May 26, 2020

THE INVISIBLE MAN (2019)


[Spoilers follow.]

Though the remake fad has begun dying down, save for those extremely oddball remakes that are revisiting films previously remade within the window of the 2000s (there's another version of The Thing coming down the pike), titles still occasionally to get the facelift treatment, and when this happens, people never fail to bemoan the unoriginality of Hollywood. Then there are those who are quick to remind all the bellyachers that remakes have been part of the studio system from the very beginning. Vincent Price's most famous film, 1953's House Of Wax, was itself a remake of 1933's Mystery of the Wax Museum, and Humphrey Bogart’s most famous noir film, 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, was the third screen adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. These defenders will also remind you titles like John Carpenter's The Thing, David Cronenberg's The Fly, and Philip Kaufman's Invasion Of The Body Snatchers—three of the most celebrated genre films of all time—are also, technically, remakes. While that's true, it’s also a disingenuous comparison, being that those particular remakes were born during an era where the originality of the idea was the thing leading the charge, and during a time when studios were more daring and allowed their filmmakers to have more of a voice. Sure, at the end of the day, it's always about making a profit, but there was a time when studios wanted their films to be good and make money, which isn't something that can be said today. Carpenter remaking a film from his idol Howard Hawks or Cronenberg remaking a film known for campiness and infusing it with his infamous penchant for gooey body horror isn't the same thing as picking some guy whose only experience was directing a string of music videos and saying, "I dunno...wanna remake The Hitcher?" Leigh Whannell's update on The Invisible Man, one of many horror films produced by Universal during the 1930s and a proud member of the “Universal Horror Monster Classics," can stand proudly alongside the likes of those maverick filmmakers who spearheaded remakes because of the idea they had, not because it was easy product with street value on which studios could make another quick buck. 

Before sitting down to tackle Whannell's remake of The Invisible Man, I decided to preempt my viewing by giving the 1933 original another go. By doing this, I thought I could refresh my memory on the basic plot, the character constructs, and the trickery involved to see what Whannell had decided to borrow versus discard. Well, besides the basic concept and the name "Griffin" (along with a loving nod to Claude Rains' bandage-wrapped face from the original), Whannell's script isn't a lazy rehash. It's an entirely new take on the property, as well as the concept, updated with gusto for the tech-savvy generation as well as containing a respectful adoption of the long-in-the-making #MeToo movement. With the modern update being about a victimized woman named Cecilia (Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss) fleeing from her abusive partner, Adrian Griffin (The Haunting Of Hill House's Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in the middle of the night in pure fear, as well as later disclosing the awful treatment she endured at his brute hands and emotionally manipulative mind, it's hard not to make the connection. Indeed, from the film's opening moments, and performed in total silence without the use of dialogue, how Whannell films and cuts around Cecilia's MacGuyver-ish premeditated escape from their palatial, oceanside estate, the suspense is already mounting, even though we have only just met these characters, and are, so far, lacking any kind of background or history on who these people are or what their dynamic is. All we know, based on Cecilia's extreme apprehensive sneaking and her weary looks at Adrian's sleeping form, is that whatever's happened to her over the course of months or years is very, very bad.


From then, as Cecilia attempts to rebuild her life and disclose to her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer) and friend James (Aldis Hodge), who has invited her into his home to allow her time to recover from her ordeal, the awful things she's experienced while living with Adrian, they are, understandably, sympathetic. However, in that perfectly ironic horror-movie vindictiveness, when Cecilia begins to suspect that Adrian, who is later said to be deceased following a suicide, begins stalking her, somehow, in an unseen, invisible form, of course no one believes her. She's been through a lot, after all—walked away from a poisonous,  "narcissistic sociopath" who'd shattered her psyche with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse—so her claims of an invisible stalker are dismissed as signs of post-traumatic stress. And at first, Whannell is wise to keep the unseen Adrian as nothing more than paranoid glances down empty hallways or corners, and not always from Cecilia's point of view, but often from that of the audience. The camera will sometimes aimlessly drift away from her, Taxi Driver-style, as she busies herself on a laptop, or leaves the room to call James' daughter, Sidney (Storm Reid) for breakfast, and as the audience's point of view lingers on nothing at all, the longer that camera lingers, the more we begin to question if Cecilia has actually been through a lot, or if there is something to her claims. This misdirection never lets up, however, and after it's revealed that Cecilia's not crazy—that her genius-minded, optics tech guru former lover has, indeed, somehow constructed a way to go unseen, that paranoia of "is she crazy?" becomes replaced with a new paranoia: "is she ever going to be safe?"

Whannell began his directorial life with Insidious: Chapter Three, an uneven film that still managed to improve on its series' immediate predecessor, before moving onto the techno punk cult classic Upgrade, which saw his skills as a director with a confident style and singular vision improve with drastic results. And now, The Invisible Man sees him at the height of his still newborn directorial career, as he's enjoying the same better-and-better trajectory previously employed by John Carpenter, whose consecutive run of Dark Star, Assault On Precinct 13, and Halloween easily showed the evolution of a director honing his craft. (As of this writing, Whannell is tapped to update Carpenter's Escape From New York, a remake that's been circulating the Hollywood system for almost a decade; if someone has to do it, I'm relieved it's him.) Horror directors can show you every ghastly, bloody, dripping image they can concoct, as it doesn't take much imagination to think of something that falls within the confines of the generic term "scary." What Whannell does, instead—knowing that his movie maniac is an atypical antagonist in that there's no dripping-faced specter or Halloween-costumed killer to constantly show lurking in the dark or on the other side of the door—is rely on what doesn't appear to be there at all, even though we all know better. Whannell can somehow turn a long shot of a skillet with simmering eggs and bacon or an Uber driver taking WAY TOO FUCKING LONG to turn his SUV around into something that preys on the audience's nerves. It's scary when we can see the killer chasing the potential victim, but it's scarier when we can't, because the indication of said victim's proximity to danger is being withheld from us. We simply don't know where Adrian is any more than Cecilia does. 


It's seldom that we see Elisabeth Moss take on this kind of role in such a mainstream film; though the character of Cecilia echoes that of what we've seen from her in her two most high-profile roles in Mad Men and The Handmaid's Tale, in that Cecilia is both an embodiment of the ornamental but dismissible girl living under oppressive environments even after she seemingly escapes from her white-collar prison. Not only that, she's tasked with applying those traits to the more commonly known genre archetype of "the final girl." Seeing her find her "voice" (so to speak) halfway through the film once she's confined to a state hospital, it's hard not to envision Whannell being inspired by another of cinema's most beloved and well-known female bad-asses: that of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in the Terminator series. Once Cecilia begins taking back her life from Adrian by drawing him out of the invisible shadows utilizing his one weakness, Cecilia embraces her inner Sarah Connor. That her confinements are similar to the brightly lit, sterile environments of Pescadaro State Hospital in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (and especially once the invisible threat begins massacring the hospital’s security staff one by one a la the police station shootout from The Terminator) was either a happy accident or a knowing inspiration, and a nod to the cinematic femmes who forged the path Cecilia has made it her mission to walk.

