Friday, August 18, 2017

Retro Review: COUNSELOR AT CRIME (1973)

(Spain/Italy - 1973; US release 1975)

Directed by Alberto De Martino. Written by Adriano Bolzoni, Vincenzo Flamini (Vincenzo Mannino), Leonardo Martin and Alberto De Martino. Cast: Martin Balsam, Tomas Milian, Francisco Rabal, John Anderson, Dagmar Lassander, Carlo Tamberlani, Manuel Zarzo, Eduardo Fajardo, George Rigaud, Franco Angrisano, Giovanni Carbone, Fortunato Arena, Carla Mancini, Lorenzo Piani, Sacheen Littlefeather, Nello Pazzafini. (R, 102 mins)

While most films in the polziotteschi subgenre of politically-charged Italian crime movies of the 1970s took place in Rome, Naples, and Sicily, COUNSELOR AT CRIME is a bit of an outlier in that it's set almost entirely in America. Journeyman director and co-writer Alberto De Martino (whose later credits included the EXORCIST ripoff THE ANTICHRIST, the OMEN ripoff HOLOCAUST 2000, and the MST3K favorite THE PUMAMAN) fashions COUNSELOR as a pretty blatant, albeit contemporary GODFATHER knockoff. Shot largely in San Francisco and Albuquerque in January and February of 1973, COUNSELOR AT CRIME (or, as it was known in Italy, IL CONSIGLIORI) hits everything on the GODFATHER checklist: Sonny-at-the-causeway-like ambushes; a treacherous, Sollozzo-like troublemaker trying to make a name for himself by eliminating a powerful Don; an unexpected sojourn to Sicily when things get too hot at home in the States; and someone is even handed the severed head of a fish, a clever way to knock two things off the checklist by combining "sleeps with the fishes" with the horse's head in the movie mogul's bed. IL CONSIGLIORI was released in Europe in the summer of 1973 but didn't make its way to the US until 1975, when low-grade exploitation outfit Joseph Green Pictures picked it up and retitled it COUNSELOR AT CRIME. It's a largely by-the-numbers gangster picture that goes out of its way to look as American as possible, spotlighting the San Francisco locations where De Martino valiantly attempts to keep the Golden Gate Bridge visible as often as possible (there's even a sequence taking place at the same exit ramp where a pimp is killed in the same year's Dirty Harry movie MAGNUM FORCE), with Riz Ortolani's score having a definite "'70s cop show" sound to it when the composer isn't straight-up borrowing a key theme from his VALACHI PAPERS score from the previous year.

A low-level, syphilitic gangster loses his shit in a bowling alley, setting in motion a chain of events that sees underboss Garofalo (played by a backup Michael Ansara toupee planted on the head of Francisco Rabal) make a ballsy power play to take over the San Francisco organization ruled by Don Antonio Magadino (Martin Balsam). Magadino's mind is elsewhere since his godson and consigliere Thomas Accardo (Tomas Milian) is being paroled after serving a stretch for jury tampering in Santa Fe State Prison in New Mexico, the same joint that houses incarcerated Boss of Bosses Don Vito Albanese (American character actor John Anderson, dubbed by Robert Spafford). Accardo is welcomed back to the organization by Don Antonio, who raised him as his own son after he was orphaned as a child (a character trait in no way influenced by Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen in THE GODFATHER), but Accardo has other plans. He continued his legal studies while in prison, and fell in love with Laura Murchison (Dagmar Lassander), a professor at the University of New Mexico. He wants to leave the Family, marry Laura, and live a normal life away from the Mafia. Don Antonio grants him his wish, despite the ironclad rule that no one leaves, which enrages Garofalo, who then plots to whack Accardo so he doesn't talk, and Don Antonio over his flagrant disregard of their sacred Mafia oath.

COUNSELOR AT CRIME offers one bit of interesting trivia that tangentially connects it to THE GODFATHER: it's one of the very few movie appearances of Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather, best known for taking the stage at the 1973 Oscars to refuse Marlon Brando's GODFATHER Oscar for him, and seen here in a brief bit as a hooker. Beyond that, it also offers one of the most low-key performances of Milian's career, a real surprise considering his string of flamboyantly over-the-top psycho characters in Umberto Lenzi classics like ALMOST HUMAN (1974) and ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH (1976). Rabal is dubbed by the gruff Ed Mannix but definitely looks the part as the arrogant, untrustworthy Garofalo, and Balsam is a solid pro as the stern and paternal Don Antonio, and while he may not ooze the charismatic charm of Brando's Vito Corleone, it's superb casting, and De Martino even lets him take part in some action sequences and shootouts. Balsam was in the early years of a relentlessly busy decade that found the Oscar-winning actor (1965's A THOUSAND CLOWNS) alternating between supporting roles in A-list Hollywood projects (SUMMER WISHES WINTER DREAMS, THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN) and starring roles in Italian crime films (CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN, CHRONICLE OF A HOMICIDE, MEET HIM AND DIE, DEATH RAGE), and his presence here definitely helps sell the idea of making it look like an American gangster movie, and he fares much better than the miscast Anderson, whose two scenes were actually shot inside Santa Fe State Prison, complete with several inmates in the chow line turning to look straight into the camera.

It's a mostly routine post-GODFATHER mob movie until a surprisingly strong finale where both Balsam and Milian really get to show some chops without saying much at all. And it's in the finale where COUNSELOR AT CRIME makes its only real attempt to branch off from THE GODFATHER with the notion that it's not the aging mob bosses who hand off the power to the next generation, but rather, it's the older generation that's still around to pick up the pieces when their dealings and grudges end up sacrificing that next, doomed generation. It's an interesting perspective that should've been explored in a more in-depth fashion by the script, which was written by De Martino with three other writers (including frequent collaborator Vincenzo Mannino) before being translated into English and reworked by an uncredited Michael V. Gazzo, the raspy-voiced playwright and sometime actor who would get an Oscar nomination for his performance as bitter mob informant Frankie Pentangeli in 1974's THE GODFATHER PART II.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Retro Review: THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC! (1972)

(Italy - 1972; US release 1975)

Directed by Roberto Montero. Written by Luigi Angelo, Italo Fasan and Roberto Montero. Cast: Farley Granger, Sylva Koscina, Susan Scott (Nieves Navarro), Silvano Tranquilli, Annabella Incontrera, Chris Avram, Femi Benussi, Krista Nell, Philippe Hersent, Paul Oxon, Jessica Dublin, Angela Covello, Fabrizio Moresco, Andrea Scotti, Irene Pollmer, Luciano Rossi, Ivano Staccioli, Nino Foti, Sandro Pizzoro, Benito Stefanelli. (Unrated, 101 mins)

Known under a variety of titles and initially released in the US as THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC!, this obscure thriller is an enjoyably lurid second-tier giallo from Italian journeyman Roberto Bianchi Montero. Montero (1907-1986), a career second and third-stringer, dabbled in everything--post-HERCULES peplum, MONDO CANE knockoffs, spaghetti westerns, macaroni combat adventures, and even some porno in the late '70s-- but other than THE SLASHER, he's probably best known to genre fans for 1954's misleadingly-titled THE ISLAND MONSTER, a boring Italian drug smuggling drama sold as a horror movie and starring a dubbed Boris Karloff, presumably for no other reason than it provided the actor with a free Italian vacation. Shot under an Italian title that translated to the incredibly cumbersome REVELATIONS OF A SEX MANIAC TO THE HEAD OF THE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION DIVISION, THE SLASHER was known as SO SWEET, SO DEAD when released in Europe in 1972, but when it was picked up by veteran exploitation distributor William Mishkin, it was rebranded THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC! for its 1975 grindhouse and drive-in release. Just out on Blu-ray in a restored HD transfer from Code Red in its most complete version yet at 101 minutes (other versions range from 83 to 97 minutes), THE SLASHER isn't a long-buried masterpiece waiting to be discovered, but it's sufficiently nasty and sleazy enough to be of interest to giallo fans, though its rampant, unapologetic misogyny makes it a bit of a dated relic from a bygone era.

