Friday, March 23, 2018

In Theaters: UNSANE (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer. Cast: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Amy Irving, Aimee Mullins, Matt Damon, Polly McKie, Sarah Stiles, Michael Mihm, Robert Kelly, Gibson Frazier, Raul Castillo, Will Brill, Stephen Maier, Myra Lucretia Taylor. (R, 98 mins)

Steven Soderbergh emerged from his four-year, big-screen "retirement" (during which he directed an HBO movie and two seasons of the Cinemax series THE KNICK, and produced several projects for others) with last year's charming and funny LOGAN LUCKY. By the time that film was in theaters, Soderbergh had already secretly made UNSANE, described as a low-budget horror film shot entirely with an iPhone 7 Plus, with the exception of a drone camera for some exteriors. Fans of Italian horror with recognize UNSANE as the title of the severely-cut US version of Dario Argento's 1982 classic TENEBRAE, but the comparisons end there. UNSANE was written not by Soderbergh but by the team of Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, whose writing credits include such classics as Lindsay Lohan's JUST MY LUCK, Jackie Chan's THE SPY NEXT DOOR, and their crowning achievement, LARRY THE CABLE GUY: HEALTH INSPECTOR. Nevertheless, through the iPhone 7 Plus and other recurring themes, Soderbergh, once again handling cinematography duties as "Peter Andrews" and editing as "Mary Ann Bernard," makes UNSANE his own, and it's a mess. Even the iPhone gimmick isn't original: several years before he directed THE FLORIDA PROJECT, Sean Baker made his indie breakthrough with TANGERINE, shot entirely with an iPhone 5S. Though he's had major box-office hits with films like TRAFFIC, ERIN BROCKOVICH, and the OCEAN'S ELEVEN trilogy, Soderbergh has found some success and critical accolades with more offbeat and, to varying degrees, experimental projects (THE LIMEY, BUBBLE, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, the ambitious four-hour epic CHE), and has even gone "slumming" in genre fare before with 2012's enjoyable Gina Carano actioner HAYWIRE. UNSANE is one of his worst films, but at least it's better than 2002's FULL FRONTAL, his unwatchable, star-studded, self-indulgent homage to French New Wave shot with the Canon XL-1s. There's several scenes in UNSANE, especially in the early going, where Soderbergh's use of the iPhone 7 indeed adds to the sense of unease he's trying to establish, but the longer the film goes on, the dumber and more ridiculous it gets. By the time the heroine wakes up in a trunk and Soderbergh's breaking out the night vision, it's hard to shake the feeling that he's either bored out of his mind or hasn't seen enough low-budget indie horror films over the last two decades to recognize the cliches.

The improbably-named Sawyer Valentini (THE CROWN's Claire Foy) has just moved to suburban Pennsylvania from Boston. She works as a financial analyst and doesn't seem to be well-liked by her colleagues, though she tells her mom Angela (Amy Irving sighting!) that everything's great and moving 450 miles away was a career opportunity she couldn't pass up. She's on Tinder and meets guys for one-nighters, but what she hasn't told her mom or anyone else is that she moved from Boston to get away from a stalker who trailed her for two years, and whose face she still keeps seeing everywhere--at work, on the men she meets--and she never feels safe, which isn't helped by her boss not very subtly propositioning her to go on business trip to New Orleans with him. Feeling a one-on-one session might help sort out her thoughts, she makes an appointment with a counselor at the reputable Highland Creek Behavioral Center. Handed some paperwork requiring her signature after mentioning she had fleeting thoughts of suicide in the past, Sawyer realizes too late that she's been duped into signing an agreement to be voluntarily committed for 24 hours, which turns into seven days after repeat instances of violently lashing out at staff and patients when they refuse to release her. She's endlessly taunted by white trash patient Violet (Juno Temple), but befriends another, Nate (former SNL cast member Jay Pharoah), who's recovering from an opioid addiction and has a secretly stashed phone that he loans to Sawyer after she loses her privileges. She calls her mom, who drives to Highland Creek only to be stonewalled by chief administrator Ashley Brighterhouse (Aimee Mullins), and to make matters worse, the stalker from Boston, David Strine (Joshua Leonard, looking and sounding like Zach Galifianakis), is also at Highland Creek, working as an orderly under a phony name. Or is Sawyer's mind playing tricks on her?

Soderbergh shows his cards too soon with almost every plot twist, whether the orderly is really Strine or what Nate is really doing at Highland Creek. Characters also start doing stupid things when it's convenient for the plot (with eyes everywhere, how does no one ever catch Nate on his phone?). The iPhone 7 approach does yield some initially intriguing results, with Soderbergh keeping the camera at a distance as Sawyer goes about her day, almost like you are voyeuristically stalking her. He frequently plants the camera right in Foy's face, getting you up close and personal with someone who's either cracking up or completely sane and freaking out because she's being gaslighted and can't convince anyone that the new orderly is a lunatic creep. But after a while, when everything becomes clear and there's no ambiguity left, UNSANE devolves into what looks like the kind of no-budget horror indie that might break out and maybe get some attention and help establish a first-time director. To that end, the presence of Leonard, one of the stars of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT almost 20 years ago, can't be coincidental.

For a young filmmaker trying to make his bones--Sean Baker, for instance--a gimmick like shooting an entire movie on an iPhone is a feat of overcoming obstacles and a triumph of DIY aesthetic. But for someone like Soderbergh, an Academy Award-winner who's been lauded as great filmmaker for nearly 30 years, works with the biggest stars in Hollywood, and has several huge hits to his credit, it comes off like cynical wankery. It's not an example of a master filmmaker subverting genre expectations, and if it was made by a young no-namer, it would likely be premiering at your nearest Redbox. UNSANE starts out fine but Soderbergh seems to lose focus quickly, unable to decide if he's making a no-budget indie horror movie or an ERIN BROCKOVICH-meets-SHOCK CORRIDOR-type expose on medical and insurance industry corruption. There's hints at a timely #MeToo or #TimesUp angle with Sawyer's lecherous boss and the way she recoils from a Tinder hookup ("You initiated!" the guy pleads), but that goes nowhere. Foy gives it her all and Pharoah is natural and likable (one very likely ad-libbed line from him gets a huge laugh), but a mannered Leonard is a cartoonishly cliched antagonist and there's also a pointless and distracting appearance by Soderbergh pal Matt Damon in a flashback as a security expert advising Sawyer about stalkers. It all leads to a weak and unsatisfying conclusion that ends the film on a frustrating note. Soderbergh's name and history will get this some significant critical cache since it's a planned move instead of one borne of a stalled career (UNSANE isn't good, but we're not talking Roland Joffe's CAPTIVITY here), but at the end of the day, there's nothing here that a kid just out of film school couldn't have done just as well.

