Monday, January 23, 2017

Retro Review: SPLIT IMAGE (1982)

(US - 1982)

Directed by Ted Kotcheff. Written by Scott Spencer, Robert Kaufman and Robert Mark Kamen. Cast: Michael O'Keefe, Karen Allen, James Woods, Peter Fonda, Elizabeth Ashley, Brian Dennehy, Ronnie Scribner, Michael Sacks, Lee Montgomery, Ken Farmer, Cliff Stevens, John Dukakis, Peter Horton, Deborah Rush, Irma Hall, Bill Engvall. (R, 111 mins)

Journeyman director Ted Kotcheff (WAKE IN FRIGHT, NORTH DALLAS FORTY, UNCOMMON VALOR, WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S) had two movies in theaters in October 1982. One was the Sylvester Stallone sleeper hit FIRST BLOOD, a relatively serious drama that introduced the iconic John Rambo, loner Vietnam vet turned flag-draped American killing machine in a series of increasingly ridiculous sequels not directed by Kotcheff. The other was the barely-released SPLIT IMAGE, which only played on 129 screens at its widest release but found a major cult following in video stores and through constant cable airings throughout the decade. Made at a time when Jim Jones and 1978's Jonestown Massacre in Guyana were still in the public consciousness, SPLIT IMAGE followed the very similar 1981 Canadian drama TICKET TO HEAVEN, both involving a young man brainwashed by a religious cult until his family arranges for his kidnapping and subsequent deprogramming. TICKET was nominated for a whopping 14 Genies--the Canadian Oscars--winning four, including Best Film and Best Actor for star Nick Mancuso. SPLIT IMAGE is a bit more conventional take on the subject, with better-known actors for commercial potential, but still has moments of grueling intensity, unflinching brutality, and stomach-knotting suspense.

Following his Oscar-nominated performance in 1979's THE GREAT SANTINI and having 1980's CADDYSHACK stolen from him by four comedy legends, Michael O'Keefe stars as Danny Stetson, a college gymnast from a normal, happy, well-to-do upper-middle class family, with dad Kevin (Brian Dennehy), mom Diana (Elizabeth Ashley), and younger brother Sean (Ronnie Scribner). At a sports bar, Danny flirts with and is immediately attracted to Rebecca (Karen Allen, who had just been in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK), who invites him to a movie night at an outreach program called "Community Rescue." He then attends a weekend retreat where he and other visitors meet Neil Kirklander (Peter Fonda), the charismatic leader of "Homeland." Kirklander talks of life needing meaning and how Homeland needs to become a self-sustained community by turning their back on the greed and decadence of modern society (he rails against "Cuisinarts, Perrier, and designer jeans") to focus on love and "creating a better world." While longstanding members busy themselves with woodworking, pottery, and a print shop, newer members are deprived of sleep and sufficient levels of nutrition as a way of systematically breaking them down. Danny is immediately skeptical ("This is a religious cult, isn't it?") and thinks about leaving but as he soon discovers, none of the new recruits (another is played by ubiquitous '70s child star Lee Montgomery of BEN and BURNT OFFERINGS) are ever left alone, and a clingy Rebecca won't even let him go off to use the bathroom by himself. Eventually, Danny decides he's seen enough and attempts to escape in the middle of the night. He almost drowns in a river in the process, and is taken back to Kirklander, and it doesn't take long before an exhausted, scared, and emotionally drained Danny surrenders to what's been a slow and insidious indoctrination. He renounces his former life, burning his clothes and his belongings as Homeland renames him "Joshua," and he calls his mother to curtly inform her that he loves them but he's never coming home.

When an attempt to visit Danny at Homeland results in a scuffle that gets Kevin arrested, the desperate Stetsons have nowhere to turn. They're soon contacted by Charles Pratt (James Woods), an outwardly sketchy sleazebag who's actually an expert deprogrammer hellbent on taking Kirklander down. For $10,000 cash, Pratt and his team will find Danny, abduct him, and bring him home for deprogramming--"to clean out his mind and hang it out to dry"--which, in Pratt's experience, can take anywhere from one hour to several days. Pratt finds Danny handing out pamphlets and flowers on a college campus and his guys grab him and throw him in the back of a van, taking him back to the Stetson home and locking him in a room with boarded-up windows, where Pratt goes to work. Hours upon hours are spent with the aggressive, enraged Pratt breaking through to Danny/"Joshua" in ways that almost parallel an exorcism (Pratt's repeated invocation of "I will not leave this room until Joshua is dead on the floor and Danny is reborn!" is SPLIT IMAGE's version of THE EXORCIST's "The power of Christ compels you!"). Things approach a religious cult take on STRAW DOGS as Rebecca and other Homelanders show up at the Stetson residence under Kirklander's orders in an attempted home invasion to bring "Joshua" back to Homeland.

SPLIT IMAGE is a riveting experience--the sequence where the Homelanders get into the house and Pratt reveals just how driven, obsessed, and violent he can be is absolutely terrifying--filled with top-notch performances that can't help but pale next to Woods. Three years after his breakout in 1979's THE ONION FIELD, the actor was perfecting that twitchy, crude ("I live in a pisshole," he tells Diana), fast-talking "James Woods" persona that we saw in so many great performances in his prime years (FAST-WALKING, VIDEODROME, SALVADOR, BEST SELLER, COP), and his work in SPLIT IMAGE is right up there with the best of them (Woods and Kotcheff would reunite for 1985's much more low-key Mordecai Richler adaptation JOSHUA THEN AND NOW). Another standout is Dennehy (who would later team with Woods in the underrated BEST SELLER), for whom SPLIT IMAGE also helped establish a recurring onscreen persona. Dennehy's Kevin is a loving father but also a successful businessman used to throwing his weight around and getting his way, evidenced in the way he presumptuously assumes he can just buy Danny out of Homeland ("Look, I'm just gonna write a check to this yo-yo," he says of Kirklander). This is vintage Brian Dennehy, who's always been one of our greatest character actors when it comes to conveying overconfident arrogance, which Kotcheff also used for maximum effect in FIRST BLOOD, where the actor's Sheriff Teasle gets way more than he bargained for when he decides to start harassing quiet drifter John Rambo for no reason when all he wants to do is pass through town.

