Saturday, November 11, 2017

Last Embrace

Jonathan Demme (MELVIN AND HOWARD) directed this Niagara Falls-set thriller in the Hitchcock mold. It even has a chase up a bell tower like VERTIGO. Roy Scheider (JAWS) stars, and he is terrific, but his co-star Janet Margolin (TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN) is even better in a difficult role well-written by David Shaber (THE WARRIORS). Margolin died of cancer in 1993 — she was only 50 — and was one of many actresses of her generation who were talented, pretty, offbeat, and never received their rightful due.

Scheider plays an American spy who suffered a breakdown after the murder of his wife and spent three months in a sanitarium. He grows ever more suspicious and paranoid, first when his employers refuse to assign him a new mission, later when he receives a note written in Hebrew signed by the “Avenger of Blood.” He thinks the government may be trying to kill him, and maybe it is. Shaber’s plot, based on a Murray Teigh Bloom novel, is complex in tried-and-true spy-movie fashion, and many characters are not whom they seem. Margolin, a graduate student who moved into Scheider’s apartment while he was away, could be one of them.

Intended as an homage to thrillers of the 1940s, LAST EMBRACE is at least as interested in the romance between Scheider and Margolin as it is the spy plot, and despite a significant age difference, the actors are believable. Charles Napier, who usually only had great roles in Russ Meyer (SUPERVIXENS) and Demme (HANDLE WITH CARE) pictures, makes a strong impression as Scheider’s brother-in-law and would-be assassin. Other wonderful character actors — John Glover (52 PICK-UP), Mandy Patinkin (THE PRINCESS BRIDE), Joe Spinell (TAXI DRIVER), Christopher Walken (THE DEER HUNTER), David Margulies (GHOSTBUSTERS) — contribute to Demme’s mysterious vibe.

If you get tired of keeping track of the plot’s many puzzle pieces, enjoy the visuals by Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (PHILADELPHIA), who keeps the camera moving almost constantly. Napier’s tailing of Scheider in Central Park and later in a cemetery are directed with visual wit, and an elegiac shot of Scheider slumped on a bench at sunset with the New York City skyline in the background says more than one thousand words. And let’s not forget the tense finale with what Vincent Canby called “yellow penguins.” Miklos Rozsa, who scored SPELLBOUND for Hitchcock, does the same here for Demme in the great tradition of Bernard Herrmann.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Babysitter (2017)

What do you do when you’re 12 years old, and the hot babysitter you’re in love with who really gets you turns out to be a blood-drinking Satan worshipper? Hey, we’ve all been there, and now it’s time for young Cole (Judah Lewis) to figure it out for himself in THE BABYSITTER, a new film now streaming on Netflix.

It sucks when you think you’re old enough to stay alone while Mom (Leslie Bibb) and Dad (Ken Marino) are gone for the weekend. But you could do worse than Bee (Samara Weaving), who watches BILLY JACK with you and thinks you’re cool for a kid, staying with you. Until she invites some friends over to jam knives into a nerd’s head and guzzle his blood. No, you cannot really do a whole helluva lot worse.

A gore-soaked horror picture with humor directed by, of all people, McG, demoted from big-time action pictures (CHARLIE’S ANGELS, TERMINATOR SALVATION) to low-budget straight-to-Netflix fare, THE BABYSITTER is the germ of a good idea written by Brian Duffield (INSURGENT), but the screenplay needed more work. When Cole has the chance to escape, he runs upstairs instead of the open front door next to him. And I’m to believe a police car with flashing cherries parked outside a suburban house at midnight, not to mention screams, explosions, and gunshots, wouldn’t attract even one neighbor’s attention? The killers don’t even draw the curtains before murdering three people.

Some of THE BABYSITTER is funny — a lot of it coming from the narcissistic stud played by Robbie Amell (THE DUFF) — and some of the kill scenes are cleverly conceived. How much of it trips your trigger will depend on your tolerance for McG’s more juvenile instincts. Both Lewis and Weaving do a nice job establishing their characters’ friendship, which is key to selling their conflict later, as silly as it is.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Last Of Sheila

This intricate and wicked tale of gamesmanship and murder is the brainchild of composer Stephen Sondheim (A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM) and PSYCHO star Anthony Perkins, who loved puzzles and mysteries and decided to write one. THE LAST OF SHEILA is a true delight for mystery fans that is played with great wit by an all-star cast.

One year after his wife Sheila was killed in a hit-and-run accident, wealthy film producer Clinton (James Coburn) invites six of his Hollywood friends to spend a week on his yacht in the South of France. He suspects one of them of being Sheila’s murderer, and arranges an elaborate game designed to reveal his or her identity.

Each of the six is given a “secret”—an informer, a shoplifter, a homosexual, etc. The object is for each player to discover everyone else’s secret, one per night, in a series of dress-up hide-and-seek scenarios, including one in a spooky abandoned abbey. It doesn’t take long for some of the players to deduce Clinton’s ultimate goal, and when he is also murdered, the pieces slowly begin to snap together.

