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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: MERCENARIES (2014); PALO ALTO (2014); and SWELTER (2014)

MERCENARIES
(US - 2014)



One of the very few titles from The Asylum to actually be released in theaters (not counting one-off crowd-participation SHARKNADO screenings for people who think SHARKNADO is a cult movie), MERCENARIES is a little more straight-faced than the typical pre-fab cult movie nonsense to roll off the company's mockbuster assembly line. Whether it's cheesy monster movies along the lines of the SHARKNADO phenomenon, MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS and MEGA PYTHON VS. GATOROID, or shameless no-budget knockoffs like I AM OMEGA, TRANSMORPHERS, SUNDAY SCHOOL MUSICAL, STREET RACER, and TITANIC II, The Asylum has become synonymous with self-aware shittiness. MERCENARIES is their EXPENDABLES mockbuster, given a limited release on a handful of screens and VOD a week before THE EXPENDABLES 3, and the twist is that the heroes are all ass-kicking women in a bid to beat Sylvester Stallone's proposed EXPENDABELLES spinoff to screens (which probably isn't going to happen anyway). MERCENARIES has what probably passes for witty, self-referential dialogue, at least as much as screenwriter Edward DeRuiter is capable of pulling off, but it generally plays it straight and keeps the winking snark to a minimum. It's obvious The Asylum was taking this one a little more seriously than most of their productions and were using it to see if they could compete with the big dogs at the multiplex.  Alas, they can't. The opening credits are video-burned and the explosions all look like they were done with the Action Movie FX app on director Christopher Douglas-Olen Ray's iPhone. Ray is the son of veteran hack Fred Olen Ray, who's cranked out around 150 action and exploitation films under various names since the late '70s. The elder Ray almost had a real career at one point in the late '80s when he was giving prominent roles to aging, past-their-prime actors years before Quentin Tarantino made it trendy, but now he and Jim Wynorski pretty much have the market cornered on helming the kind of no-budget Skinemax films that run on cable at 3:00 am or terrible kiddie movies that have their world premieres on Netflix Instant. Christopher proves that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, as he's found consistent work as one of the in-house Asylum guys, and there's a few fleeting moments where MERCENARIES looks like a perfectly acceptable DTV-level actioner like his old man used to make, at least until the crappy CGI and digital blood start derailing it. MERCENARIES' biggest sin is that it's just boring, with an endless, talky mid-section that brings the whole thing to a standstill.


The film has a game cast, headed by DEATH PROOF's Zoe Bell, TERMINATOR 3 star and Uwe Boll regular Kristanna Loken, KILL BILL star-turned-TV fixture Vivica A. Fox, and BRING IT ON's Nicole Bilderback as a team of disgraced military and CIA washouts sprung from prison by NSA head Kendall ('90s DTV action star Cynthia Rothrock) when the President's daughter (Tiffany Panhilason) is abducted by international terrorist Ulrika (Stallone ex-wife and RED SONJA herself, Brigitte Nielsen). Their job: rescue the First Daughter and bring Ulrika in alive and get full pardons for their past offenses. Bell fares better here than in the unwatchable RAZE, and the others seem to be enjoying themselves, but MERCENARIES isn't nearly as fun as it should be. Some instances of ridiculous dialogue provide some occasional amusement--Rothrock describing Nielsen as "an Amazonian she-bitch in the backwoods of Shitholistan" and Fox declaring "Hell, I might even fuck George Clooney...with a strap-on!"--and segues between scenes being depicted as comic book panels show that Ray and The Asylum have the right idea, but MERCENARIES needs a better director, a better script, and a bigger budget. The action scenes are mostly competently-staged but unexciting and for every quotable zinger we get, there's ten than clang to the ground ("I don't know who's the bigger bitch...you or her" and Bell replying to "So what's the plan?" with "We go PMS From Hell on this place!"). The title quartet is fine, Rothrock is funny, and Nielsen attacks her role with gusto, so on one hand, being that it's an Asylum joint, MERCENARIES is marginally better than you might expect, but as far as theatrical releases go, they still aren't ready for the big leagues. The cast came ready to party--it's too bad the material didn't match their enthusiasm. (Unrated, 89 mins)


PALO ALTO
(US - 2014)



James Franco produced and co-stars in this adaptation of his short story collection Palo Alto Stories, a film that marks the writing and directing debut of Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and niece of Sofia Coppola. Gia inspired and helped shape her grandfather's most recent film, the very personal TWIXT (2012), and the pair have always shared a special and tragic bond: Gia's father Gio Coppola was killed in a speedboat accident in 1986, seven months before she was born. There's no doubt Grandfather Francis takes extra pride in seeing Gia represent the next generation in the Coppola legacy.  PALO ALTO isn't a particularly distinguished debut--some good performances carry it through but the storylines have a too-familiar feel to them. We've seen too many films like this before and PALO ALTO has nothing new to say. Nevertheless, it's well-made and it's nice to see the sense of genuine love and support of Coppola family members putting in appearances in support of the first-time director. Franco's book and Coppola's film follow a loosely-connected narrative of teen angst and excess. Adults are difficult to find in this world, and the ones that are around are ineffective and irresponsible. Virginal nice-girl April (Emma Roberts) is on the soccer team and has a crush on affable stoner Teddy (a debuting Jack Kilmer, Val's lookalike son). Teddy constantly falls victim to the bad influence of his obnoxious buddy Fred (Nat Wolff of THE NAKED BROTHERS BAND), who's using April's promiscuous friend Emily (Zoe Levin). April also finds herself drawn to Mr. B (Franco), her soccer coach and a single dad who frequently has her babysit his young son. Not nearly as caustic and abrasive as Larry Clark's 1995 "wake-up call to the world" KIDS, PALO ALTO is cut from the same cloth as hard-R post-KIDS teen dramas like THIRTEEN (2003), HAVOC (2005) and TWELVE (2010), which also co-starred Roberts. It's perfectly watchable but fairly standard-issue and forgettable, though Roberts is good and young Kilmer shows promise. The large cast of familiar faces also includes Val Kilmer as April's stoner stepdad, Chris Messina, Colleen Camp, Marshall Bell, Janet Jones Gretzky, Don Novello, Margaret Qualley (THE LEFTOVERS), Christian Madsen (son of Michael), Ana Bogdanovich (Peter's sister), and Coppola family members Talia Shire, Jacqui Getty (Gia's mom), and the voice of Francis as a judge sentencing Teddy to community service after a DUI hit and run. (R, 100 mins)




SWELTER
(US - 2014)



Meeting a demand that doesn't exist, SWELTER arrives in 2014 looking and feeling a lot like any number of Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez knockoffs that were taking up space on video store shelves in the late 1990s. It's got a quartet of criminals in matching black suits to remind you of RESERVOIR DOGS. It's got a shitkicker bar to remind you of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. It's got hip pop culture dissertations and references to people like Joey Bishop and Jayne Mansfield to remind you of other possible waiters and waitresses at Jack Rabbit Slim's in PULP FICTION. And it also wears its western influences--Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, in particular--on its sleeve. But writer/director Keith Parmer doesn't come close to emulating the style, pace, and filmmaking skills of Tarantino or an in-his-prime Rodriguez, and despite some potential and one standout supporting performance, SWELTER is a draggy, dreary, and dull endurance test of a thriller. After ten years in prison for a Vegas casino heist they pulled off while wearing Rat Pack masks that look nothing like the members of the Rat Pack, a crew of vengeful criminals have arrived in the "middle of fucking nowhere" Death Valley town of Baker in the midst of a record-shattering heat wave. There's leader Cole (Grant Bowler of the SyFy series DEFIANCE) and his psychotic younger brother Kane (co-producer Daniele Favilli), who are in no way characters influenced by the Gecko brothers in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, along with hot-tempered Boyd (Josh Henderson) and the calm, reserved Stillman (Jean-Claude Van Damme in some offbeat and ultimately squandered casting). They're in Baker looking for Sheriff Bishop (busy TV actor Lennie James), who suffers from amnesia and can't remember the events that brought him to Baker a decade earlier. It turns out he used to be known as Pike (also, "Pike Bishop" being the name of William Holden's character in THE WILD BUNCH) and was the fifth member of Cole's Rat Pack crew. Bishop/Pike made off with the $10 million but suffered a head injury in the escape and can't remember what he did with the loot. That's not a good enough excuse for Cole, who wants his money and Bishop's girlfriend (MARIA FULL OF GRACE Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno)--his ex--back.


