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Monday, April 24, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF ''PHOENIX FORGOTTEN" (2017)



Combine “The Blair Witch Project” with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and you’ve got the gist of freshman director Justin Barber’s found-footage, sci-fi, horror chiller “Phoenix Forgotten” (* OUT OF ****), involving an alleged UFO sighting in Phoenix, Arizona, on Thursday, March 13, 1997.  “Maze Runner” scenarist T.S. Nowlin and Barber have appropriated that larger-than-life incident called “Phoenix Lights” for their superficial saga about three teens who took off into the desert to document this phenomenon with a camcorder.  Unfortunately, they vanished without a trace, but left behind their camcorder.  For the record, “Phoenix Lights” made national headlines, and experts have described as it as “the most widely seen mass UFO sighting in US history,” second only to the renowned Roswell UFO crash in 1947.  Nevertheless, I’m fed up with low-budget, found-footage thrillers as uninspired as “Phoenix Forgotten.”  They neither make my skin crawl nor make me feel sympathetic about the plight of characters too asinine to know better.  Basically, the actors and actresses play stock characters, with little aside from biology and apparel to differentiate them.  Neither the original (and extremely overrated) “Blair Witch Project” (1999) nor its abysmal 2016 remake did little to arouse either my curiosity or raise my hackles.  Mind you, found-footage movies aren’t all awful.  The Vietnam war epic “84 Charlie Mopic” (1989) was one of the best.  “The Paranormal Activity” franchise has been consistently gripping.  Nothing in “Phoenix Forgotten” will make you chew your fingernails, unless you’ve never seen a horror movie.  Further, this formulaic film features pedestrian performances by unknown thespians without a bit of charisma who were cast largely for their ordinary, inconspicuous looks.  Nowlin & Barber have forged characters that aren’t interesting for their own sake, and their dialogue isn’t quotable.  Worse, the film doesn’t spring any surprises that would make you scream “WOW!”  The first half of “Phoenix Forgotten” is dreary enough to lull you into a stupor.  The marginally better second half struggles to compensate for the somnambulance of its monotonous first half.  The convenient found-footage sequences are predictably designed to trouble you with lots of dizzy camera work with sporadically scrambled video imagery.   

Sophie (Florence Hartigan of “Magik and Rose”) has returned to her hometown of Phoenix to produce a documentary film about her older brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts of “Hail, Caesar!”) and his two friends, Ashley (Chelsea Lopez of “Novitiate”) and Mark (newcomer Justin Matthews), who got lost in the desert 20 years ago while making their own documentary about U.F.O. sightings.  Josh had been a videophile for years.  When we first see him, Josh is recording his younger sister Sophie’s sixth birthday party when mysterious lights illuminate the skies over Phoenix.  At one point, either two aircraft or spacecraft scream overhead and rattle their windows.  Local television stations aired reports about the suspected UFOs, while elected officials staged a press conference with a guy dressed up as an extraterrestrial to defuse the paranoia surrounding the sightings.  The U.F.O. coverage whetted Josh’s curiosity sufficiently enough that he started shooting interviews with anybody who had either witnessed or heard about the unidentified flying objects over Phoenix.  Naturally, the military debunked those UFO sightings.  Indeed, Air Force officials at a nearby installation issued a statement that aircraft had been on training maneuvers and had deployed flares. 

When Sophie comes home, she interviews her parents, who have been divorced because the search for their son devastated their marriage, as well as Josh’s friends in an effort to find closure.  Sophie and her cameraman are about to call off their documentary when a high school librarian discovers a package stashed in the school’s storage facility.  The package contains another camcorder with a cassette cartridge in it.  Sophie’s hopes soar when she learns that not only can the tape still play but also that Josh shot the footage.  All along everybody, including local law enforcement, could never adequately explain why Josh would have left behind his camcorder in his vehicle.  The revelation is that Josh had two camcorders!  Sophie lends the footage to a military official to examine.  He warns Sophie that she shouldn’t show that tape to anybody.  The remainder of “Phoenix Forgotten” concerns what Josh and his friends recorded after they plunged into the desert.  The three wind up lost, and tempers flare as they struggle to find their way back to Josh’s SUV.  After they get back on the road to Phoenix, Arizona, something with a glaring light approaches them from behind and overtakes them. Inexplicably, Josh’s vehicle conks out, and the three set out on foot.  Before long other mysterious things occur, and they are swept up in cyclone winds, explosive sounds, and bright lights.

