaning-but-kinda-dumb, and he demonstrates range that he's never before shown. Solid work by the supporting cast, including Liev Schreiber as Ross "The Boss" Rhea, a legendary badass St. John's Shamrocks enforcer who's close to retirement, Kim Coates as the irate Highlanders coach, Alison Pill as Doug's possible girlfriend ("You make me want to stop sleeping around with a bunch of guys," she tells him), and Eugene Levy, serious and not befuddled as Doug's disapproving father.  Also with one-time Cronenberg regular Nicholas Campbell, Marc-Andre Grondin, and a training montage set to Rush's "Working Man."  GOON is one of those small, under-the-radar sleepers that don't take very long to become a word-of-mouth cult item.  Highly recommended. (R, 92 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

Friday, June 29, 2012

In Theaters: TED (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by Seth MacFarlane.  Written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild.  Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi, Patrick Warburton, Sam J. Jones, Matt Walsh, Jessica Barth, Laura Vandervoort, Alex Borstein, narrated by Patrick Stewart.  (R, 107 mins)

FAMILY GUY creator Seth MacFarlane's live-action directing debut, co-written with show collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, is a lot like most FAMILY GUY episodes: moments of incredible hilarity offset by long, drawn-out, laborious gags, but nothing as long as say, an Ernie the Giant Chicken appearance or a Conway Twitty song. 

TED tells the raunchy and occasionally heartfelt and insightful (yes, really) story of 35-year-old John (Mark Wahlberg) and his best friend, a talking teddy bear named Ted (voiced by MacFarlane).  John was a lonely child who had trouble making friends, and he made a wish that his large teddy bear could talk and be his best friend forever.  And that's what happened.  The quick-witted Ted even became a flash-in-the-pan celebrity in the late '80s (and as narrator Patrick Stewart intones, "Much like Corey Feldman, Frankie Muniz, and Justin Bieber, the time came when nobody gave a shit"), but now lives a relatively obscure life with John in Boston, occasionally coasting on his long-gone fame to get women or weed.  John works for a car-rental service and has a loving, committed girlfriend in Lori (Mila Kunis), but Lori wants to take the relationship to the next level, while John seems content to get high with Ted and rewatch their favorite movie, 1980's FLASH GORDON, over and over.  Eventually, Lori demands that John make Ted move out on his own, but John repeatedly demonstrates that he isn't ready for a move that drastic.

Ted and John doing shots with FLAAAAASH!
What MacFarlane and his co-writers have fashioned here is essentially a very R-rated look at perpetual adolescence, with John unable to put away his childish things.  He loves Lori and wants to eventually marry her, but even when he gets his own place, Ted is always there to pull John in the opposite direction, be it cutting out of work early to come over, get baked, and watch the bonus features on a CHEERS DVD set, or to ditch Lori at her boss' party to head over to Ted's place, where he's having a loud, destructive bash and FLASH GORDON star Sam J. Jones happens to show up with cocaine (Jones is admirably self-deprecating here, even putting on his Flash outfit at one point).  Amidst the constant profanity and offensive humor, there's an undeniable heart to TED and John's dilemma is one faced by all boys when the time comes to be a man. 

Ted entertaining four hookers: "You know, somewhere
out there are four terrible fathers I wish I could
thank for this great night."
But all that seriousness aside, TED is often tears-down-your-face hilarious, whether the believably-CGI'd Ted, forced to get a job as a cashier at a supermarket, is having hot sex with co-worker Tammy Lynn (Jessica Barth) in the stockroom (Ted: "Oh yeah...now stick your finger in the loop of my tag!"), doing lines of coke with Flash Gordon, or just in the many scenes of Wahlberg and MacFarlane doing a lot of verbal back and forth.  With zingers aimed at nearly every ethnicity and religion, homosexuals, washed-up celebrities, white trash, the decline of America, fat kids, Adam Sandler movies, and pretty much everything in between, there's something here to offend everyone, and on an even grander scale than the comparitively-clean FAMILY GUY.  TED starts to lose itself in the back end, with a completely unnecessary subplot involving a crazed Ted stalker, played by Giovanni Ribisi.  It doesn't really gel with the rest of the film, and seems to exist only so Ribisi can do some crazy shit while dancing to Tiffany's version of  "I Think We're Alone Now."  Likewise, one cutaway to a 2008 flashback at a dance club ("Chris Brown can do no wrong!") is funny, but another pointlessly recreates almost the entire "Stayin' Alive" flashback in AIRPLANE! (1980).  Not only is it a cutaway to what amounts to a parody of a parody, but it's very much like something thrown into a FAMILY GUY episode to get it to 23 minutes.

TED isn't perfect and runs out of steam before the end, but it's on its game most of the way, and it's very funny, with some surprising heart and depth to it, as well as several cameos by some celebs who are obviously good sports about spoofing themselves.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

New on Blu-ray: RED SCORPION (1989) and TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973)

(US - 1989)

An expensive, controversial box office bomb that became a hit in video stores, RED SCORPION now gets the deluxe Blu-ray treatment from Synapse Films.  It looks fantastic, far better than what's essentially an over-budget Golan-Globus ripoff should look (and with MISSING IN ACTION/INVASION U.S.A. director Joseph Zito onboard, it really does feel like Cannon).  Dolph Lundgren is Soviet Spetsnaz killing machine Nikolai Rachenko, ordered by his commander General Vortek (STRAW DOGS' T.P. McKenna) to go to the (fictional) African country of Mombaka (a stand-in for Angola) and assassinate Sundata (Rubin Nthodi), the leader of a group of anti-Communist rebels.  Sure enough, Rachenko realizes who the real oppressors are and with the help of a grizzled American journalist (M. Emmet Walsh), Sundata's right-hand man (Al White), and an elderly bushman named Gao (played by 95-year-old Regopstaan, an actual bushman), turns his back on his country and fights with the rebels, taking on the forces of Vortek, Cuban Col. Zayas (Carman Argenziano) and generic Commie henchman Krasnov (the great Brion James).

RED SCORPION is pure 1980s anti-Commie nonsense, not surprising given that it was the brainchild of a 30-year-old D.C. businessman, lobbyist, noted Young Republican, and fledgling movie producer named Jack Abramoff.   Yes, the same Jack Abramoff who was later convicted of fraud and tax evasion.  There's definitely a right-wing agenda to RED SCORPION, and it may be the only film about a Soviet military officer fighting with African rebels that's designed to have the audience still somehow chanting "USA!" when shit starts blowing up.  Abramoff's baby was a legendarily troubled shoot, as the production was kicked out of Swaziland just before filming began in 1987 and moved to Namibia and South Africa, during the anti-Apartheid boycott (another thing Cannon was frequently doing at the time).  This caused distributor Warner Bros. to back out and the indie Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment ended up releasing the film, which ultimately cost about double its original budget.  But with all that backstory and all those problems, watching the film today, it plays surprisingly well.  It's a cheesy '80s RAMBO knockoff (a monotone Rachenko to the Mombaka rebels: "Let's kick some ass") from start to finish, with tons of action, explosions, and impressive stunt work...the way it used to be done.  Synapse's Blu-ray package comes with a DVD copy of the film (both at 1.78:1, and the unrated, uncensored version), and tons of bonus features, including interviews with Lundgren, Abramoff, and special effects maestro Tom Savini, some behind-the-scenes footage, and a commentary track with Zito and Mondo Digital's Nathaniel Thompson.  RED SCORPION is not a classic awaiting rediscovery, but fans of over-the-top '80s action will find a lot to like.  Zito's engaging, informative, and refreshingly unpretentious commentary harbors no grandiose illusions about what the movie is and he talks a lot about what went into making this kind of action fare in the 1980s ("Action films like this are pure fantasy, but as a director, you have to know where you stand with a movie like this and it's up to you to establish the tone for the audience. You're not making APOCALYPSE NOW, but you're not making HOT SHOTS, either"). (Unrated, 106 mins)