Soderbergh filming UNSANE

Thursday, March 22, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: SMALL TOWN CRIME (2018) and LIES WE TELL (2018)

(US - 2018)

Another entry in the new wave of gritty noirs that's given us acclaimed films like COLD IN JULY, BLUE RUIN, BAD TURN WORSE, I DON'T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE, and the similarly-titled SMALL CRIMES, SMALL TOWN CRIME is a terrific thriller that also owes a debt to BLOOD SIMPLE-era Coen Bros. Despite the obvious influences, the sibling writing/directing team of Esham & Ian Nelms (WAFFLE STREET) throw in enough unpredictable twists and turns and interesting characters that SMALL TOWN CRIME manages to find its own voice and place in the subgenre. Character Actor Hall of Famer John Hawkes stars as Mike Kendall, an alcoholic and disgraced ex-cop booted off the force after a traffic stop went bad, resulting in his partner getting shot in the head by the driver, a psycho who had a kidnapped girl in the trunk who was accidentally shot dead by Kendall, who was shitfaced on the job in the police cruiser and just started randomly firing when his partner went down. Unable to get a job and getting so blackout drunk every night that it's not uncommon for him to wake up in a field 100 yards away from his old-school Nova littered with empties on the dashboard, Mike is driving home on one such morning after when he spots a bloodied and barely-breathing young woman lying on the side of the road. He drives her to the hospital, but she dies shortly after. He finds her phone under his passenger seat and has a testy conversation with criminal lowlife Mood (Clifton Collins Jr), who keeps calling the girl's phone incessantly. After being threatened by Mood, Mike draws three conclusions: the dead girl was a prostitute, Mood was her pimp, and he obviously doesn't know she's dead. Even though he's in a drunken blur most of the time, this awakens his long-dormant cop instincts and he's unable to let it go, even after being told to back off by homicide detectives Crawford (Michael Vartan) and Whitman (Daniel Sunjata), both of whom know and, more so with Whitman, still resent him over his exit from the department.

In a plot development more suited for a wacky comedy but pulled off with total straight-faced seriousness, broke-ass Mike pretends to be a private investigator and is hired to the tune of $2500 a week by the dead girl's wealthy grandfather Steve Yendel (Robert Forster who, oddly enough, was also in SMALL CRIMES), who's fed up with the slow pace of the police investigation. Another dead hooker is found, and this leads Mike on the trail of all manner of sleazy criminal activity including, but not limited to, another prostitute (Caity Lotz) who knew the dead girl; a low-rent brothel being run out of a shithole bar owned by Mike's buddy Randy (Don Harvey); two psycho hit men (James Lafferty and Jeremy Ratchford, the latter looking like he got the role because Mark Boone Junior was busy) who start following Mike around and harassing his brother-in-law Teddy (Anthony Anderson), which doesn't sit well with his sister Kelly (Octavia Spencer, also an executive producer), whose family adopted Mike when he was a kid rescued from junkie parents; and a sex tape involving three rich douchebag real estate developers. After Teddy is kidnapped by the hit men, Mike forms an unholy alliance with Mood, the two setting aside their differences and joining forces with a shotgun-toting Yendel to settle this their own way. You really haven't lived until you've seen a scowling Forster as Yendel, already pissed-off and forced to ride shotgun in Mood's rebuilt purple Impala low-rider with serious hydraulics action. Despite the grim subject matter, there's quite a bit of dark humor throughout ("Sometimes, you're just a shitheel, ya know?" a bar waitress tells Mike). Mike's arc is obviously a redemptive one but the Nelmses don't allow everything to wrap up all neat and tidy, especially when it comes to Teddy and Kelly, though the film somehow manages to end on a crowd-pleasing note (I would love seeing Hawkes, Collins, and Forster revisit these characters and team up for another mystery). Released straight to DirecTV and VOD, SMALL TOWN CRIME is genuine sleeper gem that's going to find a solid word-of-mouth cult following once it hits streaming services, and it's a real shame something this entertaining barely got any theatrical exposure. Check this one out. (R, 92 mins)

(UK - 2018)

British-Pakistani double-glazed window magnate Mitu Misra had never even been on a movie set before making his self-financed debut film LIES WE TELL. Based in Bradford in West Derbyshire, an area that's home to a large Pakistani population, LIES WE TELL tries to be both a culture-clash soap opera and a seedy crime thriller, with a central relationship that recalls Neil Jordan's MONA LISA (1986) and a finale that straight-up steals a major moment from Brian De Palma's CARLITO'S WAY (1993), Other than a positively Ed Wood-ian sight of a camera drone hovering over a traffic jam and quickly exiting the frame, obviously not meant to be in the shot, Misra doesn't humiliate himself but he doesn't accomplish much either, relying on the presence of a few seasoned pros who were probably happy to jump aboard once Misra's checks cleared. Melancholy Donald (Gabriel Byrne) is the loyal, longtime driver for wealthy Greek businessman Demi Lampros (Harvey Keitel). Lampros dies suddenly (Keitel checks out less than five minutes in), and in the event of his passing, left Donald specific instructions to keep his family from discovering his indiscretions and clear out his secret apartment where he regularly met Amber (Sibyllla Deen), his 20-something Muslim mistress who's going through law school on his dime. Liberal in her beliefs and the object of scorn by her strict, fundamentalist family, Amber is still under the thumb of KD (Jan Uddin), her cousin and a sketchy Bradford crime lord to whom she was nearly forced into an arranged marriage when they were both 16. Now, nearly a decade later, Amber's parents are forcing her younger sister Miriam (Danica Johnson) into an identical arrangement with the abusive KD. Out of loyalty to his late employer, Donald is drawn into Amber's troubled life and ends up helping her get Miriam out of a bad situation that's made worse when Lampros' weasally, asshole son Nathan (Reece Ritchie) discovers a sex tape on his father's phone.