The six players are down-and-out screenwriter Tom (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett); Philip (James Mason), a lowly director of TV commercials; wisecracking talent agent Christine (Dyan Cannon); and starlet Alice (Raquel Welch) and her shady manager-husband Anthony (Ian McShane). All have something to hide, secrets that become exposed in the manner of a classic Agatha Christie drawing-room mystery, as the Hollywood sophisticates pour themselves drinks and react to news that would shock a normal person with an urbane elan.

Of course, one key to a successful mystery is that the pieces must logically fit together with a bare minimum of holes (if any), and Sondheim and Perkins have their plot wrapped pretty tightly. Clues are dropped with regular rapidity — even the damn title is a clue — so THE LAST OF SHEILA is as much a game as it is a film. Herbert Ross (THE TURNING POINT) directs his stars with a light touch in the south of France, with only Welch’s usual stiffness out of place among heavyweights like Coburn and Mason.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

The Severed Arm

THE SEVERED ARM is a gruesome horror film that anticipates many more famous slasher pics, such as HALLOWEEN (with its use of killer POV shots), FRIDAY THE 13TH (individuals picked off one by one by a madman waving a sharp object), and WHEN A STRANGER CALLS ("the caller is inside the house"). I'm not saying those films were influenced by THE SEVERED ARM or director Thomas Alderman (COED DORM) invented these genre staples, but their presence does add interest.

Six men are trapped inside a cave. Three weeks pass without any of them eating a speck of food, and their water supply has just dried up. Associate producer David G. Cannon, playing a television writer, suggests they draw lots and the winners amputate and eat one of the loser's limbs to stay alive. Ray Dannis (THE CORPSE GRINDERS) is the unlucky loser, and he goes mad as a result. The other five men tell the authorities Dannis’ arm was crushed in the cave-in and had to be amputated to save his life.

Five years later, back in civilization, Cannon, detective Paul Carr (TRUCK STOP WOMEN), disc jockey Marvin Kaplan (IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD), contractor Vince Martorano (THE CANDY SNATCHERS), and physician John Crawford (THE ENFORCER) are stalked by a killer with a hatchet. Is it the same person who hacked the arm off a corpse and mailed it to Cannon? Has Dannis left the mental hospital to gain revenge on the men who drove him there?

Top-billed Deborah Walley (BEACH BLANKET BINGO) plays Dannis’ daughter, who teams up with Cannon and Carr to find the killer before he finds them first. Though Walley doesn’t believe her father could be a murderer, she is game to serve as bait to help the men capture him...or whomever. Though shot on a low budget, THE SEVERED ARM is a decent little thriller, thanks to Alderman’s capable handling of the camera and the gruesome premise. Cannon, whose screen credits are scant, isn’t strong enough to play the co-lead, but as a whole, the ensemble plays well enough. The cast is good enough to convince you they would embrace cannibalism, which is vital in selling the plot.

THE SEVERED ARM is never quite as lurid as its title suggests — it has little gore, despite the R rating. While it doesn’t waste film with extraneous material, it also has little else to offer besides stalk-and-chop scenes, as Carr’s investigation has little heft. The electronic score by Phillan Bishop (MESSIAH OF EVIL) is effective, and Alderman manages to build to an effectively sick climax. Writer Marc B. Ray (SCREAM BLOODY MURDER) sold producer Gary Adelman the story for $100! Walley, a former Gidget and star of AIP Beach Party movies, made BENJI a year later and then basically retired from acting at age 33.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Murder On The Orient Express (1974)

Sidney Lumet (SERPICO) directed this lavishly cast and produced mystery based on Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. It was an enormous hit in both the United States and Great Britain and earned six Academy Award nominations, winning for Ingrid Bergman’s turn as the devout Scandinavian Greta Ohlsson (her third Oscar after GASLIGHT and ANASTASIA). Albert Finney (SHOOT THE MOON) has the plum role of Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, first seen in print in 1920.

One of several passengers traveling about the Orient Express from Istanbul to London, Poirot takes charge when one of them, a retired American businessman named Ratchett (Richard Widmark), is murdered in his bed. A classic locked room mystery — Ratchett’s door is chained from the inside — Poirot sets about solving it through interviews with the suspects, who include young couple Michael York (THE THREE MUSKETEERS) and Jacqueline Bisset (THE DEEP), military man Sean Connery (DR. NO), Ratchett’s mother-obsessed male secretary Anthony Perkins (PSYCHO) and butler John Gielgud (ARTHUR), loud American Lauren Bacall (KEY LARGO), and teacher Vanessa Redgrave (JULIA), among others.

