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Sunday, September 30, 2012

In Theaters: LOOPER (2012)


LOOPER
(US/China - 2012)

Written and directed by Rian Johnson.  Cast: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Garret Dillahunt, Pierce Gagnon, Summer Qing, Tracie Thoms. (R, 118 mins)

Time-travel movies almost always have some logistical flaw or gaping plot hole that would seem to negate everything that happens in the story.  LOOPER tries to pre-emptively circumvent any criticisms by having one of the main characters describe the process as "fuzzy," almost as a way of telling nit-picky audiences to just shut up and enjoy the movie.  LOOPER's time-travel antics are actually pretty solidly-constructed and very plausible in the confines of its own universe.  Upon one viewing, the time-travel element holds together, though other key elements might not.  LOOPER is getting some of the most positive reviews of any film released this year.  It's a good movie--cleverly-written, imaginative, intelligent, well-acted--though I can't help but wonder if we've become so accustomed to focus-group-induced mediocrity and the go-through-the-motions clock-punching exhibited by so many of today's films that when something relatively smart and inventive like LOOPER comes along and puts forth a little effort, that there isn't a knee-jerk reaction to label it a game-changer.  LOOPER is a good movie and it's mostly very entertaining...but it's not some kind of new genre classic, especially when its second hour doesn't live up to the promise of the first.

In 2074, time-travel is invented and immediately outlawed.  But the mob decides to use it to go back in time to 2044 and whack people in the past so they don't become an issue in the future.  The hitmen who handle these jobs are called "Loopers."  And the day will eventually come when a 2044 Looper is forced to kill the 2074 version of himself, in which case they're given a massive payment allowing them to live it up for 30 years, knowing the exact time when their life will be over.  One such Looper is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who does his job well and enjoys the flashy lifestyle of fast cars, available women, and designer drugs.  But he starts noticing that more and more of his Looper associates are being tasked with killing their 2074 selves, meaning their boss--known as The Rainmaker--is terminating the Looper contracts and getting rid of all evidence of their existence in a process known as "closing the loop."  Trouble arises when Joe finds himself face-to-face with his 2074 self (Bruce Willis), who gets the upper hand on Joe and manages to escape after a botched shootout at a diner.  Old Joe lived a life of killing and drug addiction in Shanghai, and only recently married a loving woman (Summer Qing) who helped him change his ways and he isn't quite ready to call it a life and go out with quiet acceptance of his fate.  Convinced he can change his future, Old Joe traveled from 2074 to 2044 to find and kill The Rainmaker before he can take over all organized crime and close the loops.  Old Joe has narrowed the potential Rainmakers down to three young boys in 2044, and decides to kill each one in order to change the course of his future.  Joe, meanwhile, takes refuge at a farm owned by Sara (Emily Blunt), a "TK," or one of the 10% of the population with a telekinesis mutation, and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who shares a birthday with other two children being sought by Old Joe.  Old Joe must kill The Rainmaker to evade death and live his newfound life, but Joe must kill Old Joe to secure his next 30 years.

There's a tremendous complexity to the world of LOOPER, and writer/director Rian Johnson (BRICK, THE BROTHERS BLOOM) has constructed one of the most imaginative sci-fi concepts to hit the screen in some time, even if one of its central elements is a pretty blatant lift from THE TERMINATOR (itself inspired by the works of legendary plaintiff and occasional sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison, who is no doubt tentatively scheduled to file a lawsuit again Johnson and the producers any second now).  The first hour of LOOPER is so good that it's a disappointment when it starts to fall apart a bit in the second.  The ending is nicely ambiguous on one hand, but it just feels a little weak, and the "TK" element of the story is abandoned for much of the film and never really explored to its full potential other than when it's convenient for the plot (in a scene that borrows a memorable killing from Brian De Palma's 1978 film THE FURY), and I still can't figure out why Johnson chose to have one of the film's key antagonists get killed offscreen.  But the first hour has some doozies:  one 2074 Looper returns and escapes his 2044 incarnation, and starts literally falling apart when the mob's "Gat Men" torture and dismember his 2044 self;  2044 Loopers can carve notes into their flesh that materialize as scars on their 2074 selves, which leads to one of the film's best lines ("Fewer letters"); and a criminally underused Jeff Daniels steals the film as Abe, the mob's grumpy Looper supervisor, sent from 2074 to 2044 to oversee the operation.  Daniels, in one of his career-best performances, is so good here that I wouldn't mind seeing a LOOPER offshoot that centered on his character.

 
Also of note is that the film is a co-production with China's DMG Entertainment, who provided co-star Qing as well as the visual effects crew.  If you haven't seen Chinese visual effects...well, with the exception of the occasional wuxia like CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON or HERO or CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER, they're...not good.  Imagine the dodgiest CGI and greenscreen work from an American effects company or the typical work of the Bulgarian outfit Worldwide FX (responsible for the CGI splatter and SyFy-level fake explosions in NuImage fare like THE EXPENDABLES 2), but worse.  There's a couple of shots in LOOPER involving a hovercycle-type bike and it's just embarrassing, bush-league greenscreen and matte work.  Some of the "TK" destruction shots have a really cheap feel to them that's a distraction when it should be dazzling.  But I'm sure that was part of the deal, and it's indicative of just how important the Chinese market has become to worldwide distribution and box office (DMG is also co-financing the upcoming IRON MAN 3).  In fact, the version of LOOPER released in China is specifically tailored for that audience, likely removing Piper Perabo's nudity and also including some additional scenes shot with Qing in the brief Shanghai portion of the US version.

Willis and Gordon-Levitt are excellent as both eras of Joe, each inhabting a large gray area of heroism vs. villainy, each with very valid reasons for doing what they do. It's Willis' best role in years, and he's matched by Gordon-Levitt, who's under extensive makeup to resemble a younger Willis, which isn't always convincing, but he really nails a lot of Willis' signature tics, mannerisms and line deliveries.  LOOPER isn't quite what it could've--and should've--been, but flaws and all, it's still smarter, wittier, and more inventive than almost anything else out there right now.




Saturday, September 29, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE TALL MAN (2012), THE LETTER (2012), and APARTMENT 143 (2012)

THE TALL MAN
(Canada/France - 2012)

Writer/director Pascal Laugier made a name for himself with 2008's savage horror film MARTYRS.  His follow-up film THE TALL MAN (no connection to Don Coscarelli's PHANTASM films) goes in a different direction stylistically, with almost no gore and with the focus being more on psychological horror.  In a lot of ways, it feels like a throwback that reminded me of all those great 1970s made-for-TV horror movies (when's the last time you saw quicksand in a movie?).  THE TALL MAN has a lot of ambition and tries to cover a lot of ground, and while, like MARTYRS, it's a provocative, imaginative, and sometimes daring film, it doesn't quite hang together despite a lot of positive ingredients.  It doesn't always work, but it's an admirable effort that really tries to do something different, and succeeds a bit more than it stumbles.  In a surprisingly strong performance, Jessica Biel is a widowed mom and doctor in the poverty-stricken former mining town of Cold Rock, outside of Seattle.  The mine closed years ago and the town is a wreck, with abandoned houses and wild dogs roaming the streets.  The only thing going on in Cold Rock is a traumatic string of child abductions by a figure known locally as The Tall Man.  The Tall Man apparently lives in the forest, and local mute teen Jodelle Ferland (the little girl from SILENT HILL back in 2006) claims to have seen him.  Cold Rock sheriff William B. Davis (THE X-FILES' Cigarette-Smoking Man!) mainly hangs out at the greasy spoon being useless while big-city detective Stephen McHattie investigates.  Sure enough, Biel is awakened one night and witnesses her young son being abducted by The Tall Man, but that's only the beginning of the story.