THE SLASHER stars STRANGERS ON A TRAIN's Farley Granger--right around the same time he headlined the similarly exclamatory Italian giallo trash classic AMUCK!--dubbed by someone else as Inspector Capuana, the chief of the homicide division in a wealthy enclave of Rome. He's baffled by a string of murders committed by a serial killer who preys on adulterous wives of rich and successful men. The trench-coated, black-gloved killer, who wears a fedora and a sheer nylon face mask like a BLOOD AND BLACK LACE cosplayer, considers himself "the moral avenger of the city's upper class," stalking cheating wives, slashing their throats and breasts, and leaving scattered photos of them in flagrante with their lovers, simultaneously slut-shaming his mutilated victims and exposing their husbands as hapless cuckolds. Red herrings abound--the creepy morgue attendant (Luciano Rossi), the smirking district attorney (Silvano Tranquilli), the medical examiner (Chris Avram), and various older lovers and younger boy toys. Even Capuana himself, a conservative type who's appalled by the moral rot and bourgeois decadence he encounters in his investigation, isn't free from suspicion, with many of the victims being in the same social circle as his wife Barbara (Sylva Koscina, who isn't given much to do), who spends a lot of time with her younger "friend" Roberto (Sandro Pizzoro) while the rumpled Capuana tirelessly pursues the murderer.

Montero does a mostly workmanlike job with THE SLASHER, but there's some noteworthy elements throughout: though derivative of Mario Bava, the killer's appearance is strikingly effective; there's no shortage of beautiful Euro starlets with zero hesitation about getting naked (Koscina, Susan Scott, Femi Benussi, and Krista Nell, whose life was cut tragically short when she succumbed to leukemia in 1975 at just 29); the nature of the murders hints at the increasingly violent and tawdry direction that gialli would soon be heading with likes of 1975's subtly-titled STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER; and Montero manages one legitimately classic giallo sequence with the beach murder of Benussi's character. There's other giallo tropes present as well, such as the Eurolounge score by Giorgio Gaslini, accompanied by the instantly recognizable wordless vocals of Edda Dell'Orso; a tarot card reader (Jessica Dublin) whose warnings to her soon-to-be-victim daughter (Nell) go unheeded and prefigure the psychic element of both Dario Argento's DEEP RED (1975) and Lucio Fulci's THE PSYCHIC (1977); and a variation on the idea of a second party using a killer for their own purposes, a concept key to AMUCK! as well as Argento's TENEBRE (1982). Mishkin kept THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC! in circulation for a while, even re-releasing it as BAD GIRLS with the tag line "...sensuous swingers all," as if THE SLASHER...IS THE SEX MANIAC! wasn't already exploitative enough. That still didn't satisfy Mishkin, who released an alternate version of the film on the XXX circuit in 1976 under the title PENETRATION, featuring newly-shot hardcore footage with American porn stars Harry Reems, Tina Russell, Kim Pope, and Marc Stevens, with the poster proudly advertising that one-time Samuel Goldwyn prodigy and former Hitchcock leading man Farley Granger was starring in a porno flick with the charming tag line "Some women deserve it!" An outraged Granger, who was edited into the hardcore scenes as if his character was a voyeur peeping all the XXX action, threatened a lawsuit and Mishkin quickly withdrew PENETRATION from release in the US, where it hasn't been seen since, though Granger's litigious power play didn't prevent that variant from being seen in Europe.

Monday, August 14, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE HUNTER'S PRAYER (2017) and THE EXCEPTION (2017)

(US/Spain - 2017)

A somewhat low-key take on THE PROFESSIONAL and THE TRANSPORTER, THE HUNTER'S PRAYER only managed a stealth VOD burial in June 2017 after over two years on the shelf. There's nothing original or inventive about it, but it's a perfectly acceptable time-killing chase thriller that's executed reasonably well in the capable hands of the long-absent Jonathan Mostow (BREAKDOWN, U-571), directing his first film since the 2009 Bruce Willis sci-fi dud SURROGATES. Mostow stepped in after journeyman Philip Noyce (PATRIOT GAMES, THE BONE COLLECTOR) bailed during pre-production, and had his TERMINATOR 3 and SURROGATES writing team of John Brancato & Michael Ferris (THE GAME) rework the script after Paul Leydon (THE FACTORY) and Oren Moverman (THE MESSENGER) took cracks at adapting Kevin Wignall's 2004 novel For the Dogs. Sam Worthington (also one of 24 credited producers) is Lucas, a junkie hit man in the employ of shady UK financial titan Addison (DOWNTON ABBEY's Allen Leech). Another assassin, Metzger (RED ROAD's Martin Compston) has been sent to New York to whack the family of Martin Hatto (Eben Young), an associate who embezzled funds from Addison's company and is about to expose his illegal dealings to the FBI and Interpol. Lucas' assignment is to kill Hatto's teenage daughter Ella (THE GIVER's Odeya Rush), who's enrolled in posh boarding school in Switzerland. Haunted by PTSD from his military days in Fallujah, and now a hopeless drug addict with a young daughter he's never met, Lucas has a change of heart and decides to become Ella's protector as Addison sends Metzger and corrupt FBI flunky Banks (TRANSPARENT's Amy Landecker) to pursue the pair through Europe.

There's also a less technological BOURNE element (sorry, no "crisis suites" or Addison flunkies staring at a row of monitors and shouting "There he is! It's Lucas!") to the tireless pursuit of Lucas and Ella, and while it's not exactly a high-energy action thriller, Mostow keeps THE HUNTER'S PRAYER reasonably well-paced and entertaining. Almost everything is telegraphed in advance and easy to see coming unless you've never seen a movie before: the moment Lucas says he's never met his daughter, we know he's meeting her by the end. Likewise, the moment Lucas shows Ella how to load and fire a gun, we know she'll be the one to ultimately take out Addison during the inevitable showdown in the murky catacombs underneath his castle-like fortress. And of course, the moment Lucas and Ella begin to bond, we know he'll realize he has a reason to live and she'll care for him when he quits the needle cold turkey and goes through his FRENCH CONNECTION II-inspired withdrawal. Worthington, who's been taking on more character roles in films like EVEREST and HACKSAW RIDGE after years of Hollywood trying to make him a thing following AVATAR and CLASH OF THE TITANS (where Liam Neeson managed to upstage him and the entire cast with one perfect line), does a credible job in a role that feels like it was written with Jason Statham in mind. There's nothing here to get really excited about it--it is what it is, but if you're looking for a fairly diverting chase thriller with no thinking required, you can do a lot worse than THE HUNTER'S PRAYER. (R, 91 mins)

(Germany/US/Switzerland/Belgium - 2017)

The kind of prestige period drama that probably would've starred Keira Knightley and James McAvoy a decade ago and gotten at least seven Oscar nominations, THE EXCEPTION instead was given a limited release and a DirecTV dumping by A24 and will be a complete non-factor come awards season. Based on the 2003 novel The Kaiser's Last Kiss by Alan Judd, THE EXCEPTION is a fictionalized look at events in the last year of the life of Germany's abdicated Kaiser Wilhelm II, played here by the always magnificent Christopher Plummer. Set in 1940 at Wilhelm's palace in Utrecht, where he's been in exile since 1918, the film centers on Nazi Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), a disgraced officer given the duty of heading to the Netherlands to lead security for the Kaiser, who serves no current political purpose but is still viewed as a figure of great symbolic importance to Hitler's Germany. Brandt's real assignment--and his shot at redemption after standing up to a brutal senior officer who took way too much joy in mowing down some Jewish children--is to determine if the Dutch Resistance has planted a spy among the Kaiser's housekeeping staff. Of course, Brandt makes the job difficult by having a torrid, borderline NIGHT PORTER-ish fling with Mieke (BABY DRIVER's Lily James), one of the Kaiser's maids and a secret Jew. Brandt is a Nazi with a conscience, and Mieke being Jewish doesn't really bother him, but what he doesn't know and what any seasoned moviegoer will immediately figure out is that Mieke is the spy. She's working for Winston Churchill and the British government, there to observe any possible interaction between the Kaiser and high-ranking Nazi officials. Of course, it gets personal once she has a chance to avenge the murder of her Jewish parents when the Kaiser is visited by Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan). A conflicted Brandt is torn between his duty to Germany and his love for Mieke, and their forbidden affair is encouraged by the Kaiser who, in the context of this film, is shown demonstrating some mildly anti-Semitic sentiments but nothing of the level of the monstrous Himmler, which isn't really historically accurate--in real life, the Kaiser's papers written as late as 1940 reveal a still very virulent anti-Semite. In the fictionalized, romance novel world of THE EXCEPTION, the Kaiser is reduced to playing a wizened, wily matchmaker who inspires these two crazy kids to set aside the whole "Germans hate the Jews" thing and maybe they can make it after all. And we know they will, because Brandt ultimately chooses good over evil when he embraces Mieke, looks her in the eye, and proclaims "I've found something else to fight for." Maybe they should've fought for a better script.

