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Sunday, July 24, 2016

In Theaters: LIGHTS OUT (2016)



LIGHTS OUT
(US - 2016)

Directed by David F. Sandberg. Written by Eric Heisserer. Cast: Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Andi Osho, Emily Alyn Lind, Lotta Losten. (PG-13, 81 mins)

Produced by INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING director James Wan, LIGHTS OUT is a feature-length expansion of David F. Sandberg's two-and-a-half minute short film with the same title that went viral in 2013. It was a marvelous little self-contained fright sequence that built up more ominous dread in 150 seconds than most 100-minute features. Sandberg also directs the new LIGHTS OUT, from a script by Eric Heisserer, whose writing credits include the 2010 remake of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, the 2011 prequel THE THING, and the same year's FINAL DESTINATION 5. Sandberg and Heisserer keep things focused and on-point with LIGHTS OUT which, upon a cursory glance, has some big things working against it: it relies on the obligatory jump scares and its supernatural antagonist could just as easily be called THE GRUDGADOOK, a psychological manifestation that only attacks in the dark as a creepy-eyed, blinking silhouette, looking not unlike UNCLE BOONMEE doing the herky-jerky JU-ON shuffle. But Sandberg knows how to stage a scare, going for the usual loud jolts, but displaying a genuine understanding of atmosphere and buildup. There's some legitimately creative ways the heroes combat the spectral figure pursuing them, holding it back and keeping it away with any available light source, resulting in clever scenes like a guy holding out his illuminated smart phone like Van Helsing wielding a cross to ward off Dracula.






Sophie (Maria Bello) suffers from serious depression and is unable to deal with the death of her second husband Paul (Billy Burke), who was killed in the opening scene by a silhouetted spectre in his mannequin factory (an inherently creepy setting even without a shadowy presence darting around the warehouse). She's prone to long discussions with her unseen "friend" Diana, who hides in her closet and occasionally shows hints of her presence to Sophie's ten-year-old son Martin (Gabriel Bateman), like long, talon-like black fingers emerging from behind a barely-cracked door, subtly pulling Sophie away as she tries to talk to him. Unable to sleep and having trouble at school, Martin begs to stay with his older half-sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), Sophie's daughter with her first husband, who split when Rebecca was about Martin's age and hasn't been seen or heard from since. Rebecca has her own issues--living in a dumpy apartment above a tattoo parlor, she wants nothing to do with her mother, she's fiercely independent and doesn't allow Bret (Alexander DiPersia), the nice guy she's seeing, to get too close. Rebecca doesn't want to get involved but when Martin mentions Mom's friend Diana, traumatic memories return and she realizes her little brother is dealing with the same problems she had. It isn't long before an angry Diana is attacking the siblings at Rebecca's apartment (Sandberg makes great use of a flashing red neon "Tattoo" sign outside Rebecca's window), and when Sophie goes off her meds, Diana's power only grows in strength, putting everyone in danger.





"Diana" is a pretty obvious metaphor for Sophie's depression, and if the film has any problem, it's that it lays on too much exposition and over-explains the symbolism like it doesn't trust the audience to reach that conclusion. LIGHTS OUT explores territory very similar to THE BABADOOK and in that respect, doesn't bring much innovation to the table. It does, however, succeed as a fairly non-stop scare machine, running a brief 81 minutes and never having a chance to wear out its welcome. There's some chilling and intense set pieces throughout, and it's a great example of the kind of horror movie designed for maximum crowd response. It uses the standard jump-scares of today, but doles them out just right so they aren't overused. Too many of today's horror films just pile on jump scare after jump scare until you see them coming and you're pretty much numb to them. LIGHTS OUT spreads them out enough and lulls you into a comfort zone before delivering its scares, making them much more powerful. Some terrific performances add credibility as well. Bello and Palmer are perfectly cast as mother and daughter, DiPersia's Bret is a refreshingly real guy and not a pop culture-quipping dudebro, and young Bateman is very believable as a little kid who's been forced to grow up too soon, and he also has a great stare when scary shit is happening right in front of him. Not a classic but much better than it has any business being, LIGHTS OUT has an undeniable familiarity to it, especially coming so soon after THE BABADOOK, but Sandberg gets enough of the little details right that it impresses as one of the better big-studio horror offerings of late.


Friday, July 22, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: MILES AHEAD (2016); ELVIS & NIXON (2016); and ANDRON (2016)


MILES AHEAD
(US - 2016)



For years, Don Cheadle has been talking about his wish to make a film about jazz legend Miles Davis. He finally got the chance with this partially crowd-funded indie that also marks his debut as a writer and director. For something that he had bouncing around in his head all these years, MILES AHEAD is an almost total missed opportunity. Cheadle wanted to avoid the pratfalls of a standard-issue biopic, which is commendable, but he more or less just drops a character named "Miles Davis" into a rote buddy movie with occasional car chases and action sequences. Set primarily during Davis' reclusive late 1970s period of self-imposed exile in his Upper West Side NYC apartment, MILES AHEAD pairs him with a fictional Rolling Stone journalist named Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), who's desperate to grab an exclusive with him. Davis is currently butting heads with Columbia Records execs who have been waiting several years for his latest record. Columbia A&R douchebag Harper Hamilton (a reptilian Michael Stuhlbarg) and his Davis-like, Next Big Thing signing Junior (LaKeith Lee Stanfield) steal the sole copy of Davis' latest recording, prompting the embittered, burned-out, drug-addled trumpeter and his befuddled sidekick Braden to turn NYC (actually, Cincinnati, where this was shot) upside-down in pursuit of it. All the while, Davis periodically reflects on his career triumphs (and, of course, sees himself in the young ingenue Junior) and his failed marriage to dancer Frances (Emayatzy Coridealdi), pondering Where It All Went Wrong.