Laugier's structuring is unpredictable in that the film's primary twist happens unusually early on, and the rest of it deals less with the What's than with the Why's and How's.  Laugier very effectively plays his cards close to the vest, relying on subtlety and atmosphere, with some really nicely-done bits of editing, cinematography, and aerial and tracking shots. The problems arise when we're expected to swallow far too many implausibilities and inconsistencies, chief among them being how 18 children can go missing in a town this small and unpopulated with no one aware of what's really going on. The ultimate reveal comes not via bombastic surprise ending, but is rather low-key, contemplative, and doesn't provide any easy answers ("Right?  Right?  Right?").  Biel shows some serious chops here, but there's admittedly not much of a mainstream audience for a film like THE TALL MAN, especially for Laugier fans expecting a blood-and-torture-filled MARTYRS retread.  It's a slow and methodical little film with some unfortunate plot holes and logic gaps and it maybe could've used another script polish and maybe some tightening, but it's also unusually thoughtful, restrained, and serious for a horror film in 2012. (R, 106 mins, also streaming on Netflix)


THE LETTER
(US - 2012)

Remember when Lionsgate tried to sell William Friedkin's BUG as a mainstream horror movie?   They must be employing the same crew of bullshit artists in their marketing department, as their artwork ("She thought she saw a devil") and trailer for THE LETTER constitute 2012's most deliberately and willfully misleading ad campaign.  They're selling it as a suspense thriller with horror elements when in fact it's unwatchable film-school drivel trying to pass itself off as artsy and serious.  NYC writer Martine (Winona Ryder) is directing what looks to be the worst play ever staged and her life begins to unravel with the arrival of co-star Tyrone (James Franco), a manipulative, perpetually-smirking dick whose demeanor rubs everyone the wrong way.  Martine's relationship with boyfriend/co-star Raymond (Josh Hamilton) gets increasingly rocky as she constantly revises the script and the lines between fiction and reality blur and blah blah blah.  Lots of banal, stream of consciousness, freeform narration from Ryder as her character may or may not be in the midst of a schizophrenic episode and she may or may not be involved a hit and run accident involving a journalist (Dagmara Dominczyk).  Written and directed by Jay Anania, Franco's NYU film professor who previously directed the actor in 2010's instantly obscure SHADOWS AND LIES.  Somewhat reminiscent of Abel Ferrara's DANGEROUS GAME (1993), THE LETTER is a 90-minute Jay Anania home movie, probably made possible by the director's friendship with a famous, Oscar-nominated student.  It's amateurishly-shot and cheap-looking, almost like it's a class project where the assignment is to re-imagine BLACK SWAN as if directed by Henry Jaglom, and it's on roughly the same entertainment level as being waterboarded.  Possibly the worst film of 2012.  Look at this clip.  MUST LOVE JAWS is a more honest trailer than this.  (R, 94 mins)




APARTMENT 143
(Spain/France - 2012)

Written and produced by BURIED director Rodrigo Cortes, APARTMENT 143 (the original Spanish title EMERGO still remains on the film itself) attempts to fuse together all of the found footage films of the last few years, but it's done POV style so we see it as it happens.  Heavily indebted to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, the film has a team of parapsychologists led by Michael O'Keefe investigating supernatural happenings in one unit of a dilapidated apartment building in downtown Los Angeles.  They've been hired by widower Kai Lennox, who lives with his angry teenage daughter Gia Mantegna (Joe's daughter, and she looks just like him) and four-year-old son Damian Roman, to get to the bottom of strange happenings that have followed them from their previous residence, and it all started when his wife died.  Cortes can't seem to settle on what exactly is going on here, so he just rips off everything before skidding to a thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion.  O'Keefe's insistence that hauntings and ghosts aren't real and there's no such thing as supernatural events and poltergeists doesn't really gel with the fact that they all clearly see the mother's ghost appear, but promptly forget about it as mandated by the made-up-as-it-goes-along script.  And even after Mantegna becomes visibly possessed and starts speaking in her mother's voice and doing a by-the-numbers EXORCIST impression, O'Keefe still stupidly writes it off as "early onset schizophrenia," with the possibility that it's a manifestation of buried memories of child molestation.  Rooms shake, winds howl, people are hurled across the room, laptop files erase themselves, motion sensors activate, pictures turn themselves upside down, tea kettles move themselves off the stove, and Mantegna levitates, and it's all just hormones and pent-up teen rage.  Director Carles Torrens stages a couple of decent jolts, but Cortes' script somehow manages to go in twenty different directions without really going anywhere, and it's all capped off with a not-so-twist ending that proves the dumb doctor wrong anyway.  You've seen it all before, and much better. At least it's short. (R, 80 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

Friday, September 28, 2012

In Theaters/On VOD: SOLOMON KANE (2012)


SOLOMON KANE
(UK/Czech Republic/France - 2009; 2012 US release)

Written and directed by Michael J. Bassett.  Cast: James Purefoy, Pete Postlethwaite, Max von Sydow, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Alice Krige, Jason Flemyng, Mackenzie Crook, Philip Winchester,  Patrick Hurd-Wood, Sam Roukin, Isabel Bassett.  (R, 100 mins)

"Is there some reason SOLOMON KANE hasn't been released here yet?" - uttered innumerable times and posted on countless genre message boards by an undetermined number of US moviegoers since early 2010.

It's been one of the great moviegoing mysteries of late as to exactly why it took three years for SOLOMON KANE to get a US release.  It's a large-scale, medieval supernatural fantasy based on a character created by Robert E. Howard of Conan fame, filled with action and special effects, and received generally positive if not exactly exuberant reviews overseas.  It's been on DVD and Blu-ray in the rest of the world since 2010, and was even up on YouTube in its entirety until The Weinstein Company, via their genre subsidiary Radius, acquired it for the US and gave it a VOD and limited theatrical release this weekend.  You know a movie's been detained in distribution limbo for a while when second-billed Pete Postlethwaite died nearly two years ago.  The great and much-missed Postlethwaite looks like his old self here, unlike his gaunt, frail appearances in 2010's INCEPTION and especially later that year in THE TOWN, where it was very apparent that he was quite ill.

As the film opens in 1600, Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) is a mercenary and all-around total bastard whose encounter with a demon calling itself "The Devil's Reaper" (and sounding like Dr. Claw from INSPECTOR GADGET) puts him on a path of peace and redemption.  A year later, he befriends Puritan minister Crowthorn (Postlethwaite) and becomes an adopted member of his family, traveling with Crowthorn, his wife Katherine (Alice Krige), and their three children, including Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood).  They're ambushed by demonic minions of evil sorcerer Malachi (Jason Flemyng), who's after Kane's soul.  Meredith is abducted and as Crowthorn dies, he promises Kane that his soul will be saved if he rescues Meredith.  Kane summons the merciless killer still buried deep within and goes on a vengeance-fueled quest to save both Meredith and his soul, damned to hell after a tragic incident in his past.

Written and directed by Michael J. Bassett (the terrific 2007 survivalist thriller WILDERNESS as well as the upcoming SILENT HILL: REVELATION), SOLOMON KANE isn't an undiscovered classic, but I still can't see why it took so long to get released in the US.   Was it bad memories of 2004's disastrous and universally loathed VAN HELSING, which had Hugh Jackman looking a lot like Howard's decades-old depiction of Kane?  Were there some kind of legal issues?  With some publicity, this would've done well in wide release.  On a slow April or September weekend, it almost certainly would've topped the box office.  It does drag a bit in the middle, Kane's final confrontation with Malachi seems to be over before it starts, and some of the CGI is a little too cheap-looking, especially the fake cold breath and a couple of explosions and some really wonky greenscreen work, but I've seen far worse craftsmanship make it on to the big screen in national release.  Purefoy is appropriately stoic and grim, true to Howard's vision of the character, and he's surrounded by a fine supporting cast that includes Max von Sydow in a small role as Kane's father, plus brief appearances by Purefoy's future IRONCLAD co-star Mackenzie Crook (Gareth on the original UK version of THE OFFICE) and Philip Winchester, who's since gone on to some notoriety on the Cinemax series STRIKE BACK.  And it's always nice to see the ageless Krige, in addition to getting one more chance to appreciate Character Actor Hall of Famer Postlethwaite, even if his exit from the film is a bit early.  SOLOMON KANE is little more than a CGI-heavy time-killer, but it's got enough rousing action and evil monsters to keep one's interest.  It's not nearly as good as it could've been, but it's got a long life ahead of it on cable, where it'll be one of those movies you stop on while channel-surfing and end up watching the whole thing.