THE EXCEPTION looks lavish enough but is hokey and insultingly simplistic throughout, with Brandt's cliched character (he's not the rule, he's "the exception," get it?) never registering thanks to the utterly blank Courtney (A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD, TERMINATOR: GENISYS, SUICIDE SQUAD), who's never going to be a star no matter how many times the movie industry tries to make him happen. He's completely miscast and entirely too present-day, Magic Mike buff to be a Nazi captain in 1940 (I'd suggest picturing Channing Tatum in this role, but Tatum is smart enough to know his limitations). Courtney sucks the energy out of scene after scene with his monotone delivery and blank stare, barely able to hold his own in scenes with James and Janet McTeer as the Kaiser's wife. Tony Award-winning stage director David Leveaux, making his big-screen directing debut, does Courtney a further disservice by giving Brandt a bunch of scenes with the Kaiser. And rest assured, nothing spotlights a mediocre leading man's shortcomings like having him spend significant chunks of screen time opposite Christopher Plummer, an 87-year-old living legend who's got more star power in his bowel movements than Courtney's been capable of mustering over his entire career. Some hyped actors that Hollywood insists on making a thing end up maturing into first-rate actors--Matthew McConaughey and Colin Farrell come to mind--so there's a chance Courtney might get better as he gets older. I don't mean to be a dick and dog Courtney so hard. He's probably a nice guy. But he's just...not good. And neither is THE EXCEPTION. (R, 107 mins)

Friday, August 11, 2017


(UK/US - 2017)

Currently sporting an impressive 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, THE DEVIL'S CANDY, written and directed by Sean Byrne (THE LOVED ONES) made the festival rounds in 2015, two years before it was released by IFC in a slightly tweaked version that cut the running time from 90 to 80 minutes. It was lauded by critics and horror bloggers as yet another Horror Insta-Classic (© William Wilson), with many of the reviews citing as "a heavy metal horror movie" and "a totally metal horror movie" and even "metal as fuck." The metal element is perfunctory at best and pandering at worst, serving little purpose other than to get Slayer and Metallica on the soundtrack and score some hipster horror scenester points by being set and shot in Austin and having the credits in the Iron Maiden font. Today's horror fans are notoriously easy lays when it comes to hyping new product, but is that really all it takes to seduce them into declaring it a modern classic? As a metal horror movie, it's no TRICK OR TREAT. Hell, it's barely even BLACK ROSES. As an occult movie, it pales compared to Oz Perkins' THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER. And as an instant cult classic, it's basically a Rob Zombie hicksploitation romp camouflaged in hipster garb. To be fair, it's not a bad movie--there's some unexpectedly deep character development in the early going and some undeniable atmosphere, with a droning, downtuned ambient score by Sunn O))), and a stained glass window bathing people in shades of Argento red--but in the end, it's yet another generic indie horror slow burner that gets its leg frantically humped by breathlessly panting fanboys but delivers nothing you haven't seen before. Some good performances give it some extra credibility, but come on, guys. What's so special about this?

Artist Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), his wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby), and their teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) move into a farmhouse in the rural outskirts of Austin after closing on it at a really low price. Of course, it's because two people died in the house, which is never good sign in the horror genre. Astrid works full-time and metalhead Jesse makes ends meet by painting murals of butterflies and pretty scenery for local businesses. They're a loving family--Jesse's passed his love of metal on to Zooey, and it's cute watching father and daughter bond by headbanging to some death metal ("Can you play something lighter?" Astrid asks, to which Zooey smirks "Like what? Metallica?"). Once in the farmhouse, strange things begin happening, starting with random appearances by Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the son of the elderly couple who died in the house. Smilie has spent a significant chunk of his life in mental hospitals and likely killed both of his parents. He hears voices and plays doomy riffs on a Flying V as if being directed by an outside force. He abducts and kills children, following the instructions of the voices, and the visions of those dead kids are revealed in Jesse's paintings. The paintings take on an increasingly Satanic bent, though when they're done, Jesse awakens from a trance and has no recollection of painting them, which disturbs him even more when Astrid sees that he's painted Zooey's screaming face into a mural of hellfire and murdered children ("They're inside me," he says, "begging to be let out"). Much of the muddled plot unfolds in total darkness, and though the Hellmans (real subtle) are a happy family, the film almost wants you to be surprised that pot-smoking metalheads can be loving, nurturing parents. The much-acclaimed metal angle has no real purpose, though it's awfully convenient that a serial child killer whose instructions from the devil come to him in the form of a riff on a Flying V would happen to have a family of Slayer fans to pursue. THE DEVIL'S CANDY is an OK horror flick to stream on a slow night, and the four stars give this a lot more than they get in return (Appleby and Glasco are great screamers), but it's all rather silly and dull, even with the closing credits rolling at 74 minutes. (Unrated, 80 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US/UK/China - 2017)

Inspired by the 1997 "Phoenix Lights" incident, the faux-doc/found footage horror film PHOENIX FORGOTTEN wants to be the UFO version of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT but it lacks the ingenuity and originality. It tries to pass itself off as something with a low-budget, DIY aesthetic but it's really a three-country co-production with 29 credited producers, including After Dark Films chief Courtney Solomon, MAZE RUNNER screenwriter T.S. Nowlin and director Wes Ball, 300 producer Mark Canton, and, for some reason, Ridley Scott, all of whom must've cleaned out the change in their car's cupholders to get this thing made. Nowlin co-wrote the script with first-time feature film director Justin Barber, and for a while, PHOENIX FORGOTTEN is actually pretty good. Haunted by the disappearance of older brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) 20 years earlier, Sophie Bishop (Florence Hartigan) begins work on a documentary to find the truth about what happened to her then-17-year-old brother and his friends Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark (Justin Matthews). They vanished in the weeks following the appearance of the Phoenix Lights, two different events on March 13, 1997 where massive light formations in the sky--most likely flares from jets on a training exercise at a nearby military base--were witnessed by many and presumed to be UFOs (even then-Arizona governor Fife Symington laughed it off at the time but would later admit he believed them to be UFOs). Sophie interviews all of the parents, school officials, retired cops, and local astronomers, but the investigation hits the same dead end it did 20 years ago. She's even given the brush off by a former Symington aid after showing up at his house. Josh documented their trip with his own video camera, but when another camera with a school "property of" label on it, battered and damaged after being discovered in the desert and sent back to the school, is discovered in a long-unused storage unit rented by the school, Sophie finds a tape left inside.