The flashbacks to the 1950s to the mid 1960s seem like Cheadle giving himself some opportunity to portray Davis in a straightforward fashion rather than the showy, coke-snorting jazz version of Howard Hughes he's playing in the late 1970s sections of the film. Cheadle is a dead ringer for Davis and it's a terrific performance that's completely let down by Cheadle the filmmaker. Cheadle is a gifted actor who could've brought much substance and complexity to a serious chronicle of the ups and downs of Davis' life. Why he--and Davis' family, who gave him their blessing--opted for a completely fictional scenario is a mystery. McGregor doesn't have much to do other than to look perplexed over Davis' wildly unpredictable behavior (like firing a gun in the Columbia offices), while Coridealdi does some good work in the more serious side of the film, even though she's tasked with little other than raging at a selfish, serially philandering Davis when he repeatedly treats her like a doormat. If Davis' family was OK with showing him in a negative light in these scenes, then why not make an honest film about him instead of this dumb movie that tries to have one foot in the arthouse and the other in the multiplex? Cheadle makes a great Miles Davis...it's just lost in a mediocre misfire of his own making. (R, 101 mins)



ELVIS & NIXON
(US - 2016)


Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon had a meeting in the Oval Office on December 21, 1970, with the resulting photo of the two cited as the most requested in the National Archives. ELVIS & NIXON purports to tell "the true story" of what went down at that secret meeting. Troubled by the direction of Vietnam-era youth--their malaise, their drug use, their music--Elvis is obsessed with the idea of working undercover for the Federal Narcotics Bureau as a "Federal Agent-at-Large," and requests a meeting with Nixon to make it happen. This story was covered before in Allan Arkush's little-seen 1997 cable movie ELVIS MEETS NIXON, with Rick Peters as Elvis and Bob Gunton as Nixon, but ELVIS & NIXON, co-written by actor Cary Elwes and directed by Liza Johnson (HATESHIP LOVESHIP), has two bigger names onboard, with Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Nixon. These are brilliant actors, and while neither does an SNL caricature, Spacey does a good job of nailing Nixon's mannerisms in the face of Elvis' increasingly absurd behavior, like an impromptu karate demonstration near the end of their afternoon together. Nixon sees being an Elvis pal as a way of appealing to America's youth, and while he's initially dismissive of the idea, the meeting puts a spring in Nixon's step--watch the way he enthusiastically asks aides Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) "Am I Mr. Cool?"--and Spacey does a very nice job with it. Shannon is a versatile actor but he just can't pull off Elvis. It makes sense that he wants to play Elvis as a person rather than the "Elvis" of his public image, but he never comes off as anything but Michael Shannon in an Elvis costume. He meets two impersonators early on and they demonstrate more life than he does. Shannon's Elvis is among the most quiet and soft-spoken in pop culture. It would've helped a little to maybe sound or act like him--Shannon is about as plausible an Elvis as Chevy Chase was a Gerald Ford. While Spacey doesn't cartoonishly mimic Nixon, he at least conveys a Nixonian presence. Shannon seems like an Elvis impersonator who's off the clock but still hasn't changed into his own clothes. And who cares about his buddy Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) who's preoccupied with getting back to Hollywood to propose to his girlfriend (Sky Ferreira)?  The closing credits roll at 80 minutes and they still have to pad the running time with a subplot about Jerry and his girlfriend? Also featuring Johnny Knoxville for some reason, ELVIS & NIXON finds some genuine laughs in the very late-going, but for the most part, it's low-key to the point of catatonia, never recovering from a miscast Shannon's inert (though some critics really liked it) interpretation of the King. If you want an Elvis performance that's funny and heartfelt and relatively real, stick with Bruce Campbell in BUBBA HO-TEP. (R, 86 mins)






ANDRON
(Italy/UK - 2016)


From the 1960s through the 1980s, it was common to find Hollywood actors who were aging or in a career slump slumming in B-grade European knockoffs of popular American movies. To that end, there's a brief sense of nostalgia to be enjoyed with ANDRON, an incoherent Italian ripoff of THE HUNGER GAMES and THE MAZE RUNNER that somehow prominently features a visibly inconvenienced Alec Baldwin as Adam, the nefarious master of--wait for it--"The Redemption Games." It's some survival game being broadcast to a post-apocalyptic, dystopian society in the year 2154, years after "The Big Catastrophe" nuked the planet, killing billions of people and leading to The Nine Corporations assuming control of the world. Ten strangers wake up to find themselves forced contestants in The Redemption Games, which is being beamed to members of an enslaved society who have placed bets where the winners earn their freedom. You expect to see Danny Glover in something like this--he plays "The Chancellor," some Nine Corporations leader--but isn't this a little beneath Alec Baldwin? Sure, hosting a rebooted MATCH GAME is probably a fun lark, but how exactly did this script get to him? Did he see an easy payday and assumed the resulting mess would never be released? ANDRON was filmed in 2014, around the same time Baldwin had a supporting role in the fifth entry in Santiago Segura's popular Spanish-made TORRENTE action/comedy franchise, TORRENTE 5: OPERACION EUROVEGAS (the first was made in 1998 and they've turned up streaming on Amazon), so he likely did the Malta-shot ANDRON on the same trip to Europe. But why? His appearances throughout are almost Bruce Willisian in their laziness and disconnect from the rest of the movie (the DVD's making-of shows a VFX shot of Baldwin's head being CGI'd onto a stand-in's body for a scene where his character appears with Glover). He probably didn't spend any more than a day or two on the set, probably coming off like a mercurial prick at least once and maybe trying to lighten the mood by entertaining the crew by dropping some GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS bon mots or the MALICE "I am God" speech. His role primarily consists of sitting at a desk, watching The Redemption Games on a hologram and occasionally engaging in some MINORITY REPORT pantomiming as he manipulates and moves things around on a holographic screen. When the first contestant is killed, a smirking Baldwin purrs "Ten little Indians standing in a line, one toddled home and then there were nine." Other observational witticisms from behind his desk include:

  • "Now things get interesting."
  • "Let's liven things up a little."
  • "Let's give them something else to think about."
  • "That's my girl."
  • "Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends!"
  • "Let's shuffle this deck."
  • "What the hell is that?"
  • "Get them back on the grid!"
  • "Shit!"




