Thursday, February 7, 2013


(US/France - 2012)

This Montreal-shot fugitives-on-the-run thriller from Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky (ANATOMY, THE COUNTERFEITERS) offers an intriguing set-up but quickly gives way to cliches and contrivances before completely collapsing in the third act.  Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde are siblings who pull off a day-before-Thanksgiving Michigan casino heist before wrecking their car on a snowy rural road.  With Detroit cops and highway patrol in hot pursuit, they split up, Bana finding refuge with a family at a cabin where he kills the abusive stepfather, and Wilde with ex-con Charlie Hunnam, a disgraced boxer who may have accidentally killed his crooked manager about ten minutes after being paroled that morning.  Hunnam and Wilde have some drinks at a bar and have sex in a motel room, so of course, they're in love the next morning and he takes her home to the family farm to meet mom Sissy Spacek and dad Kris Kristofferson.  Naturally, an injured Bana is already there holding Mom and Dad hostage, and he's not very happy that his sister, for whom he harbors controlling and probably incestuous feelings, is in love with Hunnam.  So with local deputy Kate Mara and her sexist, asshole sheriff father Treat Williams (why do the filmmakers make this character even more hateful than Bana?) closing in, an increasingly wild-eyed Bana decides to gather everyone for Thanksgiving dinner and poke them with sticks by getting into their heads and re-opening family wounds.  Because hey, why not?  It's not like the clock's ticking or anything.

It's too bad Ruzowitzky and debuting screenwriter Zach Dean gather all of these fine actors around a table only to have them go through some really tired soap opera melodrama. DEADFALL has some OK moments and there's snippets of genuine suspense, but the whole thing is so rote and hackneyed that it rarely rises above the level of strictly average. Most of the cast can't win playing such implausible characters (Wilde and Williams, in particular), but Kristofferson and Spacek do some really nice work here, convincingly conveying the strong sense of familiarity of a hard-working couple who've been together forever and can communicate in their own verbal shorthand or with just a look. DEADFALL feels most real in these few quiet moments with these two. (R, 95 mins)

(US - 2012)

Tyler Perry steps out of his comfort zone and into Morgan Freeman's shoes in this reboot of the wildly popular "James Patterson"® bestsellers that previously spawned the films KISS THE GIRLS (1997) and ALONG CAME A SPIDER (2001).  Judging from the film's paltry box office, audiences weren't really interested in Tyler Perry: Action Hero.  It's easy to mock Perry and make Madea jokes, but while he gets some points for trying, he's really not good here, though a lot of it is just bad writing.  Maybe Freeman can sell the whole Sherlockian awareness of everything going on around him and being able to "tell that you had scrambled eggs for breakfast at 100 yards," but where Freeman plays authoritative and dignified, Perry glowers, growls, and overacts, turning Cross into more of a gun-toting, vengeance-obsessed, action-movie badass.  It doesn't help that Cross is squaring off against a cartoonish supervillain in Matthew Fox's hired assassin "Picasso," on a spree at the behest of a corporate benefactor and so-called because he leaves clues to his next killing in intricate charcoal drawings at the murder scenes.  Fox lost an alarming amount of weight for the role and turned what he had left into pure muscle.  It's an unusual level of dedication for a film so silly and inconsequential, and he might've been more effective if his performance didn't rely on so many cliches (bulging eyes, wicked grins, calling Cross and taunting him, etc).  There isn't one surprise here, unless you count how the filmmakers give police psychologist Cross a pass for breaking almost every law in the book, justifying it with Picasso killing Cross' pregnant wife (Carmen Ejogo).  The film moves the novels' setting from D.C. to Detroit, presumably for production tax incentive purposes, though most of the film has downtown Cleveland filling in for Detroit, at least until Cross and Picasso's climactic showdown at the old Michigan Building, in the theater refurbished as a parking garage. 

Also with Edward Burns and Rachel Nichols as Cross' partners, Cicely Tyson as Nana Mama, Jean Reno as a French billionaire targeted by Picasso, John C. McGinley as Cross' boss who's always reading Cross the riot act even though he's right 100% of the time, numerous scenes with Cross revealing key plot information to his clueless associates while the camera urgently circles around them, and one of the least-convincing CGI explosions ever seen in a major theatrical release. The one-sheet's tag line reads "Don't ever cross Alex Cross." Well, it's probably a good idea to not ever watch ALEX CROSS, either. (PG-13, 101 mins)

(US - 2012)

