Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Retro Review: MANHATTAN BABY (1982)

(Italy - 1982; US release 1984)

Directed by Lucio Fulci. Written by Elisa Livia Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti. Cast: Christopher Connelly, Martha Taylor (Laura Lenzi), Brigitta Boccoli, Giovanni Frezza, Cinzia de Ponti, Laurence Welles (Cosimo Cinieri), Andrea Bosic, Carlo De Mejo, Lucio Fulci, Martin Sorrentino. (R, 89 mins)

Released to US drive-ins and grindhouses in 1984 by 21st Century as EYE OF THE EVIL DEAD, this 1982 Lucio Fulci film is best known by its original and subsequent home video title, MANHATTAN BABY, and while it's far from the director's best effort, it's better than its reputation. Viewers of the much-maligned MANHATTAN BABY are usually disappointed that it's not as gory as most titles from Fulci's unstoppable 1979-1982 classic era, but it does have its charms. It's also noteworthy as the last collaboration between Fulci and producer Fabrizio De Angelis after several years of trailblazing gore classics like ZOMBIE (1979), THE BEYOND (1981), THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981), and THE NEW YORK RIPPER (1982), the duo having an irreparable falling out over some eleventh hour budget cuts on this film, which co-writer Dardano Sacchetti estimated to be in the neighborhood of 75%.  After this, De Angelis started calling himself "Larry Ludman" and concentrated on directing Italian ripoffs of popular American action films, and though he kept working with other producers throughout the '80s on films like CONQUEST, MURDER ROCK, and ZOMBI 3, Fulci never scaled the glorious heights of his De Angelis years, his prolific golden era effectively coming to a close by the time MANHATTAN BABY and THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY hit US theaters in 1984.

One big problem with MANHATTAN BABY is that Sacchetti, his co-writer and wife Elisa Livia Briganti, and Fulci can't seem to settle on what they're ripping off: there's elements of 1980's THE AWAKENING, a little of 1982's POLTERGEIST, plus a climax that seems like a tamer version of 1973's THE EXORCIST. Gore is minimal, confined mainly to a ridiculous bird attack near the end. Christopher Connelly (around the same time he played the hapless Hot Dog in Enzo G. Castellari's 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS) is archaeologist George Hacker, who uncovers a mysterious force in Egypt and is temporarily blinded, and his daughter Susie (Brigitta Boccoli) is given a strange medallion by a blind old crone who vanishes into thin air. Back in NYC, Susie is slowly possessed by the force, sand turns up in Susie's and little brother Tommy's (Giovanni Frezza, best known as THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY's "Bob") bedroom, colleagues start getting killed, and a pervasive Evil seems to be taking hold. This leads Hacker and his wife Emily (Laura Lenzi, credited as "Martha Taylor," for some reason) to consult mysterious antiques dealer Adrian Mercato (MURDER ROCK's Cosimo Cinieri, billed as "Laurence Welles") who seems to know something, and lucky for him the Hackers apparently never saw ROSEMARY'S BABY, since Mercato shares the name of the title hellspawn, for no particular reason.

US theatrical poster.  "George" Frezza?!

The pace is a little slow, there isn't the level of gore one usually associates with early '80s Fulci, and the title is terrible, but it's atmospheric, the NYC and Cairo locations are very well-shot by cinematographer Guglielmo Mancori (SPASMO), and though the bulk of the score is simply older Fabio Frizzi cues from the Fulci classics CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE BEYOND (thanks to the budget cuts), the composer's main theme ranks among the best of his career. MANHATTAN BABY is definitely not the place for aspiring Fulciphiles to begin their explorations, but time has been kind to it, and even its biggest longtime detractors are slowly coming around to admitting that it's not deserving of its bad rep. Blue Underground's new Blu-ray is a three-disc special edition that includes a cd of Frizzi's score, and should further make the case for MANHATTAN BABY's belated acceptance.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: 31 (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Rob Zombie. Cast: Sheri Moon Zombie, Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Meg Foster, Kevin Jackson, Jane Carr, Richard Brake, Lew Temple, Daniel Roebuck, Pancho Moler, David Ury, Torsten Voges, E.G. Daily, Esperanza America, Andrea Dora, Michael "Redbone" Alcott, Tracey Walter, Ginger Lynn Allen, Devin Sidell. (R, 103 mins)

Earlier this year, critic/blogger Jason Coffman wrote a fascinating piece about horror fandom that went viral and quite frankly deserves a Pulitzer. It was filled with things that needed to be said, such as, in no uncertain terms, that horror fans are the worst. Of course, that's a gross generalization on my part that wasn't exactly Coffman's central thesis, but he questioned why a very vocal contingent of horror fans--he called them the "gatekeepers"--had such vehemently negative reactions to thoughtful, serious horror films that received significant accolades from critics outside of horror circles. The piece was written specifically in response to audiences turning on THE WITCH, but it also referenced similarly acclaimed offerings like THE BABADOOK and IT FOLLOWS. To reject original, thought-provoking films that fall in the horror realm, to question their genre validity because they've been praised by those outside the insulated horror bubble, Coffman posited, is to "reinforce the image of the 'horror fan' as a slack-jawed dullard whose only interests are sex and gore."