That leads to an attempt by Nathan to blackmail Amber into a similar sugar daddy situation, but the phone's memory card is swiped by an enraged KD, who threatens to show Amber's parents unless she backs off and quits trying to stop the wedding. Mark Addy also periodically appears as Donald's slovenly brother-in-law and roommate, but doesn't really serve a purpose. There's also a barely-explored subplot about Donald's estranged wife (Gina McKee) and their dead daughter, and though he pumps the brakes at shirtless, thus sparing us the familiar sight of the full Bad Lieutenant in the sex tape footage, the whole film seems like an elaborate excuse for 78-year-old Harvey Keitel to disrobe onscreen yet again. LIES WE TELL is dull and dreary, though Byrne and Deen manage to occasionally lift the uninspired material just with their professionalism and natural acting talent. McKee and Addy are pros given nothing to work with, and there's no way Keitel worked on this for more than a day. Other than that ridiculous, bush-league fuck-up with the camera drone, Misra's intentions are sincere, and while this isn't a good movie at all, it's likely the best one you'll see by a West Derbyshire-based double-glazed window magnate by default, so that's gotta count for something. Right? (Unrated, 110 mins)

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

In Theaters: 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE (2018)

(US/UK - 2018)

Directed by Jose Padilha. Written by Gregory Burke. Cast: Daniel Bruhl, Rosamund Pike, Eddie Marsan, Denis Menochet, Lior Ashkenazi, Ben Schnetzer, Brontis Jodorowsky, Nonso Anozie, Mark Ivanir, Angel Bonnani, Peter Sullivan, Andrea Deck, Natalie Stone, Vincent Riotta, Trudy Weiss. (PG-13, 107 mins)

Operation Thunderbolt, the Israel Defense Forces' successful July 4, 1976 raid of Entebbe Airport in Uganda to rescue hostages being held by the far left German Revolutionary Cells and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine stands as one of the most daring military missions in history. It immediately spawned two competing, hastily-shot, all-star TV-movie "events" with ABC's VICTORY AT ENTEBBE (with Anthony Hopkins, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Richard Dreyfuss, Helmut Berger, Linda Blair, and Elizabeth Taylor among others) airing just five months later in December, quickly followed by NBC's RAID ON ENTEBBE (headlined by Charles Bronson, Yaphet Kotto, Martin Balsam, Horst Bucholz, John Saxon, and Peter Finch in his last film) in early January 1977. Future Cannon heads Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus even got into the act, with the Golan-directed Israeli production OPERATION THUNDERBOLT (with Klaus Kinski and Sybil Danning as the hijackers) hitting theaters in January 1977. The Entebbe raid is also touched upon in other films, like THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND and the epic CARLOS, and now, over 40 years later, 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE is yet another take on the same subject.

On June 27, 1976, Germans Wilfried "Boni" Bose (Daniel Bruhl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike), two members of Revolutionary Cells, board an Air France jet during a layover in Athens, en route from Tel Aviv to Paris. They and some accomplices commandeer the plane and force pilot Capt. Michel Bacos (Brontis Jodorowsky, best known as the little boy in his dad Alejandro's 1970 cult classic EL TOPO) and navigator Jacques Le Moine (Denis Menochet, looking like he's auditioning for THE NICK OFFERMAN STORY) to reroute to Benghazi, Libya to refuel en route to Entebbe, Uganda, where dictator Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie) has granted them an airstrip at Entebbe Airport. The pro-Palestine Bose and Kuhlmann are far-left ideologues, with Kuhlmann a protege of incarcerated and recently-deceased Red Army Faction leader Ulrike Meinhof, who was found hanged in her cell in what was deemed a suicide but many in German terrorist circles feel was a staged execution. Once the plane lands in Entebbe and Amin gives them passage, the days drag on and as the unstable Kuhlmann keeps popping amphetamines and Bose begins to resent that the Palestinian cohorts who were waiting for them at Entebbe--under the orders of PFLO leader Wadie Haddad--and begin to muscle the Germans aside and start separating the Israeli passengers,  moving them to another room and threatening to begin killing them if Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) doesn't release all of the Palestinian terrorists being held in Israeli prisons.

The most compelling parts of 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE are the tense meetings with Rabin, the Israeli military, and testy Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres (a terrific performance by Eddie Marsan, sporting an amazing makeup job), and the debates over Israel's policy of never negotiating with terrorists (staunchly supported by Peres, who believes Rabin is deliberately stalling on a response in the hopes that he can just throw Peres under the bus). Less successful are the arcs of Bose and Kuhlmann. Pike can't do much with director Jose Padilha (ELITE SQUAD, NARCOS, and the ROBOCOP remake) and screenwriter Gregory Burke ('71) whittling her complex character--who blames herself for Meinhof's death--down to a stock "crazy bitch" act that culminates in a ridiculous scene where she calls her lover and pours her heart and her belief in the cause out to him in a long monologue on a pay phone that's not even functioning. The filmmakers don't give a pass to the Germans, but definitely want to engineer some sympathy for them as two idealistic young activists who get in way over their heads, though in one flashback scene, a Revolutionary Cells associate who's trying to talk them out of the hijacking does call Bose out as a bit of a poseur who likes to rant about oppression and the evils of capitalism while owning a small but financially successful publishing company ("You're not oppressed! You're a capitalist!" the guy yells). During the real seven days at Entebbe, Bose apparently did express some concern over the optics of being a German in a hostage situation where Israelis were being threatened with execution, but 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE almost seems like it wants to absolve him of any wrongdoing. If Bose (and, to an extent Kuhlmann, who starts to realize they screwed up when she runs out of pills and is able to clear her head a little) really felt this way as the situation escalated way beyond the statement they wanted to make, it would hardly be the last time ideologically pure and stubbornly uncompromising far-left activists were duped into being the useful idiots that a powerful political organization requires to roll out a far more insidious plan.