Though O'Keefe is fine in a difficult role, he's overshadowed by Woods, Dennehy, and a coolly sinister Fonda and ultimately undermined by an unconvincing wig he's forced to wear in the second half of the film when he gets his post-indoctrination haircut, almost sidelining him in the same way the quartet of Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, and Bill Murray made him all but invisible in CADDYSHACK (no one cares about Danny Noonan and his college money and his Irish girlfriend anyway, right?). O'Keefe does get a few good moments, particularly in a creepy and absurdly comedic scene where a brainwashed "Joshua" is so overcome with desire for Rebecca--Kirklander forbids romance and any kind of sexual interaction and expression--that he's stirred awake in mid-ejaculation by a wet dream, which traumatizes him so much that he and Rebecca request an immediate meeting with Kirklander, who orders "Joshua" to speak in tongues to rid him of his filthy thoughts. There's some ahead-of-its-time commentary with a pre-emptive rebuking of the culture of greed of the '80s, only in its infancy here, but still voiced in criticism leveled at Kevin and Diana for not noticing that Danny was having a quarterlife crisis because they were focused on money and materialism. It's a facile argument that's not really explored to its full potential, and it's voiced by Danny's little brother Sean in a hackneyed speech that seems more than a little unlikely. SPLIT IMAGE has some other things that don't work. The time element isn't handled very well--it's not clear how long Danny is at Homeland before trying to escape and as a result, his brainwashing can either be seen as too abrupt or so subtle that you don't realize how well they've slowly worked him over (I'm guessing the filmmakers intended the latter, but it doesn't always play that way). And as great as Woods is here, we could use more background into his character. Was he a member of Kirklander's cult who got away?  Did he lose a loved one Homeland?  He's wearing a wedding ring but a wife is never mentioned. All we learn from the script, credited to Scott Spencer (1981's ENDLESS LOVE was based on his novel), Robert Kaufman (FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, LOVE AT FIRST BITE), and future KARATE KID screenwriter and frequent Luc Besson collaborator Robert Mark Kamen (THE FIFTH ELEMENT, THE TRANSPORTER, TAKEN), is that Pratt really hates Kirklander.

Things almost shit the bed with a terrible final scene that reeks of someone demanding a happy ending, as it just doesn't seem plausible that Kirklander and some of the more intimidating Homelanders would chase Danny and Rebecca (who's ready to leave the cult to be with the reborn Danny), finally corner them and just let them skip away hand-in-hand after Danny simply tells Kirklander to leave them alone. It's a pat and far too easy wrap-up when we should've had at least one confrontation between Pratt and Kirklander, considering how much they allegedly hate one another. It's an unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise mostly solid film, one that managed to overcome its almost non-existent theatrical release to become a word-of-mouth cult movie on VHS and cable. SPLIT IMAGE has been hard to see over the years. It's never been released on DVD or Blu-ray, though it's available to stream on YouTube and still occasionally appears on late-night TV (Epix recently ran it at 2:20 am on a weeknight) if you scour the outer reaches of your onscreen cable guide.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: DEATH RACE 2050 (2017); TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016); and THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM (2016)

(US - 2017)

The Roger Corman-produced 1975 classic DEATH RACE 2000 already got a remake with 2008's Jason Statham-starring DEATH RACE. That film has spawned a series of DTV sequels with Luke Goss in place of Statham, with a fourth installment due out later this year. With DEATH RACE 2050, the belated DTV sequel to/unnecessary remake of the 1975 film, Universal now has two different DEATH RACE franchises going. But only DEATH RACE 2050 has the direct involvement of Corman. who wanted another DEATH RACE that recaptured the look and feel of Paul Bartel's original. The satirical element is definitely here, along with some IDIOCRACY-style roasting of American culture, self-aware Syfy snark, and over-the-top Troma levels of comedic gore. In the future of 2050, the United Corporations of America is run by the Chairman (Malcolm McDowell), and the biggest cultural event going is the Death Race, what the Chairman terms an annual celebration of "the freedom to sit on your big fat ass all day!" The top driver is Frankenstein (Manu Bennett), the reigning champion of the Death Race, where the key is to win the race but points are scored by running down pedestrians. Frankenstein's competition is comprised of macho but insecure Jed Perfectus (Burt Grinstead), a closet case unable to face his homosexuality; religious fanatic and right-wing domestic terrorist Tammy the Terrorist (Anessa Ramsey); and rapper/sex tape celebrity Minerva Jefferson (Folake Olowofoyeku). The final car is the self-driving A.B.E., the product of UCA ingenuity and the kind of technological advancement that Death Race co-host Junior (Charlie Farrell) calls a gift that "finally eliminated America's outdated burden of employment." The race is jeopardized by a Resistance movement led by disgruntled former network TV exec Alexis Hamilton (Yancy Butler), who's got a mole inside the operation in the form of Frankenstein's proxy navigator Annie Sullivan (Marci Miller).

