Monday, March 27, 2017

Retro Review: THE STUD (1978) and THE BITCH (1979)

(UK - 1978)

Directed by Quentin Masters. Written by Jackie Collins, Dave Humphries and Christopher Stagg. Cast: Joan Collins, Oliver Tobias, Sue Lloyd, Mark Burns, Doug Fisher, Walter Gotell, Tony Allyn, Emma Jacobs, Peter Lukas, Natalie Ogle, Constantin De Goguel, Sarah Lawson, Franco De Rosa, Chris Jagger, Peter Bourke. (R, 96 mins)

In constant rotation in Showtime's late night "After Hours" block in the early-to-mid '80s, the softcore porn cult classics THE STUD (1978) and its sequel THE BITCH (1979) were the first film projects of UK brewery and pub company Brent Walker as well as the first big-screen adaptations of legendary trashy romance novelist Jackie Collins. Co-scripted by Collins and conceived as a starring vehicle for her older sister Joan, THE STUD was a big hit in the UK and it proved to be the first step in reviving 45-year-old Joan's stagnant career, which began in the early 1950s but by 1978 found her slumming in Eurotrash crime movies and drive-in fare like EMPIRE OF THE ANTS. That would all change in 1981 when she enjoyed a major comeback with the zeitgeisty success of the ABC series  DYNASTY. A resurgent Collins became so synonymous with the DYNASTY phenomenon that it's easy to forget that she didn't even join the show until its second season. THE STUD gave the actress a chance to give her Alexis Carrington/bitch-on-wheels act a test drive as Fontaine Khaled, owner of the posh, members-only disco Hobo and trophy wife to wealthy businessman Ben Khaled (Walter Gotell, best known as General Gogol in the Roger Moore-era 007 movies). Fontaine is a sexually voracious nympho with a ton of studs on standby, but her favorite is Tony Blake (Oliver Tobias), Hobo manager and insatiable player. Tony beds a different woman every night but is growing disillusioned with ennui and the excess of the night life and being at Fontaine's beck-and-call, and he's even planning on quitting Hobo and opening his own nightclub with unscrupulous investment broker Ian Thane (Peter Lukas).

Despite the film ostensibly being a showcase for Collins, the real focus of THE STUD is Tobias, who has a sort-of second-string Warren Beatty quality here, especially once Tony's SHAMPOO-esque character arc is complete. Though he doesn't change his ways immediately, he falls hard for Alex (Emma Jacobs), Fontaine's barely-legal stepdaughter. Alex is stuck in a boring relationship and wants revenge on serial adulteress Fontaine for cheating on her father, so she throws herself at Tony, who declares his love for her after one night of passion. He finally seems ready to settle down after a drug-fueled night at a hotel where he, Fontaine, her best friend Vanessa (Sue Lloyd) and Vanessa's husband Leonard (Mark Burns) have a foursome in the pool. Vanessa and Leonard are swingers, and Fontaine is "gifting" Tony to Vanessa for her birthday. While they're getting it on, Fontaine and Leonard ride a giant fuck-swing over the pool before the four-way, which comes to an abrupt end when a dazed Tony gathers his senses and realizes he's being blown by an adventurous Leonard. He finally lays it on the line for Alex, who flatly rejects him, cruelly informing him that she was just using him to get off and get back at Fontaine. This culminates in a New Year's Eve bash at Hobo where he finds out he's losing his job and his partnership with Thane is off, and he encounters a conga line of all of his conquests over the course of the film, almost as if his life is flashing before his eyes. THE STUD is totally unabashed trash, but there's some genuinely effective drama and ambition in this final sequence, which blurs the line between fantasy and reality to such a degree that you wouldn't be surprised if Tony started belting out "Bye Bye Life" from ALL THAT JAZZ. It's almost like director Quentin Masters stages it as a mini-homage to the legendary, one-hour banquet sequence in Luchino Visconti's THE LEOPARD, where Burt Lancaster's aristocratic nobleman goes from room to room witnessing the downfall of the upper class, essentially bidding farewell to the world of privilege he's always known. Tony faces the harsh reality of his situation and realizes that a change must be made. He races toward the exit as the New Year's countdown ticks away, finally getting out the door at "zero" and taking a deep breath, the weight of the world and Fontaine Khaled finally off his shoulders.

It's an unexpectedly serious and ingeniously constructed finish to an otherwise tawdry and campy affair. A frequently nude Collins has a blast as the vamping, strutting Fontaine, dropping bon mots like "When I first met Tony, he thought 69 was a bottle of scotch," and "Old Ben gets his cock sucked once a month, in the dark." There's some unexpected humor in a prophetic throwaway line by the frontman of a rock band who's warned about his hard-partying lifestyle and smirks "Who ever heard of a 70-year-old rock star anyway?" The line is funny now because the actor playing the rock star is Chris Jagger, the younger, lookalike brother of Mick. With its dated fashions and its plethora of disco tunes and cheesy, pre-Skinemax sex scenes, it's easy to laugh at THE STUD, but it really steps up its game in the home stretch, demonstrating some unexpected depth and thoughtfulness that one doesn't usually associate with the work of Jackie Collins. Dave Humphries and Christopher Stagg are credited with "additional material and dialogue," so it's possible they brought that out in some rewrites (Humphries' writing credits also include such respected titles as the 1977 cult horror film THE HAUNTING OF JULIA and the 1979 Who rock opera QUADROPHENIA). There's occasional hints of that drama here and there--there's just something haunting and sublimely melancholy about last call at a dimly-lit '70s nightclub with the remaining desperate stragglers either facedown drunk or hooking up to the tune of 10cc's 1975 hit "I'm Not in Love."

(UK - 1979)

Written and directed by Gerry O'Hara. Cast: Joan Collins, Michael Coby (Antonio Cantafora), Kenneth Haigh, Ian Hendry, Mark Burns, Sue Lloyd, Carolyn Seymour, Doug Fisher, John Ratzenberger, Pamela Salem, Peter Wight, George Sweeney, Chris Jagger, Peter Burton, Maurice Thorogood, Bill Mitchell, Jill Melford. (R, 93 mins)

THE STUD did a great job of capturing the UK perspective of the kind of Studio 54 debauchery that defined the excess of late '70s nightlife. It was such a smash in England--as well as a minor grindhouse and drive-in hit when Trans-American Films released it in the US in 1979--that it spawned an immediate sequel with 1979's THE BITCH, bringing back Joan Collins and much of THE STUD's supporting cast. Though it was based on her novel, Jackie Collins didn't return for THE BITCH, nor did director Quentin Masters, so the Brent Walker guys assigned writing and directing duties to veteran British journeyman Gerry O'Hara, whose career as an assistant and second unit director dated back to the 1940s before he moved into making his own films in the 1960s. Though he worked as an assistant on prestigious fare like RICHARD III (1955), ANASTASIA (1956), and CLEOPATRA (1963), O'Hara never really distinguished himself as his own director, jumping from genre to genre, finding a niche after THE BITCH with 1983's bawdy Brent Walker/Harry Alan Towers co-production FANNY HILL, and eventually ending his career with Cannon during their life support years, when he replaced Ken Russell during pre-production on the dire THE MUMMY LIVES, a horror movie with Tony Curtis that spent three years on the shelf before going straight to video in 1996. O'Hara sticks to the STUD formula with THE BITCH, but the results are less successful. The continuing chronicle of Fontaine Khaled's sexcapades is dull and plodding, even with a surplus of skin and sex scenes, and the action is bogged down by an uninteresting plot about Fontaine tangling with gangsters over an expensive diamond ring that inadvertently comes into her possession.