For about 85 of its 107 minutes, 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE is a generally involving hostage/political thriller despite some occasional tap-dancing around certain issues and the puzzling omission of key details, like the whole situation with elderly hostage Dora Bloch (briefly seen in a couple of scenes and played by Trudy Weiss), her disappearance during the ordeal and how her Amin-ordered execution is never even addressed. But in the home stretch, as the raid is underway (one of the commanders, and the only Israeli military officer killed during Operation Thunderbolt, was Yonatan Netanyahu--played here by Angel Bonnani--the older brother of current PM Benjamin Netanyahu), Padilha completely shits the bed by intercutting it with some footage of Israel's Batsheva Dance Company. One of the soldiers (Ben Schnetzer) is called to duty and will miss the opening night performance of his dancer girlfriend (Andrea Deck). We see the dance outfit practicing throughout and Operation Thunderbolt is intercut with their performance, with the girlfriend repeatedly falling flat on her face time and again. It's a mystery whether that's a metaphor for something happening with the raid or for Padilha himself, but it completely drains the suspense from what should be the key sequence in the film. Even the closing credits play over some dance routine with a male dancer contorting throughout the frame while a female dancer runs in place in the background. It's one of the all-time climactic derailments of what was an otherwise decent movie up to that point. Sure, it was sort-of an acceptably second-string MUNICH but Padilha's bizarre decision to turn it into what looks like snippets of a justifiably abandoned production of "Bob Fosse's ENTEBBE!" is thus far the head-scratcher of the year for 2018 moviegoing. Sure, the out-of-nowhere violent sex scene near the end of MUNICH was jarring, but it didn't instantly turn the film into a hot mess.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Retro Review: THE AMBULANCE (1993)

(US - 1993)

Written and directed by Larry Cohen. Cast: Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, Megan Gallagher, Red Buttons, Eric Braeden, Richard Bright, Janine Turner, James Dixon, Nick Chinlund, Laurene Landon, Stan Lee, Jill Gatsby, Matt Norklum, Rudy Jones, Susan Blommaert, Beatrice Winde. (R, 96 mins)

Though he's not well-known these days outside of cult movie circles, Larry Cohen has had one of the more eclectic careers in Hollywood history. Born in 1941, Cohen got his start writing for TV shows like THE DEFENDERS and THE FUGITIVE in the 1960s. He was just 24 when he created the Chuck Connors western series BRANDED and a few years later, was the driving force behind the Roy Thinnes sci-fi series THE INVADERS before graduating to big-screen writing gigs with 1966's RETURN OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, 1969's DADDY'S GONE-A-HUNTING and the 1970 Jim Brown western EL CONDOR. He made his directing debut with the 1972 blaxploitation/home invasion indie BONE, headlined by a young Yaphet Kotto, before moving on to his breakout 1973 Fred Williamson blaxploitation hits BLACK CAESAR and its immediate sequel HELL UP IN HARLEM. Though he's dabbled in a little of everything from political biopics (1977's THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER) to film noir (writing 1982's I, THE JURY) to cop movies (1987's DEADLY ILLUSION) to high-concept nailbiters (he wrote the 2002 Colin Farrell-trapped-in-a-phone-booth thriller PHONE BOOTH), Cohen is most closely associated with the horror genre thanks to the 1974 mutant baby cult classic IT'S ALIVE. IT'S ALIVE flopped on its initial release but became a surprise hit when Warner Bros. relaunched it in 1977, eventually spawning two sequels (1978's IT LIVES AGAIN and 1987's IT'S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE) and cementing Cohen's place in horror history. 1976's GOD TOLD ME TO also has a strong following, and 1982's Q, with a giant Aztec winged serpent taking up residence at the top of the Chrysler Building in NYC, is one of the strangest cult hits of its decade.

Cohen trucked on through the '80s, with the health-food fad horror satire THE STUFF hitting theaters in 1985 and the sequel A RETURN TO SALEM'S LOT going straight to video in 1987, but his best film from that era is THE AMBULANCE, a gem of a thriller that fell through the cracks and, with its connection to Marvel Comics, is poised to finally get the recognition it deserves thanks to Scream Factory's recent Blu-ray release. Shot in the summer of 1989, THE AMBULANCE was released in Japan in 1990 but was unseen in the US until it went straight-to-video in 1993, likely due to money issues going on with Epic Productions, the company run by cash-strapped former Trans-World Entertainment execs Eduard Sarlui and Moshe Diamant. Sony's Triumph Releasing took over the Epic slate and while some less-deserving films made it into theaters (SKI PATROL, COURAGE MOUNTAIN, GHOSTS CAN'T DO IT), THE AMBULANCE sat on the shelf for four years. That's a shame, because it's got a strange, goofy charm to it that could've made it a legitimate sleeper hit if anyone saw it. In one of his loosest and most uncharacteristically appealing and likable performances, an extremely mulleted (the major sign that it was shot in 1989) Eric Roberts is Josh Baker, a Marvel artist who's introduced flirting with Cheryl (Janine Turner, just before she landed NORTHERN EXPOSURE) when she collapses on a busy Manhattan street. She tells Josh she's diabetic and an ambulance whisks her away before he can get her last name. When Cheryl isn't at the hospital where she was supposed to be taken, smitten Josh begins a citywide search for his dream girl, which intensifies after he happens to run into Cheryl's roommate Jerilyn (Jill Gatsby), who's also a diabetic who gets abducted by the same ambulance, all at the behest of a mad doctor (Eric Braeden) who's using NYC diabetics as human test subjects for his diabolical experiments involving pig pancreases, eventually harvesting and selling their organs when they inevitably die.