DEATH RACE 2050 earns some goodwill by wearing its love of its predecessor on its sleeve, looking every bit as cheap as  the 1975 film, with CGI that's probably intentionally bad filling in for some old-school matte work. The jokes fly fast and furious, with Farrell's Junior an almost carbon copy of the performance by The Real Don Steele, and the same goes for the way Shanna Olsen's sycophantic co-host Grace Tickle captures the cloying ass-kissing of Joyce Jameson's Grace Pander in the old film, right down to the repeated refrain of every famous person being "a very good friend of mine." Director/co-writer G.J. Echternkamp has some fun with the renamed cities and states of 2050 (there's "Nueva York," Baltimore is now "Upper Shitville," Arkansas is "Walmartinique," and Dubai is "Washington, DC"), the subplot with Abe suddenly quitting the race to drive off and find itself after an existential AI crisis ("What am I?" the computer voice wonders) is inspired nonsense, and with his crazy toupee, crude demeanor, and being surrounded by topless women, McDowell's Chairman is obviously a 2050 incarnation of Donald Trump. But a little of DEATH RACE 2050 goes a long way. The comedy is too blunt and heavy-handed, and the referencing a little too winking for its own good. It drifts off into post-nuke MAD MAX territory by the end, probably to take advantage of being shot on Corman's old Peru stomping grounds where several of his VHS mainstays from the late '80s and early '90s were made (Luis Llosa, one of Corman's top proteges from that period, went on to direct Hollywood movies like THE SPECIALIST and ANACONDA, and gets a producer credit here). As Frankenstein, the dull Bennett doesn't even come close to the stoical badassery of David Carradine, but shows he can adequately function as a backup Scott Adkins should the first choice be unavailable. In the end, DEATH RACE 2050 has its moments, and if approached with low expectations, isn't terrible by any means, even if it's just a significantly louder and much more obnoxious DEATH RACE 2000. (R, 93 mins)

(South Korea - 2016)

At this point, there really isn't much anyone can add to the zombie genre, but the South Korean import TRAIN TO BUSAN finds ways to spruce up the familiar with clever ideas, inspired set pieces, interesting characters, and some unexpected instances of gut-wrenching emotion. Saek-woo (Gong Yoo) is a workaholic fund manager whose wife left him and their young daughter Su-an (Kim Soo-an), who's now mostly left in the care of Saek-woo's live-in mother. Upset at her father's distance and that her birthday gift is a duplicate of something he already gave her, Su-an insists on being taken by train to Busan to visit her mother. Once on the train, all hell breaks loose when a bleeding, nearly feral woman sprints about, bites a passenger, and unleashes a rapidly-spreading virus that turns victims into ferociously aggressive zombies. What follows is the usual scenario of a small band of resourceful survivors fighting their way through the train to safety, trying to outrun the contagion and the growing zombie horde as a state of emergency is declared and train station after train station is closed. An easy description of TRAIN TO BUSAN would be "WORLD WAR Z meets SNOWPIERCER," but it also plays a bit like DEMONS on a bullet train as well as demonstrating the tone of a 1970s disaster movie. Where writer Park Joo-suk and director Yeon Sang-ho help separate TRAIN TO BUSAN from the rest of the crowd is by packing it with one nail-biting sequence after another, with the stop at the Daejean train station cementing itself as an instant classic, culminating in the horrifying revelation that the military personnel sent to save them have already been infected and have turned. Other standout scenes include the devastating moment when Saek-woo calls his mother and expresses concern about the sound of her voice as her infection becomes apparent and he's forced to listen to her turn over the phone.

The bond that forms between the ever-diminishing group of survivors is strong and the actors excellent, making you really feel it when they start getting killed off. Saek-woo has an initial adversary in burly smartass Sang-hwa (a terrific performance by Ma Dong-seok), which isn't helped by Saek-woo not hesitating to leave Sang-hwa stranded in one of the cars with the zombies until the last second, but they set aside their differences, form a grudging partnership and take turns looking out for one another's loved ones, whether it's Su-an or Sang-hwa's very pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-Mi). Self-absorbed Saek-woo undergoes a transformation into a selfless hero over the course of the film, starting out by telling his daughter "Look out for yourself before anyone else" when she offers her seat to an elderly woman who reminds her of her grandmother ("Granny's knees always hurt!" the compassionate child says). His daughter shows him the error of his ways ("You only care about yourself! That's why Mommy left!") and between that and Sang-hwa's merciless ballbusting ("Fund manager? No wonder you're an asshole"), Saek-woo becomes a hero. To go with the notion of this being an updated take on a '70s disaster epic, there's also the obligatory villain who makes an already bad situation worse with his actions: loathsome businessman Yong-suk (Kim Eui-sung) is this film's Richard Chamberlain from THE TOWERING INFERNO or Paul Reiser from ALIENS, an unbelievably duplicitous asshole who starts rumors, sabotages the safety of others, and puts his own well-being ahead of everyone, usually in the form of literally throwing other passengers at zombies in order to save his own ass. At one point, he even cavalierly sacrifices someone who comes to his assistance after he trips and falls running away from the zombies. This archetype is a staple of such films, and they've rarely been as off-the-charts despicable as Yong-suk, but true to TRAIN TO BUSAN's refusal to stick too closely to convention, even he gets a slightly redeeming trait by the end. The crux of the story with TRAIN TO BUSAN breaks no new ground, but there's enough tweaking and unexpected depth to its characters that it manages to separate itself from the crowd and successfully establish its own zombie bona fides. (Unrated, 118 mins)

(US - 2016)

There's a legitimately sincere attempt at a modern gothic aesthetic to THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM, but it just never takes off. It's co-written by PRISON BREAK star Wentworth Miller, who wrote Park Chan-wook's similarly gothic 2013 arthouse film STOKER, and perhaps this was intended as some sort of companion piece with its dark secrets and family tragedies. These are definitely recurring themes to Miller's work as a screenwriter, but THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM's title becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Obviously mangled in post-production and even after it set a land-speed record for vacating multiplexes--the DVD/Blu-ray and streaming version runs seven minutes shorter than what was in theaters last fall, omitting an apparently important scene where the main character has a meltdown in front of some dinner guests; here the guests are shown waiting for her then simply leaving as if the dinner never happened--the film was also left on the shelf for two years as a casualty of Relativity's bankruptcy woes. The end result is a film that feels unfinished and abandoned, even more so now that it's missing that dinner scene.