(UK - 1973)

Going back to 1965's DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, the anthology film was a staple of British horror cinema for nearly a decade.  A number of the more popular ones--like DR. TERROR, plus TORTURE GARDEN (1967) and TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972), were directed by the venerable Freddie Francis.  Francis also helmed TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS, which isn't one of the most stellar examples of the subgenre.  The set-up is familiar:  a doctor (Jack Hawkins in his last theatrical feature; he died before it was released) visits a psychiatrist friend (Donald Pleasence), who introduces him to four asylum inmates and tells their stories.  "Mr. Tiger" is about a young boy's imaginary friend, a tiger that might not be so imaginary.  "Penny Farthing" is about a haunted portrait of an old man that wills an antique dealer (Peter McEnery) to travel back in time on a magic penny farthing bicycle.  "Mel" has Michael Jayston as a man who finds a tree stump (with "MEL" carved into a part of the bark) in the vague shape of a woman's body.  He brings it home as a piece of art to display in the house, but it soon casts some kind of seductive spell on him and provokes intense jealousy on the part of his wife (Joan Collins).  "Luau" has literary agent Kim Novak planning a Hawaiian-themed party for a popular young author (Michael Petrovitch).  Her attempts to get her client into bed are thwarted by her flirtaceous daughter (Mary Tamm), but Petrovitch has something else far more sinister and gruesome in mind.  Of course, this all leads to a tired twist at the end.  Except for a few late-period high points like THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970) and TALES FROM THE CRYPT, anthologies of this sort were pretty much running on fumes by this point, and that's firmly exemplified by the uninspired TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS.  Written by "Jay Fairbank," a pen name for actress-turned-screenwriter Jennifer Jayne, these tales are more weird than scary, with "Mel" being the definite low point (especially its last shot).  As is normally the case with films of this sort, they save the best--relatively speaking--for last, but in this genre's prime, "Luau" would've been a first or second segment, certainly not the grand finale.  And the first three wouldn't have even made the cut.

Mel the Cockteasing Tree Stump in

At least it has an interesting cast, even if they're all clearly beneath the material.  Novak, still stunning and already in semi-retirement at just 40, was a last-minute replacement for an ill Rita Hayworth.  Other than doing a favor for her friend and PAL JOEY (1957) co-star, I can't imagine what she found interesting about this project.  Nevertheless, it does show some signs of life during "Luau" and Novak is terrific in her minimal screen time. Collins and Jayston can't do much with the silliness of "Mel," and you almost feel sorry for Jayston (NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA) when he's required to look turned on by "Mel" and somehow use all of his extensive thespian training to convince the audience that he wants to get it on with a tree stump.  Completists will probably get more out of TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS than the casual viewer, but even with its modern advances like occasional splatter and a couple bits of nudity, it's pretty C-list material at best, and Francis made much better films than this one in his long and stellar career as a director and cinematographer.  This is another Paramount title licensed to Olive Films, and their Blu-ray looks very nice and is framed at 1.78:1.  No extras, not even a trailer.  (R, 90 mins, also available on DVD)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

New from MGM Limited Edition Collection: THE OUTSIDE MAN (1973) and WINDOWS (1980)

Two long sought-after cult items in the MGM archives have finally been released as part of the MOD (manufactured-on-demand) "MGM Limited Edition Collection," available from Warner Archive at www.warnerarchive.com.

(France - 1973)

This French thriller, shot in some marvelously distinctive Los Angeles locales, is one of the more unique oddities in early '70s crime cinema.  Equal parts film noir, European art film, and post-FRENCH CONNECTION action thriller, THE OUTSIDE MAN also boasts one of the most amazingly eclectic casts of its era.  Strange that it's been forgotten by all but the most devout cult movie obsessives.  Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as a French hit man contracted to whack L.A. crime boss Ted de Corsia (a veteran TV and movie tough guy in his last film).  Trintignant then finds his belongings have disappeared from his hotel, a determined mystery man (Roy Scheider) is on his tail and constantly firing shots at him, and he can't get out of L.A, and it all leads up to a wild shootout at the mortuary viewing of de Corsia's body, which isn't in a casket, but rather, seated upright in a chair, stogie in hand. The supporting cast is unbelievable:  Ann-Margret as a sexy strip club bartender who helps Trintignant get a fake passport; Angie Dickinson, sadly underutilized as de Corsia's much-younger wife, who's having an affair with sleazy stepson Umberto Orsini, who ordered the hit on his dad; THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW's Georgia Engel and a very young Jackie Earle Haley as a mother and obnoxious son briefly held hostage by Trintignant; Michel Constantin as Trintignant's boss; Felice Orlandi as the detective investigating the mob-related mayhem; Alex Rocco as one of Orsini's flunkies; future Lucio Fulci regular Carlo de Mejo as the fake passport connection; Carmen Argenziano as a biker; John Hillerman as a department store manager; and Talia Shire as a mortician's assistant.  There's a few loose ends (I didn't quite get the involvement of the Jesus-freak hitchhiker), but THE OUTSIDE MAN is a highly entertaining snapshot of early 1970s L.A., complete with a funky-ass Michel Legrand score and presented with a distinctly off-kilter European flavor courtesy of director Jacques Deray (BORSALINO), who co-wrote the script with Jean-Claude Carriere and Ian McLellan Hunter.

The transfer is 1.85:1 and anamorphic, but it's a bit battered and muddy in several spots.  Admittedly not the best transfer you'll ever see, but perfectly watchable (and the DVD opens with a disclaimer that the best available elements were used), and miles ahead of, say, the YouTube clip above. The packaging displays a PG rating, but this is actually the uncensored European cut, complete with some full frontal nudity in a strip club that was cut from the film's US release.  THE OUTSIDE MAN has had occasional airings on cable over the years (I recall seeing it on TBS many years ago), but it's great to see MGM removing it from the vault to be discovered anew.  (PG, 105 mins)

(US - 1980)