Along the way, Josh irritates a lot of people, from irate Lt. Spencer (James Earl Jones, chewing gum by the fistful) to various doctors and nurses, and especially his boss Stan (Stan Lee), who tells him to look for his missing mystery girl on his own time. He does get some support from sarcastic but sympathetic officer Malloy (Megan Gallagher) and aging Elias Zachariah (Red Buttons), a doddering old man who claims to be a reporter and becomes Josh's partner in crime as they break out of a hospital where Josh has been dumped to keep quiet. It's a really a shame the world was deprived of more Eric Roberts/Red Buttons buddy movies because they're quite a team here, whether they're busting each others' chops, sneaking out of the hospital in clothes that are two sizes too big, or just listening to Buttons bitch and complain and drop F-bombs. It's easy to forget what a promising career Roberts had at one point. When THE AMBULANCE went into production in 1989, he hadn't really fully capitalized on his RUNAWAY TRAIN Oscar nomination four years earlier for a variety of reasons (including a drug possession arrest in 1987), but was still regularly headlining movies that would get wide theatrical releases, including 1989's stoner comedy RUDE AWAKENING and the same year's BEST OF THE BEST, a BLOODSPORT knockoff that also featured Jones. With few exceptions (the 1996 AIDS drama IT'S MY PARTY, for example), Roberts would soon fall into the world of straight-to-video and as time went on, for every supporting role he'd get in an A-list blockbuster like THE DARK KNIGHT, there'd be 20 HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3s or A TALKING CAT!?s.

But one thing Cohen always did well was zero in on the strengths of oddball character actors and give them a chance to run with it in a leading role, whether it was John P. Ryan's convincing performance in IT'S ALIVE, Frederic Forrest in IT LIVES AGAIN, or frequent Cohen star Michael Moriarty's bizarre, free-jazz riffing as a junkie petty thief in Q. Cohen allows Roberts to use his peculiar idiosyncrasies to give THE AMBULANCE some seriously offbeat cred that clearly inspired the actor in ways that paycheck gigs like BEST OF THE  BEST and BY THE SWORD wouldn't. Going forward, it wouldn't be often that Roberts would be able to conjure some of that quirky and unpredictable energy ("I mean, fuuuuuuck him!") that helped establish him in STAR 80, THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, and RUNAWAY TRAIN, but the early '80s Roberts is there throughout THE AMBULANCE, and it's one of his best performances. THE AMBULANCE is a terrific little B-movie that would make a great "First Responder From Hell" double feature with William Lustig's Cohen-scripted 1990 cult classic MANIAC COP 2 (both indulge in some really insane Spiro Razatos stunt work) and effectively demonstrates the versatility of Cohen in the way it balances action, suspense, horror, and comedy, even throwing a bone to Stan Lee and the comic book crowd and including a running gag about one pissed-off cop (Cohen regular James Dixon) looking like Jughead from Archie. Cohen was credited with a few largely rewritten screenplays in the '00s (including Roland Joffe's embarrassing 2007 torture porn fiasco CAPTIVITY) and helmed one episode of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR in 2006, but he hasn't directed a film since 1996's blaxploitation throwback ORIGINAL GANGSTAS. In recent years, he's opted to go the emeritus route on the convention and Q&A circuit while cashing checks when one of his films is remade (the less said about the dismal 2009 remake of IT'S ALIVE, the better). Cohen's last essential film to date, THE AMBULANCE is a blast that deserves much more recognition than it's ever received.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


(UK/US - 2018)

Directed by Johannes Roberts. Written by Bryan Bertino and Ben Ketai. Cast: Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman, Damien Maffei, Emma Bellomy, Lea Enslin. (R, 85 mins)

Announced almost immediately after the release of THE STRANGERS and in various stages of development for a nearly a decade, THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT is the long-gestating follow-up to the 2008 home invasion hit that's equal parts sequel, reboot, and remake. Ten years is an eternity in the horror genre (to put it in perspective, the first PARANORMAL ACTIVITY was still a year away), and THE STRANGERS, itself a sort-of riff on Michael Haneke's 1997 downer FUNNY GAMES and the 2006 French film THEM (ILS), was an influence on later similar thrillers like YOU'RE NEXT, THE PURGE, and HUSH.  The original's writer/director Bryan Bertino hasn't had much success in the ensuing decade: his terrible follow-up film MOCKINGBIRD played like a found-footage mash-up of Rob Zombie and THE STRANGERS and went straight to DVD in 2014, and 2016's THE MONSTER got some acclaim but, like THE STRANGERS, had a terrific first half diminished by an uneven second. Bertino is onboard as a writer and producer here, with directing chores being handled by Johannes Roberts, whose 47 METERS DOWN was a surprise hit last year. Roberts is probably a better director than Bertino, and throughout this film, he demonstrates a knack for effective shot compositions and has clearly studied the masters--there's De Palma split diopters, there's some Argento reds, there's some shout-outs to the works of Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter, and one neon-drenched sequence in a huge swimming pool that's undoubtedly the highlight of the film. But I've rarely been as back-and-forth after watching a film as I am with THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT. In the ten years since THE STRANGERS, one of the go-to tropes of the horror genre has become the incessant retro '80s fetishizing, particularly the use of throwback, synth-driven scores (YOU'RE NEXT, the MANIAC remake, IT FOLLOWS, STARRY EYES, etc) and the use of pop songs ranging from iconic to kitschy. Roberts really leans hard on that retro feel, with an opening sequence set to Kim Wilde's "Kids in America" before the title appears onscreen in a near-identical replica of the STRANGER THINGS font. That kind of reverence for a beloved era of horror was charming and cool and fun when it started becoming a thing six or seven years ago (perhaps this trend can actually be traced back to Daft Punk's score for TRON: LEGACY), and it has generated a resurgence of interest in that style of music, with Goblin and Tangerine Dream-inspired bands like Zombi and S U R V I V E, and even John Carpenter now releasing albums and going on tour with a live band. But everybody's doing it now, and with that one-two punch less than five minutes into the movie, I was already dismissively sighing, feeling grouchy, and waiting for Larry Fessenden and/or Maria Olsen to show up.

