Posts Tagged ‘dvd’

Damn, but it’s been awhile since we did one of these “International Weirdness” columns looking at strange cinema from other parts of the globe around these parts — and that’s no one’s fault but my own, for which I duly apologize. And I further apologize for the fact that it’s returning under less than auspicious circumstances, but what can I do? Last night, you see, I made the mistake of watching a 2011 Australian “found footage” horror flick on Amazon Prime (it’s probably also available on DVD, maybe even Blu-ray, not that you should care) titled — wait for it — Found Footage, and I’d literally be remiss in my civic duty not to warn you off from it in the strongest possible terms.

So — what’s it about? Well, it’s about a killer named Darius McKenzie (played by Matt Doran, who I understand is something of a “known quantity” on Australian television, and who also co-directed this steaming pile of kangaroo shit along with its screenwriter, Samuel Bartlett), who — kills people. Particularly women (bet you didn’t see that coming). And “films” it on his digital camcorder. And — that’s it.

No, seriously, that’s it. He’s busted by the end and this “footage” was purportedly “found” by the Australian Federal Police, so they’ve pretty much got him dead to rights. We know exactly how this flick wraps up, then — but we also know exactly what’s going to happen in it from the word “go.” And that’s its greatest sin apart from its blatant misogyny, atrocious acting, and cheesy-even-by-the-standards-of-this-sort-of-thing production values.

Honestly, I’m not at all sure why POV Horror — who have actually put out some films that I quite enjoy (although I fully admit to not being nearly as “down” on this whole subgenre as, apparently, most sensible folks are) — picked this thing up for international distribution. It literally has nothing going for it apart from some fairly realistic practical effects work and a short (64 minutes, if I’m not mistaken) run time. And when all you can say about a movie is “hey, at least it wasn’t longer,” well — that really isn’t saying much, is it?

I dearly hope that some of the actresses involved in this way-beyond-dubious project were fairly paid for their work, but somehow I doubt that. All the likes of Catherine Jeramus, Lisa Fineberg, and Alison Gallagher had to do, on a purely technical level, was show up, scream a lot, and pretend to be violently murdered, but seriously : there’s an indelible stain on one’s career that comes part and parcel with attachment to anything this undoubtedly sorry and they deserve appropriate compensation for that. Although, in fairness, perhaps the most appropriate compensation they could have asked for is simply having their names removed from it.

So, yeah, there’s just no sugar-coating it, under-selling it, or over-stating it : Found Footage really is just that bad. It’s one of those flicks where you honestly wonder why the hell anyone even bothered to make it, and none of the answers you can come up with are particularly pleasant. It won’t scare you, surprise you, or in any way even interest you. I’d call it worthless, but in truth it probably has negative value — I’ll certainly never get back the hour(-ish) of my life that I sunk into watching it, and for that I’m not so much disappointed as I am actively pissed off. I was robbed of time that would have been better spent watching my fingernails grow or the flagpole rust.

 

With the Oscar nominations having hit earlier the day of this writing, everybody’s talking about RomaA Star Is BornBohemian RhapsodyBlack Panther, etc. But there was a robbery committed in plain sight that seems to be going entirely unremarked-upon. I speak of the fact that writer/director Paul Schrader’s most remarkable film probably since Affliction, the criminally-underappreciated First Reformed, received precisely one nomination.

It’s in a category it could very well win, Best Original Screenplay — especially given that it won in same at the DGA Awards — but seriously : this is smart, nuanced, thought-provoking, intellectually and emotionally compelling filmmaking of the highest order, anchored by two incredibly strong central performances, pitch-perfect direction, and subtly impressive work by all and sundry behind the camera as the flick’s cinematography, musical score, editing, and production design are all in no way flashy, but essentially flawless.

So, yeah, I guess you could say I’m a little bit miffed.