Fontaine gets the ring from mob-connected Nico Cantafora (BARON BLOOD's Antonio Cantafora, a Robert Goulet lookalike going by his "Michael Coby" pseudonym that he used in several TRINITY knockoffs with Paul Smith) on a flight from NYC to London, where the in-flight movie is...wait for it...THE STUD. He needs to get the ring through customs and knows he'll be stopped, so he plants it on Fontaine, hoping to catch up with her later. He needs the ring because its value will get him out of debt with a British crime organization led by ruthless mobster Thrush Feather (an ill-looking Ian Hendry), who's respected and feared by all despite being named "Thrush Feather." What follows is a convoluted chain of events with double-crosses and tons of sex, sort-of like O'Hara wanted to make a softcore porn version of THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY. There's also boring subplots about Fontaine being warned by her attorney (Kenneth Haigh) that her club Hobo is facing bankruptcy since she still insists on living the kind of jet-setting lifestyle she can't afford since Ben Khaled divorced her after the events of THE STUD. She finds herself in the Tony role here, falling for Nico even though he's just using her, though she eventually turns the tables and uses the ring to get herself out of debt. THE BITCH delivers when it comes to the kind of softcore action that made these two films so well-known to late-night cable viewers and hopeless insomniacs in the 1980s, but it really drags when people aren't bumping and grinding in quintessential 1979 soft focus.

Other than The Olympic Brothers' amazingly catchy earworm of a theme song that will stick with you for days, the most fascinating part of THE BITCH today is the sight of a young John Ratzenberger, then an American expat living and working in the UK a few years before moving back to the States and landing his signature role as Cliff Claven on CHEERS, as a New York mob guy who becomes Nico's contact in London. It's pretty surreal seeing the future Pixar voice mainstay in this bit of softcore sleaze, sharing scenes with Italian cult star Cantafora and tearing up the dance floor at a London disco with a chick on each arm (tragically, O'Hara deprives us of any J-Ratz sex action that talk show hosts could've ambushed him with forever). Ratzenberger gets a lot of scenes in the middle of the film, but then completely vanishes from the story, which is indicative of how sloppy and careless THE BITCH can be. Character motivations and behavior change from scene to scene with little regard for story continuity. People can be furious with someone in one scene and then walking arm in arm with them in the next like nothing happened. But hey, you aren't watching THE BITCH for the story, right? 1978-79 seemed to be a breakout period for Jackie Collins on the big screen: THE STUD and THE BITCH, both recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber in defiant objection to the "physical media is dead" narrative (both have commentary tracks by film historians David Del Valle and Nick Redman, and THE BITCH features an interview with 92-year-old Gerry O'Hara) were two of four Jackie Collins-derived works over that two-year period, which also included another After Hours favorite with 1979's THE WORLD IS FULL OF MARRIED MEN, with Anthony Franciosa and Carroll Baker, and 1979's YESTERDAY'S HERO, an original Collins script about a hard-drinking, washed up soccer star (Ian McShane) that represented a bit of a departure from her signature romance trash. The British-made YESTERDAY'S HERO was never released theatrically in the US, despite McShane's love interest being played by Suzanne Somers, riding high at the time thanks to the enormously popular THREE'S COMPANY. From then on, Jackie Collins' novels were adapted for the small screen with miniseries like HOLLYWOOD WIVES and LUCKY CHANCES. THE STUD and THE BITCH did find a fan in Aaron Spelling, who saw both and hired Collins to add some catty, vindictive bitchiness to DYNASTY, which gave the veteran actress' stalled American career a powerfully gusting second wind that turned her into a TV icon.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Retro Review: THE KLANSMAN (1974)

(US - 1974)

Directed by Terence Young. Written by Millard Kaufman and Samuel Fuller. Cast: Lee Marvin, Richard Burton, Cameron Mitchell, O.J. Simpson, Lola Falana, Luciana Paluzzi, David Huddleston, Linda Evans, Ed Call, John Alderson, David Ladd, Vic Perrin, Spence Wil-Dee, Wendell Wellman, Hoke Howell, Virgil Frye, Lee De Broux, Susan Brown, Jeannie Bell, Larry Williams. (R, 112 mins)

THE KLANSMAN is a film so consistently and unrelentingly repugnant that it opens with a group of white yahoos giving a mentally challenged black man $1 to rape a young black woman as they stand around in a circle cheering him on...and it somehow gets more offensive with each passing scene. A misguided clusterfuck from the moment it was greenlit to the week of its release over Thanksgiving 1974--because who doesn't want to spend the holiday with family watching a movie with rape, castration, and more racial slurs than the combined filmographies of Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino?--THE KLANSMAN is, if you can stomach it, a film that simply must be seen to be believed. The fact that it's a Paramount release with big name stars probably lent an illusion of prestige, but make no mistake, this is as foul, if not more so, as any drive-in exploitation grinder, so trashy and shamelessly gutter-wallowing that, as Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot's Marty McKee stated in his review, "You need a SILKWOOD shower after watching it." Based on a 1965 novel by William Bradford Huie, THE KLANSMAN probably began with the best intentions. Samuel Fuller (FIXED BAYONETS, MERRILL'S MARAUDERS, SHOCK CORRIDOR) wrote the script and was set to direct before quitting the project over disagreements with the producers. Fuller's script was reworked by Millard Kaufman (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, RAINTREE COUNTRY) and veteran British journeyman Terence Young (DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, THUNDERBALL, WAIT UNTIL DARK) was brought in to direct. Though he had some major hits under his belt, Young was pushing 60 and in paycheck mode by that point, primarily working in Europe, coming off three Charles Bronson films with 1970's COLD SWEAT, 1971's RED SUN, and 1972's THE VALACHI PAPERS, followed by the cheesy 1973 sword-and-sandal outing WAR GODDESS, and he reportedly only took the KLANSMAN gig because he was a sugar daddy to a much younger girlfriend and needed some major studio Hollywood cash.

A coasting Young was left in charge of a cast headed by legends Lee Marvin and Richard Burton, and much of the film's budget appears to have gone to their booze supply. Marvin is at least a functioning alcoholic and manages to turn in an actual performance, but Burton was bottoming out personally and professionally while in Oroville, CA working on THE KLANSMAN. His marriage to Elizabeth Taylor falling apart during production, Burton was also dogged by a persistent combined bout of bronchitis and the flu that lasted throughout the shoot, and he was drinking nearly three bottles of vodka per day. He checked himself into a hospital to deal with his alcoholism after filming wrapped, but Burton's condition and his ghoulish appearance are impossible to ignore when you watch the film: he's wobbly on his feet, shaky, pasty, often sweating profusely, slurring his words with his wildly inconsistent accent vacillating from "Richard Burton" to "HEE HAW" in the same sentence, and though it's mentioned his character has a bum leg, it could just be to explain why he's usually seen seated, holding onto, or leaning against something--a table, a chair, a wall--seemingly to keep from falling down. He seriously looks like he could drop dead at any moment.