If the dissolving of Universal Studios' previous plan for their Dark Universe, thanks to Tom Cruise's hilariously stupid take on The Mummy, is what led to Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man, then I can only be grateful. And I can only hope that Universal has taken adequate notes and will be applying the so-far successful micro-budget Blumhouse approach to all the horror properties they plan on updating: find a talented filmmaker, give them free reign to make a horror film that respects those 1930s classics, and stay out of their way. Like this new iteration of The Invisible Man, it has the potential to gift the audience with a new string of feisty, smart horror films that they never saw coming.



[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

May 24, 2020

THE EDITOR (2014)


More and more, filmmakers, especially those in the horror genre, are looking to the past for a bout of inspiration. Throwback horror films have become a popular movement over the last decade, with the amount of output increasing as filmmakers' love for the '70s and '80s becomes more and more pronounced. Canadian filmmaking group Astron-6 (Adam Brooks, Matthew Kennedy, Conor Sweeney, Jeremy Gillespie, and Steve Kostanski) count themselves among the Quentin Tarantinos and the Ti Wests whose own films have attempted to both homage and recapture what made certain sub-genres of that era so entertaining, and so ripe for re-exploration.

With The Editor, the latest send-up from the guys who previously brought us their grindhouse ode Father's Day, their "run, robots!" homage Manborg, and the greatest thing of all time, Biocop, our filmmaking sextet have pointed their loving fingers at the mysterious, beautiful, and nearly-pornographic movement known as the giallo . Named for the cheap pulp, crime, and sex novels found on the bottom shelves of bookstores and newsstands during the early '70s (the name "giallo" derives from their uniformly yellow covers), this unusually alluring movement was a mostly European affair, beginning life in Italy with Mario Bava and Dario Argento before moving over to the United States (in a less obviously artistic form) to eventually inspire the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter, and Brian De Palma. The movement was more known for the fluidity of the camera, frank and unobscured sexuality, and healthy doses of grisly violence made beautiful through a purposeful filter design constructed by bold colors, rather than its ability to tell an original story.

Refreshingly, The Editor manages to do both.


Rey Cisco (Brooks) is an aging film editor with a wooden hand, a result from a freak accident one night in his editing suite. While dealing with the undeniable realization that his is an art being slowly left behind, things grow worse for him once a killer begins stalking members of the cast and crew, dispatching them in violent ways and removing four fingers from their one hand - which matches Rey's own malady, naturally incriminating him as the obvious red herring. Investigating these murders is Detective Porfiry (Kennedy), husband to a victimized and now-blind member of the cast, and whose hilarious wardrobe and wild facial hair seems to be invoking every early-'70s iteration of Donald Sutherland that ever existed. Rey's wife, Josephine (Paz de la Huerta), a former and now irrelevant film actress, doesn't make things any better, consistently reminding him that he barely qualifies as a man, nearly forcing him into the arms of his young and doe-eyed assistant, Bella (an adorable Samantha Hill, with whom, after one film, I am already in love). With all eyes on Rey and his seemingly approaching mental breakdown, the killer continues his bloody kill-list one stab wound at a time, leading to a finale that combines one particular character's descent into madness with the beautiful construct and the often unexplored potentials of the giallo sub-genre.

With its painstaking recreation of the giallo movement, right down to the primary-color lighting design, the hideous '70s fashion, and its eclectic soundtrack of new-wave synth artists working to homage that iconic Goblin sound (special shout-out to Carpenter Brut), The Editor should and perhaps will go down as being the most accurate and lovingly engineered throwback that exists so far in the world of the horror homage. Forget Death Proof or the Machete films, and hit pause on House of the Devil (oh no he din't!) - Astron-6 not only has their assured hands all over their concept, but they're not afraid to see those concepts through to the end, even risking isolating the very audience to whom they might be trying to appeal. An oft-used expression is the devil's greatest trick was convincing man he didn't exist, but The Editor's greatest trick was making its audience think they were sitting down with a straightforward parody of the giallo movement before pulling the shag rug out from under them and forcing them into something unexpected. It's through the surprises offered by the unique story that lifts it beyond a simple who-done-it and transplants it in a world that includes additional loving homage to the body-horror era of Cronenberg's early filmography, Nicolas Roeg-era Don't Look Now, and more, with references to horror mainstays (the D'Argento apartment complex; the famed Italian director with the first name of 'Umberto') ever in place.


Not content to just send-up this short-lived and quirky horror sub-genre, Astron-6 continue to rely on the dream-like and abstract world of the giallo while also tapping into that dreamy concept to carry forth its story. From there, The Editor becomes less about a black-gloved, knife-wielding killer and more about the wooden-fingered man who sets out to find the killer's identity, but soon becomes lost in a nightmarish world where he begins to question everything he sees, especially as that world becomes crashing down around him.

All that aside, and also speaking of, The Editor is consistently hilarious; its absurd and at times bizarre humor is used in short spurts. It doesn't offer a laugh-a-minute mentality, but only because it wasn't designed that way (although Kennedy's unhinged detective, as well as his extremely unusual sexual habits, likely walk away with some of the film's most absurd and biggest laughs). Sure, there are some minor digs at the sub-genre's less admirable attributes (the atrocious acting, the poor dubbing, the unrestrained look at sexuality), but The Editor is more concerned with reminding audiences why the giallo movement was such a temporarily captivating time in horror history. The closest thing there ever was to visual poetry within the genre, the giallo proved you could marry grisly content to striking images and create for the audience a ballistic ballet of blood and beauty that, if done correctly, should leave its audience titillated, horrified, and sexually charged all at once. The Editor has managed to do this, all while offering a healthy dose of humor.


One thing that may come as a surprise to someone expecting a more straightforward horror spoof is how strikingly eerie some of the concocted images manage to come across: the blue-eyed phantom who appears intermittently bathed in the blackness of a darkened editing suite actually has the power to send a river of chills down audience spines, and this in a film where one character says to another, "Hey, nice penis! I had a feeling this would be a good night for me!"

Where The Editor falters is during the third-act climax into one character's loss of reality: subplots are introduced that could have easily been removed from the final edit without effecting any significant change to the film's ultimate conclusion. Though the scenes themselves offer a fair bit of humor and homage, they only prove to slow the momentum that The Editor had successfully been building since its face-smashing opening. Not helping is the uneven performance from de la Huerta, an actress whose work has always had one foot firmly planted in the camp of quirk and eccentricity. Her approach sometimes works for a film with purposely heightened sensibilities, but at times just comes across as distracting.

These scarce issues aside, The Editor is a masterful film - not just in the sense of how successful a giallomageTM it manages to be, but also how it circumvents all expectations and manages to add a sense of sincere artistry on top of everything else the audience had already been anticipating. Though it momentarily stumbles during its own storytelling devices, and only when branching off and attempting to inject a new direction into this gone-but-not-forgotten cinema movement, The Editor proves to be yet another unique and unrelentingly entertaining offering from Astron-6.