For those unfamiliar with the plot particulars, Ethan Hawke exceeds any possible expectations in a stellar turn as the troubled Reverend Ernst Toller, who heads up a small upstate New York church that relies on tourism and the largesse of a neighboring “mega-church” for its survival. His house of worship is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and while he finds the celebrations commensurate with the “birthday” swiftly spinning out of his control, he’s also confronting his own crisis of faith engendered by the suicide of a disillusioned-with-existence parishoner named Michael (played by Philip Ettinger), a veteran who had fallen in with what’s derisively referred to as the “eco-terrorist” crowd after a stint in the military had run its course.

It wasn’t Michael who initially came to Rev. Toller for counseling, though, it was his pregnant wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried, who, like Hawke, turns in career-defining work here), understandably conflicted with the idea of bringing new life into the world at the same that her husband seemed to be giving up on his. Mary and Toller develop a complex, multi-faceted and all-too-painfully-plausible relationship tinged with longing, desire, and a kind of mutual admiration, one shot through with with basic, elemental need for human connection with perhaps the only other person who can possibly come close to understanding their respective situations, but Toller is still struggling with the death of his son on the field of battle a good few years ago and the subsequent crumbling of his marriage, as well as his unresolved feelings for the musical director at the New Life “mega-church,” Esther (Victoria Hill). It’s a rich, thick stew of psychodrama that reveals just as much about its depth and character through the mannerisms, actions, even inaction of the principal players involved as it does by means of Schrader’s humanistic, melodrama-free dialogue.

The final ingredient, though, is certainly the most combustible and also the most tantalizing : Toller finds himself drawn toward the late Michael’s uncompromising ecological worldview, thanks in no small measure to the greedy machinations of local energy company magnate Ed Balq (Michale Gaston), who just so happens to be a major funder of New Life and a close friend of its lead pastor, Rev. Joel Jeffers (Cedric The Entertainer, credited here — appropriately, it seems to me — under his Christian name, Cedric Antonio Kyles). And guess where a whole bunch of the money for that big 250th anniversary extravaganza is coming from?

A bubbling cauldron is about to explode.

As the big day approaches, Toller finds himself going further and further off the rails, as well as deeper into the bottle, but a frightening medical diagnosis convinces him (perhaps ironically, perhaps not — it all depends on your point of view) that his path is set, his course clear, and the final act is a whirlwind of borderline-surreal storytelling and imagery that trusts viewers to make up their own minds rather than spelling things out in strict “okay, here’s what happened” terms. The ending itself has alienated some audiences and critics, it’s true, but for my money (not that I have a whole bunch), I wouldn’t have it any other way. Schrader has mapped out a trajectory for these characters and leaves it in our hands to determine exactly how they get to where they’re going. It all seems pretty damn clear to me, but I’ve read other reviews and essays on the film that posit different potential interpretations, and many make some very good points. So I’m just gonna leave it at “see it for yourself and make of it what you will,” since that seems the most honest approach to take.

And see it you definitely should. Whether on Blu-ray, DVD, or streaming on Amazon Prime, where it’s now available for members. You may not love First Reformed as unreservedly as I do, but you will be affected, and most likely impressed, by it. About the only thing I can compare it to in terms of its aesthetic sensibilities and understated-but-overwhelming emotional resonance is Ingmar Bergman’s finest work, and that’s high praise indeed coming from any quarter, I should think.

Oh, and if it doesn’t win at the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, there damn well ought to be an investigation.

When “off the beaten path” is your norm, then what are you supposed to do when you want to go “off the beaten path” yourself? You watch something normal, I guess.

I admit that espionage “thrillers” are not high on my own personal “to-watch” list very often, but the other night, browsing through the films available on our local cable system’s streaming service, I decided to give director Billy Ray’s well-reviewed 2007 offering Breach a shot, simply because I was in the mood for something it would never occur to me to even watch, much less write about. I duly watched it — and now I’m writing about it.

