Jun 15 2017

47 Meters Down (2017)

Two things you should know about 47 Meters Down:
1. It was one week away from debuting on home video when it was picked up for a theatrical release.
2. One meter equals roughly 3.28 feet. Not being raised on the metric system, I had to Google that. It would have been helpful to know.

Nursing a broken heart, Lisa (Mandy Moore, Saved!) takes her younger, more liberated sister (Claire Holt, Messengers 2: The Scarecrow) with her to vacation in Mexico. Over fruity drinks, a couple of local studs (Jason X’s Yani Gellman and Scream: The TV Series’ Santiago Segura) cajole the girls into going shark-sighting with them the next day. Doing so entails donning scuba gear inside a metal cage lowered a few meters below the ocean’s surface. From the ship, captained by a gringo (Matthew Modine, TV’s Stranger Things), buckets of chum are dumped illegally to attract sharks to see. That method works — a little too well, when the winch snaps loose and the sisters are sent to the ocean floor, some 47 met– oh, you know?

As with similar minimalist shark thrillers Open Water and The Shallows, this is one of those high-concept films where the premise is so simple, one wonders how an entire feature can be squeezed from the tube. Director and co-writer Johannes Roberts (The Other Side of the Door) somehow manages. His bag of tricks may not be original — a cage door that gets caught, the ever-present deadline of expiring air tanks — but they work just enough to notch the movie over to the side of fun. It’s a crowd-pleaser, to be sure … if that crowd is full of viewers who are easily swayed and led around like, well, sharks to chum.

Gorgeous underwater photography, sharks that don’t look fake, a running time under 90 minutes and genial performances from Holt and Moore combine to combat the fact that 47 Meters Down lacks the intensity with which it should be waterlogged. Roberts delivers one showstopper of a shot I won’t spoil — it involves a flare — and stops just shy of an ending that would enrage audiences like nothing since The Mist. No flourish, however, earns Roberts the right to slap his name as a possessive above the title, as seen in the opening credits. Get at least one classic under your scuba belt first. —Rod Lott

May 30 2017

Escape (1971)

Cameron Steele (Christopher George, Mortuary) is a famous escape artist who can get outta anything … but couldn’t get into a weekly time slot, unfortunately. From director John Llewellyn Moxey (Horror Hotel), the made-for-TV movie Escape may be a “failed” pilot for what should have been a series, but it is a damn fine hour and a half of, um, escapism.

Now a private dick who lives above a bar catering to magicians, Steele takes a $25K gig to find Dr. Henry Walding (William Windom, She’s Having a Baby), a scientist who has gone missing — and whose lab has been torched — after cracking the code toward creation of a game-changing virus. As feared by Walding’s estranged daughter in the fashion industry (Marlyn Mason, Fifteen and Pregnant), the doc indeed has been kidnapped. As feared by no one, however, the culprit is Walding’s own brother, Charles (John Vernon, Killer Klowns from Outer Space), which is totally weird since he’s supposed to be deceased!

Charles is holding Henry captive, wishing to use his brother’s breakthrough for nefarious purposes. But the “why” is less important than the “where”: the Happyland amusement park! Yes, in order to spring Henry from captivity, Steele must navigate a funhouse laden with tricks and traps, which is where the telefilm lives up to the wonder promised by its way-out opening credits, scored by Mission: Impossible maestro Lalo Schifrin. In fact, Escape plays like an episode of M:I unfolding within a maze of mirrors — never a bad thing.

Serving up bonus kicks are members of the kitchen-sink supporting cast, including former Bowery Boy Huntz Hall, prime-past Oscar winner Gloria Grahame (The Bad and the Beautiful) and, as Steele’s associate, comedian Avery Schreiber (Loose Shoes) in a rare straight role — well, straight if we’re using his Doritos ads as the benchmark. —Rod Lott

May 22 2017

The Firm (1993)

If you’ve ever wanted to see someone kick the ever-lovin’ crap out of Wilford Brimley while he’s down on the ground — and let’s face it, we all have at one point in our lives — then why don’t you just go right ahead and move The Firm to the top of your queue.