They never did, but THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT is buoyed by some unusually strong performances for a belated horror sequel. With rebellious teen daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison, who looks like a young Katie Holmes) becoming too much of a handful after an unspecified incident involving two other girls, mom Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and dad Mike (Martin Henderson) decide to send her to a strict boarding school. Forcing elder son Luke (Lewis Pullman, Bill's son) to ride along, they embark on the two-day road trip to the school, deciding to stop off for the night at an off-season trailer park campground run by Mike's uncle. Sporting a Ramones tee and chain-puffing smokes without actually inhaling, Kinsey is an intentional stereotype of the sullen, brooding teen, and would rather sulk off on her own than play cards with the family. Mike and Cindy send Luke after her, and while the kids are gone, there's a knock on the door. So begins the incidents familiar to fans of THE STRANGERS: a loosened porch light bulb obscuring the face of a young woman asking "Is Tamara home?" followed by increasingly aggressive knocks on the door, land lines cut, dumb decisions, and cell phones smashed as a sure sign that someone's already in the house. While out walking and talking, Luke and Kinsey find a trailer with its door open and discover the mutilated, dead bodies of Mike's aunt and uncle and are greeted by a hooded figure with an ax waiting outside for them. Both parties (Mom and Dad, Luke and Kinsey) make a run for it, eventually meeting and splitting into two different groups (Mom and Kinsey, Dad and Luke) as the titular trio--Man in the Mask (Damien Maffei), Dollface (Emma Bellomy), and Pin-up Girl (Lea Enslin)--taunt, stalk, and off them one by one.

There's a few genuinely suspenseful sequences throughout, and Roberts uses space and the background very effectively in the way he has The Strangers and their creepy masks materialize out of darkness or enter the frame from an unexpected place. But the retro '80s thing just gets to be too much for its own good, so much so that in the final act, it's difficult to tell if Roberts is making a slasher movie or an infomercial for NOW That's What I Call '80s Power Ballads! Why are The Strangers suddenly '80s pop superfans? Why do they drive around in beat-up pickup blaring Kim Wilde and Mental As Anything songs? In one scene, Man in the Mask sits there with one of the dying family members in a crashed car and keeps searching radio stations until he hears Wilde's "Cambodia" playing. Why? It's exactly like one of the killers in YOU'RE NEXT sitting quietly next to a dead victim (played by...wait for it...Larry Fessenden!) while Dwight Twilley's "Lookin' for the Magic" plays on repeat. It's bad enough that The Strangers are suddenly engaging in the old horror movie staple of evil figures snarking it up in the sequels (as decreed in the Freddy Krueger Amendment, aka the Chucky Resolution) by having Pin-up Girl appear out of the darkness to crack to Kinsey "We're just getting started!" but now they're DJs at '80s-themed office party who need obscure British pop songs to accompany their killing sprees.

This idea actually works in the truly inspired swimming pool sequence--a minor classic of its kind and likely the only thing genre fans will remember about this--set to Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," which drifts in and out as the characters go under and emerge from the water. And if it was just that, it would've been fine, but then the long, drawn-out finale with multiple endings is pointlessly set to Air Supply's "Making Love Out of Nothing At All." Is this a sequel to THE STRANGERS or Roberts hitting shuffle on his iPod and just seeing what happens?  That's the conundrum of THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT: there's some good stuff here but its fixation--obsession, really--with '80s nostalgia, with the overbearing synth and the '80s singles comprising a soundtrack in search of a movie, just gets grating and dumb after a while and almost completely derails it. This film exists in some kind of bizarro world where it thinks it's paying homage to the '80s but goes so overboard with it that it's paying homage to the homages. Isn't it a little premature to be making hero-worship tributes to things like IT FOLLOWS, STRANGER THINGS, and the filmography of Adam Wingard?

Thursday, March 8, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: SHOWDOWN IN MANILA (2018) and CON MAN (2018)

(US/Philippines/Russia - 2016; US release 2018)

Even among those fringe-dwellers who scour the deep cuts of streaming services and deign to examine the merchandise near the bottom of the new release rack at Walmart, Alexander Nevsky remains an enigma. A well-known bodybuilder and media personality in his native Russia, with a towering 6' 6" frame and a passing resemblance to Dwayne Johnson, the 46-year-old Nevsky has been plugging away in DIY fashion for about a decade and a half, overseeing an empire of sorts and trying to establish his action star bona fides the best way he can: by cranking out one movie after another and being wealthy enough that the quality of the films and whether anyone actually likes them are non-factors. After a secondary role as a bad guy in the 2003 Russian-made Roy Scheider/Michael Pare thriller RED SERPENT, Nevsky wrote, produced, and starred in MOSCOW HEAT, which got a straight-to-DVD release in the US in 2005. MOSCOW HEAT set the Nevsky template: he has a genuine affection for cop/buddy movies of the 1980s and 1990s and tries to replicate that whole Joel Silver/Shane Black sort-of vibe. He has enough money that he can lure several past-their-prime big names or career C-listers: MOSCOW HEAT found Nevsky managing to fly Michael York, Joanna Pacula, Richard Tyson, Andrew Divoff, and Adrian Paul over for a Russian vacation. Future Nevsky productions featured recurring BFFs like Tyson, Divoff, and Paul, but also Sherilyn Fenn and David Carradine (2007's NATIONAL TREASURE ripoff TREASURE RAIDERS), Billy Zane, Robert Davi, Bai Ling, and Armand Assante (2010's MAGIC MAN), and Kristanna Loken and Matthias Hues (2014's BLACK ROSE, belatedly released in the US in 2017). For all intents and purposes, Nevsky is to Russian action movies what Uwe Boll was to German tax loopholes in the '00s.