Based on the investigation into, and subsequent arrest of, notorious FBI “mole” Robert Hanssen, a guy who was selling us out to the Russians long before the current president made such things fashionable, Breach is no doubt somewhat over-dramatized, but it appears not by much : Ray’s production is a classy one, with the more salacious aspects of Hanssen’s bizarre personal life dialed down, his nauseating religiosity (he;s some kind of hard-core traditionalist Catholic) dialed up, and plenty of less-than-glamorous “nuts and bolts” investigative work at the fore of the story. Mainly, though, what we’ve got here is a veritable acting clinic put on by some of the best in the business, many of whom never get nearly enough credit for consistently delivering the goods.

Chris Cooper stars as Hanssen, and he’s downright spectacular, literally inhabiting his petty, jealous, sanctimonious, thoroughly duplicitous character with gusto, verve, and disturbing veracity, and how he didn’t walk away with an Oscar for this one is a straight-up mystery to me. Maybe because wasn’t counted on to carry the whole thing himself, but was rather part of a talented ensemble? I dunno, but I do know that everyone else more than pulls their weight : Ryan Phillippe is controlled and conflicted in equal measure as newbie agent Eric O’Neill, the guy who lands the unenviable task of having to bring down Hanssen from the inside, Laura Linney is the epitome of someone who’s devoted her whole life to duty as agent Kate Burrows, O’Neill’s “handler,” and Caroline Dhavernas and Kathleen Quinlan both stand out as O’Neill and Hansen’s wives, respectively, both of whom do a bang-up job of communicating the unique stresses inherent in their unbearably tense (albeit for entirely different reasons) home lives.

It’s not just the principal stars who being home the bacon here, though, as veteran character actors like Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert, and Bruce Davison all make the most of limited screen time and breathe extra life into thinly-written roles. High-wire tension is largely the order of the day in this one, as you’d expect (or at least hope, and in this case that hope isn’t in vain), but the extra depth these supporting players bring to the table goes a long way toward fleshing out what is, frankly, a fairly “A-to-B” story that we all know the ending of before the film even starts.

And, ya know, that bears thinking about for a minute : there’s never any doubt about how the events in Breach (which is also, I would assume, available on DVD and Blu-ray if such is your preference) are going to play out, but damn if Ray and his superb cast don’t manage to keep you on the edge of your seat every step of the way.  That might be the highest thing a flick this “boxed in” by its own necessary parameters can aspire to, and to say “mission accomplished” in this case is to sell too short the level of flat-out cinematic excellence achieved here. I was absolutely floored by how enthralling this film was, and I’m more than willing to bet that if you give it a shot, you will be, as well.

I admit, I’d blissfully forgotten about director Stewart Raffill’s godawful 1988 E.T. rip-off Mac And Me until it turned up as the first “episode” of the new “season” of Netflix’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 revival. I mean, I saw it as a kid, but I remember being fundamentally unimpressed by it even then — and now I remember why : it’s basically a 90-ish minute McDonald’s (and Coke, and Skittles — but mainly Mickey D’s) commercial strung out over the barest skeleton of a script.

If you think that’s too harsh an assessment, I assure you it’s not, and offer this mercifully brief “plot” synopsis as proof : wheelchair-bound youth Eric Cruise (played with an annoying level of over-sincerity, but no discernible talent, by Jade Calegory), his older brother, Michael (Jonathan Ward), and their mom, Janet (Christine Ebersole) are in the midst of a cross-country move from Chicago to California when an alien who was literally vacuumed aboard a NASA planetary lander along with his the family he’s now separated from stows away in the back of their mini-van after escaping government custody. Once set up in their new digs, the Cruise clan is subject to a series of weird “alien interventions,” such as when the little guy inexplicably decides to replicate the wooded area outside — in the living room of their house. The feds are hot on the tail of this extraterrestrial varmint, whom Eric has nicknamed “Mac” (for “Mysterious Alien Creature”), but fear not, as these bungling buffoons are no match for a gang of plucky teenagers led by our protagonist brothers and the literal girls next door, Debbie (Lauren Stanley) and senior sis Courtney (Katrina Caspary), who works at — McDonald’s. The kids (and several of their ostensible “friends”) are all having fun dancing and running around (keep your eyes peeled for a youthful Jennifer Aniston and Nikki Cox in the crowd of merry-makers) at a birthday party at — McDonald’s when the G-Men make their move, but by cleverly disguising “Mac” in a full-body teddy bear costume they manage to give ’em the slip and get him to his family (no need for these folks to “phone home” since they have some sort of psychic communication “wavelength” they conjure up by means of — their hands?) that’s hiding in a cave. The Earth’s atmosphere is making our visitors sick, but fortunately Coke restores them to full health, and Skittles fill their bellies with happy butterflies, and then it’s time for them to head back to their home planet after saying some less-than-tearful (for us, at any rate) farewells.

