Friday, May 31, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE NUMBERS STATION (2013) and DARK SKIES (2013)

(UK/US/Belgium - 2013)

John Cusack's career is in a strange place that his fans never would've expected a decade ago.  At 47, he's obviously outgrown the boyish romantic roles that made him so iconic back in his younger SURE THING and SAY ANYTHING days. For a while, beloved favorites like GROSSE POINTE BLANK, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, and HIGH FIDELITY made it seem like Cusack would be "John Cusack" forever.  But long careers have peaks and valleys and he's in a major slump these days.  When he tries to go for hammy character parts, as in THE RAVEN and the embarrassing THE PAPERBOY, he doesn't seem comfortable, instead remaining reserved in roles that call for him to go over the top (even when he's rubbing one out to Nicole Kidman in THE PAPERBOY).  And misfired personal pet projects like 2008's WAR, INC come off as smug and preachy.  So, for the most part, he stays busy by settling for unchallenging roles as cops or detectives (he was terrible in this year's pathetic THE FACTORY), or in the case of THE NUMBERS STATION, a burned-out CIA agent.  After botching a job in New Jersey when he refuses to kill a teenaged girl who witnessed one of his government-assigned hits, Emerson Kent (Cusack) is banished to a CIA-operated numbers station in the middle of nowhere in Suffolk in the English countryside.  Still haunted by the girl's death--carried out by his boss Grey (Liam Cunningham)--Kent self-medicates with booze and has a cordial working relationship with Katherine (Malin Akerman), the contracted cryptographer he supervises.  It's just the two of them in a secret underground bunker, filled mainly with long hours of staring at the wall until the occasional message comes down for Katherine to covertly broadcast.  Kent and Katherine arrive at the facility for their shift and find it compromised, with the supervisor and cryptographer on duty murdered. They're trapped inside as a team of enemy agents are trying to find their way in, and when he calls for help, Kent is told to terminate Katherine.

THE NUMBERS STATION's opening 25 or so minutes are surprisingly engaging, but once it settles in, with Kent and Katherine trapped inside as the villains, led by Max (Richard Brake), try to get in, it becomes a sluggish sort-of Black Ops RIO BRAVO.  There's no real surprises and no escalating tension, bickering takes the place of character development, the climax hinges on Kent doing something uncharacteristically stupid because the script requires him to, and the story doesn't really build to a suspenseful conclusion as much as it ambles towards a quick and easy wrap-up.  If you remove a few F-bombs, with its relatively short running time, it almost feels it could be the pilot of the CBS cop/agent procedural that Cusack will inevitably be doing after a couple more years of forgettable fare like this.  Released to just a few theaters a month ago, THE NUMBERS STATION is a diverting enough time-killer on a slow night (and it probably plays a lot better streaming on Netflix than it would dropping $10 on seeing it theatrically) and Cusack is better here than in his other recent efforts, but this is a paycheck for him and he doesn't need to do anything more than show up and be a professional.  In a way, it seems like he's been getting the gigs that Nicolas Cage turned down because they didn't really give him enough of a chance to "Nic Cage" it up.  It's only fitting that the two actors, far removed from their box-office glory days of 1997's CON AIR, are reunited (with the added bonus of the inevitable 50 Cent) in the upcoming thriller THE FROZEN GROUND, which will most likely be bypassing theaters near you later this year.  (R, 89 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US/UK - 2013)

Is it just me or does every horror film released these days boast "From the makers of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and INSIDIOUS"?  DARK SKIES combines elements of both (no found footage, thankfully) and plays a lot like a reworking of INSIDIOUS, employing the same essential template, but with aliens filling in for malevolent spirits.  It has an eerie vibe throughout and isn't without a legitimately chilling moment here and there, but there's just such an overwhelming feeling of familiarity to the whole endeavor that it's just really hard to get excited about it.  The Barretts are a middle-class family in a rough patch:  dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton) recently lost his job and mom Lacy (Keri Russell) is a real estate agent in need of a sale.  12-year-old son Jesse (Dakota Goyo) is starting to rebel and five-year-old Sam (Kadan Rockett) starts sleepwalking, wetting himself, and saying he's getting nocturnal visits from someone he calls "The Sandman."  Food is scattered throughout the kitchen in the middle of the night, items are perfectly stacked ceiling-high on kitchen counters, and all of the family photos disappear from their picture frames.  Three different flocks of birds fly directly into their house from different directions, all of the family members start hearing individual ringing in their ears, Daniel has a strange mark behind his ear, and Lacy loses six hours when she blacks out and starts banging her head against a sliding glass door while showing a house.  Lacy's research leads her to a freelance alien contact expert (J.K. Simmons), who verifies their story, tells them he lives it every day, and that "The Grays," as he calls them, have been here for millions of years, will not leave a family alone once they've "chosen" one, they observe their targets for years, and only make their presence known when they're about to abduct someone. 

Much like the family in INSIDIOUS dealt with the paranormal and couldn't escape it even after they moved ("It's not the house that's haunted...it's your son that's haunted"), DARK SKIES puts its family in a hopeless situation that isn't going to get better, and when strange markings start appearing on Jesse's and Sam's bodies, the authorities start investigating Daniel and Lacy for child abuse.  The film gets off to a shaky and sometimes unconvincing start, beginning with the family's glib non-reaction to food being strewn about their kitchen and not really all that concerned that something got in their house and into the fridge (Daniel: "A big rabbit with opposable thumbs?"), to the elements pilfered from other movies (the stacking straight out of POLTERGEIST), and, as long as I'm being nit-picky, who goes to a job interview at a prestigious design firm sporting the kind of five-day vacation/stay-at-home-dad stubble that Daniel does?  Surprisingly, DARK SKIES improves as it proceeds, and I liked the way writer/director Scott Stewart (whose dubious track record includes LEGION and PRIEST) handled Simmons' character.  In most cases, the crackpot extraterrestrial expert would be wildly eccentric with a tinfoil hat, with the actor hamming it up for comic relief.  Simmons plays his character dead serious and resigned to the fact that "The Grays" have dominated his life, which seems to be a struggle just to get through the day.  It's the one legitimately unpredictable element of a script that's so by-the-numbers that you'll even be able to utter certain lines of dialogue moments before the characters do.  And yes, there's a twist ending because of course there is.  DARK SKIES is OK for what it is (and Simmons is quite good in his minimal screen time), but it just seems like it could've--and should've--been a lot more.  (PG-13, 97 mins)

No comments:

Post a Comment