Marvin is Track Bascomb, sheriff of Atoka County, Alabama, a hotbed of racial tension and Ku Klux Klan activity. Bascomb is a de facto good guy--he's not in the Klan, is not a hostile racist and he breaks up the rape in the opening scene ("Party's over, get on outta here"), but he more or less leaves everyone be, especially since his loathsome deputy Butt Cutt Cates (Cameron Mitchell) is a loud and proud Klan member and Mayor Hardy Riddle (David Huddleston) is the Exalted Cyclops of the Klan's Atoka chapter. At a town council meeting, the mayor tells his Klan guys to keep things under control, to not kill anyone and maybe just burn some crosses every once in a while and rough up some black folks just so they stay scared and always know their place. That all changes when white Nancy Poteet (Linda Evans) is raped by a black man and Butt Cutt eggs everyone on into blaming Willy Washington (Spence Wil-Dee), who has an alibi but is nonetheless kept in jail by Bascomb. Butt Cutt and his boys decide to harass any black guy they see, castrating one unlucky resident whose angry friend Garth (O.J. Simpson) escapes. The tensions continue to flare over an upcoming equal rights protest to be attended by black "agitator" Loretta Sykes (Lola Falana), who left Atoka years ago to move to Chicago but is back to care for her ailing grandmother. Loretta's grandmother lives in a cabin on Stancill Mountain, a huge swath of land owned by Breck Stancill (Burton), a progressive liberal do-gooder who lets poor black people live in cabins on his mountain rent-free. Butt Cutt and the Klan guys hate Stancill and they hate Loretta, who used to be close to Stancill and is assumed to be his "private piece of brown comfort." THE KLANSMAN just gets more charming from there. Hardly a scene goes by without some jaw-droppingly offensive act or line of dialogue.

Nancy's husband (Hoke Howell) can't bear the humiliation of his wife "gettin' screwed by a n----r," so he leaves town, bellyaching to Bascomb "Why did this thing have to happen to me?" She's also ostracized in church, where a woman shrieks "I can smell n----r on her! I think I'm gonna faint!" and the Reverend refuses to carry on with his racist sermon to the other "decent Christian folk" until she leaves. Garth, meanwhile, is disguising himself in Klan garb and showing up at the houses of the guys who castrated his friend (this was Young's second film--after THE VALACHI PAPERS--to prominently feature castration) and blowing them away with a shotgun. Racist vitriol eventually boils over in an unspeakably appalling scene where Butt Cutt and a bunch of guys kidnap Loretta and drag her to a warehouse, holding her down while Butt Cutt rapes her to send a message to Atoka's black population (Butt Cutt, at his most philosophical: "N----r gal don't mind bein' raped a little by another n----r, but a white man nailin' her would be humiliatin'''). The rape goes on and on, with Loretta suffering massive bleeding from her vagina (the leering Reverend mutters "N----r women are made for this"). Bascomb arrives on the scene and knows Butt Cutt raped her but tells her to say three black men did it, though he's outraged enough over what happened to smear some of her blood all over Butt Cutt's face. At the hospital, it's revealed that Loretta was a virgin and the blood was from her ruptured hymen, a diagnosis immediately dismissed by an incredulous Bascomb, who sensitively tells the medical examiner "Everybody in the county knows a black girl's popped by the time she's 13." Eventually, Butt Cutt, the mayor, and all the other racist assholes finally have enough of Loretta, protests, Bascomb developing a conscience, and liberal snowflake Stancill, who's further incurred the wrath of everyone by falling in love with sullied and tarnished Nancy, and all parties eventually converge on Stancill's Mountain for the inevitable shootout illuminated by a burning cross.

Alternate poster art focused on O.J. Simpson
Astonishing for all the wrong reasons, THE KLANSMAN was ultimately released on VHS in 1991 but has otherwise been kept pretty much buried like a state secret by Paramount, who released the similarly tacky MANDINGO in theaters a year later in 1975. Low-quality bootlegs weren't hard to obtain but they were often cut, losing the worst parts of the castration scene and the agonizing rape, which is probably the most graphically offensive depiction of a sexual assault in a mainstream film outside of the early gang rape of the housekeeper in 1982's DEATH WISH II, and not just because Young meets the demands of no one by giving us a Cameron Mitchell ass shot. It was recently released in uncensored form on Blu-ray by Olive Films, and it makes for interesting viewing decades later. There's probably a serious, thoughtful film buried somewhere in the wreckage and it undoubtedly would've turned out better had Fuller directed it (he and Marvin would eventually work together on 1980's THE BIG RED ONE). But Young is just punching a clock here, and while it's obviously not condoning the actions of its despicable antagonists, it sort-of pulls a CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST by wallowing like a pig in shit in the very ugliness it purports to condemn. There's no need for Bascomb to smear Loretta's blood across Butt Cutt's face or have Falana lie there naked for an extended amount of time with a pool of blood between her legs other than exploitative shock value more fitting for a LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT knockoff.

For Lola Falana's and even O.J. Simpson's sake, let's hope
this Bronco was being pulled on a trailer
and Richard Burton wasn't actually driving it. 
In Fuller's hands, the virulent racism in the story and the dialogue would've been hard-hitting and brimming with social commentary, but here it just feels like you're in the middle of a particularly feverish Steve Bannon wet dream. Some of Fuller's intent comes through--that scene in the church where Nancy is ordered to leave is legitimately enraging and upsetting and would certainly still happen in some parts of America today--but it's undermined by one bad decision after another. Who thought it was a good idea to cast Italian sex bomb Luciana Paluzzi (best known as femme fatale Fiona Volpe in THUNDERBALL) as an Alabama secretary named Trixie? Paluzzi always had a thick accent and she's obviously dubbed here, so her casting was probably just Young doing a favor for an old friend but it doesn't work. THE KLANSMAN marked the big-screen debut of O.J., who would still play in the NFL for another five years but was starting to build a movie career during his off-seasons (he was also in THE TOWERING INFERNO, in theaters a month after THE KLANSMAN). Juice was pushed as the star in some markets, but the film doesn't make very good use of him. His Garth exists on the periphery of the story for much of the time, hiding out in trees picking off Butt Cutt's dipshit cohorts. O.J. gets one amazing shot where he performs an extremely dangerous-looking stunt sprinting across railroad tracks in front of a speeding train that almost clips him, but his unintentional highlight in retrospect is a scene where he's in the backseat of Stancill's Bronco, forcing him to drive while waving a gun around, an almost surreal harbinger of things to come for the future double murderer. But nowhere does THE KLANSMAN shit the bed more than in the scene foreshadowed by a throwaway line from Trixie about Stancill learning karate while he was in the Marines.