Plot holes abound in this cinematic abomination, the most noticeable probably being when Eric first gets the idea to capture “Mac” with a vacuum cleaner even though he has no reason to believe that’s gonna work because he wasn’t on the alien planet when it happened before, but that’s immaterial : something tells me that Raffill and his co-screenwriter, Steve Feke, didn’t cobble their script together to make sense, but to sell product. “Mac” is literally always drinking Coke, for instance, and Courtney has a habit of wearing her McDonald’s work uniform around even when she’s off the clock. Product placement is one thing, but Mac And Me makes all of its sponsors central to the proceedings, dispensing with the notion of “incidental” brand identification completely. It’s entirely blatant, entirely annoying, and frankly entirely cynical.

But hey, you can’t say these corporations didn’t get their money’s worth : as it turns out, producer R.J. Louis (fresh off a massive hit with The Karate Kid) actually got McDonald’s to more or less finance the entire film from top to bottom, with Coke and Skittles kicking in just enough to get in on the action, as well. So this thing doesn’t just look or feel like an extended promo spot — that’s exactly what it is. Say what you will for the Reese’s Pieces inclusion in E.T., but at least Steven Spielberg worked it into the movie rather than going the Raffill/Louis route of working a cutesy “family-friendly” science fiction yarn into their ad.

I guess the production values aren’t too bad — the alien “family” is competently-realized and the vacuuming scenes are a rather impressive example of pre-CGI effects, but that’s all I can really say in this flick’s favor : the acting is uniformly lousy, the plot is derivative and predictable, the characters are wooden in the extreme, the laughs (hell, even chuckles) are non-existent, and there is never any sense of threat or menace from the NASA (or FBI, or whatever) cops. It doesn’t even feel like anybody’s trying.

Fortunately, this crass slab of celluloid commercialization met the fate it deserved at the box office, disappearing after two weeks and a six-million-dollar gross, and while it’s available on both DVD and Blu-ray, it’s not like it’s some cult favorite that sells in steady and respectable numbers. I dare say I’m far from the only person who forgot about it altogether until the “riffed” MST3K version became available for streaming, and while it’s far from one of the series’ classic installments, if you’re gonna subject yourself to this dreck, watching Jonah, Crow, and Tom Servo rip it to shreds is the only way of making the experience bearable.

The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away : in this case of director Faith R. Johnson’s 2017 “found footage” direct-to-video horror, The Faith Community, he (or she) appears to do a bit of both.

On the “giveth” side of the ledger, we’re not saddled with anything too extraneous here, plot-wise, in Johnson and co-writer Robert A. Trezza’s script : college-age students Hannah (played by Janessa Floyd) and Andrew (Aidan Hart) are devout Christians determined to win over their skeptic friend (and wannabe-filmmaker, he’s the guy “documenting” the proceedings) Colin (Jeffrey Brabent) and, to that end, they’re taking him to a much-talked-about “Bible camp” in the woods to experience the wonder of “God’s Green Earth” or something. It’s a simple, punchy premise that does the job quickly and succinctly, and once they arrive, shit gets pretty interesting — at first.

