Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: TO ROME WITH LOVE (2012), DEATH RACE 3: INFERNO (2013), and ABOUT CHERRY (2012)

(US/Italy - 2012)

The annual Woody Allen movie is practically cinematic comfort food at this point, always there regardless of the familiarity of the most of the films and the sometimes paltry box office, and even when they aren't always top-tier Allen (it's only been three years, but does anyone remember YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER?), they're always worth seeing because he's Woody Allen, he's still cranking them out, and we're gonna miss him when he's gone.  Allen had a lightning-in-a-bottle blockbuster with 2011's MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, which came out of nowhere to become his biggest hit in 25 years.  His follow-up, TO ROME WITH LOVE, didn't enjoy the same fawning reception from mainstream American moviegoers (it did better overseas), and there's a reason for that:  it's one of the weakest films of Allen's career and a definite indication that perhaps he's cranking these things out a bit too quickly.  Sure, he's directed somewhere around 40 movies over the last 45 years (incredibly, 1981 was the last year without a new Allen film, and some years, he directed two) and simple logic dictates that they can't all be winners, but any hope of Allen being on a late-career roll are immediately dashed with the rambling and disjointed TO ROME WITH LOVE, a lovely-looking travelogue that boasts a great cast, but it's too long and filled with too many half-baked and frequently obvious ideas that go nowhere.  Allen's always had a gift for dialogue and characterization, but you can see him just spinning his wheels here.  He doesn't seem invested in it from any standpoint:  directing, writing, and for the first time since 2006's SCOOP, acting.  And look, I get it.  I don't want to sound like a jerk, but he's 77.  People get old.  They maybe lose some of that spark and maybe miss more beats than they did even five or ten years earlier.  Woody Allen is one of the greats, but he just doesn't look good here.  Not in an unhealthy way, but just in an aging and fatigued way.  His performance is lethargic, his timing seems off and he looks distracted and bored in his own movie.  It's great to see him again, but after one or two scenes, I found myself feeling bad about wishing he'd just stayed behind the camera for this one.

Utilizing some of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS' fantasy elements, TO ROME WITH LOVE focuses on four parallel storylines that don't have any ties other than taking place in Rome.  Because of this structure, the stories never seem to gain any momentum.  Perhaps an anthology film with four self-contained stories would've been a better way to go.  Allen is a retired opera director visiting Rome with wife Judy Davis to meet their daughter Alison Pill's Italian fiance (Flavio Parenti), whose mortician father (tenor Fabio Armiliato) has a voice that only shines in the shower.  Mild-mannered office worker Roberto Benigni becomes an instant celebrity overnight for no reason and begins to adore the media attention.  Architect Alec Baldwin meets a younger version of himself (Jesse Eisenberg), advising him to stick with his loyal girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and not succumb to the temptation of her phony, narcissistic visiting best friend (Ellen Page).  Naive, small-town newlyweds Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi get separated when she tries to find a hair salon and, through a complicated set of circumstances, he ends up passing off a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) as his new bride to his judgmental relatives.  Allen's always been a master at juggling multiple storylines and many characters, but with no real connection between the characters and no real reason to become invested in their issues, TO ROME WITH LOVE just never catches fire the way the great Allen films do.  Think ANNIE HALL (1977), MANHATTAN (1979), HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986), CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989) and his suspense thriller MATCH POINT (2005), probably his all-around best film of the last decade.  Even episodic Allen films like RADIO DAYS (1987) had engaging characters and compelling consistency to their story elements.  TO ROME WITH LOVE feels like a first draft that he didn't bother revising, almost like a film he made simply because he just had an unexpected hit involving one beloved European city, so it'll just as easily work a second time.  Except that it doesn't.  As a filmmaker, Allen is well beyond needing to prove himself to anyone, but TO ROME WITH LOVE is one of the emptiest and most forgettable films of his long and legendary career.  (R, 112 mins)

(South Africa/Germany - 2013)

The second DTV sequel to Paul W.S. Anderson's 2008 reimagining of the 1975 cult classic DEATH RACE 2000 is an improvement over the uninspired DEATH RACE 2.  Anderson has a producer and a story credit, once again leaving directing duties to DEATH RACE 2 helmer Roel Reine, a DTV vet with a couple of Steven Seagal vehicles under his belt.  DEATH RACE 3: INFERNO is easily Reine's most accomplished work yet and the film does a convincing job of looking a lot bigger than it really is, both in scope and budget.  Tony Giglio's script is mostly pretty standard stuff, complete with cliched dialogue like "Let's do this!" but there's a legitimately well-constructed twist late in the film that puts a different spin on the chronology of the franchise. 

