Thursday, October 10, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: EUROPA REPORT (2013) and NOTHING LEFT TO FEAR (2013)

(US/China - 2013)

With technical advisors from NASA and Lockheed Martin and stock footage of Neil deGrasse Tyson to establish its bona fides as a "thinking person's sci-fi film," EUROPA REPORT offers a bit more to chew on than most commercial space operas...for a while, at least.  It's also one of the rare found footage films that sticks to the conceit and doesn't start cheating when it gets backed into a corner.  It relies on hard science and expects the viewer to keep up, probably why it wasn't given a wide release but has already developed a small cult following.  It only falters a bit near the end when it seems to make concessions by showing what it feels it has an obligation to show.  What's supposed to be a big reveal feels a bit underwhelming, but it's a small issue with a mostly thoughtful, first-rate sci-fi film.  The Europa One is a privately-funded exploration to find evidence of life on Europa, one of the Galilean moons of Jupiter, where scientists believe water exists under the surface.  Europa One loses contact with Earth for an extended period of time over a year into the mission, and the film consists of "recently declassified footage" being made available so that the fragmented story of their journey can finally be pieced together.

Director Sebastian Cordero (CRONICAS) and writer Philip Gelatt do some jumping back and forth with the footage that's a bit confusing for a while until things start falling into place.  After that, they do an excellent job of keeping the various cameras and varying viewpoints coherent.  There isn't much in the way of character development except for engineer James (DISTRICT 9's Sharlto Copley) feeling homesick and missing his wife and kids.  Everyone else seems to put the mission first, right down to their ability to carry on even after mishaps result in a death or two.  These two tragedies are expertly handled by Cordero but it's hard to ignore that both happen because the people involved weren't following orders, regardless of how heartbreaking the first one is and how well-played it is by the actor involved.  The international cast also includes Daniel Wu as the mission commander, Anamaria Marinca as the second-in-command, Christian Camargo and Karolina Wydra as science officers, and Michael Nyqvist (star of the original GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) as the chief engineer.  Embeth Davidtz, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., and the unlikely Dan Fogler play the scientists on Earth overseeing the mission.  With minimal special effects and a focus on dialogue rather than action and explosions, EUROPA REPORT probably won't fly with the sci-fi blockbuster crowd, but even with its minor flaws, it's an interesting little gem that should appeal to fans of films like Danny Boyle's SUNSHINE and Duncan Jones' MOON.  (PG-13, 90 mins)

(US - 2013)

Released to a few "select" theaters four days before its DVD street date in a typical Anchor Bay dump job, NOTHING LEFT TO FEAR is an extremely derivative, uninspired horror film that marks the feature directorial debut of Gore Verbinski protégé Anthony Leonardi III, who was a storyboard artist on PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END, RANGO, and THE LONE RANGER.   Leonardi and screenwriter Jonathan W.C. Mills get off to a decent start with a set-up straight out of a 1970s fright flick.  Pastor Dan (James Tupper), wife Wendy (top-billed Anne Heche, who has little to do), teenage daughters Rebecca (28-year-old Rebekah Brandes) and Mary (Jennifer Stone), and young son Christopher (Carter Cabassa) arrive in the rural nowhere of Stull, where Dan is taking over the parish of folksy retiring pastor Kingsman (Clancy Brown).  The residents of Stull welcome Dan and clan with open arms, and Rebecca finds herself falling for local farmhand Noah (Ethan Peck, who looks a lot like his grandpa Gregory but the similarities end there), but things slowly get sinister.  I say "slowly," because Leonardi slow-burns this to a ridiculous degree.  It's nearly an hour into the film and Dan and Wendy are still getting to know their new neighbors.  There's a difference between "lulling and manipulating the audience with a mounting sense of unease" (see THE EXORCIST or THE SHINING) and "dicking around and wasting time" (anything by Ti West that's not called THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL), and too many of today's budding horror filmmakers are doing it wrong by mistaking the latter for the former. Anyway, Noah and Pastor Kingsman spend a lot of time arguing, with Kingsman demanding Noah do what's expected of him, and Noah feeling guilty.  Soon, Mary is possessed by some demonic spirit (Disney fans might want to see WIZARDS OF WAVERLY PLACE co-star Stone turning all haggy and vomiting black goo all over the place) and it's apparent that the family was lured to Stull to be some kind of sacrifice.  Obviously, they've never seen THE WICKER MAN.

With the pace dragging the way it does, Leonardi and Mills also find plenty of time to crib from JU-ON and RINGU with Mary's herky-jerky CGI possession histrionics, plus M. Night Shyamalan's THE VILLAGE, Wes Craven's DEADLY BLESSING and even Lucio Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD.  The Stull of the film is based on Stull, KS, a tiny town just outside of Topeka that's reputed, according to urban legend, to be a gateway to Hell.  But NOTHING LEFT TO FEAR never explores that nor does it really find its own voice, plodding along until its lame twist when there's nothing left to rip off.   Tired, forgettable, and unrelentingly dull, NOTHING LEFT TO FEAR marks an inauspicious producing debut for former Guns N' Roses guitarist and aspiring movie mogul Slash, who also co-wrote the score, taking none of his signature sound and instead infusing it with the same level of bland facelessness as the film it accompanies. (R, 100 mins)

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