Wednesday, September 26, 2012

In Theaters: TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (2012)


TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE
(US - 2012)


Directed by Robert Lorenz.  Written by Randy Brown.  Cast: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Robert Patrick, Matthew Lillard, Ed Lauter, Chelcie Ross, Ray Anthony Thomas, Bob Gunton, George Wyner, Jack Gilpin, Peter Hermann, Scott Eastwood. (PG-13, 110 mins)

Four years since he last appeared onscreen in 2008's GRAN TORINO, Clint Eastwood returns in the first film he's starred in without directing since 1993's IN THE LINE OF FIRE.  Longtime Eastwood assistant director/producing partner Robert Lorenz makes his directing debut with TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, and also demonstrates the same laid-back, leisurely-paced feel of many of Eastwood's late-career behind-the-camera efforts.  Unlike a lot of non-Clint-directed films that he probably backseat-directed but didn't care enough to take the credit (meaning, THE DEAD POOL or PINK CADILLAC or anything supposedly directed by his decades-long pal Buddy Van Horn), Lorenz probably was in charge on TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, if for no other reason than its utterly generic, Hallmark Channel TV-movie feel, right down to the bland, manipulative score by the usually reliable Marco Beltrami.  Eastwood's been composing his own jazzy scores for years.  There's no way Beltrami's by-the-numbers score would be on this if it was Eastwood's movie.

TROUBLE finds Clint in his now-standard "Get off my lawn!" mode, playing crusty old Atlanta Braves baseball scout Gus Lobel.  Gus is having prostate issues, needs a hearing aid, and his eyes are going bad, so the last thing he wants to deal with is the smug condescension of a snotty colleague (Matthew Lillard) who thinks he's an outdated relic and wants to push him out of the organization.  Gus has the support of front office exec and longtime friend Pete (John Goodman), who cajoles Gus' tomboy, baseball-loving lawyer daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) into accompanying the old man on a scouting trip to observe a much-ballyhooed high-school prospect in North Carolina.  Mickey's got plenty of unresolved issues with Gus, starting right after her mom's death in 1984, after which Gus sent six-year-old Mickey to live with an aunt & uncle.


The fill-in-the-blanks script by first-time screenwriter Randy Brown leaves no cliche unutilized and no heartstring untugged.  It would be pretty hard to take if not for a cast of pros, all of whom almost certainly signed on without even reading Brown's script just to get a chance to work with Clint.  And at this point in his life and career, all the man really needs to do is show up and be Clint and we're hooked.  Even at 82, he's still got the same screen presence he had nearly 50 years ago in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and as he's gotten older, no one has cornered the market on gruff, crotchety old bastards like Eastwood.  He doesn't try very hard here, because he doesn't have to, and he turns in a very natural performance that demonstrates a cozy familiarity that his fans, especially the now-elderly ones who've been with him since his TV days on RAWHIDE, clearly welcome.

But if you're looking for a realistic portrayal of "the game," this ain't it.  Demonstrating a definite anti-MONEYBALL mentality, TROUBLE gets behind Gus and his disdain for "those damn computers" that can't replicate the gut feeling that an experienced scout gets while watching a prospect.    Truthfully, TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE isn't very good, but it gets a tremendous lift from the believably lived-in feel of the performances of Eastwood and Adams, plus Justin Timberlake as a burned-out former Braves pitcher turned White Sox scout.  There isn't a single plot development you won't see telegraphed 20 minutes before it happens.  Chances are, you'll even predict the maudlin dialogue before the actors even speak it.  But it just goes to prove how much a film can coast on someone as iconic as Eastwood.  He initially planned to retire from acting after GRAN TORINO, and TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE does feel rather slight and frivolous considering how much of a perfect screen career capper GRAN TORINO would've been.  But hey, it's Clint onscreen again, with his pants hiked up, chomping on stogies, scowling and bitching about everything, so why complain?

In Theaters: THE MASTER (2012)


THE MASTER
(US - 2012)


Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.  Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek, Kevin J. O'Connor, Madisen Beaty, Christopher Evan Welch. (R, 138 mins)

Don't look for any straightforward storytelling in THE MASTER, easily the most impenetrable and difficult work yet from Paul Thomas Anderson.  Drifting away from the kinetic, propulsive, last-third-of-Scorsese's GOODFELLAS-style structure of BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) and MAGNOLIA (1999) and feeling colder and even more stand-offish than his most recent film, THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), THE MASTER is not something easily digested in one viewing or even five.  I'm not even sure if I like it, and that's never been a reaction I've had after seeing a Paul Thomas Anderson film (BOOGIE NIGHTS is probably my favorite film of the 1990s). There's a lot to admire in THE MASTER, but it's a film that never lets you in, and not in the way of needing everything explained to you.  It keeps you at a distance and really doesn't let you know entirely what's going on or what the stakes are or why some people behave the way they do. 

Joaquin Phoenix, in his first film since his I'M STILL HERE/"retiring from acting to become a rap star" prank/debacle that claimed James Gray's excellent TWO LOVERS as a casualty, stars as Freddie Quell, a disturbed WWII vet trying to adjust to postwar life.  He's belligerent, antisocial, drinks too much (making his own concoctions with distilled paint thinner), and seems to have an immature fixation on the female anatomy.  His unpredictable, often violent behavior gets him tossed from job after job, and by chance, he stows away on a boat that's hosting an extended wedding party for the daughter of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Dodd is a doctor, a philosopher, and the guru of a new religious belief known as The Cause (intended by Anderson to represent L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, though the film isn't specifically about the religion itself).  With nowhere else to go, and with Dodd enjoying his unusual beverage concoctions, Freddie becomes Dodd's de facto right-hand man in his quest to legitimize The Cause, even physically assaulting those who dare to question Dodd's teachings.  From then on, the film focuses on the relationship between Dodd--"The Master"--and Freddie, and there's any number of interpretations to draw from it.  Are they two sides of the same coin?  Have they met, either in this life or in another?  Is Freddie a spy who might turn on Dodd?  Is Freddie welcomed into the Dodd family much like Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler became part of the family of Burt Reynolds' Jack Horner in BOOGIE NIGHTS?  Is this all a complicated man-crush or is unrequited, or even forbidden love?

THE MASTER looks stunning, from the beautiful cinematography to the painstaking production design and period detail.  Hoffman is a commanding presence, and he's matched by Amy Adams as Dodd's devoted, controlling wife Peggy, who may be more in charge of The Cause than Dodd's devoted followers think. You've never seen Adams like this before, putting a disturbing spin on her inherent red-headed feistiness to where Peggy is either very brainwashed or she the one really calling the shots.  Is she jealous of Dodd's bond with Freddie?  Why does she tell him he can do whatever he wants as long as she or people they know don't find out about it?  And why does she do this while jerking Dodd off and calmly demanding "Come for me"? 

