Apr 30, 2020


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


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


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.

Apr 12, 2020


You don’t see much of the western anymore, especially in the low budget direct-to-video world. A combination of waning audience interest in the genre and the costs of shooting a period film have mostly to do with this. It’s nice when the western is still trotted out from time to time, but it’s even nicer when that western comes courtesy of a filmmaker who is clearly trying to do something more than just the usual shoot’em-up that appeals to the lowest common denominator of the genre. In the same way that very good and very bad horror films can enjoy similarly quiet releases, Gone Are the Days proves that the western can suffer the same obscure fate.

What’s readily apparent right off the bat is that Gone Are the Days is borrowing from the Unforgiven mold, arguably Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece as a director, in that it's another take on an aging cowboy reckoning with the sins of his past, confronting his mortality, and embarking on one last mission. Gone Are the Days at least adds a twist on this simple formula by borrowing from another, and less likely, source: Martin Scorsese’s little seen 1999 drama Bringing Out the Dead, in which Nicolas Cage plays a frazzled paramedic psychologically haunted by the ghost of a girl he wasn’t able to save, and with whom he occasionally interacts. This offers Gone Are the Days a bit of poignancy and meaning beyond your aging cowboy being a cowboy and doing typical cowboy things. At least as far as the western goes, this small Dickensian slice offers Gone Are the Days a sense of its own identity, even if it’s basing its plot on a well worn concept.

From now until the end of time I will tell anyone who listens that Lance Henriksen is the most undervalued actor alive. The man bleeds talent in every role he has ever played, even if the last two decades of his work have been relegated to quiet genre titles no one ever sees (his “alimony movies” as he calls them). To mainstream audiences, he’s belovedly known as Bishop from Aliens and a handful of sequel appearances. To cult audiences, he’s Frank Black from Millennium and Ed Harley from Pumpkinhead. To action audiences, the villain from Van Damme’s Hard Target. This list goes on and on, into every genre there is and with every kind of character played. Regardless of the quality of those films, I’ll guarantee Henriksen’s performance was high-tier in every single one. So as he steps into the William Munny shoes of the aging (and dying) cowboy Taylon, Henriksen not only embodies the character but also pays respect to his entire career. (He played a cowboy three times in 1995 alone: Gunfighter’s Moon, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and Sam Raimi’s majestically dumb The Quick and the Dead.)  As to be expected, he’s superb here, as he is in everything else.

While the artwork presents the likes of Danny Trejo and Tom Berenger, neither of whom are exactly commanding theatrical releases anymore, don’t let that dictate what kind of film you’ll actually be seeing. Without getting into spoiler territory, let’s just say Trejo is used exactly as he should be in this kind of movie, whereas Berenger very comfortably slips into the role of a western lawman doing a fair bit of aging on his own. He doesn’t just play “the villain” because, except for a small role by cult actor Steve Railsback, there really is no villain. Because Gone Are the Days isn’t that kind of film.

The most impressive aspect of Gone Are the Days is its willingness to strive for something more. It’s very philosophical and even haunting in some ways, and it’s also very very old fashioned — from its musical score to its final shot. As a film it’s not a total success, as the plot can become a little wayward at times, but the action is always moving forward, whether that’s noticeable or not. Henriksen, in a rare leading role, sells both Taylon’s weakness and resolve, and Berenger does strong work in his smaller part. While, of course, Gone Are the Days comes nowhere near the heights of Unforgiven, it’s still a fine and admirable film, one fitting for Henriksen’s storied career, and a nice reminder that small surprises like these can still be found in quiet releases. Gone Are the Days isn’t for everyone, but I would recommend that everyone give it a try, anyway. You might just be surprised, too.