Presumably, producer Ridley Scott, who directed the original “Alien,” must have been banking on teen audiences afflicted with ADDH to mob the multiplexes and parlay this $639-thousand budgeted feature into a weekend blockbuster like “The Blair Witch Project.”  The trouble with Barber’s film is that he takes too long to establish both the characters and the predicament. Unfortunately, the filmmakers wear us out keeping track of lots of insignificant details about the characters and their environment designed to make “Phoenix Forgotten” appear more plausible. The abrupt editing stresses the spontaneity of the moment, but Barber neglects to align our sympathies with characters.  As the chief protagonist of “Phoenix Forgotten,” Sophie searches desperately to determine what became of her ill-fated sibling.  Incredibly, “Phoenix Forgotten” partially duplicates the plot of a 1989 micro-budgeted, straight-to-video epic entitled “UFO: Abduction.”  The big brother in the latter film is taping his niece’s fifth birthday with a hand-held camera when UFOs blasted out of nowhere.  Afterward, the hero and his two brothers rushed into the woods to investigate their sighting.  They located the flying saucer and encountered three aliens.  Frantically, the brothers withdrew to their house, and the aliens besieged them.  Predictably, Josh’s found footage suggests that aliens abducted the trio.  Altogether, “Phoenix Forgotten” is best forgotten as just another crackpot conspiracy theory lensed with little imagination.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF ''THE RETURN OF JOSEY WALES" (1986)

The people who produced "The Return of Josey Wales" should have changed the hero's name. "Return" went straight to video in 1986 without significant theatrical release, while "The Outlaw Josey Wales" was released in 1976. Ten years is a long time to delay a sequel, though "Star Trek" fans weathered decades before their cult NBC-TV show finally reached the big-screen. Reportedly, Clint Eastwood had considered making Forrest Carter's second Josey Wales novel "The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales" as a sequel. Nothing came of the project. Anyway, only the fictional characters from the original show up in "The Return of Josey Wales." None of the original cast members reprised their roles, and Clint Eastwood had nothing to do with the low-budget oater. Forrest Carter, author of both "Josey Wales" western novels received screen credit for both story and screenplay.  The producers changed the ending.  Several characters from the original novel reappeared in the second novel in an early chapter.  Nevertheless, “The Return of Josey Wales” is at best generic from fade-in to fade out compared not only with the previous movie as well as Carter’s novel. 

Producer/Second Unit Director R.O. Taylor received credit as "writer: special scenes."
"The Outlaw Josey Wales" qualified as an indisputable magnum opus. Meanwhile, "The Return of Josey Wales" (* OUT OF ****)npales by comparison, more of a drab, saddle-sore, horse opera with little to distinguish it. According to IMDb.COM, the produced lensed on location at the Alamo Village, in Brackettville, Texas, where John Wayne filmed his own magnum opus "The Alamo" in 1960. A large percentage of the cinematography is master shots. Master shots are typically long shots with actors shown from head to toe in their environment.  Star/director Michael Parks, who graces himself with an adequate number of close-ups, should have known he was setting himself up for a fiasco. The original "Josey Wales" overshadows this threadbare sagebrusher. Had the protagonist's name been altered, "The Return" wouldn't have found itself at such a tremendous disadvantage compared to its lofty predecessor. The Internet Movie Database lists no release date, but I remember a trailer at a drive-in movie theater advertising it. Like another reviewer, I bought a VHS copy through Amazon so I could say that I have seen it.  The picture quality is mediocre, and the film may have been cropped to accommodate the standard 1:33.1 screen ratio.