Opening in January 1980, WINDOWS has the distinction of being the first major theatrical release of the 1980s.  It was also the first of two controversial, gay-themed thrillers that faced accusations of stereotyping and demeaning the community it was depicting.  The other--William Friedkin's CRUISING--was in theaters less than a month after WINDOWS and has since come to be held in somewhat higher regard even with its dated depictions of the gay S&M/leather bar subculture.  WINDOWS, however, still has a much longer wait for a critical reassessment, even though it does have its defenders.  The directorial debut of famed cinematographer Gordon Willis (who photographed, among others, all three GODFATHER films, THE PARALLAX VIEW, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, and Woody Allen's films from ANNIE HALL to THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO), there's no denying WINDOWS is a beautifully shot film, with picture-perfect shot compositions and tons of priceless Brooklyn-in-1979 scenery.  The Brooklyn Bridge and the Twin Towers are onscreen as much as the main actors.  As a snapshot of an era gone by, WINDOWS is worth the price of admission.  But Willis is saddled with a terrible script by Barry Siegel (his only writing credit) and lets things languish at a paralyzingly slow pace for an alleged thriller.  Mousy Emily (Talia Shire) is raped in her apartment by a creep with a switchblade who tape-records the assault.  She moves into a new apartment and is spied on from across the river via telescope by friend and former neighbor Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley), a crazed lesbian with obsessive designs on the soon-to-be-divorced Emily, designs so strong that she actually paid the rapist to break into Emily's apartment, in the hopes that it would make Emily turn to her for support (well, that and she has a tape-recording of Emily being violated that she can listen to in her more hot & bothered moments).  When the traumatized Emily, a sometime-stutterer who's still in speech therapy, starts taking baby steps toward a relationship with Bob (Joseph Cortese), the nice, sensitive detective handling her case, Andrea goes even further off the deep end.

I can appreciate Willis (who also served as his own cinematographer) wanting to go for a low-key psychological thriller, but the pace is almost glacial and story elements are completely illogical, especially the way the rapist is apprehended (Emily gets back in the cab?!), and in the fact that the primary villain's identity is made clear much too early. The finale, which goes on forever, with Andrea holding Emily captive, is terribly-handled, never suspenseful, and anti-climactic in the extreme.  WINDOWS is plodding, dull, and inconsistently-acted by Shire and Ashley (who have an equal number of good and bad moments), and Cortese, in his first major-studio film before going on to a long TV career that's still active today, is one of the dullest, charisma-free leading men you'll ever see.  But having said all that, WINDOWS is not that bad.  It's not very good, mind you...just not the dumpster fire that its reputation would suggest.  From a technical standpoint, fanatics of 1970s-1980s NYC location shooting like me will find it of much historical value (the Brooklyn Bridge facing the NYC skyline has rarely been shot as well as it is here).  The film has a cult following that stems mainly from it not being very easy to see all these years.  There were some sporadic cable airings in the '80s and it turned up on VOD several years ago, but it was never released on VHS, and this MGM MOD release (a good-looking 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer) is its first on any home video format in the US.  Willis immediately went back to his old job, photographing Woody Allen's STARDUST MEMORIES and as of now, 32 years later, has yet to direct a second film of his own.  And WINDOWS, much like CRUISING, is one of those films that most of the people involved simply refuse to discuss. (R, 94 mins)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Summer of 1982: BLADE RUNNER and THE THING (June 25, 1982)

When I first noticed online chatter about the 30th anniversary of the Summer of 1982 and all the classic genre fare that rolled out during that eventful season, I noticed that a lot of it was centered around this weekend.  Yes, there was already CONAN THE BARBARIAN and THE ROAD WARRIOR and STAR TREK II and POLTERGEIST and E.T., but really the weekend of June 25, 1982 is what was generating the most enthusiasm as the 30th anniversary approached.  Moviegoers had no way of knowing it at the time, but they wouldn't realize the impact of this weekend for quite some time.  Years, in fact.  On Friday, June 25, 1982, two of the most important, groundbreaking, influential, and universally respected genre films of the last 30 years were unveiled:  Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER and John Carpenter's THE THING.

But it was certainly a different story in 1982.  BLADE RUNNER, heavily hyped as not only Ridley Scott's follow-up to ALIEN (1979), but also Harrison Ford's first film since 1981's blockbuster RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, opened well but nosedived its second weekend and fell short of recouping its budget.  Considering Ford's recent track record of STAR WARS, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and RAIDERS, audiences didn't want a slow, bleak, philosophical, meditative film noir-inspired science fiction film that didn't offer much in the way of action.  Not helping matters was that the released film, as we would find out in the coming years, was not Scott's preferred version, but a compromised one with a changed ending and voiceover narration added after the fact by Ford, who wasn't enthused about this decision and sounds like he's doing it at gunpoint.  Nevertheless, the film, based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, almost instantly developed a fervent cult following despite disappearing from theaters rather quickly.  It's easy to see why: even if you don't like the story or find it too ponderous and slow, there's no denying that it looks and feels like no other film.  From Lawrence G. Paull's production design to Douglas Trumbull's photographic effects to the contributions of "visual futurist" Syd Mead to its rainy Los Angeles of 2019 to the hypnotic electronic score by Vangelis, then riding high on his CHARIOTS OF FIRE theme, BLADE RUNNER was a wholly unique cinematic vision that had never been seen before.

The incredible opening scene of BLADE RUNNER:

Harrison Ford as Deckard
The film had to have a few moments of violence trimmed to avoid an X rating, but an unrated version eventually appeared on VHS.  A somewhat mislabeled "director's cut" was released in 1992, done without Scott's involvement but assembled based on his original cut.  It removed Ford's narration and reinstated the original ending and the important dream sequence with the unicorn.  This quickly became the new "official" version of BLADE RUNNER until 2007 when Scott issued BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT, his first fully-approved director's cut with the previous 1992 changes (or reinstatements), along with some different shots, improved visual effects, corrected gaffes (like the digital removal of the visible wires on the flying police spinners), and a more smoothly-done chase sequence between blade runner Deckard (Ford) and replicant Zohra (Joanna Cassidy), a scene that was bungled a bit in past versions by Cassidy's curly-haired stunt double being all too obvious.

Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) delivering one of cinema's great speeches

No less than five versions of BLADE RUNNER exist--the 1982 R-rated theatrical, the unrated version of the 1982 cut, the 1992 "Director's Cut," the 2007 Final Cut, and, exclusively on the Blu-ray set, a pre-release workprint version--though the 2007 Final Cut is now considered by Scott to be official.  Nevertheless, there are a small number of folks who prefer the 1982 theatrical.  It gives you the proper visual impact, but it's not the film Scott wanted to make (which, all the way up to the just-released PROMETHEUS, seems to be the story of his career), has a happy ending (Deckard escapes with Sean Young's Rachel) and makes clear the many plot elements that co-writer Hampton Fancher preferred to remain ambiguous, though Scott has been pretty clear in his own interpretation of the "Deckard is really a replicant" ending.  It took 25 years for Scott's intended version--really a fine-tuning of the 1992 cut--to finally see the light of day, and it works because its technical changes are not overwhelming.  Scott uses 2007 technological advancements on a 1982 film but does it in subtle ways.  He doesn't put the changes front and center in a way that takes BLADE RUNNER out of its proper era and context.  I generally don't agree with filmmakers going back and enhancing or "fixing" a film with technology that didn't exist when that film was made, but if there is indeed a right way to do it, then that's what Scott has done with BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT.