Written and directed by Francesco Cinquemani, ANDRON is so muddled and incomprehensible that it feels like you're watching the fourth or fifth installment in a franchise where the previous installments were never made. Opening in medias res is one thing, but not knowing who anyone is or what's going on or why we should even care makes for a frustrating experience. Never mind the atrocious CGI and greenscreen work--it seems entirely possible that Baldwin is completely unaware of this film and his appearance in it is actually a CGI hologram--the story isn't even remotely engaging and what little you can figure out is blatantly and shamelessly cribbed from THE HUNGER GAMES, THE MAZE RUNNER, and even the cult classic CUBE. The nominal lead is Leo Howard, the star of the Disney Channel's KICKIN' IT, and Skunk Anansie vocalist Skin plays a Milla Jovovich-like badass who's been implanted with someone's memories or some such nonsense. ANDRON is a complete botch that has the audacity to leave the door open for a sequel, and if Z-grade '70s hack Alfonso Brescia/"Al Bradley" was still alive and making Italian ripoffs, he probably would've made this. As it is, it's hopefully as close to an Uwe Boll joint as Baldwin will ever get. Did he owe Stephen a favor and do this movie for him? Did Mitch & Murray send him to Malta on a mission of mercy? (R, 96 mins)

Monday, July 18, 2016

Retro Review: LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977)


LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR
(US - 1977)

Written and directed by Richard Brooks. Cast: Diane Keaton, Tuesday Weld, William Atherton, Richard Kiley, Richard Gere, LeVar Burton, Alan Feinstein, Tom Berenger, Priscilla Pointer, Julius Harris, Richard Bright, Laurie Prange, Tony Fabiani, Robert Fields, Brian Dennehy, Richard Venture, Caren Kaye. (R, 136 mins)

A controversial, zeitgeist-capturing water-cooler discussion movie of its day, LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR has been rather difficult to see over the last couple of decades. It was last issued on VHS in 1997, has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray, and occasional appearances on YouTube are usually incomplete and/or quickly pulled. There's been some rumors that star Diane Keaton has kept it out of circulation, but that seems suspect--the most likely explanation for the film's absence on DVD and Blu-ray is the clearance of the music rights. The soundtrack features a slew of ubiquitous radio hits from the era, including Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way," Donna Summer's cover of Barry Manilow's "Could It Be Magic?" Diana Ross' "Love Hangover," and Boz Scaggs' "Lowdown," among others. The film recently resurfaced on Turner Classic Movies and may be a sign that a Blu-ray debut is forthcoming.





Based on Judith Rossner's bestselling 1975 novel, LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR is inspired by the life of Roseann Quinn, a NYC schoolteacher who was murdered in 1973. Quinn led a double life as a dedicated teacher by day and sexually liberated woman by night, much like GOODBAR's protagonist Theresa Dunn (Keaton). Raised in a stern Irish Catholic family and extremely self-conscious over a large surgical scar on her back from a grueling childhood bout with scoliosis, Theresa is introduced as a shy college student prone to fantasizing about her married professor Martin (Alan Feinstein). The two have an affair over her last year at school, but Martin ends it, adamantly refusing to leave his wife (plus, he's already screwing another student). Theresa gets a job teaching at a school for the deaf, where she's an inspiration to her students, investing much time, care and love in their education and growth and making them feel accepted in the world. After hours, still heartbroken over Martin's rejection and partially inspired by the swinging, group sex-lifestyle of her married older sister Katherine (Tuesday Weld), she becomes active in the singles scene and the nightlife of the Studio 54 era, spending her time at increasingly seedy bars looking for men. She starts an on/off fling with sleazy and the plays-rough Tony (Richard Gere in one of his earliest roles) and rejects the courtship of nice-guy James (William Atherton), her family-approved suitor who briefly considered entering the priesthood. Before long, Theresa's pursuit of casual sex and her increased recreational drug use start interfering with her job. She's tardy on a few occasions and Tony begins showing up on the school playground to harass and threaten her until he gets his ass beaten by the older brother (LeVar Burton) of one of her students. Feeling like she's spiraling out of control, Theresa resolves to get her life back on track, venturing out on New Year's Eve for one last wild night before changing her ways.


Written and directed by Richard Brooks (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, ELMER GANTRY, IN COLD BLOOD), LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR was considered a bold, daring film in its day, and it remains surprising to see an occasionally nude Keaton in such sordid surroundings. 1977 was a banner year for the actress between this and her Oscar-winning performance in Woody Allen's ANNIE HALL. She gives this everything she's got, but the film doesn't seem dark and dirty enough, coming off more like a sanitized, Hollywood version of Rossner's much darker and more bleak novel. It plays now like an odd fusion of 1967's UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE, chronicling the experiences of a new and idealistic young schoolteacher (Sandy Dennis), and the later TIGHTROPE (1984), where Clint Eastwood's dedicated cop and single father lives a secret nightlife of kinky, S&M sex with New Orleans prostitutes. You can also see a strong GOODBAR influence on Jane Campion's 2003 thriller IN THE CUT, where Meg Ryan attempted to show another side of herself by taking on a very Theresa Dunn-like role. There's an artifice to some sequences in GOODBAR that's almost distracting--the film's Red Light District looks like a garishly lit studio backlot set that you'd see on a sitcom. Lots of major studio films suffered from unconvincing TV backlots in those days, but that still doesn't excuse why you almost expect to see Laverne & Shirley schlemeel-and-schlemazeling past Theresa's apartment building.





