Wednesday, November 30, 2016

In Theaters: RULES DON'T APPLY (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Warren Beatty. Cast: Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Annette Bening, Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin, Haley Bennett, Candice Bergen, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Ed Harris, Megan Hilty, Oliver Platt, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, Taissa Farmiga, Amy Madigan, Paul Schneider, Hart Bochner, Louise Linton, Graham Beckel, Chace Crawford, Ashley Hamilton, Marshall Bell, Patrick Fischler, Michael Badalucco, Joe Cortese. (PG-13, 126 mins)

As an actor, writer, director, and producer, Warren Beatty has been nominated for 14 Oscars in total, winning one for Best Director with 1981's REDS. He's a living legend, and as a producer and star, one who was instrumental in ushering in the "New Hollywood" era with 1967's landmark BONNIE AND CLYDE. Beatty was never prolific even in his heyday: starting with his big-screen debut in 1961's SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, he's acted in just 22 films in 55 years, the bulk of those being in the 1960s and 1970s. Offscreen since the expensive 2001 bomb TOWN & COUNTRY, Beatty returns with RULES DON'T APPLY, a pet project about Howard Hughes that he's had in various stages of development since 1973. Beatty also wrote and directed, and the whole thing was kept under wraps as shooting began in early 2014. Granted a Kubrickian level of freedom and secrecy that very few are afforded these days, Beatty made exactly the film he wanted to make, and if the end result is what he's had playing in his head for over 40 years, then you have to wonder what he was thinking and why he even bothered.

Set from 1959 to 1964, RULES DON'T APPLY takes its time getting to Beatty's Howard Hughes (79-year-old Beatty is about 25 years too old to play Hughes in this time period), instead focusing on Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins, daughter of Phil), a virginal, small-town beauty queen and bright-eyed songwriter from Virginia, who's been given a studio contract by Hughes and is flown out to Hollywood with her overprotective, devout Baptist mother Lucy (Annette Bening). They're picked up at the airport by Hughes employee Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a Methodist engaged to 7th grade sweetheart Sarah (Taissa Farmiga) back in Fresno and with big dreams about getting Hughes to back his real estate ventures. Hughes has over 25 starlets under contract, and despite stipulations that the drivers aren't to get involved with them, Lucy and Frank can't deny their attraction to one another, even though she feels he's essentially married since he's already had sex with Sarah.

So far, so good. The opening half hour of RULES DON'T APPLY isn't great, but it has a sort-of "second-tier Woody Allen" thing going on and plays a lot like Allen's similar CAFE SOCIETY from earlier this year. But once Hughes enters the picture, the focus shifts to Beatty going through the litany of every Hughes tic, compulsion, oddity, and stereotype in existence. Sometimes it's played for laughs, other times it turns strangely dark, such as an uncomfortable and frankly creepy scene where a drunk Marla gives her virginity to a befuddled, babbling Hughes. Very little in this story is based on fact, other than there was a Howard Hughes and he was a total weirdo billionaire, so it's a jarring tonal shift to have what was essentially a light, romantic comedy suddenly turn bleak, with Marla feeling used and ending up pregnant and considering an abortion. Frank can't decide if he wants to be with Sarah or Marla, and for the sake of the script, instead gets a quick promotion from anonymous driver to Hughes' right-hand man almost overnight. Beatty then spends an inordinate amount of time on Hughes' dealings with his TWA airline, various defense contracts with the US government, and trying to convince the government that his plane can fly, with his behavior growing increasingly erratic with each passing scene. Many big names joined the project, obviously for the chance to work with Beatty, but with the exception of Matthew Broderick as another top Hughes flunky, none of them are put to good use: Candice Bergen has a thankless role as Hughes' secretary; Martin Sheen has three or four brief appearances before we even get a hint of who he's supposed to be (he's either Hughes' lawyer or he runs the day-to-day operations of the Hughes empire), then his character is fired and replaced by another character played by Alec Baldwin, doing a quick "Hey, I'm here to hang with Warren" drop-by; Ed Harris and Amy Madigan have one scene as Sarah's parents; Steve Coogan plays a scared pilot riding shotgun after Hughes drops what he's doing and goes to London to fly a plane; Dabney Coleman shows up briefly as Hughes' doctor; and in a barely-there bit part, Paul Sorvino is seen chatting in the background of a couple shots, eventually getting one line of dialogue when his character is seen on a TV screen. Who is he? Why is he here? Who knows?