Obviously, the other tape holds the answers to the mystery, and Barber does a nice job cutting from Sophie's discovery of it immediately to her shaken reaction after watching it. Then we see it, and what was an interesting and well-constructed faux doc turns into yet another rote, tired BLAIR WITCH ripoff, right down to the final tilted shot from the POV of a Dutch-angled video camera that's been dropped. It's too bad the inspiration flamed out at the midway-point, because even though found footage is as played out as can be, PHOENIX FORGOTTEN was shaping up as a decent little sleeper. Sophie's documentary unfolds like a riveting episode of DATELINE, and the mix of fiction with actual footage from the period is handled quite effectively. Another plus is that the actors deliver believable, "real" performances--at least until the second half, when all they're doing is bitching at each other and screaming "Mark!" when he vanishes into pitch black darkness. The big revelation here is the charming Lopez, who's got such a natural screen presence about her that when she's onscreen, it's easy to forget you're watching a fictional horror movie (and her impression of Jodie Foster in CONTACT--a small example of how this film gets the 1997 period detail right--is a clip that deserves to go viral). It's easy to dismiss films of this sort, especially this late in the game when there's really nothing new to do with them. Once in a while, a good one will break through and surprise you (like Bobcat Goldthwait's WILLOW CREEK), but these days, they're mostly like last year's hyped and crushingly disappointing BLAIR WITCH. PHOENIX FORGOTTEN falls somewhere in between, buoyed considerably by its cast's efforts and an opening half that's better than it has any right to be (and with a creepily effective use of Paul Revere & the Raiders frontman Mark Lindsay's 1969 solo hit "Arizona") but ultimately fizzling out when the filmmakers appear to simply give up when it mattered most. Maybe a different approach would've been to follow Sophie's efforts to expose the truth, especially after she meets with an official on a military base who tells her "don't let the public see that tape." Why not go the conspiracy route instead of checking out and coasting the rest of the way with an alien abduction remake of the first BLAIR WITCH? (PG-13, 87 mins)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

In Theaters: THE DARK TOWER (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel. Written by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nikolaj Arcel. Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Jackie Earle Haley, Katheryn Winnick, Dennis Haysbert, Abbey Lee, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Nicholas Hamilton, Jose Zuniga, Nicholas Pauling, Eva Kaminsky, Robbie McLean. (PG-13, 94 mins)

After a decade in assorted stages of development and pre-production hell, with both J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard attached to direct at various times, the long-planned adaptation of The Dark Tower, a series of Stephen King novels that began with the publication of a short story in 1978, is finally a thing. And they mostly blew it. A labyrinthine series of books that get larger and more unwieldy and self-indulgent with each new volume, going so far as to include King himself as a character by the time it's all over, the entire saga is nearly 5000 pages long. Something that complex, with its own internal mythology and the large cast of characters, is impossible to streamline and still be effective and probably needs to be a TV series along the lines of GAME OF THRONES to realize its full potential in a visual medium. But in the hands of Danish director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel (best known for helming 2012's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner A ROYAL AFFAIR and scripting the original film version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO as well as the three DEPARTMENT Q movies), making his Hollywood debut, THE DARK TOWER is a jumbled, confused pastiche of the book series and other King tropes and references (a kid who "shines," someone walking a St. Bernard, a framed photo of the cinematic Overlook Hotel, a portal labelled "1408") that goes off on its own tangent, with the closing credits rolling at just under the 90-minute mark. At times feeling like a really long "Previously on..." recap of a DARK TOWER TV series that doesn't exist, Arcel and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen (MIFUNE, WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF, BROTHERS), who reworked an existing script from Abrams' and Howard's time with the project by, respectively, Jeff Pinkner (LOST, FRINGE) and human focus group response Akiva Goldsman, try to cram in as many recognizable "Dark Tower"-related things as possible to keep the die-hards happy. King adaptations don't need to be faithful to work on their own terms--THE SHINING is proof of that--but the makers of THE DARK TOWER blowtorch through the exposition so quickly, with no context or frame of reference, that the whole thing will come off as either completely incoherent to anyone who hasn't read the books (I stopped after the third) or as pointless Dark Tower fan fiction to those who have. Arcel keeps the pace fast to a fault--almost certainly so you don't have a chance to ask questions until it's over, by which point you'll have forgotten most of it--and he gets a lot of mileage out of a well-cast star, but this thing is a total mess, and what could've been the beginning of an ambitious, epic big-screen franchise (that was the plan under Howard) ends up being 2017's JONAH HEX.

Still dealing with the death of his firefighter father in the line of duty, 12-year-old Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is haunted by visions in his dreams of another dimension where a huge tower keeps order in the universe. The tower is what stands in the way of the master plan of the nefarious sorcerer The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), who rules Mid-World, a world of monstrous creatures in human masks who abduct psychic children, the only beings capable of destroying the tower, which is the Man in Black's plan to unleash the ultimate evil. No one believes Jake--not his sympathetic mother (Katheryn Winnick), his asshole stepfather (Nicholas Pauling), or his psychologist (Jose Zuniga)--and a vision of a dilapidated house leads him to a condemned building in Brooklyn, where he discovers a portal to Mid-World. After going through, he encounters Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last Gunslinger, sworn to avenge the death of his father (Dennis Haysbert) at the hands of the Man in Black. Armed with pistols forged from Excalibur (yes, that Excalibur), Roland takes Jake under his wing as they're pursued through Mid-World into Manhattan, on what Mid-Worlders call "Keystone Earth," just one of many dimensions that exist in the universe, of which the Dark Tower is the center of all planes of existence.

The script takes ideas from various points in the books and mashes them all into a barely coherent story. The Man in Black is also known as "Walter Padick," but it's not clear when he became the force of evil that he is (it seems like something pretty big has to happen to turn a guy named Walter into the ultimate manifestation of demonic evil), and the movie never even bothers to mention another of his identities in the book: Randall Flagg, the name of the antagonist in both The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon. The Man in Black (this is not one of McConaughey's better performances) has some kind of sci-fi command center where he makes pithy comments to his underlings, all of whom seem to be completely incompetent, since he's constantly being beamed into Keystone Earth to take care of everything himself (example of how sloppy the finished film is: at one point, he makes a special trip to interrogate someone for information he was already made aware of a couple scenes earlier). The film was rushed through production and after some bad test screenings, underwent some hasty reshoots in an attempt to make sense of everything (three editors are credited), and about half of McConaughey's scenes appear to be from this second round of production, the major tell being that he has spiky bedhead in some scenes and a slicked-back, helmet-like wig in others, the production in such a mad rush to get done that they didn't even carefully monitor J.K.Livin's hair continuity. Other characters drift in and out with little purpose--Abbey Lee (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD) was described as "the female lead" in initial reports when she signed on, but her character is a mostly silent sidekick whose primary function is to stand beside by the Man in Black (or, if you prefer, Walter), and Jake's bullying school nemesis Lucas Hanson (Nicholas Hamilton) is reduced to about 30 seconds of screen time where he swipes Jake's sketch book and we never even get his name. Arcel essentially turns King's saga into a post-HUNGER GAMES/DIVERGENT/MAZE RUNNER YA adaptation, wasting a strong performance by Elba, who's very good in the action sequences and in the fish-out-of-water section when Roland goes through the portal and ends up in Manhattan. He and Taylor are apparently committed to a DARK TOWER TV series planned for 2018, which will hopefully be a more faithful take on King's saga than this misfire, which doesn't seem so much completed as it does abandoned. As far as Arcel is concerned, add him to the always-growing list of European filmmakers with cautionary tales of being seduced by Hollywood studios and a bigger budget than they've ever had only to find the film subjected to compromises, business decisions, and the fickle whims of test audiences, neutering any of the individuality and vision that got them the job in the first place, and sending them back home to regroup and focus on a small-scale, back to basics project.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

In Theaters: DETROIT (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal. Cast: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie, John Krasinski, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O'Toole, Nathan Davis Jr, Peyton Alex Smith, Malcolm David Kelley, Joseph David-Jones, Laz Alonso, Austin Hebert, Jennifer Ehle, Chris Coy, Miguel Pimentel, Chris Chalk, Glenn Fitzgerald, Dennis Staroselsky, Darren Goldstein, Jeremy Strong, Gbenga Akkinagbe. (R, 143 mins)

A harrowing chronicle of the 12th Street Riots in Detroit in late July 1967, with a focus on the infamous "Algiers Motel Incident," DETROIT is the latest from the HURT LOCKER and ZERO DARK THIRTY team of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal. It's pretty powerful--unflinching and disturbing, and difficult to watch at times. As a dramatization, it takes some liberties, changes a few names, and condenses some incidents for time and storytelling purposes, but according to those who were there who were either interviewed by Bigelow and Boal or, in the case of Juli Hysell, who was 18 years old at the time (played in the film by Hannah Murray), on the set as a consultant, it largely sticks with the events of the night, if not the aftermath. DETROIT's themes and imagery resonate today with seemingly endless police shootings of frequently unarmed suspects by inevitably acquitted cops and the resulting protests by groups like Black Lives Matter. Things haven't changed over 50 years, and while the more "woke" film cognoscenti argue, in their increasingly ludicrous pursuit of things to find offensive, that it's a film that shouldn't have been directed by a 65-year-old white woman, Academy Award-winner Bigelow again demonstrates that that she's one of the top American filmmakers going, something anyone in the know figured out back in 1987 with NEAR DARK, and one that you wish would work more frequently.