It's clear that Parmer is a fan of old westerns and running that through a late '90s indie crime thriller filter isn't a bad idea in theory, but nothing in SWELTER works. The pace is extremely slow, the characters are cardboard cutouts, and only a slumming Alfred Molina as the drunk town doc manages to hold your attention, but he's not in it nearly enough. It's nice to see British actor James getting the lead role in a feature, but he's been better-utilized elsewhere. Parmer's biggest blunder is wasting an opportunity to let Van Damme show his range. Van Damme appearing in character actor mode is a significant departure from the norm for him, so I'm utterly bewildered as to why he's saddled with the thankless role of Grant Bowler's sidekick. Bowler's OK in a third-string Sean Bean kind-of way, but not having Van Damme play the chief villain is an absolutely boneheaded decision on everyone's part. Subplots about Bishop's girlfriend's daughter (Freya Tingley) and the town preacher (Arie Verveen) only exist to pad the running time until the final showdown between Bishop and Cole, complete with a background windmill making the same creaking noise as the one in the opening sequence of a ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. The references are nice and Parmer is obviously a movie nerd who knows his shit, but you have to bring more to the table than that. Giving Van Damme a reason to be in the movie other than serving as the most prominently displayed cast member in the DVD cover art would've been a good first step. At one point, Van Damme groans "I'm getting too old for this shit." Indeed you are, sir. (R, 100 mins)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

In Theaters: THE DROP (2014)


THE DROP
(US/UK - 2014)

Directed by Michael R. Roskam. Written by Dennis Lehane. Cast: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz, Michael Aranov, Ann Dowd, Elizabeth Rodriguez, James Frecheville, Morgan Spector. (R, 107 mins)

Best-selling novelist Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island) scripted this adaptation of his short story "Animal Rescue" (also the film's working title) and moved the location from his usual haunt of Boston to the kind of blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhood that hasn't changed in decades. THE DROP is one of those low-key crime dramas from the FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE school that focuses on the "working-class stiff" element of the underworld, populated by guys who know guys with names like "Fitz" and "Sully" and barely scrape by as they nickel-and-dime their way through life. The characters in THE DROP have seen better days, and while some have made peace with their past and where it's taken them, others can't move on and do what they can do revisit a time that's never coming back. There's a profound sense of melancholy throughout THE DROP that's made even more poignant by the presence of the late James Gandolfini in his last film. Gandolfini, who died about three months after filming wrapped, isn't the central focus, but his presence--both his character and the actor himself--is felt in nearly every scene. Gandolfini was a distinctive actor who could also convey volumes with just a glance or a facial expression. Of course, he could also bellow like the best of them, and when he delivers the kind of line that a million other actors have delivered but sounds especially awesome when yelled by James Gandolfini ("What the fuck are you talkin' about?"), it's a joy for his fans to see that he went out with a good role in a good film that utilized him in the best possible fashion.  He'll be missed.


THE DROP refers to a "drop bar," a rotating list of mob-owned bars in the Brooklyn area that serve as money drop-off and pickup points. Cousin Marv's is such a bar, and Marv (Gandolfini) still manages the place even though he was muscled out as owner a decade earlier when some Chechan gangsters took over. Now he answers to Chovka (Michael Aranov) and barely scrapes by serving shots to his dwindling number of regulars. His only regular employee is his cousin Bob (Tom Hardy). Bob is a quiet, introverted, church-going loner who shuffles around and only speaks when he absolutely has to. He has a kind heart, which gets him in trouble with Marv when he keeps giving free drinks to an area homeless woman, allowing her just a few hours each day to hang out in a quiet corner of the bar where she doesn't bother anyone. Bob's kindness extends to taking care of an injured, bloodied pit bull puppy he discovers in a trashcan in the yard of waitress Nadia (Noomi Rapace) on his walk home from work one night. The dog belongs to Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), an intimidating neighborhood goon who used to date Nadia. Deeds beat the dog and threw it in Nadia's trash and keeps following Bob and showing up at his house demanding he turn it over to him. Deeds' stalking of Bob coincides with Bob and Marv getting some heat from Chovka after Cousin Marv's is robbed by a couple of masked gunmen who make off with $5000. Chovka wants his money and hasn't ruled out Bob and Marv pulling off an inside job, and Bob is also forced to contend with the skeptical detective (John Ortiz) investigating the robbery.


THE DROP is directed by Belgian filmmaker Michael R. Roskam, making his Hollywood debut. Roskam's arthouse breakthrough came with the brilliant 2011 film BULLHEAD, an Oscar-nominee for Best Foreign Language Film that featured a stunning performance by Schoenaerts, a gifted Belgian actor (he also played a similar Brooklyn tough guy role in this year's little-seen BLOOD TIES) who you can expect to be hearing a lot more from in years to come. Roskam does a terrific job of capturing a seedy side of Brooklyn that you don't see much of onscreen anymore in these days of hipster gentrification. The focus is more on character than action, and while the film isn't quite the mainstream audience alienator that something like, say, KILLING THEM SOFTLY was, it's certainly in that vicinity in terms of style and tone. In many ways, THE DROP feels a bit like something Sidney Lumet might've made in the late '90s or early '00s. It's a small-scale, simple little film that doesn't rely much on style, instead focusing on mood and atmosphere. This is a Brooklyn where homes have been in the family since post-WWII and sales of plastic furniture covers are still strong (and Marv still lives with his doting older sister, played by Ann Dowd). Hardy's performance is a case study in tightly-coiled tension, a time-bomb waiting to go off but doing so in a way that defies expectation. Like the film, Bob plays his cards close to the vest, and while he seems a little slow-witted at times and some even treat him as such, it comes to be seen as a defense mechanism. Bob has a past that he doesn't want to relive--note the calm and matter-of-fact way he deals with the discovery of a severed arm--and lives as solitary a life as possible to hold off the inevitable forces that he fears will eventually pull him back into that world. He never tries to be a hero until he's exhausted every other possible option. In LOCKE, Hardy played a pressured man boxed in by the confines of his car, but in THE DROP, his pressured character is boxed in by his own design. Rapace's Nadia is equally guarded about her own past, which includes Deeds as well as a nasty scar on her neck. They bond through the puppy, whom Nadia names Rocco, but both are shy, reserved, and hesitant to take anything further. Rapace played a somewhat similar role in last year's underappreciated DEAD MAN DOWN, and while she's a fine actress, she seems a bit miscast here, struggling and failing to hide her Swedish accent while Schoenaerts nails an absolutely perfect Brooklyn tone.