In the book, Theresa gives in to much baser instincts, seeking out danger and engaging in increasingly rough and reckless masochistic sexual activities. In the film, Keaton's Theresa just seems like a young woman going through a hard-partying phase. Brooks creates a problem by shortening the timeline of the story--the book took place over a period from the 1960s to the early 1970s. Brooks cuts that down to just 1975 and 1976. This doesn't really provide enough time for Theresa's after-dark exploits to become her norm. Instead, it's more akin to an experimental period of self-discovery by a young woman with newfound freedom. In the book, it covered enough time that her clubbing and drugging and random, anonymous sexual encounters became an increasingly dangerous and self-destructive way of life (the time change also leads to nonsensical comment by Katherine about going to Puerto Rico for an abortion, which was completely unnecessary in 1975, two years after Roe v. Wade). It's clear that Katherine and Theresa (and their younger sister Brigid, played by Laurie Prange, who has two out-of-wedlock children by the end of the movie) are acting out against their repressive upbringing by their domineering father. Mr. Dunn is played in an overwrought performance by the usually reliable Richard Kiley, who approaches the character as the loudest, proudest, most belligerent Notre Dame-loving Irish Catholic patriarch in movie history. This was a breakout role for Gere, and judging from his mannered and embarrassing work here, it's hard to imagine he'd be going anywhere. Like the film's ludicrous Red Light District, Gere's Tony is a sitcom version of a dangerous thug, spazzing around the room, doing push-ups wearing nothing but a jockstrap, prone to spontaneous shadow-boxing, and generally coming off about as threatening as Fonzie. Weld has almost nothing to do in one of the most inexplicable Oscar-nominated performances you'll ever see (she was up for Best Supporting Actress, losing to Vanessa Redgrave in JULIA), and Brooks really doesn't know what to do with Atherton (who would later cement his place in film history as one of the great movie assholes of the 1980s, from his work as Walter Peck in GHOSTBUSTERS, Jerry Hathaway in REAL GENIUS, and shitbag reporter Dick Thornburg in DIE HARD), whose James turns into a borderline psychotic stalker after Theresa dumps him.


But then there's that ending. Brooks starts building momentum with some foreshadowing--James stalking Theresa; an extremely creepy sketch Theresa draws; Katherine jokingly attacking her with a rubber knife--that escalates to a profoundly disturbing climax that gets under your skin more than any other 1970s movie not called THE EXORCIST. When people talk about LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, they talk about the ending, in which Theresa hooks up with Gary (Tom Berenger), an insecure and angry homosexual (he claims to have a pregnant wife in Florida) who's just out of prison ("in prison, if you didn't fight, you spread ass!") and just cruelly dumped his older boyfriend (Richard Bright), shouting to him "I'm a pitcher, never a catcher!"  Theresa and Gary end up in bed, where he has difficulty getting an erection, and it just gets worse from there. Considering Quinn was murdered by a man she picked up at a bar, who became known as the Goodbar Killer (Goodbar was a bar Quinn frequented), Theresa's fate should not be a surprise, but Brooks' handling of the murder and the performances of Keaton and Berenger (in his third film, and his first significant role), are unforgettable. The film's depiction of a psychotic, self-loathing gay man driven to murder when he feels his manhood is being questioned is a little antiquated even by 1977 standards, as is the victim-blaming discussion at the time by the more puritanical-minded over whether the promiscuous Theresa had it coming (in the book, Theresa deliberately sought out increasingly dangerous men, something the movie doesn't have the balls to depict). Even knowing what happens, this is the kind of ending that's not easily shaken off, and one that will flat-out fuck you up and stay with you for days. If only the rest of LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR was as bold and as shocking as the finale.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray; EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! (2016); ROAD GAMES (2016); and THE PACK (2016)


EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!
(US - 2016)


Richard Linklater's "spiritual sequel" to DAZED AND CONFUSED is an inferior follow-up that's actually more in line with his Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET/MIDNIGHT trilogy. 23 years is a long time, and Linklater doesn't succeed in recapturing that lightning-in-a-bottle magic that he had with DAZED AND CONFUSED back in 1993. Gone are the insight, the wit, the quotable dialogue, and the standout cast. Look at DAZED and see how many future stars are in it, starting with Matthew McConaughey's scene-stealing Wooderson, the source of the actor's iconic "Alright, alright, alright!" mantra. That film had one of the most perfectly-cast ensembles you'll ever see. By contrast, EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! is populated by mostly interchangeable actors playing not-very-interesting characters. Other than Wyatt Russell (Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn's son) as affable, TWILIGHT ZONE-loving stoner Willoughby, Judson Street as angry spaz Jay (a cartoonish character who wears out his welcome in record time), and Zoey Deutch (Lea Thompson's lookalike daughter) as a cute theater major, nobody stands out or really makes much of an impression. Linklater's script doesn't help, giving the actors--most of whom look 30--florid, philosophical speeches that sound overwritten and completely unnatural for college jocks--or anyone (I'm also reasonably sure that jocks weren't driving around Texas singing along to Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" in the summer of 1980 either, in a scene Linklater obviously loved so much that he couldn't end it). These guys talk like they've seen a bunch of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith movies that haven't happened yet.




Set at the end of August 1980 at the fictional Southeast Texas College, the film follows the baseball team's antics the weekend before classes start, with the focus on freshman Jake (Brody Jenner), who's a combination of Jason London's Pink and Wiley Wiggins' Mitch from DAZED. There's a lot of babes, beer, bong hits, and ballbusting, things you've seen in a thousand other movies of this sort, but rarely with such grating self-importance. The closest thing to keen insight is every few minutes, someone has to chime in with a reminder that "You guys were the kings of your high school, but here you're just a big fish in a small pond," or some such variant. Linklater had much more success revisiting the characters played by Hawke and Delpy every nine years in the BEFORE films, but here, a couple of decades later, he tries to reignite that DAZED spark and it just doesn't work. It's been too long and 55-year-old Linklater's understandably not in the same headspace now. DAZED was a retro slice-of-life collage that vividly captured a time and place and brought it to life. This just feels like middle-aged nostalgia. There's ANIMAL HOUSE hijinks, the period detail is terrific, and there's a killer soundtrack filled with classic tunes, but it's lacking everything special that made DAZED AND CONFUSED the beloved film that it's become. Nobody's going to remember EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! after it's over and nobody's going to be talking about it 23 years from now. (R, 117 mins)



ROAD GAMES
(UK/France - 2016)