Despite the somewhat brutal events in the prologue, you're going to feel like you're watching a conventional television western. Tame, lame, with little of the same from the original, "The Return of Josey Wales" ranks as an uninspired sequel. Repeated viewings of the Eastwood original allow you to appreciate its perfection. Eastwood did a marvelous job when he condensed the entire Civil War in the prologue after Union sympathizers slaughtered Josey’s wife and son, and later he joined Bloody Bill Anderson. "Return" doesn't raise the stakes, boasts few surprises, breaks no new ground, and doesn't leave you wanting more. Character actor Michael Parks—an outstanding thespian in his own right—replaced Clint Eastwood. Indeed, some resemblance appears between the two, and Parks looks persuasively authentic in his black sombrero, white shirt, and dark britches. Aside from preserving Josey's tobacco spitting routine, Park's Josey Wales isn't as interesting as Eastwood's character. He has no love interest in this film, and he doesn’t have any memorable showdown scenes. Parks packs one revolver in a standard, low-slung, right-sided holster, like a prime-time, TV cowboy, and wields an occasional Winchester. Eastwood's Josey Wales armed himself to the teeth with as many as four revolvers. Eastwood knew how to make an entrance, whereas Parks ambles into and out of scenes as if by accident without a trace of charisma. He mumbles in his dialogue scenes like Marlon Brando. Occasionally, he says something insightful.

As director, Parks stages the western shenanigans without fanfare.  Watching it once is probably more than enough. I've seen it several times for this review. You'll have to wait patiently about 20 minutes for the first gunfight. The gunfight is minor like something out of a Randolph Scott western. Rafael Campos is the only other recognizable cast member.  Campos gives the best performance as a liquor-loving vaquero.  Everybody else, even in speaking parts, looks and sounds like amateurs. Some of the male extras wear atrocious hats that resemble party favors instead of Stetsons. Basically, like Clint Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josey Wales, "The Return of Josey Wales" has a savage prologue involving a heinous atrocity. The hero's extended family of friends suffers at the hands of the slimy villains. "The Return of Josey Wales" doesn't deliver an eye for an eye western with an icy-cool looking hero. Parks can be heroic.  Happily, he does handle himself acceptably in the first shoot-out both on foot as well as horseback. Appropriately enough, the villains—Mexican Rurales who scalp Indians for the bounty--are unrepentant devils.

The Rurales rape a defiant saloon girl, Rose (Suzie Humphreys of "Deep in the Heart") and beat a poor bartender to a pulp, while a one-armed Mexican peon, Pablo (Paco Vela of “The Job”), witnesses these horrific acts. Later, Paco relays his information to Josey Wales. Predictably, Wales saddles up and hits the trail, but with considerably less gusto compared to its predecessor. Furthermore, one of Josey's friends, a tin-horn gambler named Ten-Spot (Robert Magruder of “Five Days from Home”) has been taken. Mexican Rurales commander, Jesus Escabedo (Everett Sifuentes of "Selena"), plans to hang Ten-Spot, and Josey tracks them down with his Mexican vaquero, Chato (Rafael Campos of "The Appaloosa"), but Chato gets himself shot-up.  Sadly, Ten-Spot catches a bullet in the finale. Josey leaves Escabedo buried up to his neck in the ground as he rides off with his friends.  In Carter’s novel, Wales repeatedly shot and killed Escabedo during a face-to-face confrontation in a canyon.  Furthermore, in Carter’s novel, real-life Apache chieftain Geronimo played a peripheral role.

Josey Wales desired better than this grubby little western delivered.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF "THE GREAT WALL"

Creature features like Chinese director Zhang Yimou's sprawling $150 million fantasy epic "The Great Wall" (* OUT OF ****) must bristle with monsters that not only send a chill down your spine but also paralyze you with fear. Sadly, neither Yimou, who helmed "House of Flying Daggers," nor his lackluster special effects team have conjured up monsters that would frighten a cat. The toothy but mange-ridden reptilian quadruples that swarm over, around, and under the eponymous wall resemble a horde of demented Tasmanian devils. Mind you, these predators hunt like ravenous wolves, but they look far more hilarious than intimidating. When a multi-million-dollar movie sinks a fortune on such an egregious example of monsters, you'd think the producers would have shown greater imagination. Why actors as respected as Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe would grace this expensive, but lame-brained, hybrid Hollywood/Chinese co-production with their presence remains baffling, too. "The Great Wall" evoked memories of the abysmal Keanu Reeves escapade "47 Ronin" (2013) because both movies depicted how a European outsider intervened to save Asians from virtual annihilation. Mind you, "Sorcerer's Apprentice" scribes Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro along with "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" scribe Tony Gilroy have concocted a premise about Medieval European mercenaries--Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, and Willem Dafoe— drifting around China on a quest for the fabled gunpowder. Naturally, the Chinese refuse to share the secret of gunpowder with these barbarians since it constituted the equivalent of a nuclear bomb in the bow & arrow era. Eventually, our outcast heroes find refuge within the ranks of an army of intrepid Chinese warriors after Damon's mercenary protagonist miraculously manages to slay one of these absurd beasts. Worse than its Rat Fink-style monsters, "The Great Wall" generates minimal suspense and few surprises with its preposterously formulaic plot. Once you lay your eyes on these bogus Tao Tei monsters you may clamor for a refund on your ticket.