Well, he's right. And you can thank the gatekeepers for 31, the latest film from horror/metal icon Rob Zombie. Financed in large part by crowdfunding, 31 is Zombie's gift to his fans, the gatekeepers who adore him. To criticize Zombie--to even question him--is verboten in horror gatekeeper circles. Zombie is a guy who knows and loves horror movies. It showed in his days fronting the band White Zombie, itself named after the 1932 Bela Lugosi classic. But after 16 years and with six feature films under his belt, shouldn't there be some kind of progress by now?  I'll give Zombie props where it's due: his second film, THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, is his masterpiece, a definitive mission statement that melded the '70s aesthetic of Tobe Hooper and hillbilly horror with the operatically bloody ferocity of Sam Peckinpah. It's foul, it's vile, it's difficult to watch--and it's incredibly powerful and an unforgettable experience. And Zombie's never come close to it since. His entire filmmaking career seems to be an endless, circle-jerking tribute to 1986's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. His 2007 remake of HALLOWEEN is a disjointed fusion of his usual hicksploitation horror before shifting gears to became a condensed, pointless remake of the 1978 original, while the less said about his 2009 HALLOWEEN II, the better. 2013's THE LORDS OF SALEM was ultimately a misfire that lost its way as it devolved into sub-Jodorowsky shock imagery, but it had a weird '70s Satanism vibe going on, like 1973's MESSIAH OF EVIL if directed by Stanley Kubrick. It wasn't a success, but Zombie was at least making a concerted effort to work outside of his comfort zone for the majority of the film.

31 finds Zombie back in his comfort zone and on total autopilot. His 2003 debut, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (shot in 2000 and left in distribution limbo for three years), is a terrible movie but it at least has the excuse of being a debut. What's his excuse for 31? It's like an "extreme" version of his already "extreme" schtick, but his abilities seem to be regressing. He's so reliant on in-your-face shaky-cam and garish lighting (including a strobe-lit sequence) that a good chunk of the film is visually incoherent. And the plot? The same shit. It's set on Halloween 1976 and a bunch of hard-partying carnival workers who say "fuck" a lot are lured into the middle of nowhere to take part in "31." It's a MOST DANGEROUS GAME-type contest overseen by a trio of foppish Brits, dressed as grotesque aristocrats in powdered wigs and pancake makeup like they're going to a midnight showing of BARRY LYNDON: Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell), Sister Dragon (Judy Geeson), and Sister Serpent (Jane Carr). The five carnies--headed by Zombie's usual star, wife Sheri Moon Zombie as Charly--have to overcome unbeatable odds to survive the night as they face off against their opponents hellbent on slaughtering them. The killers are an increasingly ludicrous collection of ROAD WARRIOR rejects in clown makeup: Sick-Head (Pancho Moler), a demented little person in a Hitler stache and with a swastika painted on his chest; Psycho-Head (Lew Temple) and Schizo-Head (David Ury), a pair of chainsaw-wielding brothers; and the cartoonishly Germanic Death-Head (Torsten Voges) and the fetishist Sex-Head (E.G. Daily). Not all of the carnies make it, but once that initial lineup is defeated, Father Murder calls in his ace closer Doom-Head, a maniac prone to pretentious, philosophical Quentin Tarantino-esque monologues and played in a grating, headache-inducing fashion by Richard Brake in what might be 2016's most unbearable performance that will nonetheless inspire countless insufferable cosplayers at horror cons for the next decade.

Like Tarantino, Zombie has favorite cult actors he likes to use repeatedly--McDowell, Geeson, Daily, Meg Foster, Daniel Roebuck, and former porn star Ginger Lynn Allen have been in past Zombie films (Geeson came out of a decade-long retirement to co-star in THE LORDS OF SALEM)--and here he even gives us a prominent role for Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, best known as Sweathog Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington on WELCOME BACK KOTTER 40 years ago, here playing Panda, one of the doomed carnies. It's nice to see Hilton-Jacobs again, but it's too bad he's using an overdone Jamaican accent that renders most of his dialogue unintelligible. You'll wish more of the dialogue was unintelligible when you see Foster (as carny Venus Virgo) gesticulating around her crotch and saying "fucky fucky fucky, juicy juicy juicy, money money money" and witness this enlightening conversation between carny Levon (Kevin Jackson) and a cackling Sick-Head (note: transcription double-checked for accuracy):

Levon: "Fuck you."
Sick-Head: "Fuck you!"
Levon: "Fuck you!"
Sick-Head: "FUCK YOU!"
Levon: "FUCK YOU!!"
Sick-Head: "FUCK YOU!!!"