We tend to forget there was a time when legal thrillers were actually Academy Award-chasing, taut courtroom explorations of a usually broken legal system, stylistically told in such a legalese-driven, attention-demanding way where viewers, no matter how bored, collectively waited on the edge of their bench for a jury-read verdict in the last 15 minutes so nerve-wracking you’d think it was their mama up for murder one; TL;DR, remember movies like The Verdict, … And Justice for All or From the Hip?

In the early 1990s, however, much like a young Michael Bay with LegalZoom gift certificate, that all changed when along came best-selling wunderkind John Grisham, an author whose works of idealist first-year Southern lawyers taking on a judicial system for dummies in very stupid (but thoroughly entertaining) works like The Pelican Brief, The Client, A Time to Kill and Christmas with the Kranks were adapted for films in a rapid succession not seen since the great Stephen King boom of the mid-’80s, dumbing down a subgenre that has never since recovered.

The best of these cinematic legal briefs, in my opinion, was the 1993 adaptation of The Firm — not to be confused with the best-selling series of booty-enhancement exercise videos, unfortunately — starring Tom Cruise as a super-driven hotshot fresh out of law school (and harnessing unexplained Olympic-level gymnastic abilities for reasons never offered) as he takes a job with a shadowy law firm made up of some of the most aged Caucasian actors Hollywood had to offer, including Gene Hackman, Hal Holbrook and the aforementioned Brimley as the oatmeal-lovin’ head of security. I’m pretty sure I saw Statler and Waldorf in one of the sweeping long shots, but that could just be the Mandela Effect.

When a well-meaning business trip to the Cayman Islands leads to Cruise seeing some clearly marked and easy-to-read files he apparently wasn’t meant to see, things get pretty complicated as he tries to figure out a way to turn everything over to the feds without being disbarred or have the mafia (obligatory Paul Sorvino cameo) cap him. When a short-lived, mostly cognizant Gary Busey enters the picture, things get mildly confusing, what with all the switcheroos and double-dealing and subplots about overbilling, many scenes of which are still parodied today, as of late by an extremely irritating M&M’s ad that plays before most movie trailers.

With a very strong cast, including the mannish-jawed, Southern-style bold ’n’ saucy combo of Holly Hunter and Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ed Harris as an impatient spook and an out-of-place David Strathairn as a supposedly hardened convict, perhaps the most memorable character is Saw’s Tobin Bell as the law firm’s hitman, a role made even creepier by him sporting an albino mullet, apparently from the Rutger Hauer for Men signature hairpiece collection.

Director Sydney Pollack (Tootsie) does a great job of crafting a tense, paranoid thriller based around the dumbest of conceits, but with a smirking Cruise in control and a cast of fermented gravitas, it surprisingly still holds up almost 25 years later, with enough turns and twists to keep anyone from yelling “Objection!” to their television, no one in particular listening. Apparently they made a sequel to this, in the form of a TV series, but I’ll be damned if I ever heard about it. Case closed. — Louis Fowler

Get it at Amazon.

May 15 2017

The Belko Experiment (2017)

According to the scientific method — which you would have learned in middle school, had you been paying attention — every experiment exists to test the validity of one’s hypothesis. For example:
• “Refrigerating food will extend its life of edibility.”
• “A brick falls faster than a feather.”
• “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
• Or, in the case of The Belko Experiment, “If you lock 80 people inside an office building and tell them to kill, they totally will.”

From director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) and screenwriter James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), The Belko Experiment proves its hypothesis true, in brutally bloody fashion and with a palpable edge not often seen in mainstream movies.

Some 80 men and women, most of them Americans, work in the high-rise corporate headquarters of Belko Industries in Bogotá, Colombia. Why is the film set in South America? Good question — and one McLean and Gunn do not answer; my suspicion is the foreign setting, coupled with the remote location of the offices, deliberately feeds into the audience’s fear of the unfamiliar “other.” Dorothy was right, you know: There is no place like home, where dozens of people aren’t actively trying to snuff your life, and even if they were, you’d at least know the perfect hidey-hole to sit out the chaos.