THE DROP will likely bore those looking for a gangster shoot-'em-up, and it's the kind of modestly-budgeted studio film that plays more like an indie. It's familiar, but overall, it's a fine film with an almost-throwback mentality to it. Roskam doesn't seek to break new ground in the crime genre and doesn't pretend his is the first film with a reluctant anti-hero pulled back into a life he's spent years trying to flee. While there are fleeting bursts of action and graphic violence, THE DROP is more concerned with being a compelling character piece and on that front, it's a success, anchored by the always-intriguing Hardy with excellent support from Schoenaerts and Gandolfini.


James Gandolfini (1961-2013)




Thursday, September 11, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: GOD'S POCKET (2014) and BORGMAN (2014)

GOD'S POCKET
(US - 2014)



The feature writing/directing debut of MAD MEN co-star John Slattery is an indie labor of love, based on a 1983 novel by then-Philadelphia Daily News columnist Pete Dexter, inspired by South Philly's Schuylkill neighborhood, known back in the day as "Devil's Pocket." In 1981, Dexter was badly beaten outside a bar by some Devil's Pocket locals who took umbrage with a column he wrote, and that incident is worked into GOD'S POCKET, a well-meaning but slight and flimsy slice-of-life saga that got a middling reaction from Sundance audiences and probably wouldn't have received any post-festival attention at all were it not for the unexpected passing of star Philip Seymour Hoffman in February, just three weeks after he was in Park City promoting it and A MOST WANTED MAN. GOD'S POCKET was commercially released before A MOST WANTED MAN but shot after, making it notable as the last film Hoffman completed before his death (he was nearly finished with his work on the next two simultaneously-shot HUNGER GAMES installments and will still be in both, due out in December 2014 and December 2015). But beyond that and being able to see the great actor in one of his final performances, GOD'S POCKET is pretty forgettable, the kind of film that usually gets accolades at festivals and is never mentioned again. But even the Sundance crowd didn't get that enthused about it. It's not a bad movie by any stretch, but it's rather aimless and has no real purpose. There's some interesting moments, Slattery and co-producer Hoffman were old friends (and they had a great scene together in 2007's CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR), and Slattery also brought along his MAD MEN co-star Christina Hendricks, but GOD'S POCKET is a film where the actors are having more fun than the audience. One is reminded of the old Gene Siskel quote where he would ask "Is this movie more interesting than the same group of actors having lunch?"  No, not really. Watching Slattery, Hoffman, Hendricks, John Turturro, Eddie Marsan, and Richard Jenkins bullshit over pizza and beers would be a far more interesting experience than the bland GOD'S POCKET.


One thing Slattery does right is expressing the period detail in a matter-of-fact fashion without beating you over the head with it. It takes place in the late '70s and he doesn't swamp you with disco hits of the era to make sure you realize that. Of course, a tired, late-film montage to Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" negates that, but still, the effort is appreciated. God's Pocket is the kind of proud, blue collar enclave where, if you aren't from there, you'll never belong. Mickey Scarpato (Hoffman) is such a guy. A meat salesman and very small-time criminal, Mickey is married to Jeanie (Hendricks), a cop's widow whose son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones of ANTIVIRAL) is killed at a construction site after mouthing off and hurling racial slurs at an elderly black worker. The workers all claim that he hit his head in an accident, but Jeanie isn't buying it and tells Mickey to dig further. But Mickey's preoccupied with paying for Leon's funeral, and he's stuck dealing with price-gouging funeral home owner Smilin' Jack Moran (Marsan), as well as trying to sell his refrigerated truck, which gets stolen while Leon's body--tossed out of Smilin' Jack's funeral home when Mickey couldn't pay the bill--is in the back of it. There's some fleeting moments where some dark humor earns the film some points, and things pick up considerably whenever Hoffman and Turturro (as his gambling-debt-saddled, bad-luck pal) are onscreen together, but too much of GOD'S POCKET just rambles along with no particular place to go, especially the subplot about an alcoholic newspaper columnist (Jenkins) ostensibly trying to dig for the details of Leon's death but really trying to get Jeanie into bed. The film's time element is also badly-handled, with it supposedly taking place over three days, but with entirely too much happening in that small window of time. While it was always a privilege to see Hoffman at work, this won't go down as one of his more memorable films or standout performances. (R, 89 mins)



BORGMAN
(Netherlands/France/Belgium/Denmark - 2013; US release 2014)


Dutch actor/filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam's BORGMAN is loosely inspired by Jean Renoir's 1932 film BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING, itself remade by Paul Mazursky in 1986 as DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS. BORGMAN takes the concept to a misanthropic extreme as the title character (Jan Bijvoet) has far more sinister, yet still vague, plans in store for the bourgeois family whose home he insidiously infiltrates. As the film opens, Borgman and several mysterious vagrants are being pursued from a small town by a group of men--including a priest--hoisting shotguns and axes. Borgman, sporting long, unkempt hair and a madman beard, is separated from his cohorts and ends up at the front door of Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and his wife Marina (Hadewych Minis). Borgman insinuates that he knows Marina, which is enough to set Richard off as he beats Borgman and accuses his wife of hiding something from him. Feeling sorry for who she believes to be a homeless unfortunate, Marina permits Borgman to bathe when Richard leaves for work, and allows him to stay in the guest house for a day or two if he stays out of sight. Of course, Borgman enters the house and interacts with the children (who call him a "magician") and the family's disgruntled nanny Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen). Borgman seemingly casts a spell on all of them and phones his cohorts (van Warmerdam among them), who arrive and begin systematically murdering people associated with the family--the gardener, the doctor, anyone who may visit the house--putting their heads in cement and dumping the bodies at the bottom of a nearby lake so they can assume their identities and get on the property. Borgman leaves but returns, clean-shaven, well-groomed, and recognized only by Marina, as Richard hires him to take on the suddenly vacated gardener position. Borgman brings his associates along with him as they move in and slowly take over the household, already on shaky ground with unspoken tension between Richard and Marina. This tension is only magnified with the presence of Borgman, who crouches nude over Marina while she sleeps and somehow influences her dreams with imagery that violently turns her against her husband.


BORGMAN had some interesting potential, but it's heavy-handed and painfully obvious in its soapbox statement-making. Before Borgman inserts himself into their lives, Marina complains of feeling "a warmth that intoxicates but also confuses," all but spelling out that she'll be sexually drawn to Borgman and doing so in ways that no normal person would convey. Van Warmerdam also makes some ham-fisted points about class struggles, as Marina feels overwhelming guilt about their affluence and good fortune, with Borgman representing punishment for their success and upper-class privilege. Marina is also tone-deaf to her hypocrisy, secretly allowing Borgman on the premises early on while later chastising Stine, who politely requests that her on-leave-from-the-military boyfriend be allowed to stay overnight, with a firm "No...I've got to know who I've got under my roof." Bijvoet is OK as Borgman, but the more the film goes on, the more obscure his motives become and he's more or less just part of the scenery while the family--slowly being poisoned literally and figuratively--disintegrates around him. BORGMAN is essentially the Renoir and Mazursky films revamped through a Michael Haneke filter. We've been down this road before with Haneke's 1997 and 2008 versions of FUNNY GAMES and Yorgos Lanthimos' DOGTOOTH (2009), and the tedious BORGMAN brings little new to the table other than tame transgression and a ponderous sense of self-importance. (Unrated, 113 mins)


Friday, September 5, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: NIGHT MOVES (2014); WHITEWASH (2014); and THE LOVE PUNCH (2014)