Architect Dana (Kate Beckinsale), her Mr. Mom husband David (the unbelievably bland Mel Raido), and their young son Lucas (Duncan Joiner) move to a decrepit mansion ominously known as The Blacker House. They're trying to get away from the city and some bad memories, namely the sudden death of their infant daughter. While exploring the house, Dana moves a large armoire and discovers a hidden room that's not on the blueprints and can only be locked from the outside. She learns from a local historian (Marcia DeRousse) that it's a "disappointments room," the kind of room where wealthy families in less enlightened times would lock away a deformed or mentally challenged child that would cause social embarrassment. Dana regularly visits the room and is soon plagued by visions of a young girl with a facial deformity as well as encountering the ghost of Judge Blacker (Gerald McRaney), the home's original owner, a rich and powerful local who kept his "disappointment" daughter hidden from the public. Dana goes off her meds, starts losing track of time and unknowingly becoming violent toward Lucas, all while engaging in a testy but flirtatious back-and-forth with stud handyman Ben (Lucas Till), one of many story threads that go absolutely nowhere as slowly as possible. Some of Miller's gothic intentions come through (a character is shown watching JANE EYRE on TV at one point), director D.J. Caruso (THE SALTON SEA, DISTURBIA) occasionally invokes a mood tantamount to a modern take on an early '60s AIP production, and the film seems to be trying to say something about motherhood and mental illness a la THE BABADOOK or LIGHTS OUT, but by the time the big reveal comes and the credits abruptly start rolling at 77 minutes, you're left with the realization that there's simply nothing here and the whole endeavor was just smoke and mirrors that can't even be salvaged by a pro like Beckinsale. Still, as disastrous as THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM is, it has to get a little credit for the effective casting of McRaney as the ghostly villain. But that's all it's got going for it. (R, 85 mins)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: AMERICAN HONEY (2016) and THE WHOLE TRUTH (2016)

(US/UK - 2016)

British filmmaker Andrea Arnold comes from the Mike Leigh and Ken Loach school of kitchen sink cinema, with films like 2006's RED ROAD and 2009's FISH TANK capturing the harsh and gritty world of lower-income and disenfranchised UK residents. Even her 2011 period adaptation of WUTHERING HEIGHTS was able to fuse Arnold's gritty vision to the Bronte classic. AMERICAN HONEY finds Arnold focusing on America, its impoverished, its socioeconomic inequalities, and like many foreign-born directors, she manages to vividly depict the look and feel of the "heartland" of middle America in ways that sometimes only outsiders can. Shot in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri, AMERICAN HONEY, like FISH TANK before it, has a non-professional Arnold discovery in the lead role. Houston native Sasha Lane was on spring break with friends when Arnold spotted her on a beach. Lane has moments where she shines, but fails to make the impact that Katie Jarvis did in FISH TANK. Part of the reason is that Jarvis' character was aggressive and in-your-face and that the debuting actress was a force of nature (Arnold approached Jarvis on a street where she saw the enraged young woman tearing her boyfriend a new asshole and knew she had the actress FISH TANK needed). Lane's Star is more of a passive observer throughout AMERICAN HONEY, taking in the sights and sounds of America, and while she finds herself on this journey, it's just not a very interesting one. 18-year-old Star leaves her dysfunctional home where she's sexually abused by a man we assume is her stepfather (it's never made clear) to join a free-spirited, vagabond magazine sales crew run by the stern, money-driven Krystal (Riley Keough). It's a rambunctious group of misfits prone to bacchanalian partying after hours but they take their jobs seriously as they travel by van from city to city, especially Jake (Shia LaBeouf), Krystal's top seller and master bullshit artist. Star falls for the charismatic--at least in the context of this film--Jake despite warnings from Krystal to stay focused on her work.

Shot almost completely handheld for maximum immediacy in Arnold's preferred aspect ratio of 1.33:1, AMERICAN HONEY finds hypnotic imagery in the utterly normal, with scenes in a K-Mart, non-descript convenience stores, skeezy motels, on desolate highways, and other locations providing a document of the sameness of the American landscape like Terrence Malick's otherwise forgettable TO THE WONDER. There's some effective scenes scattered throughout but with long sequences on the road and about ten too many mag crew sing-alongs, the meandering-by-design AMERICAN HONEY muddles its message and overstays its welcome by a good 45 minutes. While neophyte Lane acquits herself as best she can, Star simply isn't an interesting enough character to justify such a bloated and self-indulgent running time. (R, 163 mins)

(US - 2016)

A throwback to the kind of John Grisham courtroom dramas that were opening every other week in the 1990s, THE WHOLE TRUTH is one of the dullest films of its kind, a sleepy shrug of a thriller that can't even be bothered to embrace some of its more tawdry elements. Lionsgate knew they had a dud on their hands, sitting on this for two years before giving it a stealth VOD burial, even with a cast headlined by Keanu Reeves and Renee Zellweger, in her first screen appearance in six years. Set and shot in the usual Lionsgate stomping grounds of Louisiana, THE WHOLE TRUTH has Reeves (a last-minute replacement for Daniel Craig, who wisely bailed) as Richard Ramsay, a cynical defense lawyer representing Mike Lassiter (Gabriel Basso), a 17-year-old on trial for the murder of his wealthy father Boone (Jim Belushi), who happened to be Ramsay's best friend. The film opens in the courtroom, the trial already in progress, with flashbacks filling in the backstory as witnesses testify. A picture is painted of Boone as a bullying, physically abusive, philandering drunk and all-around asshole who deserved the knife Mike confessed to plunging in the middle of his chest in a fit of blind rage. Friends and acquaintances tell of Boone's cruel and humiliating treatment of his wife Loretta (Zellweger), and even darker details are revealed when Mike eventually takes the stand, but is the whole truth being withheld? And could a major character be hiding a deep, dark secret that will be revealed in a thoroughly ludicrous twist ending? SPOILER: Yes.