John Carpenter's THE THING, like the 1951 sci-fi classic THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, is based on John W. Campbell, Jr's classic short story "Who Goes There?"  The 1951 film had an Antarctica outpost attacked by an alien being (James Arness).  Carpenter's film follows the story more faithfully:  an alien life form infiltrates an Antarctica research facility and starts killing, absorbing, and imitating the protagonists.  It's an exercise in nail-biting, sweat-inducing paranoia and Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster (son of Hollywood legend Burt) milk it for all it's worth.  But what really set THE THING apart from everything else in the summer of 1982 was its shocking, inventive special effects by Rob Bottin.  These gory effects were a major gripe for film critics of the old guard, who probably saw Carpenter as a symbol of all that was wrong with horror films in the early 1980s.  His HALLOWEEN was instrumental in starting the slasher craze that was flooding theaters and presumably warping the minds of impressionable children.  Horror fans who saw THE THING thought very highly of it, but it was a box-office disappointment at the time.  It found a strong fan base once it hit video and then became a fixture on pay cable for the rest of the decade.

Kurt Russell as R.J. "Hey, Sweden!" MacReady.
But then something funny happened:  years and years later, THE THING started being regularly name-checked by serious film critics as a great horror film.  It's not uncommon for John Carpenter films to get belated accolades years after they're released and instantly dismissed (in recent years, critics have finally started coming around to 1987's ambitious, physics-heavy PRINCE OF DARKNESS and 1988's more-relevant-than-ever THEY LIVE), but there's almost nothing but nice things said about THE THING today.  Sure, some of the critics of the early '80s have changed their tune, but it's also indicative of a new generation of film critics and historians and the films that mean something to them.  In his essential 1985 study Nightmare Movies, Kim Newman was one of the first critics to praise the merits of slasher films, zombie films, and splatter films by people like Carpenter, Wes Craven, and Lucio Fulci, and to say they were just as important as the classics cherished by old-guard stalwarts like William K. Everson, who blasted new films like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE EXORCIST in his mid-1970s book Classics of the Horror Film, a survey of horror films going back to the silents.  Everson lamented the rise of excessive violence and sex, while Newman essentially said "Times have changed, these are the new classics."  One of the best lines in Newman's book is when he hopes some kid reading his book writes another decades down the road that contradicts everything he's just written.

The Norris defibrillation scene:

The point is, there were still a lot of older critics who didn't take a shine to Carpenter and HALLOWEEN and his gore effects and thought the new THING was an insult to the black & white classic from 1951.  That is, if they deemed horror a real genre at all, which many highbrow critics didn't.  The decades have altered that sentiment, even if Leonard Maltin's book still rates it a mere *½.  Aside from Palmer's (David Clennon) top-loading VCR, Nauls' (T.K. Carter) Stevie Wonder-blaring ghetto blaster, and R.J. MacReady's (Kurt Russell) J&B-doused battle with the Chess Wizard, THE THING has aged better than arguably any horror film of its day.  As a horror film, it's incredibly intense, and as a study in paranoia, it's top-notch.  The characters are believable and they use their heads, and the film establishes ground rules and sticks to them, never cheating.  Maybe one reason the film didn't catch on at the time or didn't initally seem appealing to audiences is because horror was fast-becoming a teen genre, and this was filled with cranky-looking character actors like Wilford Brimley, Donald Moffat, and Richard Dysart, with Russell (fresh from Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK), Carter (a comedian who was just in Walter Hill's SOUTHERN COMFORT), and Thomas G. Waites (Fox in Hill's THE WARRIORS) the closest thing to "youth appeal."  Maybe everyone was still going to see E.T. and if that was sold out, they opted for BLADE RUNNER because of Harrison Ford.  Regardless of the whys, THE THING's day eventually arrived (last year saw the release of a passable but pointless prequel--also titled THE THING--about the events that led up to the 1982 film).  Carpenter's THE THING is cherished by fans, and Carpenter, lambasted by film snobs for so many years, is finally held in high regard and lauded as a great filmmaker.  I can't recall meeting anyone--in person or online--who doesn't think THE THING is one of the great horror films not just of the last 30 years, but ever.  It's a classic, period.  And the DVD commentary with Carpenter and Russell is almost as entertaining as the film itself.

BLADE RUNNER and THE THING proved to be films that were years ahead of their time, and both have not only stood the test of time, but they get better with each passing year. Not many 30-year-old films can make that boast, and two of them, so neglected and underappreciated in 1982, were released on the same day.

And then there's MEGAFORCE.

Hal Needham's MEGAFORCE also hit theaters this same weekend.  Budgeted at $20 million (quite a bit by 1982 standards), it grossed about a quarter of that and was one of the biggest bombs of the early 1980s, even with a tie-in Hot Wheels playset and an Atari 2600 game. MEGAFORCE is pretty hard to see these days:  it was released on VHS and aired on cable, but it's never been released on DVD (though there are bootlegs, and it periodically turns up on YouTube before being taken down), despite it accruing a bit of a following over the last 30 years.  Used VHS copies start at $34 on Amazon.  The action-packed story centers on Ace Hunter (Barry Bostwick), the leader of Megaforce, a freelance organization of international mercenaries.  Megaforce is hired to help the fictional nation of Sardun defeat an invasion by neighboring country Gamibia--an invasion led by Ace's former friend Duke Gurerra (Henry Silva).  Filled with flying motorcycles and laser-shooting megacruiser dune buggies, MEGAFORCE is a total comic book fantasy, and Needham (director of numerous Burt Reynolds car chase comedies, starting with SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT) was said to be very discouraged by its horrible reception.  Being released the same weekend as BLADE RUNNER and during the summer of E.T. probably didn't help.  It wasn't exactly the big break to the A-list that TV star Bostwick was hoping for, either.  Bostwick co-starred in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975), but was primarily a TV actor by 1982, and after MEGAFORCE mega-bombed, he licked his wounds and went right back to TV, where he's enjoyed a busy career to this day with only occasional supporting roles on the big screen. 

Also starring in MEGAFORCE were Michael Beck and Persis Khambatta.  The engaging Beck established himself as an actor to watch as Swan in 1979's THE WARRIORS, but just couldn't catch a break after that (he once said--I think on the WARRIORS DVD, perhaps?--that "THE WARRIORS opened a ton of doors...that XANADU immediately closed").  After Razzie nominations for both XANADU and MEGAFORCE, Beck moved on to the Roger Corman-released WARLORDS OF THE 21ST CENTURY (aka BATTLETRUCK) and co-starred with Richard Harris in the barely-released TRIUMPHS OF A MAN CALLED HORSE, and then it was pretty much TV guest spots and made-for-TV movies after that.  Beck hasn't acted since 2004 but has found a lucrative career as an in-demand voice for TV commercials and audiobook readings.  MEGAFORCE did nothing to help anyone's career, but Khambatta seemed to fare worse than her co-stars.  After the Indian actress' breakthrough as the bald Ilia in 1979's STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE and as a sultry international terrorist in 1981's NIGHTHAWKS, MEGAFORCE was essentially her last shot at Hollywood fame.  Within a year, she was co-starring in the Italian post-nuke WARRIOR OF THE LOST WORLD and did a few TV roles and straight-to-video titles before essentially retiring from acting in the late '80s.  She had a couple of bit parts on TV in the '90s and was only 49 when she died of a heart attack in 1998.