A rather graphic, even brutal, stage-play rendition of the story of Adam and Eve is the “entertainment” on offer for our protagonists’ first evening at Camp Nazareth, but it’s not the amateur theatrics that the trio is particularly interested in : they’re hot to meet the group’s leader, a charismatic figure known only as “The Messenger” (Jeremy Harris). Their “mockumentary” interviews with said Messenger, his right-hand man/cousin Michael (Oliver Palmer), and the various “happy campers” are uniformly gripping and smartly-written, with Harris’ performance going some way toward making even making them fun, as he’s clearly relishing his chance to play cult guru, and our principal characters are also fleshed out nicely both during these sequences and those surrounding them in the early going, just enough information being provided about their pasts in order to explain their views toward religion and make their various “arcs” seem quite believable, the two “true believers” becoming quick devotees of The Messenger’s — errrmmm — message of impending Apocalypse/Rapture, and the atheist “odd man out” feeling even more odd as his friends succumb to the sway of the camp’s insular “hive-mind” thinking.

Giving away any more of the story would probably be saying too much, but there are some aspects that strain credulity, such as Michael’s belief that he’s the so-called “Angel Of Death,” and I guess that’s as good a segue as any into the “taketh away” half of the equation : Johnson’s clearly trying here, but the overall tone of her direction is so flat and dispassionate that it makes it tough for audiences to invest themselves emotionally in what’s happening. This is a common (and in no way always accurate) knock on the “found footage” sub-genre in general, but it’s especially pronounced here and even begins to grate after awhile. The Xs and Os of the story are interesting enough that you want to buy into what Johnson is selling here, but then she does her level best, clearly more by accident than design, to say “thanks for watching, but there’s no need for you to care about this too much.”

The acting’s pretty good on the whole among the principal players, but that only goes so far, and while the single-camera trope makes sense from both a stylistic and budgetary perspective, it stops effectively covering up the absolute amateurism of many of the shots about halfway through and worse, as events spiral out of control in the pivotal “third act,” they end up coming off as more ridiculous than threatening. One of the characters — and I won’t say who, other than it’s not who you’d necessarily expect — even delivers a long, rambling monologue for the camera that’s just plain embarrassing but is meant to come off as ominous in the extreme. Points for trying, I guess, sure — but not much more than that.

And while we’re on the subject of “not much more,” this one isn’t worth much more of my time to write about, or yours to read about. It’s streaming for free on Amazon Prime right now if you feel like checking it out (and is most likely also available on DVD, although I didn’t bother to confirm that), but seriously — for sheer entertainment value, not to mention horror quotient, you’re probably better off reading the Bible. That’s always good for laughs and chills in equal measure, while The Faith Community ends up delivering the former inadvertently, and the latter not at all.

It’s always a little bit tricky doing an advance review of a film that hasn’t been released yet — yeah, okay, this isn’t my first time doing it, but it’s been awhile — but when a quick Google search lets you know that your appraisal will be the first posted anywhere? Then you’re playing with fire, at least to a certain extent. I mean, a lot’s going to hinge on what you have to say — hell, in a very real sense, the success or failure of the flick in question rests at least partially on your shoulders.

You’ve got some real freedom, though, too — no one can say other opinions influenced yours, no one can accuse you of being part of an “echo chamber,” no one can point out similarities between what you’ve written and what someone else has. Not that anyone’s ever said that about my stuff, mind you —

Okay, that’s a bit more preamble than you normally might be expecting, granted, but I think a certain amount of context here is important because now’s when we get into the “full disclosure” part of the proceedings : old friend of this site, New Jersey micro-budget maestro Ryan Callaway, reached out to me looking for a review for his latest, Let’s Not Meet, sent me a (somewhat unfinished, but pretty close) “screener,” and asked if I could have it ready in advance of its Amazon Prime VOD “street date” of September 30th (well, its free “street date” — I believe it’s available on Amazon for purchase already, it’s out on DVD, and it screened in some East Coast theaters back on August 31st). I told him sure, but not simply because I think Callaway’s a cool guy — more because he’s a fair one. I haven’t been entirely kind to some of his earlier productions, but it’s not like I told him to give up on the whole “movie thing” and see if his local Wal-Mart is hiring. I’ve pointed out what he’s done well, what he’s done less than well, where I think his lack of resources hindered him, and where the “low-fi” aesthetic he’s necessarily forced to adhere to has actually been beneficial. He’s been magnanimous about accepting every piece of constructive criticism, and (if I may be so bold) it even appears that he’s even taken some of my suggestions to heart, all of which is to say —