May 21, 2020

THE KILLER OF DOLLS (1975)


The Killer of Dolls is probably the quirkiest and most bizarre catalog release I’ve seen in years. Though a Spanish production and directed by Miguel Madrid (under alias Michael Skaife), it shares a lot in common with the Italian giallo, right down to the era in which it was made, its style and techniques, and even its reliance on creepy doll imagery. Some folks more learned on the subject wouldn’t quite label it as a giallo, as it’s just different enough to warrant its label as more of a psychological thriller/slasher, but the similarities are definitely there.

One thing that makes the film stand out from its giallo colleagues is that the film’s killer is also its main character. There is no “twist” ending, nor is there a last-act moment that shockingly reveals the killer’s identity. The killer is…Paul (David Rocha), who is very psychologically unhinged, so much that he will literally walk into a dream sequence where things get super crazy before walking right back out again. His mental unrest derives from his domineering mother, who began raising him as a girl after the death of his young sister, and as you can imagine, it’s definitely warped his relationship to women. Paul’s world around him is very skewed, and his walking hallucinations involve people being transposed as mannequins, or vice versa, leaving him to wonder what’s real and what isn’t. 


David Rocha offers a very strong leading performance in an admittedly bizarre concept for a film, and director Madrid is intent on making The Killer of Dolls (also known as Killing of the Dolls) as unique as possible, right down to the random musical number at the beginning of the third act where its participants dance and move like mannequins. It’s actually stranger than I’m making it sound, if you can believe it. There are several murder sequences throughout, and while they may be viewed as graphic, none of them border on the kinds of uncomfortable murder sequences found in Italian gialli or the exploitation films of signori like Joe D’Amato or Bruno Mattei. Fellow Spanish director Jesús Franco’s The Killer of Dolls, for instance, shares similarities in plot and style, even treading the same water with its look at family abuse and dysfunction, but whereas Bloody Moon goes for pulpy thrills, The Killer of Dolls vies for substance, getting deep into Paul’s mangled psyche. 

The Killer of Dolls is now on Blu-ray from Mondo Macabre.

May 18, 2020

THE DEVIL'S CANDY (2015)


The rock ‘n’ roll horror film has somehow become a sub-genre over the years.

Say that phrase and people have their favorites: Rock ‘N’ Roll Nightmare, Hard Rock Zombies, the original Trick or Treat. Rock and horror became somewhat synonymous following the popularity boom of acts like Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, and Kiss, among many others. Their black and dour and chain-ridden iconography and focus on dark lyrics and subject matter made them kindred spirits, so it was only a matter of time before they began to blur the lines and appear in each other’s worlds. Eventually, Alice Cooper was writing songs for Jason Voorhees.

Almost all of these titles weren’t just broadly painted with the horror brush — the films were generally satanic or demonic in nature. Appropriate, being that rock ‘n’ roll was, for a long time, the devil’s music (according to our grandmothers).

The Devil’s Candy is the next step, but also damn refreshing, taking the well-worn trope of “the devil made me do it” and doing something unique with it. Jesse (Ethan Embry) and his daughter  love metal — Metallica, Slayer, and all the rest — but otherwise the film presents them as normal and fully functioning — no hint of a troubled past, no signs of self-harm, depression, etc.


I doubt it’s spoiler material if I say the devil never appears on screen in physical form, nor does anyone become possessed by the devil or any of his minions. And I’m certainly not saying this idea is bad (I tell anyone who will listen about the awesomeness of Let Us Prey, starring Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham [Davos] as Beezlebub), but it’s always welcome and appreciative when someone takes a well traveled concept and does something new with it.

Ethan Embry has become a friend to the horror genre over the years, appearing in one of the best Masters of Horror episodes, “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” (directed by Don Coscarelli), as well as the recent werewolf-at-the-old-folks home flick Late Phases. But if you’re in my demographic, then you remember Embry from one film alone: Can’t Hardly Wait, arguably the Fast Times at Ridgemont High of my generation. Remembering him from that goofball comedy, but seeing him in The Devil’s Candy, makes the actor much more likable in the role, and we, the audience, feel for him when he begins to lose control of his life and fall victim to the dark voices inside his head. The actor is barely recognizable with his Brad Pitt hair and his Bloodsport-era Van Damme body (seriously, I’m a functioning heterosexual and even I was in awe), but his kind and soulful eyes shine through, and every second of pain he experiences is felt by the viewer.

The film is strikingly directed as well, offering a handful of extremely suspenseful, shocking, creepy, and disturbing sequences (not all at once, of course), and this more than includes the excellent finale.
Though The Devil’s Candy runs at a scant 72 minutes, its story never feels incomplete or in need of additional content. It’s not a typical running time for the genre, but there’s nothing wrong with that either. When the film ends, you’ll swear it had only been on for 20 minutes. That’s less to do with running time and more to do with how easily it sucks you in.

May 15, 2020

BOSS (1975)


Boss, also known as The Black Bounty Hunter and its original/credits title Boss Nigger (the one and only time I’ll use that particular title, and for search/posterity only), was released less than one year after Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Both films saw a pretty similar plot, though the latter was played for much broader comedic effect: a black sheriff presides over a white town in the Old West and shakes up their culture — along with their women. And while Boss is a comedy, it’s not nearly as on the nose as its most immediate colleague. Being a Blaxploitation title, it also strives to upset the status quo by deviating away from the comedy to revel in darker aspects of humanity’s ugliness. Much of this comes from the hugely offensive exchanges that Boss (Fred Williamson) and his deputy, Amos (D’Urville Martin) engage in as they first arrive in town. (The n-word is thrown around more liberally than Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and that’s saying something.) But it also comes from the violence, the tragedies faced, and in the generally despicable way that the white town treats black and Mexican characters. The Blaxploitation sub-genre could do this like no other, and though it’s a cinematic movement not taken all that seriously due to some of the dubious titles that were released and the unintentionally amusing tropes that became legacy, always hidden within some heinous concepts was an important, and sometimes smartly rendered, morality tale. (Williamson’s Black Caesar is the best example of this.)

Williamson, who wrote and produced Boss, sometimes falls victim to too broadly showing whites as offensive — even those who aren’t trying to be. “Our family in Boston had black people working for us,” begins the white Miss Pruit (Barbara Leigh), and already you begin to cringe — openers like this equate to “I’m no racist, but..” in real life. “They were good people. They used to sing and dance a lot. I used to love to watch them.”

Cut to this face:


In fact, there’s exactly one white character — Pete the Blacksmith — who is a decent man right off the bat; he doesn’t start off as horrid and bigoted before learning the error of his ways. Williamson’s script suggests that, in a town of, maybe, a hundred citizens, one of them isn’t racist.

Yikes.