It's never a good sign when four editors share credit, and RULES DON'T APPLY looks like a hastily-assembled mess that wasn't so much finished as it was given up on. Characters appear and disappear with no explanation, and early scenes are presented in such a brisk and choppy fashion that you never ascertain who certain people are and what purpose they serve to the story. Beatty bum-rushes through the exposition to get to the parts he cares most about--hamming it up as Howard Hughes--and leaves a large cast mostly stranded. It just gets worse as it goes on, Hughes impulsively heading to London, Managua, and Acapulco, with Frank in tow, for reasons never really explained. Beatty assembled some cast and crew for some reshoots in early 2015 and then spent well over a year putting the movie together. He had nearly five decades to figure out what he wanted with this thing and the end result is a leaden, lifeless, self-indulgent fiasco. Collins and Ehrenreich do what they can with the material (and you have to respect future Han Solo Ehrenreich, who arrived a few years ago as an obvious Leonardo DiCaprio clone who's now getting the roles Leo has aged out of, but he's a young actor who knows his history and has jumped at the chance to work with movie legends like Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen), but they're completely defeated by the whims and indecisiveness of a director who's just maybe been away from the game for too long. Beatty hasn't directed a film since 1998's still-scathing BULWORTH (though he reportedly pulled rank on Peter Chelsom and backseat-directed most of TOWN & COUNTRY himself), and that was a movie that had things to say that remain relevant today. Whether as a director, producer, writer, or star, Beatty has historically had his finger on the pulse of current events and deftly capturing the zeitgeist, whether it's the political commentary and the hip-hop awakening of BULWORTH, the changing cinema trends exemplified by BONNIE AND CLYDE, the post-Nixon/Watergate paranoia of THE PARALLAX VIEW, or the sexually liberated '70s in SHAMPOO. RULES DON'T APPLY (you could make a drinking game out of how many times that phrase is shoehorned in via dialogue or song) is a tone-deaf vanity project that puts Beatty in with other influential auteurs--Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick, George Romero, Dario Argento, to name a few--whose final or most recent works are indicative of aging legends who just don't get out much anymore. How else do you explain an extended gag about a cum stain on Frank's pants? Did Beatty just now get around to seeing a Farrelly Brothers comedy? And why is that joke in this movie? Given his sporadic work habits and his age, this is likely the last thing we're going to see from Warren Beatty. And that's a damn shame.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

In Theaters: ALLIED (2016)

(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Steven Knight. Cast: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Simon McBurney, Lizzy Caplan, August Diehl, Matthew Goode, Daniel Betts, Camille Cottin, Charlotte Hope, Thierry Fremont, Anton Lesser. (R, 124 mins)

A defiantly old-fashioned throwback to glamorous star vehicles of yesteryear--except when it makes jarring modern concessions in terms of profanity and sexual content--ALLIED is an entertaining if occasionally implausible WWII espionage thriller that's equal parts wartime programmer and Alfred Hitchcock. In 1942, Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachutes into the French Moroccan desert for a covert mission in Casablanca, which gives you a good idea of what vibes ALLIED gives off in its early-going and throughout its superior first half. His assignment is to pose as a French phosphate engineer and team with Resistance leader Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), who fled France after she was the sole survivor of a massacre on a compromised outfit. Once she tutors him in making his Quebecois accent sound more Parisian, they're to go undercover as a married couple and blend in with other Nazi sympathizers, with the goal being the assassination of the German ambassador at an upcoming swanky dinner party. Their pretend marriage blossoming into real love during an afternoon desert sandstorm, Max and Marianne relocate to London and marry upon the completion of their mission, settling down into a domesticated existence with a newborn daughter, with family man Max taking a less dangerous office job at British military HQ.

That changes when his superior officer and friend Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) calls him in for a meeting with a high-ranking SOE official (the always sinister Simon McBurney). They have evidence that Marianne Beausejour was killed in 1941 and that the woman Max married is an impostor and a Nazi spy. He's to run a "blue-dye test" in which he gets a phone call, jots down some false intelligence info, then waits to see if decoders pick it up a few days later among their decryptions of German transmissions. If they do, then they know she's a spy and Max is to execute her immediately or be hanged for treason. Of course, Max refuses to believe their allegations and sets out to prove her innocence, even if it means disobeying direct orders and putting his own life at risk.

The script by Steven Knight (EASTERN PROMISES, LOCKE, PEAKY BLINDERS) does a nice job of refusing to pull punches and go for predictable, implausible twists in the name of pleasing the crowd. It's uncompromising in ways that movies for adults used to be, and it's one of the more effective ways that director Robert Zemeckis (BACK TO THE FUTURE, FORREST GUMP) establishes a vividly old-school mindset throughout the film. Going back to the groundbreaking WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, Zemeckis has been a pioneer in the advancement of visual effects, As demonstrated in films like FORREST GUMP and THE WALK, and in his several motion-capture animated works like THE POLAR EXPRESS and BEOWULF, the one-time Steven Spielberg protege is obviously an advocate of digital filmmaking and CGI, and, for better or worse, they're used extensively throughout ALLIED. The recreations of Casablanca and London are generally well done on a visual level, though it rarely feels like anything but a greenscreen, which is a similar degree of artifice you'd see on a 1940's Hollywood set, but just lacks the organic feel (or maybe it's just me), and the CGI sandstorm leaves a lot to be desired. Cotillard is tasked with most of the dramatic heavy lifting even though Pitt gets more of a focus by way of Max's extensive investigating. But there's just something distractingly off about the appearance of the 52-year-old Pitt. Sporting some visible thick makeup under his eyes to wipe away the years required to play a character who's probably 20 years younger, his face almost seems airbrushed, like Milla Jovovich in the third RESIDENT EVIL movie. The resulting CGI sandblasting make him look waxy smooth and disturbingly artificial, almost like a CGI'd Brad Pitt being motion-captured by Andy Serkis. His closeups are enough to take you out of the movie, which is otherwise engrossing (the assassination sequence is top-notch) even if a bit silly at times, such as the perfect family picnic about 20 feet away from a downed German plane whose wreckage is still smoldering.