Sometimes a really ambitious and inventive film can get made when nobody's paying much attention, and UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING (the fourth film in the franchise, sixth if you count two made-for-TV movies) is anything but another by-the-numbers action outing.  Its VOD and limited theatrical release in late 2012 got some unexpected praise from some serious critics, and the film displays a level of depth and intelligence that demand it to be taken seriously.  Director/co-writer John Hyams made 2010's UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION and returns with original UniSols Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, essentially supporting characters with the focus on John (Scott Adkins), who sees his wife and daughter brutally murdered in a home invasion led by UniSol Luc Devereaux (Van Damme).  Awakening from a coma nine months later, John struggles to figure out who he is and why he's haunted by these painful memories.  It turns out Devereaux is rounding up a rogue army of former UniSols and implanting a chemical that makes them consciously aware of their status as mind-controlled government killing machines.  John discovers Devereaux is living deep in the Louisiana bayou, a messianic cult leader to a band of rogue warriors acting on their own volition, away from a government that can no longer control them. Is John one of these UniSols?  Is Devereaux the real Devereaux?

US: DOR has Christopher Nolan-sized ideas on a DTV budget and you'd have to possess the ability of psychic premonition to have expected a film like this from Hyams (son of veteran director Peter Hyams), whose efforts to date have been unimpressive, to put it mildly.  While some plot elements may borrow liberally from INCEPTION, THE TERMINATOR, and APOCALYPSE NOW (it's an intentional homage as John's journey down a river to Devereaux's camp even has a nearly-identical repetitive music cue heard when Martin Sheen arrived at Marlon Brando's compound), Hyams creates a surreal, disorientingly harsh, horrifyingly violent (30 seconds of splatter were cut to avoid an NC-17 rating), and potentially audience-alienating atmosphere throughout US: DOR.  At times, the film feels like a waking nightmare that's being secretly directed by Gaspar Noe.  It's almost experimental in the way it uses sound and visuals (particularly a dizzying strobe effect), and even with the impressive action sequences, there's no doubt that some people will absolutely hate this.  Hyams even says as much on the commentary track, stating the script is admittedly "a little far off the reservation." It occasionally bites off more than it can chew and it goes on a bit longer than it needs to, but Hyams deserves a lot of credit for not going the easy route, and attempting--and very often succeeding--to create a significantly more unique, daring, and thought-provoking film than anything you'd expect something titled UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING to be. An instant cult classic.  (R, 113 mins)

(UK/Japan - 2011; 2012 US release)

Originally shot in 3D, Takashi Miike's remake of Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 classic HARAKIRI examines the same themes of honor and hypocrisy and retains most of the major plot details while deviating quite a bit in the third act.  Miike, who's not quite as prolific and eager to shock as he was in his AUDITION, VISITOR Q, and ICHI THE KILLER glory days, fashions his HARA-KIRI as a dramatic companion piece of sorts to his excellent 2010 remake of Eiichi Kudo's 13 ASSASSINS (1963).  Where 13 ASSASSINS finds unemployed samurai overjoyed at finally having a way to go out in a blaze of glory, this film has warriors on the other end of the spectrum:  broke, jobless, without purpose, and struggling to survive in a world that no longer requires their unique skills.  Miike's HARA-KIRI is one of his most restrained films, a samurai story with powerful drama, emotion, and tragedy at its core.  In feudal Japan of 1630, peace has led to many unemployed samurai attempting suicide bluffs, where, in the name of honor, they request to commit seppuku in the courtyard of a feudal lord, usually resulting in a small job, a meal, or in the best cases, a financial handout from the sympathetic lord.  The lord of the House of Ii is away when penniless ronin Hanshiro Tsugomo (Ebizo Ichikawa) requests to use the courtyard for ritual suicide.  The lord's chief counsel Kageyu (Koji Yokusho) tries to talk Tsugomo out of his decision by telling him the story of Monome (Eita), who similarly requested to commit seppuku in the courtyard, resulting in Kageyu and the Ii samurai calling Monome's bluff and making him go through with it despite not even having a real sword, instead just one made of wood for show.  Monome had a sick wife and child at home and heard about the suicide bluffs and decided to use it as a last resort.  Tsugomo then informs Kageyu that he indeed knows Monome, and tells his own story about how the two are connected, and why he's really at the House of Ii.  Ichikawa turns in a devastating performance as Tsugomo, often rivaling the finest work of Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai in the samurai classics of old.  Miike's film is leisurely paced but never dull, and there's a bizarre finale with long takes and intricate choreography that feels like a Kurosawa samurai battle restaged by Blake Edwards. (Unrated, 128 mins)

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