Though not taken very seriously (Blaxploitation might rank even below horror, which I never thought was possible), the sub-genre was instrumental in doing one main thing: exposing white audiences to black culture, in an effort to humanize them, by sneaking it into otherwise mainstream concepts for films. It’s no mistake that Blaxploitation was launched and enjoyed a nice long successful run following the turbulent fight for civil rights during the 1960s. It was a direct response and reaction to uncertain times and deeply rattled communities. Super Fly is one of the best examples of this covert exposure to black culture, during which the film stops the action several times as its main cast of characters visits a club to watch entire song performances by the film’s soundtrack contributor, Curtis Mayfield. Boss doesn’t follow this same approach, forgoing a look at black culture and instead focuses on the black experience; even when its black characters are in positions of power, specifically law enforcement, they still suffer the indignities of being treated like human garbage by the townsfolk. It’s just that they’re now in a place where they can do something about it. You’ll note, amusingly, that when Boss and Amos begin posting new ordinances all around town about what’s now considered illegal, and what kinds of fines those infractions incur, none of them rank more than a $5 fine — unless, of course, someone uses a racial epithet against someone else. That ranks a solid $20 fine or a day in jail.

Much of Boss is very funny, but it’s that kind of humor where you feel conflicted for laughing, even though that’s what was intended. Williamson knows there’s humor to be found in casual offense; I can’t even imagine what the pearl-clutchers of today’s easily-outraged populace would think as they watched. The strongest point of Boss’ use of humor is that the viewer becomes more easily disarmed during the moments that are genuinely dramatic. You spend so much time laughing about how Amos likes to pursue “fat women,” or at how obliviously terrible the town can be to Boss and Amos, that once a young boy is trampled in the street by the film’s villain, it’s not something you’d expect and it packs a surprising punch.

Blaxploitation very rarely infiltrated the western genre, even though the idea to do so harks back to 1938 with Two-Gun Man from Harlem, but with Williamson as the lead/co-writer/producer and veteran Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon — irony!) at the helm, it’s doubtful any other duo could have pulled off a more entertaining and even poignant film.


May 12, 2020

I KILL DRAGONS (2017)


(Immediate spoilers to follow. RUN.)

Its 2008 graphic novel notwithstanding, I Kill Giants shares almost an uncomfortable amount of similarity to 2016’s A Monster Calls, itself based on a novel of the same name published in 2011. In both stories, two adolescents escape into the confines of their imaginations to help them make sense of, and try to stop, the cancer that’s eating away at their mothers. Their refusal to accept what is, and which can’t be stopped, forces them to create worlds where they are strong and fearless and, most importantly, victorious. In our own dark times, we often create alternate realities in which to exist where that loved one hasn’t yet passed on, or where the person you love also loves you back. In spite of the momentary moments of comfort this can bring us, reality is never too far behind. Films like A Monster Calls and I Kill Giants are allegories for the grieving process; through our young antagonists, we confront the fears of our past and the things which have brought us the most pain and we resurrect that sensation of dealing with something entirely out of our control. Both films offer hope — not for a favorable outcome, but for one where the world won’t end, and life can still go on.

Madison Wolfe (previously seen as another beleaguered character in The Conjuring 2) is a tremendous young actress; that she’s already appeared in the likes of Trumbo and True Detective also shows that she knows a good project when she sees it. All of I Kill Giants rides on her shoulders; very few scenes take place without her. And in them she’s either fierce, or stubborn, or acerbically funny. Zoe Saldana as the school’s counselor also does great and affecting work; the scenes between Wolfe and Saldana are among the strongest in the film, and Saldana provides the maternal care that seems to be otherwise missing from Barbara’s life, despite the best intention of her older sister, Karen (an excellent Imogen Poots).


Also of note: the impressive use of CGI for what is clearly a low budget affair. Given the title and concept, yes, giants are brought to life using a mixture of computer graphic imagery and animation, and it never once looks cheap or hokey. Films with similar budgets rely on CGI solely for gunshot wounds and even they manage to look extremely unconvincing. In I Kill Giants, every use of CGI looks theatrical-worthy, and it’s not intermittently used, either. The machinations of Barbara’s imagination are a near constant presence and they are always worthy of tent pole expectations.

Being someone very emotionally affected by A Monster Calls, the secret behind I Kill Giants reveals itself a little earlier than the filmmakers intended. Upon this realization, the goodwill earned up to that point deflates just a bit, but through its performances and its emotional honesty, it earns  the same amount of goodwill as its predecessor by its end. Though the former reigns supreme over the latter, I Kill Giants deserves to stand side-by-side with its spiritual counterpart. It’s still an extremely touching story with an equally important message, and what’s the harm in allowing films to share that burden beyond just the one title?



May 9, 2020

WALKING OUT (2017)

 

The father/son bond is one of film’s most explored relationships, more so than mother/ daughter/anyone else, and that’s because men are hard headed and stubborn and create a lot of their own problems. That’s hard-wired into our DNA. A father wants his son to find his way in life, whether it’s being exactly like him or nothing like him. And a son, likewise, wants to find his own way and prove to his father that he can do it. When this relationship is portrayed on-screen, it can be powerful because men are rarely given the opportunity to look vulnerable.

The way Walking Out handles it is one of the more unique approaches, in that even though Father (Bomer) and Son (Wiggins) are estranged, they are not strangers. There is a mutual love there. The son, David, might show trepidation for spending a trip in the frigid wilderness hunting with his gruff father, but it’s not the kind of conflict where that’s the last place he wants to be and therefore he’ll be a total brat about it. Meanwhile, the father, Cal, still holds a grudge against David’s mother for having left him, which may or may not be leaking out in the way he treats his son. Cal, as played by Bomer, very finely treads that line between being a likable character and one whom you wish would treat his son better. He’s hard on David in a way that’s likely (and hopefully) beyond the way fathers generally treat their sons. Cal doesn’t have a passive bone in his body, and if there’s a way he can educate his son on the fineries of hunting, but which almost always extends to life in general, he will do so — even if in the form of shaming him. Despite this, there is love there between them, and it’s a love that grows as the two end up depending on each other to escape the wintry wilderness alive — Cal with his knowledge, and David with his strength.


For 95% of the time, Bomer and Wiggins are the only characters on screen, and both of them give great performances, with Bomer’s loving but prickly Cal being a tough balancing act. Bill Pullman appears in flashback sequences as Cal’s own father, managing to echo a similarly gruff but loving exterior he would soon pass onto his son.

Walking Out is gorgeously shot, mostly on location in the woods and mountains of Montana.  It’s one of those films shot in the cold that makes you feel the cold, so between that and the harshness that Cal and David endure, it makes for a bleak and grueling watch at times — but by design. It’s not one of those films that’s designed to make its audience feel like they’ve experienced a thrilling adventure, but more like an emotional awakening. By its end, yes, it doesn’t offer the kind of ultimate experience that the father/son bonding film usually offers, but, sadly, it might be one that sometimes echoes closer to reality.