In an unusual prologue conveyed by a series of Jacob Lawrence paintings, white flight to the suburbs begins to take hold in post-WWII, leaving much of the Detroit area as segregated black neighborhoods left to decline, with increased police presence slowly ratcheting up the racial tension. That tension explodes on July 23, 1967 with a raid on a private club, without a liquor license, hosting a party for returning black Vietnam vets. The cops herd them out of the building like cattle, prodding them into paddy wagons as bystanders demand to know "What did they do?" Before long, bottles are thrown, windows are smashed, stores are looted, and a Molotov cocktail sets a gas station ablaze. Despite pleas from congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso), his constituents continue destroying their neighborhood out of a sense of frustration that's only growing. Gov. George Romney (seen in archival news footage, used frequently throughout) deploys the National Guard, the US Army, and the state police to maintain a presence in the area in a virtual martial law-like state. The riots force aspiring R&B group The Dramatics, led by frontman Larry "Cleveland" Reed (Algee Smith), to leave a gig at the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit, but they're separated after a bus is hit by bottles, with Larry and his buddy Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) venturing off on their own and ultimately checking into the nearby Algiers Motel to lay low for the night.

Larry and Fred end up partying with some people in a house on the Algiers property known as "the annex," where rooms are also rented. These people include hot-tempered Carl (Jason Mitchell, best known as Eazy-E in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON), his friend Aubrey (Nathan Davis Jr), and Vietnam vet Greene (Anthony Mackie), among others, plus 18-year-old Hysell and her friend Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two white girls from Ohio. Demonstrating what black men go through with cops on a daily basis, Carl shoots Aubrey with a blank from a tiny starter pistol, which provides a laugh for everyone. Emboldened, Carl fires more blanks out of a window in the direction of some National Guardsmen on patrol. This sends the Guard, some Army officers, and some local cops on the scene to raid the Algiers. Three Detroit P.D. patrolmen arrive and, under the leadership of bullying, racist Krauss (Will Poulter of THE REVENANT), the situation escalates into a grueling night of intimidation and torture as Krauss (who's already killed Carl and planted a knife on him to claim it was justified), Demens (Jack Reynor), and Flynn (Ben O'Toole) are set off by the sight of two white girls hanging out in a motel filled with black men and begin terrorizing everyone in search of the gun and the shooter.They play a "death game," a psychological tactic of taking someone into another room and firing a gun, tricking the others into talking, lest they be shot as well. Things get even worse from there, as Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard working at a market across the street from the Algiers, tries to maintain some semblance of order by going along to get along, respecting the cops and deferring to Krauss with the best intentions for everyone's safety even though he's horrified by what he sees and feels too outnumbered to stop it.

DETROIT's midsection is bookended by a clunky beginning and a protracted finale that turns into a standard courtroom drama not helped by the distracting late-film appearance of John Krasinski, who's still too recognizably John Krasinski to play an asshole defense attorney more concerned with putting the victims on trial (Dismukes is also charged, along with the three cops, when the story breaks and ultimately three dead bodies and several seriously injured motel residents need to be explained). But the long, agonizing Algiers sequence that makes up the biggest chunk of the film is a masterpiece of sustained, visceral tension. You'll actually feel your heart racing and your stomach knotting as things quickly spiral out of control, with Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (THE HURT LOCKER, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) creating an unbearably claustrophobic atmosphere with a lot of close-ups and a refusal to shy away from the brutality exhibited by the cops, whose power trip is abetted by the military and the state police looking the other way and leaving when they see Krauss' unhinged handling of the situation. Poulter is a big reason the Algiers section works as well as it does. Not a classically attractive leading man, the British Poulter scowls and smirks so much that he looks like an inbred Dylan Baker much of the time, vividly portraying what will probably go down as the most repugnant movie villain of 2017, and doing it so convincingly that it may actually do him more harm than good. Krauss is the kind of loathsome character that can be a typecasting career-killer for the actor who brings him to life, and Poulter (who never overdoes it, which makes it even more terrifying) is so good here that you may end up instantly despising him every time you see him in the future.

Top-billed Boyega is ostensibly the star as Dismukes, but his character arc seems like some scenes are missing, at least when it comes to the extent of his culpability in what happened. It's not really clear why he was put on trial or why Juli picks him out of a police lineup and gets him charged with the cops, beyond a knee-jerk need to pin it all on a black guy, which homicide detectives seem eager to do until too many people start telling the same story of three out-of-control cops. As presented here, Dismukes went along to get along. He was a passive observer who didn't take part in any of the violence or mayhem but felt powerless to stand up to Krauss, and may have been deemed guilty by association simply because of his security guard uniform. By the end, the emotional core of the film is Larry "Cleveland" Reed," a man with an incredible singing voice who was so traumatized by his night at the Algiers that it altered the course of his life. He walked away from a lucrative career with The Dramatics to live a quiet life in Detroit, where he leads a church choir to this day. Smith's performance is every bit as powerful as Poulter's in different ways, but despite a middle that's as brilliantly-handled as anything you'll see in a movie this year, along with convincing period detail that's right up there with ZODIAC, DETROIT falls short of greatness due to a cumbersome and unfocused start and finish that's kind of all over the place. Still a terrific film that needs to be seen, though one really must question the logic of releasing this in the summer.

Monday, August 7, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: COLOSSAL (2017); BOYKA: UNDISPUTED (2017); and UNFORGETTABLE (2017)

(US/South Korea/Spain/Canada/China/Luxembourg - 2017)

One of the most audacious and inventive films of the year, COLOSSAL is so offbeat and bizarre that its eccentricities are enough to carry it through its infrequent sections that don't work, like its uneven tone and its heavy-handed metaphors conveying its underlying themes. In a riff on her RACHEL GETTING MARRIED character, Anne Hathaway is Gloria, a hard-partying alcoholic who's been let go from a job at an online publication and has tested the patience of her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) one too many times. He dumps her and kicks her out of his apartment, and she heads back home to the small midwestern town where she grew up. She gets reacquainted with childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who runs his late father's bar and clearly still nurses a lifelong crush on her. Gloria doesn't change her ways, working at Oscar's bar and staying up all hours with Oscar and his buddies Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and Joel (Austin Stowell). After sleeping off a bender on a bench at a local playground, she gets online and is horrified by breaking news and terrifying footage of a giant, Godzilla-like reptilian creature appearing in Seoul. When she sees the creature mimicking some of her own gestures, Gloria realizes that if she stands in a certain spot on the playground at 8:05 am, the creature manifests itself in Seoul as her sort of kaiju avatar. If she dances, it dances half a world away. If she scratches her head, it scratches its head. She reveals the secret to Oscar and the guys and when Oscar steps in the spot, a giant robot appears next to the creature in Seoul. When they start playfully horsing around and Gloria falls, several hundred people are killed when the creature falls and crushes them in Seoul. When Gloria sleeps with Joel, Oscar quickly goes from hurt to angry, using their newfound powers over the events in Seoul to guilt her about the deaths she's caused and keep her under his control, especially when Tim arrives in town to try and patch things up now that Gloria has made serious attempts to get sober.