Let’s Not Meet is probably his best film to date. It’s not perfect — circumstances almost flat-out dictate that it can’t be — but it’s pretty damn good, it’s well worth your time, and now comes the part where I tell you why —

As is the case with most of Callaway’s Shady Dawn Productions features (this time Callaway is in his usual role of writer/director, while his producers are wife Amy and Sabine Davids), this one has a sprawling, ensemble cast, but the focus starts out tight and moves outward from there  : pizza delivery woman Aya Becker (played with considerable aplomb by Breanna Engle) is making her final stop of the night when she wises up to the fact that whoever owns the house she’s just entered (don’t worry, there’s a note by the doorbell, no “B and E” going on here) is attempting to lure her into some sort of trap. She’s nothing if not resourceful and quick on her feet, though, so making her escape isn’t too big a problem — but once she skedaddles, that’s when the real intrigue begins, as she encounters a group of campers who are in the midst of a terrifying and rather mysterious ordeal of their own. How are these events connected? Who, exactly, is everyone fleeing from? How are they going to make it out alive? And what’s all this got to do with a dead Satanic cult leader? As this is, again, an advance review (okay, of sorts), I’m going to studiously avoid anything that even steps the tiniest of toes into “spoiler” territory, but that doesn’t prevent me from opining in a general sense, does it? Not in the least —

As I said, the cast eventually expands out to more traditional “Callaway size,” but his actors are generally all bringing their “A” game for this one, whether we’re talking about Shady Dawn veterans like Hiram Ortiz, Ken Llamas, Tiffany Browne-Ortiz, and Carmine Giordano, or first-timers such as Georgette Vaillancourt, Kate Kenney, Millie Ortiz, or the aforementioned Engle. Not everyone is a professional, that much is obvious, but everybody punches above their weight class, and certainly no one comes off as “cardboard,” much less cringe-worthy. Those of us who know the micro-budget world pretty well know just how rare that is — especially when there are this many performers on hand.

If you believe as I do that representation matters, especially in the formerly all-white world of genre cinema, Callaway is a welcome breath of fresh air in that he always puts together diverse ensembles of actors, and women are usally the primary movers-and-shakers in his scripts, all of which is true here, but he’s thankfully toned down his author’s urge to give them all hyper-detailed backstories and instead puts just enough “meat” on their narrative “bones” to make their motivations seem sincere and their actions “in character.” He goes a bit overboard here and there on the extended dialogue scenes, and as a result the film is a little bit longer than it needs to be, but it’s not padded out by 30 or 40 wholly unnecessary minutes, as some of his past productions have been. In other words — he’s learning what works and what doesn’t as he goes along, and his increasing confidence as a filmmaker is showing in other ways, as well, with more strong shot compositions, better timing of key story “beats,” etc.

Best of all, though, this flick is just plain fun. It’s reasonably suspenseful, sure, but it doesn’t take itself too terribly seriously all the time, it doesn’t push against the boundaries of its limitations, and it never tries to pretend it’s something other, or greater, than it is. All of which is to say, Callaway and his cohorts clearly set out to make a solidly-executed little tongue-in-cheek horror/ thriller amalgamation here  — and that’s exactly what Let’s Not Meet is.

 

 

 

After finding myself considerably more than pleased with writer/director Scott Frank’s 2014 adaptation of modern noir master Lawrence Block’s gritty PI drama A Walk Among The Tombstones, I decided, in spite (or maybe because?) of its 0% Rotten Tomatoes score, to track down the only other cinematic take on Block’s work (and, more specifically, on his legendary protagonist, former-cop-turned-unlicensed-gumshoe Matt Scudder), 1986’s 8 Million Ways To Die. As things turned out, I had to go the Blu-ray route with this one since it’s not available for streaming anywhere so far as I can tell, but hey, things could have been worse — the Kino Lorber Blu (and,I presume, DVD, although I didn’t actually check to see if it’s available in that format) is actually a semi-recent release, dating back to October of 2017, and if I’d been determined to track this flick down before that, I may have been forced to rely on, say, the kind of seedy underworld connections that Scudder himself has to depend on from time to time.