NIGHT MOVES
(US/Brazil - 2014)



It's a ballsy move for any film, regardless of the genre, to call itself NIGHT MOVES after Arthur Penn's 1975 masterpiece that makes a perfect Gene Hackman double bill of existential cynicism with the previous year's THE CONVERSATION. This NIGHT MOVES has no relation to the Hackman film but stands on its own as a taut, methodical nail-biter that builds very slowly until you realize just how tightly director/co-writer Kelly Reichardt has you wound. Reichardt is one of the true originals in American cinema in recent years, her minimalist ideals creating memorable works like OLD JOY (2006), the heartbreaking WENDY AND LUCY (2008), and the revisionist western MEEK'S CUTOFF (2011), the kind of covered-wagon period piece where the filmmaker actually takes several minutes of screen time for the heroine to go through every tedious step of loading a frontier-era shotgun. Reichardt and regular co-writer Jon Raymond are known for their obfuscating, open-ended conclusions and deliberate pacing, and the first hour of NIGHT MOVES is slow enough that it makes MEEK'S CUTOFF look like STAGECOACH. But it's all by design, and Reichardt masterfully cranks up the tension in the second half as NIGHT MOVES becomes--at least by her standards--a fairly straightforward thriller that leads to a typically discussion-worthy final shot.


The film deals with three environmental activists--Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harlan (Peter Sarsgaard)--and their step-by-step plan in plotting to blow up a hydroelectric dam in Oregon with a speedboat packed with ammonium sulfate fertilizer. Reichardt's offbeat rhythms are such that she wrings agonizing suspense from the most mundane situations, especially prolonged silences that grow agonizing. It's impossible not to feel stomach-turning discomfort as the three activists stare in silence at a chatty hiker (Lew Temple) struggling to make small talk in a remote forest picnic area, or Dena's attempt to buy a large order of the explosive fertilizer from a by-the-book manager (James Le Gros) of a gardening supply warehouse. They eventually pull off the act of eco-terrorism, and of course, there's some blowback in the form of an unexpected after-the-fact complication, the resulting paranoia among the trio, and the question of whether their actions will make the slightest difference at all, all of which tie in beautifully to the powerful closing shot. Anchored by an intense, riveting performance by Eisenberg, who's really on an indie roll between this and THE DOUBLE, NIGHT MOVES is the kind of slow-burner that often tries your patience but really sneaks up on you and stays with you after it's over. Co-produced by Todd Haynes and Larry Fessenden, whose suggestion of a post-dam-explosion Wendigo encounter was presumably vetoed by Reichardt. (R, 112 mins)



WHITEWASH
(Canada - 2014)



I'm a sucker for any thriller set in the middle of a cold, snowy nowhere, and for a while, the Quebecois WHITEWASH gets by just on atmosphere and an interesting performance by Thomas Haden Church. Church only got a brief career boost from his SIDEWAYS Oscar nomination a decade ago, leading to his playing Sandman in 2007's SPIDER-MAN 3, one of those mega-blockbusters that nobody really liked, but he's since settled into character roles in generally smaller films like this one. WHITEWASH provides the kind of showy leading role that any jobbing character actor likes, but it's one of those films where the more it reveals, the less you'll care. Jumping between present and past, WHITEWASH opens during a snowstorm in a small town in rural Quebec as snowplow driver Bruce Landry (Church) runs down a man walking in the middle of the road.  The man is Paul Blackburn (Marc Labreche), and Bruce promptly dumps the body in the woods and recklessly drives the plow through the forest until he gets caught in a snowdrift. We see a bottle of liquor rolling around the floor of the plow and the natural assumption is that Bruce is drinking on the job. Periodic cutaways to the recent past provide--very slowly--the pieces of the puzzle as Bruce struggles to survive in the frozen wilderness.


Director/co-writer Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais seems to be going for a "survivalist thriller if made by Atom Egoyan" vibe, but the more it goes on, the more thoroughly illogical it becomes. It seems Bruce happened upon stranger Paul in the middle of a suicide attempt, talked him out of it and let him crash on his couch, with Paul quickly becoming a mooching houseguest who wouldn't leave. Throughout Bruce's time in the woods, he keeps heading into town to forage for gas and food, at one point being confronted by a homeowner after the guy's daughter catches Bruce stealing supplies from their shed. He also visits a diner and a gas station and sees his and Paul's photos in the newspaper, with the cops looking for both missing men. It's here where I question how much Hoss-Desmarais knows about rural, small-town life. In the cuts to the past, we learn Bruce lost his wife to cancer and once drunkenly crashed his plow into a restaurant. He regularly hangs out at the townie bar and at the local mini-mart, making small talk with the bored clerk. This town is clearly not very big and Bruce doesn't travel very far to dump the body before getting stranded in the woods. During his trips away from the plow, he runs into numerous people who recognize him from the paper and TV news reports. But wouldn't they recognize him as the area snowplow guy who lost his wife to cancer and drunkenly drove his plow into a local restaurant?  Wouldn't most of them actually know him as "Bruce"?  But the longer WHITEWASH goes on, the less interested Hoss-Desmarais is in a straightforward drama, with Bruce's guilt-riddled anxiety prompting him to return to the stuck plow and make it a new home, a sort-of purgatory of his own construction. Church does a good job in what was clearly a physically demanding role, and the snow-blanketed outskirts of Quebec makes a very effective location, but both Church and the region deserve a better story in which to be showcased. (Unrated, 91 mins, also available on Netflix Instant)


THE LOVE PUNCH
(US/UK/France - 2014)



Writer/director Joel Hopkins' critically-acclaimed LAST CHANCE HARVEY was a sincere and thoughtful romantic comedy with Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson that flopped in theaters but has since found a following with older audiences on video and cable. Hopkins is back with THE LOVE PUNCH, a dismal FUN WITH DICK AND JANE by way of THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL that, time and again, goes for the cheapest and easiest laughs. You can practically hear him exclaiming "It's funny because they're old!" as if his protagonists were pushing 90 rather than 60. Thompson stars again, this time with Pierce Brosnan as a divorced couple who continue to ignore that small spark that still exists between them. With their grown children off at school, Kate (Thompson) is an empty-nester who teaches at a university and lives alone with her cat, while Richard (Brosnan) has just sold his company and is about to retire with his much-younger girlfriend, who promptly dumps him for a man her own age. Richard is shocked to learn that unscrupulous hedge-fund manager Vincent Kruger (Laurent Lafitte) bought his company just to drain its assets, leaving Richard, his employees, their pensions, his and Kate's savings, and the kids' college funds completely wiped out. With the help of their son Matt (Jack Wilkinson)--a convenient computer hacker because old people and computers--they get some background info on the mysterious Kruger, who just purchased a $10 million diamond known as "The Eye of the Rainbow" for his trophy bride-to-be Manon (Louise Bourgoin). Kate and Richard, with the help of their married best friends Jerry (Timothy Spall) and Penelope (Celia Imrie), hatch a plan to crash the Paris wedding by disguising themselves as crass Texas oil billionaires and swiping the Eye of the Rainbow during the reception.