Written and directed by Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo (TIMECRIMES,
EXTRATERRESTRIAL, OPEN WINDOWS), COLOSSAL is like a Toho kaiju if conceived by Charlie Kaufman. It initially approaches the concept as an inspired black comedy, but things gradually turn serious as Oscar grows more angry, more possessive, and even physically abusive toward Gloria, taking out his rage over the perceived betrayal of sleeping with Joel and threatening to flatten Seoul and kill all of its citizens if she doesn't submit to his will. As a metaphor for pulling one out of destructive and self-destructive situation, it's rather large-scale, but the entire film has such a WTF? sense of originality about it that it helps get over some of the less graceful passages. There's an attempt at an explanation to it all--a flashback to a childhood incident in the park, a map that shows a straight latitudinal line drawn from their town and Seoul--but it's still a little foggy and nonsensical. But in the end, these issues matters less than they would have in less imaginative hands. Even with its flaws, COLOSSAL is a film that earns its cult cred the old-fashioned way, and the performances of Hathaway and especially Sudeikis, who's a revelation here, are quite impressive. A strange one, for sure, and unlike anything you've seen before. (R, 109 mins)

(US - 2017)

Only in the world of DTV does a gritty 2002 Wesley Snipes/Ving Rhames boxing drama directed by Walter Hill and featuring a hilariously profane rant from Peter Falk morph over the course of 15 years into a Bulgaria-shot Nu Image franchise about a Russian MMA fighter who wasn't even in the original movie. The fourth entry in the UNDISPUTED series, and the first since 2010's UNDISPUTED III: REDEMPTION, BOYKA: UNDISPUTED continues the spiritual quest for redemption for hardened Russian convict Yuri Boyka (Scott Adkins). Boyka was introduced as the villain in 2007's UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING but turned into a hero for the third film thanks to Adkins' colorful performance and powerhouse screen presence stealing the film from II star Michael Jai White. After emerging victorious in III's BLOODSPORT-style prison fighting tournament and escaping over the border into Georgia, Boyka has been living in Kiev, Ukraine, scraping by in underground MMA fights and using his extra cash to donate to a local church. He's now deeply religious and wants to prove himself a legitimate fighter and put his murderous past behind him for good. Consumed by guilt after killing opponent Viktor Gregov (Emilien De Falco) in the ring, Boyka gets a fake passport and crosses the border into Russia to give his fight earnings to Gregov's widow Alma (Teodora Duhovnikova) and ask for her forgiveness. Gregov owed money to Russian mob boss Zourab (Alon Aboutboul), who essentially enslaves Alma in order to pay back her late husband's debt. After several run-ins with Zourab's goons, Boyka reluctantly agrees to three fights in order to buy Alma's freedom. Of course, Zourab foolishly attempts to screw over Boyka, threatening to turn him in and have him sent back to maximum security Chornya Cholmi if he doesn't agree to a fourth fight with superhuman killing machine Koshmar the Nightmare (Martyn Ford).

UNDISPUTEDs II and III were directed by DTV action auteur Isaac Florentine, who gets a producer credit here but passes the torch to Syfy vet Todor Chapkanov (MIAMI MAGMA, CRYSTAL SKULLS), whose execution of the fight sequences does a mostly solid job of replicating Florentine's master touch, but the big showdown between Boyka and Koshmar is over way too quickly and isn't put together as well as it should be. Of his three turns as Boyka, this gives Adkins the most space to act, but his arc is a bit predictable and cliched and it's pretty dumb how the film has Boyka fighting for Zourab under his own name in public when he's a wanted man in Russia. Still, in an era when VOD/DTV action is defined by guys like Steven Seagal, Bruce Willis, and now Jean-Claude Van Damme coasting through doing as little as possible, the 41-year-old Adkins has genuine star quality, busts his ass time and again and has more than paid his dues over the years. He really should be headlining bigger movies by now (I seem to say this every time I review a new Scott Adkins movie), and while BOYKA: UNDISPUTED is a notch below the Florentine sequels (does anyone even remember the Hill movie anymore?), it's still way above average for this sort of thing. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2017)

A throwback to the '90s "(Blank)-from-Hell" thriller, UNFORGETTABLE marks the directing debut of veteran producer Denise Di Novi. Di Novi's career kicked off when she shepherded the 1989 cult classic HEATHERS and served as Tim Burton's producing partner during his 1990s glory years on the likes EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, BATMAN RETURNS, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, ED WOOD, and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH. She went on to have a long association with Warner Bros., where she produced several Nicholas Sparks adaptations and both installments of THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS. In other words, Di Novi is a pretty major player who's generated a ton of money in Hollywood, and the acknowledgment of that appears to be the only reason something as uninspired and thoroughly generic as UNFORGETTABLE managed to get a nationwide theatrical release from a major studio in 2017. Headlined by the best star teaming that 2008 had to offer, UNFORGETTABLE centers on online publishing editor Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson) moving to SoCal to live with her fiance David (Geoff Stults), who left his job at Merrill Lynch to open a craft brewery. Everything is going smoothly until the inevitable clash with David's uptight and unstable ex-wife Tessa (Katherine Heigl, in between her annual heavily-hyped new TV series that's inevitably cancelled after three episodes), who's convinced she and David are getting back together and is doing everything she can to turn their daughter Lily (Isabella Rice) against her future stepmother. Tessa starts by criticizing Julia's cooking, then escalates to stealing her phone and digging into her past, uncovering a restraining order against an abusive ex (Simon Kassianides) and luring him by pretending to be Julia online. Then she breaks into the house while Julia's taking a bath, stealing lingerie and sending it to the ex, giving him Julia's new address and inviting him to show up after sexting with him as Julia (Heigl's masturbation scene is hilariously intercut with Julia and David going down on each other in the men's room at a restaurant after Tessa tells Julia how much he used to like public sex, meaning that both women are basically obsessing over the other while they're getting off). Of course, things veer into mayhem and murder as the ex-wife-from-Hell stops at nothing to reclaim what she believes is hers.

Basically a Lifetime movie with a few F-bombs, some splatter, and a great view of Rosario Dawson's body double's butt (Di Novi doesn't even competently match the shots of Dawson and the double, whose presence would be painfully obvious even if she wasn't listed in the closing cast credits as "Rosario Dawson's body double"), UNFORGETTABLE is lethargically paced and never really cuts loose. Even the big catfight between Julia and Tessa seems to be over as soon as it starts. It hits every trope and cliche and the genre, it does nothing with Whitney Cummings as Julia's wisecracking best friend who helps her uncover dirt on Tessa (UNFORGETTABLE is so going-through-the-motions that it doesn't even bother killing off Cummings' pointless character), and it really only comes alive for a couple of scenes where Cheryl Ladd turns up as Tessa's chilly, perfectionist mother, who's even more of an ice-cold bitch who only speaks when she's got something negative to say to Tessa ("You didn't bake scones?" she scoffs at Tessa's store-bought pastries; "You're dragging your knife...and your silver needs polished!"), making it clear why Tessa is the way she is, almost generating a little sympathy for her in the process. But UNFORGETTABLE can't be bothered with multi-faceted character complexities. Dawson seems to know this is junk, the bland-to-the-point-of-transparency Stults looks like a third-string Peter Krause who's just biding his time until his perpetual stubble gets a little grayer and he can take over as the Trivago pitchman, and in the right hands, Heigl could've had some self-deprecating fun with the parallels between her character and her image as a difficult diva with a stick up her ass, but UNFORGETTABLE just coasts by doing the bare minimum. With the help of overqualified cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (THE BLACK STALLION, THE RIGHT STUFF, THE NATURAL, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST), who likely wouldn't be involved with something this junky if not for Di Novi, UNFORGETTABLE at least looks polished and professional on the surface. It's marginally better than the INCONCEIVABLE, another recent "(Blank)-from-Hell" '90s throwback thriller, but all these glossy retro potboilers end up demonstrating is that these things were a lot more enjoyable 25 years ago. (R, 100 mins)

Friday, August 4, 2017

On Netflix: MESSAGE FROM THE KING (2017)