It's Phoenix who gets the film's most difficult and problematic role, and he too often succumbs to hamming it up and going overboard with the tics and mannerisms, but he has to keep up such a tortured intensity between Freddie's contorted stature and his weird body language that the actor looks like he's in constant physical pain.  It's a brave performance and an almost impossible role to play, and I'm still not sure whether my issues are with the character or with the way Phoenix is playing him.  But there's no denying how brilliant he is in his "sessions" with Hoffman's Dodd, or when Dodd makes Freddie go through an entire day of repetitively walking across a room and describing the wall and the window, or in one amazing scene of sustained, top-of-their-voice shouting from Phoenix and Hoffman as their characters argue in adjacent jail cells.



I'm still not sure what to make of THE MASTER.  On one hand, it's too original, bold, and inventive to dismiss, but on the other, it's the first time I've felt Anderson was being pompous and pretentious, and a "Slow Boat to China" serenade isn't quite "I drink your milkshake!"  In equal measures brilliant and overwrought, ambitious and aloof,  hypnotic and baffling, THE MASTER is like no other film you've ever seen (except maybe John Huston's long-buried 1946 documentary LET THERE BE LIGHT, from which Anderson quoted several lines of dialogue), which is what we've come to expect from Paul Thomas Anderson.  And like it or not, he's made the film he wanted to make.  I'm just not quite sure what he wanted.





Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In Theaters: END OF WATCH (2012)

END OF WATCH
(US - 2012)


Written and directed by David Ayer.  Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, America Ferrera, Cody Horn, Frank Grillo, David Harbour, Cle Sloan, Maurice Compte, Yahira "Flakiss" Garcia, Diamonique, Kristy Wu. (R, 110 mins)

Since his breakthrough scripting 2001's TRAINING DAY, David Ayer has become an auteur of Los Angeles crime cinema, demonstrating a particular gift for capturing the sights and sounds of cop and criminal life, with the lines often blurred beyond recognition.  Ayer has focused largely on corrupt cops (in addition to TRAINING DAY, there's 2004's DARK BLUE, and 2008's STREET KINGS, which he directed but didn't write), and would appear to be the cinematic heir apparent to the Demon Dog of L.A. crime fiction, James Ellroy (who collaborated with Ayer on the DARK BLUE script and co-wrote STREET KINGS).  But Ayer seems to work better as a writer than a director, and the results of END OF WATCH are mixed.  There's no questioning Ayer's knowledge of South Los Angeles and his dedication to capturing the environment in the most realistic, hard-hitting ways.  But there's also no questioning that the best cop films Ayer's been involved in--TRAINING DAY and the underrated DARK BLUE--were directed by others (and I'm not counting hired-gun scripting gigs like the original THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS and S.W.A.T.).  Ayer's first time behind the camera was with 2006's HARSH TIMES, where he managed to accomplish the unthinkable and show us that there were indeed some roles that an absurdly miscast Christian Bale can't play.  STREET KINGS had some strong elements undone by plot contrivances and a ridiculous performance by Forest Whitaker.  Similarly, END OF WATCH is hampered by inconsistencies that don't derail the film but absolutely hold it back and keep it from becoming the modern day crime classic that it has the potential to be.

The film follows two South Central officers--Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala(Michael Pena)--on their day-to-day routine.  Taylor, a law student by night, brings along some cameras on the job for a filmmaking course he's taking as an elective, and right away, Ayer makes a major misstep in not really doing anything with this idea once it's established.  It figures in the early going with a lot of shaky-cam chases and the like (Ayer has said he wanted a YouTube sense of immediacy to the film), and for a while, the film feels like any number of reality TV shows.  But then Ayer gets sloppy with the concept and essentially abandons it unless it's convenient or can provide a cool shot, but continues shooting the film in the same dizzying fashion from angles that can't possibly be from the concealed cameras that Taylor and Zavala have attached to their uniforms.  What's the point in Taylor even mentioning he's taking a filmmaking elective?  Is it to provoke the sort of badass, ballbusting posturing they engage in?  I doubt it, since they act the same whether they're filming each other or not.

Ayer spends a lot of time in the car with Taylor and Zavala, and it's here where Gyllenhaal and Pena demonstrate a very real chemistry and feel very much like old friends who know each other and have each other's back.  Taylor also starts a serious relationship with classmate Janet (Anna Kendrick), and wants to quit playing the field so he can have the same life that Zavala has with his wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez).  But again, Ayer falls asleep on the job (or just nixed stuff in the editing room), because Kendrick's Janet is so underwritten that he needn't have bothered putting her in the story at all.  It's not like her presence prompts Taylor to quit hot-dogging it on the job, where he and Zavala have earned reps as cocky badasses. 

But it's this incessant cockiness that causes the pair to run afoul of barrio crime kingpin Big Evil (Maurice Compte), who has some serious Mexican cartel connections and is far more dangerous than Taylor realizes when he decides to roll up on Big Evil's backyard party over a noise complaint.  Ayer drops the Big Evil thread for a good chunk of the running time, but it comes back into play in the undeniably powerful last 20 or so minutes, where Ayer stages an admittedly bravura shootout that Taylor and Zavala never see coming because they have no idea just how much they've pissed off some powerful people (although, for a second, Zavala seems like he might after reading a Spanish-language message scrawled in blood at a crime scene--but it's never mentioned).  The last section of END OF WATCH is so brilliantly conceived and edited that it not only has you leaving the theater thinking you just saw a better film than you really did, but it's obvious Ayer thought of the finale first and then realized he needed to build a film around it, and that the rest of what he had to build was done in a rather hasty fashion.  The whole "filmmaking elective" thing reeks of some pandering-to-the-focus-groups need to trendhop onto the handheld/found footage craze (though it isn't a "found footage" film, it's definitely a close relative, at least until Ayer gets bored with it).  I wish Ayer had spent more time on the Big Evil subplot, because his crew is filled with some of the most merciless and plausibly terrifying villains that a cop movie has ever offered. Even an old-school South Central gangsta like Tre (the great Cle Sloan), who forms an uneasy alliance with Taylor and Zavala and tries to warn them that the word on the street is that they've got serious people after them, is wary of Big Evil and his crew.  They're absolutely nihilistic, completely sociopathic, and without a shred of remorse or pity.  And as played by Compte and particularly rapper Yahira "Flakiss" Garcia (who almost steals the film as the ruthless La La), they very quietly create some unforgettable, despicable, and unsettling figures, and they never go over the top with it.  Big Evil's crew doesn't get a lot of screen time, but your stomach will be in knots every time they're onscreen.

There's a great film buried somewhere in END OF WATCH, but we only see fragments of it:  the Taylor/Zavala camaraderie, the desire to vividly capture the reality of police work in South Los Angeles, and the performances of Gyllenhaal, Pena, Compte, and Flakiss.  END OF WATCH is easily Ayer's most accomplished work yet as a filmmaker, but it's hard not to wonder if having someone else behind the camera--an Antoine Fuqua, perhaps?--would've allowed him to focus more on the writing and flesh out and fine-tune the less successful elements.  In the end, END OF WATCH is extremely flawed and problematic, but as frustrating as it is, what it gets right is done so well that it's still very much a worthwhile film.

David Ayer regular Cle Sloan has a supporting role in
END OF WATCH, which begs the question...



...how is Noel Gugliemi NOT in this?!