Monday, November 28, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: HANDS OF STONE (2016) and I.T. (2016)

(US/Panama - 2016)

There's no cliche untouched in this biopic of Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran, focusing primarily on his two 1980 bouts with Sugar Ray Leonard (the second was the infamous "No Mas" fight where Duran quit midway through the eighth round). Edgar Ramirez does a solid job of conveying the ego and arrogance of Duran, but it's hard to get a handle on Duran as a character in the context of this film, since we really only see him being a braying, insufferable jackass. On top of that, Venezuelan-born writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz (his first film since 2005's SECUESTRO EXPRESS) tries to include too many storylines, so much so that the film frequently feels like an eight-part HBO limited series randomly whittled down to just under two hours. There's flashbacks to Duran's youth, detours into Panamanian unrest and clashes with the US over the Panama Canal Zone, and in telling Duran's story, Jakubowicz must also tell the story of Duran's aging trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro). A revered figure in boxing, Arcel was run out of the sport in the 1950s by NYC mobster Frankie Carbo (John Turturro) after trying to expand it beyond the underworld, and while this may have a basis in fact (Arcel's life was spared if he agreed to never earn another dime from boxing; he trains Duran for free), here it just seems like an excuse to take a brief sojourn into GOODFELLAS/Scorsese territory simply because it's Robert De Niro, whose presence here is already a nod to RAGING BULL (Nicholas Colasanto's fictionalized mobster character in that film was based on Carbo). Jakubowicz rushes through everything--eight years flash by in an instant, and you never get a feel for Duran's fame; Duran and his wife Felicidad (Ana de Armas of KNOCK KNOCK) have five kids in a montage. Piled-on subplots either go nowhere or are completely abandoned: Arcel having an estranged, drug-addicted daughter serves no purpose other than giving one scene to De Niro's daughter Drena, and a long sequence where Chaflan (Oscar Jaenada), a doofus Duran toady, steals some food, leads people on a chase, and gets flattened by a truck doesn't advance the plot or seem to affect Duran in any way. Jakubowicz also shoehorns in an ersatz Howard Cosell (Robb Skyler) and Don King (Reg E. Cathey), both of whom get too much screen time but not enough to have any real purpose. The ring sequences are done with the now-standard quick cuts and whooshing pans and aren't shot in a particularly exciting fashion, though it gets a bit of a boost thanks to strong, A-game performances from De Niro and a magnetic Usher Raymond as Sugar Ray Leonard.

Shot in 2013 and unreleased for three years, HANDS OF STONE means well but feels compromised and lacks focus, with too many flashbacks, superfluous supporting turns (Ellen Barkin pops up a few times as Mrs. Arcel), dead-end detours, stalled subplots, lazy period detail (cue Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" during a montage of disco-era excess), two jarringly gratuitous, ass-thrusting sex scenes for both Duran and Sugar Ray with their respective wives, and an uplifting, feelgood ending that the Duran we just watched for 100 minutes simply doesn't earn. Despite a lot of pre-release publicity, this tanked hard at the box office, landing in 16th place its opening weekend and tumbling 86% by its third. Sure, that could be due to the movie simply not being very good, but the word of mouth was no doubt toxic as The Weinstein Company snuck what's essentially a foreign language film--whenever De Niro or Usher aren't onscreen, it's in Spanish with English subtitles--into wide release in multiplexes at the end of summer. (R, 111 mins)

(Ireland/France/Denmark - 2016)

A laughable thriller that simultaneously manages to be a ripoff of 2006's instantly forgotten FIREWALL and a '90s "(blank)-from-Hell" throwback, I.T. has star and producer Pierce Brosnan as Mike Regan, an aviation magnate whose D.C.-based business (the US capitol is badly played by an egregiously miscast Dublin, Ireland) is in a rough patch with an SEC investigation just as he's about to take the company public. The highly-publicized rollout of a new app is barely saved by I.T. temp Ed Porter (James Frecheville), whose quick thinking circumvents some embarrassing technical glitches at a press conference. A grateful Regan invites Porter over to the house for dinner and asks him to tweak and modernize his smarthome set-up. It isn't long before Porter starts inviting himself over, getting friendly with Regan's 17-year-old daughter Kaitlyn (Stefanie Scott) on social media, and showing up at her school to give her a ride home in his muscle car. Regan quickly grows frustrated and fires I.T. Guy-from-Hell Porter, not knowing that he's already rigged the massive Regan home and is able to spy on them and control everything from his high-tech stronghold, the type of decrepit loft that serves as a nerd command center with huge monitors all over the place like some homage to SLIVER. Psycho Porter terrorizes the Regan family by hacking their security system and blaring death metal through their house in the middle of the night; hacks into Regan's business and plants phony damning evidence for the SEC investigators to find; hacks into the database of Regan's wife Rose's (Anna Friel) doctor and sends her an e-mail saying her recent mammogram shows breast cancer; sends a video of Kaitlyn masturbating in the shower to everyone at her school; and almost kills Regan by hacking into his car's brake system and subjecting him to one of the least-convincing CGI car wrecks you'll ever see. Needless to say, Regan can't convince anyone that Porter is responsible for everything that's happening, so he fights fire with fire, hiring off-the-grid hacker and cyberspy Henrik (Michael Nyqvist as Gene Hackman in ENEMY OF THE STATE) to help rid him of Porter for good.