Richard Burton, Luciana Paluzzi, and Lee Marvin
at a party during production of THE KLANSMAN.
Around 80 or so minutes into THE KLANSMAN, Stancill is buying Nancy a bus ticket out of town and they're confronted by Butt Cutt, who spends his free time hanging racist flyers around Atoka. Butt Cutt starts haranguing Nancy about having "been with a Negro," essentially blaming her for being raped, and a scuffle ensues, with karate expert Stancill giving Butt Cutt a kung-fu beatdown. The sight of Burton going full ENTER THE DRAGON would've been absurd even under the most sober conditions. But between his unsteady wavering, his pasty, sweaty visage, and what appears to be Stancill's entire knowledge of martial arts being limited to half-assed chops with his hand, he looks less like a student of karate and more like Donald Trump mocking a disabled reporter on the campaign trail. He has to grab a wall at one point to stay upright and even with his limited movement, he looks like he's about throw up from motion sickness. The staging of the fight is inept beyond comprehension, but Mitchell valiantly tries to help sell it, flinging himself through a restroom door that's obviously already off its hinges and diving through some luggage that's been strategically placed in the middle of the bus station. If THE KLANSMAN is remembered at all today, it's typically because of shitfaced Richard Burton stumbling and bumbling his way through the most unintentionally hilarious fight scene of the 1970s, not helped at all by accompanying "wacky" music that gives it a DUKES OF HAZZARD quality. This is a film that, no matter how much unexpected relevance it may inadvertently have today with the recent upsurge in hate crimes and backwards-ass racist shitbags feeling emboldened to express themselves thanks to the current occupant of the White House and those who surround and enable him, simply couldn't be made in this fashion in today's world of SJW outrage and trigger warnings. Fuller's original screenplay undoubtedly had a message, and some of it manages to come through every now and again in the finished version. But it's a staggeringly wrong-headed, stunningly tone-deaf examination of racism in the deep south, and regardless of whatever good intent it had at any point in its genesis, THE KLANSMAN is a time capsule relic that remains one of the essential "What the Fuck Were They Thinking?!" movies to ever be released by a major Hollywood studio.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

In Theaters: THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Greg McLean. Written by James Gunn. Cast: John Gallagher Jr, Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry, Owain Yeoman, Josh Brener, Sean Gunn, Brent Sexton, James Earl, David Dastmalchian, Rusty Schwimmer, Abraham Benrubi, Stephen Blackehart, Benjamin Byron Davis, David Del Rio. (R, 89 mins)

Years before hitting the big time with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, James Gunn wrote THE BELKO EXPERIMENT but stashed it away and made 2011's SUPER instead. He dusted the script off in 2015, gave it a polish, and handed it to WOLF CREEK director Greg McLean (THE DARKNESS) while he got to work prepping the upcoming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL 2. Though it's the first good movie McLean has directed in the decade since the killer croc gem ROGUE, BELKO still feels more like a Gunn joint, with its dark sense of misanthropic humor and shock bits that recall his early days at Troma (he wrote 1996's TROMEO AND JULIET), plus supporting roles for Gunn fixtures like his younger brother Sean and Character Actor Hall of Famers Michael Rooker and Gregg Henry. Opening with a Spanish-language flamenco version of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," THE BELKO EXPERIMENT depicts one really bad day at the office for 80 employees at the Bogota, Colombia branch of the US-based Belko Industries. A government-run nonprofit that specializes in "facilitating services for American companies in South America," Belko's real purpose seems vague even to its staff, and this day starts off in an odd way when the local Bogota employees are turned away at the gate and told to go home by a new team of armed security personnel, leaving only the 80 American transfers in the high-rise located in the remote outskirts of the city. Things proceed in a relatively normal fashion until late morning, when office drone Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr) notices the new guards going into a never-used storage building on the property. Soon after, impenetrable steel shutters are activated to cover the windows and doors, the phones and internet stop working, and a voice over the intercom informs them that they have to begin killing their co-workers in the next 30 minutes or else other measures will be taken. No one seems to take it seriously until the time expires and several random people have the back of their heads blown off--not by bullets as initially thought, but by activated tracking chips planted at the base of their skulls when they were hired, in the event any of them were kidnapped by local insurgents.

Mike is the moral center of the story, a nice, conscientious guy who refuses to kill his co-workers (he also tries and fails to slice out his tracking chip with a box cutter) but he finds some resistance, even from his girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona). COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) tries to keep everyone cool but soon finds his own grip on sanity loosening, especially when the voice ups the stakes by giving them two hours to kill 30 people or else 60 of them will be executed by chip detonation. Sides soon form, with Milch, security chief Evan (James Earl), HR head Vince (Brent Sexton), and a conflicted Leandra leading a group that's pursued throughout the building by Barry, an ex-Special Forces soldier who assumes control of the crazed "kill or be killed" faction, a group that includes Mike's best friend Terry (Owain Yeoman) and sleazy Wendell (John C. McGinley), who sees this an an opportunity to get even with Leandra, who's repeatedly rebuffed his aggressive advances. The clock keeps ticking and no one is safe, including strays left on their own throughout the building, like maintenance head Bud (Rooker), stoner cafeteria cook and conspiracy theorist Marty (Sean Gunn), and new hire Dany (Melonie Diaz), who picked the worst possible day to begin her career at Belko Industries.

The title of the film is pretty much a giveaway that unseen figures are at work, and it's hard not to be reminded of Stanley Milgram or the Stanford Prison Experiment as THE BELKO EXPERIMENT plays out. Essentially a lurid, splatter-filled fusion of OFFICE SPACE and BATTLE ROYALE with a record number of exploding heads, BELKO works on a visceral level as a suspense thriller but Gunn's script never really explores its satirical potential. There's little exploration of the experiment as an analogy for the cutthroat world of corporate America beyond the obvious, with the alpha male sociopaths in charge (Barry, Wendell) thinking nothing of killing everyone underneath them and the mid-level pencil-pushers (Mike, Leandra) and outsiders (Evan, Bud, Marty) looking out for each other. There's also an entire level of commentary about Belko being a US government project that goes completely unaddressed, even after the big reveal about who's actually running the experiment. Anyone is fair game and can be killed at any moment, regardless of their billing in the credits. The message, as explained by Leandra: "At the end of the day, people are out for themselves." Well, no shit. Gunn's films have never really been about the subtext, so on a strictly B-movie, genre fare level, THE BELKO EXPERIMENT accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: put a bunch of people in an environment of High Rise Mayhem and have them kill each other in the goriest ways possible--not just exploding heads or with guns, axes, knives, and meatcleavers, but also with creative weapons like a makeshift sword fashioned from a dismantled paper cutter, plus the world's most lethal Scotch-Tape dispenser. THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is flopping pretty hard in theaters but it's a low-budget offering from Blumhouse that doesn't have to make much to turn a profit, plus it's the kind of movie that will find a cult once it hits streaming services. It's also the first wide release from the relaunched Orion Pictures, the long-defunct '80s mainstay that was resurrected as a little-used MGM subsidiary in 2013. How nice is it to see that familiar logo on a big screen again?

Friday, March 17, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: ELLE (2016); THE EYES OF MY MOTHER (2016); and AMERICAN VIOLENCE (2017)

(France/Germany - 2016)