Thursday, September 20, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: DETACHMENT (2012), BAIT (2012) and SALVATION BOULEVARD (2011)

DETACHMENT
(US - 2012)

Full-time provocateur and part-time filmmaker Tony Kaye returns with his first released narrative feature since 1998's AMERICAN HISTORY X (his cop thriller BLACK WATER TRANSIT was shot in 2007 but remains shelved in the same production company bankruptcy case that's kept David O. Russell's NAILED unreleased since 2008).  Always more concerned with getting a gut reaction from viewers rather than being a disciplined director (and why does he have to glibly label this "A Tony Kaye Talkie"?), Kaye's DETACHMENT has a lot of ideas and characters to juggle, not always successfully bringing things together, but if a film's biggest crime is that it's too ambitious and tries to accomplish too much, then one can overlook the flaws and occasional pretentiousness and self-indulgence.  Heading a very impressive cast, Adrien Brody stars as a short-term sub in a declining NYC high school that's seen better days.  Haunted by a troubled past that involves his mother's suicide and some deep secrets of his Alzheimer's-stricken grandfather (Louis Zorich), Brody chooses to work as a sub as a means of avoiding extended contact with students and colleagues, providing him with the perfect opportunity to keep his distance and remain detached from everything around him.  Forces beyond his control end up tearing down those walls--an overweight girl (Betty Kaye, the director's daughter), who's bullied at school and at home, starts to feel misplaced affection for him; and he also ends up giving temporary shelter to an underaged prostitute (Sami Gayle) after he witnesses her being assaulted by a creep she just serviced on a bus.



DETACHMENT refers not just to Brody, but also to the teachers, the students, the parents, and the world in general.  Teachers sit in silent classrooms waiting for parents to show up on Parents Night.  No one comes.  Students write "You suck!" on tests, they openly threaten teachers with gang rape, and one even kills a cat in the gym.  Teachers internalize their frustrations or self-medicate.  Communication breaks down, tempers flare, friendships disintegrate, marriages fail.  The world is falling apart and the only feeling anyone can muster is complete and utter apathy.  Kaye and screenwriter Carl Lund clearly make the point that if we want change, it has to start on the ground level in the schools, and everyone has to be an active participant. Kaye too frequently resorts to being Tony Kaye, with zooms and handhelds, and changing film stock for no reason other than showing off, but there's some undeniably strong and powerful scenes throughout.  There's also some nice character turns by James Caan (who's very good here) as a cynical, pill-popping, seen-it-all teacher who can throw the insults right back at the students (handling detention, he tells a student "Wait here, when I get back we can discuss your bright future") and Marcia Gay Harden as the beleaguered principal.  Other familiar faces drift in and out of the story but aren't on screen enough to make a big impact:  Christina Hendricks as an idealistic teacher and potential Brody love interest; Tim Blake Nelson as a ticking timebomb about to go off on his students; Lucy Liu as the burned-out guidance counselor; Blythe Danner (who gets a really nice bit with Caan as they dance in an empty classroom, two longtime co-workers reminiscing about a time when people gave a shit), William Petersen, Bryan Cranston (given very little to do in two brief scenes as Harden's husband), Doug E. Doug, and Isiah "Sheeeeeeeeeeeit!" Whitlock, Jr as an unctuous district hatchet man who tells Harden she's on her way out (points deducted for not letting him do his signature schtick).  Shot in 2010, DETACHMENT only made it to ten screens at its widest US release, grossing just $71,000.  It's a bit of a rambling mess on occasion, but as one has come to expect from Kaye (whose 2006 documentary LAKE OF FIRE dealt with the abortion debate), it's raw and uncompromising, and when it works (which is most of the time), it works very well.  (R, 98 mins; also streaming on Netflix)


BAIT
(Australia/Singapore - 2012)

If anyone was still talking about SNAKES ON A PLANE, this would-be high-concept thriller could've easily sported the title SHARKS IN A SUPERMARKET.  Anchor Bay acquired this shot-in-3D Australian shark flick and actually released it in a scant few theaters this past weekend (just a couple of days before its DVD/Blu-ray release) instead of where it really belonged:  on SyFy at 9:00 pm last Saturday night.  Taking itself far too seriously for a film with such vapid characters and terrible special effects, BAIT puts a bunch of unlikable assholes--including NIP/TUCK's Julian McMahon as a criminal who was in the middle of an armed robbery--in a supermarket as a tsunami hits and they find themselves trapped with a great white shark swimming through the submerged store aisles, periodically leaping out of the water to devour someone.  And of course, the hero (Xavier Samuel) is still traumatized by watching his best friend get eaten by a shark a year earlier.  This does lead to a rather amusing scene of Samuel doing the Roy Scheider "Everybody out of the water!" freakout from atop the freezers in the frozen section.  Director Kimble Rendall logged some time as second unit director on films like the MATRIX sequels and he directed the 2000 Australian slasher film CUT with Molly Ringwald and Kylie Minogue, but before any of that, he was a founding member and bassist for Australian cult rockers Hoodoo Gurus (Rendall also performs a gothy, Tiamat-tinged cover of "Mack the Knife" that's played over the closing credits).  BAIT inexplicably sports six (!) credited writers, including co-producer and HIGHLANDER director Russell Mulcahy.  Watchable but stupid (there's a cop and two other guys with guns--no one ever tries shooting the shark?) and kinda boring, BAIT is still better than the useless SHARK NIGHT, though if you're looking for recent shark thriller that's solidly-done and has Australian accents, you're better off checking out THE REEF. (R, 93 mins)


SALVATION BOULEVARD
(US/Australia - 2011)

Shot in Ann Arbor, MI, the megachurch satire SALVATION BOULEVARD strands a cast of several Oscar winners and nominees in a meandering, pointless story that just registers zero across the board.  Even if it mustered the courage to be nothing more than smug and condescending, it would be something.  But instead, it's just...there, wasting the time of everyone from the cast down to the viewer.  You can tell there's a Coen Bros.-type story lurking somewhere in this mess, but it just never materializes.  When Rev. Dan Day (a woefully miscast Pierce Brosnan, in probably the worst performance of his career), the beloved leader of a community megachurch, accidentally shoots atheist Prof. Blaylock (Ed Harris) in the head, he tries to stage it as a suicide attempt before pinning it on hapless doofus Carl (Greg Kinnear), a former Deadhead who abandoned his debauched, sex/drugs/rock n' roll lifestyle to marry the devoutly Christian Gwen (Jennifer Connelly).  While Blaylock languishes in a coma, Carl gets abducted by a Mexican drug lord (Yul Vazquez) who's trying to strong-arm Rev. Day over a land deal.  Who gives a shit?   Brosnan and Kinnear fail to replicate the magic of THE MATADOR from several years ago (Brosnan should've gotten an Oscar nomination for that), but also lost in the wreckage are Marisa Tomei as a stoner campus security official, Ciarin Hinds as Carl's cranky father-in-law, Isabelle Fuhrmann as Carl's stepdaughter, and Jim Gaffigan as one of Rev. Day's flunkies.  There are nothing but solid pros in this cast and you know the material's sporting a toe tag if they can't do anything with it. There's no mystery at all why this was buried and released on DVD with no fanfare 14 months after a four-screen theatrical release, seemingly forgotten by its own distributor.  A total misfire. (R, 96 mins)


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

In Theaters: RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION (2012)


RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION
(Canada/Germany - 2012)

Written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson.  Cast:  Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Sienna Guillory, Boris Kodjoe, Li Bingbing, Kevin Durand, Shawn Roberts, Oded Fehr, Johann Urb, Aryana Engineer, Colin Salmon, Mika Nakashima.  (R, 96 mins)

The fifth entry in the RESIDENT EVIL series functions as both a franchise victory lap/class reunion and as an olive branch to die-hard fans of the Capcom video game series who feel the films weren't on the level of the games.  Joining RESIDENT EVIL mainstay Milla Jovovich are numerous veterans from previous entries, including Michelle Rodriguez and Colin Salmon (the 2002 original), Sienna Guillory (2004's RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE and a cameo in 2010's RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE), Boris Kodjoe and Shawn Roberts (AFTERLIFE), and Oded Fehr (APOCALYPSE and 2007's RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION), plus several characters from the video games who haven't made it into the live-action franchise (there's a separate CGI-animated franchise that stays more faithful to Capcom) until now: Ada Wong (Li Bingbing), Barry Burton (Kevin Durand), and Leon S. Kennedy (Johann Urb).  I've seen all of the films leading up to RETRIBUTION, and it's still confusing as hell, but writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson has such a marvelous eye for action sequences and colorful, eye-candy imagery and perhaps a better grasp of RealD 3D than any other working filmmaker, that even though RETRIBUTION pales in comparison to AFTERLIFE (probably my favorite of the series other than the 2002 original), it's still a dazzling triumph of style.  Style over substance, yes, but if you're looking for 90 minutes of brainless entertainment with gun battles, martial arts, chase scenes, monsters, zombies, and other stunning visuals, you've come to the right place.