Nevsky's latest film to hit the US is SHOWDOWN IN MANILA, which bombed in Russian theaters way back in 2016. It's partly an homage to the kind of jungle/explosion movies that Antonio Margheriti and Cirio H. Santiago made back in the '80s, crossbred with an '80s/'90s cop buddy movie, but lacking even the basic competence to be a remotely engaging on any level. Nevsky is Nick Peyton, the leader of VCU (Violent Crimes Unit) Strike Force, an elite unit targeting a human trafficking operation run by an international criminal known as "The Wraith" (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). After a botched raid on The Wraith's Manila compound results in the death of his entire team, a devastated Peyton quits VCU in disgrace. Two years later, vacationing FBI agent Matthew Wells (Mark Dacascos, who also makes his directing debut) and his wife (Tia Carrere) run into The Wraith and his chief henchman Dorn (Hues) at a Manila resort, resulting in Wells' death and his wife's abduction and eventual escape. When the cops prove useless, Mrs. Wells hires Peyton, now in a private eye partnership with wisecracking, horndog buddy Charlie (Casper Van Dien). Eventually, Peyton and Charlie bring in the big guns to join them in an assault on The Wraith's base of operation: a quartet of badass mercenaries that includes '90s video store legends Don "The Dragon" Wilson (BLOODFIST), Cynthia Rothrock (CHINA O'BRIEN), and Olivier Gruner (NEMESIS) for what amounts to an EXPENDABLES knockoff that might as well be called THE AVAILABLES.

SHOWDOWN IN MANILA boasts the late Cirio H. Santiago's son and longtime assistant Christopher as a co-producer (also among the producers is Andrzej Bartkowiak, who's actually directed real action movies like ROMEO MUST DIE and EXIT WOUNDS), and back-in-the-day Filipino B-movie fixture Don Gordon Bell has a small role, showing that Nevsky's affection for these sorts of things is sincere (Vic Diaz would certainly be in this if he was still with us), but holy shit, comrade. Between his garbled accent, his wooden delivery, and possessing absolutely zero screen presence, Nevsky is pretty close to the worst actor you'll ever see. Checking his social media feed, Nevsky seems to be an all-around nice guy who loves action movies and numerous on-set photos look like everyone's having a blast, but Alexander Nevsky will never headline an action movie not produced and written by Alexander Nevsky. Van Dien tries to liven things up and seems to be having a genuinely good time (there is one big laugh early on when he turns up on surveillance video having sex with the wife of the cuckolded client who hired them to catch her cheating and tries to explain it away with "I thought the camera was off!"), but he's eventually relegated to the background. Dacascos directs with the same sense of style and mise-en-scene usually reserved for Russian dashcam videos, and he and Nevsky stage one haplessly inept action sequence after another. The CGI explosions are laughable and the fight choreography is so badly-handled that even veteran warhorses like Wilson, Rothrock, and Gruner look like inexperienced amateurs. It's hard telling where Nevsky gets the funding for these things--he's already got one more star-studded vanity project on the way with MAXIMUM IMPACT, whose cast includes Danny Trejo, Eric Roberts, William Baldwin, and Tom Arnold--but make no mistake: SHOWDOWN IN MANILA is the worst Russian production to come down the pike since the 2016 Presidential election. (Unrated, 90 mins)

(US/China - 2018)

There won't be a 2018 film more egregiously disingenuous than CON MAN, a total bullshit biopic of Barry Minkow, a 1980s teenage business phenom whose entrepreneurial skills led him down the slippery slope of Ponzi schemes, securities fraud, insider trading, and other felonies that will keep him in prison until June 2019 at the earliest. As WOLF OF WALL STREET-ish as Minkow's story is, it's not nearly as interesting--or infuriating--as what happened during the making of this movie. If you see the plethora of down-on-their-luck stars getting the most dubious paycheck of their careers and think they look a little younger than they are, that's because CON MAN was filmed in 2009 and is only now being released. Not just because it's terrible, but because it was seized as evidence in a federal case involving Minkow embezzling millions from a church that hired him as a pastor upon his parole after he--wait for it--found God while in prison. Beginning in 1984, young Minkow (Justin Baldoni) works part-time at a gym and borrows money from a roid-raging loan shark (Bill Goldberg) to start ZZZZ Best, a carpet cleaning company that he runs out of his parents' garage. With his ingenuity for cooking the books, "check kiting," and creating fraudulent work orders to the tune of $400 million, ZZZZ Best is worth $100 million on paper by the time Minkow graduates from high school. His mom (Talia Shire) and dad (Mark Hamill) are concerned that he's in over his head, but Minkow is addicted to the rush, and at the urging of his construction magnate uncle (Michael Nouri), he partners with mobster Jack Saxon (Armand Assante), which catches the attention of dogged FBI agent Gamble (James Caan). Minkow's scheme eventually and inevitably collapses due to his hubris and, as his mom cries, "You don't have anything because you don't have God!" In 1988, at just 20 years of age, he's sentenced to 25 years in prison on 57 counts of fraud and ordered to pay restitution in excess of $26 million.

Here's where CON MAN, shot under the title MINKOW, gets interesting. Not in terms of the movie itself, which is a jumbled, badly-edited mess and all-around amateur hour, but in terms of what happened behind-the-scenes. Minkow found religion in prison--thanks to prison protector Peanut (Ving Rhames) but in part because of cellmate Michael Franzese, a mob boss and former B-movie distributor who became a Christian motivational speaker and is a real-life talking head in periodic documentary-style cutaways. Minkow financed much of CON MAN himself, and once he's sentenced to prison, there's a time jump to the early 2000s and a paroled Barry Minkow is now played by...Barry Minkow. In addition to working with the FBI on training agents in spotting financial fraud and being a semi-regular on cable news business shows, he becomes a pastor at a church and dedicates his life to helping others, including an elderly parishioner (Nicolas Coster) who thinks he's been scammed out of his retirement savings in a hedge fund overseen by a known Ponzi schemer (Gianni Russo). Minkow then steps in and risks everything to recover his parishioner's $250,000 retirement fund in one of the most ludicrously self-aggrandizing hero scenarios you'll ever see ("I'm doing the work of God! Protecting the weak!" he shouts at one point). It's ludicrous because it was revealed after the film was completed that Christian man of God Minkow was bilking his own congregation of money to get it funded while embezzling from the church and engaging in all sorts of insider trading and investment fraud. During production, according to a 2012 Fortune article, Minkow was even picked up on a hot mic between takes bragging to Caan about how he financed the movie by "clipping" companies. Minkow denied saying anything, even daring someone to produce the tape, forcing director/co-writer Bruce Caulk to do just that and turn the recording over as evidence. He said it. Because of course he did.