It’s tough to tell which startles the Belko workforce more: an intercom message demanding they kill a couple of colleagues within the half-hour or the steel walls that seal them inside a multifloored cage of cubicles. At first, they think the announcement might be a hacker’s prank. (But we know that’s not the case since the voice belongs to Gregg Henry — c’mon, we’ve all seen Body Double!) When the backs of a few heads begin to explode — and the bodies attached instantly slump to the lobby tile in sickening heavy thuds — they know this is no game.

Well, in a manner most most macabre, it absolutely is a game — a Battle Royale among pencil-pushers and number-crunchers. Only one will be left standing, with luck, and it’s exactly who you think it will be, thanks to the movie’s early alignment with that character. Beyond that, however, the lack of marquee names ensures that in this bloodbath, anyone could be taking a dip. One of the Experiment’s strengths is its casting of reliable character actors, including John C. McGinley (Surviving the Game), Tony Goldwyn (2009’s The Last House on the Left), John Gallagher Jr. (Hush), Brent Sexton (TV’s The Killing) and Gunn favored player Michael Rooker (Slither). No one is particularly well-drawn before shit gets real; paying the larger price for that are the few ladies, notably Adria Arjona (TV’s True Detective) and Melonie Diaz (Ghost Team). For the latter’s character, it’s her first day — talk about a flawed onboarding experience!

There is more to The Belko Experiment than just a high concept. As with his underseen 2010 film, Super, Gunn’s screenplay lulls you into its darkly comic world before pivoting into unrelenting violence — a tonal shift so swift and severe, you’re supposed to feel discomfort. Many viewers will check out long before the intended message — admittedly delivered sans subtlety — has time to sink in. Give it a shot! —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

May 10 2017

SST: Death Flight (1977)

Things are not going well for Cutlass Aircraft Maiden One. The supersonic transport jet’s media circus of an experiment flight from New York to Paris has been sabotaged; a Third World flu virus has been loosed onboard; and, dammit, who the hell let Bert Convy on this plane?

Welcome, disaster-flick junkies, to SST: Death Flight, a made-for-TV Airport rip-off so blatant that it earned director David Lowell Rich the plum gig of guiding the final Airport sequel, The Concorde … Airport ’79, off the tarmac.

Piloted by testy Capt. Walsh (Robert Reed, TV’s Brady Bunch patriarch), America’s first SST passenger jet flies the friendly skies while breaking the sound barrier. Everyone who’s anyone has secured a seat on the transatlantic flight: the governor, some contest winners, a former pilot who might possibly come in handy (Doug McClure, Satan’s Triangle), a World Health Organization doctor (Brock Peters, Two-Minute Warning) and a busty beauty queen (Misty Rowe, Meatballs Part II) who talks about how she’s been farting all day. Taking the thankless roles of flight attendants are Tina Louise (TV’s Gilligan’s Island) and Billy Crystal (presumably auditioning for TV’s Soap).

There’s also a very angry Cutlass engineer (George Maharis, Murder on Flight 502) whom the powers that be turned down for a promotion, so he switches a barrel of Maiden One’s hydraulic fluid for one filled with laundry detergent … and still boards the doomed flight — a pretty stupid move, if you ask me, but that’s how these things roll. Same goes for casting Convy as a heel, as any viewer of the Irwin Allen telepic Hanging by a Thread could tell you. In a scene added for SST’s European theatrical release (and intact on DVD), his curly-headed cad of a character keeps yanking down the spaghetti straps of Rowe’s dress in order to free her breasts and join the mile-high club.

When the effed-with barrel springs a leak, the resulting spill looks like tomato soup. When the plane is shown in flight, it looks like a Matchbox toy being held in frame by the tail. And when SST: Death Flight plays, it does indeed look like an Airport sequel, starting with 99 problems and right down to an overstuffed cast, including Peter Graves, Burgess Meredith, Lorne Greene and Regis Philbin. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.