Aspiring to be the kind of zeitgeisty, hot-button thriller that Michael Douglas would've made in 1998, I.T. could've been reasonably entertaining and trashy fun in the right hands, but it glosses over all the details, assuming words like "hack" and "firewall" will sound smart enough if they're uttered as frequently as possible. Frecheville, an alleged actor who seemed to show some potential several years ago in the acclaimed ANIMAL KINGDOM, is becoming a go-to nutjob for the VOD/Redbox scene between this and 2014's unwatchable MALL, probably one of the ten worst films I've ever seen. He's probably supposed to be scary when he's lifting weights in the nude and spazzing out, or lip-syncing with wild abandon behind the wheel to Missing Persons' 1982 hit "Words," but the only result is unintended laughter. Using a bizarre, affected, exaggerated brogue that sounds like a drunk guy doing a bad Pierce Brosnan impression, Brosnan is uncharacteristically terrible here, continuing his post-007 slide (SALVATION BOULEVARD, THE LOVE PUNCH) that's been broken up recently only by the fairly entertaining THE NOVEMBER MAN. For what it's worth, the straight-to-VOD I.T. is marginally better than Brosnan's recent URGE, but then, so are things like identity theft and bedbugs. Directed by John Moore, somehow able to find employment after 2013's A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD. (Unrated, 96 mins)

Monday, November 21, 2016


(Italy - 1985; US release 1986)

Written and directed by Michele Soavi. (Unrated, 71 mins)

For horror fans who weren't around at the time and only know him now as a genre elder statesman at best or an aged has-been at worst, it's really difficult to convey just how revered Dario Argento was in the 1980s. It was a time of Jason, Freddy, slasher movies, Stephen King, and pre-CGI makeup and special effects wizardry by the likes of Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, and Tom Savini. There was no internet, no social media, and very little in the way of fan/creator interaction. Horror fans of the '80s were in the know thanks to books like Michael Weldon's The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, John Stanley's Creature Features Movie Guide, and Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies, publications like Fangoria, watching old and new favorites on late-night broadcast and cable TV, and taking blind chances at the video store on Friday and Saturday nights. But knowing the work of a director like Argento really separated the players from the pretenders in horror fandom. So lionized was the "Italian Hitchcock" that he earned the adoration of many fans just on his reputation alone, as most of his essential work was nearly impossible to see in the US at that time. A partial remedy was made available when the 1985 documentary DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR was given a straight-to-video release by Vidmark Entertainment in 1986. Like Paramount's fan favorite TOM SAVINI'S SCREAM GREATS, WORLD OF HORROR was a behind-the-scenes look at a horror master that became a video store staple when it wasn't exactly easy to see a lot of Argento's films and if they were available, they were usually the butchered US versions. 1970's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and 1975's DEEP RED were common sights in any reputable video store (PLUMAGE largely intact; DEEP RED missing around 20 minutes), and though it was released uncut, 1980's INFERNO didn't see an official US release until Key Video's VHS in 1985. 1982's TENEBRAE was drastically cut and barely released in the US in 1984 as UNSANE, and another three years would go by before Fox Hills released that edited version on video. And 1977's SUSPIRIA, generally regarded as Argento's masterpiece, wouldn't be granted a US home video release until 1989, courtesy of Magnum Entertainment.

Argento with a young Jennifer Connelly
on the set of PHENOMENA 
It wasn't exactly a surprise when Argento's 1985 film PHENOMENA was hacked down for the American market, its running time going from 110 to just 83 minutes. It was acquired by New Line Cinema, then riding high on the huge sleeper success of Wes Craven's 1984 hit A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. PHENOMENA was recut and retitled CREEPERS and New Line gave it a decent-sized rollout in major markets, making it Argento's most widely-seen-in-the-US film since SUSPIRIA eight years earlier. CREEPERS got extensive coverage in Fangoria and was already well known in horror circles by the time it hit video stores some months later. 1985-86 was arguably the height of Argento-mania as far as media exposure (including an awkward appearance plugging CREEPERS on THE JOE FRANKLIN SHOW) and the cult horror fan following were concerned. Around the same time, Argento also produced and was the guiding creative force behind Lamberto Bava's DEMONS, released in the US by New World in 1986. DARIO ARGENTO's WORLD OF HORROR spends a lot of time on the behind-the-scenes footage from PHENOMENA/CREEPERS and DEMONS, and while it may seem superfluous and dated now (it's a bonus feature on Synapse's new 3-disc special edition PHENOMENA Blu-ray), it vividly captures Argento at a pivotal moment in his career. He would churn out one more undisputed masterpiece with 1987's OPERA (which was picked up by Orion, who retitled it TERROR AT THE OPERA and prepared a trailer but abruptly shelved it, leaving it unseen in the US until Southgate Entertainment released it straight-to-video in 1991), and then his career began a slow-motion implosion that's ongoing to this day. There were a few small victories--1996's THE STENDHAL SYNDROME has some devoted fans but can't overcome the fatal miscasting of Argento's 21-year-old daughter Asia as a hard-bitten veteran cop, and even forgettable trifles like 1991's TWO EVIL EYES, 1993's TRAUMA, 2001's SLEEPLESS, and 2007's MOTHER OF TEARS have their moments--but there's little complimentary to say about the likes of 2004's absurd THE CARD PLAYER, 2009's GIALLO, and 2012's DRACULA, aside from the fact that they look like classics compared to 1999's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, an unwatchable clusterfuck that represented Argento hitting bottom. He's lost his mojo and, at 76 and last seen attempting to crowdfund a big-screen version of E.T.A. Hoffmann's THE SANDMAN with Iggy Pop, doesn't appear to be getting it back anytime soon. In that respect, DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR shows the auteur at the peak of his powers just before the decline, a time when there was zero doubt that he was a genius who lived up to the hype.