Picking up right where AFTERLIFE left off, heroine Alice (Jovovich) is on the ship Arcadia when it's attacked by an army led by Raccoon City cop-turned-brainwashed Umbrella Corporation operative Jill Valentine (Guillory).  Alice is put in a high-tech holding cell but escapes during a computer malfunction and finds out she's in an Umbrella research facility deep under the waters of the Arctic.  Former Umbrella head and nemesis Wesker (Roberts) informs her that a team of mercenaries led by Kennedy, Burton, and Luther West (Kodjoe) are attempting to make their way into the facility to rescue her, as well as Ada, another former Umbrella employee.  Wesker's rebel plot is uncovered by the evil computer The Red Queen, which forces Alice and Ada to go through a series of simulations, pursued by Valentine and evil clones of Rain (Rodriguez) and One (Salmon) both killed in the first film.  It's here where the film essentially becomes a feature-length video game, as Alice, Ada, and Becky, a hearing-impaired surrogate daughter to Alice in an alternate reality (played by hearing-impaired Aryana Engineer, last seen in 2009's surprisingly ballsy ORPHAN), make their way through simulated versions of New York City, Tokyo, Moscow, and American suburbia, fleeing hordes of zombies as they try to meet up with the mercenary crew.

Michelle Rodriguez returns as an evil clone of Rain
The varying levels of reality in the film make following the plot all but impossible, and while RETRIBUTION isn't on the level of AFTERLIFE, it functions as an entertaining, if slightly forgettable time-killer.  After helming the first film, Anderson left the directing chores to Alexander Witt for the series nadir APOCALYPSE and HIGHLANDER's Russell Mulcahy for the improved-but-unexceptional EXTINCTION.  Anderson returned for AFTERLIFE, bringing along a keen ability to take advantage of state-of-the-art CGI and 3D technology, and fusing it with the musical contributions of the duo Tomandandy, who provided one of the most memorable genre scores in a long time.  Anderson wisely stuck with what worked, bringing back the 3D and Tomandandy, but a lot of RETRIBUTION feels like warmed-up leftovers from AFTERLIFE.  Still fun, still entertaining on its own terms, but a bit lacking in freshness and pizazz, and Tomandandy's score, while still catchy, doesn't have quite the same creative oomph this time around.  Because most of the film takes place in simulated settings, Anderson and his technical crew can get away with some of the CGI backgrounds not looking quite up to par and having an intentional artificiality to them.

Alice and Ada Wong (Li Bingbing)
in the Suburbia simulation
Despite some issues, I still enjoyed RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION.  It's probably the third-best film in the franchise and Jovovich is as watchably kick-ass as ever.  Anderson just seems to be spinning his wheels here a bit.  This isn't any better or worse than his steampunk revamp of THE THREE MUSKETEERS from last year, with an overabundance of style carrying him through the film.  Anderson is often derided as a hack, which isn't fair.  Yes, he gave us the execrable ALIEN VS. PREDATOR, which managed to be the low point of two storied franchises, but everyone's allowed a bad day.  I generally enjoy his films and even his detractors have to admit that they look great.  RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE seemed to indicate he was moving toward bigger things.  Bigger in the sense that he might be on his way to finding the substance to match his proven style, or at least the ambition present in, say, 1997's EVENT HORIZON.  But THE THREE MUSKETEERS and now RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION find him in a comfort zone.  Yes, it's a comfort zone that entertains and looks fantastic, and that's fine. There's no shame in that.  He's got the director thing down, but I'm afraid he'll never lose the unjust "hack" label until he challenges himself more on the writing end.



Saturday, September 15, 2012

In Theaters/On VOD: ARBITRAGE (2012)


ARBITRAGE
(US/Poland - 2012)

Written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki.  Cast: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling, Laetitia Casta, Nate Parker, Stuart Margolin, Chris Eigeman, Reg E. Cathey, Josh Pais. (R, 105 mins)

Early word from the Sundance Film Festival this past January was that the financial thriller ARBITRAGE represented Richard Gere's best work in years.  It's been a while since he's had a hit movie, but he's been doing consistently good work, particularly in Antoine Fuqua's criminally underrated BROOKLYN'S FINEST (2010).  Acquired by Roadside Attractions, the arthouse wing of Lionsgate, and released on less than 200 screens nationally in addition to VOD, ARBITRAGE looks to be another top-notch Gere performance that few people will see.  It's a little disheartening that topical fare like this, for adults, is relegated to a distributor's arthouse subsidiary when 30 years ago, it would've been a major, popular film directed by a Sydney Pollack, a Sidney Lumet, or an Alan J. Pakula.  ARBITRAGE is written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, who made the 2005 documentary THE OUTSIDER (about veteran director James Toback) and comes from a family of documentary filmmakers:  brother Andrew directed CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003), and brother Eugene helmed WHY WE FIGHT (2005) and REAGAN (2011).  ARBITRAGE entertains as a thriller, but Jarecki's attempts to turn it into a metaphor for the recent financial crisis aren't always successful.

Big-time NYC hedge fund investment CEO Robert Miller (Gere) is in the process of selling his company, ostensibly to spend more time with his family as he hits 60 years of age, but it's really to deal with a $400 million loss in a botched Russian copper mine investment that's tied up overseas.  He's about to be audited as part of the process of selling his firm, so he's clandestinely borrowed $400 million from another firm in an attempt to get by the auditors.  That CEO wants his money back now and the CEO he's selling to seems to be avoiding him.  There's numerous other fudged numbers in the books that get uncovered by his daughter and protegee Brooke (Brit Marling).  As if Miller didn't have enough going on, his Bohemian artist mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta), whose work and lifestyle--expensive apartment, Mercedes, coke habit--are funded by Miller, is demanding more of his time and wants him to leave his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon).  Miller placates Julie with an impromptu romantic getaway, but briefly dozes at the wheel of her Mercedes and wrecks the car.  The accident kills Julie, and an injured Miller, with a cut on his head, broken ribs, and probable internal bleeding, flees the scene as the car goes up in flames.  His desperate attempt to cover up the accident ends up causing trouble for Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of Miller's late former limo driver, when Miller calls Jimmy from a pay phone and asks him for a ride back to the city.  Miller's attorney (Stuart Margolin!) advises him to turn himself in immediately because no matter how well he's covered his tracks, they're going to trace it back to him.  Instead, Miller, who's spent his career taking chances and ignoring the odds, and became a billionaire for it, arrogantly assumes he can handle the situation on his own, even as it spirals more out of control by the minute.