ROAD GAMES isn't a remake of Hitchcock disciple Richard Franklin's 1981 Australian thriller ROAD GAMES, a minor classic set on the desolate roads of the Outback where a trucker (Stacy Keach) and his faithful dingo pick up a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) and play cat & mouse games with a serial killer. This new, completely different ROAD GAMES has absolutely nothing to do with that film, nor does it spend much time on the road. Jack (Andrew Simpson) is a young Brit hitchhiking through France when he meets fellow hitcher Veronique (Josephine De La Baume). They're having a hard time finding any takers thanks to a serial killer prowling these little-traveled rural backroads, though they luck out when roadkill-collecting oddball Grizard (Frederic Pierrot) picks them up and welcomes them for dinner at his middle-of-nowhere farm with his depressed and distant American wife Mary (RE-ANIMATOR cult star Barbara Crampton). It doesn't take long for Jack and Veronique to figure out that something is decidedly off with this couple, starting with Mary clinging to Jack and displaying a bizarre demeanor toward Veronique. The next morning, Jack isn't buying Grizard's story that Veronique decided to leave and go on without him, and he's drugged and abducted by a weirdo neighbor (Feodor Atkine). Jack eventually escapes, goes back to Grizard and Mary's farm while they're away and finds Veronique bound and gagged in a room filled with stabbed mannequins. Then things get weird.




There's some bizarre moments like that scattered throughout ROAD GAMES, but it never really comes together due to writer/director Abner Pastoll's misguided approach that's slow-burn to a fault. There's a lot of dawdling and bullshit for the first hour or so before things get legitimately interesting. The big reveal is pretty decent, but would've been better had Pastoll not blown it earlier (hint: wasn't Jack's bedroom locked from the inside?). Then he gets too cute at the very end, with a really dumb post-credits stinger and a ridiculous "un film de Abner Pastoll" in credits that are otherwise in English, a joke that hasn't been funny in 40 years. There's also no reason for this to be called ROAD GAMES, other than hitching a ride on the familiarity some old-school horror audiences might have with a cult film that may not be widely known but is very much admired and revered by those who have seen it. ROAD GAMES has its moments, but the best is probably the end credits, in the beloved John Carpenter font, with aerial footage of those French backroads that are reminiscent of the theatrical version of BLADE RUNNER's end credits, with music by French synth rockers Carpenter Brut. It's the kind of closing credits party that can trick you into thinking you saw a much better film than you did. Pastoll closes big, and has a couple of effective bits along the way, but honestly, you can just queue this up on Netflix and go straight to the end credits at the 89:51 mark. You'll swear it's a great movie and you won't even have to sit through the rest of it to be let down. (Unrated, 95 mins, also streaming on Netflix)


THE PACK
(US/Australia - 2016)


Despite the title and the fact that it deals with a pack of feral dogs on the attack, THE PACK isn't a remake of the 1977 Joe Don Baker-headlined horror film, though that would be preferable. It seems like the idea of a family in a rural Australian farmhouse under siege by a pack of vicious dogs is a can't-miss, but director Nick Robertson and writer Evan Randall Green do everything they can to execute the premise in the most humdrum fashion imaginable. THE PACK is a slow burner than confuses the slow burn with "nothing much happening at all." It's a good 35-40 minutes before the attacks even start, with a bunch of "character development" involving the family's precarious financial situation and the possibility of foreclosure. The bank is offering them a hefty sum to vacate the land and sell it to a developer, but the dad (Jack Campbell) is too much of a proud, stubborn jackass to take the deal. Mom's (Anna Lise Phillips) small veterinary practice isn't enough to make ends meet, the teenage daughter (Katie Moore) is resentful that her folks can't afford an apartment for her like they promised, and the young son (Hamish Phillips) just wants everyone to stop bickering. None of this means jack shit when the dogs finally attack and cut the power, leaving the cast to wander around in darkness, peering out windows trying to see if the dogs are around. A cop arrives and is immediately torn apart by the dogs, then the phones go dead and of course, no other backup is sent when he fails to respond or report back to the station. Dad tries to do...who knows...with his pickup truck but is attacked in the process. Dogs get in the house and quietly wander around, their keen sense of smell unable to detect that someone is hiding on the other side of a door. The slow-burn horror crowd might be a little more forgiving of this than some, but this is just an aimless, ambling dud that never catches fire, never generates suspense, and never gets scary. It seems difficult to make this is bland and indifferent as it is, but there's somehow more tension in the family's bickering early on than there is in the wild dogs waiting outside to tear them apart. There's really not much more to say about this, other than it's one of the most disposable, generic, and instantly forgettable genre titles of the year. (Unrated, 88 mins, also streaming on Netflix)


Thursday, July 14, 2016

In Theaters: THE INFILTRATOR (2016)


THE INFILTRATOR
(US/UK - 2016)

Directed by Brad Furman. Written by Ellen Brown Furman. Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Amy Ryan, Yul Vazquez, Juliet Aubrey, Joseph Gilgun, Elena Anaya, Jason Isaacs, Said Taghmaoui, Art Malik, Olympia Dukakis, Simon Andreu, Michael Pare, Ruben Ochandiano, Carsten Hayes, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Ashley Bannerman, Juan Cely, Andy Beckwith, Xarah Xavier, Daniel Mays. (R, 127 mins)

Based on the memoir by US Customs special agent Robert Mazur, THE INFILTRATOR chronicles the mid '80s takedown of an extensive, global money laundering operation with ties to Pablo Escobar's Medellin cartel, and somehow manages to do it without featuring Benicio Del Toro in any capacity (though it does co-star reliable second-string Del Toro Benjamin Bratt). It's 1985 and Mazur, played here by Bryan Cranston, realizes the agency isn't getting anywhere with simple drug busts, and instead hatches a plan to follow the money. A veteran of intense undercover work, the Tampa-based Mazur is reluctantly teamed with hot-dogging, hair-trigger agent Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo, cast radically against type as "John Leguizamo"), with Mazur posing as a mob-connected New Jersey businessman named Bob Musella. As Musella, Mazur works his way into Tampa drug circles and finds an in with low-level Medellin flunkies Gonzalo Mora Sr (Eurocult vet Simon Andreu sighting!) and his hard-partying cokehead son Gonzalo Jr (Ruben Ochandiano). This leads him a little further up the ladder to the flamboyant, bisexual Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez), who's always accompanied by a silent mystery woman straight out of SALON KITTY (Xarah Xavier), and makes an awkward pass at Mazur/Musella by fondling him when they're alone. Musella sets up money laundering operations using reputable banks all over the world, most of which are well aware of what they're doing but are OK with it as long as the cash keeps flowing. Mazur/Musella becomes a big enough player that he--along with rookie agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), pressed into service when the married Mazur impulsively invents a fiancee to avoid cheating on his wife with a stripper supplied to him by Gonzalo Jr--becomes a trusted associate of Roberto Alcaino (Bratt), a key figure in Escobar's inner circle.