I have to admit, when I woke up the day I watched THE WHOLE TRUTH, it's safe to say that one of the things I least expected to see before my head hit the pillow that night was a nude Jim Belushi violently restraining Renee Zellweger's arms and anally raping her against a marble banister. Mike's best buddy next door also spies on Loretta in the shower (a game Zellweger going all in after her extended sabbatical), and we discover that Ramsay's co-counsel Janelle Brady (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) lost her job at her last firm after having a torrid affair with a married lawyer and went off the deep end as a crazy, obsessed psycho stalking him and his family. These are unabashedly sleazy elements that should be accentuated to a point but get thrown on the backburner by director Courtney Hunt, making her first film since 2008's acclaimed FROZEN RIVER, which earned her a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination as well as a Best Actress nod for Melissa Leo. The FROZEN RIVER Courtney Hunt isn't who showed up for this uninspired yawner. Hunt's also kept busy by directing a few episodes of LAW & ORDER: SVU, and even those have more flair and style than the static, sleep-inducing THE WHOLE TRUTH. The script is credited to one "Rafael Jackson," who's really Nicholas Kazan, the son of the legendary Elia Kazan and the writer of such revered films as 1982's FRANCES, 1986's AT CLOSE RANGE, and 1991's REVERSAL OF FORTUNE. Kazan hasn't scripted a film since the 2002 Jennifer Lopez thriller ENOUGH, and it should speak volumes that he had his name removed from THE WHOLE TRUTH but left it on ENOUGH (odd trivia bit: after the abysmal EXPOSED, this is the second 2016 Keanu Reeves thriller dumped on VOD by Lionsgate where he was an eleventh-hour replacement for another actor--Philip Seymour Hoffman was supposed to star in EXPOSED but died shortly before production began--and one of the key creative personnel had their names removed from the finished product). You don't generally see things like THE WHOLE TRUTH much anymore. Reeves (who's terrible), Zellweger, and Belushi (who's quite convincing as a total shitbag) could've headlined this in 1998 and it would've been exactly the same movie--age doesn't make Reeves any more believable as an attorney--only back then it would've cleaned up at the box office for a week until the bad word of mouth got around. Courtroom dramas are a tried-and-true formula that's tough to screw up. It's too bad THE WHOLE TRUTH bungles it from the start, never finding its way and lacking the courage to embrace its inherent pulpy Southern trashiness. (R, 93 mins)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

On Netflix: CLINICAL (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Alistair Legrand. Written by Luke Harvis and Alistair Legrand. Cast: Vinessa Shaw, Kevin Rahm, William Atherton, India Eisley, Aaron Stanford, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Nestor Serrano, Wilmer Calderon. (Unrated, 104 mins)

A committed performance by Vinessa Shaw (EYES WIDE SHUT) isn't enough to salvage this sub-Shyamalianian bed-shitter that digs itself into a hole so deep that it can't possibly claw its way out. It starts out decently enough, with Shaw as Dr. Jane Mathis, a psychiatrist still traumatized two years after being attacked with a glass shard by a teenage patient named Nora (India Eisley, daughter of Olivia Hussey and David Glen Eisley, frontman for '80s hair metal B-listers Giuffria), who then used the shard to slit her own throat. Jane is still in therapy with her own shrink Dr. Terry Drummond (DIE HARD's William Atherton), dating nice cop Miles (Aaron Stanford, Shaw's co-star in the remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES) and cautiously restarting her practice on a part-time basis at her home (is that ever a good idea?). One of her new patients is Alex (Kevin Rahm of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and MAD MEN), who's suffering from severe PTSD and anxiety after a car accident that took the life of his daughter and required multiple reconstructive surgeries that have left his face horribly scarred. Strange things begin happening: a sleepwalking Alex appears rummaging through Jane's garage one night, she keeps hearing noises outside the back door, she suffers from sleep paralysis and nightmares, and is having visions of a maniacal, blood-splattered Nora chasing her through the house. Is Nora really there or is it a manifestation of Jane's guilt over believing she mishandled her treatment, something she fears she's doing again with Alex?

Directed and co-written by Alistair Legrand (THE DIABOLICAL), CLINICAL is an acceptable slow-burner for about an hour and change until Legrand and co-writer Luke Harvis drop the Shyamalan twist and everything promptly falls apart. From then on, nothing makes any logical sense no matter how many times the characters explain it (and the culprit is one of these types who just talk and talk and talk). It's weird in that the twist is overexplained yet still doesn't make any sense, almost as if Legrand and Harvis are not so much spelling it out for the viewer as much as they're trying to convince themselves "Yeah, you see how with this and that, and...yeah, I mean, see...this works...right?" Legrand is pretty generous with the splatter and also throws in a few nice split diopter shots (the one with the snow globe is the foreground is well done) to let us know that he's seen some Brian De Palma movies. But by the end, you'll have pretty much given up on trying to figure out what the hell's going on with all the rapid fire revelations and just feel bad for Shaw, a journeyman who's never been out of work over her 25-year career and has been plugging away at it since her teen years (HOCUS POCUS, 3:10 TO YUMA, TWO LOVERS, COLD IN JULY, tons of TV guest spots). She really brings her A-game to this, as if she was certain this was the breakout that would finally take her to the next level. Shaw carries this entire project on her shoulders and it eventually crushes her, and despite some obvious competence behind the camera by Legrand, the weak script (much is made of the Christmas setting, but it doesn't really do anything with it) just seems like its last few pages were blank and everyone just crossed their fingers and hoped it would work itself out.

Monday, January 16, 2017

In Theaters: LIVE BY NIGHT (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Ben Affleck. Cast: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Remo Girone, Robert Glenister, Miguel J. Pimentel, Matthew Maher, Anthony Michael Hall, Clark Gregg, Max Casella, J.D. Evermore, Christian Clemenson, Benjamin Ciaramello, Derek Mears. (R, 130 mins)