A louder and somehow even more obnoxious HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES peppered with shout-outs to Tobe Hooper's THE FUNHOUSE, 31 is obviously intended for the Rob Zombie superfans and is more or less a greatest hits package, from the splattery violence to the endless vulgarity to resemblance of the "Heads" to Captain Spaulding and the Firefly clan to the ersatz Peckinpah WILD BUNCH freeze-frames and the opening credits featuring a Southern rock favorite (in this case, the James Gang's "Walk Away"). If you're one of the Rob Zombie gatekeepers, then you decided this "fuckin' ruled" before he even started filming. 31 is for you. Go enjoy yourself. You've seen it all before--and better--but hey, this is what you wanted.

Saturday, October 22, 2016


(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. Cast: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Robert Knepper, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Madalyn Horcher, Robert Catrini, Jessica Stroup, Austin Hebert. (PG-13, 118 mins)

Released at Christmas 2012, JACK REACHER was the first big-screen adaptation of the popular character from a series of books by Lee Child. Much was made of Tom Cruise not exactly being the 6' 5" wall depicted in the novels, but the movie was a smart and action-packed throwback with a refreshing 1970s approach that involved doing as much practical stunt work as possible, right down to an old-school car chase from the FRENCH CONNECTION school. It also performed under expectations at the American box office, and though it made $80 million against a $60 million budget, analysts still considered it somewhat of a flop compared to Cruise's track record, with the likes of his MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series. JACK REACHER proved to be a blockbuster hit overseas, particularly in Asia, which is probably the reason we're getting a sequel that American audiences really weren't demanding. Budgeted at just under $100 million for some reason, with a good chunk of the financing coming from China-based Huahua Film & Media Culture and the Shanghai Film Company, JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK is based on the 2013 novel Never Go Back, the 18th in the Jack Reacher series. It certainly doesn't look like something that cost nearly $100 million, and unlike most US/China co-productions, an incongruous and prominently-billed Asian pop star isn't on hand to play a character briefly and cumbersomely shoehorned into the story, though the version released in Asia is probably different.

Taking place a few years after the first film, NEVER GO BACK finds the loner Reacher doing freelance work for the military police and hitching rides from town to town, going where the road takes him like an ass-kicking David Banner sans the Hulk-outs. An ex-Army Major, Reacher has a flirtatious phone relationship with D.C.-based Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who's in his old office. He decides to pay her a visit when he makes his way to D.C., only to find she's been arrested and facing a court-martial for espionage. Of course, Reacher decides to meddle in the investigation and doesn't buy that Turner set up two soldiers under her command to be killed in Afghanistan when they uncovered an illegal weapons trade supposedly being run by Turner. Everyone in the Army seems eager to pin this crime on Turner and sweep her under the rug, starting with her replacement, the scheming Col. Morgan (Holt McCallany). The Army also lets Reacher know that he's got a paternity suit against him, even though he insists he has no children. When Turner's lawyer (Robert Catrini) is murdered, Reacher is arrested and thrown in an Army compound, where he of course stages a daring and improbable escape with Turner, the two going on the run and picking up Samantha (Danika Yarosh), the 15-year-old who may or may not be Reacher's daughter and is being targeted by the same killer-for-hire contractors out to silence them.

Of course Turner is innocent, the real culprits being a rogue contracting outfit called Parasource, who dispatch a ruthless assassin known simply as The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger) to make them all disappear. Parasource's contractors are hijacking US military weapons and selling them on the black market in the Middle East, a lucrative scheme overseen by the retired and constantly sneering General Harkness (Robert Knepper), whose villainy is obvious the moment you see that Robert Knepper is playing a sneering character named "General Harkness." Knepper, who seems to be getting all of the roles that once went to former actor James Woods before he decided to spend his emeritus years in daily Twitter meltdowns, can play this kind of part in his sleep and doesn't really get much to do other than behave like a smug prick as Harkness (of course, he's seen glowering at his desk, ominously reminding a group of paramilitary goons "No witnesses"). One thing working against NEVER GO BACK is that none of its villains--Harkness, Heusinger's The Hunter, or McCallany's Morgan--are as effective as the inspired casting of legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog as "The Zec" in the first film. This film cost nearly $40 million more than its predecessor and doesn't really go bigger in any way. There's no big names in this other than Cruise. Jobbing journeymen like Knepper and McCallany (the J.T. Walsh of his generation) are exemplary character actors but they don't command huge salaries. And Smulders has HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER and some Marvel movies to her credit, but she isn't a big-screen headliner making Jennifer Lawrence money, so where did the budget go? Sure, the explosions look a bit more convincing than the CGI norms of today, but there even a big car chase doesn't match the impressive one in the first film.