Brosnan and Thompson are so effortlessly charismatic that Hopkins' inability to provide them with worthwhile material is an absolute travesty. Everything in THE LOVE PUNCH (what does that title even mean?) is played so broadly and over-the-top that it's hard to believe Hopkins is the same guy who made the comparatively sensitive and heartfelt LAST CHANCE HARVEY. THE LOVE PUNCH is constantly going for the laziest joke, from Brosnan's Texas oil man disguise looking like Burt Reynolds circa SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and Thompson sporting a garish Dolly Parton wig and an overdone Southern twang, to several RESERVOIR DOGS-inspired, sunglasses-sporting slo-mo struts set to old rock tunes, with a hotel lobby walk to The Clash's version of "I Fought the Law" interrupted by a record needle-scratch and Penelope announcing "I need a pee!" because old people and bladders. A badly-shot and terribly-edited car chase begins with Kate grabbing a cd and throwing it in the player--it's Free's "All Right Now," to which she and Richard sing along and Richard pumps his fist in mid-chase because old people rocking out during a car chase apparently equals comedy gold to Hopkins. Thompson is also reduced to getting hit in the face with a volleyball and being thrown off a jet-ski while trying to hang with younger women, and Brosnan has to endure numerous desperate 007 references. Brosnan's THE NOVEMBER MAN is currently in theaters and it shows him, a decade removed from 007, remaining a credible action star at 61, and Thompson is still a vital and engaging screen presence--why are they going along with this nonsensical charade of a story that practically has them ready for adult diapers and dinner at 4:00 pm? It would be one thing if Hopkins was treating his characters with dignity instead of making their age a consistently failed source of thudding jokes, but neither of the stars look or act as "old" as the script seems to think they are. I guess the best thing you can say about THE LOVE PUNCH is that Hopkins somehow finds it within himself to spare Thompson and Brosnan the humiliation of a set-up where one is forced to announce that they've fallen and they can't get up. Hopkins occasionally attempts some choreographed Blake Edwards-type set pieces, but he's clearly not Blake Edwards, and Blake Edwards on his worst day was better than this. A laughless embarrassment for its appealing and overqualified stars, THE LOVE PUNCH grossed a paltry $266,000 in its US release courtesy of something called Ketchup Entertainment, who got it out on just 120 screens. It was 120 too many. (PG-13, 94 mins)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Cannon Files: THE VIOLENT BREED (1984)





THE VIOLENT BREED
(Italy - 1984)

Directed by Fernando Di Leo. Written by Nino Marino and Fernando Di Leo. Cast: Henry Silva, Harrison Muller, Woody Strode, Carole Andre, Debora Keith, Danika, Hector Wells, Loris Bartock, Serge Doran, Adrian Jeffries. (R, 91 mins)

In recent years, there's been a resurgence of interest in poliziotteschi--Italian crime films of the 1970s, the subject of the recent documentary EUROCRIME!--and in particular the work of Fernando Di Leo (1932-2003), one of the most prominent figures in the movement. Di Leo began his career as a screenwriter on spaghetti westerns like NAVAJO JOE (1966), HATE FOR HATE (1967), and BEYOND THE LAW (1968), but it was the politically-charged crime thrillers that he wrote and directed in the 1970s that have cemented his place in genre history. Four of his best-known films were collected in Raro USA's acclaimed 2011 DVD and Blu-ray box set FERNANDO DI LEO: THE ITALIAN CRIME COLLECTION. Compiling Di Leo's essential "Milieu Trilogy" of CALIBER 9 (1972), THE ITALIAN CONNECTION (1973), and THE BOSS, aka WIPEOUT! (1973) with the bonus film RULERS OF THE CITY, aka MISTER SCARFACE (1976), the first Di Leo set made an airtight case that the filmmaker, with his recurrent themes of nihilism, corruption, and Italy in chaos, his ability to stage an exciting action sequence, and his expert use of actors (so long as you don't count the impossibly Irish Cyril Cusack as a NYC Mafia don in THE ITALIAN CONNECTION), was deserving of respect and serious study.


Raro released a second volume of Di Leo crime films in 2013, featuring the excellent SHOOT FIRST, DIE LATER (1974), which has since had a couple of airings on Turner Classic Movies, the decent but unspectacular KIDNAP SYNDICATE (1975), and the disappointing NAKED VIOLENCE (1969), a controversial film in Italy in its day that's interesting for Di Leo completists, but is more of a giallo and really has no business in a set representing Di Leo's crime films. Di Leo's cynicism and his view of society and humanity as inherently and irredeemably evil reached its apex in 1978's TO BE TWENTY, which spends about 85 minutes being a fluffy, lighthearted sex comedy about the wild and wacky misadventures of two nubile teenage girls...who end up getting viciously gang-raped and slaughtered in the final five minutes when Di Leo smacks the viewer upside the head by abruptly turning it into THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (the film was also released in a differently-edited version that completely eliminated Di Leo's intended shock ending). Di Leo scripted Ruggero Deodato's excellent polizia LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN (1976), but after TO BE TWENTY, his career more or less fizzled. He explored some more LAST HOUSE-type territory in 1980's MADNESS and did a couple of hired-gun TV gigs, but by the middle of the decade, he would eventually retire from filmmaking altogether after the little-seen 1985 actioner KILLER VS. KILLERS, aka DEATH COMMANDO. He gave interviews for some Italian DVD releases before his death in 2003, some of which made their way to the later US-released Raro sets. Though he was largely a typically genre-hopping journeyman, the polizia explosion in the early-to-mid 1970s helped Di Leo carve a niche for himself, very much the same way that Lucio Fulci found his true calling with the cinematic zombie outbreak in the early 1980s.


Di Leo's penultimate film, THE VIOLENT BREED, finds him hitching a ride on the then in-vogue Namsploitation and commando explosion bandwagon that kept Antonio Margheriti busy throughout the '80s. A few elements of Di Leo's misanthropic worldview are on display--most notably an admittedly chilling and effective scene where the villain mows down some peasants after taking over their village--and the abrupt, ineptly-executed twist ending seems to be making some muddled statement about government corruption, but for the most part, THE VIOLENT BREED is probably Di Leo's worst film. If he was growing disillusioned enough to retire a year later, then THE VIOLENT BREED may very well be a significant reason why. Produced by busy '80s Italian schlock king Ettore Spagnuolo, the film was shot in the summer of 1983 in NYC, Rome, and Bangkok, and was acquired by Cannon, who released it in the US in 1984. It opens during the Vietnam War as a band of soldiers led by Kirk Cooper (Henry Silva) rescue some refugee children who all seem to be dressed in conspicuously early '80s attire. Cooper and fellow soldier Mike Martin (Harrison Muller) are shocked when their buddy Polo (Woody Strode) sends them on their way and tells them he's staying behind as he promptly deserts and vanishes in the jungle. Years later, Cooper is a big shot with the CIA and gets some intel that Polo is running a complicated drugs-weapons-prostitution empire centered in the fabled Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia. He's getting help from both the KGB and the Mafia, and Cooper sends top agent Martin into dangerous territory to eliminate Polo's operation and settle some old scores.

Di Leo just never gets things going with THE VIOLENT BREED. It has some enthusiastic blood and squib effects late in the game and some early NYC location shooting shows a theater with a ZABRISKIE POINT/BLOW-UP Antonioni retrospective, but overall, it's cheap-looking and Di Leo's disinterest is obvious. He never once gives this the gritty feel that his polizia classics displayed. Di Leo's direction is uncharacteristically lazy and corner-cutting: in the early Vietnam scenes, Polo sends Martin to "get some bandages," and all Muller does is walk out of frame and pop right back in with the bandages, probably handed to him just out of camera view by Di Leo. In another instance, one of Polo's stooges is keeping a sharp eye out for Martin, who just saunters into the frame and shoots him.  Wouldn't the guy see him coming? Maybe Sergio Leone can get away with a move like that, but it doesn't play here. The climax, which goes on forever, has Martin and one of Polo's captive prostitutes (Debora Keith) running from one yellow cabin to another in Polo's supposedly massive compound, but it's clear from the cutting that they're just running into the same cabin over and over again like an unintentional homage to a Hanna-Barbera wraparound background. The size of Polo's compound is never convincingly conveyed.  Instead, it looks like what it is: Muller and Keith repeatedly running into the same structure and Strode's Polo and his men driving their Jeeps around in circles. There's also an odd amount of long shots of people awkwardly standing around or walking into buildings, almost like it's second-unit footage that was supposed to have been whittled down to give it some semblance of pacing.