Ben Affleck made his directing debut with 2007's excellent Dennis Lehane adaptation GONE BABY GONE, and after establishing himself as a solid filmmaker with 2010's THE TOWN and 2012's Best Picture Oscar-winner ARGO, he returns with LIVE BY NIGHT, based on another Lehane novel. Where GONE BABY GONE and THE TOWN (based on a Chuck Hogan novel) were set in contemporary Boston, LIVE BY NIGHT looks at the city in a Prohibition-era setting. While Affleck the director captures the look of late 1920s Boston, his script is all over the place and he's completely miscast in the lead role. Affleck isn't an actor who thrives in period pieces and the film would've been better served had he stayed behind the camera as he did with GONE BABY GONE and cast someone else (co-producer Leonardo DiCaprio, perhaps?). With his Panama hat and oversized suit, he never looks comfortable in the role of Joe Coughlin, a WWI vet and Boston stick-up man-turned-Tampa rum runner. There's simply too much story for a feature film, and here is yet another example of an overstuffed film that would've been better served as a cable miniseries where characters could be fleshed out and events wouldn't be so glossed over. The pacing is choppy and there's reams of sleepy,, mumbly Affleck narration to cover exposition and whole sections of plot that are missing, not to mention Scott Eastwood and Titus Welliver having their entire roles cut out (Welliver is still in the credits, but if he's there, I didn't see him). Robert Richardson's cinematography and Jess Gonchor's production design are top-notch and every now and again, there's a striking image (like a car engulfed in flames sticking out of a shallow lake) or a memorable line of dialogue (the "So what am I talkin' to you for?" bit is great), but the cluttered and muddled LIVE BY NIGHT is otherwise is just too familiar to make its own mark in the gangster genre, borrowing too many ideas from too many movies that came before it to tell a story we've seen countless times before.

Affleck's Coughlin is a small-time Boston hood who happens to be the son of a high-ranking police superintendent (Brendan Gleeson). He's also in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the moll of powerful Irish mob kingpin Albert White (Robert Glenister). Their plan to run away together is thwarted when she's intimidated into ratting him out to White, who beats him senseless and leaves him in a coma. After he wakes and serves a stint in prison, he's paroled only to find his father has died and Emma was killed by White. Hell-bent on revenge, Coughlin forms an unholy alliance with Italian crime boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to take over the booze operation in the Tampa enclave of Ybor City and cut White out of the picture. Heading to Tampa with his buddy Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), Coughlin teams with Cuban gangster Esteban Suarez (singer Miguel, under his full name Miguel J. Pimentel) and falls for his sister and partner Graciella (Zoe Saldana). Coughlin has to deal with all sorts of pressure, from stern police chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) cordially warning him to stay in his territory and they won't have any trouble, to the local chapter of the KKK, led by Figgis' idiot brother-in-law R.D. Pruitt (Matthew Maher), who wants a 60% cut of the business since Joe's club caters to Cubans and blacks and because he's hooked up with Graciella. LIVE BY NIGHT also finds time for a subplot about Figgis' wholesome daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) heading off to Hollywood to be a movie star but instead falling into drugs and prostitution. She then returns to Ybor City to become a fire-and-brimstone preacher warning the townsfolk about the dangers of gambling and "the demon rum," which stonewalls Pescatore's plans for Coughlin to build a casino.

There's also double-crosses against Coughlin by the increasingly greedy Pescatore, who wants his moron son Digger (Max Casella) to take over the Ybor City operation, a sudden reappearance by a character presumed dead for no discernible reason, and about four endings before the credits finally roll. People are introduced and things happen so quickly and at times randomly that it's sometimes difficult to process who's who and how they figure into the story. LIVE BY NIGHT is always nice to look at and Affleck has an undeniable flair with set pieces (including an intense early card game stick-up that he does in a single take), but it's lacking everywhere else. He tries to cover it up with all the narration, but the seams don't take long to show. Affleck's performance is curiously bland throughout, never seeming like a 1920s gangster but always like a modern actor playing gangster dress-up (and for a smart guy, Coughlin is pretty brazenly stupid about being seen in public with Emma). Graciella's character arc makes no sense, bemoaning her husband's (yeah, she and Coughlin get married offscreen and then it's casually mentioned several scenes later) dangerous career, seemingly forgetting that they met because she's a partner in a major Cuban crime organization. Gleeson and Miller have nothing to do, and Cooper's character never makes consistent sense from scene to scene. Veteran Italian character actor Girone (in his first American film in a career going back to 1974) and an outstanding Fanning fare best, even if her Loretta ends up being another underdeveloped plot tangent that briefly turns the film into an Eli Sunday sermon from THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Affleck tries to go for a MILLER'S CROSSING feel, but ends up with a rushed, lesser BOARDWALK EMPIRE, and his own lackluster performance never inspires you to care much about Coughlin. By the  third or fourth ending, the relaxed pace starts to lend a second-tier Clint Eastwood feeling to the proceedings, further demonstrating the uneven tone of the entire project. LIVE BY NIGHT might've had potential, and perhaps a longer director's cut would help, but in the end, it's a formulaic, cliche-laden misfire from Affleck.

Monday, January 9, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE MONSTER (2016); EQUITY (2016); and KILL COMMAND (2016)

(US/Canada - 2016)

Similar to THE BABADOOK in that its title figure should be wearing a bright neon sign flashing "Metaphor!," THE MONSTER is an intermittently effective horror film that works better in the buildup that it does in the follow-through. It gets a lot from a pair of terrific performances by Zoe Kazan and young Ella Ballentine (also excellent in the little-seen STANDOFF) as a dysfunctional mother and daughter who stop fighting with one another when a car accident on a dark and desolate road makes a bad night even worse. Divorced Kathy (Kazan) is, to put it mildly, a trainwreck. A verbally and physically abusive alcoholic, Kathy drinks herself to sleep every night, usually leaving her ten-year-old daughter Lizzie (Ballentine) to be the responsible party in the relationship. Getting a nearly nine-hour late start to a road trip after hungover Kathy decides to sleep the day away, Lizzie demands they drive straight through for a planned visitation with her father for which she doesn't plan on returning, which keeps them on the road past midnight. Kathy crashes the car after hitting a wolf in a torrential downpour. An ambulance is running late, but a wrecker arrives and the driver (Aaron Douglas) is killed by a reptilian creature that looks like the result of a drunken hook-up between THE INCUBUS and a komodo dragon. After the ambulance arrives and the EMTs meet a similar fate, Kathy and Lizzie must figure out how to evade the monster and get off the road to safety.