Director/co-writer Edward Zwick, a veteran journeyman whose career has been all over the place (he created THIRTYSOMETHING and directed films as varied as SPECIAL BULLETIN, GLORY, LEGENDS OF THE FALL, THE SIEGE, Cruise's THE LAST SAMURAI, and the DiCaprio bling-bang of BLOOD DIAMOND), gets the job done but doesn't bring the snappy wit that USUAL SUSPECTS writer Christopher McQuarrie brought to the first REACHER (McQuarrie is one of the committee of producers on NEVER GO BACK). Cruise is pretty much the whole show here and much of the film is in service to his ego, whether it's his name mentioned no less than three times in the opening credits or the now-obligatory scenes of the still-youthful-looking 54-year-old running. Smulders is a solid foil who handles herself well in the many action scenes, but NEVER GO BACK stumbles a bit with Yarosh's Samantha. The actress herself is fine but her character's main function--aside from being absolutely unable to even--is to do stupid shit that alerts The Hunter or Harkness to their whereabouts, whether it's sending a text on a phone she knows she shouldn't have, or using a stolen credit card to order room service while Reacher and Turner are out trying to clear their names. Samantha is also the source of the script's biggest plot hole, one that's glossed over by Zwick and co-writers Marshall Herskovitz and Richard Wenk in the hopes that the audience will just forget about it. JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK isn't trying to be an original piece of work--otherwise, it wouldn't include a brawl at a warehouse that looks like an abandoned set from a Nine Inch Nails video, and the final showdown between Reacher, Turner, and Harkness' Parasource assholes wouldn't take place at a wharf--but despite its many familiarities and predictable developments, it's always fun to see badass characters just plowing their way through bad guys (Reacher punching a guy in the face through a rolled-up driver's side window is a highlight), and Cruise and Smulders are a likable team. Bonus challenge for when this hits Netflix streaming: drink every time someone says "Reacher" and see if you make it to the halfway point before passing out.

Friday, October 21, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Ti West. Cast: Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Karen Gillan, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, Burn Gorman, Toby Huss, Larry Fessenden, Tommy Nohilly, K. Harrison Sweeney, Jumpy. (R, 103 mins)

IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE is a welcome departure for cult horror director Ti West, the perpetually overrated wunderkind so coddled by bloggers and fanboy scenesters that you'd swear the Make-a-Wish Foundation was bankrolling him. West's slow-burn aesthetic has resulted in exactly one good film--his 2009 retro '80s breakthrough THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL--and a lot of nothing else, regardless of how many accolades are bestowed upon 2011's inexplicably praised THE INNKEEPERS and 2014's pointless modern-day Jonestown Massacre redux THE SACRAMENT (he also contributed segments to V/H/S and THE ABCs OF DEATH). West branches out with the Blumhouse-produced IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, a western shot two years ago but only now getting a VOD dumping through Universal's Focus World division, which started out handling foreign and arthouse titles, but has since become their de facto on-demand division. That's a shame, because this is West's most enjoyable, accessible, and accomplished film to date. Like THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, it's heavy on homage, but in abandoning the slow burn technique that he frankly ran into the ground in his subsequent films, and choosing to tell a no-bullshit, meat-and-potatoes western revenge saga, he proves himself an exemplary genre craftsman instead of the one-trick-pony that his past films seemed to indicate.