Silva, Di Leo, and Strode in better days, during the
filming of THE ITALIAN CONNECTION
THE VIOLENT BREED is badly-made and badly-edited, and the performances are terrible across the board. After the opening sequence, where he gets to indulge in some customary overacting while getting a bullet scooped out of his chest, Silva is seen only fleetingly, occasionally popping up to grit his teeth and look irritable at the CIA command center, which looks exactly like a conference room at the budget-priced hotel where Spagnuolo had the cast and crew booked. This is also where Cooper and some CIA officials keep tabs on Miller's progress, which realistically would take days or weeks, but Silva and the actors playing the CIA officials are always shown wearing the same clothes in these cutaways--a clear indicator that these shots were likely knocked out in a few hours and Di Leo failed to consider or simply didn't care enough to have them change clothes. Silva's looping of his dialogue sounds halting, groggy, and half-asleep, and it's doubtul that he put in more than a few days' work on this.


Strode (1914-1994) is actually in THE VIOLENT BREED quite a bit, though his voice was dubbed by the gruff Ed Mannix. And, at nearly 70 years of age, he's likely the oldest grunt in the entire Namsploitation subgenre. Prior to being an actor, Strode excelled in multiple sports, and was a noted college football star who made NFL history as one of the first four men to break the league's color barrier when he was signed by the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 after a 13-year ban on black players. He was also a symbol of stereotype-shattering progress in black Hollywood, as well as a Golden Globe nominee for Stanley Kubrick's SPARTACUS (1960), and a prominent member of John Ford's stock company. But by the 1980s, he was reduced to appearing in some truly terrible Italian D-movies, with the low point being his entire performance in the 1984 Italian post-nuke THE FINAL EXECUTIONER (where he's dubbed by gravelly-voiced Robert Spafford) being revoiced and recycled into 1989's very similar THE BRONX EXECUTIONER, probably without the actor's knowledge or financial benefit. Both Silva and Strode fared much better as a pair of NYC hit men hunting down an Italian mobster in Di Leo's THE ITALIAN CONNECTION, and they also worked with the director separately, with Silva starring in THE BOSS and KILLER VS. KILLERS, and Strode appearing in the lighthearted LOADED GUNS (1975). In the late '90s, Xenon Home Video, a company largely focused on "urban"-themed fare, tried to cash in on the burgeoning, I'M BOUT IT-inspired rapsploitation scene by re-releasing THE VIOLENT BREED under the absurd new title REAL SOULJA, with a now-top-billed Strode prominently displayed on the box art.


Little is known these days about American actor Muller. Born in 1955, his parents were post-Vaudeville entertainers in the 1940s and 1950s, with his father--also named Harrison Muller--a well-known dancer and an occasional guest on THE GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW. Like his older sister, actress Nadia Cassini (PULP, STARCRASH), Muller Jr.'s short-lived acting career was spent almost entirely in Italy, with only a bit part in the Christopher Reeve flop MONSIGNOR (1982) and a supporting role in the 1983 Pia Zadora bomb THE LONELY LADY allowing him the slightest whiff of a Hollywood breakthrough. Muller found a niche in low-grade Italian ripoffs like the post-nuke offerings 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS (1982), WARRIOR OF THE LOST WORLD (1983), SHE (1985), and THE FINAL EXECUTIONER. He also co-starred in the 1983 CONAN ripoff THE THRONE OF FIRE, produced by Spagnuolo, who spent a good chunk of the 1980s unsuccessfully trying to turn Muller into an action star. Muller took a few years off after THE VIOLENT BREED and THE FINAL EXECUTIONER (though released in 1985, the insane SHE was shot in 1982), and returned in 1989 with pair of back-to-back Spagnuolo productions that teamed him with none other than SHAFT himself, Richard Roundtree. MIAMI COPS, directed by the legendarily incompetent Alfonso Brescia (Al Bradley) and released in the US by Cannon, tried very hard to be an Italian ripoff of MIAMI VICE, keeping its fingers crossed that however few viewers it mustered wouldn't notice that many of its exteriors were actually shot in the decidedly un-Miami-like Detroit. GETTING EVEN, directed by Leandro Lucchetti and released by Menahem Golan's doomed post-Cannon outfit 21st Century, had Roundtree and Muller going after a serial killing Vietnam buddy, trailing him from NYC to Thailand, which gave Spagnuolo the perfect excuse to recycle a long action sequence in Polo's compound from THE VIOLENT BREED, intercutting it with badly-integrated new footage of Roundtree standing by himself lobbing grenades. Spagnuolo even went so far as to cast Debora Keith in GETTING EVEN simply because she was in the footage he was borrowing from THE VIOLENT BREED (it's worth noting that these are Keith's only two film credits). After these last two action duds, Muller pulled a Mark Gregory and fell off the face of the planet, his legacy buried near the bottom of the VHS Glory Days scrap heap, his films remembered only by the most ardent devotees of the justifiably obscure and the deepest cuts in the bottomless back catalog of '80s Italian exploitation ripoffs.


In other words, he's gotta have some stories to tell. In the unlikely event you're reading this, Mr. Muller, I extend an open invitation for a career-spanning interview covering your adventures in the wild world of 1980s Eurotrash cinema.

Friday, August 29, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: LIFE OF CRIME (2014)


LIFE OF CRIME
(US/United Arab Emirates - 2014)

Written and directed by Daniel Schechter. Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins, John Hawkes, yasiin bey, Isla Fisher, Will Forte, Mark Boone Junior, Kevin Corrigan, Clea Lewis, Charlie Tahan, Kofi Boakye, Nathan Purdee. (R, 100 mins)

For nearly 60 years, Hollywood's been adapting the novels and stories of the great crime and western writer Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) with varying degrees of success and, more often than not, the dismissive derision of the author himself. Leonard understood that film was a different medium--he also wrote screenplays for films like JOE KIDD (1972) and MR. MAJESTYK (1974)--and that changes were sometimes necessary. While he had a hard time abiding those changes--even an exemplary adaptation like John Frankenheimer's 52 PICK-UP (1986) was criticized by Leonard simply because the filmmakers moved the setting from Detroit to Los Angeles--he would state numerous times in interviews over the years that "getting paid is the most important thing."  The mid '90s saw a major cinematic resurgence of interest in Leonard's work, with Barry Sonnenfeld's GET SHORTY (1995), Quentin Tarantino's Rum Punch adaptation JACKIE BROWN (1997), and Steven Soderbergh's OUT OF SIGHT (1998) setting the standard of Leonard-done-right for the big screen (there was also Paul Schrader's little-seen and much less successful 1997 adaptation of TOUCH, based on an atypical Leonard novel and primarily remembered, if at all, for Dave Grohl composing the score). More recently, Leonard's work has been the basis of the acclaimed FX series JUSTIFIED, with Timothy Olyphant as recurring Leonard character Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens. But for every film version that satisfied Leonard, there were numerous others--THE AMBASSADOR (1985), an adaptation of 52 Pick-Up that had nothing whatsoever to do with 52 Pick-Up, the Showtime movie PRONTO (1997), featuring James Le Gros in an early incarnation of Raylan Givens, and the short-lived 1998 ABC series MAXIMUM BOB, or troubled productions like Burt Reynolds' STICK (1985), Abel Ferrara's CAT CHASER (1989), or John Madden's KILLSHOT, released in 2009 after four years on the shelf--that left him sour on Hollywood. Leonard died shortly after production wrapped on LIFE OF CRIME, based on his 1978 novel The Switch. While he never got to see the completed film, he was shown snippets of scenes and, by all accounts, was pleased with what he saw, both as the writer of the source novel and as a co-producer on the film.