Written and directed by Bryan Bertino (THE STRANGERS), THE MONSTER has a few genuinely terrifying scenes, with the director just showing brief flashes of the creature materializing in the background through sheets of rain. Kathy and Lizzie are stuck in what's essentially a CUJO situation, with their dysfunctional backstory being played out in periodic cutaway flashbacks. It's pretty easy to read the Monster itself as symbolic of Kathy's alcoholism and substance abuse (it's hinted that she's a recovering drug addict as well), with Lizzie determined to defeat it and emerge victorious. It's not quite as deep and disturbing as THE BABADOOK's representation of mental illness and the execution at times feels like an idea Bertino concocted in a high school creative writing class and didn't really expand upon over the years. It's sincere and well-made (and a huge improvement over Bertino's terrible MOCKINGBIRD), and the Monster is a nice old-school, practical man-in-a-suit for the most part, but the tension starts deflating in the third act (of course, once they get out of the car) and the film limps to a shrug of a finish, leaving all sorts of questions unanswered--things like "If Dad is the responsible parent, why is Lizzie is the custody of grossly neglectful Kathy and her succession of dirtbag boyfriends?" and "Why isn't anyone concerned about the ambulance that went out after midnight and still hasn't returned by daybreak?" (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2016)

The indie financial drama EQUITY had a chance to make a powerful statement about Wall Street wheeling and dealing from a woman's perspective, but it's almost completely sunk by two things. First is the obvious symbolism of a smug financial titan having an increasingly precarious Jenga tower on his desk. I wonder if that will coming crashing down by the end? The second is a throwaway bit late in the film where the main character is in the midst of watching the IPO she shepherded crash and burn and she loses her shit over being handed a chocolate chip cookie with only "THREE! MOTHER! FUCKING! CHIPS!" in it. And this film wants to be taken seriously? Not only does her utter shrieking hysteria come off as a negative stereotype considering EQUITY's POV, but it's overplayed to the point where it doesn't ring true in any way at all. And it was a lot better when Robert De Niro bitched in an equally insane but much quieter way about the blueberry muffins in CASINO over 20 years ago. Anna Gunn, a TV and stage veteran who stayed busy for years before breaking out and winning two Emmys as Skyler White on BREAKING BAD, stars as Paige Bishop, a powerful investment banker with a proven track record who's nonetheless being pilloried in the press over a recent IPO that performed far below expectations. She's about to rebound with Cachet, a new privacy company that's going public. When she isn't being treated condescendingly by Cachet's douchebag CEO (Samuel Roukin), she's being prodded about a promotion by her assistant and VP Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas) and hounded by Samantha Ryan (Alysia Reiner of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK), an old college friend who's now a fed working with the white collar crime unit. Samantha is after Michael Connor (James Purefoy, who still hasn't wiped the smirk off his face from THE FOLLOWING), who's at the same firm as Paige and is suspected in insider trading with his asshole buddy Benji Akers (Craig Bierko), who runs a rival firm. Paige is romantically involved with Connor, which complicates things, and it only gets worse after a Cachet coder (Sophie von Haselberg, Bette Midler's lookalike daughter) informs Paige--in a clandestine meeting in a poorly-lit parking garage, of course--that there's several security issues with Cachet. It soon becomes apparent that someone is trying to sabotage the Cachet IPO and make Paige the scapegoat for its failure.

EQUITY occasionally works in fits and starts. Samantha's investigation generates some MARGIN CALL-like suspense, and Gunn is good until the third act, when director Meera Menon has her shouting every line. EQUITY was written, produced, and directed by women (Thomas and Reiner co-produced and have story credits) and it seems to think it can coast by just on that. It has some valid points about the struggle of women trying to make it in a boys club, especially in the way Paige is repeatedly passed over for consideration of her outgoing boss' (Lee Tergesen) job because she "ruffles some feathers" and "rubs people the wrong way," and how when Erin finally gets her overdue promotion not because of performance but because a coasting, borderline incompetent underling made a call to his uncle, who's a higher-up at the firm. But for every astute observation it makes, there's that Jenga tower and the chocolate chip cookie, and another ridiculous scene where pregnant Erin is getting her first ultrasound and can't be bothered to look at the screen because she's too busy taking an urgent call about Cachet. In the middle of an ultrasound. EQUITY may have noble intentions, but it's too forced and too melodramatic, and with the cast almost completely coming from television, it plays a lot like a pilot for an FX series that never got picked up. (R, 100 mins)

(UK - 2016)

It offers little in the way of innovation, but KILL COMMAND is a not-bad B-movie that wears its '80s influences on its sleeve in a straightforward and dignified fashion. While its ideas echo classics like ALIENS and PREDATOR, it's really more like a sci-fi DOG SOLDIERS with a dreary, dystopian production design that Blockbuster Video regulars of a certain age will recall from 1990s straight-to-VHS Vidmark Entertainment fare like CYBORG 2 and DEATH MACHINE. Set in the near-future, KILL COMMAND has cyborg scientist Mills (THE CROWN's Vanessa Kirby) being sent by her employers at Harbinger to accompany a group of hard-ass US Marines on a routine training exercise on a remote island. Harbinger deals in weapons manufacturing and combat technology (and, judging from its name, pure evil), and Mills is their top programmer. She recognized a flaw in the code of their soon-to-be-rolled-out line of robot soldiers and is to observe the Marines in their mock combat with the robots on the island to see how the machines respond. After some extended set-up involving a lot of macho ballbusting and the establishing of everyone's mistrust of Mills, from no-nonsense Capt. Bukes (FLAME AND CITRON's Thure Lindhardt) on down, differences are set aside when Mills figures out one of the robots has gone HAL 9000. It's now capable of making its own decisions, programming the rest to mimic the battle action of the Marines and using the military's own techniques against them but with live ammo. After several are killed in the initial skirmish, Mills and the remaining survivors make their way to an abandoned compound for your standard-issue RIO BRAVO/John Carpenter scenario, with a small band of heroes fighting off the onslaught of sentient robots trying to get inside.