Directed by Brad Furman (THE LINCOLN LAWYER) and scripted by his mother Ellen Brown Furman, THE INFILTRATOR has little new to offer to the "deep undercover" subgenre. There's the inevitable scenes of Mazur/Musella almost being exposed, whether someone catches a glimpse of the recording device planted in his briefcase or, in a scene that's pretty much mandatory in this kind of movie, the wire he's wearing malfunctions and starts burning through his skin. Mazur's marriage goes through the usual melodramatic checklist that culminates in his extremely patient wife Ev (Juliet Aubrey) giving him the "I don't even know who you are anymore" glare that's crosscut with a kicked-out Mazur lying in bed in a dingy motel room, thousand-yard-staring across the room, flicking the bedside lamp on and off FATAL ATTRACTION-style, pondering What I've Become. That happens about an hour and a half in, and honestly, THE INFILTRATOR almost lost me at that moment. I mean, seriously. Give us a fucking break, Furmans.


In spite of its stumbles, THE INFILTRATOR is a moderately diverting time-killer that gets a lot of mileage out of a miscast Cranston who, at 60, is probably at least 15 years too old for this role. Cranston is such a dynamic actor that he can sell virtually anything (the barely-released COLD COMES THE NIGHT is the only bad Cranston performance I've seen). He's given able support by Leguizamo, who can play this kind of role in his sleep, and Bratt, who's really perfected the Corinthian leather purr of the great Ricardo Montalban. Other recognizable character actors appear throughout the story, like Amy Ryan as Mazur's bitch-on-wheels boss; Jason Isaacs as a hapless government lawyer; Olympia Dukakis as Mazur's aunt, improbably and recklessly included in one of his undercover jobs; Michael Pare as doomed smuggler and informant Barry Seal; Said Taghmaoui and Art Malik as a pair of corrupt Panamanian banking execs; and Joseph Gilgun in what's probably a composite character, a violent felon and past Mazur informant sprung from the joint to function as Musella's bodyguard and all-knowing expert on the ways of the underworld. The film plays far too fast and loose with the facts (Seals' death in the film is not how it went down, and the final sting operation at a wedding is complete fiction) and gets by on its performances and  some set pieces that Furman would have to be a moron to screw up (one certain future YouTube highlight is Gonzalo Sr. happening upon an off-the-clock Mazur and his wife at their anniversary dinner). Furman lays on the Scorsese worship pretty thick at times--he really loves the "Steadicam following Cranston" bit--but he has some cool choices in classic rock, from an undercover Mazur's beginning-of-the-film intro striding into a bowling alley accompanied by Rush's "Tom Sawyer" to a long, ambitious, CHILDREN OF MEN-type tracking shot where the camera snakes around to introduce all the major players at the climactic wedding--a staged event to lure all the targets to Musella and Kathy's fake nuptials--set to The Who's "Eminence Front." One detriment to THE INFILTRATOR is that it's one of the cheapest-looking $47 million productions you'll ever see, with its saturated, fake-grainy look and some unconvincing greenscreen sticking out like a sore thumb, a good indicator that the money went to the cast and the song licensing. I generally liked THE INFILTRATOR--it's got Cranston, some genuine suspense, and it's never boring, but it's crying out for something more than the workmanlike Brad Furman is able to deliver. Maybe it's the presence of Leguizamo bringing back some fond memories of CARLITO'S WAY, but on several occasions, I kept thinking of how this could've turned out in the hands of an in-his-prime Brian De Palma.

Monday, July 11, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: CODE OF HONOR (2016); TERM LIFE (2016); and BY THE SEA (2015)

CODE OF HONOR
(US - 2016)


Released on VOD and, somehow, in a few theaters this past May, CODE OF HONOR was the second of three Steven Seagal vehicles to drop in a ten-day period, coming three days after the straight-to-DVD SNIPER: SPECIAL OPS and a week before the VOD release of THE ASIAN CONNECTION. Don't let that fool you into thinking that Seagal's been busy, because his participation in CODE OF HONOR is, as you'd correctly assume, as minimal as it can be while still actually being in the movie. Written and directed by Michael Winnick, who previously gifted us the unwatchable, 15-years-too-late Tarantino knockoff GUNS, GIRLS & GAMBLING (2012), which had the dubious distinction of being the second terrible movie to star Christian Slater that involved Elvis impersonators pulling off a casino heist, CODE OF HONOR is so bad that a seemingly narcoleptic Seagal is the least of its problems. It's a film that makes no effort to hide its cheapness, and seems to do everything it can to exploit it, from the worst-you'll-ever-see CGI squibs and splatter that practically hover over the targets BIRDEMIC-style, to scenes of the mayor of a major city under siege calling a press conference where one reporter and seven or eight people are gathered. The CGI guys can't even be bothered to create a crowd to put in front of whatever building is passing for City Hall. Scenes uncomfortably linger past the point of necessity, and the blurry cinematography and constant repetitive beats underscoring the action recall the finer moments in Albert Pyun and Ice-T's landmark "Gangstas Wandering Around an Abandoned Warehouse" trilogy (© Nathan Rabin)





