Saturday, January 12, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: COMPLIANCE (2012) , DREDD (2012), SLEEP TIGHT (2012), and GUNS, GIRLS & GAMBLING (2012)

(US - 2012)

Were it not based on true events with material quoted directly from police reports, it would be easy to dismiss COMPLIANCE as one of the least believable thrillers in years.  Inspired by a series of prank call scams over a 12-year period that authorities believe involve the same perpetrator, COMPLIANCE is a dramatization of the last such incident, one that took place at a McDonald's in Mount Washington, KY in 2004.  Writer-director Craig Zobel takes small liberties--McDonald's becomes "ChickWich," the assistant manager in the real incident is changed to the store manager in the film, the caller used a supermarket pay phone but in the film, he's calling from his home using a prepaid cell, and all names have been changed--but what's onscreen is largely how the incident played out.  Zobel's concern was to focus on the idea of obedience to figures of authority (think Stanley Milgram), be they law enforcement or in the structure of the workplace, specifically the rigid, by-the-book methods of a fast-food chain, but his script also gives the characters subtlely-displayed psychological reasons for some of what transpires. None of these prank calls lasted as long or went as far with as many people involved as the Mount Washington incident, and it's almost impossible to believe that it took several hours and an off-duty maintenance man to put a stop to what was happening.

On a busy Friday night at a ChickWich in rural Ohio, store manager Sandra (TV and stage vet Ann Dowd, given a rare big screen lead and running with it) is already on edge and nervous about telling her district manager about losing $1400 in food because of a refrigerator door that was left open all night.  Her night goes from bad to worse when she gets a phone call from an Officer Daniels, who claims that he's got her district manager on the other line and he's with a customer who says that a cashier stole some money from her purse.  "Daniels" gives a vague description that Sandra concludes to be Becky (Dreama Walker).  Daniels orders Sandra to take Becky to the office, and an over-the-phone interrogation leads to a strip search, and far worse once Daniels badgers Sandra into getting her slightly drunk fiance Van (Bill Camp) involved.  Zobel reveals early on that "Daniels" is in fact a seemingly well-to-do guy (Pat Healy) who's just calling from his own house and doing this for the sick thrill of seeing just how much he can manipulate them into obeying his increasingly ridiculous and dangerous demands.  Anyone who's ever worked in a fast food or food or customer service environment will recognize how well Zobel captures the atmosphere, the jargon, and the mindset of such places.  It helps that the film is cast with people who you've likely seen in many other things, but don't know their names and therefore don't have the distractions you might get if, say, Meryl Streep was playing Sandra.  Dowd nails this character, just in the ways she's eager to please and be a team player (her district manager, the irate delivery driver, Daniels), and how, even in the stress of the situation, the harried boss in her still manages to reprimand Becky during the strip search for not wearing "the company's standard-issue khakis."  Does Sandra have something against Becky?  Is there a small part of her that's OK with what's happening?  She did, after all, catch Becky and the much-younger assistant manager (Ashlie Atkinson) snickering behind her back at her awkward attempt to engage in girl talk.  Walker also does a commendable job in a difficult and frequently uncomfortable role, spending a good chunk of the film wearing nothing but an apron. Produced by David Gordon Green (taking a break from directing terrible comedies that are sinking his once-sterling rep), COMPLIANCE is a riveting, intense, and often unpleasant film with a cast delivering believable performances as characters behaving in a very unbelievable fashion. (R, 90 mins)

(South Africa/UK - 2012)

Doing its best to blast away any bad memories of 1995's JUDGE DREDD, no one's favorite Stallone movie, DREDD is a hyper-stylized and outrageously violent take on the character created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, and is a much more successful interpretation.  The film pretty much tanked in theaters, due in large part to its opening on a crowded weekend with about six other major releases, but this is one that will find a strong cult following in years to come.  In the Cursed Earth wasteland of Mega-City One, merciless law enforcement officer Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is assessing rookie partner Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who failed her exams but has a strong psychic ability that Dredd's bosses think will be handy in the field.  The two answer a homicide call at the 200-story slum block tower Peach Trees, home to 75,000 residents under the control of ruthless, scar-faced drug lord Madeline Madrigal, aka Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who rules the market on the new and highly addictive street drug Slo-Mo, which creates the illusion of time moving at 1% of its speed for the user.  Ma-Ma has had three rival gang members skinned alive and tossed off the top-floor balcony.  Dredd and Anderson take one of Ma-Ma's gang, Kay (Wood Harris) into custody when Anderson's psychic senses confirm he's responsible for the three killings.  Before they can exit Peach Trees, Ma-Ma orders the entire block put on lockdown, forcing Dredd and Anderson to shoot their way up and down the building, two against several hundred of Ma-Ma's enforcers.