Minkow's arrest left the completed film (see original 2010 trailer above) in limbo, since it was intended to be an uplifting--occasionally veering into full-on faithsploitation--look at a criminal's redemption (complete with ridiculous sequences of Minkow, wearing a wire, chasing some bad guys through a hotel like he's an action hero and, in prison yard football game, throwing the game-winning touchdown) and its very existence was due to the crimes he committed to get it made. After the climactic sequence with Minkow looking like a savior by risking his life to save an old man's retirement savings, the film half-assedly addresses his fall from grace faster than THE ITCHY & SCRATCHY SHOW got rid of Poochie. I guess if you're a GODFATHER superfan, you can feel really depressed at seeing Caan, Shire, and Russo back together in the same movie (Caan and Russo do have a scene together near the end, and it would've been nice to see Sonny Corleone and Carlo Rizzi set aside their differences to collaborate on a merciless beatdown of Barry Minkow), but CON MAN is a con job itself, nothing more than Barry Minkow furiously jerking off to Barry Minkow fan fiction concocted by Barry Minkow himself. Fuck Barry Minkow. (Unrated, 100 mins)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

In Theaters: RED SPARROW (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Justin Haythe. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarin Hinds, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Thekla Reuten, Douglas Hodge, Sakina Jaffrey, Hugh Quarshie, Sebastian Hulk, Sergei Polunin, Kristof Konrad, Sasha Frolova. (R, 140 mins)

To get a feel of what RED SPARROW is like, imagine ATOMIC BLONDE if written by John Le Carre with an uncredited script polish by Joe Eszterhas and directed by 1990s Paul Verhoeven. It's probably not gonna fly with those constantly looking for something to be offended by, but it's nice to see a major-studio movie with A-list star diving unabashedly into hard-R territory with no reservations whatsoever. Sexually frank and often brutally, sickeningly violent, RED SPARROW is based on the 2013 novel by Jason Matthews, the first in a trilogy centered on Dominika Egorova, played here by Jennifer Lawrence, reunited with Francis Lawrence, the director of the last three HUNGER GAMES installments. As RED SPARROW begins in Moscow, Dominika is a rising star in the Bolshoi Ballet, but her career comes to an abrupt end when her dance partner lands on her left leg and shatters it in the middle of a performance. Left with a limp, depressed, and concerned about caring for her terminally ill mother Nina (Joely Richardson), Dominika is approached by her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high ranking deputy in Russian intelligence, who requests a favor that can maybe financially help with her mother's care expenses. Having caught the eye of shady businessman Dmitri Ustinov (Kristof Konrad), Dominika is to be the bait to lure him to a hotel room, where she's to switch his phone with another implanted with a tracking device. Vanya assures her there's no danger, but of course, Ustinov gets rapey and assassin Matorin (Sebastian Hulk) is forced to intervene and kill him, whisking Dominika away immediately after.

Vanya's bosses--including intelligence director Zakharov (Ciarin Hinds) and General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons)--need Dominika to keep quiet by any means necessary. In order to spare her life and to provide care for Nina, Vanya sends Dominika to a "state school" (termed "whore school" by Dominika) where attractive male and female "sparrows" are trained in the ways of seduction, psychological manipulation, and espionage by the ominously-named Matron (Charlotte Rampling). Sparrows are taught to use their bodies to gain advantage, they're put through endless psychological and physical rigors, forced to submit to sexual demands and use their sexuality to gain power over an adversary. Dominika, renamed "Katya," butts heads with Matron, especially after she violently attacks a male sparrow during an attempted rape and then sexually humiliates him in front of the entire class when she intimidates him so much that he can't get it up. Dominika has already established that she has a capacity for extreme violence and uncontrolled rage--she finds out that the ballet accident was intentional and done so in order allow her partner's girlfriend to assume her spot in the ballet, and she promptly beats the shit out of both of them--and despite her strong-willed refusal to bend to Matron's will, Vanya pulls her out to give her a mission: get close to Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA agent on thin ice after a botched intel exchange in Gorky Park with a Russian mole who's been feeding info to the Americans. Nash goes off the radar but resurfaces in Budapest, where Dominika is sent to use her skills in order to find the identity of the mole.

The story takes many twists and turns with the obligatory shifting alliances, double-crosses, and people not being who they're thought to be, and while RED SPARROW doesn't really break any new ground as far as spy thrillers go, it's consistently intriguing, very well-acted, and filled with enough gasp-inducing shocks to keep your eyes glued to the screen, or wincing and looking away if Matorin is skinning someone. Sporting a quite convincing Russian accent, a stone-cold Lawrence is excellent and gets solid support from numerous standouts in the supporting cast, including Schoenaerts as the duplicitous Vanya who can barely hide his sexual desire for his late brother's daughter (can't wait to see him as Vladimir Putin in the inevitable Trump miniseries), Mary-Louise Parker as a US senator's corrupt chief of staff who's got plenty of blackmail baggage and is selling secrets to the Russians, and especially Rampling, who almost steals the film in her limited screen time as the stern, brittle Matron, a woman who's dead inside after giving everything she is to Russia and perhaps sees her younger self in the willful, stubborn Dominika (the sexual power games among the Sparrows-in-training also brings to mind the veteran actress' role in 1974's THE NIGHT PORTER). Though there are several uncomfortable scenes throughout, the knee-jerk response of the perpetually outraged seems to miss the point: Dominika is a strong heroine who proves to be several steps ahead of everyone, refusing to allow herself to be a victim and forcing anyone who wrongs her to pay dearly. Maybe it's because we're in an era where teenagers are the target audience and people have forgotten that movies for adults can still be a thing, but RED SPARROW is pretty strong stuff, with levels of sex, nudity, and violence that you really don't often see in mainstream, multiplex entertainment these days. While this is much more commercially accessible at its core, between RED SPARROW and last fall's MOTHER!, a post-Katniss Everdeen Lawrence (like the career choices made by TWILIGHT vets Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson and HARRY POTTER's Daniel Radcliffe) continues to demonstrate that she isn't complacent and isn't afraid to challenge herself and take some risks.