From its opening credits that emulate the spaghetti westerns of the Sergios Leone and Corbucci to the music cues that recall the maestro Ennio Morricone, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE makes it clear from the start that it's wearing its heart on its sleeve and isn't interested in blazing new trails. That's OK, because a good revenge story well told is never not satisfying. In a convincing, committed performance, Ethan Hawke is Paul, a post-Civil War Army deserter trying to make his way to Mexico with his loyal canine companion Abby (played by border collie/blue heeler mix Jumpy in one of the most remarkable animal performances in recent memory). He makes the fateful decision of taking a shortcut through Denton, a once-thriving mining town that's fallen on hard times and is virtually abandoned except for a general store, a saloon, and a hotel with no guests. Stopping in the saloon to get some water for Abby and minding his own business, Paul is harassed by deputy marshal and alpha-male loudmouth Gilly Martin (Hawke's SINISTER co-star James Ransone), a sniveling bully who's putting on a tough-guy act for his trio of sycophantic buddies, Harris (Toby Huss), Tubby (Tommy Nohilly), and Roy (the inevitable Larry Fessenden). For no reason whatsoever, Gilly starts an argument with Paul and challenges him to a fight in the street, calling all the remaining townsfolk out to witness a beatdown. Additional cheerleading and egging-on is provided by his adoring fiancee Ellen (Karen Gillan), who runs the hotel with her 16-year-old sister Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga), the child-bride of a local who went off to find work and is clearly not coming back for her. Gilly talks (and talks and talks) a big game but promptly gets knocked on his ass with one punch by Paul, who just wants to stock up on necessities at the general store, take a bath at the hotel, and be on his way. He's met by Denton's one-legged marshal, Clyde Martin (John Travolta), who's just returned home and was informed by his deputy--his son--that there's a troublemaker in town. Clyde can tell from Paul's demeanor and his weapons that he's a military man and concludes that he's a deserter. Though he should turn him in, he doesn't want any trouble in Denton and doesn't doubt for a moment that the fight was started by his idiot son. Clyde lets Paul go under the condition that he never return to Denton and the situation between the two of them ends peacefully and amicably. Of course, Gilly isn't the type of man-child to let go of being humiliated in front of everyone, so he and his boys follow Paul and Abby into the desert that night and ambush them while they're asleep. Gilly kills Abby and the others throw Paul off a cliff and assume he's dead.

What follows is a classic western resurrection, with the presumed-dead Paul, already filled with regret over deserting both the Army and his familly, making his way back to town, seething with rage and obsessed with avenging Abby's senseless murder. It certainly sounds like JOHN WICK reimagined as a western, but West had this in production several months before that was released. Put in a position where he has to take on the town, Paul finds just one ally in Mary Anne and lets no one stand in his way, and even though he sympathizes with Paul and blames his son for causing the situation to escalate ("You think because you got a prick and a pistol that you can just go around killin' people?!" he yells), he feels an obligation to protect Denton and a fatherly duty to look out for his son, regardless of how stupid he may be. Hawke is a gritty hero and Ransone makes a loathsome villain you'll love to hate, but thanks to Jumpy (is it possible for a dog to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination?), Travolta can only be the second best scene-stealer here, having a blast channeling his inner Jeff Bridges and hobbling around on a wooden leg. Whether he'd dispensing sage advice or dropping his cane to beat some sense into Gilly, then telling someone "Gimme that cane!" and using it to beat Gilly some more, Travolta dives into this and turns in his best work in years. West also invests the film with generous helpings of dark and quirky humor, whether it's Tubby finally having enough of everyone's relentless fat-shaming or Marshal Clyde needing to keep his badge in his pocket since the pin broke off long ago, a sure indication of Denton's sorry financial condition. There's a trend in today's westerns to subvert genre expectations, as evidenced by S. Craig Zahler's brilliant western-turned-horror film BONE TOMAHAWK and Quentin Tarantino's western-as-drawing room mystery THE HATEFUL EIGHT, but IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE avoids the kind of snark and irony that are pitfalls for these sorts of movies, never pretending to be anything other than what it is--a fast-paced, straightforward revenge saga with strong characters, solid performances, and a riveting story. Why is this being relegated to VOD and just a few theaters? This could've been a hit. Look for this one to have a long, healthy word-of-mouth life on steaming and cable. It's the best action genre offering since the similarly VOD-dumped BLOOD FATHER.

Thursday, October 20, 2016


(France/UK - 2016)

Attempting to patch up their ten-year marriage after he has a fling with one of his students, poetry professor Perry (Ewan McGregor) and his barrister wife Gail (Naomie Harris) embark on a holiday in Morocco. When Gail is forced to take a work-related call while they're at a posh restaurant, Perry is offered a drink by Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), a loud and boisterous Russian who seems to be entertaining an entourage. Dima cajoles Perry into accompanying the group to a wild party where the mild-mannered prof snorts some blow and gets involved in a tussle with a tattooed Russian who's forcing himself on a young woman. Dima then confesses to Perry that he works as the chief money launderer for powerful Russian mobster Nicolas Petrov, aka "The Prince" (Grigory Dobrygin). He gives Perry a memory stick with information about The Prince's business activities. He has the names and account numbers of a large group of British politicians, bankers, and other assorted movers-and-shakers who have accepted payments from the Russian mob in exchanging for funneling money through British financial institutions and businesses. Arriving back in London, Perry is questioned at the airport by MI-6 agent Hector (Damian Lewis), and figures his involvement is over, but Dima wants to defect, doesn't trust Hector and will only agree to give over the information if Perry and Gail are present and the safety of his family is guaranteed. Hector is especially interested in what's in Dima's documents since his own off-the-books surveillance operation reveals The Prince is quite chummy with Adrian Longrigg (Jeremy Northam), a former MI-6 official and current rising figure in British politics. Hector knows Longrigg is corrupt but has never been able to prove it, and even after he's ordered to shut down the surveillance, he proceeds anyway, further dragging Perry and Gail into a complex and dangerous web of intrigue and espionage.