With the increased popularity of studios doing manufactured-on-demand DVD releases, it seems unlikely that MEGAFORCE will never see the light of day on DVD or Blu-ray, but there's no sign of it happening in the immediate future.**

**UPDATE: Actually, it appears Hen's Tooth is releasing it on DVD on September 4, 2012.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: THE PLEDGE (2001)

(US, 2001)

Directed by Sean Penn.  Written by Jerzy Kromilowski and Mary Olson-Kromilowski.  Cast: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Aaron Eckhart, Benicio del Toro, Sam Shepard, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Patricia Clarkson, Michael O'Keefe, Mickey Rourke, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Noonan, Costas Mandylor, Pauline Roberts, Dale Dickey, Lois Smith. (R, 124 mins)

I saw THE PLEDGE when it opened in theaters in January 2001, and as it progressed, it started to feel very familiar.  I kept thinking I'd just seen numerous elements of the plot in some straight-to-VHS European film a few years prior.  And it turns out I did.  The 1996 English-language Dutch film THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY (starring Richard E. Grant) was an adaptation of the same 1958 novel Das Versprechen, by Swiss mystery writer Friedrich Durrenmatt.  Durrenmatt wrote the script for the German thriller ES GESCHAH AM HELLICHTEN TAG (IT HAPPENED IN BROAD DAYLIGHT) and expanded that script into the novel.  It was remade for German TV in 1997 and also turned into a 1979 Italian thriller titled LA PROMESSA. 

THE PLEDGE, the third film directed by Sean Penn, is the first American take on the Durrenmatt source novel and it's more of a psychological character study than the suspense thriller that the trailer and TV spots were selling.  That doesn't mean there aren't some tense moments throughout, but people expecting a fast-paced nailbiter were probably disappointed and the film didn't do well at all.  It's managed to find a following over the last decade, largely through still-frequent cable airings and also because it always seems to turn up in articles about "Great Movies You've Never Heard Of," or on lists of Jack Nicholson's most underrated films that always seem to make the rounds on his birthday.  This is right up there with the following year's ABOUT SCHMIDT as a great late-career Nicholson performance.  Nicholson hasn't acted regularly since the mid-1990s, and THE PLEDGE was his first film since his Oscar-winning turn in 1997's AS GOOD AS IT GETS.  While he hasn't gone into retirement, his film appearances over the last decade and a half have been sporadic enough that it's always an event when he's onscreen again.  At this point in his life, Nicholson, now 75, only works when he wants to and as a result, he gives it his all, presumably because he's legitimately enthused about the project. 

Nicholson, starring in his second film for Penn (the first was 1995's powerful, little-seen THE CROSSING GUARD), is retiring Reno detective Jerry Black.  On his last day on the job (which Penn and screenwriters Jerzy Kromilowski and Mary Olson-Kromilowski thankfully don't turn into a cliche), Jerry leaves his retirement party with some other cops when a little girl's body is found in a snow-covered farmland area.  A suspect--Native American Toby Wadenah (Benicio del Toro)--is quickly rounded up and interrogated by Jerry's cocky replacement Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart), who doesn't seem to care that Toby, who has a rape conviction in his past, is clearly mentally challenged and doesn't comprehend the questions.  Krolak coerces a confession out of Toby, who promptly steals a deputy's gun and commits suicide.  The case is closed by Krolak and Capt. Pollack (Sam Shepard), but Jerry, who pledged to the dead girl's parents (Patricia Clarkson, Michael O'Keefe) that he would find the killer, is unconvinced.

Postponing a fishing trip and conducting his own investigation, Jerry finds possible connections to two other killings/abductions of little girls that took place over the last eight years, based on the most recent victims drawings of a black car, driven by a "giant" she called "The Wizard." Pollack and Krolak dismiss his concerns and think the twice-divorced Jerry is suffering from retirement anxiety and can't let go of the job.  Moving to a small town between the two towns where the past attacks occurred, Jerry buys a gas station and befriends single mom Lori (Robin Wright) and her seven-year-old daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts).  It looks like a content retirement for Jerry as Lori and Chrissy move in with him and a familial bond develops.  But at some point, Jerry opts for the unthinkable:  by buying Chrissy clothes similar to the red dresses the victims wore, and by putting her swing set right near the road outside the gas station, he practically advertises her availability to The Wizard.  His obsession has become so overwhelming that he's actually using Chrissy to set a trap.

There's much ambiguity here as Penn and the screenwriters are never clear if that was Jerry's intention all along. Maybe the gas station was a longshot trap, but with Chrissy, he has bait.  We don't know how soon those wheels start turning in Jerry's head after he meets Chrissy.  But it eventually supercedes the (I believe) legitimate feelings he's developed for Lori and Chrissy.  Maybe he can't let go of the job, maybe it's a past unsolved case that still gnaws at him and he sees this as redemption...or maybe he's achieved some kind of spiritual rebirth through the pledge he makes to the dead girl's mother.  That scene is really the only major misstep in THE PLEDGE.  It's presented in such a heavy-handed fashion that it doesn't ring true.  It's not enough to have Jerry haltingly promise to find the killer (on his last day, no less--and you get the sense he's not serious about it), but it's a bit over-the-top when the mother pulls a cross down from the wall and makes him swear on his soul's salvation by a cross that was handmade by the dead girl. Regardless, something snaps in Jerry at that moment and he can't rest until he's seen this through to its inevitably devastating end. 

As larger-than-life as he is offscreen, it's always amazing how adept Nicholson is at disappearing into character parts and not simply coming off as "Jack."  His performance as the tortured, tragic Jerry Black is one of his most subtle and understated.  There's no outbursts, sarcastic comments, arched eyebrows, or wicked grins.  It's a haunting performance in a film that stays with you long after it's over.  Nicholson gets stellar support from a packed supporting cast filled with a lot of Penn pals, most of whom (Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Harry Dean Stanton, and Mickey Rourke), only have what amount to cameos.  Rourke has about two minutes of screen time and is absolutely gut-wrenching as the father of a missing girl.

There is no real closure for any characters in THE PLEDGE, a bleak, somber examination of obsession that deserved a better commercial reception than it got, though it's admittedly a tough sell and Warner Bros. probably shouldn't have rolled it out nationwide.  But it further established Penn as a maker of challenging, uncompromising films (after THE CROSSING GUARD and his 1991 directing debut THE INDIAN RUNNER) and showcased Nicholson in one of the top performances of his career, which is really saying something.  It's a powerful, thought-provoking work, and it's very quietly come around to being regarded by many as one of the great unsung films of its decade.

Friday, June 22, 2012


(US, 2012)

Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria.  Cast: Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Rob Corddry, Derek Luke, Melanie Lynskey, Patton Oswalt, William Petersen, Martin Sheen, T.J. Miller, Gillian Jacobs, Bob Stephenson. (R, 100 mins)

The apocalypse has been a recurring theme in recent films like ANOTHER EARTH, TAKE SHELTER, MELANCHOLIA, and 4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH.  SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD is a more mainstream, audience-friendly look at the same subject from writer/director Lorene Scafaria, who wrote 2008's NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST.  Trailers for SEEKING made it look awfully similar to Don McKellar's 1998 Canadian cult classic LAST NIGHT, which followed various characters on the last night before the end of the world.  No reason is given...it's just a known fact.  SEEKING follows the LAST NIGHT template very closely in the early going but soon establishes its own plot and purpose.  It's a mixed-bag overall, but there are some intermittently moving and powerful scenes. 