May 6, 2020

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017)


The words “horror-western,” “cannibal tribe,” and “Kurt Russell” left me intensely excited for writer/director Craig Zahler’s directorial debut, Bone Tomahawk. After months of anticipation, finally seeing it was an underwhelming experience. Running at 2 hours and 12 minutes, the first two acts were slowly paced — lots of characters talking to each other and allowing their personalities to rub each other the wrong way. This was Bone Tomahawk’s overall biggest criticism, but it wasn’t something I personally minded, because when you’ve got actors like Russell, Bruce Dern, and Patrick Wilson playing these old west characters speaking to each other in that old west way, it was all very charming — not to mention well written, and very Linklaterish in that conversation realism, even if it didn’t seem to be leading to anything in particular. The third act, however, dramatically changes the tenure of the film, during which Russell and co. finally meet this cannibal tribe, and not everyone makes it out alive. What began as something different and daring ended with very cheap looking sets and graphic violence that kind of came out of nowhere.

Despite that, I made a note of Zahler’s name, largely because of how he approached writing and directing such a left-field kind of story while attracting A-list talent for a genre title. So when his sophomore effort, Brawl in Cell Block 99, began gearing up, I felt that familiar anticipation creeping in.


This time, I was not at all disappointed. On the contrary, it’s incredible — audacious, ballsy, (and daring) — a grindhouse flick that actually feels like a grindhouse flick rather than the gawdy Grindhouse double feature from Tarantino and Rodriguez, or its bastards Hobo with a Shotgun and the Machete series. From its mythical lead bad-ass (Bradley Thomas, as played by an intimidating Vince Vaughn), to its increasingly depressing prison settings (a popular environment for grindhouse flicks), to its array of cartoonish villains (a perfectly calibrated Don Johnson), Brawl in Cell Block 99 feels like the first film in a long time to not only properly make good on its grindhouse roots, but to present something sincere. What does that mean? It means that while something like Hobo with a Shotgun could be argued as being a fun and frantic experience, it’s not necessarily a good film. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is. It somehow manages to dip its toes into both pools with great success. Its special effects (all practical) are presented as purposely hokey; the level of violence Vaughn’s Bradley commits against his target is so graphic that it almost has to be — extremely realistic effects would have robbed the film from its intended camp value, and sometimes these hokey effects threaten to fly in the face of the otherwise razor-serious tone, but it’s a perfect balancing act; these two at-odds approaches complement each other rather than come to blows. Never in a million years did I think I’d ever see Vaughn and genre favorite Udo Kier sharing the screen — between that and the odd but somehow appropriate R&B/soul-driven soundtrack, Brawl in Cell Block 99 should be scattered and random, but yet it all works. And Udo Kier calmly driving down a quiet suburban street listening to soul is just hilarious to me — don’t ask me why. Perhaps the kidnapped, bound, and gagged pregnant woman and sadistic doctor in the backseat have something to do with the absurdity of the moment.

Far too exact to be coincidental, Brawl in Cell Block 99 also runs at 2 hours and 12 minutes (this must be Zahler’s lucky number), and while he again employs his very deliberate pace, this time it feels like a grand design — something part of the plan; incremental rising action. We already know from the outset that Bradley ends up in a hellish prison landscape, so the first half of the film plays with that, putting him on a path that eventually leads him there. Unlike Bone Tomahawk, the pace here is effectively executed — the film opens with a detectable amount of tension, and slowly builds and builds until those prison bars slam home behind the bald-headed and cross-tattooed Bradley Thomas. 


Film fans often seem surprised when Vaughn goes dramatic, but he’s played just as many serious roles as he has comedic ones, even having played a serial killer twice — in the horrid Psycho remake and the underrated thriller Clay Pigeons. And if we can thank the boring second season of True Detective for anything, it’s for reintroducing that idea of a serious Vince Vaughn to a wide audience. Vaughn rides that reasonable good will and ups the ante with Bradley Thomas, who makes for one of the best characters he’s ever played, and results in one of his best performances. It’s through his portrayal of his character that you never doubt for one moment the surreal violence he’s able to commit against those who deserve it — and a couple folks who don’t.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a huge surprise. Don’t miss it.

May 3, 2020

JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961)


It's 1948 in Nuremberg, Germany. World War II has been over for two years, and the Allied powers have organized an official tribunal against four former Nazi judges who used the judicial system to sanction the vilest atrocities ever committed against mankind. What should be the easiest slam dunk in tribunal history is anything but, and the entire world's eyes are on this modest courtroom where the German defense attorney has posited a very slippery and controversial counter-argument against the culpability of his clients: with which individual or hierarchy does guilt cease? Is Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) the demon boogeyman that deserves to be formally charged for crimes against humanity? Or is it himself along with the three other judges sharing space on the same dock? Or, ultimately, is it all of Germany, or the world - its smaller governments and its people - who watched the Third Reich attempt to decimate an entire nationality and who did nothing to stop it? Chief Judge Day Haywood (Spencer Tracy) has the sad honor of overseeing such a claim. He, along with two other judges, must hear the relentless defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximillian Schell) argue using that latter tactic - that to condemn one men, or four, is to condemn an entire nation.

So says Mrs. Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), owner of the house in which the stationed Chief Judge Haywood is staying: "I have a mission with you Americans: to convince you we're not all monsters."


Judgment at Nuremberg is phenomenal. Those more learned and cultured than I in the history of landmark cinema have already far more properly lauded this 1961 powerhouse directed by Stanley Kramer than I ever could. From the performances to the lush production design to the absolute best component, the flawless screenplay by Abby Man, Judgment at Nuremberg rightfully maintains its status as being one of the greatest films of all time. Despite the presence of legends Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster, it's the performance of Schell as Defense Attorney Rolfe who provides the film's best character (and for which he won an Academy Award). Like Judgment at Nuremberg, in which a world-changing event spearheaded by the Nazi party committed to the pages of history the worst crimes man could ever commit to man, Rolfe becomes the embodiment of the spectacle in which these tribunals were viewed. Defend those monsters? Give them a voice and an audience? But instead of taking the easy way out and painting Rolfe as a typical unlikable archetype, Schell instead imbues upon his character as much sympathy as he can while remaining within the realm of realism. Watch as he shows no restraint with the prosecution's first expert witness, his fury bolstered by what he views as hypocrisy, but then watch him with the prosecution's second witness, a mentally unbalanced man who suffered forced sexual sterility under orders of the Nazi regime - watch as Rolfe straddles that line between defending his clients while still personifying his at-odds position on how he must do so. Rolfe treats the witness with kid gloves, as he knows there's a certain level of bastard he needs to obtain in order to render the witness's testimony as invalid.

The character of Rolfe and performance by Schell mirror the very idea behind the Nuremberg trials: Not everything is black and white. There are no easy answers.