Picking up where DEATH RACE 2 left off, Terminal Island inmate Frankenstein (Luke Goss, the straight-to-DVD Jason Statham) needs to win one more race to gain his freedom.  That plan is stymied when Death Race is taken over by billionaire douchebag Niles York (Dougray Scott), who envisions a global Death Race franchise and loans Frankenstein out to Kalahari Prison in South Africa for a Cannonball Run through various deserts, dangerous territories overseen by warlords, and heavily-populated shantytowns (think a more apocalyptic version of the 1982 David Carradine/Christopher Lee African racing comedy SAFARI 3000...or better yet, don't).  Reine and the stunt team stage some truly spectacular crashes and explosions, which is really what this is all about, but it looks and feels unusually accomplished and large-scale for a DTV effort.  Danny Trejo (as the improbably named "Goldberg"), Ving Rhames and Tanit Phoenix return from the previous film, and franchise mainstays Robin Shou (as 14K) and Fred Koehler (as Lists) are once more the only people from the 2008 DEATH RACE with nothing better to do, though you do see a photo of Ian McShane and a freeze-frame of Joan Allen on a monitor which, oddly enough, exceeds her screen time in THE BOURNE LEGACY.  Also, thanks to this film, I've now seen Danny Trejo's ass.  (Unrated, 105 mins)

(US - 2012)

This barely-released indie (total theatrical gross: $3000) tries to be a BOOGIE NIGHTS for the modern-day internet and streaming porn industry but offers surprisingly little insight despite being co-written by veteran adult film actress Lorelei Lee.  Lee and director/co-writer Stephen Elliott (not to be confused with THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA director Stephan Elliott) want to convey an insider's look at "the life," but get sidetracked by bland, predictable melodrama and it doesn't have much to say other than the obvious.  It also tries to sugarcoat the industry by making everyone in it an earnest, misunderstood misfit just trying to make an honest living despite the objections of their appalled friends and family, and with the exception of a couple of characters, almost everyone not in the porn industry is a judgmental asshole with substance abuse or other psychological issues.  Ashley Hinshaw (who looks a lot like a young Teri Polo) is the not-very-subtly-named Angelina, who escapes a dysfunctional household complete with an alcoholic mother (Lili Taylor) and an abusive stepdad by moving to San Francisco with her platonic male "like a brother" best friend Andrew (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE's Dev Patel), who--does it even need to be said?--silently carries a torch for her.  Having already done a nude photo shoot back home at the urging of her shitbag guitarist ex-boyfriend (Jonny Weston), Angelina finds a job with upscale internet porn company Bod, adopts the stage name Cherry, and starts doing nude photo shoots and then solo masturbation videos directed by veteran adult filmmaker Margaret (Heather Graham). 

As Cherry gains notoriety and moves to girl-on-girl films and eventually straight penetration, the people in her life--from her alcoholic mother to Andrew to her new boyfriend, cokehead lawyer Francis (James Franco)--start to resent her for her "disgusting" career choice.  The script argues that these people sold out their dreams either to raise kids or to punch a clock (Francis wanted to be an artist) and are taking it out on Angelina/Cherry, and it feels disingenuous.  How can it be that none of Cherry's colleagues are there out of desperation?  It's a squeaky-clean, Pollyanna-ish environment that just doesn't ring true.  Nobody's on drugs, everybody's clean, and it's all about the art.  Lee stacks the deck in favor of Angelina/Cherry, and in the process of trying to make her an independent young woman forging her own path in life, instead seems intent on canonizing her and it comes off as overly defensive.  BOOGIE NIGHTS did a terrific job of realistically conveying the world of porn while still making the characters a strangely-appealing, loving "family" of sorts that presented them flaws-and-all and didn't alienate the audience.  Here, it just feels forced and contrived, like the filmmakers are trying too hard to get us on Cherry's side.  Graham does a very good job despite the hackneyed character arc she's forced to play (falling for Cherry and jeopardizing her relationship with a real estate agent played by Diane Farr), almost coming off like a mature, middle-aged version of her Roller Girl from BOOGIE NIGHTS.  (R, 102 mins)

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