Based on a 2010 John le Carre novel, OUR KIND OF TRAITOR is cut from the same cloth as 2011's TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and 2014's A MOST WANTED MAN (which also featured Dobrygin in a supporting role), two superior adaptations that rank alongside 1965's THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD as the finest big-screen takes on le Carre. The author's specialty of old-school espionage in character-driven, dialogue-heavy stories seems better suited today to the TV miniseries format, where the story and its players have time and room to develop their many twists and turns. This was best exhibited by the BBC's landmark duo of 1979's TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and its 1982 sequel SMILEY'S PEOPLE, both with Alec Guinness as aging, weary, and rather ironically-named spy George Smiley. Le Carre's works specialize in the nuts-and-bolts of the spy business, but OUR KIND OF TRAITOR, adapted by veteran screenwriter Hossein Amini (DRIVE), and directed by TV veteran Susanna White, whose credits include BLEAK HOUSE and episodes of BOARDWALK EMPIRE and GENERATION KILL, suffers from a too-familiar feel and seems to be going through the motions. It's not a particularly interesting story, filled with the usual modern-day le Carre standbys like funneled money and safe houses, and with clunky dialogue like "My wife is a successful lawyer," it doesn't feel as if it's working from top-shelf le Carre. Now 85, le Carre stays current with modern technology but there's a rote, stale feeling to the whole thing. How many thrillers centered on the Russian Mafia do we need? And honestly, if you sub in "KGB" for the Russian mob and "microfilms" for the memory stick, it's nothing but another dry spy melodrama with an innocent man in over his head and a Russian bad guy who grows a conscience and wants to defect that could've easily been made and set in the 1960s or 1970s. Skarsgard cuts loose and hams it up, and he does manage to earn your sympathy as the film goes on. Additionally, frequent Danny Boyle and Lars von Trier collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography is a big asset as the story globetrots from Moscow to Marrakesh to London to Paris to Bern and other scenic locations throughout Europe. But in the end, this is about on the level of 1990's THE RUSSIA HOUSE, a perfectly watchable but unremarkable addition to the le Carre canon, nowhere near the heights of SMILEY'S PEOPLE or either adaptation of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, but not hitting the depths of the dreary 1970 misfire THE LOOKING GLASS WAR. (R, 108 mins)

(US - 2016)

For much of its duration, THE GOOD NEIGHBOR is about what you expect from today's standard-issue, Redbox-ready suspense thrillers. It's not found-footage, but uses a lot of the subgenre's tropes, as two teenagers who wouldn't be friends anywhere other than in a movie--snarky dudebro Ethan (Logan Miller of THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT and SCOUT'S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE) and techie dweeb Sean (Keir Gilchrist of IT FOLLOWS)--embark a documentary they call "The Haunting Project." Using equipment purchased by privileged Sean's wealthy dad, the two set up a surveillance operation in the home of elderly Harold Grainey (James Caan), who lives across the street from Ethan. Known as the neighborhood's "creepy psycho hermit," alcoholic Grainey lives alone, is abrasive to anyone who approaches his property, was apparently abandoned by his battered wife, and is rumored to have poisoned a neighbor's dog years earlier. While Grainey is out for his weekly grocery run, they rig his house with hidden cameras and wi-fi-enabled devices to provoke sonic disturbances and electronic interferences to convince the old man that his house is haunted. Brainy Sean, who's likely headed to MIT, questions the ethics, but is interested in the psychological angle, while Ethan is just happy to see Grainey tormented. While observing Grainey over six weeks--Ethan's distracted single mom (Anne Dudek) is barely a presence and has no idea what's going on in her son's room--they notice that he frequently makes trips to the padlocked basement, which last several hours at a time, leaving them convinced that Grainey is holding someone captive.