There has been no film about the atrocities and subsequent condemnation of Nazi Germany more important than Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg. Both culturally significant and cinematically brilliant, it will not only remain one of the greatest all-time films, but the greatest courtroom drama ever made, alongside Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men. Interestingly, there's a scene in the film where an American journalist bemoans that he couldn't "give a story away" about the Nuremberg trials to American readers, as they had already become hardened and indifferent to the events of the war. And yet, fifty years later, Judgment at Nuremberg still has the power to shock, disgust, and educate - not only about what it was like to put a way of life on trial, but to live within its shadow.


Apr 30, 2020

PRETTY POISON (1968)


It’s a wonder to me that Pretty Poison isn’t more well known, or that it isn’t more celebrated beyond the hardcore and dedicated cinephile. While I find that staggering, I can possibly chalk that up to star Anthony Perkins' post-Psycho career, in that, after having created quite possibly the greatest screen killer of all time, how on earth is one supposed to live up to that? While I can understand that, it doesn't make it any less of a shame. 

The best kinds of dark comedies are those that don’t reveal their hand too early on in the running. As a plot progresses and becomes embroiled in more and more absurdity, and you start to realize that the universe in which you’re immersed is very askew and not adhering to the rules of normality, that’s when a dark comedy is at its most rewarding.

Going into Pretty Poison totally blind encourages that reaction. Following a fairly tragic beginning in which a young man is released from a facility for an as-of-yet unknown crime and warned by his parole officer of sorts to stay out of his head and knock off the fantasyland stuff, Pretty Poison at first presents itself as a film about a sad, lonely guy with no one to call friend or family, and who instead resorts to disappearing within himself in an effort to become more interesting and intriguing than he actually is. But, like all the best dark comedies, it’s as the plot slowly unfolds and he falls head-over-feels in love with a very young girl that his fantasy collides with reality in the most unfortunate way possible and leads to some absolutely bizarre and unexpected directions.


Anthony Perkins’ most famous role — that of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary Psycho— haunted the actor for the rest of his days in ways both good and bad. Obviously Perkins knew following the reception of Psycho that Norman Bates was a once-in-a-lifetime role (even if he would go on to play the character three more times), but as can happen to many other actors, he was soon typecast. No one could look at the actor and see Anthony Perkins — they saw Norman Bates. And because of that, Perkins would be saddled with roles as the weird guy, the murderer, the sexual deviant — and in films of low caliber that Perkins’ talent far overshadowed. 

Eight years following Psycho‘s release, he played Dennis Pitt, not quite Norman Bates-lite, but definitely a character with some heavy emotional baggage that puts him in situations where he’s suddenly finding ways to dispose of dead bodies for someone he loves. (Sound familiar?) But unlike the sinister and brooding Norman Bates, Dennis Pitt is lively, charming, even funny; and Perkins — once you’re in on the joke — is an absolute hoot to watch. His dry, overly serious manner of impressing the beautiful Tuesday Weld’s Sue Anne Stepanek, a high school girl and majorette in the marching band, with his diatribes about secrecy and cloak-and-dagger generalizations is effortlessly funny. Even if in a not-so-obvious comedy, Perkins has never been more engaging and amusing in a role where he essentially spoofs the very dry Joe Friday from television’s then-current Dragnet.


But matching his stride is Weld herself, eagerly playing sexy and faux-naiveté for her own style of humor. And she does certainly come across as equally sexy and dangerous in the way director Noel Black intends — her using her body to weigh down one of their poor victims into the river to drown him, with her legs splayed open and her summer dress rolled back, goes a fine distance in bringing that realization to the screen. She’s charming in that girl-next-door way, but she’s also stunning and intoxicating in that forbidden schoolgirl way; her performance suggests that either she’s as entirely gullible as Dennis Pitt hopes she is, or she’s up to her own brand of mental espionage.

It was through sheer coincidence that about a day or two after watching Pretty Poison for the first time that I slipped in True Lies strictly for some leisure watching. Suddenly, the subplot about liar Bill Paxton attempting to woo Jamie Lee Curtis by spinning yarns about being an agent for the CIA and currently entrenched in a top secret mission suddenly felt very familiar. But, being that James Cameron has never met an idea he didn’t want to borrow, I guess it’s comforting to know that perhaps Pretty Poison hasn’t been totally forgotten after all.

Pretty Poison can easily be referred to as that other excellent film where Anthony Perkins plays someone not quite right in the head, while also being a fairly more obvious attempt at comedy when compared to Psycho (although rumors abound that Hitchcock always thought of his most famous film as a black comedy as well). Further, Pretty Poison proves that Perkins was a talented actor who remained fairly undervalued for the remainder of his post-Psycho career, never fully able to get out from under its shadow. 

Pretty Poison is now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

Apr 27, 2020

SUPER FLY (1972)


In the pantheon of the Blaxploitation movement, Super Fly was considered a top-tier title, boasting the most recognition and all around favorable reputation second only to Shaft, which was rebooted once in the early 2000s and again last year. A remake, Superfly, was released in 2018, produced by Joe Hollywood himself Joel Silver, and featuring a cast of actors who, outside of Michael Kenneth Williams, I’ve never heard of. 

Super Fly follows that age-old tale of a criminal/hero, in this case the bad-assedly named Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal), as someone tired of the game and looking to secure one last big hit before retiring from his life of crime for good. Of course, such things are never so simple.

Super Fly’s plot isn’t wholly engaging, and its effort to look raw, gritty, and realistic leads to scenes going on too long in an effort to capture their authenticity. (In fact, a real New York City pimp who lent the filmmakers his “tricked out hog” to use on screen eventually made his way into a scene playing…a pimp. His unpolished acting skills are prevalent, but, again, it lends to the authenticity.) And as far as the grit and rawness, one of the first scenes sees Priest chasing a would-be robber all the way back to the robber’s apartment where a woman and several small children cower in a corner on top of a mattress sat on the floor. Priest retrieves his cash and brutally kicks the man several times in the stomach, causing him to vomit — all the while, the chipped, peeling paint and dingy gray interiors of the apartment imbue that kind of New York nastiness that permeated much of 1970s cinema.


There’s also an emphasis on showcasing New York black culture with the appearance of Curtis Mayfield in a small, smoky club where our characters gather at one point. Long, unbroken takes of Mayfield performing one of his most well-known songs, “Pusher Man,” make up a large portion of the scene, with the entire club — including our hero — rapt with attention. In fact, “Pusher Man” is such a dominant presence in Super Fly that it’s used three different times.

Ron O’Neal is a striking looking actor, and his mixed heritage lends him an atypical look that was usually bestowed upon most of the male Blaxploitation characters of that era. It’s easy to dismiss his performance at first as uninspired and flat, but as time goes on you begin to see that O’Neal is manufacturing an almost untouchable mythical figure who knows only one emotion: fury. Cross him and he’ll make you pay, and in the scenes where he’s laying to waste a character who needs a furious verbal reprimand, he absolutely commands the screen.