Discounting 2012's 55-minute experimental lark TRICKED, ELLE is Paul Verhoeven's first feature-length work since 2006's BLACK BOOK and it's immediately obvious from the opening scene that he hasn't lost his edge as a provocateur. Verhoeven, whose Dutch films SPETTERS and THE FOURTH MAN led to Hollywood hits like ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL, and BASIC INSTINCT, delivers a dazzling psychological thriller with ELLE, a complex and nasty exercise in misanthropy with a wicked pitch black streak. A legend in French cinema who's only sporadically worked in America (HEAVEN'S GATE, THE BEDROOM WINDOW, I HEART HUCKABEE'S), an Oscar-nominated Isabelle Huppert delivers the performance of her five-decade career as Michele Leblanc, the CEO of a video game software company who's being brutally raped on her dining room floor by a masked intruder as the film begins. Instead of calling the cops, she throws away her clothes, takes a bath, cleans up the mess and orders take-out sushi for dinner with her visiting son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet). Her company is months late delivering its latest product and most of her employees hate her except for her business partner and best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), who is completely unaware that Michele is having an affair with her husband Robert (Christian Berkel), who seems to be turned on by the fact that Michele was sexually assaulted. Michele is also jealous about her ex-husband Richard's (Charles Berling) blossoming relationship with younger yoga instructor Helene (Vimala Pons), going so far as to host a dinner party and plant a tiny piece of a toothpick inside an hors d'oeuvre in the hope that it jabs the roof of her mouth when she bites down (it does). Michele is openly contemptuous of her aging, Botoxed mother Irene (Judith Magre), who's shacked up with a decades-younger gigolo (Raphael Lenglet) in an apartment she pays for, and she's also helping support and is completely dismissive of dim Vincent, a former weed dealer who's in manager training at a fast food joint and whose girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz) has just given birth to a baby far too dark-complected to be Vincent's but looks a lot like Vincent's black friend Omar (Stephane Bak), a fact that's obvious to everyone except Vincent. Michele begins having violent revenge fantasies and is also being taunted by her rapist, who sends her texts like "You're pretty tight for a woman your age," and breaks into her house while she's away, leaving a copious amount of semen on her bed next to her laptop, the screen reading "I just couldn't stop myself."

As if that's not enough tumult, Michele's serial killer father is in the news again for his once-per-decade parole hearing after 40 years in prison for "The League Street Murders," a series of slayings that branded a ten-year-old Michele a potential accomplice, helping her father burn the bodies though it's argued that she wasn't fully aware of what she was doing. Her father's legacy is why she's reluctant to call the police after she's raped, and she still doesn't call when she's attacked a second time. She's also attempting to seduce Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), a nice-guy neighbor who lives across the street with his devoutly religious wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira). There's a lot of story and subplots in David Birke's script that are expertly balanced by Verhoeven. They don't all come together and they aren't supposed to, but every one of them is vital to influencing the increasingly sociopathic, scorched earth behavior of Michele. Verhoeven originally planned to set up ELLE--based on Philippe Djian's 2012 novel Oh...--with a Hollywood studio, but when he couldn't settle on an A-list actress and knew he'd have to compromise too much to make the film he wanted to make, he took it to France and had American Birke's (whose credits include DTV thrillers like DAHMER, GACY, and THE FREEWAY KILLER, none of which would indicate any of the thematic depth of ELLE) script translated to French. It ended up being a smart move, as Verhoeven gets a bold and brazenly fearless performance from Huppert, whose Michelle learns the identity of her rapist and instead opts to use it for continued psychosexual head games. That and a lot of ELLE just feels wrong, and you find yourself laughing at things you shouldn't find funny, like Vincent being completely oblivious to the fact that he's clearly not the father of Josie's baby, or Michele asking a drone at the office to "take out your dick" when she thinks he might be the rapist. Michele can be heartlessly cruel at times (when an enraged Vincent calls her a "cunt," it's not so much a response to what she's just said but rather the pent-up rage of a lifetime of snide condescension), and it's a ballsy move for a film to present a rape victim as an unsympathetic bitch. It's something that would instantly be labeled misogynistic if this was a major-studio American film, but Verhoeven handles the difficult and complex nature of this high-wire act in a way that can only be pulled off by a great and experienced filmmaker. A lot of ELLE is designed to shock, but it does so in a natural, non-sensational way, sometimes so subtly that it takes a few seconds to hit you (a perfect example would be a seemingly throwaway line from Rebecca near the end that's loaded with major implications). With a galvanizing performance by a never-better Huppert (no stranger at exploring characters with dark sides, having been in several Michael Haneke films), ELLE is a challenging, thought-provoking work from a director who's as vital as ever as he approaches 80. (R, 131 mins)

(US - 2016)

A minimalist, slow burn horror mood piece whose sole purpose is to get a reaction, THE EYES OF MY MOTHER suggests, more than anything else, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER if remade by Bela Tarr. The debut of writer/director Nicolas Pesce, EYES' use of stark black & white helps establish the pervasive sense of melancholy and dread that dominates virtually every frame. An opening shot of a truck encountering a staggering, disheveled woman on a deserted country road would hint that Pesce is venturing into Tobe Hooper/Rob Zombie hicksploitation horror, but EYES has other things in mind. Told in three chapters, the film opens with "Mother," where young Francisca (Olivia Bond) lives in an isolated rural farmhouse with her Portuguese mother (Diana Agostini) and American father (Paul Nazar). Her mother was a surgeon in her homeland, and bonds with Francisca by showing her how to perform surgical procedures on severed heads of cattle. Her mother is killed by creepy stranger Charlie (Will Brill) who is in turn beaten and shackled in the barn by the father when he returns home to find Charlie killing his wife with a hammer while Francisca sits at the kitchen table. In the second chapter, "Father," years pass and Francisca has grown (now played by Kika Magalhaes). Charlie is still shackled in the garage, a virtual animal with his eyes removed, sockets sewn shut, and vocal cords severed. When her father dies, she keeps the body around the house, bathing it, talking to it, and sleeping beside it until she finally dismembers and disposes of it and invites the feral Charlie into her bed for sex. Francisca drives around in search of "friends" to bring home and keep prisoner in the barn, which leads to the third chapter, "Family."

There's no denying Pesce has a knack for shot composition and maintaining tension, even if EYES is as glacially paced as the slowest of the post-Ti West slow burners, clocking in at a brief 76 minutes and feeling a lot longer. But other than getting a response, there's really nothing of substance here. The film was met with equal amounts of applause and walkouts when it screened at Sundance a year ago, and that seems to what Pesce was after. The final scene is too conventional for all the arthouse transgression that preceded it, and it's too abrupt and ambiguous, and not the good kind of ambiguous. The whole thing could be written off as taking place in Francisca's deranged mind until the sudden normalcy in the climax, which ends up leaving more questions than answers--namely, how does she pay the bills? And why haven't the cops been looking for any of the missing people? Pesce's got talent and there's no shortage of unsettling sounds and images here (the gurgling noises made by the chained captives, accompanied by the visual of the sewn-shut eyes will haunt you for days), and Magalhaes is excellent, but when it's all over, it just feels like a film school stunt, no matter how sporadically effective it is at times. It's got all the hiccups and stumbles usually associated with a first-time filmmaker, but there's enough here to warrant keeping an eye on Pesce's next project. (R, 76 mins)

(US - 2017)

AMERICAN VIOLENCE wants to be a "message" movie taking a stance against the death penalty, but it quickly abandons its serious pretensions to become just another DTV-level crime thriller from prolific D-grade hack Timothy Woodward Jr. Woodward, whose films usually premiere on the new release shelf at Walmart, has made seven movies over the last two years, almost all of which co-star the likes of Michael Pare and Johnny Messner who, of course, are on hand in small roles here. Woodward managed to corral some unexpected names for AMERICAN VIOLENCE, but it's as cheap and inept as his other movies, demonstrating that no matter how high-minded and hard-hitting he thinks this is, Woodward still has a ways to go before he's even at the level of an Uwe Boll or an Albert Pyun. A film like this needs a strong performance at its core, and it doesn't get it from Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau as Texas death row inmate Jackson Michael Shea. Shea's set to be executed by lethal injection in 72 hours, and psychologist/professor Dr. Amanda Tyler (Denise Richards) has been asked by the district attorney (Columbus Short) to interview him to see if the Governor should order a stay of execution. What follows is Shea telling his story to Dr. Tyler, one that begins with him melodramatically glowering "Tick...tock...tick...tock...the sand in my hourglass has just about run out," and it just gets more trite and heavy-handed from there. As a boy, Shea was molested by his uncle. After a stint in prison, he falls in with low-level mob flunky Marty Bigg (Pare, doing his best Ray Liotta) as they team up doing small-time safecracking jobs. One of the safes belongs to loan shark Belmonte (Nick Chinlund), who strings Marty up and slashes his throat as Woodward pans the camera to an illuminated crucifix on the wall. Subtlety is not a word in Woodward's vocabulary.