The plot owes a lot to The Punisher, with Seagal starring as Col. Robert Sikes, a former Special Forces legend long MIA, who's resurfaced in Salt Lake City to take out the trash. Perching himself on rooftops, sniper Sikes takes out all the city's scumbags, from drug dealers to gang leaders to pimps to corrupt politicians, and every evil-doer in between, including powerful mobster Romano (James Russo). It's all part of an elaborate revenge plan after his wife and son were killed in a driveby. Irate cop Peterson (Louis Mandylor) is at a loss, and things aren't helped by the interference of eccentric, alcoholic, knife-happy FBI agent Porter, played by once-promising actor-turned-barely recognizable cosmetic surgery cautionary tale Craig Sheffer (remember when he got top billing over Brad Pitt in Robert Redford's A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT?). Ex-military Porter knows Sikes ("He's trained to be a ghost...a shadow!") and spent time with him in Afghanistan, so he knows what he's up against ("To stop him, I must become him"). But before you can say Porter is the Trautman to Sikes' Rambo, Winnick throws in a plot twist that's hilariously stupid but takes such chutzpah that you can't help but begrudgingly admire it, if for no other reason than it's the most inventive way yet that a Seagal director has dealt with an actor whose laziness knows no limits. As usual, Seagal is always shot solo and never directly interacting with a co-star, never more apparent than when he and Sheffer awkwardly come to blows and Winnick valiantly tries--and fails--to work around the fact that the actors in a fight scene aren't there at the same time. It's too bad Winnick doesn't have the balls to stick with the twist, introducing it and almost immediately walking it back in a way that's unsatisfying and makes no sense. Even if the twist worked and Winnick followed through with it, CODE OF HONOR ranks among the worst Seagal films, which is saying something. It's so sloppy and unprofessional--the CGI is bush-league; a shot of a rappelling Seagal against a Hanna-Barbera-looking greenscreen is laughable; the producers can't even gather a reasonable number of Salt Lake City pedestrians to create a convincing crowd shot (probably too cheap to give them lunch); recurring shots of newscasters on TV are just bad actors reading their lines off of laptops--that it's a Master P or Silkk the Shocker cameo away from being an I'M BOUT IT rapsploitation homage. (R, 107 mins)



TERM LIFE
(US - 2016)


It's not every day you get Vince Vaughn in a combination Moe Howard/Beatles moptop rug with botched heists, corrupt cops, and bloody shootouts in a crime thriller directed by Ralphie from A CHRISTMAS STORY, so it's too bad TERM LIFE completely fails to live up to its batshit potential. Making his grand entrance into the world of VOD, Vaughn headlines this uneven and generic non-thriller that made it to just 50 screens after Universal kept it on a shelf for two years, eventually and inexplicably releasing it through their foreign/arthouse "Focus World" division. Vaughn and his hairpiece star as Nick Barrow, an Atlanta heist coordinator who plots elaborate break-ins and sells them to the highest bidder. His latest customer is Alejandro (William Levy), a seemingly small-time criminal whose cohorts rob the cash from police evidence room and are immediately massacred by a crew of corrupt cops led by Keenan (Bill Paxton). Unbeknownst to everyone, Alejandro's father is Viktor Vasquez (Jordi Molla), a major south-of-the-border cartel boss who arrives in town looking to avenge his son's murder. Sold out by the contacts who put him in touch with Alejandro, Barrow assumes he doesn't have long to live and takes out a huge life insurance policy to leave to his estranged 16-year-old daughter Cate (TRUE GRIT Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld). The policy won't go into effect for three weeks, so he and a rebellious Cate hit the road and lay low, attempting to evade both Viktor and Keenan. The chase leaves a trail of dead bodies and superfluous guest appearances: Vaughn's buddy Jon Favreau as his scheming go-between, Terrence Howard as a clueless sheriff, Taraji P. Henson as the insurance agent, Shea Whigham and Mike Epps as Keenan's partners in crime, plus a nice supporting turn by the great Jonathan Banks as Nick's fatherly friend Harper. In the hands of a renowned action thriller director like Peter Billingsley (COUPLES RETREAT), the plot is extremely predictable, with bland, monotone narration by Vaughn to cover up the holes and attempt to keep it moving. Far too much time is spent on father-daughter arguments and maudlin bonding, as the pair are supposed to holed up in their motel room to avoid being seen, but of course go out for ice cream and on the ferris wheel at a carnival and get seen. It's the kind of movie where people have to do incredibly stupid shit to keep the story advancing. This is about as run-of-the-mill and forgettable as they come, aside from Vaughn's ridiculous pelt, which would have even Nicolas Cage looking away in embarrassment. (R, 93 mins)





BY THE SEA
(US - 2015)


BY THE SEA was supposed to be a major holiday movie season awards contender at the end of 2015, but then someone from Universal must've actually watched it and quite obviously saw this tedious, self-indulgent Brangelina vanity project for what it was. The studio pretty much bailed on it, stalling its release at just 142 screens in the US for a gross of $530,000. There's a reason you've probably never even heard of this Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie home movie: BY THE SEA completely fell off the radar and became an afterthought even to its own distributor, taking an unusually long seven months to hit DVD/Blu-ray. Now going by Angelina Jolie Pitt, the Oscar-winning actress also wrote and directed this scenically lovely but utterly inert exercise in channeling her inner Michelangelo Antonioni. She captures the look and feel of that sort of cold and distant late 1960s/early 1970s European art film (plus a good chunk of the dialogue--whenever Pitt or Jolie interact with the supporting cast--is in French with English subtitles) and fuses it with a presumably very personal John Cassavetes-style examination of marital dysfunction (Jolie cited the great Gena Rowlands as an inspiration, and the screen legend appears with the star couple in one of the bonus features). But when it's all said and done, it's a thoroughly empty experience, alienating but not in the Antonioni way Jolie likely intended. It's a well-crafted forgery that looks like a 45-year-old film, from the 1970s Universal logo that opens it to the characters chain-smoking while wearing gaudy, oversized eyewear, but to what end? Jolie nails the look, but the script is trite and predictable and the characters not only unlikable but completely uninteresting. It's a boring, ponderous slog, the kind of movie where Jolie's character returning from a walk and announcing "They made fresh pastries" constitutes a major plot development.