Michele Soavi
DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR was produced by Argento but doesn't come off like a self-aggrandizing, ego-stroking puff piece. He assigned the project to his top protege Michele Soavi, an assistant director and part-time actor (he's the guy in the car with Daniela Doria when she's puking her guts out in Lucio Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and he's the cross-dressing killer in Lamberto Bava's A BLADE IN THE DARK), making his directing debut. Soavi had been getting on-set experience doing some production assistant and second unit work for Argento, Fulci, and others for several years and would briefly leave the Argento stock company in 1987 to make his breakthrough, the Filmirage-produced STAGEFRIGHT, a late-period giallo slasher that would find an unlikely fan in Terry Gilliam. The legendary Monty Python alum caught STAGEFRIGHT at a European film festival and reached out to Soavi, hiring him to handle second unit chores on his big-budget 1989 spectacle THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN. Argento produced and co-wrote Soavi's next two films, 1989's THE CHURCH and 1991's THE SECT, aka THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER. Soavi branched out on his own to direct 1994's arthouse zombie film DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, released in the US in 1996 as CEMETERY MAN. A critical success and cult smash all over the world, CEMETERY MAN, combined with Argento's slide into mediocrity, cemented Soavi's position as the new leading voice of Italian horror and he was likely going on to much bigger things, but it never panned out. While Italian genre fare was in a serious downward spiral at the time he was being hailed as its savior, Soavi's decision to walk away as worldwide notoriety beckoned was a personal one: he put his career on hold to care for his gravely ill son, who was born with a rare liver disease. When the Italian film industry continued to crater over the next several years, Soavi quietly resurfaced as a journeyman TV director in the early 2000s (most notably the terrific 2001 Michael Mann-esque cop thriller miniseries UNO BIANCA), not to explore the visionary potential of his earlier films or to rescue the moribund Italian horror genre, but more to keep himself busy after his son's death. Now 59, Soavi is content to make his living as a top-shelf hired gun for Italian television, though he did enjoy a brief return to the big screen when MUNCHAUSEN mentor Gilliam would call on him once more to handle second unit duties on his 2005 film THE BROTHERS GRIMM.

Argento overseeing the rigging of the
severed arm effect in TENEBRAE. 
It's easy to dismiss the significance of DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR now that we've had nearly two decades of uncut and uncensored Argento films on DVD and Blu-ray. For American Argento fans in the mid '80s, this documentary was the only way to see the complete versions of the legendary Louma crane shot and the "severed arm spray-painting the wall" murder in TENEBRAE. And it was the only way to see any footage at all from his obscure 1972 giallo FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, which wouldn't get a DVD release in the US until 2009. The bootleg market was a ways away, so for horror fans who voraciously devoured every Fangoria article on Argento, wondering if the day would ever come that they'd be able to watch SUSPIRIA, DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR was a pretty big deal. Narrated by dubbing luminaries Tony La Penna and Nick Alexander, it also showed Argento as a hands-on director involved in every aspect of the production, overseeing the studio work of Goblin and prog rock legend Keith Emerson on their respective SUSPIRIA and INFERNO scores, stressing over the special effects difficulties on PHENOMENA and expressing serious doubts that he'll be able to finish the movie, or being interviewed while seated on top of the crashed helicopter in the middle of the Metropol set during a break in shooting DEMONS. There's some priceless archival on-set footage from various Argento shoots, with a focus on PHENOMENA, where you can see a 14-year-old Jennifer Connelly smiling, laughing, and being a very good sport about swimming in a huge pool filled with water, wood shavings, yogurt, and chocolate all being employed to simulate rotting human remains and maggots.

Argento with William Friedkin
at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival

Thanks to all the DVD and Blu-ray interviews, additional documentaries (like Luigi Cozzi's DARIO ARGENTO: MASTER OF HORROR in 1991 and Leon Ferguson's DARIO ARGENTO: AN EYE FOR HORROR in 2001), and the articles and books written about Argento over the years, most notably Maitland McDonagh's absolutely essential Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, there's a plethora of information out there that those watching DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR for the first time will find redundant. They'll already know it's Argento's hands wearing the black gloves in the murder scenes, or that he isn't particularly fond of actors, especially Tony Musante, his BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE star with whom he didn't get along at all (though the mercurial and often difficult Musante, who died in 2013, mellowed significantly with age and would enthusiastically praise Argento years later), to the point where that one experience soured him on actors in general. And while it jumps around with little sense of narrative flow (for some reason, Soavi waits until near the end to reference Argento's earliest films, but he also includes a impressively-assembled montage of shots from various Argento movies that show recurring ideas and images that flow together beautifully), it's a time capsule work that vividly captures the state of Argento fandom at a specific time and place and for that reason, it remains significant, making its preservation on the new PHENOMENA Blu-ray release one of that set's unsung special features.