(UK/France/Belgium - 2017)

Directed by Fabrice du Welz. Written by Stephen Cornwell and Oliver Butcher. Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Luke Evans, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Natalie Martinez, Tom Felton, Jake Weary, Chris Mulkey, Dale Dickey, Tom Wright, Lucan Melkonian, Arthur Darbinyan, Diego Josef, Sibongile Mlambo. (Unrated, 103 mins)

Belgian filmmaker Fabrice du Welz made his name with 2004's CALVAIRE, his contribution to the then-popular wave of "extreme" horror coming out of France, which included films like Alexandre Aja's HIGH TENSION, Xavier Gens' FRONTIER(S), Julien Maury and Alexander Bustillo's INSIDE, and Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS. It was several years before du Welz returned with the mostly English-language "trip upriver as metaphor for journey into madness" horror film VINYAN, which bombed internationally and ended up going straight-to-DVD in the US. Du Welz took another extended break, returning with 2014's ALLELUIA, a grim chronicle of the same spree killers whose story was the basis of both the 1969 cult classic THE HONEYMOON KILLERS as well as the little-seen 2006 noir throwback LONELY HEARTS, and the crime thriller COLT 45, the latter of which is still waiting for a US release. With the Netflix Original film MESSAGE FROM THE KING, du Welz is working in America for the first time. A mainstream revenge thriller with echoes of THE LIMEY and TAKEN, MESSAGE focuses on Jacob King (42 and GET ON UP's Chadwick Boseman, soon to headline Marvel's BLACK PANTHER), who's just arrived in L.A. from Cape Town, South Africa looking for his younger sister Bianca (Sibongile Mlambo) after an urgent, garbled message that she's "in trouble" and has "something they want." Grilled by customs and with only $600 on him ("That's not much for a vacation," he's told. "I'll make it last," he replies), King pounds the pavement, first heading to Bianca's address only to be told by her hard-partying neighbor Trish (Natalie Martinez) that she vanished after her husband split, leaving Bianca to care for his 11-year-old son. Looking through some belongings Bianca left with Trish, King pieces together enough information to send him to Zico (Lucan Melkonian), a flunky for Ducmajian (Arthur Darbinyan), an Eastern European crime boss operating in SoCal. Armed with just a bicycle chain, King beats the shit out of Zico and some other goons, eventually learning that Bianca had a serious drug problem and was likely working as a prostitute. He makes contact with--and bicycle-chains--Bianca's drug dealer Frankie (a nothing bit part for former Draco Malfoy Tom Felton), and, from paging through Bianca's appointment book, gets some info from sleazy Beverly Hills dentist Dr. Paul Wentworth (Luke Evans) before finally checking out the morgue and identifying Bianca's body from an identical tattoo they each have on their right arms. He tells the attendant that the body is not his sister's, so needless to say, King is going full vigilante and making the guilty parties pay on his own.

King's trek through the skeezy underbelly of L.A.--captured very effectively by cinematographer Monika Lenczewska--eventually directs him to blockbuster movie producer Mike Preston (Alfred Molina), a pederast with a never-ending supply of young boys, including Bianca's stepson Armand (Diego Josef), sold by a desperate Bianca, who was forced into prostitution in order to pay off her dead husband's debt to Ducmajian before someone had her killed. Things get even more complicated when King finds a flash drive stashed in pack of Bianca's Marlboros that has some very incriminating evidence tying together Bianca, Ducmajian, Preston, and mob-connected mayoral candidate Frank Leary (Chris Mulkey). Shitbag Wentworth decides to use the situation to bilk some extra money out of both Preston and Ducmajian, but King is constantly a step ahead of all of them, resorting to some vintage YOJIMBO tactics to play all the sides against the other, inevitably leading to a final showdown.

MESSAGE FROM THE KING is fairly formulaic stuff with little in the way of surprises, except for one final reveal that's unnecessary. The script by Stephen Cornwell and Oliver Butcher (they also wrote the Liam Neeson thriller UNKNOWN) relies far too much on contrivance and makes things way too easy for King, a guy who's never been to L.A. before but gets around rather effortlessly and has the good fortune to stumble upon just the info he needs at all times (for instance, visiting Wentworth on a mere hunch, of course he spots Zico walking out after having his jaw reset following his run-in with King's bike chain). A few plot strands are left dangling, and Du Welz has no idea what to do with his female characters, with Trish completely vanishing from the movie as King befriends the only-in-the-movies "hooker with a heart of gold" and single mom Kelly (Teresa Palmer), who emphatically states "I never fuck them," drawing the line at blowjobs, a PRETTY WOMAN-esque bit of sugarcoating that just doesn't seem like a plausible caveat that's available to a battered hooker in an unrelentingly ugly environment as harsh and brutal as the one presented in MESSAGE FROM THE KING. Both Trish and Kelly are underdeveloped characters that would've been better served and made stronger if they were combined into one, especially since Trish just disappears. The villains are stock Eastern European scumbags, Evans is appropriately reptilian and Molina is thoroughly repulsive, whether he's ogling his boy toys or being a racist asshole (with a gun pointed at King, he justifies his reasons for shooting him with "Breaking and entering...self-defense...plus you're black").

MESSAGE FROM THE KING drags in the meandering dialogue scenes with King and Kelly, but ultimately, it's Boseman's intense, ferocious performance that drives it along, carrying this thing on his shoulders with an enraged glare and a very convincing South African accent. Even when the by-the-numbers script is making things entirely too easy for King, Boseman keeps you engaged and rooting for him. Though the pace lags in the middle after a furiously fast-moving opening act, MESSAGE FROM THE KING is purely commercial revenge thriller fare that could've easily been a nationwide theatrical release, but Netflix picked it up at last year's Toronto Film Festival, and relatively speaking, it's one of their better recent "Netflix Original" offerings. Du Welz acquits himself well in this sort of mainstream surrounding, but the purists and CALVAIRE fans can also take heart in knowing that he does indulge in his "extreme horror" past with a few moments of some truly startling violence and splatter, thanks to mostly to the flesh-ripping abilities of King's trusty bicycle chain. Netflix is probably the best fit for this, but even with its many shortcomings, Boseman makes it worth seeing as a decent time-killer.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Retro Review: CORRUPT (1983)

(Italy - 1983; US release 1984)

Directed by Roberto Faenza. Written by Ennio de Concini, Hugh Fleetwood and Roberto Faenza. Cast: Harvey Keitel, John Lydon, Nicole Garcia, Leonard Mann, Sylvia Sidney, Carla Romanelli. (R, 101 mins)

You can't exactly say the psychological thriller CORRUPT has fallen into obscurity over the years, but it's a small miracle that it's now available in quality Blu-ray release in 2017. A staple on countless sketchy, public domain DVD sets and on YouTube for years, in crummy VHS quality transfers and often under different titles--the most dubious being CORRUPT LIEUTENANT in reference to another iconic role for star Harvey Keitel--with a myriad of truncated running times, CORRUPT was based on the 1977 novel The Order of Death by British writer Hugh Fleetwood, who co-wrote the script with director Roberto Faenza and veteran screenwriter Ennio de Concini (THE RED TENT, SALON KITTY, CHINA 9 LIBERTY 37). It was released in the UK in 1983 as ORDER OF DEATH, the rest of Europe that same year as COPKILLER, and in the US in 1984 as CORRUPT, by New Line Cinema, the B-movie and genre fare outfit that had been around for years but was about to have a breakout smash with Wes Craven's A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Code Red recently released CORRUPT--in its 101-minute US cut, a bit shorter than the 113-minute European version--on Blu-ray and it's the first time it's been in a watchable condition since the old Thorn/EMI VHS tape that was in every video store in America in the 1980s. The film has maintained a certain degree of cult notoriety for the last 30-plus years, thanks primarily to the presence of John Lydon--then the frontman for Public Image Ltd but still best known for his days as the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten--in the first of only three acting roles he's tackled over his career, and he more than holds his own against the powerhouse intensity of Keitel, with long stretches of the film focused on their two characters engaging in psychological warfare in the increasingly claustrophobic confines of a nearly empty luxury apartment. There were plans to take advantage of Lydon's day job: Public Image Ltd were set to do some music for the film, but the producers ultimately opted to go with a score by Ennio Morricone instead. Some of the material that Lydon and PiL recorded ended up on the band's 1984 album This is What You Want...This is What You Get, including "The Order of Death," which would've been great in CORRUPT but had to wait several years to find a cinematic home when it was prominently featured in Richard Stanley's 1990 cult classic HARDWARE, and more recently on the Syfy series MR. ROBOT.