Improbably-named insurance salesman Dodge Petersen (Steve Carell) is ditched by his wife (Carell's wife Nancy Walls) after a news update announces the failure of the space shuttle Deliverance to blow up a 70-mile-wide asteroid dubbed "Matilda" that's headed straight for Earth.  Deliverance is destroyed and Matilda will collide with the planet in three weeks.  Despondent Dodge tries going about his daily routine and starts entertaining the notion of tracking down Olivia, his high school girlfriend and the "one that got away."  He befriends his upstairs neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), who's upset that she missed the last flight back to England to be with her family before the airports closed.  Dodge knows someone with a plane, so they, and a cute dog that someone just left for Dodge to care for, set out on a road trip to find Olivia and get Penny on a flight back home.

As LAST NIGHT showed over a decade ago, this is an intriguing premise and for a while, Scafaria does an excellent job of exploring this new "we've all got three weeks to live" scenario. Dodge witnesses a horrifying suicide that's a shocking jolt to the audience.  He later goes to a party hosted by his friends Warren (Rob Corddry) and Diane (Connie Britton), where it's essentially anything goes:  Warren is letting little kids guzzle hard liquor ("Work through the burn!") and one partygoer cheerfully announces "Sarah & Dave brought heroin!" prompting one guest to yell "Oh, yes!  Bucket list!"  Another friend (Patton Oswalt) goes into great detail about his extensive sexual escapades since the announcement of Earth's imminent destruction ("I've been with a different woman every day!  The playing field is leveled!  They don't care about diseases or if your dick's too small or if you're related...").  There's an edgy darkness to the opening act of SEEKING, but once Scafaria introduces Penny, it essentially becomes an apocalypse rom-com and it's likely that Knightley will be unfairly blamed for the relatively conventional direction the film takes.  The one-time critical darling has become a bit of a cineaste punching bag recently with her unjustly criticized performance in David Cronenberg's A DANGEROUS METHOD, which was mannered and over-the-top at times, but if she's delivering that performance in a Cronenberg film, then I'm inclined to believe that's what Cronenberg wanted from her. 

In SEEKING, Scafaria seems intent on making Knightley's Penny into yet another Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a term coined by the AV Club's Nathan Rabin in response to Kirsten Dunst's performance in ELIZABETHTOWN, defined as "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures"), but to her credit, Knightley tries hard to not play it that way.  Yes, Penny's irresponsible and immature and eccentric and doesn't seem to have a job yet still can afford a nice NYC apartment and put up with a deadbeat boyfriend (Adam Brody) and calls her vinyl collection her "friends," and has a hip, thrift-shop wardrobe, but Knightley somehow manages to keep Penny bearable.  Knightley is not what's wrong with SEEKING.  The problems just happen to coincide with her first appearance.

Scafaria's apocalyptic world only looks apocalyptic when it's convenient for the plot. There's looting, shooting, fires, and rioting when the film needs to get Dodge and Penny out of NYC.  But once they're out, it's calm and tranquil everywhere.  And where does everyone go?  They're in Trenton, NJ and the streets are empty.  The airports are all closed.  Where is everyone?  We're talking NYC and New Jersey, here.  It's not like it's rural or sparsely-populated.  They didn't all commit suicide unless there's the stench of rotting flesh that the characters don't mention. And when the action moves back to NYC, there's no sign of the destruction that forced them out of the city in the first place.   There's also a strangely unsettling detour with Speck (Derek Luke), an ex of Penny's who's a military vet and survivalist with a fortified bunker underneath his house.  Speck is probably the most poorly-defined of the film's characters and it doesn't seem plausible for a second that a guy this no-nonsense would put up with a flighty flake like Penny.  As the film progresses, Scafaria starts piling on the classic rock golden oldies as Dodge and Penny inevitably fall in love (though she does utilize The Hollies' "The Air That I Breathe" very effectively).  There's nothing bad about SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, but after its dark-humored opening act, it just becomes too safe and too nice.  It starts with suicides and suburbanites shooting heroin but then wants to present the end of the world as a feel-good crowd-pleaser with a catchy soundtrack. There's some really good performances throughout, and some moments of genuine emotion near the end with the revelation of where Dodge is really heading and who he wants to see, but it's ultimately too contrived and too eager-to-please for its own good.

In the end, I suppose SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD is about what you'd expect from an apocalypse film released nationwide in the middle of summer. Fortunately, it isn't a straight comedic ripoff of LAST NIGHT, as the trailers certainly went out of their way to convey, and it has some surprising strengths and an admirable darkness...for a while, at least.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

If This Wasn't Streaming On Netflix, Would Anyone Remember It Existed?: NANA (1983)

(Italy, 1983)

Directed by Dan Wolman.  Written by Marc Behm.  Cast: Katya Berger, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Mandy Rice-Davies, Massimo Serato, Yehuda Efroni, Annie Belle, Debra Berger, Shirin Taylor, Paul Muller, Marcus Beresford, Tom Felleghy.  (R, 92 mins)

This review was originally published in slightly different form on the Mobius Home Video Forum in March 2011.

I remember NANA being in regular rotation on Showtime's "After Hours" late-night softcore porn schedule in the 1980s, but never managed to see it, largely because I was 11. It's spent nearly three decades in obscurity (only three user reviews on IMDb, two of which seem to be written by the same person) before appearing streaming on Netflix. One of several Italian-made Cannon productions from the early 1980s, NANA is, as the opening credits clearly state, "Loosely based on the novel by Emile Zola."  Loosely?  You can say that again.

Zola's novel dealt with Nana (played here by 19-year-old Katya Berger, daughter of Eurocult fixture William Berger), a bordello performer-turned-prostitute who uses and humiliates every man who crosses her path as she climbs the Parisian social ladder circa 1880. The "loosely based" film version has a similar setting, but moves it some years ahead, since there's cars and Nana appears in stag films by a "moving photograph" artist (Tom Felleghy). There's not much in the way of plot here, just Nana going from zero to bitch as soon as she figures out how to manipulate high society Parisian men who seem more than willing to let her do it. Among them are powerful banker Steiner (Yehuda Efroni), young student Hector (Marcus Beresford), and his father, the renowned Count Muffat (Jean-Pierre Aumont, way too classy for this kind of stuff, especially when Nana makes the whipped Count fetch a stick like a dog). When the financially-strapped Count declines her demand for more money, Nana goads journalist Faucherie (Massimo Serato) into seducing the Count's uptight, neglected wife (1960s Profumo scandal figure Mandy Rice-Davies).

Nana also explores her lesbian side by engaging in hot fling with Satin (Debra Berger), which is noteworthy because Katya Berger and Debra Berger go at it in a couple of explicit, fully nude love scenes, while offscreen, they're half-sisters with different mothers. I wonder if William Berger ever saw this. Anyone else a little skeeved out by that casting decision?  I can't recall this ever happening somewhere else.  Sure, they don't really look much alike (Debra looks a lot like their father and Katya does not), but still.  Can anyone imagine two half-brothers being cast in a relatively mainstream film that would require a nude sex scene between the two of them?