Friday, November 18, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: ARMY OF ONE (2016); THE SEA OF TREES (2016); and ITHACA (2016)

(US - 2016)

The story of Gary Faulkner, the "Rocky Mountain Rambo" who took a series of trips to Pakistan armed with only a samurai sword after claiming God told him to capture Osama Bin Laden, has all the ingredients for an interesting film. It's a surprise then, that ARMY OF ONE--arriving on DVD/Blu-ray just a week and a half after debuting on VOD--fails so spectacularly. Directed by Larry Charles (BORAT, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM) and written by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, the duo who scripted the entertaining Kevin Costner football movie DRAFT DAY, ARMY OF ONE hits a brick wall the moment Nicolas Cage opens his mouth. Faulkner, a pony-tailed stoner and part-time handyman with bad kidneys, is an eccentric character who's right up Cage's alley, but the actor sabotages the entire film by playing Faulkner as a nasally, screechy-voiced kook, when the real man's various talk show appearances in the wake of his bonkers pursuit showed him to be an affable, amusing, and occasionally even peculiarly charming oddball nothing like the freakish Bizarro Faulkner that Cage is playing here. Cage's grating, mannered, fingernails-on-a-blackboard performance is arguably the worst of his career, one straight out of a trainwreck ten-to-1:00 sketch on SNL. As soon as he speaks, every subsequent moment of ARMY OF ONE is excruciating.

God (Russell Brand, cast radically against type as "Russell Brand") first appears to Faulkner in 2004, during one of his dialysis treatments, prompting Faulkner to ask his nephrologist (Matthew Modine) for a $1000 loan to buy a boat to sail to Pakistan. When that doesn't work (the small boat capsizes and he ends up in Mexico), he tries to hang-glide into Pakistan and falls off a cliff, breaking his leg. He eventually gets to Pakistan and in 2010, thinks he's found Bin Laden, facing off against him in a swordfight in a cave, but it's all a trippy hallucination since he's gone weeks without a dialysis treatment. All the while, Faulkner is given moral support by his new girlfriend Marci (Wendi McLendon-Covey), who still has the Bon Jovi "Livin' on a Prayer" tramp stamp she got in high school and is now raising the special needs daughter of her dead junkie sister. Marci has made some bad decisions in her life, but she seems sane and entirely too level-headed to be falling for a doofus like Faulkner, or at least the doofus cartoon version of Faulkner that Cage is playing. The actor seems less interested in Faulkner as a character and more concerned with shaping this as his own BIG LEBOWSKI, and it fails on every level, be it slapstick, satire, or biopic. Charles, perhaps accustomed to the off-the-chain magic of Sacha Baron Cohen in BORAT and BRUNO, is content to let Cage run amok, making no attempt to rein him in at all, and the result is less Lebowski and more like a manic, talk-show Robin Williams at his most over-the-top. It's virtually unwatchable and while LEFT BEHIND is an easy pick for Cage's worst film, this might sting a little more because it had the ingredients to be something, and instead it falls victim to its star being in a self-indulgent mood and a director who's completely derelict in his duty. It's a career low for all, including reliable ringers like Paul Scheer and Will Sasso as Faulkner's buddies, and Denis O'Hare and Rainn Wilson as CIA agents on Faulkner's trail, taking time-outs to discuss Michael Dudikoff movies and defend Timothy Dalton-era 007. Dalton's a tragically underappreciated Bond, but not even that sentiment can save ARMY OF ONE. (R, 93 mins)

(US - 2016)

Booed at Cannes and barely released by A24 on just 100 screens for a $20,000 box office take, Gus Van Sant's THE SEA OF TREES is the second 2016 movie (after the horror film THE FOREST) to be set in Japan's Aokigahara Forest. Located at the northwest base of Mount Fuji, Aokigahara is a place infamously known as "The Suicide Forest" and "The Sea of Trees," where an average of 100 people per year go to end their lives. The Japanese government forbids filming in the Aokigahara, so THE SEA OF TREES finds an acceptable substitute Suicide Forest in Massachusetts. Written by Chris Sparling (best known for writing high-concept enclosed-space thrillers like BURIED and ATM), THE SEA OF TREES is a maudlin and superficial drama that's completely schizophrenic in tone, a combination marital dysfunction story, a disease-of-the-week TV-movie, a survivalist adventure, and finally, a manipulative Nicholas Sparks-meets-Mitch Albom feelgood movie with a twist that any seasoned moviegoer will spot long before the main character does. Science professor Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) buys a one-way ticket to Tokyo with the intention of downing a handful of sleeping pills in the Suicide Forest. His plan to find a secluded spot and die peacefully is interrupted by the appearance of Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), a disheveled, confused man who says he's been lost in the forest for two days. As Arthur repeatedly tries and fails to get Takumi on a trail out of the forest, they're forced to survive the harsh elements and deal with injuries as they bond, Takumi selflessly listening to Arthur's long monologues about his failed marriage to Joan (Naomi Watts in flashbacks) and how her death led him to end his life in the the Sea of Trees. A slowly-paced character piece, THE SEA OF TREES gets good performances from the three stars, but it's a pretty tedious journey, especially once you figure out where this is headed with a big reveal that's a hoary cliche at this point, and even after that, when it just keeps getting more shamelessly manipulative by the moment. There had to be films more deserving of the booing this got at Cannes, as THE SEA OF TREES biggest crime is that it's plodding, simplistic, and obvious, but it's hardly the worst thing to come from the wildly erratic Van Sant. (PG-13, 111 mins)