Yes, it sounds like a half-assed mash-up of DISTURBIA, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, DON'T BREATHE, and GRAN TORINO, but writers Mark Bianculli and Jeff Richards and director Kasra Farahani, a veteran art director and conceptual artist/illustrator (he worked on films like SPIDER-MAN 3, AVATAR, and STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, among many others) making his directing debut, pull a nifty and surprisingly poignant third-act bait-and-switch that completely changes your perception of everything. There's hints at this throughout in cutaways that may or may not be flashbacks and by the end, you realize that you've been just as manipulated as a certain character. It's hard to discuss the specifics of THE GOOD NEIGHBOR without going into spoiler territory, but it does suffer from an overly familiar first and second act, with a lot of obnoxious behavior from Ethan and Sean and too much time spent on them watching surveillance footage. This puts THE GOOD NEIGHBOR in the found-footage ballpark until it claws its way out and becomes its own film. It also shows its cards too quickly by flash-forwards that show various supporting characters testifying in court, which significantly undermines the suspense. It could also use more Caan, who's got his best role in years here as the angry, scary old guy that's a fixture in almost any long-established neighborhood, the object of all manner of rumors and innuendo. He dominates the third act but up to then, is mainly shown reacting to the faux-paranormal activity going on his house. I don't want to oversell THE GOOD NEIGHBOR--it stumbles at times and is not some under-the-radar classic or anything, but it's got word-of-mouth cult potential as one of the more ambitious straight-to-VOD titles to come down the pike in a while. It does something a lot of films in this genre don't--it tries. It subverts your expectations and it's certainly better than a lot of the paycheck junk that the legendary Caan's been doing for the last several years. (Unrated, 97 mins)

Monday, October 17, 2016


(Spain - 1973; US release 1974)

Directed by Javier Aguirre. Written by Jacinto Molina, Alberto S. Insua and Javier Aguirre. Cast: Paul Naschy (Jacinto Molina), Rosanna Yanni, Haydee Politoff, Mirta Miller, Vic Winner (Victor Alcazar), Ingrid Garbo, Jose Manuel Martin, Alvaro De Luna. (R, 83 mins)

Though he's best known for his "El Hombre Lobo" series of werewolf movies, Spanish horror legend Paul Naschy probably had his finest hour with 1973's COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE. Naschy (1934-2009) wrote most of his own films under his real name, Jacinto Molina, and was heavily influenced by the classic Universal horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. Starting with 1968's LA MARCA DEL HOMBRE LOBO, released in the US under the misleading title FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR, Naschy played werewolf Waldemar Daninsky in several stand-alone films over the next 35 years, including the monsters vs. aliens mash-up ASSIGNMENT: TERROR (1970), DR. JEKYLL AND THE WOLFMAN (1972), and the Daninsky-meets-Elizabeth Bathory outing THE NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF (1980), which actually played US theaters in 1985 under the title THE CRAVING. Naschy dabbled in various genres--action, espionage, western--but will always be associated with his run of horror films in the 1970s, like HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB (1972), HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE (1972), THE MUMMY'S REVENGE (1973), VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES (1974), the giallo-inspired THE BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL, aka HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN (1974), and the EXORCIST ripoff EXORCISM (1975). Naschy only played Dracula once, but COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE, co-written by the actor and directed by Javier Aguirre, is a minor masterpiece and considered by most Naschy fans as his crowning achievement.

After their coach crashes and the driver is killed, five passengers--Imre (Vic Winner), Marlene (Ingrid Garbo), Senta (Rosanna Yanni), Karen (Haydee Politoff), and Elke (Mirta Miller)--find refuge at an isolated sanitarium owned by Dr. Wendell Marlowe (Naschy). It's not long before we learn that Marlowe is really a new incarnation of Dracula, who can assume the form of whomever his spirit is possessing. While Dracula and an undead handyman put the bite on the guests, Dracula's goal is reviving his dead daughter with the blood of a virgin. However, he seems to be working at cross purposes when he seduces Senta, but soon realizes he loves the pure Karen, which makes Dracula question his entire existence. Atmospheric, stylish, creepy, and erotic (save for a shot of Naschy's hairy, thrusting ass), it's easy to write off COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE as trashy exploitation, which is probably how it played in its shortened US grindhouse version, accompanied by a poster featuring the tag line "She's the kind of girl you can sink your teeth into." But there's a legitimately artistic fever dream at work here, with haunting imagery and a disorienting, trance-like feel that brings to mind the best of Jean Rollin or Jess Franco in VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD mode, when he could keep the camera in focus and not fixate on constant unkempt crotch zooms. The appearances of Dracula's vampirized victims, sporting the creepiest contact lenses you'll ever see, are chilling in a way that prefigures the terrifying appearance of an undead Ralphie Glick at the window in SALEM'S LOT. Even the scenes where Dracula speaks--via a reverberating voice over, with his mouth never actually opening--are unnerving when they really shouldn't be anything but cheesy.