William (Matt Damon of "The Bourne Identity") and Tovar (Pedro Pascal of "Hermanas") have spent their entire lives on the battlefield and dispatched adversaries with as little regard for them as we might stomp cockroaches. Having embarked on an ambitious journey to the Far East, our heroes set out to acquire the legendary black powder that will escalate combat to a more devastating intensity. Unfortunately, attrition in form of marauding enemies as well as enigmatic creatures has whittled their numbers down until only William and Tovar remain. At one point, three of their comrades vanish under suspicious circumstances, and William slashes a big, green claw off something that he cannot see. Our heroic duo doesn't last long in the sprawling Gobi Desert before Chinese soldiers of the Nameless Order surround and usher them off to their leaders. General Shao (Hanyu Zhang of "White Vengeance") and his second-in-command Lin Mae (Ting Jing of "Police Story: Lockdown") have assembled a massive army atop a gargantuan wall where they maintain surveillance on the surrounding countryside. They interrogate William and Tovar and are prepared to execute them as intruders until they discover the severed claw of a Tao Tei monster among William's belongings. They change their attitude about these two and let them live. As it turns out, another European, Ballard (Willem Dafoe of "John Wick"), who has been a Chinese prisoner for about 25 years, blundered unbidden into their land in search of black powder, too. They didn't kill him, and during that time, Ballard has taught Lin Mae how to speak English.

No sooner have the Chinese captured our heroes than William and Tovar collaborate secretly with Ballard about an escape plan. Initially, something stands in their way. A scourge of hideous reptiles endowed with surprising intelligence has been plaguing China. These fiendish creatures show up every 60 years with regularity, and a queen supervises their activities by means of sound vibrations. As Strategist Wang (Andy Lau of "Infernal Affairs") explains it, these carnivores have been terrorizing China for 22 centuries because one emperor wallowed in greed so wanton that a meteor crashed into a mountain and unleashed this pestilence. Consequently, the Chinese constructed the 'Great Wall' to contend with this blight, but they have achieved only minimal success, despite having an arsenal gun powder that they deploy in explosives of various dimensions. Furthermore, these beasts, with eyes located in their shoulders and heads bristling with a porcupine of deadly teeth, have learned over the years how to adapt to the strategies that the Chinese have devised to kill them. William finds himself at a turning point during this predicament. He discovers that fighting for wealth no longer motivates him as an individual. Instead, he learns from the noble Numberless Order that trust supersedes money. Meantime, all Tovar wants is to escape with Ballard; Ballard has been plotting his escape, and he has a route and parcels of the explosive black powder to take back to Europe. During a confrontation on the wall with these monsters, General Shao is mortally wounded by a Tao Tei, and he passes command of the army to Lin Mae. Lin Mae finds herself in an even worse situation than General Shao because the Tao Tei have figured out that it is the cities rather than the great wall where they should concentrate their energy. The Tao Tei stop attacking the wall and swarm off to the capital like an inexorable horde to eat the emperor. The evil Tao Tei queen with her tiara and her inner circle of lizard bodyguards that sprout shields to protect her is truly hilarious. Lin Mae and a few select soldiers pilot ancient balloons to fly to the capital to save the Emperor. William decides to risk his life on this perilous expedition while Tovar and Ballard escape with quantities of gun powder. Despite being the most expensive Chinese movie ever produced with a distinguished cast of Asian actors, "The Great Wall" resembles something that the goofy SyFy Channel would have cooked up to top its sophomoric "Sharknado" sagas.