Pre-production trade ad.  Mary
Stavin and Kevin Brennan ultimately
weren't in the film.
In addition to pushing their Hot Sis-on-Sis Lesbo Action agenda, Golan & Globus tried their hardest to make this look pretty highbrow, and the widescreen print running on Netflix is superb. But the plot is as threadbare as can be, mainly an excuse for mostly tame but occasionally raunchy sex scenes. The most explicit really don't involve the main actors, as Golan & Globus tried to take a page out of the CALIGULA book and insert a few really graphic shots during a sequence where some nude women are hunted on the grounds of a posh shindig thrown by Nana. Once captured, the women have sex with the men in clumsily-staged copulation shots with often-visible genitalia while the film cuts back to the gleeful, bourgeois revelers watching them from a distance.  The main cast members watching in this scene (Katya Berger, Efroni, Serato, etc) are most likely just being told to react and probably have no idea just how explicit the other end of this haphazardly-edited scene will ultimately end up being.

Most bewildering about this opulent-looking but dull film is just how far it strays from Zola's novel. Zola ended the novel with the bitchy Nana dying of smallpox. In the Golan-Globus NANA, she takes off for India to meditate and gets a warm, applauding farewell from everyone whose lives she's ruined! And they lament that "Paris won't be the same without Nana!" Indeed. Directed by Dan Wolman (MAID IN SWEDEN), and written by Marc Behm, who had just scripted the 1982 slasher HOSPITAL MASSACRE for Cannon and in clearly better days, co-wrote CHARADE (1963) and HELP! (1965).  Yes, the classic Beatles movie.  Behm also wrote the novel Eye of the Beholder that became a memorably bizarre Ewan McGregor/Ashley Judd thriller in 2000. Music by one "Enio Morricone." Enio? Seriously? It's not like Ennio Morricone wasn't one of the go-to guys for film scores for nearly 20 years by that point.


NANA is so obscure that there isn't even a trailer on YouTube. There was probably never a trailer at all.  There's a few pieces of Morricone's score, but the only thing of substance I could find is this NANA-in-15-minutes compilation of scenes, taken from an echoey German-language print.  Hell, turn the volume off if you want. You'll still be able to follow it.

Oh, wait!  It only seems appropriate to watch this before any viewing of a pay cable softcore relic like NANA:

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

New on DVD/Blu-ray: Cage x 2: GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE (2012) and SEEKING JUSTICE (2012)

Though his star seems to be fading--those NATIONAL TREASURE movies weren't that long ago, folks--Nicolas Cage is as busy as ever, even if his films aren't quite doing the boffo business they once did.  Two of Cage's recent films have just been released on DVD and Blu-ray:  a sequel no one wanted (GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE) and a suspense thriller no one saw (SEEKING JUSTICE). 

(US/United Arab Emirates, 2012)

GHOST RIDER was released in 2007 to critical derision and grossed $115 million despite audiences not really giving much of a shit about it.  Think about it.  Do you know anyone who really likes GHOST RIDER?  But yet, somehow, a sequel got the greenlight and some people were stoked about it.  Why?  Because the job was given to the team of Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor, who somehow have a devoted fanboy following despite making exactly one good movie (2006's CRANK).  Perhaps people thought they'd bring that sense of CRANK insanity to the party, but instead, they brought their overbearing, headache-inducing CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE attitude and coupled with a barely-there Cage, the results are deadening.  Cage's Johnny Blaze, the Ghost Rider, is in exile in Eastern Europe (to help explain the cost-cutting Romania locations), but gets pulled back into the fight against evil when the Devil (Ciarin Hinds) tries to abduct his spawn (Fergus Riordan) from his mortal mother (Violante Placido).  Groan-inducing humor (Cage to Placido: "You're the Devil's babymama") and CGI that's a notch above Asylum-level abound.  There's hardly a shot in this that doesn't utilize extensive CGI, and with Johnny Blaze frequently in skull-engulfed-in-flames Ghost Rider mode, Cage gets to take about half of the movie off.  Loaded with shaky-cam action and jittery, jumpy zooms, the dismal GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE is a miserable experience, and had to look even worse in theaters in 3-D.   Cage's crazy act feels pretty phoned-in here, almost like he can't even find a reason for this film to exist, which typifies far too many of Cage's vehicles these days.  And on top of that, it wastes fine actors like Hinds, Idris Elba, and a great-to-see-him-again Christopher Lambert as the leader of a cabal of evil monks.  Budgeted at a wasteful, borderline-disgraceful $75 million, it grossed $51 million, which is what GHOST RIDER made in its first weekend back in 2007.  So whatever magic people were expecting from Neveldine/Taylor, it wasn't enough to make them care that much about going to see it once it opened.  And as it turned out, they weren't missing a thing as the admittedly awesome CRANK looks more like a fluke for Neveldine/Taylor with each passing year. (PG-13, 95 mins)

(US, 2012)

Given a limited release on 200 or so screens after two years on the shelf, SEEKING JUSTICE is often deliriously stupid, but it makes a world of difference when Cage is engaged with the material.    Cage is Will Gerard, a New Orleans high school English teacher whose wife Laura (January Jones) is brutally raped.  In the hospital, Will is approached by the mysterious Simon (Guy Pearce) who claims to know who the rapist is and will "take care of it" for Will...but he'll owe a favor when asked.  That night, the rapist is killed.  Six months later, Simon contacts Will and instructs him that he must kill a known pedophile and pornographer.  When Will refuses, Simon and his ever-present team of sinister-looking associates who seem to be anywhere in New Orleans at any given moment ("we're just a small group of concerned citizens," Simon explains), proceed to make his life very difficult.  Directed by veteran journeyman Roger Donaldson (1987's NO WAY OUT,  1995's SPECIES, and 2005's THE WORLD'S FASTEST INDIAN, among numerous others), SEEKING JUSTICE is the kind of dumb thriller that probably plays a lot better at home than in the theater.  It also seems to be aware of its own silliness, with countless contrivances and implausibilities and ridiculous signals (Pearce: "If you want us to take care of this for you, there's a vending machine outside the oncology department.  Go there and buy two Forever chocolate bars, but you have to buy them within the next hour and we'll know your answer is yes," or the ominous secret code that a job has been completed: "The hungry rabbit jumps").  It's also amusing seeing Cage, as a milquetoast Shakespeare teacher and chess player, suddenly turn into an action hero during a wild chase scene that finds him dodging semis, jumping concrete dividers, and essentially playing Frogger across a busy highway. And of course, as the film goes on and the twists pile up, Cage reaches into his bag of tricks and like a classic rocker saving all the fan-favorite hits for the end of the gig, starts making faces, shouting, screaming, frantically running around, freaking out, and basically Caging it up.