Leonard was always a master storyteller who cut to the chase, direct and unpretentious and uninterested in making grand artistic statements. That's what writer/director Daniel Schechter goes for here, but the results are frequently as flat as the generic retitling. As demonstrated by guys like Frankenheimer, Sonnenfeld, Tarantino, and Soderbergh, Leonard adaptations work best when a gifted filmmaker is able to put their unique stamp on the material. Of course, being a different medium, that's where deviations may occur. Schechter's approach involves being slavishly devoted to Leonard by pretty much putting the book in script form. While that may explain why Leonard was so happy with what he saw, it doesn't make for a particularly thrilling thriller. Schechter brings no style or personality to the proceedings other than a couple of minor nods to JACKIE BROWN, as both films feature the lowlife trio of Ordell Robbie, Louis Gara, and Melanie Ralston, recurring characters in several Leonard novels. Played in JACKIE BROWN by, respectively, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, and Bridget Fonda, the characters are seen here at an earlier time in their lives, with yasiin bey, formerly known as Mos Def, as Ordell, John Hawkes as Louis, and Isla Fisher as Melanie. While LIFE OF CRIME isn't meant to be a direct prequel to JACKIE BROWN, the Tarantino film was obviously studied by the actors, especially bey, who clearly bases his interpretation of Ordell on Jackson's performance. As LIFE opens, Ordell and Louis are planning the half-baked kidnapping of wealthy Detroit housewife Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), with the intent of blackmailing her wealthy and corrupt businessman husband Frank (Tim Robbins, who stepped in when Dennis Quaid dropped out of the project) into paying a $1 million ransom. Holding Mickey captive at the home of their idiotic white supremacist cohort Richard (Mark Boone Junior), Ordell and Louis are shocked to learn that Frank has taken off to the Bahamas with his mistress Melanie (at this point in the timeline of Leonard's novels, they don't know her) and has just filed for divorce. He has no intention of paying the ransom and really doesn't care if he ever sees Mickey again. Of course, double crosses ensue as unplanned alliances form and Mickey finds herself unexpectedly bonding with Louis.


It's interesting to note that The Switch was originally set to be made way back in 1986 with Diane Keaton as Mickey, but it was cancelled during pre-production when 20th Century Fox execs deemed it too similar to the then-current box office hit RUTHLESS PEOPLE. LIFE OF CRIME has solid performances and it's interesting to see Hawkes as a younger, smarter, and much more assertive Louis than the beaten-down-by-life schlub De Niro played in JACKIE BROWN, but there's very little excitement or fun here. Schechter does a serviceable, workmanlike job at the helm and the whole film is efficiently assembled, but it's very low-energy and has little spark. It lacks the snap of GET SHORTY, JACKIE BROWN, and OUT OF SIGHT, and often feels like a costumed table read. There's nothing wrong with anything, and Hawkes and bey stand out while Will Forte has some amusing bits as a Dawson family friend who carries a torch for Mickey, but comparisons to JACKIE BROWN are unfortunately inevitable and Daniel Schechter is no Quentin Tarantino. Its biggest issue is its blandness, and that's not a word you typically use to describe anything connected to Elmore Leonard. Even the twists and turns are executed in the most perfunctory of fashions, and the film has the aura of a TV-movie with F-bombs. Budgeted at just $12 million--pocket change by today's standards--it's obviously a labor of love for some (Aniston is among the film's 27 credited producers), it's dedicated to Leonard, and it's nice to know that he enjoyed what little he saw, but other than a funny opening sequence and some well-done 1978 period detail throughout, this is really a pretty forgettable entry in the Leonard big-screen pantheon, about on the level of George Armitage's 2004 shrugger THE BIG BOUNCE. It's easy to see why Lionsgate is dumping it in limited release and on VOD. In the days of old, this would be the very definition of "Eh, just wait for it to come out on video."  It's by no means a bad movie, but...eh, just wait for it to turn up on Netflix Instant, or in Wal-Mart's $5 DVD bin, where you'll likely find it by Christmas.

Elmore Leonard (1925-2013)





Thursday, August 28, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE DOUBLE (2014); A GOOD MAN (2014); and DOM HEMINGWAY (2014)

THE DOUBLE
(UK/Germany/Australia - 2014)


This visually striking adaptation of Dostoyevsky's 1846 novella uses the title and the concept of the self, but really ventures off into its own dystopian nightmare black comedy scenario more akin to the likes of George Orwell and Franz Kafka. The retro-futurist production design recalls the drab and bleak worlds of Terry Gilliam's classic BRAZIL (1985) and Orson Welles' Kafka adaptation THE TRIAL (1962). There's also a lot of THE TRIAL in one of two performances by Jesse Eisenberg, who does a remarkable job of channeling Anthony Perkins' Josef K. in his portrayal of meek office drone Simon James. Afraid of his own shadow, Simon is employed by a bureaucratic company called ColLoc and works in a dreary, gray, overcrowded, and oppressively hot office building. He gets hassled by the security guard, who still doesn't recognize him after seven years of employment.  His co-workers and his demanding boss Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn) rarely seem to notice him and if they do, they get his name wrong ("Stanley!"). Simon would rather keep quiet and look down, and on the rare occasions he considers speaking, he can't get a word out, especially around his cold mother (Phyllis Somerville), who can't even point him out when he's clearly visible in an improbably upbeat ColLoc TV commercial. He secretly pines for co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), finding excuses to visit her department for painfully awkward interaction or just spying on her through his telescope, as her apartment building is adjacent to his own. Simon's tenuous grip on his world is jeopardized when Mr. Papadopoulous hires James Simon (also Eisenberg), a doppelganger who looks just like Simon but is his opposite in every other way: brash and egotistical where Simon is quiet and withdrawn, James is Simon's id run rampant. His gregarious personality wins over the office. He coasts by on Simon's hard work. He bullies a waitress (Cathy Moriarty) into bringing him breakfast after they've stopped serving while she can't even be bothered to bring Simon a Coke. He seduces Hannah and the boss' daughter (Yasmin Paige) and demands a copy of Simon's apartment key so he can arrange other trysts he wants to keep secret from Hannah ("I'll also be taking other women up there, in case you start noticing different smells"). Obviously, Simon can only be pushed so far.