Arriving at a seaside French hotel, blocked writer Roland (Pitt) and his wife Vanessa (Jolie) are looking to get away, primarily from each other. She spends the days moping around the hotel room and sobbing while Roland drinks himself into a daily stupor at a nearby bar, getting sage advice from kindly widower bartender Michel (Niels Arestrup). Vague references to a recent tragedy and Friedkin-esque subliminal flashes hint at the divide between them, and it grows wider when they meet Francois (Melvil Poupaud) and Lea (Melanie Laurent), the newlyweds who've checked into the neighboring suite. Through a small pipe hole in the wall left by a removed radiator, Vanessa voyeuristically watches the young couple. Roland eventually joins her, the two becoming a peeper version of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, drawn together and taking tentative steps toward reforming their bond after observing Francois and Lea having anal sex (a LAST TANGO IN PARIS nod, perhaps?). It's still not enough for Roland and Vanessa to overcome their malaise, ennui, self-pity, self-loathing, and their general shittiness as human beings, as they continue to tear one another down in hurtful ways, with Vanessa going so far as to sabotage Francois and Lea's marriage as a way of dealing with her own pain. "Am I a bad person?" Vanessa asks Roland. "Sometimes," he replies, adding "We have to stop being such assholes." Not making BY THE SEA would've been a good start. (R, 122 mins)

Friday, July 8, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: CELL (2016)


CELL
(US - 2016)

Directed by Tod Williams. Written by Stephen King and Adam Alleca. Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stacy Keach, Owen Teague, Erin Elizabeth Burns, Clark Sarullo, Ethan Stuart Casto, Joshua Mikel, Catherine Dyer, Lloyd Kaufman. (R, 98 mins)

Based on the 2006 Stephen King novel, CELL is easily the worst big-screen King adaptation since 1995's THE MANGLER, which may come as a surprise since King himself co-wrote the script. The novel had a bumpy journey from page to screen, first being announced in 2007 by the Weinsteins and Dimension Films as a project for Eli Roth, from a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Roth left over "creative differences" and the entire project fell apart. The Weinsteins sold the rights to others, Alexander and Karaszewski's script was tossed, and King himself was commissioned to rewrite the screenplay. By the time filming began, with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 director Tod Williams at the helm, significant rewrites were done by Adam Alleca, who scripted the 2009 remake of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. That remake was OK as far as remakes go, but it begs a question: how bad was King's script that Adam Alleca was hired to fix it? CELL reunites John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, stars of the not-bad 2008 King short story adaptation 1408, but both actors have rarely seemed more disinterested in what they're doing. It's a badly-made, incoherent mess, starting with video-burned opening credits that make it look like a cheap TV show, and ending with some embarrassing CGI explosions that aren't even up to the standards of The Asylum. Remember when Stephen King movies were big events? It's not long into CELL before you realize why Lionsgate gave it a stealth VOD burial. It's an amateurish disaster that would be laughed off the screens if it got a wide multiplex release. This is so bad that even a prime time slot on Syfy on a Saturday night would've been too gala a premiere for it.






An exclusive pic of an audience exiting
a pre-release test screening of CELL
Whatever themes that were present in King's novel--there's some satirical points to be made by the effects of cell and smartphones on the public--are dumped here in favor of yet another generic zombie apocalypse story. Opening with an event known as "The Pulse," much of the world (or at least the few Atlanta locations the boatload of producers could afford) is turned into rampaging, flesh-eating 28 DAYS LATER creatures by a croaky signal that transmits over their phones. Fortunately for comic book artist Clay Riddell (Cusack), his cell battery died at the airport just before The Pulse, thus making him immune from the initial outbreak. Teaming up with subway conductor Tom McCourt (Jackson), the pair venture to Clay's studio where his neighbor Alice (ORPHAN's Isabelle Fuhrman) has just been forced to kill her zombified mother. The trio make their way across what's become a post-apocalyptic hellscape seemingly in a matter of hours, eventually picking up another survivor, Jordan (Owen Teague), and heading to Clay's house to find his estranged wife and son. They soon realize that the source of the cellular mayhem is a character drawn years ago by Clay: a spectre in a red hoodie known in the book as Raggedy but rechristened The Night Traveler for the movie (played by Joshua Mikel), a figure they've all seen in their dreams, who's somehow controlling the hive-minded horde of cell phone zombies.


Cell wasn't one of King's better novels, coming off much of the time like a technologically-tweaked revamp of The Stand with tired tropes taken from any number of older King books (does anyone rip himself off more than Stephen King?). CELL can't even manage to get to the level of an entertaining ripoff. It might've been effective ten years ago, but the overrated 2008 indie THE SIGNAL already covered a lot of this. There's a ton of deviations from the novel, none of them improvements. Most notable is the fate of Charles Ardai, the headmaster of a prep school where the trio first finds Jordan. In the book, Ardai is a major character overtaken by a "Phoner" signal that convinces him to commit suicide. In the film, Ardai, played by Stacy Keach in a five-minute cameo, simply gets impaled after an explosion and the group moves on. There's absolutely no sense of time or place in CELL. It looks like Clay, Tom, and Alice hit the road immediately after The Pulse, but the country is already a desolate wasteland and survival camps have sprung up. It's like an entire season of THE WALKING DEAD haphazardly whittled down to 98 minutes, and much of it shot in such total darkness that it's impossible to tell what's going on. Exposition is mechanically dropped by actors playing characters who sound like they're spouting facts they just yanked out of their asses, just as an easy way to get to the next set piece. This has all the hallmarks of a botched disaster--two years on the shelf; King nowhere in sight to promote a movie he co-wrote; a shrugging Cusack looking pale, disheveled, and bored, displaying almost no reaction to the carnage happening around him; Jackson seeming thoroughly pissed-off that he was talked into being in it; a dated appearance by the long-ago-viral "Trololo Song" as a plot point (it sedates the Phoners)--coming off very much like an unreleasable dumpster fire that was just abandoned by everyone involved. It's 98 minutes of nobody giving a shit. Even by the standards of much of Cusack's recent work in the Cusackalypse Now canon (his stellar turn in the terrific LOVE & MERCY aside), the shit-the-bed CELL is the worst film of his career.