To say more about the story would be criminal, though many of the passengers have a remarkable connection to a horrible crime committed five years earlier, when a little girl was kidnapped from her Long Island home and later murdered. The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Paul Dehn (THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD) plays fair with the clues, though the movie’s pleasures come as much from the juicy performances as the plot. The actors play to the rafters, as fitting the heightened storyline, with Finney’s flashy Oscar-nominated Poirot a total joy. Other nominations went to Tony Walton’s costumes, Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography, and Richard Rodney Bennett’s original score.

Christie saw the film and liked it, which was not often the case with adaptations of her work. CBS did a television version with Alfred Molina (BOOGIE NIGHTS) as Poirot in 2001, and Kenneth Branagh (HENRY V) directed and starred in a big-budget theatrical remake in 2017.

Friday, November 03, 2017

An Eye For An Eye (1981)

Released by Avco Embassy in 1981, AN EYE FOR AN EYE is one of Chuck Norris’ better pre-Cannon outings. It makes good use of its star’s unique skills set by staging several exciting fight scenes and surrounding Norris with a very capable supporting cast. Best of all is its climax, which leans into James Bond territory for a budget-busting shootout between cops and bad guys on the lawn of a swanky hillside estate. Outside of the finale, director Steve Carver (Norris’ LONE WOLF MCQUADE) doesn’t use San Francisco to its fullest, oddly enough.

Norris was churning out a film a year at the time, progressively adding scale and more accomplished co-stars in a consistent bid for mainstream success. He was still known primarily as a martial artist or “chopsocky” star when AN EYE FOR AN EYE came out, but by the time he struck gold at Cannon, he was just as likely to use an Uzi as his feet.

San Francisco cop Sean Kane (Norris) watches his partner Dave Pierce (Terry Kiser, WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S) get murdered in an ambush. Dave’s girlfriend Heather, a television reporter (the very good Rosalind Chao, still acting on television three decades later), is killed by the same gang. Quitting the force under pressure from his boss (SHAFT’s Richard Roundtree, adding class to a stereotypical role), Kane goes about tracking down Dave’s killer on his own.

Kane finds support from his martial arts instructor James (THE SAND PEBBLES’ Mako), as well as Heather (Maggie Cooper), Linda’s co-worker at the TV station. The criminal conspiracy surrounding Dave’s death leads all the way to Linda and Heather’s boss: Morgan Canfield (the great Christopher Lee), the head of a global heroin smuggling ring.

It gives little away to reveal Canfield as the mysterious druglord — hell, he’s played by Christopher Lee, isn’t he? Though the plotting by writers William Gray (PROM NIGHT) and James Bruner (MISSING IN ACTION) is typical television crime drama fare, the story is strong enough to hold together Carver’s action scenes and give the fine supporting cast something to do. Mako is entertaining in a comic relief role, Matt Clark (WHITE LIGHTNING) is reliably solid in another cliché cop part, and Mel Novak and Stuart Pankin are colorful criminals. The exception is TV actress Cooper (SPACE ACADEMY), who’s wooden despite her special “Introducing” billing and just as awkward in the romantic scenes as Norris is.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Jigsaw (2017)

JIGSAW is exactly what a SAW VIII released seven years after the previous film should be. It breaks no new ground, delivers what a SAW fan expects, and reboots the series slightly while staying faithful to the tone, look, style, and layered storytelling synonymous with the SAW universe.

Set ten years after the death of imaginative serial killer John Kramer aka “Jigsaw” (which happened in SAW III, believe it or not), the film directed by SAW newcomers Michael and Peter Spierig (WINCHESTER: THE HOUSE THAT GHOSTS BUILT) finds police detectives Callum Keith Rennie (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY) and Cle Bennett (HARVARD MAN) baffled by a new series of grisly murders identical to those committed by Jigsaw a decade earlier. Conducting their own investigation are coroner Matt Passmore (THE GLADES), a veteran of the war in Iraq, and his assistant Hannah Emily Anderson (LOVE OF MY LIFE), whose passionate hobby is the Jigsaw murders.

Meanwhile, five strangers awaken inside a barn in a basic reprise of SAW V’s central plot. All five have committed some type of transgression to which Jigsaw demands a confession in order to go free or “win” the game. Because it’s a SAW movie, the victims are too dumb to just come clean, and are thusly slashed, stabbed, and otherwise mutilated in various complex Jigsaw traps.

Those familiar with the SAW series’ time-jumping tendencies may be ahead of JIGSAW, particularly the mystery of how John Kramer (played again by Tobin Bell) could still be alive ten years later. Providing much needed continuity are editor Kevin Greutert, who edited SAW I-V and directed VI and VII, and composer Charlie Clouser, whose familiar theme adds a sting to the climax. While no game changer, JIGSAW is a competent mystery that delivers familiar gore effects and a repetitive story that holds up until you get to the parking lot. And for an eighth SAW movie, that’s good enough.