FILM REVIEW OF ''CAT PEOPLE" (1982)



“American Gigolo” writer & director Paul Schrader and “Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile” scenarist Allen Ormsby remade director Jacques Tourneur’s eerie, shape-shifting saga “Cat People” that DeWitt Bodeen wrote for RKO Pictures producer Val Lewton in 1942.  By and large, these two films differ more often than they resemble each other.  Tourneur’s atmospheric, black and white, 73-minute original left much to the imagination since it was released while the Production Code Administration ruled Hollywood with an iron fist, and Schrader’s 118-minute adaptation left little to the imagination.  Comparably, the 1942 creature feature surpasses its remake.  Nevertheless, Schrader and Ormsby have forged a horror film that is still stimulating to watch despite its many shortcomings.  The two films show how much Hollywood changed between 1942 and 1982.  Many things that the respective filmmakers dealt with changed in terms of the frankness of their depiction.  Mind you, Simone Simon never disrobed in the original, whereas Nastassja Kinski had no qualms about cavorting about in the nude.  Reportedly, the actress requested that her nude scenes be cut from the finished film, but the studio preserved them in tact in spite of her wishes.  The two films deal with a virgin who leaves her native land and comes to America where she encounters situations that bring about changes in her demeanor.  In the original, Irena is a refugee from a Middle-European country, and in the remake Irena hails from Africa.  The chief difference between the two movies is the ending.  Anybody who hasn’t seen either film should stop reading this brief analysis at this point because the revelations may spoil your appreciation of the films.  In the 1942 version, Irena is doomed to die because she is an evil creature, but the 1982 version displays greater optimism because Irena survives and lives out her life as a black leopard albeit confined to a zoo.  Schrader’s film changed the occupation of Oliver and Alice.  Whereas they worked in a ship-building firm in the first film, Oliver and Alice work at the New Orleans Zoo in the second. Oliver and Irena were never allowed to consummate their marriage in the first film.  Although Oliver and Irena never got married in Schrader’s epic, they engaged in sex twice.  Tom Conway’s womanizing psychiatrist has no counterpart in Schrader’s film.  The two films do share similar scenes.  For example, Schrader’s film duplicates the scene with a woman who recognizes Irena and comments about their common origins.  The scene in the swimming pool when Irena stalks Alice is staged with less atmosphere than the original.  Oliver alone confronts Paul instead of Irena while wielding a drafting ruler in a manner similar to how Kent Smith did in the original.  

Schrader’s remake (*** OUT OF ****) relocates the story to New Orleans, and Irena arrives to be reunited with her long, lost brother Paul Gallier (Malcolm McDowell of “A Clockwork Orange”) who has spent his life searching for her.  Paul fails to consummate the incestuous relationship that he yearns for with the virginal Irena.  We learn from expository dialogue sequences that their parents engaged in incest and ran their own circus.  Nevertheless, Schrader and Ormsby leave out a lot regarding the origins of these characters.  In the opening, we see tribesman tie a young woman to a tree as a sacrificial lamb for a black leopard to do with as the beast sees fit.  Remarkably, the leopard doesn’t shred the girl, but it seems to embrace her.  Later, she is taken to the cave where the beast lives and enters it, but we see nothing that occurs thereafter between the two.  Paul Gallier has led a secretive life and he has a mysterious African-American, Female (Ruby Dee of “Do The Right Thing”) who serves as his housekeeper.  When she meets Irena, Female explains her own orphaned origins and the nature of her name.  All Paul wants is to have sex with Irena, but our heroine doesn’t share either his inclination or his alacrity. She rebels and strikes out into the Crescent City.  Meantime, Paul behaves like a serial killer of sorts who arranges clandestine rendezvous with women and kills them.  He fails when he tries to eat a hooker and winds up trapped in a hotel room after the hooker, Ruthie (Lynn Lowry of “The Crazies”), manages to escape from the premises.  She tumbles down the stairs in the hotel and has a wardrobe malfunction.  Paul transforms into a cat and leaves behind a placenta of sorts.  Nobody can figure out how a black leopard came to be in the hotel room with the hooker.  The authorities summon Oliver Yates from the New Orleans Zoo to capture the animal and remove it.  Eventually, Irena discovers Paul’s presence in the zoo and she has an encounter one evening after closing hours when Oliver confronts her.  She was sketching a picture of the black leopard behind bars that she believes is her brother.  Oliver and Irena met under similar circumstances in the original.  They fall in love, but things become complicated. 
Although Schrader’s film isn’t a classic like its Lewton produced predecessor, the “Cat People” remake is still a fascinating film.