After avenging Marty's death, Shea falls in love with Olivia (Emma Rigby), the daughter of Texas crime lord Charlie Rose (Patrick Kilpatrick), for whom Shea begins working. Eventually, Shea ends up in prison again where he's gang-raped in the shower before being recruited as a hired gun for corrupt warden Morton (top-billed Bruce Dern, squandering any NEBRASKA/HATEFUL EIGHT renaissance he might've had). AMERICAN VIOLENCE stacks the deck against Shea from the start, excusing everything he does to make ham-fisted points. Of course, Dr. Tyler has her own traumatic backstory--she's a death penalty advocate and widow whose cop husband was killed in the line of duty but she naturally changes her tune after spending an afternoon with perpetual victim Shea. It would be one thing if AMERICAN VIOLENCE made any convincing arguments, but it just offers sanctimonious lip service about "breaking the cycle of violence" while wallowing in every cliche imaginable and offering irrefutable proof that the only cycle that needs breaking is that which provides funding for future Timothy Woodward Jr. movies. Al Lamanda's script is atrocious, whether it's Shea having flashbacks to things he couldn't possibly have witnessed or known about to the laughable dialogue (Shea to Tyler: "Don't you get it, Doc? We're all just caged animals with animal instincts;" Belmonte to Shea: "Untie me, you pissant fuck!;" Tyler, staring off after Shea confesses to killing Belmonte and seeing the path it paved for him: "The catalyst that launched you into Hell." Lyman-Merserau can't act and Richards isn't any more believable as a college professor than she was as a nuclear physicist nearly 20 years ago in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. Dern only has a few scenes and seems to be making it up as he goes, from bitching to his wife about the poor quality of her PB&J sandwiches to licking an ice cream cone while watching Shea strip, doing anything to keep himself amused while looking mildly disgruntled that no one's yet asked him to play Bernie Sanders. You expect to see guys like Pare, Chinlund, Messner, Short, and Kilpatrick ("The Sandman" in the early JCVD actioner DEATH WARRANT) in a piece of shit like AMERICAN VIOLENCE, but what is New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski doing here? Making his dramatic acting debut (he appeared as himself in ENTOURAGE) as one of Rose's strongarms, Gronk is prominently billed but has little to do after turning up about an hour in. He has a couple of scenes and is limited to dialogue like "Consider it done," and "We gotta get outta here!" and gets a slo-mo shot where he's diving sideways while firing two guns but then isn't seen again after driving Olivia off in a getaway car. Hey, Gronk--stick to clubbing in the offseason and hope Tom Brady and Bill Belichick never find out about this. (Unrated, 107 mins)

Monday, March 13, 2017

In Theaters: KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

(US/China - 2017)

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly. Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Terry Notary, Toby Kebbell, Jing Tian, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Richard Jenkins, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, Mark Evan Jackson, Will Brittain, Miyavi, Robert Taylor. (PG-13, 118 mins)

Not a follow-up to Peter Jackson's 2005 version of KING KONG, but instead the second installment of Warner/Legendary's "MonsterVerse" franchise after 2014's GODZILLA, KONG: SKULL ISLAND delivers the monster mega-throwdown that audiences want, but is lacking almost everywhere else. It follows the JURASSIC WORLD template right down to hiring one of that film's writers (Derek Connolly) and handing directing chores to a relative newcomer with zero genre experience in Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Vogt-Roberts gives you what you want with huge CGI monster mayhem, but gets tripped up in the rest, which amounts to little more than a tribute to APOCALYPSE NOW. Set in 1973 at the end of the Vietnam War for no discernible reason other than kitschy production design and a classic rock soundtrack, KONG opens with Bill Randa (John Goodman), the head of a secret government outfit known as Monarch, requesting that he and seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) get a military escort to the uncharted "Skull Island" in the South Pacific for mapping purposes. Assigned to accompany Randa and Brooks is a helicopter squadron led by hardass warrior Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), with Randa bringing along high-priced mercenary tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). Monarch isn't there to map an island, as everyone soon finds out when a giant ape starts swatting choppers out of the sky. Survivors are scattered into three groups--one with Conrad, Weaver, biologist San (Jing Tian),and some soldiers, another with Packard, Randa and a few other soldiers, and a third consisting of soldier Chapman (Toby Kebbell), who's left on his own.

Conrad's group eventually find their way to a cordoned-off settlement where the natives live with Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), an affable, madman-bearded WWII pilot who was shot down over Skull Island in 1944 and presumed dead. Marlow informs them that "Kong is king around here," and protects Skull Island from an assortment of giant spiders and octopi but also the "Skullcrawlers," subterranean lizard creatures that live under the earth and are kept in check by his patrolling presence. Randa and Brooks--whose real mission is to prove the existence of these monsters--set off charges on the flight in and brought the Skullcrawlers to the surface. The situation is made worse by an increasingly unhinged Packard, who wants revenge on Kong for the death of his soldiers and is willing to sacrifice the lives of everyone to get it. Eventually, all parties band together to make the three-day trek to a rendezvous point as they haplessly try to evade being devoured by the Skullcrawlers and stop Packard from killing Kong.

Budgeted in the vicinity of $185 million, KONG: SKULL ISLAND has some spectacular Kong vs. creature brawls and at least corrects the mistakes of Gareth Edwards' GODZILLA by actually giving the title creature plenty of screen time (Kong is motion-captured by both Terry Notary and Kebbell, who pulls double duty along with his role as Chapman). But when the humans are taking center stage, things take a turn for the dreadful. Vogt-Roberts' endless APOCALYPSE NOW shout-outs are nice for a while, but get old quickly (there's also a shot with Shea Whigham that recalls a big Willem Dafoe moment in PLATOON), and the overcrowded cast is left with material that's pretty lacking. The script keeps forcing smart actors to play characters who do dumb things, and Reilly seems to be the only one having any fun. Jackson is cast radically against type as "Samuel L. Jackson," and about the 25th time we get a wild-eyed closeup where furious face is juxtaposed with a glaring Kong, you're tempted to shout "We get it...he's more dangerous than Kong!" Goodman has nothing to do once they get to Skull Island, Jing (recently seen in THE GREAT WALL) is given even less and may as well be wearing a T-shirt that says "Chinese co-production obligation," and Hiddleston and especially Larson look bored out of their minds, obviously cashing a fat paycheck in between serious gigs. Vogt-Roberts scores some points for pulling off some surprising kills that don't necessarily follow the order of billing, but the soundtrack is an annoying greatest hits package of predictable classic rock staples. Why is Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" being played on the flight to Skull Island? Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" during a Saigon bar scene? Check. The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today" played over Vietnam protests? Check. CCR's "Run Through the Jungle" heard as characters run through the jungle? Check, and give us a fucking break. Nit-picking? Perhaps. But it's indicative of a lack of imagination and the fact that this is a business deal with little feel for the classic that inspired it, regardless of occasional cute bits like a briefly-glimpsed file for a guy named "Cooper Schoedsack." There's no denying KONG: SKULL ISLAND delivers on the action, moves briskly, and is never boring, but the wildly uneven tone, the terrible script (with contributions by GODZILLA co-writer Max Borenstein and NIGHTCRAWLER writer/director Dan Gilroy), and the obvious going-through-the-motions demeanor of most of the cast take some of the fun out of it.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