(US - 2016)

After a seven-year absence from the big screen and without a big box office hit since 2001's KATE & LEOPOLD, Meg Ryan co-stars in and makes her directing debut with ITHACA, based on William Saroyen's 1943 novel The Human Comedy. That was the title of the original movie version, also released in 1943, which starred Mickey Rooney and was a contemporary, topical life-at-home WWII film of its time. Now, this new version is a dated nostalgia piece with no feeling for the time and place and absolutely nothing in the way of narrative drive whatsoever. However sincere and well-intentioned it may be, this is an astonishingly dull film that just never finds a spark or any sense of dramatic momentum on any level. With his older brother Marcus (Jack Quaid, Ryan's son with ex-husband Dennis Quaid) off at war and his father recently deceased, 14-year-old Homer (Alex Neuestaedter) is the man of the house, taking care of his little brother Ulysses (Spencer Howell) and getting a job as a telegram messenger to help out his still-grieving mom (Ryan). Mom still sees visions of Dad (executive producer Tom Hanks, a nice guy doing Ryan a kindness but opting to keep his name off the poster) hanging around the house, keeping an eye on the family he left behind. Homer gets a firsthand look at the war at home, with many of his telegram deliveries coming from the US government, informing parents, wives, and loved ones that their soldier has died in combat. Homer finds father figures in his bosses Tom (Hamish Linklater) and drunk old Willie (top-billed Sam Shepard), and, well, that's about it. Not much happens in ITHACA. Neuestaedter is certainly no Mickey Rooney, but it would be hard for any young actor to make something out of this. Ryan lets scenes linger long past the point of necessity, and it often feels like actors are uncomfortably sitting there waiting for her to say "Cut." There's no interesting arcs or even standard coming-of-age tropes in the script by Eric Jendresen, whose credits include writing a few episodes of the Hanks-produced BAND OF BROTHERS. ITHACA feels like Ryan and Hanks called in some favors from a bunch of old friends (the score was composed by John Mellencamp) and asked them to hang out with no clear endgame. Shepard has nothing to do but sit at his desk and look catatonic, and Hanks appears visibly lost in his few scenes, at one point just stopping and staring at Ryan in what I'm convinced is not character-based dismay. Running a brief 89 minutes but feeling like four hours, ITHACA, which went straight-to-VOD after two years on the shelf, misfires at every turn, a DOA adaptation of a beloved novel of its day, never connecting with the viewer on any emotional level and rendering it completely inert with its bargain-basement, would-be Norman Rockwell sense of forced homespun Americana. (PG, 89 mins)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

In Theaters: SHUT IN (2016)

(France/Canada - 2016)

Directed by Farren Blackburn. Written by Christina Hodson. Cast: Naomi Watts, Oliver Platt, Charlie Heaton, Jacob Tremblay, David Cubitt, Clementine Poidatz, Peter Outerbridge, Crystal Balint, Alex Braunstein. (PG-13, 91 mins)

Two-time Oscar nominee Naomi Watts gives this lazy and illogical thriller a lot more than it deserves, delivering a strong performance that makes you wish the people on the creative side gave as much of a shit as she does. Watts is Dr. Mary Portman, a child psychologist with a practice at her isolated rural Maine home, allowing her to be the full-time caregiver for her 18-year-old stepson Stephen (STRANGER THINGS' Charlie Heaton), who was left quadriplegic and brain-damaged after a car accident that took the life of his father (Peter Outerbridge) six months earlier. Expelled from school for reasons that the film never explains, Stephen was being taken to an institution for some tough love by his father when an argument and distracted driving led them left of center and head-on into a speeding semi. One of Mary's patients is Tom (ROOM's Jacob Tremblay), a deaf, nine-year-old orphan who's about to be sent to another facility after too many violent outbursts. That night, Tom appears at Mary's front door. She takes him in, but while she's waiting for the authorities to arrive to claim him, he vanishes. Soon after, Mary is plagued by nightmares in which she sees Tom in the house. That, along with footsteps and clanging noises in the middle of the night, convinces her that Tom is dead and his ghost is haunting the house. Her nerves already frazzled over making the difficult decision to move Stephen into a facility since he's becoming too much for her to handle solo, Mary begins to fear she's losing her mind. Then there's the big twist, because of course there is.