Miller is a guy who sees everything as a business negotiation.  He doesn't count on the dogged street smarts of homicide detective Bryer (Tim Roth), a rumpled, unkempt, cynical sort who seems like a descendant of Columbo.  Bryer sees something fishy from the start, starting with Julie's charred body being in the passenger seat of the Mercedes ("Who kicked the driver's side door open?" he immediately asks his partner).  Jarecki seems to be setting up an interesting battle of wits--and economic class--between Miller and Bryer, but it gets dropped for a large chunk of the film and once Bryer re-enters the story, Jarecki has him do something so clownishly unlikely that it just doesn't ring true.  Miller figures he can finesse Bryer and Bryer, with his ill-fitting, wrinkled attire, slumped posture, four-day beard, and broad Noo Yawk accent, has a huge chip on his shoulder about "rich assholes" like Miller.  Jarecki wants to show how wheelers & dealers like Miller run the show and get off or get bailed out and Everymen like Bryer pay the price, but it's not handled in a credible way.  From the way Bryer is introduced and the way he's played by Roth, he's too wily to do what he ultimately does in an improbable third-act twist.  Miller is a guy who's always been able to get out of sticky situations, and it goes without saying that a guy who commits investment fraud, cheats on his wife, flees the scene of a fatal accident, and almost throws his own daughter under the bus with his off-the-books machinations, puts himself first and thinks he can emerge unscathed and likely will.  It's quite suspenseful watching a perfectly-cast Gere squirm, sweat, grimace, and panic as everything starts to fall apart.  The film's key line comes when Parker's Jimmy, who has a gun charge in his past and faces ten years in prison for obstruction unless he cooperates with Bryer, finally realizes that Miller views him as expendable and scoffs at a tactless attempt to buy his silence and pay him for any jail time with a $2 million trust:  "You think money's gonna fix this?"  An incredulous Miller replies "What else is there?"

Friday, September 14, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2012) and ENTRANCE (2012)

BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW
(Canada - 2012)

This one-of-a-kind stunner is the directorial debut of Panos Cosmatos, son of the late journeyman director George P. Cosmatos, whose films ran the gamut from THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1977) to RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985) to TOMBSTONE (1993).  BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW is an instant cult classic and may be 2012's ultimate love-it-or-hate-it film.  Cosmatos has a target audience and in the grand scheme of things, it's a pretty small audience, but if you "get" this, you'll be hooked immediately.  Cosmatos also wrote the script, which has a plot only in a vague, abstract sense.  Set in a surreal 1983 (but not too surreal, since Reagan is the president), the film takes place mostly in a massive, new-agey, "happiness"-focused research compound founded by Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands, a veteran of countless TV shows going back to the 1960s).  Arboria is aged and very ill, and his longtime associate Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) oversees the facility, with his job primarily consisting of watching Arboria's daughter Elena (Eva Allan), who's kept in a locked ward and with whom Barry may or may not have a telepathic link.  There's also a strange army of cyborg types called Sentionauts, and a pyramid-shaped object that seems to be controlling (or attempting to control) Elena's thoughts.  I really don't know.  A standard-issue story with a beginning, middle, and end is not what Cosmatos is doing here.  Where the film succeeds, and quite brilliantly, is with its incredibly effective retro production design, its grainy, weathered-looking cinematography, the gaudy color scheme, and its insanely catchy throwback score by Sinoia Caves, the synth-rock side project of Jeremy Schmidt of the Canadian psychedelic metal band Black Mountain.  Just look at this:



With BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, Cosmatos fashions a film that feels like pieces of a cinematic dream that you can't quite fit together but nonetheless has a profound effect.  We've all woken from a deep sleep with vivid images of a dream that stick with us for the rest of the day even if they make no sense.  That's what BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW is like.  Cosmatos throws out winks and nods to various influences throughout, but it's not done in a snarky or "funny" way.  He's dead serious and so is his film.  It comes from some alternate universe 1983 where Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, David Cronenberg, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Ridley Scott, Terrence Malick, Dario Argento, Michael Mann, and Tangerine Dream all collaborated on a low-budget sci-fi movie that debuted at 4:00 am on an off-the-grid pirate TV station.  It'll take multiple viewings to figure it all out, but that's a project I'll be happy to undertake.  I've never seen anything quite like BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW and I loved every hypnotic, bewildering minute of it.  (R, 110 mins)


ENTRANCE
(US - 2012)

This mumblecore fright flick is part of the same polarizing "slow burn" movement popularized by Ti West's THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and the wildly overrated THE INNKEEPERS.  Directors/co-writers Dallas Hallam and Patrick Horvath slowly let the tension build, and until the one-hour mark, you wouldn't even know you were watching a horror film.  Until then, it's not that far removed from any Greta Gerwig or Lena Dunham vehicle, as the filmmakers follow twenty-something Suziey (Suziey Block, also a co-writer) and her mundane life in L.A.  She can't afford to get her car fixed ("You have to have a car in this town," her roommate tells her), works as a barista in a coffee shop, loves her dog Darryl, occasionally socializes with friends, and leads a generally quiet life.  There's an almost JEANNE DIELMAN-esque repetition to Suziey's daily routine, and like that film, you gradually grow so acclimated to it that you start noticing the little, peripheral signs that something isn't right.  While it takes an hour for outright horror to finally break out, the signs are there:  she gets home to find Darryl behaving oddly for no reason, she's in the shower and hears footsteps in the living room even though her roommate's out of town, a car slowly follows her as she walks home from work, etc.  And someone takes photos of her while she sleeps.  Then Darryl disappears. All the answers are there, and you'll catch them on a second run-through, so while the pace is often extremely--some may say unbearably--slow, it's necessary to make ENTRANCE work as well as it does.  Since Paul Haggis' CRASH, we've been inundated with an endless string of "everything is connected" sagas of self-absorbed L.A. ennui, but Hallam and Horvath take that and turn it into a methodical, disturbing little gem with an extremely well-handled continuous shot late in the film that goes on for about 15 minutes.  Block is very good and proves herself a tough one who can hang with the best of the scream queens.  Look, like BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, this is a love-it or hate-it piece of work.  You'll either give it the time and space it needs to accomplish what it needs to do or you'll get bored and bail on it in 20 minutes.  Look for a cult to be forming around this one pretty quickly.  (Unrated, 84 mins, also on Netflix streaming)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: 6 BULLETS (2012) and VILE (2012)

6 BULLETS
(US - 2012)

This overlong and needlessly convoluted Romania-shot thriller is essentially a TAKEN knockoff for Jean-Claude Van Damme, and it's not one of his stronger DTV efforts.  Long past his action star heyday, Van Damme has built an exemplary second career in the world of DTV and for many, his recent turn in THE EXPENDABLES 2 was their first exposure to the Muscles from Brussels in years.  He's never stopped working, and believe it or not, he's very quietly turned into a surprisingly solid actor who deserves another shot from Hollywood (I've said many times that he'd make an excellent Bond villain).  Van Damme is very good in 6 BULLETS, but the flabby story could really use some tightening.  There's really no reason--other than an unsuccessful attempt to fool people into thinking it's not a blatant TAKEN ripoff--for the film to have two tough-guy protagonists when they could've easily been streamlined into one credible character.  Van Damme is Samson Gaul, a butcher and part-time mercenary haunted by a botched job where he rescued a nine-year-old boy from an Eastern European sex slavery/human trafficking ring but inadvertantly caused the deaths of four abducted girls in the process.  He sees a shot at redemption when American MMA fighter Andrew Fayden (STARGATE: ATLANTIS' Joe Flanigan) begs him for help in finding his own teenage daughter Becky (Charlotte Beaumont), who's been taken from a hotel in Moldova.  They spend much of the remainder of the film working separately to track down the human trafficking ring (who, of course, are in cahoots with the corrupt local police), Gaul with his consulate official son Selwyn (Van Damme's son Kristopher Van Varenberg), and Andrew with his wife Monica (Anna-Louise Plowman).  Because the backstories of both Samson and Andrew need to be established, it takes director Ernie Barbarash (CUBE ZERO, STIR OF ECHOES 2, Van Damme's ASSASSINATION GAMES) over 30 minutes to get things rolling, as we have to slog through scenes of a depressed Samson hitting the bottle and having visions of the ghosts of the dead girls.  Sure, these scenes, hokey as they are, allow Van Damme to show his range and he acquits himself well, but why bother splitting the hero into two characters, especially when Andrew's MMA skills never come into play anyway?  All this does is take what should've been a compact, 90-minute action flick and bloat it to just under two hours, with a really badly-paced finale that doesn't do it any favors.  6 BULLETS is mostly silly and there's a few unintended laughs (like Samson's ability to stage complicated, SAW-like booby traps in seconds, and a Moldovan newspaper headline screaming "American MMA Fighter's Daughter Kidnapped"), but its biggest fault is that it wastes a strong performance by Van Damme, who, unlike many of his EXPENDABLES 2 co-stars, has allowed himself to age naturally and uses the lines in his increasingly craggy, weary, and weathered face to his advantage.  JCVD and THE EXPENDABLES 2 were a good start, but will somebody give this guy a serious role in a serious film?  (R, 115 mins)