In Theaters/On VOD: BRIMSTONE (2017)

France/Belgium/Sweden - 2017)

Written and directed by Martin Koolhoven. Cast: Guy Pearce, Dakota Fanning, Kit Harington, Carice Van Houten, Emilia Jones, Paul Anderson, William Houston, Ivy George, Bill Tangradi, Jack Roth, Jack Hollington, Vera Vitali, Carla Juri, Adrian Sparks, Naomi Battrick, Justin Salinger, Frederick Schmidt, Dan Van Husen. (R, 148 mins)

Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven's first film since his acclaimed 2008 WWII drama WINTER IN WARTIME is a western so relentlessly bleak, grim, and disturbing that it makes HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER look like a Gene Autry vehicle. Equal parts Quentin Tarantino, Lars von Trier, and Paul Thomas Anderson, the ambitious BRIMSTONE has moments of stunning atmosphere and remarkable audacity, scathingly critical of religion and patriarchy and those who use them to manipulate and subjugate. Told in four chapters (shades of von Trier and Tarantino) that unfold in reverse order (very Tarantino-like, but also perhaps a nod to star Guy Pearce being in MEMENTO), BRIMSTONE assembles the pieces of its puzzle--which later involves a couple of cast members taking on seemingly multiple roles--very deliberately and skillfully over its mammoth and often punishing two-and-a-half hours. As far as Guy Pearce westerns go, BRIMSTONE makes THE PROPOSITION seem like a feelgood crowd-pleaser by comparison. It's decidedly not for everyone and seems to be getting a more positive response in Europe than it is in the US, where its nonexistent commercial appeal has, not surprisingly, banished it to VOD with no push at all.

In the first chapter, titled "Revelation," mute frontier midwife Liz (Dakota Fanning) lives a happy life with her husband Eli (William Houston), their young daughter Sam (Ivy George), and Matthew (Jack Hollington), Eli's son with his late first wife. The family's life falls apart after Liz delivers a baby in church for a local woman when complications arose, forcing her to make a judgment call to save the mother instead of the baby. This makes her a pariah with the townsfolk, egged on by the recent arrival of a nameless Reverend (Pearce), who accuses Liz of playing God and whose presence upsets Liz for reasons that will become increasingly and tragically clear over the course of the film. In the second chapter, "Exodus," we're introduced to teenage Joanna (Emilia Jones), who's first seen wandering the desert in a state of distress before she falls in with Frank (Paul Anderson), owner of the local saloon/cathouse Frank's Inferno (in case it wasn't quite clear that they're all in Hell). Frank has the other women groom young Joanna for a life of prostitution and after a few years, the adult Joanna (Fanning) is one of the more popular girls at the Inferno, though they all live in fear of Frank, who often resorts to punishing those who misbehave with customers--Sally (Vera Vitali, daughter of longtime Stanley Kubrick associate Leon Vitali) is hanged by Frank's sheriff brother (Frederick Schmidt) after she kills a man who was attempting to rape young Joanna; and Elizabeth (Carla Juri) is subjected to eye-for-an-eye justice after she bites off the tongue of an abusive customer. A mysterious stranger (Pearce again) buys out the Inferno for the night. Joanna clearly recognizes him and things escalate when he chooses her over the other women, with the intent of making her pay for past misdeeds.

The third chapter is "Genesis," and it's here where BRIMSTONE's story threads begin to coalesce. To go into specifics beyond that would mean significant spoilers, but the events that unfold will also involve outlaws Samuel (Kit Harington of GAME OF THRONES) and Wolf (Jack Roth, Tim's lookalike son) and Samuel's attempt to rescue young Joanna (Jones makes a return appearance) from a physically and psychologically abusive situation that claims the life of her mother (Carice Van Houten, another GAME OF THRONES cast member) in a frontier settlement of Dutch immigrants lorded over by...you guessed it...a younger Reverend. The fourth chapter, "Retribution," brings things full circle back to the present, with Liz, Sam, and Matthew on the run from the Reverend, who's hellbent on killing her family as part of his obsessive quest for vengeance against Liz. The monstrous Reverend grows increasingly diabolical as the chapters take BRIMSTONE further back in time, with Pearce creating what could go down as the most astonishingly repellent villain of 2017. Whether he's forcing women to wear a medieval headgear (sort of a like CPAP chastity belt) to keep their mouths silent or singing hymns as he's salivating over the opportunity to restrain and whip young Sam and "make her a woman," Pearce will make your skin crawl as the pedophile Reverend. He waxes rhapsodic about how "young girls carry the scent of innocence...older women smell different," and uses religion and his position as a man of God as a means of control and for justifying his own perversions, abetted and emboldened by a devoted and subservient congregation that looks the other way and lets it happen. When asked to explain his transgressions, he simply says "I can do whatever I want."

Pearce is matched by Fanning, doing career-best work thus far in a role that was originally intended for Mia Wasikowska (Robert Pattinson was cast as Samuel until he and Wasikowska backed out during pre-production). Playing most of the film mute, Fanning has to convey a lot with facial expressions and sign language, but she's quietly powerful in a difficult role that sees her dragged through a gauntlet of emotions from start to finish. Her scenes with young George provide the few moments of warmth and humanity in an otherwise unrelenting barrage of abuse, violence, and horror. BRIMSTONE isn't the easiest watch--few films have so bluntly put children in such traumatic circumstances involving everything from sexual abuse to forced mercy-killing--and it can be as oppressive as von Trier at his most misanthropic. It's the kind of film that you'll either find completely alienating and off-putting or be drawn in and challenged by its frequent instances of brilliance, its fascinating story structure, and its willingness to go to some uncomfortably dark places. It's interesting to note that frequent Dario Argento collaborator Franco Ferrini (PHENOMENA, DEMONS, OPERA) is credited as "story consultant." Perhaps he came up with the memorable bit where Pearce's Reverend disembowels a guy and strangles him with his own intestines. Feel what you will about BRIMSTONE, but it gets your attention and provokes a reaction.

Friday, March 10, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: DESIERTO (2016); MAN DOWN (2016); and TRESPASS AGAINST US (2016)

(France/Mexico - 2016)

With a US president still claiming that a "great,big, beautiful wall" is going up along the US/Mexico border, it's not hard to see some prescient political subtext to a film like DESIERTO, even if it spent two years on a shelf before STX released it on just 168 screens in the US. Directed, co-written, and edited by Jonas Cuaron (who co-wrote GRAVITY with his dad Alfonso, who's a producer here), DESIERTO can easily be read as a stern if inadvertent rebuke of the Trump agenda, but it's really a mean, gritty B-movie survivalist thriller that wouldn't have been out of place at a drive-in in the late 1970s with Hugo Stiglitz and Cameron Mitchell in the lead roles instead of today's Gael Garcia Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Bernal is Moises, one of about 19 migrants being taken through the "badlands" of the Sonoran Desert and across the border into Arizona by coyotes Lobo (Marco Perez) and Mechas (Diego Catano). The truck breaks down and they're forced to travel on foot in the baking, 120°F sun. After crossing over into the US, Mechas' smaller group ends up much further behind Lobo's, and they're forced to watch as Lobo and about 15 others are picked off one by one by Sam (Morgan), a racist vigilante who has appointed himself protector of the border. With his vicious dog Tracker at his side, Sam relentlessly pursues Moises and the scant few remaining as a game of cat-and-mouse ensues in the harsh, unforgiving elements.