It's not exactly the most ringing endorsement to say that as far as dumb thrillers go, SHUT IN is almost a halfway decent Netflix & Chill pick if you don't want to run the risk of the movie actually being good, thereby expediting you to the Chill part of the evening. The plot twist is completely ludicrous and requires multiple doctors and other medical professionals to fall asleep on the job in gross negligence, but that's OK when Christina Hodson's script gives Mary a throwaway line to explain it all away. SHUT IN is a film that can't even do the bare minimum, whether it's somehow failing to create any chilly suspense out of an isolated, blizzard-like snowy setting, the cops not even pursuing the possibility that the missing Tom is still in the house, or the big Plot Convenience Playhouse corner-cutter that comes from an EXORCIST III-inspired jump scare witnessed by Mary's colleague/shrink Dr. Wilson (Oliver Platt, Facetiming most of his performance in from what appears to be his agent's office), a profoundly stupid moment that shows neither Hodson nor British TV vet Farren Blackburn, the director with a name most likely to belong to a GAME OF THRONES villain, have any idea how Skype works. The film hints at the paranormal, but ends up at the completely ordinary, turning into another rote home invasion/psycho-thriller, with a hammer-and-axe-wielding madman chasing victims through the house like a dimmer SHINING, complete with a potential rescuer who makes a long, arduous journey in a dangerous snow-and-ice storm only to get immediately impaled by a claw hammer for his trouble. Platt almost literally phones it in, Heaton is stuck with an unplayable character, young Tremblay, so terrific in ROOM, has nothing to do, and Watts single-handedly elevates the entire project, bringing her A-game because she's a pro who should be getting better starring vehicles than this. SHUT IN is a mess, a possible sign of trouble being a large section of the closing credits devoted to "Reshoots Montreal," but it does get some bonus points because "Farren Blackburn" is a fucking great name.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

In Theaters: ARRIVAL (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Eric Heisserer. Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O'Brien, Russell Yuen. (PG-13, 116 mins)

It's easy to see the trailers and the advertising for ARRIVAL and write it off as another alien invasion sci-fi movie, but it has bigger goals in mind and is ultimately about something else entirely. Having said that, the path it takes to get to where it's going borrows from a variety of sources. You'll easily spot ideas from other movies--CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and CONTACT immediately spring to mind, and the imagery of spacecrafts hovering over cities invokes INDEPENDENCE DAY and DISTRICT 9 among others, while its somber mood and its focus on the deconstruction and composition of language and communication takes things into an alien invasion PONTYPOOL realm. Though it's all a primer for a surprise third-act revelation that packs a wallop and shows ARRIVAL's true intent, even that has distinct echoes of both a no-budget cult classic from a decade or so ago as well as a certain '90s sci-fi mindbender, albeit with less apocalyptic implications.

Twelve shell-like spacecrafts appear at various points around the world, with one of them in Montana. Linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought in by the US Army's Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) as a consultant to attempt to establish communication with the visitors and decipher their language. Largely withdrawn from the world following her 12-year-old daughter's death from a rare form of cancer, Louise immerses herself in her work and still has military security clearance from some translation work she did for a counterterrorism operation a few years earlier. She's joined by theoritical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as they enter a gravity-free portal at the base of the "Shell" and very slowly open a line of communication from behind a giant glass divider in the ship with a pair of large, heptapod beings that they dub "Abbott & Costello." It's a slow process--too slow for Weber and irate CIA agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose main goal is to ascertain the threat level and who demonstrate little patience for the curiosity of linguistics, physics, and the wonder of scientific discovery, even though Abbott & Costello have done nothing aggressive. A growing sense of paranoia and too much of an Alex Jones-type right-wing TV pundit gets the better of a few renegade soldiers who try to blow up the shell while Louise and Ian are in it, their lives spared when Abbott & Costello use their gravitational powers to force them down the portal after unsuccessfully trying to warn them about the explosive device. They clearly mean no harm, but neither Louise nor Ian can convince Weber and Halpern of that, and the global operation goes south when paranoid Chinese military leader Gen. Shang (Tzi Ma) issues an ultimatum to the Shell over China, threatening to blow it up if they don't retreat. Various countries, working together, soon go off the grid and stop sharing information with one another as talks break down, humanity grows impatient and violent, and Louise is haunted by recurring dreams and visions of her dead daughter.

Quebecois INCENDIES director Denis Villeneuve, who crossed over into the mainstream with 2013's PRISONERS and 2015's SICARIO, isn't as commercial this time out, with one shot in particular a winking nod to his bizarre 2014 Cronenbergian indie ENEMY. With its chilly, cerebral tone, ARRIVAL occasionally has a Cronenberg feel to it, or at least looks a lot like what might've happened if an in-his-prime Atom Egoyan made an alien invasion movie. It's a film that's not particularly interested in accommodating those looking for action and special effects, but it's still accessible enough for the multiplex. Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (LIGHTS OUT), who adapted Ted Chiang's short story "Story of Your Life," don't seem to bother pretending to camouflage ARRIVAL's obvious influences, but it finds its own voice quite unexpectedly, and what initially appear to be plot holes, contrivances, and corner-cutting actually make sense once all is revealed. Whether that makes ARRIVAL legitimately clever or very smooth at pulling off some bullshit dei ex machina may be one of the many post-viewing discussion topics. Even with its unexpected late-film developments, ARRIVAL isn't quite the instant classic that many reviewers are making it out to be, but it manages to accomplish a lot more than most genre films that opt to travel down a road paved with the ideas of so many movies that preceded it.