Look, SEEKING JUSTICE is a dumb, dumb movie.  But it's also an enjoyable dumb movie, and fully illustrates the difference between Cage when he cares and when he doesn't (see GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE.  Or better yet, don't).  Also with Harold Perrineau, Xander Berkeley, IronE Singleton (THE WALKING DEAD's T-Dog!), and, in her second frivolous, nothing supporting role in New On DVD/Blu-ray in the last three weeks, DEXTER's Jennifer Carpenter, who really should be getting better work. Tobey Maguire was one of the producers. (R, 105 mins)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Summer of 1982: FIREFOX (June 18, 1982)

Released June 18, 1982, FIREFOX was a different kind of film for Clint Eastwood.  He tried espionage thrillers before with 1975's underrated THE EIGER SANCTION, but FIREFOX, based on Craig Thomas' 1977 bestseller, was a significantly more high-tech, effects-heavy project that bordered on sci-fi.  Eastwood utilized the services of famed visual/photographic effects guru John Dykstra, a protege of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, and a key figure in the visual effects of STAR WARS (1977), STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979), and the late '70s TV series BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.  With FIREFOX, Dykstra pioneered the then-revolutionary use of "reverse bluescreen," which (to grossly oversimplify) involves pre-filmed objects matted onto real backgrounds, instead of the previous standard, which would've involved miniatures shot against a projected background.  In today's CGI world, FIREFOX's visual effects range from charmingly antiquated to completely laughable and they've aged badly, but 30 years ago, they certainly looked much more impressive on a big screen.  Dykstra's innovative use of reverse bluescreen was undoubtedly a factor in FIREFOX becoming one of Eastwood's biggest hits up to that time, even spawning a popular arcade game by Atari. It was the 15th highest-grossing film of 1982 and Eastwood was on a bit of a roll going back to 1978's EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, which was followed by ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ in 1979, and BRONCO BILLY and ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN in 1980.  As a director, Eastwood had never up to this point taken on a project as large-scale as FIREFOX, with its complex special effects and James Bond-ian Cold War espionage.

But even with Dykstra's once-groundbreaking visual trickery, these days FIREFOX is generally ranked among Eastwood's worst films.  Frankly, I'm surprised it was as popular as it was in 1982.  It's sluggishly-paced, absurdly overlong at 136 minutes (in a rare instance of Eastwood tinkering with a movie after he was done with it, he seemed to recognize that it dragged badly and trimmed it down to 124 minutes for VHS and cable, which really didn't make much of a difference--the DVD is the original theatrical version) and takes forever to get going.  Eastwood is retired Air Force pilot Mitchell Gant, in hiding and still suffering from Vietnam flashbacks.  He's pulled back in by the government to work with the British on a top-secret mission to sneak into Moscow, pretend to be a Soviet military pilot (because his mother was Russian, Gant is fluent in the language), and steal Firefox, a fighter plane that's invisible to radar and has the ability to fire missiles based on the thoughts and brain impulses of the pilot.

It takes 75 minutes of screen time before Gant even gets to the hangar housing Firefox.  Until then, we follow him as he slowly (very slowly) works his way to Moscow (you could make a drinking game out of every time a Soviet officer barks "Papers, please").  There's a few tense moments in the first half and Nigel Hawthorne has a brief but memorable role as Baronovich, a Soviet dissident working with the British.  When Gant asks him why he's willing to let himself be considered expendable by the British government, Baronovich replies, "Mr. Gant, you are an American. You are a free man. I am not. There is a difference. If I resent the men in London who are ordering my death, then it is a small thing when compared with my resentment of the KGB."  It's a powerful sentiment and probably the most emotional, insightful moment in the film, and Hawthorne just nails it.  Warren Clarke also steals a few scenes as a Russian spy working with the Brits, who helps Gant get into Moscow.  Elsewhere, a wild-haired, twitching, endlessly mannered Freddie Jones completely overdoes it as the British government figure overseeing the operation.  RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK co-stars Ronald Lacey and Wolf Kahler can also be seen in supporting roles, Fassbinder vet Klaus Lowitsch plays a Russian general, and even John Ratzenberger, then an expat American actor living in London and about to be cast on CHEERS, has a small bit on a submarine near the end.

Gant (Eastwood) in one of his
numerous disguises

Watching the film today, for the first time in 20-odd years, it's actually the slower, methodical, murky espionage bits that play better.  The visual effects that dominate the second half of the film have aged so poorly that the aerial sequences just don't work at all now.   And what should've been the film's major moment--a dogfight between the Gant-piloted Firefox and Firefox II, a newer prototype piloted by the guy Gant was pretending to be--is treated almost as an afterthought by Eastwood.  Thomas' novel Firefox was followed by a 1983 sequel, Firefox Down, and Thomas wrote two other Mitchell Gant adventures--1987's Winter Hawk and 1997's A Different War-- before his death in 2011.   Eastwood never revisited the Gant character and thus far, neither has anyone else.  FIREFOX also kicked off the short-lived "Super Aircraft" craze, followed most notably a year later by the superior BLUE THUNDER (and its brief TV spinoff) and TV's AIRWOLF.

Gant goes over the plan with
Baronovich (Nigel Hawthorne)
FIREFOX opened in second place (nothing was beating E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL) and, surprisingly, remained in the top five for another month.  It's a big movie with location shooting all over the globe (Vienna doubles for Moscow), and it has some scattered strong moments, especially whenever Nigel Hawthorne is onscreen, but it's just defeated by its snail-like pacing and its bloated run time.  Eastwood's always had a tendency to let his films last longer than they need to, but this is perhaps his most egregious example.  The film isn't brought up much today in Eastwood discussions, and when it is, it's rarely in a positive light.  It's essentially Eastwood's attempt at making a huge special effects movie akin to Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, or James Bond, but his heart doesn't really seem to be in it.  FIREFOX feels more like a concession to the times than a filmmaker looking to explore a new genre, and it seems like Eastwood is deliberately procrastinating when it comes to getting Firefox in the air.  For the most part, FIREFOX is a draggy, laborious misfire that somehow became a fairly big hit.  Eastwood had the small-scale labor-of-love HONKYTONK MAN in theaters six months later, in which he played a dying Depression-era country singer on a road trip to the Grand Ole Opry with his young nephew (Eastwood's son Kyle) along for the ride.  It was a critically-acclaimed, charming period piece that didn't find an audience and became one of the biggest commercial flops of Eastwood's career.  Go figure.

Also in theaters this weekend was another change-of-pace for a big name star:  the heartwarming, feel-good, PG-rated comedy AUTHOR! AUTHOR! starring the king of heartwarming, feel-good, PG-rated comedies:  Al Pacino.  This was Pacino's first film since William Friedkin's extremely controversial CRUISING (1980), where he played an undercover NYC cop infiltrating the seedy underbelly of the gay S&M scene in search of a serial killer.  To this day, Pacino has distanced himself from CRUISING and won't talk about it, and after taking 1981 off, likely wanted to do something as different as possible.  And...no one cared.  Despite decent reviews, AUTHOR! AUTHOR! was a flop at the box office, but at least Pacino, as a preoccupied playwright who finds himself forced to take care of a houseful of kids, was trying something different.  Still several years away from an apparent voice change and the invention of his now trademark "talk quietly and then TALK REAL LOUD AND YELL FOR NO REASON!!!"/Hoo-aaah! persona, Pacino quickly shrugged off AUTHOR! AUTHOR! and returned the next year with what's arguably his most iconic role after THE GODFATHER's Michael Corleone:  Tony Montana in Brian De Palma's SCARFACE.