DESIERTO is a simple, straightforward story that doesn't get bogged down in ham-fisted statements and Big Picture proclamations, It's a mainstream thriller that STX originally planned on opening wide but kept shuffling its release date and eventually downgraded it to a limited release, probably skittish over the tense political climate or, just as likely, commercial concerns that any of the dialogue not spoken by Morgan or, in one brief scene, Lew Temple (THE DEVIL'S REJECTS) as a border patrolman, is in Spanish with English subtitles (a French/Mexican co-production, DESIERTO was submitted to the Oscars to be Mexico's Best Foreign Language Film nominee but didn't make the cut). We don't learn much of Sam's backstory and we really don't need to. Most of Morgan's scenes are by himself or talking to Tracker, and Sam's got a real chip on his shoulder about Mexicans coming into "his" country. Moises' conscientious qualities are displayed when he intervenes when one migrant won't keep his paws off a woman who's clearly not interested, and there's some added poignancy to his situation when we learn he was already in the US and working on becoming an American citizen, but a traffic stop over a busted headlight escalated and he ended up in a detention center on his way to being deported, his wife and son still in America. He's determined to get back to them, even bringing his son his musical teddy bear that, of course, keeps going off at all the wrong times. Fast-paced and smart enough to not overstay its welcome at just 88 minutes, DESIERTO is an intense exploitation throwback with stunning desert cinematography by Damian Garcia that makes you feel every degree of the setting's sweltering temperature amidst the endless barren emptiness that gives Moises and the dwindling band of survivors little opportunity to hide from a psycho who's declared himself judge, jury, and executioner. (R, 88 mins)

(US - 2016)

Military personnel returning home with severe PTSD is a serious issue that deserves a serious film, but MAN DOWN isn't that film. That's not on star Shia LaBeouf who, for all of his eccentric performance art stunts and demonstrable past douchebaggery, has emerged as a compelling actor who throws himself into roles and is willing to take chances in outside-the-box projects like Lars von Trier's NYMPHOMANIAC and Andrea Arnold's AMERICAN HONEY. No, MAN DOWN fails because of the wildly inconsistent Dito Montiel, who got some acclaim with his 2006 debut A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS (featuring a younger LaBeouf), but whose best film remains 2009's FIGHTING. Montiel has shown occasional flashes of promise (the posthumous Robin Williams drama BOULEVARD is one of his better movies), but when he's having an off day--THE SON OF NO ONE, EMPIRE STATE--his work borders on the unwatchable, and even his muse Channing Tatum, who starred in his first three films, seems to have abandoned him. MAN DOWN is closer to the bottom end of Montiel's increasingly suspect filmography, and would be a complete train wreck if not for the commitment of LaBeouf, who gives it far more than he or anyone watching will get in return.

MAN DOWN's story is told over three cross-cutting timelines haphazardly cut together with little regard for thematic overlap or storytelling rhythms. One shows Marine Gabriel Drummer (LaBeouf) and his best friend Devin Roberts (Hollywood still trying to make Jai Courtney happen) going through basic training and deployment in Afghanistan. The second is a meeting between a possibly suicidal Drummer and a military psychologist (Gary Oldman) after some traumatic incident that will be made clear later. The third is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland after a biochemical terrorist attack has wiped out most of America, with Gabriel and Devin searching for Gabriel's missing wife Natalie (Kate Mara) and young son Johnathan (Charlie Shotwell). The three narratives play out as tediously as possible, making the film feel much longer than its relatively brief 90 minutes. One storyline doesn't seem to belong and it's clear early on that Gabriel has had some kind of PTSD breakdown and maybe, just maybe, the future dystopia thread isn't really happening. But there's a bigger twist that can't be revealed without significant spoilers, and it feels cheap and insulting once it finally presents itself--not just because it demeans a serious subject but also because any experienced moviegoer will see it coming about 75 minutes before Gabriel does. MAN DOWN wants to pay respect to soldiers struggling with PTSD, but the impact veers too far from the intent. It dumbs the subject down into rote cliches and simplistic characterizations and motivations: Gabriel is ostensibly set off by one tragedy, but it seems driven more by his wife's infidelity; and his entire inspiration for joining the Marines seems to come from catching a few minutes of an O'REILLY FACTOR segment where Bill O'Reilly (credited with playing himself) warns viewers of the potential of terrorists engaging in biochemical warfare. MAN DOWN is heavy-handed and its future dystopia embarrassingly cheap-looking, but if you're a LaBeouf fan, it's probably still worth a look, if for no other reason than to see a fiercely committed performance in a futile search for a better movie. (R, 90 mins)

(UK/US/UAE - 2016)

Bland and unengaging from the word go, the crime drama TRESPASS AGAINST US recalls films like 1978's KING OF THE GYPSIES and 1997's TRAVELLER and the short-lived FX TV series THE RICHES, all of which focused on a close-knit family of con artists and criminals who are constantly on the move and scraping by on small-time schemes. Despite the presence of two great actors in Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson, TRESPASS AGAINST US never finds its footing and never gives you a reason to care about anyone or anything that's happening. Uneducated and illiterate Chad Cutler (Fassbender) has always lived in the shadow of his gregarious father Colby (Gleeson), who rules their tight-knit band of marauding West England low-lifes who have set up a semi-permanent trailer park in a vacant field. They get by on stealing cars, knocking over convenience stores, and other nickel-and-dime machinations, but Chad wants out. He wants something more for his wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal) and their children Tyson (Georgie Smith) and Mini (Kacie Anderson), but finds it hard to escape from under the thumb of the manipulative, controlling Colby. He also has a difficult time dealing with the pressure of being trapped by his own inability to read or write, which is why he insists on putting the kids in a good school even though the Cutler clan's criminal activities cause the kids to be truant enough to get them expelled. Not much happens in TRESPASS AGAINST US: there's a lot of "fook"s and "cunt"s being thrown about in thick accents that make the film reminiscent of early Danny Boyle or earlier Gleeson roles circa I WENT DOWN. The cops, led by Lovage (Rory Kinnear) are complete buffoons who even resort to kidnapping the kids from school in order to lure Chad to the police station, which is indicative of the inability of screenwriter Alistair Siddons and debuting director Adam Smith (a veteran of music videos and British TV favorites like SKINS and DOCTOR WHO) to settle on a tone. TRESPASS AGAINST US can't decide if it's a less grim, gypsy traveller take on ANIMAL KINGDOM or a wacky, would-be Irvine Welsh-type exercise. There's ill-conceived comic relief in the form of Gordon (Sean Harris), aka "Worzel," Chad's half-wit, borderline feral brother, a character so grating that it's a shock that Sharlto Copley wasn't cast in the role. Fassbender and Gleeson are exemplary performers, but they're both on autopilot here with little to inspire them. There's nothing here, no hook to get your interest in this family of assholes, and the stars seem to know it. A total misfire. (R, 100 mins)