NYPD narcotics Lt. Fred O'Connor (Keitel) has a full plate with a serial killer slashing the throats of corrupt cops in his division. He seeks escape and relaxation from the everyday grind by pretending he's a wealthy man named Stevens and lounging with fine cigars and a comfy robe and slippers at a nearly empty $400,000 apartment overlooking Central Park. Fred went 50/50 on it with his friend and colleague Bob Corvo (Leonard Mann)--a purchase funded by their sideline activities as drug dealing cops. Troubled by the deaths of several fellow officers, Corvo is feeling guilt over their off-duty criminal activities. Meanwhile, O'Connor realizes he's being followed by a stranger (Lydon) who shows up at the secret apartment and introduces himself as Fred Mason, confessing to the cop killer slayings and saying he's been following O'Connor for six months. O'Connor doesn't believe him, but frets because he knows about the apartment, so he reacts in a calm and rational way by boarding up the bathroom window and keeping Mason bound and handcuffed in the bathtub, periodically torturing him and giving him food in a dog dish. But Mason is really Leo Smith, a young man from an extremely wealthy Rhinecliff family who was raised by his grandmother (Sylvia Sidney) after his parents died. Leo, the kind of bored rich kid with too much time on his hands and too many toys who fills his bedroom with camcorders and TVs and makes videotapes of himself sleeping, has a history of confessing to crimes he didn't commit, ostensibly for attention but, as O'Connor finds out when he visits the grandmother after she files a missing persons report, because he's into S&M imagery and enjoys punishment. What follows are some often twisted and grueling cat-and-mouse head games, with O'Connor accidentally killing Corvo and trying to pin it on Leo, to Leo being set free by his captor but voluntarily returning to the secret apartment, turning the tables on his nemesis by insidiously taking over O'Connor's life and slowly wearing him down psychologically, methodically manipulating the dirty cop over his corruption and guilt to serve his own agenda that will become clear by the devastating finale.

UK poster under the film's original title.

CORRUPT is a strange film that, speaking in terms of pure plot synopsis, doesn't make much logical sense. Even the British ORDER OF DEATH trailer above doesn't seem to have any idea how to sell it. Of all the things that two corrupt cops could spend their money on, a secret apartment where they don't really do anything seems like a waste ("I looked at this as an investment," says Corvo after informing O'Connor that he wants to sell his share). Fleetwood's novel made overtures to O'Connor and Corvo being closeted gay lovers and that's subtly alluded to here, with O'Connor's seemingly disapproving reaction to Corvo shaving his beard (Nicole Garcia plays Corvo's wife Lenore, who rejected O'Connor's advances years earlier prior to her marriage) and that Corvo's excuse of the apartment as an "investment" seems like a lie he's repeatedly told himself until he believes it. Its "imprisonment and torture of a suspect" element prefigures Denis Villeneuve's PRISONERS by 30 years, but the Italian-made CORRUPT often demonstrates the logic and style of a giallo, which it may partially be classified as considering the throat-slashing nature of the cop killings along with Morricone's score, mainly a pulsating minimalist synth with asides that make it sound like a strange mix-tape hybrid of his entire career, from a spaghetti western banjo to some of his cacophonous early '70s free jazz freakouts (there's some BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE trumpet here) to a recurring piano cue (about 1:12 into this clip) that attentive viewers will spot from the Maestro's work on both Umberto Lenzi's ALMOST HUMAN (1974) and Brian De Palma's THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987). It can also be seen a more grounded, less surreal homage to PERFORMANCE, not just in the casting of a famous music personality but also in the way the protagonists (James Fox and Mick Jagger in PERFORMANCE) have dual identities and become distorted mirror images of one another as the film goes on. Even "cop killer" ends up with a reflecting flip side with "killer cop." It's also an effective, grimy NYC movie of the era done in the unique way that only Italians could, with some extensive location shooting for the exteriors (interiors were filmed at Cinecitta in Rome) and some vintage 42nd Street shots, including Keitel on a bus that passes the Lyric, then showing an incredible double bill of DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. and SLITHIS, which would put CORRUPT's NYC shoot somewhere in the vicinity of May 1982. It's too bad Faenza didn't snag any footage of the Butchermobile cruising around.

But CORRUPT is really propelled by the performances of Keitel and Lydon, exact opposites in terms of approach and experience but making it work beautifully, almost like they're starring in the world's most dysfunctional, demented remake of THE ODD COUPLE. There's an undeniable nerve-wracking edginess to a lot of their scenes, the violence they inflict on one another looks convincingly real and they're deeply in the zone throughout. Watch one great bit where Keitel slams Lydon's face into a table, grabbing him by his hair and knocking over a glass of milk, breaking it with the milk splattering all over--it obviously wasn't planned and Keitel is visibly startled by the glass shattering, but neither actor breaks character. It's a "real" moment that Faenza wisely left in the finished film. Keitel brings a lot of his standard persona to the table, including the sense of guilt carried over by his MEAN STREETS character (as dishonest as O'Connor is, he still drinks milk and dutifully drops a quarter in the slot when he ends up on a bus chasing a suspect) along with the moral and ethical implosion that we'd see him play a decade later in Abel Ferrara's BAD LIEUTENANT (unfortunately, O'Connor never completely breaks down, depriving us of the unique Keitel Cry). Keitel gets a long monologue about corruption that would fit right into a Scorsese or Ferrara film. O'Connor is a total sadist in his treatment of Leo, whether he's feeding him out of a dog dish, threatening to burn him with a cigar, or stuffing his head into an oven.

And as played by a wild-eyed Lydon, Leo seems to welcome the mistreatment, even if it's all part of a ruse. The punk icon is a revelation here, and it's a shame he didn't pursue more acting roles. He's a perfect foil for Keitel, who's pure simmering rage waiting to boil over, while Lydon is more sarcastic and mocking, as Leo knows exactly what buttons to push, whether he's maniacally grinning at the idea of a cigar being put out on his cheek or taunting O'Connor with "You're falling to pieces" as he mic-drops what's left of a handheld radio that O'Connor just smashed in one of his numerous meltdowns. Faenza and the writers even pull a bait and switch on the audience, seeming to put the "cop killer" thread of the story on the backburner for much of the running time. All the while, the filmmakers slyly tighten the screws, as O'Connor's vast apartment becomes suffocatingly claustrophobic and Morricone's throbbing, repetitive synth score plays in a way that's pure Carpenterian in its droning, tension-escalating persistence. CORRUPT has been neglected for so long that it's easy to see why it's either completely forgotten or thoroughly despised by those who have only seen a really shitty presentation of it. While Code Red's Blu-ray represents the truncated American cut, it's unquestionably the best this film has looked since New Line released it 33 years ago (apparently just in NYC, as The New York Times' Janet Maslin appears to be the only major American critic who reviewed it at the time), and even for fans who are familiar with it, this is like seeing it for the first time. CORRUPT is a hard film to pin down--maybe think of it as what might happen if Sidney Lumet ever made a giallo--but it's endlessly fascinating, one of the great unknown films of the 1980s, and a must-see for fans of Lydon, as well as Keitel, who turns in one of his absolutely essential performances.

CORRUPT finally rescued from the indignity of 
decades as a public domain title. You get what you pay for.
This looks legit, from the shot of Keitel from what may be
be COP LAND to the flashy cars to "John Lyndon."

Totally legit.

That's a mid '90s Keitel and it's not even his left hand.