Directed by Pete Travis (VANTAGE POINT) and scripted by novelist and frequent Danny Boyle collaborator Alex Garland (28 DAYS LATER, SUNSHINE), DREDD belongs to the same class of over-the-top insanity along the lines of PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (2008).  Travis splatters gallons upon gallons of CGI blood (very cartoony, but appropriate in the context of the film) across the screen, with occasional old-school Karo syrup to keep it real.  He does a nice job of establishing a John Carpenter-style siege situation, complete with non-stop, droning techno music, and DREDD immediately joins the short list of "high-rise mayhem" classics like DEMONS 2 (1986), ENEMY TERRITORY (1987) and DIE HARD (1988), and more recent examples like THE HORDE (2010), ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011), CITADEL (2012), and THE RAID: REDEMPTION (2012), to which it drew many unfair ripoff accusations. Urban is absolutely perfect as Dredd, and Thirlby holds her own as the wet-behind-the-ears rookie just trying to survive her first day on the job.  The many scenes with characters under the influence of Slo-Mo probably played a lot better in 3D on the big screen than they do flat at home, but they provide some of the trippiest visuals this side of Gaspar Noe's ENTER THE VOID.  DREDD simply had the misfortune of opening on the wrong weekend.  It's one of the best action thrillers of 2012 and deserved a better reception.  (R, 96 mins)

(Spain - 2011; 2012 US release)

Spanish horror master Jaume Balaguero, best known for co-directing the first two [REC] films with Paco Plaza, made this bleak, unsettling thriller while Plaza helmed [REC] 3 solo.  SLEEP TIGHT is definitely the better film, with misanthropic apartment building concierge/handyman Cesar (Luis Tosar) engaging in a quiet war against the tenants of the building when he isn't contemplating suicide.  First it's little things like letting plants die and giving a tenant's dog food that he knows will make it sick.  Cesar soon devotes all of his psychotic energy to the endlessly upbeat Clara (Marta Etura).  At first, Balaguero and screenwriter Alberto Marini deceive the viewer into thinking this is a riff on the 2011 Hilary Swank/Jeffrey Dean Morgan thriller THE RESIDENT, where he's obsessively fixated on her from a misguided romance angle when he sneaks into her apartment, goes through her things, uses her toothbrush, and hides under her bed, waiting until she's asleep to chloroform her and crawl into bed to snuggle with her while she's out cold.  No, quite the contrary.  He's unable to feel any joy or happiness in his life and simply wants to break her constantly positive, cheery personality.  He purposely clogs her sink, hides a cherished watch that was a gift from her mother, sends her anonymous threatening text messages from a prepaid cell, plants cockroach eggs throughout her apartment and injects skin allergens into her cosmetic products to cause a miserable rash all over her body. When her apartment is overrun with cockroaches and he offers to fumigate it, he's enraged to find that she isn't even upset about having to throw so many of her things away.  "Oh, well!  It's time for spring cleaning anyway!" she says with a smile.  Balaguero and Morini approach much of the film with a twisted sense of humor, but things eventually turn grim and violent when Clara rekindles a romance with her ex-boyfriend (Alberto San Juan), who immediately senses something isn't right with the concierge.

There's a few implausible moments here and there that stretch credibility and threaten to derail the train, such as the scenes where Cesar is tiptoeing through Clara's apartment undetected while she and the boyfriend are there, or the fact that there's no security system or cameras in such a nice building.  But overall, thanks to a disturbing performance by Tosar (it's interesting to note that he and Etura have been a couple offscreen for several years), SLEEP TIGHT generally works, with some very suspenseful set pieces, generous portions of dark humor (particularly when Cesar finds an unexpected nemesis in a bratty neighbor girl who knows what he's up to but opts to blackmail him instead of telling anyone), and a creative structure in that the film is completely from Cesar's point of view and with the antagonist as protagonist, in a strange way, you find yourself oddly rooting for him when he's trying to glide through Clara's apartment undetected.  Overall, Balaguero succeeds in making SLEEP TIGHT an interesting film with a different approach to the psycho stalker flick. (Unrated, 101 mins)

(US - 2012)

This wretched, decade-and-a-half late throwback to the post-PULP FICTION wave of Tarantino knockoffs like THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE DEAD (1995) and 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY (1996) was on the shelf for two years before Universal quietly dumped it in one theater in L.A. in December 2012.  There isn't a single thing that works in this tired, unfunny and utterly pointless endurance test that's only recommended for people who think DESTINY TURNS ON THE RADIO is a unsung gem waiting to be rediscovered. Nice guy John Smith (Christian Slater, whose presence draws obvious comparisons to TRUE ROMANCE) gets in over his head after a night of poker with four Elvis impersonators at a Native American casino.  Someone has stolen a priceless Apache tribal mask, and now everyone in town is after it and killing everyone who gets in their way.  Among the players:  Elvis Elvis (Gary Oldman, another TRUE ROMANCE vet), Gay Elvis (Chris Kattan), Asian Elvis (Anthony Brandon Wong), Little Person Elvis (Tony Cox), The Rancher (Powers Boothe), The Cowboy (Jeff Fahey), The Girl Next Door (Megan Park), The Sheriffs (Dane Cook, Sam Trammell), The Chief (the late Gordon Tootoosis, who died in 2011), and The Blonde (Helena Mattsson, trying way too hard to be Charlize Theron), a sexy, Poe-quoting assassin. It's an endless series of flat jokes and predictable double crosses and the cast just looks lost, though chances are they had more fun making this than anyone will have watching it.  I imagine Slater and Oldman (what is he doing in this?) probably reminisced about TRUE ROMANCE and maybe Oldman broke out his Drexl Spivey act to entertain his co-stars and the crew.  Regardless, this is his worst career decision since TIPTOES.  And for those keeping score, this is the second awful film Slater's made that involves a casino heist pulled off by Elvis impersonators.  Did he learn nothing after surviving the wreckage of 3000 MILES TO GRACELAND?  (Unrated, 90 mins, also available on Netflix streaming)

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