Speaking of Scudder, this earlier celluloid incarnation is brought to life by Jeff Bridges, who’s certainly rock solid in the title role, bobbing and weaving between every sort of psychological polarity possible as he takes on what first appears to be a fairly open-and-shut case of a prostitute named Sunny (played by Alexandra Paul) who wants to get out from under the clutches of her pimp, Chance (Randy Brooks), only to suddenly find himself in the midst of  a murder investigation when she turns up dead and he ends up saddled with a self-appointed “partner” in the form of another hooker, Sarah (Rosanna Arquette), whose reasons for putting herself in the middle of such an obviously dangerous situation are as complex and elusive as everything else about this feisty potential femme fatale. All signs point to Chance being the killer right out of the gate, of course, but Scudder is soon glad for the extra help he’s got when it turns out that the actual culprit might very well be coolly sociopathic drug boss Angel Maldonado, played with understated-but-no-doubt-thick menace by Andy Garcia.

Oh, and did I mention that Scudder is barely six months sober, and that the more stressful this case gets, the better the bottle starts looking to him?

Hal Ashby may seem an interesting choice to direct an ostensible hard-boiled thriller like this, given that he’s best known for cult-favorite comedies like Harold And Maude and Being There, but he captures the seedy L.A. underworld of the early-to-mid 1980s with a considerable amount of sleek style and “street-level”authenticity that, fair enough, isn’t gonna make anybody forget about To Live And Die In L.A., much less Vice Squad, anytime too soon, but will certainly do in a pinch — and he undoubtedly gets a series of terrific performances from each and every one of his principal players. This, then, is the point at which you are more or less obligated to wonder this film died at the box office so quickly, has such a lousy reputation (as well as that 0% RT score), and was even unavailable for home viewing, apart from its initial VHS release, until about nine months ago.

My theory? It’s all down to one serious mess of a screenplay.

Oliver Stone made the first pass at it and is, the film historians tell me, the guy responsible for transposing the action from its original printed-page setting of New York to the West Coast, but when his treatment failed to make the studio happy, R. Lance Hall was brought in for another go at things — only to find his version largely re-written by an uncredited Robert Towne. Ashby, however, fundamentally dissatisfied with even this third script, encouraged his actors to simply improvise when and where it suited both them and him, and as a result, we end up with a movie that has a very consistent look and feel that’s constantly undermined by its scattershot, near-pathologically inconsistent tone. A movie that knows what it wants to appear to be, but little to no idea of what it actually is.

In his introduction to the recent, and highly faithful, graphic novel adaptation of his book by writer/artist John K. Snyder III (which retains the original title of Eight Million Ways To Die — no numeric shorthand here! — and is well worth checking out), author Block makes his disdain for this film pretty clear (even while singling out Bridges and Garcia for deserved praise), and I can certainly see why he wouldn’t care too much for it but, unlike most critics, I can’t bring myself to see it as a total loss. The acting is too strong, and the directing too assured, for that. It’s not great, mind you, and maybe not even especially good, but it’s easy enough to see that there was something that probably could have been pretty special hidden underneath all those re-writes (official and otherwise) — and that seems to be the view taken by Bridges in the full-length commentary track included on the disc, as well as in the various on-camera interviews with Arquette, Paul, Garcia, and Block himself that, along with a stills gallery, round out Kino Lorber’s fairly comprehensive extras package.

All told, then, 8 Million Ways To Die is far from the unmitigated disaster that it is, largely, remembered as — to the extent that it’s remembered at all. It’s probably of interest only to the curious, granted, but if you number yourself among that crowd, what the hell — it’s worth at least a rental, although probably no more than that.