A cursory glance at some of the names associated with THE DOUBLE guarantees it'll at the very least be an interesting experience.  Directed and co-written by comedian, music video director, and THE IT CROWD co-star Richard Ayoade, the film also lists Michael Caine and Harmony Korine among its producers, it's co-written by Korine's younger brother Avi, and in addition to Shawn and Moriarty, its eclectic supporting cast features, among others, James Fox, Noah Taylor, Rade Serbedzija, Chris O'Dowd, and Dinosaur Jr's J Mascis as an irate janitor. THE DOUBLE obviously owes a huge debt to Terry Gilliam and Orson Welles, but it still manages to be a unique and very well-executed bit of paranoia, dark comedy, and bleak misanthropy, anchored by two brilliant Eisenberg performances that play to both of his screen personas and allow him to take them into some dark places. Only released on 16 screens and VOD, THE DOUBLE didn't get much of a push from Magnolia and grossed just $200,000, but it shouldn't take very long for it to become a word-of-mouth cult item. (R, 93 mins)



A GOOD MAN
(US - 2014)


For most casual moviegoers, Steven Seagal probably fell off the pop culture radar around 2002, the last time one of his own headlining vehicles (HALF PAST DEAD) made it into theaters. In the years since, his A&E reality series STEVEN SEAGAL: LAWMAN and his jokey supporting turn as a villain in Robert Rodriguez's MACHETE (2010) have alerted the general public to his continued existence, but only hardcore denizens of the DTV gutter know that Seagal's been consistently cranking out a ton of low-budget and mostly terrible actioners, starring in no less than 25 nearly interchangeable straight-to-DVD titles in the 12 years since HALF PAST DEAD served as an unintentionally prophetic description of his big-screen career. Seagal doesn't seem to be well-liked by his peers--he was never invited to take part in any EXPENDABLES entries--and the only time he makes the news now is when he releases a hilariously awful blues album or is seen hanging out with his close personal friend Vladimir Putin. Most of Seagal's DTV titles are thoroughly worthless, with the once-engaging action icon setting new benchmarks in apathy by letting his obvious double handle everything from strenuous fight scenes to simple shots where his back is to the camera and he answers questions by nodding. If you see enough of these, you start to notice that it's frequently only really Seagal if he has a close-up or if it's a two-shot and he's talking, and even then, sometimes the co-star is much shorter and "Seagal"'s head is out of the frame. There were even a few instances in the mid-2000s where his performance was badly dubbed over by someone else for some unexplained reason. Seagal puts the bare minimum amount of work into most of these productions but, like a broken clock being right twice a day, a couple of them have been accidentally decent, like 2009's THE KEEPER and 2010's A DANGEROUS MAN, the latter being better than most of what he had in theaters during his late '90s decline before 2001's EXIT WOUNDS gave him a very brief comeback.


A GOOD MAN is typical of Seagal's straight-to-DVD output. It's hardly the worst of the lot, but that doesn't exactly merit a recommendation. Rather than being aggressively shitty, it's merely predictable and boring, with Seagal as Alexander, codename "Ghost," an ex-covert ops guy living off the grid in "Eastern Europe" (like many of Seagal's movies these days, this was shot on-the-cheap in Romania) after a raid on a Middle East terrorist compound went south two years earlier. Ghost involves himself in the troubles of attractive neighbor Lena (Iulia Verdes) and her kid sister Mya (Sofia Nicolaescu), whose safety is jeopardized by their American half-brother Sasha's (Victor Webster) involvement with Russian mobster Vladimir (Claudiu Bleont). Sasha owes Vladimir a ton of money via a debt accrued by his late father, and Ghost sees this as the perfect opportunity to start a war between Vladimir and terror cell financier Mr. Chen (Tzi Ma, best known for the Coen Bros. remake of THE LADYKILLERS), who was responsible for what went down in the Middle East two years earlier. A GOOD MAN offers everything you expect from modern-day Seagal: the star using a ridiculously affected and completely inappropriate accent, thankfully abandoning his N'awlins drawl of recent years but resorting to an even more ludicrous-sounding hip-hop dialect that sounds like Drexl Spivey after a root canal. This leads to a mush-mouthed Seagal shouting things like "All y'all muthafuckaz," and "I wondah how much pussy he get?" proving that at no point during filming did director Keoni Waxman pull his star aside and remind him that he's 62 years old. There's also the now-standard Seagal fighting style, which consists of being there for the close-ups and sticking his arm out so a bad guy can run into it while Waxman shakes the camera around to simulate "fighting action" before cutting to actual fighting with "Seagal" shot from behind as his younger and more svelte double does the heavy lifting. Finally, about an hour or so in, we get another signature move in the modern Seagal repertoire: the mid-film sabbatical where he disappears for 20 or more minutes while a co-star--in this case, Webster--advances the plot and gets a bunch of action scenes. Seagal stars in a lot of movies, but he's one of the laziest actors in the business and A GOOD MAN does nothing to counter that reputation and halt his ongoing free-fall into irrelevance. (R, 103 mins)


DOM HEMINGWAY

(UK - 2013; US release 2014)


Writer/director Richard Shepard scored an acclaimed indie sleeper hit with 2005's THE MATADOR, with Pierce Brosnan as a lethal assassin and all-around bad guy having a crisis of conscience when he befriends nice-guy salesman Greg Kinnear. Shepard explores somewhat similar territory--at least the redemption aspect--in DOM HEMINGWAY, which opens as strong as any film this year with an introductory rant by the title character (Jude Law) and a punchline that won't soon be forgotten and sets the tone right from the start that it's not going to be playing things safe. Law is all maniacal bluster, fusing elements of Dennis Hopper in BLUE VELVET, Ben Kingsley in SEXY BEAST, and Lee Marvin in POINT BLANK into one memorable madman. Safecracker Dom is released from a British prison, where he's been locked up for 12 years after refusing to rat on crime boss Ivan Fontaine (Demian Bichir). Teaming up with his best friend/handler Dickie (Richard E. Grant), Dom heads to St. Tropez to collect the money he feels Fontaine owes him for his work and his silence. Unfortunately, Dom can't keep his volcanic temper in check and ends up endlessly insulting Fontaine, his girlfriend Paolina (Madalena Ghenea), and Dickie. He succeeds in making amends, and Fontaine gives him more money than he ever expected. After a drunken car wreck results in Paolina running off with his money, Dom makes his way back to London and tries reconnecting with his estranged daughter Evelyn (GAME OF THRONES' Emilia Clarke), who resents him for spending 12 years behind bars and not being there when her mother--Dom's wife--was dying of cancer. Evelyn has a young son with whom Dom tries to get acquainted, and while he wants to go straight, he shoots his mouth off and ends up tangling with Lestor (Jumayn Hunter), Fontaine's chief rival and a man who has a score to settle with Dom.


DOM HEMINGWAY starts off so darkly hilarous and gloriously foul and profane that it's dispiriting when it veers off into the realm of feelgood redemption dramedy at its midpoint. Law's performance--one of his best--keeps things afloat but the shift in tone is cumbersome, to say the least. It's hard not to laugh at Dom incorporating James Taylor lyrics into a bile-soaked tirade that also has him threatening to "throat-fuck" Fontaine, but it's awfully difficult to buy him getting all misty over the grandson he never knew shortly after. It's not that a sociopath like Dom can't find genuine emotions of that sort deep within himself--it's that the film doesn't feel genuine in the journey of its central character. Dom is whatever the plot needs him to be at any given time, and even Evelyn's change of heart about her dad doesn't really ring true. The first half of DOM HEMINGWAY is outrageously entertaining, but it fizzles once Evelyn enters the story and never regains its footing. It's too bad because until the film starts stumbling and bumbling, it features some of the finest work of Law's career, and he gets some excellent support from Grant as his perpetually suffering yet always loyal sidekick. It's not always successful, but they make it worth seeing. (R, 93 mins)