Little more than a pastiche of other movies' concepts, KILL COMMAND is pretty minor-league stuff but writer/director Steve Gomez, a veteran visual effects tech making his feature filmmaking debut, keeps things moving at a brisk pace once it gets going and works wonders with a small budget. Shot in 2014 and kept on the shelf for a couple of years, KILL COMMAND is a British production pretending to be American, so some of the American accents are a little off and the line delivery stilted (though Kirby and the Danish Lindhardt do alright), none more so than Mike Noble as the nervous Goodwin, with the actor's overbaked southern drawl constantly slipping into his own accent like some unholy fusion of Tennessee Williams and Guy Ritchie. It's ultimately slight and forgettable, but if approached with minimal expectations, KILL COMMAND provides atmosphere, action, and some solid effects on a low budget and ends up a reasonably entertaining 100 minutes for '80s and '90s genre fans in the mood for something directed by a second-string Neil Marshall. (Unrated, 100 mins)

Saturday, January 7, 2017

In Theaters/On VOD: ARSENAL (2017)

(US/UK - 2017)

Directed by Steven C. Miller. Written by Jason Mosberg. Cast: Adrian Grenier, John Cusack, Nicolas Cage, Johnathan Schaech, Lydia Hull, Mark McCullough, Tyler Jon Olson, Abbie Gayle, Christopher Coppola, Christopher Rob Bowen, Megan Leonard, C.J. LeBlanc. (R, 92 mins)

It's only the first weekend of 2017 and we've got the year's first of undoubtedly several straight-to-VOD thrillers with either Nicolas Cage or John Cusack--in this case, both. The CON AIR stars were last seen together in 2013's surprisingly good THE FROZEN GROUND but with ARSENAL, they're already blowing their New Year's resolutions to start appearing in better movies. Scripted by a debuting Jason Mosberg and directed by VOD mercenary Steven C. Miller (whose not-terrible 2016 Michael Mann knockoff MARAUDERS was the best-by-default entry in Lionsgate's landmark "Bruce Willis phones in his performance from his luxury hotel suite" series), ARSENAL's biggest problem is that it can't figure out what it wants to be. Set and shot in Biloxi, MS, with a special appearance by the Biloxi Shuckers minor league baseball team, ARSENAL opens in a such a somber and downbeat fashion with a focus on two teenage brothers in the early 1990s that it could almost pass for an early David Gordon Green indie drama. Older Mikey pushes little brother JP around but there's genuine love between them as they come from a broken home and have one another's back. 23 years later, they still live in the same town but a lot's changed: JP (ENTOURAGE's Adrian Grenier, who was in MARAUDERS and is looking like a new regular in these things) is married with a newborn daughter and owns a successful construction company, while Mikey (Johnathan Schaech, already a regular in these things) is a perpetual fuck-up who was booted out of the military, can't hold down a job, and has an ex-wife and a daughter who hate him. He's also a low-level criminal with tenuous ties to Eddie King (Cage), a coke-snorting crime lord who holds court in a skeezy titty bar on the outskirts of town. Mikey is such a loser that JP loaned him $10,000 to pay his back rent and get braces for his daughter, but instead Mikey spent it on a cocaine shipment that he planned to flip for double the price. Of course, other lowlifes knew he had the stash and jacked it from him, leaving him with nothing. Mikey needs money, and so does Eddie. He's in debt to some NYC mobsters who have sent his younger brother Buddy (Cage's brother Christopher Coppola) to collect. Eddie comes up with a half-assed plan to stage Mikey's kidnapping and shake JP down for a $350,000 ransom. Things obviously don't work out for anyone, starting with the viewer (I'd say "audience," but I don't wish to exaggerate).

ARSENAL's more serious side would work better if Grenier and Schaech were more engaging actors. But that seriousness is undermined by frequent instances of ludicrously over-the-top violence, including a cartoonishly splattery climax more fitting for the insane Paul Walker thriller RUNNING SCARED or the gloriously bonkers PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, with slo-mo bullets blowing up everything from skulls to ballsacks with wild abandon. Grenier and Schaech seem to be in a serious drama about the family ties that bind, while Cage is off in his own movie where he's inexplicably reprising his role in the barely-released 1993 campy pseudo-noir bomb DEADFALL, which he agreed to do as a favor to Christopher Coppola, who wrote and directed. Cage's performance--possibly his most gonzo in a career full of them and augmented by what appears to be a Tony Clifton-meets-Sonny Bono wig and mustache combo with a putty nose--is the only reason anyone remembers DEADFALL, a film that's barely watchable despite a cast that includes Michael Biehn, Charlie Sheen, James Coburn, Talia Shire, Micky Dolenz, Clarence Williams III, Angus Scrimm, and Peter Fonda. While Cage's Eddie was killed off midway through DEADFALL, he's clearly playing the same character here, right down to the wig, the stache, and the fake schnoz, which may go down as 2017's most obscure and self-indulgent inside joke.

In ARSENAL, Cage is here to do exactly what you expect him to do: shout, yell, scream, spaz out, and totally Cage it up as his putty nose perpetually seems on the verge of falling off. He's introduced shoving a steel pipe into a guy's mouth and driving it out the back of his skull with a baseball bat and he spends much of the second half of the film covered in blood after shooting and clawing his way out of a mob ambush. If ARSENAL went for this level of sustained lunacy for its entire run time, it might grow exhausting but it would at least be interesting for Nic Cage fans. No one cares about JP taking a stand against Eddie (telling his wife "Katrina didn't run us out and neither will Eddie King!") or shitbag Mikey's redemption. ARSENAL tries to have it both ways and succeeds at neither. It also fails to find a purpose for Cusack, sporting a doo-rag, a ball cap, shades, and his ubiquitous vape pen in a thoroughly superfluous supporting role as Sal, a shady undercover cop who's buddies with JP and Mikey and dispenses sage advice to JP about how to handle Eddie. Sal does nothing to advance the plot, and Cusack could've been completely eliminated with no effect at all on the movie. As usual for this sort of gig in the Cusackalypse Now canon, he looks haggard and sleep-deprived, like he just crawled out of a dumpster, exerting no effort to camouflage his utter lack of interest in the entire project. Cage is fully aware that this is shit as well, but he at least embraces the notion of self-parody and gives you what you came to see.