Super Fly has rightfully earned its place in Blaxploitation history; it’s one of the few from the sub-genre that was able to transition from the screen and permeate pop culture, inspiring a long line of actors, hip-hop artists, and even halfhearted, big-budget reboots.



Apr 24, 2020

SEXY BEAST (2000)


An aging group of retired criminals are enjoying their life under the Spanish sun when that old adage comes calling: the one last job, the one big score, the one final hurrah. Only it's not coming to them through one of their own, but rather through a man whose reputation proceeds him; a man who has the ability to cause grown hardened British gangsters to tremble in fear just at the utterance of his name, or to repel direct eye contact when he's in the same room.

Gal (Ray Winstone), a prominent safe-cracker, has no choice but to host the arrival of Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), the man with the plan, to hear him out and find a way to decline his latest robbery scheme. Agonizingly, Gal refutes Don's plan repeatedly, explaining over and over that he's retired and he's out of the life and frankly, doesn't even know if he's capable of such things anymore. Don won't hear of it, and each time he refuses Gal's no, he becomes more and more unhinged, exploding into tirades of threats, physical violence, and heinous, putrid condemnations. Despite Gal's every attempt, things don't go according to plan, and he eventually finds himself taking part in Don's scheme - whether he's up to it or not, and all the while keeping a very big secret.


A film perhaps best described as the U.K.'s answer to Goodfellas, 2000's Sexy Beast is a force. It is chaos cinema with a nailed-down camera. It's near unconstrained madness somehow comprised of still shots and the misleading sense of safety brought on by its cast of middle-aged British thespians. It has all of the humor and non-hip hipness of a Tarantino film with none of the pretentious swagger. It has, straight out of your nightmares/Roger Corman's desk drawer of unused concepts, a screaming, hurling, hairy, mutant bunny-beast that lives entirely within the confines of Gal's imagination - his worst fears realized in a storybook monster grasping MP5s and shrieking in the desert.

And...it has one more thing: one mega storm within the reckoning force that is Sexy Beast.

One unassuming face wearing gaberdine slacks and your father's shirt.

Ben Kingsley as Don Logan, who delivers an absolutely maniacal, show-stopping, awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, magically unhinged performance.

To watch his iteration of Don Logan is to witness the embodying of sociopathy. To know that this is coming from the same man who gave a career-defining and Oscar-winning performance as Mahatmas Ghandi - a man who was peace personified - only bolsters the appreciation you have for how completely off the rails Kingsley is capable of going. Dishwashers, heed my warning: if you see Don Logan coming, run, very fast, the other way.


Even Kingsley himself says on the commentary track on the flick's various video releases:

Acting with one's self in the mirror is something that I've never, never done in my life, and it was very disconcerting to see the monster that I'd created, the monster Don, staring back at me. The first time I came to the mirror to do that sequence I completely dried up on my dialogue. I was so scared of my own face - [of] that psychopath looking back at me.

Say the words "British gangster" and inevitably people think Snatch, and maybe Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels, which is a shame. Though the U.K. hasn't produced a lot of notable modern crime thrillers (much like Hollywood, their cinema scene has certainly softened since the '70s), at the very least it can fully claim ownership of Sexy Beast, not just one of the all-time greatest, but the best crime film from across the pond since 1980's The Long Good Friday.



Apr 21, 2020

STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER (1975)


The European cinematic movement of the 1960’s and ‘70s known as the giallo would eventually help kick start the slasher movement in the United States. And, like the slasher movement, gialli could often result in solid, respectable titles worthy of critical appreciation, but they could often vie for much less, wanting to offer their audiences nothing more than pulpy thrills and vapid, surface-level entertainment. That’s where Strip Nude For Your Killer lives. All the stalwarts of the giallo are there: the heightened murder sequences, the too-red blood, the overt sexuality, and of course, the mysterious, black-clothed killer. However, instead of a complex plot with lots of moving parts a la The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Strip Nude For Your Killer offers a far less complex plot that’s tantamount to Agatha Christie by way of Scooby Doo: Someone is killing off the staff at a fashion studio in Milan and it’s up to photographer Magda (Edwige Fenech) and her boyfriend/also-photographer Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo) to find the identity of the killer before they’re next on the chopping block.


Featuring a short-haired Fenech, who was a popular face in a dozen films in the Martino Brothers’ oeuvre (Luciano, producer, and Sergio, director, which includes their classic All The Colors Of The Dark), Strip Nude For Your Killer is one of the trashier giallo titles to hail from this era. The level of violence on hand is fairly tame considering what other filmmakers were doing at this time (A Bay of Blood had come out four years prior and was far more violent), but where lacks in grue and gore it more than makes up for with its sexuality. Depending on your sensibilities, Strip Nude For Your Killer falls either directly within or hues very closely to soft-core entertainment. And you get it all: straight sex, lesbian sex, gross fat sex, and sex that, in today's standards, is probably rape. Fenech likely spends more time walking around topless than she does fully clothed (I’m fine with it), and everyone is either sleeping with or wants to sleep with everyone else.

There is enough intrigue established that you can invest yourself in the goings-on of the plot, even if that investment is limited to, “Gee, I wonder who the killer is?” Subtextually, there’s nothing else to grasp onto. However, simplicity of the plot aside, Strip Nude For Your Killer offers fascinating characterization. Fenech’s Magda embodies the responsibilities of the final girl, but while leaving behind the chasteness that usually comes with it. She is a feminine force who knows what she wants and is willing to play the bad girl in order to get it. Castelnuovo’s Carlo, however, is a malignant prick — pompous, shallow, misogynistic, and downright unlikable for nearly the entire running time. Complicating this a tiny bit is that he’s also the hero. Or, at least, heroically involved in trying to find the identity of the killer. It’s a bold move hinging your murder mystery on two characters who present atypical qualities from what we’re used to from the genre. They are essentially Sam Loomis and Lila Crane from Psycho, only they bang a lot. (Of course, I can always upend this argument by saying John Carpenter’s Halloween was still three years off, which would cement the archetype of the “final girl” and all the rules that came with it.) Still, making your heroes slutty and self-absorbed is a fun idea no matter if the filmmakers are circumventing expectation or not.


The killer’s presence looms large over the proceedings, although he doesn’t appear on screen very often. When he does, he’s clad in skin-tight motorcycle leather, complete with helmet, a design that would be used again in future gialli titles like Massimo Dallamano’s What Have They Done to Your Daughters? and Umberto Lenzi’s giallo/slasher hybrid Nightmare Beach a.k.a. Welcome To Spring Break. Director Andrea Bianchi, who would go on to direct the ultimate garbage classic Burial Ground: The Nights Of Terror, shows off minimal style, allowing his characters (and their nudeness) to do most of the work. The resolution to the story, preempted by the reveal of the killer, unfolds a little too quickly, forcing you to remember the opening that also unfolded a little too quickly, threatening an audience reaction of “Who?” when the motorcycle helmet is finally removed to reveal the killer’s identity. But none of this matters because the film ends-ends with one of the best, most tasteless “jokes” I’ve ever seen in any genre. Thanks, the Italians!