After being hacked down to 72 minutes for its 1974 US release, followed by years of public domain DVD editions and a Shout Factory edition of its inferior image quality "Elvira's Movie Macabre" TV airing (complete with the standard Elvira cut-ins), COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE has finally been given a proper presentation courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome's recent Blu-ray release. Running 83 minutes, it looks better than ever and contains a Naschy commentary intended for a shelved BCI/Eclipse DVD release from a decade ago. It's a surreal, melancholy work that's easy to lump in with other erotic and gory takes on classic horror that were popular at the time (Hammer's THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, Harry Kumel's DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, the Roger Corman-produced THE VELVET VAMPIRE, the Italian LADY FRANKENSTEIN, and the Andy Warhol productions FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN and BLOOD FOR DRACULA), and was never handled well by any distributor, including a 1979 drive-in re-release by the mob-connected Motion Picture Marketing as CEMETERY GIRLS ("Crazed women desperate for satisfaction"). However, COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE finally gets the respect it deserves from Vinegar Syndrome. It's a surreal experience (starting with the insane repeated stairway roll in the opening credits), melancholy and mournful in tone, that really stands on its own and remains one of the strangest and most unusual Dracula films of its time.

Friday, October 14, 2016

In Theaters: THE ACCOUNTANT (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Gavin O'Connor. Written by Bill Dubuque. Cast: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, John Lithgow, Jeffrey Tambor, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jean Smart, Alison Wright, Andy Umberger, Jason Davis, Robert C. Treveiler, Ron Yuan, Seth Lee, Gary Basaraba, Mary Kraft. (R, 128 mins)

An absurdly convoluted fusion of Jason Bourne, GOOD WILL HUNTING, and RAIN MAN, THE ACCOUNTANT is certain to be one of the most ludicrous movies of the year, but it works quite well as check-your-brain-at-the-door entertainment. Ben Affleck is Christian Wolff, a mild-mannered, standoffish accountant with a small practice in a strip mall. He's also amassed a fortune under various aliases, a genius mathematician cooking the books for some of the world's most dangerous terrorists, drug dealers, and all around bad guys. Oh, and he's a master of martial arts who's also a global super-assassin-for-hire. And he's autistic. Still with me?  He lives off the grid in a non-descript house in a normal neighborhood, going about his routine with absolute rigidity, periodically escaping to a storage unit that houses his trailer, which is filled with money, passports, guns, and priceless works of art. Soon-to-be-retired Treasury agent Raymond King (J.K. Simmons) wants to know the true identity of the man he calls "The Accountant," and blackmails low-level analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), who's great at her job but neglected to include a long-sealed assault conviction on her application, with the promise of prison if she doesn't deliver.

Wolff is hired by Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow), the CEO of a powerful robotics corporation, to investigate a $63 million discrepancy uncovered by Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), one of the company's internal auditors. Meanwhile, freelance assassin Braxton (Jon Bernthal) tallies a body count as he offs various people skimming from profitable businesses. One victim is Ed Chilton (Andy Umberger), Blackburn's diabetic second-in-command, who's given a choice between being murdered or intentionally overdosing on insulin. The person who hired Braxton also sends killers for Wolff who, of course, disposes of them but in the process discovers Dana is next on the hit list. Naturally, the two go on the run, Wolff gradually warms up to the idea of normal human interaction as the talkative and sometimes awkward Dana brings him out of his shell (and despite his inability to read social cues and relate to others, he occasionally connects with people the best way he can, as evidenced when he finds ways to help a strapped couple find additional tax deductions). King and Medina are in hot pursuit, and so is Braxton as all interested parties predictably converge in the final act.

It's not every day a major studio delivers a violent action thriller about a special needs assassin, and in no way is THE ACCOUNTANT meant to be taken seriously for a moment. That said, it doesn't demean its autistic subject or mine him for cheap, insensitive, "edgy" laughs, though there are a lot of funny moments throughout (none more so than an Affleck "..so, anyway" hand motion and shrug after folksy and shocked husband-and-wife tax clients observe him brutally slaughtering some bad guys). The script by Bill Dubuque (THE JUDGE) crescendos to a series of contrivances and coincidences in the late-going, starting with Simmons' King delivering one of the biggest and most labyrinthine info dumps this side of Donald Sutherland in JFK. There's also a series of flashbacks to Wolff's childhood, with his harried mother bolting, leaving his military dad (Robert C. Treveiler) and younger brother to deal with the autistic boy after stern Dad decides Christian needs tough love rather than coddling and therapy (Dad being stationed in Thailand leads to Christian and his brother being taught the art of Pencak Silat). You'll spot the true identity of one major character long before that major character does, and the film seems to forget about Kendrick for most of the third act, but director Gavin O'Connor (PRIDE AND GLORY, WARRIOR) keeps things moving briskly, getting solid performances from actors who play their parts at just the right tone to prevent THE ACCOUNTANT from boiling over into laugh-riot territory. Call it dumb fun or a guilty pleasure, but it's undeniably entertaining. Perhaps Lithgow's exasperated Blackburn sums it up best when he surveys the silliness unfolding around him and shouts "What is this?!"