VILE
(US - 2012)

The torture-porn subgenre hits bottom with this pathetically inept and inexcusably tardy SAW ripoff.  Why are these still being made in 2012?  Ten people, mostly played by supporting actors from daytime soaps, find themselves trapped in a house, with tubes going into the backs of their heads, drawing chemicals from their brains for some new kind of synthetic drug.  The captors need the adrenaline that comes from extreme pain, so the only way for the captives to get out is to torture one another until a loading bar on a big TV screen gets to 100%.  It's as stupid as it sounds, with the characters breaking limbs, driving screwdrivers into flesh, yanking out fingernails with pliers, sticking their arms in boiling water, taking pipe wrenches to the face, getting cheese graters run over their skin, and pouring salt and paint thinner on open wounds.  Between the torture sequences, we get some bad workshop improv from the cast, led by writer/co-producer Eric E. Beck.  Technically, the lighting seems to be going for an Argento circa SUSPIRIA-vibe, but comes off like a drunk guy switching different-colored bulbs on and off at random, the sound is erratic with the dialogue frequently unintelligible, and the camera operator has the yips.  A painfully embarrassing directorial debut for veteran TV actor Taylor Sheridan, best known as Deputy Chief Hale on the first three seasons of SONS OF ANARCHY.  The only reason I watched this was because IMDb listed Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan in the cast.  As far as I can tell, he's nowhere in the movie despite being listed in the closing credits, so I'm assuming his role ("Special Agent Ford") was cut, probably under orders from his management and publicist.  So, if he's the reason you decide to give this a look...well, I just saved you an hour and a half. Exhibiting the kind of sub-YouTube-level production values usually reserved for homemade sex tapes and cell phone videos of guys getting hit in the balls, the cheap, shoddy VILE is the worst of the worst in torture porn.  Enough already.  (Unrated, 88 mins; also available on Netflix streaming)

Friday, September 7, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: PIRANHA DD (2012) and JUAN OF THE DEAD (2012)


PIRANHA DD
(US - 2012)

Alexandre Aja's gore-and-T&A-soaked 2010 remake of the 1978 cult classic PIRANHA was one of the most divisive and inexplicably acclaimed horror films in recent memory.  Some major critics and a lot of fans praised it as an enthusiastically crude throwback to old-school exploitation trash, but I think a lot of these people were imagining the movie they wanted PIRANHA 2010 to be as opposed to what it really was.  It struck me as a smug, condescending version of what ironic hipsters think an exploitation film should be, coasting on the glories of past examples and acting like it belonged in the same company.  But even PIRANHA 2010's defenders kept their distance from PIRANHA 3DD (on DVD as PIRANHA DD, or, specifically, "Piranha Double D"), a slapdash sequel that was barely released to theaters by The Weinstein Company's new B-movie division Radius TWC.  Understand something here:  by saying that PIRANHA DD is slightly more tolerable, I'm in no way recommending it.  It's still a complete piece of shit...but it's not as egregiously shitty as its predecessor.  Director John Gulager (FEAST) and writers Marcus Dunstan & Patrick Melton (FEAST, several SAW sequels) and Joel Soisson (nearly every DTV Dimension Films horror sequel over the last 15 years), all legit exploitation vets, approach the material with much less snarky poseurdom.  It's more openly comedic, and though most of the humor still bombs, it just has a different attitude.  It feels more like a genuine exploitation film than one trying way too hard to be one. 



This time, the piranha attack an adult water park called The Big Wet, run by sleazy Chet (David Koechner, cast radically against type as "David Koechner"), who has a "Double D Swims Free" policy, stripper lifeguards, and a nude swimming area with a "cooch cam."  He's pumping the park's water in illegally from an underground lake, which his marine biologist stepdaughter Maddy (the appealing Danielle Panabaker) knows is infested with the mutant strain of piranha.  And of course, opening day turns into an orgy of blood, boobs, and crappy CGI:  a guy hacks off his own penis after a baby piranha latches onto it while he's having sex (don't ask how it got in her); another guy gets a piranha stuck up his ass while he's jerking off in the pool; and a decapitated head still manages to motorboat a set of silicone-enhanced breasts.  With its bargain-basement visual effects that would make the Worldwide FX guys in Bulgaria look the other way in embarrassment, PIRANHA DD plays a lot like a hard-R version of a Saturday night SyFy movie, and the joke wears out its welcome about as quickly, right down to the appearances of D-list celebrity punchlines like Gary Busey (killed in the first five minutes) and David Hasselhoff (as himself, at one point muttering, in what must've been an ad-lib, "Welcome to rock-bottom").  Christopher Lloyd and Ving Rhames return from the first film, and the great B-movie vet Clu Gulager (the director's dad) also has a bit part.  PIRANHA DD does the absolute bare minimum to qualify as a film, with the closing credits starting at the 70-minute mark, with 13 minutes of credits mixed with bloopers and Hasselhoff in a fake trailer for something called FISHHUNTER.  I guess PIRANHA DD is marginally better than Aja's PIRANHA, but that's a lot like saying testicular cancer is marginally better than prostate cancer.  Your chances of survival are greater, but it's still a terrible thing to endure and no one should be subjected to it.  (R, 83 mins)


JUAN OF THE DEAD
(Spain/Cuba - 2012)

We're approaching--if not already past--the point where we really need another zombie movie, let alone a zombie spoof, but the Cuba-based JUAN OF THE DEAD, while clearly inspired by SHAUN OF THE DEAD, actually brings some new ideas and imagination to the table.  Its ambitions lie beyond the capabilities of its budget and its visual effects team, but the spirit and style come across loud and clear.  A zombie outbreak in Havana prompts fisherman Juan (Alexis Diaz de Villegas) and his friends to form the requisite ragtag group of misfits and miscreants to sell their undead-killing services to those willing to pay.  As they make their way across Havana with plans to somehow get to Miami, they battle countless hordes of zombies while reflecting on the political past of their country.  Writer/director Alejandro Brugues deftly weaves splatter, comedy, and socio-political commentary into a loose-feeling, freewheeling film that doesn't have the power and filmmaking discipline that an in-his-prime George Romero would exhibit, but there's a lot more to chew on here than flesh.  I liked the way the Cuban media promotes the idea that it's not a zombie outbreak at all, but rather, a "social discipline" issue with "dissidents" in the employ of the US.  And Juan and his pals aren't exactly the most noble heroes around, especially when they have no qualms about leaving an old man behind to be zombie food just so they can use his wheelchair to cart beer back to their base of operation.  Brugues also stages a few truly inventive set pieces, including one involving a wily old zombie hunter (Antonio Dechent) quick-wittedly staging one of the most audacious mass-zombie killings in the history of the genre, and another great scene where our "heroes" find themselves stripped and handcuffed in the back of a military transport where all hell breaks loose when one of the prisoners onboard turns into a zombie mid-ride.  Filled with wit ranging from high-minded political humor to gutter vulgarity, and enough zombie mayhem to please the gorehounds, JUAN OF THE DEAD is a surprising find.  It doesn't always succeed because of its too-frequently dubious visual effects, but because of its ambition and sheer gumption. (Unrated, 96 mins)