For every Psycho or Halloween, there are tiers of slashers made in the same mold that vie for a different experience. Strip Nude For Your Killer is the Friday The 13th: A New Beginning of the giallo movement. Its plot is inconsequential, its performers are happy to disrobe, and its characters are broadly painted archetypes who are all apparently sleeping with each other. Oh, and it’s trashy as hell. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this — just know what you’re getting yourself into before you sit down to watch. (And if you’re already a fan of gialli, then you definitely should.)

Strip Nude For Your Killer is now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Apr 18, 2020

ARMY OF ONE (2017)


“Does The Bearded One eat at Denny’s?”

Army of One is out of its mind, but not necessarily in the good way. Still, of all the films released which boast “inspired by a true story,” Army of One actually earns the right to say it. One Gary Faulkner, he of bad kidneys and a carefree disposition, really did throw caution to the wind and attempt to do what the U.S. Government, at first, couldn’t do: locate Osama Bin Laden. And he went to Pakistan to do it.

He failed. And so did the filmmakers trying to tell his story.

Army of One comes to you courtesy of Larry Charles, who has found far more critical success in his directorial work in television than he has with features. Except for his first feature collaboration with Sacha Baron Cohen in what became Borat, Charles has yet to make a feature that one could be considered “good” — one that received either accolades or a nice, fat return at the box office. Masked & Anonymous, his Bob Dylan-starring apocalyptic tale of musical redemption, was more fascinating watching Dylan walk around being completely uninterested in things than it was as a story, and his additional collaborations with Baron Cohen resulted in the ho-hum Bruno and the flaccid attempt at narrative known as The Dictator. Sure, he had Bill Maher’s Religulous in there somewhere, but anyone familiar with the outspoken comedian’s show Real Time or his stand-up material knows that he was more of a driving force behind that doc’s final product than its credited director. And I guess we can add Army of One to that list of underwhelming efforts, which is probably just as nuts as his debut Dylan debacle. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing — you just have to know why you’re seeing it to determine what you expect to get out of it.


Because all is not lost. Army of One has the potential to offer a potential viewer an entertaining time for exactly one reason: Nicolas Cage. Yes, it may come as a surprise to hear that the man more famous for starring in memes than films once had the talent and drive to dazzle his audience with an array of quirky, energetic, and manic performances.  Though he’s spent the last two hundred years (it really feels like that, doesn’t it?) starring in utterly forgettable thrillers where he seems even more bored with the material than the viewer is with watching it unfold, every so often he shows up in a film that’s different, and special, and indicative of something more than a paycheck. Army of One definitely fits that bill — it’s just not very good. But his performance — his completely gonzo performance as Gary Faulkner — is the reason to see it. His take on this real-life character smacks with such bonafide energy and Cage-isms that it makes Army of One as a whole even more disappointing. Whenever Cage is on-screen slicing grapefruits in mid-air with a samurai sword, or enthusiastically debating American superiority vs. Pakistan superiority with a willing cab driver, it is glorious. But when the broad, stupid, uneven comedy of the script or Russell Brand’s awful take on God enter the picture (though to his defense, no one could have saved that iteration of God), everything comes to a screeching halt. And when this happens, you realize: Nicolas Cage is not only still capable of being impulsively watchable, but he’s even capable of elevating dire material to levels less indicative of wasting your time. (Although can I just say the meta scene where Cage’s Faulkner talks about the film he’d heard was being made of his lifestory, and recommending “Nicolas Cage of Con Air” to tell his story reeked of Tarantino levels of self-aggrandizement.)

One of the film's producers mentions how the story of Gary Faulkner could only have been portrayed on screen as a comedy. Whether that’s true or not is a matter of perspective, but director Larry Charles bought into that a bit too much, leaving behind any semblance of drama for the real man who inspired this unlikely story, resulting in a farce so out of its mind that it’s nearly unapproachable.

Army of One is not good, but that’s not to say you won’t enjoy it in some degree. Most of this enjoyment will likely come from Cage finally revisiting unhinged characters after spending so much time wallowing and whispering on screen. If nothing else, at least Army of One proves that Cage still contains that manic spark which brought so many of his previous beloved characters to life. Rest assured Gary Faulkner won’t go down as one of them, but man oh man was it fun as hell to see unfold. As a film, not recommended; as a crazy-Cage vehicle, see it immediately.

Apr 15, 2020

24 HOURS TO LIVE (2017)


The unexpected success of action flicks like Taken and John Wick directly inspired a host of vigilante imitators, all which saw an engaging lead (or once engaging…cough cough John Travolta) taking on hordes of anonymous henchmen with slick style while committing lots of violence. Sean Penn’s The Gunman, Kevin Costner’s 3 Days to Kill, Pierce Brosnan’s The November Man, Travolta’s I Am Wrath, and pretty much every action movie Liam Neeson did post-Taken — not a single one of these was any good. So when Ethan Hawke’s 24 Hours to Live was released, quietly, it seemed like yet another tired John Wick clone, and Hawke’s spotty mainstream action/thriller record wasn’t an advantage. (Getaway is one of the worst movies you’ve never seen.)

Happily, and surprisingly, 24 Hour to Live is pretty fun, showcasing a seldom seen bad-ass Hawke as Travis Conrad, a retired shadowy government agent pulled out of retirement for one last yadda yadda. As you can see, there’s really nothing that makes 24 Hours to Live unique or innovative beyond the time-tabled life thing (although this had been done previously in Crank). Otherwise, you’ve definitely seen this sort of thing before, with the same kind of character machinations and motivations: Conrad lost his wife and son a year prior, so he’s a heavy-drinking cynical mess. Again, this character trope is absolutely nothing new to the genre. Hawke was barely a pre-pube member of the Dead Poets Society when Martin Riggs was garbage-firing it up in his trailer with a loaded gun in his mouth. But, as I’ve said time and time again, I’m totally fine with seeing the same concepts being re-explored, in any genre, so long as it’s executed with a little showmanship, enthusiasm, and sense of excitement.

24 Hour to Live offers all three.


Much of this comes from director Brian Smrz, who, like John Wick’s directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, got his start as a stunt coordinator on big silly action films. Though he gets a little overwrought during the “be sad/dead family” montages, the action sequences work very well and are confidently executed, and for this kind of movie, that’s all that really matters. And the violence — hoooo, boy! Thank you!

Not everything in 24 Hours to Live is a success, whether it’s the hamfisted dialogue, the occasional plot hole, or the severe under-usage of Rutger Hauer (he deserved his own official “Frank” spin-off), but enough of it works that it makes for one of the better quiet Lionsgate action flicks that the studio seems to dump every month. Don’t let this one get lost in the spate of other LGF action releases that showcase a tired Bruce Willis or a bizarre Steven Seagal. 24 Hours to Live won’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s still a fun ride, and will temporarily satiate the action junkie patiently waiting for John Wick: Chapter 4.